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6
Mar

Hero Legends: A game that does it all, and does it all WELL (Review)


From the outside, Hero Legends looks like another overhyped mobile game from Japan. Giant monsters, weird Anime style characters, and lots and lots of explosions and magic. It also gives an appearance of trying to be the best of many different styles of games. I’m usually the first to say that less is more but when a game can incorporate all parts to work together, I’d say you have a pretty solid game on your hands. Fortunately, that’s exactly what Hero Legends delivers.

Developer: Fire-Point Interactive Inc.
Price: Free (In-app Purchases)
Download: Google Play

Because of all of the moving parts of this game, I’m not going to break it down like one of my usual reviews. I’ll break it down more chronologically based on gameplay and touch on all the parts of it as I go. At the end, I’ll summarize the usual categories

And we’re off!

Starting the game up, we are presented with a brief backstory of what is happening in the kingdom, and we are taught what our role is as a hero; we are here to lead our troops into battle and protect the kingdom! You are given a hero character, all of which are incredibly unique. To start off I was given an Ice Princess with rabbit ears. Bunny Elsa (as I chose to call her) was accompanied by 4 other soldiers, archers, and mages, and proceeds to wreck an opposing team in battle. Battles are pretty straightforward. All characters attack and move on their own, but you are in charge of your hero’s abilities. These abilities range from direct attacks, area-of-effect spells, damage boosts, regen abilities. Each hero only has 3 abilities, so it’s important to think about what your team may need as you get further on in the game. Early on, however, your team will be devastating, and the tutorials will set you up to success as you go deeper. Battles move fluidly, are beautifully animated, and are colorful and exciting to watch.

Battlefield domination.

Back home on your island in the sky

After your unprecedented first victory, you are brought to the first screen of your island town. This screen initially doesn’t have much unlocked, but it does have your current objectives and is where you access further missions and battles from. Completing more missions gives you rewards and levels up your team ranking. After a few more missions are complete, you are then brought to the let side of your island by swiping. This brings you to a lovely little town setting with barracks, a library, a church, a tavern, and several other buildings. You are taught how to recruit more heroes, but also how to recruit more soldier. You see every time a soldier takes a hit, you loose troops of that type. Run out of all your troops, and that type of soldier is no longer selectable. For example, let’s say I had 500 Knight troops. Those 500 troops are basically my Knight’s health. After each battle it’s important to go into the barracks and train more troops because depending the type of recruit, it will take a decent amount of time to finish the training, and since you can only initially train 3 troop types at a time, your queue will fill up fast if you aren’t doing it regularly.

 

There’s a LOT to do on your island.

 

The other buildings allow you to raise the stats and abilities of your troops. The library, for example, contains upgrades for all mage-type characters, including spell strength, duration of spells, the amount of healing done, and armor strength. It’s important to keep all your troops upgraded as much as possible first and foremost for combat purposes, but also because different upgrades for troops are required before you can upgrade buildings to upgrade troops even further. There are dozens of troops for each type, some who physically attack, others who are ranged fighters, so team composition is very diverse and can be mixed up for every situation.

Finally, the last section of your island is your farmland and lumber mill. You have resources that need to be harvested every once in a while. You have a gold mine for easy money, a farm that produces food, and a mill that gives you wood. Food is used when recruiting troops, so you will need a lot of it constantly. Wood is used in building upgrades, so again you’ll need a lot because you’ll be constantly upgrading. Money is used for everything, so just like in real life, you’re going to want to keep saving it up. This isn’t as in-depth as a regular farming simulator or island making game, but it is integral to the gameplay, so you’ll want to make sure you are keeping an eye on it, harvesting when you can, and making upgrades so that you can keep your production ahead of your need for supplies.

Everything can be upgraded, which gives your access to more upgrades, so that you can upgrade your upgrades.

The world just keeps expanding

After learning your way around the other parts of the world, you are brought back to the first screen where everything starts unlocking. You will have Colosseum battles where you can attack other people’s teams, the Trial Altar where you can compete in very difficult event-like battles for unique treasures, the Observatory to unlock special hero attributes, and the Adventurer’s Guild that allows you to compete against other people for exclusive items. These rare items are used for special building upgrades at higher levels or allow you to boost different areas of your heroes’ stats.

You can also travel to the world map and see islands that are around you to expand your kingdom. After the capture of the initial set of islands and upon reaching a certain level, you will then be opened up to the world with other players competing for ownership over islands and their resources, so it’s important to capture land quick so it’s under your protection.

To the victor go the spoils. Also, the game named me Angel.PITTS… so that’s a thing.

The total package?

As I said from the get go, there’s a lot in this game. You have your strategy of team building for each situation, a town upgrade system, fields and woods to harvest, special boss fights, territories to take over, and some PVP fights. It’s a lot for all one game, but Hero Legends manages to put it all in there and provide quality to each of these areas. Farming and harvesting isn’t as fleshed out as an actual farming simulator, and the town upgrades aren’t as complex as Sim City, but being able to upgrade a Church to boost my holy warriors is a lot more fun than scrolling through a menu and clicking a button. It causes you to feel more invested in what’s happening because it’s not just a menu that you’re scrolling through. It’s your town on your island in your kingdom. It’s not the first game to present a system like this, but it does it well and makes it fun.

Looking forward, there has been talk in the app that there are event’s planned, but at the time of this writing, there isn’t a current event happening. Eventually, there will be events that allow for the earning of unique troops, rare items, and rare heroes. It’s cool to see that content like this is planned, and with enough popularity, I could see this becoming an app that gets continued support for a long time.

The only area where this game falls a little short for me is in its translation. Every once in a while there will be text, especially on the victory screen, that still is in Japanese. It’s only ever a character name so it’s hardly crucial, but it’s still there. There are also parts of the occasional dialog that pops up that has a few grammatical errors, probably from the translation. These are just minor details and I never had a hard time figuring out what it meant to say, but it’s still there nonetheless.

Conclusion

Hero Legends does a lot of things, but it does them all right. It incorporates ideas from several different styles of games, ties them all together to make sense (recruiting soldiers requires that you feed them, so go harvest some food!) and doesn’t try to overcomplicate any one part of it. There’s a huge cast of characters to obtain and use, each with their own attributes. It’s a great looking game with lots to do, events promised, and multiplayer components. Some might be turned off by its anime style artwork, but if that doesn’t bother you, you have a real gem of a game.

(At the time of this posting, this game is in Open Beta for at least three more weeks. The first update patch is set to go live this today, March 6th. Things may change between this posting and when you choose to play.)

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6
Mar

Lightroom Mobile update brings dynamic range of a DSLR to smartphone cameras


Why it matters to you

Smartphones cameras capture a narrower range of light — but thanks to an automated HDR mode, Lightroom Mobile users can capture HDR photos comparable to a 32-bit RAW file from a DSLR.

Adobe is working to inch smartphone photo quality a bit closer to a DSLR’s, with just software. On March 6, Adobe launched updates for Lightroom Mobile on both iOS and Android with a new mode that allows the program to capture high-dynamic-range (HDR) photos in the DNG RAW format.

A photograph’s dynamic range refers to the range of light in a single photograph. Adobe says the new HDR mode makes it possible to achieve a dynamic range that was previously only possible using DSLR or mirrorless cameras. While smartphones traditionally tend to do fine in evenly lit scenes, shots with both lots of dark and light areas were better left to the advanced cameras.

More: iPhone can now shoot RAW photos, here’s why it’s a big deal

The new mode also simplifies the HDR process: After scanning the scene, the program automatically determines the correct exposure range, and then captures three DNG files (DNG is Adobe’s uncompressed format). Those three images are then automatically aligned, merged, de-ghosted, and tone-mapped, Adobe says, leaving you with a DNG file with a 32-bit color range previously impossible from smartphone cameras.

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Adobe

Some native camera apps and third-party apps allow smartphones to capture HDR, but typically with only two images and only in the JPEG format, leaving a much smaller range captured. Of course, as a mobile app, shooting the photos directly in Lightroom Mobile means those shots can also be edited immediately.

Not every smartphone has the power to process three large DNG files at once. The iOS feature requires a model with DNG capability, which includes the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, the iPhone SE, and the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. For Android users, the Samsung S7 and S7 Edge, and Google Pixel and Pixel XL are the only models supported, although Adobe says they are working to bring the feature to other Android models.

Along with the new HDR mode, the app gains a number of other features, but they aren’t universal to both Android and iOS yet. For iOS users, flagging and starring photos get a bit easier with new swipe gestures. The app’s camera modes are now faster to access through a force touch and Notification Center option. The app also gives users the option to export originals, even DNG files.

lightroom mobile adds hdr dng export original

On iOS, Lightroom Mobile now allows users to export original DNG files.

lightroom mobile adds hdr dng gestures for rate and review

Apple users can now use new swipe gestures for tagging and staring photos.

lightroom mobile adds hdr dng radial and linear gradient tools on android

The linear and radial filters available in the desktop version are now also on Lightroom Mobile for Android.

For Android, the linear and radial selection tools that are part of the desktop version are now accessible on the go. Both filters allow users to apply custom effects that slowly fade using a linear or circular pattern. Android users may also notice general speed improvements and bug fixes.

The updates brings the app to version 2.7 on iOS and 2.3 on Android. Lightroom Mobile is a free download, though some features, like syncing across multiple devices, are limited to Creative Cloud subscribers.

6
Mar

Turkish regulators will look into whether Google violated antitrust rules


Why it matters to you

If Turkish regulators find Google guilty of strong-arming Android device makers into installing the company’s apps and services, users might get alternatives.

Google is under fire from Turkish authorities who claim that its Android software may be violating the country’s antitrust laws. In a public statement on Monday, Turkey’s Competition Authority said it would look into Google’s business dealings with manufacturers of electronic equipment, its applications, and its provision of services.

The Competition Authority’s decision came after the agency said a probe wasn’t needed. It changed its mind, though, after a second evaluation.

More: Russian officials fine Google $6.8 million for violating antitrust rules with Android

Central to the investigation is Google Play Services, a bundle of Google-powered software and services that powers many of Android’s features and functionality. Device manufacturers who pre-install the Google Play Store, Android’s market of more than 2 million apps serving a billion users worldwide, must agree to ship Google-made apps like Google Photos and Google on smartphones and tablets.

According to the terms of a leaked Mobile Application Distribution Agreement, which is Google’s Android licensing agreement, device makers are contractually mandated to set Google as the default search engine and place Google’s search app and Play Store “[no more] than a swipe away” from the primary home screen. In addition, they’re expected to submit monthly reports containing sales figures for Android devices.

The Turkish Competition Authority said its investigation would focus on whether Google’s use of Android to promote its services violated Turkey’s competition rules.

More: EU Commission gives Google a six-week breather in ongoing Android investigation

This is not the first time Google has clashed with Turkish regulators. Over the past several years, the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has ordered internet blockades of YouTube, Google+, and the company’s other social networks.

Turkey is far from the first country to accuse Google of exploiting Android’s dominant position in the mobile hardware marketplace. Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service ordered Google to pay $6.8 million after it found the company guilty of stifling alternative services and search engines, such as the Russia-born Yandex.

And in July, the European Union’s Brussels-based enforcement authority, the European Commission, accused Google of closing out competition with its Android mobile operating system, and abusing the dominant role it has in the smartphone industry.

More: Google will soon censor a lot more “damaging” search results in Europe

“We need to be sure that big companies don’t try to protect themselves by holding back innovation,” Vestager said prior to the official complaint. “Our concern is that, by requiring phone makers and operators to pre-load a set of Google apps, rather than letting them decide for themselves which apps to load, Google might have cut off one of the main ways that new apps can reach customers.”

And in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission considered investigating whether the search giant had violated antitrust rules, but scrapped those plans after officials failed to reach a consensus.

More: Digital Trends launches Google’s AMP — Accelerated Mobile Pages — for faster loading and web browsing

The investigations could have a far-ranging impact on Google’s bottom line. The search giant has generated billions in revenue and profit from Android since 2008, largely from advertisements shown on Android phones and devices from the Play Store. If given the green light from regulators, device makers could choose to replace Google’s ads and services with alternatives.

Google denies that it has broken any laws. We’ve reached out to the company for comment and will report on any response.

6
Mar

Score an Apple Mac Mini desktop computer for just $400 on Best Buy


In recent years, manufacturers like Apple have launched popular miniature computers that hit the sweet spot between laptop and full-sized desktop PCs. Products such as the highly-rated Mac Mini, now just $400 on Best Buy, present a great solution if you want a more traditional computer interface than a laptop can offer but without the large footprint of a traditional desktop tower.

Under the hood, this Mac Mini model sports Intel’s fourth-generation Core i5 processor clocked at 1.4GHz. Intel Turbo Boost can increase the CPU speed up to 3.5GHz when you need some extra juice for more demanding applications, while Hyper-Threading enhances individual core performance for more efficient multi-tasking. An integrated Intel 5000 HD GPU and Intel Iris Graphics work with 4GB of pre-installed RAM to support graphical tasks like streaming, video editing, and light gaming. An internal SATA hard drive offers 500GB of storage as well.

More: Need a cheap 1080p monitor? The Asus VH238H is $80 for Prime members after rebate

Mac miniFour USB 3.0 ports provide fast data transfers and let you hook virtually any of your favorite peripherals to the Mac Mini. The HDMI port works with almost any monitor of your choice, and two high-speed Thunderbolt 2 ports can connect the Mini to compatible Apple displays or up to 12 daisy-chained Thunderbolt devices for speeds that are roughly four times greater than USB 3.0. For wireless connectivity, the compact PC utilizes Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

Size-wise, this tiny computer comes in at less than eight inches in length and width and just under 1.5 inches thick. One of the main advantages of this design is that it gives you a full desktop PC experience when fully hooked up, but can be easily disconnected and tossed into your bag when traveling.

The Mac Mini generally starts at $500, but Best Buy is offering a $100 discount on this tiny computer which brings the price down to just $400 for a short time.

Buy it on best Buy for $400

6
Mar

DeepStack AI running on a GTX 1080 gets the better of pro poker players


Why it matters to you

This research demonstrates that it doesn’t take a supercomputer to run an advanced artificial intelligence algorithm.

In January 2017, an artificial intelligence known as Libratus managed to beat several professional Texas Hold’em poker players at their own game. Now, another group of researchers has published a paper detailing a system that’s similarly capable of beating high-level competition — and using an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080, no less.

The DeepStack algorithm was created by a group of Czech researchers working in collaboration with the team that first hashed out an algorithmic approach to Texas Hold’em poker, according to a report from Ars Technica. Like Libratus, it’s been able to beat professional opponents.

DeepStack was pitted against a field of 33 players sourced via the International Federation of Poker — although it’s worth noting that the competition wasn’t quite as fierce as it was for Libratus, as less prize money was on the table. Still, DeepStack ended up ahead against each of the 11 players who contested a full 3,000 game match, and was only down against two players overall at the end of play.

More: Artificial intelligence is expected to get smarter much faster thanks to Gamalon

Texas Hold’em poker offers a different challenge to AI researchers than games like chess or Go, because each player only has access to a portion of the information they need to make a truly informed decision. For instance, the remaining cards in the deck in unpredictable because each player’s hand is private, unlike a game of chess where all the pieces in play are known from start to finish.

DeepStack avoids getting tied up in knots by this scenario by approaching every new action afresh. The algorithm is able to respond to any situation by performing a search based on the current state of the game, paired with a deep learning neural network that looks up the possible values of future hands.

Meanwhile, DeepStack chooses from a small selection of possible actions: Folding, calling, going all in, and making one of two or three different bets. This limited range of responses, coupled with the fact that the system doesn’t search forward to scope out every single future position, decreases the amount of states that need to be checked, which allows DeepStack to run on a GTX 1080. Conversely, Libratus was running on a system with a petaflop of computational hardware, and could perform calculations while its opponents slept at night.

DeepStack is certainly a promising project — and, like Libratus, it’s been engineered such that it’s capable of taking on any number of information-imperfect situations, not just Texas Hold’em poker. The end goal for its creators is to implement the algorithm in other applications where fast, accurate decision-making is key.

6
Mar

An Indiegogo Moto Mod wants to bring back the physical keyboard in a big way


Why it matters to you

Some customers still have a need for physical keyboards and this Kickstarter carries a bit of hope.

There are a number of Moto Mods on sale and in development that can transform your Moto Z into a speaker, dedicated camera, projector, barcode scanner, and even a mouse. But what about a BlackBerry? As part of Motorola’s “Transform the Smartphone” Indiegogo challenge, one team of engineers is working on a product that will return a feature missed by many back to a flagship smartphone — a sliding QWERTY keyboard.

The mod, designed by a company known as Livermorium, hit Indiegogo just three days ago and has already amassed more than $21,300 at the time of this writing. The five-row keyboard boasts curvy, generously spaced keys with multiple functions, LED backlighting, and directional buttons for Android navigation. The Teflon-coated sliding mechanism can also push the phone upward and away at a 45-degree angle to the keyboard, like HTC’s old Tilt devices use to do.

More: Lenovo challenged developers to create new Moto Mods — here is what they built


Indiegogo

Impressively, Livermorium is also planning to stuff the unit with an additional battery for longer stints between charging. The Keyboard Mod for Moto Z, as it is being called, is planned for release in black, silver, and gold, and currently running for $60 for early-bird backers with an estimated completion date of August. The retail version will be priced at $120.

Although demand may appear high for a slideout keyboard mod in the vein of Motorola’s landmark Droid line, it’s clear Livermorium still has a long way to go before it can get the project into the hands of supporters. The team is awaiting components from Motorola and still hashing out a prototype enclosure and sliding mechanism, according to the campaign page.

While the initial funding rush has shown promise, Livermorium has pegged the ultimate goal at $100,000, with 38 days left to make up the difference. Motorola’s last device featuring a physical keyboard — the Verizon-exclusive Droid 4 — was released in 2012. To fully grasp how long ago that is in smartphone years, that handset launched with Android 2.3 Gingerbread.

6
Mar

As legal weed sweeps the nation, startups are racing to make a breathalyzer for marijuana


Why it matters to you

As more states legalize marijuana, a demand for marijuana breathalyzers has prompted companies to develop new technologies. This can help to detect when a driver is impaired and poses a danger to others.

The days of rolling down the street smokin’ indo may come to a screeching halt when marijuana breathalyzers hit the market as soon as next year. Hound Labs and Cannabix Technologies are at least two of the companies that have plans to manufacture marijuana breathalyzers for law enforcement agencies and employers. Both have developed their own technology for the forthcoming marijuana-detection devices, mainly intended to identify impaired drivers.

More: Newly developed 3-minute saliva test could help cops determine if you’re driving while high

Hound Labs uses chemistry, fluidics (the use of fluid flows or jets for functions usually performed by electronic devices), and engineering to measure small amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (more commonly known as THC, the active ingredient in weed) in breath. THC is measured in picograms, or parts per trillion, Hound Labs Chief Marketing Officer Jenny Lynn said in an email to Digital Trends.

“Current methods cannot conclude whether someone used marijuana moments before driving down a freeway”

“In a relatively short period of time, we have been able to leverage our extensive team of scientists and engineers to translate Hound Labs’ breakthrough science into a working prototype that can be used effectively, at the roadside, while incorporating their proprietary technology that has been validated against mass spectrometry, the gold standard of laboratory measurements,” Joe Heanue, CEO and Co-Founder of Triple Ring Technologies, the high-tech engineering firm that has formed a strategic partnership with Hound Labs, Inc, stated in a press release.

Cannabix Technologies, which has teamed up with Yost Research Group at the University of Florida, combines high-field asymmetrical waveform ion mobility and mass spectrometry (FAIMS) for its marijuana breathalyzers, Cannabix Technologies President and Director Kal Malhi told Digital Trends.

According to the Yost Research Group website, “FAIMS involves separation based on the inherent differences in an ion’s mobility in high and low electric fields, and can be performed at atmospheric pressure and room temperature.”

The current methods to detect THC test saliva, sweat, blood, or urine, but they cannot conclude whether someone used marijuana moments before driving down a freeway, or at a weekend party, or as a sleep aid two weeks ago.

“ … THC stays in body fluids for many days or even weeks,” said Lynn from Hound Labs. “Breath is the exception. THC can only be measured in breath for a couple of hours, then it disappears. This two-hour period aligns with the window of impairment identified by researchers.”

Cannabix Technologies stated in a press release that it is also navigating the two-hour window at the time of testing for optimal breathalyzer results. Its breathalyzer “consists of proprietary components, including a generator enabled by the latest chip technology to provide extremely fast high-voltage square wave transitions that significantly improve chemical separations, and a novel plasma ionization source that provides efficient ionization with a relatively small footprint.”

Hound Labs has conducted tests with the volunteered cooperation of several law enforcement departments across California, reports LA Weekly. Cannabix “expects to begin pre-trial live subject testing during the month of March.”

Hound Labs, based in Oakland, will produce The Hound marijuana breathalyzer at the end of 2017, according to Lynn. The forthcoming marijuana-detection apparatus from Cannabix Technologies, based in Vancouver, B.C., needs more testing. The company has a projected production timeline of 12 to 18 months from now.

“We [still] need to conduct scientific trials and get the device approved as a court certified device for use by law enforcement,” said Malhi from Cannabix Technologies. “As with any government approval, exact timing is unknown.”

Concerned marijuana consumers themselves will be able to check themselves before they wreck themselves behind the wheel or in the workplace, as Hound Labs also plans to provide breathalyzers for individual consumer use.

6
Mar

Cool Cousin connects users with like-minded locals in more than six cities


Why it matters to you

Cool Cousin isn’t just another travel app, it provides personalized recommendations from a curated list of locals.

Traveling to a foreign country can be intimidating, to say the least. Knowing which sights to prioritize, which places to eat, and even where to stay can be an overwhelming prospect for even the most well-traveled of visitors, which is why an Israel-based team created an iOS app to make itinerary planning easier. It’s called Cool Cousin and it provides personalized recommendations from long-time residents of major cities.

Travel apps aren’t exactly novel but Cool Cousin’s unique ability derives from its on-demand recommendations from people who know best — city locals. Instead of relying on anonymous TripAdvisor or Yelp reviews, users can connect with a person who shares your likes, interests, and preferences. The app serves up curated lists of available guides — or “cousins” — in each city and facilitates one-on-one connections with the best matches.

More: The world can be your oyster with these great travel apps

Once Cool Cousin users identify like-minded “cousins,” he or she gets access to maps of at least 25 regional hot spots and 15 words of recommendation for each spot. For questions a little more ephemeral in nature, like ‘what is happening on a given weekend’ or ‘which restaurants provide the best bang for your buck,’ an in-app messaging service connects users and cousins directly.

It’s a veritable — and growing — wealth of globetrotting knowledge. The number of cousins surpassed 300 this month, a Cool Cousin spokesperson said, and the app has expanded to more than half a dozen cities including London, Paris, Berlin, Rio de Janiero, Rome, and Lisbon, Portugal. On Monday, it added New York City to the list.

The New York launch marks Cool Cousin’s first in the U.S. Beginning Monday, 40 cousins will begin providing helpful tips to proactive travelers.

More: Beyond booking: How next-gen travel apps do more than your desktop ever could

The impetus for Cool Cousin, which was started in April 2015 by five co-founders in Tel Aviv, Israel, was CEO Itay Nagler’s spouse, Roni. On vacations, she would approach locals and asks for recommendations.

“Most people wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to strangers, so Cool Cousin is a way to build connections between travelers and like-minded locals,” Roni Nagler told PC Magazine. “[It] gives people the ability to tap into someone else’s mind and gain in-depth knowledge on their city.”

Right now, the team is working on a compensation system for cousins, who currently work on a volunteer basis. “[They] are our biggest assets and we hope they can be well compensated in the future,” Nagler said.

More: Airbnb launches Trips to help you find new things to do when you travel

In the future, the Cool Cousin hopes to partner with local governments on event-specific promotions. In Italy, it’s incorporating ideas from the festival committee responsible for organizing the Carnival of Venice — cousins there include artists, designers, and “[other] people who really know Venice from a local perspective,” Nagler said.

6
Mar

The most important announcements at MWC were also the most boring


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The phones announced at MWC are only possible because of the boring stuff happening in the background.

The Fira Grand Via is a huge complex, stretching connecting halls interspersed by meeting spaces, outdoor cafes and a snaking walkway that rests above the main floor, an express route of sorts between the chaos of the ground.

Each year at Mobile World Congress, once the embargoed releases are over — a phenomenon seemingly happening earlier and earlier — the show floor opens, and the real work begins: tracking down the minor hits, the technologies that, in a year or five, will end up transforming your phone into even more of an essential device than it is today.

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One such innovation comes in the form of a replacement — augmentation, in fact — of the traditional SIM card. See, SIM cards are antiquated. The idea of inserting a piece of plastic into a removable tray to facilitate the connection to a single carrier is just not user-friendly in the age of virtual networks. Indeed, the continued use of SIM cards is largely propagated by the carriers themselves, since they encourage lock-in, both domestically and abroad. You use their network at home, and pay them to connect to a preferred roaming network abroad. It’s a win-win for them, and potentially a lose-lose for the customer.

Companies like KnowRoaming, a Toronto-based startup, are bypassing the carriers entirely by working with phone manufacturers like ZTE and Alcatel to integrate so-called Soft SIMs into their handsets. Built directly into the phones themselves, the goal is to allow owners of those devices to connect to any network anywhere in the world on an as-needed basis. KnowRoaming, which began its life as a provider of ultra-thin SIM stickers that performed the same function as its Soft SIM, works with carriers around the world to lock down cheap rates for a la carte data. 100MB in Spain, for instance, costs just $3 USD per day. And while service is currently limited to 3G, things will get much more interesting when LTE service is enabled later in 2017.

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Soft SIMs are different from eSIMs in that they are built into the phone’s baseband chip and controlled mainly by software that taps into an app, and a constantly-updating pool of international network providers. eSIMs are a little less flexible; they are the manifestation of a physical SIM card but built into the phone, often working alongside a primary SIM card to facilitate roaming, and often have ties to specific carriers. The most famous example is the eSIM card built into Apple’s iPad Pro, which allows users to connect to a number of Apple partner networks throughout the world, though, like all handsets, there is a primary unlocked SIM slot for a single carrier.

Right now, these solutions are more curiosities than must-haves, but that may change as more manufacturers get involved.

Soft SIMs and eSIMs fulfil largely the same purpose: providing virtualization to a primarily analog, physical interface. It’s better for the consumer to be able to pick the network he or she needs on an a la carte basis. Some companies, like Otono sub-brand Always On Wireless, provides access to dozens of networks around the world in as little as one-hour increments. Though more expensive in aggregate, the idea is to provide as many options — and as much choice — as possible to the average roamer.

Such solutions were common at Mobile World Congress this year, purporting to show the future of mobile connectivity in the wake of phones that, through baseband manufacturers like Qualcomm, Intel and MediaTek, can connect to almost every network in the world. Right now, these solutions are more curiosities than must-haves, but that may change as more manufacturers get involved — though the virtuous (for them) cycle of carrier and phone maker isn’t likely to be disrupted any time soon, as long as companies like Samsung and Apple sell the majority of their phones through those familiar sales channels.

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A prototype 5G modem, presented at Mobile World Congress 2017.

Speaking of Qualcomm, the company showed off two significant products at MWC: a pre-5G Gigabit LTE solution that’s shipping with the Snapdragon 835; and a longer-term 5G modem that, right now the size of a desktop computer, will fit inside a regular-sized phone by 2019. The run-up to 5G has a lot of people wondering exactly what that will look like.

5G is in a weird transitional phase right now, but the building blocks are there.

As it stands right now, 5G has few definable characteristics, though there are elements that all parties agree on to some extent: that it will comprise mid-to-high level spectrum (4-6GHz at the lowest) and millimeter band, 29-40GHz at the highest, both of which pose some significant problems for mobility. To alleviate that initial crossover strain, Qualcomm has developed solutions, most recently as part of its X16 baseband solution shipping in the Snapdragon 835, that attempts to increase capacity for everyone on the network.

Because the technology utilizing gigabit LTE is inherently more efficient than those at lower speeds — a highway of cars going 200km/h is better utilized than one where everyone is limping at 80km/h — Qualcomm wants it to proliferate as quickly as possible, since the more people connecting at higher speeds makes the entire network run better.

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But Gigabit LTE uses existing technologies, just maxed out and taken to their logical next steps. 5G is something much different, taking advantage of small network cells installed not on rooftops but in street lights, and implemented in roving bands of autonomous robots supplying extremely wide network capacity where it’s needed. Think of AT&T or Verizon being able to deploy an entire city’s worth of wireless spectrum at the Super Bowl at a fraction of the cost of rolling out permanent towers with equipment that can be moved to a different area the following day. It’s a dream that many network operators have been dreaming about for 20 years.

These dreams are what makes Mobile World Congress, after the hubbub of the phone launches and frantically running around the city. The next big idea in mobile is both an tantalizing dream and just around the corner, waiting for the right circumstance, and the necessary deals, to make it happen.

All the phones we touched at Mobile World Congress

6
Mar

These are the cheapest data plans you can buy in the U.S.


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Wondering where to go to save a couple of bucks on a data package? We can help.

There are so many different data plans offered by both the “Big Four” major carriers, but usually, the cheapest tier is not even worth its price when you factor in things like taxes and monthly device activation fees. To that end, you might consider a smaller carrier or an MVNO — known to some as “alternative carriers” — which typically piggyback on those larger networks. You can get enough data coverage for a reasonable price if you shop around long enough. We can help you get started with this list of the cheapest data plans you’ll find.

March 6, 2017: This is an active list of cheap data plans and will continually be updated when new ones are discovered or announced.

US Mobile

US Mobile uses T-Mobile’s available spectrum where it’s available and you can build your own monthly cell phone plan. You could theoretically pay as little as $10 for 100 minutes of talk, 100 text messages, and 100MB of data, if you wanted. But for a more reasonable monthly data plan, it’s about $16 a month for 1GB of data.

See at US Mobile

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Tracfone

Tracfone primarily piggybacks on AT&T’s network. The cheapest plan is $15 a month for 200MB of data, though you can add more as you please. You can get 1GB of data per month for $20.

See at TracFone

Republic Wireless

For $20 a month, you can get 1GB of data on Republic Wireless, which leases its capacity from Sprint and uses T-Mobile’s network for data. If you don’t find a need for a whole gigabyte, however, you can pay $15 for talk and text, though you’ll have to add on data as you go. You can also bring over your own phone as you please.

See at Republic Wireless

FreedomPop

In this too-good-to-be-true saga, FreedomPop offers 500MB of data, 500 texts, and 200 minutes for free. All you have to do is check to see if it’s available in your area —It’s based in Los Angeles, so coverage may be limited —and then buy a smartphone. If you just want a SIM kit, Freedom Pop also offers unlimited data for $20 a month, though the first month is free.

See at FreedomPop

Total Wireless

This is the Tracfone-tangent brand that’s offered at WalMart. For $35 a month, you can get 5GB of data and unlimited talk and text. This particular branch leases its capacity from Verizon.

See at Total Wireless

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Mint SIM

Get 2GB of data and unlimited talk and text for $35 a month. If you pay for more than a few months at a time, Mint SIM offers hefty discounts. This particular carrier runs off of T-Mobile’s network.

See at Mint SIM

Your turn

What are your favorite cheap data plans in the U.S.? Let us know in the comments below!

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