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Lightweight • Reliable wireless connection • Simple app

Unintuitive • AI does a bad job finding good moments • Lousy battery life • Pricey for what it does

Google Clips doesn’t deliver on its promise to automatically capture moments you care about with a camera you can set up and forget. You should forget it, alright: Avoid this pricey AI experiment at all costs.

When Google Clips debuted, there was widespread concern about its privacy implications. Here was a fun little camera, but its standout feature was that it took photos for you. Just plunk the thing down, and it would take photos of whatever was in front of it, using a combination of sensors and AI to determine when to take pics and which ones you might actually want to keep.

Wait a minute, said privacy advocates, isn’t this just fuel to the fire of our spreading surveillance state? What happens when these cameras — which we’re encouraged to set up and forget about — take pics that we don’t want taken? Sure, Google designed Clips to keep all the pics on-device until you connect your phone to the camera via Wi-Fi, but doesn’t the mere existence of such a camera condition us, and particularly young people, that constant surveillance is OK?

Well, those advocates needn’t have bothered. Google Clips isn’t worth the trouble. While it’s an interesting idea, the camera is terrible on executing on that idea.

In short, even by its own standards, Google Clips sucks.

Google Clips is one tiny camera.

Google Clips is one tiny camera.

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI/MASHABLE

I’ve been using Clips to capture various moments at home, at work, and on vacation for a few weeks now, and it so far has captured exactly one moment that I was genuinely happy to discover. That’s one great photo out of 320 — not exactly a good batting average.

On top of that, even though Google’s AI is supposed to minimize the garbage, I still found myself sifting through pics of ceilings, the bottom of my computer monitor, and other non-moments the camera captured while charging or just sitting face-up, forgotten about.

In fairness, Google admits Clips “won’t know a sunset from a surfboard.” But I guess that’s the point — if it can only detect faces and pets, how good can it really be?

One small, small step

The moment you take Google Clips out of the box, it makes an impression. The camera is a strikingly small — the size of a dental floss container, but with an inch-wide lens attached to the one side. There’s a button just under the lens, a circular cut-out that acts as a manual shutter. The only other accoutrements are the USB-C charging port on the bottom, the subtle “G” Google logo on the green-colored backside, and a tiny reset button on the bottom, next to the charging port.

Google sure loves that 'G' logo. The charging port is USB-C.

Google sure loves that ‘G’ logo. The charging port is USB-C.

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI/MASHABLE

Clips’ diminutive size, however, has a key weakness, that being battery life. The camera’s general premise is “set it and forget it,” which lends to, well, forgetting it. That means Clips has typically run down its battery by the time you remember to check it out, limiting the number of moments it can actually capture. It seemed like every time I returned to where I’d set it up, Clips was pulsing its amber light, crying out for a recharge.

Can we talk about the front-facing lights for a second? The camera has three circular lights, which are only visible when they’re lit. What do they mean? It’s hard to know. For some reason Google decided a pulsing white light would signal the camera is recording, going against a half-century of established color-coding by eschewing red (red actually indicates the camera needs a reboot).

You turn Clips on by twisting the lens.

You turn Clips on by twisting the lens.

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI/MASHABLE

All three lights get lit when Clips is charging, and they cycle through, all in a row, when you turn it on. The center light pulses white when you connect to the camera to your phone (it . There are a couple of other patterns, but they require a trip to the app’s Help section to decode.

The lights are symptomatic of the larger issue — that using Clips is unintuitive. There hasn’t been a camera this weird since the HTC Re, and a user will tolerate only so many WTF moments while they try to figure out the thing.

Google Clips outfitted with a Incipio case and tripod, both $14.99.

Google Clips outfitted with a Incipio case and tripod, both $14.99.

Image: Dustin Drankoski/Mashable

Clips propped up with the included cover

Clips propped up with the included cover

Image: DUSTIN DRANKOSKI/MASHABLE

Google includes a rubberized case in the box with, aptly, a clip on it. This isn’t to imply you should clip Clips to your shirt and use it like a lifelogging device — Google explicitly says this isn’t the intended use case — but it does let you attach it to, say, a slim monitor. And since the clip protrudes along the edge, you can turn it upside down to prop the camera up on a shelf or desktop.

Incipio also makes a tiny hard case and tripod specifically for Google Clips, and both cost about $15 via the Google Store. Google lent us one of each, in addition to the camera, to test Clips in more situations.

How Google Clips works

Like I mentioned, Google Clips is intended to be sort of like your own personal AI photographer. Set it down in a room, and it’ll capture moments when it detects something — a face, a pet, or some kind of movement — then recommend the “best” ones when you check them out in the app. There’s no microphone, so it does not capture audio.

The Google Clips app is mercifully simple. You can also use the app as a live viewscreen for the camera.

The Google Clips app is mercifully simple. You can also use the app as a live viewscreen for the camera.

There are fewer crappy pics when you flick this switch, but the you can't escape them.

There are fewer crappy pics when you flick this switch, but the you can’t escape them.

By “moments,” I mean Clips captures “live” photos by default, 7-second videos similar to the ones Apple’s iPhones take. Google has done a decent job of making its Photos platform (you can definitely see the influence in the design of the Clips app) compatible with Apple’s live pics. As you scroll through all the photos on the device, each comes alive for a second, reminding you of their cinemagraph potential.

A 7-second GIF created from a live photo captured by Google Clips.

A 7-second GIF created from a live photo captured by Google Clips.

I tried Clips in all kinds of environments: in the office, at home, where my kids play, and during a vacation. I even tried it out as a lifelogging device clipped to my sweater (with the full knowledge that wasn’t recommended).

In none of these situations did Clips excel. In fact, the one time it did an OK job of capturing sweet moments was during a playdate of my 5-year-old daughter’s, where I’d set the camera up in her room, and she and her friend spent some time mugging and generally being goofy for the camera. The only reason I got some fun photos was because they were hyper-aware of Clips, which is kind of the opposite of the situations it was meant to capture.

For all the other times and places I set up Clips, I got almost universally bad or mediocre photos. Don’t get me wrong: the pics were technically fine, as smartphone-like photos go — the white balance, shutter speed, and aperture all seemed great — but they were clearly taken by a robot that couldn’t tell a sunrise from a sunflower.

Prepare for going through dozens, if not hundreds, of shots like this before you find anything good from Google Clips.

Prepare for going through dozens, if not hundreds, of shots like this before you find anything good from Google Clips.

Although Google says Clips is guided by what it sees, most of the shots were borderline random. There’s a switch in the app that lets you view only a subset of the supposedly “best” photos, but even with that activated, the feed included odd moments of people sitting down on couches, close-ups of me picking up my phone, and poorly composed shots of my kids lining up for an exhibit at our local science center.

Lousy results, even for a robot

For the entire time I’ve used Clips, the best shot was probably this pensive shot of my wife in our living room. It’s very nice, but one unmissable moment from weeks of use isn’t great, even for a robot. You might say finding good photos on Clips is like finding good content on the internet — you have to sift through a lot of crap before you stumble on something great.

Not bad, Google Clips.

Not bad, Google Clips.

To be fair, Clips doesn’t purport to be as good as a human photographer. Google advises subjects should be 3-8 feet away, which is often not possible. The camera has a wide-angle lens precisely because it doesn’t know anything about composition or cropping. And it’s not the camera’s fault if you leave it turned on and pointed upward while charging.

Still, shouldn’t it know better than to include 13 photos almost exactly like this in its recommended pics?

This is a 'recommended' moment?

This is a ‘recommended’ moment?

I have to admire the ambition of Clips. It’s obviously the first step toward and AI-driven camera, which, down the road, could be pretty amazing. With refined decision-making and more tools (like recommended cropping), it might get closer to the photos a human might take.

In its current form, though, you’ll notice what Clips does wrong more than what it does right. It constantly frustrates, and almost never delights. That’s a recipe for a product you’ll be itching to return. 

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