Advertisements

Tag Archives: Mobile

The comprehensive guide to Plants vs Zombies 2: It’s About Time

Updated 4/13/15 with Frostbite Caverns

Short intro
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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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…
  5. 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.
  6. Keep an Iceberg (or if you prefer a Cherry Bomb) on hand to disrupt problematic zombies.
july16

An example of the above strategy in action, this time with only Sun-shrooms, Winter Melons, Snapdragons, and Infi-Nuts. Puff-shrooms were previously out front.

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.

Sunflower
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…

Twin Sunflower
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

Peashooter
It’s iconic, but not that good. It’s slow and outclasses by others.

Cabbage-pult
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.

Kernel-pult
A staple. It is both cheap and powerful, capable of dishing out lots of damage on top of delaying zombie progress.

Iceberg Lettuce
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.

Bloomerang
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

Bonk Choy
A good close-range plant, best used in tandem with the Wall-Nut or Tall-Nut, but outclassed by the Dragonfire.

Snapdragon
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.

Wall-Nut
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

Tall-Nut
Even better. This + the Dragon/Wall strategy is a tall order for any zombie horde to overcome.

Infi-Nut
Weaker than Wall-Nut, but regenerates its health. Usually not worth it unless you have incredible backup.

Spikeweed
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.

Spikerock
Super powerful – can break up multiple rolling zombies and does more damage than the Spike Trap.

Blover
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.

Laser Bean
Shoots lasers. Economical (only 200 sun) for its power level.

Spring Bean
Useless. Knocks a zombie back but then has to recharge. Don’t bother.

Grave Buster
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.

Cherry Bomb
One-use but worth it. Instantly kills all zombies within adjacent tiles.

Coconut Cannon
Undoubetedly powerful, but impractical. You have to manually fire it. The Plasma is a better bet

Citron
Like the Coconut Cannon, but recharges/fires automatically, and is cheaper. A good investment.

Chili Bean
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.

Repeater
Self-explanatory – a repeating Peashooter. A lot of power, but less versatile than the Kernel-Pult.

Threepeater
Shoots three peas in different directions. A feasible alternative to the Dragonfire if used in numbers

Split Pea
Shoots peas forward and backward. Useful for catching zombies that sneak behind your defenses (usually through the air)

Pea Pod
Upgradable and capable of a lot of damage, but limited in its abilities and a bit slow, too.

Melon-Pult
Tremendous. Does a lot of damage, justifying its high price tag.

Winter Melon
The creme de la creme. As powerful as a Coconut Cannon and as versatile as a Kernel-pult.

E.M Peach
Disables machines in the area. Worth it for sure in the Far Future to stave off big attacks.

Magnifying Grass
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.

Tile Turnip
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.

Sun-shroom
A scalable Sunflower – it produces more sun as it goes. A viable replacement for the Twin Sunflower.

Fume-shroom
A large attacker that damages multiple zombies in the area. Can stand in for Snapdragon in the strategy above

Puff-shroom
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)

Sun Bean
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.

Magnet-shroom
Takes away helmets and metal objects. Not usually necessary except perhaps in a few select Dark Ages levels.

Lily Pads
A building block in Big Wave Beach. They don’t do any damage, but you need them for expanding your presence over the water.

Bowling Bulb
Throws a ricocheting bowling ball at zombies. Doesn’t do much damage and is relatively expensive.

Tangle Kelp
Very good. Instantly takes out a zombie in water, for a low cost.

Guacodile
Versatile. Can launch avocado seeds at zombies from afar, or chomp through them across the entire row if its proximity trigger is triggered.

Banana Launcher
Incredible power and reach, but slow and expensive. Still, a backrow full of these can deal with just about anything.

Hot Potato
Essential for getting through Frostbite Caverns. Free and melts any frozen object (your own or an enemy).

Pepper-pult
Basically an upgraded Cabbage-pult. Doesn’t seem to do as much damage, but heats up nearby tiles to melt ice.

Chard Guard
Excellent defense for flinging back big rows of zombies, but you’ll rarely need its power if you just use Wall-nuts etc.

Stunion
A better Chili Bean. Great stall plant

Rotobaga
Not that great on its own, but in rows it’s good since it gives you great coverage and lots of cascading damage.

Ancient Egypt
-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.

Pirate Seas
-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.

Wild West
-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.

Far Future
-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.

Dark Ages
-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.

Frostbite Caverns
-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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 9.19.26 PM

-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.

Advertisements

Easy Hacks for Getting More out of Android

Android is not the most user- or beginner-friendly OS. Yet, it runs on literally billions of devices, so it’s worth becoming at least minimally competent in it. Below I’ve provided 10 basic tips for streamlining your Android experience to the point that it resembles something more polished. Note that I came up with and/or tested most of these techniques on an LG Nexus 5 and Nexus 4, one running stock Android KitKat and the other Jelly Bean.

Change how much memory Chrome can use

Screenshot_2014-05-16-21-05-01

Chrome can be allotted more memory.

As a rule, mobile browsers are not great mobile apps. They cannot match native apps for speed or user experience, and the gap between the two has even led to the fear that the Web is dying. But sometimes you need one, maybe to handle a link someone sent you, for instance.

Chrome isn’t as fast as third-party alternatives such as Dolphin, but that can be remedied. Type this into the URL bar:

chrome://flags/#max-tiles-for-interest-area 

Then, select 512. You’re in for some smooth scrolling and page rendering. Not however that the system will become much more aggressive about how it manages and kills apps so that it can free up resources for Chrome.

Open content in native apps rather than Chrome

Screenshot_2013-07-07-15-11-32

Opening John Gruber’s App.net feed in Robin rather than Chrome (back when App.net wasn’t dead).

Remember what I just said about native apps? The best ones are much better than any (slow) mobile Web app.

One of the great perks of Android is being able to pick what app opens certain types of content. So when you click a link to Wikipedia, for example, you may be given the option to open it in the Wikipedia app for Android (if installed) rather than Chrome or your default browser. Your mileage may vary, but the following apps are excellent for viewing links that would otherwise direct you to a tiny Web view:

  • Wikipedia
  • Tumblr (use the “Open in Tumblr” button at the top of the page)
  • IMDb
  • Reddit is Fun Golden Platinum (for reddit links)
  • YouTube
  • Instagram
  • Pocket Casts (really wonky/nerdy podcasting client: mainly for podcast RSS links)
  • Twitter

Toggle Bluetooth and other radios from the lockscreen

Screenshot (09-31PM, May 16, 2014)

The Bluetooth extension can be tapped to toggle Bluetooth.

DashClock Widget is one of your best friends. It provides shortcuts to unread texts, emails, weather data and more from your lockscreen.

If you’re on KitKat, you’ll need to go to Settings -> Security -> Enable Widgets to make sure it can run. After that, you can install tons of extra extensions. One of my favorites is the DashClock Custom Extension, which can do just about anything, including toggle Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Just tap from the lockscreen, and the setting is changed.

Change icons without installing a launcher

Screenshot (03:14PM, Apr 13, 2014)

These icons were made with LINE Deco and are running on the stock Google Now launcher.

Tired of all those low-res icons that look like they were just ported straight from iOS? That’s an easy fix – just install LINE Deco. t. Basically, it lets you pick any of thousands of different icons you want to stand in for your apps, and it doesn’t require you to change your launcher or buy an icon pack.

Enable data compression and bandwidth management in compatible apps

Screenshot_2014-05-16-20-59-09

Some apps offer options for data compression.

Do you need to watch how much mobile data you’re using? Some apps have settings that can help you out. In Chrome, go to Settings -> Bandwidth Management, where you can adjust when Chrome preloads webpages and toggle its handy Reduce Data Usage feature. Other apps can also compress HTTP requests. Above is an example from the Hacker News 2 client.

Tap and hold Shift and drag over a letter for capitalization

Screenshot_2014-05-16-20-54-56

It’s not that hard to type capitals using the Shift and drag method.

This trick is usually found by accident. If you press and hold on the Shift key on the default Google Keyboard, and then drag your finger from there to a key, you can get a capital letter without having to go through the weird multiple taps on Shift needed to enable caps lock.

Customize Google Now with…a magic wand?

Screenshot_2014-05-16-20-58-36

Inside the Magic Wand screen on Google Now.

Google Now has a weird interface. What I mean is: there’s a magic wand at the bottom of the screen. What does it do? If you click it, it lets you customize your Google Now settings, adding new card and removing ones that were based on some errant search you did long ago and aren’t helpful anymore.

Set up automatic device sleep times

Screenshot_2013-04-21-12-24-00

Battery Widget Reborn can be configured with automatic sleep times.

An easy way to save lots of battery is to turn off Wi-Fi and mobile data at night. Apps such as Battery Widget Reborn can configured to put your device into Night Mode at hours of your choosing, meaning that use almost no battery while you’re sleeping (plus you don’t get annoying notifications out of nowhere at midnight).

Link UCCW to specific apps

Screenshot_2013-06-15-22-09-00

This UCCW predictably links to the Facebook app.

Ultimate Custom Clock Widget can do almost anything. I wrote a short guide to it last year. One of the best features is the ability to link certain hotspots – areas on the graphical widget – to apps of your choosing. So you could click the battery meter of a UCCW and be taken straight to Battery Widget Reborn, or click the unread mail count and enter straight into Email/Gmail.

Hide built-in app icons you don’t like/use

Screenshot_2013-06-02-15-04-07

Launchers such as Nova Launcher Prime can hide unwanted icons from view.

If you’re bothered by the icons for seldom used apps such as Google+ or News and Weather, you can get rid of them. Install a launcher such as Nova Launcher Prime and then navigate through the settings to manage the app drawer. Many launchers have an option for hiding any app that you specify from the icon grid.

What would it take for Google to decline?

A recent thread in /r/AskReddit posed a similar question. The comments were revelatory, with plenty of resigned jokes about the heat death of the universe, antitrust proceedings, and the (unlikely) rise of Bing being the only ways for Mountain View’s best to be bested:

  • “The first and most obvious way to cause a decline might be from some sort of anti-monopoly judgement being levied on them causing say for example the search engine portion of google, to be split from the part of google that manages android and chrome.” – /u/icantrecallaccnt
  • “The heat death of the universe. Though they’ll probably buy some quirky startup that’s figured out how to reverse entropy and remain in business forever.” – /u/SoresuMakashi
  • ‘The Big Bing’ – /u/tenillusions
  • “If Chinese mega-sites and portals decide to really take expansion outside of their borders seriously. Baidu, Tencent et al are well on their way.” – /u/Tuxedo_Superman

Granted, there were some thoughtful responses that probed Google’s complacence and ongoing alienation of its important demographics (advertisers, developers – note: not end-users). But I think the issue isn’t so much that Google has gotten fat and happy and turned into Microsoft 2.0 (riding Search, Maps and Gmail the same way Ballmer et al rode Windows XP and Office). Rather, the issue is that Google is desperate.

Odd word choice? Not really – Wired picked up on it recently, too, with the keen observation that the middling Google+ has left Google clinging to ever-declining per-click costs while trying to find something – anything – to help it keep pace with rivals such as Facebook, that, despite having nowhere near Google’s profits, have arguably staked out a better slice of smartphone attention spans. I have often made fun of Facebook for being essentially a channeling of some of the best talents in computer science toward the end of designing hamburger buttons and click-by-accident advertising, but I admit that its new mobile strategy – discrete offerings for messaging, news, etc. – amplifies the threats to Google’s Web-centric business model that have always resided in walled-garden apps.

Still, you’d be hard pressed to find  much appetite in the mainstream technology media for examining Google’s weaknesses. In contrast, Apple – the world’s most profitable company – is often construed as facing near-constant extinction if it doesn’t, say, release a smart watch in the next two months. The inimitable Horace Dediu succinctly broke down the double standard in his post, “Invulnerable” –

“I suspect the absence of scrutiny comes from Google being seen as an analogy of the Internet itself. We don’t question the survival of the Internet so we don’t question the survival of Google — its backbone, its index, and its pervasive ads which, somehow, keep the lights on. We believe Google is infrastructure. We don’t dwell on whether electric grids are vulnerable, or supplies of fuel, or the weather.”

I would go a step further and say that Google is like a church or a cathedral. That is, it is frequently visited, assumed to be a mainstay of the cultural fabric regardless of external economic conditions and – most importantly – it collects little to no money from any of the end users who interact with it. Sure, parishioners may make a slight donation to the local church, but the real funding comes from other sources; likewise, Joe Surfer doesn’t directly pay Google for anything, with the possible exception of a buck or two for extra Google Drive space or Google Play Music All Access. Hence, the actual business of Google is abstracted from consumers, who end up spending little or no time contemplating how or why it could go belly up – it’s not like they can point to reduced foot traffic or ridiculous clearance sales as harbingers of decline.

The signs are there, though:

-Let’s start with Android. Android was a defensive land grab to stop Microsoft and then Apple from shutting Google out of mobile. It has succeeded in terms of worldwide adoption, but it confers on Google nowhere near the profits that iOS has on Apple. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, but it’s symbolic of how Android was never designed from the ground up as a sustainable business but as a vehicle for legacy Google services (there hasn’t been a really great new Google service since Maps in 2005).

As such, Google is always tinkering with Android to make it less like an open source project and more like its own Google service. Peter Bright’s article on forking Android understandably struck a nerve with Google, which is awkwardly trying to maintain Android’s chief competitive advantage (no licensing fees, tons of customization possibilities for OEMs and carriers) while bringing it further under Mountain View’s umbrella.

-One of the best revelations of the ongoing Samsung-Apple legal battle is that Samsung really would like to move on from Android. Samsung isn’t a great leader, but the fact that it would even consider something as nascent as Tizen to take the place of Android on its smartphones lines is telling.

-Google Glass reeks of desperation. Jay Yarow of Business Insider insisted that Google botched Glass’ launch, ensuring that it would never take its apparently rightful place as the successor to the iPad as the next big thing in consumer tech. It’s a computer for the face, with no obvious use case as yet, a crazy price tag, and understandable cultural stigma. Tech media were wrong to puff it up as the Next Big Thing, but consider also the absurdity of this situation: Google is trying to sell a terrible HUD in order to get out ahead of the competition, like Apple did to much better effect with the iPod and then the iPhone.

-It’s not just Glass, either. The Nest acqusition, the Boston Dynamics aquisition, and the obsession with “sci-fi” projects at GoogleX. – Google could be looked at as “shooting for the moon.” Or, it could be viewed instead as desperately trying to find any revenue stream alternative to mobile ads, which just don’t work like desktop ones do and, moreover, are subject to intense competition from social networks and messaging platforms.

-The sci-fi thing merits more attention. Forever ago, I wrote this about Google Glass and its ilk:

By “the future,” commentators usually mean “a reality corresponding to some writer or creative artist’s widely disseminated vision,” which shows the odd poverty of their own imagination as well as the degree to which they often underestimate the power of creative artists/humanities types to drive technological evolution. But can human ingenuity really aspire to nothing more than the realization of a particular flight of fancy? Should we congratulate ourselves for bringing to life the technology from a reality that doesn’t exist?

Trying to actualize the fantasies of sci-fi is not forward-looking; it is, by definition, backward-looking, with respect to someone’s text or vision about what was possible in the past. If someone created a real Death Star today, it would be impressive – as a testament to madness. Why would someone exert such enormous, concerted effort at recreating a technology conceived for recreational purposes in the 1970s, by individuals who had no idea that smartphones, MP3s, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and on on would be invented?

To analyze sci-fi is often to analyze what it doesn’t conceive of. I watched Gattaca recently, a 1997 movie with a setting in the far future. What was in this high-tech future? Big, hulking desktop PCs and keyboards. Sci-fi is the product of constrained imagination (“the future is hard to predict” – Captain Obvious), but imitating it is even more self-defeating. For this reason, I am immensely pessimistic about the prospects of any of Google’s top-secret projects being a breakthrough that would expand its business or appeal in meaningful ways. Sci-fi is a small porthole on the future.

-Google’s customers are advertisers and other businesses, not individuals. It reaches the latter by its presence on platforms that belong to the former – think its default search engine deals for Firefox and Safari. There’s not any real competition on those fronts for now  – Bing is good but has lithe mindshare, and Yahoo is still locked into its deal with Microsoft. But Marissa Mayer is driven to displace Google on iOS, and Apple and Yahoo have a good relationship (Yahoo provides the data for Weather on iOS, for example). As MG Siegler has pointed out, it seems implausible that Apple would go on subsidizing Google, enabling it to make so much money off of iOS, money that it can channel into Android.

-Once one gets into the “Google isn’t invulnerable” mindset, it’s easy to see everything as a weakness, sometimes without good reason. But think about its efforts to bring Chrome OS apps to mobile devices. Such a tack seems defensive – a way to halt the decline of the Web and keep matters squarely in the realm of JS, HTML and CSS. I’ve often argued that Chrome OS is more of a breakthrough than Android (it has the potential to disrupt both the business model of Windows PCs and the essential appeal of tablets), but it looks like it could turn into just a moat for Google’s existing (and, to be fair, highly profitable, at least for now) Web businesses.

-Google+ has become the DNA of Google services. Its profile system is a way of indexing Internet users. It has succeeded in helping Google collect more nuanced data, even if it hasn’t exactly done much to blunt the impact of Twitter, Facebook, and others. But now that Vic Gundotra is leaving, Google+ looks weirdly quaint – like nothing more than Gundotra’s messy senior project for getting hired by another firm. There are already rumors that the Google+ team will be split up and sent to other projects (in the same way that the Google Reader team was once chopped up to work on Google’s initial forays into social).

Look, Google isn’t going to turn into AOL or Yahoo. But it should be increasingly apparent that Google is not synonymous with the Internet at large, and is not guaranteed to constantly occupy so much mind share.

How to Improve your Android Experience (Without Rooting)

If you have a new Android phone or tablet, or even if you have an older Android device that you’re looking to get more out of, then you can upgrade your experience in only a few minutes using a collection of free and paid apps. Fortunately, you won’t have to root your phone or risk damaging its software in anyway along the way.

Most of the apps and services described below require at least Android 4.0. Some of them have free versions, but I’ve linked to the paid version when possible, since I want to support these developers and to promote ad-free software.

1. Install a custom launcher

Nova Launcher

Nova Launcher in action.

What’s a custom launcher? In plain English, it’s the service that is triggered whenever you hit the home button on your phone or open up your all apps drawer. Facebook Home is the most famous custom launcher for Android, but it isn’t good, because it does the opposite of what a good launcher should do: enhance the value of your entire suite of apps and services.

Nova Launcher (Prime) is one of my favorite custom launchers. Here’s what it lets you do:

  • Change how your app icons look: see the entry below on icon packs.
  • Hide icons for unused system apps (without disabling them): you won’t have to skim over “Navigation” or “News and Weather” anymore.
  • Control your home screens with custom gestures: for example, double tap to bring up Nova Settings, pinch-out to show multitasking bar, or pinch-in to see all homescreens, for example.
  • Add unread counts to certain app icons: Android doesn’t support these numbered badges by default.
  • Scroll more quickly thru screens: Nova and other launchers allow for rapid, silky smooth animations and screen transitions.
Settings Android

Nova Settings menu, from which you can hide specific apps or customize your gestures, folders, desktop, and dock.

2. Buy an icon pack or use LINE Deco

Icon Pack Android

The Lustre icon pack for Android, running on Nova Launcher Prime.

Icon packs can beautify your Android experience by giving all of your app icons a unified aesthetic (e.g., make them all blue, or make them all square and flat). They only work if you are running a custom launcher. In many cases, the icon pack will radically change how an app’s icon look and how you think about it: Snapchat may become like a Pac-Man ghost, for example:

Icon Pack Android

SMPL Blue icon pack running on Nova Launcher Prime. Note the Snapchat icon the second from left in the dock.

My favorites include: SMPL Blue, Stark, Vintage, and Lustre. LINE Deco is also a great option since it’s free and has a ton of constantly updated with community contributions:

Screenshot (03:14PM, Apr 13, 2014)

A home screen made with LINE Deco

3. Replace the stock Android keyboard

Swype Keyboard for Android

Swype + Dragon in action.

Android’s keyboard took a quantum leap forward with gesture typing in Jelly Bean, but it’s no match for some of the 3rd-party alternatives available (and said alternatives are essential if you’re running a version of Android that doesn’t support gesture typing out of the box).

My favorite is Swype, which is much more accurate, features a good dictation system (called Dragon), lots of custom gestures, and uses an account system to backup your custom dictionaries. It will literally save you minutes each day by cutting down on stupid autocorrect mistakes or miscues from the stock keyboard.

SwiftKey is another popular alternative. Also, if you don’t have Google Keyboard, it’s free to download.

4. Install Dashclock Widget

Dashclock Widget Android

A sample Dashclock Widget running on Android 4.2.2. Extensions for Eye in Sky Weather, Battery Widget Reborn, inQuotes, and Logika Word of the Day have been added.

Dashclock Widget is a must-have for Android 4.2+. It gives you a rich set of information (unread Gmail/SMS, missed calls, weather) right on your lockscreen, plus it’s highly customizable via slew of 3rd-party extensions.

5. Install DuckDuckGo Search and Stories

Screenshot_2014-08-31-15-27-07

The DuckDuckGo search bar and story feed.

DuckDuckGo is an alternative search engine, but it’s not a second-rate Google clone. It gives the same results to every person (no filter bubble), plus it’s the best generic news reader I’ve ever used on Android. It draws upon various subreddits and leading publications (NYT, WSJ, Re/code, Vox) to provide a fast, unique overview of the day’s news. Plus, it’s compatible with Orbot for secure prowling via a Tor proxy.

6. Install Battery Widget Reborn

Battery Widget Reborn Android

Data from Battery Widget Reborn.

Battery Widget Reborn is an efficient way to keep tabs on your battery level, usage, and history. It has a persistent, expandable notification that can give you estimated battery life remaining (or time until the phone is fully charged) and that can also put the phone into “night mode,” disabling all mobile data, background sync, wifi, and bluetooth for as long as you wish. You can also set up automatic “night mode” periods, such as from 12-8am.

7. Tweak your input settings for better battery life

Battery saving Android

Two of the settings (circled) that can disabled for better battery life.

You can save a ton of battery life on Android by simply tweaking some settings like haptic feedback, lock/unlock sounds, and 2g/3g network usage. I’ve written a more comprehensive entry about battery life here.

8. Install MX Player Pro

MX Player Pro video player Android

MX Player Pro’s default screen.

Android isn’t good at video playback. Luckily, MX Player Pro solves that problem by giving you a clean, hardware-accelerated player with lots of simple gestures.

9. Use top-shelf alternatives to official/stock social network apps

Flipster Pro for Facebook

Flipster Pro for Facebook showing a sample NewsFeed.

The official Facebook app is a battery-drainer and remarkably unstable, too. Twitter has been getting better, but I still prefer a 3rd-party client. Many of these clients, whether they are for Twitter or another network, often have better design and are more battery-efficient (in the case of Facebook and Twitter clients, they refresh less often). Here are some good clients to use:

10. Maximize your widgets

BW Pro / Beautiful Widgets

Beautiful Widgets Pro screensaver/Daydream, with windshield wiper animation to indicate rain.

Many apps have widgets that can display useful information and act as your launcher icon for that app (so that you don’t have to stick its icon in your dock or on your homescreen. There are a lot of good widgets, as well as some good standalone widgets apps like the peerless Beautiful Widgets Pro, which I used to display the current date and weather.

HTC One: The Software/Hardware Divide, and the Birth of the Non-Android Android Flagship

HTC unveiled their new flagship smartphone today. The HTC One (not to be confused with the One X, One V, or One VX – good luck on that) appears to raise the bar yet again for Android phones. With a 1080p display, all-metal encasing, and an entirely re-skinned HTC Sense on top of Android Jelly Bean, the One looks set to battle with Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S4 for dominance of the non-Nexus, highly commoditized Android market.

The One’s industrial design is sleek if uninspired, if such a thing is even possible. With chamfered edges and a preference for metal over glass and/or plastic, the One draws more than a few lessons from the iPhone 5. The Beats Audio branding and new speaker setup give it some cool hardware flair.

But I’m more concerned about how HTC has approached software with the One, more specifically how it has integrated Jelly Bean with its new hardware. If the iPhonesque body weren’t enough of a hint, then the software experience evines that HTC is really trying to create a non-Android Android flagship device. The word “Android” itself wasn’t mentioned, and instead HTC trumpeted the “New Sense,” the fifth version of its Android skin. Particular attention was given to New Sense features like a new hub/live feed called BlinkFeed and a default dock of Gingerbread-esque icons backed up by two capacitive buttons: home and back, with the multitasking key strangely axed.

The tiles in BlinkFeed may recall Windows 8 or Flipboard, but they’re really closest in spirit to the Android 4.2x Google Currents Daydream – a “Daydream” is the screensaver-like feature that is by default activated when you charge your Nexus device without firsts hitting the power button. The Currents Daydream creates a beautiful cascade of stories from your Currents subscriptions, and lets you tap stories as they go by to open them individually in the Currents app. My take is that this feature is cool, but not the type of huge “wow” innovation that market stragglers really need in order to overtake their betters. 

But let’s get back to that business about capacitive buttons in particular. The lack of a multitasking key is baffling – if there’s one thing that Android unequivocally does better than iOS or Windows Phone, it’s multitasking. HTC has opted to hide multitasking behind a double-tap of the home button. Meanwhile, Google Now, one of the hallmark features of Jelly Bean, is buried beneath a long-tap of the home button. John Gruber astutely notes that both long-tap-for-voice and double-tap-to-multitask are iPhone hallmarks, and I think that they feed the narrative of HTC trying to make a non-Android Android blockbuster. But I think that they are depriving users of some of the best features of Jelly Bean.

During a Twitter exchange with The Verge’s Chris Ziegler, another person and I agreed that we basically had forsworn most non-Nexus Android devices. But I think it’s not just because we want timely updates (something that HTC has struggled with, as evinced by the HTC Thunderbolt only now getting ICS); it’s because Google has gotten astonishingly good at design, such that the stock Android experience has far outstripped what any OEM can do with their custom skins.

HTC thrived back when Sense filled in the gaping holes in Android 1.x and even 2.x, when it was barely a proper OS and need real character. We may be getting to the point at which Google is so confident in its design chops, and so intent on selling things directly to customers via a long-touch retail experience, that its stock Holo vision of Android becomes more and more distanced from whatever the likes of HTC and Samsung want to do with their flagships. They’ll either have to diverge from Google’s brand to keep their own brands alive, or adopt Google’s Nexus-like take on Android for the sake of unity (the latter doesn’t seem commercially viable at this point, however).

-The ScreenGrab Team