Ratings in depth
The sci-fi-looking beta testers who wear Google Glass still turn heads and are peppered with questions a year after the first invites started rolling out to developers. How does it work? What does it feel like? And, of course the inevitable, well, can I try it?
The increasing number of Google Glass invitations being sent and a one-day sale open to everyone in the US has meant that tech-savvy early adopters can answer most of these questions on their own. But there's one query they're all still struggling with right now: is Google Glass worth it?
To answer that burning question, I turned a critical eye to Google's wearable computer and tested its Explorer Edition of Google Glass. With the sound of my voice, I took hands-free photos by saying "Okay Glass, take a picture." I instructed it to upload the resulting point-of-view image to Twitter and Facebook and attached a caption, all with voice commands.
I saw flight information automatically beam to my eye with a gentle Google Now reminder the day before traveling. The weather for both my departure and destination cities, and directions to the airport were already being provided by this instinctual software. All of this data appeared in the top right corner of my vision, all without the need to take out my smartphone.
Google made the complicated ownership decision easier thanks to the release of Google Glass 2, an updated version of its Explorer Edition heads-up display with an almost identical form factor. It includes new accessories and made prescription glasses attachment compatible with the frames. Moreover, new apps and updates to the linear operating system that weren't available at launch make this current Google Glass a tempting buy.
Still, this new Project Glass model is better at addition than subtraction. While features have been added the price hasn't dropped in a year. At $1,500 (about £897, AU$1,593) plus tax, Google's experimental wearable is exorbitantly priced for the average person. It's also best if you're an Android person.
Compatibility with the iPhone has improved thanks to the launch of an iOS MyGlass app, but text messages still don't forward to Glass and navigation requires MyGlass to be open, not in the background. All of these features are missing for Windows Phone 8 users entirely, though technically any Bluetooth phone can offer Glass tethered data with a personal hotspot enabled.
Google Glass is very much a prototype, even after twelve months of being in the hands and on the faces of tens of thousands of beta testers.
But that's partly why this out-of-reach, futuristic-looking curiosity is so fascinating, despite, or possibly because of the massive cost to your Google Wallet (that's actually how you have to pay for Google Glass). Peoples' mind=blown reaction, more so than snapping photos hands-free and getting directions that turn with your head, makes whomever is donning Google Glass a walking wonder.
How to get Google Glass
Google undoubtedly wants Glass in the hands of developers who will make the experience better, more so than curious individuals who want it for personal use. Therefore, those who qualify for developer status will have the best shot at Glass access.
The one exception to this is the April 15 one-day-only sale in which the company is throwing Project Glass into open enrollment for approximately 24 hours. This is the first time in which a beta code won't be required, but it's also a first come first serve process. The payoff is that it comes with free frames for prescription glasses or a free sunglasses shade attachment that typically costs $225 (about £135, AU$239).
Signing up for the normal Google Glass waitlist gave me access to an Explorer Edition beta code within a few months in November, while my friend who registered in December received an invite less than three weeks in January. That alone shows how much easier it is to receive an invitation today.
Strict rules still limit who can ultimately take advantage of the invite code and purchase a prototype. For example, you must be 18 years old and a US resident, so adults living in the UK and Australia aren't eligible just yet. These age and country-specific rules also apply to the open enrollment day.
Google Glass now ships to US addresses, though the company still encourages beta testers to pick it up in person at its New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles offices. LA, specifically Venice Beach, is where I went for my "fitting experience" with a friendly Glass guide named Frank.
The Google employee helped with my Google Glass unboxing, adjusted the nose pads, tweaked the delicate nose stems and shaped the malleable titanium head band until it didn't sit so crooked on my face.
Within ten minutes it looked perfect, or at least as perfect as one can appear with a wearable computer sitting on their face.
Though pliable, the titanium head band remains durable as it stretches from ear to ear. It runs alongside a plastic casing that hides Glass' key components and gives it an overall clean look. This subtle style makes the exposed parts like the camera lens in the front stand out even more - for better or worse.
Everyone's attention is also immediately drawn to the adjacent cube-shaped glass prism that sits above the right eye. It has a 640 x 360 resolution and hangs just out of the way of the wearer's line of sight. For the wearer, this personalized display acts as a much bigger screen, one that's equivalent to a 25-inch HDTV sitting eight feet away.
The Google Glass dimensions are 5.25-inches at its widest point and 8-inches at its longest point. It's too long and wide to fit into my pocket, even though I've been able to carry a Nexus 7 tablet in my jeans' back pocket with a little squeeze.
Society has banned fanny packs and the titanium head band doesn't collapse, so storage options are limited. When out and about it's either on my face or in the complementary case, which I stow in a backpack. There's no in-between.
The new Google Glass is almost indistinguishable from its predecessor, and the fact that it comes in the same colors doesn't help. The options are black, orange, gray, white and blue. Or, as the Glass guides insisted: charcoal, tangerine, shale, cotton and sky.
Charcoal and cotton, the two non-color colors, appear to be the most popular, as they were initially sold out when I first entered my invite code to buy Google Glass. Luckily, before my seven-day invite expired, both options became available and I chose white. The choice made online actually didn't matter until I got to the on-site appointment. I was given one last chance to switch colors during the moment of truth.
The glaring exception to Glass' svelte design is the battery that rests behind the right ear and juts out rather noticeably. It's too big, yet it's not big enough for a full day's charge. That's supposed to be fixed in the Android KitKat April 2014 update that was just pushed to all Google Glass devices.
Even with the bulkiness of the battery and durable frame, Google Glass is extremely lightweight and comfortable resting on my face. It weights just 42 grams (1.48 oz) and because everything, including the screen, is just out of my line of sight I often forget I'm wearing it.
At first, Google Glass did give me slight headaches as I strained my right eye to focus on the tiny prism in the top right corner of my vision. The team at the Venice headquarters did forewarn me about this, instructing me not to use Glass for more than a few hours the first couple of days. It's incredibly unnatural to have just one eye focus on a screen while the other goes without use, but my eyes and brain adjusted to the phenomenon to the point where it's intuitive.
Like a modern smartphone, there are few physical buttons and ports on Google Glass. That's because most of the interaction is done via a long 3.25-inch touchpad on the right side. Underneath the touchpad is a micro USB port for charging the device and on the top is a camera button that's great for quick snaps in noisy environments.
The most discreet button is tucked away on the inside on the touchpad and near the temple. Giving it a light press turns Google Glass on and powers up the all-important apps.