Nexus 5X setup tips

A week and a half ago, I set up a new phone–not to review, but to keep. I’m not ready to render a conclusive verdict on this Nexus 5X beyond “I paid for it and I own it,” but I can offer some getting-started advice to other new 5X users. Maybe you will find them helpful?

Nexus 5X on Ha'penny BridgeNexus Imprint: The fingerprint recognizer on the back of this phone works amazingly fast–it only took me a few days to get out of the habit of pressing the power button to wake it. But it functioned better after I re-registered my left and right index fingers with more off-axis touches to allow for those times when I grab the phone from one side or another.

After I’d done that, I remembered to register my wife’s fingerprint too. You should do the same for anybody you’d trust with your phone if you couldn’t get to it.

USB Type-C: I no longer have to worry about plugging a USB cable into this thing upside-down; instead, I have to worry about trying to use it with my collection of incompatible micro-USB cables. To keep all of those old accessories–especially those connected to external chargers, given that this is yet another phone I can’t assume will last a full day on a charge–I had to buy a USB-C-to-micro-USB adapter for $7 or so off Amazon.

Any advice about where else I should have looked? Monoprice’s offerings were more expensive–maybe because theirs charge fast enough by correctly implementing the USB Type-C specification?

LED notifications: The 5X has a notification LED embedded below the screen that’s off by default. To switch it on, open the Settings app, touch “Sound & notification,” and tap the switch to the right of “Pulse notification light.”

WiFi calling: This phone can also do WiFi calling on compatible carriers such as T-Mobile, and you can enable that under the “More” heading of Settings’ “Wireless & networks” category. Touch “WiFi calling” for a switch to activate that and an option to prefer WiFi or cellular calling.

Screen app and widget layouts: I was a little embarrassed by how many mental processor cycles I put into migrating a layout of apps and widgets from the four-icon-wide grid on my old phone to the 5X’s five-icon grid. But in return, I was able to condense five screens’ worth of app shortcuts down to four.

But some of my regular widgets, like the two-icon-wide analog clock and the four-icon-wide “What’s This Song?”, either no longer fit neatly at the center of the screen or could span the width of it, and the old power-management toolbar doesn’t seem available in Marshmallow at all.

Oh, and if you were confused about how to create new home screens beyond the one you get by default: Drag an app icon off the right or left side of that screen, and Android will spawn a new one automatically.

A phone meltdown, a reset, a tedious reconstruction

My phone’s weekend ended badly: Sunday evening, it went off on a tear, opening and switching between apps faster than any human could do, and the only way I could get it to stop was to shut it down.

(If you got a gibberish text or a random phone call from me then: Sorry.)

Phone reset buttonI was pretty sure my aging Nexus 4 hadn’t been hacked, but seeing it race out of control was still one of the more terrifying smartphone experiences I’ve had. And multiple restarts didn’t quash this behavior.

When I got home, quick research revealed a few posts recounting similar meltdowns and suggesting a hard reset in case the problem wasn’t a failure of the digitizer that makes the touchscreen work.

Fair enough, I thought; I had already been considering a factory data reset after the phone had locked up a few times. I plugged the thing into my desktop, copied over a few application settings files that I thought Android’s app backup might not get, and took a breath before tapping the big, gray “RESET PHONE” button.

What did I not think to do before that irrevocable step? Change the setting in Google’s Hangouts app that would have made it the default SMS app and copied over all of my older messages. I also spaced about running the SMS Backup+ app, which would have backed up those texts to a folder in my Gmail account and would have been doing so automatically all along had I changed one setting there.

When the phone rebooted into factory-fresh, apparently stable condition, I realized how little Android’s standard online backup had covered. My screen wallpaper was intact and my old apps quickly downloaded, but I needed to redo almost everything else. That included at least 25 different app logins, three of which also required redoing Google Authenticator two-step verification.

And the phone and messaging apps were devoid of data, with no way to restore anything lost since I’d last run SMS Backup+ several months ago. I’m not too beat up over the call log, since… wait for it… the NSA has that backed up anyway. But I am upset about losing those texts. I suppose that being humbled this way is a healthy episode for anybody handing down tech advice.

I’m told that in Android 6.0, the backup system actually works as you’d expect it to. And it looks like I’ll have the chance to experience that sooner rather than later: This phone’s screen has run amok twice since Sunday (and its relatively recent habit of unlocking itself in my pocket now looks like another symptom of a degrading digitizer), so a new phone is no longer just a good idea but an outright requirement.

An unwanted weekend of Web-mail

I’ve written before how I’m not too fond of Web-mail versus desktop clients, but last weekend didn’t give me a choice in the matter.

Gmail offline UI detailAbout an hour after my flight took off, my MacBook Air coughed up an error message from the Mail program that its index had gotten scrambled (not the exact phrasing; I inexplicably forgot to take a screengrab) and needed to be rebuilt. Fine, I said, and clicked the appropriate button.

Less than an hour later, my aging laptop complained that it was out of space. After a couple of fruitless attempts to weed out larger files, I gave up on mail for the rest of the way to LAX, then resigned myself to using the Webmail interface to the Google Apps account I use for work.

In the two years since Apple’s Mail app last couldn’t connect me to my work account, Gmail hasn’t changed much but Apple’s Mail app has. It’s become a clumsy, clanky, sluggish part of my workflow that usually has me grumbling in complaint before I’m halfway through the first cup of coffee.

Sadly enough, I still missed Mail. Gmail’s regular view only shows 15 messages on my MacBook’s screen, and its in-browser offline mode–a non-negotiable item given the horrible state of the ONA conference WiFi–only showed eight at a time.

Mail unsuccessful setupMy usual method of policing my inbox, block-selecting non-essential messages and moving them to folders like “PR” or “Administrivia,” broke down when Gmail Offline showed that few messages and required me to select each one individually before any moves to sub-folders.

Gmail’s automatic classification of messages under tabs like “Promotions” and “Social” didn’t help aside from correctly shunting most of the PR correspondence to the former tab.

At no point over that weekend did I get WiFi fast enough to let me even think about re-syncing over a dozen gigabytes of mail back down to my laptop–at one point, Mail couldn’t even crawl through its first setup screen. So I limped along in Web-mail, steadily fell behind, and have since caught up slowly in my iMac’s copy of Mail.

As I type this, Apple’s OS X El Capitan just finished installing on that MacBook. Will Mail behave a little better in that new release? I can only hope…

One place I don’t mind paying for Internet access by the hour

For years, I’ve been a bit of a curmudgeon about inflight WiFi. A seat on a plane was a refuge from an interrupt-driven lifestyle, a place where I could monotask for a change.

Engine nacelle over mountainsAnd besides, most first-generation, air-to-ground WiFi systems became unusably slow once enough people got on. In my limited experience, at best Gogo’s cellular technology yielded download speeds below 1 million bits per second–unacceptably slow 3G service on the ground. So why would I want to pay $16 or more for a flight’s worth of that?

Satellite-based WiFi can run much faster and works over oceans but is usually no cheaper over the duration of a flight.

(JetBlue offers free satellite WiFi but isn’t convenient for most of my usual destinations. Southwest charges only $8 a day for satellite WiFi but has its own route-map issues.)

Hourly pricing can make this a better proposition–I have paid Gogo’s $5 hourly rate on short flights, though I no longer do since I discovered that my phone’s Google apps work for free on its WiFi. But on its 737s, United Airlines offers hourly prices with a tweak that makes them more valuable to me: a pause button.

I can pay $3.99 for an hour of LiveTV’s satellite-delivered WiFi that actually works–download speeds have exceeded 24 Mbps in my tests–and then stretch out those 60 minutes by pausing it while I eat, nap, read, squeeze myself into the lav or take a moment to appreciate the wonder of occupying a chair in the sky. I can further extend my online time by opening up a batch of pages in new tabs, then pausing the connection to read them as if I were trying to save costs on a dial-up connection.

I can’t do that with Gogo, where you only buy a continuous hour of use. But I also haven’t seen this purchase option on United’s other WiFi-equipped aircraft; this airline’s inconsistent service (its A319s and A320s got WiFi before its 737s but still don’t have in-seat power) extends to a confusing mix of WiFi providers and pricing. I worry the company will “fix” this problem by taking away the pause button–but for now, that has me spending money I might otherwise not ante up.

When I will delete your e-mail

I’ve been making one of my periodic attempts to catch up on my e-mail (read: if you wrote me three weeks ago, your odds of getting a reply sometime this coming week are less worse than usual). That process has required me to think about something I normally avoid: deleting e-mail.

Paper in trash canMy usual habit is to keep everything that’s not outright spam, just in case I might need to look it up later on. Messages from friends and family are of obvious importance, reader e-mail may provide early evidence of a problem that becomes widespread months later, and correspondence from co-workers can have documentary value about a company’s progress or decline. Even PR pitches can have lingering usefulness, by providing the contact info that too many companies can’t think to post on their own sites.

And yet if a search will yield hundreds of messages including the same keyword, I’m going to have a hard time locating the one or few messages I had in mind. Something’s got to go.

The easiest items to delete are the automated notifications and reminders I get from various services I’ve signed up–Twitter, Eventbrite and Meetup, I’m looking at you. The utility of those messages to me usually expires within 24 hours, tops. When those notifications duplicate the ones that already pop up on my phone. my tablet or OS X’s Notification Center, they’re pointless from the moment of their arrival.

(You may have seem this kind of requested, not-spam mail labeled bacn. Not long after that term came about, I wrote that “dryer lint” would be more descriptive and less cutesy, but everybody seems to have ignored that suggestion.)


Then come newsletters that attempt to recap headlines in various categories. Even if I read these almost every day–the American Press Institute’s Need to Know and Morning Consult’s tech newsletter come to mind–they’re little help to me the day after, much less six months down the road. I look for day- or months-old news headlines on the Web, not in my inbox.

Ideally, I could set a filter in my mail client to delete designated notifications and newsletters 24 or 48 hours after their arrival. But although Gmail will let you construct a search like that using its “older_than” operator to scrub stale Groupon offers from your inbox, its filters don’t seem to include that option. And the filters in Apple’s Mail, which don’t seem to have been touched by any developers in the last five years, are of no use in this case either.

Do any other mail clients offer this capability? If not, any interested mail developers are welcome to consider this post a formal feature request.


Interplanetary download times, then and now

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of this week refreshing various NASA social-media feeds to see the latest pictures from Pluto.

Voyager Neptune image

Neptune as seen by Voyager 2 on August 14, 1989.

New Horizons Pluto image

Pluto as seen by New Horizons on July 13, 2015.

Beyond the ongoing amazement that with less than half a penny of every federal dollar, NASA has taken our senses further into the solar system than anybody else in history, this has gotten me thinking of the last times we explored a planet for the first time.

When Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and then Neptune in 1986 and 1989, my download time to see color photos of either planet for longer than a brief spot on the evening news could span months. The New York Times was a black-and-white production, so I would have to wait for the inevitable National Geographic cover story that I would then read and re-read obsessively.

When the Web came around years later, it did not take me long to realize that magazine production cycles and the U.S. Postal Service would never again limit my ability to geek out over pictures taken by robot spacecraft billions of miles away.

And now we’re outright spoiled–I cannot keep track of the image catalogs maintained by various NASA centers. But to see full-resolution copies of the images captured by New Horizons this week, we will have to wait even longer than we did in 1986 and 1989: At 1,000 bits per second, the maximum bit rate available from 2.97 billion miles away, it will take 16 months to get a complete set of the spacecraft’s observations.

Nexus 4 update: a little more life with Lollipop

One of the key reasons why I bought my Nexus 4 a little over two years ago was knowing that I wouldn’t have to wait for Google’s software updates. And then I waited weeks to install Google’s Android 5.0 Lollipop update after its first appearance on my phone in late November–the slight risk of the update bricking my phone was not something I wished to run during the combined insanity of the holidays and CES.

Nexus 4 with LollipopI should have waited longer. That 5.0 release and the subsequent 5.0.1 update exhibited a freakish and annoying bug: I could hear the other person in a phone call, but they couldn’t hear me.

The workaround suggested in a reddit thread about changing a developer-level setting made the problem go away most of the time, and it’s yet to resurface in Android 5.1. But I’m still completely puzzled as to how a flaw this widespread could have escaped QA testing

I don’t regret installing this update overall, though–not least since Google does appear to have fixed the problem it created.

The best feature so far has been battery life that seems notably longer than under Android 4.4. And seeing a current estimate of how many more hours the phone’s good for–combined with having its Battery Saver option prolong its runtime for a good hour or so–leaves me feeling a little more in control of this Nexus 4’s useful time away from a charger.

After that I’d rank the updated Quick Settings panel you access by swiping down from the top of the screen. This puts my phone’s hotspot feature one tap away–before, it was multiple levels deep in the Settings app–and finally adds the flashlight feature that previously required adding somebody else’s app.

Android Lollipop Quick SettingsThe rest of the Material Design interface Google made so much of a big deal about at last year’s I/O developer conference hasn’t made as much of a difference as I expected. I’ve quickly gotten used to the idea that different apps will turn the menu bar different colors–except when some of these hues get a little too close to Battery Saver’s bright orange.

And I feel like I can zip through open apps much faster in Lollipop’s recent-apps list, or at least I do since telling Android to show Chrome only once in this list instead of including a preview of every page open in that browser.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Smart Lock, the option to bypass the lock screen based on your phone’s proximity to a trusted component of one sort or another. But so far, I’ve only set it to trust my desktop computer via Bluetooth–and because that iMac can be iffy about connecting automatically to the phone, I can’t count on this working.

I should explore the other unlock options available. For instance, I happen to have a spare NFC tag or two around that I could stick in our car’s dashboard for an automatic unlock when I tap the phone to it. But haven’t gotten around to that yet.

The important bit about this update is this: Lollipop has breathed a little more life into a two-year-old phone. And that, in turn, means I don’t yet have to choose between continuing with the Nexus line in the form of the unacceptably huge Nexus 6 or going with another Android phone or even (it could happen…) switching to an iPhone.