Plugable’s Phone Cube Is the Best Option for Samsung DeX (If You’re Into That)

Plugable's Phone Cube, a Samsung Phone, and a stylus sitting on a desk next to a computer monitor.
Plugable

Do you want to use your Samsung phone as a portable, dockable PC? Based on my testing of the DeX feature, probably not. But, if you beg to differ, the Plugable Phone Cube is probably the best way to do it.

Some Very Particular Ports

The Cube is nothing more (or less) than a good-looking, compact USB-C hub with dedicated power. It’s certified for the DeX system, which allows Samsung’s high-end phones to plug into a monitor, mouse, and keyboard, and pretend to be an Android-based desktop PC. (A bad one—but that’s not this product’s fault.) The Cube isn’t the only gadget that does this—Samsung sells multiple DeX docking stations, and plenty of third-party USB-C docks can handle this function—many at a lower price.

Samsung phone connected by a USB-C cable to a Plugable Phone Cube.
A single USB-C cable gets you HDMI, a mouse, a keyboard, storage, and Ethernet. Michael Crider

But the Cube offers a usability boost. Samsung’s first DeX design resembled an old-fashioned Palm charger cradle. This doesn’t work with the new touchpad tool, which turns your phone’s screen into a laptop-style touchpad, so you don’t need a mouse. Samsung’s case-style DeX dock allows for this, but it’s limited in terms of expansion. Third-party docks are more like large dongles, and they lack touchpad usability and external charging power. The Cube hits all of these points, and it’s the best all-around option in an admittedly niche field.

Party in the Back

The physical design of the Cube is, well, cubical. There’s a USB-C port on the front. On the back, you find two rectangular USB 2.0 ports, a USB 3.0 port for accessories and data, a single HDMI port (which supports up to 4K resolution), and an Ethernet port for wired networking. The Cube comes with a wall-wart charger that can output 15 watts to your phone.

The back of the Plugable Phone Cube.
There’s a good selection of ports for such a small dock, but I still miss dedicated audio. Michael Crider

The layout is simple and appealing, with a glowing blue LED strip on the bottom that’s fun without being distracting. But there are a couple of changes I would make after using it for a while. The dock could sacrifice some aesthetic appeal for utility by moving one of the standard USB ports to the front, so you don’t have to reach around to the back of the device to plug in a flash drive. PC manufacturers figured this out decades ago, so I don’t know why it didn’t occur to Plugable’s design team. I would also like a headphone jack on the dock for displays without speakers or audio-out options (which is quite common if you’re using cheap or business-class monitors).

Using the Cube for DeX is frustrating, but not due to the hardware itself. As an Android-based system, DeX has some considerable limitations in terms of app management and interface. But this review isn’t about that (check out this video if you’re curious). If you’re committed to the DeX system, which is available on the Galaxy S8, S9, S10, Note 8, and Note 9, you won’t have any problems using it here.

Monitor with three windows open.
Turning your phone into a desktop sounds cool, but using it is like…using a bad desktop.

I was able to use mice and keyboards over USB or pair them directly to the phone via Bluetooth. I was also able to (awkwardly) access external storage and networking via the standard ports. Video and audio were rock-solid on my monitor, even though my Note 8 was limited to 1080p resolution. It all works, it’s just not a great way to get anything done when compared to, say, an inexpensive Chromebook or even an iPad. The awkward transitions between mobile and windowed desktop apps—and the limited power of the phone—feel stifling.

Lack of Flexibility

Can you use the Cube for other stuff? Sure! It works as a standard USB-C dock, and I was able to plug in my HP Chromebook x2 and access all the same features, including video-out. But since the Cube is designed first and foremost for use with phones, the power output via the USB-C port is limited to only 15 watts, so my laptop didn’t charge while it was connected. It’ll do in a pinch, but it’s not ideal if you need something for more conventional PC-style docking. And you run into the same problems with no easily-accessible USB port and no dedicated audio-out options.

A keyboard and phone connected to a Plugable Phone Cube.
The ability to easily use your phone’s screen as a touchpad without sacrificing dock ports is a big plus. Michael Crider

In terms of value, the Cube is a tough sell for anyone except those looking to use it for DeX. There are cheaper options for both USB-C hubs and DeX-only docks, although, few of them offer the option of easily using your phone as a touchpad at the same time. Because using your phone as a dockable computer requires a keyboard and a monitor (a $200 investment, at the very least), I don’t think $100 for the most flexible DeX dock option out there is an unreasonable additional investment.

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The 10 Best Local Co-op Games for Nintendo Switch

The Switch is a perfect platform for local co-op multiplayer games.
Nintendo

The Switch’s dock and KitKat controllers make it perfect for multiplayer games. But if you’re looking for something without intense competition, a cooperative local multiplayer game is what you need. Here are the best ones on the console.

Kirby Star Allies

Nintendo’s pink puffball tends to fly under the radar of bigger franchises like Mario and Zelda, but Kirby games have been dependably delivering co-op platforming for a long time. Star Allies is all about making friends, throwing “hearts” around and recruiting classic Kirby bad guys to help you out. Up to four players can go at it in local cooperative multiplayer. Secondary players can combine their friend abilities with Kirby’s gobble-em-up powers for combination super attacks.

Cuphead

Cuphead has become an instant classic among fans of indie 2D games. It’s sort of the opposite of Kirby: an insanely difficult platforming game with an art style inspired by some disturbing 1930s cartoons. The game is absolutely beautiful in motion, but don’t get distracted, because the brutal enemies and screen-filling bosses will wipe you out in seconds. Thankfully, Cuphead is built from the ground up for two-player co-op, so you can tackle the challenge together.

Fire Emblem Warriors

Fire Emblem Warriors is a mash-up of Nintendo’s strategy-slash-dating sim fantasy games with Koei’s Dynasty Warriors series, giving the feudal characters massive battlefields filled with thousands of enemies to hack and slash in real-time. Ridiculous melee and magic attacks fill the screen as you take down dozens of enemies at once, carving your way through the map for strategic objectives. Two local players can tackle the battlefield in split-screen mode.

Death Road to Canada

What happens when you mix top-down combat with a long Oregon Trail-style resource management game, then sprinkle in zombies? Death Road to Canada, that’s what. This unique pixelated title has you controlling survivors of a zombie apocalypse as they get the hell out of Dodge, collecting new party members and facing massive zombie hoards. The co-op setup offers up to four local players, but one stays “in control” of the group, so it’s a good game if you’re looking to play with a child without surrendering to too much chaos.

Mario Tennis Aces

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Fluance Ai40 Bookshelf Speakers Offer Big Bass and Bluetooth on a Budget

The Fluance Ai40 speakers and remote.
The Fluance Ai40 offers lots of sound and good value, but audiophiles should look elsewhere. Michael Crider

The Fluance Ai40 does three things well: it’s big, it’s loud, and it’s cheap. The speakers have tons of power and Bluetooth for easy connections, but they’re missing the finishing touches that would make them a great bookshelf speaker set.

At just $170 with five-inch drivers, an integrated amplifier, and Bluetooth, Fluance packs a lot of value into this set. But compared to competitors, the sound is just so-so, especially in the midrange. Between that, a style that doesn’t stand out, and a couple of missing creature comforts, it’s a good choice for bargain hunters, but not audiophiles.

The Ai40 is Fluance’s entry-level bookshelf speaker set, and it boasts impressive five-inch, woven glass fiber drivers and 35 watts of power in each box. And “box” is the right word—with MDF wood housings (vinyl wood decals), no driver covers, and a single volume dial for control, these won’t turn any heads. We received the natural walnut color, but bamboo and flat black housings are also available.

The speakers are proudly “designed and engineered in Canada,” and I do like the little Canadian flag tags on the back. If you check the box, though, you’ll see they’re manufactured in China.

Canadian flag on the back of a Fluance Ai40 speaker.
The little Canadian flag is adorable, but the speakers are made in China. Michael Crider

If the style doesn’t say much, perhaps it’s because it doesn’t have to. At 11-inches tall and almost eight-inches deep, these speakers are beefy—too beefy to fit behind the monitors on my desk, for example. But considering the power and size of the drivers, they’re not unreasonably large.

Listening to my typical mix of videos and music via the standard RCA input nearly blew my ears off at full volume. The integrated amplifier offers much punchier bass than you usually get without a dedicated subwoofer (and there’s no option to add one directly, by the way). It was too much sound for my office—these are better suited for a large bedroom or even a living room, assuming you’re okay with just stereo sound and a single RCA input.

The RCA and Bluetooth inputs on the backs of the Fluance Ai40 speakers.
Connections are limited to a single RCA input and Bluetooth. Michael Crider

While they offer a lot of sound and a whole lot of bass, the speakers could be better in the midrange. Compared to my trusty Edifier R1280T, the larger speakers were muddy in the middle frequencies, even after the recommended 12-hour breaking-in period. They also had quite a bit more analog noise, despite coming with heavy-duty cables and nice metal contact points. You can get rid of this by connecting with Bluetooth, but that won’t be an option if you’re looking for a simple setup. Qualcomm’s aptX audio standard is included, so that Bluetooth connection is quite a bit better than some cheaper options.

Controls are also a bit limited. The volume knob is also a power button and a switch between analog and Bluetooth inputs, but bass and treble have to be handled with the included IR remote. The pairing button is on the back of the right speaker, and this does the Ai40 no usability favors. That’s a control that might be used often for guests or quick mobile connections, and it’s hard to get to. There’s no reason the pairing button couldn’t be on the front, the remote, or (preferably) both.

The remote for the Fluance Ai40 speakers.
Most of the speakers’ controls (except Bluetooth pairing) are on the remote. Michael Crider

In terms of value, the Ai40 is competitive for those who want tons of power and don’t particularly care about high fidelity or connection options. To get five-inch drivers with Bluetooth from a competing brand, you’re looking at $50-$100 more. If you want that power on a budget—especially with bass that rattles your teeth in most rooms—go for it. If you need a more subtle performance in the midrange and more than a single wired connection option, there are better choices on the market, but you’ll probably pay more.

Wyze’s New Bulb Is the Fastest, Cheapest Way to Modernize Your Home’s Lighting

Two Wyze bulbs sitting on a table.
The Wyze Bulb is a cheap, easy way to expand smarthome functionality. Michael Crider

So, you want to get in on the smarthome craze, but aren’t crazy about the initial cost? Wyze’s new Bulb can help you out.

While it’s not the first all-in-one smart bulb on the market, it’s the cheapest from a reliable supplier. It also works with popular platforms, like Google Home and Amazon Alexa, right out of the box. At $8 a bulb, with no need for a Hue-style hub (which is barely more than a conventional “dumb” LED light bulb), it’s an excellent choice for those who are just getting started or those who want to expand basic connected lighting to their entire home on the cheap.

There’s not much to the packaging: they sent me a four-pack of the new bulbs in a box that doesn’t look much different from something you’d pull off a hardware store shelf. It helpfully informs you that the bulbs inside work with Amazon, Google, and IFTTT, and they’re rated for 800 lumens of brightness.

Back of a Wyze bulb, sitting on a table.
The inexpensive bulb works in all standard lamps and lights. Michael Crider

What it doesn’t tell you (and what you might not assume) is that the bulbs are white only, offering a color temperature of 2700-6700 K. That covers a broad spectrum of “warm” to “cool” in conventional bulb terms, but Wyze’s budget bulbs won’t give you the rainbow colors you might associate with smarthome lighting.

That’s pretty much the only downside to this bulb, though, and it’s not much of a problem. If you want a cheap way to check out smarthome functionality, this works. And if you want to expand smart lighting to your entire home—with the small caveat that you can’t do it in Technicolor—it works there, too.

Wyze’s app is surprisingly adept at handling its myriad products, and the Bulb is no exception. You can add shortcuts, set them to different rooms (or “groups” in the Wyze app), change scenes for waking up or sleeping, and schedule events in an interface better than the major omnibus options (no surprise there). Link it to Amazon or Google instead, and it works exactly as you’d expect. For an inexpensive and simple gadget, you can’t hope for much more.

The Wyze app makes it easy to set up and manage the Bulbs. It also interfaces with Google and Amazon.
The Wyze app makes it easy to set up and manage the Bulbs. It also interfaces with Google and Amazon.

The bulb, at five ounces, is heavier than even the hub-free bulbs I’ve tried from other budget manufacturers. But unless you plan to use it in lamps that are oddly fragile or rely on tension to stay in place (like a Pixar-style desk lamp), this won’t be an issue for most people.

As a value proposition, next to products like Hue (which cost $15-$20 for a white-only bulb, not including the mandatory wireless hub or more expensive Bluetooth versions), the Wyze Bulb is phenomenal. It’s even cheaper than some of the no-name bulbs out there, and it doesn’t give you headaches from its branded app or when connecting to Google or Amazon.

Fill your smarthome up with these bulbs, and your bank account will thank you.

The Switch Lite Exacerbates Nintendo’s Portable Problems

The Switch Lite might exacerbate one of the Switch's biggest (and smallest) usability problems.
Nintendo

I love my Nintendo Switch. But I don’t love taking it with me in its much-vaunted portable form. The new Switch Lite won’t fix that—if anything, it will make it worse.

So what’s the problem? I won’t tease you: it’s that games are often too hard to see on the small 6.2-inch screen. Those of you blessed with perfect vision might not notice this, but it’s been a fairly consistent complaint about switch games since the very beginning. And to be fair, this isn’t exactly Nintendo’s fault: it’s more a problem with the game developers (often including Nintendo’s internal studios) not taking the practicalities of the Switch’s form factor into account.

Take a look at this screenshot from Breath of the Wild. It’s pretty standard stuff for an action-RPG: the menu system has to get a lot of information to you in an efficient way. And it’s plenty comfortable on the 55-inch TV in my living room, where almost all of my Switch gaming is done.

Breath of the Wild’s inventory menu, as seen on your television.

Now take a look at the same game menu on the Switch’s tablet screen, barely one-tenth of the size. It’s no bigger than my Galaxy Note phone screen, with one quarter the resolution and a notable drop in clarity on Nintendo’s cheap LCD panel.

The same screen as above, on the six-inch original Switch.
The same screen as above, on the six-inch original Switch. Michael Crider

Playing Zelda in handheld mode is an exercise in frustration for me. Ditto for Smash Bros, where the fighters are about the size of a Tic-Tac when the camera zooms out on a big battle. It’s telling that, when Nintendo released Smash Bros. on the 3DS in 2014, it gave players the option to have easy-to-see borders around the fighters, an option that’s unfortunately absent in the Switch-exclusive Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Trying to read text formatted for a television on a tiny handheld screen was the one real downside of playing one of my all-time favorites, Mark of the Ninja, on the go.

The Nintendo 3DS version of Smash Bros. has visibility assistance features, but Smash Bros. Ultimate on the Switch lacks them.
The Nintendo 3DS version of Smash Bros. has visibility-assisting outlines on fighters features, but Smash Bros. Ultimate on the Switch lacks them. Nintendo

Take Fortnite, the biggest game in the world right now. Developer Epic has copied the interface from the PC, Xbox, and PlayStation versions more or less exactly on the Switch…and in handheld mode, the smallest type on the screen is literally one millimeter high. On the 5.5-inch Switch Lite with the same 720p resolution, it will be even smaller.

The smallest text on this screen is only a milimeter high on the Switch's handheld display.
The smallest text on this screen is only a millimeter high on the Switch’s handheld display.

I’m no developer, but I’m going to guess that part of the problem is that the Switch has enjoyed such a robust library of ports from home consoles and indie PC titles on Steam. These games don’t take a huge amount of time or resources to port (at least compared to original development), and I’ll wager that developers and quality assurance teams test them almost exclusively on monitors and televisions, the format for which they were initially designed. Testing for a long time in handheld mode wouldn’t be practical, but as reviews show, it’s necessary.

The problem isn’t universal. Games designed with portable play in mind, like Pokemon Let’s Go, don’t have the same issues. Whether it’s the fact that the game comes from a long legacy of Game Boy and Nintendo DS portable games, or that it’s intended primarily for a much younger audience, the text in Pokemon is big and eyeball-friendly. Ports from iOS and Android like Fallout Shelter, not to mention Nintendo’s own 3DS, seem to fare a lot better. The principle is pretty easy to distill down: games designed to be viewed on a tiny screen don’t suffer from playing on a television, but games made for a TV can be brutal on a small display.

The camera angles and text in Pokemon: Let's Go is much more friendly for portable players.
The camera angles and text in Pokemon: Let’s Go are much more friendly for portable players. Nintendo

The Switch Lite is all portable, all the time, with no option for docked play on a television. And its screen is even smaller than the typical 2019 phone screen. Playing some of the Switch’s most popular games on it is going to be brutal.

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