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Google Clips review: a smart camera that doesn’t make the grade

Can you trust Google’s algorithms with your most precious moments?

Photography by James Bareham

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Picture this: you’re hanging out with your kids or pets and they spontaneously do something interesting or cute that you want to capture and preserve. But by the time you’ve gotten your phone out and its camera opened, the moment has passed and you’ve missed your opportunity to capture it.

That’s the main problem that Google is trying to solve with its new Clips camera, a $249 device available starting today that uses artificial intelligence to automatically capture important moments in your life. Google says it’s for all of the in-between moments you might miss when your phone or camera isn’t in your hand. It is meant to capture your toddler’s silly dance or your cat getting lost in an Amazon box without requiring you to take the picture. The other issue Google is trying to solve with Clips is letting you spend more time interacting with your kids directly, without having a phone or camera separating you, while still getting some photos.

That’s an appealing pitch to both parents and pet owners alike, and if the Clips camera system is able to accomplish its goal, it could be a must-have gadget for them. But if it fails, then it’s just another gadget that promises to make life easier, but requires more work and maintenance than it’s worth.

The problem for Google Clips is it just doesn’t work that well.

Before I get into how well Clips actually works, I need to discuss what it is and what exactly it’s doing because it really is unlike any camera you’ve used before.

At its core, the Clips camera is a hands-free automatic point-and-shoot camera that’s sort of like a GoPro, but considerably smaller and flatter. It has a cute, unassuming appearance that is instantly recognizable as a camera, or at least an icon of a camera app on your phone. Google, aware of how a “camera that automatically takes pictures when it sees you” is likely to be perceived, is clearly trying to make the Clips appear friendly, with its white-and-teal color scheme and obvious camera-like styling. But of those that I showed the camera to while explaining what it’s supposed to do, “it’s creepy” has been a common reaction.

One thing that I’ve discovered is that people know right away it’s a camera and react to it just like other any camera. That might mean avoiding its view when they see it, or, like in the case of my three-year-old, walking up to it and smiling or picking it up. That has made it tough to capture candids, since, for the Clips to really work, it needs to be close to its subject. Maybe over time, your family would learn to ignore it and those candid shots could happen, but in my couple weeks of testing, my family hasn’t acclimated to its presence.

Inside is what supposedly makes Clips special: it’s running Google’s people-detection algorithms to recognize familiar faces and “interesting” activity and then automatically capture moments that you might care about. But Clips isn’t recording video or sound; it’s technically shooting a bunch of still images, which it then stitches into seven-second “clips.” You can then edit those down or pull stills out of them with the Clips app on your phone. It’s basically making high-resolution GIFs out of the sequences of images.

The big button on the front of the camera can be used to manually take a photo (or “clip”), or you can use the app on your phone to see what the camera is viewing and take shots there. But the point of Clips is to let the camera and Google’s algorithms take pictures automatically so you can just enjoy your time and then look at the memories it captures later on.

You can adjust the frequency of captures in the Clips app, and you can also “train” it with people that matter to you by linking it with your Google Photos account. The Clips camera is supposed to learn the faces of important people by who it’s exposed to most often, but Google says the Photos data should speed this process along.

Camera specs are not the focus of Clips, but they impact how well the thing is able to accomplish its goal, so here they are. It has a fixed-focus f/2.4 lens with a 130-degree wide-angle field of view, a single button, and a few LEDs, but no display or user interface of its own. The camera connects to an iPhone, Google Pixel, or Samsung Galaxy S7 or S8 through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi direct to download the images it captures and control it. (You cannot connect it to a computer to download content at this time.)

The Clips’ camera sensor can capture 12-megapixel images at 15 frames per second, which it then saves to its 16GB of internal storage that’s good for about 1,400 seven-second clips. The battery lasts roughly three hours between charges.

Included with the camera is a silicone case that makes it easy to prop up almost anywhere or, yes, clip it to things. It’s not designed to be a body camera or to be worn. (Though you could do that, it will result in worse photos.) Instead, it’s meant to be placed in positions where it can capture you in the frame as well. There are other accessories you can buy, like a case that lets you mount the Clips camera to a tripod for more positioning options, but otherwise, using the Clips camera is as simple as turning it on and putting it where you want it.

Once the camera has captured a bunch of clips, you use the app to browse through them on your phone, edit them down to shorter versions, grab still images, or just save the whole thing to your phone’s storage for sharing and editing later. The Clips app is supposed to learn based on which clips you save and deem “important” and then prioritize capturing similar clips in the future. You can also hit a toggle to view “suggested” clips for saving, which is basically what the app thinks you’ll like out of the clips it has captured.

So how well does all of this help you capture the memories you otherwise wouldn’t be able to? Not well, unfortunately.

I’ve been testing the Clips with my two kids for the past couple of weeks, and while I appreciate Google’s mission for the product (seriously, anything that gets me to put my phone down more is appreciated), I can’t say I’m terribly impressed or happy with the results. Most of the clips I’ve been able to capture didn’t look better or feel more authentic than what I’m already able to do with my phone or a dedicated camera.

Part of that is due to the Clips camera hardware, which isn’t particularly good. (If you have one of the necessary phones needed to use the Clips, you already have a better camera there.) The images it captures are flat, grainy, and often have a lot of motion blur, especially indoors where I used it the most. The 15 fps animations don’t make for smooth video, and a lot of the time, I missed the sound that the Clips doesn’t capture. Trying to get a quality still from the sequence is equally frustrating, as, again, most of the images are full of motion blur; kids and pets tend to move around a lot, you know.

The Clips captures lack the wow factor needed to keep me using it

It’s bad enough that I think the poor image quality outweighs the novelty of the Clips entirely. The Clips captures lack any sort of wow factor — like the first time I saw Google Photos automatically assemble a GIF from a series of images I took or the first really great portrait mode photo from a smartphone.

The camera’s ultra-wide-angle field of view (it captures something similar to what a 10mm lens on a full-frame DSLR sees) makes it easy to position without a screen and be assured that you’ll get something in frame, but it’s bad for pictures of people, as it distorts facial features in an unflattering way. Likewise, anything near the sides of the frame is wildly distorted. Your subjects also have to be within roughly 10 feet of the camera, lest they be tiny in the resulting image. But the Clips’ fixed-focus lens has a range of about three feet to infinity, so nothing close to the camera is ever sharp. Even then, subjects within its range never really look sharp, either. That wouldn’t be an issue if the Clips was capturing heartwarming moments that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to get, but as I mentioned earlier, that hasn’t been the case in my experience.

Check out a few samples of Google Clips captures converted to GIF format below. (Note: the resolution of the GIFs are lower than the native resolution captured by the camera when using Google’s Motion Photos format. You can click here to see video and stills from the Clips camera.)

I can imagine that with more time and use, Clips could have serendipitously captured something truly special, but in a couple of weeks of testing, it didn’t. Really, the question is how much do you trust the Clips camera and its algorithms to capture the moments you’d otherwise miss? By default, Clips doesn’t take shots very often, but even when I tweaked its settings to increase its frequency, it was still very conservative with what it would capture. A lot of times, the seven-second burst wasn’t long enough to capture what was actually interesting, leaving me with a lot of half-finished, soundless video clips.

It’s hard to tell what the Clips is doing when it’s on as well. A single LED blinks when the camera is on and looking for action, but there’s no indication of when it’s actually taking a series of photos. If you push the button on the front, three LEDs will illuminate during the seven seconds it’s capturing photos, but that doesn’t happen for automatic captures. That left me wondering if the Clips was doing anything more often than not, which led me to open the app a lot to see if it had captured anything.

Google says that Clips is supposed to let you not worry about taking the photos and videos and enjoy your time with your family. But it also admits that putting Clips in one spot and leaving it there isn’t ideal either. (You really have to move it around and put it in different places and angles to get the best results.) At that point, I might as well just use my phone, since fiddling with the Clips camera to make sure it captures what I’m experiencing is just as distracting as using a phone to take a photo.

Lastly, when I take pictures and video with my phone, it’s already right there ready for me to edit and share. Though Google has gone through great efforts to make getting footage off the Clips camera as painless as possible, it’s still a process that involves waiting for the camera to sync with the phone app, sifting through the captured clips, and then moving them over to my phone before I can share them. I’d be willing to go through all of that if I was getting better results than I can capture with my phone (like when I use my mirrorless camera), but not for inferior photos and video.

Here’s Google’s response to my complaints with the Clips’ image quality and user experience:

I’m sure I could get better at using the Clips camera with practice — getting a better idea of its ultra-wide field of view, finding the best angles and positions for it, and so on — but I’m not convinced that the effort involved would be rewarded with great results. So far, I’ve been much happier taking pictures and moving images of my kids with the Motion Photo and Live Photos features that are already built into the camera apps on phones like the Pixel and iPhone.

Clips needs to offer more if it’s going to justify its price and hassle

That makes it tough to justify buying and using the Clips camera — beyond its cost, there’s also having to bring it along, making sure it’s charged, and then going through transferring its images to my phone — when I could just use the phone I already have and get better images and video without really feeling like I’m missing something the Clips would have captured.

Google’s definitely onto something here. The idea is an admirable first step toward a new kind of camera that doesn’t get between me and my kids. But first steps are tricky — ask any toddler! Usually, after you take your first step, you fall down. To stand back up, Google Clips needs to justify its price, the hassle of setting it up, and the fiddling between it and my phone. It needs to reassure me that by trusting it and putting my phone away, I won’t miss anything important, and I won’t be burdened by having to deal with a lot of banal captures. Otherwise, it’s just another redundant gadget that I have to invest too much time and effort into managing to get too little in return.

That’s a lot to ask of a tiny little camera, and this first version doesn’t quite get there. To live up to it all, Clips needs to be both a better camera and a smarter one.