What to expect at Google I/O 2021

Android 12 news

If there’s one thing you can count on this year, it’s that Google will have a lot to say about its upcoming Android 12 update. That’s especially unsurprising when you consider how much the company has already said about it. After all, at time of publication, Google has released three Android 12 developer previews, and has already started talking up features like audio-coupled haptics, improved picture-in-picture for videos, support for the AVIF image format, and more.

Beyond that, it also looks like Android is getting a facelift this year, though it’s hard to say exactly what it’ll look like at this point. A series of leaked images obtained by XDA point to a noticeable overhaul, with a redesigned notifications panel, fewer quick settings panels, and new “conversation” widgets for the home screen that highlight messages and missed calls from contacts. Meanwhile, if you felt like digging deep into the developer build’s settings, there’s also an option that enables a new, more compact design for the Settings app that should make navigating menus on big phones a little easier.

There’s bound to be a lot more about Android 12 we’re not clued in on yet, and Google’s I/O keynote and developer sessions should go a long way in explaining the company’s vision. If Google sticks to its pre-pandemic plans, you can expect to see an initial Android 12 public beta release pretty soon after the keynote ends, with a full launch around August or September.

Assistant and smart home improvements

As usual, we’re expecting to hear a lot about Google Assistant, though we haven’t heard many specifics just yet. For what it’s worth, Google noted on its own developer blog that we’ll see “new product announcements” and “feature updates” for the Assistant, and if what we’ve seen in previous years is any indication, these might be the announcements that steal the show.

On a similar note, Google also says we can expect new Smart Home product announcements too, though it stopped short of specifically saying it would reveal new hardware. We’ll just have to see how all of that plays out.

Fossil Wear OS watch


Big changes for Wear OS?

We’re also starting to get the sense that something’s going on with Wear OS this year. Think about it: Within the last week, Google finally updated its wearable software to support Gboard for easier typing on a tiny touchscreen, and started soliciting feedback from Wear OS users in a survey that prompted some people to participate in a research study to inform future development. Maybe we’re reading a little too much into the timing here, but with I/O right around the corner and Google’s acquisition of Fitbit in the rearview mirror, it’s starting to feel like the company is getting ready to commit to wearables in a big way.

While a bevy of leaks confirm Google is working on a potentially Pixel-branded smartwatch, it’s not yet clear if the company plans to show it off at I/O. (For what it’s worth, we’re not betting on it.) But that doesn’t mean we won’t hear anything about new smartwatches.

Persistent rumors suggest that Samsung — a company that once experimented with Android Wear before investing heavily in its Tizen operating system — will return to the fold with a new Wear OS watch. This would be Samsung’s first Google-powered wearable since 2014’s Gear Live, and if we’re lucky, it could help pave the way for a new era of progress, polish, and popularity for Wear OS smartwatches.

Google Pixel Buds

Billy Steele/Engadget

Pixel Buds A-series

We’re expecting I/O 2021 to be relatively light on new hardware, but Google may still have a few announcements ready to go. In a marketing email that Google spread around back in April, the company showed off a set of green Pixel Buds that don’t correspond to any models we’ve seen on sale so far. Then, Google accidentally leaked the existence of its new A-series Pixel Buds in a tweet from the official Android account.

While that accidental tweet didn’t reveal that much, Google’s use of its “A” branding strongly suggests that these new wireless earbuds will cost less than the standard, $179 Pixel Buds. Maybe the tweet and the email were pure goofs, and maybe Google has no intention of talking about its new wireless earbuds anytime soon. Still, we wouldn’t be surprised if these things got some time in the spotlight next week.

Google Pixel 5 review

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The longshots

As always, there are a few things we don’t really expect Google to talk about on-stage, but can’t help but hope for anyway. For one, there’s the Pixel 5a 5G, a more affordable version of last year’s Pixel 5. This would normally be the time of year Google shows off a new, budget-friendly Pixel smartphone, but last year’s late release of the Pixel 4a might have thrown off Google’s schedule. When the company confirmed in early April that the Pixel 5a wasn’t canceled after all, a spokesperson noted that the new phone would be revealed “in line with when last year’s a-series phone was introduced.” If you take that at face value, that means we probably won’t get our first looks at Google’s new cheap Pixel until late summer, but who knows — I’m keeping my fingers crossed for an I/O announcement anyway.

And while we’re talking about Pixels, it sure would be nice if Google officially pulled back the curtain on Whitechapel, a homemade mobile processor we’re expecting to debut in the Pixel 6. We could definitely see Google holding off on an announcement for a while, especially since the company hasn’t said anything about the Pixel 6 yet, but now would be a smart time to start getting developers onboard.

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