Weekly output: Pixel 5a repair, Spectrum One, defining AI, innovating through a crisis, Alexa ambitions, Comcast uploads, brain-computer interfaces, digital personalization, Microsoft supports Ukraine, Seaborg nuclear power, Facebook Oversight Board, Signal

My last international trip of the year wrapped up Saturday afternoon with my last landing at Dulles Airport without a Metro station there in revenue service. And I have somehow already posted my Flickr album from this week’s Web Summit trip.

10/31/2022: DIY Demo: Just How Easy Is It to Fix Your Phone’s Shattered Screen Yourself?, PCMag

My recap of successfully replacing my Pixel 5a’s shattered screen using an iFixit repair kit was, as far as I can tell, the first story I’ve written to include the word “spudger.” It was also the first story in quite some time, maybe ever, where I lost a little blood in the research phase.

10/31/2022: Spectrum Adds New Bundle of Broadband and Wireless (Not Broadband and Cable), PCMag

We had to update this post to note a $5 rate hike to Spectrum’s non-promotional rates for residential broadband that went into effect Nov. 1–something that Spectrum’s PR person didn’t think to mention when answering my fact-checking questions about that service’s new promotion for bundled broadband and wireless.

My Web Summit schedule, as seen in the browser on my phone as I held it up in the Forum. 11/2/2022: Time to define AI, Web Summit

I got asked to cover this panel two and a half hours in advance after the original moderator had some unspecified flight trouble. It all worked out, thanks in large part to Dataiku CEO Florian Douetteau’s stage presence. #professionalism

11/2/2022: Recession busters: How to innovate through a crisis, Web Summit

This panel had a wide-ranging cast of characters: Andy Baynes, who worked at Apple and Nest before co-founding the consultancy GT; Kit Krugman, board chair of WIN: Women in Innovation and managing director for organization and culture design at co:collective; and Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Commerce Department’s SelectUSA office.

11/2/2022: More Than a Voice: Amazon Wants Alexa to Be an ‘Advisor and Companion’, PCMag

Amazon’s Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and head scientist for Alexa, led off the Web Summit main-stage schedule Wednesday morning.

11/2/2022: Comcast is upping upload speeds. But for now, you’ll need a premium bundle., USA Today

After years of hiding its slow upload speeds on a network-management disclosures page, Comcast has a better story to tell there–which it’s stepping on by making those faster uploads a privilege of a premium-service bundle.

11/3/2022: Hardware that can read your mind, Web Summit

I usually don’t bring props to my panels, but after getting invited to do this onstage interview with Neuroelectrics co-founder and CEO Ana Maiques, I almost immediately thought that a talk about brain-computer interfaces needed a tinfoil hat. Maiques liked the idea when we met backstage and I showed the aluminum foil I’d brought from the U.S., and a great conversation ensued.

11/3/2022: Making products that speak, Web Summit

This panel about digital personalization (featuring CI&T president Bruno Guicardi, BBC chief product officer Storm Fagan, and Chubb chief digital and chief risk officer Sean Ringsted) featured a stage that was noisier and warmer than average, and ending the panel at the 0:00 mark felt like a minor victory.

11/3/2022: Microsoft Pledges Digital Support for Ukraine Through 2023, PCMag

After multiple years of seeing Microsoft president Brad Smith warn in Web Summit talks of the risks of cyberattacks on civilian infrastructure, that executive returned to this conference to say the company would extend its digital support for Ukraine through all of 2023.

11/4/2022: This Danish startup wants to make nuclear cheap again—by putting plants on barges, Fast Company

This story started with my startup-pitch panel at TechBBQ in Copehagen more than six weeks earlier, when I found Seaborg’s presentation interesting enough to want to learn more. Then the ensuing weeks of travel got in the way of my moving forward with the piece while I needed more time than I expected to chase down an analyst type to provide some perspective.

11/4/2022: Facebook Oversight Board to Elon Musk: Do No Harm, Don’t Piss Off the Advertisers, PCMag

This panel happened the same day that new Twitter owner Elon Musk ordered mass layoffs at the company, and whoever at Web Summit picked this day for this panel may have been well-advised to buy a lottery ticket.

11/4/2022: New Signal Boss: We’re No WhatsApp, PCMag

After the speakers’ lounge and press center closed, I finished writing this post on a park bench outside the venue, where the event WiFi somehow kept working and let me file this before dinner.

Weekly output: AT&T and Verizon C-band progress, Gen Z online habits, lunar LTE, connected TVs vs. streaming media players, NFL Sunday Ticket, warnings of Russian and Chinese hacking, electronics recycling

Two weeks from today, I’ll be at Dulles Airport to fly to Lisbon for Web Summit. And I still don’t know if I’ll be able to take Metro all the way to IAD or if I will once again have to transfer to a bus for the last few miles.

Screenshot of story as seen in Chrome on an Android phone, including some rather generic stock art of beams of light shining past a 5G logo.10/12/2022: AT&T, Verizon Continue to Gain 5G Ground With C-band Rollouts, Opensignal Finds, PCMag

AT&T’s progress since its small-scale initial deployment of fast, reasonably wide-ranging C-band 5G was the big surprise of this Opensignal report.

10/13/2022: Sorry Parents, Your Kids Think Your Online Habits Are Cringe, PCMag

My kid made an unnamed appearance in this writeup of an interesting survey of attitudes about online privacy and security among Generation Z kids and their parents.

10/14/2022: Why Nokia wants to put an LTE network on the moon, Fast Company

As a native New Jerseyan who grew up in the 1980s with a lot of AT&T kids, it’s still weird for me to write about Bell Labs as the Garden State research operation of anybody but the company once known as American Telephone & Telegraph Co.

10/14/2022: Connected TV or streaming media player? Yes., Fierce Video

Two days of filling in at this trade-pub client started with a report about a survey covering U.S. attitudes towards watching streaming video on connected TVs and streaming media players.

10/14/2022: NFL throws flag on Apple’s request for Sunday Ticket flexibility, Fierce Video

I often feel like I’m speaking a foreign language when I write about NFL TV deals, because the horrendousness of the local franchise led me to check out of pro football a long time ago.

10/14/2022: Cybersecurity Pros Warn of Danger Ahead With Russia, China, and Beyond, PCMag

Heading into downtown D.C. to watch a panel discussion and enjoy a reception afterwards provided me with a delightful return to Before Times professional socializing–and, more importantly, left me with some insights about the state of international information-security politics.

10/14/2022: electronics recycling, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on for the first time in weeks to talk about obstacles to recycling and repairing electronics, and I made sure that the cracked screen of my phone played a cameo in this overdubbed appearance.

Late or never Android updates remain a problem

Here’s yet another unintentional benefit of my shattering my Pixel 5a’s screen last weekend: an opportunity to reacquaint myself with how slowly many Android smartphone manufacturers still ooze out Google’s system updates.

This is not a new problem, as I can see from re-reading a piece I wrote almost 10 years ago that’s aged a little too well. I had thought that architectural changes Google made to Android starting back in 2017 would have put a dent into this problem by removing much of the recoding work from manufacturers. But dusting off the budget-priced Android phones I reviewed for CNN Underscored early this year (most of which I had not yet returned to the companies responsible, because my desk is a mess) revealed the error of that thought.

Photo shows Android phones stacked on a wooden floor, each showing their software-information screen. The Samsung Galaxy A13's screen is most visible, showing it's running Android 12 with the July 1 security patch.

After multiple cycles of checking for updates on these six phones, installing these updates, rebooting these phones, and checking for updates again until every device reported it was current, here’s where they wound up:

  • Moto G Power: Android 11, August 1 security update
  • Nokia X100: Android 11, August 1 security update
  • OnePlus Nord N200 5G: Android 12, September 5 security update
  • Samsung Galaxy A13 5G: Android 12, July 1security update
  • TCL 20 SE: Android 11, August 1 security update
  • TCL 20 Pro 5G: Android 11, April security update

The current month is October and the current Android version is 13, so the problem should be immediately obvious. And not only did none of these devices have the Android release that I installed on my beloved, now battered Pixel 5a in the middle of August, only one of these devices had Google’s latest security fixes–and only two had the Android release that Google shipped a year ago.

The good news, such as it may be, is that a low price doesn’t condem an Android phone to obsolescence. The A13 sells for $250 and the N200 $240, but both have aged better, software-wise, than the pricier Android devices in that review. You may want to consider that a factor in favor of OnePlus and Samsung if you’re shopping for a low-cost Android phone–while the lagging performance of those other vendors should rate as a serious strike against them.

A humbling gadget-handling lesson

The past four weeks have involved four work trips that took me to events in two other countries and two other states, with travel fatigue compounded by unchacteristically bad sleep in hotel rooms and jet lag from going five time zones to the right, twice, and then three to the left–so of course the place where I would break my phone was less than a mile from my home.

On my walk to Metro to go to Saturday afternoon’s Nationals game, as a drizzle started to turn into real rain, I thought I’d check to see if the team had announced a rain delay. I grabbed my Pixel 5a, opened Twitter, checked the Nats’ Twitter feed and saw an announcement that the game would start half an hour late, and one-handed the phone back into my pocket–except the rain-slicked device slipped free and fell to the sidewalk with a sickening little splat.

A Pixel 5a's screen shows a wide-ranging web of cracks, with trees above reflected in the glass.

Cursing too loudly at myself, I picked up the phone and saw a web of cracks sparkling out from the bottom right, plus a smaller crack on the right above the power button.

First thoughts: You dumbass! You couldn’t have waited until you were in the station and out of the rain?! I mean, I had somehow never shattered a phone’s screen before; the worst I’ve done is drop my Nexus 4 years ago at just the right angle to put a crack in its glass back cover.

Second thoughts: Now what?

The phone that I bought barely 10 months ago not only looks hopelessly janky but makes any sort of onscreen interaction a trying experience. It is usable only under duress.

(Having my phone borderline offline did at least force me to experience the game much more in the moment, in between hearing my friend Anthony recount his recent experience hiking to the top of Kilimanjaro.)

Then I remembered the deal Google announced with iFixit in April to provide “genuine parts” for Pixel devices. Alas, that DIY hub’s $99.99 Pixel 5a repair kit is out of stock at the moment. And while I could obviously pay any third-party shop to fix my phone, that would probably cost more and certainly wouldn’t yield any how-to recap for me to sell somewhere afterwards.

Google no longer lists the Pixel 5a in its online store, and while the Pixel 6a that replaced it seems to be a fine phone in its own right, it lacks a headphone jack and otherwise doesn’t represent a huge advance over the 2021-vintage 5a. There’s also the upcoming, also headphone-jack-deprived Pixel 7–but as I trust I’ve made clear, I’m not a fan of buying the next high-profile phone on the day it ships.

Speaking two weeks ago at a conference hosted by the refurbished-device marketplace BackMarket reminded me that buying a refurb Pixel 5a is an option as well. But unless my phone abuse inflicted injuries beyond my 5a’s screen, I’d feel a little dirty spending a large fraction of the original device’s purchase price when it only needs that one major component replaced.

(No, the iPhone 14 is not an option. Neither is any other iPhone until Apple kills off its Lightning cable. I am so done needing proprietary charging cables.)

Fortunately, I don’t have to decide just yet. My old Pixel 3a continues to gather dust at home as a backup device, and I also still happen to have too many of the budget-priced phones I tested for CNN Underscored at the start of the year. And since it’s been a while since I’ve drunk deeply of Samsung’s flavor of Android, that makes my temporary decision for me: I’ll spend a few weeks, hopefully not more, with a Galaxy A52 A13 5G (I forgot that I’d already shipped back the A52) as my daily phone. And I will do my utmost not to drop the damn thing.

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.