10 Fun Premium Android Games Without Microtransactions

A racing game being played on a phone.
They’re hard to find, but good premium games do exist on Android. Michael Crider

Trying to find a mobile game that won’t hook you with $100 in-game purchases for currency or boosters? If you’re looking for a fun, premium Android game without the BS, check out our selections.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of “The 10 Best Android Games Ever”—we’re not quite that arrogant. There are so many thousands of games on the Play Store, one person can only hope to play a small percentage of them.

But these are games we’ve personally enjoyed that don’t feature the manipulative currency and booster purchases you find in most free-to-play mobile games. We’ve also avoided ported games from consoles or PCs, as they tend to be tough to control on a touch screen.

Without further ado, let’s get to the picks.

“Horizon Chase”

If you long for the simpler age of racing games, when going fast was pretty much all there was to it, Horizon Chase is for you. It’s a simple setup, with a wide selection of tracks and cars based on 80’s and 90’s classics.

The graphics are simple, but appealing, crisp, colorful 3D reinterpretations of classic sprite-based racing games from the 16-bit era. I wish it had a multiplayer option, but for tight, technical racing with a wonderful atmosphere, you can’t beat it! Players get access to a few tracks for free, and at this writing, you can unlock the whole game for $3.

“Alto’s Adventure”

Alto’s Adventure takes the simple setup of an “endless runner” game and nails every aspect of it, from the simple, but enthralling, graphics, to the chill music and super-fluid animation. At first, the game seems basic. But as you expand your repertoire of snowboarding moves and techniques (and get a handle on the sliding physics), you find there’s an amazing variety to the 2D stages.

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Booē Hybrid 20 Backpack Is Amazingly Waterproof, But Light on Design

A Booē Hybrid 20 backpack lying in a stream.
The Booē Hybrid 20 is brilliantly waterproof, but a bit bare on features. Michael Crider

How much is it worth to have a bag that’s truly 100 percent waterproof? How many features can be sacrificed on a modern bag? Reviewing the Hydro 20 makes me ask these questions.

In terms of pure design, it’s a remarkable backpack, made possible by the new TruZip toothless plastic zipper. During my testing, I found that the Booē Hybrid 20 makes good on all the promises made in its Kickstarter campaign. It’s completely waterproof, submersible, and offers floating protection for whatever you put inside it. If that’s your primary concern, buy with confidence.

By focusing on the waterproof materials, though, Booē has left out some creature comforts you’d expect in a modern backpack. Its protection (beyond water and dust) is minimal, and internal organization is clunky at best. It’s unlike anything on the market at the moment, but those looking to invest in a waterproof bag might do better to wait for a second design revision.

The Hybrid 20 backpack lying in the sand.
The Hybrid 20 claims complete protection from water and dirt when sealed. And it delivers. Michael Crider

…Off a Duck’s Back

I’ve been using “water-resistant” messenger bags from the likes of Timbuk2 and Peak Design for 15 years, and find them reliable. These designs use a heavy-duty fabric with sealing treatments to keep rain and splashes out of the interior pockets. But the Hybrid 20 puts this approach to shame in terms of water and dust protection. The TruZip zippers and heavy-duty plastic coating mean you can completely dunk this backpack in water, and not a drop will get in. Yes, really.

The TruZip toothless plastic zipper on the Hybrid 20 backpack.
The TPU-coated material repels water like an Old Testament prophet. Michael Crider

The promotional materials say you can completely submerge the Hydro 20 in up to one meter of water for 30 minutes, and none will get past the zipper seals. I placed a ream of printer paper in the main pocket and some folded paper in the smaller front pocket (I confess, I wasn’t willing to risk my laptop during testing). They were bone-dry after half an hour in my tub. Success!

The bag is equally resistant to dust and mud, as tested in the creek at my local park. The Hydro 20 would be fantastic for campers, kayakers, or anyone who spends a lot of time around or in wet locales. As a bonus, the sealed nature means it (generally) floats—as long as you leave a little air inside and didn’t stick a brick in the main pocket.

Seal It Up

One of our concerns with the TruZip waterproof zipper seal, when we saw it at CES, was how much force it took to close it completely. Booē solved that with a little quality-of-life tweak. The zippers have big, generous finger rings that give you plenty of torque, so it’s easy to get them into that crucial, completely sealed position. You can safely close the bag with only a bit more force than a conventional toothed zipper requires.

The pull ring on the TruZip toothless plastic zipper on the Hybrid 20 backpack.
The generous pull rings make opening and closing the bag easy. Michael Crider

I’m no designer, but I’ll venture that a small tweak would improve usability here. The zipper seal needs to be completely closed to be reliably waterproof, but it’s hard to tell when it is. A dot or line on the fabric that’s completely covered to indicate the zipper is fully sealed would be helpful.

Protection Is Lacking

As much as the Hydro 20 does to protect its contents from water and dirt, it doesn’t offer much protection in the more conventional sense. Aside from a comfort pad on the back and an internal sleeve for laptops and tablets, the TPU-covered fabric is the only thing between the inside and outside of the bag for the rest of the contents. And that fabric is only a single, quite thin, layer at most points.

The Booē Hybrid 20 backpack.
The fabric body of the bag doesn’t offer much impact protection for the contents. Michael Crider

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On the Switch, Android Does What Nintendon’t

The back of a Nintendo Switch.
Android can run on the Switch now. Here’s why you might want to do that. Michael Crider

Nintendo and Android fans got a fun bit of convergence last week when Android ROM developers released a build of the mobile operating system running on the Switch console. It’s weird, awkward, and lots of nerdy fun.

This sort of modding never hits the mainstream of video game consoles—conventional users get uncomfortable when they hear words like “bootloader.” But the fact that so many people are excited for Android on the Switch—an unremarkable tablet in terms of pure hardware and capability—is telling.

Why are more techy Switch owners excited about Android? It’s certainly not to turn the Switch into a conventional, iPad-style tablet. The six-inch plastic screen, 4 GB of RAM, and a respectable (but dated) NVIDIA Tegra chipset means it can’t even compare to a tablet that costs much less than the Switch’s $300 retail price. Nope! Android on the Switch is all about the games—games that players don’t have access to on the Switch’s official software.

The Switch’s surprisingly flexible design as a portable game machine is what’s attracting so much aftermarket interest. Those excellent Joy-Con controllers and its compact design—less cumbersome than an iPad and a separate Bluetooth controller—make it so easy to throw in a bag and go. But some players aren’t satisfied with just the Switch’s lineup of official games, as excellent as it is. They want more.

You might think players want access to the Google Play Store and its thousands of mobile games. Not so much. Mobile games rarely appeal to console players, outside of ports like Fortnite (and like Fortnite, many of those games are already available on the Nintendo eShop). And the Switch’s design doesn’t lend itself to utilities like web browsers or email clients, as stated above. On top of all that, the Android ROM doesn’t even come with the Play Store built in. It requires another modified flash on top of the base software, for practical and legal reasons. To be blunt, there are better and less cumbersome ways to play almost any Android game.

It’s All About Emulation

What players are excited about is emulation. Long possible on Android phones, but rarely practical thanks to touch screen controls, classic console emulation is booming on Android and similarly open platforms. With an Android ROM on the Switch, emulation software from the NES up to the original PlayStation and N64 should be able to run at full power. Ditto for the Game Boy, Nintendo DS, and PlayStation Portable. On the NVIDIA SHIELD TV (which uses an almost identical but less battery-conscious version of the Switch’s chipset), players can get through slower GameCube and Wii games on the Dolphin emulator. That’s tens of thousands of titles, all available (if legally questionable) on a small portable gaming machine with fantastic controls. What’s not to love?

Pokemon Crystal running on a phone.
Pokemon Crystal (Game Boy Color) running on my phone. Switch Joy-Cons are so much better than touch screen controls.

Indeed, Nintendo should probably take a few notes. Although the Switch Android hack is sure to attract only a fraction (or less, thanks to security patches) of Switch owners, Nintendo promised almost the same thing with its Virtual Console service on the Wii, Nintendo 3DS, and Wii U. Why it skipped the Virtual Console on the Switch in favor of a scanty selection of NES titles tied to the $20-per-year online service, is another article.

But the fact that Android modders have had their eye on the Switch since its release shows there are plenty of gamers still hungry for those old titles.

The Switch game-selection screen.
At the moment, most of the emulated games officially on the Switch are ancient NES titles.

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Drop ALT Has Everything You Want in a Custom Keyboard, Except the Soldering

The Massdrop ALT keyboard with some keys removed.
Michael Crider

There are lots of good reasons to build a keyboard—custom layout, choice of switches, high-quality components. But there’s one big reason not to: soldering sucks. What if you could have the best of both worlds?

Drop (formerly Massdrop) aims to do just that with its ALT keyboard. Its minimal layout, full RGB lighting, aluminum case, and multiple USB-C ports are things you usually only find if you build a keyboard yourself. But thanks to a modular switch design, you don’t have to! You can load up the keyboard with whatever mechanical switches you prefer and swap them out any time.

The ALT is among the most expensive keyboards on the retail market at $180—a price that might make some people flinch. (However, the CTRL, which has a more conventional, tenkeyless layout, is $200.) But considering the high quality of the hardware and the flexible design, the ALT is worth the price for mechanical keyboard fanatics, who don’t want to build their own from scratch.

As Shiny as It Is Clicky

The first time I plugged in the ALT, I was shocked at how freakin’ shiny this thing is. As a mechanical keyboard enthusiast, I’m no stranger to LEDs, but these are incredibly bright and smooth, thanks to fast polling. Oh, and there are even more of them than usual—a strip runs around the edge of the board and illuminates my desktop (when it’s not in full sunlight).

The ALT keyboard.
The ALT uses a compact, 65 percent layout. Michael Crider

The lighting modes are a bit basic—there’s no access to a dedicated lighting program like you might see in a Razer or Corsair board. Once you figure out the function commands (the Function key replaces the right Windows key) to adjust the lighting modes, you can find a pattern and brightness you like. Or, you can turn them off. It would have been nice if a mapping of the default function controls came in the box.

The ALT keyboard (with light strip turned off).
The ALT has a full aluminum body and dual USB-C ports (one can be used for external data or charging). Michael Crider

The body is aluminum, with the aforementioned light strip sandwiched between two reasonably heavy plates, and rubber feet on the bottom. If you’re not a fan of the flat profile, you can attach the included magnetic feet. In a rare display of ergonomic options, you can place the feet at either a forward or backward angle. This tilts up either the top or bottom of the keyboard about five degrees. These pieces are heavy and satisfying to put into place.

Magnetic keyboard feet on the ALT keyboard.
Magnetic keyboard feet with multiple angle options make the ALT feel ultra-premium. Michael Crider

The keyboard is wired, which is standard for mechanical boards, and it includes two USB-C ports, which is not. They’re on the left and right of the board’s front, which allows you to use the side that works best for your desk. If you use the right port, the left can be a pass-through for USB-C data and charging—another option you don’t often see these days. (Thanks, Massdrop—we’re glad to see USB-C over cheaper alternatives.)

You also get two tools: one for removing the keycaps and another for the switches underneath.

A Fascination with Customization

You could keep the keyboard as it is and be entirely satisfied. Our review unit came with Cherry MX Brown switches; they’re default “typist” switches with a tactile bump, but no audible click. You can also choose Kalh BOX White (stiff and clicky), speed silver (linear, no click or bump with a light spring), Halo True (super smooth), or Halo Clear (slightly stiffer). If you have your own, you can choose no switches at all and save $40.

The ALT with keycaps removed and default MX Brown switches in place.
The ALT with keycaps removed and default MX Brown switches in place. Michael Crider

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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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