An almost Lightning-free gadget existence

Upgrading from my iPad mini 5 to an iPad mini 6 almost two weeks ago hasn’t made a huge difference in my tablet usage aside from my needing to remap Touch ID fingerprint unlocking from a large button below the screen to a power button at the top right. But it’s already yielded a huge improvement every time I need to charge the thing: I don’t need to find a Lightning cable.

Lightning and USB-C cables meet above the Apple logo on the back of an iPad mini 6

Because this tablet has a USB-C port instead, I can plug it into the same cables that I’d use to charge my phone, my previous phone and my old and any new laptop. Not having to worry about proprietary charging accessories is a welcome, if overdue luxury in my history of Apple gadget ownership, and it’s enough to outweigh the mini 6 omitting a headphone jack.

(I do have a pair of Bluetooth headphones–after interviewing Nothing co-founder Akis Evangelidis at Web Summit in 2021, he gave me a pair of that company’s Ear (1) earbuds. I still need to buy a USB-C headphone-jack adapter if I’m going to use any other headphones I own, especially the Bose QC25 noise-cancelling headphones I’ve grown to appreciate on long flights.)

Unfortunately, I can’t get away from Lightning when I’m at my desk at home: The Magic Keyboard with Touch ID and Numeric Keypad on which I’m typing this post has a Lightning connector for recharging (and for working around the occasional Bluetooth dropout). I can’t think of any engineering reason to have this $179 wireless peripheral charge via Lightning instead of USB-C, but Apple can’t seem to let this connector go.

And then there’s the mouse next to the keyboard–which is not Apple’s $79 Magic Mouse. Instead, I am still using the AA battery-powered wireless mouse that came with the iMac I bought in 2009. This rodent continues to function fine at steering a cursor around a screen–notwithstanding the times, more often than with the keyboard, when the Bluetooth connection drops because reasons. And when the mouse runs out of a charge, it takes me well under a minute to pop the two spent AAs out of the thing and replace them with two charged AAs from the charger next to my desk.

Apple’s current, not-so-magic mouse, meanwhile, must be set aside while it charges because its port is on the bottom–an idiotic configuration that the design geniuses in Cupertino have stuck with since 2015. And that charging port requires a Lightning cable, again for no discernible reason besides “Apple said so.” So while I had no big hang-up over spending $550 and change on a tablet with 256 GB of storage (on sale for $100 off), I just don’t want to spend even a small fraction of that to underwrite Apple’s Lightning fetish.

I forgot my laptop’s charging cable–and it wasn’t disastrous

NEW YORK

My e travel scenario revealed itself a few minutes after my train pulled out of Union Station Wednesday morning: My gadget-accessories bag was missing the USB-C-to-USB-C cable that I was counting on to connect my compact travel charger to my laptop and phone.

HP Spectre x360 laptop trickle-charging off a USB cable plugged into an aging Palm Pixi charger.

And yet I freaked out less than I would have imagined after realizing I’d forgotten to reclaim the cable that I’d handed to my wife for her Android phone migration–and then deciding to leave my laptop’s heavier charger at home to travel a little lighter.

Fortunately, unlike the could’ve-been-disastrous CES trip that started with me leaving without a proprietary charger for my Washington Post-issued Dell laptop, my HP laptop uses the same charger as most new laptops, Apple’s included. I assumed that would mean I’d have no trouble borrowing chargers after arriviing in NYC, or at least I’d have less trouble than when my old MacBook Air’s power cable fatally frayed at SXSW years ago.

But while I quickly plugged in my computer at my Wednesday-afternoon stop at gadget-reseller Back Market’s Brooklyn offcies–where I led a panel discussion about people’s rights to repair the things they’ve bought–I had to get more creative afterwards.

The front desk at my hotel near Madison Square Park (disclosure: paid for by Qualcomm as part of an event for press and investor types that I attended Thursday) did not have a spare cable, so I tried using the USB-A to USB-C connector that I did have to plug the laptop into the USB charging port next to a nightstand in my room. To my pleasant surprise, that worked, sort of: The computer charged, so slowly that the taskbar icon didn’t even indicate that it was plugged in.

For regular use, this hack of a solution wuold not fly–the trickle of current it provides is so slight that the battery only drains a little more slowly when in active use. But in sleep mode overnight, that slow drip brought the batttery back to full. I repeated this exercise during some idle time Thursday, using the ancient but tiny Palm charger that I had long ago tucked into my gadget-accessories bag on just-in-case grounds.

Once again, it helpd that I’d replaced the battery on this HP last fall, allowing a vastly better battery life than what I would have suffered with a year and a half ago.

Now that I’ve made it through this unplanned exercise in power management and am headed back to home and a full set of chargers and cables, one thing’s for sure: I will not repeat my mistake Wednesday of leaving home without consulting the travel checklist that I’d prepared years ago to avoid this exact situation.

Some Time Machine backup-volume trial and error

The Mac-maintenance task that has taken care of itself for most of the last four years brought itself to my attention Wednesday, and I wish it had not. Two days of troubleshooting later, I think I once again have a working backup routine–but I still don’t know what went wrong here.

My first hint that Apple’s Time Machine backup system had shifted out of its usual orbit was an error message Wednesday night reporting that my backup volume had become read-only, making further backup cycles impossible.

The drive in question, a 2-terabyte Seagate portable drive that I’d bought in 2018, seemed too young to be suffering from disk corruption. Especially since other partitions on this hard drive remained readable and writeable.

So I opened Apple’s Disk Utility, selected the Time Machine backup partition, and clicked “First Aid.” Several minutes later, this app returned an inscrutable, no-can-do result:

The volume Time Machine backups could not be repaired. 

File system check exit code is 8.

Well, then.

Disk Utility’s help was of no help, reporting “No Results Found” when I searched for that error message and shorter versions of it. Googling for “check exit code is 8” yielded nothing at Apple’s support site (a fruitless result confirmed by Apple’s own search) but did surface a data-recovery firm’s explainer that this was “one of the most frustrating file system errors to encounter, and it is difficult to know if you are experiencing a logical or physical fault on the hard drive.”

Trying to repair the volume a few more times with Disk Utility–a suggestion in a Stack Exchange thread that seemed worth testing–didn’t yield a better outcome. An attempt to copy the entire Time Machine volume to the partition that I’d created on this Seagate drive last year to usher my data from my old iMac to my current Mac mini stopped early; Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper app was less informative than usual, saying it “Failed to copy files.”

Then I realized that I was looking right at a short-term answer: wiping that no-longer-needed iMac disk-image partition, then making it my new Time Machine backup volume while leaving the old Time Machine partition alone. After a timeout to unplug the drive and then plug it back in, without which Disk Utility would not reformat the partition, this fix seems to be working. But just in case, I’ve also plugged a 1-terabyte SSD into my Mac mini as a backup to my backup.

It would be great if Apple would provide clearer explanations and more usable fixes to disk errors like this. But considering that Time Machine’s starfield file-restore interface hasn’t changed since it debuted in 2007, I will not stay up late waiting for those updates.

Amazon Fresh first look: Just Walk Out, then wait for the receipt and hope it’s accurate

Friday morning started with me driving to a grocery store in a neighorhood in which I’m sure I’d last bought milk in the 1990s, and it was all Amazon’s fault. The tech giant opened one of its Amazon Fresh stores in Crystal City Thursday–and while technological curiosity alone would have pushed me to try this establishment’s Just Walk Out surveillance-checkout system, the analog lure of a $10-off-$20 coupon mailed to our house sealed the deal.

Plus, that mailing promised an Amazon gift card, from $5 to $50, for the first 50 customers in the store on the first three days. How could I not?

Alas, finding a street parking spot–more of an issue then when I lived in a less lively Crystal City from 1993 to 1994–ate up too much time for me to get that Amazon bonus. But the shopping trip was enlightening in other ways.

After waiting in line to enter the store after its 7 a.m. opening (during which my 11-year-old and I each got a free bag of “chocolate truffle snacks” from a cheerful greeter), I authenticated myself to the store by opening my phone’s Amazon app and showing its QR code to a turnstile scanner that could have fit into any cutting-edge subway system.

(Amazon also offers Amazon One palm scanning as a store check-in method. But while I accept the inevitability of governments collecting my biometrics at national borders, I don’t have to help every for-profit company build its own biometric database.)

At about 16,000 square feet, this Amazon Fresh location was even smaller than the compact Safeway in the Crystal City Underground that I relied on in a previous century. Its selection made me think of a miniaturized Whole Foods that had gone to the dark side by stocking such forbidden-at-WF items as various flavors of Coke–a more useful Whole Foods, if you will.

The place also soundly beat Whole Foods in some categories by stocking Amazon house-brand “Happy Belly” items. For example, while a gallon of 2% milk at Whole Foods now goes for $4.99, Amazon Fresh matched the Trader Joe’s price of $3.69.

After checking the prices of everything I’d deposited in a reusable shopping bag to verify that I’d cleared $20, I checked out. By which I mean I did not “Just Walk Out” but instead scanned the QR code in that paper coupon and then scanned the QR code in the Amazon app for a second time at an exit faregate of sorts.

And then I waited for a receipt to arrive. That documentation did not land until more than five hours later, when it reported a total about $10 more than I’d expected. Somehow, the cameras and machine vision that drive Just Walk Out had decided that my picking up four individual kiwi fruits really represented me picking up one of what people once called a Chinese gooseberry, followed by two bundles or packages of those fruits.

Amazon’s app provides a “Request item refund” option for Fresh shoppers that lets you select “item not taken” as the reason why. But selecting that on my phone–and then in the Amazon app on my iPad–yielded a “We’re sorry” dialog. It apologized: “An error has occurred, but rest assured, we’re working to resolve it as quickly as possible.”

I resorted to a common coping mechanism when dealing with indifference from a giant multinational corporation: tweeting about the problem, then diverting my attention to other things. And then about four hours later, I got an e-mail from Amazon saying (“Reason for refund: Item billing error”) that they would refund the sum in question.

Will I return to that store? Absolutely! There’s a $20-off-$40 offer for Amazon Prime subscribers who shop there Tuesday and Wednesday. I may, however, use an old-school checkout on my next visit.

The multitasking interface in iPadOS 15 is not aging well for me

It didn’t take too long after I installed iPadOS on my iPad mini 5 for me to restore order to my app-icon grid–even if I’m still tweaking that arrangement and dreading the moment when the next iPad system update sends it higgledy piggledy. But another part of Apple’s tablet operating system continues to grind my gears: its multitasking options.

I can’t fault Apple for trying to make this UI more discoverable. In the previous release, I had to look up how to run one app on a third of the screen and leave the other two-thirds to another app every time I wanted to have the clock app and my notes visible side by side for a virtual panel. But in iPadOS 15, I have the opposite problem–the system keeps thinking I’m trying to split the screen between two apps when I have no such intention.

The most common scenario involves me wanting to go to a different site in Safari, when tapping the browser’s address bar routinely invokes the three-dot multitasking button that Apple added to iPadOS 15. That bit of chrome may stay out of the way more often on a larger-screen iPad, but on the 7.9-in. display of my iPad mini, it’s a different story. There, only a few millimeters of screen real estate–either from the top of the screen to the address bar, or between the center of the address bar and address-bar controls like the text-size/display/privacy button and 1Password’s button–seem to separate me from successfully entering a Web address or having the multitasking button thwart that attempt.

The other involves a situation almost as common: iPadOS flashes a notification, and I swipe down to see what it was. From the home screen, this continues to work as it did before–but in an app, iPadOS keeps acting as if I’d meant to invoke the Split View multitasking display by tapping that dreaded three-dot button. Eventually, I will reprogram my muscle memory to swipe slightly off-center to avoid running my finger across that ellipsis icon, except the home-screen behavior keeps telling me I don’t have to change.

So here I am, more than six months after installing this update, and I’m still thumb-wrestling my way around one of its core features. And I’m not alone in feeling this irritated, to judge from my mom’s review of this wayward user experience: “the most distracting thing in the world.” She’s right, and Apple’s wrong.

Post-purchase Pixel 5a praise

Near the end of last year, I retired a functioning smartphone that had aged at a remarkably slow pace over a year of pandemic-induced home confinement and replaced it with a new model. Almost four months later, that $422.94 purchase has proven to be the right call.

The immediate upgrade I got with the Google Pixel 5a I bought on sale for $50 off to succeed the Pixel 3a I’d purchased in the innocent summer days of 2019 is storage space. As in, the 3a’s 64 GB had become an increasing irritant, requiring regular dives into the Settings app to clear app caches and data; the 5a has twice as much storage, and so far I’ve only used up 69 GB of it even after I haven’t bothered to uninstall conference apps after coming home from those events.

Photo shows Pixel 5a on a wooden surface, with the afternoon sun glinting off the cameras on its back.

The advertised upgrade with the 5a–formally known as the “Google Pixel 5a with 5G”–was its 5G connectivity. The next generation of wireless broadband hasn’t delivered much for many wireless customers, but T-Mobile’s midband 5G (which it brands “Ultra Capacity”) has frequently served up download speeds in excess of 500 megabits per second outdoors.

I did not expect to get a comparable advance in battery life on this phone, knowing how often smartphone vendors have hyped that metric. But in everyday use, even at battery-abusing events like CES, my 5a has been a champion. As I type this after more than 11 hours of low-key use, the phone is estimating one day and 12 hours of additional runtime. That’s nuts–and believable after what I’ve seen over the past four months.

The one upgrade I didn’t even think about when buying the 5a but have since come to appreciate on a daily basis is the 16 megapixel wide-angle camera on its back that augments its regular 12.2 MP camera (the same Sony IMX363 that Google has been sticking in its phones since the Pixel 3). This extra lens has opened up my phone photographic possibilities, by which I mean it’s freed me from having to step off a sidewalk to get an especially large building in the frame.

I do wish the 5a were a little smaller, as its 6.34-in. touchscreen is just big enough to thwart easy placement of a thumb at the far corners of that display when I’m using the device one-handed. But as I realized testing $500-and-under smartphones for CNN Underscored (the 5a came away as my top pick), almost every other Android phone is bigger.

The compromises this phone has entailed have been unobjectionable. It lacks cordless charging, but the only place I could have used that has been my home. It doesn’t support millimeter-wave 5G, but T-Mobile barely offers those fast, fragile frequencies anywhere and even Verizon’s mm-wave network remains evanescent. I would like to see Google commit to more than three years of operating-system updates, but over the time I’m likely to keep this phone I’m unlikely to exhaust that support but do stand to benefit from Google’s recent move to sell authorized repair parts through iFixit.

But while I expect my 5a to serve me well through at least late 2023, I don’t expect it to be sold nearly that long: All signs point to Google introducing the Pixel 6a at Google I/O next month. And while that model will apparently add Google’s faster Tensor processor, its fingerprint sensor will reside under the screen and may be fussier to use–and it will apparently omit a headphone jack. The prospect of that unnecessary, unrequested “simplification” already has me dreading the next upgrade cycle.

RSS lives, but not equally well on all of my devices

Many of my daily digital habits have changed over the past decade and change, but one has not: I still check an RSS app to see what’s new at a couple of dozen sites. Even as the social-media and news landscapes have gone through multiple cycles of destruction and reinvention, the standard originally called Really Simple Syndication remains one of my preferred ways to know when a favorite site has published new posts.

The core advantages of RSS (which you may find easier to call “Web feeds” if you’re trying to cut back on tech abbrevations) remain unchanged from what I wrote here in 2015:

One is control: my RSS feed only shows the sites I’ve added, not somebody else’s idea of what I should know. Another is what I’ll call a tolerance of time: A site that only posts an update a week is less likely to get lost when it occupies its own folder in the defined space of my RSS feed.

The third, maybe most important feature: Nobody owns RSS.

That last angle allowed me to move on from Google’s capricious decision to kill its Google Reader RSS service–on a scale of that company’s faceplants, it’s up there with Google Glass–and switch to Feedly’s RSS platform.

The individual apps I use on my various devices, however, have changed a bit since then.

My favorite among them is the free and open-source NetNewsWire–the iPad version of Brent Simmons’ labor of love more so than the Mac edition. On my tablet, this app displays a simple count of unread articles (which, sadly but typically enough, is once again near triple digits as I write this) and lets me read each one in full without switching to Safari. On my desktop, NNW also displays that app-icon badge count but requires a switch to Safari to read a new post if the site, like most, doesn’t publish a full-text RSS feed–meaning I’m taken out of my reading workflow and then have yet another tab to remember to read and then close.

On my Pixel 5a phone, I use Feedly’s Android app. The free version stuffs some ads into feeds, which I don’t mind all that much since they’re so easy to skip, and it does let me read entire posts in its built-in browser instead of requiring a switch to Chrome. But Feedly’s app doesn’t even try to support Android’s notifications system (if only that OS feature supported not just adding a colored dot to an app icon to indicate new content but a count of unread items as iOS does), so it’s too easy to ignore its green icon on my home screen.

On Windows, I have a different problem: NextGen Reader, a fave of critics in the previous decade, still works fine–with the convenient feature of an unread-articles count on its taskbar button, but without in-app reading of original posts–but also appears completely abandoned. A decade after its debut in the Microsoft Store, it’s gone from that app market, its Twitter account has been silent since February of 2021, and the developers’ site now redirects to a generic parked-domain page.

And the other Windows RSS apps that I’d considered before settling on NextGen five years ago look equally moribund. So I don’t know what I’ll do if this apparently fossilized Windows app stops working–except, perhaps, reach for my iPad instead.

E-mail like it’s 2012: revisiting my Gmail filters

Several months ago, I spent too many hours hacking away at the 18 years’ worth of messages piled up in my Gmail account–because while I could live with paying for extra storage for Google’s backups of my own photos, I’d be damned if I was going to pay to warehouse random companies’ marketing pitches that were eating up far more of my free storage.

Screenshot of Gmail's filter, showing a menu of options that

That experience evidently wasn’t enough fun for me, because over the last couple of weeks I’ve dived into a corner of the Gmail interface I hadn’t spent any sustained time in since… 2012? Fortunately for me, Gmail’s filter interface hasn’t sustained any notable changes in at least that long, judging from how rarely it’s earned a mention in Google’s Gmail blog over the last decade.

Much as in 2012, this dialog lets me choose a message by factors like sender, recipient, subject, content, size and the presence of an attachments. Its next pane allows me to amplify the message’s importance by starring it or marking it as important, apply a label or file it under a category tab, or forward it to to an outside address registered with your Gmail account using an even more fossilized interface.

Those are the basics of e-mail management, and they did suffice to help me craft updated message rules that make my Gmail inbox less chaotic and keep my more consequential correspondence filed away neatly. Less e-entropy is a good outcome.

But the limits of the filtering user experience loom large among Gmail’s missing features. The one I keep coming back to is an equivalent to the “sweep” function in the Microsoft’s Outlook.com that automatically whisks matching messages into the trash 10 days after they arrive. But it’s also crazy that the entire filter UX is imprisoned in Gmail’s Web app–you can neither create nor edit nor view filters in Gmail’s Android and iOS apps, as if the last 10 years of mobile-first computing never reached whatever Googleplex building houses the Gmail developers.

Compare that thin gruel to the thoughtful mail-management tools surfacing in apps that actually have to win customers–I’m thinking here of a new Gmail front end called Shortwave that a team of former Google developers just shipped, but also of the Hey mail service. It’s not hard to think that Google could do a lot more with Gmail if it put serious effort into that work. It’s also not hard to think that Google must feel as comfortable in the e-mail market as Microsoft and Yahoo did before Gmail showed up in 2004.

Suggested Windows 11 laptop taskbar-settings edits

My overdue introduction to Windows 11 hasn’t allowed me enough time to develop too many informed judgments about this operating system as a whole. But three weeks have left me pretty confident that I made the right choices in editing the default taskbar settings in this release.

Fortunately, all these preferences live in the same window, under the Taskbar category of the Personalization pane of the Settings app:

I’ve also pinned a handful of core apps, starting with Settings itself, to the taskbar. And I’m sure I’ll continue twiddling with the interface settings of Win 11 as I get accustomed to this release–which, to be clear, continues to grow on me as I soak in less-obvious edits like a right-click menu that finally tries to respect my time.