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Making the connection: The role of collaboration apps in digital transformation

Whether it’s retailers plying wares online instead of in brick-and-mortar stores, media companies swapping print for pixels or companies looking to empower frontline workers, one theme is increasingly common in business: digital platforms are now fundamental to success — and that success depends on employees who can collaborate in real time, at any time and from anywhere.

With widely distributed employees and and a more mobile workforce, many companies have had to shift gears quickly in recent years to stay competitive. Critical to that effort is the ability to share information and ideas effectively using the latest communication and collaboration tools. The rise of real-time messaging apps like Slack, videoconferencing apps like Skype for Business and online file-sharing apps like Dropbox has given companies a host of tools they can use to underpin corporate growth and connectivity.

In particular, the growing adoption of team-based collaboration software and revamped business processes has helped organizations become more agile.

“Companies that utilize team collaboration applications report having significantly increased group and personal productivity, have faster time to market, and execute projects [faster],” said Wayne Kurtzman, a research director at IDC.

But getting employees to all row in the same direction — and even use the same software to do so — isn’t easy. Corporate execs, fully aware of the importance of modern digital tools to support their workforce, find themselves playing catch-up to match the apps and devices their employees rely on outside the office.

Better connectivity means smarter, more engaged workers

“Consumers now expect one click to buy, two clicks to return. And when those consumers go to work, they expect that same ease of collaboration, communication, and getting things done that they enjoy when they’re at home and working in their communities or their families,” said Kurtzman. 

A report from Deloitte showed that almost 80% of corporate execs rate employee experience as important, but only 22% called their companies “excellent” at creating a productive environment for workers.

That gap indicates where companies are increasingly putting their efforts as they scour the digital landscape for the right tools to keep employees productive — and happy.

Doing so is critical to both attracting and retaining workers. “After all, why should they be able to collaborate more easily at home or for their children’s football clubs than they can at work?” asked Kurtzman. “It makes sense to have the same depth of communication, collaboration and the ability to get things done that they enjoy outside of the workplace.”

The digital experience for workers should match that of customers, Jeffrey Mann, a VP analyst at Gartner, said in a recent research note.

“…All too often, the employee experience is an afterthought for business and application leaders,” wrote Mann. “They ignore the relevance to workers of the proven lessons from marketing and customer relationship management regarding the customer experience. Many of the same techniques used to create happy customers can be applied to encourage productive employees.”

At Valet Living, a residential concierge and amenities service provider, Facebook’s Workplace enterprise social network is now used to connect 6,000 employees — 90% of whom work part-time — across 40 states. The deployment has helped on-board new staff members faster.

“Understandably, it’s been difficult to on-board associates in a consistent and thorough manner until we adopted online collaboration tools,” said Henry Toledo, chief people officer at Valet Living.

Workers can access relevant training materials through a platform they’re already familiar with in their personal lives, said Toledo.

We know it’s critical to arm our associates with the skills needed to succeed and offer a consistent experience to our clients and residents, so we created a library of training resources, including our online training database, Valet U,  giving all new associates the chance to get up to speed quickly and efficiently,” he said.

The ability to connect a disparate workforce using digital collaboration tools — previously impossible via email alone, said Toledo — has led to tangible business benefits and reduced employee turnover.

“As we increasingly collaborate across the organization, we’ve noticed a direct correlation between connectedness and a steady rise in Valet Living’s associate retention rate,” he said. “We saw a 20% increase in associate retention since Workplace was introduced just a year ago — a testimony to our ability to make our associates feel welcomed from the jump.”

At Weight Watchers, company execs found that rolling out Workplace to 18,000 employees worldwide in 2018 helped with internal knowledge-sharing.

“One of the big questions or challenges [we had] was how do we bring everyone together?” Stacie Sherer, senior vice president for corporate communications, said in an earlier interview. “How do we break down the silos between our different geographies, and how do we break down the silos between our corporate head offices and all of the folks who are out in the field, who may only work a few hours a week but want to feel part of something bigger?”

Employees applauded the move, Sherer said. “One respondent said, ‘I feel like I work down the corridor [from] colleagues in other countries — I feel like I know them so well because of the connections they make on here,’” she said. “Because you can craft your own profile and there are groups around personal interests in addition to all the groups focused on work collaboration and communication, you get to know your colleagues in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise.”

A culture of collaboration

Many businesses now realize the need to improve collaboration to stay competitive; not surprisingly, spending on social software and collaboration tools has been on the rise. According to Gartner, it’s expected to reach $4.8 billion in 2023 — almost double the estimated $2.7 billion spent in 2018.

A survey of roughly 40 digital transformations by Boston Consulting Group found that organizations that focused on cultural change as part of their digital transformation projects had a much higher rate of financial success (90%) than those that neglected culture (17%).

Financial software vendor Intuit, for instance, is using its transformation efforts to focus more on innovation, less on managing infrastructure. “Digital transformation is as much a mindset and cultural shift as it is a business and technical shift,” said Intuit CIO Atticus Tysen.

The company has been using Slack’s workstream collaboration app to bolster idea-sharing among staffers, no matter their location. “Slack is one way we connect our global workforce across different sites and locations through near instantaneous messaging, while also creating opportunities for like-minded individuals or teams to have an area for ongoing dialogue that doesn’t require long meetings or multiple emails,” Tysen said.

“Using Slack, we are enabling the mindset and cultural shift of finding more opportunities to work efficiently at scale.”

Another Slack user, data analytics company Splunk, has had similar experiences.

“For us, Slack was the promise of really starting to change the communication culture,” said Fred McAmis, vice president for learning and development, at Splunk.

Before deploying the app, Splunk relied on a variety of different tools to communicate. “Marketing had one tool, while product and engineering had another,” he said. “When our CTO joined, he chose Slack for engineering. It started as a pilot project and quickly spread across the organization.”

Today, short, targeted instant messages help teams push projects along. “It’s real-time, while e-mail is very formal in comparison,” he said.

Improved collaboration processes are also helping the company stay agile as business scales. “At Splunk, our employee base continues to grow year over year, which means it’s imperative to maintain the company experience,” said McAmis.

Clear pathways for professional development help employees stay motivated, he said. And there is a Slack channel for leadership courses that are available to employees at all levels of the business.

“While training is the main event, I believe learning takes reinforcement,” McAmis said. “So we use Slack to supplement the training and offer a way for our people to stay in touch and remind themselves of what they learned. Slack gives us the ability to share knowledge quickly and create knowledge databases.”

The next big push: digital tools for frontline workers

Much of the focus of digital transformation in recent years has been on office workers. But enterprise software vendors are now targeting collaboration, communication and productivity tools at a wider range of employees, such as retail, manufacturing and healthcare staff. These frontline service and task workers represent a burgeoning area of investment for many organizations.

That’s especially true of Microsoft, which has been targeting frontline workers since late 2018. “[Frontline workers are] a massive segment of workers around the world that are currently pretty drastically underserved by technology,” Emma Williams, corporate vice president of Modern Workplace Verticals at Microsoft, argued last year. “What we are delivering is a customizable experience that really focuses on a mobile-first worker based on their role.”

Those comments came as the company added a raft of updates to its Teams collaboration tool to woo frontline workers. Those additions included new mobile app functions, integrations with third-party scheduling apps and an employee “praise” tool.

One company that’s used Teams to successfully engage frontline workers is Virginia-based Ferguson, a plumbing supply company. The company rolled out Teams and sparked a shift to channel-based communications in a way that helped improve customer service with faster, more effective information sharing.

The change was especially important for showroom consultants who must answer customer questions, repeatedly check stock and generally assist with purchases.

“Historically, the showroom consultant would have to get on the phone or walk to the back office for the physical warehouse and say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for this product; do we have it? Can you bring it out?’ Tony Morris, director of business process at Ferguson, explained last year. “That has not been a great experience for the customer — it can take time.”

Using Teams channels, the sales staffers at Ferguson can now quickly send a request for info to the back office using their mobile device, allowing them to better focus on customers. “They can continue to service the customer, but get feedback right through the Teams app, which is nice because they can give that information to the customer without putting the customer on hold or … [leave] sitting around waiting.”

That kind of change can lead to more efficiency, engaged workers — and happier customers.

Although many organizations are just now beginning to invest in tools for frontline employees, more money is likely on the way as the business case becomes clearer. And the evolution of the workplace, already well under way, will continue.

“We’re at the beginning of making every worker a knowledge worker,” said Kurtzman. “The collaboration of an enterprise runs much more efficiently the more ideas that are there, the more ideas that can be acted upon.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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Making sense of Google’s Pixelbook strategy

When I first heard about Google’s Pixelbook Go laptop, I honestly didn’t know what to make of it.

I mean, really, can you blame me? By most meaningful measures, the Pixelbook Go is a less premium and versatile version of Google’s existing, now-two-years-old Pixelbook model. It trades its predecessor’s sleek and sophisticated vibe for a more mundane and less attention-grabbing appearance. (Seriously, I own the original Pixelbook, and no exaggeration: It gets noticed and commented on all the time — a mixed-bag side effect for an introvert like me.)

Not only that, but as this week’s Google event confirmed to us, the Pixelbook Go won’t have its predecessor’s shape-shifting, screen-swiveling form — the laptop’s handy ability to switch from being a regular computer into being a tablet or, better yet, a tablet with a built-in stand to keep it propped it up for ergonomic video viewing. It won’t support a stylus, either, and it comes with half the amount of local storage as its sibling in the base-level configuration. 

This is supposed to be the sequel to Google’s crown-wearing Chromebook?

By all counts, from the moment we first heard about the Pixelbook Go, it seemed like a downgrade — a progression that pushed the Pixelbook product into a different and decidedly less luxurious class. I mean, sure, there are a handful of areas where the Go one-ups the original Pixelbook, but none seem especially significant:

  • The Go has a newer processor, naturally, but the original Pixelbook’s still perfectly speedy, and no normal person is gonna notice that difference.
  • The Go is a touch lighter, but the original Pixelbook is ridiculously light, too, and unless you’re holding the two together, it’s hard to imagine that meaning much.
  • The Go has a “refined” version of the original Pixelbook’s exceptional keyboard, with keys that are apparently a touch quieter than their previous already-quiet state.
  • And the Go has increased battery capacity from quite-good-all-day-life to a-bit-better-all-day-life.

This is all relatively incremental stuff — the natural sorts of progressions you expect to see in a two-years-later model. It’s all perfectly pleasant, of course, but particularly with the various form-related regressions in the equation, it’s nothing that seems to justify the laptop’s position as a successor to the throne.

So why does the Pixelbook Go exist? How could this possibly be the Pixelbook’s sequel? What in the world is Google trying to accomplish by taking its Chrome OS masterpiece and scaling it back into a generally less impressive structure?

When I first started chewing over the Pixelbook Go as the result of the detailed leaks a few weeks ago, there was only one possibility I could think of that made any of this make sense. As I wrote in my Android Intelligence newsletter at the time:

The big unknown here is pricing, and that may be the clue that tells us what Google is really trying to accomplish with a device like this. If the Pixelbook Go (a) ends up being what we expect and (b) ends up having a price tag that’s significantly less than its luxury-level older sibling, it could be a play for more budget-conscious Chromebook buyers. If not, well, I’m scratching my head.

And guess what? Sure enough, the shekels are the answer — and the initial interpretation of the Pixelbook Go as a successor to the original Pixelbook was simply off the mark. No more head-scratching required (thank goodness; my scalp is really starting to smart).

The Pixelbook Go starts at $649 — not budget-level terrain, by any means, but right smack dab in the juicy middle of midrange-laptop territory. It’s a massive departure from the original Pixelbook’s $999 price, without a doubt; with a third of the cost cut, a Google-made laptop suddenly has the potential to appeal to a whole new field of prospective buyers.

Not everyone, after all, is willing or able to drop a cool grand on a top-of-the-line computer. That’s territory for tech-appreciating enthusiasts and people who don’t mind paying (and are able to pay) more for the niceties of a premium-caliber laptop experience.

Heck, Google itself even spelled it out: While talking about the positive reception of the original Pixelbook, hardware design head honcho Ivy Ross relayed that her team had been working to bring a Pixelbook-like experience “to even more people at an even more affordable price.” The phrase “affordable price” came up again a few moments later.

Pixelbook Go Google

And that’s the real story with the Pixelbook Go: It’s all about expanding Google’s hardware horizons. It’s all about getting more people on board with a Chrome OS experience that, critically, has Google Assistant at its core in a way no third-party Chromebook can currently match. (Remember that whole post-OS era thing?) And if Google has to back down a bit on its original “Pixel brand is all about premium, top-of-the-line hardware” philosophy to make that happen, well, so be it.

It’s the same basic move Google made with its Pixel 3a phone earlier this year — shedding some of the prestige in order to expand its horizons. In fact, just like with the Pixel 3a and its more expensive sibling, the higher-end Pixelbook model will continue to exist as an option. Google even put up a page comparing the two devices on its official store site. The Pixelbook Go isn’t a replacement for the Pixelbook, in other words. It isn’t a sequel, and it isn’t a successor. It’s simply a less premium alternative version of the same basic product.

Pixelbook Go-Pixelbook Comparison Google

And you know what? Seeing Google spread its wings and start to offer products in more diverse price ranges not only seems sensible — it seems inevitable. On the surface, Google may be selling hardware, but what it’s really doing is selling the Google ecosystem in a laptop- and phone-based form. And the more people it manages to pull into that umbrella (ella, ella), the more successful it’ll be — no matter how much money it makes on the hardware in a short-term sense.

The Pixelbook Go finishes the expansion Google started with the Pixel 3a phone earlier this year. The only question left is how low we’ll go from here in terms of further expansion in the future — and lemme tell ya, if I were a betting man, I’d sure as shekels say we haven’t hit bottom yet.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.



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10 hidden tricks for making the most of Android 10’s gestures

Look, Google’s Android 10 gestures aren’t perfect — no two ways about that. But for all the negative attention the new navigation system rightfully receives, it’s actually come a long way since its painfully awkward debut in an early Android 10 beta.

And you know what? At this point, warts and all, the Android 10 gestures are actually pretty pleasant to use — once you give yourself the chance to get used to ’em.

Part of that simply boils down to a matter of adjustment, as a change like this is inevitably gonna be a bit of a shock at first. But part of it is also a matter of figuring out some subtle tricks to make the most of Android 10’s gesture setup. Some of the tricks may seem obvious, once you consider them, while others seem almost like unintentional inclusions. But all of them go a long way in making the new gestures faster, smoother, and more effective to use.

I’ve been fiddling around obsessively with Android 10 gestures for far too long now. Here are 10 tricks I’ve uncovered that’ll let you move around your phone like a pro.

1. Learn a new app menu gesture

One of the most glaring flaws with Android 10’s gesture setup is the way the new Back gesture — where you swipe in from the left side of the screen — overlaps with other actions already present throughout the operating system.

The most common of those is the gesture for opening a drawer-style menu within an app, like you see within Gmail or Google Photos. Google created an awkward mechanism for differentiating between swipes meant for going back and swipes meant for opening an app menu, but it’s clunky, inconsistent, and generally just too unpredictable to rely on.

Here’s the better way: When you want to open an app’s menu drawer, swipe in upward from the left side of the screen at a 45-degree angle. That’ll consistently pull up the app’s menu instead of activating the Back command, as frequently happens when you swipe in a more straight-across, horizontal line.

Android 10 Gestures: App Drawer JR

Another option worth remembering: You can also swipe in with two fingers to open an app’s menu every time. Or, of course, you can simply tap the three-line menu icon in the app’s upper-right corner instead of swiping at all.

2. Remember that the Back gesture actually works in two places

If you’re anything like me, you probably think of the Android 10 Back gesture as living on the left side of your screen — but don’t forget: You can swipe your finger in from the right side of the screen, too, and accomplish the exact same result.

Strange as that redundancy may seem on the surface, the idea was to make the Back gesture convenient and comfortable to access no matter how you like to hold your phone. So if you’re more of a right-hand-holder, stop stretching and try swiping in from the right side of the screen for an easier and more natural-feeling experience.

3. Don’t forget about the universal Assistant gestures

One of Android 10’s most easily overlooked gestures is its Assistant-opening command, which actually works from anywhere in the operating system — regardless of whether you’re on your home screen or using an app.

This gesture, too, works in two different ways: by swiping upward at a diagonal from the lower-left corner of the screen or by doing the same thing from the lower-right corner. The lower-left corner seems to be the spot I veer to by default, but I’ve found the Assistant-opening command is actually much more consistent and easy to access via the lower-right corner swipe-up option.

Unlike its left-living equivalent, the right-dwelling Assistant gesture doesn’t overlap with other common system actions (like that pesky app-menu opening command) and is basically guaranteed to work on your first try every time.

4. Master the Overview-opening timing

Android 10’s gestures make the Overview screen — that area of the software where you can see all of your recently used apps and move quickly between ’em — a little less accessible than it used to be. But the Overview screen is actually still pretty easy to pull up, if you take the time to practice and master the associated gesture.

The trick is to swipe up in a straight line from the bottom of the screen and then stop and lift your finger quickly after about an inch — right where the top of the shaded card with the search box and app suggestions appears.

Android 10 Gestures: Overview JR

If you do that enough times, you’ll get a feel for exactly where you need to stop, and you’ll be able to open your Overview area quickly and consistently, almost without fail.

5. Tap into Overview’s hidden swipe option

Once you’re in the Overview area, you can tap on any app’s card to open it — or, in what I find to be a faster and more natural-feeling move, you can swipe down on the card to accomplish the same thing. That way, you go from a quick swipe up to open Overview (and perhaps a short swipe over to find the card you want) to another similar swipe-oriented gesture.

6. Swipe through apps in Overview the secret way

Another hidden Overview trick: While looking at your list of recently used apps, in addition to swiping directly along the cards themselves, you can swipe on the bottom navigation bar to move through your apps and find the one you want. A gentle, short swipe will move left or right one app at a time while a harder, longer swipe (ooh, baby) will quickly move you from the start of the list to the end.

Android 10 Gestures: Overview Swipe JR

7. Head home from Overview in a hurry

If you open your Overview screen and then decide not to move to another app, there’s a hidden shortcut for going back to your home screen in a jiff: Just swipe down on the shaded card with the search bar and suggested apps.

If you’re in more of a tapping sort of mood, a quick tap of the upward-facing arrow in that same shaded area will accomplish the same thing.

8. Swipe between apps in a non-blind manner

One of Android 10’s most frustrating gestures, if you ask me, is the command to swipe in either direction on that bottom-of-screen bar and move backwards or forwards in some sort of hypothetical “app continuum.” It’s a concept borrowed directly from iOS, and it’s one of the worst parts of Google’s setup.

The problem is that no normal person is ever going to remember exactly what order their recently opened apps appear in — and so more often than not, you end up flipping blindly and hoping you eventually land on the app you want. It just isn’t an effective way of getting around, and it usually ends up requiring you to go through several recent programs before actually stumbling onto the right one.

Here’s a smarter way to use that gesture: Instead of just swiping left or right on that bottom bar, swipe and move your finger up at the same time. That’ll let you see previews of the apps in either direction and then intelligently decide if the one you want is there before just automatically opening it — kind of like a hybrid of fast-swiping and going into Overview. The higher you move your finger, the smaller the previews will appear and the move of them you can see at once.

Android 10 Gestures: App Swipe JR

When you find the app you want in the list, just slide your finger back down to the bottom of the screen, in a single motion, to open it.

9. Embrace the new ‘Alt-Tab’ shortcut

The one time that bottom-bar-swiping gesture can be handy is when you want to jump directly back to the last app you used — something that, unlike an entire continuum, typically is pretty easy to remember. And Android 10 has a useful function built in for that very purpose.

Just like in the Pie gesture setup (and similar to the old double-tap-the-Overview-key command in earlier Android versions), you can quickly flick the bottom-of-screen bar to the right to open your most recently used app — whether you’re in another app or on your home screen.

Here’s where things get slightly funky, though: You’d think you could then flick the bar to the left to go back to where you came from, right? Kind of like a back-and-forward sort of command? Well, you can — but only for a very limited amount of time. If you fast-flip to your most recently app and then want to go back where you came from within about five seconds, you can flick the bottom-of-screen bar to the left to go back.

Android 10 Gestures: App Swipe JR

After about five seconds, though, that app will change positions in that confusing-as-hell continuum and move from the right of your current app to its left — meaning that if more than five seconds have passed, you’ll need to flick the bottom-of-screen bar to the right to go back.

Like I said, this bar-swiping system in general is by far the worst and most ineffective part of the Android 10 gesture setup. But once you figure out that little distinction, this part of it is reasonably easy to get around.

10. Don’t overlook universal access to your app drawer

Perhaps the best part of Android 10’s gestures is also a part that’s all too easy to forget about: the way the setup makes it possible for you to access your entire app drawer from anywhere in the operating system. That means you can easily open any app without having to first return to your home screen, thus saving yourself extra steps and making the act meaningfully more efficient.

To get to your app drawer from anywhere, first swipe up once from the bottom of the screen — using that same one-inch-stop rule we talked about in item #5 — then lift your finger off the screen and swipe up a second time.

Android 10 Gestures: App Drawer JR

Android 10 doesn’t have a similar sort of gesture for opening the notification panel from anywhere, unfortunately — but if you have a phone with a physical fingerprint scanner, you may be able to set your phone up to open both the Quick Settings panel and the full notification panel with one or two swipes on the sensor. Look for the “Gestures” menu within the System section of your system settings to see if the option is available for your device.

Android 10 Gestures: Fingerprint JR

And with that, my friend, congratulations are in order: You’re officially now an Android 10 gesture master. Well-done, you nimble little mammal. You deserve a swipe on the back.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.



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Everyone’s Making a PC Game Subscription: Are They Worth It?

Gaming PCs in an internet cafe
OHishiapply/Shutterstock.com

Every TV network is making its own streaming app, and every major game publisher wants its own subscription. EA, Microsoft, and Ubisoft have already launched their subscriptions—but are any of them worth it?

PC Gaming: An Embarrassment of Riches

Xbox Game Pass featuring the game Gears 5.

There are several PC gaming subscription services. Some offer all-you-can download buffets, while others are streaming services for which you don’t even need a gaming PC.

In this article, we’re looking only at the former. Currently, this list includes EA Origin Access, Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass for PC, and Ubisoft’s UPlay Plus which rolls out in September 2019.

We’re not including Nvidia’s GeForce Now or the upcoming Google Stadia. Those services focus on streaming games from remote servers to your hardware at home.

The idea of a subscription to a library of games isn’t particularly new. EA’s service for PCs has existed since 2016, and Xbox Game Pass for the console rolled out in 2017. Still, it took Microsoft and Ubisoft until 2019 to catch up to EA’s lead on PC. Other game makers with desktop launchers, such as Activision Blizzard and Epic Games, have yet to follow suit.

How Do They Work?

The basic idea is you download an application for your Windows desktop that houses the service. Most of these apps include a game launcher, a game store, announcements, and social features, such as chat. Once you download the app and sign in to your account, you can download games from the service. It’s similar to Steam or the Epic Games Store, except you don’t pay for individual titles.

The Services

EA's Origin Access Game Vault.

Below are all the options available from the three leading game subscription services:

  • EA Origin Access Basic: The oldest of the services we’re looking at, it launched in 2016 and has become a multitiered service. The first tier is Origin Access Basic for $5 per month, or you can pay $30 for a year. Basic gives you access to what EA calls “The Vault”—a large trove of games for PC that includes (at this writing) more than 200 titles, such as Battlefield V, Battlefield I, Star Wars Battlefront II, and Madden 19. Also, Origin members get 10 percent off their purchases from the Origin games store.
  • EA Origin Access Premier: At $15 per month or $100 per year, this tier adds just an extra ten games at this writing. However, you also get early access to the full version of upcoming games. Basic, by comparison, has a 10-hour time limit on early access titles. If new EA games are important to you, then Premium is the better buy. It also doesn’t force you to pay for a game like Anthem, which seemed interesting and exciting at launch, and then, well, had issues.
  • Xbox Game Pass for PC: With Xbox users happily using Game Pass for two years, Microsoft finally remembered the PC gamer in June 2019 when it released this service. At $10 per month, it offers access to more than 100 games. Microsoft promises to include all its first-party titles with Game Pass as it does with the console version. Like EA’s service, it offers a boatload of older games, as well as some newer titles, such as Metro Exodus and the forthcoming Gears 5. Also, Xbox says members get “exclusive member discounts and deals.”
  • Xbox Game Pass Ultimate: This service gives subscribers Xbox Live Gold (a must-have for most Xbox owners) and Game Pass for both PC and console. That’s a fantastic deal for anyone with a gaming PC and Xbox at home, as new first-party titles from Microsoft are cross-platform compatible. This means you can start playing on the console, carry over your progress to your PC, and then return to the console.
  • UPlay Plus: This is the newest service—it debuts September 3, 2019. UPlay Plus will cost $15 per month for access to 108 games, including The Division 2, Rainbow Six Siege, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (and older Assassin’s Creed titles), and the Far Cry series, beginning with Far Cry 2. This is by far the most expensive of the services we’ve covered. However, the subscription fee not only covers the base games but also extra content and expansions for most titles. Neither EA Origin Access or Xbox Game Pass cover any of that. It would be nice if Uplay Plus offered a lower-priced, “without DLC” version, but maybe that will show up in the future.

Are They Worth It?

Uplay Plus logo on a background of multiple video game cover images.

Now, here’s the hard part. Because there are so many gameplay styles out there, we can’t say any of these services is a one-size-fits-all option. So, we’ve invented a few theoretical profiles to compare and contrast the needs of various gamers.

For this list, we’re assuming the average gamer buys about three AAA titles per year, not counting games he might pick up on sale. That’s admittedly our best guess, as there isn’t a lot of current information about game-buying habits. Still, around $180 per year on new releases seems about right.

Here are the best services for certain types of gamers:

  • The bargain hunter: If you pay for one option of all the services we covered at the advertised prices, it will set you back $330. That’s a little more than buying five games per year, but you get the benefit of a wide catalog.
  • The brand fan: If you’re all about Xbox, Ubisoft, or EA, then buying your particular brand’s service is a no-brainer. One year of Xbox Game Pass for PC would set you back about $120 for the minimum service. Origin Access Basic would be $30, while Premier is $100. Uplay Plus would cost $180 every year.
  • The completionist: Gamers who are more interested in finishing campaigns probably won’t find it a value to subscribe to all three services. A better option would be to choose either Xbox Game Pass with Origin Access Basic, or Uplay Plus by itself. Either of those would equal close to three AAA title purchases per year. The downside for the completionist is— except for Uplay Plus subscribers—extra content will cost more.
  • Cross-platformers: If you have an Xbox and a PC, you should consider Xbox Game Pass—especially if you’re a fan of Microsoft’s first-party titles, like the Gears of War series and (coming later this year) Halo.
  • The schemer: No matter which service(s) you choose, the bonus is you can cancel at any time. So, if EA’s got a game coming out you’re dying to try, sign-up for Origin Access Premier, play the game, and then cancel the service when you’re done. It’s easy to do with a month-to-month subscription and ideal for those who don’t want to commit to an entire year.

What You Won’t Get

While these offerings are great, they don’t even come close to covering all the upcoming titles PC gamers are excited about. Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t available on any of these services, nor is the same studio’s instant classic, The Witcher 3. Games from Epic and anything new from Activision Blizzard will also be limited.

The Bottom Line

Again, it’s hard to say across the board which (if any) of these subscriptions is worth it—so much depends on your gaming taste and style. That’s why we used the basic profiles above to consider various options and look at the value from a few angles. Another thing to consider is, once you stop paying your subscription, you lose access to the games.

If you’re a gamer who doesn’t have a lot of time to play, you might be better off buying a few titles outright and playing at your own speed. This way, you have no timers or monthly subscriptions hanging over your head.

Still, for gamers who like to play a lot but balk at paying full price for AAA titles at launch, these services are worth a look.





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A Beginner’s Guide to Making Music on iPhone and iPad

Woman wearing headphones and tapping at an iPhone
sergey causelove/Shutterstock.com

You don’t need to be able to sing, play an instrument, or read sheet music to make music. With an iPhone or iPad you’ve got a mobile production suite, recording studio, and mixing desk all in one.

Make Music with the Right Apps

iPhone and iPad users have access to some of the best apps, particularly when it comes to making music. Not only is the platform relatively straightforward to develop for, but Apple’s low-latency implementation of audio technologies has also helped iOS become the platform of choice for mobile producers.

One of the most accessible apps is Apple’s own GarageBand. This first-party digital audio workstation (DAW) allows you to play, record, and program music for free. It’s perfect for messing around with virtual instruments but can also function as a mobile recording studio, virtual guitar amplifier, and drum machine for practice sessions. If you come up with something special, you can export and work on it with GarageBand for Mac (also free).

GarageBand Running on an iPad
apple.com

For producing electronic music, hip hop, and more technical genres, Auxy perfectly treads the fine line between ease of use and raw power. It’s free to use with an optional monthly subscription of $4.99 that provides access to hundreds of samples, additional instruments, and regular updates. It’s really simple to get started with Auxy, plus there’s a vibrant community of artists who share tracks and support each other over at the Auxy Disco forum.

KORG Gadget 2 is another highly-capable production environment. KORG has a long history of creating professional instruments, synthesizers, sequencers, and more. Gadget harnesses many of those signature sounds and, unlike Auxy, provides full support for MIDI controllers. Gadget is probably most at home on an iPad, owing to the “mixing desk” UI approach taken by its developers.

KORG Gadget Running on an iPad Pro
korg.com

Making music doesn’t have to be a serious exercise in creative expression. It can also be a fun way to burn five minutes, as is the case with Figure. This app allows you to tap and drag your fingers across pads to manipulate pitch and sound. You can create drum loops, lay down bass lines, and improvise catchy melodies in mere minutes. It’s tough not to have fun with Figure.

This is a small sample of the most accessible production environments, but the App Store is also chock-full of virtual instruments, synthesizers and drum machines. Standout apps include:

  • Animoog — a standalone touch-friendly synthesizer from the analog legends at Moog.
  • iSEM — a faithful recreation of the 1974 Oberheim SEM.
  • Model 15 — Moog’s first modular synth for iOS, a stunning recreation of the original Model 15.
  • KORG iKaossilator — a software version of KORG’s innovative Kaossilator XY pad.
  • Fingerlab DM-1 — a dedicated drum machine and beat sequencer that fits in your pocket.

Some of these apps are free, while others can be pricey. Almost all of them will go into sale at some point, so it’s worth keeping one eye on the App Store using a service like AppShopper to find the best deals.

Using Instruments and Microphones with iOS

Many iOS synthesizers and digital audio workstations (DAWs) are compatible with real instruments. These include keyboards, guitars, microphones, and audio interfaces.

MIDI Keyboards

Many USB MIDI keyboards will work with iOS out of the box, but for best results always purchase a keyboard that advertises its compatibility. Some good examples of iOS-ready keyboards include the ultra-compact KORG MicroKEY 25, the battery-powered Akai LPK 25, and the full-sized M-Audio Keystation 88.

KORG Microkey MIDI Keyboard

If you already have a keyboard with MIDI capability, you can buy an inexpensive MIDI interface like the iConnectMIDI1 Lightning or iRig MIDI 2 and use it with your iPhone or iPad. These interfaces also almost always work with Windows, macOS, and in some instances, Android too.

Guitar Interfaces

If you want to record or use your guitar with iOS music apps, you’ll need a suitable interface. Basic analog interfaces like the iRig 2 are cheap enough. They provide a raw analog signal that’s perfect for jamming or demo work.

But if you’re more concerned about sound quality, you’ll want to opt for something like the iRig HD2. The big difference here is the sound quality since the HD2 converts the analog signal to a 24-bit  digital signal at 96kHz. You also get a few extra inputs and controls.

Guitar Connected to iRig HD2 and an iPad
ikmultimedia.com

If you want your guitar to sound the best it can spend the extra money on a digital interface.

Microphones and Audio Interfaces

There are all sorts of microphones available, from clip-on lavalier microphones for recording interviews to condenser microphones that are more suited to vocals. Some of these are designed with iOS compatibility in mind, like the high-quality Shure Motiv MV51.

Many other USB microphones work out of the box with iOS, provided you have the Lightning-to-USB camera connection kit. Some USB microphones draw more power and thus won’t work out of the box. The solution is to put a powered USB hub between your microphone and Lightning-to-USB adapter.

The best microphones usually use an XLR or 1/4″ connector, and for those, you’ll need an iOS-compatible audio interface. A good starting point is the iRig Pro I/O, which acts as both an audio interface (for microphones and instruments) and a MIDI interface (for controlling a synth). For a similar battery-powered portable interface that forgoes MIDI, check out the Zoom U-22.

Focusrite iTrack Solo with iPad
focusrite.com

The Focusrite iTrack Solo is another solid option. It’s a two-channel interface with both XLR and 1/4″ input. It comes with gain control for both channels and a 1/4″ headphone out for monitoring purposes. If your budget can stretch, the Apogee Duet is worth a look too.

Picking the Right App for Live Recording

So you’ve got an interface, and you want to start recording audio. You can start with GarageBand, which provides a ton of useful functions. You can record via a virtual guitar amplifier, add effects to your vocals, and even access Apple’s rich library of royalty-free sounds.

Cubasis 2 by Steinberg is one of the most accomplished DAWs available for the platform. Record an unlimited number of tracks at 24-bit 96kHz quality. Use time-stretching and pitch-shifting to manipulate your recordings. Also included are virtual instruments, a mini sample, 17 effect processors, and more than 500 ready-to-use loops.

Another popular third party DAW is Auria and its more expensive sibling Auria Pro. It’s a professional-grade recording, mixing, and mastering suite for iOS. The main difference between the two versions is that Auria Pro comes with MIDI support, virtual instruments, quantizing, and more. Check out the full list of differences on the Auria website.

For a budget DAW, look no further than Multitrack DAW. This app lets you record up to 24 audio tracks with non-destructive, non-linear editing. There’s no MIDI support, and the feature set is decidedly barebones, but that makes it relatively simple to use compared with an app like Auria. For solo jamming and messing around, you may only need loop-based recording app Loopy.

Most iOS DAWs include support for AudioUnits, plugins that run inside other apps. As opposed to linking apps together and running multiple apps at once, AudioUnits let you run everything inside a single app for a better user experience.

Turn Your iPhone Into a Virtual Guitar Amp

If you can’t crank your amp because you live in an apartment, your second best bet is to use a virtual guitar amplifier. These allow you to experiment with a whole range of different sounds without having to spend thousands of dollars on cabinets and pedals.

GarageBand has a selection of amplifiers to get you started. You can recreate classic sounds by tweaking knobs and adding pedals to your setup. You can then record directly into GarageBand, add vocals, drums, and share your creation.

GarageBand Effect Pedal Chain Running on iPhone

But there are dedicated guitar amp simulators too. These generally offer far more customization than GarageBand, allowing you to do things like adjusting the “microphone” used, add virtual pre-amps, and create elaborate feedback loops with some creative routing.

Some of the best virtual guitar amps include:

  • STARK — modular amp virtualization with 12 amps, 10 cabinets, six rooms, and 14 pedals.
  • JamUp — a multi-effects processor for guitar and bass with an online community for sharing presets.
  • BIAS AMP 2 and BIAS FX — featuring hundreds of amps, effects, and pedals.
  • ToneStack — with support for up to 64 amps and effects in a single chain.
  • iShred LIVE — free to begin (with in-app purchases) so you can get shredding right away.
  • Amplitube — pricey yet established virtual amp modeling from the developers of the iRig range.

Using More Complex Tools to Improve Your Music

With so many iOS music apps available, you’ll probably want some way of connecting them. This allows you to record the output of one app (like a synth) into another (like a DAW). You can even process one input (like your guitar) through one app (a virtual amp) and record the results in your favorite DAW.

Apple’s previous standard for this, Inter-App Audio (IAA) is being retired in favor of Audio Units v3. Audio Units allow you to run elements of one app inside another, like a traditional VST or AU on a Mac or PC. There is one app that remains a strong contender where AUv3 support is absent, though: AudioBus.

AudioBus lets you pass audio and MIDI from one app into another. You can build chains of apps, adjust levels, and even bind controls to your MIDI controller with the right in-app purchase. There’s also a neat little overlay that allows you to start and stop playback or enable and disable effect processing regardless of which app you are using.

There are over a thousand AudioBus compatible apps (check out the full list). You can download AudioBus 3 from the App Store for $9.99, and grab the separate AudioBus Remote for controlling your setup from a separate iOS device.

One alternative to AudioBus is an app called AudioCopy. Often AudioCopy functionality is built right into compatible apps, and it works just like regular copy and paste. The difference here is that you’re not building a chain of apps for recording. Instead, you’re creating small files that you can paste into other apps—like a loop from a drum machine—for processing or using in a larger composition.

The Results Speak for Themselves

Gorillaz produced their 2010 album The Fall on an iPad. Steve Lacy produced the backing track for PRIDE by Kendrick Lamar using iPhone apps and having his guitar plugged into an old iRig. You only need to listen to talented Auxy producers like aUstin haga, phluze, Kayasho, and Mr. Anderson to see the potential for yourself.

Rather create music in your browser instead? Check out the best websites for creating music—no additional software necessary!





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Google’s officially done making its own tablets

Here’s an interesting little nugget of info to chew on: Google’s decided to step away from its self-made tablets and focus instead on the laptop form.

To be clear, Google hadn’t actually announced any tablet-specific products this year; the last such item that made its way to the market was the Pixel Slate in 2018. But, as I learned today, the company did have two smaller-sized tablets under development — and earlier this week, it decided to drop all work on those devices and make its roadmap revolve entirely around laptops instead.

A couple of clarifying points here: First, none of this has any impact on Pixel phones. Pixel phones and Pixel computers are two different departments, and the roadmap in question is related exclusively to the latter. (The same applies to the various Google Home/Nest products. What we’re talking about today has absolutely zero impact on any that stuff.)

And second, when Google talks about a “tablet,” it means a device that detaches completely from a keyboard base or doesn’t even have a physical keyboard in the first place — not a swiveling two-in-one convertible like the Pixelbook. The Pixelbook, with its attached keyboard and 360-degree hinge, falls under Google’s definition of “laptop.” Blurred lines, baby.

A Google spokesperson directly confirmed all of these details to me. The news was revealed at an internal company meeting on Wednesday, and Google is currently working to reassign employees who were focused on the abandoned projects onto other areas. Many of them, I’m told, have already shifted over to the laptop side of that same self-made hardware division.

As for the cast-aside tablets, the only details we know for sure are that they were smaller in size, compared to Google’s existing products, and that they were standalone slates without keyboards. They weren’t even far enough along in their development to have names beyond the codenames used for internal reference. So ultimately, what we’re saying here is that Google was working on some stuff that it hadn’t discussed publicly, and it’s now decided to move away from those projects.

So, yeah: “Unannounced products won’t be announced,” in other words. Nothing too earth-shattering, I realize. It’s noteworthy, though, mostly because of the history here — with reports earlier this year that Google was planning to pivot and “scale back” on its self-made hardware efforts — and because of what the move reveals to us about the future of the company’s homemade computers.

As for that future, a Google spokesperson tells me it’s quite possible we’ll see a new laptop-oriented Pixelbook product before the end of this year. The existing Pixel Slate will continue to be supported and to receive regular software updates all the way through June of 2024, meanwhile, as had initially been promised — nothing’s changing there. And the Chrome OS team in general will continue to focus on both laptops and tablets with its software development, as regardless of Google’s plans for its own self-made hardware, plenty of other manufacturers still create Chrome OS devices with all types of forms.

The real news, again, is simply that Google is refocusing its own computer-making efforts to laptops — the nondetachable variety, with or without swiveling screens in place — and away from tablets for the foreseeable future.

And now you know.

Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get more practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on the news that matters.

AI Newsletter

[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]



Source link

Google’s officially done making tablets

Here’s an interesting little nugget of info to chew on: Google’s decided to step away from its self-made tablets and focus instead on the laptop form.

To be clear, Google hadn’t actually announced any tablet-specific products this year; the last such item that made its way to the market was the Pixel Slate in 2018. But, as I learned today, the company did have two smaller-sized tablets under development — and earlier this week, it decided to drop all work on those devices and make its roadmap revolve entirely around laptops instead.

A couple of clarifying points here: First, none of this has any impact on Pixel phones. Pixel phones and Pixel computers are two different departments, and the roadmap in question is related exclusively to the latter. (The same applies to the various Google Home/Nest products. What we’re talking about today has absolutely zero impact on any that stuff.)

And second, when Google talks about a “tablet,” it means a device that detaches completely from a keyboard base or doesn’t even have a physical keyboard in the first place — not a swiveling two-in-one convertible like the Pixelbook. The Pixelbook, with its attached keyboard and 360-degree hinge, falls under Google’s definition of “laptop.” Blurred lines, baby.

A Google spokesperson directly confirmed all of these details to me. The news was revealed at an internal company meeting on Wednesday, and Google is currently working to reassign employees who were focused on the abandoned projects onto other areas. Many of them, I’m told, have already shifted over to the laptop side of that same self-made hardware division.

As for the cast-aside tablets, the only details we know for sure are that they were smaller in size, compared to Google’s existing products, and that they were standalone slates without keyboards. They weren’t even far enough along in their development to have names beyond the codenames used for internal reference. So ultimately, what we’re saying here is that Google was working on some stuff that it hadn’t discussed publicly, and it’s now decided to move away from those projects.

So, yeah: “Unannounced products won’t be announced,” in other words. Nothing too earth-shattering, I realize. It’s noteworthy, though, mostly because of the history here — with reports earlier this year that Google was planning to pivot and “scale back” on its self-made hardware efforts — and because of what the move reveals to us about the future of the company’s homemade computers.

As for that future, a Google spokesperson tells me it’s quite possible we’ll see a new laptop-oriented Pixelbook product before the end of this year. The existing Pixel Slate will continue to be supported and to receive regular software updates all the way through June of 2024, meanwhile, as had initially been promised — nothing’s changing there. And the Chrome OS team in general will continue to focus on both laptops and tablets with its software development, as regardless of Google’s plans for its own self-made hardware, plenty of other manufacturers still create Chrome OS devices with all types of forms.

The real news, again, is simply that Google is refocusing its own computer-making efforts to laptops — the nondetachable variety, with or without swiveling screens in place — and away from tablets for the foreseeable future.

And now you know.

Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get more practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on the news that matters.

AI Newsletter

[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]



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