Google Glass Review: Okay, Google... This is a RIPOFF

Reviews Andrew Williams 16:20, 18 Sep 2014

Is Google Glass a twat detector or the future... Or both? Andrew Williams road-tests Glass in and around London to find out

Rating: 
2.5
Typical Price: 
£1,000.00
Pros: 
Interface mostly works; Nice Design; Comfortable and relatively slim line
Cons: 
Battery life not good; An attention magnet; What it can do does not justify the cash
Verdict: 
If Google Glass is the future, this version will one day be looked back on as a quaint curiosity. It’s intriguing, but not worth a buy.

It often seems like there’s no middle ground in this debate, so I thought I’d have a go with Google Glass Explorer Edition 2.0 myself. No supreme nerdy gushing. No nonsense. No hipster, “I also write a Tumblr blog about birthmarks that look like cats” inflections. Just a bog standard review of a very fancy piece of kit that aims to find out what Google Glass is actually like to use and, more importantly, whether it’s worth the £1000 asking price?

The plain truth is that unless you actually enjoy the sort of attention Google Glass is certain to get you, the benefits don’t outweigh the awkwardness of the experience – social and physical. And if you don’t feel any of that social awkwardness at all, you’re probably a psychopath. Or American.

That’s not to say there aren’t some interesting things going on here, as this is certainly the most compelling AR/VR headset that’s not solely for video and/or gaming.

Google Glass Review: Google Glass In Every Day Life 

First off, though, I'm going to start with a little on what it’s like to actually use out in the open. I tried it out on the streets, because if you’re not going to have the stones to do that – why bother? This thing costs a grand after all.

The experience was surprisingly OK, for the most part. Stepping out into the world looking like I was wearing a prop from a 90s sci-fi show, the initial hit of self-consciousness is quite potent. However, like most things that may initially seem embarrassing, you get used to it pretty quick. What about the people around you?

British reserve is a wonderful thing at times. The vast majority of people might give you a curious glance, before willfully pretending there’s absolutely nothing odd at all about your head gear. They’re just as embarrassed as you are by the whole Google Glass affair. Kids are a completely different ball game. They’ll stare as if you’re wearing a full-body SpongeBob Squarepants costume. I even saw a few little raised arms, soon batted down by parents who couldn’t think of anything worse than having to interface with the weird guy with the weird thing on his head. 

Unless your social group makes the characters of the Big Bang Theory look like jocks, you will get abuse from friends, and I wouldn’t recommend wearing Google Glass in a Wetherspoons come 10:30pm. You’re probably getting the idea – some of the social baggage of Google Glass is your own and like any new pioneer, out of the forefront of things, it is a cross you –– and you alone –– must bear. 

And as long as things like Google Glass remain curiosities, they’re going to attract (possibly unwanted) attention, and will be a mugging magnet in certain places too. Also, it’s worth pointing out that you cannot quickly stash Glass in a pocket, should you be heading to a shady part of town, so, again, it’s worth considering what you want to achieve with Glass that day before leaving the home.

Interestingly, the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association (CEA) issued a nationwide UK ban on the device in cinemas. Not that this should surprise anyone; the headset has met with similar resistance from cinema organisations in the US.  Speaking to The Independent, Phil Clapp, Chief Executive of CEA, said: “Customers will be requested not to wear these into cinema auditoriums, whether the film is playing or not.”  

Vue has also since chimed in, adding it will be asking customers to remove their Google Glass units as soon as the lights begin to dim. The CEA represents around 90% of UK cinema operators, including Vue and Cineworld. You can read a full breakdown of its members here. The National Association of Theatres Owners (Nato) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have also introduced rules outlawing all recording devices, including Google Glass, the US where Google Glass has been in the hands of Explorers for over a year now.

Google, however, is calling shenanigans and wants UK bodies to treat Glass in a similar way to smartphones and tablets. In a statement released to the press and published by The Guardian, Google said: “We recommend any cinemas concerned about Glass to treat the device as they treat similar devices like mobile phones: simply ask wearers to turn it off before the film starts.”

“Broadly speaking, we also think it's best to have direct and first-hand experience with Glass before creating policies around it. The fact that Glass is worn above the eyes and the screen lights up whenever it's activated makes it a fairly lousy device for recording things secretly.” 

Not to mention the fact that it records video at quite a low resolution and has a relatively small battery - recording video is thought to drain it quicker than most activities and it might be hard-pressed to carry on for the length of a feature film.

Where Else Will Google Glass Be Banned? 

Here’s a breakdown of some potentials:

  • Stringfellows
  • Galleries
  • Theatres
  • Houses of Parliament
  • My house (yep, you can leave it at the door if you come round for tea)

Google Glass Review: Design & Fit

Fit-wise, Google Glass is much less problematic. It weighs 44g and clearly an awful lot of work has gone into the design. Despite being ‘one size fits all’, I found it at least as comfortable as a properly fitted pair of glasses. The super-flexible titanium band that makes up the frame, the light-yet-tough nose pads, and the overall light weight mean this is easily the most comfortable augmented/virtual reality headset I’ve tried. I just started to feel a bit of pressure above the ears where the stems rest after a handful of hours, but then you’d get something similar from most pairs of glasses.

The display sits over your right eye, and pivots on a little hinge to make it fit heads of different sizes. It’s all pretty simple to adjust once you stop worrying about breaking your new £1000 toy. And despite the look, Glass isn’t too fragile. Setup is pretty easy too, if you’re au fait with how any Bluetooth device works. You download the MyGlass app, pair the two up, and that’s about it.

Unlike some headsets, Glass is still very much something that piggybacks off your mobile phone. It’s not for processing, just data. Just about everything you do on Glass needs a data connection – no surprise given Google is behind it. There’s Wi-Fi on-board, but if you’re out of range of a network Glass knows and you’ll need to connect it to your phone.

DVF Made For Glass Collection Frames Arrive In UK

Google has officially announced that its latest line of designer frames for Google Glass can now be had by UK customers.
Google took to its own social network, Google+, to announce the collection's arrival in Blighty.

The DVF Made For Glass collection introduces five new glasses frames and eight styles of shades/sunglasses. You won't find them on Google Play though, at least for now, as they're being exlusively stocked at fashion retailer Net-A-Porter. Being Google Glass, they're not exactly cheap of course, as the frames include the Glass device itself with the package - they don't appear to be a bolt on accessory as with Google's own frame variants. All the models in the range cost £1,250, and they're for women (DVF is a women's fashion designer brand).

Google Glass Review: Features –– What Can Glass Do? 

So what can you do with it? One of Glass’s main features is that it offers turn-by-turn navigation. You tell it where you want to go; the microphone inside listens, deciphers what you’re saying using your phone’s data connection, works out the route using your phone’s GPS, then relays it all to the Google Glass screen. 

The display sort-of levitates just above your normal vision, meaning it’s not constantly in the way; although part of the frame is annoyingly just in the periphery. Rather than using a normal LCD, Google Glass uses a little projector that reflects light off a surface sitting 45 degrees from your eye, within the little transparent block in front of the headset.

What results is a smallish translucent screen that makes you look like you’re having a minor epileptic seizure when you peer into it. It’s not a good look, and is part of the reason why Google Glass is so socially contentious. It makes our current smartphone obsession look like just the first step in a much wider tech-inspired dissociation.

But hey, who likes talking to people anyway, right?

Google Glass Review: Screen Quality

The screen itself has the whiff of the prototype to it. It works fine, but compare its image quality to that of our shiny new smartphones and you can only conclude it’s pretty dreadful. Sharpness is way off, not because of a lack of resolution (although that’s not great either) but a kind of light bleed effect that’s presumably a result of the miniature-scale projection unit. Colours are also seriously lacking; not so much in their intensity but their accuracy. 

As Google Glass is still a prototype device – it’s not called Explorer Edition for nothing – I can just about forgive this, but it needs to improve if it wants to become mainstream. While Google hasn’t actually told us the resolution of the projection hardware in Glass, the software and apps are all natively rendered at 640 x 360 resolution. That’s not great, but as the display size is relatively small compared with something like Oculus Rift, it doesn’t matter all that much. 

Again, though, this should improve in future generations if we’re going to one day all start watching YouTube videos on the bus with something like Glass. What a depressing thought.

Getting directions is not all you can do. And you don’t have to talk to Glass 24/7.

Google Glass Review: Interface

You can awake the thing by either rapidly moving your head up by 30 degrees (again, looks weird), by saying ‘Ok, Glass’, or by tapping the right side of the headset. None are terribly discreet, but the last is the one I felt happiest with when walking down the street.

The whole right side of Glass acts as a little touchpad, used to flick through the system’s menus, and to control things where text input isn’t entirely necessary. You wouldn’t know it but Google Glass actually runs a heavily, heavily modified version of Android 4.4. But a lot of the time you’ll be left just looking at a list of possible commands – Google, Directions, Music, take a picture, send a message. They’re the basics. 

Google has massively pared-back what Glass can do so that normal(ish) people will be able to use it without being instantly disorientated and turned off. However, it is encouraging developers to add more features.

Google Glass has its own app ecosystem and Glass apps are called Glassware (geddit?). There are around 70 at present, but I didn’t find many all that exciting to be honest. There are a few tech demo-style games, an MP3 player to play tracks off the 16GB internal memory and a zombie-themed running app (this one is my current favourite, as I can go for a jog and pretend to be a far less sexy version of Joel from The Last of Us). 

There’s bags of potential in Glass, but most Glassware at present is crap. And it’s not helped by the interface not making it clear how to run apps, or even if they’re installed. There’s no single place where they all go, as there is on normal Android. I found that to do the things I wanted to try on Google Glass, I had to sort-of hack together functionality through the browser. For example, through the browser you can play YouTube videos and listen to podcasts. That’s kinda neat, but you do have a make a bit of a fool of yourself to do it. In the browser, you can scroll up and down with the touchpad. But to move around freely and select links, you need to put two fingers on the pad and then move your head – the movements are then made into a cursor of sorts. 

You will look bizarre, but it does work to an extent. There’s no text entry in the browser, though, so you’re still pretty limited. But to be honest, I was largely scrabbling around for things to try because the appeal of Glass was very much wearing off by the end of my week with it. It’s just not really useful, fun, or casual enough. 

And that’s not helped by the battery life. You’ll get around five hours of use out of Glass, meaning you’ll need to charge it every day. Charging is no more convenient than it is with a phone, either. There’s no wireless magic here, just a microUSB slot. 

For every cool feature, there’s an important question behind it: do you really want to use it? The internal speaker is an interesting case. Glass uses a bone conduction speaker that uses your skull (freaky) as part of the speaker driver, sort of like those portable speakers that use whatever surface they’re on to amplify their output. This is neat, and makes sound seems as though is it – to a small extent – coming from inside your head. For better sound quality Glass also comes with a single earphone that plugs into the microUSB socket. 

Again: neat. But what is it really useful for? Calls. That’s about it. Not only does that not justify a £1000 spend, but (spoiler: wild generalisation) I find that the early adopter impulse tends to be inversely proportional to the amount of time people spend on the phone.

Then there’s the camera. A 5-megapixel camera sits on the front of Glass, and is capable of the kind of image quality you’d get from a reasonable entry-level phone. There’s a nice little bit of fad factor to this, and it adds to the headset’s app potential quite a bit. But I think it’s useless as an actual camera. 

If you have a decent phone, the camera will be far better, and half the time when I’m taking photos it ends up above my head, down by the ground – but rarely bang on at eye level. This is best thought of as an AR camera, not a ‘camera’ camera. 

Google Glass Review: Future Possibles

To say Google Glass is waiting for a killer app already feels like a bit of a cliché, but it’s largely true. There’s just about enough power on tap here to make it viable as well. Glass uses a dual-core Cortex-A9 CPU, of the Texas Instruments OMAP kind, with 2GB of RAM. Compared to phones, it can only vaguely compete with the puniest: think dual-core Snapdragon 200. But that’s still more power than currently seems to be utilized in Glass.

There’s more to come, apparently, too. What that is, however, nobody knows – and we’re yet to see any real flashes of genius released in the developer community to make Glass’s case, either. It’s the same issue faced by smartwatches, but squared because this ‘wearable’ sits in your face, and costs about four times as much.

Google Glass Review: Verdict

I'm glad Google Glass exists. It’s an interesting experiment in the new ways we can use and interact with technology, and for the most part it works. However, it does feel like something that has barely escaped from Google Labs –– something that’s still a way off a life as a viable, mainstream, commercial product. Perhaps devs will prove me wrong and come up with some use for Glass so mind-bogglingly brilliant that I’ll stump up the £1000 for a pair myself in three month’s time.

But for now it’s something to leave to the tech completionists and UI Dev pioneers. It’ll probably end up gathering dust in normal people’s cupboards before too long, so if you’re thinking about buying one, take heed of what’s been said here. I’m a normal guy that likes technology and I am not rich. The point of this review was to give an everyman’s perspective on an odd product that will soon be widely available to consumers in the UK. 

I’ve been interested in Glass since word first broke about the device many, many moons ago now. I couldn’t wait to try it out, grab myself a piece of the future. But – after testing it extensively for a week or so, I’m left with one simple conclusion: it’s an expensive proof of concept device that is cool, but utterly limited in its real-world applications. No one should cough up £1000 for this, not unless you have silly money to burn and a real desire to have the latest and greatest speculative technology in your possession. 

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  

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