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Why do Android updates arrive so late?

And what Google has been doing to solve it

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With new devices popping up left and right, more and more people now have access to the latest Android operating system (OS) and its technologies. From artificial intelligence (AI)-powered cameras to smoother, simpler designs to the user interface, Android has been looking to attract more users to its platform over the past few years.

However, there are consumers who own or wish to buy cheaper devices that still unfortunately use the older versions of Android, and wonder if they get to experience the new updates for themselves — only for them to realize that it’s the end of the line for their gadgets.

Updates arrive slower, mostly in small parts, and sometimes the entire OS cannot be upgraded any further. The questions Android developers have been facing from consumers within the last few years are these: Why do updates arrive so late, and what is Google doing about it?

The Android way

The Android operating system is one big, open-source platform for developers and manufacturers. This means that they are given the liberty to modify such software to introduce and improve their products. Android smartphone companies are able to set themselves apart from the others mostly because of this approach towards the unique interfaces.

According to Google’s Android Developers website, 63.2 percent of Android devices in the market run on older Android systems than Android 7.0 Nougat; manufacturers opt to sell their devices with much older software due to their insistence of applying their own Android “skins” or their own version of the OS.

Companies such as Xiaomi, Samsung, Huawei, and ASUS customize the Android operating systems to give users a unique experience when using their devices. Xiaomi’s MIUI 10 and Samsung’s Experience bring new features for AI and major redesigns for their latest smartphones. ASUS’ ZenUI offers features that support the gaming capabilities of their smartphones, while Huawei’s EMUI allows you to sync your LinkedIn account to your address book.

Implementing such skins either limits the number of updates the device receives, or it makes the gadget no longer upgradeable. This is how Android fragmentation works, and unfortunately, is also the reason you can’t get your older Android device to upgrade to the latest software easily.

People were excited when several companies announced which smartphones would receive an upgrade to Android 8.0 Oreo over the past few months. However, only about six percent of devices have the update ready for users either due to delays in the rollout or because of bugs that affected the device’s performance.

Android fragmentation has become a problem for third-party developers, especially those who were hoping to use the newer and more updated software to create better games and utility apps for people. Because of fragmentation, developers are limited to the older and less secure versions of Android, as well as the codes and programs that come with it.

The applications these developers make are not guaranteed to work without encountering problems along the way. The late arrival of updates hampers the developers’ ability to make any changes to their applications, and even put the user’s safety at risk.

Google’s plan of action

At present, the developers at Google did a number of projects for updates to arrive faster and all at once for third-party developers and phone manufacturers.

They came up with pure Android software known as Android One, and they encouraged device manufacturers to create smartphones using the Android One OS. Android One became Google’s standard for manufacturers and developers to use in their new devices and applications. With smartphones incorporating Android One, updates become more regular and can be streamlined across multiple devices all at once.

Android One was already available on a few devices since its initial launch in 2014, from the Cherry Mobile G1 to the Xiaomi Mi A1. However, the pure Android OS disappeared for a while because the software itself gave no freedom for manufactures to differentiate themselves. Eventually, Android One found itself back in the market with Nokia spearheading the effort to reintroduce it with the likes of the well-received Nokia 7 Plus.

Don’t confuse Android One with Android Go, Google’s cut-down version of its Android OS, however. While Android One is the standard Android software Google wants to apply across all devices, Android Go is designed for entry-level devices. Devices running Android Go will be able to maximize storage options and mobile data management for you, so you will be able to do many things with your phone without worrying about space and data consumption.

The latest experiment: Project Treble

Another project undertaken by Google to address the fragmentation issue is Project Treble. Project Treble is a service offered to users to help streamline the process of updating their software to the latest version from Android, and is currently offered to devices that have Android Oreo installed out of the box.

What Project Treble does is that it allows manufacturers to deliver the updates themselves, without having to go through long and expensive processes to deliver them. This also allows developers themselves to create applications using new codes and programs provided by the Android software.

Following Project Treble was the release of the beta version for Android P. Like in previous iterations, Google did this so developers can already work on their own software-specific applications and technologies that fit the profile Android P brings to the table. Of course, the beta version is still only available to a select number of companies working on new devices, but it will be available across all devices once a final version is released.

Initially, Project Treble and Android P Beta were only available on Google’s Pixel phones, but they’ve now branched out to non-Pixel phones, as well. Treble is available for all new devices that have Android Oreo pre-installed, so developers can experience Android P Beta and work around the new software. A list of devices that already support Android P Beta can be found here and on Android’s Developer website.

What’s next for Android?

With Project Treble and Android continuously bringing updates to the platform faster to consumers, Google is hoping to have just one centralized operating system in the future. Over the past year, Google has been working on Fuchsia, designed to be the central operating system that is potentially going to replace both Chrome OS and Android in the near future. Fuchsia is expected to further streamline updates as a way of fighting Android fragmentation.

Android P is still in its beta version as of writing, meaning that Google is getting feedback from companies that have devices already powered or tested using the latest Android software over the past few months. Google is constantly working on better and faster ways for software updates to reach Android devices, provided that such devices have the necessary hardware to accommodate the upgrades.

For third-party developers, Google has even made their services more accessible to older Android devices. Recently, it gave older devices access to the company’s virtual assistant service, Google Assistant, as long as these devices were running at least an Android 5.0 Lollipop system.

With all these developments for Android, it’s safe to say that Google has done what it can to address the issue on updates arriving so late, so don’t worry if your phone is still running on an older Android OS, because Google hasn’t forgotten you.

Illustrations by Yanni Panesa

Explainers

What you need to know about Elon Musk’s Starlink

The much-awaited internet service is coming sooner than later

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Image by GadgetMatch

Over the last few weeks, reports started pouring in about the possible arrival of Starlink internet service to the Philippines under a partnership between Converge ICT and SpaceX. These reports came after a senator’s meeting with representatives of SpaceX discussing the benefits, possible timeline, and requirements needed from the internet service.

These reports quickly became the talk of the town especially with the frenzy surrounding Starlink. You may have heard it before given the media attention it had received in the past. SpaceX — the company behind Starlink — promised fast network speeds and coverage almost anywhere around the planet with its internet service. There’s so much more to that though, so here are the things you need to know.

What is Starlink?

For those out of the loop, Starlink is a satellite internet service provided by SpaceX. SpaceX is a company founded by Elon Musk that builds next-gen space exploration technologies. The company is also behind the high-profile launches of reusable rockets as well its plans to bring people to Mars.

Starlink works through a constellation of small satellites. These satellites are placed in low to medium Earth orbit, communicating signals through an array of antennas and lasers. They work in tandem with dedicated ground transceivers to receive from and transmit signals to the satellites. In effect, the internet service relies on satellites instead of physical cables to provide an internet connection to consumers.

Image by GadgetMatch

The technology behind Starlink is not a novel one, with the first satellite internet service dating back to the 1990s. However, most of these services ultimately failed due to logistical constraints and the prohibitive costs involved in setting things up. Granted, there had been few services that have seen some success but their adoption is few and far between. Reducing latency and lowering costs for consumers remain major challenges to many satellite internet providers.

Wanting to improve the whole situation, SpaceX began product development of Starlink in 2015. By 2018, it began testing its satellites which culminated in the launch of operational ones last 2019. Just last year, the company reached a milestone by launching up to 60 satellites at a time. This 2021, it is setting its sights for the global coverage of the populated world. Ultimately, SpaceX aims to put about 42,000 satellites in orbit in the future.

One goal of Starlink is to provide people in remote areas with a fast and reliable internet connection, which means a lot for developing countries like the Philippines.

How do I sign-up for the service?

Right now, the company is offering a limited beta service in the US and Canada. If you live in areas where the service is available, you can go ahead and sign-up for the service on Starlink’s website. Not all who signed up can avail of the service though since they are limiting their users at the moment on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you’re lucky, you may receive an email containing further instructions.

What does it feel like to use the service?

During its beta phase, Starlink claims speeds of 50 to 150 Mbps. Latency — which is also a crucial factor in internet-related tasks such as gaming and streaming — ranges from 20ms to 40ms. These figures are far from the advertised 1Gbps speed, as well as the advertised latency of 25ms to 35ms.

Still, those figures are fast enough for everyday use, especially when compared to other satellite internet services. Those figures are also close to the actual experiences by people participating in the limited beta service. For its part, Starlink promises continued improvement to network speed, latency, and software.

Image by GadgetMatch

At the moment, the cost of signing up for Starlink is much higher than availing of a cable internet connection. The satellite setup kit is reported to cost around US$ 499 (PhP 24,000) while monthly fees start at US$ 99 (PhP 5,000). In comparison, PLDT’s internet plans max out at PhP 6,099 for 300Mbps while Globe’s internet plans max out at PhP 9,499 for 1Gbps.

To get connected, Starlink users must configure their setup kits and download the respective app. Each setup kit consists of the satellite dish, Wi-Fi router, power supply, cables, and a mounting tripod.

A clear view of the sky is also a prerequisite for a stable connection. As a note, weather disturbances can affect the connection between the user and the satellite infrastructure.

Starlink also requires its setup equipment to be stationary at all times. This is unlike cellular networks, which are designed to be mobile. While it offers a “wireless” connection to the internet, it still is “fixed” in the sense that it requires constant communication between the transceiver (the satellite dish) and the orbiting satellites.

When is it really coming to the Philippines?

Recent reports suggest that Starlink is coming soon to the country, but no definitive timeline has been given. Rumors suggested that the service will arrive later in Q3 2021. The most recent development squash any hopes of imminent arrival though, with Converge ICT stating that the partnership is still “premature”.

During the later weeks of February, however, Filipinos who signed up for Starlink started receiving a reservation email. The reservation fee costs around US$ 99 (approximately PhP 5,000) though it is fully refundable too. The email also details a possible coverage of the whole country by 2022. The exact date, however, remains unclear at the moment.

Likewise, the internet service still has many obstacles towards its widespread adoption in the country. The initial cost for would-be subscribers comes to mind. As mentioned, the approximate cost of Starlink hovers at PhP 24,000 with a monthly fee amounting to PhP 5,000. For that cost, you are getting better speeds with local telco offerings.

Despite its high cost, the promise of a fast and reliable internet connection is tempting especially in far-flung areas. Reaching out to these far-flung areas is a major challenge for all local telcos since the necessary physical infrastructure is non-existent or hard to setup.  Starlink could reach these areas easily, providing internet connection to those willing to shell out money.

Are there any other things that I should know about the service?

Starlink has garnered some concerns as well, with most directed towards its potential to cause light pollution. The potential to contribute to light pollution is a particular concern for astronomers. Apparently, Starlink’s satellites are bright enough to leave a trail of light, “photobombing” shots of the night sky. To this end, SpaceX said that it is already working on a solution to amend the problem.

As Starlink continues to push forward, more and more people are hoping to get aboard with the service. After all, a fast and reliable internet connection is still far from reality for many people living in remote areas. Hopefully, the service would come sooner as this will greatly improve the current situation of the internet in the Philippines.

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The industry’s next big thing: Cloud gaming explained

It’s gaming on the go, but for internet that’s not slow

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Everybody’s getting into gaming these days, and you can’t blame them. With the pandemic continuing its ravaging ways in the world, people turn to their consoles or PCs for some action. However, not everyone can afford all the expensive PCs and the next-gen consoles when they come out.

Instead, a new player comes into the fray with a pretty great idea. What would happen if you can just play your favorite games from any device? Also, what if we told you that this won’t take up space on your device at all? This is basically what cloud gaming offers to you: a way to play games from any device at any time!

So, how does that actually work? What do you need to ensure quality gameplay, and should you even consider it?

The basics of playing on a cloud

On paper, it’s pretty easy to understand how cloud gaming works. Basically, you have access to a library of games from a cloud storage service. When you subscribe to the service, you can virtually play your library from any device regardless of the specs. Also, you don’t have to worry about storage problems since these games are stored on a server.

It’s no joke when these companies tell you that you can play your games on any device. With their dedicated data servers, they make sure that the games run smoothly once you access them from the cloud. On your end, you will need a strong and consistent internet connection to play the games smoothly.

Several companies already have cloud gaming software available for people to subscribe to. Some examples include NVIDIA’s GeForce Now, Microsoft’s xCloud, and Google Stadia — all of which store PC games on a server. These companies even take the time to update their server hardware every so often to bring the best possible quality.

System requirements for cloud gaming

Much like your ordinary PC or gaming console, companies that run cloud gaming servers need certain equipment to run smoothly. First, these companies must set up active data centers and server farms that run the games. These data centers ensure that games are up and running, while reducing latency. In other words, these serve as the powerhouse of cloud gaming.

Next on the list is the network infrastructure necessary to send these to the users. To ensure that people don’t experience lags when they play their games, companies also invest in acquiring proper data connections. However, in most cases, this isn’t something these companies have control over; it’s mostly coming from their available internet service providers.

On the front-end, companies also provide dedicated hardware and software to house the cloud. For example, NVIDIA integrated GeForce Now into their own cloud streaming device, the NVIDIA Shield back in 2013. Meanwhile, Google Stadia relies heavily on using pre-existing Google software like Google Chrome and the Stadia App.

Something great to offer, for the most part

Cloud gaming services offer something unique in the industry. Essentially, it eliminates the user from investing so much into buying expensive PCs as it allows people to play from virtually any device. Whether it’s on a smartphone, laptop, or even a smart TV, people get access to games at high frame rates without an RTX 3080.

Furthermore, the game and save files are stored on the cloud, and don’t take up any storage on your devices. This is greatly beneficial for people who are already running on limited storage space, especially if they play Call of Duty: Warzone. With everything stored on the cloud, you don’t need most of the 512GB of SSD storage.

However, one of the biggest issues with cloud gaming revolves around the thing it’s based on: the internet. Specifically, it’s on the user’s internet connection as these services require the fastest internet to run smoothly on any device. Basically, you will need either an Ethernet or a 5G wireless connection to ensure the lowest latency possible.

That infrastructure isn’t readily available in most markets, which is a prominent issue among several third-world countries. Furthermore, even if there are companies that have 5G in their pipeline, these same providers also put data caps on it. Even if the user can play at an optimal frame rate, they’re doing so with a restriction in place.

Does this new player have any place?

With the world continuously opening its arms to the gaming industry, innovation becomes the forefront of success. Companies come up with a variety of gaming technologies that seek to cater to a wide variety of people. From individual hardware to pre-built systems, gaming often revolved around these things.

With cloud gaming, it gives people not just another option within the mix. Rather, it seeks to challenge the notion of availability and accessibility, and give it a viable solution. Essentially, it takes away the physical hardware limitations on the user’s end, and makes it available for everyone.

But like most gaming technologies, everything is still limited somehow. These systems still experience bottlenecks both on the manufacturer and the user’s end. In the end, it will depend on how much you’re willing to shell out for them, and how willing you are to accept the risks.

Illustrations by Raniedel Fajardo

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Your MagSafe Questions Answered

Do you really need it?

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If you’ve ever owned an old MacBook before, you’ll know that those chargers magnetically snap onto place. That particular technology is called the ‘MagSafe’.

After the MacBook Pro touch bar and USB-C overhaul last 2016, everyone thought MagSafe ended for good. Not until they announced the new MagSafe for the iPhone 12 series four years later.

The MagSafe technology might not be new but the implementation for the latest iPhones makes the technology even more usable. Other than the securely-placed phone for wireless charging, there are a plethora of case manufacturers who continuously work on future accessories that support MagSafe existing ecosystem.

But is the Apple MagSafe more than just a gimmick? And do you really need it?

Watch our in-depth Apple MagSafe explainer here.

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