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.

Samsung’s Android versus stock Android: how six common tasks compare

I didn’t get around to reviewing Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge after their introductions at Mobile World Congress this February, but a couple of months ago Verizon Wireless PR offered to loan me one anyway. The device had a useful cameo role in a story about mobile payments, I did my customary battery-life tests, and then I had one last chore: taking notes on the differences between Samsung’s “TouchWiz” version of Android and the stock-condition software I have on my Nexus 5X.

Galaxy S7 and Nexus 5XThese interface gaps aren’t as jarring as they used to be, thanks mainly to Samsung having an attack of sanity and no longer putting a menu button where Android’s standard recent-apps button should be. Instead, a back button occupies that space, with recent-apps’ overlapping rectangles moved to the bottom-left corner.

But some differences remain, and I should keep them in mind the next time I’m writing up a cheat sheet about how to tackle certain Android chores. Consider this post a little FYI to myself…

Enable airplane mode:
• Samsung: Swipe down from the top of the screen to show the Quick Settings bar, swipe left to reveal the “Airplane mode” button, tap that. You may see a confirmation dialog if you haven’t told the phone not to nag you about this again.
• Stock: Swipe down twice (or swipe once with two fingers) and tap “Airplane mode.”

Check data usage:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Data usage” in the Settings app you just opened. Or, less obviously, swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap and and hold the “Mobile data” icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap the signal-strength icon.

View app permissions:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Privacy and emergency” in the Settings app you just opened, tap “App permissions.”
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, select “Apps” in the Settings app, tap the top-right gear icon, tap “App permissions.”

Pair with a Bluetooth device:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap and hold the Bluetooth icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the menu below the Bluetooth icon.

Check per-app battery consumption:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Battery” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the battery icon.

See how much storage space is left:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage & USB” in the Settings app.

Overall, I don’t see Samsung’s interface saving any time compared to Google’s. Which makes me wonder yet again why it bothers to craft such a different front end for this operating system.