Early impressions from a late Pixel adopter

Not that many people have bought either of Google’s two Pixel phones–as little as one million as of June, per Ars Technica’s estimate–and I bought my Pixel later than most.

And Wednesday, Google will introduce the replacements for the Pixel and Pixel XL, so this will be one of my less relevant reviews ever. But I still think it worthwhile to write down my three-months-in impressions… just in case I hate the phone later on.

But so far, I don’t. For something that I thought would be an interim advance over my now-dead Nexus 5X, the Pixel has impressed me.

The most pleasant surprise has been battery life that frees me from having to look for a charger on normal days–reading, I’m not at CES or some other phone-battery-destroying event, but I still leave the house and do my usual poor job of avoiding social media. I realize that sounds like thin gruel, but it also represents progress.

The camera has been an unexpected delight, easily the best I’ve used on a phone and more than good enough for me to leave my “real” Canon in my bag at the IFA trade show two months ago. Seriously low-light indoor exposures can still flummox it, but for the vast majority of my shots it delivers great results. The HDR function does some particularly amazing work with fireworks and illuminated structures at night. But judge for yourself: Have a look at my Flickr and Instagram feeds.

My major gripe with this phone is a weird one: It seems too easy to unlock. As in, the positioning of its fingerprint sensor seems to catch my finger more than the 5X’s sensor did when I slip it into a pocket.

So far, I have only pocket-texted one person–“App eye, meàl,” the message began before sliding into complete incoherence–but that was embarrassing enough to get me to try to grab the Pixel by its sides when pocketing it. And to change its “Automatically lock” screen setting from five seconds post-sleep to immediately.

If the rumors are true, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL Google will introduce Wednesday won’t feature expandable storage but will drop the headphone jack. If so, that will make me feel pretty good about taking Google on its offer of a full refund on my bootlooped 5X and applying that to a Pixel.
But it will also leave me profoundly uneasy over what my next Android phone will look like. I don’t want an uncompromised Android configuration to be a deeply compromised choice of outputs.
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The “hands-on area”: tech journalism at its busiest, not its finest

BERLIN–Three days into IFA, I’ve spent a disturbing amount of time at this tech trade show standing around and looking at my phone. The distractions of social media explain some of that, but I can blame more of it on the “hands-on area.”

That’s the space next to a gadget product-launch event, kept roped off until the end of the press conference or the keynote, in which the assembled tech journalists get to inspect the new hardware up close.

I enjoy the chance to pick up a just-announced gadget, see how it works, play with its apps and settings to see if any surprises emerge, and grab a few quick photos that are hopefully unblemished by glare, fingerprints or dust.

But increasingly, this requires waiting as each scribe ahead of me whips out a camera or phone not to take their own pictures, but to shoot or even livestream a video recapping the highlights of the product. Often these are not two-minute clips but four- or five-minute segments, but that’s not obvious at the start–and professional courtesy mandates that you give the other journalist a chance to finish his or her job.

Many of these video shoots are also one-person productions, which leaves me looking on in some frustration at bloggers who are literally talking into one phone about another. If only one of them would burst into song or something to liven up the scene!

Instead, an overseas show like IFA or Mobile World Congress provides the pleasure of hearing people run through the same basic script in a dozen different languages. Eventually, this may teach me how to say “the phone feels good in the hand” in German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Hebrew and Japanese… if the news industry’s lemming-like pivot to video doesn’t first force me to start shooting these clips myself.

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Re-reading my first iPhone review: I was right about the AT&T problem

A decade ago today, Apple’s first iPhone went on sale and the Internet lost its collective mind for the first of many times.

My review of this device had to wait for another six days, on account of Apple PR only providing me with a review unit at the iPhone’s retail arrival and it being a simpler time before gadget-unboxing videos were a thing.

Ten years later, that write-up isn’t too embarrassing to revisit… if you read the right paragraphs.

This isn’t among them:

Other gadgets in this category function as extensions of business products: office e-mail servers for the BlackBerry, Microsoft’s Outlook personal-information manager for Windows Mobile devices. But the iPhone’s ancestry stretches back to Apple’s iTunes software and iPod music player — things people use for fun.

Yes, I complemented iTunes. Didn’t I say it was a simpler time?

This didn’t age well either:

But you can’t replace the battery yourself when it wears out. The company suggests that will take years; after 400 recharges, an iPhone battery should retain 80 percent of its original capacity.

In my defense, at the time I’d been using a Palm Treo 650 for two years or so and didn’t think it too obsolete compared to other phones available on Verizon then. Who knew walking around with a 1.5-year-old phone could so soon invite device shaming?

I was right to call out the “barely-faster-than-dialup” AT&T data service available. But sometimes I wonder about that when I travel overseas and see that T-Mobile’s free EDGE roaming remains good enough for recreational use.

The bits I wrote that hold up best address AT&T’s tight-fisted treatment of the iPhone:

The iPhone also comes locked to prevent use with other wireless services. If you travel overseas, you can’t duck AT&T’s roaming fees — 59 cents to $4.99 a minute — by replacing the iPhone’s removable subscriber identity module card with another carrier’s card.

My review also noted the lack of multimedia-messaging support, although I had no idea that AT&T would make its subscribers wait months after others to be able to send picture messages. Likewise, I would not have guessed that Apple would take until 2011 to bring the iPhone to another carrier.

The most embarrassing part of my first iPhone review isn’t in the story at all. That would be the whiny, do-you-know-who-I-am voice-mail I left with somebody at Apple PR after realizing that I’d have to wait to get review hardware after the likes of Walt Mossberg. Lordy, I hope there aren’t tapes.

Goodbye, Nexus; hello, Pixel

I’m no longer rocking a four-year-old phone. Instead, I’ve upgraded to a 2016-vintage model.

This Google Pixel represents–I hope!–the end of the smartphone saga that began when my increasingly glitchy Nexus 5X lapsed into a fatal bootloop. The refurbished 5X Google offered as a free out-of-warranty replacement never shipped, notwithstanding the “confirmed” status of that order, so after a second call with Google’s store support I took their fallback offer of a full refund of my 5X purchase.

(It’s possible I got special treatment–Google should know how to Google me–but comments in Reddit’s 5X-bootloop thread report similar outcomes.)

I opted to use that money (technically, future money, since I won’t get the credit until the dead 5X completes its journey back to Google) on a Pixel for a few reasons. It remains the Wirecutter’s pick as the best Android phone; a pricier Samsung Galaxy S8 would subject me to tacky interface alterations and delayed security fixes; the new OnePlus 5 would be cheaper but comes with an even weaker record of software updates.

(I did consider buying an iPhone 7, but its absence of a headphone jack has not stopped seeming idiotic to me. And my frequent iPad experience of seeing apps revert to the stock keyboard instead of Google’s better Gboard isn’t something I need to repeat on a phone.)

It bugs me a little to upgrade to a device that shipped last fall, barely a year after the 5X’s debut. Although the Pixel’s camera does indeed seem terrific, in other respects this phone doesn’t represent a major advance over the 5X. But smartphone evolution has slowed down in general–a point people forget when they whine about Apple not shipping breakthrough products anymore.

It’s possible that the next Pixel 2 will add cordless charging, expandable memory and water resistance, and in that scenario I may wish my old phone could have staggered on for another few months. Or maybe Google will follow Apple’s foolish lead and get rid of the headphone jack on its next Pixel, in which case I’ll be patting myself on the back for timing my phone failures so well.

Throwback Thursday: I’m walking around in 2017 with a phone from 2013

PARIS–I’m having an unusual week of smartphone use: I’m not unlocking my device with my fingerprints and I’m not posting any pictures. That’s because I’m not using the Nexus 5X I’d been carrying around since late 2015.

On my walk home from Metro late Friday after a very long day, night and day of travel back from Shanghai, my Nexus 5X rebooted by itself. That’s become a depressingly common occurrence lately–but this time, my phone wouldn’t get past the initial Google logo.

I spent the next 48 hours reading up on this “bootloop” issue (see, for example, this Reddit thread and this post from a user who spent far more time fighting the problem than I have) and trying to revive the phone. Putting the phone in the fridge or freezer let me boot the device, unlock it and run it long enough to stage some manual backups in two apps, but I got no further. It seemed clear I was facing a hardware failure, not a software issue.

The tech-support call I requested Sunday led to a remarkably quick resolution: After I told the rep that two other troubleshooting options in the Android bootloader hadn’t worked, he said Google would make a one-time exception and replace my out-of-warranty phone with a refurbished 5X for free.

Good! But I needed some kind of mobile device for my trip to the Viva Technology Paris conference. Enter the Nexus 4 that I’d never gotten around to selling, donating or recycling after retiring it a year and a half ago. I dusted it off, charged it up, wedged my 5X’s micro-SIM card inside the frame of an old prepaid SIM (the kind that lets you push a micro-SIM out of a surrounding bracket), popped that into the N4, and began restoring and updating the old phone’s apps.

Five days in, it’s working… more or less. Having to trace an unlock pattern on the screen every time I wake it is a pain, while constant interactions with the phone have also reminded me that part of its touchscreen no longer detects my fingers. The camera is clearly inferior, the lack of storage space bugs me even more than it did three and a half years ago, and the battery life is also pretty bad.

On the other hand, not having LTE doesn’t matter at the moment, since T-Mobile’s free international roaming only allows 2G speeds anyway. And the touchscreen has–so far-refrained from relapses into the digitizer freakouts that marred its last few months of service. So for the basics of Web browsing, text-only tweeting, checking my e-mail, getting Google Maps directions and taking notes in Evernote, my antique Android suffices.

The problem I now have: The refurb Nexus 5X that was supposed to have shipped on Monday and arrived at my home by now hasn’t gone anywhere. I have a query into Google about the status of that; stay tuned for a future post that will relate how soon I was able to set aside my fossil of a phone. I’d just as soon not have to buy a new Pixel phone when that model is due for its own update, but that’s not entirely up to me anymore.

I can stop trying to keep up with Walt Mossberg

After 23 years or so of writing about consumer technology, it’s time to slack off a little: Walt Mossberg’s last column ran today, so I don’t have to keep up with him anymore.

That was never easy, starting the day the Post somehow gave me my own tech column. I can only recall two times when I beat or tied Walt to a story about Apple, then as now Topic A among tech writers. Once was a review of the first shipping version of Mac OS X, when a guy at a local user group handed me a copy of that release before Apple PR would. The other was a writeup of iDVD that benefited from my willingness to stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. a couple of nights in a row.

In the summer of 2000, the Post ran a front-page profile of Walt; being a guy in his late 20s with more ego than circumstances warranted, I took it poorly. But I always liked talking shop with my competitor at tech events around D.C., the Bay Area and elsewhere. (Does anybody have video of the 2006 panel featuring myself, Walt, the late Steve Wildstrom, Kevin Maney and Stephanie Stahl in which we shared an airing of grievances about tech-PR nonsense?) And when I announced my exit from the Post in 2011, the guy with one of the busier inboxes in all of tech journalism took a moment to e-mail his condolences and wish me good luck.

Since then, Walt has remained a must-read writer, provided the occasional column idea, and been one of the people I enjoy running into at conferences. He’s a mensch–or, to translate that from the Yiddish I know almost nothing of to my native Jersey-speak, a stand-up guy.

Enjoy your retirement, Walt. But please try not to taunt the rest of us too much when we’re off to yet another CES and you can finally spend that week in January as normal human beings do.

The silent shame of bringing an older Android phone to a Google event

MOUNTAIN VIEW–I really didn’t think my Nexus 5X phone was that old until I saw so many others at Google I/O here–being used by event staff to scan the RFID tags in people’s conference badges before admitting them to talks.

Badge-scanning duty is typically the last lap around the track for a mobile device before it gets put out to pasture. Or sent to the glue factory. But that usually doesn’t happen until years after its debut; for instance, at SXSW this year, I was amused to see volunteers use 2013-vintage Nexus 7 tablets to scan badges.

Google didn’t introduce my phone until September of 2015, after which I waited a month to buy my own.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the hardware milieu at this conference that’s been making my phone look obsolete. Over the past few months, my 5X has gotten into the embarrassing and annoying habit of locking up randomly. Sometimes the thing snaps out of it on its own; sometimes I have to mash down the power button to force a restart.

I’ve factory-reset the phone once, with all the reconfiguration of apps and redoing of Google Authenticator two-step verification that requires, and that doesn’t seem to have made a difference. It’s been good today, but yesterday I had to force-reboot it twice. I only hope fellow attendees didn’t notice the Android logo on its startup screen and start judging me and my janky phone accordingly.