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Project Ara’s story is all about wasted potential

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After rumors recently surfaced about the cancellation of Project Ara, we now have confirmation from Google that their highly ambitious modular phone will no longer reach the consumer market. Reasons were somewhat vague, but what we do know is that it’s being done to “streamline the company’s hardware efforts.”

It was only last May when we witnessed a revived desire from Google to push the product, complete with a cool trailer and announcement of a possible consumer launch next year. Progress before and after the unveiling was typically silent, and we’ve finally confirmed that it’s been an internal structure issue all along. Now, we think about what could have been a savior for the smartphone industry.


The beginning of the end

Imagine presenting a prototype of your company’s next big thing in front of a worldwide audience, only for it to freeze during bootup and fail to even reach the home screen. No, I’m not talking about an episode of Silicon Valley. That’s actually the nightmare Google experienced back in 2014 when it presented a “working” prototype of its first modular smartphone. Thinking about it now, the incident summarizes the current situation really well.

Project Ara (1)

In the most recent build of Project Ara, you had all the functions you’d expect from the modern-day smartphone you’re accustomed to, along with the ability to plug in your choice of modules to add greater functionality. Upgrades ranging from cameras to replaceable batteries stylishly fit into the main frame to create one unified pocket computer. If you think the process is as simple as playing with Lego blocks, you’re absolutely right.

An eternity in the tech world

What could this have meant for consumers had it become a commercial product? It would have been a possible game-changer in terms of phone upgrade cycles. With a smartphone having limitless module options to keep you busy, ordering that newly launched Samsung Galaxy or Apple iPhone wouldn’t be as tempting anymore.

However, it’s been a long two years since the initial reveal, and much has changed.

It’s important to take note that Project Ara was no longer a fully modular smartphone as of May 2016. The Google phone had its core components fixed into the main frame, meaning you couldn’t touch the processor, internal storage, RAM, and front display. This became a potential deal-breaker for enthusiasts wanting a PC-like handheld gadget they can fiddle around with on the go. The development led to disappointment from the community and the product’s eventual downfall, but it might have also been able to entice a more mainstream market wanting a simpler package.

Project Ara (2)

In exchange for the loss of complexity, the last build came with welcome refinements. Plug and play was possible with certain modules, wherein you could hot swap the unit while the phone was on and even share with other Ara users on the spot. If you wanted to get fancy, saying “Okay Google, eject the camera” commanded the phone to do as it’s told.

Google’s very own

Looking back, it’s easy to forget how big of a deal Project Ara was when it was first announced at Google I/O 2014. Modular phone schematics were tossed around brainstorming sessions prior to that, but it was only when Google unveiled a (partially) working prototype that this concept became closer to commercial reality. Still, the fact that it froze shortly after being turned on established how much of a pipe dream it was back then, and how it continues to be one now.

During Project Ara’s downtime, a couple of companies took a crack at modular designs in attempts to overshadow the hype Google built and lost. The Fairphone 2 was the first modular phone to officially hit the market, and the LG G5 garnered even bigger headlines as a totally revamped flagship device with modular Friends you could attach to its Magic Slot. Most recently, Lenovo launched the Moto Z series, which proves that even partial modularity is still alive and kicking.

And yet, the latest announcement from Google I/O 2016 was more than just about a potential date and a sweet new trailer for Project Ara. Google was finally going to release a smart device that’s truly theirs – free of any partnership from the likes of Huawei or HTC in their long-running Nexus program.

The company’s previous attempt at controlling the hardware process came when it acquired Motorola in 2012. Google then became a competitor for a long list of smartphone brands that rely on Android as their sole operating system. This didn’t fly well with major players such as LG and Samsung, who subsequently secured backups in WebOS and Tizen, respectively, in case Google would suddenly favor its own manufacturing process for the latest Android updates, ultimately discriminating against loyal associates.

It’s uncertain how Project Ara would have impacted the search giant’s relationship with hardware partners as an indirect competitor, since modular phones might create a category of their own some day.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves

Ironically, the highly customizable Project Ara proved that you didn’t have total control over the aesthetics and feel. While the dimensions and weight of the device vary depending on the components equipped, you’re going to end up with a bulky, blocky handset no matter what. LG saw through the weaknesses of a largely modular phone to produce the G5 we’re enjoying today. By allowing only partial modularity from the bottom end of its current flagship, the primary build remains largely intact, so there’s no need to worry about assembling a hideous product.

Our recent unboxing and hands-on review of the G5 and its add-ons showcased how much promise there is in upgrading your handset before committing to a completely different phone the following year or two. Lenovo followed shortly after with the Moto Z and its growing lineup, but it’s too early to gauge its success.

lg-g5-mwc-20160328-02

We’ve been wanting these possibilities for a while now. Smartphone technology in general has stagnated in the past years, with every manufacturer heavily focusing on simply improving on the touchscreen-optimized formula Apple established nearly a decade ago with the original iPhone. If your current smartphone already has a high-resolution display, fast-acting camera, accurate fingerprint scanner, and either a glass or metal physique, there isn’t much more you can ask for outside the realm of modularity. Well, probably better battery life, but we’ll never be satisfied with that, right?

Speaking of batteries, with news of entire Samsung Galaxy Note 7 units being recalled because of a single part, swappable components might be the solution to new-age manufacturing woes.

Or maybe, we simply aren’t ready yet for the complexity of a fully modular smartphone. Consumers have finally moved past DIY solutions for PCs in exchange for the simplicity of owning a razor-thin notebook or all-in-one laptop with as much, if not more, power. Complicating the everyday smartphone could just as easily backfire, and discriminate against users who aren’t that tech-savvy.

It’s not just about the modules anymore

Going back to Google I/O 2014, one of the presenters posed this question: Why choose a phone for its camera, when you could choose a camera for your phone? Project Ara’s vision remained the same until its demise, but we now have a more daunting question to ask: Since we’ve already reached the pinnacle of touchscreen-smartphone convenience, when will we be ready to embrace a more complex form factor?

Project Ara’s Twitter account once wondered if fans were still around after one of its long hiatuses. We, the consumers, haven’t left yet, and taking a look at the official website shows how the developers themselves haven’t let go of the project either.

[irp posts=”7634" name=”Cancelled Project Ara prototype shows up, reveals specs”]

Image Credit: Maurizio Pesce

Features

A beginner’s guide to Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Wizards, unite!

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Niantic, Inc. has just rolled out its brand new game to over 150 countries worldwide over the weekend. Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is also a location-based game that uses augmented reality and builds on the current platform of the company’s games Pokémon Go and Ingress.

Quick disclosure: I’m far from being a Potterhead so I might not get the right terms related to the franchise in this article. Although, I’m a long-time and current player of Pokémon Go hence I checked out Wizards Unite.


Onto the game itself. If you’re like some players I know who would rather just get to the game right away and skip the numerous pages of introduction and dialogues, the main plot of the story is pretty simple. A mysterious event called Calamity has struck resulting in certain magical items and beings to scatter in the real world.

It is your job as part of the Statute of Secrecy Task Force to bring these items, people, and creatures back to the Wizarding World and complete your registry. This registry acts like your Pokédex and tells you what you have and things to look out for.

Throughout the game, you will come across different terms, items, and structures. Let’s take a quick look at the basic elements of the game:

Professions – Just like in the books and movies, you can choose from three types of professions once you reach level six. These are Auror, Magizoologist, and Professor.

Each has its own strengths and weaknesses and complements the other two during battles. It’s important to note that you can later on switch professions if you wish to but the upgrades already bought could no longer be reattributed.

Confoundables vs Foundables – In Wizards Unite, foundables are those you hunt down to bring back to their proper time and location. Meanwhile, you banish the confoundables that are responsible for getting the foundables stuck in our world.

Casting Spells – In order to banish confoundables, you need to cast spells by accurately tracing the pattern shown on your smartphones. There are about ten spells available as of the time of writing but the company says they will eventually be adding more. In addition to accuracy of tracing, speed also plays a big part to achieve a “Masterful” trace (there’s Fair, Good, Great, and Masterful).

Spell Energy –  You’ll need to have spell energy to cast spells. Initially, you’re allotted up to 75 energy points and you use them whenever you try to cast spells on the confoundables. When it reaches zero, it’s basically the equivalent of running out of Pokéballs and you could no longer “catch” foundables.

Structures – Structures like Inns and Greenhouses are your way of getting more spell energy and ingredients to make useful potions. Inns will give out energy by dining in them, while Greenhouses churn out ingredients to make different potions. So playing in areas densely populated with Inns and Greenhouses will ensure you have the resources for a more efficient grinding session.

There’s a third kind of structure and it’s the Fortress. A fortress is a place where up to four friends can join forces and battle together different sets of magical creatures to further upgrade their abilities and come across rarer entries for the registry. Every tier gets tougher and tougher so it encourages players to team up with new players and overcome stronger foes.

Potions – As mentioned earlier, you can concoct your own potions by getting ingredients from Greenhouses. As per usual, these potions vary with different effects and can be used in battles either to heal yourself, make the spell more effective, or prevent the foundable from departing away and missing the chance to add it to your registry.

Portkeys – To get you moving while playing the game, you’ll be able to collect Portkeys that only open after walking certain distances in the real world. Right now there are 2KM/5KM/10KM variations of Portkeys and once it’s opened, it has the power to bring you to different locations so you can collect items and even XP.

Now that most of the basics have been covered, here are some tips to keep in mind while playing based on me and my wife’s experiences.

  • Download all assets as soon as you can. This will make loading times faster while performance will be more stable.
  • Turn on Trace Auto-Align to make encounters with AR slightly faster
  • An Inn with a green color serves up to 10 energy points, purple and blue give up to seven, brown up to six, and a pink one only dishes out a maximum of three energy points.
  • Master Notes are secret patterns that reduce brewing time of potions. Figure it out by checking the available patterns at the Potions Info page.
  • As the stages you battle in Fortresses level up, magical creatures grow stronger. Having a friend to fight alongside you will be needed even more so in the higher tiers of Fortress matches.
  • If you see a floating icon with a beam of light above it, it means it’s a high risk foundable with high rewards. Be sure to get it!

  • Use Dark Detectors for rarer foundables to appear, Exstimulo potions against higher risk foundables, and Baruffio’s Brain Elixir before claiming rewards like Portkeys to get double XP.
  • Flags and smoke from Greenhouses and Inns, respectively, signify they’re still on cooldown.
  • Be sure to have enough energy before battling at Fortresses. Quitting during an unfinished session will render the Runestone useless.
  • Turning off AR during encounters is easier for the phone and will save precious battery life.
  • Just keep on playing. Niantic’s games reward players who just keep on exploring new things (or simply staying) in the game.

If there’s anything we missed or if you want to add to these tips, be sure to leave a comment!

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What to expect at MWC Shanghai 2019

5G. 5G everywhere

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Mobile World Congress 2019 in Shanghai is happening this week and GadgetMatch will be on the ground to bring you the latest updates straight from China.

5G. 5G everywhere

Perhaps the largest talking point during the entire conference is 5G with several of the programs dedicated to discussing the next generation of broadband access.


Huawei, who is currently in the middle of perhaps its biggest challenge, will continue to push for its 5G technology. Especially since the event is happening in their home turf, there should be little to nothing holding back the brand from making a big splash at MWC 2019 in Shanghai.

Just recently, the company has inked a 5G developmental contract with Russia’s biggest telco, MTS. So it would come as no surprise if Huawei will announce something big in relation to 5G tech.

SEE ALSO: Explaining 5G internet

Under-display cameras

OPPO already gave us a sneak peek of their prototype smartphone that features an under-display camera. Various posts online suggests they could be ready to showcase the prototype to the public and MWC is the perfect stage to do so.

Vivo will also be present at the conference. We’re holding out hope that maybe the company is also ready to unveil an under-display camera prototype. However, murmurs online suggests otherwise.

The primary innovators of the pop-up camera might be turning their attention to fast charging. And we say fast, we mean really fast.

 

Details are scarce on how it actually works but everything we’ve gathered online so far suggests that this new fast charging tech from Vivo can fill up a 4,000mAh battery in just 13 minutes.

There’s also a chance that Vivo might announce a device that supports 5G. Whatever it is they have in store, we’re excited to get our hands on it and share it with all of you!

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Watching TWICELIGHTS on a 75″ Samsung 4K QLED TV

Almost as good as attending the concert

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K-Pop girl group TWICE is currently on their first world tour called TWICELIGHTS and due to schedule conflicts as well as an inability to camp out for tickets, I missed all possible chances to see this nine-member group live.

I was devastated after being told that the tickets had already been sold out. This, despite me waking up much, much earlier than I usually do on a weekend and lining up for hours.


So I did the next best thing — watch fancams on the 75” Q90R Flagship QLED 4K HDR 2000 Smart TV.

4K in all its glory

My advice in watching 4K fancams is to select the ones that focus on a certain member. This will give you a better and closer look and really feel that 4K goodness.

That said, the 4K footage will vary depending on the device it was shot at. Some 4K footage don’t do well in concert lighting conditions and when zoomed in which is the case for most fancams.

Despite this, the Samsung Q90R more than delivered. It didn’t matter if I was sitting on the couch directly in front of the TV or over to the side at our dining area. I was getting the same quality no matter the viewing angle.

TWICELIGHTS on the 75” Samsung 4K QLED TV is an absolute joy to watch. Instead of being stuck with a single view, you get to experience the concert from a multitude of perspectives thanks to the various fansites that cover TWICE.

I put together a playlist on YouTube which you can find towards the end of this article. If you see an abundance of Momo and Chaeyoung fancams, this is because those two are my biases.

After watching (and *ehem rewatching) the concert, I had to test what else this TV can do.

4K upscaling

The girls already look good in HD, and they look even better when upscaled to 4K. You see, this is what the TV is capable of. Much like its 8K counterpart, the Q90R is equipped with a chip that upscales footage to 4K.

The music videos, which are mostly just in 1080p, look stunning on the 75-inch 4K QLED display. This is especially true for K-Pop videos that are known to be colorful.

Something we quickly noticed though is that some of the upscaled videos appear a little more saturated than usual. Personally, this didn’t really bother me but it might be important to note for those considering to purchase this TV.

Gaming and watching movies

The saturation doesn’t stop at upscaling. When you switch to game mode, the colors tend to switch to colors that some people might find too aggressive.

We played NBA 2K19 on the monitor and some courts almost hurt your eye because of how strong they appear. This wasn’t the case for other games though.

Try playing God of War or even Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice on this thing and you’ll be exposed to some of the best video game visuals your eyes will ever lay your eyes on.

The same is true when watching movies built for 4K machines. It’s a perfect blend of “damn this looks like I’m actually seeing them in real life” while maintaining that cinematic feel. Words aren’t enough, you truly need to see this in person.

With Netflix, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime Video pre-installed, you won’t run out of 4K content to go through. My only gripe is that the TV doesn’t support the NBA App. Basketball is one of the few things I actually try to watch live but that’s not possible unless I have a cable subscription which I have no plans of getting any time soon.

At first I thought this was just a glitch on the particular unit we were lent but Samsung confirmed that they currently do not support the NBA app. However, they added that they are “looking to find ways to improve customer experience by expanding our content services and apps available in our smart TVs.”

Casting issues

There weren’t a lot but I did experience some casting issues on the Q90R. YouTube worked perfectly but other apps like VLive struggled to connect right away unlike when I’m just using a chromecast.

There’s also this little hiccup when you want to watch Facebook videos. The TV will force you to use the Facebook Watch app and have to connect a single user’s account to the TV versus anyone just being able to cast a video as long as they are connected to the same wifi network.

It’s a minor inconvenience although it could be an issue if you have to have more than one person connect their Facebook account to the TV just so they have easy access to the Facebook videos they prefer watching. That said, I don’t imagine a lot of people need to use Facebook Watch to begin with.

Truly a Smart TV

One of the things I truly appreciate about the Q90R is how seamless you interact with it. The remote and the TV’s interface is well thought-out.

The Q90R foregoes the usual remote in favor of what looks like a circular directional pad which works perfectly on the TV’s interface. The other buttons can also be easily located by feeling your way on the remote. Adjusting the volume is as simple as pushing up or down on a button.

You can, of course, use the mic and ask Bixby to do things on the TV for you but personally that’s not my thing. I don’t want to have to speak when interacting with my TV but I find that this can be a useful way for other people.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

The 75” Q90R Flagship QLED 4K HDR 2000 Smart TV is an entertainment powerhouse. It’s perfect for family gatherings and inviting a large group of friends for some Netflix and chilling. It’ll set you back at PhP 399,999 (roughly around US$ 7800).

However, if you have an extra PhP 200,000 lying around, you might want to opt for the 8K version which retails for PhP 599,999 (roughly around US$ 11,700) which puts you in better position to be ready for the future. If not, the 4K isn’t shabby at all.

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