Throwback Thursday: I’m walking around in 2017 with a phone from 2013

PARIS–I’m having an unusual week of smartphone use: I’m not unlocking my device with my fingerprints and I’m not posting any pictures. That’s because I’m not using the Nexus 5X I’d been carrying around since late 2015.

On my walk home from Metro late Friday after a very long day, night and day of travel back from Shanghai, my Nexus 5X rebooted by itself. That’s become a depressingly common occurrence lately–but this time, my phone wouldn’t get past the initial Google logo.

I spent the next 48 hours reading up on this “bootloop” issue (see, for example, this Reddit thread and this post from a user who spent far more time fighting the problem than I have) and trying to revive the phone. Putting the phone in the fridge or freezer let me boot the device, unlock it and run it long enough to stage some manual backups in two apps, but I got no further. It seemed clear I was facing a hardware failure, not a software issue.

The tech-support call I requested Sunday led to a remarkably quick resolution: After I told the rep that two other troubleshooting options in the Android bootloader hadn’t worked, he said Google would make a one-time exception and replace my out-of-warranty phone with a refurbished 5X for free.

Good! But I needed some kind of mobile device for my trip to the Viva Technology Paris conference. Enter the Nexus 4 that I’d never gotten around to selling, donating or recycling after retiring it a year and a half ago. I dusted it off, charged it up, wedged my 5X’s micro-SIM card inside the frame of an old prepaid SIM (the kind that lets you push a micro-SIM out of a surrounding bracket), popped that into the N4, and began restoring and updating the old phone’s apps.

Five days in, it’s working… more or less. Having to trace an unlock pattern on the screen every time I wake it is a pain, while constant interactions with the phone have also reminded me that part of its touchscreen no longer detects my fingers. The camera is clearly inferior, the lack of storage space bugs me even more than it did three and a half years ago, and the battery life is also pretty bad.

On the other hand, not having LTE doesn’t matter at the moment, since T-Mobile’s free international roaming only allows 2G speeds anyway. And the touchscreen has–so far-refrained from relapses into the digitizer freakouts that marred its last few months of service. So for the basics of Web browsing, text-only tweeting, checking my e-mail, getting Google Maps directions and taking notes in Evernote, my antique Android suffices.

The problem I now have: The refurb Nexus 5X that was supposed to have shipped on Monday and arrived at my home by now hasn’t gone anywhere. I have a query into Google about the status of that; stay tuned for a future post that will relate how soon I was able to set aside my fossil of a phone. I’d just as soon not have to buy a new Pixel phone when that model is due for its own update, but that’s not entirely up to me anymore.

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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.

Nexus 4 update: a little more life with Lollipop

One of the key reasons why I bought my Nexus 4 a little over two years ago was knowing that I wouldn’t have to wait for Google’s software updates. And then I waited weeks to install Google’s Android 5.0 Lollipop update after its first appearance on my phone in late November–the slight risk of the update bricking my phone was not something I wished to run during the combined insanity of the holidays and CES.

Nexus 4 with LollipopI should have waited longer. That 5.0 release and the subsequent 5.0.1 update exhibited a freakish and annoying bug: I could hear the other person in a phone call, but they couldn’t hear me.

The workaround suggested in a reddit thread about changing a developer-level setting made the problem go away most of the time, and it’s yet to resurface in Android 5.1. But I’m still completely puzzled as to how a flaw this widespread could have escaped QA testing

I don’t regret installing this update overall, though–not least since Google does appear to have fixed the problem it created.

The best feature so far has been battery life that seems notably longer than under Android 4.4. And seeing a current estimate of how many more hours the phone’s good for–combined with having its Battery Saver option prolong its runtime for a good hour or so–leaves me feeling a little more in control of this Nexus 4’s useful time away from a charger.

After that I’d rank the updated Quick Settings panel you access by swiping down from the top of the screen. This puts my phone’s hotspot feature one tap away–before, it was multiple levels deep in the Settings app–and finally adds the flashlight feature that previously required adding somebody else’s app.

Android Lollipop Quick SettingsThe rest of the Material Design interface Google made so much of a big deal about at last year’s I/O developer conference hasn’t made as much of a difference as I expected. I’ve quickly gotten used to the idea that different apps will turn the menu bar different colors–except when some of these hues get a little too close to Battery Saver’s bright orange.

And I feel like I can zip through open apps much faster in Lollipop’s recent-apps list, or at least I do since telling Android to show Chrome only once in this list instead of including a preview of every page open in that browser.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Smart Lock, the option to bypass the lock screen based on your phone’s proximity to a trusted component of one sort or another. But so far, I’ve only set it to trust my desktop computer via Bluetooth–and because that iMac can be iffy about connecting automatically to the phone, I can’t count on this working.

I should explore the other unlock options available. For instance, I happen to have a spare NFC tag or two around that I could stick in our car’s dashboard for an automatic unlock when I tap the phone to it. But haven’t gotten around to that yet.

The important bit about this update is this: Lollipop has breathed a little more life into a two-year-old phone. And that, in turn, means I don’t yet have to choose between continuing with the Nexus line in the form of the unacceptably huge Nexus 6 or going with another Android phone or even (it could happen…) switching to an iPhone.

All of my aging gadgets

As I’ve been plugging away at my taxes this year, one thing’s become blindingly clear: I’m not doing my share to prop up the electronics industry. My Schedule C will show only one gadget purchase for all of 2014, a $35 Google Chromecast.

Old laptop and phoneEvery other device I use for work is older, sometimes a lot older. I have my reasons for not upgrading, and some of them may even be valid… while others probably just testify to my own persnicketiness.

The oldest one of the bunch is my late-2009 iMac. I really should replace it–trying to edit a RAW image file taken with a friend’s camera made it painfully apparent how its processor has aged.

But buying a new iMac or Mac mini would require me to get an external optical drive, as if it’s 1997 all over again. (Doing without is not an option: Have you seen the lifespan of a DVD in the hands of a toddler?) One thing’s for sure: Whenever I do purchase a new Mac, there’s almost no chance I’ll pay Apple’s elevated price for an external DVD burner.

My 2011 ThinkPad X120E has not held its value nearly as well–the AMD processor inside was never that fast to begin with, and these days I only run it to test things in Windows 8. What I should do is replace it with a convertible laptop like one of Lenovo’s Yoga series–that’s a kind of device I can’t buy from Apple at any price. Maybe once Windows 10 ships?

The 2012 MacBook Air I’m typing this on shows its age on the outside–I’ve let this laptop pick up so many scuff marks that it’s unclear whether I even deserve a MacBook. But while its battery life has faded a little bit, it remains a great travel companion overall. I suspect I’ll wait to upgrade this one until I can get a new model with that charges via USB-C.

The upgrade calculus is simplest with my first-generation iPad mini. When I can buy a replacement that has not just the Touch ID sensor of the latest iPad mini but the better camera of the current full-sized iPad (or something close to it) and, ideally, a default storage allocation bigger than 16 gigabytes–boom, I’ll be throwing down my credit card.

On the other hand, I’m seriously anxious about how I’m going to replace my Nexus 4. This phone has aged remarkably well, not least since Android 5.0 Lollipop seems to have stretched out its battery life (I’ll write more on that separately). And I’ve somehow only dropped it onto an unyielding surface once, with the damage confined to a small crack on the back that I fixed in place with a bead of Krazy Glue.

But the Nexus 4’s camera remains mediocre in most situations, and the phone doesn’t have enough storage. Unfortunately, I can’t replace it with a newer Nexus model–the Nexus 6 is almost offensively enormous if you value one-handed use. So are most of the other high-end Android phones. If I shattered the screen on my generally-beloved phone tomorrow, I guess I’d buy the second-generation Moto X… which itself no longer ranks as new.

Finally, there’s my Canon 330 HS camera. I bought that bargain-priced model because the Wirecutter liked it at the time–and because the larger-sensor point-and-shoot models I initially coveted all required trade-offs. As far as I know, that’s still the case with the two leading candidates: Sony’s pricey RX100, now in its third generation, still can’t geotag photos from Sony’s smartphone app, and Canon’s S120 and newer G7X can’t take panoramic photos.

Now that I’ve described my intentional technological backwardness at length, I’m sure some of you would like to explain why I’m mistaken or which new gadgets I should be considering instead of the potential upgrades I listed above. Please have at it in the comments.

The fable of the one-handed phablet

For most of the last three years, I have been fighting a battle against “phablets” and losing it badly. Not only have people flocked to buy supersized phones after each negative review I hand down, the dimensions of these displays have steadily crept up.

Phone size inflationThe 5.3-inch screen of the first Samsung Galaxy Note, the one that I mocked at the time for its enormousness, now ranks as just a bit over medium-sized. And that 2012-vintage hardware seems positively compact next to the 5.5-in. LCD of the iPhone 6 Plus, the 5.7-in. screen of the Galaxy Note 4 and the 5.96-in. display on Google’s upcoming Nexus 6.

Minimum sizes have gone up too. The 4.7-in. touchscreen on my Nexus 4 once seemed quite the expanse of glass but is now approaching minimum-viable-product material.

All along, my core complaint against enormophones hasn’t changed: How do you use these things single-handed? Here are some common situations where it’s difficult or impossible to wield a phone with both hands:

  • Holding a shopping basket at a store
  • Pushing a stroller
  • Wheeling your luggage through an airport
  • Standing in a train or bus and holding on to a handrail or stanchion
  • Eating a slice of pizza or other no-utensils-needed food
  • Standing in a coffee shop, bar or restaurant with a beverage in one hand
  • Holding your child’s hand
  • Walking a pet

And no, wearing a smartwatch doesn’t help unless you’re willing to annoy everybody around you by issuing voice commands to your computer of a chronograph.

But with millions of people choosing to pay what’s often a non-trivial price premium for plus-sized phones, I have to allow for me being the person who doesn’t get it.

So I’ll ask this: If you have a phone with screen that exceeds five inches across, how do you work its touchscreen when you don’t have both hands free? Has the act of tilting the phone in your hand to let your thumb reach a corner become so natural that you no longer notice, do you put down or let go whatever has your other hand occupied, or is there some other trick I’ve been missing?

My not-so-simple prepaid SIM card

BERLIN–Having repeatedly endorsed using prepaid SIM cards in unlocked phones when traveling overseas (most recently at NowU), I owe it to you to note when this normally-simple transaction goes sideways.

Prepaid SIM cardThat was my story the first day and a half here. The afternoon I arrived, I went to the mall across the street from my hotel and discovered that the electronics store I’d used the last two years of covering IFA had closed. I went downstairs to a small Vodafone store and was told they were out of prepaid SIMs (no, really).

Then it was time for dinner, and by the time we got out all the stores were closed.

The next morning, I remembered I’d seen good reviews of some German wireless resellers at a crowdsourced wiki and another prepaid-data guide as well as on FlyerTalk. Meanwhile, a few of my dinner companions had suggested I check out two other telecom stores at the far end of the mall that I’d missed before.

The first had a decent deal but wanted cash when I only had €10 in my pocket–and the ATM, predictably located near the opposite end of the mall, refused to dispense cash for reasons I could not deduce from the German text. The T-Mobile store a few doors down, however, was happy to take plastic for a Congstar SIM with €9.99 credit.

First problem: After rebooting, the phone didn’t light up with the new signal, instead showing none at all. The shopkeeper pointed out that I had to set up the card online–which sent me back to the hotel to use its WiFi to configure the account. As Congstar’s site is entirely in German, I had to lean on Google to translate each page.

With my account set up and a data plan selected to use up that credit… I still had nothing. This was getting frustrating.

After a friendly but unproductive chat with Congstar’s Twitter account–they suggested trying the SIM in another phone, then referred me to a Web chat I couldn’t enter because the site couldn’t seem to deal with me posing an opening query in English–I gave up for the time being to attend Samsung’s “Unpacked” event.

Back at the hotel, a few other journalists sitting near me were fussing with phones. I asked if any of them had an unlocked phone with a micro-SIM slot. One did. He removed the SIM from his device, rebooted it and saw the phone immediately pick up a signal.

I put the SIM back in my phone, rebooted it, and finally had sweet, blessed mobile bandwidth. And I have absolutely no idea why that happened, or why it didn’t happen over the prior eight hours. Keep that in mind before you place too much trust in my tech advice.

CES 2014 journalism-tech report

For once, I made it through a CES without my phone dying. But it was close: Wednesday night, I arrived at a party with my phone showing 2 percent of a charge left. One of the hosts asked if I wanted a drink, and I replied that I could use an outlet first.

Phone battery charging

America’s annual gadget gathering is an unfriendly environment for gadgets. Too many people using too many phones, tablets and laptops result in jammed airwaves and a severe power shortage.

And this year, I gambled a little by not bringing any a spare review phone or two for backup. Plugging in my Nexus 4 every time I was sitting down helped the phone survive the show. But I also think I tweeted less than last year and didn’t take as many pictures as I expected (including only one panorama and no “photo spheres”).

I should have packed an external phone charger–my MacBook Air, unlike the ThinkPad I brought to CES in 2012, can’t charge a phone when closed and asleep in my bag, and it’s not that fast at replenishing my phone when awake. (On the other hand, the ThinkPad doesn’t have a backlit keyboard, making it far inferior to the MacBook for keynote note-taking.) I also should have remembered to pack my travel power strip, which I sorely missed on press-conference day but survived without the rest of the trip.

WiFi was not quite as reliable as last year, but it did suffice in the only places Ethernet was a viable option–meaning I never used the MacBook’s USB-to-Ethernet adapter.

The Canon 330 HS camera I’d picked up at a low, low sale price on the Wirecutter’s advice worked out better than I’d expected (see my Flickr set from CES to judge for yourself). I never even had to recharge the battery, and it was compact enough to leave in a jacket pocket full-time.

But after I couldn’t get the Canon’s WiFi linked to my phone–the upcoming 340 HS that I saw at CES should ease that by automating the pairing process with NFC wireless–I was stuck geotagging and uploading photos on a computer, same as ever.

That communication breakdown also cost me the chance to have the phone fix the incorrect date I’d set on the camera. Yes, I was the guy still writing “2013” on his photos, something I only noticed when I couldn’t find them at the end of my iPhoto library. Everybody point and laugh now… because I’m totally sure this mistake will have been engineered out of possibility by the time I pack for CES 2015.