Post-purchase Pixel 5a praise

Near the end of last year, I retired a functioning smartphone that had aged at a remarkably slow pace over a year of pandemic-induced home confinement and replaced it with a new model. Almost four months later, that $422.94 purchase has proven to be the right call.

The immediate upgrade I got with the Google Pixel 5a I bought on sale for $50 off to succeed the Pixel 3a I’d purchased in the innocent summer days of 2019 is storage space. As in, the 3a’s 64 GB had become an increasing irritant, requiring regular dives into the Settings app to clear app caches and data; the 5a has twice as much storage, and so far I’ve only used up 69 GB of it even after I haven’t bothered to uninstall conference apps after coming home from those events.

Photo shows Pixel 5a on a wooden surface, with the afternoon sun glinting off the cameras on its back.

The advertised upgrade with the 5a–formally known as the “Google Pixel 5a with 5G”–was its 5G connectivity. The next generation of wireless broadband hasn’t delivered much for many wireless customers, but T-Mobile’s midband 5G (which it brands “Ultra Capacity”) has frequently served up download speeds in excess of 500 megabits per second outdoors.

I did not expect to get a comparable advance in battery life on this phone, knowing how often smartphone vendors have hyped that metric. But in everyday use, even at battery-abusing events like CES, my 5a has been a champion. As I type this after more than 11 hours of low-key use, the phone is estimating one day and 12 hours of additional runtime. That’s nuts–and believable after what I’ve seen over the past four months.

The one upgrade I didn’t even think about when buying the 5a but have since come to appreciate on a daily basis is the 16 megapixel wide-angle camera on its back that augments its regular 12.2 MP camera (the same Sony IMX363 that Google has been sticking in its phones since the Pixel 3). This extra lens has opened up my phone photographic possibilities, by which I mean it’s freed me from having to step off a sidewalk to get an especially large building in the frame.

I do wish the 5a were a little smaller, as its 6.34-in. touchscreen is just big enough to thwart easy placement of a thumb at the far corners of that display when I’m using the device one-handed. But as I realized testing $500-and-under smartphones for CNN Underscored (the 5a came away as my top pick), almost every other Android phone is bigger.

The compromises this phone has entailed have been unobjectionable. It lacks cordless charging, but the only place I could have used that has been my home. It doesn’t support millimeter-wave 5G, but T-Mobile barely offers those fast, fragile frequencies anywhere and even Verizon’s mm-wave network remains evanescent. I would like to see Google commit to more than three years of operating-system updates, but over the time I’m likely to keep this phone I’m unlikely to exhaust that support but do stand to benefit from Google’s recent move to sell authorized repair parts through iFixit.

But while I expect my 5a to serve me well through at least late 2023, I don’t expect it to be sold nearly that long: All signs point to Google introducing the Pixel 6a at Google I/O next month. And while that model will apparently add Google’s faster Tensor processor, its fingerprint sensor will reside under the screen and may be fussier to use–and it will apparently omit a headphone jack. The prospect of that unnecessary, unrequested “simplification” already has me dreading the next upgrade cycle.

Android phone migration has gotten easier–except for Google Pay and Google Voice

Moving from my old Pixel 3a to my new Pixel 5a provided my smoothest Android phone-migration experience yet. I had much less home-screen housekeeping to do on my new device than two years ago, and one key Google app showed a particularly dramatic improvement. But then I had to deal with Google Pay and Google Voice.

Overall, Google’s instructions get across how easy process has become. Tap yes in the “Copy apps & data” button on the new phone, unlock the old phone, connect the two with a USB-C cable, tap yes in the old phone’s “Copy data to new phone?” dialog, then wait–about 21 minutes in my case.

A Pixel 5a showing the "Transfer accounts" screen in Google Authenticator sits atop a Pixel 3a showing the same screen in the same app.

Google’s Android-transfer system accurately reproduced my app-icon layout (the contrast with upgrading to iPadOS 15 did not escape my attention) and wallpaper, with the only missing item being a home-screen icon for Android Auto.

I did still have to wait for most individual apps to download off Google’s Play Store, and their new-phone user experience varied awkwardly. Some, such as Feedly, LinkedIn and FlightRadar24, didn’t need me to log back in; most demanded a new entry of usernames and passwords (made much easier by 1Password); a few required extra bouts of authentication.

One Google app pleasantly surprised me, given the sensitivity of its stored data. Google Authenticator previously required renewing each two-step verification code securing a site login as if your old phone had fallen into the ocean, an experience that Google security chief Stephan Somogyi in 2017 apologetically described to me as “a complete, total and unmitigated pain.”

But in 2021, an old phone’s Google Authenticator can generate a catchall QR Code for its saved accounts; scan it with the new phone’s copy of Authenticator, and you’ve got your one-time passcodes for those accounts ready there. Great!

And then two other Google apps showed how awkward this process can remain. Google Pay–not the mobile-payments app that debuted as Google Wallet, but the new release that shipped this spring and then required some non-trivial settings restoration–landed on the new Pixel 5a as if I had never used it before.

I had to start by typing in my cell number because this Google service relies on that for authentication instead of a Google account. As Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo explained/warned back in March, this setup resulted from Google electing to build a new Google Pay off code optimized for the Indian market, where SMS authentication apparently reigns supreme. And then I then had to add back my saved credit cards, one at a time.

The last hiccup, I hope, came with Google Voice. The oft-neglected Internet-telephony app that I use for my work number seemed to be configured properly on the new phone, but then a journalist trying to reach me for a radio interview had her call go to voicemail. Eight times in a row. The answer turned out to be that Google Voice’s account settings had my number associated with two smartphones and two copies of the same number, a level of confusion that the system evidently resolved by not patching calls through to the newest device.

But now that’s squared away, and I think I can make it through the rest of this trying year without further mobile-app troubleshooting. I hope that’s the case for everybody reading this too.

My $5 solution to woeful webcams on my laptop and desktop

It’s only taken me seven months of fumbling iteration, but I think I’ve finally found a video-conferencing setup that doesn’t leave me yearning for an upgrade to my hardware right after a video call.

That’s taken a while. Back when All This started, I thought the iSight camera on my aging iMac could suffice. But while it delivers fine footage for its 720p resolution, having it attached to a computer essentially fixed in place left me with bad lighting–when I face the screen, daylight only hits one side of my face.

My HP Spectre x360 laptop (at almost three years old it also now must be considered “aging”) features a 1080p camera and is no problem to move, even if I can only elevate it by parking it atop a stack of books. But while I knew its video could look a little washed out, I didn’t realize how bad its white balance could get until I saw it turn a dark-blue shirt bright purple. Next!

I did a few panels with a thoroughly janky setup: my iPad mini 5, propped upright between the keyboard and screen on my laptop. That tablet has a much better camera, but that excuse for a tripod limits my options for positioning it. And pressing the iPad into service as an expensive webcam meant I couldn’t use it to read my notes for a talk.

Installing the Zoom app on my phone solved the positioning issues–I have a tripod and a phone-clamp attachment–and let me easily address any producer’s request to move the camera just a bit up or town. But the Pixel 3a’s front camera is nowhere as good as its back camera, and its microphone can’t match the USB mic that I can plug into my desktop or laptop.

I finally got around to researching apps that could let my laptop or desktop borrow my phone’s camera–meaning, the higher-quality one on its back–as their own. I followed Whitson Gordon’s advice in PCMag to use Dev47AppsDroidCam, a duo of Android and Windows apps that can communicate via WiFi or USB. Getting rid of the ads in the Android app and enabling a high-definition option requires its $4.99 Pro version, an expense I gladly paid.

DroidCam’s Android and Windows halves aren’t much to look at, and the Windows app was fussy to set up. But once the two devices are paired, the software just works, reliably adding DroidCam as an input option in Zoom. 

Optimizing this setup required configuring the phone and laptop to link via USB to reduce the risks of overloading a WiFi network or introducing some lag in my video, which in turn entailed some entry-level Android tinkering to enable Developer Options and then USB Debugging. And now I have a video-conferencing setup that lets me position my best camera wherever an event producer wants, use a desktop USB microphone for the best sound quality, and keep my iPad free for consulting notes.

Things would be easier still with the Wirecutter-endorsed Logitech C920S webcam. But that gadget must have key components made out of unobtainium, considering its perpetually out-of-stock status.

I thought I’d finally broken through when Best Buy’s site reported it last week as available for delivery today to my nearest store, so I eagerly punched in my order. But as today ground on without a pickup notice from that retailer, I knew what was coming: a “Rob, there’s a delay with your order” e-mail sent at 6:22 p.m. 

Update, 10/5/2020: To my pleasant surprise, the Logitech webcam was available for pickup on Friday. Video quality on it seems to be great, so I’m sure some other malfunction will arise on my next video call.  

Android 11 first impressions: payments with less stress

My pick for the single most helpful new feature in Android 11 doesn’t even get a description in Google’s highlights of its mobile operating system’s new version.

This addition lurks behind the power button: Press and hold that, and instead of Android 10’s sidebar menu with the “Lockdown” option that disables biometric unlocking and scrubs notifications from the lock screen, you see a full-screen menu with large buttons for that security feature, your Google-linked smart-home gadgets–and the credit cards you have active in Google Pay.

I’ve been a fan of NFC payments for years, but the world has caught up to me since March as merchants have rushed to provide contactless payment options. But until Android 11 landed on my Pixel 3a 11 days ago, matching a purchase with the card offering the best cash-back or points reward required me to open the Android Pay app and switch payment methods. Now, I just mash the power button and tap the card I want.

The Conversations features that do lead off Google’s sales pitch for Android 11 also seem like they’ll simplify my digital life. That’s “seem” because it took me until today to remember to swipe left on a text-message notification to expose the option to make the sender a priority–starring them in the Contacts app doesn’t affect this, nor do I see a way to promote people from within the Messages app. But at least now I know that messages from my wife will show up on my lock screen with her picture.

Android 11 also brings some less-obvious application-privacy enhancements, as detailed Google’s developer guidance. It improves on Android 10’s ability to deny apps background access to your location by letting you give an app only a one-time peek at your location. If you turn off location services altogether, COVID-19 exposure-notification apps like Virginia’s COVIDWISE now still work. And if you don’t open an app for a few months, the system will turn off its permissions automatically.

The biggest problem with Android 11 is one that has existed with every other Android update–but which fortunately doesn’t affect me as a Pixel 3a user. This update will probably take months to reach Android phones outside the small universe of Pixel devices and those from such other, smaller vendors as Nokia and OnePlus that decided to commit to shipping Google’s releases quickly.

CES 2020 travel-tech report: too much rebooting

My 23rd CES in a row featured an accomplishment I may never have pulled off before: I didn’t open my laptop the last day.

I got away with that because I’d filed all of the copy I owed from Las Vegas by Wednesday evening, leaving Thursday writing-free. And because I was starting to worry about having to rely on my laptop for one more day at the gadget show.

Each prior morning in Vegas, I awoke to find that my late-2017 HP Spectre x360 had crashed overnight and then failed to reboot, instead landing on a black-and-white error screen reporting that a boot device could not be found. Rebooting the laptop–sometimes more than once–allowed this computer to rediscover its solid-state drive, but I kept worrying that the condition would become terminal.

And then Friday morning, I dared to open the HP’s screen after my red-eye flight out of Vegas and had it awake normally, as it’s done every time since. I need to figure this out before I head out for MWC next month.

My HP is showings its age in other ways. The two rubber pads on the bottom have peeled off (this seems to happen a lot), and the battery life could be better.

My Google Pixel 3a, on the other hand, worked like a champ throughout my long work week as I took pictures and notes, stayed mostly on top of e-mail and tweeted out my usual snarky CES commentary. This phone didn’t crash once, and its battery lasted long enough for me not to get anxious about it–though having it recharge so quickly also helped with that.

But my Pixel 3a also briefly hijacked my Twitter account when I apparently didn’t press the phone’s power button before shoving it in my pocket after I’d tweeted my congratulations to a friend on his new job. And then I didn’t even realize this storm of pocket-tweeting had erupted until a few minutes later. Ugh.

Unlike last year, I benefited from the fortuitous overlap of an update to Wirecutter’s WiFi-hotspot guide. This let me borrow the bandwidth of the top two devices in this review, a Verizon Jetpack 8800L and an AT&T Nighthawk LTE, while also subjecting them to the harshest use possible. The 8800L also doubled as a battery pack for my phone; the Nighthawk also offers that function, but not via its USB-C port–and I forgot to pack a USB-A-to-C cable.

The Belkin travel power strip that I’ve been packing since 2012 also proved instrumental in keeping my devices charged, because there are never enough power outlets in CES press rooms. This gadget had the added advantage of not needing any firmware updates or reboots. So did the handheld storage device I used to access my notes for a panel I led Wednesday: a Field Notes notebook.

Android 10 first impressions: location, location, no you can’t have my location

A dozen days after installing Android 10 on my Pixel 3a, this operating-system update’s major accomplishment has been helping me to chain down a bunch of my apps.

That’s good! The location-privacy improvements in Android 10–starting with the ability to deny an application access to your location when it’s not running in the foreground–more than justify the roughly seven minutes I spent installing this release.

I expected that after seeing Google’s introduction of Android 10, then named Android Q, at Google I/O this May.

But I didn’t know then that Android would actively warn me when individual apps checked my whereabouts when I wasn’t running them, in the form of “[App name] got your location in the background” notifications inviting me to take the background-location keys from that app.

I was already planning on limiting most of the apps on my phone to foreground location access only, but these reminders have sped up that process and helped spotlight the more obvious offenders. (Facebook Messenger, go sit in the corner.) This is an excellent case of Google borrowing from Apple.

There’s much more that’s new in Android 10–if you’re curious and have an hour or so free, Ron Amadeo’s novella-length review at Ars Technica exceeds 2,000 words on the first of nine pages–but its other changes have made less of a difference in my daily use.

• The battery, WiFi and signal-strength icons are now simple outlines, and when swiped down the notifications area shows your remaining battery life in human language instead of a percentage: “1 day, 2 hr.” Less attractive: The text of notifications doesn’t appear in Android’s usual Roboto font, which bugs me to no end.

• The array of icons in the share sheet no longer painstakingly paint their way onto the screen. And the one I employ most often–the copy-to-clipboard icon–always appears first and at the top right of this list.

• The switch to gesture navigation (for instance, swiping up to see all open apps) hasn’t been as confusing as I’d feared… because Android 10 didn’t touch my previous “2-button navigation” system setting, which keeps the back and home buttons one swipe away. I guess I should try the new routine now.

• I still think dark mode is an overrated concept, having had that as my everyday screen environment on too many DOS PCs, but I get that it can be less distracting at night. And on phones with OLED screens, dark modes also extend battery life. So now that dark theme is a supported Android feature–hint, edit your Quick Settings sheet to add a “Dark theme” tile–I would like to see more apps support it. Starting with Google’s own Gmail.

Finally, I have to note that my phone has yet to crash or experience any impaired battery life since updating it to Android 10. I hope I didn’t just jinx this update by writing the preceding sentence.

 

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?)