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.

Weekly output: budget phones, Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse pitch, SXSW 2022, Check My Ads, Mark Vena podcast, Flickr limits free accounts

It was a real treat to get back to Austin after three years and eat at least a dozen tacos over five days.

Screenshot of story as seen in Firefox in Windows 113/14/2022: The best budget phones in 2022, CNN Underscored

My first byline at a CNN property since the fall of 2012 ran at CNN’s new reviews site. My take on under-$500 phones after trying out this batch: The convenient truth here is that you now give up very little if you decline to spend $1,000 or more on a flagship smartphone, but camera quality remains the biggest tradeoff.

3/16/2022: Do You Care About the Metaverse More Than Mark Zuckerberg?, PCMag

I wrote up Mark Zuckerberg’s profoundly detached video appearance at SXSW.

3/16/2022: At SXSW, in-person networking resumes – along with the struggle to tame tech, USA Today

In my USA Today column, I tried to sum up my SXSW experience in 500 words and change. One thing that helped: Future Today Institute founder Amy Webb provided me with the perfect quote to open this piece in her talk last Sunday morning.

3/17/2022: To fight disinformation, follow the money—and the ads, Fast Company

My next SXSW recap came in this post about Check My Ads’ efforts to defund disinformation sites, one ad exchange at a time.

3/17/2022: S02 E11 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

My part of this podcast this week was telling listeners (and viewers) about SXSW, which mostly consisted of me talking about Zuckerberg’s profoundly detached video appearance.

3/18/2022: Flickr Limits NSFW Photo Sharing to Paid Accounts, PCMag

When I pitched my editors about writing up two policy shifts at Flickr that further emphasize paid memberships, I thought the photo-sharing service’s mobile apps would rank higher than it appears they do.

One of my newer travel rituals: setting up a TV hit away from home

AUSTIN

Normal people don’t check into lodging at a destination and then evaluate the room for its TV-backdrop potential, but I have never pretended too hard to be a member of the normal-people demographic.

Picture shows a Pixel 5a phone cradled in a GorillaPod tripod mounted to the screen of an HP Spectre x360 laptop.

So when I got a message from my usual producer at Al Jazeera on my flight here Friday (my thanks to United for adding free messaging to the inflight WiFi in December) asking if I could comment on the White House’s attempts to add TikTok to its public-diplomacy strategy, I knew I’d need to find a workable background.

Fortunately, the house I’m renting (and had rented for several years in a row for SXSW in the Before Times) has an excellent bookshelf in the living room. It also had enough room in front for two chairs: one for me to sit in, another to serve as a stand of sorts for my laptop.

Because that 2017-vintage HP Spectre x360 has a woeful webcam, I don’t just park it on a table or another suitable flat surface. At the same time, I don’t want to do a video interview looking at my interviewer on a phone screen that’s more than a foot away. Instead, I use my Pixel 5a phone’s back camera in place of the laptop’s camera–a workaround that requires running Dev47Apps’ DroidCam app on that Android device and on my Windows laptop and connecting the two devices with a USB-C cable.

Then I place the laptop, folded open to its “tent mode,” over the top rail on a chair so I can see Zoom, Skype or whatever app I’m using for the interview (or virtual panel) on the computer’s screen, and then use an old Joby GorillaPod flexible tripod to position the phone atop the laptop.

That gadget accessory is now among the first things I toss into my suitcase before a trip: Instead of flip-out, rigid legs, this tripod features a trio of flexible legs that you can wrap around a nearby object. Or, in this case, splay out across the hinge on a Windows laptop in tent mode, such that the smartphone camera sits just about at eye level.

That may look like a ton of work, but I’ve now gone through this routine enough times that it doesn’t feel like it demands much time–certainly not when the TV hit starts a bit behind schedule, as this one Friday did.

CES 2022 travel-tech report: a new phone and a renewed laptop

Uncharacteristically light attendance at CES this week allowed me to pack uncharacteristically light. With so many tech-news sites canceling plans to send journalists to the Consumer Technology Association’s annual gathering, I knew I wouldn’t need my traditional CES accessory of a travel power strip to free up outlets in any crowded press room.

I also opted not to pack any of the WiFi hotspots I had sitting on my desk from the last update of Wirecutter’s guide to same. Even in the likely event of the show’s WiFi being its usual inadequate self, I figured I had sufficient backup bandwidth in the form of the new Pixel 5a in my pocket, the expanded mobile-hotspot quota on my account, and the T-Mobile 5G network my previous phone couldn’t use.

Photo shows my HP Spectre x360 laptop sitting on the wood floor of my home office, on top of which sit my CES badge, the laptop's charger, a USB-C cable to charge the phone, a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, headphones and my Pixel 5a phone.

My other smart move before heading out to Vegas was replacing my late-2017 HP laptop’s battery with an aftermarket unit, a bit of laptop surgery I did in October. All of this helped make CES much less of a gadget-abuse scenario in my return to covering it in-person after last year’s distanced, digital-only conference.

The Google Pixel 5a, the only new device in my messenger bag, acquitted itself especially well. On a good day, its battery can run well into the next afternoon, and even at CES–where I did rely frequently on the phone’s mobile-hotspot feature to get my laptop online–I never saw this Android device’s battery get into the under-33% state that would get me nervous. My charging the phone at lunch happened out of habit, not necessity.

I also quickly grew to appreciate how the 5a’s wide-angle lens helped capture some of the bigger exhibits on and off the show floor. The sole quibble I can think of: The phone reported that it restarted overnight Friday morning, and I’d like to know what caused that crash.

My HP Spectre x360, meanwhile, was one of the oldest items in my bag but felt much newer with that replacement battery. It was nice to sit down to watch a panel and not need a spot next to a power outlet. And for whatever reason, this computer ran much more reliably than it had at CES two years ago, without any mysterious reboots sometimes interrupted by boot-device-not-found errors.

Lower CES attendance, estimated by CTA Friday at “well over 40,000,” did not banish CES bandwidth struggles. My laptop did not always connect to conference WiFi networks–have I mentioned that Windows 10’s “Can’t connect to this network” is not a helpful error message?–but all three press rooms had abundant Ethernet cables. The $10 and change I spent on a USB-to-Ethernet adapter in 2012 has turned out to be an exceptional deal.

As before, I took all of my notes in Evernote, but this time the app generated a few note conflicts when I switched from phone to laptop and back. If I could click or tap a “sync now” button before each device switch, I would–but Evernote removed that bit of UI out of a belief that its automatic sync is now reliable enough to make it obsolete.

The other app I leaned on heavily during my time at CES was the conference’s own mobile app. I hadn’t bothered with that in previous years, but learning that CTA had hired Web Summit to provide this event’s digital platform made me want to try it. Unsurprisingly, the CES app looks and works like the Web Summit and Collision apps, so I didn’t have much to figure out.

As at those other conferences, I leaned on this app to manage my schedule while ignoring in-app connection requests in favor of the kind of networking impossible at last year’s CES: masked-face-to-masked-face conversations that ended with an exchange of business cards.

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.