Google’s Pixel 5 Looks Fine… but Its Software Will Be Fantastic

Behold, a digital assistant you’ll actually use

Owen Williams
Debugger
Published in
4 min readOct 1, 2020

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At Google’s annual September hardware event Wednesday, the company took the wraps off its latest phone, the Pixel 5. The changes are what you might expect: a few extra new features and hardware tweaks that improve upon last year’s device, but amount to an iterative update.

What stood out more than the Pixel hardware itself were software changes that make the device helpful in meaningful new ways that you’ll actually notice. Case in point: an update to Google Assistant called “Hold for Me.” When you call a business and get put on hold, the feature allows you to toggle an option in Google Assistant that will sit in line listening to the hold music for you — while captioning any vocalized information — so you can do something else. When it’s your turn, you’ll get a notification to pick up again. (The Assistant will ask the person on the line to hold for you when they finally answer.)

Hold for Me seems genuinely useful: I put off calling my bank and internet company all the time because I know I’ll be stuck in a queue for at least 30 minutes. During Covid-19, which has put a strain on almost every company’s support department, I waited almost two hours to speak to an airline representative. A feature like this would make a 30-minute wait, let alone a two-hour one, a non-event.

Siri seems like a toy compared to Google Assistant.

Actually pulling this off required overcoming immense challenges: Every company’s hold music is different, often peppered with pre-recorded messages that could trip up a piece of software, but Assistant is able to detect the difference between them, only notifying when a human finally picks up. The feature runs locally on your device, so you don’t even need to have an internet connection — perhaps useful if international travel ever becomes a thing again.

Hold for Me builds on another feature called Call Screen, which debuted in 2018, that allows Pixel owners to make Assistant answer incoming phone calls and caption them on the phone’s screen in real time, so you can decide whether or not to actually answer or send the call to voicemail.

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Owen Williams
Debugger

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. Design Manager in Tech. https://twitter.com/ow