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?)

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Finally, an obvious upgrade from Apple

No computer I own has aged better than the iPad mini 4 I bought at the end of 2015. But that device’s days as my work tablet are now unquestionably dwindling.

That’s Apple’s fault and to Apple’s credit. The updated iPad mini the company announced last week may look almost identical (I’ll know for sure when I can inspect it in a store), but it includes a much faster processor and a better screen and camera. Reviewers I trust have essentially been saying “yes, buy this.”

The new iPad mini also doesn’t exhibit two of Apple’s least-attractive habits, in that the company resisted the temptations to remove the headphone jack and sell it with inadequate entry-level storage. So instead of paying extra for a 64-gigabyte model as I did before, that’s now the base configuration.

I wish the new tablet retired the proprietary Lightning cable for a USB-C connector that would let me recharge it with my laptop or phone chargers. But if I must choose, I’d rather be inconvenienced by having to fish out a different cable once every other day than have to remember to bring a headphone-jack dongle everywhere I take the tablet.

If only the the Mac part of Apple would learn from the mobile-device part of it and not gouge buyers who want a reasonable amount of storage! I’m typing these words on a 2009-vintage iMac that I have yet to replace because of this problem. The finally-revived Mac mini would be a logical successor to this iMac–I can’t see buying another all-in-one when its 4K screen should far outlast its computer components–but it starts with a 128 GB solid-state drive. And upgrading that joke of an SSD to a 512 GB model costs an insulting $400.

So I continue to trudge along with a desktop that will turn 10 years old this November–although the 512 GB SSD now inside it is only a year old–instead of paying that Apple Tax. With the new iPad mini, meanwhile, the only real question will be which retailer gets my money.

Weekly output: smartphone biometric security, Google vs. the headphone jack, Voatz blockchain absentee voting

Once again, Columbus Day–or, if you prefer, Indigenous People’s Day–delivered the unwelcome combination of our kid’s school being closed while both my wife and I still had to work. I joked on Twitter about resolving the argument over what to call this fake holiday and also saving Americans billions in day-care costs by abolishing it outright. But on reflection, the widely-tweeted suggestion that we relegate Columbus Day to a trivia question and promote Election Day to actual, don’t-have-to-work holiday status makes much more sense.

10/8/2018: Unlock your phone with your face or fingerprint? Here’s how to shut that off – quickly, This Morning With Gordon Deal

I talked about the subject of my most recent USA Today column on this business-news radio show.

10/10/2018: With Google’s new devices, music fans once again don’t get jack, Yahoo Finance

I’ve had this post in mind for a while, ever since conversations at events like Mobile World Congress and IFA revealed their lack of interest in shipping USB-C headphones. I expected that Google wouldn’t retreat from last year’s idiotic move to remove the headphone jack from its flagship smartphones, but I didn’t realize they would pull the same stunt with the new Pixel Slate tablet.

10/11/2018: This startup wants to secure absentee voting with a blockchain, Yahoo Finance

Even after spending a couple of weeks talking to various experts, I still have questions about how Voatz has been securing its blockchain-based voting system and whether states have thought long enough about how to ease absentee voting for faraway citizens. That said, many of the other options for absentee voting look even worse, something upon which I hope to write further in the coming weeks.

Updated 10/21/2018 to add a link to the Gordon Deal show.

Weekly output: headphone jack, 5G wireless, unlocked smartphones, broadband maps, wireless plans, MWC’s weirdest gadgets, Twitter spam

I had a terrific but exhausting week in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress and looked forward to a relaxing weekend at home–until Friday’s windstorm toppled the tree in our front yard and deprived our home of power until Sunday afternoon. As a result, most of the pictures in my Flickr MWC album haven’t seen any editing yet. And they may not until next week, since I have another short week: Friday, I head out of town again as SXSW brings me to Austin.

2/26/2018: The headphone jack isn’t dead yet, Yahoo Finance

I revisited a theme of last year’s MWC coverage to note that most phone vendors are not following Apple and Google’s foolish removal of the headphone jack. But with Sony, Huawei and Nokia introducing at least some models without that old but perfectly functional audio output, I’m not feeling too confident about the industry’s direction.

2/28/2018: How 5G wireless will soon supercharge the internet, Yahoo Finance

After years of hype about 5G, the next wireless standard is starting to look less vaporous–and some key industry figures are dialing back that hype.

2/28/2018: Don’t buy these smartphones through your carrier, Yahoo Finance

I’ve been arguing for years that you shouldn’t buy your phone from your wireless carrier, but at MWC three of the big four made that point for me by pricing the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus at least $70 over what you’d pay–with interest-free installment payments available–at Samsung’s own site.

CityLab broadband-map post2/28/2018: The Problem With America’s New National Broadband Map, CityLab

The Federal Communications Commission relaunched its broadband map, but the much better-looking version suffers from the same information gaps as ever. So does a privately-run site that draws on the same FCC filings as the map.

2/28/2018: The best cell phone plans, Wirecutter

I updated this guide to reflect more generous plans at many prepaid and resold services. But within a day of the revised guide’s publication, AT&T reworked its pricing for unlimited data, so we’ll have to update the guide yet again to account for that.

3/2/2018: The 6 strangest gadgets from Mobile World Congress 2018, Yahoo Finance

I had fun writing this look at the weirder hardware I saw at MWC–the last piece I filed from the show, shortly before they shut down the press room Wednesday night.

3/3/2018: Twitter spam, Al Jazeera

The news network’s Arabic-language channel had me on (overdubbed live into Arabic) to talk about an outbreak of Twitter spam in Saudi Arabia. The point I made: Going back to Usenet, every popular social platform has inevitably been abused by spammers and con artists.

Weekly output: Chrome vs. unencrypted sites, Google vs. the headphone jack, international roaming, freelancing, Facebook and fact-checking

As expected, this was an exhausting but fulfilling week. The Online News Association conference was its usual informative, eye-opening self (but this time, with travel expenses miniaturized down to Metro fares), Friday’s NLDS game left me feeling wrung out, and then Saturday’s left me feeling a whole lot better. And then I didn’t get to sleep in as much as I wanted Sunday…

10/2/2017: Google Chrome is about to warn you even more about insecure sites, Yahoo Finance

I knew in the back of my head that Chrome would start flagging unencrypted sites as “Not secure” more often starting this month, but a tweet from Google’s Adrienne Porter Felt last week reminded me of that, which in turn gave me a reason to check up on the adoption of site encryption.

10/4/2017: Not OK, Google: The headphone jack exists for a reason, Yahoo Finance

I teed off on Google for its idiotic decision to follow Apple’s foolish removal of the headphone jack. Google, unlike Apple, can’t count on tens of millions of loyal phone shoppers to suck it up, so I hope a chastened company will reverse this decision for its next batch of phones.

10/5/2017: $5,000 cell bill while traveling: How to avoid this, USA Today

This was one of the crazier stories I’ve come across lately. But after USAT ran this tale of a Verizon subscriber who got socked with that bill in Saudi Arabia (then had VzW forgive the bill after I inquired about it), another reader tweeted about an $11,961.03 T-Mobile bill run up in Mongolia (they, too, forgave it, but before I could get around to asking).

10/7/2017: Hunting, Gathering and Accounting: Freelance Survival Skills, ONA17

I broke a three-time Online News Association conference losing streak by having this panel idea accepted. I got the idea of offering practical advice to self-employed journalists (or those about to be self-employed but don’t know it yet) from a conversation with veteran freelancer Rose Eveleth at last year’s ONA. Then I picked up a capable co-panelist in Katherine Lewis, who’s been freelancing since 2008, seems a lot more disciplined about it than me, and is a poised public speaker. I didn’t hit every point I wanted to, but I think that combined the both of us left the audience better informed than when they arrived. Really neat bonus: Nashville-based attendee Ayumi Bennett did a terrific sketchnote of our talk.

10/8/2017: Facebook and fact-checking, Al Jazeera

My ambition of celebrating my first day with zero work appointments since Monday by not shaving went awry when a D.C.-based producer at the Arabic-language news channel asked if I could come into the studio to speak about Facebook’s latest attempts to combat fake news with fact-checking. The conversation I had (overdubbed live into Arabic but not, as far as I know, archived online, hence the lack of a link) wound up focusing more on the broader issue of other countries trying to influence U.S. Facebook users.

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.