Google’s Pixel update brings a music video maker and new vaccine cards

I’ll be honest. Today might be the worst day for a non-Apple company to drop a raft of mobile operating system updates. But I suppose a Google Pixel feature drop waits for no one, Tim Cook and Company included — even if it means dropping a blog post the exact moment the WWDC 2022 keynote kicks off.

For owners of the Pixel 4 through 6/6 Pro, however, rejoice, because you’ve got some stuff to celebrate today, too. There’s a wide range of features on-board here, including the ability to add directly to the homepage a shortcut to a vaccine card screen shot. Given that COVID numbers are steadily rising in a number of areas, it’s a nice little feature to help you avoid the panicked search for the shot when you’re in the front of the line. That’s available in Canada, the U.S. and Australia.

Image Credits: Google

The previously beta-tested Conversation Mode is coming to Google’s Sound Amplier, designed to help filter out ambient sounds for people with hearing loss. The user holds up the phone, pointing the camera at the subject, and the phone will use on-board machine learning to amplify their voice and filter out the background.

Google’s also partnered with design firm Teenage Engineering for a new app called Pocket Operator, which offers quick and easy music and video editing on the fly, adding sounds, effects and beats. It’s available as a download from the Play Store for Pixel 5 and later.

Image Credits: Google

Other new features include a reminder that pings you when you accidentally leave your flashlight on (you know who you are), as well as a Nest doorbell video feed directly on the lockscreen. Google’s also introduced a new collection of wallpaper for Pride Month.

A new air quality alert feature is in the works, meanwhile, currently listed as “coming soon” for the U.S., India and Australia.

Review: Playdate is a refreshing and unique gaming handheld, but keep your expectations weird

Everyone thought it was a little bonkers when Panic announced that they would be making a monochrome handheld gaming machine with a sort of subscription model where you can’t choose the games you get. DOA, right? Well, the pre-orders sold out so perhaps not. And fortunately, Playdate is a fun, weird, and promising device that’s exactly what it sets out to be, and for those attracted to its funky aesthetic and games, a worthwhile purchase.

The original idea of the Playdate was a truly pocket-size gaming machine that set itself apart not just with a black-and-white screen and the inclusion of a crank for gaming gimmicks, but a scheduled release of games that would appear automatically and regularly… a play date.

Unexpected levels of interest from gamers (20,000 first batch units sold out even at the rather high asking price of $180) and developers interested in something new and weird led them to expand the first “season” of games to 24, sweetening the deal somewhat. After a few delays due to COVID and the chip shortage, the Playdate is finally shipping, and Panic was kind enough to send TechCrunch one to test out, with games arriving on an accelerated schedule.

So how is it? Fun and weird — like an indie game or film that asks you to engage on its own terms, the Playdate is its own thing and comparing it to other devices isn’t really productive.

A pocketable Panic production

Side view of the Playdate showing USB-C charge port and 3.5mm headphone port. It looks canary yellow here but it’s more goldenrod. Image Credits: Devin Coldewey/TechCrunch

First, the device itself. I love it. It’s button-cute, banana-yellow, and Post-It-small. Panic and their partners at Teenage Engineering really nailed the look and feel.

On it you’ll find a directional pad, A and B buttons, menu and power buttons, and of course the famous crank. The D-pad is a little soft but works fine; the main buttons are pleasant to use. And when gripped like an traditional handheld it is quite comfortable even for medium-large hands like my own. I wouldn’t want to play for hours at a time but that’s not the intent here.

The crank has a lovely, smooth feel to it, and it’s remarkably precise in games that use it, giving an almost analog level of precision. There’s enough friction that you never move it more or less than you want, but it’s easy enough to spin that you can do full loops without any trouble.

The Playdate handheld with a person playing a game on it.

Image Credits: Panic

Where there is a bit of trouble is in how exactly you’re meant to hold the thing so you can hit the A and B buttons while turning the crank. I’ve found something that more or less works for me, but you end up sort of bracing your hand on the buttons themselves to get the leverage needed to crank, or vice versa. It’s not ideal, but fortunately few of the games require this level of dexterity.

The 400×240 screen is a mixed bag. With no backlight, you’re reliant on ambient light to see it, but since it’s glossy, you end up with reflections of the window or lamp if it’s in the best position. I’ve played plenty without cursing or being really bothered by this, but there’s definitely some level of “OK, I need to swivel my chair and hold it here, now tilt it… perfect” so you get in that sweet spot. (It’s also incredibly difficult to photograph well. But screenshots don’t capture the feel of it.)

Those idiosyncrasies aside, the graphics are sharp, fun, and quite expressive. Every developer has found different ways to make the 1-bit look work, with an overall aesthetic like that of old Mac Classic games. If you were worried everything would be stick figures and text… be assured there’s plenty of creativity and fun on display here. And they all play fluidly and responsively.

The sound is also quite good — the graphics make you expect the kind of beepy fare we got back in the old Mac days, but there’s great, modern (or modern retro) sounding music and sound for each game. For some the sound is inextricable from the gameplay, like one where you have to match short music clips to each other.

But is it fun?

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey/TechCrunch

There are 24 games in the first season, which will trickle into every Playdate twice a week for 12 weeks. (Reviewers had them arrive over 12 days.)

I won’t go through the whole list — part of the fun is waking up, seeing “New Game Available!” and then checking it out while you sip your hot morning drink of choice. But it’s fair to say that sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised and engaged on and off all week, while other times you’ll be like… “wait, what? I don’t get it.” Or “that’s it? Weak.”

Generally the games fall into one of three categories for me: My Jam, Cool But Not My Jam, and Eh.

One of the first games to be unlocked, Casual Birder, is My Jam. It’s a weird little RPG filled with charming interactions and a bunch of birds to take pictures of. You focus with the crank while framing with the D-pad, but it makes things feel pleasantly frantic as you track a flying bird to its nest, rather than frustrating.

This is in the first few seconds of the game – it gets really chaotic after a couple minutes.

Another I liked a lot is Flipper Lifter, where the crank controls the position of an elevator that penguins line up to use (and they’re really in a hurry, my god). When I “unwrapped” it (there’s a charming little animation that removes the paper from each game) I intended to just try it very quickly to get a sense of how it controlled, and ended up playing for 20 minutes straight because it felt so right. And that was just on the first level! Definitely My Jam.

Then there’s another early game, Whitewater Wipeout, that’s Cool But Not My Jam. You control the direction of your surfer with the crank and can adjust their motion with the D-pad. I can’t seem to get my brain to wrap around the rotation, and end up wiping out unexpectedly even on a good run. It’s much more arcade-y but after I got a decent score I felt like I had “consumed” this particular game. But it would be fun to pass back and forth to try to beat a score, and others may find it very much Their Jam.

Then there’s Boogie Loops, a sort of sequencer (I think) that might be fun to play with if I had any idea what any of the buttons, switches, or dots on the timeline did. I spent 2 minutes trying to figure it out and then quit. Eh.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey/TechCrunch

I’d say the breakdown of the 24 games is about 25% My Jam, 50% Cool But Not My Jam, and 25% Eh. I feel like that sounds bad, but I really enjoyed trying all of them and seeing how each used the crank in a new and interesting way. Some are puzzles, some action, some puzzle-action, some adventure, and not all have any kind of gimmick at all. One is just a variant of Snake. What’s it doing here? It’s fun, and Zach Gage is great… but it’s basically Snake.

What’s conspicuously absent is any kind of “traditional” Mario/Kirby/Gradius-style action or platforming game — there are a few focused on reflexes and positioning (depending on your facility with the crank this can be exhilarating or maddening) but for the most part these are a bit more funky and slower paced. I can’t wait to spend more time with some of the RPG type games.

Value adds

Playdate’s main value proposition is the 24 games you’ll get in the first season. And for some, that and the uniqueness of it all justify the $180 price point. But the idea is that Playdate will be supported beyond the now, first of all with a probable second season of games (there are no concrete plans but it has been implied) for sale as a bundle.

Image Credits: Playdate

More immediately there is the Pulp game creator, which I did not even attempt to try (having no creativity or skills whatsoever in that domain) but which could be a source of many a non-official game — other dev methods are supported as well, this is just their own platform. It’s easy to sideload these via the SDK and simulator — slightly more involved than dragging and dropping, but not much.

I added the additional game Bloom by this method and it worked perfectly. The game also appears to be My Jam — you plant flowers to sell in your shop but they take real time to bloom, so you have to come back to it every day. Cute! This might be the kind of thing you get as a Patreon reward or downloaded from or the like.

The hope is that the Playdate could become a mini-scene for indie game devs looking for a built-in audience, sort of like the Pico-8 community. How I wish I had a real Pico-8! While I wouldn’t expect the next Elden Ring to come out on this handheld, it’s entirely possible that quite a few fun games will be made or ported to the platform.

Is this all enough for you to pay $180 for a Playdate? Well the fact is most people smashed that pre-order button more or less sight unseen because the love the idea so much. I would say that you’re probably already either into it or not, but if my opinion carries any weight here and you’re undecided, I’d say maybe wait a couple months to see how the first season of games is received, and whether the community starts pumping out fun new experiences. I suspect that the Playdate will eventually more than justify itself but caution is understandable given the “surprise” nature of the games.

In its current state the Playdate is a somewhat expensive but definitely one of a kind experience, one that is clearly attractive to many people but the charm of which may elude others. In a few months when more games, accessories, and other pluses have rolled out, that equation will likely only change for the better.

Nothing Ear (1) review

Carl Pei says he looked around and saw a lot of the same. He’s not alone in that respect. Apple didn’t invent the fully wireless earbud with the first AirPods, but it did provide a kind of inflection point that sent many of its competitors hurtling toward a sort of homogeneity. You’d be hard-pressed to cite another consumer electronics category that matured and coalesced as quickly as Bluetooth earbuds, but finding something unique among the hordes is another question entirely.

These days, a pair of perfectly serviceable wireless earbuds are one click and $50 away. Spend $200, and you can get something truly excellent. But variety? That’s a different question entirely. Beyond choosing between a long-stemmed AirPods-style design and something a bit rounder, there’s really not a lot of diversification. Up until recently, features like active noise canceling and wireless charging bifurcated the category into premium and non-premium tiers, but they’ve both become increasingly ubiquitous.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

So, let’s say you’re launching a new consumer hardware company in 2021. And let’s say you decided your first product is going to be a pair of earbuds. Where does that leave you? How are you going to not only differentiate yourself in a crowded market but compete alongside giants like Samsung, Google and Apple?

Price is certainly a factor, and $99 is aggressive. Pei seemed to regret pricing the Ear (1) at less than $100 in our first conversation. It’s probably safe to say Nothing’s not exactly going to be cleaning up on every unit sold. And much like his prior company — OnePlus — he seems reluctant to position cost as a defining characteristic.

In a conversation prior to the Ear (1) launch, Pei’s take on the state of the industry was a kind of “feature glut.” Certainly, there’s been a never-ending spec race across different categories over the last several years. And it’s true that it’s getting more difficult to differentiate based on features — look at what smartphone makers have been dealing with the last several years. Wireless headphones, meanwhile, jumped from the “exciting early-stage mess” stage to “the actually pretty good” stage in record time.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I do think there’s still room for feature differentiation. Take the recently launched NuraTrue headphones. That company has taken an opposite approach to arrive at earbuds, beginning with a specialized audio technology that it’s built three different headphone models around.

Pei noted in the Ear (1) launch presser that the company determined its aesthetic ideals prior to deciding what its first product would be. And true to form, its partnership with the design firm Teenage Engineering was announced well before a single image of the product appeared (the best we got in the early days was an early concept inspired by Pei’s grandmother’s tobacco pipe).

There are other ideals, as well — concepts about ecosystems, but those are the sorts of things that can only come after the release of multiple products. In the meantime, we’ve seen the product from all angles. I’m wearing the product in the ears and holding it in my hand (though I’m putting it down now; too hard to type).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The form factor certainly borrows from the AirPods, from the long stems to the white buds from which they protrude. You can’t say that they’re entirely their own thing in that respect. But perhaps a case can be made that the nature of fully wireless earbuds is, in and of itself, limiting in the manner of form factors it can accommodate. I’m certainly not a product designer, but they need to sit comfortably in your ears, and they can’t be too big or too heavy or protrude too much.

According to Pei, part of the product’s delayed launch was due to the company going back to the drawing board to rethink designs. What they ultimately arrived at was something recognizable as a pair of earbuds, while offering some unique flourishes. Transparency is the primary differentiator from an aesthetic standpoint. It comes into play in a big way with the case, which is unique, as these things go. With the buds themselves, most of the transparency happens on the stems.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

In a vacuum, the buds look a fair bit like an Apple product. The glossy white finish and white silicone tips are a big part of that. The reason the entire buds aren’t transparent, as early renderings showed, is a simple and pragmatic one: the components in the buds are too unsightly. That brings us to another element in the product’s eventual delay: making a gadget clear requires putting thought into how things like components and glue look. It’s the same reason why there’s a big white strip in the middle of an otherwise clear case: charging components are ugly (sorry/not sorry).

It’s a potential recipe for overly busy design, but I think the team landed on something solid — and certainly distinctive. That alone should account for something in the homogeneous world of gadget design. And the company’s partnership with StockX should be a pretty clear indication of precisely the sorts of early adopters/influencers Nothing is going after here.

The Ear (1) buds are a lot more welcoming than any of the style-first experiments made in the category. And while they’re distinct, they don’t really stand out in the wild — which is to say, no one’s going to scream and point or stop you in the street to figure what’s going on with your ears (sorry, Will).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Ultimately, I dig the look. There are nice touches, as well. A red and white dot indicate the right and left buds, respectively, a nod to RCA and other audio cables. A subtle Nothing logo is etched in dotted text, bringing to mind circuit board printing. The letter extends to most of Nothing’s branding. It’s clear the design was masterminded by people who have spent a lot of time negotiating with supply-chain vendors. Notably, the times I spoke to Pei, he was often in and around Shenzhen rather than the company’s native London, hammering out last-minute supply issues.

The buds feel really great, too. I’ve noted my tendency to suffer from ear pain wearing various earbud designs for extended periods. On Monday, I took a four hour intra-borough walk and didn’t notice a thing. They also stayed in place like champs on visits to the gym. And not for nothing, but there’s an extremely satisfying magnetic snap when you place them back in the charging case (the red and white dots still apply).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is flat and square with rounded edges (a squircle, if you please). If it wasn’t clear, it might closely resemble a tin of mints. It also offers a pretty satisfying snap when shutting. Will be curious to see how well that stands up after several hundred — or thousand — openings and closings.

Though the company says it put the product through all of the standard drop and stress tests, it warns that even the strongest transparent plastic is still prone to scratching, particularly with a set of keys in the same pocket. Pei says that kind of battle scarring will ultimately be part of its charm, but the jury’s still out on that one. After a few days and no keys in close proximity, I have one long scratch across the bottom. I don’t feel any cooler, but you tell me.

A large concave circle on the top helps keep the lid from slamming into the earbuds when closing. It’s also a nice spot to put your thumb when fiddling around with the thing. I suspect it doubles to relieve some of that fidgeting we (I) usually release by absentmindedly flipping a case lid up and down. It’s a small, but thoughtful touch. Round back, you’ll find the USB-C charging port and Bluetooth sync button.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

On iOS, you’ll need to connect the buds both through the app and in the Bluetooth settings the first time. There are disadvantages when you don’t make your own operating system, chips and phones in addition to earbuds. That’s a minor (probably one-time) nuisance, though.

The Ear (1) are a decent sounding pair of $99 headphones. I won’t say I was blown away, but I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed that they don’t really go head-to-head with, say, the Sony WF-1000xM4 or even the new NuraTrue. These aren’t audiophile headphones, but they’re very much suitable for walking around the city, listening to music and podcasts.

The app offers a built-in equalizer tuned by Teenage Engineering with three settings: balanced, more treble/more bass, and voice (for podcasts, et al.). The differences are detectable, but pretty subtle, as far as these things go. As far as equalizer customizations go, it’s more point-and-shoot than DSLR, as Nothing doesn’t want you straying too far from the intended balance. After experimenting with all of the settings, I mostly stuck with the balanced setting. Feel free to judge me accordingly.

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There are three ANC settings, as well: noise cancellation, transparency and off. You can also titrate the noise cancellation between light and heavy. On the whole, the ANC did a fine job erasing a fair bit of street noise on my New York City walks, though even at heavy, it’s not going to, say, block out the sound of a car altogether. For my sake, that’s maybe for the best.

There’s also a built-in “find my earbud” setting that sends out a kind of piercing chirp so you can find the one that is inevitably trapped beneath your couch cushion.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

My big complaint day today is one I encountered with the NuraTrue. I ran into a number of Bluetooth connection dropouts. It’s a bit annoying when you’re really engrossed in a song or podcast. And again, it’s something you’re a lot less likely to encounter for those companies that build their own buds, phone, chips and operating systems. It’s a pretty tough thing to compete with for a brand-new startup.

I have quibbles, and in spite of months of excited teases, the Ear (1) buds aren’t going to turn the overcrowded category upside down. But it’s always exciting to see a new company enter the consumer hardware space — and deliver a solid first product out of the game. It’s an idiosyncratic take on the category at a nice price from a company worth keeping an eye on.

Pre-orders for Panic’s Playdate handheld will open on July 29th

Playdate, the adorable whimsy-and-nostalgia-box/handheld game system built by Panic (with some help from Teenage Engineering), has taken one more big step toward reality: it has an official pre-order date. And it’s soon!

The company announced this morning that pre-orders for the handheld will go live on July 29th at 10 a.m pacific.

Looking to get one from the first batch? Here’s the other stuff you need to know:

  • The handheld will cost $179, and they’ll be selling an optional case accessory for $29. They’re offering both as a bundle for $199, saving you a couple bucks if you already know you want both. No word yet on when the previously announced docking station will go on sale.
  • It sounds like the actual ship date still isn’t fully locked in, but Panic says the first batch (20,000 units or so) should start going out “towards the end of the year,” with additional units going out in 2022. The company stresses that they’re not capping pre-orders so they can’t really “sell out”, but ordering earlier means getting it sooner.
  • Pre-orders will be capped at two per person.

Panic first announced the Playdate in 2019. Games on the Playdate are released in “seasons”; in season one, two new titles will be released each week for twelve weeks. As experimental as it is charming, Panic is pretty open about what to expect of the titles. From their product page: “Some are short. Some are long. Will you love them all? Probably not. Will you have a great time trying them? Absolutely.”

Teenage Engineering’s OB-4 ‘magic radio’ is a weird and beautiful wireless speaker

I’ve found a new object of desire which, once acquired, I would probably never use. It’s this OB-4 “magic radio” from Teenage Engineering, a design group that creates tech with a playful but premium approach. This wireless speaker not only looks lovely but has a handful of really interesting features, the most interesting of which has to be letting you, at any time, rewind up to two hours with the spin of a dial.

The truth is I rarely would require the rewinding feature, which seems mainly useful for catching a bit of a podcast you missed or, for those of us who still listen to FM radio now and then, going back to hear the DJ say the name of an artist or piece. You can also slow it down and presumably scratch a bit by spinning the little circle, though again it’s probably more fun in theory than in practice.

But when the thing looks this good, who cares? The design reminds me strongly of TDK’s 3-speaker boombox, which I reviewed way back in 2011, but evolved. The mechanical knobs and buttons look fabulous and I have no doubt turn with a wonderful tactility. I love a good volume knob and this one looks like a winner.

With two larger speakers and two smaller tweeter types, it should be able to create a pretty solid sound. Frequency response goes down to 54 Hz, so you won’t be getting the deepest bass notes possible, but really with drivers this size they wouldn’t be able to move enough air for it to matter. More importantly, it’ll go for 8 hours at max volume or, more likely, 30-50 hours at normal loudness levels.

The built-in little computer and drive have some interesting modes: an adjustable metronome, a 30-channel mantra repeater, and a drone generator that stretches and distorts snippets of radio stations. That last one sounds pretty cool.

The handle has the antenna built into it for FM reception, and folds down to act as a stand if you don’t mind your music blasting into the ground or table.

At $599, it’s not exactly an impulse buy. There’s a cherry red version for $50 more, and a $400 leather case in case you want to make your consumption even more conspicuous. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing these in the backgrounds of influencer videos (or sets).

If you’d like to pick up your own, you can try to squat on the site to pre-order, but you might be better off buying a ticket to New York, London, or Stockholm, where the OB-4 will be on shelves at a handful of design shops. It ships in November.