Plus fun freebies to beat the stuck-at-home blues
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Things lookin' funky?
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Android Intelligence
  The Big Idea: Why the Pixel 5 just got interesting
  3 Things to Know This Week: Android's new notification improvements, an eye-opening security patch study, and an end to new Chrome releases — for now
  3 Things to Try This Week: Assistant's expanded reading skills, hidden Chromebook features, and novel news experiences on Android
  Plus: Digital freebies to beat the stuck-at-home blues
 Just Between Us...

I'm gonna level with you for a minute: I'm having a really tough time focusing on tech right now.


I know I'm not alone. Thinking about things as trivial as phones or laptops feels strangely wrong, somehow, at a time like this — like we're almost being irresponsible by wasting our brain power on such unimportant stuff when the world is being turned upside down around us.


I don't know that I'll be able to shake that feeling anytime soon, but I do know that I've heard from enough of you with encouraging messages about the need for non-virus-related distractions right now that I feel at least a little bit better about what we're doing. All the stuff we're talking about here may ultimately not matter when we're facing a frightening crisis with no firm end in sight — but focusing our brains 24/7 on virus news also isn't gonna help anything, including our sanity.


So onward we go, with slight reservation but plenty of determination. We'll get through this, damn it. And we'll keep ourselves sane together in the meantime.


One quick programming note, on a semi-related subject: There will be no newsletters or podcast next week. Not for any dramatic reason or anything; it's just a week of family time I'd planned long ago, though we'll certainly be doing a lot less during those days than I'd initially anticipated. We'll get back to our regularly scheduled programming the following week — the week of March 30th — and we'll pick up right where we left off.

 The Big Idea
Why the Pixel 5 Just Got Interesting

 The Short Version: A recent discovery about this year's Pixel 5 phone could completely change the conversation about the device — and that might be a very good thing.


 Know More: A new set of observations suggests the Pixel 5 could actually have more in common with Google's midrange phone line than you'd think. And as a result, the phone is suddenly accomplishing two seemingly conflicting things: It's looking a lot less exciting to certain people — and looking a lot more interesting and potentially important to those of us focused on the bigger picture.


 Read more: The full column is here.

 3 Things to Know This Week
1. Android 11 is getting its first pre-release update

 The Short Version: Google rolled out a new developer preview version of Android 11 this week, focusing mostly on under-the-hood improvements and interface polish.


 Know more: The most interesting changes in this Android 11 build, if you ask me, revolve around notifications. Most notably, Google is integrating its under-development Notification History section into the operating system, with a new option in the main notification panel to view and interact with all your recently dismissed alerts. That's a feature I've been hoping to see in Android for years now, so it's nice to have it looking more and more like it could become a core part of the Android 11 experience. Google also seems to be experimenting with an importance-marking mechanism for making certain types of notifications stand out and appear in a more eye-catching manner than usual, which is an unusually Gmail-reminiscent touch to see show up in this domain.


 Read more: Google's official developer-aimed blog has the nitty-gritty on all the technical changes in this latest preview version. You can see more about the notification importance setting in this visual overview, meanwhile, and scan through all the changes large and small in this exhaustive list.

2. Most device-makers aren't doing so great at sending out Android security patches

 The Short Version: A new analysis follows up on my work with grading Android upgrade deliveries by measuring how long manufacturers take to send out the other equally important piece of the puzzle — the monthly security patches. And suffice it to say, the results could generally be better.


 Know more: According to the analysis, Google's the only company doing a consistently great job at getting security patches out to users in a timely manner (surprise, surprise!). Nokia comes in next with a still-respectable 8.5 out of 10 score, followed by Samsung with a 7, OnePlus with a 5, and then the rest of the pack with pitiful, barely-even-trying-level scores. The big-picture takeaway from these measurements combined with the results of my OS-update-focused report card? If you care at all about having the best possible security, privacy, and performance on your phone, Google's Pixel devices are really the only wholly advisable option.


 Read more: You can read the full security patch analysis for yourself at Android Police, and you can find my OS-focused grades in my Android Upgrade Report Card from a few weeks back.

3. Google's putting all major Chrome and Chrome OS updates on hold

 The Short Version: As part of this whole world-upside-down thing we're living through right now, Google has announced it is pausing active development on both Chrome and Chrome OS until further notice and will focus instead on providing security patches for the current versions.


 Know more: The announcement cites "adjusted work schedules" as the reason for the change and emphasizes that security updates will continue to come out for the current Chrome and Chrome OS 80 releases. Chrome and Chrome OS are both developed almost absurdly fast, in typical times, with minor fixes generally arriving every few weeks and totally new versions every six weeks, so slowing down that pace a bit probably won't seem so bad — especially when security updates will keep coming out often. If anything, it might make those platforms feel a bit more in line with the release schedules we're used to experiencing on other fronts (though I'm sure we'll all be eager to see things get back to normal, even so).


 Read more: The very brief explanation is posted in Google's Chrome Releases blog.

 3 Things to Try This Week
1. Tap into Assistant's expanded reading skills

A couple weeks back, we talked about how Assistant had gained the ability to read any web page out loud on your phone. Remember that? You just open up an article in your favorite Android browser, activate Assistant, and say either "Read it" or "Read this page."


Well, it turns out Assistant's newfound reading ability isn't limited only to Android browsers. Google doesn't seem to be advertising this, but you can also ask Assistant to read you articles from the Discover tab of the Google app — or from anywhere in the Android Google News app.


In either of those places, just fire up Assistant (by saying "Hey Google" or by using whatever on-screen gesture your phone supports) and then use the same "Read it" or "Read this page" commands. Assistant should start reciting the article aloud to you within a matter of seconds.

2. Activate your Chromebook's system-wide dictation system

Speaking of, uh, speaking, Google's Chrome OS platform has a hidden feature you'll absolutely want to enable on a Chromebook near you. It's a system-wide speech-to-text system that lets you say anything and have your words turned instantly into text — in any app, any website, anything you're using — just like you can on Android.


All you've gotta do is take two minutes to turn it on (ooh, baby):

  • Open the Chrome OS settings (by clicking the clock in the lower-right corner of the screen and then clicking the gear-shaped icon in the panel that pops up).
  • Click "Advanced" in the left-hand menu of the settings interface, then click "Accessibility" followed by "Manage accessibility features."
  • Now, look in the third section on the screen — "Keyboard and text input." Find the line labeled "Enable dictation (speak to type)" and flip it into the on position.

That's it: Once that's done, you'll see a small microphone icon in the lower-right corner of your screen. You can click it anytime, anywhere and then simply start speaking, and you'll see your words appear in real-time in whatever field is active.


This is just one of several handy hidden Chrome OS features I covered this week, by the way. You can find the rest of 'em in my complete column: "6 Useful Chrome OS Features You Probably Aren't Using."

3. Treat yourself to some novel news experiences on Android

Let's be honest: Looking at the news right now isn't exactly enjoyable. I don't know about you, but I seem to go back and forth between two extremes:

  • Obsessively checking news sites to see what awful new thing has transpired with this lovely little pandemic of ours
  • Doing all I can to avoid looking at news so I can focus and feel moderately upbeat for at least a few minutes

Neither approach is great. And since opening regular news apps has turned into a rather unpleasant source of stress, I decided to seek out some different sorts of news experiences on Android — ones that'd offer a break from the mundane and make it both fun and interesting to ingest information again.


That's the subject of this week's Platinum Power-Up — my weekly collection of subject-specific tips and app insight. I introduce you to some interesting Android services that not only offer up quality info but also offer up something unique and unusual in the way they present it. They're welcome distractions for a time like this, and they'll be just as enjoyable when things get back to normal (someday, maybe, surely, right?!).


Read the full issue now and get extra knowledge in your inbox every Monday by signing up for a free trial of my premium resource package, Android Intelligence Platinum. You'll learn something new and useful every week — I promise.


 And Just For Funsies...

A slightly different twist to this week's Funsies section (we'll get back to pure silliness soon, I promise!): Whether you're spending more time at home than usual right now or still heading into work — or, I don't know, living in the magical forest and trotting around merrily with Tigger and Pooh (lucky you!) — lots of apps, companies, and services are offering up worthwhile freebies to help stave off the coronavirus blues.


Here are some of the more interesting options I've encountered so far:

  • Sling is streaming a boatload of shows for free right now — and you don't even have to sign up with the service to take advantage of it. Just open the Watch Sling website on your computer or grab the Sling Android app for your phone and look for the "Stay in and Sling" section at the top of the main screen. Different shows are available at different times of day, including live news coverage and a variety of sitcoms, dramas, and reality programs.
  • Your local library likely has oodles of books, audiobooks, movies, and TV shows you can check out for free from your phone. Some library-associated apps worth trying include Kanopy, which lets you stream all sorts of movies and educational videos; Hoopla, which features books, audiobooks, movies, music, TV shows, and even comics; Libby, which focuses mostly on books and audiobooks; and Overdrive, which has a little bit of everything.
  • Scribd is making its entire collection of magazines, books, and audiobooks available for free to anyone for the next 30 days. Just sign up via this link; you don't have to put in a credit card and won't be charged a thing.
  • Into opera? The Metropolitan Opera is serving up free streams of new operas each and every night right now. You can find the videos on the Met Opera website, in the Met Opera on Demand Android app, or in the appropriate Met Opera app for whatever streaming TV platform you prefer.
  • If you're a medical professional and feeling overwhelmed with everything going on these days — and who wouldn't be? — the meditation app Headspace is offering free access to its premium subscription to healthcare workers in the U.S. all year. You can sign up on this page and then find the app in the Play Store.
  • And if you've got little ones at home like I do, hang onto these two links: first, a sprawling database of educational companies providing free subscriptions for anyone affected by school closures — and second, a public Google Doc with links to fun virtual field trips for kids or anyone else into learning.

Last but not least, something that isn't free but still seems worth mentioning: JBL is currently selling refurbished, fully warrantied models of its Assistant-enabled JBL Link Smart View Speaker for a mere 69 bucks apiece (insert your own junior-high-school-level joke here). The Smart View Speaker is a Smart Display just like Google's Home/Nest Hub, only with awesome speakers that put the competition to shame. And considering that the thing usually costs $300, that's a pretty phenomenal price if you're looking for a nifty new gadget to play around with and use for at-home streaming and Assistant commands.

See Ya in a Couple Weeks

In case you were tuning me out earlier (and really, who could blame you?), no newsletters or podcast next week, as I'll be away on a preplanned "vacation" (which will consist mostly of hanging around the house with two shrieking toddlers whilst whistling to myself and thinking about cheese).


I'll see you right back here the week of the 30th, and we'll have plenty to catch up on. Hopefully some uplifting news, too.


Remember, we're all in this together. Take care of yourself, all right?


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