This week, Google announced that Stadia, its game-streaming platform, is coming out November 19. Consequently, it’s time to sit down and think about whether or not you really want to buy in for Stadia’s launch day.
While the idea of playing games on any PC, phone, TV, or other device sounds like a dream come true, Stadia’s promise comes with many caveats, including the fact that you need to buy the Stadia Founder’s Pack to use it on your TV (if you aren’t planning to stream to a PC). Given that, I think it’s fair to say that deciding to buy into Stadia right now and deciding whether or not to buy a Founder’s Pack are basically the same question.
I can’t tell you if Stadia’s going to be right for you or not, but it seems like a good time to go over all the things you may not know about if you’ve only heard the elevator pitch, so you can decide whether or not go put some money down on a Founder’s Pack bundle.
Hold on: Why do I need the Founder’s Pack to play on my TV?
The idea behind Google Stadia is that players can hook up a controller to any screen they own and start playing games through the platform. When Stadia launches next month, that will not be the case. You will be able to play games on Mac and Windows PCs, through Chrome; Google Pixel 3 and 3A phones; Chrome OS devices; and Google’s 4K-compatible Chromecast Ultra streaming device.
This means the only ways to link Stadia to your TV, the home base of console gaming, is to get a Chromecast Ultra, which comes with the Founder’s Pack, or hook up your PC to your TV.
Even if you have a Chromecast Ultra, you will also need the Google Stadia controller to play Stadia games on it. This wasn’t always clear, but a Google community manager recently confirmed this on Reddit.
So, you need the Chromecast Ultra and the Stadia controller, at least at launch. Since the Stadia controller is $69 on its own, and the Chromecast Ultra is $69, most people will be best served buying the Founder’s Pack, which costs $9 dollars less than the two combined, and gets you a few months of the service and some other goodies.
But what if I don’t plan to play Stadia on my TV?
Even though your TV is most likely the largest (and best) screen in your home for gaming, you can also stream Stadia games to your phone (if you have a Pixel 3 or 3A) or computer.
However, playing games on these platforms comes with some strings attached. (Literally, in some cases.) Google recently revealed that the Stadia controller will only work wirelessly with Chromecast Ultra at launch, not other devices. This means you’ll have to plug it in to play on PC and the Pixel 3. Now, you can sync up different gamepads to go wireless on other devices, but Google has said that non-Stadia controllers will create extra input lag at launch. I haven’t tried it yet so I can’t say whether or not that’s a dealbreaker, but it could be.
To me, the inability to play wirelessly is only an issue on a phone. Most of us sit close enough to our computers that a wire won’t be a bother—a bigger issue on a smartphone screen, at least. Luckily, this problem is out of most players’ hands at the moment because Stadia only works on a few Google-specific phones.
Fine. I get it. What’s in the Founder’s Pack?
For $129, the Stadia Founder’s Pack includes a Chromecast Ultra, a Google Stadia controller, and three months of Stadia Pro, which you also need to use the service. Stadia Pro, like Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation+, includes some free games, and players will get Destiny 2 and all of its expansions on launch day. You also get a gift card that allows you to give three months of Stadia Pro to a friend.
When you buy the Founder’s Pack, you’ll be able to sign in and reserve your username right away, which may or may not matter to you if you have a handle you like to use across lots of platforms.
When you price it out, the Stadia Founder’s Pack isn’t a bad deal. $69 for the controller, $69 for the Chromecast, plus $60 for two three-month subscriptions is well over the asking price. But the reason why you need the Founder’s Pack if you want use Stadia at launch is that each of these components is more or less required to get the platform up and running in the best possible condition. And that’s assuming your broadband is good enough to run Stadia, which isn’t a given.
OK…wait. Is Stadia going to work?
We’ve finally arrived at the million-dollar question. As I said at the top, Stadia seems to come with a lot of caveats at launch. Based on what Google has said, it sounds like many of these compromises and conditions will fall away over the course of 2020. There’s no doubt in my mind that Google will get Stadia to run on all phones and, over time, I expect they’ll find ways to get it running on TVs directly or using other devices.
I certainly hope Google solves all of Stadia’s wonkiness with both its controller and third-party gamepads. Also, Google’s said it will eventually open up a free-tier of Stadia that does not require you to pay $9.99 per month, which will make the service much easier to try without forcing gamers to invest in a new platform. (Once the free tier is out, the Pro tier will enable certain high-level features like 4K and surround sound support, and it’ll give you a free game each month.)
I’ve been referring to November 19 as Stadia’s launch date because that’s technically the truth, but it’s better to think of it as Stadia going into beta or “early access.” If I were to guess, I’d say the service won’t reach its peak until at least a year from now. For suckers early adopters like me, it may be worth it to check Stadia out, because it’s weird, new, and half-baked. However, if you’re in it for the convenience, I think you’ll want to take a hard look at how you plan to use Stadia before you buy in.
Update 10/17/2019, at 5:45pm: We’ve updated this post to reflect the fact that the a la carte cost of the Stadia controller and Chromecast Ultra add up to more than the cost of the Stadia Founder’s Pack, not less.
Google Stadia’s vice president of engineering Madj Bakar reportedly told Edge that the company’s upcoming cloud streaming game console will have “negative latency,” predicting player button presses to reduce lag.
“Ultimately, we think in a year or two we’ll have games that are running faster and feel more responsive in the cloud than they do locally regardless of how powerful the local machine is,” Bakar said.
Subscriptions are all the rage, and it’s easy to see why. Everyone loves a “buffet” model for content—see Netflix, et al—where you can just pay a single reasonable monthly fee for unlimited access to a body of stuff you’re interested in, be it documentaries, 90s-era TV shows, or (now) apps.
You’ll soon be able to subscribe to major services from Apple and Google, which will let you pay a single monthly fee to access lots of apps that would normally cost you money to buy or subscribe to individually. And these services—at least, Apple’s so far—will also let you play games that you won’t find on competing smartphone platforms.
Neither Apple nor Google have spilled the full details of their services yet. (Heck, Google is just starting to test its own offering, Google Play Pass.) With the smartphone wars getting ready to heat up again this fall, both offerings are incredibly compelling reasons to pick one platform over the other. But which do you go with? Let’s examine everything we know about these subscription services so far:
When Apple Arcade debuts—possibly alongside the expected September release of iOS 13, but potentially as late as November—it’ll (obviously) be geared for games, not apps.
Apple hasn’t announced pricing for the service, but I’d expect eager gamers will have to cough up at least $10 monthly for the pass. That’s comparable to what Apple charges for Apple News+, and it would put the subscription service right in the middle of competing entertainment services like the slightly more expensive Netflix; Google’s Statia streaming service and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass service (just for consoles); or the slightly discounted Hulu, Disney+, or PlayStation Now services.
Since Apple is big on services nowadays, as they represent roughly twenty percent of the company’s revenue and offering some slight relief for slowing iPhone sales, a $10 monthly subscription fee feels right. Any higher, and I’m not sure an overwhelming number of gamers will be very inclined to pay $15 for smartphone games—no matter how interesting or exclusive they are—when they can have a more compelling subscription service in front of their TVs.
Similarly, I doubt you’ll see this service priced at $5; Apple wants more revenue than that, and it also wants to establish Apple Arcade as a premium product. From a marketing standpoint, a mere five bucks a month doesn’t make the service appear all that fancy, even if it would be a great deal for smartphone gamers.
Above all else, the most compelling reason to pick up Apple Arcade—beyond the list of games, which I’ll get to in a second—is that these titles will be free of bullshit mechanics like in-app purchases to bypass progress, annoying timers that gate your gameplay, or irritating video advertising. If you’re tired of seeing these in every title you play, maybe $10 a month (or whatever) doesn’t sound so bad after all, especially when game developers start designing exclusively for this kind of a setup instead of stripping free-to-play titles of annoyances and relanching them in Apple Arcade.
As for the games themselves, here’s the list of Apple Arcade titles the company has confirmed so far, courtesy of Macworld:
Atone: Heart of the Elder Tree
Beyond a Steel Sky
Down in Bermuda
Enter The Construct
Frogger in Toy Town
Kings of the Castle
No Way Home
Oceanhorn 2: Knights of the Lost Realm
Projection: First Light
Sayonara Wild Hearts
The Artful Escape
The Bradwell Conspiracy
UFO on Tape: First Contact
Where Cards Fall
There’s no word yet on which ones are exclusive titles, if any. And this isn’t the final list, either; expect to see around 100 games or so arrive with Apple Arcade’s official launch.
Google Play Pass
We just heard that Google started testing its own app subscription service today, so we’re still ironing out all of the details. First, and most importantly, note the use of the word “app” instead of “game.” That’s intentional, as Google Play Pass will give you access to a lot more than just games on your device. According to Google’s description of the service, which a tester sent along to Android Police:
“Explore a curated catalog spanning puzzle games to premium music apps and everything in between. From action hits to puzzles and fitness trackers, with Google Play Pass you unlock access to hundreds of premium apps and games without ads, download fees or in-app purchases”
While we don’t have a full list of apps or games on the service, or even the ones Google is initially testing, a cursory look at some of the app icons in Android Police’s screenshots indicates that Google appears to be unlocking access to titles you can already find within Google Play: games like Stardew Valley, Terraria, and Monument Valley, for example.
These are also all titles that also exist on iOS, so it appears that Google is focusing a little less on the exclusivity of its subscription service. I would still expect Google to have some Android- or Play-Pass-only apps and games to entice people to sign up. At the very least, I’m sure there will be some exclusive deal or two that brings an incredibly popular app under Google Pass (crossing my fingers for Spotify, even though that’ll never happen).
As for the price, Google’s early test lists the Play Pass at a mere $5/month—an incredible value that basically means you’re paying the equivalent of one high-quality app or game a month for access to a lot, lot more. That feels like a reasonable purchase for most people. Heck, that’s one-and-a-half Stardew Valleys (a game you will already sink way too many hours into if you get hooked).
That’s not saying that Google (or Apple) charging $10/month for a subscription service would be out of the question. The actual difference between $5 and $10 a month is minimal—just another coffee—but the perception of that difference is huge. I know I’d be a lot more amenable to paying $5 for a subscription service that grants me full access to apps and games without any IAPs, advertising, or other annoyances.
Consider waiting on these services before you make that next big smartphone purchase
Were I on the fence about going Android or Apple for my next smartphone, Google’s cheaper subscription service could be a pretty compelling argument to hop over to a new Samsung or the upcoming Pixel 4. If you’re a big gamer, though, the exclusivity of Apple’s Arcade could be similarly enticing.
Can we make up your mind for you? Likely not. I’d definitely make it a point to check on the status of both services before I pick up a new smartphone this fall. And I would even recommend postponing that purchase to see if a competing platform’s subscription service offers a killer deal for your favorite apps or the games you’re most interested in playing.
The battle for your subscription dollars is just starting up. Unless you’re a loyalist to Android or iOS, you should wait until the dust clears a little bit before you pick a side—you might be able to save some serious cash for your apps and games, even with that monthly subscription fee.
At about this time next year, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what the next generation of video games will look like. New consoles will likely be shown off, bold new streaming initiatives will begin to launch, and we’ll see all the wonderful kinds of games they will bring us. All these new things will come, and we’ll close the book on a generation that saw the industry that makes games come under greater scrutiny than ever before, as studios shuttered, developers burned out, and toxic work culture fostered environments hostile to marginalized people.
These are not problems that have been resolved, but the wheels of the games industry keep turning, in spite of the strain. So how much bigger can video games get? Video games are only getting more costly, in more ways than one. And it doesn’t seem like they’re sustainable.
That’s only the start of it. When you adjust for inflation, the retail cost of video games has never been cheaper, and it’s been this way for some time. The $60 price point for a standard big-budget release has held steady for nearly 15 years, unadjusted for inflation even as the cost to make big-budget video games has risen astronomically with player expectations. (Here’s some math that gives you an idea of just how absurdly expensive games are to make.)
Since changing the price point seems to be anathema, we’ve seen the industry attempt to compensate with all manner of alternatives: higher-priced collector’s editions, live service games that offer annual passes or regular expansions a la Destiny, microtransactions, and free-to-play games. Then you have loot boxes, which in many cases boil down to slot machine-style gambling inserted into retail and free-to-play games alike—something that is coming under increased legal scrutiny that might potentially cut off what has quickly become a major source of revenue in the industry.
These aren’t all necessarily responses to thinning profit margins in the face of rising inflation. Game publishers are often publicly-held companies, with investors that need to be shown endlessly increasing profits that are then used to justify ridiculously large executive paychecks. Perhaps that’s a problem that needs solving, too.
Because of all this, $60 is often just the minimum buy-in, the ante in the pot, for some of the biggest releases. If you want every character in a game’s roster, or every map in its playlists, you’ll have to pay more, and increasingly, you have to. Big-budget single-player games that deliver a single-serving experience with minimal strings attached have largely disappeared from the lineups of major third-party publishers.
Let’s run down the Big Three. We’re more than halfway through 2019, and Electronic Arts has only published one single-player game, the indie Sea of Solitude. Last year was much the same, with two indies as its only single-player releases: Fe and Unraveled 2. Activision’s portfolio of single-player games looks even thinner: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the only exclusively single-player, non-remake game that the publisher has released since 2015’s Transformers: Devastation—which itself is no longer available, thanks to an expired licensing agreement.
Ubisoft is an exception, regularly releasing entries in single-player game franchises like Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed. But it buttresses them aggressive microtransactions and extensive season pass plans. (And the occasional diversion like Trials Rising and South Park: The Fractured But Whole.) The big-budget single-player experience is now almost entirely the domain of first-party studios making marquee games for console manufacturers, which bankroll games like Spider-Man and God of War. The economics of first-party exclusives are totally different—they’re less about making money by themselves and more about drawing players into the console’s ecosystem.
This is worth considering, because as big publishers prioritize live, service-oriented games, the number of games on their schedules has dropped. If you look at the Wikipedia listings for EA, Ubisoft, and Activision games released by year, you’ll get a stark—if unscientific—picture of how each big publisher’s release slate has thinned out in the last five years, relying on recurring cash cows like sports games and annualized franchises and little else. In 2008, those three publishers released 98 games; in 2018 they released just 28, not including expansions.
In short, the single-player game was not sustainable. So why should we think the current model is?
The smaller release slates make for a precipitous state of affairs where too much is riding on too little, a shaky foundation for big-budget game development to rest on. Granted, there are other publishers, like those in Japan, that are still very interested in single-player games. Independent games have also filled the single-player void and achieved greater visibility than ever before. But each of these alternatives face their own challenges in a volatile market, one where just five years ago conventional wisdom held the Japanese games industry was dead. Independent developers, meanwhile, continue to fight for the smallest slice of an impossibly crowded market. No matter where you sit on the games industry ladder, stability remains elusive.
That’s the present of video games. Let’s talk about the future. The intersecting trends of games-as-a-service and the increased emphasis on streaming mean an increased reliance on off-site computing with data centers and server farms distributed across the globe.
Microsoft’s Project xCloud wants to use the company’s data centers to provide high-end console and PC gaming to anyone with a good enough internet connection. Google Stadia is a service that pitches something similar if not even more wide-reaching, angling for the big-budget video game experience in a web browser. And Sony already offers a streaming service, PlayStation Now, which is likely to expand in the next generation.
A 2016 study from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory gives us an idea of the sort of things to consider in this arena. The outlook gives reasons to both be alarmed and also be hopeful.
The foremost takeaway is that while data centers are growing in number, their energy consumption is starting to plateau out of necessity, as the dramatic increase in cloud computing has actually forced tech companies to become more efficient. The biggest companies, according to the Berkeley Lab report, are actually remarkably efficient.
Data center efficiency is measured by power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating. PUE is found by measuring a facility’s total power delivered divided by the power used by its IT equipment. Under this rating, the platonic ideal is a PUE of 1.0: power input and output perfectly balanced. Google, then, is in pretty good shape as far as this standard goes, with the average PUE of all its data centers currently at 1.11.
Efficiency, however, can remain good as power consumption increases, and consumption is going to remain a problem.
Data center energy consumption has been a concern for some time now, particularly in the United States, where data center energy consumption dwarfs that of the rest of the world at 1.8 percent of all energy used in the countrySmaller data centers, which estimates say make up 60 percent of data center energy-use, are inefficient compared to the biggest players, and with no legal standard or universal benchmark, there’s no way to ensure that efficiency gap is closed.
Making this problem even more dire is our current political climate, where developing sources of clean, renewable energy is an idea met with hostility by countries like the United States throwing their weight behind fossil fuels, even outside of its own borders. That doesn’t even account for the ways games contribute to the world’s electronic waste problem. E-waste is toxic, and only 40 percent of it is properly recycled.
And all that is before you even start to think about climate change, and the urgent action needed to avert a major crisis in our lifetime.
Video games cannot do this forever. If any of these things were to collapse—the people who make them, the economy they’re sold in, the ecosystem we’re all a part of—it would be catastrophic. All of them at once? That’s a disaster we need to talk about, openly. Because there are solutions to these problems.
Some of them are small, like making sure you know how to properly dispose of e-waste, should you need to throw out a busted console or peripheral, and doing what you can to live sustainably, even though climate change certainly requires the sort of large-scale action that only governments can enact To that end, you can take more involved action, like calling your local congressperson or government representative and asking if climate change and environmental concerns are on their agenda, and keeping apprised of any legislation up for voting in local elections.
Other solutions are harder to parse. How do we account for the data center sprawl of tech companies and their energy consumption? Is it ethically sound to use a service like Project xCloud or Google Stadia or Playstation Now, knowing all this? Should we push for a global green tech agreement of some kind, so companies that contribute to server sprawl and energy consumption do so in a sustainable way? A carbon tax seems like a good start, but this is a problem in need of many answers, not one.
Some solutions are thankfully, underway. Labor practices have come under scrutiny and developers are beginning to discuss organizing in earnest. Unionization is not going to solve every problem, but it can lead to meaningful progress in a lot of ways that trickle outward into other arenas. More equitable practices can mean the relentless pace of development is slowed down, which could make for fewer, better games and a course correction in supply and demand. Or it might only make things marginally better.
Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all have stated sustainability initiatives and reports, but these programs are all buried in corporate sites and paperwork—a better approach would be to make sustainability as big a talking point as load times or ray-tracing. Something we could look at and compare to the previous year, and make note of how better off we are.
These are big, insurmountable seeming problems, but like all incredibly big projects—like, say, game development—they’re things that can be done, slowly, a little bit at a time. We just have to start.
It’s unlikely that video games will ever truly go extinct. We’ll probably always have something called “video games,” but what those games will look like is still very much in flux. There’s no guarantee that the way games are currently made will remain viable for another 10 years—games aren’t even made today the same way they were 10 years ago. They will look different. They will change because they can, and because they must. Hopefully, all the ways games change will be on our terms—otherwise disaster will change them for us.
Baby names are important. If you need suggestions, you can always try Google. Or, as one Indonesian family did, you can skip the looking on Google and just name your kid after it.
The Jakarta Post (via AsiaOne) reports that parents Ella Karina and Andi Cahya Saputra decided to name their son “Google.” Ella was originally against her husband’s idea, only referring to her son as “baby boy” during the first few months after birth, but eventually warmed up to the name.
“I hope my son will be a leader who leads many people, who is useful to many others,” Ella told news site Kompas (via Coconuts).
“When I read comments on social media, oh my God, was I that low? Some even said [I named my son Google] to get financial compensation, or that my son would be recruited by Google in the future, or gets his schooling paid for by Google,” said father Andi. “I said ‘Amen’ to positive messages, because I try to think positively.”
People name their kids after cities and famous characters, so why not multi-national corporations?
As Coconuts points out, babies named after companies or products like Go-Pay or Pajero Sport have received gifts from the companies. The same is true for Google. According to The Jakarta Post, Google Indonesia apparently sent along some baby presents, such as a jumper emblazoned with “Google.”
“Google Indonesia called us,” Ella said. “They expressed congratulations and wished that baby Google could grow up to be a helpful and useful person to many others.”
I do have one piece of advice to the young boy: Don’t be evil.
Picking a smartphone to accompany you through life isn’t just about choosing between iOS and Android: It’s also about deciding which apps you’re going to pick for your emails, your driving directions, your music and so on. Having used both sets of native apps for years at this point, here’s our definitive verdict on the state of play in 2019.
For the sake of brevity, we’re going to focus on the iOS experience for the Apple apps and the Android experience for the Google apps. Though they don’t stand alone. Google’s apps are all available on both iOS and Android and it is much better at building web apps to accompany their mobile version. Apple lacks broader support but promises to hold a much tighter rein on your privacy.
These extra factors will play into your decision about which apps you’re going to use but we’ll save those discussions for another day. Here we’ll look specifically at what the user experience and feature set is like for each app on its native platform.
Apple Mail vs Gmail
It’s hard to see past Gmail here, with its slick sorting algorithms, modern-looking interface, intuitive use of labels, inline attachment previews and more besides. Gmail is full of useful features, like the option to only receive notifications for emails that Google’s algorithms deem to be important to you (Apple Mail has a sort-of manual equivalent with its VIP lists).
Apple Mail is by no means terrible—both apps let you manage multiple accounts with relative ease, group conversations into threads, swipe through your inbox to archive messages, and generally get your inbox business done—but there’s a reason a lot of third-party apps have tried to improve the emailing situation on iOS.
From scheduling emails to go at a certain time to snoozing conversations until later, Gmail has more features, as well as implementing most of the basics (such as adding attachments) in a smarter way. Plus, the searching and sorting are lightning fast, as you would expect from Gmail.
And the winner is… Gmail
Apple Maps vs Google Maps
All joking aside, Apple Maps is getting better than it used to be—hey it’s getting Street View in September—but that seven-year head start Google Maps has had is still showing. It has quite an extensive list of features that Apple Maps doesn’t, including cycling directions, multi-stop navigation, and manual offline map downloads if you know you’re going to be without an internet connection ahead of time.
Aesthetically there’s not much to choose between the two—greens and blues and browns abound—and they’re both fast to load and responsive. It’s difficult for us to compare the mapping data between these two apps across the entire planet, though both Apple and Google are heavily investing in this. Chances are one works better than the other in your part of the world, and you’ll know which one that is.
Google Maps is better at recommending new places and surfacing extras like warnings of traffic on your commute to work—because it knows more about you, natch—and also lets you leave reviews, photos, and ratings of the places you visit, which may or may not be important to you. This head-to-head is closer than it used to be in the core areas, but Google Maps still offers more overall.
And the winner is… Google Maps
Apple Music vs YouTube Music
Apple Music has the distinction of being the only Apple app for Android (besides the Move to iOS app…) and after a few teething problems now does a decent job of mixing a local iTunes library with an on-demand streaming one—or letting you stick to one or the other. In terms of recommendations, lyrics, playlist management, online radio and more, it’s one of Apple’s most impressive apps.
YouTube Music is very much a work-in-progress, with Google Play Music slowly getting pushed out. While it’s good enough as a music player, and can now play local files stored on an Android device, perhaps the only area where it beats Apple Music is in support for music videos… as you would expect it to.
It’s the Google Maps and Apple Maps comparison but flipped: Apple has much more experience and expertise in building music apps and working with digital music libraries, and it shows. From the design and feel of the app, to building up playlists and queueing up tracks, Apple Music wins out (even if you don’t pay the $10 a month and stick to your purchased MP3 collection).
And the winner is… Apple Music
Apple Safari vs Google Chrome
We have to confess to having a slight preference for Chrome over Safari on the desktop, just because of the way it looks and works, and how everything is tab-based. It feels more modern than Safari does, even if it is prone to slowing down once you’ve got a few dozen different tabs loaded up.
On mobile, those interface differences matter much less, which means Safari ends up being our favorite on a smaller screen. Everything feels a bit easier to find, from bookmarks to navigation buttons to private mode, and given Safari’s continued push for limiting how much you can be tracked online, Chrome has some catching up to do.
This is one area where your choice really is going to depend on what other apps and services you use—if you use Chrome on the desktop, for example, you’re going to default to it on mobile too—but taking everything but the core of the app out of the equation, we’d say Apple is ahead here.
And the winner is… Apple Safari
iOS Messages (and FaceTime) vs Android Messages (and Duo)
This is a head-to-head that comes with numerous caveats—like how many of your friends are also on iPhones—but in terms of the core messaging experience, it’s the Apple app that wins out. If you’ve got iMessage enabled, the difference is particularly stark: End-to-end encryption, Animoji and Memoji, dozens of useful apps… Android just can’t compete at this stage (and has only ever really got close with Hangouts).
Besides the problems Google has had getting the SMS successor RCS adopted by carriers, the Android Messages app is clunky and basic by comparison. It’s showing signs of improvement—GIF support, location sharing, and more comprehensive search options are slowly rolling out—but it’s a long way behind still.
The Apple FaceTime vs Google Duo contest is a little closer, with both offering a polished and straightforward video calling experience, with support for group video calls too. Again, FaceTime just about has the edge, but Duo has a few neat tricks of its own (like previews of who’s calling before you answer).
And the winner is… iOS Messages
Apple Photos vs Google Photos
Apple Photos and Google Photos really show the two tech giants playing to their strengths. Apple’s app is neat and tidy, with an increasing number of useful editing options, and some handy features for highlighting your best photos and videos. Google’s app goes big on the search and AI features (like face and object recognition), without as much attention given to edits or visual appeal.
It’s a tough one to call because both apps work well on their native platforms. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that Google Photos offers unlimited storage for free, if you can put up with a bit of resizing and compression, or own a Pixel phone. Neither company charges exorbitant rates for cloud storage, but if you want an online backup without paying anything, Google Photos fits the bill.
Having used both apps extensively, it’s fair to say Apple Photos is the best option for iOS users and Google Photos is the best option for Android (or multi-platform) users. Options like sharing, searching, and editing are pretty evenly matched, or not different enough to make one stand out against the other. Look for a constant barrage of improvements in both these services going forward, as well.
And the winner is… a draw
Apple Notes vs Google Keep
Apple Notes has been given a series of useful updates over the last few years, and there are more coming with iOS 13: Visual thumbnails for notes, shared folders, improved searching (including searching within images), new checklist options and more. It’s grown from offering the absolute basics to something much more Evernote-esque.
Google Keep has also developed from humble, simple beginnings into a comprehensive tool for note-taking. Features such as note tags, searching within images, support for reminders and shared notes, and an appealing interface have helped make it one of the best apps Google has to its name.
A very close call in this round then, but we reckon Apple Notes just about edges Keep out in terms of overall polish and usefulness. It’ll be interesting to see how Google responds to the changes to Notes arriving with iOS 13.
And the winner is… Apple Notes
Apple Calendar vs Google Calendar
Both Apple Calendar and Google Calendar benefit from years and years of development—they’ve both grown into very capable, very solid calendar apps with all the features you’re going to need, from recurring events to sharing calendars with others to getting alerts when it’s time to leave for an appointment.
We think Google wins it in interface terms, as its Calendar is one of those apps where the Material Design really pops and works well—the use of color and space is a bit easier on the eye than in Apple Calendar, and the use of stock imagery behind months of the year and regular appointments (like the dentist) is a nice touch.
Google Calendar also incorporates Goals (like exercise) and Reminders very neatly, which are features Apple’s developers haven’t gotten around to yet. You may prefer one or the other based on a particular feature or integration with a particular service (such as Gmail or Apple Mail), but taken on their own, Google’s is the better-looking and more functional calendar app of the two.
And the winner is… Google Calendar
Apple News vs Google News
The news apps from Apple and Google continue to evolve and change with the times, both offering up a selection of popular trending stories as well as articles personally recommended for you. You can dig into news based on topic or region in both these apps, though it’s slightly easier in Google News.
Apple News makes more of an attempt to create a Flipboard-style interface that’s pleasing to the eye, and when it works, it works very well—though when it doesn’t work it looks rather ugly. Google News is happier just to lift content straight from the web, which means it’s often both faster and less aesthetically consistent.
It’s another tight round because both Apple News and Google News do a decent job of serving up headlines for you and personalizing content, and both these apps can look stylish on one screen and disjointed on the next. We have a slight preference for Google News, just because it’s more natively welded to the web, and better for it.
And the winner is… Google News
And the rest…
That’s probably enough comparisons for now, but there are several more apps where Google and Apple are directly competing against each other. With its TV app, Apple seems to be moving ahead of Google in terms of how well it delivers movies and TV shows, for example, just as it has the lead in music too.
We can probably all agree that Google Drive is a more comprehensive and capable offering than iCloud Drive at the moment, with Apple still finding its feet in the cloud storage stakes (you’ll actually be able to share an iCloud folder before the end of the year). With apps like Reminders and Contacts, meanwhile, they’re pretty much even.
If you’ve been keeping score you’ll notice that Apple and Google are locked level on points after our rundown of their app offerings, but of course you’re going to have a mobile platform of preference and that’s going to influence your own picks for your favorite apps—you might even overlook a few failings as long as a particular app integrates well with whatever OS your phone runs.
Google’s DeepMind AI lab has been hard at work creating programs to take on human players across a variety of games these last few years. In 2016 its AlphaGo beat the best Go player in the world. Earlier this year, its Alpha Star defeated two middle-tier pros at StarCraft II. Now it’s learning to win at multiplayer games like Quake III.
“Artificially intelligent agents are getting better and better at two-player games, but most real-world endeavors require teamwork,” DeepMind’s researchers wrote in a paper published in Science today. To test DeepMind’s capacity to excel in multiplayer games, the team created a program to play against humans in a modified version of Quake III Arena’s Capture the Flag mode. The program, nicknamed For the Win, was fed thousands of hours of game data to learn from. Weeks later it was able to take on human players. “Computer agents competed successfully against humans even when their reaction times were slowed to match those of humans,” the researchers wrote.
Games took place on randomly generated maps with teams’ bases on opposite sides. In Capture the Flag, players score points by picking up enemy flags and returning them to the home-team base. They can also shoot one another with lasers, causing any player who might be holding a flag to drop it and respawn back at their base. By giving the computer agents 450,000 rounds of Capture the Flag to analyze, they were able to learn the game well enough to deploy strategies capable of defeating a team of humans.
According to the paper, the AI agents analyzed situations for data like “‘Do I have the flag?,’ ‘Did I see my teammate recently?,’ and ‘Will I be in the opponent’s base soon?’” By checking the answers to questions like these against how many points were being scored, the AI agents were able to come up with proactive tactics like having one player race toward the enemy base while another retreated with the enemy flag, knowing that as soon as that teammate dumped it at their base, the flag would respawn and immediately be recapturable at the other end.
In the end, the DeepMind team found that its agents were, on average, able to beat teams of two human players by a margin of 16 captures. “In a separate study, we probed the exploitability of the FTW [For The Win] agent by allowing a team of two professional games testers with full communication to play continuously against a fixed pair of FTW agents,” the researchers wrote. “Even after 12 hours of practice, the human game testers were only able to win 25% (6.3% draw rate) of games against the agent team.”
The only time humans were able to beat the AI agents was when they teamed up together. A team consisting of one human and one AI agent had a 5 percent greater win probability than a team of just AI agents. It’s one of the more interesting findings, since it suggests that the AI program is able to adapt to playing with non-AI teammates and that the two players potentially make up for one another’s weaknesses. Human players tended to be better at long-distance shooting, while AI agents were better at navigating the environment to capture the flag.
These findings don’t mean that AI players are likely to defeat the world’s best Call of Duty or Halo players any time soon, but as the researchers point out, the work is progressing faster than many had previously thought possible.
Google rolled out a new Play Store policy requiring game makers to show players what the chances are of getting any items that might be contained in a paid random-chance scenario.
Spotted by the website Android Police, the new requirement, listed in the monetization section of Google’s Development Policy Center, states: “Apps offering mechanisms to receive randomized virtual items from a purchase (i.e. ‘loot boxes’) must clearly disclose the odds of receiving those items in advance of purchase.” Apple created a similar rule for its App Store at the end of 2017.
The new rule comes a week after Republican Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri introduced the Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act in Congress, a piece of legislation that seeks to remove “pay-to-win microtransactions” and the sale of loot boxes in games aimed at minors. The bill has received some bipartisan support, as well as criticism from the Entertainment Software Association, the gaming industry’s lobbying group, which called it “flawed and riddled with inaccuracies.”
The backlash against loot boxes has already led to major changes in some other countries, most notably Belgium, where loot boxes in games like FIFA and Overwatch were declared illegal, and subsequently removed for players in that country. Earlier this month, Nintendo announced that it would remove Fire Emblem: Heroes and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, which both feature loot boxes, from app stores in Belgium starting August 27.
Nintendo’s latest mobile game, Mario Kart Tour, is currently undergoing a closed beta on Android. While it does have loot box mechanics and a lot of microtransactions, it also already contains a breakdown of the odds for what players can get every time they spend gems on another shot at its lottery system. Players have a 0.3367 percent chance of getting Dry Bowser, for instance. The more you know.
I’ve never been good at Minesweeper, and I think I must have been at least half my age the last time I played the game. It’s hard to make the click-you’re fine, click-you’re dead gameplay sexy, but Google has done an admirable job with its open-source iteration, Proxx.
The fun part of Proxx isn’t that it’s an updated version of the game with gorgeous graphics and animations (as far as Minesweeper goes). That’s not why Google invested time resurrecting this Windows 3.1-era classic. The genius of the web-based game is that it works on basically everything: from your smartphone to your old T9 feature phone that’s collecting dust in a drawer somewhere. Also, the game is only 100KB big in total, requires a mere 18KB download before you’re able to interact with it, and it renders at a consistent 60 frames per second.
“Smart feature phones such as KaiOS phones are rapidly gaining popularity. These are very resource constrained devices, but our approach of using web workers whenever we can allowed us to make the experience highly responsive on these phones as well. Since feature phones come with different input interface (d-pad and number keys, no touchscreen), we also implemented key-based interface,” writes Google’s Mariko Kosaka, one of the project’s developers.
To get started, simply hit up the Proxx website and pick your difficulty. You can also manually adjust size of your mine-filled field and set how many “black holes” you want, if you’re feeling adventurous. (Black holes are the “mines” that you don’t want to click on.)
If you’ve been living in a cave for the past 30+ years and you don’t know how to ‘sweep, here’s a quick primer. Click on a square. If it’s a mine, you lose. Game over. If it’s not a mine, the square clears. Neighboring squares also clear if there are no mines surrounding them. Eventually, you’ll see squares with numbers in them. That’s how many mines are surrounding said square—either in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal direction.
If you think you’ve figured out where a mine is, you can switch the setting from “clear” to “flag” at the bottom and mark the potential problem on your grid. (You can also right-click to flag mines, if you’re playing in your browser). Flagging a mine means you won’t accidentally click on it when you switch back to “clear,” and it’ll help you keep track of what is and isn’t (likely) a mine. Keep clearing and flagging until you blow up or find all the free spaces. Enjoy the eternal frustration that is Minesweeper.
To learn a bit more about how (and why) Google built Proxx, check out these two talks from this year’s Google I/O developer conference:
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA—It’s Google I/O time, the annual smorgasboard of all things Android. This includes updates to the mobile operating system, newer (and cheaper) smartphones, various smarthome gadgets that are helpful (with a few caveats), and news about the latest additions to Google’s plate—including its much-anticipated Stadia game-streaming platform and the debut of Android Auto that’s finally front-and-center in a real, you-can-buy-it vehicle!
I swung up to Google’s developer conference today to hear about all the fun new announcements in-person, and here’s what excited me most from Google’s big keynote:
Google AR for I/O
I’ve never been to Google I/O, so I’m intrigued by the first big “announcement” Google had—completely I/O specific, of course. Now, the special app Google has created for the event (for both iOS and Android) features augmented reality. Since I have no idea where anything is at this event, being able to point at buildings and discern whether they’re speaking areas, food stations, or the bathroom… is critical. Would that this were only available for every geek convention ever.
Stop your damn alarm
The announced feature that got one of the biggest cheers at the big Google I/O keynote was a simple one. Now, when your alarm goes off on your “Google Home” device (more on that name in a bit), you can just say “stop,” and it will do just that. No more “Hey Google, stop alarm,” or “Hey Google, it’s too goddamn early,” or “Hey Google, go DIAF.” Easy.
Incognito Mode for Google Maps
If you’re not keen on having your whereabouts dumped into your Google profile—as in, the location data Google keeps on you to provide more relevancy for your life and search queries—but that fear only applies when you’re driving around to certain activities, worry not. You’ll soon be able to easily trigger incognito mode for Google Maps (much like you’d do on Chrome and YouTube) later this year. I won’t ask what you’re up to.
Walking directions aren’t ugly anymore
If you’re a Pixel smartphone user, you’ll now see a much different version of walking directions via Google Maps than before. Instead of an boring blue dot on an artificial map, you’ll get arrows superimposed in the real world to show you where to turn next. Big cheers at Google I/O for this one, because everyone has to figure out how to get back to the Google shuttles at some point.
Automatic deletion of web and app activity (if you want)
Google’s previously announced feature that lets you now set a deletion time for activity the search giant has stored—your web and app activity, for now—is rolling out today.
I’m pumped about this one, if people even still use the word “pumped,” because it makes data privacy more automatic. You can tell Google to keep your web and app activity until you manually delete it, or you can have Google automatically delete anything older than 3 or 18 months.
The new Google Pixel phones cost less, but…
What opened my eyes most about the Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL—beyond just their prices, at $399 for the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL at $479—was their battery life. According to Google, the devices’ machine-learning capabilities work to squeeze up to 30 (!) hours of uptime on a single charge. That seems like a lot, and likely a bit of marketing fluff, but we’ll see how early reviews go. (Google also says you’ll get a meaty seven hours of battery life on a single 15-minute USB-C charge.)
Oh, and the new Pixels come in a “Purple-ish” color, too. Cheers all around at Google I/O, almost as much as the crowd enjoyed the healthy amount of shade Google tossed Apple’s way during the Pixel phones’ debut:
Crap, Google Assistant is fast
One of the more eye-opening demos Google showed at this year’s I/O was an updated version of Google Assistant. Basically, Google fed its little digital helper six cups of coffee and let ‘er rip on stage. Coming to Pixel phones later this year, the “next-generation” Assistant can understand requests up to ten times faster than before—apps open nearly instantly after a voice request, for example, and you don’t even need to say “Hey Google” while you’re monologuing things for your Assistant to do.
In said demo, the real-time processing of the Googler’s voice appeared in the lower-right corner of her Android device, which elicited a “holy crap” from some of the people sitting around me. I don’t blame them; the processing, which also has to take into account whether you’re dictating or asking for an action to occur, is incredibly quick.
Google makes driving a little less distracting
A new “Driving Mode” for Android Auto, which you launch by simply telling your device “Hey Google, Let’s Drive,” gives you a brand-new UI for accessing directions, calling contacts, and playing media—to name a few options.
While you’re driving, new songs that pop up appear at the bottom of your Maps directions to keep you from losing focus on the road (or said navigation). When someone calls while Maps is running, your Assistant will tell you who it is and ask you if you want to answer the phone.
Look for the new driving mode to hit any Android phone (with Assistant) this summer.
Everything is a Nest
Google’s Home devices are all now rebranded Nest, which makes it a lot easier to keep tabs on everything. The Google Home Max Nest Hub Max is the first major Google product announced under the new naming conventions, and it’s a doozy: An upgraded Google Home Hub (er, Google Nest Hub), that gets a 10-inch screen and all the fun features of a Nest Cam. That includes letting you dial in to view what your camera sees at home, auto-centering when you’re talking on a video chat, and motion-sensing for when you’re away.
There’s a new Face Match feature that lets the device serve information to different people in your house that’s relevant to them, if they’ve allowed the device to first “scan” who they are.
As before, a physical button allows you turn the included microphone on and off (and you’ll see on the screen, very clearly, when you’ve done so). Most importantly—and this feature got the biggest cheers at Google I/O—you can now simply give your device’s camera a “stop” gesture, raising your hand to it with the palm facing out, if you need to give it a command while you’re rocking out. That’s a lot better than having to awkwardly scream “HEY GOOGLE” while playing music.
(The Google Nest Hub arrives later this summer for $229.)
I love Android Q’s Live Caption feature
The headline says it all. The new Live Caption feature, arriving in Android Q, runs locally on your device (yes, even in Airplane Mode) and drops superimposed text on any video you’re watching on your device. The accuracy is what it is, but if you’re watching a video on the train and you forgot your headphones, or you need a little extra help because you’re hard of hearing, Live Caption is a treat.
You have to first enable this feature in Android’s accessibility settings, but then the icon to toggle it will show up right in your volume UI.
…almost as much as I love Android Q’s new “dark theme”
It’s here! Well, it will be here with Android Q: The ability to set up your device with a system-wide dark theme. Doing so won’t just make your device look a lot cooler, it’ll also help you save battery life. According to Google, dark mode means that fewer OLEDs on your device are lighting up and, as a result, you’re going to see a boost to your battery.
Android Q streamlines a few additional updates
Google talked quite a bit about Android Q—and will have more to share throughout I/O, no doubt. One feature that caught my eye was Google’s new focus on bringing faster security updates to core modules of the operating system. These will now arrive separately, over-the-air, and without requiring a reboot of your device… with a few caveats.
I also enjoyed the new “Focus Mode” coming to Android Q, which lets you dictate which apps you find most distracting. Enable Focus mode, and (most?) notifications from these apps are disabled until you resume “normal” operations once again. The feature hits both Android P and Android Q this fall.
Google Search and augmented reality gets interesting and useful
I confess, I’ve been kind of ho-hum on augmented reality ever since the debut of Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore. Fun as it is to drop a monster in your living room or shoot at some silly little creature, awkwardly holding a smartphone and walking around the coffee table in your living room doesn’t strike me as a very fun evening. Measuring IKEA furniture, sure, but that’s about it.
As part of a number of new fun features arriving to Google’s core search platform later this year—including “Full Coverage” in News, which provides a more comprehensive picture of a story, and indexed podcasts to provide relevant related information about a topic you look up—Google is also integrating Google Camera into Google search.
Assuming a source supports it, you can now tap to view a 3D model of what you’re searching for—be it a part of the human skeleton, stuff you’re looking to buy, or, to borrow Google’s example from I/O 2019, a big effing shark. You can drop that item into wherever you are, from your desk to your presentation stage, and see how it looks up-close. (Or, if you’re shopping, you can see how well something you want to buy integrates with your existing outfits or what-have-you.)
Google also showed a pretty amazing example of a new Google Lens application at I/O: point your device at a restaurant menu, and you’ll see relevant data on how popular particular dishes are—or, for people like me who are somewhat food-ignorant, you can also quickly pull up a picture of a dish you’re considering ordering. Most importantly, pointing your phone at the bill lets you quickly figure out the tip and split the total among your formerly hungry friends.
Will I use this? For everything but the bill-splitting, likely not, but that photo-of-menu-food aspect sounds intriguing.
Duplex on the web
Google didn’t have much to say about its new “Duplex on the web” initiative it’s working on—details coming later this year—but it showed off an impressive Duplex demo related to rental car booking.
While the demo was neat, in that it pulled in a user’s existing information and preferences to automate much of the annoying multi-screen process of renting a car, the more important point was that Google noted how this setup required no special arrangement on Google’s part. In other words, this “Duplex on the web” functionality should make it easy to use AI to enhance a wide variety of ordering scenarios: movie tickets, food, car rentals, et cetera.