Google says Pixel’s Hold for Me feature records and stores audio on-device

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One of the just-announced Pixels’ most intriguing features is Hold for Me, a Google Assistant-powered service that waits on hold when you call a retailer, utility, airline, or other business’ toll-free support number. When a human comes on the line and is ready to talk, Hold for Me — which will launch in preview in the U.S. in English before expanding to other regions and devices — notifies you with sound, vibration, and a prompt on your screen.

It wasn’t immediately clear how Hold for Me worked, but Google responded to a list of VentureBeat’s questions in the hours following the event. According to a spokesperson, Hold for Me is powered by Google’s Duplex technology, which not only recognizes hold music but also understands the difference between a recorded message — for example, “Hello, thank you for waiting” — and a representative on the line. (That said, a support page admits Hold for Me’s detection accuracy might not remain high “in every situation”.) Google says it gathered feedback from a number of companies, including Dell and United, as well as from studies with customer support representatives to help design Hold for Me’s interactions.

“Every business’s hold loop is different and simple algorithms can’t accurately detect when a customer support representative comes onto the call,” Google told VentureBeat. “Consistent with our policies to be transparent, we let the customer support representative know that they are talking to an automated  service that is recording the call and waiting on hold on a user’s behalf.”

Google Assistant Hold for Me

Hold for Me is an optional feature that must be enabled in a supported device’s settings menu and activated manually during each call. In the interest of privacy, Google says that audio processing by Google Assistant to determine when a representative is on the line is done entirely on-device and doesn’t require a Wi-Fi or data connection. Effectively, no audio from the call is shared with Google or saved to a Google account unless a user explicitly decides to share it and help improve the feature. (Call data like recordings, transcripts, phone numbers, greetings, and disclosures are stored on Google servers for 90 days before deletion.) If they don’t, interactions between Hold for Me and support representatives are wiped 48 hours; returning to the call stops the audio processing.

Google claims its embrace of techniques like on-device processing and federated learning minimize the exchange of data between its servers. For instance, its Now Playing feature on Pixel phones, which shows what song might be playing nearby, leverages federated analytics to analyze data in a decentralized way. Under the hood, Now Playing taps an on-device database of song fingerprints to identify music near a phone without the need for an active network connection.

Google’s Call Screen feature, which screens and transcribes incoming calls, also happens on-device, as does Live Caption, Smart Reply, and Face Match. That’s thanks in part to offline language and computer vision models that power, among other things, the Google Assistant experience on smartphones like the Pixel 4, Pixel 4a and 4a (5G), and Pixel 5.

Fnatic Anda Seat review: Gaming comfort

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If you put the word “gaming” in front of something enough, I’m going to end up reviewing it. This is what I have learned, and this is how I ended up with the Fnatic Anda Seat. This gaming seat looks a lot like the trendy and sporty office chair that streamers have made popular over the last few years. And I’m impressed with the Fnatic Anda’s comfort and features to the point that I can see why they’re so popular.

The Fnatic Anda gaming chair is available now from Anda’s website for approximately $500 (£400). As the name suggests, it features the branding of the Fnatic esports organization. Anda embroidered the “Fnatic” name along the sides of the headrest and on the lumbar-support pillow. But otherwise, this chair is all-business, and it’s good at what it does.

The Fnatic Anda Seat is comfortable and easy to adjust

I won’t pretend that I’m some office furniture expert. I’ve used a well-worn cheap desk chair for five years, and — unsurprisingly — the Anda Seat is better than it. But I’m a human with a body like you, and I’ll try to convey my experience using the Anda.

The first thing I noticed is that the chair’s material was both soft and supportive. I didn’t feel like my body was pressing into metal, which is a sensation I often had with the seat I got from Office Depot. But at the same time, the chair has a firmness that encourages a better posture. I’m having an easier time sitting up straight in this chair, which is something I really notice and appreciate.

I’m also loving the Anda’s leather material. Even during long sitting sessions in shorts, the chair stayed cool. It also never stuck to my skin.

The pleasant experience also extended the ease of adjusting. You’ll find a number of levers and dials on the Anda, and they’re all easy to reach, with the exception of the rocker knob. But reclining and the height adjuster are all simple to grab.

Above: It’s a big seat if you’re only 30 pounds.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

It’s also heavy and durable

The other thing I noticed immediately was the Anda Seat’s mass. It is a heavy beast. This is mostly a good thing, but it does mean that you might struggle to move the chair around. Also, if you try to grab the seat by the armrests, they can feel flimsy as you’re more likely to adjust their angle than to actually roll the seat — especially on carpet.

But the heft makes the chair feel stable and durable. Anda uses a lot of steel in its frame, which should ensure it can withstand years of use. But it also makes it so that even when I lay back with the my 230-pound 6-foot body, the chair doesn’t feel tipsy. It stays right in place. I can even stick my arms or feet out, and the seat never feels like I’m really challenging its center of gravity.

The result here is that I feel like I don’t have to be careful with the chair. If I want to lean back and take a nap, this chair will ensure I won’t have to worry about tipping over. It’s also easily comfortable enough for falling asleep, which was dangerous during my all-night RTX 3080 review.

Is it actually good for gaming?

I think that the chair does earn that “gaming chair” designation. This is marketing, but I don’t think it’s marketing alone. Gamers are a demanding audience, and they’ll speak up if something doesn’t meet their needs.

With that in mind, I find that the Anda Seat does a fine job of fitting into what I need as a gamer — especially on PC. It’s tall enough that I can sit up at my desk with my arms down at my side. I haven’t had proper posture like this while using a mouse and keyboard maybe ever.

I’m also able to scoot the seat in close to the desk thanks to the very adjustable armrests.

Then, when it is time to grab a controller, the chair reclines into an equally comfortable laid-back position, and I’m enjoying that just as much.

The Fnatic Anda Seat is available now for $500. Anda provided a sample unit to Gamesbeat for the purpose of this review.

Chromecast with Google TV attempts to revive Android TV for the streaming wars

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At its Launch Night In event today, Google officially unveiled Chromecast with Google TV. The new HDMI dongle is available starting today in the U.S. for $50 (it’s coming to Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and the U.K. on October 15). That’s quite cheap given that it comes with its own remote control and dedicated user interface. The latter is so important to Google that the company put it in the product name. “Think of Google TV as your personal entertainment content curator,” Google TV general manager Shalini Govil-Pai said. “We will be bringing the Google TV experience to many more streaming devices in the Android TV ecosystem. Today, Google TV is making its debut on the all new Chromecast.”

Like all the Google products announced today, Chromecast with Google TV has been leaking for months. The real news here is the confirmation that Google is giving Android TV another go by bringing back Google TV. (Android TV launched in June 2014, succeeding an even earlier smart TV effort from October 2010 called Google TV. Yes, Google rebrands as often and as poorly as Microsoft.) Android TV will continue to exist, as Google TV is an additional interface that runs on top.

The smart TV space is largely dominated by Tizen and webOS globally, with Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV winning over U.S. consumers. While Google saw plenty of success with its cheap Chromecast TV dongle early on (55 million sold from 2013 to 2016), consumers did not convert to Android TV as they upgraded their TV experience. Google is hoping it can use the successful Chromecast to revive its smart TV ambitions.

With the streaming wars heating up, the game streaming battle igniting, and the pandemic dumping fuel on both, this is Google’s latest attempt to claim the biggest screen in your home. Its Google Home smart speakers (slowly being rebranded under the Google Nest name) are already in millions of homes, but we are visual creatures and screens are still the golden goose.

Software and hardware

Again, Google is highlighting the software for this Chromecast because it actually has a user interface. Previous Chromecasts only let you cast whatever you were already streaming on your phone or PC — a simplicity that was key to its success but also ultimately led to users looking for a replacement.

Still, Govil-Pai highlighted today what exactly Google TV lets you do. You can search for content but Google TV’s main home page also shows titles pulled from all your streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock, France.tv, Rakuten, Viki, and YouTube. (It also shows options from other channels that you don’t have, to indicate you what you’re missing out on). A big chunk of the user interface is dedicated to suggestions of movies and TV shows that Google thinks you might want to watch.

The hardware is also keeping up with this paradigm shift. If users are going to be doing more than casting, Google has made sure Chromecast with Google TV ships with its own remote control, unlike its predecessors. The remote features a directional pad and dedicated buttons for Google Assistant, YouTube, and Netflix. It also has programmable TV controls for power, volume, and input so you (maybe) can use just the one remote for your TV.

Chromecast with Google TV and remote

Chromecast with Google TV supports 4K HDR at up to 60 frames per second. It works with multiple Google accounts, as well as Bluetooth devices and USB-to-Ethernet adapters.

Finally, the price tag further confirms Google is aggressively pursuing the space again. At $50, Chromecast with Google TV costs $20 less than the Chromecast Ultra.

Stadia

2020 has seen plenty of game streaming services debut in some form, including Microsoft xCloud, Nvidia GeForce Now, and as of last week Amazon Luna. Google launched Stadia in November 2019, but the response has been lukewarm at best.

It’s thus surprising that Chromecast with Google TV doesn’t support Stadia at launch (support will come sometime in the first half of 2021). At today’s event, Google reserved all Stadia talk for the Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a 5G section.

Presumably, Google will talk up Stadia for the new Chromecast when the company deems it ready for your TV. Maybe a “Chromecast with Stadia” bundle (that includes the Stadia Controller) is in the works.

Pixel 5 fails to live up to Google’s AI showcase device

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As widely predicted, Google announced two smartphones during its Launch Night In today: The Pixel 5 and Pixel 4a (5G). The Pixel 5 is the follow-up to last year’s Pixel 4, while the Pixel 4a (5G) is a 5G-compatible version of the Pixel 4a that launched in August.

Neither phone appears to introduce many AI-powered features that aren’t already available on existing Pixel devices. (Pixel hardware has historically been a showcase for Google’s AI innovations.) Instead, they seem aimed at nudging the lineup toward the midrange. Affordability is the focus rather than cutting-edge technology, along with the recognition that neither phone is likely to make splashes in a highly saturated market. Reportedly, Google plans to produce less than 1 million Pixel 5 smartphones this year; production could be as low as around 800,000 units for the 5G-capable Pixel 5.

The Pixel 5 might be a successor in name, but it’s an arguable downgrade from the Pixel 4 in that it swaps the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor for the less-powerful Snapdragon 765G. The RAM capacity has been bumped from 6GB to 8GB, which could make tasks like app-switching faster. The Pixel 5 also has a 4,080mAh battery — the largest in any Pixel to date. Google claims it lasts up to 48 hours on a charge with Extreme Battery Saver, a mode that lets users choose which apps remain awake.

Speaking of the battery, the Pixel 5 introduces Battery Share, a reverse charging feature that can be used to wirelessly recharge Google’s Pixel Buds and other Qi-compatible devices. It’s akin to the Qi reverse wireless charging features found in Samsung’s Galaxy S10 and S20 series.

Google Pixel 5

Above: The Pixel 5.

Image Credit: Google

The Pixel 5 retains the 90Hz-refresh-rate, 6-inch, 2340×1080 OLED display (19.5:9 aspect ratio) introduced with the Pixel 4, as well as the Pixel 4’s rear-facing 12.2-megapixel and 16-megapixel cameras. (The 16-megapixel camera might have an ultra-wide lens, rather than the Pixel 4’s telephoto lens.) As for the front-facing camera, it’s a single 8-megapixel wide-angle affair. There’s a fingerprint sensor on the rear of Pixel 5, harkening back to the Pixel 3, and Google has ditched the Pixel 4’s gesture-sensing Soli radar in favor of a streamlined design.

Other Pixel 5 highlights include IP68-rated water- and dust-resistant casing, sub-6GHz 5G compatibility, and 18W USB-C charging and wireless charging. There’s also Hold for Me, a Google Assistant-powered feature that waits on hold for you and lets you know when someone’s on the line. (Currently, Hold for Me is only available in the U.S. in English for toll-free numbers, Google says.) Google’s night shooting mode, Night Sight, now works in portrait mode; Portrait Light illuminates portraits even when they’re backlit; and Cinematic Pan creates a “sweeping” video effect by stabilizing and slowing down motion.

The Pixel 4a (5G) is a tad less exciting, but it sports a larger display than the Pixel 4 (potentially 6.2 inches versus 5.8 inches). It also shares the Pixel 5’s 2340×1080 resolution, processor, and cameras alongside a headphone jack, but at the expense of other components. The Pixel 4a (5G) makes do with a 60Hz screen refresh rate, 6GB of RAM, a 3,885mAh battery, and Gorilla Glass 3 instead of the Pixel 5’s Gorilla Glass 6, with no IP rating for water or dust resistance.

The Pixel 4a (5G) will cost $499, according to Google — a $150 premium over the $349 Pixel 4a. It’s available in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, France, Germany, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. The Pixel 5 costs around $699 in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Ireland, France, Germany, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia, which makes it far cheaper than the $799-and-up Pixel 4.