Hands on: A weekend with Google Glass
Google Glass was officially launched in the UK on June 23, 2014 for £1000; 14 months after their initial I/O launch in the US and a month after becoming generally available to the US public. It has been a long-time coming.
A very brief email chain on the evening of launch day secured permission from the Boss to get a pair in and two days later they arrived. If there's one thing Google seems to repeatedly do well, it's shipping devices. Rarely have I ever had a problem getting hold of a new toy (though sending things back is another story!) and with Glass it was no exception.
I've had a great weekend with Glass; I've met a number of different, inquisitive and occasionally slightly confused people, talked a lot about the device, snapped a decent amount of pictures and videos and faced an unprecedented amount of jestful mocking about how I look with them on (which, by the way, I disagree with. I love the look of them on me!). I wanted to use Glass in as many real-life situations as possible over the weekend, so I used them while:
- House-hunting in Wales
- Grocery shopping in Swindon
- Navigating around Thame
- Attempting to work (which mostly meant taking snaps and videos of colleagues)
And, naturally, photographing food hands-free in all of these locations (if only I had an instagram account..) Of course between these various activities I took full advantage of the HUD for notifications on the go, hands-free calling and more. After all of this over the course of around 3 days, I've put together the following review.
Out of the box
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The packaging is stunning, honestly. For what is essentially a beta device, Google have really put a lot of time and effort into presentation. Upon opening the box you're greeted with a semi-opaque sheet of paper that keeps the underlying hardware in place. Peeling the sheet back reveals Glass in all its glory and it's stunning - sleek, smooth and beautifully designed. I ordered the shale option figuring the darker grey-colour would show the least amount of dirt with extended use (this is a corporate device, after all). I later found the colour option probably wouldn't matter as the material it's made with seems to pick up dirt pretty easily.
Removing Glass and the underlying tray reveals the included accessories; a soft case with a reinforced pouch to protect glass on the move, a flat micro-usb cable, a single earpiece that plugs into the micro-usb port and a welcome card providing information about Glass. Again all of this looks exceptionally high-quality and the thought that went into the placement and packing of these items really shows through.
On first inspection, Glass was quite a bit heftier than I'd imagined. That isn't to say they're overbearingly huge when sat on my face, not at all, but I was expecting the glass components themselves to perhaps be a little less chunky.
Despite the bulk, the entire device feels light and very manageable both in the hands and on the head. Over the course of the weekend I was wearing them for extended periods of time ("almost constantly" might be more apt) without any feelings of fatigue or pain where they sat.
Both the nose pads and the HUD itself can be adjusted to suit any face. For the HUD it's simply a case of twisting it away from or towards your face until the display comes into view. For the nose pads, Google supply a few different sizes that can be quickly interchanged to make sure they're comfortable for anyone who uses them.
The metallic band is suitably springy and grips well to the head. Glass feels very secure once in position and at no time did I feel like they were going to fall off. I've seen people exercising with Glass so this wasn't really ever a concern, but it was nice to feel the reassuring grip for myself.
The model I received is one of a new batch with 2GB of RAM. I've seen numerous performance complaints over the course of Glass' existence but I was pleased to note there was no such issue on the pair I've been using. It's smooth and snappy regardless of what I'm attempting to do with it. That's not to say it's completely without glitches, but I'll cover those off below.
Besides the RAM, Glass comes with a 5mp camera capable of recording in 720p, a 670 mAh battery stated to last all day, 12GB of usable storage (16GB total), WIFI, bluetooth, a touchpad along the side of the device and several sensors which, amongst other things, enable eye-tracking for features such as wink to take a picture and automatic illumination of the display when it detects your eyes raise to the screen on hearing a notification (a labs feature which is a little unreliable). Glass transfers sound via Bone Conduction.
Obviously the star of the show is the display. Once correctly adjusted Google suggests it's the equivalent of having a 25" display just above your eye line. I can't vouch for the display size, but I can say it feels as though it's a comfortable distance from my eye, clear and crisp when I'm looking at it and perfectly out of sight when I don't need it. As soon as half way through the first day I frequently forgot it was on my head when I wasn't actively using it which I think is exactly how it should be. A question I received repeatedly was "but how do you use it if the screen is all the way up there?" Well, once you get used to it, it's easy to shift focus between the environment directly in front of you and the display just above your eye line. It definitely takes some getting used to though.
The biggest problem I had with the display was when trying to use it outdoors. Google state it's not overly visible in very bright conditions but I had no idea just how obscured it becomes when the sun is out. That said, this is Britain and I doubt that's an issue Glass users will face 90% of the year!
Google Glass runs on Android and benefits from frequent updates bringing with them new functionality and bug fixes. Using Glass, you'd be forgiven for missing the fact it's powered by Android; the interface is completely different to any standard (or modified) version you may have seen in the past, but it's definitely there - lurking in the background - whilst a custom Glass launcher sits front-and-centre on the display.
Upon powering up the device for the first time you're taken through a setup process that includes connecting to a smartphone. This will allow glass to sync notifications and WIFI networks with your device and utilise 3G/LTE signal when there are no WIFI connections available. Once completed, you're prompted with a simple clock with "OK Glass" displayed underneath. It's quite straight forward, there are no app drawers to open and no notification bars or navigation buttons on the display what-so-ever. The launcher utilises a "timeline" which provides a history of activities undertaken on Glass and those synchronised via a connected device (email, SMS, etc). The interface isn't immediately overly intuitive and it does take a bit of use before things start making sense for someone who's never before used it. That said, within the hour I knew exactly where I was and what I was doing.
Navigating Glass is simple. Swiping forward and backward on the trackpad will move you through the timeline and device settings. Tapping the trackpad will take you into the application or task you wish to undertake and swiping down on the trackpad is equivalent to hitting the back button on any Android device. Typically I found myself less reliant on the trackpad, opting for voice commands whenever I could.
Voice commands integrate really well with Glass. A simple "OK Glass" with the display activated will bring up a whole list of commands you can speak for anything from take a picture to get directions to "x". The more apps enabled on Glass, the longer the list of commands you can speak becomes. The SMS and email integration allows for replies by voice, as does Evernote for note-taking through dictation. Does it feel a little strange talking to a device on your face? A little. I persevered though, after all we could all be doing this in the future!
Glass comes with a limited set of applications out of the box. Using the companion app on a smartphone (iOS, Android) helps extend this with a small app catalogue of pre-selected applications. I'm not particularly overwhelmed by the handful of available apps considering Glass has been available for over a year, but big names like Strava, Facebook, Evernote and more are there and ready to be activated, and they integrate well with the experience. One app I used a lot was navigation. A quick voice command and I'm almost immediately prompted with on-screen directions to my destination:
Note, due to the uncertainty around legality of driving with Google Glass in the UK, I did not do it. This photo was taken on private land with the vehicle switched off and keys in my pocket. I've spoken to three police officers in Thames Valley since the weekend including an on-duty traffic Officer, none of which could confirm whether or not I would be pulled over for having them on (consider satnav on the display as an example for why it would be on) but advised not to do it until clear legislation has been passed.
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I found the 5mp shooter in Glass to be perfectly adequate. Is it on par with the latest slew of flagship smartphones? No, but it holds its own.
There are three ways of taking the picture; voice command, selecting the option with the trackpad or pressing the dedicated camera button on the top of Glass. I opted, mostly, for the dedicated button as it was substantially faster for taking photos in relatively quick succession.
I took many, many pictures over the course of the weekend in various lighting conditions and environments and over-all I found myself pleased with the result. Glass adds a little magic to every photo taken in order to make it pop and to Google's credit, works quite well. Additionally, the "vignette" feature allows Glass to embed a screenshot of whatever is on the display at the time of taking a photo, a tool I used frequently:
I found I did need to keep as still as possible in order to get a crisp picture, something I don't really think too much about on my phones. I also found the lack of a viewfinder before taking a photo a little annoying, many of the photos I took were slightly slanted or not quite centred on the object I was photographing. There are 3rd-party apps that would enable this functionality, but I had no intention (or time!) of sideloading anything to make it work.
As mentioned, the camera shoots video in 720p. I was equally impressed with the videos shot, mostly due again to the unique perspective Glass provides. The videos are clear and crisp and they pick up sound quite well, here's an example: http://youtu.be/mv7cIhUtlvQ
By far the best, most unique feature of the Glass camera was how it's positioned. Looking back at the photos and videos feels like I saw what I was seeing with my eyes at the time. Sure, any old camera held up in front of you can achieve a similar result, but Glass just seems.. different.
Both pictures and videos are backed up to the associated Google account upon charging the device, but a sync can be forced at any time through settings. Equally a photo or video can be shared to any one of the connected applications at any point in time.
To be perfectly honest I found battery life to be an issue. Over the weekend I put it on charge twice a day on average, the first evening it was dead within 4 hours of its first full charge. On days where I was taking a lot of photos/videos I actively turned Glass off when I didn't need it in order to conserve power.
Google suggest a day of usage per charge, but I have to wonder under what circumstances that would be the case, because even with light usage I was watching the battery drop faster than any device I think I've ever had!
After disabling most of the detection features (winking to take a photo, lifting my head to activate the display, eye-tracking for notifications, etc) the battery life upped to around 7 hours which obviously made a huge difference when out and about. I'm yet to get a full day out of it, but at least it charges relatively quickly.
As stated above, Glass is not without glitches. A number of times I found the display would be completely unresponsive to the trackpad (requiring me to cycle the power), it suffered a few random reboots and occasionally stuttered when taking multiple photographs.
Of all the niggles I experienced, the heat that emanated from the device under load (navigation, display mirroring, etc) was the most disruptive. Seeing Glass tell me it needs to cool down in order to function properly resulted usually in me powering it off for a few minutes while it cooled. Naturally heat buildup in that small, cramped casing will continue to be an issue. Google could add a vent but Glass would soon fail in poor weather conditions (it is, after all, a device to be sat on your face rather in a pocket).
I also found that, although it worked as a bluetooth headset, taking calls with Glass is less than ideal without using the earbud. Even then with the calls I made I was repeatedly being told I sounded like I was "far away from the phone".
At the end of the day Glass is still beta hardware and what I used this weekend probably won't fully reflect what the average consumer will get hold of later this year (when Glass is touted for general release at what I hope is a substantially more affordable price!)
With that said, my experience with Glass has been unique and exciting. I found it to be genuinely useful as I was going about my business and give or take the odd niggle it behaved far better than I would have expected from a developer device.
On my head it feels light, comfortable and mostly unobtrusive. I'm definitely happy with how it sits and more importantly, how it stays out of the way when not in use. It's well built, well designed and felt like I was holding a quality device. I only hope it's a little less chunky on the next hardware revision.
It needs a bigger/better battery in order for it to be truly useful as an all-day device for me. I'm sure that will improve if not in hardware, then with the battery improvements showcased for Android L at Google I/O which I'm sure will trickle through with one of the frequent future updates.
Over all I think Glass is a fantastic piece of technology. I appreciate there's still some work to be done and there's of course a little social stigma around it for the time being but that in no way puts me off. I'm as happy now as I was over the weekend to talk and demo the device to anyone with the curiosity to ask about it.
I'd love to carry on using Glass, but unfortunately have to return it to the business. If I could I would purchase my own pair immediately and carry on using them as much as possible but, as with many people, I simply don't have a grand kicking about. I'll definitely go for a consumer version when it launches though!
Here are a collection of pictures I took while house-hunting over the weekend (and a couple of random shots). No, I won't be purchasing these properties..
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