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.

Weekly output: niche online video, biometric boarding passes, EC vs. Google, Petya, Canada vs. Google, Nexus bootloop, Google diet

I made up for a few slow weeks at Yahoo with this week’s surplus of stories. That represents a lesson learned from last year, when I let some slow months of writing slide on the idea that I could compensate for that shortfall later on.

6/26/2017: Surveying the Field, FierceTelecom

I contributed to another Fierce bundle of stories with this article (e-mail signup required) at how some niche online-video sites try to market themselves to subscribers. Bonus of talking to one of them, Silver Spring-based CuriosityStream: reconnecting with a producer I worked with at ABC News Now in the previous decade, back when that now-vanished network regularly had me as a guest on its tech show “Ahead of the Curve.” Anybody remember watching that?

6/26/2017: Your fingerprints could replace your airline boarding pass, Yahoo Finance

I headed over to National Airport to see how Delta is using Clear’s biometric system to let passengers enter its SkyClub without showing a boarding pass or ID. I can confirm that it worked, and that the Thai chicken soup at that lounge was delicious. NBC Washington’s Adam Tuss also checked out this demo; you can see my face briefly in his report.

6/27/2017: Even a $2.7 billion fine can’t hurt Google, Yahoo Finance

The European Commission’s record-setting fine of Google doesn’t seem to match the actual offense–a search engine, perish the thought, selling ads against user queries. Not that Google’s influence over the industry isn’t troubling…

6/28/2017: Petya attack, Al Jazeera

I had a longer-than-usual spot talking from a windowless, almost airless studio about this new malware outbreak. This was my first appearance on AJ’s Arabic channel since Qatar’s neighbors demanded that the country shut down the news network, a novel sort of business risk for me.

6/29/2017: A ruling against Google in Canada could affect free speech around the world, Yahoo Finance

Another day, another ruling against Google. In this case, Canada’s Supreme Court ordered Google to stop pointing anybody in the world to the site of what looks like a thoroughly sleazy Canadian firm. That is not a good precedent.

7/1/2017: My Android phone crashed and it won’t finish booting up, USA Today

I turned my now-resolved smartphone snafu (yes, Google did fully refund my Nexus 5X purchase as promised) into a column.

7/1/2017: How you can cut Google out of your life … mostly, Yahoo Finance

I’ve had this “how to go on a Google diet” idea in mind for a while, and the EC fine of Google gave me a reason to start writing. I don’t expect this post will get anybody to stop using Google–I certainly won’t–but if even a small fraction of users start to spend some time at alternate search services, I will have done my part for media literacy.

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.

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.

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.

CES 2017 travel-tech report: My devices are showing their age

 

I took the same laptop to CES for the fifth year in a row, which is not the sort of thing you should admit at CES. I’m blaming Apple for that, in the form of its failure to ship an affordable update to the MacBook Air, but 2016’s Windows laptops also failed to close the deal.

My mid-2012 MacBook Air did not punish my hubris by dying halfway through the show and instead was content to remind me of its battery’s age by running down rapidly once past 25 percent of a charge. Seeing a “Service Battery” alert last fall had me thinking of getting the battery replaced beforehand, but my local Apple Store’s diagnostic check reported that I could hold off on that for a little longer.

2017-ces-gearWhen I had to recharge my MacBook, nearby attendees could also guess its age from the black electrical tape I had to apply to its power cord to cover a frayed area–yes, this is the power adapter I bought not even two years ago. In any darkened room, they might have also noticed the glow coming my from my laptop’s N key, on which the backlight shines through now that this key’s black coating has begun to rub off.

My Nexus 5X Android phone, my other note-taking device, kept bogging down as I was switching from app to app. If I could upgrade the RAM on this thing, I could–but, oops, I can’t. Its camera, however, once again did well for most shots, and T-Mobile’s LTE held up up except for press-conference day at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

WiFi was once again atrocious. I’m not surprised by this, only that the Consumer Technology Association tolerated this kind of crap connectivity at its most important event.

Two hardware items I know I can and should easily replace before next year’s CES are the USB charger I took for my phone and my travel power strip.

The remarkably compact charger that came with my wife’s old Palm Pixi almost 10 years ago still functions as designed, but it doesn’t charge my phone fast enough. I only took that item to Vegas because I lost the charger that came with my Nexus 5X (yes, the one I almost misplaced last year at CES) at Google I/O. I should have packed my iPad mini’s charger, which replenishes my phone much faster, but I won’t mind buying a cheap, fast-charging, two-port USB charger. Any endorsements?

My travel power strip also charges USB devices slowly, but the bigger problem is this Belkin accessory’s relative bulk. The Wirecutter now recommends a more compact Accell model; remind me to get that sometime soon.

I’d written last year that I probably wouldn’t take my aging Canon 330 HS point-and-shoot for another CES, but I did anyway. I experienced my usual wishes for better low-light performance and the ability to touch the screen to tell the camera where to focus, but this camera’s lens cover also no longer closes without me nudging its plastic petals into place.

I should have spent more time at CES checking out replacements, but I only had time to verify that the Canon pocket-sized model that looked most appealing doesn’t take panoramic photos.

I’d like to think that I’ll address all of these hardware issues well before next year’s CES. I’d also like to think that by then, I will always remember to note a CES event’s location in its calendar entry.

A taste of Nougat on a Nexus 5X

DENVER–Two weeks ago, I tossed caution out the window of a hotel room and installed Google’s Android 7.0 on my phone one day into a business trip. The computing gods smiled on me, and the upgrade proceeded without incident and allowed me to experience the rest of the IFA show with the smartphone operating system Google also calls Android Nougat.

android-n-patch-install

Google’s sales pitch for Nougat may lead off with this release’s inflated inventory of emoji, but the change I appreciated first is the Settings app. In Nougat, it doesn’t just show categories of system preferences–it shows the current status of most of them.

That’s a thoughtful change. Too bad that phones with third-party interface tweaks will probably bury it.

The Nougat feature I use most often, however, is its new multitasking shortcut: Tap the recent-apps button twice, and Android jumps back to the second-most-recent app.

Nougat also offers a split-screen multitasking mode (that leads off the Google’s list of Android 7 features for developers), but my phone’s 5.2-in. screen doesn’t offer the kind of real estate that would make this useful.

I’ve also made little use of my newfound ability to customize the Quick Settings panel after removing the screen-rotation control (which I only ever used by accident). I do, however, appreciate being able to reply directly to more messages from the notifications list.

android-n-settings-appMonday brought a chance to try out the faster system-software updates Google has been touting. September’s security patches took 7 minutes and 15 seconds to install, which is less than instant but much faster than before–because I didn’t have that long wait as every installed app had to get reloaded.

At Google I/O, the company talked up Nougat’s more efficient use of memory. That got my attention, since the Nexus 5x’s 2 gigabytes of memory have often proved insufficient. I have yet to see my phone bog down the way it sometimes did before, although at least once I saw it fail to display my screen wallpaper for a moment after a round of switching between apps.

The Nougat feature that got me to do something as crazy as install a major software update to a critical device in the middle of a business trip was improved battery life. I haven’t done any detailed testing, but the phone does seem to last longer on days when I’m not using it like a tech journalist–that is, when I’m not constantly tweeting, replying to e-mails, and taking photos and notes, I can see the phone predict another 10 hours of battery life after I’ve gone seven hours without a charge.

But here at the Online News Association’s conference, no such luck applies. The phone doesn’t spend enough time in my pocket to benefit from Nougat’s ability to slow the system to a gentle stroll anytime the phone’s screen is off. So as I type this, my phone and my laptop are tethered to an outlet.

Samsung’s Android versus stock Android: how six common tasks compare

I didn’t get around to reviewing Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge after their introductions at Mobile World Congress this February, but a couple of months ago Verizon Wireless PR offered to loan me one anyway. The device had a useful cameo role in a story about mobile payments, I did my customary battery-life tests, and then I had one last chore: taking notes on the differences between Samsung’s “TouchWiz” version of Android and the stock-condition software I have on my Nexus 5X.

Galaxy S7 and Nexus 5XThese interface gaps aren’t as jarring as they used to be, thanks mainly to Samsung having an attack of sanity and no longer putting a menu button where Android’s standard recent-apps button should be. Instead, a back button occupies that space, with recent-apps’ overlapping rectangles moved to the bottom-left corner.

But some differences remain, and I should keep them in mind the next time I’m writing up a cheat sheet about how to tackle certain Android chores. Consider this post a little FYI to myself…

Enable airplane mode:
• Samsung: Swipe down from the top of the screen to show the Quick Settings bar, swipe left to reveal the “Airplane mode” button, tap that. You may see a confirmation dialog if you haven’t told the phone not to nag you about this again.
• Stock: Swipe down twice (or swipe once with two fingers) and tap “Airplane mode.”

Check data usage:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Data usage” in the Settings app you just opened. Or, less obviously, swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap and and hold the “Mobile data” icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap the signal-strength icon.

View app permissions:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Privacy and emergency” in the Settings app you just opened, tap “App permissions.”
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, select “Apps” in the Settings app, tap the top-right gear icon, tap “App permissions.”

Pair with a Bluetooth device:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap and hold the Bluetooth icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the menu below the Bluetooth icon.

Check per-app battery consumption:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Battery” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the battery icon.

See how much storage space is left:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage & USB” in the Settings app.

Overall, I don’t see Samsung’s interface saving any time compared to Google’s. Which makes me wonder yet again why it bothers to craft such a different front end for this operating system.

CES 2016 travel-tech report: Where did the battery anxiety go?

Something bizarre happened at this year’s CES, my 19th in a row: Neither my laptop nor my phone ever got into the red-line zone that leads me to start frantically searching for a power outlet.

My phone is only a few months old and so offers much better battery life than its predecessor, but my laptop is the same old MacBook Air I’ve had since 2012. Maybe I’ve learned something about power discipline; maybe the butt-in-chair time required to write all the stories I owed to various clients ensured sufficient opportunity to keep my devices topped off.

CES 2016 gadgetsI’m going to go with the second explanation.

Also strange: I never needed to break out the travel power strip I always bring to CES.

I did have one lesser power scare: I left my phone’s charger in a restaurant, and it’s not like I can count on random passerby having a USB-C charger. Fortunately, I’m not a complete idiot and had an extra USB-C adapter cable on me, and the restaurant’s staff found the charger and had it waiting at the hostess stand when I stopped by the next evening.

But while the electrons may have been obliging for once, other tech annoyances persisted. OS X’s curiously inept multitasking left my laptop locked up by runaway browser processes more than once (does the phrase “Safari Web Content” make your blood boil too?), while my phone twice showed a no-SIM-present error that I elected to dispel with a reboot.

Bandwidth was mostly fine except for Thursday, when neither my phone nor the two LTE hotspots I’d been testing as part of an update to a Wirecutter guide could get any useful bandwidth in the Sands. I had to camp out on a chair next to a loading dock to get back online.

The Nexus 5X’s camera was a massive upgrade over the Nexus 4 imaging hardware I carried last year, but I still took the bulk of my photos with my aging Canon 330 HS. I’m pretty sure that this is my last CES with this camera–although it still takes better photos overall than my phone, its lack of a built-in panorama mode is annoying, and I’m sick of invoking its photo-plus-video “Hybrid Auto” mode by mistake.

While I’m figuring out what camera will replace this Canon, I also need to think seriously about the software I use on my computer to edit and share pictures taken with a “real” camera. Apple’s Photos is a good image editor, but as an organizer it’s awful. Because its broken sharing feature ignores photo titles and descriptions when uploading images to Flickr–and because you can’t right-click a photo in the app to jump to its Finder folder–I had to export all 74 shots in my CES album to the Finder, then drag and drop them into Flickr from there.

If Apple doesn’t fix this app, I need to use something else. But what? Please share your own suggestions–and no, I’m not going to buy Photoshop for this–in the comments.

 

Weekly output: cross-device tracking, prepaid and MVNO wireless, Justin Bieber Mode, USB-C cables and chargers

My business travel for the year officially wrapped up with my return Friday night from a brief but meeting-packed trip to NYC. If I spend any other nights out of town for work before CES 2016, somebody else will need to be paying.

In other news: Welcome, new readers interested in Syrian-refugee politics and/or USB-C accessories! Should you keep reading, each Sunday you will find a recap of where I wrote or spoke or was quoted; at least one more day in the week sees me writing about some other thing that doesn’t fit at my usual outlets.

11/17/2015: Cross-Device Tracking: How the Ad Industry Will Follow You Wherever You Go, Yahoo Tech

A workshop hosted by the Federal Trade Commission Monday gave me an opportunity to write about a topic I’ve been following for a while.

Wirecutter prepaid MVNO wireless guide11/19/2015: Best Prepaid and Alternative Cellphone Plans, The Wirecutter

My third guide at this site covers both prepaid and resold (aka “MVNO,” short for “mobile virtual network operator”) wireless service, and it was many months in the making. Please read the comments; I spent part of Friday morning answering the first round of reader feedback, and I’ll be back there Monday or Tuesday.

11/19/2015: Who Should Be On Lyft’s Playlist After Justin Bieber?, Yahoo Tech

Yes, I’m old to cover anything involving Justin Bieber. But after getting a prompt in the Lyft app to partake in this promotion, I couldn’t not write about the weird intersection of the ride-hailing service and the Canadian pop star.

11/22/2015: Some Android users face quandry with USB-C, USA Today

My self-serving motivation to write this column was my own curiosity over when the phone chargers handed out as tech-event swag will feature USB Type-C connectors to match the hardware on my new phone. Before you mention it: Yes, I’m aware of the typo in the headline, and we’ll get that fixed soonest.