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?)

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.

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.