Hi, friends! Welcome to Installer No. 11, your guide to the best and Verge-iest stuff in the world. (If you’re new here, welcome to the Installerverse, which is officially a thing now — we did it, everybody — and you can read all the old editions at the Installer homepage.)
I’m traveling this week, so I’ve got a slightly abbreviated issue for you. But there’s just way too much good stuff not to share.
This week, I’m spending all my free time playing Subpar Pool, testing Twine as my new go-to Android RSS reader, watching Zane Lowe talk music with Blink-182, learning about the incredible work of the masters of film set design, reading Cory Doctorow’s new book, The Internet Con, finally for real canceling some too-expensive streaming services, and preparing for my kid’s first flight by downloading every Sesame Street episode I can find.
I also have for you a new Mario game, an old tech magazine, overlooked TV shows, AI image makers, and much more.
As always, the best part of Installer is your ideas and tips. What do you want to know more about? What awesome tricks do you know that everyone else should? What app should everyone be using? Tell me everything: if you’re getting this in your inbox, just reply to this email and tell me everything. Otherwise, you can always hit up firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you know someone else who might enjoy Installer, forward it to them and tell them to subscribe here.
Alright, Mario has waited long enough. Let’s go.
- Super Mario Bros. Wonder. The thoroughly modern side-scrolling Mario game that so many of us have been waiting for. Wonder is a really neat mix of a simple game with simple mechanics but also plenty of room for exploration and improvisation. I am going to play a lot of this game.
- The OnePlus Open. Yay, foldable phones! I really love the design of the Open, and OnePlus has some really cool feature ideas — but the whole thing is definitely let down by the price and durability issues. But smush this together with the Pixel Fold and Samsung’s Z Fold, and there’s a kickass foldable phone in there somewhere.
- Search Engine’s “Is there a sane way to use the internet?” I’ve probably recommended Search Engine before, but it’s the first podcast in a while to make it into my “listen to every episode no matter what it’s about” rotation. This episode, with Ezra Klein, is a particularly thoughtful and helpful way of thinking about the internet now.
- Meta in Myanmar. This is a terrific four-part series about the rise of Facebook, WhatsApp, and the internet in general in Myanmar and the genocide that occurred in the country. Erin Kissane doesn’t really do a history lesson but more of a long, deep study about how communities are built online — and how they fall apart. It’s a tough read in spots, but it’s worth it.
- Trust & Safety Tycoon. Ever wondered what it’s like to try and make moderation, policy, and business decisions on the fly? Wonder no longer! This game from Techdirt is like a corporate training manual… but a good and useful one. (Techdirt’s other game, Moderator Mayhem, is similarly useful and fun.)
- The Wedding Scammer. A true-crime podcast about a guy who joined a media startup that turned out to be a scam — and not even a particularly clever one. But the scammer behind it all had lots of other moves, and they all kept working! Only one of the show’s seven episodes is live so far, but it’s off to a really fun start.
- Franz. Imagine a Tamagotchi or a Neopet, but, like, super-duper cursed. That’s essentially the premise of this Android and iOS app in which you interact with and try to help a little AI companion that is pretty much always trying to take advantage of you in some way. It’s weird, y’all, but it’s a fascinating story and game.
- Whole Earth Index. The rabbit hole to end all rabbit holes for any tech-history buff: the entire archive of Whole Earth Catalog, the counterculture journal that was at the beginning of so much of Silicon Valley and tech and blogging and the internet and everything, is now online.
- Spider-Man 2. I absolutely loved the first Spider-Man game, which made “spending a long time moving from place to place” more fun than any game I can remember. The new game is more of the same, and I mean that in the best way: big action sequences, lots of quests, oh so much fun swinging from buildings. It’s PS5-only, which might be a problem for some users, but this is a heck of a reason to upgrade.
- The secret life of Jimmy Zhong. Meet the man who stole 50,000 Bitcoin from the Silk Road, became a billionaire, stored a ton of money in a Cheetos popcorn tin (who knew that was even a thing!), and spent it all so lavishly he got caught. This is about the crypto-iest crypto story you’ll ever watch.
Remember a few weeks ago when everyone on Threads was sharing their homescreens? There were a lot of cool ones, but I was taken with one in particular: it had an amazing wallpaper, this super-clean set of icons, and a really nice widget. The vibes, as they say, were immaculate. I messaged its owner, hoping they’d tell me more.
That person turned out to be Bart Claeys, a designer at Meta. I needed Bart to tell me everything, and he did!
Here’s Bart’s homescreen, plus some info on the apps he uses and why:
The phone: A Pixel 7 — I may switch to Pixel 8 (Pro) using my $400 Google Fi credit (but I’ve got until January 2024 for this, so waiting things out until there are more Pixel 8 reviews).
The wallpaper: “Mountastic” by Kxnt from the Backdrops app. I picked this particular image because it strikes a great balance between being inspirational, matches the Cascade and Olympic mountains where I live, and has areas allowing for icons and widgets. Additionally, it matches my phone case.
The launcher: I am a loyal user of Nova Launcher, allowing me to customize a lot of parts of the user interface, among which is setting a custom grid, removing app labels, and changing each icon individually. I’ve got two areas for icons: a 4 x 4 grid featuring my most-used apps — all using the Whicons icon pack — located at the lower half of the phone, optimized for single-hand usage. Then, you have smaller icons on the bottom from the Min icon pack. Removing colors from icons allows me to be more intentional about which app to use without being lured in by color. And finally, I have two additional mini clock widgets from the regular Google Clock app.
The apps: Facebook, Threads, Hue Lights, Starbucks, Messages, Chrome, Google Maps, WhatsApp, Calendar, Google News, Google Photos, Google Keep, Google Tasks, Instagram, YouTube Music, Authy.
I also asked Bart to share a few things he’s into right now. Here’s what he said:
- TryCamel, which doesn’t do much besides offering a sharing target allowing me to track the price history of products by sharing Amazon links to it.
- As an X / Twitter escapee, my most recently installed app is Threads, which has some fun trends going on, like people sharing their mobile homescreen (inspiring this post) and, more recently, people generating DALL-E images based on their bio. I also regularly look through the eBay app to find vintage-pressed steel toy airplanes and airplane inspection panels for an art project I hope to finish one day.
- More recently, I’ve been playing with the Coohom web app modeling our living room. It’s really fun, and honestly, I went a little crazy on the details, like adding our actual furniture and plants. Next step would be to convert this somehow to a VR experience so we can try out some remodeling ideas as close to reality.
- And finally, we’ve got a Lego wildflower bouquet gifted by overseas friends, which we’re trying to finish, at least when Mochi, our cat, does not obstruct our plans.
Here’s what the Installer community is into this week. I want to know what you’re into right now as well! Email email@example.com with your recommendations for anything and everything, and we’ll feature some of our favorites here every week.
“With the mention of Roblox last week, I’d be remiss not to send in People Make Games’ two-part video series, ‘How Roblox Is Exploiting Young Game Developers.’” – Michael
“I think of Remix as Instagram meets AI. I’ve had a lot of fun with it, as my prompting skill improves the more I use it. There’s also the concept of ‘remixing,’ which creates threads of related posts. Quite fun!” – Jason
“As a Canadian, we often are introduced to the pros (and cons) of culture from both the United States and the English Commonwealth. These two series — Gangs of London and Mr Inbetween — are sorely overlooked in the US, one from the UK and the other from Australia. Among my group of friends, these two are among our favorite shows, and both top my top five shows of the last decade.” – Don
“As a Simpsons fan, this book just hit preorder stages, and I’m very excited to eventually get into it. It’s basically a collection of various memorabilia and merchandise throughout the course of the lifetime of the show.” – Joseph
“Killers of the Flower Moon opens this weekend.” – Junbo
“Catchup is a simple but polished utility for keeping track of when you last talked to people close to you. You set how frequently you want to be in touch with each person (weekly, monthly, etc.) and see who’s due for a call. Catchup helping me FaceTime friends more regularly makes me more of the person I want to be, especially while living abroad right now, so it’s central on my iPhone homescreen as a push toward one of the most rewarding uses of my iPhone.” – Lachlan
“Just finished Cocoon on PS5. Brilliant puzzle adventure game where you’re carrying orbs that house different realms and traversing between them. It’s also by one of the minds behind Inside and Limbo. Short, sweet, and a perfect precursor to Spider-Man 2.” – Jackson
“Offsuit, AI offline poker app. Really clean interface, leaderboards, etc.” – Jonathan
“Putting all my social apps in a folder on my homescreen has completely prevented the weird, ‘automatic opening’ I used to do. That single layer of not having the app within one click has completely tanked my random clicking of apps, and my screen time has gone down a bit. Still monitoring to see if it stays down long term, but it’s been very noticeable so far!” – Nicholas
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks deep down the self-hosting rabbit hole working on some Vergecast stuff coming soon. I have this idea that I might be able to replace a lot of the (increasingly unreliable) cloud services I use with some self-hosted ones. So far, I have mostly failed. But I did buy a mini PC and turn it into a Plex server and a Nextcloud file-storage system, so I’m already feeling like a capital-h Hacker over here. But the best thing I’ve found so far is Derek Sivers’ step-by-step guide to “Tech Independence”: it’s a super-detailed manual for setting up your own domain, moving all your services to systems you own, and ditching the tech giants for good. I didn’t do everything Sivers recommended — I’m good with Gmail, honestly — but if you’re looking for a fun and empowering weekend project, this is an excellent one.
See you next week!