As one of the Four Horsemen of tech (Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook), Google never disappoints. At its most recent media showcase last week, the company showed little vignettes highlighting what it's been up to and where it plans to go. Here's a rundown of some of its latest updates and where the competition stands.
While Spotify may be the first thing to come to mind when you hear the term Internet radio, Google Play Music offers a wonderful, free experience that's highly cultivated to the user's preferences. For $9.99/month it eliminates ads and gives you songs on demand that you can even save for offline listening. While most online music subscription services will offer similar benefits ($10 month for unlimited streaming, no ads, and offline usage), Google's product has a sleek design, is much easier to navigate, and has great playlists (in terms of size and quality), search capabilities, and other discovery tools. For instance, I was recently in Puerto Rico and searched for playlists around that theme and was surprised by the robust and rich offerings that were served up.
Bottom Line: Before committing to a service, consider the following: music library, compatibility (apps, desktop, and media box options), family sharing options, and the ability to upload your personal collection. Your best bet is accepting a free trial before signing off on auto monthly payments!
This vignette opened with some jarring stats -- there are 400,000 accidents on the road each year and 3,000 deaths. With Android Auto, Google set forth to create a way to for you to use the phone in your car to access content a safer manner. The interface allows for navigation (an optimized Google Maps, ya!), messaging (it allows for third party messaging apps beyond text and email, like WhatsApp and Skype), audio apps (like Google Play, above, as well as Spotify, iHeart Radio, and other big players), and of course voice commands and search. One notable feature is integration with Google Now – which serves up live, contextually significant info on current weather, notifications, and route planning regarding your scheduled destination. Apple CarPlay operates similarly but mimics Apple's core services in terms of layout and design. In newer vehicles you can expect to have smartphone functionality built into your car or as available as an add-on with aftermarket products. Both are designed to enhance your driving experience and make it safer so you won't be tempted to text behind the wheel or distract yourself to get the information you need.
Bottom Line: It's really dependent upon the OS you use... both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto offer significant improvement over dashboards of the past. The design of each largely echoes that of your mobile device, so it's a matter of preference.
Virtual Reality (aka VR)
Google believes VR should be for the masses, not something elitist. You'll be shocked to learn that there are over 1000 (VR) apps on the Google Play store and that you can watch 360 degree videos on YouTube . The opportunities for cool VR experiences vary greatly, but one that was showcased - Expeditions- shows how VR can help augment education in the classroom by fully immersing students in a new environment -- think field trip without the transit or logistic issues! That's the power of VR – being able to feel like you're in another place without so much as leaving your couch or desk. As headsets become better and less expensive, more people will be able to transport themselves to destinations around the world.
Bottom Line: While others can best it in terms of refresh rate and features, it's hard to beat Google Cardboard's various incarnations (prices start at $22!). It's a pretty cool party trick or entertainment tool that's hard to pass up at the price.
There are a slew of competitors in the photo stream game but Google Photos layers on some less common features like unlimited storage, the ability to smartly search your photos, and an intuitive editing software package that make it far more appealing. Photo search in the service isn't limited to how you organized your photos or whom you tagged—it's based on a computer vision algorithm and geo-tagging to help you find a person, place, or thing. The Assistant tool will let you make an animated gif in a jiff, edit your photos like a masterful pro, whip up a collage, and more with a few simple taps and swipes.
Bottom Line: If you haven't settled on a tool for photo organization, this is a great option. If you're already dedicated to a similar system like Dropbox's Carousel or Apple Photos, it may be worth switching if you've got a lot of photos and content—unlimited storage is free and you'll get to try out the cool features!
Built right into the operating system of Android devices (coming in fall, on devices with KitKat or higher), Android Pay won't require you to open another app to make a payment just as you don't with Apple Pay. You'll just hold it up to a terminal and you're done. In general there isn't much outward difference between the various mobile payment options – you input your card info ahead of time, launch the app at the store, tap your phone or scan it, and perform an additional security measure. Each provider has its own set of advantages (and likely disadvantages) in terms of ease, safety precautions, and availability. Mobile payments in general are becoming more convenient (your own personal bookkeeper!), simplified (hello fingerprint IDing), and even customized.
Bottom Line: Until all of the ecosystems play nicely together, the mobile payment landscape is too fragmented for any one player to rise to the top. That being said, with the convenience they offer, it's worth giving one of them a shot (depending upon which ecosystem and stores you use).
Google was built on the premise of organizing the world's info and making it more accessible, and kudos to it on accomplishing that. It's also recognized the need to make search utility more mobile-friendly and beyond its impressive voice search functionality, it's offering a handful of newer tricks. Most notably: Its new location-aware feature which lets you talk naturally and contextually about nearby venues. For instance, you query by voice "What time does the park close?" without ever saying what park you're in because it already knows! Another new feature is the addition of popular times at popular places – think knowing when the museum has a lull or the restaurant is popping! But, what's most exciting is what's just on the horizon. Like other companies attempting to tackle the virtual assistant-esque functionality, Google is intro'ing "Now on Tap" to assist with your hectic life. It will provide additional information on items that appear within an app if you, as the name suggests, just tap! Let's say you get a text from a friend asking about a movie and restaurant, you can tap and a screen will pop up with information on directions (like links to Google Maps and expected transit times), movie times and reviews (Fandango, IMDB, etc.), restaurant reviews (like ratings from Yelp), and more.
Bottom Line: Google wins. After all, Google is synonymous with searching the Internet.
I love the technological revolution that we're part of today. As Google and other companies continue to innovate, the boundaries of what we can accomplish are continually pushed. Technology shouldn't equal frustration, fear, or anxiety – it should be a tool that simplifies your life, saving you time and money and making you more efficient!!
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