Early impressions from a late Pixel adopter

Not that many people have bought either of Google’s two Pixel phones–as little as one million as of June, per Ars Technica’s estimate–and I bought my Pixel later than most.

And Wednesday, Google will introduce the replacements for the Pixel and Pixel XL, so this will be one of my less relevant reviews ever. But I still think it worthwhile to write down my three-months-in impressions… just in case I hate the phone later on.

But so far, I don’t. For something that I thought would be an interim advance over my now-dead Nexus 5X, the Pixel has impressed me.

The most pleasant surprise has been battery life that frees me from having to look for a charger on normal days–reading, I’m not at CES or some other phone-battery-destroying event, but I still leave the house and do my usual poor job of avoiding social media. I realize that sounds like thin gruel, but it also represents progress.

The camera has been an unexpected delight, easily the best I’ve used on a phone and more than good enough for me to leave my “real” Canon in my bag at the IFA trade show two months ago. Seriously low-light indoor exposures can still flummox it, but for the vast majority of my shots it delivers great results. The HDR function does some particularly amazing work with fireworks and illuminated structures at night. But judge for yourself: Have a look at my Flickr and Instagram feeds.

My major gripe with this phone is a weird one: It seems too easy to unlock. As in, the positioning of its fingerprint sensor seems to catch my finger more than the 5X’s sensor did when I slip it into a pocket.

So far, I have only pocket-texted one person–“App eye, meàl,” the message began before sliding into complete incoherence–but that was embarrassing enough to get me to try to grab the Pixel by its sides when pocketing it. And to change its “Automatically lock” screen setting from five seconds post-sleep to immediately.

If the rumors are true, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL Google will introduce Wednesday won’t feature expandable storage but will drop the headphone jack. If so, that will make me feel pretty good about taking Google on its offer of a full refund on my bootlooped 5X and applying that to a Pixel.
But it will also leave me profoundly uneasy over what my next Android phone will look like. I don’t want an uncompromised Android configuration to be a deeply compromised choice of outputs.
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Goodbye, Nexus; hello, Pixel

I’m no longer rocking a four-year-old phone. Instead, I’ve upgraded to a 2016-vintage model.

This Google Pixel represents–I hope!–the end of the smartphone saga that began when my increasingly glitchy Nexus 5X lapsed into a fatal bootloop. The refurbished 5X Google offered as a free out-of-warranty replacement never shipped, notwithstanding the “confirmed” status of that order, so after a second call with Google’s store support I took their fallback offer of a full refund of my 5X purchase.

(It’s possible I got special treatment–Google should know how to Google me–but comments in Reddit’s 5X-bootloop thread report similar outcomes.)

I opted to use that money (technically, future money, since I won’t get the credit until the dead 5X completes its journey back to Google) on a Pixel for a few reasons. It remains the Wirecutter’s pick as the best Android phone; a pricier Samsung Galaxy S8 would subject me to tacky interface alterations and delayed security fixes; the new OnePlus 5 would be cheaper but comes with an even weaker record of software updates.

(I did consider buying an iPhone 7, but its absence of a headphone jack has not stopped seeming idiotic to me. And my frequent iPad experience of seeing apps revert to the stock keyboard instead of Google’s better Gboard isn’t something I need to repeat on a phone.)

It bugs me a little to upgrade to a device that shipped last fall, barely a year after the 5X’s debut. Although the Pixel’s camera does indeed seem terrific, in other respects this phone doesn’t represent a major advance over the 5X. But smartphone evolution has slowed down in general–a point people forget when they whine about Apple not shipping breakthrough products anymore.

It’s possible that the next Pixel 2 will add cordless charging, expandable memory and water resistance, and in that scenario I may wish my old phone could have staggered on for another few months. Or maybe Google will follow Apple’s foolish lead and get rid of the headphone jack on its next Pixel, in which case I’ll be patting myself on the back for timing my phone failures so well.

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.

Weekly output: unlocked phones, headphone jack, foreign phones, Android security, smartphone trends (x2)

I had a busy week in Barcelona at my fifth Mobile World Congress smartphone show, and in just a few days I head to Austin for SXSW. So I may need a little more time to flesh out my Flickr album from MWC.

2/27/2017: 3 ‘unlocked’ phones that might make your carrier unhappy, Yahoo Finance

My first file from MWC focused on a few phones that manufacturers will sell direct to consumers, not locked to any one carrier–a trend I applaud.

yahoo-mwc-2017-posts 2/28/2017: Sorry, Apple, the headphone jack isn’t going anywhere, Yahoo Finance

This post must have fetched the biggest audience of anything I did from MWC. The Verge’s Vlad Savov gave me a shout-out, and a Reddit thread on my story racked up more than 2,000 comments–about 70 times as many as people left after the piece itself.

2/28/2017: 4 new smartphones you can’t get in the US, Yahoo Finance

You’d think “is this phone coming to the U.S.?” would be a question any MWC show-floor rep could answer. You would be wrong.

3/1/2017: What you should and shouldn’t worry about in Android security, Yahoo Finance

Some enlightening conversations with security professionals led to this report. Key lesson: While you’re far safer sticking with Google’s Play Store, malware can sneak into it. And as a visit to the MWC exhibit of an Iranian app store reminded me, some parts of the world don’t get the Play Store at all.

cr-mwc-2017-recap3/2/2017: Best Smartphone Tech of 2017, Consumer Reports

I fired off an e-mail to my editor at CR in the middle of packing two Fridays ago, asking if he needed any sort of a wrap-up post from MWC. This wound up being the last thing I filed from the show floor, then the next morning I sent in a revision from my Airbnb addressing my editor’s comments before I headed to the airport.

3/4/2017: 4 changes coming to Android phones, USA Today

This shorter look at Android-phone trends went through two changes after posting: We corrected the headline so it no longer referred to five changes, then we fixed an errant reference to a Galaxy S3 on the show floor (it was a Galaxy S7 Edge). As is my practice, I called out those alterations in a comment.

Weekly output: Google’s 2017 to-do list

The slowest week of the entire year saw only one story appear under my byline. I’ll more than make that up this week as I cover my 20th CES in a row (!). Any gadget news you’d like me to look out for while I’m in Vegas?

yahoo-google-2017-post12/26/2016: OK, Google: Please do these things in 2017, Yahoo Finance

My contribution to Yahoo Finance’s end-of-year coverage was a post about what Google should do in 2017. Will that company follow up on all of my suggestions? Probably not. I’m reasonably confident that we’ll get a better Android Wear watch from Google, that we haven’t seen the last of Google broadband, and that advertising on fake-news sites will take a hit from stricter Google policies. But I’m less confident that Google will ship an end-to-end encryption plug-in for Gmail, and I would be pleasantly shocked to see the firm start selling an ad-free upgrade to Gmail.

 

Weekly output: Google phones (x2), SXSL, e-mail encryption

I just watched the second presidential debate, and I was disappointed but not surprised by the lack of tech-policy banter. You?

yahoo-tech-google-phones-post10/3/2016: Why it matters that Google might be producing its own phones, Yahoo Finance

My suggestion at the end that Google might offer an installment-payment option for the new Pixel and Pixel XL phones–something analyst Jan Dawson suggested to me in an e-mail–panned out when Google introduced just that.

10/4/2016: Google’s new phones, WTOP

I spoke briefly about the Pixel and Pixel XL to the news station. One thing I wish I’d mentioned: These two new phones aren’t waterproof, unlike the iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S7.

10/4/2016: Obama gathers top tech to tackle US problems, Yahoo Finance

I spent most of Monday at the White House, which is not a bad way to while away an afternoon. This South by South Lawn event did not feature free beer (at least during the day) and so fell short of being a D.C. salute to Austin’s South by Southwest festival, but on the other hand SXSW has yet to allow me to see Rep. John Lewis (D.-Ga.) speak.

10/9/2016: How to protect your email from snooping, USA Today

Freelancing for multiple clients can sometimes lead to situations where one client asks you to write about an issue involving another.

Weekly output: IMAX VR, HDR, laptops, IFA

My fifth IFA is in the books. The biggest surprise of this year’s trip to Berlin: I did not get into any involved conversations about the election with Germans, only with other Americans. In a weird little bookend to that, I spotted Donald Trump’s 757 parked at the far end of Newark International Airport earlier today.

Note that as in prior years, the organizers of IFA are covering most of my travel costs, an arrangement my regular editors okayed beforehand and with which I’m okay in certain situations.

8/31/2016: IMAX wants to add VR to your next movie, Yahoo Finance

I finished writing this at the evening event during which Samsung introduced its new Gear S3 smartwatch. Having a hard deadline–as in, wanting to get dinner at Samsung’s reception upstairs–helped me get this done faster than other stories this week.

Fierce HDR story9/1/2016: The Progress of HDR, FierceCable

This post about cable, satellite and online video’s adoption of high dynamic range video is my first for this outlet. One thing I’ve realized I like about writing stories for trade publications: The research required to get into the weeds for those clients can save me serious time when I need to write something quickly about the same subject for a consumer site. Note that you’ll have to cough up an e-mail address and some other details to read the post and the others collected in Fierce’s miniature e-book.

9/2/2016: Your next laptop could have a fingerprint reader and USB C, Yahoo Finance

This report from the show floor went up with a stupid typo–I wrote that a Lenovo laptop was 5.6 inches thick, not the correct .56 inches. I haven’t done something like that since I made the reverse error for a Post review of an Apple laptop, describing it as a quarter of an inch thick instead of (if I recall correctly) 1.25 in. thick. My Yahoo colleagues fixed that on Saturday.

9/4/2016: Cheaper phones, brighter TVs rule IFA tech show, USA Today

I wrote a quick recap of notable consumer-relevant trends in laptops, smartphones and TVs seen at IFA. If this story doesn’t offer enough detail, I should have two last IFA items going up at Yahoo in the next day or two.