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Google upgrades Android, Chromecast, reveals new phones

At an event in San Francisco Tuesday, Google unveiled a number of new offerings that showcase both its capabilities as a software and hardware maker and its ability to capitalize on other companies' wares.

Along with two new Nexus phones running an updated version of Google's Android mobile operating system, CEO Sundar Pichai and his team showed off a new iteration of Chromecast, which streams content from computers or smartphones to television sets, and the Pixel C, a large tablet with a full keyboard, the first made entirely by Google.

Nexus phones and Android

Google is countering the release of Apple's latest iPhones with two devices running on a new version of Android software designed to steer and document even more of its users' lives.

Released last week, more than 13 million of the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus were sold during their first three days on the market, according to Apple, the strongest debut for the device yet.

Although iPhones tend to generate more excitement and longer lines when they are released, far more smartphones run on Android. More than 1.4 billion devices worldwide are now powered by Android, up from 1 billion a year ago, according to Google.

But almost all of the more than 4,000 devices that run the Android mobile operating system are made by other manufacturers -- Samsung, Motorola and HTC to name but a few -- that can tweak Android to suit their needs. Nexus phones are Google's very own and it unveiled two Tuesday: the Nexus 6P, built in collaboration with Huawei, and the Nexus 5X made with LG.

Dave Burke, Google's vice president of engineering, called Nexus "Android as we designed it."

He described the Nexus handsets as "the most advanced Android software built into innovative hardware built jointly by Google and our device partners."

The new Nexus phones are the first smartphones sold with an Android upgrade called "Marshmallow."

It features changes that will give expanded powers to Android's personal assistant, Google Now, so it can explore the information that people call up in the mobile applications.

Previously, Google Now learned about its users' interests and daily habits by analyzing search requests and scanning information contained in emails.

The Marshmallow version of Android enables users to summon Google Now to scan whatever content might be on a mobile device's screen so it can present pertinent information about the topic of a text, a song, a video clip or an article.

The new Android feature, called "Now on Tap," will be activated by holding down the device's home button or speaking, "OK Google," into the microphone. That action will prompt Now on Tap to scan the screen in an attempt to figure out how to be the most helpful. Or, if speaking, users can just say what they are seeking, such as "Who sings this?"

"In a multiscreen world, it is even more important for Google to do the hard work so the experience is simple and delightful for the users," Pichai said.

Apple's new operating system also has programmed the iPhone's Siri assistant to be more intuitive so it can anticipate what the user might want or need before being explicitly asked.

Google began taking pre-orders for the Nexus phones in the U.S., United Kingdom, Ireland and Japan on Tuesday with prices for the all-metal, 5.7-inch 6P starting at $499 and $379 for the 5.20-inch 5X with no commitment to a wireless contract required. They are expected to start shipping by mid-October.

The Nexus phones are undercutting Apple, which sells the iPhone 6s for $649 and the 6S Plus for $749 without a subsidy from a wireless carrier.

The Nexus phones also feature better cameras than previous models, matching similar upgrades that Apple just made to its iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. Like the iPhones, they can shoot in 4K resolution and offer slow motion video.

Though Nexus phones will launch with -- and therefore be the first to have -- Marshmallow, people who own an Android phone released in the past few years will receive the option to install a free upgrade beginning next week.

The debut of the latest Nexus phones underscores the steadily intensifying rivalry between Google and Apple as they duel for consumers' loyalty in the increasingly important mobile device market.

A few months after the release of Apple Music, Google matched Apple's streaming family plan option with its own for Google Play Music. Both are $14.99 a month for up to six users.

The battle also encompasses tablets and is starting to spill over into the living room as both companies introduce devices that help people watch Internet video on their TVs and listen to online music through their speakers.

Chromecast

Besides its Nexus phones, Google also began selling upgrades to its Wi-Fi-enabled Chromecast video-streaming device, which beams streaming content from apps on your computer, tablet or phone to your television.

The redesigned stick looks less like a typical USB thumbdrive and has a flexible HDMI connector that makes it easier to plug into crowded ports and easier to hide from view (though it's also now available in red and yellow, in addition to black).

A newly redesigned Chromecast app for both Android and iOS devices makes it easier to find which streaming services, such as Hulu or Netflix, are showing what you want to watch. A feature called Fast Play pre-loads app content as you search, for quicker playback startup with less buffering.

A new Chromecast model that can be plugged into speakers plays music from a phone or an Internet service through non-Internet-connected audio systems. The devices will sell for $35 apiece, the same price that Google has been charging for the original Chromecast, which has won over a lot of households.

Google disclosed Tuesday that more than 20 million of the Chromecast video devices have been sold since the gadget's debut two years ago.

Pixel C tablet

Google also provided a peek at a tablet called the Pixel C that is aimed at consumers and workers who want a device that can accommodate a lot of typing. The $499 tablet comes with a 10-inch display screen an attachable $149 keyboard that transforms the device into the equivalent of a laptop, when needed. Apple will begin selling a similar model of its pioneering iPad, the iPad Pro, with a 13-inch screen later this fall. Prices start at $799 for that iPad and $169 for the keyboard.