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Cameras

Google Clips is an imperfect robot photographer for your family

This $250 camera is smart enough to press the shutter button for you. Is that enough?

google-clips-camera-kids-7527

The Google Clips.

James Martin/CNET

Would you trust a robot to take candid photos of your family, pets and kids? That's the question Google is posing with the $250 Google Clips. It's a tiny, 2-inch square of a camera with AI smarts: A neural network Google trained to snap 7-second videos whenever it sees something "interesting" occur. (More on how Clips interprets "interesting" a bit later.)

Clips automatically takes 7-second videos of moments you might miss with your phone.

Sean Hollister/CNET

It's a camera you can set down anywhere to automatically capture fleeting moments -- a laugh, a smile, a goofy expression, a cute gesture -- you'd never be in time to capture with your phone. And since you don't always need to whip out your handset, you can live in the moment. Be in the shot with your loved ones, instead of stuck behind the camera.

That's the pitch, anyhow.

But that assumes you trust Google's robot to keep your photos safe and that Google's neural network is smart enough to take shots you'd actually want. And that you have an iPhone, Google Pixel or Samsung Galaxy S7 or S8, because those are the only phones it works with right now.  

It's also not available in the UK or Australia, and Google has no plans to change that yet. The price converts to approximately £180 or AU$320.

After a week with Clips, I think Google's onto something. But I wouldn't buy one.

Cute, not creepy

In 2013, Google learned the hard way: The world isn't ready to welcome cyborg cameras into their businesses, let alone homes.

Thankfully, the Google Clips looks nothing like the ill-fated Google Glass -- even if you clip it onto a pair of glasses yourself.

With its big eye of a camera and minty-fresh look (the rubber clip looks like a giant Certs, while the camera back is a delightful shade of Mint Chip ice cream), Clips seems more toy than tool. At worst, it's goofy. At best, it's cute!

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Cute as a button.

James Martin/CNET

And that's kind of the point, according to Google. The company set out to make it very obvious that the Clips is a camera, with its giant honking lens and always-on-when-it's-on LEDs. (My one-year-old daughter loves to touch both.)

But the most family-friendly feature of the Clips is this: It's about as private a gadget as you can buy in 2018. Your clips are never uploaded, never sent to Google. There's no internet connection whatsoever, in fact -- just a simple Wi-Fi Direct link that pairs the Clips to a single phone at a time.

Now playing: Watch this: Let Google Clips take the photo while you play with your...
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Not only are your videos encrypted, but the Clips won't let other phones access them, either -- it'll wipe your Clips' internal storage if someone tries to force the issue. The only way to access those videos, according to Google, is to stream them wirelessly to your phone, then decide if you want to manually download them and/or share them to social networks yourself.  

Using Google Clips

So that answers my first question: It's roughly as secure as any dumb point-and-shoot, at least till you upload photos to the web. But can you trust Google Clips to record the moments you'd actually want to capture? I'm less sure about that.

I've got to hand it to Google: Firing up the Clips couldn't be easier. Just set it down or use the optional clippy rubber case to attach it to a potted plant, a kid's toy, a mug, a baby crib slat, you get the picture -- then turn the lens dial to power it on. That's it! 

I can do it all with one hand, which, let's face it, is often all that parents can spare.

But after days affixing the Google Clips to practically every baby-height surface and clippable object in my house, I had a hard time finding anywhere I could simply leave it running and expect to get clips worth sharing.

Video quality isn't the issue -- it's good! Google does a remarkable job of keeping images crisp, light on noise and well-exposed, even with challenging lighting conditions like direct sunlight (useful for Patrick Holland's sunbathing cat Stella) or the dark interior of a moving car after sundown. Particularly if you set the Clips to capture at high quality, which you totally should.

If you're too far away from the Clips, it won't work. This is too far.

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

But since the Clips doesn't pan, tilt or zoom -- it only records what's in front of its 130-degree wide-angle lens -- I'd often get clips of my 1-year-old daughter and 5-year-old Shih Tzu simply walking past the camera, or hanging out at what looked like far, far away on the opposite side of the room. 

(Wide-angle lenses tend to do that.)

Google says it's designed to record people and pets roughly 3-8 feet away -- and in practice, that means placing the Clips where you already know the action is about to occur.

It works nicely on a rear-facing stroller, for instance -- though not my front-facing one. Or if you'll be sitting down with the little one for a meal, or storytime, since you can be fairly sure they won't run off. It's not a dealbreaker, but moments do feel a bit less serendipitous when you have to plan them out first.

My biggest problem with the Clips is this: Even when Google's cam has a perfect view of the action, it might miss the moments you'd actually want. I was looking forward to sharing clips of my daughter playing peek-a-boo with my friends at dinner (or hugging our dog), but wound up disappointed to find the Clips hadn't saved either one.

The manual shutter button helped us capture little stunts like this.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Mind you, Google says that Clips isn't designed to replace a smartphone, and might miss moments here or there as it tries to keep the signal-to-noise ratio high. But for me, it was a clear sign that Clips isn't nearly as smart as I'd want.

Besides, I'm not confident Clips does a great job filtering out the moments I don't want, either. Out of the 500+ clips we took (the device can hold roughly 1,400 without saving or deleting at all), there were maybe a dozen I truly loved enough to share, and none I'd spend $250 for (this converts to approximately £180 or AU$320).

If a man wearing a Google hat walked up to me and offered footage of my child's first steps for $250, I'd pay him without a second thought. But I wouldn't trust Google Clips with that once-in-a-lifetime moment -- and that's my review in a nutshell.

Other things you might like to know

  • The Clips doesn't record audio. Baby's first steps are a possibility. Baby's first word is impossible.
  • The Clips isn't always recording, period. Google says it's constantly checking to see whether a given photo looks interesting (because it has faces, expressions, pets, motion), but doesn't start recording until it reaches a verdict.
  • It's not designed to be wearable. I clipped it onto baby, but it didn't record much because it tries to avoid blurry photos. It's really meant to be stationary. I clipped it onto me, too, but I felt like an asshole walking around with it on.
  • We didn't test with older kids, which might make Clips more valuable. Kids might enjoy using a camera like this themselves. Especially kids without phones.
  • Google says Clips might get smarter. The mini neural network on board is updatable via Google's app, and Google plans to update it.
  • Clips might make more sense if/when it gets cheaper. Weddings could be an excellent use case. Clips is much more foolproof (and animated) than disposable film cameras, and the married couple can spend less time sorting through footage.
  • It works in any orientation: It flips to portrait mode automatically, and you can pop the Clips into its case in a different orientation too.
  • There are two manual shutter buttons. One in the app, one on the Clips itself. Tap either to capture immediately, hold down to shoot longer than the standard 7-second shot.
  • There's a live preview mode. You can stream to your phone in the app.
  • Google says the battery lasts 57 days in standby mode. It's designed to be thrown into a purse or diaper bag and always be ready to go. It records for closer to 3 hours at a time, though we saw it stay on for upwards of 5 hours when it wasn't recording often.
  • It charges over USB-C. It can run on an external USB battery too.
  • The internal battery isn't replaceable.
  • It's not waterproof. "If a kid sneezes on it, it won't break." But don't submerge it, says Google.
  • To save or delete a clip, just swipe. In the app, I mean. It's quick and easy.
  • In the app, you can press a button to have Clips highlight clips it likes best. We felt the feature highlighted some clips that didn't make sense (like a hand covering the camera) and missed some good moments too, but it could help you sift through.
  • The clip on Clips doesn't grab everything equally well. Google says it's designed to open to 12mm (roughly half an inch). That wasn't big enough to stay latched onto some baby-safe toys and furniture.
  • You can buy an alternate sleeve with a tripod mount. Incipio sells one.
  • Clips are natively recognized by Google Photos and iOS. The iPhone considers them to be Live Photos, and you can search Google Photos for "Motion Photos" to pull them up.
  • The app lets you easily pull a still JPEG image out of any clip, and they look pretty good. Way better than your typical video screenshot. You can also set the start and end points of the Motion Photos, or record as animated GIFs instead.
  • Video resolution varies. The largest files we pulled were around 1,920x1,250-pixel resolution, at a data rate of 18Mbps, but some were much smaller. All were 15 frames per second.
  • We have no idea what the plural of Clips is. Do you?
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James Martin/CNET

Verdict: Wait

Trite as it might sound, Google Clips does feel like the future. It's a portent of the world to come: One where cameras smart enough to record and interpret human beings are everywhere. Drones. Security cam. Self-driving cars. Maybe even walking humanoid robots.

It's nice to think that the use cases won't all be creepy and dystopian, that engineers are already working on ways to make them fun and helpful and perhaps even freeing -- so people don't have to always pull out a camera themselves. Maybe Clips will even be that camera, with enough updates. But it feels early right now.

I feel funny saying this, but it feels like the very things that make Clips borderline acceptable to today's society are the things holding it back. Like the camera lens that makes it easily identifiable but causes it to bulge in my pocket, or the always-on LEDs that make my daughter run over and grab it. The fact that it's not always recording and doesn't phone home to Google's powerful servers, which could have helped it pick better photo opportunities. The lack of a microphone, because seriously, Google?

I'm not ready to invite a true Google AI into my home quite yet, and I'm not saying anyone ever should. But I wouldn't be surprised if the next Nest Cam has a built-in neural network to capture 7-second clips for you, or if Google were to suddenly reveal its own tiny Clips drone. 

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