A taste of Nougat on a Nexus 5X

DENVER–Two weeks ago, I tossed caution out the window of a hotel room and installed Google’s Android 7.0 on my phone one day into a business trip. The computing gods smiled on me, and the upgrade proceeded without incident and allowed me to experience the rest of the IFA show with the smartphone operating system Google also calls Android Nougat.

android-n-patch-install

Google’s sales pitch for Nougat may lead off with this release’s inflated inventory of emoji, but the change I appreciated first is the Settings app. In Nougat, it doesn’t just show categories of system preferences–it shows the current status of most of them.

That’s a thoughtful change. Too bad that phones with third-party interface tweaks will probably bury it.

The Nougat feature I use most often, however, is its new multitasking shortcut: Tap the recent-apps button twice, and Android jumps back to the second-most-recent app.

Nougat also offers a split-screen multitasking mode (that leads off the Google’s list of Android 7 features for developers), but my phone’s 5.2-in. screen doesn’t offer the kind of real estate that would make this useful.

I’ve also made little use of my newfound ability to customize the Quick Settings panel after removing the screen-rotation control (which I only ever used by accident). I do, however, appreciate being able to reply directly to more messages from the notifications list.

android-n-settings-appMonday brought a chance to try out the faster system-software updates Google has been touting. September’s security patches took 7 minutes and 15 seconds to install, which is less than instant but much faster than before–because I didn’t have that long wait as every installed app had to get reloaded.

At Google I/O, the company talked up Nougat’s more efficient use of memory. That got my attention, since the Nexus 5x’s 2 gigabytes of memory have often proved insufficient. I have yet to see my phone bog down the way it sometimes did before, although at least once I saw it fail to display my screen wallpaper for a moment after a round of switching between apps.

The Nougat feature that got me to do something as crazy as install a major software update to a critical device in the middle of a business trip was improved battery life. I haven’t done any detailed testing, but the phone does seem to last longer on days when I’m not using it like a tech journalist–that is, when I’m not constantly tweeting, replying to e-mails, and taking photos and notes, I can see the phone predict another 10 hours of battery life after I’ve gone seven hours without a charge.

But here at the Online News Association’s conference, no such luck applies. The phone doesn’t spend enough time in my pocket to benefit from Nougat’s ability to slow the system to a gentle stroll anytime the phone’s screen is off. So as I type this, my phone and my laptop are tethered to an outlet.

Covering Apple news from afar

My streak of never covering the launch of a new iPhone in person continued Wednesday, when I watched Apple unveil the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus the way any of you could have: via Apple’s video stream.

iphone-back-closeupWatching a product launch on my iPad in my own home looks less like “journalism” than typing away furiously in a crowded auditorium in San Francisco. But as long as my main clients have full-time staffers who regularly cover Apple events–David Pogue at Yahoo Finance, Ed Baig at USA Today–I don’t expect that to change.

(As vain as I can get, I don’t think I’m anywhere near enough of an “influencer” to warrant an invitation solely for my social-media audience.)

The obvious downside of not being there is no hands-on time with new hardware. Worming your way through a scrum of other tech journalists to get a few minutes of time to fiddle with a phone can be a mildly degrading waste of time, but it’s also the only way to try out features like fingerprint unlocking. I’ll have to wait until the new phones’ Sept. 16 retail debut to do a hands-on inspection.

The less obvious downside is not getting to meet some tech-journalist pals. Many of the reporters who focus on Apple don’t go to CES or the other regular events on my schedule, so sitting out Apple’s events means missing their company.

On the upside, not being in a position to cover a new iPhone’s launch means I don’t have to spend too many mental processor cycles worrying about Apple PR’s opinion of me–a profoundly liberating state of affairs. And when I’m tweeting from my own couch instead of inside an event venue, I know the WiFi will work.

(After the jump: How I didn’t cover the iPhone’s 2007 debut, even though I was in Pacific time at the time.)

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Lesson re-learned: Daytime offsite events at a trade show rarely work

BERLIN–I had a decision to make about my schedule Thursday morning here: Would I cut away from IFA to attend a Huawei event on the other side of town from the Berlin Messe, or would I stick with the official show schedule and check out some press conferences that might not prove all that newsworthy?

Huawei Nova phone

I opted for the unusual, thinking that a firm on the scale of that Chinese vendor would have to commit some news–and in any case, the event wouldn’t take too long and I would be able to get over to the Messe soon enough.

I was wrong on both counts. The taxi I shared to the Velodrom with some journalist friends took 25 minutes, after which we needed another 15 minutes to find the entrance to this half-buried arena. Huawei’s event went on for an hour, after which the hands-on area to try its Nova and Nova Plus phones and MediaPad M3 tablet opened and consumed more of my time.

And when I finally walked over to the S-Bahn station and got on a train to the Messe, I had to exit halfway there because of a scheduled closure that Google Maps didn’t warn me about when saying transit would be as quick as a taxi. After failing to puzzle my way through substitute bus service, then taking a different train with an extra connection to IFA’s venue, I finally showed up at 1:30–an hour and a half later than I’d expected in my earlier, delusional moments.

It’s true that attending Huawei’s event did allow me to witness some extended selfie coaching from social-media celebrity Xenia Tchoumi (a few tweets highlighting audience reactions follow after the jump), which yielded some much-appreciated humor.

But if I’d made the more boring choice, I wouldn’t have lost more than half the day to an event that featured no details about U.S. availability of the new hardware. It’s something I will recall immediately the next time somebody suggests I step aside from the daytime schedule of the first day or two of a sprawling show like CES or Mobile World Congress to have a client monopolize my time for what should only be an hour.

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An iOS mystery: Where and when will Gboard not appear?

The fact that I own an Android phone has rarely been more obvious than when I use my iPad–and I try to “gesture type” as if I were using my smaller mobile device’s onscreen keyboard.

The arrival of iOS 8 and its support of third-party keyboards made tracing a path from letter to letter to enter text not just a pointless exercise but a possibility. And with iOS 9’s less buggy support, it’s become a less annoying possibility, but still not a sure thing.

Gboard app iconThat’s become clear to me since Google shipped its Gboard keyboard app in May and, after a satisfactory tryout, I made that free app the default keyboard on my iPad mini 4.

Most of the time, Gboard appears whenever I touch a text field. I can gesture-type with ease (except when I’m holding the tablet sideways), and I could season my prose with emojis and GIFs were I, you know, 20 years younger.

But Apple’s built-in keyboard keeps on surprising me by resurfacing on its own. To get a better sense of how often that happens, I tried taking notes on this behavior this week and reached three conclusions:

• The system works more often than I gave it credit for. The departures from the norm stick out, but keeping track of them made me realize how rare they are.

• In certain cases, the stock keyboard shows up because it’s supposed to. As an Apple tech-support note explains, iOS’s keyboard automatically takes over in secure data-entry fields like the password dialogs of the App Store and Amazon apps.

• In rare occasions, iOS does get confused about keyboards for no apparent reason. A tap of the address bar in Safari would sometimes invoke the stock keyboard instead of Gboard, while the Duolingo language-tutorial app proved itself capable of alternating between the iOS and Google keyboards in a single session.

It’s tempting to blame Apple, given the iffy quality of much of its software. But I can’t rule out this being Google’s fault. I mean, as good as Gboard is, I still had to do a copy-and-paste job from a Web site to enter the symbol that best captures my latest diagnosis of the situation:

 

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Flash-drive disposal

I came back from a conference today (this time, the distinctly low-key CE Week), which means I also returned with a few USB flash drives adorned with some company’s logo.

Flash drives sortedThat, in turn, means I have to find some way to get rid of those pocket-sized storage devices, because I already have more flash drives than I will need. But I recognize that if you don’t have such a collection of these things that your kid starts to play with them, you might find just one of them valuable.

The answer for me is to give the flash drives away–ideally, after trashing their contents or at least renaming them by their size.

I’ve staged some reader giveaways on my Facebook page to unload particularly interesting-looking flash drives, but most of this hardware follows one of a handful of designs, differentiated only by the color and company logo on the outside. They’re not easy to give away in bulk.

Since it’s been a while since I’ve had a teacher say they could use a grab-bag of these things (and since I’ve already donated a few to the cause of undermining North Korea’s propaganda), that leaves only one obvious way to unload them by the dozens: Speak at some local gathering, and offer them–along with other PR swag I’ve accumulated–as rewards for the people who show up.

My talk tomorrow morning at the Mac user group Washington Apple Pi’s general meeting in Bethesda will feature that incentive. If you’re interested in some shop talk from me, or if you’re just in the market for some portable flash-memory storage, please stop by.

If, on the other hand, you’re a PR pro looking to get attention for a client, how about skipping the usual order of logoed flash drives in favor of putting the press-kit files on an obvious part of the company’s site? If the client insists on some kind of tchotchke, how about a Lightning or USB-C cable stamped with their logo instead?

Samsung’s Android versus stock Android: how six common tasks compare

I didn’t get around to reviewing Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge after their introductions at Mobile World Congress this February, but a couple of months ago Verizon Wireless PR offered to loan me one anyway. The device had a useful cameo role in a story about mobile payments, I did my customary battery-life tests, and then I had one last chore: taking notes on the differences between Samsung’s “TouchWiz” version of Android and the stock-condition software I have on my Nexus 5X.

Galaxy S7 and Nexus 5XThese interface gaps aren’t as jarring as they used to be, thanks mainly to Samsung having an attack of sanity and no longer putting a menu button where Android’s standard recent-apps button should be. Instead, a back button occupies that space, with recent-apps’ overlapping rectangles moved to the bottom-left corner.

But some differences remain, and I should keep them in mind the next time I’m writing up a cheat sheet about how to tackle certain Android chores. Consider this post a little FYI to myself…

Enable airplane mode:
• Samsung: Swipe down from the top of the screen to show the Quick Settings bar, swipe left to reveal the “Airplane mode” button, tap that. You may see a confirmation dialog if you haven’t told the phone not to nag you about this again.
• Stock: Swipe down twice (or swipe once with two fingers) and tap “Airplane mode.”

Check data usage:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Data usage” in the Settings app you just opened. Or, less obviously, swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap and and hold the “Mobile data” icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap the signal-strength icon.

View app permissions:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Privacy and emergency” in the Settings app you just opened, tap “App permissions.”
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, select “Apps” in the Settings app, tap the top-right gear icon, tap “App permissions.”

Pair with a Bluetooth device:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap and hold the Bluetooth icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the menu below the Bluetooth icon.

Check per-app battery consumption:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Battery” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the battery icon.

See how much storage space is left:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage & USB” in the Settings app.

Overall, I don’t see Samsung’s interface saving any time compared to Google’s. Which makes me wonder yet again why it bothers to craft such a different front end for this operating system.

Dear Android gesture typing: Enough ashtray with this one autocomplete error

About 95 percent of the time, the “gesture typing” built into Android’s keyboard is one of my favorite parts of Google’s mobile operating system. I trace a fingertip over the letters of the word I have in mind, that item appears in an overlay before I’m halfway through inputting it, I lift my fingertip, and a Scrabble winner like “deoxyribonucleic” pops into a tweet, e-mail or note.

Ashtray forbiddenBut then I have to try to gesture-type the $10 word “already,” and Android will have other ideas. Specifically, cancerous ones: It keeps subbing in “ashtray.”

I could take some comfort in the privacy-preserving thought that Google’s sense of my interests is so off that it thinks I write about cigarettes all the time. (This post probably won’t help!) But, really, I only want to write a common adverb without having to tap keys one letter at a time, like some kind of an animal.

And because I’m in the same abusive relationship with autocorrect as everybody else, I keep hoping that this time, Android will finally realize I have no interest in tobacco products. That’s when it will humor me by inserting “airway” instead of “ashtray.”

I just don’t know what could lead Google to misread me so consistently. The path you trace to gesture-type “already” requires going significantly farther east on the keyboard than the route for “ashtray,” and Google’s own search results suggest the former word is used about 143 times more often than the latter. Who would see any upside from this pattern of error?

As I said, this is annoying because it’s so unusual. The only other common word that Android gesture typing botches halfway as often is “conference.” And there, it’s at least more creative: The software will sometimes choose to read my attempt to enter this noun for an occupational hazard of my job as me gesture-typing “cicatrice.” Yes, real word: It’s a Middle English-derived noun for tissue that forms over a wound and then becomes a scar.

One thing I do know about this mystery: If there’s a tech conference with “already” in its name, I may have to decline all of its invitations to preserve my own sanity.