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.

One of my newer travel rituals: setting up a TV hit away from home

AUSTIN

Normal people don’t check into lodging at a destination and then evaluate the room for its TV-backdrop potential, but I have never pretended too hard to be a member of the normal-people demographic.

Picture shows a Pixel 5a phone cradled in a GorillaPod tripod mounted to the screen of an HP Spectre x360 laptop.

So when I got a message from my usual producer at Al Jazeera on my flight here Friday (my thanks to United for adding free messaging to the inflight WiFi in December) asking if I could comment on the White House’s attempts to add TikTok to its public-diplomacy strategy, I knew I’d need to find a workable background.

Fortunately, the house I’m renting (and had rented for several years in a row for SXSW in the Before Times) has an excellent bookshelf in the living room. It also had enough room in front for two chairs: one for me to sit in, another to serve as a stand of sorts for my laptop.

Because that 2017-vintage HP Spectre x360 has a woeful webcam, I don’t just park it on a table or another suitable flat surface. At the same time, I don’t want to do a video interview looking at my interviewer on a phone screen that’s more than a foot away. Instead, I use my Pixel 5a phone’s back camera in place of the laptop’s camera–a workaround that requires running Dev47Apps’ DroidCam app on that Android device and on my Windows laptop and connecting the two devices with a USB-C cable.

Then I place the laptop, folded open to its “tent mode,” over the top rail on a chair so I can see Zoom, Skype or whatever app I’m using for the interview (or virtual panel) on the computer’s screen, and then use an old Joby GorillaPod flexible tripod to position the phone atop the laptop.

That gadget accessory is now among the first things I toss into my suitcase before a trip: Instead of flip-out, rigid legs, this tripod features a trio of flexible legs that you can wrap around a nearby object. Or, in this case, splay out across the hinge on a Windows laptop in tent mode, such that the smartphone camera sits just about at eye level.

That may look like a ton of work, but I’ve now gone through this routine enough times that it doesn’t feel like it demands much time–certainly not when the TV hit starts a bit behind schedule, as this one Friday did.

CES 2022 travel-tech report: a new phone and a renewed laptop

Uncharacteristically light attendance at CES this week allowed me to pack uncharacteristically light. With so many tech-news sites canceling plans to send journalists to the Consumer Technology Association’s annual gathering, I knew I wouldn’t need my traditional CES accessory of a travel power strip to free up outlets in any crowded press room.

I also opted not to pack any of the WiFi hotspots I had sitting on my desk from the last update of Wirecutter’s guide to same. Even in the likely event of the show’s WiFi being its usual inadequate self, I figured I had sufficient backup bandwidth in the form of the new Pixel 5a in my pocket, the expanded mobile-hotspot quota on my account, and the T-Mobile 5G network my previous phone couldn’t use.

Photo shows my HP Spectre x360 laptop sitting on the wood floor of my home office, on top of which sit my CES badge, the laptop's charger, a USB-C cable to charge the phone, a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, headphones and my Pixel 5a phone.

My other smart move before heading out to Vegas was replacing my late-2017 HP laptop’s battery with an aftermarket unit, a bit of laptop surgery I did in October. All of this helped make CES much less of a gadget-abuse scenario in my return to covering it in-person after last year’s distanced, digital-only conference.

The Google Pixel 5a, the only new device in my messenger bag, acquitted itself especially well. On a good day, its battery can run well into the next afternoon, and even at CES–where I did rely frequently on the phone’s mobile-hotspot feature to get my laptop online–I never saw this Android device’s battery get into the under-33% state that would get me nervous. My charging the phone at lunch happened out of habit, not necessity.

I also quickly grew to appreciate how the 5a’s wide-angle lens helped capture some of the bigger exhibits on and off the show floor. The sole quibble I can think of: The phone reported that it restarted overnight Friday morning, and I’d like to know what caused that crash.

My HP Spectre x360, meanwhile, was one of the oldest items in my bag but felt much newer with that replacement battery. It was nice to sit down to watch a panel and not need a spot next to a power outlet. And for whatever reason, this computer ran much more reliably than it had at CES two years ago, without any mysterious reboots sometimes interrupted by boot-device-not-found errors.

Lower CES attendance, estimated by CTA Friday at “well over 40,000,” did not banish CES bandwidth struggles. My laptop did not always connect to conference WiFi networks–have I mentioned that Windows 10’s “Can’t connect to this network” is not a helpful error message?–but all three press rooms had abundant Ethernet cables. The $10 and change I spent on a USB-to-Ethernet adapter in 2012 has turned out to be an exceptional deal.

As before, I took all of my notes in Evernote, but this time the app generated a few note conflicts when I switched from phone to laptop and back. If I could click or tap a “sync now” button before each device switch, I would–but Evernote removed that bit of UI out of a belief that its automatic sync is now reliable enough to make it obsolete.

The other app I leaned on heavily during my time at CES was the conference’s own mobile app. I hadn’t bothered with that in previous years, but learning that CTA had hired Web Summit to provide this event’s digital platform made me want to try it. Unsurprisingly, the CES app looks and works like the Web Summit and Collision apps, so I didn’t have much to figure out.

As at those other conferences, I leaned on this app to manage my schedule while ignoring in-app connection requests in favor of the kind of networking impossible at last year’s CES: masked-face-to-masked-face conversations that ended with an exchange of business cards.

Android phone migration has gotten easier–except for Google Pay and Google Voice

Moving from my old Pixel 3a to my new Pixel 5a provided my smoothest Android phone-migration experience yet. I had much less home-screen housekeeping to do on my new device than two years ago, and one key Google app showed a particularly dramatic improvement. But then I had to deal with Google Pay and Google Voice.

Overall, Google’s instructions get across how easy process has become. Tap yes in the “Copy apps & data” button on the new phone, unlock the old phone, connect the two with a USB-C cable, tap yes in the old phone’s “Copy data to new phone?” dialog, then wait–about 21 minutes in my case.

A Pixel 5a showing the "Transfer accounts" screen in Google Authenticator sits atop a Pixel 3a showing the same screen in the same app.

Google’s Android-transfer system accurately reproduced my app-icon layout (the contrast with upgrading to iPadOS 15 did not escape my attention) and wallpaper, with the only missing item being a home-screen icon for Android Auto.

I did still have to wait for most individual apps to download off Google’s Play Store, and their new-phone user experience varied awkwardly. Some, such as Feedly, LinkedIn and FlightRadar24, didn’t need me to log back in; most demanded a new entry of usernames and passwords (made much easier by 1Password); a few required extra bouts of authentication.

One Google app pleasantly surprised me, given the sensitivity of its stored data. Google Authenticator previously required renewing each two-step verification code securing a site login as if your old phone had fallen into the ocean, an experience that Google security chief Stephan Somogyi in 2017 apologetically described to me as “a complete, total and unmitigated pain.”

But in 2021, an old phone’s Google Authenticator can generate a catchall QR Code for its saved accounts; scan it with the new phone’s copy of Authenticator, and you’ve got your one-time passcodes for those accounts ready there. Great!

And then two other Google apps showed how awkward this process can remain. Google Pay–not the mobile-payments app that debuted as Google Wallet, but the new release that shipped this spring and then required some non-trivial settings restoration–landed on the new Pixel 5a as if I had never used it before.

I had to start by typing in my cell number because this Google service relies on that for authentication instead of a Google account. As Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo explained/warned back in March, this setup resulted from Google electing to build a new Google Pay off code optimized for the Indian market, where SMS authentication apparently reigns supreme. And then I then had to add back my saved credit cards, one at a time.

The last hiccup, I hope, came with Google Voice. The oft-neglected Internet-telephony app that I use for my work number seemed to be configured properly on the new phone, but then a journalist trying to reach me for a radio interview had her call go to voicemail. Eight times in a row. The answer turned out to be that Google Voice’s account settings had my number associated with two smartphones and two copies of the same number, a level of confusion that the system evidently resolved by not patching calls through to the newest device.

But now that’s squared away, and I think I can make it through the rest of this trying year without further mobile-app troubleshooting. I hope that’s the case for everybody reading this too.

Android 12 early impressions: improvement via imprecision

Two weeks after I installed Android 12 on my aging, yet well-maintaned Pixel 3a smartphone, the biggest selling point of this release is not the self-tinting interface colors that Google talked up this summer. Instead, I’m appreciating a new option to leave apps a little fuzzier about my whereabouts.

In adding the ability to deny an app access to your precise location, Android 12 returns to the earliest days of Google’s mobile operating system, when an app could ask for either “fine” or “coarse” location. But it also reflects what we’ve learned since then about how location-data brokers will embed location-tracking code in other apps, often without disclosure, and then exploit that harvested info to build vast databases.

Photo shows the Android 12 Settings app open to a page denying the Today Weather access to my precise location; in the background, the print edition of the Nov. 12, 2021 Washington Post reveals a bit of the weather forecast.

So my first move after my phone rebooted into Android 12 was to take the GPS keys away from some apps. I started with one I already paid for, Today Weather. Why bother depriving a paid-for and therefore ad-free app of my exact location? Because the forecast shouldn’t change that much between here and a mile away–but keeping my precise coordinates from a third party means they can’t get exposed if that firm suffers a data breach later on.

My second move was much less exciting, in that I swapped out some of the default screen widgets: I like scallops and I like having a large display of the time on my home screen, but I don’t like the scallop-shaped clock widget that comes standard in Android 12.

My first software-update-induced moment of confusion, meanwhile, came a day after I installed this update when I mashed down the power button to invove the Google Pay shortcut to choose a different stored credit card for a purchase–and nothing happened. That’s because Android 12 moved that from the power-button menu to the Quick Settings menu. Broken muscle memory aside, I get that relocating this setting from a non-obvious spot to a menu that people use all the time should make it more discoverable.

Finally, one Android 12 detail that’s gotten less attention than the others in press coverage just might save me from waking up with a phone at 10% of a charge: When you plug a phone into a charger, a wave of sparkles washes up the screen to confirm that current is flowing to the device. Considering my own record of inattentive device charging, that’s a feature I could have used 10 years ago.

Repairability FTW, or how I bought an old laptop some new life by replacing its battery

My four-year-old laptop now feels a little less ancient and my bank account still only has one new-computer-sized dent in it for this year, thanks to one replacement component that proved to be harder to shop for than to install.

This 2017 HP Specte x360 shouldn’t have needed a new battery at all, given how infrequently it’s left the house or even been unplugged from a power outlet since March of 2020.

But over the last 18 months it had exhibited increasingly bad battery life, to the point that I could not reasonably expect it to last more than hour away from an outlet. HP’s hardware diagnostics app outright labeled the battery “failed” and advised a replacement–even though its logs showed this component had only gone through 387 charge cycles out of its design life of 1,000 and still had a capacity of 25 watt-hours instead of the original 60.

Photo shows the replacement battery on top of the original one, with part of the laptop's circuitry visible behind both.

(Then again, my old MacBook Air also began reporting battery issues well short of that 1,000-cycle mark.)

For a while, I considered toughing out this problem until I could buy a new laptop. But between the chip shortage bogging down laptop shipments and my trip to Web Summit coming up next week, I decided it would be stupid to keep limping along.

Annoyingly enough, HP’s parts store did not carry a replacement battery for my model. I checked the company’s list of authorized vendors next; only one, ITPAS, seemed to sell the battery I needed.

They listed a $99.80 price for the battery, which seemed a bit steep. I found other vendors selling what was at least identified as a compatible “CP03XL” battery on Amazon and NewEgg’s storefronts that advertised much cheaper prices. But none had nearly enough good and at least not-obviously-fake reviews to make me want to trust them all that much. I tried asking on Reddit for further guidance, but this usually reliable source of crowdsourced tech support did not come through here.

So I decided to go with the most-legitimate retailer, and after a pleasant chat with an ITPAS customer-service rep that cleared up some details left vague on the site (notwithstanding the “Available to special order” note on the battery page, they had it in stock, and “FedEx Home Delivery” would mean only a few days), I placed my order Friday and hoped to see the battery arrive before the middle of this week.

It arrived the next day, before I’d even received a shipping-notification e-mail–and then a few days later, a second battery arrived, a generous glitch the company couldn’t explain when I reported it but quickly responded by e-mailing a FedEx shipping label with which I could return the duplicate.

The bigger delay here turned out to be me, in that I didn’t think to ask a friend to borrow his set of Torx screwdrivers until he’d already left for the weekend. Arguably, I should already own my own set, but the last time I needed these tools was when I replaced my old iMac’s hard drive with a solid state drive in 2018.

Anyway, with the right implements at hand, HP’s maintenance and service manual revealed the battery replacement to be a fairly simple procedure. Shut down the laptop, remove six screws holding the bottom lid (two of which were underneath a strip of plastic on the underside that once held its rubber feet in place), and pop off that lower lid. Then detach the old battery’s power cable from the system, gently tug the speaker cable out of the bracket at one end of the battery, undo four more tiny screws to free the battery. and lift it out. 

I did those steps in reverse to connect and secure the new battery, then found myself struggling to get the bottom lid to close up properly. After a second try with the six outer screws, there’s still some flex at its front, underneath the trackpad. Was that there all along? I can’t tell, not having thought to take beforehand photos to document this laptop’s condition as if it were a rental car I’d need to return later to a nervous agency.

The re-empowered laptop them rebooted into an screen reporting a CMOS checksum error that I could fix by resetting it to its defaults, I did, and the laptop has not complained further. That HP diagnostics app now reports the the battery state as “passed,” which is nice–and when I set the laptop to run a battery-life test in which it would stream NASA TV via YouTube, it ran a full five hours and 40 minutes.

I’ll take that–at least as far as Lisbon next week and Las Vegas in January, but maybe even for a few more months after.

iPadOS 15 app-grid angst, cont’d.

More than a month after I installed iPadOS 15 on my iPad mini 5 and realized this operating-system update had left me with a major home-screen cleanup, I’m still fussing with the placement of app icons and widgets. This says a lot about my own interface persnickitiness, but it also speaks to some sloppiness by Apple.

The first stage of this OS transition was nerd rage at how iPadOS had littered the screen with unrequested widgets and blown up an app grid I had spent far too much time poking and prodding into place. (The app-rearrangement user experience, in which dragging one app to another’s place could easily result in the system deciding you really wanted to file both icons in one new folder, was already nerd-rage fuel before iPadOS 15 shipped.) Even more annoying, many of these new, randomly distributed widgets were app-sized morsels incapable of displaying any useful information.

I started untangling this hairball as I’d originally tidied up my iPad: one home screen at a time. I dragged the icons for my most-used apps–the usual social-media suspects, mapping and photo apps from Apple and Google, the messaging apps I lean on most often–to the first home screen–then plopped Apple’s weather widget in the top-left corner.

(That widget does not tie into the Dark Sky weather app that Apple bought in 2020 and has yet to turn into a built-in iPad weather app; because reasons, it instead leans on the IBM-owned weather.com.)

Then I marched through additional home screens: One got a calendar widget spanning the top third of the screen with alternate browsers and productivity apps below it; another got NetNewsWire’s widget showing my RSS feeds as well as news, e-book and local-info apps; yet another collected apps for the various streaming-media services I use; one more gathered travel and finance apps, plus Apple’s Screen Time widget to tell me to spend less time on this tablet.

Done? No. If I keep swiping to flip leftward through this procession of home screens, I get back to the Today View screen Apple introduced in iPadOS 14 as a sort of widget prison. In 15, this special home screen still only lets me plant widgets in its left half (viewed in portrait mode, my usual iPad use case), even though every other home screen in iPadOS 15 allows me to put widgets where I please.

(“Where I please” means in a grid that grows from the top-left corner, because relentlessly design-centric Apple still exhibits next to zero appreciation of how a little negative space could make home screens easier to navigate and look less alike–a convenience I’ve appreciated on Android for years.)

If this parcel of screen real estate must feature this fixed layout, I’d be content to park the App Library–the automatically-categorized set of folders that freed me from having to create an “Apple, etc.” folder for the apps I never use–in Today View’s right half. But I can’t do that–and while iPadOS 14 let me get rid of Today View entirely, that’s nowhere to be found on my iPad. Maybe Apple will fix this in iPadOS 16? Preferably without blowing up the app grid I’ve rebuilt over the past few weeks?

Smartphone spring cleaning: delete some apps, pay for others

By keeping me at home for so much of the past year, the pandemic has prolonged the life of my 2019-vintage Pixel 3a phone to an unnatural degree. But the cushy, stay-home lifestyle this Android device has enjoyed has not prevented one sign of smartphone age: a dwindling amount of available storage.

The easiest way to free up a bunch of space is to get rid of apps you haven’t been using. In any version of Android, the Play Store should let you sort your list of installed apps by when they were last used, but the current Android 11 provides a more direct reminder: If you don’t use an app for long enough, the system will automatically reset its permissions to zero.

Screenshot of Android's list of apps with automatically-removed permissions

The resulting lists of apps with removed permissions reminded me of how long I’d used a bunch of travel apps, but they’ve also spotlighted apps that I had lost interest in using even before the pandemic.

But as I’ve been removing various apps from smartphone, I’m also not only adding some but paying for them.

That’s not a matter of storage space but privacy. As I’ve realized in covering privacy fears over phone apps–as in, the evidence-starved assertion that TikTok is uniquely dangerous–ad-supported apps can allow for the collection and subsequent resale of more data than you might imagine.

The simplest way to solve that concern is to pay for the app–either by upgrading to an ad-free version with in an-app payment (as I did last year with Flightradar24), or by switching to a competing app if the title in question doesn’t allow that option.

And that’s why I finally have a new weather app: After years of relying on Yahoo Weather and then starting to get grumpy over the space devoted in its interface to ads, I finally deleted it. In its place, I installed Today Weather, the pick of multiple reviewers, and then paid the $6.99 lifetime fee for ad-free operation with premium features enabled. Now I have a better set of forecasting tools without any ads and the tracking that goes on behind them.

And yes, this app takes up about a third of the space than Yahoo Weather did. On an aging device like my Pixel 3a, every little byte counts.

A distanced, disconnected CES

Throughout this week I’ve spent covering CES in its all-digital incarnation, the Google Photos app on my phone has kept reminding me of how far this virtual experience is from the trade show that had me flying to Las Vegas every January from 1998 through 2020.

Photo of a 2020 CES badge held in front of a screen showing a schedule of on-demand videos from CES 2021

On one hand, the app’s Memories feature has been spotlighting the things I saw at CES years ago. On the other hand, Google Photos reveals that almost all of the pictures I’ve taken this week feature my cat–and none involve any new gadgets.

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show isn’t like other conferences that have had to adopt all-digital formats. (The same goes for the two other gadget shows on my calendar over the last several years, IFA and MWC.) Companies do their best to hype up their upcoming hardware, but you also get to inspect it firsthand and try to find the flaws the presenters didn’t think to mention.

That’s not an option at CES 2021, where the product presentations are even more like long-form ads than the CES press conferences of prior years. And while an online format can still allow for a live Q&A afterwards, that hasn’t been the case with the CES press events I’ve attended watched. I’ve had to e-mail PR types and wait for a response to a question I probably could have gotten answered in a few minutes were we all in the same physical space.

I don’t write that to take away anything from the people at the Consumer Technology Association who work incredibly hard to make CES happen in a normal year and then had to tear up the script in late July and write a new one from scratch. Some real-world interactions are just difficult or impossible to replicate online.

That also goes for all the unexpected connections you make at CES and the conversations you enjoy over bad food in a press room and better food at a reception or a dinner. As much as I hate tearing myself away from my family at the start of every January, the chance to catch up with old tech-nerd friends and maybe make a few new ones helps compensate for that.

Like most of the social interactions I’ve surrendered since last March, they now await at the far end of a long tether. I hope it’s not too many more months before I can pull myself back.