iPort iPad Charge Case and Stand 2: Yeah, This Thing is Pretty Great

The iPort Charge Case and Stand is an excellent add-on for your iPad.
iPort

I love having a big tablet in a dedicated stand on my desk, and I love wireless charging. So I was excited to check out iPort’s Charge Case and Stand 2, which does what it says on the box.

Technically the iPort design uses POGO plugs on its custom case and stand, so the charging isn’t wireless. But it achieves that easy set-it-down-pick-it-up motion that’s made Qi chargers so popular. $160—more for some iPad designs—is a lot to ask for, even considering you get both a stand and a charger in one package. But for the niche audience it serves, this is a great solution.

iPort Does What Apple Doesn’t

It’s hard to fault Apple for keeping wireless charging restricted to the iPhone: putting it in the iPad would mean getting rid of its tough metal shell, and the ergonomics of cases and stands don’t really mesh well with Qi. But I have fond memories of my HP TouchPad and Nexus 7, both tablets with wireless charging functionality, and I often wish I had something similar for my Pixel C, a constant desk companion. This iPort setup gives me a reason to make the switch.

The case comes in two pieces and can be docked vertically or horizontally.
Michael Crider

The case comes in two primary parts, which slide over either end of the iPad and click nicely together. It’s a bit thick—especially on the bottom, where the case requires a pass-through Lightning charger and a bit of extra space to let sound out through the bottom-firing speakers. But the soft-touch plastic feels nice in your hand, and adds only about three quarters of an inch to the iPad’s height. It feels more than capable of taking a few hits.

The pass-through Lightning port can be removed to plug in a cable.
Michael Crider

Speaking of that pass-through port: you can take it out with a bit of effort, exposing the Lightning port for charging or data. This is the one aspect of the design that’s less than elegant: I think iPort could have moved the POGO pins further apart and placed a permanent Lightning port on the exterior of the case. That would have meant one less part to lose, and no need to shove it in and out on the rare occasions when a cable connection is necessary.

Cleared for Docking

On the rear of the case are two sets of POGO pins: one for portrait and one for landscape. Set the iPad down in the dock, and it starts to charge. Magnets help make sure the case is secured in the correct spot. Simple. Easy. Appealing. Once the iPad is in place it charges at the maximum rate.

The iPort charging base is nice and stable.
Michael Crider

There’s some thoughtful design that goes into the dock, too. A subtle painted dot on the right side of the case lets you see where to rest the tablet, since the extended bottom edge makes it slightly asymmetrical. While the dock is for power only and the large brick can’t connect to your computer for data, it includes two handy USB ports on the dock itself for easily charging other devices at the same time.

The charging base includes two USB port for charging other devices.
Michael Crider

The dock is heavy and sturdy, with a rubberized base that doesn’t move around when you’re setting down or picking up the iPad. The angle isn’t adjustable, but the it should work for most desk and nightstand setups. You may need to make some adjustments if you want another base for your kitchen.

Conclusion

I really enjoy the design of this combination case-dock. I know the appeal is limited—for the same price you could get a super-premium leather cover and a pretty good, non-charging stand. But if you like the convenience of never having to plug your tablet in, I think it’s worth the expense.

The charging case and stand are a solid combination, if pricey.
Michael Crider

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The Three Things Google Stadia Needs to Conquer the Gaming Industry

Google's Stadia streaming game platform has enormous potential, and a few roadblocks.
Google

Yesterday Google announced its long-anticipated streaming game platform, Stadia. In the news post we called it an “invasion” of gaming: this combination platform and delivery service has the potential to compete with consoles, PCs, and mobile games, all at once.

Google’s ambition is huge, but it’s appropriate to the task. The game industry as we know it is stagnating in terms of innovation, but its biggest corporate players are well-entrenched and experienced. If Stadia is to compete with the likes of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, it needs to nail three crucial elements when it launches later in 2019.

Get the Games

The most important piece in the gaming platform puzzle is, naturally, the games. Consoles live and die on their game selection, and securing exclusive and desirable titles (either from third-party publishers or developers owned by the console manufacturer) is the best way to make sure you’re going to succeed.

With Stadia, Google is already on the right track. Its best move is undoubtedly becoming a publisher itself. Google hired Jade Raymond, formerly a game producer and studio head at mega-publishers EA and Ubisoft, to lead its own game studio. Stadia Games and Entertainment, a separate but linked company under Alphabet’s ever-widening umbrella, will be developing its own games for the Stadia platform as well as wooing independent developers to bring their games onboard.

Google's Stadia studio, under Ubisoft and EA veteran Raymond, will woo developers.
Google’s Stadia studio, under Ubisoft and EA veteran Raymond, will woo developers. Google

Another good move: announcing Stadia at the yearly Game Developer Conference, instead of at the upcoming Google I/O show or E3. By introducing Stadia specifically to game developers and publishers, including quite a lot of time showing off the unique design flexibility  of its remote Linux- and Vulkan-powered hardware, surely ignited the imagination of a lot of game makers. Today, the day after the announcement, you can bet there are game directors and developers scrambling to meet with Google’s Stadia team at GDC, desperate to check out the platform and get games on at launch.

Stadia isn’t the first gaming platform to use a 100% remote streaming setup: the ill-fated OnLive eventually became Sony’s PlayStation Now, NVIDIA’s GeForce Now is currently in beta, and Shadow allows for a more techy, individualistic approach. Microsoft is almost certainly going to go into streaming in a big way with the next Xbox, and rumors suggest that Verizon and Amazon are looking into it as well.

Stadia already works with the industry's most popular software tools.
Stadia already works with the industry’s most popular software tools. Google

But Stadia is the first streaming system to be built with streaming in mind from the ground up and upon the massive power of Google’s data centers and money. Demonstrating deep hooks in Chrome and YouTube (to capture the Twitch audience), powerful new ways to play split-screen and asynchronous multiplayer, and baked-in support for massively popular developer tools like Unreal Engine, Unity, CryEngine, and Havok are all smart moves for a new platform.

It means that not only will developers be able to port their existing projects to Stadia’s hardware easily, but they’ll also be able to create entirely new types of games that are only possible with access to Stadia’s web, streaming, and scalability functions.

DOOM Eternal is the only upcoming game confirmed to already be running on Stadia.
DOOM Eternal is the only upcoming game confirmed to already be running on Stadia. Google

During the GDC presentation, Google demonstrated partner projects with Ubisoft, Bethesda, 2K, Square-Enix, Tangent Games, Tequila Works, and Q-Games, but at the time of writing only Id Software’s DOOM Eternal has been confirmed for release on Stadia. Of course, Google can still mess up its initial relationship by limiting developers with restrictive platform rules, or by simply asking them for too much of a cut of their profits. Which is a nice segue into…

The Price is Right

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Shadow Game Streaming Review: Powerful Niche Service, but Skip the Hardware

The Shadow service is available on a variety of platforms.
Shadow

Shadow wants to sell you a dream: a super-powerful, always-connected computer that you can access from anywhere and with any device. That computer is meant primarily for gaming, but since it’s running Windows, it can also do anything a normal PC can do.

And at a basic level, Shadow does that. The service works, and the experience is surprisingly good… so long as you’re accessing it from another computer. Move to a phone, a tablet, or even Shadow’s first-party Ghost hardware, and things fall apart quickly. That doesn’t mean that Shadow isn’t worth investigating, but it does mean that its appeal is limited to a very specific audience—and that a large portion of that audience probably already has access to a gaming PC.

Shadow is cool. But it isn’t living up to its potential, and for lot of users that’s going to mean it isn’t worth a fairly hefty $35 a month to access it.

What You Get with Shadow

So, a quick rundown of what Shadow is: it’s a platform that allows you to “rent” a high-end Windows machine, virtualized on Shadow’s servers, and accessed remotely from your Windows/MacOS/Linux PC, Android device, or the Shadow Ghost set-top box. The remote machine is fine-tuned to play PC games, with a powerful and dedicated NVIDIA GPU, a super-fast web connection at Shadow’s data center, all streaming to you at up to 1440p (or 1080p for 144 Hz speed).

Shadow, running its remote PC interface in a window on my desktop.
Shadow, running its remote PC interface in a window on my desktop. Michael Crider

That’s a neat trick. It’s nothing you can’t do with your own home PC and a remote access program—indeed, there are already services like NVIDIA GameStream and Steam In-Home Streaming that do pretty much the same thing. The advantage of the Shadow setup is that it’s in the cloud and accessible from anywhere with a fast data connection, and it’s also managed remotely for optimum stability and speed.

If you want a high-end gaming PC without having to build it or buy it, or even store it in your home and pay the extra electricity to run the thing, this is a good way to achieve your goal. That’s assuming that, one, you have a fast enough connection to make the streaming interface worth it (25 Mbps at least), and you’re willing to pay the $35 a month to access the service.

Shadow's hardware runs as a mid-to-high-end Windows PC.
Shadow’s hardware runs as a mid-to-high-end Windows PC. Michael Crider

A few other technical details. There’s basically no limit on the virtualized Windows machine, and you can install any software you like. Though you can’t change the hardware, it’s fairly generous in terms of specs. Your remote machine’s processor is an Intel Xeon E5-2678, with 12 GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GTX 1080 equivalent GPU (one of the fastest around, though recently superseded by the new RTX models). The virtual storage is a bit tight at just 256GB, but it’s fast, and the data center’s connection is so speedy (700-800 Mbps when I tested it) that you can download even the largest games with almost no delay.

…and What You Don’t

Unlike more high-profile game streaming services from NVIDIA and Sony PlayStation, you don’t actually get any games to go on your Shadow machine. It comes pre-installed with game store clients like Steam, Origin, and Uplay, and it’s compatible with anything that runs on Windows, up to and including the newest titles. But you’ll have to provide those titles yourself, downloading and installing them manually. This is an advantage if you already have a huge library of PC games, but if not, you’ll be searching for some free stuff like Apex Legends. 

Another thing that Shadow doesn’t provide is a game management interface. The connection works more or less the same as any remote computer access system: log into Shadow’s service, and you’re presented with a standard Windows 10 desktop in either fullscreen or windowed mode. Switching between those two is easy, but actually managing your Shadow computer is more or less impossible without a mouse and keyboard ready to go.

Shadow running with a remote connection to my Xbox controller.
Shadow running with a remote connection to my Xbox controller. Michael Crider

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Google’s Stadia Streaming Platform is an All-Out Invasion of Gaming

Stadia is Google’s new all-streaming game platform. Google

Today the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, Google showed off its brand new game streaming service. Stadia (as in the Latin plural of “stadium”) will be available everywhere that Chrome is: PCs, phones, tablets, and televisions, with current hardware.

Google gave us a preview of its system with Project Stream last year. But Stadia is built from the ground up for both streaming and sharing. The service will stream games at up to 4K resolution at 60 frames per second (depending on your connection, of course), with even more resolution and speed planned for future upgrades. 8K and 120 FPS support is on the roadmap.

At any time players can move the game they’re playing from one device to another, without canceling out or losing progress. And a constantly-running stream of gameplay can be shared to YouTube at any time. The service works on anything that can run an app, including low-cost Chromecasts—the demonstration TV was using a Chromecast Ultra.

Stadia can instantly transfer play from any device, no restarts required. Google

Google’s new platform is indeed, a platform, not merely a series of virtualized Windows PCs as seen on services like OnLive or GeForce NOW. The backbone gives developers an x86 Linux instance running the Vulkan graphics API, with processor and GPU hardware twice as powerful as an Xbox One X or PS4 Pro (so about the same as a high-end gaming PC). Developers can even get the system to run on multiple GPUs if the game requires it.

The streaming hardware is much more powerful than the best current consoles.

What about controlling these games? The system will work with existing “USB controllers” according to Google’s Phil Harrison, as well as standard mice and keyboards. But Google is also releasing a dedicated Stadia controller. It looks more or less the same as a standard Xbox controller, with additional buttons for sharing to YouTube and activating the ever-present Google Assistant. But it’s hiding a new trick: it connects over Wi-Fi, not Bluetooth. This allows the controller to connect directly to Google’s Stadia services, controlling the game over the network without a laggy display device in the middle. It’s a big difference to an apparently static design.

The Stadia controller connects directly to game servers over Wifi.
The Stadia controller connects directly to game servers over WiFi. Google

Google’s 100% cloud approach includes some incredible capabilities. Players can click an ad link on YouTube and start streaming that game in a few seconds. Multiplayer games can use multiple Stadia instances to perform local split-screen with no slowdown, or power interactions with huge amounts of players in new ways, like streaming different viewpoints inside a game world controllable via a YouTube viewer. Players can share video live, or even the state of games themselves for other players to jump into their own instance at any time. All games will have multi-platform capabilities available to developers, including save and progress syncing.

A with any game platform, Stadia will live and die on the games. As cool as the platform is, Google needs the support of huge publishers and developers to bring games people actually want into the service. Google showed off partnerships with some big names like Ubisoft and Bethesda (who said that the upcoming DOOM Eternal was already running on the Stadia platform) but was a little cagey on any other big announcements specific to games or developers.

Doom Eternal is one of the only confirmed games on the service at the moment. Google

But that’s not all. Google is also a publisher now: Stadia Games and Entertainment will publish its own games, just like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo do for their respective consoles, and it’s being headed by Jade Raymond, formerly of Ubisoft and EA. Stadia will have exclusive titles, all of which have access to Google’s wide suite of cloud tools. Make no mistake, with an attack on hardware, service, and content fronts, Stadia is a no-holds-barred invasion of the gaming industry as we know it.

Google is building its own Stadia-exclusive publisher. Google

When can you try game streaming with Stadia? Google is being a little tentative on that point. The service will come to the US, Canada, the UK, and western Europe sometime later this year. Google’s presentation said that there would be more information available in the summer, so it’s reasonable to expect either a beta program or a full launch in the fall or early winter. Pricing for Stadia, and whether it will be a subscription service, sell games a la carte, or some combination of the two, was not addressed.

Fitbit Charge 3 Review: a Good Fitness Tracker in an Awkward Price Range

The Charge 3 is FitBit's most high-end tracker beneath its smartwatch designs.
FitBit

Fitness trackers have reached a certain level of maturity: the new models are evolutionary, not revolutionary. So it is with FitBit’s Charge 3, the company’s most powerful model underneath their more elaborate (and expensive) smart watches.

At $150 ($130 street price), the Charge 3 offers pretty much every feature a general fitness enthusiast could want, and it connects with one of the most popular services out there. But FitBit has reserved a few obvious choices for its watches, and the Charge 3 doesn’t offer enough over the Alta HR or the new Inspire HR ($100 street price) to justify the middle ground.

(Almost) all the Bells and Whistles

At this point, FitBit has refined its flagship tracker to a mirror shine, cramming in almost every feature you might want short of a full Apple Watch or Android Wear device. That includes a bigger, long-lasting black and white OLED screen, 50 meters of water resistance, automatic workout starts and pauses, and sleep detection. The screen is covered in Gorilla Glass (the same stuff they use on your phone), and underneath is the now-ubiquitous heart rate monitor. The Special Edition, $20 more, is identical save for an NFC chip used for FitBit pay.

The Charge 3 with its default wrist band.
Michael Crider

As a more dedicated device, the Charge 3 leaves out most of the app and organization features you’d find on a bigger watch-style design. The interface will let you manually start and stop exercises and do a few basic tasks like set timers or reminders, and the screen will show notifications from your iOS or Android phone (with quick replies on the latter only). Other than that, this thing is all fitness, all the time.

And that’s okay! It’s much smaller than any smartwatch, and the battery has consistently lasted about a week for me, with hours of exercise and sleep tracking every day. I appreciate not having to worry about a battery level on any given day, and despite including goodies like elevation tracking and auto brightness for the screen, the device is still tiny enough that I often forget I’m wearing it.

The black and white OLED screen is fairly visible even in direct sunlight.
Michael Crider

But I’d gladly trade some of the more esoteric features, like guided breathing exercises, for a couple of more practical options. On-board GPS is probably too much to ask for at this price point (the Charge 3 relies on the FitBit app on your phone to track location), but I don’t see any reason why music controls can’t be included, since that’s an essential part of many users’ workouts. I suspect the basic play/pause functionality has been deliberately left out to make FitBit’s more expensive watches more appealing.

The Fitness Tracker, Refined

The Charge 3 isn’t as tiny as some other fitness trackers in FitBit’s lineup, but it is extremely lightweight with its aluminum enclosure. And the case and clasp mechanism has been refined since the Charge 2: it not sits more naturally on your wrist, and swapping out bands for something more sporty takes literally seconds.

FitBit's magnetic clasp design makes swapping out bands extremely easy.
Michael Crider

It wouldn’t be unreasonable at all to swap bands every day, or color-coordinate with your current outfit. It’s a good thing there are plenty of cheap third-party options, then: you’re not restricted to FitBit’s expensive first-party options. I picked up a snazzy metal band with a magnetic clasp for about ten bucks on Amazon.

Moving through the Charge 3’s menus and buttons takes a little adjustment if you’re used to managing this stuff on a big smartphone screen. But the taps and swipes start to make sense quickly, and what isn’t available on the device itself can be found in the app (albeit with a little bit of hunting). The auto-detection for the screen is a little less sensitive than I would have liked, and unfortunately, I haven’t found an option for boosting it. At least getting the screen on is always easy thanks to the single touch button on the left side.

The only button outside of the screen is a touch-sensitive zone on the left of the display.
Michael Crider

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