Google’s I/O developer conference is finally returning as an (limited) in-person keynote for 2022, but that’s not the biggest story likely to emerge from the event. This year, in addition to the customary Android update, it’s likely to involve some of the company’s most important hardware introductions in recent memory — including the first Pixel smartwatch. Here’s what to expect when Sundar Pichai and crew take the stage.
It will be easy to tune in, we’d add. Google is streaming the presentation live through its YouTube channel on May 11th at 1PM Eastern, including in a version with American Sign Language interpretation. You can expect coverage and commentary from Engadget during and after the keynote.
Pixel Watch and Wear OS 3
The true star of I/O may have already been outed despite Google’s attempts to keep it under wraps. Rumors of an official Google smartwatch have circulated for years, but the company now appears close to introducing one in the form of the Pixel Watch. A prototype of the device was apparently found at a restaurant by an Android Central source, but Google has also filed for a Pixel Watch trademark in recent weeks. It may be just a matter of when the timepiece arrives, not “if.”
The prototype may speak volumes about Google’s plans. True to past rumors, the Pixel Watch appears to have a sleek rounded case, a rotating crown and virtually no bezels. Think of it as Android’s answer to the Apple Watch’s elegant design, just with a circular screen. Much like its rival, the smartwatch would use proprietary but easily swappable bands to help you customize the look. Photos also suggest there will be at least some form of heart rate monitoring, while a previous code leak from 9to5Google hinted at an Exynos processor inside.
However, the real centerpiece may be the software. The Pixel Watch is believed to serve as a showcase for Wear OS 3, a major smartwatch interface developed with help from Samsung. It’s expected to include easier navigation, Tiles support (read: widgets) for third-party apps, improved performance and more customization for watchmakers. Fitbit activity tracking will be key to the experience, and code discovered in the new OS’ emulator hinted the fitness app might be integrated into some watch faces. While Wear OS has long included some exercise-friendly functionality, the Pixel smartwatch might not need any aftermarket apps to deliver truly robust tracking.
There’s no guarantee Google will debut the Pixel Watch at I/O, and details like pricing remain a mystery. However, reporter Jon Prosser, who generally has a strong track record with leaks, has claimed the watch could arrive on May 26th, just a couple of weeks after I/O. If so, we’d expect Wear OS 3 to roll out to compatible third-party watches (such as recent examples from Fossil, Mobvoi and Samsung) in the weeks ahead.
Google hasn’t introduced a meaningfully new mid-range phone since 2020’s Pixel 4a 5G (the Pixel 5a was virtually identical), so we’re overdue for new hardware. Thankfully, that might just be in the pipeline. Murmurs have persisted for months of a Pixel 6a that would bring the Pixel 6 aesthetic and key features to a more affordable handset.
Where previous budget Pixels typically preserved the camera tech of high-end models while using slower processors, Google might reverse its strategy with the 6a. The 6.2-inch phone will reportedly use the same speedy Tensor chip as in the Pixel 6, but rely on the 5a’s 12-megapixel main rear camera instead of the Pixel 6’s more advanced 50MP unit.
There would also still be an OLED screen with a (hopefully improved) under-display fingerprint reader, and fast millimeter wave 5G could be available with at least one variant. However, you might have to wave goodbye to the headphone jack on lower-cost Google phones.
As with the Pixel Watch, there are hints Google might unveil the Pixel 6a at I/O and launch it soon afterward. FCC filings for the 6a emerged last month, suggesting the company might ship the phone sometime in May. The biggest unknown at this stage is the price: Google sold the 5a for $449, but it’s not clear if the follow-up will be just as affordable.
It’s no secret that Google will reveal more about Android 13 at I/O 2022. The company has been testing developer previews of the new operating system since February, and it historically uses I/O to share many of a future Android revision’s user-facing features for the first time, such as Android 12’s Material You interface. All the minor, developer-focused tweaks you’ve seen so far likely won’t represent everything you’ll get when the OS is finally ready (likely late summer).
There haven’t been many clues as to what those larger changes will entail, but Google has so far focused on minor interface revisions and under-the-hood technology upgrades. The Android 13 beta already includes expanded Material You theming, an improved media playback box, a speedier QR code reader and (at least for some users) smart home control while the device is locked.
Behind the scenes, you’ll also see more conveniences as well as greater respect for both your privacy and free time. Android 13 will introduce Bluetooth LE audio support, and Fast Pair should be built-in to help you quickly set up earbuds and other accessories. A form of spatial audio might also be available, too. Apps, meanwhile, won’t have quite so much free rein. Software built for the new platform will have to request permission for media access and notifications. Even Google’s photo picker is now more restrictive. You should see fewer apps overstepping their boundaries, not to mention nagging you with unwanted alerts and promos.
It won’t be at all surprising if there are more substantial changes in store. From all the evidence so far, however, Android 13 is more of an iteration of Android 12 than a radical rethink. And that’s okay – Google now has more of an opportunity to polish its code and address complaints about last year’s overhaul.
Wildcards: Pixel Buds Pro, Nest Hub tablet and a foldable
While there are only a few expected hardware unveilings at I/O this year, we wouldn’t rule out some out-of-left-field teasers. Most recently, Jon Prosser floated the possibility of Pixel Buds Pro earbuds that would come in a range of colors. While he didn’t provide details or images, the “Pro” badging might hint at active noise cancellation and other features that haven’t found their way into existing Pixel Buds. While they might not appear at I/O (if ever), they would make sense given Android 13’s support for spatial audio and Bluetooth LE music.
We also wouldn’t completely rule out the oft-rumored Pixel foldable. Google designed Android 12L with foldables and tablets in mind, and the company’s leaked “Pipit” could demonstrate what that software could do. Don’t count on it arriving at this month’s event, though. Although 9to5Google unearthed camera code implying a 2022 release, there haven’t been any real signs alluding to an I/O appearance. If Pipit is still on track, it might not arrive until late in the year.
We wouldn’t hold out hope for a rumored detachable Nest Hub where the screen can be removed and used like a tablet. The first discussions of this convertible Nest model only surfaced in March, and Google has frequently reserved its Nest announcements for the fall.
Instead, the most likely surprises are those you most often see at I/O. You might well see Google update Android TV (plus its Google TV front-end), and it’s easy to see upgrades coming to services like Maps and Photos. AI-based products using Duplex and similar technologies could appear at the conference. And then there’s the more audacious experiments — few would have anticipated the Project Starline AR video chat booth, even in the throes of a pandemic.