Two belated desktop operating-system upgrades

Both Apple and Microsoft shipped major new releases of their desktop operating systems last year. And then I, somebody who writes about computers for a living, didn’t get around to installing either macOS Monterey or Windows 11 until this month.

I guess it looks a little embarrassing written out like that. But I had my reasons, the first among them being the absence of story assignments that would require me to familiarize myself with either OS. My regular clients all had other writers evaluating Monterey and Windows 11 and, as far as I could discern, they weren’t in the market for stories taking a closer look at any one feature in either new release.

A collage features Apple's round, stylized-mountains logo of Monterey and the square blue "11" logo Microsoft sometimes uses for Windows 11.

Further, desktop operating systems just don’t figure as much in my coverage, even factoring in the six years that elapsed between Windows 10 shipping (which I covered in July 2015 at Yahoo Tech) and the debut of its successor. My last piece focused on a macOS release seems to have been a June 2017 Yahoo post suggesting features for the upcoming macOS High Sierra (Apple, as is its habit, did not take my advice).

That freed me to take my own time, so I ignored my Mac mini’s suggestions to install Monterey after its late-October debut and instead waited to see if early adopters would report any glitches. Enough such reports emerged–in particular, with third-party USB hubs–that I decided I’d wait until the first update to Monterey shipped before I’d put it on my mini, on which I rely heavily on the USB hub built into the Philips monitor I bought with the computer.

My late-2017 HP laptop’s copy of Windows 10, meanwhile, didn’t even suggest installing Windows 11 when that update shipped in early October, in keeping with Microsoft’s phased rollout of this OS. But by the time Windows Update finally offered Win 11 sometime in December, it was too close to CES, and I didn’t feel like complicating my show prep by installing a new OS on a five-year-old machine.

After surviving CES, however, it was finally time. I installed Monterey on this Mac without incident a week ago, but Windows 11 threw one last obstacle at me: Both Windows Update and Microsoft’s PC Health Check app said my laptop was no longer compatible, citing an issue with its Trusted Platform Module security chip. And after re-enabling that in the HP’s BIOS, I had to wait another day for Windows Update to agree with PC Health Check that it was time for Windows 11–allowing me to install it Friday.

You may have noticed that I’ve now written more than 400 words in this post about these releases without discussing any one new feature in either. That is not by accident–and that’s why, now that I’ve finally caught up with 2021’s updates in 2022, I don’t feel like I missed out on too much by waiting to install Apple and Microsoft’s latest work.

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.

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?

Road trips, now and way back then

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–I’m in the middle of my first multiple-day road trip since… um… 1996. Things about motoring around the U.S. have changed just a bit for me since that trip from Los Angeles to D.C., much less the 1992 trek from Sacramento to the District that was my first cross-country drive.

The biggest differences are that I’m doing this trip solo instead of with a college friend–and that instead of having a room in a group house or apartment awaiting at the end of the trip, I am looking forward to seeing my wife and almost 11-year-old daughter again.

Then comes the fact that this road trip is for work instead of fun, or what passes for fun when you’re in your twenties. I’m spending a week as one of the test drivers for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project, taking a rental car and six specially configured test phones to locations picked in a series of cities.

Photo shows my rental car with the door open, six test phones sitting on the passenger seat, and a row of storefronts in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Raleigh.

This freelance gig on wheels started with a train–I boarded Amtrak Tuesday for the first time since February 2020 for a short ride to BWI to pick up this car Tuesday, after which I met the previous driver in Baltimore to get the test phones and spend the afternoon driving around Charm City. I devoted Wednesday to driving around D.C., went from home to Raleigh, N.C. Thursday; spent all of Friday on the roads of the Triangle; and had a considerably shorter day of driving Saturday to reach here. My tour of the southeast wraps up in Atlanta Tuesday, after which I fly home.

The vehicle in question, a Chevrolet Spark, isn’t much bigger than the Toyotas involved in 1992 and 1997. But it’s as new as rental cars get, versus the 1977 Corolla with a four-speed manual transmission that made it across the U.S. in 1992 or the 1986 Tercel with a crack in the windshield that did the same in 1996. And it has such modern conveniences as air conditioning, power windows and a backup camera.

And instead of driving entirely offline–taking old cars across deserts with neither GPS nor the ability to communicate must seem bizarre to my kid–I have a smartphone to navigate and keep me in touch via calls, text messages, e-mail, multiple social networks, and the Slack channel PCMag set up for this test. Plus the six test smartphones that spend each day on the passenger seat running their automated tests, as seen in the photo above taken in Raleigh Friday morning.

(I wrote a more detailed explanation of the testing process for Patreon readers Friday.)

But in one respect, the technology of road trips may have backslid a bit from the 1990s. Those old cars lacked CD players but did include tape decks, while this Chevy is like many new cars in not including any playback hardware for prerecorded music. I can plug in a flash drive or pair my phone via Bluetooth, but I have yet to get around to cobbling together a road-trip-relevant playlist on my phone or copying one to a flash drive. Instead, I have instead relied on a more traditional soundtrack source: the radio. And since I had an excellent college-rock station to keep me entertained around Raleigh, that hasn’t been so bad.

7/22/2021: Updated to fix a couple of inaccuracies I only realized when checking this post against old photo albums.

WordPress Block Editor considered harmful

The drop cap that starts this paragraph is something I could not have readily done in the Classic Editor here at WordPress.com, so I hope everybody reading this understands that I’ve spent some time looking for upsides to the Block Editor that has replaced it.

But those upsides still look scarce. Five months after WordPress.com anointed the Block Editor as the new default–and well over three years after this project’s debut–I still find basic tasks more difficult in the Block Editor than in the now-deprecated Classic writing interface. Four examples:

  • Inserting an inline image with text wrapped around it, as seen at right, apparently requires a detour to a separate block menu in which you reduce the image’s size, followed by a click on a menu to right-align the image. In the Classic Editor, those options sit in the dialog to select an image from the Media Library.
  • There’s no way to indent text outside of making it part of a bulleted or numbered list. This one sticks in my craw a bit: I told two WordPress representatives this was a problem after they gave a presentation at least year’s Online News Association conference, and they seemed to agree that indenting was a legitimate formatting tool.
  • This may be more of a bug than a design decision, but when I right-click on a link in Safari and paste its address into the Classic Editor, the link appears in a post as a complete hypertext link under the linked page’s title. In the Block Editor, pasting yields the address of the link, leaving it to me to copy its title and then turn that into a link.
  • The addition of a menu option to switch between editing and selecting modes, as if I were back into learning desktop publishing on Aldus PageMaker in 1991, allows for the chance to realize I clicked my way out of revising whatever I’m writing.

I think I understand where WordPress is going with this. The Block Editor offers a lot more options to embed different types of content, as seen in the screengrab above, and for bloggers looking to mash up their media, I can see why that would make sense. I also have a lot of faith in WordPress, having picked this platform instead of keeping my Web home on Facebook real estate and remaining convinced of the soundness of that decision.

Plus, speaking as a long desktop-publishing geek who may still have some muscle memory of PageMaker keyboard shortcuts: Yes, drop caps are cool.

But from my words-first perspective, the Block Editor makes the everyday writing here a little harder. And since indents are a basic element of the weekly-output posts I’ve been writing here since the fall of 2011, sometimes it makes my usual habits impossible.

I can still switch to the Classic Editor at the start of or halfway through a post, so I’m not doomed. But I worry that at some point, its deprecated status will lead to it being deleted. Will that point arrive before WordPress’s developers can get this editor to interface parity with its predecessor? Please wish me luck.

Is it iPadOS 14 or iPadOS 13.8?

It’s been almost a month since I installed iPadOS 14 on my iPad mini 5, and not much about my tablet-computing experience since has reminded me of that.

Why? Compare Apple’s list of new iPadOS 14 features with its brag list for iOS 14: Apple tablets don’t get home-screen widgets or the App Library, even though their larger displays might better fit those interface changes. Apple’s new Translate app, a privacy-optimizing alternative to Google’s? iPhone only for now. Even emoji search in the keyboard is confined to Apple’s smaller-screen devices.

Like earlier iPad releases, iPadOS 14 omits the basics of weather and calculator apps. I guess Apple still couldn’t find a way “to do something really distinctly great,” as its software senior vice president Craig Federighi told tech journalist Marques Brownlee in the least-persuasive moments of a June interview.

There’s also still no kid’s mode that would let a parent hand over their iPad to a child and have it locked to open only designated apps. The continued absence of this fundamental feature–even the Apple TV supports multiple user accounts!–is especially aggravating after so many American parents have spent the last eight months mostly cooped up at home with their offspring.

Apple did add a bunch of fascinating new features in iPadOS 14 for Apple Pencil users–but my iPad mini 5 and my wife’s iPad mini 4 don’t work with that peripheral.

This new release has brought lesser benefits that I do appreciate. Incoming calls in FaceTime, Google Voice, and other Internet-calling apps now politely announce themselves with a notification at the edge of the screen instead of indulging in the interface misanthropy of a full-screen dialog, and Siri shares this restraint with screen real estate. Safari catches up to Chrome by offering automated translation of their text and surpasses Google’s browser with a privacy-report summary, both available with a tap of the font-size button. I can finally set default mail and browser apps–but not navigation, the area in which Apple remains farthest behind Google. And a set of new privacy defenses include the welcome option of denying an app access to my precise location.

But as nice as those things are, they don’t feel like the stuff of a major annual release–more like the pleasant surprises of an overperforming iPadOS 13.8 update. And they certainly don’t square with what you might reasonably expect from a company that reported $33.4 billion in cash and cash equivalents on hand in its most recent quarter.

My $5 solution to woeful webcams on my laptop and desktop

It’s only taken me seven months of fumbling iteration, but I think I’ve finally found a video-conferencing setup that doesn’t leave me yearning for an upgrade to my hardware right after a video call.

That’s taken a while. Back when All This started, I thought the iSight camera on my aging iMac could suffice. But while it delivers fine footage for its 720p resolution, having it attached to a computer essentially fixed in place left me with bad lighting–when I face the screen, daylight only hits one side of my face.

My HP Spectre x360 laptop (at almost three years old it also now must be considered “aging”) features a 1080p camera and is no problem to move, even if I can only elevate it by parking it atop a stack of books. But while I knew its video could look a little washed out, I didn’t realize how bad its white balance could get until I saw it turn a dark-blue shirt bright purple. Next!

I did a few panels with a thoroughly janky setup: my iPad mini 5, propped upright between the keyboard and screen on my laptop. That tablet has a much better camera, but that excuse for a tripod limits my options for positioning it. And pressing the iPad into service as an expensive webcam meant I couldn’t use it to read my notes for a talk.

Installing the Zoom app on my phone solved the positioning issues–I have a tripod and a phone-clamp attachment–and let me easily address any producer’s request to move the camera just a bit up or town. But the Pixel 3a’s front camera is nowhere as good as its back camera, and its microphone can’t match the USB mic that I can plug into my desktop or laptop.

I finally got around to researching apps that could let my laptop or desktop borrow my phone’s camera–meaning, the higher-quality one on its back–as their own. I followed Whitson Gordon’s advice in PCMag to use Dev47AppsDroidCam, a duo of Android and Windows apps that can communicate via WiFi or USB. Getting rid of the ads in the Android app and enabling a high-definition option requires its $4.99 Pro version, an expense I gladly paid.

DroidCam’s Android and Windows halves aren’t much to look at, and the Windows app was fussy to set up. But once the two devices are paired, the software just works, reliably adding DroidCam as an input option in Zoom. 

Optimizing this setup required configuring the phone and laptop to link via USB to reduce the risks of overloading a WiFi network or introducing some lag in my video, which in turn entailed some entry-level Android tinkering to enable Developer Options and then USB Debugging. And now I have a video-conferencing setup that lets me position my best camera wherever an event producer wants, use a desktop USB microphone for the best sound quality, and keep my iPad free for consulting notes.

Things would be easier still with the Wirecutter-endorsed Logitech C920S webcam. But that gadget must have key components made out of unobtainium, considering its perpetually out-of-stock status.

I thought I’d finally broken through when Best Buy’s site reported it last week as available for delivery today to my nearest store, so I eagerly punched in my order. But as today ground on without a pickup notice from that retailer, I knew what was coming: a “Rob, there’s a delay with your order” e-mail sent at 6:22 p.m. 

Update, 10/5/2020: To my pleasant surprise, the Logitech webcam was available for pickup on Friday. Video quality on it seems to be great, so I’m sure some other malfunction will arise on my next video call.