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For Google’s Pixel 7 phones, fixing little annoyances is a big deal

Lots of smartphone launches are all about bombast and big promises. This one seems a little more practical.

The Pixel 7 Pro pays surprisingly close attention to the little annoying things about living with a phone. (Chris Velazco/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — The world of smartphones is still mostly ruled by two names: Apple and Samsung. It’s been that way for years. And yet, Google is still trying to bust up the status quo.

Alongside its first Pixel smartwatch and a forthcoming tablet, the company unveiled its $599 Pixel 7 and $899 Pixel 7 Pro smartphones in New York on Thursday. Like most phones introduced this year, these new Pixels come with some unsurprising upgrades — think brighter screens and better cameras. But what’s more interesting is that Google is trying to fix some of the mundane annoyances of phone life that we’ve mostly just learned to tolerate.

Some of these new tools are meant to help you spend less time navigating phone menus when you call customer service. Others try to make your phone calls sound better or salvage old photos that didn’t come out quite right.

Many smartphone launches are characterized by bombast and big promises, but a lot of what went into these new devices feels surprisingly practical. And honestly, it’s a little refreshing.

But this also leaves Google in a seemingly tense position: It has to act as steward of the underlying open-source Android software that powers billions of devices around the world, all the while developing genuinely useful Android features that many people will never get to use. And that has some industry watchers wondering if Google is playing its cards right.

“Google has incredible resources and could put huge amounts of money behind Pixel — but it must strike a fine line,” said Ben Wood, chief analyst at the research firm CCS Insight. “Weakening established Android phone makers makes little sense when Apple poses such a great threat to the whole ecosystem.”

Rick Osterloh, Google’s senior vice president for devices and services, said that last year’s Pixel 6 models — which had their own set of exclusive features — were the company’s “fastest-selling” generation of phones yet. According to research firm Canalys, Google really has been shipping a lot more Pixels, although the company’s North American market share is still hovering at just around 2 percent. (Meanwhile, Apple and Samsung account for 78 percent of the North American smartphone market.)

Google still may lag behind its biggest smartphone rivals, but paying attention to some of the features being baked into these new phones may be worthwhile. After all, the features are sometimes replicated on other devices — Pixels had a car-crash detection feature in 2019, well before Apple’s iPhones got one.

We’ll put the Pixel 7’s practicality to the test before long, but just in case Apple and Samsung are searching for some inspiration, here’s our quick guide to the Pixel 7 features we wish would come to all phones.

Whizzing through customer service calls

Every time I call my credit card company or United Airlines, the same thing happens: I get lost in the menus. What was I supposed to press 2 for, again?

If that sounds familiar, calling from a Pixel phone could make the pain go away. Instead of just sitting through and endless voice prompt, the Pixel can display those menu options right on the screen — all you have to do is read them and tap the one you actually want. (Or, you know, mash “0″ until you finally get a person on a the line.

The catch: It only works for toll-free numbers in the United States, and because Google has to collect all of these menu data itself, it may not work for every company you’d want it for just yet.

Retouching your old photos

If there’s one thing the Pixel phones are known for, it’s their cameras. These new models come with the sensors and the smarts to take some impressive images of their own, but what about the photos you took ages ago and wrote off because they were too fuzzy?

Owners of Google’s new Pixel 7 phones who use the company’s Google Photos service can use a new Photo Unblur feature to salvage those otherwise lackluster pics. You can tweak the intensity of the unblurring effect to your taste, and in early demos, the feature even managed to make images of old family photos slightly easier on the eyes.

The catch: The algorithmic tools Google is using here can’t make those images picture-perfect — they’re essentially making an educated guess about what the photo was supposed to look like.

Transcribing voice messages

Shooting around voice messages in lieu of typed-out texts is more common than it used to be, but listening to your friend’s long-winded recordings takes way more time than just skimming words.

If someone starts unpacking their drama at length in one of these voice messages, the Pixel will let you view a transcript of the recording instead so that you can more quickly respond with a “that stinks I’m sry.”

The catch: This feature only works on Pixel phones, so you couldn’t view these transcripts if you send or receive messages from Google’s Messages website.

Making your calls sound better

Google says the Pixels will lean on machine learning to reduce the background noise you’ll hear when talking to someone on the phone. (If you’ve ever chatted with someone who was standing on the corner of two busy streets, you know exactly how bad phone calls can sound.) While traffic is one of the factors engineers had in mind when building this feature, the company says it’s also helpful for drowning out excited dogs in the background.

The catch: This feature won’t arrive on Google’s new Pixel phones until sometime in December.

Everything else Google announced

  • Google’s first smartwatch. Lots of watches have used Google software over the years, but the Pixel Watch ($349+) is the first one the company designed and built from scratch. It only comes in one size — 41mm — but itsheart rate sensor and deep ties to Fitbit may make it a capable fitness tracker that wouldn’t look out of place on a night out.
  • A new take on tablets, coming in 2023. Google has teased its new Pixel Tablet before, but the company confirmed that — with the help of a speaker/charging dock — it’ll double as the kind of smart screen people plop in their kitchens and living rooms. Why? “It turns out that tablets are homebodies,” said Rose Yao, Google’s vice president of product development. " They’re home 80 percent of the timeand only useful for a very small portion of the day.”

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