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.

I see you all have some questions about your “cable modems”

After I filed my latest USA Today column–a reminder that it’s still generally a waste of money to rent a cable modem–one of my editors said they would play up the post. He and his colleagues may have used some sort of cheat code, as the column has drawn more feedback than almost anything else I’ve written for USAT since starting this column at the end of 2011.

Old coax cable close-upAmong the 100-plus comments and 40 or so e-mails I’ve received since this piece went up Monday morning, the most common queries addressed Internet services that don’t involve any cable-television infrastructure.

AT&T’s U-verse was the most frequent subject of readers’ curiosity, followed by Verizon’s Fios and then CenturyLink’s digital-subscriber-line offering. I didn’t cover them in my cable-modem column because they all branch off the telephone evolutionary tree–AT&T and Verizon use fiber-optic lines built on top of their phone networks, while CenturyLink’s DSL relies on traditional copper phone lines. None depend on the local cable plant; all compete with it at some level.

Am I going to write back to all of these readers to explain that they’ll see my column is properly framed once they understand some first principles about telecom? No.

Many normal people just don’t classify their home Internet service by which regulated local monopoly began building out its infrastructure decades ago or how how high its wires go on a utility pole. The problem isn’t that some think of their phone and cable companies as functional equivalents, it’s that too many others can’t because only their cable operator delivers both television and high-speed broadband.

Besides, AT&T’s policies about U-verse hardware are interesting enough–especially compared to Verizon’s–to justify a follow-up column. Look for that this weekend.

The Sisyphean experience of documenting Sprint’s price plans

On Wednesday, the Wirecutter posted the latest version of its guide to the four nationwide wireless carriers. By Friday, my work needed another update.

Sprint logo from phone-recycling bagThe cause was something I should have seen coming: Sprint changing its offerings. That company, more than any other member of the big four, can’t seem to pick a channel and stay with it.

To give you a sense of how often it shakes things up, here are the rate-plan changes I’ve had to factor into this guide over the past eight months.

6/30/2015: Sprint announces $60 “All-In” unlimited-data plan.

7/29/2015: Sprint revises Family Share plans.

8/17/2015: Sprint offers $15/month iPhone lease deal, with smartphone trade-in required; without trade-in, it’s $22 a month.

9/24/2015: Sprint lowers iPhone-lease cost to $1 with iPhone 6 trade-in, leaving the regular lease rate at $22.

10/16/2015: Sprint announces impending increase to the unlimited-data rate from $60 to $70 (subscribers will get 3 GB of tethering a month instead of having to pay extra, but the press release omits that detail).

10/29/2015: Sprint announces revised individual and family plans, with service starting at 1 GB of data plus unlimited text and talk for $40 a month.

1/8/2016: Sprint quietly drops contracts–and hikes the iPhone-lease rate to $26.39, also without notice.

2/18/2016: Sprint announces new “Better Choice Plans” for individuals and families, with service starting at 1 GB of data plus unlimited text and talk for $40 a month.

2/26/2016: Sprint quietly restores contracts.

On the upside, each time the folks in Overland Park, Kans., drop a new rate plan, I can bill the Wirecutter for the required work at my usual hourly rate. So: Thank you, Sprint. 

 

 

 

CES 2016 travel-tech report: Where did the battery anxiety go?

Something bizarre happened at this year’s CES, my 19th in a row: Neither my laptop nor my phone ever got into the red-line zone that leads me to start frantically searching for a power outlet.

My phone is only a few months old and so offers much better battery life than its predecessor, but my laptop is the same old MacBook Air I’ve had since 2012. Maybe I’ve learned something about power discipline; maybe the butt-in-chair time required to write all the stories I owed to various clients ensured sufficient opportunity to keep my devices topped off.

CES 2016 gadgetsI’m going to go with the second explanation.

Also strange: I never needed to break out the travel power strip I always bring to CES.

I did have one lesser power scare: I left my phone’s charger in a restaurant, and it’s not like I can count on random passerby having a USB-C charger. Fortunately, I’m not a complete idiot and had an extra USB-C adapter cable on me, and the restaurant’s staff found the charger and had it waiting at the hostess stand when I stopped by the next evening.

But while the electrons may have been obliging for once, other tech annoyances persisted. OS X’s curiously inept multitasking left my laptop locked up by runaway browser processes more than once (does the phrase “Safari Web Content” make your blood boil too?), while my phone twice showed a no-SIM-present error that I elected to dispel with a reboot.

Bandwidth was mostly fine except for Thursday, when neither my phone nor the two LTE hotspots I’d been testing as part of an update to a Wirecutter guide could get any useful bandwidth in the Sands. I had to camp out on a chair next to a loading dock to get back online.

The Nexus 5X’s camera was a massive upgrade over the Nexus 4 imaging hardware I carried last year, but I still took the bulk of my photos with my aging Canon 330 HS. I’m pretty sure that this is my last CES with this camera–although it still takes better photos overall than my phone, its lack of a built-in panorama mode is annoying, and I’m sick of invoking its photo-plus-video “Hybrid Auto” mode by mistake.

While I’m figuring out what camera will replace this Canon, I also need to think seriously about the software I use on my computer to edit and share pictures taken with a “real” camera. Apple’s Photos is a good image editor, but as an organizer it’s awful. Because its broken sharing feature ignores photo titles and descriptions when uploading images to Flickr–and because you can’t right-click a photo in the app to jump to its Finder folder–I had to export all 74 shots in my CES album to the Finder, then drag and drop them into Flickr from there.

If Apple doesn’t fix this app, I need to use something else. But what? Please share your own suggestions–and no, I’m not going to buy Photoshop for this–in the comments.

 

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.

An unwanted weekend of Web-mail

I’ve written before how I’m not too fond of Web-mail versus desktop clients, but last weekend didn’t give me a choice in the matter.

Gmail offline UI detailAbout an hour after my flight took off, my MacBook Air coughed up an error message from the Mail program that its index had gotten scrambled (not the exact phrasing; I inexplicably forgot to take a screengrab) and needed to be rebuilt. Fine, I said, and clicked the appropriate button.

Less than an hour later, my aging laptop complained that it was out of space. After a couple of fruitless attempts to weed out larger files, I gave up on mail for the rest of the way to LAX, then resigned myself to using the Webmail interface to the Google Apps account I use for work.

In the two years since Apple’s Mail app last couldn’t connect me to my work account, Gmail hasn’t changed much but Apple’s Mail app has. It’s become a clumsy, clanky, sluggish part of my workflow that usually has me grumbling in complaint before I’m halfway through the first cup of coffee.

Sadly enough, I still missed Mail. Gmail’s regular view only shows 15 messages on my MacBook’s screen, and its in-browser offline mode–a non-negotiable item given the horrible state of the ONA conference WiFi–only showed eight at a time.

Mail unsuccessful setupMy usual method of policing my inbox, block-selecting non-essential messages and moving them to folders like “PR” or “Administrivia,” broke down when Gmail Offline showed that few messages and required me to select each one individually before any moves to sub-folders.

Gmail’s automatic classification of messages under tabs like “Promotions” and “Social” didn’t help aside from correctly shunting most of the PR correspondence to the former tab.

At no point over that weekend did I get WiFi fast enough to let me even think about re-syncing over a dozen gigabytes of mail back down to my laptop–at one point, Mail couldn’t even crawl through its first setup screen. So I limped along in Web-mail, steadily fell behind, and have since caught up slowly in my iMac’s copy of Mail.

As I type this, Apple’s OS X El Capitan just finished installing on that MacBook. Will Mail behave a little better in that new release? I can only hope…