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.

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FYI, Microsoft: Time-zone support isn’t a luxury feature in a calendar app

A day into trying out the shipping version, Microsoft’s Windows 10 Creators Update doesn’t look too different from the prior release.

That’s not all bad–already, Win 10 was at best the most pleasant and at worst the least annoying version of Windows I’ve used. But in addition to leaving out some advertised features hyped by me and others, Creators Update doesn’t fix a problem Microsoft shouldn’t have shipped in the first place: no time-zone support in the calendar app.

When I add an event outside of Eastern time, I have to factor in the time-zone offset before typing in its start and end times to see my appointment shown accurately away from the East Coast. And if there’s one task computers are supposed to free us from doing, it’s basic math.

I’ve seen this movie before, but the last time featured a quicker resolution. In the spring of 2010, I teed off on Google Calendar for the same feature failure–but by the end of that year, Google had fixed that and earned my forgiveness.

Microsoft’s intentions have remained a mystery for much longer. In October, I asked a publicist about the absence of time-zone support in the calendar app and got this mealy-mouthed answer:

“We are always exploring new features for Windows 10 and will continue to add new features and updates over time to help users get more done. We have nothing more to share at this time.”

It turns out that Microsoft really did “have nothing more to share.”

I could fix this issue by paying for Microsoft’s Outlook app as part of an Office 365 subscription, but that would feel like paying ransom. And it would unquestionably represent signing up for “groupware” features I don’t need as a sole proprietor. Or I could make my next laptop a MacBook Air–except that’s another case of an unfeeling company ignoring clear customer desires, this time with more money at stake and a longer history of neglect.

I’ve looked for free or paid alternative calendar apps with time-zone support in the Windows Store but have yet to find one. Is this a giant collective blind spot among Windows 10 developers? Do they all work in one time zone? I know Microsoft employees don’t.

I guess I’ll have to continue grumbling intermittently whenever I use Win 10. Fortunately, I have plenty of practice with that.

Old-school browser debugging seems to have made Safari a little less bloated

I’ve written/ranted before here about Safari’s horrific abuse of memory without then doing anything about about it beyond getting in the habit of force-quitting Apple’s Mac browser every day or so to stop it from locking up my laptop or my desktop.

Safari iconBut given enough time feeling lost, I will eventually stop and ask for directions. A few weeks ago, that led me to a corner of the browser I’d forgotten about: the plug-ins dialog in Safari’s preferences. As this OS X Daily post reminded me, opening Safari’s prefs, then clicking the Security tab and then its “Plug-in Settings…” button will reveal which random bits of code are active in the browser.

I had forgotten about that because I haven’t intentionally installed a plug-in in years and, long after banishing Oracle’s Java and Adobe’s Flash from this browser, thought I had a clean configuration. Nope! On my iMac, it revealed a Cisco plug-in that I could only blame on a long-ago WebEx session, a SharePoint plug-in or two that my wife might have used for work, a couple of Google Talk plug-ins that I remembered from the occasional “do you want to trust” dialogs, and maybe one for Apple’s QuickTime software.

Isafari-prefs-plug-ins-button deactivated every one of them, then went into the systemwide Library’s Internet Plug-Ins folder to delete the Cisco and SharePoint offenders, both of which I was sure I would not use again.

The results so far have exceeded the placebo effect I expected from changing a setting in an app. The browser is much less likely to jam up my Mac and leave the Activity Monitor app filled with “Safari Web Content” processes lit in red to indicate their unfriendly unresponsiveness.

I’m not done wishing that macOS Sierra would exercise some competent memory management, though. The occasional miscreant page can still zoom to the top of Activity Monitor’s memory-usage graph, while Twitter’s site continues to slowly eat RAM and forces me into a browser restart after maybe two or three days.

But having Safari not devour my computer’s memory much more than Chrome has to count as a victory, since Apple’s browser continues to integrate better with some core Mac features. My exercise in bug management has made using an old Mac less painful… which is good, since Apple seems in no rush to update the iMac or the MacBook Air.

A request for travel-app developers: automatic screen brightness

This weekend has many of you on planes and trains, which means many of you have been  fussing with smartphone apps to get a ticket’s QR code to scan properly. Thanksgiving-weekend travel pain may be unavoidable, but code-scanning snafus should be a solvable problem.

national-airport-runway-1They remain unsolved in practice because travel-app developers can’t seem to grasp the idea of brightening the phone’s screen automatically when displaying a boarding pass. Instead, these apps keep leaving that work to you.

That’s definitely the case with the Android travel apps I use most often, United Airlines and Amtrak. With UA, I can sometimes get away with leaving the screen on its usual brightness–but not if I want to have the code scan properly at both the TSA checkpoint and the gate. With Amtrak, even maxing out the brightness–something the conductors always remind passengers to do–doesn’t ensure the ticket will scan on the first time.

(I’m kicking myself for not calling out this shortfall in Amtrak’s app when I reviewed it in 2012.)

If I had an iPhone, I could bring up United boarding passes and Amtrak tickets in the Wallet app, which does brighten the screen automatically. But I don’t own an iPhone, and neither does a huge fraction of the traveling public.

From what I can tell, other airline apps are no smarter about this. American Airlines’ app doesn’t appear to adjust screen brightness (although that company should probably first fix the issue that results in a boarding pass becoming invalid if you don’t bring it up at least 30 minutes before boarding) and Delta’s doesn’t seem to either.

Paper is wasteful, but at least I know my ticket code will work every time. When I go to a Nationals game, it’s my only option–the barcode scanners at the turnstiles have yet to accept a ticket code in an e-mailed ticket, no matter how bright the screen on my phone gets. (My wife’s iPhone 6 doesn’t have that hangup, because reasons.)

Meanwhile, Eventbrite’s app has automatically maxed out screen brightness when I bring up an event’s ticket since the first day I opened it. It’s too bad that I’m almost never asked to show a ticket code on my phone when I show up at an event booked through that service. Perhaps it would help if somebody set up an event for travel-app developers and required Eventbrite mobile tickets?

Notes on macOS Sierra

I’m now just over a fortnight into using Apple’s macOS Sierra, and I can report that it’s not enough time to get used to that name’s oddball capitalization. The past two weeks have, however, allowed me to come to some conclusions and form some questions about this operating-system update.

macos-sierra-logoThe pleasant disk-space mystery: Both times I’ve installed Sierra–an uneventful 50 minutes on my 2012 MacBook Air, an absurd three hours and change on my 2009 iMac–the OS has rewarded me with multiple gigabytes of free space. The MacBook, which was getting so close to full that I had to delete several gigs’ worth of data to install Sierra at all, gained 17 GB, while the iMac got an extra 18 GB back.

I do have the MacBook set to back up its Documents and Desktop folders to iCloud (neither contain enough data to threaten iCloud’s meager 5 GB quota of free space), but that comes nowhere near explaining the newly-liberated volume. And although Sierra doesn’t count “purgeable” files–synced files and media, rarely-used fonts and dictionaries, and other items that the system can always re-download after deletion–the totals of purgeable data listed in the info boxes for each startup disk don’t come close to explaining the discrepancy either.

macbook-storage-about-boxUniversal Clipboard is kind of magical: When I copy something from my iPad, I can paste it into my MacBook and vice versa. This wireless copy-and-paste feature neatly solves an everyday problem of switching between a mobile device and a “real” computer, and the fact that it’s happened with zero fuss amazes me. (I hope I haven’t just jinxed it.)

My iMac, however, is cut off from Universal Clipboard, as it’s a good three years too old. Once again, Apple: I’ll think about buying a new model when you don’t charge me 2016 prices for designs barely changed from 2014.

Search snafus: On both computers, a search in the Calendar app for events that I know exist–like conferences I’ve attended every year since 2010–now fails to show results older than late 2014 in my Google-hosted calendars. Sierra knows these older events exist, because Spotlight searches still find them. A post in Apple’s tech-support forums cites an unnamed Apple rep as saying this is a bug that should be fixed, which I hope is true. I also hope somebody in Apple PR replies to the e-mail I sent Wednesday asking about this.

Meanwhile, Mail has developed its own annoying habit of bouncing back to the oldest messages in my inbox after I cancel out of a search. I trust that’s a bug too, because I cannot think of many search use cases that conclude with the user thinking “now I would like to see my correspondence from 2011.”

siri-in-sierraStuff I haven’t tried much yet: I know that Siri leads off Apple’s pitch for Sierra, but I only really need one personal-assistant app–and that app serves me best on the device I carry most often, my Android phone. I also have yet to try out Apple Pay on the Web, although that’s mainly a factor of me not buying anything online in the past two weeks aside from one quick Amazon purchase. The new auto-categorization features in Photos sound neat but can’t help the overwhelming majority of my photos taken on my Android phone, which never even show up there. The same goes for the souped-up conversation options in Messages (did I mention I use an Android phone?).

Things unfixed or newly broken: Sierra seems as powerless as its predecessor OS X El Capitan when Safari or Chrome decide they want to gobble up every last morsel of memory on the machine. I sure do wish this operating system would remember that
pre-emptive multitasking” was one of its foundational features. It also annoys me that Photos persists in the user-hostile practice of discarding the title, description and location I added earlier to a photo when I try to export it to Flickr.

Meanwhile, Sierra has broken the GPGMail plug-in I use to encrypt and decrypt the occasional e-mail–something I only realized after I’d installed this OS on both Macs. I e-mailed the developers and got a reply explaining that Apple made non-trivial changes to the Mail app’s internal code (I wouldn’t have guessed, since Mail seems as glitch-prone as ever) that they realized late in the game would require rewriting the plug-in. So if you were going to send me an encrypted e-mail critiquing this post, please hold off until they can ship a Sierra-compatible beta.

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)_/¯