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Technology

Google unveils Pixel 4 with radar, advancing hardware ambitions

Android developer shows off cameras and AI features to lure users into its space

NEW YORK -- Google took the wraps off new flagship smartphones and other new devices Tuesday as the search giant ventures deeper into hardware to challenge such dominant players as Samsung Electronics, Apple and troubled Chinese giant Huawei Technologies.

The Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL phones took center stage at a launch event here. They boast astrophotography-grade cameras, a better-integrated Google Assistant system, and such AI-powered features as a recorder that transcribes English speech in real time offline.

Starting at $799, the new Pixels are also billed as the first smartphones with radar sensors, which enable gesture control.

"If Google's Android licensees didn't take Google's hardware endeavors seriously before, they will do now," said Geoff Blaber of CCS Insights, adding that "the big story" is the Pixel's expanded distribution through all major U.S. carriers.

Google also updated smart-home offerings, now brought under the Nest brand, including a new smart speaker and mesh Wi-Fi router. The tech giant teased speech-recognition-enabled Pixel Buds wireless earbuds due out next spring.

Together these gadgets form a key strategy for Google to both leverage and keep users close to core products: the artificial intelligence powering the devices and the services accessed through them. South Korean rival Samsung expanded a tie-up with Microsoft in August, embracing a similar strategy of interdevice connectivity to encourage user stickiness.

The Google Pixel 4 comes with computation-enhanced dual rear cameras and a better-integrated Google Assistant.   © AP

The search giant also has a 5G phone in test production, expected to be rolled out ahead of rival Apple's, sources told the Nikkei Asian Review last week. This would make Google the first handset maker outside Asia to have a smartphone product with fifth-generation technology built in.

The Pixel 4 launch also comes as Google ends Huawei's "backdoor" access to its Play Store, as the Chinese company remains on Washington's export control blacklist. So users of new Huawei handsets will no longer be able to download Google apps -- a strong deterrent for consumers in markets outside China.

"With Huawei facing huge challenges, particularly in Europe, now is the time for Google if it's serious about moving the needle with Pixel," CCS' Blaber said.

As with Huawei, Pixel phones are admired for their camera capabilities. The new Pixel 4 adds a second rear camera and an improved Night Sight mode.

So far the U.S. remains Pixel's main market, where Huawei is shut out but Apple and Samsung are way ahead by share.

But Google is also making some headway. The Pixel doubled its share of the U.S. smartphone market to about 5% in the first half of 2019, according to Strategy Analytics.

"More models and deeper distribution sparked record growth," Strategy Analytics' Neil Mawston said in a report. "Alarm bells will be ringing at Samsung, LG, Motorola and elsewhere."

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