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.

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.

Weekly output: Russia’s tech-hostage law, Mark Vena podcast, Qualcomm’s always-on camera, T-Mobile 5G plans,

This week featured exponentially more air travel than a typical post-Thanksgiving week–about 9.570 miles’ worth–thanks to my attending Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Tech Summit on the Big Island of Hawaii. And with that trip in the books, 2021’s business travel is done.

11/30/2021: Russia to Top US Tech Firms: Set Up Shop Here or Get Out, PCMag

Russia now requires that large U.S. tech companies establish a physical presence in the country–which I must read as a demand that these firms name hostages that Putin’s authoritarian regime can threaten if they don’t comply with its demands.

12/3/2021: S01 E20 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I joined this podcast from my hotel room in some downtime at Qualcomm’s event, which gave me an excuse to wear a Hawaiian shirt to the proceedings; my setup for the recording, however, also somehow resulted in repeated audio glitches.

Screenshot of story as seen in Firefox for Windows 1012/3/2021: Are you ready for Qualcomm’s new “always-on” smartphone camera?, Fast Company

It appears that Qualcomm did not expect that announcing an “always-on camera” feature as a privacy upgrade would yield much blowback. Hours after this post was published, a publicist with that firm e-mailed to provide some useful details–for example, this locked-down sub-system only captures 640-by-480-pixel images–that company executives had not through to mention in prior briefings.

12/3/2021: T-Mobile debuts new 5G layer cake, Light Reading

I spent half an hour at Qualcomm’s event quizzing two T-Mobile executives about the carrier’s plans for building out its 5G network. For another take on T-Mo’s 5G agenda, see this writeup from PCMag’s Sascha Segan, who talked to the same execs not long after I did.

Weekly output: standalone 5G, Facebook’s outage (x2), cruise-industry information security, Instagram and teens, Mark Vena podcast, startup sustainability, Microsoft report on digital attacks, NSO whitelists U.K. phone numbers

I’ll be spending two days in Philadelphia at the end of this week to attend the Online News Association’s Insights conference there. It’s been more than two years since I’ve met most of my ONA pals, but it’s also somehow been more than 10 years since I last set foot in Philly–and that previous visit only consisted of a connection in PHL on my way home from my final business trip for the Post.

Screenshot of the article as seen in Chrome on an Pixel 3a phone10/4/2021: In a slow race to launch standalone 5G, T-Mobile stands alone for now, Light Reading

My editor suggested I take a closer look at the big three carriers’ plans to deploy standalone 5G–meaning connectivity that doesn’t lean on a carrier’s 4G signal to set up the connection–and that proved to be an excellent suggestion.

10/4/2021: Facebook’s giant outage, Al Jazeera

This happened on sufficiently short notice that I not only didn’t have time to set up my tripod, I also didn’t have time to shoo my cat out of his spot in my office lounge chair. I hope Abel appreciates the exposure.

10/5/2021: Facebook’s Outage Was No Laughing Matter Outside the US, PCMag

In much of the rest of the world, Monday’s Facebook outage would be more accurately described as “Monday’s WhatsApp outage.” I used this post to recap how aggressively Facebook has worked to cement WhatsApp as an e-commerce foundation in markets like India–sort of like WeChat, but not operating subject to the Chinese Communist Party.

10/5/2021: Tabletop exercises with cruise execs needed to tackle data breaches, Seatrade Cruise News

Seatrade’s Holly Payne wrote up the second panel I moderated last week at their conference in Miami Beach.

10/6/2021: Instagram and teens, Al Jazeera

AJ apparently was not tired of my insights about Facebook, so they had me on a second time to discuss the Wall Street Journal’s recent reporting about Facebook studies that found Instagram left a dent in the self-image of about a third of teenage girls.

10/7/2021: S01 E12 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I rejoined my industry-analyst friend’s podcast to discuss, among other things, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony on 60 Minutes and before the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

10/7/2021: How Not to Fail at Scale, Ascent

I returned to the conference at which I spoke IRL in 2019 and virtually in 2020 to interview Chargebee CEO and co-founder Krish Subramanian about how to run a startup for the long term.

10/8/2021: Microsoft: Digital Attacks Are Getting Worse, Russia Bears Much of the Blame, PCMag

More pass-the-vodka bad news about information security.

10/9/2021: NSO spyware no longer targeting U.K. phone numbers, Al Jazeera

AJ called upon me yet again to discuss the Guardian’s report that the Israeli spyware firm NSO blocked its Pegasus software from targeting the U.K.’s 44 country code, an apparent response to Dubai’s ruling sheikh using NSO’s tools to go after his ex-wife and her lawyer in Great Britain. My responses were heavily informed by a Washington Post investigation published in July that showed NSO had no hangups over selling its services to such repellent customers as Hungary’s authoritarian regime.

Updated 10/27/2021 with a link to and embed of the Ascent talk.

Weekly output: Spotify privacy, Halo’s 5G-powered car service, Internet providers

Our kid was out this week at camp, but in a few days it will be my turn to be out of the house: I’m doing some of the drive testing for this year’s edition of PCMag.com’s Fastest Mobile Networks guide. Yes, on the road for actual business travel.

7/7/2021: At Spotify, private listening is not a simple proposition, USA Today

I’ve had the idea for a while of a column unpacking the inconsistent and often unhelpful privacy settings in Spotify, but the chance to interview a Spotify executive for the virtual edition of Dublin Tech Summit last month gave me quotes to anchor the piece.

Screenshot of the Fast Company story on Halo as seen on an iPad mini.7/8/2021: This driverless car-sharing service uses remote human ‘pilots,’ not AI, Fast Company

I was supposed to write this story last month about the Halo car service and its use of T-Mobile 5G to have remotely-driven vehicles show up before car-share customers. But then T-Mobile said they wanted to push the embargo back; that gave me time to get an industry analyst’s perspective and write an explainer for Patreon supporters about PR embargoes.

7/8/2021: Internet Providers, U.S. News & World Report

My latest round of work at U.S. News–consisting of profiles of AT&T, Comcast, Spectrum, and Verizon; comparisons of Spectrum and AT&TComcast and AT&T, and Verizon and Spectrum; and guides to fiber broadband, cheaper Internet access, and ways to speed up your connection–was much more work than my previous efforts. That is mostly the fault of the many large Internet providers that show no interest in clearly displaying their prices, speeds and terms of service. Las Vegas hotels and their resort fees are models of transparency compared to this lot–although maybe I can’t be too cranky about their willful opacity, since it gave me the material for a USA Today column.

Weekly output: finessing 5G pricing, cruise-ship apps, RootMetrics 5G report

The significance of April 15 this year didn’t involve filing my taxes, thanks to the IRS moving back the deadline to May 17. Instead, Thursday happened to be the 10th anniversary of my last day of work at the Washington Post. Looking that up made me realize that I’d never quite decided when my freelance existence began, but now I know: April 29, the date of my resignation from the paper after the two weeks of vacation time I took following that final Friday in the newsroom.

Screenshot of 5G-details post as seen in Safari on an iPad mini4/14/2021: Here’s how AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile slice and dice 5G plans and pricing, Light Reading

This is my first post for a new client–thanks to an old editor working there. Freelancers, remember to be nice to your editors. Readers, give Mike Dano a follow on Twitter if you want to stay current about the wireless business.

4/14/2021: The Rise of Digitalization & Mobile Apps: Travelling Smarter and Safer, Seatrade Cruise Virtual

I was going to have a panel at this cruise-ship conference on my calendar last spring, but then the pandemic sank those plans. Instead, the event resurfaced as an online gathering, at which my role was to interview three executives at cruise lines–Jay Schneider of Royal Caribbean Group, Scott Piccolo of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, and Luca Pronzati of MSC Cruises–as well as Greg Ross-Munro, CEO of the app-development firm (and panel sponsor) Sourcetoad. We had a good conversation about the design principles that go into cruise-ship apps and where these folks think the industry is heading with them.

4/15/2021: RootMetrics 5G report puts AT&T in first place, Light Reading

RootMetrics PR gave me an advance on their latest report on 5G network performance, which I then wrote up for my new trade-pub client. Lesson re-learned from this: Always read through to the end of a study to see where they tested, which in this case was a grab-bag of mostly medium and small cities.

Weekly output: social-media misinformation, Comcast voice remote vulnerability, Cambridge Analytica, T-Mobile 5G, phone plans

I had at least one work event on my calendar each workday of this week, which has not happened in quite some time. Since CES, to be exact.

10/6/2020: Social-media misinformation, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language network had me on for half an hour to talk, once again, about governments staging misinformation campaigns on Twitter and other social networks. 

10/7/2020: Hackers could have used Comcast’s XR11 voice remote to spy on homes, Fast Company

The security firm Guardicore figured out how to load malware onto a widely-used Comcast remote control that would turn its voice input into a remote eavesdropping tool–and then Comcast promptly responded to their disclosure and fixed the flaws that made this possible. 

10/8/2020: The Real Problem Wasn’t Cambridge Analytica, But The Data Brokers That Outlived It, Forbes

An online talk by David Carroll, the New York professor who went to court in the U.K. to try to force Cambridge Analytica to disclose what data it had collected about him, gave me an opportunity to revisit everybody’s least favorite political consultancy.

10/9/2020: T-Mobile’s 5G sales pitch continues to miss on mid-band , Fierce Wireless

T-Mobile staged a bit of a dog-and-pony show for journalists about its wireless ambitions that had some entertaining moments but left some big questions about its 5G strategy unanswered. 

10/9/2020: The Best Cell Phone Plans, Wirecutter

I updated this guide to cover slight changes to the “unlimited” plans at Verizon, Mint Mobile’s new “unlimited” plan, Cricket’s addition of a 5G plan, the Verizon prepaid brand Visible, and a set of simpler plans at TracFone.