I was going to lunch today, walking along Lake St. in Chicago to a Jimmy John’s (conveniently next to a Starbucks, where I would get a coffee afterward) and I saw a Facebook ad. No, not one of those “Save 20% on designer shoes” or “Buy Dawg Pound merchandise here” in-stream shills, but a real, physical banner on a bus stop. It looked like this:
Kinda creepy. It was for Facebook Messenger, the app that was recently split off from Facebook proper on mobile (though you can still use all the features of Facebook together in the convenient mobile Web app) and that now has 500 million users. There’s not much Facebook branding here, really, which I think is intentional. Messenger is meant to be something as basic and habitual as text messaging or IM clients were just a few years ago. Facebook’s enormous databases – your friends, your profile, your history – are just the back-end, the magic behind the scenes.
I thought about calling this post “Facebook-as-a-service” (you can see it in the slug still) in a cheeky way, since the “as-a-service” moniker is most often applied to resources like servers and software that are delivered to customers on-demand, without the need to install anything. Messenger seems like just another app – a LINE or WhatsApp clone – but it’s being marketed as a way to do Facebook without really being “on Facebook,” i.e., scrolling through News Feed chaos. In that way, it resembles infrastructure- and software-as-a-service, which let you get more computing power and packaged applications without dealing with the mess of equipment management or software downloads.
Also, this ad is one of the only ones I’ve ever seen with a Windows Phone rectangle next to the App Store and Google Play equivalents. The sticker centerpiece is strange but overall the ad seems at least as effective as all those in-stream ones I’m missing out on by using AdBlock.
RSS isn’t dead. The demise of Google Reader last year inspired pearl-clutching about the demise of the standards-based Web and the rise of Google+ and other proprietary content filters. But here we are in late 2014 and podcasts (audio RSS) are thriving and there are multiple sustainable RSS engines available for subscription, from Feed Wrangler to Fever. Making a podcast client is the new making a Twitter client.
Meanwhile, Google+ has lost its mastermind and services such as SoundCloud, through their increasingly onerous EULAs, show the perils ahead for insular networks. RSS, email, et al will outlive Facebook. In my own ridiculously small slice of the Web, I have proposed that blogging will survive because it’s the foil to the artifice of social media and “solutions.”
Android is less a playground for RSS and podcast clients than iOS. It makes sense, given the Android clientele. Android lacks a built-in pod catcher like iOS’s Podcasts, though it can do RSS reading via Google Play Newsstand. For less than $25, an Android user can get a top-notch RSS and podcasting experience.
For RSS reading (news):
1. Subscribe to an RSS service
Feed Wrangler is my pick here. It’s got a simple, barebones Web interface that makes adding feeds easy. It only costs $18 for a one-year subscription.
2. Buy Press and log-in with Feed Wrangler or another account
Press is the best RSS client for Android. It has a sleek interface that nicely weaves-in Pocket, Instapaper, and Readability, support for DashClock Widget, and its own large widget. You can log into it with Feed Wrangler, Feedly, Fever, and Feedbin
1. Buy Pocket Casts
Podcasts are having a moment, for at least as long as Squarespace is willing to keep sponsoring episodes. Shifty Jelly have made an outstanding, Android-optimized podcatcher called Pocket Casts that offers variable playback speeds, easy navigation, lock screen controls, and a handy widget.
In my previous entry, I mentioned Link Bubble, a nifty Android app made by Chris Lacy, the creator of the Tweet Lanes Twitter/App.net client. Like DuckDuckGo (a merged search engine-browser-news aggregator), Link Bubble is on the bleeding-edge of mobile browsers. It doesn’t just try to compress a desktop experience for a small screen a lay Chrome, Safari, or Dolphin (all good browsers, but ones that are of a piece with almost every browser of the past 20 years). It realizes that the mobile Web is a destination rather than an immersive app – how many times have you ended up in Chrome et al because you clicked on someone’s link and had to wait for the page to load?
Link Bubble is an overlay – it is, sure enough, a “bubble” that is drawn over whatever screen you’re currently on. It looks like this:
Here’s how to use it:
1. Download Link Bubble from the Play Store. You’ll probably want to get the Link Bubble Pro upgrade, too, since it unlocks most of the features worth using (multiple bubbles, colors, etc.)
2. Click a link in any app (Hangouts, Google Search, email, whatever) and then, when prompted with the intent dialog, select Link Bubble and select “Always” so that it becomes your default browser. You may have to go through this process for several apps, depending on where you click most of your links. The clicked link loads in the background and shows up with a favicon to the side, in the overlaid bubble. The “HG” in the screenshot above is for Hardcore Gamer, for example. Since it’s done in the background, you don’t leave the app you’re currently in – convenient! Especially for Google searches where there’s more than one link you want to click. Here’s what it looks like when you tap on the bubble to go into the actual browser:
3. After it’s the default, open the Link Bubble settings (find it in your app drawer and click it) and set things up:
You’ll need to pick a fallback browser (probably Chrome unless you’ve downloaded something else) to handle any links that Link Bubble can’t handle. You’ll also want to pick the default behaviors for the upper-right and upper-left bubbles. It’s easier if I show a screenshot:
These extra bubbles (upper-left, upper-right, bottom_ show up when you tap and drag one of the bubbles (circles) at the top of the browser. You can customize it to your wish, but the default is Pocket (if installed) in the upper-left, share in the upper-right, and close tab at the bottom.
4. If you ever need to hide the bubble because it’s in your way, or simply want to close everything in one fell swoop, you can do so from the notifications tray (Link Bubble creates a persistent notification):
Touch it once to hide the bubble; you’ll be able to get it back the next time you click a link. Expand the notification with a downward slide to close everything.
Google’s Android apps are by and large top-notch, although the increasing number of them means that average experience may be getting watered down by duds like Google News and Weather. With so many apps only ported to Android as an afterthought (many, like Instagram, have ported over their bottom-icon heavy look), Google’s specialized design is refreshing. Chrome is no exception. While it doesn’t have Dolphin’s speed or customizations or Firefox’s open source character, Chrome is fine, fast, and full of useful options such as bandwidth conservation (which can sometimes make its rendering of Facebook.com perform better than Facebook’s actual Android app).
You’re waiting for a “but,” so here it is: Mobile Web browsing is stuck in the desktop era. There’s still the URL bar and a bunch of tabs stuck weirdly (and inconveniently) in something that looks like a file cabinet – it doesn’t get much more “legacy” than that. Plus, a mobile Web browser is often somewhere you end up, not somewhere you open with intent. You’re sent to Chrome (or Safari or IE) because you click a link and then wait a few seconds for a blank page to fill out.
There’s something jarring about that process. It really becomes apparent when going through Google Search results, clicking on one, seeing it open in Chrome, then having to go back to Search to go through more that may be interesting. The workaround is to just search directly from Chrome, but the UI is less appealing. Ideally, Google would merge Search and Chrome into one runtime.
Until they do, though, there are some good alternatives to Chrome, both in terms of usability, privacy, and innovative design. I’ve rounded up a few of the best ones here.
If you want something with more pizzaz: Dolphin
Dolphin is speedy, with excellent HTML5 performance a fluid UI. It’s also an ecosystem unto itself, with tons of add-ons and color packs. The look and feel is especially good on tablets and big phones, since it has enough real estate to pull off its desktop-like tab design (if you’re into that). Possible drawbacks include its awkward sharing menus (the best way to share to Pocket is to install a supplementary app) and less support for deep linking (i.e., having links redirect to relevant apps rather than websites) than Chrome. Nice quirks include the ability to create and save drawings that stand in for URLs – you could doodle an ‘F’ to go to Facebook, for example.
If you want something that is private and different: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories
DuckDuckGo is known mostly as an anti-NSA search engine that doesn’t track its users. It’s more than that, as its mobile app name suggests. On Android, it can serve as a news reader with customizable feeds drawing up on various subreddits and popular Web publications – it’s way better than the card-heavy Google Play Newsstand. It’s also a browser. URLs can be entered into the search box and they’ll go directly to that page if correct. You could do all your browsing from within the DuckDuckGo for Android app. Plus, there’s the option to use Orbot to connect the app to Tor for privacy.
If you want something futuristic: Link Bubble
Link Bubble isn’t a replacement for Chrome per se. It’ll still need Chrome or another browser as a fallback, but it’s really a leap beyond almost every other mobile Web experience for Android. Here’s how it works.
When you click a link anywhere, it’ll load in the background and then appear in a small bubble that is drawn over the screen (it lingers until you dismiss it using the notification tray). So say you’re in Google Search and you tap something. It loads in Link Bubble to the side, but you stay inside Google Search, uninterrupted. You can have many bubbles open at once (they’re basically like tabs). Link Bubble has a unique, fun UI for dragging the bubbles to the upper left to save to Pocket, to the upper right to share, and down to close.
Link Bubble is perfect reaction to the disruptive “click, wait for a blank page to load in a Web browser” behavior that characterizes most mobile linking and browsing. It takes some time to get used to, but it becomes a time saver.
Updated 4/13/15 with Frostbite Caverns
I wrote an entry about Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time earlier this year covering some basic strategies for making it through the game without spending anything. PVZ2 is the most carefully crafted free-to-play game I have played. It doesn’t even feel like a scam, since with a little planning and some fleet fingers you can make it through all stages with just the basic plants.
This guide is more in-depth. I will show you one overarching strategy that works in almost stage. I’ll also look at each plant and rate it on a scale of 1-10. I’ll also provide tips for each individual stage in case you are stuck on one of them and want to move on without shelling out a few bucks for an overpowered chili pepper or some such.
If you read nothing else, read this part
Many stages feature seemingly indefatigable hordes of zombies decked out in armor and hardened against all your weaponry. Luckily it’s not hard to keep them at bay if you know what you’re doing. Introducing the Dragon/Wall strategy. You can start taking this approach as early as Ancient Egypt:
- Plant a full column of Sunflowers in the backrow. Plant a column of Twin Sunflowers next to it. Eventually, you may want to swap out the Twin Sunflowers for Sun-shrooms.
- Begin planting Wall-Nuts or Infi-Nuts a few tiles back from the right edge. This way you have sometime before the zombies reach them, allowing you to build your defense and bombard them on the way. Use the Iceberg Lettuce to freeze zombies that you think are moving too quickly.
- Build some Snapdragons in a column behind the Wall-Nuts/Infi-Nuts. Each one makes a fire wave that covers three tiles. A full column can shell out incredible, cascading damage.
- In front of the Snapdragons, built some Spikeweeds. The zombies will take damage while they’re trying to chew away at the Wall-Nuts, on top of getting scorched by the Dragonfires and bombarded by…
- Kernel-Pults! Build a whole column as far back as you can. Considering cost and effect, the Kernel-Pult is the best plant in the game. It deals decent damage by shooting kernels, but it is truly valuable because of its butter pats. These freeze the zombies for a few seconds. Ideally, built two columns of Kernel-Pults to increase the chances of stymieing zombies. The Kernel-Pult’s Plant Food move is also incredible – try using it when zombies walk over a Spikeweed or get close to your Wall-Nuts/Infi-Nuts – they’ll continue taking damage even while stuck.
- Keep an Iceberg (or if you prefer a Cherry Bomb) on hand to disrupt problematic zombies.
As the levels get tougher, the possibilities become endless as you acquire more plants. I wrote the above framework because it can be executed with plants acquired early in the game. You can replace or supplement the Spike Traps with Red Beans. Also, if you can afford it, Winter Melons are even better than Kernel-Pults. You may want to throw in a kew Coconut Cannons or Citrons or even Magnifying Grasses (powerful with Twin Sunflowers) for added power. Also, once you have a huge amount of sun accumulated, dig up the sunflowers and plant either Potato Mines or Kernel-Pults in their places.
Analyzing the individual plants
I won’t cover the plants that require real money to purchase. You’re wasting your money if you buy them since they’re only there to help you win a little quicker – no stage is so hard that you’ll need to be bailed out by an exotic specimens. Here is a quick rundown of what each standard plant does.
Makes one unit of sun at time. A staple in the early going, and not bad even later on though it’s almost always better to use…
You get this in Ancient Egypt and there’s no reason to turn back. You’ll have to wait for one unit of sun to fall from the sky before you plant one of them, but they’re worth it – after a while, the sun just piles up and you can use it to plant some tremendous defenses
It’s iconic, but not that good. It’s slow and outclasses by others.
This plant is great in Ancient Egypt but average elsewhere, once you’ve gotten access to more powerful alternatives. Its Plant Food move is devastating, though, making it a solid option if you’re the type that saves up a lot of Plant Food to beat back big rushes. It’s best placed as far back as possible. It can also destroy graves in Ancient Egypt.
A staple. It is both cheap and powerful, capable of dishing out lots of damage on top of delaying zombie progress.
It’s free and good. It’s never a bad idea to have one on hand in case you need to freeze a torch-wielding zombie or anything problematic.
It deals a lot of damage because it shoots boomerangs that hurt not only zombies but also graves. A little pricey and not that much of an upgrade over the Cabbage-pult or Kernel-pult, though
A good close-range plant, best used in tandem with the Wall-Nut or Tall-Nut, but outclassed by the Dragonfire.
Amazing – it can flame up to three columns at once, and when used in columns it’s almost unstoppable if protected by Wall-Nuts or Tall-Nuts.
Cheap and gets the job done. It’s more than just a defensive tool. Paired with Dragonfires and Spike Traps, it ensures that zombies go down en masse
Even better. This + the Dragon/Wall strategy is a tall order for any zombie horde to overcome.
Weaker than Wall-Nut, but regenerates its health. Usually not worth it unless you have incredible backup.
Useful for breaking up rolling zombies and dishing out tons of damage while zombies try to chew through nearby Wall-Nuts or Tall-Nuts. Always place right in front of one of those two barrier plants.
Super powerful – can break up multiple rolling zombies and does more damage than the Spike Trap.
One-use plant that blows away all flying zombies. It’s worth getting this in the Far Future before making your way through the Pirate Seas – it’s the best way to deal with the macaws and seagulls.
Shoots lasers. Economical (only 200 sun) for its power level.
Useless. Knocks a zombie back but then has to recharge. Don’t bother.
Also useless. You shouldn’t waste time or sun getting rid of graves. Just use Cabbage-pults, Kernel-pults and Bloomerangs to get rid of them while also damaging zombies.
One-use but worth it. Instantly kills all zombies within adjacent tiles.
Undoubetedly powerful, but impractical. You have to manually fire it. The Plasma is a better bet
Like the Coconut Cannon, but recharges/fires automatically, and is cheaper. A good investment.
Instantly kills the zombie that eats it and then causes that zombie’s gas to temporarily paralyze the rest of the row. You can use these in place of Spike Traps within the Dragon/Wall strategy.
Self-explanatory – a repeating Peashooter. A lot of power, but less versatile than the Kernel-Pult.
Shoots three peas in different directions. A feasible alternative to the Dragonfire if used in numbers
Shoots peas forward and backward. Useful for catching zombies that sneak behind your defenses (usually through the air)
Upgradable and capable of a lot of damage, but limited in its abilities and a bit slow, too.
Tremendous. Does a lot of damage, justifying its high price tag.
The creme de la creme. As powerful as a Coconut Cannon and as versatile as a Kernel-pult.
Disables machines in the area. Worth it for sure in the Far Future to stave off big attacks.
Uses up sun each time it attacks. But its attack is so powerful that the cost is worth it. Pairing it with a good store of Twin Sunflowers and/or Sun-shrooms is enough to hold even huge hordes at bay.
Creates power tiles for plants (i.e., if one plant on a tile uses its plant food move, all other on the tile follow suit). Starts off free but becomes more expensive with each deployment. Not critical to winning, but not useless, eitehr.
A scalable Sunflower – it produces more sun as it goes. A viable replacement for the Twin Sunflower.
A large attacker that damages multiple zombies in the area. Can stand in for Snapdragon in the strategy above
A temporary, short-range attacker. Much better than it lets on: it can be deployed in rows for quick, cost effective damage (each one is free)
Causes zombies that have eaten it to drop sun when attacked. A bit win-moar, but useful if you’re leaning heavily on Magnifying Grasses.
Takes away helmets and metal objects. Not usually necessary except perhaps in a few select Dark Ages levels.
A building block in Big Wave Beach. They don’t do any damage, but you need them for expanding your presence over the water.
Throws a ricocheting bowling ball at zombies. Doesn’t do much damage and is relatively expensive.
Very good. Instantly takes out a zombie in water, for a low cost.
Versatile. Can launch avocado seeds at zombies from afar, or chomp through them across the entire row if its proximity trigger is triggered.
Incredible power and reach, but slow and expensive. Still, a backrow full of these can deal with just about anything.
Essential for getting through Frostbite Caverns. Free and melts any frozen object (your own or an enemy).
Basically an upgraded Cabbage-pult. Doesn’t seem to do as much damage, but heats up nearby tiles to melt ice.
Excellent defense for flinging back big rows of zombies, but you’ll rarely need its power if you just use Wall-nuts etc.
A better Chili Bean. Great stall plant
Not that great on its own, but in rows it’s good since it gives you great coverage and lots of cascading damage.
-Tombstones are annoying, but don’t waste your time with the Grave Buster. It’s free, but planting it wastes time, and the graves respawn. Instead, try this: Plant a wall of Wall Nuts, then back them up with a row of Bonk Choys. Finally, behind the Choys, plant the Bloomerangs. The combination of Bloomerang/Bonk Choy gets rid of the graves, and, paired with the Wall Nut’s defense, mows down almost any zombies. This strategy works like a charm in the plan-your-defense levels in Ancient Egypt, in which you start out with a certain level of sun and can’t acquire any more.
-Early on, you may have a pressing need for mass removal but won’t have enough coins for the power ups. The Cabbage-pult (only 100 sun) is your best bet. Its plant food move (plant food is earned from glowing green zombies and temporarily boosts the power of the targeted plant) is devastating.
-It’s usually a smart move to include the Iceberg Lettuce in your arsenal. It’s free and it’s the best way to stop the flaming zombies.
-It is totally worth your time to use your first key and go into the future to get the Laser Bean (you only have to beat one level there). In the defensive levels, you can set up two Laser Beans in each column and then one column of Wall Nuts – that should be enough to hold back any advance.
-The Dr. Zombie battle is random; get used to this, and don’t expect to wear it down with strategy. Your best assets here are the Iceberg Lettuce and the Cabbage-pult.
-The double sunflower is your best friend – having a row of five is a sun-making machine, but you have to set it up right. A trick to use is to add both the basic sunflower AND the double one to your arsenal. Start off with a few basic sunflowers, then plant some doubles once you have enough sun. That way, you lay the foundation for strong infrastructure while also getting things off to a quick start. Once you get the shovel power ups, you can shovel up the basic sunflowers to recoup some of the cost and then replace them with doubles.
-The Kernel-pult makes the Cabbage-pult obsolete, and it is actually one of the best plants in the game despite costing just 100 sun. It can both damage enemies with kernels and slow them down with butter – its plant food move essentially freezes the entire zombie army for a few seconds. It’s usually a good idea to fill an entire back row with them.
-There are some tricky “protect the endangered plants/don’t let the zombies trample the flower” levels in this world. A good strategy is to build a row of Wall Nuts to protect the flowers, and back them up with lots of Snapdragons for cascading damage. In the levels in which the endangered plants are right near the water, you’ll need to act quickly and build up lots of sun so that you can pepper the back row with Coconut Cannons. These can instantly blow away the cannon zombies before they even launch.
-Symmetry is the name of the game. Maybe it’s just because I’m OCD, but it pays to be consistent in how you construct your rows – adjacent Snapdragons do more damage, and Lightning Reeds have a better chance of zapping zombies if you group a few of them together. Wall Nuts and Spikerocks are also good plants to put together:
-The mine carts give you a lot of flexibility in moving powerful plants up and down. It’s tempting to put a Coconut Cannon in one of them, but a better bet is the Repeater or the Threepeater. The latter does widely distributed damage, but the Repeater is arguably a better deal – remember that its plant food power up can be exploited after you start it by moving the cart up and down so that you can pick off zombies across multiple rows.
-The Chili Bean is amazing – for only 50 sun, you can instantly kill a zombie and paralyze an entire row for a few seconds. Don’t upgrade to the Chili Pepper for $2.99, it’s a ripoff.
-The Melon-pult is ridiculously powerful, but its high cost and slow rate of fire make it hard to utilize, especially in the complex levels with tons of chickens. You’ll need Lightning Reeds to fend off those chickens, which can easily slip past your other defenses.
-The Laser Bean is deceptively powerful – it makes huge rows of regular, unupgraded/non-hardened zombies easy to deal with. But it’s more useful in Ancient Egypt than here.
-The power-up squares are interesting, but the strategy is usually simple: put two Winter Melons on matching symbols and watch as you clear the board each time you get ANY Plant Food. However, it’s also worth putting Twin Sunflowers or just plain Sunflowers on the tiles for huge sun bonuses to power.
-Magnifying Grasses! These guys are amazing. Once you get them, you’ll need almost nothing else. They can kill most zombies with a hit, and their Plant Food Move is great. Try it with the power-up squares: it’s a complete board-clearer.
-The Sun-shroom is a good replacement for the Twin Sunflower. It’s cheap to plant and it’ll reward you in short order
-Puff-shrooms are the backbone of good strategy throughout the Dark Ages. Plant them back to back to give you free short-term damage and deterrence. You won’t need much attack other than these and maybe a few Magnifying Grasses here.
-The strategy at the top of the page isn’t so great here due to the preponderance of gravestones and potion-enhanced zombies. Keeping tidy rows won’t be as easy. Lean on the temporary threat of Puff-shrooms as well as the raw power of Magnifying Grasses (backed by Sunflowers and Sun-shrooms!) to carry the day.
-Magnet-shrooms are overrated. They can weaken a group of bucket heads, but most of the the time you can beat them down anyway with Melon-pults and Snapdragons.
Big Wave Beach
-The Lily Pads are a necessary evil for expanding your reach in most levels here. They don’t do anything except give you a base to plant more plants on the water.
-Tangle Kelp should be utilized in just about every level. They’re useful for taking out the tough surfer zombies and other armored zombies.
-Bowling Bulbs are pricey for what they are. You can usually get a better setup by just waiting to build Banana Launchers that can take out just about anything.
-Guacodiles are really good and cheap. But be careful of using them in levels where you can’t lose more than [x] plants – each time one goes off chomping, it’ll count against your total.
-The Hot Potato is essential for just about every level here to stop the big rows of ice blocks that the zombies will push over your defenses.
-Use Snapdragons as part of the standard defense described here in intro; they’re even better here since the flames also help melt any frozen plants pretty quickly.
-Stay away from expensive plants like Banana Launcher in this stage, since the winds and the ice blocks make it hard to build up and sustain a major legion of plants. Stick to Pepper-pults, Snapdragons, Stunions and Rotobagas.