Red Dead Redemption
Microsoft Surface Pro X
Microsoft’s early efforts to make Windows on ARM happen were a spectacularly documented failure. When announcing it would bring Windows 10 to Snapdragon-powered devices, Microsoft tried to shake off the stink of Windows RT by promising that, this time, there would be no confusing, limited alternative interface. You’d just get the same desktop you’re used to and apps would look familiar. After starting with repurposed smartphone chipsets like the Snapdragon 835, Qualcomm began to make chips designed for laptops, and the first Snapdragon laptops started to ship last year. But despite efforts from carriers, OEMs and Qualcomm alike, the first two waves of devices only proved that Microsoft needed to do more to encourage ARM support from developers.
The Surface Pro X was Microsoft’s first real attempt to take charge of the Windows on Snapdragon movement, and it was truly a gorgeous piece of hardware. With a custom-engineered SQ1 chipset, it promised plenty of power to multitask like crazy. But even though Microsoft tried to make recompiling Windows apps for ARM64 easier, the ecosystem still suffered from limited app compatibility. Worse, multiple reviewers, myself included, encountered the dreaded Blue Screen of Death while testing the Pro X. I can’t even remember the last time I saw that before I reviewed the Pro X. Clearly, Microsoft still has a lot of work to do before ARM-based Windows can be viable, but this year the Surface Pro X dampened any hope I had for Snapdragon PCs to find mainstream success before the end of the decade.
Huawei Mate 30 Pro
Sometimes, for obvious reasons, the story around a product drowns out the discussion about the product. In the case of Huawei’s Mate 30 Pro, it’s clear that the back-and-forth between the US and China, not to mention the sanctions, is a key part of the story. But it also distracts from discussion of the phone on its own merits.
The Mate 30 Pro is Huawei’s oversized super-premium handset and, like its predecessor, went from also-ran to a worthy alternative for Galaxy Note fans. At least, it would have in normal circumstances, had it not had its heart and soul ripped out at the last minute. That wasn’t down to technical issues, either, but geopolitical ones.
Huawei getting added to the US Entity list meant that Google, among others, had to stop supporting new devices from the Chinese company. So the Mate 30 Pro released with the open-source version of Android, but without access to Google Play. In the West, the phone was unable to use any of the apps that you’d customarily expect to access on an Android handset.
And that’s a shame, given how good the Mate 30 hardware is, with gorgeous industrial design, a lovely display and staggering cameras. The 30 Pro has a quartet of lenses that can capture the beating of a bee’s wings in flight or pick out detail from the world in pitch darkness. That’s before you get to the lightning-fast internals, snappy under-screen fingerprint reader or speaker, too.
In China, where Google is banned, the lack of Google’s app world isn’t an issue because rival ecosystems flourish. But here, Android and Google are treated as one and the same, and Huawei did little to educate would-be buyers. Except promising to write a check for app developers to, eventually, copy their Android apps on to Huawei’s platform.
All this added up to make the Mate 30 Pro one of this year’s biggest losers, despite its fabulous hardware. If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that good hardware can only go so far to make up for shortfalls in software.
WearOS, more like WhereOS, am I right? Google’s smartwatch operating system might have turned five years old in 2019, but it appears to have stopped developing this year. We didn’t hear anything about new software or features, barring some updated tiles, and none of the battery promises that were made in 2018 have been fulfilled. The Snapdragon Wear 3100 chipset was meant to boost performance and efficiency for Android watches, and yet WearOS watches still clock less than two days of average use. Popular running app Runkeeper even pulled its WearOS app this year, citing a “buggy experience.“
What’s even more telling of the platform’s suspended adolescence was a moment at an Android fireside that took place during Google I/O this year. In response to an audience member’s question about whether the wearable platform was “dead,” vice president of engineering Dave Burke joked that the fact that there were no WearOS developers present at the fireside might have answered the question. To be fair, Burke did follow up and add that the company is continuing to hire for and invest in the OS.
In November, Google bought Fitbit for $2.1 billion, and execs said at the time that the deal is an “opportunity to invest even more in Wear OS, as well as introduce Made by Google wearable devices.” Wear OS’ Sameer Samat added that the companies will combine Fitbit’s hardware with Google’s software smarts. It seems as if Google’s wearables efforts just got a much-needed boost with this acquisition, and 2020 may bring us more capable and longer-lasting smartwatches.