Pixel 2 XL

Google hasn't yet (explicitly) announced Android 8.1 Oreo. But reading between the lines of two recent Android announcements gives us a small, tantalizing glimpse of the first Oreo maintenance release. Most significantly, expect a major focus on AI APIs that could bring exciting new features for Google Pixel 2 and Huawei Mate 10 owners.

Based on timing alone, we're about due an Android maintenance release before the end of the year. Just as Android 7.1 landed (for non-Pixels) in December of 2016, an 8.1 launch before the holidays would see Google maintaining the cadence of quarterly MRs that has been established through 2017.

The first Oreo MR will be an 8.1 (as opposed to 8.0.1) mainly because of new the new APIs it'll bring. Historically, a new API level almost always brings a 0.1 version bump for Android, for versions that aren't also a whole new 'dessert' release.

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How do we know there are new APIs coming? A Googler stood up on stage in Germany last Monday and said so. At the Huawei Mate 10 launch event in Munich, Jamie Rosenberg, VP of Android and Google Play, said:

"The Android neural network API will be coming to the Mate 10 in a software update early next year, and I can't wait to see what developers do with this technology."

New APIs? That'll be a new Android MR, then, with a 0.1 version bump.

And for the Mate 10 series, that'll be a very important update indeed, connecting the power of Huawei's neural processing unit (NPU) to OS-level AI support in Android. (Currently, the company supports its own Kirin NN API, as well as Caffe2 and TensorFlow Lite.)

More: Huawei Mate 10 + Mate 10 Pro hands-on

As Google finalizes Android 8.1, expect to see new versions of some of its own apps, updated to take advantage of the neural networking APIs in the new maintenance release. Obvious candidates include Google Lens, when that eventually grows beyond the current Pixel-only preview release, as well as natural language recognition in voice search, and translation through Google Translate.

That's all well and good for the Mate 10, which has its all-singing, all-dancing NPU to handle AI tasks such as complex image recognition around 20 times faster than a general-purpose SoC. But what about Google, whose Pixel 2 phones use off-the-shelf Snapdragon 835s with no such integrated AI hardware?

Well, Google's secret weapon here could be the Pixel Visual Core. The company's first foray into the world of custom silicon wasn't mentioned at the launch event for the Pixel 2 phones, instead only revealed this past week as the review embargo lifted.

The chip isn't enabled yet, but will be activated in a future software update for Pixel 2 owners. (Again, expect that to be Android 8.1.) First and foremost, it'll enable faster HDR+ image processing in the Pixel camera app, thanks to Google's custom silicon.

As Jerry Hildenbrand explains:

We don't have all the details; Google isn't ready to share them and maybe isn't even aware of just what this custom chip is capable of yet. What we do know is that the Pixel Visual Core is built around a Google-designed eight-core Image Processing Unit. This IPU can run three trillion operations each second while running from the tiny battery inside a mobile phone.

Rather than use standard methods of writing code, building it into a finished product and then trying to manage everything after all the work is finished, Google has turned to machine learning coding languages. Using Halide for the actual image processing and TensorFlow for the machine learning components themselves, Google has built its own software compiler that can optimize the finished production code into software built specifically for the hardware involved.

The mention of machine learning and TensorFlow there is significant. As much as image processing is the focus for this chip initially, Google will almost certainly be using Android 8.1's neural networking APIs to hook the Pixel Visual Core into the camera app. That being the case, it raises the prospect of the PVC being usable for other AI-related tasks, both visual and non-visual, in 2018.

And this could be what sets the Pixel 2 phones apart from other Snapdragon 835 devices over the next year. Android's AI APIs will likely work on phones without dedicated neural networking hardware, but AI apps like Google Lens should be much quicker on phones like the Pixel 2 and Mate 10, which have the hardware to back it up.

None of this is confirmed yet, so the usual pinch of salt should be applied. But Google's announcements this past week, both direct and indirect, have given us a fascinating first look at Android's AI future.

Other morsels from a very busy couple of weeks in tech:

  • The Huawei Mate 10 Pro is a very nice phone with an extremely good camera. I'm not the biggest DxOMark fan in the world, but I generally agree with them that it's a close runner-up to the Pixel 2 in general photo performance. (Video, not so much.) Low-light in particular is enormously improved compared to the Mate 9 and P10. We'll get to this in more detail next week, but there are still a few software quirks in the build I'm using right now. EMUI 8 isn't as big a visual refresh as I'd have liked, and Huawei's skin still feels a little behind the times — especially next to Samsung and Google.
  • Biggest thing that surprised me about the regular (non-Pro) Huawei Mate 10, as I started using it some more these past few days? How hard it is to hold onto. This phone is slippery af. Between the wider proportions, lack of chamfers and oleophobic-coated glass on both sides, this thing is a bar of soap in your hand. Same great hardware and experience as the Pro, for the most part, but it's plain to see why the U.S. and most of Europe is getting the Pro — unless you're in love with 16:9, it's just a better phone.
  • I'm continuing to enjoy the Pixel 2 phones, and I've switched to the XL as my daily driver, despite the weird screen which I still think is this phone's biggest weakness. The latest alarming development there for me: some really brutal screen burn-in that raises questions about how well the phone will age.
  • That said, as I mentioned on this week's podcast, this is going to play out as follows: Google will release a patch restoring a more saturated default color setting (as opposed to sRGB), people will think it's a "display fix" update, and will forget about the other issues like blue color shift and shadow detail crushing. And that'll basically be the end of it.
  • Going to be interesting to see what HTC can bring to the table in a potential U11 Plus. The phone looks solid, but given HTC's shaky carrier support, can a mid-cycle like this really move the needle?

That's it for this week. We'll have more Pixel goodness next week, along with our Mate 10 Pro review, and some surprises.