From Pixel 1 to Pixel 3a

I changed smartphones this week without being forced to–my old phone hadn’t suffered any catastrophic failure or fallen into a weird cycle of malfunctions. Instead, I retired my first-generation Google Pixel because two years and change is a good run for a phone, and upgrading to a Pixel 3a with a better camera and superior network coverage would only cost $400 and change.

I could shop free of duress because my Pixel 1 has been the best smartphone I’ve ever owned. It’s taken a lot of great pictures, it’s had an almost-entirely crash-free existence, it’s benefited from every Google update almost as soon as each was released, its battery life has been fine (except for maybe the last few weeks, and obviously not at battery-devouring tech events like CES), and it’s survived multiple drops on hard floors that left all four corners scuffed.

The Pixel 3a I bought last week–after spending a couple of months trying out a loaner picked up at Google I/O in May–should share most of those virtues. It also cost about two-thirds the Pixel 1’s list price (although I was able to buy mine at a substantial discount when Google refunded the purchase price of the Nexus 5X that succumbed to a fatal bootloop cycle). And like the Pixel 1 but unlike the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3, this device includes a headphone jack, so I didn’t have to underwrite the gadget industry’s latest idiotic design-minimalism fetish.

The obvious upgrade with the 3a is its camera, which includes most of the optical hardware of the far more expensive Pixel 3. But because it also supports the low-frequency LTE band that T-Mobile has lit up over the past few years, this device should also deliver much better connectivity.

(I really hope I haven’t jinxed this purchase with the preceding two paragraphs.)

Finally, after struggling with earlier Android migrations, I have to give Google credit for easing this path. This time around, I only had to connect the two devices with a USB-C cable, start the migration process, and see some 13 minutes later that my app-icon layout had been copied over, after which I could sit through a tedious app-download process. That’s still not close to the simplicity of swapping iOS devices–like, why did my screen wallpaper not copy over?–but I’ll accept that added inconvenience if it means I can still have a phone with a headphone jack.

(No, I’m never letting that go. Why did you ask?)

TV-shopping bookmarks for cord-cutters

I had yet another story about how to watch baseball games online this week, which meant I had yet another round of checking the sites of streaming-TV services to see which regional sports networks they carry in various places.

That should be easy, but some of these “over the top” video providers don’t let you do this right on their home page. They may not even link to the relevant channel-finder page from anyplace obvious, and in one case a channel-finder feature lurks on a tech-support page.

So I had to open last year’s version of this cord-cutting story to find all the links I’d gathered then. To save me from having to do that again, and to spare you from some extra clicking around, here are those local-channel-lookup links:

DirecTV Now

FuboTV

Hulu with Live TV

PlayStation Vue

Sling TV

YouTube TV

You’re welcome. As a bonus, two more links:

• The Streamable put together a chart showing which services carry the regional sports networks of which baseball teams, which would have saved me a ton of time in researching my own post if only I’d known about it at the time.

•  CNet’s David Katzmaier put together an enormous Google spreadsheet showing which services carry which TV networks (the big four of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC plus MyTV and the CW, with PBS stations remaining absent) in more than 200 TV markets. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since August of 2018… but I can’t blame the authors for not diving back into what must have been an exhausting effort.

Here’s my Web-services budget

The annual exercise of adding up my business expenses so I can plug those totals into my taxes gave me an excuse to do an extra and overdue round of math: calculating how much I spend a year on various Web services to do my job.

The result turned out to be higher than I thought–even though I left out such non-interactive services as this domain-name registration ($25 for two years) and having it mapped to this blog ($13 a year). But in looking over these costs, I’m also not sure I could do much about them.

Google One

Yes, I pay Google for my e-mail–the work account hosted there overran its 15 gigabytes of free storage a few years ago. I now pay $19.99 a year for 100 GB. That’s a reasonable price, especially compared to the $1.99 monthly rate I was first offered, and that I took too long to drop in favor of the newer, cheaper yearly plan.

Microsoft Office 365

Getting a Windows laptop let me to opting for Microsoft’s cloud-storage service, mainly as a cheap backup and synchronization option. The $69.99 annual cost also lets me put Microsoft Office on one computer, but I’ve been using the free, open-source LibreOffice suite for so long, I have yet to install Office on my HP. Oops.

Evernote Premium

This is my second-longest-running subscription–I’ve been paying for the premium version of my note-taking app since 2015. Over that time, the cost has increased from $45 to $69.99. That’s made me think about dropping this and switching to Microsoft’s OneNote. But even though Microsoft owns LinkedIn, it’s Evernote that not only scans business cards but checks LinkedIn to fill in contact info for each person.

Flickr Pro

I’ve been paying for extra storage at this photo-sharing site since late 2011–back when the free version of Flickr offered a punitively-limited storage quota. This cost, too, has increased from $44.95 for two years to $49.99 a year. But now that Yahoo has sold the site to the photography hub SmugMug, the free tier once again requires serious compromises. And $50 a year doesn’t seem that bad, not when I’m supporting an indie-Web property instead of giving still more time to Facebook or Google.

Private Internet Access

I signed up for this virtual-private-network service two years ago at a discounted rate of $59.95 for two years, courtesy of a deal offered at Techdirt. Absent that discount, I’d pay $69.95, so I will reassess my options when this runs out in a few months. Not paying for a VPN service, however, is not an option; how else am I supposed to keep up on American news when I’m in Europe?

LastPass Premium

I decided to pay for the full-feature version of this password manager last year, and I’m already reconsidering that. Three reasons why: The free version of LastPass remains great, the premium version implements U2F two-step verification in a particularly inflexible way, and the company announced last month that the cost of Premium will increase from $24 a year to $36.

Combined and with multi-year costs annualized, all of these services added up to $258.96 last year. I suspect this total compares favorably to what we spend on news and entertainment subscriptions–but that’s not math I care to do right now.

Another part of the world where I need to use a VPN

I spent last week in London with my family–yes, actual vacation-esque time! It was great, except for when I was trying to keep up with news from back home.

My first stay across the Atlantic since the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation went into force May 25 brought home the unpleasant reality of some U.S. sites’ continued struggles with this privacy law. And instead of experiencing this only briefly in a Virtual Private Network session on my iPad, I got a full-time dose of it.

The biggest problem is sites such as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times that have blocked all European access instead of providing the privacy controls required by the GDPR.

That’s not the fault of the GDPR–its provisions were set two years ago–but is the fault of Tronc, the long-mismanaged news firm formerly known as Tribune Publishing. Tronc could afford to pay $15 million to former chairman Michael Ferro after he quit facing charges of sexual abuse but apparently couldn’t afford to hire any GDPR-qualified developers. I hope the LAT can fix that now that Tronc has sold the paper, but it may be a while before I can link to any Tribune stories without annoying European readers.

With my client USA Today, the issue isn’t as bad: It provides EU readers with a stripped-down, ad- and tracking-free version of the site, which you can see at right in the screenshot above. What’s not to like about such a fast, simple version? Well, I can’t see comments on my own columns, and simply searching for stories requires switching to Google… by which I mean, Bing, since right-clicking a Google search result doesn’t let you copy the target address, and clicking through to a Google result will yield an EU-specific USAT address.

The simplest fix for these and other GDPR-compliance glitches was to fire up Private Internet Access on my laptop and connect to one of that VPN service’s U.S. locations–yes, as if I were in China. It seems a violation of the Web’s founding principles to have to teleport my browser to another continent for a task as simple as reading the news, but here we are.

Please stop asking for my “best number”

Too many of my interactions with public-relations types and the people they represent conclude with a pointless question: “What’s your best number?”

That query is a waste of time because my phone number, 202-683-7948, should be obvious: It’s in the signature that appears at the end of almost every e-mail I send as well as on my business cards.

Besides, as a self-employed individual in the 21st century, I don’t use any other number for work.

My absence of a desk line should be obvious: Why bother when I already have a smartphone on my person at almost all times? But the number on my wireless plan isn’t my work number either.

You might see me call from a 703-area-code number if both WiFi connectivity and mobile broadband are awful, but there’s no upside to returning my call at those digits. If I have any cellular signal, calls to my work number will ring through to my cell–and even if my phone is offline, they’ll still reach the rest of my devices.

Yes, I’m one of those people using a Google Voice number, even after years of Google’s intermittent neglect of that service. I’ve had this GV number–again, 202-683-7948, which may be easier to remember as 202-OVERWIT–since 2007, when a friend got me an invite to the closed beta test of GrandCentral, the company Google bought before relaunching its service as Google Voice.

And not only do I have those digits mapped to my regular gadgets, they also reach me in WhatsApp and Signal. I would have done the same with WeChat but couldn’t–which turned out not to matter, since my cell number is invisible in that app.

I trust that’s cleared up how to reach me telephonically. Now can you all also remember that if I don’t pick up when you call, you’re supposed to either leave a voicemail or send a follow-up e-mail?

Bandwidth battles in China

SHANGHAI–Crowded gadget trade shows like CES and Mobile World Congress usually entail connectivity complaints. But when you put the gadget show in China, you level up the complexity, thanks to the need to run a Virtual Private Network app to preserve access to U.S. sites blocked by China’s Internet filters.

In theory–and in every PR pitch from a VPN service advertising itself as the surefire way to stop your ISP from tracking your online activity–that should add no difficulty to getting online. You connect, the VPN app automatically sets up an encrypted link to the VPN firm’s servers, and then you browse as usual.

PIA VPN exit-server menu

The reality that I’ve seen at CES Asia this week while using the Private Internet Access Windows and Android apps has been a good deal less elegant.

  • Often, the PIA app will connect automatically to the best available server (don’t be like me by wasting selecting a particular U.S. server when the app usually gets this right) to provide a usable link to the outside world. But it’s never clear how long that link will stay up; you don’t want to start a long VoIP call or Skype conference in this situation.
  • On other occasions, the app has gotten stuck negotiating the VPN connection–and occasionally then falls into a loop in which it waits increasingly longer to retry the setup. Telling it to restart that process works sometimes; in others, I’ve had to quit the app. For whatever reason, this has been more of a problem on my laptop than on my phone.
  • The WiFi itself has been exceedingly spotty whether I’ve used my hotel WiFi, the Skyroam Solis international-roaming hotspot I took (a review loaner that I really, really need to send back), the press-room WiFi or, worst of all, the show-floor WiFi. Each time one of those connections drop, the VPN app has to negotiate a new connection.

If you were going to say “you’re using the wrong VPN app”: Maybe I am! I signed up for PIA last year when the excellent digital-policy-news site Techdirt offered a discounted two-year subscription; since then, my client Wirecutter has endorsed a competing service, IVPN (although I can’t reach that site at the moment). Since I don’t have any other trips to China coming up, I will wait to reassess things when my current subscription runs out next April.

Also, it’s not just me; my friend and former Yahoo Tech colleague Dan Tynan has been running into the same wonkiness.

To compound the weirdness, I’ve also found that some connectivity here seems to route around the Great Firewall without VPN help. That was true of the press-room WiFi Thursday, for instance, and I’ve also had other journalists attending CES Asia report that having a U.S. phone roam here–free on Sprint and T-Mobile, a surcharge on AT&T or Verizon–yielded an unfettered connection.

At the same time, using a VPN connection occasionally left the CES Asia site unreachable. I have no idea why that is so.

What I do know is that I’ll very much appreciate being able to break out my laptop somewhere over the Pacific in a few hours and pay for an unblocked connection–then land in a country where that’s the default condition.

The wrong kind of practice with power and bandwidth management

After a week of having to worry about electricity and connectivity, I’ve spent today doing the same thing–but worse.

Tree down on wiresToday’s villains are not Mobile World Congress venues with inconsistent power-outlet placement and WiFi dead zones, but moving air molecules and a tree that wasn’t as solidly rooted as we thought.

Sometime before 6 a.m., the hurricane-force winds that have descended on the Northeast knocked over the large spruce tree in our front yard that had withstood the derecho and Sandy, and which an arborist last August had said only needed fertilizer and some treatment to curb mites.

Things could have been worse. The tree didn’t fall onto the front porch or our car, and it avoided smashing a neighbor’s vehicle on the street–because after its tumbling trunk snapped the power lines, the telecom wires below them held and broke its fall.

But that left me starting the workday with one fully charged laptop and another on its last 22 percent of a charge, a phone that was down to 75% from early-morning checks of the weather and news, an iPad at 20%, a loaner AT&T hotspot (for an upcoming update to the Wirecutter LTE-hotspots guide) below half a charge, and a few mostly-drained external chargers.

Windows 10 battery-life gaugeThinking that I should stick around our house to answer any questions from workers restoring power, I made it until around 3 p.m.

First I set the HP laptop that I had fortuitously remembered to plug in last night to the most conservative power settings Windows offered. I turned on the AT&T hotspot and signed the laptop and iPad onto its WiFi. Then I plugged the hotspot and my usual phone charger into the USB ports of the MacBook Air that had been mostly collecting dust since November’s laptop upgrade, but which could still serve as a backup charger.

After running down the Air, I dusted off two higher-capacity Mophie chargers that had shown up unbidden from different PR firms. They had next to no electricity left, because I’d stashed them in my home office’s closet after deciding to give them away to readers someday. But each trickled a little more of a charge into my phone and the hotspot, and the larger of the two also had a power outlet that afforded my laptop a little more time.

All of this let me limp along and get a column researched and partially written by around 3–with the last bit of work done in Google Docs’ offline mode after the hotspot died. By then, three things were apparent: My laptop would not make it another 30 minutes, nobody would show up to restore electricity while the winds were still hitting 50 mph, and I should have thought to recharge all of my gadgets last night at the first reports of a coming storm.

So I retreated to the same still-online neighbor’s house that my wife and our daughter had adjourned to Friday morning. We’ll sleep there tonight as our now-dead tree twists on wires in the wind and our house stays dark and cold. I would like to see all these things change Saturday.