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.

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)_/¯

An unexpected comeback for a paper notepad

PARIS–I’m still not a fan of taking notes on paper, but I was glad I had a reporter’s notepad in my bag when I flew here to moderate six panels at the VivaTechnology Paris conference. Why? As I was getting ready to head over to my first talk yesterday morning, I saw that Evernote’s Android app was stuck on the “Opening note, please wait” dialog when I tried to open the note with my outline, even though I had enough bandwidth to tweet out my annoyance at that malfunction.

Notepad and panel notes(Yes, this happened only two days after Evernote announced it was raising its subscription prices. Regrettable timing all around.)

I don’t trust myself to memorize panel talking points, so I had to write them down on the paper I had available. Then I had to do the same five more times–Evernote’s app continues to have that hangup, even though it opens other notes without complaint.

In this context, ink held some distinct advantages over pixels. I didn’t have to keep my phone refreshed throughout the whole panel, draining its battery that much more. I could rest it anywhere without worrying about it falling on the floor. There was no risk of people thinking I was texting somebody or looking up cat videos in the middle of my panel. And a reporter holding a notepad during a panel looks more natural in a picture than one clutching a phone.

I will admit that I somewhat regretted not being able to use Twitter as a panel backchannel. But at this particular venue, carrying around a paper notepad brought one other benefit: The Paris expo Port de Versailles was a little toasty, and I soon got in the habit of fanning myself with the notepad between panels.

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.

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.