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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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.