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19
Dec

This was the year of VR, until AR stole it


This was supposed to be the year of virtual reality, but barely had 2016 started when Microsoft threw a spanner in the works with the announcement of HoloLens. Rather than taking us to a virtual world, Microsoft’s headset pulls virtual objects into our own. Microsoft calls these objects Holograms, much to the chagrin of hologram enthusiasts, but most people know them as tenets of mixed, or augmented, reality. It’s already being touted as the next next big thing.

Of course, 2016 was full of VR. With spring came the retail launch of the Oculus Rift and HTC’s Valve-endorsed Vive. Both require two things: a lot of cash and a lot of power. The Rift costs $599 while the Vive is $799 (including controllers and tracking accoutrements). But then you need to factor in the price of a PC that can support the high-fidelity, high-speed visuals VR requires. A typical all-in price started from $1,500, putting it out of the range of all but the most ardent of gamers. That price has dropped and will continue to drop as cheaper, better graphics cards are released.

There are no firm figures for how many VR kits have been sold. Steam statistics suggest that just 0.34 percent of its users in November had a headset. Even counting gamers who don’t use Steam, that would likely put the total figure sold across both Vive and Oculus at well under a million. That estimation is in line with VR analytics group SuperData Research, which projected around 450,000 HTC Vive sales and 355,000 Oculus Rift sales for 2016.

Just as Oculus and HTC should’ve been dominating the news cycle, Magic Leap, the secretive Google-backed mixed reality (MR) startup, finally broke cover with a Wired feature. Magic Leap is basically promising to do the same things as HoloLens, but better.

Details are scant, but rather than projecting images onto a portion of a giant helmet (like Microsoft’s headset), Magic Leap will beam light into your eyes, using a system called Dynamic Digitized Lightfield Signal to give these objects depth and solidity. The company has yet to show off any hardware or software or even suggest a year when its tech will be ready, but it’s nonetheless one of the best-funded startups around. Wired’s Magic Leap feature came in April, within weeks of the Vive and Rift launches. The timing was obvious, and the message was clear: There’s something better around the corner.

In the meantime, an ex-Google startup with a couple dozen employees was preparing to steal everyone’s attention with a mobile game. I’m talking about Niantic, of course, and Pokémon Go, which was undoubtedly the hit game of the summer, if not the year.

Somewhat erroneously referred to as an augmented reality (AR) game, Pokémon Go is better described as a location-based game, like geocaching, with a pervasive layer on top. Definitions aside, there can be no doubt that AR has been a big part of its huge success. When catching Pokémon, players are shown a live feed from their device’s camera with a monster overlaid. Hundreds of thousands of people shared these images on social media, helping spread intrigue about the game.

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Before long, packs of Pokémon hunters were roaming New York, London, Paris and other locations around the world, searching for new monsters and using an AR system to help catch them. Unlike Niantic’s last game, Ingress, this wasn’t just geeks and gamers. I can count on one hand the number of Ingress players I know. With Pokémon Go, I can count on one hand the people I know who didn’t play it. My 64-year-old mom played. My 10-year-old son played. It felt like, at one point, almost everyone gave it a shot. By the time Niantic announced an Apple Watch app for Pokémon Go, the game had already been downloaded 500 million times. That’s a ridiculous number.

Of course, crazes rise and fall, and it’s safe to say that Pokémon Go is, if not gone, seemingly on its way out of the public’s imagination. But its impact remains. My colleague Kris Naudus referred to Pokémon Go as AR’s aha moment, and I agree. For a fleeting minute, the game brought a little Pokémon magic into our world. It’s one of the most basic implementations of AR around, but we found it compelling. That should be encouraging for Microsoft, Magic Leap and any other company that’s planning a mixed or augmented reality product.

So where does that leave virtual reality? Well, there are still plenty of headsets out there, and VR is not going away anytime soon. Sony launched the PlayStation VR just a month ago, and it’s expected to equal Vive and Rift sales combined by the year’s end. It’s not that PSVR offers a better experience than its PC-based cousins. It’s just a lot cheaper — $399 to $499, depending on your needs — and has a way bigger reach. Steam stats suggest little over 10 percent of PC gamers have a VR-ready computer. Every PlayStation 4 owner can plug in a PSVR and get started. That gives Sony somewhere between two and four times the potential audience.

And even PSVR’s prospective audience is dwarfed by the potential market for smartphone VR. Google has sold cheap Cardboard viewers for a couple of years, but this year the company announced Daydream, a new initiative to bring a more premium VR experience to mobile users. Daydream View is a $79, comfortable headset sold with a bundled motion controller. At present, only Google’s Pixel and the updated Moto Z are Daydream-certified — a side effect of the high standard of experience that Google is hoping to maintain — but you can bet that many Android phones will support the standard in 2017.

VR, AR, MR and every other “R” need to coexist for a while. For now virtual reality is the easiest to pull off — software and hardware makers have the fewest things to keep track of and complete control of the virtual environment — and also the most developed. It’s fairly easy for a developer to build a VR app or for a manufacturer to make a VR-ready phone. Mixed reality is clearly harder.

Microsoft’s HoloLens is effectively a wearable computer, making thousands of calculations every second just to understand its environment. And its limitations, such as field of view, are way more apparent than those of a VR headset. The virtual objects of HoloLens have to be small enough — or faraway enough — to fit into a small square in the middle of the headset. You simply can’t see the whole illusion. Perhaps Magic Leap already has the answer to that problem, but given how many years it’s been in development — and how little it’s shown so far — it’s likely not a simple thing to figure out.

In 2017, Microsoft’s partners will release a handful of $300 VR headsets for Windows. Rather than competing with existing VR products, these headsets are more like a diet HoloLens. You’ll get the same experience, interface and apps as HoloLens, but your entire environment will be virtual. Think of it like a gateway drug for mixed reality. In one swoop, it’s getting both developers and users ready for MR, without the tribulations of dealing with first-generation, hyper-expensive headsets.

At the same time, Google is currently working on a device that uses cameras and algorithms to display mixed reality inside a virtual reality headset. It’s essentially going to be a combination of VR and Google’s Tango computer vision efforts, with a lot of extra smarts added on top. Again, the project seems almost like a stepping-stone toward a more complete mixed reality experience. The device has yet to be announced, but sources familiar with the matter say it’s of great importance to the company.

The dark horse in all of this is Apple. As is tradition, there’s been a lot of speculation and questions asked about the company’s plans for virtual, augmented and mixed reality. CEO Tim Cook has said that AR is more interesting than VR, as it’s less closed off and more social. The company has already acquired an AR company, and it has experts in the field within its ranks. Its iPhones clearly have the power and sensors to pull off a Daydream-like VR experience immediately, but it’s obviously waiting to offer something more compelling to its users.

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There can be no doubt that ‘virtual reality’ headsets like the Vive, Rift and Daydream View are just a stopgap until mixed reality is ready.

There can be no doubt that “virtual reality” headsets like the Vive, Rift and Daydream View are just a stop-gap until mixed reality is ready. That probably sounds like a bold statement, but it’s easy to justify. Mixed reality headsets will, at some point make virtual objects appear solid. HoloLens isn’t there yet, sure, but Magic Leap claims to be, and you can be sure Microsoft is working on it.

Once these headsets are able to display opaque objects and cover our entire field of view, developers and creatives will have total control over what we see. They can decide to mix or augment our surroundings, like we’ve already seen with Magic Leap and HoloLens, or completely scrap that environment and put us in a virtual space, like with a VR headset. It should only take a few taps to send us to an augmented reality, a virtual one and back to our own.

This year showed millions of people how fun it can be to see a digital creation entering their world. And maybe 2017 won’t be the year, but as technology catches up to its aspirations, we might soon be able to see how fun it is to have millions of digital creations do the same.

Check out all of Engadget’s year-in-review coverage right here.

19
Dec

‘Minecraft’ for Apple TV arrives today


A big part of Mincraft’s success is how the game is available on basically every platform you can think of. Today, that list got one longer: Minecraft is now available on the Apple TV. As usual, it’s the Minecraft experience you know and perhaps love, but with a few things missing. Namely, the multiplayer Minecraft Realms and Xbox Live support, though the developers say those features will be added in the “near future.” The $19.99 entry price gets you the game as well as seven DLC packs: the Holiday 2015, Town Folk and City Folk skin packs as well as the Plastic, Natural, Cartoon, and Festive 2016 “mash-ups.”

Minecraft was first announced for Apple TV by Tim Cook at Apple’s October MacBook Pro refresh event, though details on how the game would play were slim. But the game sounds like it’ll be pretty up-to-date, aside from those missing multiplayer features. The Apple TV edition will include the just-announced “Ender update,” which brings a whole bunch of new single-player content to the experience. If you want to check it all out, you can go grab the app on Apple TV now.

Source: Minecraft

19
Dec

The best extension cords for your home and garage


By Mark Smirniotis

This post was done in partnership with The Sweethome, a buyer’s guide to the best homewares. When readers choose to buy The Sweethome’s independently chosen editorial picks, it may earn affiliate commissions that support its work. Read the full article here.

After researching over a dozen different options, reviewing National Electrical Code guidelines, talking with safety-testing experts at UL, and cutting apart nine cords to inspect their quality, we recommend the 50-ft Voltec Yellow Outdoor Extension Cord to most people because it has the most durable strain-relief neck, the strongest and smoothest connection, and a rugged outer jacket—all of which should last for years. It’s available in 25-foot and 100-foot lengths as well.

Which cord you need

It’s easy to head to the hardware store and grab the cheapest extension cord in the length you need, but not all cords are created for the same tasks. The most versatile cords are stamped with a W (in a rating that looks something like “SJTW”) to signify that the jacket is moisture and UV light resistant. That means it’s rated for use in a sunny backyard or a damp basement. Because a well-cared-for extension cord should last years, through any type of household use, all of our top picks 25 feet or longer are either W-rated or otherwise moisture and UV resistant.

The more current you plan to pull through a cord, the thicker (lower gauge number) the conductive wire needs to be. Additionally, longer distances require thicker wires to keep the voltage steady from start to finish. If your wire is too thin for the distance and current that you need, resistance in the cord will cause heat to build up, which eventually leads to a melted jacket, sparks, and fire. For more on extension cord safety and care and maintenance, read our full guide.

How we picked

We looked at each part of a cord to compare how well they’re made to handle years of use and abuse. Photo: Mark Smirniotis

After looking at the ratings and cost per foot of models from multiple retailers, we examined the construction of each cord relative to one another to find the details that set the best ones apart. Because there aren’t many editorial extension cord reviews, we looked at user reviews to get a sense of the long-term durability of the cords we considered.

We looked at cords on Amazon, and for the best reasonably priced cords available in big-box hardware stores. We cut each cord open to measure how the copper conductors, their individual jackets, and outer jackets contributed to a cord’s diameter.

On top of that, we made note of how the receiving end of the extension cord accepted a plug. We also looked at each plug’s strain-relief neck connection, which prevents the plug and cord from pulling away from each other and exposing the wiring inside.

Our favorite extension cords are 50 feet long

The strain relief neck on the Voltec cord is much longer and more durable than any other cord’s. Photo: Mark Smirniotis

If you get only one extension cord, get the Voltec Industries 50-ft Yellow Outdoor Extension Cord. It’s not much more expensive than the cords you’ll find in store, but it blows them away in terms of cable quality, connector durability—and most notably—the connection fit. We think 50 feet is a good catchall size, as it’s enough to get around a two-car garage, and feed power from one room to another room. It’s also not as heavy, cumbersome, or expensive as a 100-foot cord. The biggest downside to the Voltec cord is that the huge, durable connector may not fit into tight receptacles—particularly on yard equipment like leaf blowers or hedge trimmers.

Runner-up: Less tough for less money, and better with yard equipment

The US Wire cord doesn’t have quite as nice a connection or as strong a strain relief as our top pick, but it’s up to 30 percent cheaper. Photo: Mark Smirniotis

If you want to save a few bucks but still want a quality extension cord, the US Wire 740XX series of cords is almost as good as our top pick from Voltec. Part of what we loved about the Voltec was how smooth yet strong the connection was between it and a device cord. US Wire doesn’t perfectly duplicate this feeling, but there’s equally little chance that you’ll have to force a plug in or have one fall out.

The most obvious sacrifice is the less robust strain-relief neck. Though the connector itself is lighted from within and solid—just like on the Voltec—the neck of the cord isn’t any longer than the average cord. Because this is an obvious point of failure, we think the Voltec is worth the slightly higher price in most cases.

Shorter and longer cords

Both of our favorite and runner-up 50-foot cord picks have a 25-foot version with the same features. Though we looked only at one size of each cord, we found no difference in specs or information about the other cords from the same product line. Overall though, 50-foot cords are a better value—our 50-foot picks cost 92¢ and 65¢ per foot compared with $1.12 and 92¢ per foot, respectively, in the 25-foot versions.

If you need a longer cord, the 100-foot version of the Voltec cord still has the sturdier strain-relief neck that makes it a more durable cord overall. Though we didn’t go hands-on with the 100-foot version, all the same specs apply. But 100-foot cords get expensive and heavy, and we realize that not everyone is going to want to spend quite so much. In that case, the US Wire 74100 100-Feet Extension Cord is a completely reasonable option and roughly 30 percent cheaper.

Our pick for light-duty, indoor use

Photo: Mark Smirniotis

Indoor cords are meant only for simple, low-power uses like reaching a lamp on your side table or plugging in a phone charger. We recommend the GE Wall Hugger Extension Cord over the cheap cords that you’ll find in all corners of the Internet and discount stores for two reasons. First, the flat plug is safer and less likely to get knocked out when plugged in behind furniture, and second, it’s properly tested and rated.

If you decide to grab one of these at a local shop, look for a UL or Intertek ETL safety rating, and spend a couple bucks more to get a cord from a brand you recognize. For more on extension cord safety, read our full guide.

This guide may have been updated by The Sweethome. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

Note from The Sweethome: When readers choose to buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn affiliate commissions that support our work.

19
Dec

Minecraft Launches on Apple TV Today for $19.99


Following a reveal during the “Hello Again” event in October, Mojang has now announced that Minecraft will officially launch today for the fourth-generation Apple TV. The exploration and crafting game is said to be “rolling out in all regions” throughout the day.

Minecraft for Apple TV will also come with seven pieces of DLC, including Holiday 2015, Town Folk, and City Folk skin packs, along with other add-ons “for a limited time.” Otherwise, the game is similar to every other version of Minecraft, tasking users with venturing into a randomly generated world and customizing it to their liking.

We’ve just released Minecraft for the slim black boxes. And, for a limited time, it comes with seven pieces of lovely DLC, giving you the chance to customise the fun to your liking. Minecraft: Apple TV Edition currently includes the Holiday 2015, Town Folk, and City Folk skin packs, along with the Plastic, Natural, Cartoon, and Festive 2016 mash-ups. It costs $19.99 and is rolling out in all regions as I type.

The Apple TV version will also be up to date with the all-new Ender Update that Minecraft just launched. For those interested, Minecraft for Apple TV will cost $19.99.

Related Roundups: Apple TV, tvOS 10
Tag: Minecraft
Buyer’s Guide: Apple TV (Caution)
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19
Dec

AirPods Launch at Apple Stores in United States as First Online Orders Delivered


AirPods have officially launched in the United States and Canada, as Apple Stores begin to open with limited stock available on a first come, first served basis.

AirPods line at Apple Georgetown in Washington D.C. (Source: MacRumors reader Alexander)
As seen in Europe earlier today, customers lined up at a number of Apple retail locations from coast to coast for a chance to purchase AirPods in time for the holidays. The all-new wire-free earphones launched online last week, but supplies depleted quickly and orders now face a 6-week shipping estimate.

MacRumors reader sktgater claimed Apple’s iconic Grand Central store had plenty of AirPods stock this morning, while other users reported successful purchases in Chicago; Washington D.C.; Brooklyn; Menlo Park, NJ; Pittsburgh, PA; Tysons Corner, VA; Charlotte, NC; Greenville, SC; Metairie, LA; and elsewhere.

walnut-creek-airpodsAirPods line at Apple Walnut Street in Philadelphia (Source: Instagram)
Meanwhile, customers are lined up at Apple Palo Alto and other west coast stores as limited stock appears to be readied for those queued.

In-store stock is unsurprisingly depleting quickly due to a combination of limited stock—under 100 units in most stores—and strong demand. MacRumors reader Chris told us the Apple Store in Knoxville, Tennessee only received one pair of AirPods today, while many other locations have already sold out for the day.

“About a dozen people in line at Sherway Gardens,” said one Reddit user, referring to a shopping mall in Toronto. “Staff said they got 40 or so pair.” Another user said he was third in line at the Apple Store in Square One, a shopping mall in nearby Mississauga. “Only a small crowd of 10. Employee claims 50-60 units in stock.”

Apple’s in-store Personal Pickup tool has yet to be added to the AirPods product page, so customers would be wise to call their local store ahead of time to confirm availability before making the trip. Apple appears to have set a typical limit of 2 AirPods purchases per customer in stores.

airpods-deliveryAirPods (Source: MacRumors reader atton)
Lucky customers who ordered online within the first hour or so last week are beginning to receive their AirPods today too. The most common delivery estimates are Tuesday, December 20 and Wednesday, December 21, but some customers in the United States in particular have received their orders today.

Apple Stores will continue to receive “regular shipments” of AirPods. Apple authorized resellers and major carriers will begin receiving limited AirPods stock this week as well, so customers still on the lookout may wish to call or check with their local Best Buy, for example, in the United States and Canada.

Tags: AirPods, Apple retail
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19
Dec

Nintendo Share Prices Decline in Reaction to ‘Super Mario Run’ Pricing and Internet Connection Criticisms


Nintendo and developer DeNA’s shares have declined over the weekend in reaction to negative user reviews facing the new mobile game Super Mario Run, which currently averages a 2.5/5 star rating on the iOS App Store, based on around 54,000 user reviews. Shares in DeNA have gone down 14 percent since Super Mario Run launched on December 15, while Nintendo’s stock has fallen about 13 percent in the same time frame.

Although many of the top reviews for the game remark on Super Mario Run’s better qualities, the harshest criticism remains to be Nintendo’s decision to make the game free-to-download, but $10 to unlock all of its content. Users can play nearly all of World 1 for free, but gaining deeper access to the remaining five Worlds, along with Toad Rally and Kingdom Builder modes, requires the $10 fee.

Nintendo’s argument has always been that the cost will help assuage parents’ worries about their kids overspending on in-app purchases, but many users have now taken to the App Store to give the game a low score because of its cost. The always-on internet requirement has also been a sticking point for some players hoping to engage with the game during a commute.

A day after its launch, App Annie reported on the initial download numbers for Super Mario Run, and estimated that 10 million people downloaded the game, and that it made $4 million total in its first day of worldwide availability. Some have taken to comparing the game to Pokémon Go and its initial success, but as App Annie mentioned, the payment models of each game — along with Pokémon Go’s GPS-based gameplay — means they “aren’t truly comparable.”

That said, it is important to bear in mind that Super Mario Run and Pokémon GO aren’t truly comparable. Pokémon GO follows a freemium model with optional in-app purchases to generate revenue. Its iOS revenue continued to grow in the following weeks as user engagement increased. Super Mario Run, on the other hand, offers a single $9.99 in-app purchase to unlock the full game. As a result, payments precede extended gameplay and, therefore, revenue is more likely to be concentrated early on in the game’s lifecycle.

According to App Annie, the real measure of the success of Super Mario Run will be in the weeks ahead as initial bulk downloads of the game at launch trail off, and shift towards mainstream users. “The ability to convert a meaningful percentage of these mainstream users into paying customers will be critical to Nintendo’s mobile ambitions.”

Tag: Super Mario Run
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19
Dec

Bonavita Immersion Dripper review – CNET


The Good The Bonavita Immersion Dripper makes rich, intensely delicious cups of coffee. It’s one single unit that’s easy to clean by hand and dishwasher safe. Its filter cone is constructed from porcelain that feels more luxurious than plastic. It has a physical lever to turn the flow of coffee on and off.

The Bad It takes some practice to use this coffee maker properly. For the best and most consistent results you’ll need to use it with a quality coffee grinder, accurate scale and electric kettle with variable temperature settings. It’s more expensive than other single-cup pour over brewers.

The Bottom Line Buy the Bonavita Immersion Dripper for single cups of excellent coffee but stay away if you’re unwilling to work a little.

You might know of Bonavita purely by way of its superb BV1900TS automatic coffee maker, but the company’s $40 Immersion Dripper can whip up outstanding joe too. While this gadget is relatively simple and has few moving parts, it has the power to brew cup after cup of intensely flavorful coffee.

The Immersion Dripper looks like what it is, a large cone-shaped filter basket. Its circular mouth tapers down to a triangular funnel that connects to a wide base. At the foot of the base is a switch to open and close a small valve. This valve controls the flow of water (or brewed coffee) through the filter.

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Essentially the Bonavita Immersion Dripper is a simple pour-over cone.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Aficionados of pour-over style brewing will appreciate that the Bonavita Immersion’s filter basket is made from porcelain and not plastic. The ceramic is preferred for its ability to retain heat, unlike the thin plastic found in a similar product, the Oxo Good Grips Pour-Over.

Another significant difference between these two coffee makers is how easy (or not) they are to use. The Oxo’s water tank, for example, is marked with volume labels, so you don’t need to weigh out your brewing water. By contrast the Immersion Dripper is completely manual and much more involved to operate.

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Use coarsely ground coffee and a type #4 paper filter.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Assuming you have coarsely ground coffee (hopefully processed through a burr grinder), first drop a type #4 paper filter into the funnel and add your grounds. Next, set your coffee cup on a kitchen scale and then place the Immersion Dripper over it. Now pour in hot water just off the boil (with the filter switch closed) to match the amount of coffee grounds you’ll brew — use the scale to measure.

I recommend an electric kettle with adjustable temperature settings to heat your brewing water. According to the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America), water for brewing shouldn’t exceed 205 degrees Fahrenheit. I also used 23 grams of coffee to 12 ounces of water, the ratio as instructed by the manual.

19
Dec

Save up to 40% on a new Anker portable charger!


There are a few Anker portable chargers currently on sale in the UK, which are more than ideal for adventures and trips out the front door. If you’re heading away this holiday season and may find yourself low on power without access to an outlet, simply plug your smartphone into a portable power bank and you’ll be good to go in no time at all.

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There are a few capacities to choose from, including 20000mAh and 26800mAh. Be sure to act quickly and order one if interested as this promotion is only good for today, December 19.

See at Amazon

19
Dec

Best Games of 2016


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The games we played most in 2016.

There’s nothing like taking some time out of a busy day to play a few minutes of a favorite mobile game. Here at Android Central, a diversity of opinion leads to a bevy of gaming choices.

Here are our favorite games that either came out in 2016, or received significant updates.

Andrew Martonik — Tap Tap Dash

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I really don’t play many mobile games, so when I do they have to be simple, casual titles that can be picked up for a bit to kill time and then set aside for a while when I’m doing other things. Tap Tap Dash is one that I keep around and play from time to time because it hits all of those boxes.

It’s an on-rails game that literally requires one action: tapping the screen to move your character. You make your way through various maze-like levels of varying difficulty, and there are hundreds of levels to get through. There are a few in-app purchases, but they aren’t required to get through the game. It’s a fun time-killer and worth checking out.

Download Tap Tap Dash (free, in-app purchases)

Daniel Bader — PinOut

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PinOut is the, um, breakout game of the year for me. It’s an endless runner and pinball combined into one of the most enjoyable bite-sized gaming experiences I can remember. Mediocre, the sardonically-named developer behind PinOut, is famous for other addictive-and-accessible games like Granny Smith, Does Not Commute, and my favorite, Smash Hit.

But PinOut is great because it doesn’t try to reinvent pinball; rather, it uses pinball as a vehicle for constant progress, a tenet lacking in other genre games that made them stale quickly. Couple that with the unique power-ups and mini-games and you have yourself what is, in my opinion, the best mobile game of 2016.

Download PinOut (free, in-app purchases)

Russell Holly — Pokémon Go

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I don’t usually play mobile games for more than a week before moving on to the next distraction, but like Ingress before it I played quite a bit of Pokémon Go this year. As a result, I’ve met some great new people and used the game as an excuse to take my family on adventures to places all around Maryland I otherwise never would have gone to.

Download: Pokémon Go (free, in-app purchases)

Alex Dobie — Lumines

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Lumines finally, finally came to Android this fall, allowing me to relive the decade-old Sony PSP puzzler on mobile. For the uninitiated, the premise of Lumines is simple: you need to arrange colored blocks to form patterns of four or more of the same color, with blocks of four descending from on high. Standard puzzle game fare.

But what makes Lumines unique is the musical aspect. As you progress through the game, not only does the speed increase and the difficulty ramp up, but you also progress through tracks, each with their own unique color schemes, visual styles, drop rates and electronic soundtrack. Lumines is a great way to kill a few minutes — or an entire afternoon. And it’s a steal at its Play Store price of $2.99.

Download: Lumines ($2.99)

Florence Ion — Pokemon: TCG Online

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While the rest of you are outside in the winter cold, hunting for a virtual Pikachu with a Santa Hat, I am laying in my warm bed, with my heat pad on my feet and a hot cup of cocoa in my hand, cuddling with my tablet and Pokemon: The Card Game Online.

I downloaded the game late last year, after hearing the news of Pokemon Go and deciding I wanted a different experience than simply running around town, catching them all. No, instead I battle anonymous people on the internet with Pokemon cards and spend the coins I win in tournaments on more packs of Pokemon cards. In fact, I’m so addicted to creating the perfect deck, that I also buy the physical cards at the grocery store just for the redemption codes. I am a monster.

Download: Pokemon: TCG Online (free, in-app purchases)

Marc Lagace — Clash Royale

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This is a tough one to answer because there’s been so many amazing games released for Android in 2016 (quick shoutouts to Alto’s Adventure, Reigns and Sky Force Reloaded), but if I had to settle on just one game, it would have to be Clash Royale. Supercell has done a great job keeping the game mechanics balanced while consistently adding new cards and features throughout the year. Having quickly fell off the Clash of Clans bandwagon, I didn’t exactly have high hopes for Clash Royale going in, but I was instantly hooked by the fast-paced action and focus on developing winning strategies that Clash Royale kept my attention like no other game did in 2017.

Download: Clash Royale (free, in-app purchases)

Jen Karner — Marvel Avengers Academy

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Anybody who knows me, knows that I a gigantic Marvel fan. So it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that Marvel Avengers Academy is my favorite Android game for 2016. Based around collecting characters, and completing small missions everything comes together for a lot of fun. While the game relies a bit too heavily at times on in-app purchases, the constant events and appearance of new characters tends to make it up for it.

Download: Marvel Avengers Academy (free, in-app purchases)

Ara Wagoner — Disney Emoji Blitz

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Disney Emoji Blitz is the longest I’ve played a game in a many years, which as a non-gamer is saying something. I’ve always been a sucker for the match-three style game, but this app is something special. Disney Emoji Blitz is more than a game, it’s an emoji keyboard, too, albeit a really, really bad one. You can only share three Disney emoji in a string at a time, the keyboard doesn’t utilize any of the Nougat image keyboard features, and is cumbersome as all get-out. But at least what you’re racking up in the game has some tiny benefit outside the app.

The game itself is addictive, new characters are added and campaigns arise regularly enough to keep you interested and to sway us to shell out for in-game purchases. After blowing $15 and still not getting Sorcerer Mickey, I’m swearing myself off in-game purchases a while, but even without them the game is still fun and genuinely challenging at times. Once Disney updates it to work with Nougat’s image keyboard support, this app is gonna be my new best friend. Until then, it’s a lovely way to kill time I don’t have to waste.

Download: Disney Emoji Blitz (free, in-app purchases)

Jerry Hildenbrand — Knights of Pen and Paper

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Knights of Pen and Paper came to Android in 2013, but it’s as good today as it was then. A take on the classic RPG, with a great story and simple but thoughtful controls. It’s easy to play, but not because it’s been dumbed-down. If you’re looking for a challenging old-school dice-roller with a ton of content that won’t get stale (I’m on day 2,300 of my current playthrough) give KOPP a look.

Download: Knights of Pen and Paper ($4.99)

19
Dec

Why you shouldn’t download paid Android apps for free


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Everyone likes free stuff. I love free stuff. But nothing in life is really free.

We’re not your mom, and we’re not going to get into the middle of a morals debate on software piracy and if it’s really stealing. But we can give you a couple of really good reasons not to download a pirated copy of a paid app.

It’s a good way to get malware

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Yup. Malware. Most of what you hear about malware on Android phones is sensationalism designed to make you click a link. Much of it is proof-of-concept work that never will see the wild. Finding an exploit and distributing that exploit are two very different things. But it does happen, and almost all of it happens to people who download apps that didn’t come from Google Play.

Taking an Android app and opening it up so you can edit things — like removing a license check — is simple and the tools are readily available. So are countless tutorials about using those tools. That makes it easy for almost anyone to drop other code into an app. But almost anything you could do to an app will make Google Play’s Bouncer — an automated tool that checks the integrity of every app in Google Play and can tell if bad things are inside — trigger and block the app so nobody can see it or download it. That’s what keeps Google Play the safest place to get Android apps.

Google’s Bouncer will keep you safe almost all the time. Is “almost” good enough for you?

Bouncer will also scan apps on your phone you didn’t download from Google Play if you let it — you’ll see it ask you the first time you sideload something. This keeps almost all the malware you read about in check and away from your phone. But the whole thing is a game of cat and mouse between Bouncer and some really smart people who want to do things they shouldn’t be doing to your phone. All these people need is for you to download the altered apps and the easiest way to do it is to entice you with something you can’t have or something that you’re getting for free instead of paying 99-cents for. Everyone likes free stuff.

Smart people at Google are at war with smart people who want to put malware on your phone and neither side can ever win.

When Google picks up on one way of doing things, those bad people start using another. It almost sounds like a James Bond villain at work, but when you consider that about a gazillion people downloaded pirated software last year (and will this year) it’s not hard to see why this can be lucrative for the right ones.

There’s one easy way to keep your phone from being part of some malware statistic you hear about online — download your apps from Google Play. If you’re supposed to pay for an app or a chest of 100 gold coins, pay for them. Chances are that the 99-cents you’re paying are a lot less than your bill would be with midnight text messages to a country you’ve never been to and don’t know anyone in.

App piracy on Android has real-life repercussions

super-mario-run-splash-hero.jpg?itok=wmVApp piracy makes baby Mario cry and Nintendo publish for the iPhone first.

Deserving or not, the Android platform and its users has a bad reputation with many developers and software publishers. Take Nintendo, which has this to say about Super Mario Run:

For us, we view our software as being a very important asset for us. And also for consumers who are purchasing the game, we want to make sure that we’re able to offer it to them in a way that the software is secure, and that they’re able to play it in a stable environment.

We wanted to be able to leverage that network connection with all three of the Super Mario Run modes to keep all of the modes functioning together and offering the game in a way that keeps the software secure. This is something that we want to continue to work on as we continue to develop the game.

But actually, the security element is one of the reasons that we decided to go with iPhone and iOS first. So this is just — based on the current development environment — a requirement that’s been built into the game to support security and the fact that the three different modes are connecting to the network and interacting with one another.

The emphasis there (in bold) is mine.

In that slew of words, one of the things they are saying is that iOS is safer for them because on Android their game would be yanked off of phones that can use it and passed around to everyone with Nintendo having no say in its distribution. And they are 100% correct. It’s getting passed around on iPhones, too, but it’s not nearly as easy to do on iOS so the piracy numbers are tiny compared to what will happen when they release it for Android. They know this, I know this, and you know this. Any software that arrives or update that comes is available to everyone about an hour after it’s been released. Even if it’s free software, that’s piracy. And it doesn’t matter that most people aren’t doing it because millions and millions of people are.

Developers fight piracy on all platforms, but some make it easier to do than others.

This isn’t a new thing. A long time ago it was hard to find an Android device that could install Netflix unless you pirated it. A casual conversation with a developer on the project told me why — because the same day they released a Netflix app for Android as a test with known hardware, the app was available for everyone to sideload. That wrecked their methods of testing for best performance and soured them on the entire platform. Spending a lot of time and money then seeing it all go to crap because we had to have something right now and had the means to pirate it can do that. Those developers didn’t blame you if you pirated Netflix. They blamed Google for not caring and giving them tools to protect their “property” like Apple does and locking Android down.

Every time you pirate a paid app, you make this problem worse. You don’t have to care, you won’t ever get into trouble and you can get in the comments of this post and act all indignant about it. That doesn’t change anything.

One person can’t change a statistic but we all can still do our part to fix a serious problem for Android app developers: Piracy.

If you’re ever in a room full of mobile app developers, ask them. Find out how much money they make from their Android apps and if piracy is a problem. They’ll tell you. And most of them would also tell you they wish Android was more locked up like iOS because of it. Since that probably isn’t going to happen in any meaningful way, they will just stay discouraged. They aren’t as discouraged with piracy on iOS and can make more money coding apps for iOS. You do the math there and figure out what that means when it’s time to build the next great app.

You and me not pirating one app isn’t going to change anything. But it means we’re not part of the problem. The same thing goes if 10,000 of us stop doing it or 100,000 of us. There are a lot of Android users. But it has to start somewhere, right?

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