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Man holding his head

New Medicines Developed to Treat Migraines

While headaches are a fairly common and benign occurrence, migraines are different as they cause a substantially greater degree of pain that can be difficult or impossible to ignore. If you or someone you know suffers from migraine, you know that migraines often cannot be treated with traditional pain medicine, and it may seem as though nothing can be done to reduce the suffering. Making matters worse, migraines are often accompanied by other symptoms including nausea and vomiting, and migraine sufferers can become hyper-sensitive to light and noise. As such, migraine sufferers often have difficulty meeting the demands of everyday life, as the condition can affect one’s ability to work, maintain relationships, and perform other normal everyday tasks. 47 million Americans suffer from migraines, and six million Americans have more than 15 headache days per month, severely limiting their ability to participate in normal life. As a result, migraine poses an economic burden on the country, as it results in employee absenteeism or employees who go to work but are unable to perform their duties effectively.

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Oftentimes, as a result of stigma or a lack of appreciation for the severity of pain by others, migraine sufferers try to treat the problem on their own, usually with little or no success. Making matters worse, very few medical experts specialize in treating migraines, meaning that the care migraine sufferers receive from their primary care physicians can be insufficient. What’s more, people with intense migraines can end up in the emergency room, which is one of the worst places to be during a migraine episode as emergency rooms are full of bright lights, loud noises, and long wait times that can aggravate the condition.

Luckily for treatment-resistant migraine sufferers, new medicines and therapies are being developed that show promise in treating this debilitating condition. There are four drugs on the market, two of which are anti-seizure drugs and two of which are beta-blockers, that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of migraine. Additionally, people whose migraines are frequent can receive Botox injections, which can help to prevent the onset of symptoms. There also now exist newer drugs called biologic drugs which are taken once a month or once every three months. These drugs are specifically designed to treat migraines by blocking receptors that transmit pain signals. Unfortunately, however, biologic drugs are expensive, and insurance companies are often unwilling to pay for them until other drugs are shown to be ineffective for treating the condition.

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Another newly developed treatment for migraines does not involve the use of drugs at all, but instead works as a neurostimulator that transmits electrical pulses through the skin to reduce the experience of pain. The device, called the Nerivio Migra, works with a band that is placed on the upper arm and is controlled by the patient’s smartphone. This treatment is relatively inexpensive, costing around $99 for 12 applications. If you’re suffering from migraines, the important thing to keep in mind is that speaking with a doctor about migraine is much more effective than trying to treat the symptoms by yourself, and that if one migraine drug is ineffective, there are a number of other options to pursue that can help to alleviate pain. Given the impact that migraine can have on one’s productivity or quality-of-life, it is important to ignore the stigma of migraines and seek treatment instead of attempting to handle the problem on your own.

Motorola RAZR

Motorola Joins the Foldable Phone Trend with its RAZR Refresh

Many of us who used cellphones in the early 2000’s remember the Motorola RAZR, a flip-phone that at the time functioned not only as a powerful telecommunications device but as a stylish status symbol in the era before the iPhone introduced smartphones to the masses. Now, nearly two decades after the launch of the original product, Motorola is banking on their customers’ nostalgia for this pre-iPhone era with a refresh of the original RAZR, featuring the same clamshell design with a folding screen, a similar technology as was included in the recently-released Samsung Galaxy Fold. After months of rumors, leaks, and speculation, Motorola has finally introduced their hotly-anticipated new flagship, simply called the “Motorola razr,” to the press. The media generally had a positive impression of the unique new device, despite only being able to spend a short amount of hands-on time with it. The razr is set to launch in January 2020 for $1,499, and only time will tell how reviewers react after being able to spend more time with the phone and use it in their day-to-day life.

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Fundamentally, the razr’s design is unlike any smartphone that’s been released as of yet. When closed, the phone resembles its years-old namesake, with the most notable difference being a larger, higher-resolution “quick view” display. The phone has a camera on its exterior, which functions both as a selfie camera and a rear-facing camera when the device is unfolded. For I/O, the phone has only a singly USB-C port with no headphone jack. The device is thin, even when folded, and features an attractive, simplistic design, with the Motorola logo adorning the back. In fact, Motorola says the device is exactly as thin as the original RAZR from 14 years ago. Members of the press praised the device’s hinge, which feels sturdy and allows the phone to fold completely flat when both opened and closed. The small “quick view” display present on the exterior is meant for simple tasks, like checking notifications and toggling settings as well as taking selfies.

There’s no denying that for most people the razr is a novelty device, with its most attractive characteristic being its immediate “wow” factor.

The device opens to reveal a 6.2” plastic OLED display, resembling a standard smartphone display with a slightly taller-than-average 21:9 aspect ratio. Otherwise, the device’s specifications are dissapointingly mid-range; the 16-megapixel camera isn’t going to win any photography awards, as it features only a single lens and a mediocre resolution, and journalists compared it to the cameras featured on flagship devices from several years ago. The front-facing camera, meant primarily for video calls, is even worse at just 5 megapixels. The phone’s processor is a nearly two-years-old Snapdragon 710, and while it is more than powerful enough to handle most ordinary smartphone tasks, it pales in comparison to devices released this year at half the price. The razr includes a reasonable 6 GB of LPDDR4 RAM, but its battery, at a capacity of just 2510 mAh, will likely struggle to provide a full day’s worth of use for power users. There’s no support for external storage, but the included 128 GB should be enough for most people. Motorola clearly needed to make some compromises to enable the device to be so thin, but these compromises are particularly hard to swallow given the phone’s hefty price tag, as it’s far pricier than nearly all other premium devices on the market.

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That being said, the razr is a fascinating device, and potentially represents the future of smartphone design. When folded, the phone is smaller than virtually every other smartphone on the market, making it ideal for people with limited pocket space. And as the RAZR is the most successful flip phone ever, consumer nostalgia is likely to drive sales, as the phone is undeniably cool. Though some journalists worried about the long-term durability of the device, as the similar Galaxy Fold had a number of devastating issues with reliability prior and even after its eventual release, engineers at the press event announcing the device were confident in the strength of the hinge’s complex design. The phone is water-resistant but not water- or dust-proof, and the device’s folding design may even help with its durability, as the phone’s main screen is protected when in its folded position, obviating the need for a case or screen protector. The main display’s crease is mostly invisible, whereas the Galaxy Fold’s crease is prominent, and folding displays generally are prone to damage from strong pressure or sharp objects.

There’s no denying that for most people the razr is a novelty device, with its most attractive characteristic being its immediate “wow” factor. Nonetheless, it is shaping up to be a perfectly usable and decent smartphone for those willing to pay up and for those looking to impress their friends with their unique and eye-catching device.

Weight Loss

Struggling to Commit to a Weight Loss Plan? Try Noom

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of living a healthy lifestyle is not choosing the right diet and exercise plan, but holding yourself accountable to practicing healthy habits over time, particularly when doing so is a solo journey. That’s where Noom comes in. Noom is a lifestyle app that is focused on instilling lifelong habits that not only help their users look and feel better, but lower their risk of developing chronic illnesses. The philosophy behind Noom is based on the idea that we all make a significant number of decisions throughout the day that impact our health, and while these individual decisions have little impact, their cumulative effect over time is substantial. As such, Noom is designed to hold you accountable for your daily decisions, subtly encouraging positive choices over negative ones. Also, Noom connects you with a community of users of a similar demographic and with similar lifestyle goals, allowing you to seek advice and receive encouragement along your healthy lifestyle journey.

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Although weight loss is Noom’s primary goal, the app strives to differentiate itself from dieting programs that may lead to fast results but leave people prone to regaining the weight they lost after completing the program. As such, the company advertises its app as “the last weight loss program you’ll ever need.” Upon signing up for Noom, users are presented with a survey that asks about their age, height, weight, and gender, and then the app asks users to enter their goal weight. After being prompted to sign up for the option premium version of the app, users are then taken to the home screen, from which they can enlist in a number of courses specifically designed to instill healthy eating and exercise habits. Noom’s perspective on nutrition is focused on the idea of “calorie density,” as it encourages users to eat low calorie density foods over high calorie density foods. As such, foods like leafy greens are encouraged, as they provide a small number of calories relative to their size. Additionally, the app separates food into three categories: red, yellow, and green, and it encourages users to eat yellow and green foods while avoiding red ones.

The simplicity of the diet and exercise plans included with Noom is part of the company’s efforts to instill lasting habits

One of the benefits of Noom relative to other weight loss apps is that Noom’s approach has been scientifically validated, although the total amount of science conducted on the subject is minimal. In one study, which included 36,000 participants, 80 percent of users who stuck with the app for a median of 267 days reported weight loss which they kept off. In this study, it was found that tracking dinner was the most effective component of the app for encouraging weight loss, and tracking overall calories, activities, and weight also proved to be effective.  Noom also doesn’t denote any particular food as strictly off-limits; while the app will encourage you to seek healthy alternatives to calorie-dense foods, it won’t try to prevent you from eating them, instead rewarding users for consistently and honestly tracking their food intake. 

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If the program seems very simplistic, that’s because it is. The simplicity of the diet and exercise plans included with Noom is part of the company’s efforts to instill lasting habits; the inconvenience of organizing your life around a strict set of dietary guidelines often has the effect of discouraging would-be dieters over time, so the app attempts to streamline the process as much as possible. That being said, some dieticians complain that this simplistic approach goes too far, as certain high calorie density foods, like nuts, olives, and avocados, are both appealing and healthy. Additionally, while the app features courses created by health coaches, many of these individuals are not registered dieticians, and users have complained that the support provided by these coaches is artificial. While the app purports to allow you to speak with a health coach, users have suspected they are instead speaking with a chatbot, as their responses aren’t always helpful. Others have complained that the app’s database of foods is incomplete, and that tracking food over time is, in general, a pain. Nonetheless, if you’re serious about making long-lasting healthy changes to your lifestyle, it doesn’t hurt to give Noom a shot and determine if it’s the right app for you.

Scooter

Is the Urban Millennial Lifestyle Sustainable?

If you walk into any major urban center in America, you’re bound to find young people glued to their smartphones. But they’re not always just texting or checking up on social media they’re also taking advantage of a wide range of lifestyle apps, which offer everything from ride-sharing services to online shopping to rewards for engaging with local businesses. Most of these apps, which are generally available cheaply or for free, are created by businesses started in Silicon Valley, where implementing a unique idea and cultivating an audience is often considered more important than generating profits. These consumer tech companies are generally funded by wealthy investors looking to capitalize on the explosion of technology present in the everyday lives of millennials, effectively subsidizing the products in question and enabling an artificially low cost for the consumer. But the venture capitalists who make this app-centric lifestyle possible are effectively placing a bet on the long-term financial viability of the innovative businesses they invest in, with potentially disastrous consequences for everyone involved.

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Any number of examples of these apps, produced by businesses that are not currently making a profit and perhaps never will, come to mind. Casper, a mattress company that operates online and ships compressed mattresses directly to customers’ homes, is expected to lose money this year, as are the tremendously popular Uber and Lyft ride-sharing platforms. DoorDash, a service that delivers food from a variety of eateries, is not profitable, and neither is Seated, which gives discounts to restaurant-goers. Perhaps most notably, the platform WeWork, a business that rents out office and living space to small businesses, recently attempted to go public, a disastrous decision that resulted in financial turmoil for the company after potential investors raised concerns about the company’s path to profitability and its’ CEOs questionable antics, which included smoking marijuana on a private jet and serving tequila shots to employees after discussing layoffs. Amidst this controversy, Adam Neumann stepped down from his role of CEO of the company, and WeWork’s future remains unclear.

In general, companies such as these provide non-essential goods and services, offering their customers convenience for an affordable price rather than the necessities of life. This convenience is made possible by technology, as smartphones are always connected to the internet and provide companies with information such as a user’s location and other details that are used in innovative ways. Nevertheless, they are built upon attractive and enticing ideas, which capture the attention of investors who rely upon their trust that the companies’ ingenuity and creativity will eventually lead them to make a profit.

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Ironically, the most popular online businesses tend to be the least profitable, in what is likely to come as a surprise to their millions of daily users. The well-known Blue Apron, for instance, spends roughly $460 to recruit each of their customers, despite making only around $400 on each customer, as they are likely to cancel their subscriptions after only a few months. As a result, investors quickly realized that the meal-kit company had no viable path to profitability, and the company’s valuation dropped by over 95% since they went public. Because Blue Apron refuses to increase the price of their services, they are unable to demonstrate value to investors, leading to serious financial problems for the company. While Blue Apron may be considered an extreme example, the underlying business model, wherein companies supported by venture capitalists reduce their prices in order to generate an audience, is prevalent throughout entire industries.

The artificially low prices of these new businesses perhaps explains the extremely-connected and online relationship millennials have with tech-savvy startups. But, as companies like WeWork and Blue Apron fail spectacularly despite their large audiences, business leaders are starting to take note. One of the solutions to this inherently problematic business model is simply to raise prices for services in an attempt to generate profits for increasingly impatient investors. But competition is fierce, and millennials are a fickle demographic. Companies that raise prices of services, even if just to break even, risk alienating their base of consumers, who may be drawn to particular products or services for their low prices rather than for their practicality. For instance, if a company that lets customers rent bicycles with their phones raises their prices, consumers may realize that it becomes more economically viable for them to simply purchase their own form of transportation. As income inequality rises and wages remain stagnant, particularly among the millennial class of workers, companies are faced with the difficult choice between continuing to operate at a loss by benefiting from increasingly-wary investors, and raising prices for non-essential goods and services that their consumer base may increasingly be unable to afford.

Google Search

Google Announces New Line of Products at Made by Google 2019 Event

Today, Google held a press event during which they discussed their new line of products, as well as their advancements in engineering and design, with a particular focus on how progress in artificial intelligence and machine learning has affected their business.

Google began the event by discussing the company’s mission, which is to help people in their lives without intruding on their daily lives. Google calls this concept “ambient computing,” by which they mean interactions with computers that exist in the background, rather than ones that occupy the user’s attention by being obvious and intrusive. Google claims that this concept informs the development of all of their products, and stated that all of the products announced at the event would demonstrate the value of this approach to computing.

The first product Google described was the Pixel Buds, a pair of wireless earbuds with advanced software functionality. The Pixel Buds include integration with the Google Assistant, and use bone conduction technology to recognize the user’s voice even in loud environments. They also work several rooms away from the device to which they are wirelessly connected, allowing for greater freedom and flexibility, and include audio pass-through features to enable users to remain present in their environment even while listening to music. The Pixel Buds will cost $179, and will launch in Spring 2020.

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Next, Google talked about the importance of sustainability and environmental consciousness in their company’s philosophy. The company stated that they would commit to investing $150 million into renewable energy sources, and spoke about their commitment to incorporate recycled plastic in their products. Google also spoke of its new video game streaming platform, which requires only a controller and a compatible device, cutting back on hardware costs and waste. They introduced the controller they designed for this specific purpose, which was inspired by the versatile design of kitchen knives for professional chefs.

Google then introduced the Pixelbook Go, an affordable laptop, which is available for pre-order and will cost $649. The company quickly moved on to talk about its updates to Google Nest, a smart home system designed to seamlessly incorporate technology into home life. Google stressed its commitment to security and privacy, describing how third-party developers would have to meet certain requirements in order to enable compatibility with Google Nest products. The Google Nest Hub Next acts as a standalone tablet to be placed on top of the kitchen counter, for instance, and allows users to dynamic move content from one display to another within the home. Google described an update to its Google Home Mini, including advanced artificial intelligence processors and the option to mount the device on the wall. They also described Nest Aware, a camera-based surveillance system for the home, and talked about how smoke alarm features would be integrated into their products. The last Google Home product the company discussed was Nest WiFi, a router system for creating mesh networks within the home.

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Google then discussed the Google Pixel 4, the company’s flagship smartphone which has been completely redesigned. The first feature of the phone the company discussed was its built-in radar sensor, which is used for facial recognition and gesture recognition. The company described their efforts in radar technology as a way to introduce natural human body language as a way of interacting with computers, and described how the Google Assistant is more deeply integrated into the phone’s operating system, again emphasizing the company’s commitment to privacy and ensuring users have control over their data. One example of this is the company’s new Recorder app, which automatically records and transcribes audio on the device, even when it’s not connected to the Internet.

Google described the display of the Pixel 4 as “visually indistinguishable from perfect,” and it is the first phone to feature a display with a 90 Hz refresh rate. Additionally, the company claimed the phone’s camera was at the top of its class, and discussed how the company invested into “computational photography,” which is software that improves the visual fidelity of data captured by the image sensor. Computational photography generally involves combining several images into one, reducing noise and expanding the dynamic range of photographs. Computational photography also enables high-resolution digital zoom, and real-time previews of HDR images. Additionally, computational photography allows for more accurate automatic white balancing and approximation of the depth-of-field effect, including bokeh simulation, and improving the detail of night shots, including the ability to capture stars in the night sky. The phone will start shipping on October 24, and will cost $799.

Overall, the range of products announced at this year’s event was somewhat limited, as the updates to the Google Home products seemed fairly minor, with limited appeal. While the Pixel Buds seem impressive, there is strong competition in the wireless earbud market from Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Samsung, and the Pixel Buds don’t feature any truly unique capabilities. Google didn’t go into too much detail about its upcoming Pixel 4, but the smartphone was by far the most interesting product described today, as the company promises their new phone will integrate hardware and software features to provide the best Android experience on the market.

Microsoft

Microsoft Hopes to Revolutionize Computing with Surface Neo and Duo

Though its Windows line of products has represented by far the most popular choice of operating system for decades, Microsoft is relatively new to the hardware space, as the cornerstone of its business has long been its software offerings. Barring their Xbox series of video game consoles, the company has only been manufacturing mobile computing devices for a few years, starting with its innovative Surface 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrid in 2012. With the original Surface tablet, Microsoft intended to directly compete with Apple’s iPad line, but also aimed to innovate on the form factor by offering a keyboard accessory and a kick stand as well as compatibility with the Surface Pen, for precise touch input. While the Surface line of products has been a moderate financial success for Microsoft, the products have received acclaim from critics and consumers alike, and the Surface products have a very high favorability rating among customers.

Building on the success of its Surface tablets, and iterating on the philosophy of enabling different types of functionality that inspired the design of these tablets, Microsoft recently announced an entirely new suite of Surface products, many of which will not launch until Holiday 2020. The most notable of Microsoft’s announcements are the Surface Neo and the Surface Duo, which are a folding tablet and a folding smartphone, respectively. These two products have  a form factor which is fundamentally unlike any product that has since been announced, marking a bold new direction for the company. The two products, the latter of which resembles a smaller version of the former, feature two displays placed almost directly next to one another, separated by a hinge that allows the device to fold 360 degrees.

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When closed, the devices resemble notebooks or journals, but constructed with a sleek and sturdy-looking metallic finish. When opened, the devices can be used in the form factor of a traditional laptop, with the lower screen acting as a software keyboard, or held sideways like a book. They can be opened further at 180 degrees to allow the two screens to work as one for a widescreen viewing experience. If the devices are opened further, they can sit on a table, with one screen allowing for a viewing experience from a distance. Finally, if the devices are folded all the way, they can be held in the hand like a traditional tablet or smartphone, with displays present on both sides.

Microsoft intends for these devices to enable a level of creativity and productivity not possible on other devices by allowing them to assume what they call different “postures.” As the devices can be unfolded and positioned in a variety of ways, each of these postures also enables different software opportunities, as the operating systems of the devices are able to detect how they are being held and offer options to the user accordingly. For instance, the Surface Neo can be used with a magnetically-attached keyboard peripheral, which can be placed on top of half of the lower screen, allowing the remainder of the display to be used as a trackpad. Additionally, both devices are compatible with styluses, allowing for precision input for a variety of applications, but perhaps most notably for digital artists.

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During the keynote in which these devices were announced, representatives from Microsoft envision the current decade as being one in which devices are used for consuming content, and see the following decade as being one characterized by using technology to create things, hoping to lead the industry in that direction. By announcing these devices so far ahead of their release dates, Microsoft intends not only to give developers time to work on software applications that take advantage of their unique form factor, but also to give consumers an opportunity to invest in the Microsoft digital ecosystem in advance of the release of these groundbreaking products. 

Perhaps the most surprising feature of Microsoft’s announcement is the fact that the Surface Duo runs the Android operating system, leveraging software from Google, a direct competitor to the software giant. After the failure of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system, which failed to gain traction in large part because of the absence of support from third-party developers, Microsoft has seemingly given up on creating mobile operating systems. However, the company’s decision to go with Android, currently the most popular mobile operating system around the world, is a clear advantage to consumers, who will have access to a wide range of already-existing apps. The extent to which third-party developers take advantage of the unique form factor of the Neo and Duo, however, remains to be seen, and this factor likely will predict the long-term success of the products overall.

Apple Arcade

Apple Arcade Creates a Niche for High-Quality Phone Games

For years, games for smartphones have broadly fit into one of two categories – either they were free-to-play, oftentimes packaged with obtrusive advertisements and microtransactions built into an experience designed to get you to fork over real money, or they were premium titles, requiring players to invest a nominal up-front fee. While the latter category usually offers more polished and fun titles, few smartphone users are willing to spend money in the App Store, making the former category substantially more profitable for developers. As a result, the number of premium games on offer for both Android and iOS devices has dwindled in recent years, and smartphone users looking to play video games on their devices are often left with titles that subtly encourage them to part with real money for in-game advantages. Looking to address this problem in the gaming environment on their devices, Apple announced the subscription service Apple Arcade, which for $4.99 per month provides iOS users with a selection of high-quality, ad-free mobile games with no microtransactions present.

The service, which launched just a few days ago, is already being praised by media outlets for offering a solution to the dearth of quality games available for smartphones. For the price of a typical premium smartphone game per month, Apple Arcade gives access to more than 70 titles, many of which were custom-designed for the service. This wide selection of titles, which subscribers have unlimited access to for the duration of their subscription, ensures that gamers can find titles that match their specific interests as well as explore other genres of gaming without investing money in titles they’re not sure if they’d like. Apple has leveraged the service to fund the development of indie titles that otherwise would not have been realized, as their designs aren’t conducive to the free-to-play model that currently dominates the industry. As an example, Card of Darkness, a game which combines dungeon-crawling mechanics with a virtual card game, was developed by a ten-person studio paid directly by Apple to be featured exclusively on the Apple Arcade service.

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Card of Darkness has already received rave reviews, as media outlets praised its dynamic and addictive gameplay unencumbered by ads or in-app purchases. The success of this title, in addition to the others on the platform, bodes well for the future of the service, whose innovative approach to game development is likely to produce titles of similar and even greater acclaim as time goes on. Because the funding of titles is handled up-front by Apple on a per-app basis, developers don’t have to worry about generating a return on their investment, freeing them to explore risky but unique game design options and package them into a visually appealing and polished product. 

Developers creating experiences for the Apple Arcade platform have to contend with a number of rules and restrictions that Apple places on developers, though. Game creators are required to ensure that their titles function well on a variety of devices Apple offers, many with radically different form factors, and must localize their games for 14 different languages to ensure that all markets have access to the same selection of titles. For many developers, however, the trade-off is worth it, as the service makes possible titles that wouldn’t be financially viable under the standard App Store model. Where Cards Fall, for instance, has been in development for long before the announcement of Apple Arcade, but seeing as the game offers 20 hours of narrative-driven content, the developers would have charged roughly $20 for the title, which is a substantially greater cost than the vast majority of App Store titles. Apple Arcade ensured that the title, which otherwise may never have seen the light of day, would be financially viable.

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For Android users, Google offers a competing service called Google Play Pass, which for an introductory price of $1.99 per month grants access to a collection not only of games, but of other apps, like weather and photography programs. While the competing service is superficially similar to Apple Arcade in its structure, the selection of games available on Google Play Pass is not as strong. Android is a more difficult operating system to develop games for, as a staggering variety of hardware combinations need to be taken into account as different manufacturers support different features. Additionally, Google Play Pass pays developers based on users’ engagement with their apps, meaning developers who create titles that users play for long periods of time make substantially more money than developers who create short titles. As not every game has to be long-lasting to be fun, this practice discourages developers interested in creating shorter experiences. It’s unclear exactly how Apple decides how much to pay developers for titles on their service, but developers have expressed satisfaction with the deals they’ve made with the software giant.

With the advent of Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass, the once-bleak market for smartphone games seems to be making a resurgence. As consumers shift towards preferring a Netflix-style of content delivery generally, wherein they pay a monthly fee for unlimited access rather than paying for titles individually, services like these take advantage of this change in customers’ mindset. Given the surprising early success of Apple Arcade, and the introduction of similar services from Nintendo and Sony for their respective platforms, the subscription model of video gaming seems poised to reshape the industry as a whole. 

Smartphones

How to Take Advantage of Smartphones’ “Digital Wellbeing” Tools

It’s no secret that over the past several years, smartphones have taken over nearly every aspect of most of our lives, as we use the versatile devices for everything from communicating with friends to catching up on work emails to consuming entertainment. As smartphone use is on the rise, many are concerned about the negative impact that device addiction may have on our lives, interfering with our engagement with the real world. This concern is shared even by developers of smartphone software, who have introduced tools to allow users to limit their exposure to their devices, which are categorized under the umbrella term “digital wellbeing.” Such tools are available on both Android and iOS devices, and while their presence may not be obvious, digital-wellbeing features are built into the operating systems of many popular smartphones.

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While digital wellbeing features have existed in Android for some time, their functionality has been expanded for Android 10, the latest version of Google’s operating system. While Android 10 is currently only available for Google Pixel devices, the software update should roll out to other smartphones soon, as manufacturers work to optimize the software for their individual devices. Digital Wellbeing is one of Google’s prioritizes for this version of the operating system, and a number of landmark features have been introduced. For instance, users can enable a so-called “Focus mode,” which disables certain apps deemed to be distracting, and users can also set a maximum amount of time they’re allowed to use each app per day. Additionally, Android 10 introduces a “wind down” mode, which is designed to help users fall asleep at the end of the day by switching the screen to a less-engaging grayscale mode and turns on Do Not Disturb. Android 10 users can also view the amount of time they spend using each app in the Settings menu, and see which apps are occupying the most of their time.

iPhone users, too, have access to tools that are meant to improve their relationship with technology. iOS 12 includes a mode called “Screen Time” which, like its Android counterpart, allows users to view statistics about how often and for how long they use particular apps. This mode also allows users to view the number of times they’ve picked up their phone as well as the time of day they’re most frequently active on their devices. Both operating systems allow users to create limits on how long they use their phones, but whereas Android allows users to set limits on an app-by-app basis, iOS users are only able to set limits by category. iPhones running iOS 12 also have a “Bedtime mode” feature, which dims the display of the lock screen at night to prevent your phone from waking you up when it’s on your nightstand.

Both operating systems allow users to create limits on how long they use their phones

In addition to specialized tools built into their operating systems, Google offers advice for how to ensure the way you’re using your devices is healthy and positive. The company has a page inviting users to reflect on their technology habits, encouraging them to “take the first step toward understanding your relationship with tech, and get tips and tools to help your digital well-being.” This page presents visitors with a quiz, asking them questions about their usage of technology and whether it interferes with their other obligations, whether those are related to work, family, or friends. The company recommends users take advantage of the Google Assistant, which allows people to interact with their phone using only their voice, to spend more time away from the device’s screen, and also suggests users customize the notifications they receive on a per-app basis to prevent them from becoming overwhelming.

While it may seem counterintuitive to rely on our phones to provide us with ways to limit our engagement with technology, the integration of smartphones into our daily lives is a fact of living in the modern era. As such, these tools are a welcome addition to the smartphone ecosystem, and as developers continue to compete for our attention with ever-more engaging apps, the prospect of enforcing self-imposed limits on smartphone usage may become increasingly enticing.

Samsung Galaxy Buds

Samsung Galaxy Buds: A Worthy Alternative to Airpods?

Over the past several years, true wireless earphones – ones that operate as two independent wireless devices that connect via Bluetooth to one’s smartphone – have exploded in popularity. The development of this trend can be traced back to Apple’s Airpods, which were released at the end of 2016 but really gained traction over a year later. Though sales were initially relatively slow, and some critics commented that the earphones resembled Q-Tips, consumers began to appreciate the product’s unique form factor and convenience. Airpods soon became a status symbol, and owing in part to the earphones’ unique feature set and ease of use, turned into a common sight in public places like the grocery store and the office.

For all their popularity and convenience, however, there are some notable drawbacks associated with the product, particularly for people who have Android phones. While Airpods will connect via bluetooth to both iOS and Android devices, the product’s featureset is much more limited when used with the latter operating system. Because Airpods are designed by Apple to work with iPhones, they can take advantage of custom software to optimize audio quality, automatically connect with different Apple devices and seamlessly transition between them, and offer features like Live Listen Audio, which allows users to use their earphones as a hearing aid. On the other hand, Android recognizes Airpods as generic bluetooth audio devices, allowing only for limited audio quality and the bare minimum featureset. For this reason and given the number of other options available, Android users would be foolish to purchase Apple’s wireless earphone solution.

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Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, which were released earlier this year, are a direct competitor to Apple’s Airpods, and offer similar bespoke functionality when paired with a Samsung Galaxy device. While the two products aim to occupy a similar consumer niche, there actually exist significant differences between them, the most immediate being their respective prices; Samsung’s offering can be purchased for $99 online, making them effectively half the price of their main competitor. When paired with a compatible device, the Galaxy Buds offer superior audio quality compared to Airpods, as their in-ear design enables deeper bass and enhanced clarity. Like the Airpods, the Galaxy Buds offer an Ambient Aware mode, letting sounds from the environment play over music or other audio and permitting greater awareness of one’s surroundings during use. And also like the newest generation of Airpods, the Galaxy Buds come with a case that charges wirelessly, enabling convenience and making the product truly wireless in every sense of the word. (Although the Galaxy Buds do work with iPhones, the Ambient Aware and automatic sync features will be disabled.)

The Galaxy Buds are likely to be the best wireless earphone solution for the foreseeable future.

Reviews comparing the two products generally favor Samsung’s offering for a number of reasons. Consumer Reports, for instance, conducted sound testing that clearly favored the audio quality of the Galaxy Buds, and found the battery life in Samsung’s product to be superior as well. Business Insider had similar findings, and praised the Galaxy Buds for being offered in a number of colors, whereas Airpods come only in white. And CNet preferred the appearance, customizability, and sound quality of the Buds, while noting that the Airpods were slightly more comfortable and offered better call quality. 

If you’re in the market for wireless earbuds, however, it may pay off it wait a little while longer. This is because Amazon is rumored to be entering the wireless earphone space as well, and their upcoming product is thought to offer fitness tracking capabilities, including a potential heart-rate monitor and Alexa integration. That being said, if you’re not interested in fitness tracking or Alexa functionality and own an Android phone, the Galaxy Buds are likely to be the best wireless earphone solution for the foreseeable future.

iPhone 3

Early Reviews of New iPhones are Very Positive

When Apple unveiled its newest generation of iPhones last week, which include the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Max, immediate reactions were mixed, as many rightfully observed that Apple seemed to be playing it safe, offering minor improvements to features that already existed in previous generations of iPhones while reducing prices instead of introducing any groundbreaking new technology. In fact, these new iPhones removed some features present on previous devices which were considered unimportant, such as 3D Touch. This year, Apple seems to be focusing on improvements to the core iPhone experience rather than expanding into new territories, and early reviews suggest that this strategy has paid off, as journalists many describe the new iPhones as offering the best smartphone experience for most people right now.

Nilay Patel from The Verge, for instance, describes the iPhone 11 quite simply as “the phone most people should buy,” adding that “it’s great where it counts, and totally fine everywhere else.” While admitting that the iPhone 11 is basically just an incremental upgrade over last year’s iPhone XR, Patel suggests that the improvements to the phone’s overall design, including sturdier glass and better water resistance, result in a very polished user experience. Although the only major improvements Patel observes are the “cameras, the slightly better battery life, and the processor,” he notes that these and other features were already so good on the previous generation that these improvements, albeit slight, still result in a stellar device. 

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Though Patel complained about Apple’s continued reliance on a large, bulky, outdated 5W wall charger, he praised the battery’s performance, noting that you’d have to really go out of your way to fully drain the battery in less than a day. He also describes the new cameras as “a massive step forward,” and praised the quality of the images the phone is able to capture, noting that, in most respects, the camera experience is identical to the pricier iPhone 11 Pro. In particular, the new phone performs particularly well in low-light environments due to advancements in camera and image processing technology. As battery life and camera quality are two of the top concerns for people buying a new smartphone, it makes sense that Apple chose to focus in these areas, and according to reviewers the results of doing so have paid off.

The consensus seems to be that Apple hit the ball out of the park with all of their iPhone offerings this year, introducing a product which will be difficult for competitors to beat.

The iPhone 11 Pro, which Patel also reviewed, represents an even greater improvement in these key areas, with an even better battery life and an additional camera with a telephoto lens, as well as a higher-resolution display and a faster, more efficient chipset. The Pro models additionally include a fast-charging feature, unlike the base model, and improved LTE performance (though support for 5G isn’t included.)

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The major complaint reviewers had with the new phones was the operating system, iOS 13, which presents users with bugs and other annoyances. They’re quick to note, however, that Apple has a good track record of improving user experience on its phones with software updates, though it is not certain as of yet when Apple will release an update to address issues of performance and stability. Like the rest of the phone, iOS 13 represents only an iterative improvement over last year’s software, but the experience remains snappy, streamlined and simultaneously intuitive and densely packed with features. Still, Patel recommends waiting until Apple irons out these issues before purchasing a new iPhone 11 or iPhone 11 Pro.

Overall, reviewers felt that the cheaper iPhone 11 was the best option for most people, as the improvements in the Pro model, while substantial, don’t justify the additional several hundred dollars in cost. Instead, the Pro models are recommended for those who demand battery life, image quality, and speed that far exceeds the competition and are willing to pay roughly a thousand dollars for that privilege. Still, the consensus seems to be that Apple hit the ball out of the park with all of their iPhone offerings this year, introducing a product which will be difficult for competitors to beat.