Google's New Camera Captures The Spontaneous Moments Your Phone Can't

Last October, Google released a suite of new devices, many of which had already been leaked in early reports. These included the adorable, macaron-shaped Google Home Mini, the Pixel 2 smartphone, and a stylish new laptop, Pixelbook.

But there was one big surprise among the bunch that had evaded the rumor mill: Google Clips. Clips is an incredibly light (less than half of a pound!) and thin hands-free camera that I was excited about the second I laid eyes on it. That's because Clips looks and works differently than almost every other camera out there.

At first, I thought Clips was Google's version of a GoPro — an on-the-go action camera. While you can certainly take the device on-the-go, it isn't meant to be used like a standard action camera, which requires you to carry or wear it while you're skiing down the slopes or surfing waves. Instead, Clips is supposed to capture what Google calls the "spontaneous moments" — the ones that happen too quickly and unexpectedly for you to be able to snap them with your smartphone or any kind of manual camera. It's primarily intended for use with pets and people, especially kids. This means that the camera — which, at $249, isn't inexpensive — won't be for everyone.

However, I was curious to see just how well it would capture the moments I was missing and what those moments were. Ahead, a full breakdown of everything you need to know when considering whether or not to buy Google Clips.

The Basics

Compared to many non-smartphone cameras, Clips is surprisingly easy to use. After a five-minute setup, which involves downloading the Google Clips app and pairing the device with your phone, you're good to go. When you want to turn the camera on, all you need to do is twist the lens clockwise; twisting it counterclockwise turns it off.

Lights, Camera, Action

Clips is not entirely intuitive and comes with a learning curve: I could see my parents or anyone over the age of 45 struggling to figure out what to do with it. That's because when you turn Clips on, it isn't recording everything you do. Instead, machine learning within the device looks for the best moments to record (think someone smiling or a dog jumping in mid-air) as a short, few-seconds long video clip. A small light to the right of the lens will turn on to indicate when the camera is actually recording something.

You have to trust Clips to do its thing, which, for anyone who's used to being in control of the shutter button on their smartphone or Go-Pro, isn't easy. There is a shutter button on the device, located directly below the lens, as well as one within the app, for those times when you want to be completely sure a moment is captured. However, if you want to be in the shot, and not on your phone, you'll want to ease off the button.

The more I used Clips, the more trusting I became, but it did take me a few tries to fully relax and relinquish control.

The Positioning

Like almost every camera, there are limitations to shooting with Clips. As I tried out different angles — a live preview within the app is useful for seeing how your clips will be framed — I found that the best ones when I placed the camera at about eye level with my subject. When playing with a terrier, this was a bit annoying, since I needed to find a surface that wasn't too high.

Clips comes with a rubber case that has an actual clip on the back, which you can use to prop the camera upright or attach it to the side of something, such as a standing picture frame or hardcover book jacket. However, I wouldn't advise clipping the device onto your shirt (even though it is light enough to do so), since you won't be in the frame.

You also don't want to be too far away from your subject. Google suggests 3 to 8 feet and I found that range worked best, although I tended to prefer shots that were taken towards the shorter end of that spectrum since I could see more of my subject without background distractions.

The Edit

To view your clips, open the app. If you're an iPhone user, you'll need to be connected to the camera to see them, meaning that you'll need the device nearby. (Android users don't need to have their phone connected to the camera to view clips). This is an issue Google says it's working on.

Your phone will then load any new clips, which you can swipe right to save to your phone's camera roll or left to delete. The device can hold a lot of video — with 27 clips, mine was only 2% full, so storage won't be an issue.

The best thing about the app is the edit feature you'll see when you tap on any of your clips. There is a lot of flexibility around what you can do with a single clip: You can save it as a still photo and choose any particular frame; you can also save it as GIF, an MP4 video, or a live photo. If you don't want the entire clip to be included, you can shorten it.

However, I did wish that I could save my Clip in multiple formats. Unfortunately, when you save a Clip to your camera roll, it's automatically deleted from the Clips app. This means that you can't go back to save a still or additional motion format from the app.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the clips captured: They often captured moments I wouldn't gotten on my own, including ones that showed the joy on my face when I was playing with the impossibly cute terrier; the terrier's face up close and personal with the lens; and some playful toy tug-of-war. Clips is also trained to look for good lighting and it shows: Even in an incredibly bright space, my clips still didn't look washed out.

Clips didn't always get things right: Sometimes it captured moments where I was only partially in the frame and looking off into the distance, or doing nothing interesting at all. I was hopeful that the machine learning in the device would detect these instances and not bother recording them, but that wasn't always the case. The app also has a feature called "suggested clips" that's supposed to make it easier to sort through the video captured and find the best moments of the bunch. These suggestions weren't always on point.

The Takeaway

If you are an animal lover who keeps a photo of your dog as your phone's background or your Nest cam onscreen at work so you can watch your cat, Clips is for you. The same goes for anyone with kids or nieces and nephews. It's an incredibly fun way to do what Google said: Capture spontaneous moments you wouldn't have otherwise shot.

However, the $249 price tag makes this more than just a spontaneous buy, and it's clear that Clips is still in the early stages of what it can do. So if you don't have a furry four-legged fellow, or a little one running around your house, it might be worth holding off until a future iteration or updates arrive.

Still, Clips is an exciting look at how companies like Google are thinking about integrating machine learning into our everyday lives in a way that is fun and unusual. For a visual generation of Instagram lovers, there's a lot of potential here.

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