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: saved WiFi networks, cord cutting, smartphones in snowstorms

TEL AVIV–Instead of typing this post in a snowbound home, I’m writing it from almost 6,000 miles east. I came here not to flee the snow drifts, but for an introduction to Israel’s cybersecurity sector–meetings with a variety of people in industry and government, plus a security conference here Tuesday and Wednesday–arranged for a group of U.S. journalists and analysts by the America-Israel Friendship League, a non-profit based in New York and here.

Like other sponsored trips I’ve taken, this is not the sort of thing I could have done at the Post. Like them, it provides an opportunity to learn outside the usual scope of my work about a topic I would like to know better. Look for a post or two about this at Yahoo Tech… with a disclosure of who covered most of my travel costs.

1/20/2016: How to ‘Forget’ Old Saved Wi-Fi Networks, Yahoo Tech

This week’s tip at Yahoo was inspired by the many time at CES that my phone tried to connect to old saved networks with Web logins that it couldn’t automatically handle as it would a standard WiFi password.

Yahoo Tech 2016 cord-cutting post1/20/2016: The Time to Cut the Cord and Switch to Streaming TV is Now, Yahoo Tech

The text of this column isn’t as gung-ho about dumping cable or satellite TV as this headline suggests–remember, a third of it covers the continued unavailability online of local stations and home-team sports. But that hed seems to have worked at some level, because the link I shared on my Facebook page was seen by more than 51,000 people. Thanks, undocumented and unaccountable News Feed algorithm!

1/23/2016: How to prolong your phone’s life in a power outage, USA Today

You may remember reading something like this at CEA’s blog in 2012; that post, however, went down the bit bucket a long time ago. Meanwhile, smartphones have changed quite a bit, meaning I could write a cheat sheet about phone battery life that could include some details many readers wouldn’t already know.

Weekly output: Silent Circle, smartphone battery life, FM radios in phones, Surface,

Not much to show for myself this week, but then again I spent most of the first half of it off the grid. Next week will be busier.

10/30/2012: Silent Circle Promises Spy-Proof Calls, Discovery News

I learned about this company back in June at the Tech Policy Summit, where co-founder Phil Zimmermann spoke on one panel, then got a briefing about from Zimmermann and another co-founder, Mike Janke, in mid-September. But actually testing Silent Circle’s encrypted-calling and encrypted-texting apps took just long enough that I finished and filed the review only an hour or so before the lights went out–ensuring it went online to a Sandy-diminished audience the next morning. That was not so smart.

11/1/2012:  Lessons of Sandy: How to keep your phone juiced longer, USA Today

I was going to write about ways to find and shut down a lost smartphone (that’ll happen next week), but sharing my own experience with keeping phones ticking along in a blackout seemed more timely. My editor thought so too, which is why a column that normally runs on Sunday appeared Thursday afternoon. It also includes a tip about some Android phones including FM radios that you can use even when you have no wireless service; a reader e-mailed to say that some Windows Phone devices share that feature, which was a point good enough for me to echo in a comment I left on the story.

11/3/2012: Microsoft’s Surface, A Tablet With Many Faces, Discovery News

I’m really on the fence about this tablet. The hardware is as tremendous as the first journalists to get a peek at it claimed this summer, but the software–well, if Microsoft had simply killed off the traditional Windows desktop entirely here, at least I’d know what I was dealing with. Meanwhile, I already own two laptops with great battery life that also run an enormous inventory of applications.

Weekly output: e-book DRM, Vudu Disc to Digital, Samsung Galaxy Tab 2, data caps, OLED battery life

I’m finally done with the hell of tax prep and resuming something close to my usual level of productivity–after taking off Thursday to see the space shuttle Discovery arrive at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

4/17/2012: Overlooked E-Book Chapter: DRM Makes Monopolies, CEA Digital Dialogue

The Department of Justice’s antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five major book publishers–followed by a round of traditional-media coverage of the DoJ’s action that ignored how “digital rights management” restrictions distort that market–persuaded me to revisit the topic I last addressed in my penultimate Post column. If I keep rewriting this thesis enough times, will I eventually see publishing-industry executives agree with it?

4/19/2012: Get Higher Def From (Some of) Your DVDs, Discovery News

Much like last week, I enjoyed coming up with an artsy photo for a post. This one critiques a Walmart service that provides digital copies of your DVDs and Blu-rays. It’s a dubious value for same-quality duplicates, but I can see myself paying to get HD versions of movies I own on DVD. Walmart just needs to let me make the purchase without having to trek to one of its stores–and I write this after completing the transaction on the first try, unlike my fellow D.C.-area tech blogger Dave Zatz.

To reinforce every single stereotype of East Coast Liberal Media Elite Bias: This was the first time I’d set foot in a Walmart in maybe nine years. (Look, I hate driving for 30 minutes to do routine shopping. That’s the same reason I’ve yet to set foot in a Wegman’s.)

4/20/2012: A Tablet That Talks To Your TV — Or Tries To, Discovery News

I might have gone easier on this Android tablet–at $250, it’s not a bad deal and is vastly more competitive than the first Galaxy Tab I reviewed–had Samsung not made such a strong sales pitch for its universal-remote app at demo in New York a couple of weeks ago. And if that app had not failed so badly in my own testing, even relative to my own snakebite history with allegedly universal remotes. If I hadn’t already been pushing the word count on this review, I also would have dinged Samsung for using a proprietary USB cable. (I didn’t ding the new iPad for that either.)

4/22/2012: What’s eating your phone’s data allowance?, USA Today

The front end of this column, explaining which apps and services might take the biggest bite out of a data quota, benefited from one of my last acts with the Galaxy Nexus phone before returning it last week: taking a screengrab of its data-usage report. The second half, relating a battery-saving tip for phones with OLED screens that I picked up while reporting a post about smartphone screen sizes for CEA’s blog, was also informed by a final test on overdue review hardware.

In the coming-soon category, I have an interview with former federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra in the May 2012 issue of Washingtonian. The print copy is now on sale but the story isn’t online yet, so look for a link to it in a future weekly-update post.

Smartphone (and tablet) battery scorekeeping

After reviewing dozens of smartphones and a few not-so-smart ones, I’ve settled on a couple of standard battery tests. To see how long the device will hang on in a best-case scenario, I’ll set it to check a couple of e-mail accounts, Facebook and Twitter (with WiFi and Bluetooth on but not connected), then let it sit on a desk and see what percent of its battery is left after 24 hours. To subject it to a far-less-forgiving trial, I will then play streaming audio through the Pandora app (with the same wireless settings and background apps active) and force the screen set to stay illuminated full-time.

I’ll note these figures in individual reviews, but as they pile up it gets harder to check back to see how a phone compares to its cohorts. That’s where this post comes in: It lists battery-life results from prior reviews and some post-publication tests, and I’ll update it each time I review a new phone. The same goes for tablet battery data, which you can see after the jump.

Keep in mind a few caveats: In some cases, especially with the oldest reviews, I may have departed slightly from the testing routines described above. Some of these figures are also approximations, on account of my not having kept whatever notes had exact times. And you could be looking at the occasional fluke result here.

Apple iPhone 4, AT&T: 95%, 6:21

Apple iPhone 4, Verizon: 93%, 6:20

Apple iPhone 5, Verizon (LTE): 85%, 7:44

Google Nexus S, T-Mobile: 47%, 7:22

HTC 8XT, Sprint (LTE): 33%, 4:34. ( also tests talk time; this one ran 10:32.)

HTC Evo 4G LTE, Sprint (3G only): 85%, 8:26

HTC Evo Shift, Sprint (WiMax): 66%, 77% with WiMax off

HTC First, AT&T (LTE): 65%, 7:07

HTC Inspire, AT&T: 88%

HTC ThunderBolt, Verizon (LTE): 57%, 4:20

Kyocera Hydro Edge, Boost: 70%, 4:52. 9:14 talk time.

LG Nexus 4, T-Mobile: 54%, 5:03

LG Nitro HD, AT&T (LTE): 64%, 4:31

LG Optimus F3, T-Mobile (LTE): 91%, but service on loaner model’s SIM was shut off before I could finish a Web-radio test. 14:30 talk time.

LG Optimus F6, T-Mobile (LTE): 91%, 10:38, 15:03 talk time.

Motorola Droid 2, Verizon: 80%, “six and a half hours”

Motorola Droid Bionic, Verizon (LTE): 70%, 4:45

Motorola Moto X, Republic Wireless (Sprint LTE): 60% (78% on WiFi), 10:53

Motorola Nexus 6, T-Mobile (LTE): 79%, 7:48

NEC Terrain, AT&T (LTE): 68%, 5:34. 9:49 talk time.

Nokia Lumia 520, AT&T: 89%, 7:16, 11:00 talk time

Nokia Lumia 900, AT&T (LTE): 71%, 4:45 (this Web-radio test was done with the Slacker Radio app, since there was no Pandora app for Windows Phone 7; in a second try, it only lasted 4:05)

Nokia Lumia 1020, AT&T (LTE): 88%, 6:29

Samsung Ativ S Neo, Sprint (LTE): 92%, 8:58. 12:52 talk time.

Samsung Epic 4G, Sprint (WiMax): 74%; with WiMax off, 73%, “slightly less than five hours”

Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Verizon (LTE): With WiFi on, ran out in just under 11 hours, allowed 3:56 of Pandora playback; with WiFi off, 59%, 4:04

Samsung Galaxy Note, AT&T (LTE): 37%, 6:14 (I don’t know how that would be possible on a screen with a 5.3-in. screen, but there you have it)

Samsung Galaxy Note II, AT&T (LTE): 82%, 10:19

Samsung Galaxy S, T-Mobile: 88%

Samsung Galaxy S II, AT&T: 73%, 7:05

Samsung Galaxy S III, T-Mobile: 83%, 6:37

Samsung Galaxy S 4, Sprint: 78%, 7:24

Samsung Galaxy S7, Verizon: 70%, 11:25

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