In Depth

Nexus phones, an Android laptop, and more: Your guide to all the new Google announcements

The most noteworthy news from today's Google event -- from the headline items to the fun little nuggets mentioned in passing.

Google Event

Nexus! Pixel! Chromecast! Marshmallow! Man, oh man: Today's Google event was just oozing with news. There's a ton of new stuff to digest -- and some of the most interesting info is in the easy-to-miss detail.

Not to fear, my friends: I've got you covered. Here are the key takeaways -- and some accompanying tasty tidbits -- you, you, you oughta know.

1. You'll have a choice of two new Nexus phones this year -- and they're both pretty darn affordable.

As most of us were expecting, Google is launching not one but two new Nexus phones: the 5.2-in. LG-made Nexus 5X and the larger Huawei-made Nexus 6P. Unlike last year's surprisingly expensive Nexus 6, the new phones are both fantastic deals, at least on paper: $379 for the base model of the Nexus 5X and $499 for the starting-level Nexus 6P.

Last year's Nexus 6, for comparison, started at $649 -- a price that's competitive with off-contract phones in general but quite high compared to Google's traditional Nexus pricing.

Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P

The Nexus 5X, at left, and Nexus 6P, at right

Both new Nexii promise top-notch camera quality (as do most new phones these days, to be fair, so we shall see). Both include fingerprint sensors and new USB Type-C connector ports -- the latter of which is probably going to be a blessing and a curse for a while but will definitely be a welcomed change in the long run.

The two phones are up for presale in the Google Play Store now and slated to start shipping "later in October."

Interesting tidbits:

  • This year's Nexus devices have a new element Google is calling the "Android Sensor Hub." It's described as a low-power processor that helps the phone recognize gestures and activity, so it can know when you pick up the device or are moving around in different ways -- all without consuming much power. (If that sounds familiar, you've probably used a Motorola phone in the past few years.)
  • In true Google style, the fingerprint sensors on the Nexus devices will continue to learn over time -- recognizing more nuances of your fingerprint and thus growing even faster and more accurate in their recognition capabilities.
  • Both phones are designed to work with all U.S. carriers (yes, even Verizon). They'll also work with Google's own Google Fi wireless service.
  • If you order a Nexus phone by October 25th in the U.S., you'll get a $50 Google Play credit -- which effectively drops the starting prices down to $330 for the 5X and $450 for the 6P (provided you buy apps, movies, or music and will use the credit). Both phones also come with a 90-day Google Music All Access subscription, so long as you haven't had such a subscription before.
  • Google's offering a new insurance option for its Nexus devices. Dubbed Nexus Protect, the program gives you an extra year of protection for mechanical problems (on top of the already-included one year manufacturer warranty) and two years of protection for accidental damage. If your phone is damaged, Google will ship you a new one "as early as the next business day," and Google will cover the shipping costs. The insurance costs $69 for the 5X and $89 for the 6P; it includes up to two accidental damage claims, each of which is subject to a $79 deductible.
  • We still don't know why Google went with "X" for the smaller phone and "P" for the larger. The letters are presumably meant to differentiate the devices from previous Nexus phones, but why "X" and "P"? No one's saying. (Scratch that: Thanks to a Reddit AMA with the Nexus team, we have an answer!)

[UPDATE: Hands on: Getting to know the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P]

2. Google's making its own convertible Android tablet -- but it isn't a Nexus device.

The Pixel C is a high-end Android device from the same team responsible for Google's top-of-the-line Chromebook Pixel devices. (The "C" there stands for "convertible." See? Sensible letter-naming isn't so hard!)

Google Pixel C

Google's new Pixel C Android convertible

The system looks a lot like the impressive Dell Venue 10 8000 convertible I reviewed earlier this year, only with the style and quality you'd expect from a Pixel-branded device. It starts at the same price, too: $499 for the tablet alone and an extra $149 for the laptop-creating keyboard attachment.

And don't be misled: This bad boy runs Android, not Chrome OS. It'll launch "in time for the holidays," according to Google, with Android 6.0 on board.

Interesting tidbits:

  • The Pixel C follows the same design as the Chromebook Pixel laptop, all the way down to the multicolored lightbar on its lid -- which, just like the one on the latest Pixel model, can be tapped to get a quick visual indicator of your current battery level.
  • The Pixel C's keyboard attachment does have its own battery -- but it's one you'll never manually charge. (Again, similar to what Dell did with its device.) The keyboard pulls its charge from the Pixel anytime it's attached and closed. Google says it'll last for over two months of "active daily usage" with each complete charge.
  • While the Pixel C isn't a Nexus device by name, Google seems to be treating it the same way as far as software updates go: The company promises the device will get updates "every six weeks," matching the Nexus program's new commitment to regular security patch rollouts.
  • So from all of this, we can deduce that the "Nexus" brand now refers to more affordable flagship Android devices, made by a third-party Android manufacturer with Google's close involvement -- while the "Pixel" brand refers to top-of-the-line devices created by Google on its own.

[UPDATE: The crucial factor everyone's forgetting about Google's Pixel C]

3. Android 6.0, Marshmallow, will start to show up next week.

The key phrase there is "start to" -- remember, Google typically sends out software in phases, and the company's rollouts affect only its own Nexus devices.

That being said, if you have a Nexus 5 (the original version), Nexus 6, Nexus 7 (presumably only the 2013 version), Nexus 9, or Nexus Player, next week is the time to keep your eyes open for that elusive update prompt. That means the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 have apparently reached the end of their update cycles and won't be getting any Marshmallow love (sorry, Charlie).

Got a non-Nexus phone? Only time will tell how the various manufacturers fare with upgrade speediness this go-round. (Here's how they all did with Lollipop, which may or may not serve as an indication of what to expect.) So far, HTC has come forward to say it'll be sending Marshmallow to its One M9 and One M8 starting later this year and then to a handful of other models after that. Some manufacturers are better than others at communicating, but odds are, we'll hear from at least a few other companies about their plans before long.

Interesting tidbits:

  • Much of what's inside Marshmallow is no secret, but there are a few new elements pointed out at today's event that haven't gotten much attention before. One is a new charging speed indicator that'll appear on the Android 6.0 lock screen and let you know when your phone is in a fast-charging mode.
  • Marshmallow introduces a new app drawer with search, A-to-Z indexing, and a dynamic list of favorite apps at its top. The favorites change based on time of day (i.e. what apps you're most likely to use in the morning or evening) and sequence (i.e. what apps you're most likely to use following your most recent activity).
  • Even though the new app drawer is technically considered a Marshmallow-level element, you can actually check it out on any Android device right now. Just grab the Google Now Launcher from the Play Store, if you aren't already using it; the new app drawer arrived to the app a few days back.
  • Google says Android 6.0 includes fewer preloaded apps than ever, and a quarter of the preinstalled programs have been moved to a "post setup installation page" that allows them to be easily uninstalled. That's a great change in concept, but unfortunately, the real problem with bloatware is the crap manufacturers and carriers add on top of Google's software -- and that's something this move can't and won't directly address.

[UPDATE: Android 6.0, Marshmallow: The complete FAQ]

4. Google Photos is getting some fancy new features.

Google's already-excellent photo service is getting some serious love with a few new features -- two of which address a couple of my chief complaints.

First and perhaps most exciting is the addition of a new shared photo albums feature. It allows two people to "own" and control an album -- so, for instance, my wife and I could both add photos of our daughter to a single album from our own individual phones and accounts. That feature is launching "later this year."

Photos is finally gaining support for Chromecast, too, so you can wirelessly beam photos from your Android device to your TV.

And Photos is getting a new option for privately labeling people in your photo collection, which should -- in theory -- make it easier to keep track of faces (which Photos already does automatically, but not always with 100% success).

[UPDATE: How Google Photos' new custom-labeling feature can help clean up your collection]

Interesting tidbit:

  • In addition to being able to assign a co-owner to an album, as mentioned above, the new album-sharing feature will allow you to invite others to "subscribe" to an album and then receive notifications anytime new images are added.

5. Google Play Music is getting a new family plan.

Right now, you can subscribe to Google's All Access streaming service for 10 bucks a month. Starting later this year, you'll be able to pay just $5 more to get a family-level membership -- which will give you unlimited streaming for up to six people on their own individual accounts and devices.

Interesting tidbit:

  • Google hasn't yet said if or how this will affect the service's current limitations when it comes to per-year device authorizations. If you change phones or flash ROMs a lot, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't, well, this factor probably won't matter for you. But for a subset of users, myself included, it'll be a very interesting area to watch.

6. Chromecast is getting a makeover -- and a new Sonos-like expansion option.

More than two years after its release, Google's dead-simple streaming stick is getting fresh hardware.

The new Chromecast -- still just $35 -- has an updated look (which doesn't really mean much since you probably plug it into the back of your TV and then never see it again, anyway, but nevertheless). It also offers improved Wi-Fi performance and faster play times, thanks to a new system that starts to load content before you even ask for it. Google says waiting should be cut down by as much as 80% from what the current generation product delivers.

[UPDATE: Living with Google's new Chromecast (2015): Is it worth the upgrade?]

New Chromecast

The new $35 Chromecast streaming device

Perhaps more significant, Google is also launching a new Chromecast Audio device that lets you turn any old speaker into part of your connected sound system. You just plug the device into a speaker -- via a 3.5mm, RCA, or optical input port -- and you can then cast audio to it from any computer or mobile device, just like you cast video now.

[UPDATE: Living with Chromecast Audio: A brilliantly simple audio streaming solution]

The coolest part is yet to come: a multi-room synchronization feature that'll give you Sonos-like functionality -- being able to send audio to multiple speakers in different parts of your house -- at a fraction of the cost (provided you already have your own speakers, of course). That feature won't be present until later this year, when it's set to arrive via an over-the-air software update.

Interesting tidbits:

  • In addition to working with any Chromecast-compatible apps, Chromecast Audio will allow you to mirror the sound from an Android device or from any Chrome tab on a computer -- so you can easily pump over audio from anything you have streaming.
  • Google added some new features into the existing Chromecast app today that are available to any Chromecast owners -- including those with the original first-generation devices. Highlights include an expanded photo frame feature with support for Facebook and Flickr (as well as for Google Photos) and a game-mirroring feature that makes it possible to play multi-player games on your TV using Android devices as controllers.

Whew! Quite the collection of goodies to mull over, eh? There's much more to be said about all of this stuff -- and rest assured: We'll get to it soon. 

Stay tuned, gang. The end of 2015 is going to be anything but quiet.

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