If there are any regular readers of this blog, then they’ll surely have noticed that I’ve moved away from writing about Android, favoring topics about Nintendo instead. My interest in Android has waned in part now that I’ve reached a comfortable plateau of apps on my devices – stuff such as Pocket, Twitter, Robin, and Pocket Casts do exactly what I need, and I haven’t been on the hunt for new offerings for a while. I’m not that interested in Android games at the moment (except long-form adventures), meaning that my main engagement with the platform is just that – on the platform, OS-level, studying different quirks and features. E.g., every notice that you can swipe left an right to go backward/forward in a Google Play Music album?
But I’m still interested in hardware, which is of course essential to the platform. I upgraded from my black Nexus 4 to a white Nexus 5 in late November, simply moving my AT&T SIM over. I did a brief overview a few weeks back, but I’ve had enough time to use it to write a longer review.
The Nexus 4 was a beautiful device, with its glittery glass back setting it apart from the drab pebble blue plastic of the S3 and the whole lot of low and mid range Android phones. It achieved a premium look and feel without having to compromise on ruggedness or marketability, which plagued the black iPhone 5 (too easily chipped) and the HTC One (a premium phone with no audience). That said, it was fragile, just like the iPhone 4/4S, all but necessitating at least a bumper.
The Nexus 5 takes things in a different direction. Its polycarbonate back and horizontal NEXUS lettering bring it in line with the 2013 Nexus 7. It’s not metal, glass, or any other “premium” material, but it feels and looks great, confirming my thought that premium fit and finish come from components that complement each other, rather than the usage of any one specific material. The lettering is much more distinctive on the white model than the black.
Throughout 2013, Android OEMs updated their flagship offerings with 1080p displays, and the Nexus 5 is no exception. Compared to the Nexus 4 (which was a bit washed-out), its display is brighter. I didn’t notice a huge upgrade in quality until I went back to the Nexus 4, which suddenly looked slightly pixelated in spots.
On the bottom of the Nexus 5 are two speakers that allow for much better audio and especially speaker phone calls. The Nexus 4′s lone back-mounted speaker was prone to being muffled if the phone was set down on its back, which became such a problem that later models had to be tweaked with a small nipple/node to elevate the speaker from the ground. They’re not the front-mounted Beats speakers of the HTC One, but who cares.
Buttons are in the typical places, mercifully sparing users from the back-mounted layout of the G2, which served as the model for the Nexus 5. The headphone jack is nearer to the center than the Nexus 4.
The Nexus 5 comes with Android 4.4, but that doesn’t tell the full story. Unlike the Nexus 4 or other KitKat-compatible devices, it has an exclusive launcher built around the Google Search app.
In my earlier comments, I likened this setup to Facebook Home, another launcher that takes over a device using just one app. KitKat on the Nexus 5 isn’t as obtrusive as Facebook Home, but it’s full of odd stuff, like the “OK Google” voice search activation command (which is somewhat inaccurate, often accepting anything that resembles ” OK ___”) and Google Now tucked-away in the leftmost home screen. Users could already get to Google Now by swiping up from the lock screen or any home screen or by accessing the ubiquitous Google Search widget. Why add another way?
Google Now has gotten better – it serves up related news stories based on your browsing history, but it still feels like an awkward assistant for lazy people. Even if it were the more perfect robotic aggregator, I’m not sure it would be useful to me, if only because I don’t use Google Search as much as I used to, instead leaning on Twitter and various podcasts for discovery. It doesn’t feel like the future to me, but it’s front, side and center in KitKat. Losing the leftward home screen is disappointing, but it can be circumvented by just installing Nova Launcher or a similar tool, which I still find to provide a better Android experience than stock.
QuickOffice is now a system app, and Currents is gone, replaced by Google Play Newsstand, which combines it with the previously dreadful Google Play Magazines. The transparent dock is nice – it makes the screen feel larger, even if it is a gimmick. The byzantine Settings app has brought some important functionality like toggling launchers and mobile payments further to the front, making them easier to manage. The stock wallpapers are much better than on previous Nexus devices.
Messaging is missing, replaced by Hangouts. The loathsome Gallery app is still around for some reason, and it is bound to confuse many users since it’s joined by the recent (Google) Photos app. Basically, Gallery is the app for all of your locally stored photos, from the camera, different apps, or downloads. Photos is your Google+ catalogue of automatically backed up and enhanced photos. It’s ridiculous that Google hasn’t found a way to consolidate these apps, and as such photo browsing – like Google Now accessibility – is needlessly redundant on KitKat.
Battery and performance
Though a lot of this sounds incremental, the Nexus 5 is still a big leap from the Nexus 4. Its screen is significantly more pixel-dense, and it has LTE. Still, despite these new features, its battery is only slightly better than the Nexus 4, and I noticed that it could drain power pretty quickly when using Chrome, streaming music/podcasts, or reading in Pocket on LTE. It’s definitely more power-hungry than the Nexus 4, but the same tricks that could boost Nexus 4 battery life work here, too. All mainstream phones are in a similar boat when it comes to battery, if only because the technology has changed little in so long.
The combination of LTE and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 is terrific. This is one of the fastest devices I’ve ever used, capable of loading webpages almost instantly, sending videos to Google+ or via Snapchat without hiccup, and streaming without incident. It also feels faster in subtle ways – as part of Google’s shift from blue to white coloring in much of the system UX, scrolling to the bottom of a webpage or article no longer creates that harsh blue stop line, but results in a more whimsical, warmer flash of white.
This phone is a steal at $349, with no deal breaker drawbacks (unless you’re looking for something that can run iOS). It addresses all the most-complained about flaws of the Nexus 4 – lack of LTE, glass back, smudgy front and back faces – while adding a nice performance boost and bigger battery. The software is still quirky and awkward at times, but its flaws are mostly cosmetic and philosophical. If you like good, clean, fast Android, then this is the right phone for you.
Reading articles about the “demise” of Nintendo is a good way to stumble over some terrible reasoning and misinformation. MG Siegler et al are all too willing to liken Nintendo to BlackBerry, despite the company’s excellent financial position (especially in light of its small workforce – Nintendo is not a gigantic operation like would-be competitor Microsoft, or like BlackBerry is/was) and its exceptional success with the Wii and DS over the past decade.
The angle of comparing Nintendo devices to “mobile” (an increasingly meaningless word applied to gigantic phones and laptop-grade tablets) is overplayed – certainly, there is some competition between devices for casual gamers who are now into Candy Crush but might have been into Nintendogs in a past era. But Nintendo isn’t really making “mobile” devices in any sense: the tablet controller of the Wii U is slightly awkward as a standalone device, and even the (3)DS is mostly a device for gamers at home, not on the go. It isn’t trying to make a play for the “mobile” audience – maybe that’s a bad move, maybe it isn’t. Twenty years ago, it looked like a mistake for Nintendo not to make full-fledged PC games, but it’s still around.
If Nintendo has competitors (I’m not sure if does – like Apple, they don’t give a shit about any other companies), they’re the home consoles – the Xbox and PlayStation lines. And it’s competing against them with not only the Wii U, but the (3)DS, too (more on this later). Sure, the console makers may be losing their asymmetric battle with “mobile,” but if they are, it’s hard to tell, in light of record-breaking opening day sales for both the Xbox One and PS4. Maybe there’s enough attention out there to sustain both consoles and “mobile.”
But then we come to the Wii U, the poster-child for both Nintendo’s assumed doom and the decline of the console business due to “mobile” and disruption and blah blah blah. The Wii U may finally cross the 4 million units sold threshold at the end of this year, making it a huge disappointment compared to any of Nintendo’s previous offerings, save the Virtual Boy. Sales could turn around; just look at the 3DS, which IGN hilariously declared doomed in 2011 but is now the most popular console in the world. However, I think it’s more useful to understand why it has struggled than to prognosticate on its future. That said, here are my three theories for why it has had such a rocky start.
Theory #1: It isn’t powerful enough
The argument: The Wii U has a PowerPC processor – that sort of says it all, what with almost every PC in the world now running x86 of some sort an everything else – mostly “mobile” – running ARM. Its technology is from a different era. It can output HD content, but not with the extra-fancy shading and high frame rates of the Xbox One or PS4. Developers won’t make anything for it because it doesn’t have the AMD chips found in its competitors and lacks the muscle to power yet another dystopian shooter.
My take: Developers are fickle. Many ended up scaling down their games for the standard-definition Wii last generation, then abandoned it near the end of its lifecycle (which didn’t matter – the console still received plenty of first-rate games, mostly from Nintendo itself). Maybe a system-selling title like Super Mario 3D world could cause a change of heart.
But all of that is secondary. Specs are mostly irrelevant – sure, there are Internet goons who only care about graphics and the newest batch of corporatized FPS crap, but if one looks back at the history of consoles – or even consumer electronics as a whole – being on the bleeding edge hasn’t always translated into “winning” the battle. The Wii outsold both the Xbox 360 and the PS3. The iPhone has outsold every single 1080p quad-core Android device.
The question is, can Nintendo and others put the Wii U’s particular strengths to good use, like they did with the Wii’s motion-sensor technology or the N64′s thumbstick. I think that the potential is there – just look at ZombiU or The Wonderful 101 – but more needs to be done to exploit the GamePad. On the HD side, Nintendo has already shown how even something as mundane as 1080p resolution can be reimagined with its subtle use of shadow and translucency in Super Mario 3D world. There needs to be more of this.
Theory #2: It hasn’t been marketed well
The argument (by way of anecdote): I was at a Target in downtown Chicago on Black Friday. A woman was trying to buy Just Dance 2014 for the Wii, but noticed that there was a Wii U version, too. She asked the sales associate what this “symbol next to the Wii” was – that symbol being the “U.” The associate had to explain to her that the Wii U was a totally different console. Customers don’t get the distinction.
The Wii U’s name is stupid. It should have been called the Super Wii for clearer differentiation. Similarly, the Wii U has all the capabilities of the Wii – the motion-sensing, Wii Remote compatibility, and the ability to play SD Wii games -, but most people probably wouldn’t even know this, despite the name similarity. It doesn’t ship with a Wii Remote, despite some of the bundled titles (like Nintendoland) requiring one for certain sequences. It wants to be a brand new console but also compatible with everything from the Wii, yet marketing has succeeded at making it seem like neither.
My take: Sure, the name maybe was an uninspired choice. But similar problems don’t seem to have affected names as bad as “Xbox One,” which is not the first Xbox, or the previous “Xbox 360″ (compared to “Xbox”). Calling it the Super Wii and bundling a Wii Remote and something like Wii Party U could help, but it’s not the Panacea (dumb ZombiU reference).
Theory #3: It’s being cannibalized (by the 3DS)
The argument: Before you start worrying about parallels to Robinson Crusoe, think about this: Nintendo’s console business is unique. Since 1989, it has been supporting at least two consoles at one time, a portable one and a TV one. These two lines ran parallel for decades, with little overlap except for the IPs that made their way onto both platforms. The Game Boy was very different than, say, the SNES, and getting one system did not give one the same experience as the other. Ditto for the DS and the Wii.
But this has changed in recent years, largely because (I think) the 3DS was so underestimated during its first few years of existence. Even Nintendo seemed to struggle to wrap its head around what the 3DS should be early on – it wasn’t until Super Mario 3D Land and the much-needed 3DS XL redesign that the console began finding its footing. Prior to those two events, it was mostly a DS lookalike with some cool 3D graphics. But the run of first-rate software titles and a larger screen (the importance of the latter can’t be overstated) showed that the 3DS was something very different, something that realized the promise of the DSi and integrated console-level amenities like high-quality soundtracks and animations. I’ve argued that Nintendo is essentially a software company that dabbles in hardware, and the 3DS bears me out – it took good software to start moving hardware.
The perhaps unintended consequence of the 3DS’ maturity, however, is that it is cannibalizing Wii U sales. Cannibalization occurs when one of a company’s lower-priced products drives down sales for its more expensive ones, since they are targeting the same audience. The 3DS XL is nearly a Wii U GamePad on its own (and in Japan at least, the 3DS XL is way more popular than the standard-sized 3DS) and its software provides what could be called a “Nintendo fix” – Mario, Pokemon, Zelda, the full lot. Users get their fix from the 3DS and don’t need to get it from the Wii U, which doesn’t have a Pokemon or Zelda title and only recently got a truly new Mario title.
My take: Companies like Apple have long been conscious of cannibalization – in Apple’s case, of Mac sales by the iPad, or high-end iPhone sales by low-end iPhone sales. It’s a difficult issue to sort out, but in a way, it can be a good problem to have – at least something is selling, albeit perhaps not at the price point/profit one would hope.
The idea that Nintendo is cannibalizing its Wii U sales with 3DS sales probably doesn’t occur to many observers, since none of Nintendo’s competitors have a similar console business. Microsoft doesn’t do dedicated portable gaming machines, and Sony’s Vita is a failure compared even to the Wii U. Maybe Nintendo really isn’t competing with Sony or Microsoft – it’s not in a specs race, or a race for the best Assassin’s Creed 4 graphics, but simply trying to selling as many Nintendo devices – 3DS, Wii U, or otherwise – as it can. Given Nintendo’s history and resilience, that makes much more sense than arguments about the Wii U’s power or marketing
If you have a solid group of friends or relatives, a degree in an in-vogue “good” subject (which will just as quickly become a “bad” subject once public taste changes – just look how far Greek and Latin have fallen in 150 years), or a stable employer that doesn’t dabble in “improving operational efficiency” by slashing jobs, reshuffling roles for no reason, and driving away good employees, then count your blessings. You’re not one of the millions of struggling “overqualified” (read: too skilled/expensive for spendthrift HR departments) job seekers who comb through the cesspools of online job postings.
But if you’re in the latter group, you’ve probably grown familiar with the endless bullet lists of qualifications that finish off many job ads like the unappetizing icing on an expired pie. You know, the paeans to thinking outside the box (a metaphor with no literal grounding) or having 10+ years of experience for an “introductory” role. Maybe you’ve been asked to move to Iowa, or cold-called about relocating to Spain. Either way, the worst job posting essentially combine two seemingly contradictory things:
- Things that seem/are below the candidate – this can come in the form of implied low salary/no discussion of salary at all, overly stringent workplace requirements for a job that can be done with just an Internet-connected device, or something else
- Things that seem/are above the candidate – basically, a mother lode of responsibilities that would be unrealistic even if for the most “overqualified” person unless said candidate is willing to forgo her health and sanity. This aspect is made worse by criterion #1, and the combination ultimately either drives the candidate away or – perhaps worse, depending on perspective – sucking them into a position that they feel like they have no choice but to keep working at.
The environment created by these posting is as a good a reason as any to support basic income. Ideally, Switzerland will get the ball rolling on this initiative, but I’m not holding my breath for its worldwide roll-out.
On a more immediate level, some tech job postings having gotten out of control. An irritating IT job ad from Penny Arcade has become the object of scorn for sites as varied as Valleywag and Marco.org, which provides a good indication of how deep-seated and widespread the resentment has become at employers who demand a founder’s work for an intern’s pay. The endless drive toward efficiency has resulted in corporations that have to ask customers to subsidize underpaid employees, as happened recently with Wal-Mart.
What does Penny Arcade want? The details are enough to make one’s eyes glaze over while raising one’s blood pressure. Most of it isn’t enough to bowl anyone over – they’re looking for sysadmin experience, competency with object-oriented languages (though the ad’s apparent ignorance of PHP being an object-oriented language is a nice touch), and IT miscellany.
BUT – they’re forthright about not having work-life balance and running “lean.” Now, the way that they present the work-life balance issue is telling – to Penny Arcade, it’s not that they’re actively forcing employees to work and have no lives, but that they “suck” at achieving that balance. This is insane if you think about it – the long, thankless weeks aren’t the product of a proactive “Destroy Work-Life Balance” initiative, but rather a failing – as if they were powerless to stop it, a stance that becomes a convenient way to get off the hook for any responsibility in degrading an employee’s workplace experience.
The word “lean” is legitimately used for labeling meat and describing some very specific types of startups. For everyone else, depending on context, it’s a euphemism for putting too much work on the average employee in a company or making fun of overweight people (the latter isn’t related to this article, but I just bring it up as a coincidental semantic note – it’s particularly egregious in the shallower parts of the gay community). It’s not transparent.
Granted, Penny Arcade likely received tons of submissions for this job, if only because the labor market continues to be depressed even 5+ years after the 2008 meltdown. What most observers don’t realize, however, is that it is these types of positions – underpaid, with long hours – that sap economic demand and perpetuate the cycle of weak hiring. There needs to be a return to sanity, but it won’t come tip we realize that we’re all in this (economy) together.
The Wii U may finally be coming into its own, an odd turn of events that one might not have predicted several months ago when it had very little interesting software and faced looming competition from the Xbox One and PS4. Game selection has greatly improved, with stellar first-party titles and some creative offerings from third-party devs.
While I understand that most buyers will probably opt for a PS4/XB1 this season, if you have any interest in the Wii U (because it’s cheaper, has flash memory, is family-friendly, and already has many of the overhyped TV integration features of the XB1), here’s a quick primer to the platform’s top games. All of these are exclusive to the platform, though it may be worth your time to look at some ports like Assassin’s Creed 3/4 and Deus Ex Human Revolution Director’s Cut.
- Super Mario 3D World – this is an obvious choice. In much the same way that Super Mario 3D Land illuminated the possibilities of the 3DS, its successor does the same for the Wii U. 3D World carries over the best features of its 3DS predecessor, such as the fascinating use of perspective and lighting, while adding a welcome dose of HD graphics, new power-ups, and excellent co-op play. The cat costume (inexplicably obtained by absorbing a bell…but I’m long past trying to make sense of the Mario universe’s logic) is the funnest power-up since the flying tail/ears from Super Mario Bros. 3 (remember The Wizard?). Levels throw the player for a loop with tricky changes in perspective, sublime usage of shadow, and certain areas/items that require the use of the new cherry power-up, which produces two identical Marios/Luigis/Toads/Peaches. This game was built for co-op play, with its differently optimized characters.
- The Wonderful 101 – I flirted with the idea of putting this at number one, but it’s too weird for some gamers, especially the kids who constitute much of the Wii U’s target audience. The Wonderful 101 is a superhero game in which an expandable group of heroes – each with his/her own distinctive powers – try to ward off an alien invasion of earth. It sounds like a ho-hum premise, but the execution make all the difference. No Wii U game, not even Nintendo’s offerings, make better use of the Game Pad, which is used here for drawing attack patterns, navigating through buildings, and tracking items on radar. No level is like the previous one, and the boss battles are endlessly creative. I compared this game to Battletoads, and I think the comparison still fits – it’s varied, cutting-edge, and often quite difficult. The multiplayer mode is fun and mercifully must less sadistic than Battletoads’ impossible co-op mode.
- ZombiU – it feels like every console gets the obligatory first-person shooter title early in its lifespan, which range from the great (GoldenEye for the N64) to the not so great (Perfect Dark Zero for the Xbox 360). ZombiU is far from a run-of-the-mill launch FPS, however. It blends elements of FPS and horror/survival, resulting in a rugged survivalist game in which the player has to fight off undead hordes with not much more than a cricket bat and the occasional firearm. Ammo is precious in ZombiU, as is life – dying forces you to become an entirely new, totally reset character who is likely to encounter his/her predecessor’s zombified form. Like The Wonderful 101, ZombiU stretches the Game Pad to its limits, using it to open doors, acquire vaccines, scan areas, and much more. Too bad that Ubisoft axed the sequel.
- Pikmin 3 - This game arguably began the console’s turnaround. It’s a bit on the short side, but the graphics, attention to detail, and gameplay show how versatile the Wii U is. The controls are a little wonky since the Nunchuk is more accurate but less informative than the Game Pad. Otherwise, this is a strong and breezy play-through.
- Nintendo Land – Nintendo has always done pack-in titles very well, and Nintendo Land is no exception. It doesn’t really have a story, but it works on several levels. It’s a great primer on the Wii U’s capabilities – each mini game does something a bit different, from co-op play with Game Pad and Wiimote in the Zelda game to Game Pad-controlled steering in the F-Zero game. It’s also a fun game in its own right, with challenging sequences like the ninja gallery shooter game.
I wrote a surprisingly (because it was such a niche/mundane topic) popular article a few months back about manually moving RSS feeds from Google Reader to Google Currents, which many users likely didn’t realize had support for basic RSS. Well, Currents has followed Reader to the Google Graveyard (the tell-tale omen was its increasingly infrequent update schedule), with its best bits stripped out and merged with Play Magazine to form Google Newsstand. For Play Magazines, it was a mercy killing – that app was the worst of all bundled offerings. For Currents, however, the results was more like a Dr. Moreau experiment, with a decidedly new appearance that may or may not be better than what came before.
On the good side, Newsstand is a centralized location for news and seems to sync much more efficiently than Currents (I had noticed Currents getting better at sync/RSS updates in the past few months, so perhaps Google was honing this capability before pushing the final transition). At the same time, Google’s obsession with card-based UI (which I strongly dislike in the otherwise impeccable Play Music app) at the expense of lists makes it hard to stay on top of large collections.
But, what I really wanted to talk about was how to add basic RSS feeds to Newsstand. Whereas Currents required some finagling with the slide-out bar at the left, Newsstand makes thing much simpler (almost too much so – I at first thought that it didn’t allow users to add anything except pre-approved magazine/website editions):
- You just search for the feed, as shown in the screenshot above. In an almost cheeky flashback to Reader, there’s even an RSS sign next to the feeds you’ve added.
If you already had RSS feeds set up in Currents before updating, they should transfer over.
So I’ve enjoyed Newsstand so far, though I miss the Currents widget. The Magazines part of the app is still not my cup of tea, but at least it removes the useless standalone app from before.
Plus, it may be good news for content in the long run – Newsstand has support for paywalls and ads alongside subscriptions, giving it a leg up on Flipboard. TPM’s Josh Marshall recently made a good case about why publishers should think twice about putting content on free-riders like Currents and Flipboard, which are in some sense just pipes for others’ contents without any clear monetization but tons of exposure (as a writer, the “exposure” bullshit is super annoying – you can’t eat exposure, after all). Maybe Newsstand can improve how content is monetized on mobile.