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Apple and Microsoft announce their latest mobile devices, and low-cost game subscription services launch for Android and iOS. Google Fi gets an unlimited data plan, and Duet’s great screen extender app is coming to Android.
The smell of pumpkin spice latte is in the air, which means it’s time for October’s Travel Tech News!
Microsoft: The Most-Interesting Mobile Device Maker Right Now
Just yesterday, Microsoft held a flashy launch event for what turned out to be a wide range of mobile devices. The rumour mill had been in overdrive beforehand, but the company still managed to keep at least one piece of hardware a total surprise.
First up was a pair of updates to the Surface Pro tablet. The Surface Pro 7 is the direct replacement for the previous model, updating the internals and (finally) adding USB-C. Running a range of Intel processors, it’s the model for those who need all the processing power they can get.
Even more interesting for travelers, however, is the Surface Pro X. Using a custom ARM processor, it’s super-thin (7.3mm) and super-light (774g). It should still have more than enough grunt for the kind of work most of us do, and Microsoft suggests it’ll have up to 13 hours of battery life.
There’s a 13″ display, LTE connectivity, and fast-charging support that’ll get you back to 80% in under an hour. Both versions of the new Surface Pro will be available to buy in the next few weeks.
If you want a more traditional laptop, the Surface Laptop 3 also got new internals and the USB-C treatment. There’s a 15″ version that we haven’t seen before, which should appeal to graphic designers and other remote workers who need as much screen space as possible.
Things got weirder from there, with the early announcement of a folding dual-screen Windows tablet (the Surface Neo) that runs a distinct version of Windows, and looks unlike anything we’ve really seen before. With a bunch of different ways to use it, it’s something I’d be very tempted to travel with instead of my usual laptop if Microsoft delivers on the hype.
There was also a surprise demo of the prototype Surface Duo smartphone. Running Android, this phone will also fold in half and have a pair of screens. As with the Neo, though, it won’t be available until next Christmas, so don’t get too excited quite yet.
Also announced was a pair of true-wireless noise-canceling Surface Earbuds that look, well, a bit strange. You’ll apparently get 24 hours of the buds and charging case, though, which might make up for looking like you’ve got large peppermints stuck in your ear canals.
That’s a lot of interesting gear, particularly for travelers. Microsoft’s been coming out with great hardware for a few years now, and this event cemented its place as the most exciting manufacturer in the mobile space right now. It’s come a long way from the boring software company it used to be!
Apple’s Phones, Tablets, and Watch All Just Got Better
Apple held its usual September hardware event last month, and while it wasn’t as exciting as the Microsoft version, there were still updates across its mobile device range.
The new iPhone models were the biggest stories, but the Apple Watch also got a significant update, and there was even a surprise iPad announcement as well. Improvements were the order of the day here, though, not evolutionary changes.
Last year’s iPhone XR was a hit for Apple, and the iPhone 11 that replaces it should be an even bigger one. While the starting price of $699 is high by the standards of any other manufacturer, it’s low for an iPhone, and is the model most travelers should buy.
Available in either standard or Max versions (basically, big or enormous), the iPhone 11 is a lightly-upgraded version of last year’s XR. Those upgrades, though, are to the things that matter most to travelers: battery life, camera quality, and water resistance.
Pay an extra $300, and you’ll get the Pro version. It adds a zoom lens into the mix, plus an even better battery, a gorgeous screen, and (finally) a proper 18W fast charger in the box. As nice as it is, though, it’s damn expensive for a model that takes slightly better photos than the base iPhone, but doesn’t really do much more.
The Apple Watch is now onto version 5, and like the phones, the changes are minor. Battery life is much the same, and other than some new case materials, so is pretty much everything else. The biggest difference is that it now functions like a real watch. The screen is always on, so you can tell the time without flailing your arm around.
Apple was far from the first to offer this on a smartwatch, but now it’s here, there’s even less reason to buy one from any other company. You can rightly question whether there’s a reason to buy a smartwatch at all, but if you’re in the market for one, this is it.
Finally, while we’re expecting a proper iPad event soon, Apple also announced an update to the base model last month. For the same $329 starting price, you’ll now get a slightly-bigger 10.2″ screen and faster processor.
As I mentioned in last month’s newsletter, the more interesting aspect of the new iPad is compatibility with Apple’s smart keyboard. For the first time, the cheapest full-size iPad is something you can do light work on without wanting to throw it straight out the window. This should make it a compelling option for certain types of traveler.
New Subscription Services Launch for Mobile Apps… and They’re Good!
After a lot of hype, both Apple and Google launched subscription services for their mobile app stores last month. The idea behind both is similar — paying five bucks a month for access to a curated list of mobile apps — but the details are quite different.
Apple Arcade is focused entirely on games, with 100+ titles available. Some of the games are also available on console, while some are iOS-only, but either way you can’t get them on Android.
What you can do, however, is play them on all your Apple devices: iPhone, iPad, Mac, even your Apple TV. Games are available offline, and one subscription covers a family of up to six people. Thankfully, there are no ads or in-app purchases.
Google’s version, Play Pass, takes a somewhat different approach. Over 350 titles are available, but it’s not just games — several productivity apps are included as well. Unlike the Apple service, titles aren’t exclusive to Play Pass, but they’ll still have all ads and in-game purchases removed.
Similarly, one payment covers up to six family members. Speaking of payments, Play Pass is launching with a ten-day trial, and then $2/month if you start paying by October 10. Apple has a one-month free trial, but no discounted pricing for early customers.
There are pros and cons to both approaches, with the offline playability of all Apple Arcade titles a big plus for travelers. Whichever platform you use, though, the services seem like a bargain, especially for families.
Keeping the kids endlessly amused on road trips and long-haul flights has got to be worth five bucks a month, right?
Google Fi Gets a Proper Unlimited Plan, Free Cloud Storage
Google Fi has long been one of the most affordable roaming options for US-based travelers, since its pay-as-you-go data pricing stays the same no matter where in the world you happen to be.
It’s generally been most appropriate for those with low to moderate data needs, although last year’s “Bill Protection” capped the monthly spend at $80 no matter how much data you used. Speeds were throttled after 15GB, though.
That option still exists, but it was supplemented last month with a new Unlimited plan that’s a better deal for heavy data users. For $70, you get 22GB of data at full speed, throttled after you hit the threshold. To further sweeten the deal, there’s 100GB of Google’s cloud storage thrown in.
That price includes unlimited texts and calls when you’re in the US, and unlimited texts when you’re not. You can spread that data allowance across multiple devices, with extra data SIMs available for free.
Turn Your Android Phone or Tablet Into a Second Screen With Duet
We’ve talked a bit about Duet Display in the past, and for good reason. This handy little app lets you extend your laptop display onto your mobile device, a godsend for travelers who need extra screen space but don’t want to lug a portable monitor around with them.
The only problem with Duet up until now is that it’s only worked with Apple’s phones and tablets. Android owners were out of luck, but that luck just changed, with a version of Duet available from today on the Google Play store.
Using it is straightforward: plug a USB cable between your Windows or Mac computer and a Chromebook or Android device, install the software on both, and you’re good to go. There’s also an “Air” option, which does away with the need for a USB cable in return for a monthly subscription cost.
Pricing for the Android version is listed at $19.99, but there’s a “limited time” 50% discount at the moment. This first release has some rough edges — it works perfectly for some early users, and not well at all for others — but given the company’s strong track record with the iOS version, I’d expect the bugs to be ironed out pretty quickly.