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Teracube 2e

The Teracube 2e is a budget phone that promises to be more eco-friendly than your typical phone by committing to 3 years of updates as well as affordable repairs for 4 years (which is also the duration of the standard warranty), while also promising features and hardware that will remain relevant for that time. All of this for the low price of $199.

I've found that it generally lives up to its promises, but had to make several (and sometimes bizarre) compromises to get there.

I picked this up primarily to be a device I'm okay accidentally chucking in a river when I'm out traveling internationally, and can slot in a second sim for local data rates via a local SIM (though now that there are several eSIM options, I might do this with another phone in the future, particularly one with a better camera).

Things I wish I had known before buying the 2e

There are a couple of things I really wish I had known before buying the 2e, which might have affected my decision to get it.

  • It does not support Power Delivery, which in effect means you have to use a USB-A to USB-C cable to charge it.
    • This is maddening! All of my chargers are basically PD ports, so I have to carry a whole separate cable just to charge the phone.
  • Verizon is not supported, and this includes all of their VMNOs. This is due to Verizon's certification process evidently.
    • I wanted to toss my V1 Ting card in there, and I had to use the X3 card instead - not a huge deal but did impact my plans.
    • There are a few reports on the forums of people getting Visible to work, but I've not been able to.

In a similar category, that I did realize before buying was that there's no IP rating, and so I wouldn't recommend trying to use this in a downpour or maybe any moist condition at all.

The Good

For a $200 USD phone, you really shouldn't be expecting much in the way of "great" but the 2e actually does an admirable job in several areas. The first thing that I like to call out is the display. It has a 720X1560 IPS HD+ display, which actually looks pretty great for the price point. The refresh rate is only 60hz, but asking anything more at this pricepoint is unreasonable.

The battery life on the 4,000 mAh battery is also quite good, I'm easily able to get a full day out of moderate usage - which is not something I can say for moderate usage of my primary phone. One of the other major selling points is the fact that the battery is replaceable, so you can pop off the back and swap it out if you need to, which should prolong the life of the device. Plus, there are settings which can prevent overcharging so you can tell the phone to only charge up to say, 80%, and then stop charging. Given the good battery life already, this isn't a big deal at all and should prolong the battery life even further.

The placement and the speed of the fingerprint sensor are a nice change of pace from the in-display sensors I've gotten accustomed to. It's been able to read my prints every time and unlock the phone quickly.

NFC Support! Which means it does work with Google Pay. I've not actually added any cards to it, but I have tested it as a general NFC reader and it works perfectly fine for that.

Dual Sim card support is another big draw, not too many phones have that. On the Samsung Note 20 Ultra you can use two sims, but then you give up the extra SD card storage - with the Teracube 2e, you don't have to choose, you get 2 sim slots and a microSD slot. It's wonderful.

Generally working custom ROM support is also on the Teracube forums, and the folks at Teracube are super cool with flashing custom ROMs to the phone.

The Not as good

The big stand-out problem here is the Camera. It's serviceable, but with the stock camera app it takes forever to focus on an item - HDR mode is so slow it's basically unusable for moving targets. I didn't expect much from the camera...but I expected more than whatever this is. Being able to snap photos on the go while traveling and get a semi-decent picture out (if I wanted it to be great I'd just carry my primary phone). Not being able to do this definitely makes me question using this as a travel phone.

Likewise, the processor is a little sluggish at odd times. In general, performance is reasonably good and on par with the Moto Play line of phones, but sometimes it'll chug just a little - enough to miss a letter while typing or just stuttery enough to be annoying but not super disruptive. I expect this will get better after some updates or via a custom ROM - but it does make me wonder how the phone will handle Android 11 or 12. This phone's supposed to get updates for 3 years, remember?

Can it Play Games?

So, if you're getting this phone you shouldn't expect that you'll be able to play modern phone games - but it can be nice to sit down and play something if it's the only device you've got.

The short answer is that any modern 3d game is going to have a really hard time, with some interesting exceptions. I've tried the following games and can report on how well they work:

Unplayable

  • Genshin Impact
    • Totally unplayable - the framerate is bad enough that gameplay is impossible. You can manage your inventory and collect daily things, but it won't be a fun experience.
  • Battlechasers: Night War
    • Mostly Unplayable - it stutters a lot when you try to move around the map.
  • Black Desert Mobile
    • Borderline - So this game is a weird one in that the performance is adequate, and you could play it if you really really wanted to... but the quality level is potato. It's going to be blurry. This is probably fine if you just want to hop on, sell some stuff, do dailies, etc - but I wouldn't want to be playing it for any length of time.

Playable

  • League of Legends: Wild Rift
    • Reasonably Playable - this surprised me, I managed to play a full match at a solid 30 fps without any noticeable slow down when I was in the game. Load times are noticably slower though, so you might be the last person to fully load the game, but otherwise it works just fine.
  • Love Letter; One Deck Dungeon; Reigns
    • Plays great - these are basically digital card games, and they play really well on the device.
  • Out There Omega
    • Plays well - a little slow at points, but all in all it runs great
  • Game Dev Tycoon
    • Plays great - I'm pretty sure this game could run on a literal potato, but it does do just fine.
  • Doors: Awakening
    • Mostly Playable - This is a nice little puzzle game, and it generally works fine but the load times are noticably slow and sometimes interactions are slow.
  • Polytopia
    • Extremely Playable - It's a nice little civ-like mini game. No issues, runs very well.

Benchmarks

I ran a few benchmarks against it and unsurprisingly it didn't do so well:

  • 3DMark Sling Shot - 708
  • 3DMark Sling Shot Extreme - 378
  • Geekbench CPU - Single-Core 141, Multi-Core 825
  • Geekbench Compute - 0 (it crashed)

Some Tips

Can't install apps to the SD card

At the time of this writing, out of the box you cannot install apps to the SD card. You have to first enable developer settings () and then turn on the option to enable it. Afterwards, it works just fine. It'd be nice if it were in the stock image and maybe it will be after their first upgrade.

Camera Performance

Use a different camera app. It doesn't make the camera much better, but it does speed up how quickly the auto-focus takes effect. The forums recommend Open Camera, which seems to be working fine for me (even though I kinda hate the UI).

Overall / Should I Get This Phone?

So bottom line, I got this as a secondary phone - not to be my daily driver and I do not think it would be a good daily driver for me. I'd probably survive but I wouldn't enjoy it, especially since I like playing some fairly intensive games on the go or from the couch.

That said, if you're the kind of person who is already considering something like a Moto G line phone, or one of the budget Samsung Phones (like an A52) - and you don't need a serviceable camera, this is a solid contender at a price point that's difficult to beat. Once you consider the warranty, the accidental damage repairs, and the promise of a more eco-friendly phone that might just push you over the top.

ROG Ally

I don’t have a handheld gaming problem, I swear.

Okay. Maybe I have a bit of a handheld gaming problem. See, when we last talked about this, one of the key things that I outlined as a requirement for my gaming handheld was the ability to connect an external GPU to the thing so that I could play it on a desktop with decent performance.

While I could eventually do that with the Ayaneo 2, the process was extremely fiddly and prone to breaking any time there was a software update. Likewise, you had to plug the eGPU in during a particular part of the boot sequence so that it would properly detect and use the eGPU. Related problem: if you allowed the system to go to sleep, it would not properly function when it awoke, requiring you to force restart the machine and do the little plug-it-in-ritual all over again. It was extremely frustrating.

So, doing the thing that I seem to always do, I went completely overboard and looked for a different solution. When Asus decided to put out their own handheld, complete with a mobile eGPU solution (which uses laptop graphics cards - we’ll get to that in a minute), I decided that was the way to go. I purchased the Rog Ally Extreme at launch (which, at the time, did not contain the “extreme” moniker - that came later when Asus made a less-performant but cheaper model) along with one of their XG Mobile eGPUs (the 3080 version). The price was eye-watering, and for the eGPU - overpriced. What it promised, however, was a better eGPU experience, and I was willing to pay a premium if that worked. More on that later.

The Handheld Experience compared to my other handhelds

On the whole, the Ally is a great experience as a handheld. The actual comfort of the device while it is in use ranks #2 out of my entire collection, just behind the Steam Deck. It’s really comfortable to use for extended periods of time (in my hands, which are rather…large), and it even has back paddle buttons which you can remap to do what you want with them.

The screen is also a delight - it has a 120hz refresh rate, which you’ll be hard-pressed to actually hit on anything but retro or indie games, that has a nice color quality to it for an LCD. Asus’s software support also has several visual tweaks you can apply to make the colors more vivid, should you desire that. It also is a 1080p display, which is just much better than the Steam Deck, and just behind the 1200p of the Ayaneo 2. It’s not as vivid as the OLED on the Ayaneo Air, but it’s probably my favorite screen of the bunch.

Sidebar: The Ayaneos both use displays with a native resolution that is vertical and then uses software to make the image horizontal - this causes an issue in some games, notably Phasmaphobia, where the resolutions only appear in the vertical orientation.

Performance-wise, it’s definitely more capable than the Steam Deck for sure. There are a ton of reviews out there that actually crunch the number, but my “feels” test for undocked performance, in 15W and 30W power profiles, is that the Ally is the most capable device I possess. The second place goes to the Ayaneo 2, but it still struggles with other games with the previous gen Ryzen processor.

The size is a bit wider than my Ayaneo 2, but smaller than the steam deck overall, so it’s really the perfect size for couch gaming - I still default to the Ayaneo Air for travel though, it’s really hard to beat its size profile. If you want to see a comparison Rock Paper Shotgun has several comparison photos.

Overall: This is the device I pick up most often, both when playing on the couch and when playing docked.

So about that docked experience

ROG Ally docked to the XG Mobile

Remember earlier how I said Asus promised a better docked experience than the Ayaneo 2? Well, that only partially materialized. For one thing, when you plug in the XG Mobile, it recognizes that you’ve done so, and it prompts you to switch the graphics driver from the internal to the external - giving you a prompt to restart the programs in question. So far, so good.

That works about 80% of the time now (when I first got it, it was maybe 60% of the time, so hey, improvement!). When it doesn’t work, you either have to run the script several times to try to get it to stick - or you need to reboot the device and try it again. So while I’m happy that I don’t have to do the little cable dance ritual anymore, I still have to deal with a non-functional script sometimes.

Likewise, this combo also has the problem where if it doesn’t output to the screen for a while (either by falling asleep or you switching monitor inputs), it will refuse to display on that screen again until you suspend / resume it. That’s better than a full reboot by far, but it’s still annoying. For a laptop eGPU that cost nearly $1500 at the time of purchase, I feel like the experience should be better.

Maybe I’m being nitpicky here, but that’s a premium price and I don’t think it’s super unreasonable to expect a premium experience. To Asus’s credit though, it’s been getting steadily better with software updates, so maybe it’ll get to that coveted 99% (nothing ever works 100% of the time with computers).

Cracking it open and upgrading its innards

After a couple of months with the stock drive, I upgraded the SSD inside of the Ally from the 512 GB it came with to a 1 TB SSD, and the actual installation process was a breeze. The case was simple to get open, and the SSD was readily accessible without having to move anything out of the way. Asus has also produced a handy guide that covers the process. It’s a snap.

I chose to reinstall the OS instead of copying the old SSD over, and … that was a bit of a process. On the good side, Asus includes a utility in the BIOS to re-flash the SSD with everything you need, Windows included. On the bad side, when I did it, my version of the BIOS had a bug that messed up the system clock, so I had to search around the internet until I found a post detailing that fact. The fix was simple: Set the system time to an accurate time yourself, and then you can proceed. HOWEVER! Even with that fix, I had to attempt this install a grand total of 4 times before I got a functional Windows install. It did eventually work, but it was several hours’ worth of “try, wait, and try again”.

The dreaded SD card problem

It took them a while, but Asus did finally admit that the ROG Ally has an appetite for eating delicious SD cards, metaphorically at least. Apparently, the card reader gets a little too hot during operation and that can cause it to malfunction and completely break the SD card inside.

While I’m happy to report my unit has not destroyed any SD cards yet, the write speed on it is atrocious. Takes absolutely forever to install anything but the smallest games. As a result, I barely use it for anything that’s not tiny. Which is a shame, since I have filled up the SSD a few times now and have to regularly prune games in order to keep relevant stuff installed. Either that or resort to game streaming. Glad I have a good internet connection.

Overall

Look, I really like the ROG Ally - it’s become my daily driver. I even wound up giving the Steam Deck to a friend, despite it having the vastly superior control scheme. Perhaps I’d be happier with the Steam OLED’s upgraded display, but I don’t feel compelled to spend any more money when the Ally fits my needs for the most part. The fact that I dropped $2000 on it all told has also made me more fond of keeping it alive and relevant for as long as possible.

That said, the handheld gaming scene keeps evolving - who knows what we’ll see in the next couple of years.

Let's do some "Game Development"

Shutterstock vector art of some hands typing in front of a monitor showing an animation editor
Kit8.net @ Shutterstock #1498637465

The other day, a friend asked me a complicated question wrapped in what seems like a simple question: “How long would it take to make some simple mini-games that you could slap on a web page?”

My answer, as many seasoned developers will be familiar with (and of course it’s coming out of the architect’s mouth) was “It depends on the game and the developer. I could probably churn out something pretty good in a few days, but it’d take someone more junior longer”.

This set off the part of my brain that really wants to test out just how fast I could do a simple game in engines that I’m not familiar with. Thus, I decided to ignore my other responsibilities and do that instead! Mostly kidding about the responsibilities thing, I’m ahead of my writing goals for Nix Noctis, so I had a couple of hours to spare (and a free evening).

The Challege

How long would it take to make a simple “Simon” game in GDevelop: a “no code” game engine? I wanted to start with GDevelop for a few reasons:

  1. I wanted to simulate the experience someone with little coding experience would encounter. Knowing that I’ve internalized some concepts that would make the experience easier (or, in some cases, harder) for me.
  2. You can run the editor in a web browser, and that’s bonkers.
  3. I want to “pretend” to be a beginner; only use basic and easily searchable features.
    1. I mean, I am a beginner at game dev, but I do understand several the concepts.

With those things in mind, I set out to remake Simon. Here were my design constraints:

  • Four Arrows, controllable by clicking them or via the keyboard.
  • Configurable number of “beeps” in the sequence
    • The game would not increase by one each time (though it easily could)
  • Three Difficulty levels which control the speed that the sequence is shown
  • Bonus points for sound effects

Headlong into GDevelop

REMEMBER! I’m a beginner at GDevelop. You’re likely going to see something and say “hey that’s dumb, you should have done it another way”. Yes. Exactly.

The editor experience in GDevelop is actually really nice, especially when you can just get into it via clicking into a browser. I found adding elements to the page very intuitive. Sprites are simple, and adding animation states to them is effortless. Creating the overall UI took me probably 20 to 30 minutes to iteratively build out a structure I was happy with, it was fast. Another fun thing I discovered was that they have [JFXR] built into the editor, and that was a delight.

Screenshot of GDevelop's UI Editor

What was not so quick was wiring up the game logic to the elements on the page. I’ve looked at some GDevelop tutorials before, and if you’re treading a path that’s covered by one of their “Extensions”, you’re going to have a great time. A 2D platformer will be a breeze because you can simply attach a behavior to the sprites in your game and go. There are a bunch of tutorials on making a parallax background for really cool looking level design. Simple!

What is not so simple is if you fall outside those behaviors and need to start interacting with the “no code” editor. On one hand, the no code editor is nice! The events and conditionals are intuitive if you’re approaching it in certain ways. They even let you add JS directly if you know what you’re doing (though they recommend against it). On the other hand, I can see this getting quickly messy. In my limited experience with the engine, I could not find a good way to reuse code blocks. This will come up later.

Sidebar, dear reader, I believe this is where they would say “you should make a custom behavior to control this”. I’m not sure a beginner would think to do this, but I thought about it and said, “I’ll just duplicate the blocks”.

Screenshot of GDevelop's Code editor

As I worked through this process, I ran into a number of weird stumbling blocks that slowed down my progress while I tried different things.

Things that were surprisingly straightforward

Variables

GDevelop has many layers of variables, Global, Scene, Instance, and so forth. Easy to understand, fairly easy to access and edit.

Setting up the Simon Sequence

Were I making this game in pure JS, generating the sequence would be a pretty “simple” one-liner (It’s not that simple, but hey, spread operator + map is fun! I’d expand this in a real program to be easier to understand):

// Fill a new array of size number_of_beeps with a digit between 0 and 3 to represent arrow directions
let sequence = [...Array(number_of_beeps)].map(() => Math.floor(Math.random() * 4));

Generating the sequence was remarkably easy once I figured out how to do loops in GDevelop; they’re hidden in a right-click menu (or an interface item), but the “Repeat x Times” condition is precisely what we needed.

Screenshot of the Repeat x Times condition

Likewise, doing the animation of the arrows was pretty direct. All you need to do is change the animation of the arrow, use a “wait” command, and then turn it back. Easy!

Screenshot of GDevelop's editor

Turns out it’s not actually that easy. The engine (as near as I can tell) is using timeouts under the hood which means they’re not fully blocking execution of other tasks in sibling blocks while this is happening. Which means…

Wait for x Seconds is weird / doesn’t work right

Okay, so when you’re playing Simon, the device will beep at you, light up for a non-zero number of seconds, and then dim. It should do that for each light. If you’ve never experienced this wonder of my childhood, watch this explanatory video from a random store:

Now that we know how that works, we want to emulate that in GDevelop. The first thing I tried was to simply put the “Wait” block at the end of a For...In Loop. Yeah, remember what I said about timeouts? Those don’t block. The loop would just continue and totally ignore the wait. I think that’s a major pitfall for new devs, they’re not going to understand the nuance of how those wait commands function under the hood.

The second thing I tried is the “Repeat Every X Seconds” extension to do the same thing. I couldn’t get it to even fire, and I still don’t know why.

Anyhow, I settled on using a timer to do the dirty work. Here’s how our “Play the sequence loop” wound up looking at the end:

Screenshot of Play Sequence Loop

Conditionals / Keyboard Input Combined with Mouse Clicks

There’s another thing I could not figure out. I wanted to have both mouse clicks and keyboard input control the “guess” portion of the code, so I sensibly (imo) attempted to combine those into a single conditional. That wound up being…very weird, and there’s still a bug related to it.

First off, there are AND and OR conditionals. It took me a bit to find them, but they do exist. So, with a single OR conditional and a nested AND conditional, I set out with this:

Screenshot of the Nested Conditionals

This mostly works. However, for whatever reason, if you use the keyboard to input your guess, the arrow animation does not play. I do not know why. It works if you click. I can prove the conditional triggers in either case. It’s just that the animation does. Not. Work. Maybe one day I’ll figure it out, but I chose not to.

GDevelop Wrap Up

Struggling past some of those hurdles, it took me about 5 hours to meet my original design goals in GDevelop. Not terrible for not knowing anything about GDevelop besides that it exists.

Here’s a video of the final product:

Okay! We’re done here. Post over.

Nah, you all know me, I couldn’t stop there.

We're doing it again in Godot!

After I’d done the initial experiment, I was curious if I could work faster in a game engine that has real scripting support.

The short answer is “yes”. It took me about 2.5 hours to complete the same task in Godot (with some visual discrepancies). I think the primary speed gain was from the fact that the actual game logic was much more intuitive to me and the ability to wire up “signals” from one element to the main script code made it much faster to do some of the tasks I was fighting in GDevelop.

Godot also has an await keyword which blocks execution like you’d expect it to, which is outstanding.

I did run into one major issue that I had to do a fair amount of research to solve:

AnimatedSprite2D “click” tracking is surprisingly difficult

The only issue I had was that when I needed to determine if the user had clicked on an arrow, I had to jump through some interesting hoops to detect if the mouse was over the arrow’s bounding box.

While regular sprites have a helper function get_rect() which allow you to figure out its Rect2D dimensions, AnimatedSprite2Dvery much do not (you have to first dig into the animations property, and then grab the frame it’s currently on, and then you have to get its coordinates and make your own Rect2D. Gosh, I’d have loved a helper function there).

I think the expectation is you’d have a KinematicBody2D wrapping the element, but as the arrows are essentially UI, that didn’t make any sense to me. I’ll need to dig a bit further into how Godot expects you to build a UI to do all of that, but hey, I got it working relatively quickly.

Theming

Changing the text of everything in the scene was really bizarre due to how it’s abstracted via a “Theme” object that you attach to all the UI elements? Still haven’t quite figured that out. It was really easy in GDevelop. Not so much in Godot.

Godot Wrap Up

Yeah, so, I liked working in Godot more because it was easier to make the behaviors work, and I was getting exhausted at the clunkiness of the visual editor. Here’s the final product:

Conclusion

For me, working in both of these engines for fun was a positive experience and I can see myself using GDevelop for some quick prototyping, but personally, I like Godot’s approach to the actual scripting portions of the engine. Because I have a lot of software development experience, it’s much easier for me to just write a few lines of code over having to navigate the quirks of the interface.

I think GDevelop is perfectly serviceable, though. It looks like everything in the engine does have a JS equivalent, so you really could just write JS if you wanted to. If they exposed that more cleanly, I think it’d be pretty great for many 2D needs.

But I’m not a game dev, this is just me tinkering around and giving some impressions. Go try them out for yourself, they’re both easy to get started with!

Own Your Content

Shutterstock vector art of some computer magic
Andrey Suslov @ Shutterstock #1199480788

We've got a problem decades in the making

Not too long ago Anil Dash wrote a piece for Rolling Stone titled “The Internet Is About To Get Weird Again” and it’s been living rent free in my mind ever since I read it. As the weeks drag on, more and more content is being slurped up by the big tech companies in their ever-growing thirst for human created and curated content to feed generative AI systems. Automattic recently announced that they’re entering deals to pump content from Tumblr and Wordpress.com to OpenAI. Reddit, too, has entered into a deal with Google. If you want a startling list, go have a look at Vox’s article on the subject. Almost every single one of these deals is “opt-out” rather than “opt-in” because they are counting on people to not opt-out, and they know that the percentage of users who would opt-in without some sort of compensation is minimal.

Lest you think this is a rant about feeding the AI hype machine, it’s not (though you may get one of those soon enough). This is more of a lament from the last several decades of big social medial companies first convincing us that they are the best way to reach and maintain an audience (by being the intermediary) and then taking the content that countless creators have written for them and then disconnecting the creator from their audience.

Every bit of content you’ve created on these platforms, whether it’s a comment or a blog post for your friends or audience is being monetized without offering you anything in return (except the privilege of feeding the social media company, I guess). Even worse, getting your stuff back out of some of these platforms is becoming increasingly difficult. I’ve seen many of my communities move entirely to Discord, using their forums feature. However, unlike traditional website forums you cannot get your forums back out of Discord. There’s no way to backup or restore that content.

I’ve personally witnessed a community lose all of its backup content due to a leaked token and an upset spammer. It was tragic and I still mourn (but hey, we’re still there).

In one way, this is the culmination of monetizing views. As Ed Citron argues in Software has Eaten the Media, the trend from many of these social media companies has been “more views good, content doesn’t matter”. We’ve seen this show before, Google has been in a shadow war with SEO optimizers for over a decade, and they might have lost. The “pivot to video” Facebook pushed was a massive lie, and we collectively fell for it.

We can turn it around!

So what do we do about this? One thing I’m excited to see that Mr. Dash rightly points out is that there’s a renewed trend of being more directly connected to the folks that are consuming your content.

Own a blog! Link to it! Block AI bots from reading it if you’re so inclined. Use social media to link to it! Don’t write your screed directly on LinkedIn - Don’t give them that content. Own it. Do what you want to with it. Monetize it however you want, or not at all! Own it. Scott Hanselman said this well over a decade ago. Own it!

Recently, there was a Substack Exodus after they were caught gleefully profiting off of literal Nazis. Many folks decided to go to self-hosted Ghost instead of letting another company control the decision making. Molly White of Citation Needed (who does a lovely recap of Crypto nonsense) even wrote about how she did it. Wresting control away from centralized stacks and back to the web of the 90s is definitely my jam.

Speaking of Decentralization, we’ve also got Mastodon and Bluesky that have federation protocols (Bluesky just opened up AT to beta, which is pretty cool) allowing you to run your own single-user account instances but still interact with an audience (which is what I do).

Right, anyhow, this rant is brought to you by the hope that we’re standing on the edge of reclaiming some of what the weird web lost to social media companies of yore.