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.