I was listening to LCD Soundsystem the other day, and New York, I love you, but you're bringing me down somehow coalesced my feelings on Google's recent behavior. Dunno what happened there, but being well into a growler of Tofino Brewing's Hoppin Cretin IPA might have contributed. In any case, I'll take inspiration where I can get it.
Google, you're perfect, please don't change a thing.
If it weren't for you, we might have to use Bing.
Gmail captured my heart, and Android played a part.
If only I could, I would give you a ring.
I love Google. I really do. Its search engine has been a vital part of my Internet experience for what feels like forever. As far as I can tell, Google search remains the best way to find information on the web, especially since it's started spitting out knowledge along with links to third-party content.
Then there's Gmail, the slickest free webmail solution around. Gmail has been boss since back when it was an exclusive, invite-only club. I use it constantly for my personal and work correspondence on every computing device I own.
Android is my preferred platform for mobile devices. To me, it feels much more like a real operating system than iOS. I'll take basic freedoms like file management over the tightly controlled Apple experience any day. Android had some rough edges in its infancy, but it's improved dramatically over the past couple of years thanks to sensible optimizations and thoughtful updates. Speaking of which...
Google, I love you, but you're bringing me down.
I thought we were close, but that's all turned around.
Your KitKat may be sweet, still I fear we'll never meet.
Turns out my Nexus is too old for this round.
In the time that I've owned it, my Galaxy Nexus smartphone has become a faster, more capable device thanks to new Android releases. Google Now integration, combined with speech recognition for search, has made it much easier to get the information I want quickly and easily. Smaller tweaks have been welcomed, too, but Android 4.1's "Project Butter" optimizations take the cake. They made the whole UI much smoother and more responsive.
You can imagine my delight when Google revealed that Android 4.4 KitKat includes "Project Svelte" enhancements aimed at more efficient memory usage. The latest version of the OS is designed to improve performance on devices with as little as 512MB of RAM and to speed up multitasking for all. Such an update seems perfectly suited to the two-year-old Nexus. Google doesn't agree, however. Its KitKat FAQ says the Galaxy "falls outside of the 18-month update window when Google and others traditionally update devices."
What's the point of optimizing Android for less potent hardware if you're not going to bring older, less potent devices along for the ride? Cheaper handsets like the Moto G, probably. And wearables, I suspect.
As Google points out, its 18-month upgrade window is typical for the industry. And that's the problem. Google wasn't supposed to be like the others; it was supposed to be better. Nexus devices don't look quite as sweet when their ticket to OS updates expires 18 months after introduction. At least the ROM community might be able to pick up the slack.
Google, you're awesome, but you're cramping my style.
Your SD aversion has irked me for a while.
The Nexus 5 looks legit, and part of me lusts for it.
But 32 gigs are too few for my files.
Even with a limited OS upgrade path, Nexus devices are still pretty sweet. If only Google weren't allergic to equipping them with expandable storage. The official line is that Google wants to unify storage on a single volume. There are benefits to that approach, and the internal storage should be faster than the microSD alternative. However, Google has been negligent on the other side of the equation. All of its current Nexus devices top out at a measly 32GB. Meanwhile, the latest Apple devices are available with up to 64GB and in some cases 128GB of flash.
Flash chips have become smaller and prices have plummeted in recent years, so there's no excuse for skimping. Apps are only getting larger, especially games designed to take advantage of the latest hardware. Modern camera sensors pack ever more megapixels, expanding the footprint of the pictures we take and the videos we record. Meanwhile, high-PPI displays encourage us to consume media with the highest fidelity—and corresponding file size.
Cloud storage is supposed to bridge the gap, but that's an ugly compromise for all kinds of reasons. What if you have a limited data cap or a slow connection? What if you don't want your data floating around in the ether, where the NSA and others might be able to find out about your Nickelback bootleg collection? Being limited to 32GB of local storage is potentially crippling for both power users and folks with extensive media libraries.
Google, I love you, but you're bringing me down.
You've taken this smilie, turned it to a frown.
Maps that guided my life are now the cause of much strife.
What ever happened to holding my hand out of town?
Google Maps is in a class of its own. For some reason, though, Google seems intent on neutering the Android app. First, it obfuscated the process of caching maps locally, an essential feature for travelers who don't want to pay exorbitant roaming fees. Then, it removed My Maps functionality entirely, preventing carefully crafted maps from being accessed on mobile devices.
The Maps app has undergone some questionable UI changes, as well, although I'm not nearly as irate about those tweaks some of the recent reviews on Google Play. The lost functionality bothers me the most, in part because it makes me reluctant to depend on anything Google makes.
Google, you give and then you take away.
Yet it's hard to complain because I never pay.
Reader may be the worst, but it wasn't the first.
Why get attached if I don't know if you'll stay?
I never really got into Google Reader. When it was shuttered this summer, my life was largely unaffected. But I felt for the folks who had come to rely on the service to digest all of their feeds. Google gave them something they loved and then took it away.
iGoogle didn't stick, either, though it had a good run before being shut down at the beginning of the month. Google has ended other services, too, making me question whether one of my own favorites will be targeted in the next round of "spring cleaning." Since Google's products tend to be free, it's hard to complain too loudly when they're yanked. If only that lessened the feeling of loss.
Google, come on now, you're up in my grill.
I thought we were cool, I thought we were chill.
Now I get why there's plus, social network's a must.
But making me sign up... I swear I could kill.
When Google+ was introduced, I barely noticed. Everyone needed a social network because, um, Facebook, or something. Google's approach to sharing at least seemed to be more sensible than the status quo, but I never paid too much attention, mostly because I'm just not interested in social networking. Google was OK with that, at least for a while. Lately, it's been trying to jam Google+ down my throat.
Google+ first snuck into my life via Gmail, and it's now infected YouTube. Pretty soon, I wonder if any of the company's services will be accessible without a plus account. And for what? So Google can claim to have a bunch of active accounts owned by people who still prefer to hang out at Zuckerberg's house?
I know, I know. Other companies pull this kind of crap all the time. But Google+ was supposed to be the opt-in social network, and Google was supposed to be better than all this.
Adventures in left-handed mousing
And oh, just take me off your circles list.
That no one even knows exists.
No matter how much you insist.
Maybe I'm wrong. And maybe you're right.
And maybe I'm spoiled, and this is driven by spite.
Google, I love you, but you're bringing me down.
The little things add up, and then they start to drown.
I take all this for free, then make it about me.
But deep inside I feel like I've been clowned.
I'm right-handed. I use my dominant hand for everything from scrawling my name to hurling tennis balls for my dog to brushing my teeth. My right hand also spends an awful lot of time clutching my mouse. That wasn't a problem years ago, when I had the stamina to put in a full day working for TR and then spend hours in the evenings dealing out headshots in first-person shooters. But perhaps due to those marathon sessions, I've developed a bit of an RSI issue in my right shoulder. Recently, it's become difficult to make it through the day without some mousing-related discomfort, especially if I spend a lot of time in Excel. The twinge that manifests in my shoulder toward the end of my shift is painful enough that my freshly downloaded copy of Battlefield 4 remains unplayed.
Working less isn't really an option; there are news posts to write, articles to edit, and reviews to crank out. I could revamp my workstation, but my better half is an occupational therapist, and she tells me that my current setup is pretty close to ideal. The desk could be a bit lower—or the chair a little higher—but that's about it. Even if I got the height just right, I'd still be reaching to the right of the keyboard to use the mouse. That's the problem, she says.
My solution, at least for now, is switching hands.
Having done a fair amount of left-handed mousing after breaking my right ring finger last year, I'm no stranger to the off-hand approach. That initial foray involved moving my usual mouse, a Cyborg Gaming Rat 7, over the left side of the keyboard. The Rat worked in a pinch, but its asymmetrical body is a poor fit for lefties. The shape is all wrong, and the thumb buttons are on the opposite side. Pressing side buttons with one's pinkie is more than a little awkward.
My lefty stint with the Rat 7 taught me another important lesson: I'm pretty lousy with my non-dominant hand. I can move the pointer more or less where I want it within a reasonable amount of time, but forget about hitting a precise target with any semblance of speed. This dynamic was particularly frustrating when transitioning between simple desktop tasks and more detailed work like photo editing, which often requires pixel-perfect positioning. The Rat 7's on-the-fly sensitivity switch proved to be invaluable, allowing me to dial down the DPI to compensate for my lack of coordination.
With those memories fresh in my mind, I started looking for a suitable mouse—something with a thumb button on the right side and an easily accessible sensitivity switch. The selection of left-handed and ambidextrous mice is pretty limited, and most are uber-cheap models that lack premium features like DPI control. In the end, I settled on the SteelSeries Sensei Raw, which has an ambidextrous shell, buttons on both sides, and a high/low DPI switch just behind the scroll wheel. The Sensei is pretty affordable, too. Newegg sells it for only $48, which is less than the ambidextrous Razer alternative.
After a few days of using the Sensei, I'm already in love with its soft-touch exterior. The body is a little small for my tastes, but it's a big improvement over the Rat, at least for my left hand. The wheel and buttons feel solid, the braided cord is incredibly long, and the feet slide smoothly on my desk. Admittedly, the pulsing internal LEDs are a bit much for me, but there are options to tone down the brightness, swap the pulsing for a steady glow, and turn off the lights completely.
Configuring the Sensei for left-handed use is easy. The drivers switch the left and right buttons automatically, but the thumb buttons must be bound manually. That's easy enough, and thanks to built-in macro functionality, side-scrolling and other combos can be tied to any button. SteelSeries software also includes sliders for each of the dual sensitivity modes. The DPI can be set between 90 and 5760 DPI, which is plenty of range for my needs. There's more than enough granularity, too.
After a simple initial setup, integrating the Sensei into my daily routine has proven to be somewhat difficult. The problem isn't mousing with my left hand. Instead, it's simultaneously executing key combinations with my right.
Despite its dominant nature, my right hand is comically inept at hitting vital keyboard shortcuts for copy, cut, paste, and undo. Not only are those shortcuts on the wrong side of the keyboard, but they also feel backward when executed with my right hand. The same functions can be performed with mouse input alone, of course. I can also lift my hand off the mouse and punch Ctrl+whatever with my left hand. But both of those solutions are slower and less efficient than a tag-team approach, especially with my mousing hand already at a disadvantage.
On the flip side, I'm used to moving my right hand back and forth between the numpad and mouse when entering data into Excel. Using the numpad with my left had never felt natural, probably because it involved twisting my body or relocating the keyboard. With the mouse in my left hand, my right rests comfortably on the numpad, avoiding the side-to-side movement that aggravates my shoulder.
Speaking of which, mousing with my left hand has definitely dampened the RSI symptoms on my right side. I'm still using my right-handed mouse from time to time, usually when something needs to be done as quickly as possible, but balancing the load definitely helps. Just days after adding a lefty to my arsenal, my right shoulder already feels fresher.
Mousing with my left hand feels less awkward, too. My speed and accuracy seem to be improving with each day, and I'm finding that I have to concentrate less to get the cursor just where I want it. Movement that was once thoughtful is becoming more automatic. You won't find me gaming with a lefty stance anytime soon, though. I may become sufficiently productive on the desktop, but I doubt I'll ever be as deadly with my non-dominant hand.
The thing is, I don't have to be as good with my left hand. The more time I spend dual-wielding, the more I like the approach. I'm getting used to shifting high-priority tasks to my right hand and more casual mousing to my left. So far, I've been able to lighten the load on my shoulder without completely compromising my productivity. With some custom keyboard macros, I might even be able to get around my shortcut woes. Even if I don't, my days of one-handed mousing are definitely over.That's not a Steam console; it's a Steam PC
Slowly but surely, Valve's plans for Steam in the living room are coming into focus. On Monday, we learned about SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system that will stream games from local PCs. On Wednesday, Valve revealed that a range of SteamOS-powered machines will be available from different hardware vendors. Another announcement is scheduled for Friday morning. Details about a new kind of input device are expected.
I'm curious about what sort of controller Valve may have devised. Company chief Gabe Newell has expressed an interest in wearable devices before. Valve has also worked with the folks at Sixense, whose motion control tech can be found in the PlayStation Move and Razer Hydra. Steam machines will work with standard gamepads, though, so I've made up my mind already. There's definitely a Steam box in my future.
To be fair, that's not going to be much of a stretch. I already have a gaming PC hooked up to my TV. Throwing SteamOS on a rig should be easy, especially since the gaming-optimized OS will be free of charge. The SteamOS source code will be available, too. Open-source software gives me the same warm, fuzzy feeling I get when shopping at a farmer's market or eating quinoa.
SteamOS is also free to license. If the DIY approach isn't for you, there will be pre-built systems from multiple vendors, at multiple price points, and with varying levels of performance. Some of these machines will likely be inexpensive offerings designed mostly for indie games and less demanding titles. These systems will still be capable of streaming the latest blockbusters from a more powerful PC, though.
I can even envision more basic boxes designed primarily with streaming in mind. Nvidia's Project Shield handheld can stream PC games using an ARM-based Tegra4 SoC, and Nvidia has been collaborating with Valve on SteamOS. If the streaming tech is good enough, you could get by with a powerful desktop rig and a SteamOS-based extender for that system. Such a setup would be a lot more economical than maintaining a separate gaming PC for the living room.
At the other end of the spectrum, I expect high-end Steam machines will rival the best gaming PCs available right now. In fact, they may even surpass the fastest Windows boxes. Valve claims to have achieved "significant performance increases in graphics processing" on Linux, and it's working on optimizing audio and input latency. At least for native titles, SteamOS may offer a better experience than running the same games on Windows.
Just to be clear, Valve hasn't abandoned Windows. "Everything that we've been doing on Steam for the last 10 years will continue to move forward," the company says, and it will bring SteamOS's game streaming, media services, sharing options, and family profiles to the standard Steam client. You'll be able to install Windows on Steam machines, too—though presumably not on ARM-based variants, if such specimens do exist.
Some might view the range of Steam box possibilities as a fragmented nightmare. In some ways, it's the antithesis to the one-size-fits-all attitude that permeates the console industry. But I'm thrilled that we didn't get a single Steam console. We got something much better instead: a purpose-built platform to make PC gaming at home in the living room.
We shouldn't have expected anything less from Valve, which has long exploited the best things about the PC platform to the benefit of gamers. It harnessed the power of the Internet early, creating a digital distribution platform that fundamentally changed how most of us buy games. Steam got off to a rough start, and there are some who will always sneer at the fact that it incorporates DRM, but the service has become incredibly refined over the past decade. Nothing on the PC really compares right now, and Valve already has a Big Picture interface primed for big-screen TVs.
Another PC perk—and something you don't get with consoles—is a robust platform for content creation. Mods have long been a hallmark of PC gaming, and Valve has a history of supporting them. Heck, it even hired the folks behind Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, two of the most pivotal mods from back in the day. More recently, Valve created the Steam Workshop, an online marketplace for user-generated content. Creators get a cut of the proceeds, and Valve has already paid out over $10 million to people who have sold items through the Workshop.
If Valve can create an economy around Team Fortress 2 hats, just imagine what it could do with a content conduit for your television. Valve is already working with "many of the media services you know and love" to bring music, movies, and TV shows to Steam. It also has the systems and infrastructure in place to curate and distribute other forms of media itself. Hmmm.
Valve's engagement with the community isn't limited to fostering content development, of course. Steam has become a hub for gaming discussion, and it has a whole social networking aspect that Valve mercifully doesn't beat you over the head with. Then there's the Greenlight program, which gamers have a say in which titles appear on Steam's virtual shelves.
Now, Valve is bringing the community into the development process of SteamOS. 300 people will be lucky enough to receive the initial Steam box prototype. They'll be encouraged to share their experiences with the community in any way they see fit, and Valve has set up a discussion group to solicit feedback from the public at large. I get the feeling Valve is genuinely interested in what we have to say on the subject. That gives me another warm, fuzzy feeling.
Now, don't get me wrong. Valve's planned expansion of the so-called Steam Universe isn't all about giving PC gamers a perfect system to hook up to their televisions. It's also about making Steam the default distribution service for gaming on another set of screens—and for a potentially much larger audience. And I'm okay with that. Valve has earned the praise heaped upon it by gamers, and there's no one else to take PCs into the living room. You don't expect Microsoft to throw its weight behind anything that might compete with the Xbox, do you? Microsoft has been a poor custodian of PC gaming in general, and I trust the folks at Valve more than I do the minds in Redmond.
Well, I don't trust anyone at Valve who says anything about release dates. Or Half-Life 3. But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that SteamOS isn't part of an evil plan for world domination.
Important questions still remain about SteamOS and the machines designed for it:
Something tells me the next reveal won't provide answers to all those questions. But I'll be hitting F5 at 10AM Pacific Time tomorrow to find out, and I'll be downloading SteamOS as soon as it's available to try things out for myself. Hopefully, my optimism and enthusiasm haven't been misplaced.Tripping on microdoses of Dyad
I thought I'd be writing about Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon this week. The awesome-looking homage to 80s cheese is out, and there's a download code in my inbox. I've heard good things from people who have played, too. There's just one problem: Blood Dragon is apparently about eight hours long. That's great for a game that costs only $15, but it also means I'll have to do some juggling to find enough time to really sink my teeth into it.
As a gamer, the sad fact is I'm past my prime. A decade ago, I would play Battlefield 1942 with friends for eight-hour stretches in a single evening. I had fewer responsibilities and other hobbies back then, and I could get by on a lot less sleep. These days, I'm lucky if I can steal a few minutes here and an hour or two there. Staying up late to play just one more level can leave me zombified the next day. And, tragically, I'm somehow losing my ability to sleep in on the weekends.
I'm rambling more, too. So, moving on...
Gaming in shorter bursts has driven me to spend more time with simpler, arcade-style games. This largely indie-fueled genre has exploded recently, and it continues to produce polished gems at reasonable prices. The latest one on the PC is Dyad, a PlayStation 3 import that's finally made its way to Steam. Like Blood Dragon, Dyad is a visual feast peppered with the neon hues of the 80s. But that's where the similarities end.
Dyad plays like a cross between Audiosurf, Space Giraffe, and Rez HD—on acid. You pilot a glowing, squid-like avatar down a trippy, Technicolor tunnel tuned to the music. The faster you go, the more intense the music and visuals become. It feels like the dosage ramps up as you're sucked deeper into each psychedelic pipe.
The levels last only a few minutes, so you won't be in a trance for long. That's probably a good thing, because I'm not sure how much I actually blink while playing. Despite the bright visuals, it feels like my pupils are dilated to better gobble up all the eye candy.
Each level offers a different challenge based on a few key gameplay elements. You can hook onto enemies to increase your speed and create accelerating bridges between baddies of the same color. Grazing the perimeter of enemies builds up energy for lancing, which turns you into an invincible missile moving at warp speed. While there are slight variations on those themes, the game remains rooted in those basic mechanics.
Unless you're lancing, hitting enemies will slow you down abruptly, harshing the buzz until you can get back into the flow. And Dyad flows. The interplay between the graphics, the music, and the action makes the game incredibly engaging when you're on a roll. Playing isn't just a matter of mashing buttons to the beat, either. It pays to plan your moves carefully, injecting subtle strategy into an otherwise action-oriented experience.
In fits and spurts over the past couple weeks, I've managed to careen through a good chunk of Dyad's levels at least once. Getting a high enough score to move onto the next level hasn't been too difficult. There are plenty of additional challenges on tap, too. A trophy mode brings more goals to each level, and integrated leaderboards will tickle your competitive side. Achievements abound, of course.
If you'd rather just chill, a remix mode offers various toggles that affect how the game looks and behaves. Collisions can be disabled to eliminate speed bumps, and you can load yourself up with infinite energy for lancing—god mode and give all, basically. Combine those tweaks with a continuous play mode that extends the levels indefinitely, and you can sit back and enjoy an epic ride without being any good.
The music in Dyad nicely suits the feel of the game, but none of the background tracks have really stuck with me. You can't use your own songs, either. That's probably my biggest complaint, but perhaps I've been spoiled by Audiosurf's ability to turn any song into a new level. The visuals in Dyad are light years ahead of those in Audiosurf, though, and they play such a big role in pulling me in that I can live with the default soundtrack. I've yet to play a rhythm-infused game—indeed, any game—that's this hypnotic.
Something special happens when I get into a groove playing Dyad. The rest of the world melts away, my heart quickens, and my interactions with the game feel perfectly in sync. In those moments, Dyad is truly transcendent. I become one with it; the immersion is complete. And it's even more intense in a mind-altered state. Except, you know, stay away from drugs, kids.
Even if you're on the straight and narrow, Dyad is a treat. It's a great game to play from the couch, and it's well-integrated into Steam's Big Picture UI. You can also buy it on GOG if you prefer to be free from the shackles of DRM.
Perhaps best of all, Dyad doesn't seem to be terribly addictive. Playing one more level only takes a few minutes, and the rush is usually sufficient for me to walk away satisfied. I'll be back, of course, but I can stop anytime I want. I swear.Antichamber just blew my mind
I didn't know a whole lot about Antichamber when I started playing. That ignorance was intentional; after first laying eyes on last year's teaser trailer for the indie puzzle game, I decided it would be best to steer clear of reviews and other promotional materials. Some things are best experienced untainted by preconceived notions, and this looked like one of them.
Besides, the teaser revealed that Antichamber had already won all kinds of awards on the indie gaming circuit. That's usually a pretty good indicator a game doesn't suck.
After spending several evenings with Antichamber, I can confirm that all of the accolades are well-deserved. I cannot, however, say that I have a firm grasp of what's actually happening in the game. That's part of what makes the experience so compelling.
Antichamber starts abruptly, with no story or introduction to set the stage. There's no tutorial, either. You figure things out as you go along, aided only by cryptic hints scrawled on the walls. These illustrated clues provide vital insight into a game world unlike anything I've explored before.
The stark, largely black-and-white environments look like they've been pulled from M.C. Escher's sketchbook. They show a similar disdain for Euclidean space. The world is presented in three dimensions, but those dimensions don't always line up as one might expect. Corridors that should lead to the next room sometimes empty out right where you began—and without covering the necessary distance or making the turns required to actually loop around to your original position. Even the content of the world can change based on the speed of your movement and the direction you happen to be looking.
Want to navigate this surreal maze successfully? Be prepared to forget everything you think you know about how to play video games. Antichamber seems to delight in defying expectations. The scattered hints may seem vague and obtuse, but they make it pretty clear Antichamber shouldn't be approached like other games. At times, it feels like you're playing against yourself, battling habits reinforced by years spent in titles designed according to an entirely different rulebook.
Although Antichamber isn't a shooter, there are guns. These are used to solve puzzles by manipulating blocks of matter distributed throughout the world. I've managed to collect three of the four guns so far, and each one behaves differently. The game doesn't tell you how differently, of course, but it provides ample opportunity for you to make that determination yourself.
If my descriptions seem a bit hazy, that's because I'm trying to avoid saying too much. Antichamber's genius, at least for me, is how it lets players discover the world for themselves. The game doesn't unfurl before your eyes; you unwrap it, fold by fold, as if deconstructing an intricate piece of origami from the inside out.
While the process is often frustrating and confusing, the puzzles don't feel unfairly difficult. Players aren't really penalized for failure. It's impossible to die, as far as I can tell, and hitting the Escape key brings you to a sort of home room that allows instant warping to any location you've visited. One wall of this room contains all the hints encountered thus far, while another has a 90-minute countdown timer. Nothing happens when the time runs out, but I assume there's some kind of bonus for finishing within the limit. That may be the only achievement the game offers, since rewards aren't doled out for progression.
In a game like this, progression is the reward. I've felt deep satisfaction solving some of the puzzles and figuring out various mechanics. I've also felt incredibly stupid for not seeing some solutions earlier, especially since they were right there in front of me the whole time. Antichamber can be maddening when you're stuck, but getting unstuck is a liberating experience. You're freed not only from the shackles of the puzzle, but also from the preconceptions making the path forward—or not forward—so difficult to see.
So, yeah, mind blown. And I haven't even finished the thing yet.
The more I think about it, the more Antichamber reminds me of a low-grade magic mushroom trip. Or, ahem, so I've heard. I'm not talking about hallucinating roughly sketched surroundings with occasional splashes of vivid color, but about perceiving the world from an askew perspective that offers moments of genuine insight and inspiration. Playing Antichamber evokes a relaxing, almost meditative state, as the ambient soundtrack and overall design encourage calm contemplation.
At $20 on Steam, Antichamber is a little pricier than the average indie game—and more expensive than the psychoactive fungi I may or may not have ingested during my misspent youth. But there is real depth and brilliance here, even if the developer's methods feel just a little bit exploitative.Dispatches from the Nexus
This past summer, the power button my Palm Pre started misbehaving. At last, I had an excuse to replace the aging handset with something better. There were myriads of options, including the Samsung Galaxy S III, which was the new Android hotness at the time. I'd actually been testing the S III for an article I was working on, and my time with it ultimately guided me to a different model: Samsung's own Galaxy Nexus.
Yep. Several weeks with the latest and greatest smartphone prompted me to buy an older model released more than six months earlier. The primary reason? As a Nexus device, the Galaxy Nexus gets the latest OS releases right away. I'd watched Samsung's own Galaxy Tab languish with an older version of Android as I enjoyed the nice step up to Ice Cream Sandwich on my Asus Transformer tablet, and I didn't trust the Korean firm to deliver an update to the then-fresh Jelly Bean release with any sort of urgency.
And they were gonna TouchWiz all over it, anyway.
In the seven months since I picked up the Nexus, Google has rolled out several Android updates boasting new features and functionality. There have been lots of little tweaks and some fairly major additions, and I've been able to experience them all with little delay. But has the steady stream of updates made up for carrying around older and ultimately inferior handset hardware?
Mostly, it has. Here's why.
First came Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, my primary motivation for going with the Nexus in the first place. Most Galaxy S III owners are running that version of the OS now, but it took Samsung months to start rolling out the update. I'm glad I didn't have to wait for Jelly Bean's "Project Butter" responsiveness enhancements, which make interface navigation and animation noticeably faster and smoother than in older versions of the OS. Anyone who's ever picked up an iPhone can attest to the difference a snappy UI makes. Responsiveness is especially important on touchscreen devices that allow users to watch the interface move beneath their fingertips.
Jelly Bean's other big-ticket item is Google Now, which combines search with intelligent information aggregation. The aggregator is pretty slick, and I love that it automatically tracks sports scores for my favorite teams. The fact that it can scour my email for flight details and information on shipped packages is a nice touch, as well. If I actually had a commute, the traffic updates and time-to-home estimates would probably be invaluable.
Google Now has quirks, of course. The public transit feature is supposed to show relevant schedules when you're near a bus stop or train station, but it doesn't work reliably at the bus stops near my home. Those bus stops appear in Google Maps, complete with accurate schedules, so it's not like the data isn't floating around inside Google's servers.
If it hasn't been run in a while, Google Now can take a few seconds to populate the "cards" on which information is displayed. While not hugely annoying, it's a little frustrating for a feature dubbed Now.
Speech recognition is central to Google Now's search component. In short, it's awesome. The speech recognition engine can be configured to run locally, where it won't eat into your monthly data allowance, and it works very well for quick queries. It's also accurate enough to transcribe text messages, notes, and brief emails effectively. I probably use voice for more than half of my text input—and for nearly all of my searches.
Android 4.2 doesn't have a fancy code name, perhaps because the enhancements it brings aren't quite as dramatic. Some of them, like the gesture-infused keyboard, don't apply to me at all. (When I'm not using voice, SwiftKey is my input mechanism of choice.) Support for multiple user accounts is offered for tablets but not smartphones, which does nothing for my Galaxy but is useful for the Nexus 7 that my parents share.
I do like the settings shortcut panel that Android 4.2 added to the notification bar. While this is really a minor change, it's now easier to tweak things like the screen brightness, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Alarms can be accessed instantly, as well.
Speaking of alarms, I'm absolutely in love with Android 4.2's new clock. A lot of folks seem to be complaining about the redesign online, but I rather like the stylized interface. There's a certain elegance to its stark simplicity. Swiping to the right brings up a countdown timer, and swiping to the left produces a stopwatch. I use both of those extras several times a week at least, and it's nice to have them so well-integrated into the native clock.
If the clock is an odd thing to obsess over, then my intense appreciation for its alarm-programming interface is especially bizarre. Rather than flicking virtual wheels that look like they've been pulled out of a slot machine, you enter the digits on a pop-up numpad. This method is much faster and more precise—attributes I appreciate when groggily setting my alarm for the next morning. Plus, I'm getting sick of skeuomorphic interface elements that impersonate real-world objects.
One of the other controversial changes in Android 4.2 the ability to distribute widgets across multiple "panes" on the lock screen. Part of the problem is that Google adds two panes by default: swiping to the left brings up the camera, and swiping to the right reveals the "add a widget" button. The camera is a nice shortcut to have, but I've triggered it accidentally on numerous occasions when pulling the Galaxy out of my pocket. The fact that Android provides no way to disable this feature—or lock screen widgets at all—adds to the annoyance.
Third-party apps will let you nuke lock screen widgets entirely, including the camera shortcut, but I haven't bothered. I've become too attached to quickly swiping between panes that show the weather forecast, incoming text messages, and Google Now without having to punch in my unlock code. Thanks to Keep, Google's recently released note-taking app, I've actually maxed out the number of lock screen widgets supported by the OS.
Nothing displayed in any of the lock screen widgets I'm using is sensitive enough that I worry about the phone falling into the wrong hands. However, depending on the maturity of your social circle, you might want to be wary of friends surreptitiously snapping lewd pictures using the camera shortcut—not that the thought of doing so has ever crossed my mind. Never.
The Android 4.x updates have been joined by smaller 4.x.x releases that make small tweaks and address bugs introduced in previous versions. My Galaxy Nexus wasn't afflicted with any issues until the 4.2.2 update, which sent the Android OS process into a tizzy and cut my battery life by more than half. Apparently, that's not an uncommon problem. I was on vacation when it hit, and when I returned home a couple days later, the issue had mysteriously resolved itself. The Android OS process emerged from its funk, and battery life returned to normal. That brief hiccup is the only one I've encountered to date.
I didn't really have any expectations for what Google had planned for Android when I took the Nexus plunge, but I'm impressed with the OS updates that have trickled out thus far. While the releases haven't been revolutionary, they've made a lot of day-to-day tasks more efficient. They've also improved the ease with which pertinent information can extracted. I get the sense that Google wants to make Android more PDA-like, focusing on the smartphone's role as a personal digital assistant rather than as a pocket PC. That makes a lot of sense given my smartphone usage patterns, and it's the reason Nexus devices will be at the top of my list when this one eventually bites the dust.Smartphone forecast: Reflective, with a chance of water damage
Smartphones are true marvels of modern technology. Although inherently limited by their pocketable bodies, these portables have evolved far beyond the realm of cellular-equipped PDAs to become truly indispensable computing devices. They've got communications and navigation pretty much down pat. HD media consumption avenues abound, and the web has become increasingly friendly to smaller screens. A huge and indie-rich mobile gaming ecosystem has also popped up to serve what have become pretty decent gaming platforms.
Then there the apps. Oh the apps. The sheer number is unimportant, because most of them are crap. It's the fact that everyone I know seems to have found at least a few really good applications—or programs, or software, or however you'd like to refer to code executing on the device—that improve their day-to-day lives in meaningful ways. And let them waste more time on social media. Some folks even manage to produce bursts of real productivity thanks to improving cross-platform compatibility and cloud support. Meanwhile, smartphones have become most peoples' go-to camera, not only for stills, but also for video.
You don't have to be a nerd to appreciate this new breed of mobile computers. The fact that there's so much interest from people in the so-called mainstream is what makes the revolution such a meaningful one. Yet I still can't shake the notion that smartphones feel a little like that nerdy kid from high school.
You know the one I'm talking about, with the translucent skin and coke-bottle glasses. He's much older now, and his body has outgrown its pudgy, awkward youth. He's developed maturity, style, and even some sex appeal, the latter without the aid of Bar Refaeli. But he's still wilts under the blazing fireball in the sky. His deathly fear of water remains, too.
Sunlight sensitivity is perhaps the most depressing detriment to further smartphone evolution. Despite boasting amazing sharpness and rich colors indoors and under dark skies, modern screens look horribly pale and washed out in direct sunlight. They're still usable, of course, but there's no getting around the fact that backlit, reflective displays have issues with really bright environments.
The worst thing about this particular flaw is that there doesn't seem to be a technical silver bullet just yet. While the Kindle's paper-like display laughs at the sun, I don't think we want to go back to the monochrome color palette of late-90s Palm Pilots. Mirasol promised to combine e-ink readability with full color, and a limited run of at least one device actually came out based on the tech. However, Qualcomm has bailed on putting Mirasol into mass production and is looking for licensees. Someone else will have to figure out how to reduce the cost of commercialization, I guess.
Depressingly, there really isn't anything else waiting in the wings. Pixel Qi has some interesting technology, but it has for a while without any mass-market impact. Besides, the smallest screens the company makes still stretch seven inches across, too big for even one of those funky phablets.
Reflective LCDs (not to be confused with LCDs sitting under glossy, reflective outer layers) may be our greatest hope. Unfortunately, current prototypes are a long way from smartphone-ready. Not to be a Debbie Downer, but the outlook is pretty bleak.
Perhaps the best solution in the interim is the sort of thing Jeremy Clarkson might suggest. Moar power. Not to the rear wheels, mind you, but to the display's backlight. Fight fire with fire, or in this case, the immense power of the sun with an array of tiny LEDs. I don't like that match-up. However, I will admit that the Super IPS+ mode on some Asus tablets, which uses a backlight pumped up with more steroids than Mark McGwire in his prime, does improve outdoor readability. To a degree. Incremental improvements may be the best we can hope for in the near future.
Fortunately, we may to be better equipped to help smartphones with their reluctance to get wet. Living in the Pacific Northwest, where the sky is ripped open and rain pours through a gaping wound (thanks, Bono) for half the year, I'm far too often faced with the prospect of pulling out my precious portable computer in more than a gentle drizzle.
The seemingly innocuous water droplet is the Kryptonite of electronics devices of all shapes and sizes. Worse, smartphone makers have become incredibly adept at detecting when their products have been exposed to excessive moisture. The only thing worse than having a little red dot void your warranty is not having an expired contract to subsidize the cost of an ultimately pricey replacement.
Ruggedized smartphones that can be fully immersed in water do exist, but they're few and far between and often well behind the technology curve. Worse, they typically employ bulky shock-proof cases that look decidedly chunky next to the slim physiques of more fragile designs.
The full water-proofing of ruggedized handsets is probably overkill, anyway. Who needs to take his smartphone swimming? I'd settle for weather-proof rather than water-proof—surviving a few minutes in a heavy downpour would suffice. There's already a standardized IP Code of liquid protection ratings that spans eight degrees between dripping water and continuous immersion. A nice threshold would be level five, which demands that devices withstand being soaked by a targeted water jet that pumps out about 37 liters over a three-minute span. Heck, I'd settle for level four, which splashes 50 liters of water in five minutes.
Sufficiently water-resistant smartphones appear to be within our grasp. A company called Liquipel has already developed a process that applies a thin hydrophobic coating to existing smartphones. It costs only 60 bucks and is purportedly good enough to protect devices from "short-term submersion." HzO, another firm, has purportedly come up with a treatment that's applied during the manufacturing process and offers level-seven water protection, allowing for dives to a depth of one meter for half an hour.
The technology exists to allow the next generation of smartphones to outgrow their fear of downpours, seemingly without substantial sacrifice. That sort of weather-proofing might not be cheap, but neither is pursing arbitrarily thinner profiles and ever-faster performance, both of which have diminishing returns at this point.
Smartphones have become so compelling because they allow folks to bring competent computing devices with them. To really offer a good experience anywhere and anytime, though, handsets need to do a better job of dealing with the weather. It certainly looks feasible that the next generation may not need to be shielded from the rain. Too bad we'll likely have to keep shading the screens from the sun.
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