Google’s popular Pixel phones have always improved over their lifetime by receiving small, iterative updates to their features every once in a while. Now Google seems to change that process by introducing cumulative updates. The first one has just been announced. Here is an overview of the first Pixel feature drop.

When it comes to the longevity of their phones, Google has always been generous by providing new features long after the devices have launched. Even their older smartphones get frequent updates to this date. However, these updates are often small and improve just one tiny aspect. This approach seems to be changing now. As Google has just announced, they are introducing what they call “feature drops”. These drops bundle a whole set of new features into one update. Seems like the first drop is rolling out now. Let’s see what it contains.

First Pixel Feature Drop

Add blurry background to photos

The first feature in this drop is coming to the Photos app. When Google launched the Pixel 2, one of its highlight features was the camera’s portrait mode. When enabled, it allows you to take photos with a blurry background (also known as Bokeh). However, you had to enable this mode prior to taking the photo. There was no way to blur the background of photos after you took them. Google is changing this in the Pixel feature drop by allowing you to do just that: blur the background of any photo you have taken, even when portrait mode was not enabled. You simply move a slider in the Photos app and voila… creamy soft background.

Google Pixel Feature Drop: Blur photo background

Enhanced Call Screening

One of the most interesting features that were introduced with the Pixel 3 was the Call Screen system. It uses a set of automated prompts and the Google Assistant to ask unknown callers who they are and what the call is about. After that, you can decide whether you want to take the call or not.

With the new Pixel feature drop, Google takes Call Screen to the next level by completely automating it and filtering out robocalls before your phone even rings. Where previously you had to manually activate Call Screen whenever you received a call, the phone will now do it for you if you want. If enabled, the Google Assistant is even able to detect robocalls and filter them out like spam mail. The feature works entirely on your device without assistance from Google’s servers, so the entire process is completely private. Neither does it require Wifi or data.

Pixel Feature Drop - Call Screen

New video calling features

Google has been trying to push its video calling app Duo for a while now. After they basically ditched Hangouts and converted that into a service for their G Guite customers, they came up with two entirely new Apps that were supposed to replace Hangouts. The messenger app Allo and the video calling app Duo. Allo didn’t make it very long. While initially used to introduce Google Assistant to the world, the app wasn’t exactly successful with users and Google quickly buried it on their ever-growing app graveyard as if nothing ever happened. Duo, however, has survived so far and Google even built it into their Google Home line of products. That allows you to make Duo calls from Google’s smart speakers and Nest hub.

With the new Pixel feature drop, Google is introducing three new major features to the app:

Auto Framing

Auto-framing uses the Pixel 4’s front-facing wide-angle lens to keep you focused and centered in the frame, even when you move around. If another person joins you in front of the phone, the camera automatically zooms out to keep you both in the frame:

Pixel Feature Drop - Auto-Framing

Portrait Filter

You can now apply filters to your video stream. Similar to portrait mode in the Pixel camera, you can add a blurry background to your Duo video:

Pixel Feature Drop - Duo Portrait Mode

AI-supported predictive audio

To quote Google: “When a bad connection leads to spotty audio, a machine learning model on your Pixel 4 predicts the likely next sound and helps you to keep the conversation going with minimum disruptions”. I have no idea how good this will work, but it is possible that the phone fills the gaps in choppy audio using AI. It sounds interesting, but until I have seen (heard) this in person, I am not really sure what to make of this.

Apart from these new features, Google also improved the playback of Duo calls. Thanks to the Pixel 4’s Smooth Display with its 90 Hz refresh rate, video in Duo should be a lot smoother. Or so they say. Again, not sure how that is supposed to work. I don’t think Duo uses more than 30 or 60 frames when transmitting video, so the rest has to be interpolated somehow.

Better and faster accuracy in Google Maps

On a side note Google mentions that they also improved the speed of Google Maps on Pixel 4 phones. Quote: “With the latest update to Pixel 4, you’ll also get amazingly fast accuracy in Google Maps with improved on-device computing for much better location quality”.

Better memory management, multitasking

The Pixel feature drop will include behind-the-scenes updates for all Pixel models to improve memory management. Cached apps will be compressed in RAM so that more memory is available to run multiple apps at the same time. Consequently, this will improve multitasking across the board and should result in a snappier experience.

Pixel 2, 3 and 3a specific updates

While most of the features in the Pixel feature drop are exclusive to the Pixel 4, the older models also get some love. Google delivers a few nice additions to the Pixel 2, 3 and 3a that were previously only available on the Pixel 4:

  • The Recorder app is now available on older generations of Pixel.
  • Pixel 3 and 3a users will get Live Caption.
  • Digital Wellbeing is getting updates too. Focus mode is rolling out to help you stay productive and minimize distractions by pausing apps you’ve selected in a single tap. You can now set an automatic schedule, take a short break or end Focus mode early without disrupting your schedule.
  • Flip to Shhh will also join the Digital Wellbeing features on Pixel 2 and 2XL.
  • If you use a Pixel 4 in the UK, Canada, Ireland, Singapore and Australia, you’ll soon get the new Google Assistant (English only), which is even faster and more helpful.

Going forward

Going forward, Google will release more of these Pixel feature drops. According to Google, these drops will always contain user-facing, fun new features and less of the boring, behind-the-scenes tweaks to the OS. This first drop is rolling out now. Typical for Google, the rollout is slow so it could take a few weeks before you receive it. Most of the new features will be delivered through app updates from the Play Store, some of them will be switched on server-side.

What do you think of these new Pixel feature drops? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Google Stadia has developers excited

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