Google Pixel XL: First few hours

Sorry, Steve.
Sorry, Steve.

Earlier tonight I picked up my Google Pixel XL from the Verizon store. After a few hours of playing around, I’m figuring things out, including the fact that I’ve got a lot to learn.

First, what’s in the box.

The Pixel XL comes in a tidy box larger than I expected it to be. It’s made of solid cardboard that fits together just so. In short, it feels like quality packaging.

Inside is the following:

  1. A mini quick-start guide
  2. A card on Google Assistant
  3. A card on Google Play Music
  4. A thank-you card
  5. A mini manual (and I mean “mini”)

There’s also an adapter for importing info from an iPhone (a process that worked flawlessly for me), two cables and a big, honking wall charger. Lastly, there’s a tool for removing the SIM card.

To call these "flyers" is generous. Let's go with "cards."
To call these “flyers” is generous. Let’s go with “cards.”

The phone itself

It feels very nice in the hand. The taper that many have mentioned…it’s a wedge shape, thicker at the top and thinner at the bottom…is likely in place to avoid camera bulge and does not affect the feel of the phone. I was afraid it would feel top heavy but that’s not the case. It’s really well balanced.

The sides are nice and grippy and it’s definitely less slippery than my iPhone 6S was. Also notable is that piece of glass that covers the top third of the rear case. I guess Google was going for something distinctive and iconic there, but ultimately it’s unnecessary and kind of goofy. Like a rear spoiler on a Toyota Corolla.

The good

There are a few things I like right off the bat. First is the placement of the fingerprint sensor. It really makes sense on the rear of the phone, as the way I hold the thing places my finger right where the sensor is. The phone is also just as fast as you’ve read. Apps launch very quickly and are quite responsive. Additionally, the power button on the side is textured, making it very easy to find without looking.

The mildly irksome

There are a few things that irk me a bit. Chief among them is the inconsistency among app icon design. Google is pushing circular icons as a standard, and many developers have not updated their icons yet. So you get some that are round, some that are square, some that are simply a logo. It’s messy.

By default, the phone is set to vibrate whenever you hit any button. Type a letter, it vibrates. Hit a home button, it vibrates. It’s extremely annoying but I was able to disable it. Thank goodness.

Lastly, “jiggle mode” is not persistent. If you long-tap so that you can re-arrange icons, you can move one and then you leave jiggle mode automatically. Unless I’m doing it wrong. Which is likely.

So far, I’m happy with this device but honestly I’ve only had it for a few hours. Tomorrow will be my first full day with it. I’ll be sharing everything here so keep an eye out. Talk to you soon.

Switching from iPhone to Pixel

judas-iscariot-1-sized
I wanted to Photoshop a Pixel into Judas’ hand but I don’t know how to do that. So imagine that it’s there.

“You’re a traitor.” – My 13-year-old daughter to me, as I purchased my Google Pixel XL.

After nine years of iPhone ownership, I’ve switched to Android by buying a Google Pixel XL. This article is about why.

Let me begin with what did not motivate my decision. First: I love the iPhone. When I picked up the original model on June 29, 2007, I declared it, “The coolest thing I’ve ever owned.” Subsequent models have only reinforced that assertion with huge leaps in features, design, utility and fun.

The iPhone defined a market and created several cottage industries, from case manufacturers to blogs and podcasts that feature reviews, opinions and discussions around the device’s present and future. The App Store is an economy that provides a sustaining income for developers, designers, copy writers and more.

That little slab of metal and glass has been my constant companion for nearly a decade, providing entertainment, timely reminders, easy communication with friends and family, near ubiquitous, on-demand access to work files, gorgeous photos and more reliably and with grace. I love the iPhone and did not by a Pixel as a reaction to some gripe with Apple. So why did I switch? A few reasons.

The time is right

pixelI’ve always been Android-curious. I’ve taken glimpses over Android-wielding friends’ shoulders over the past few years, but rarely liked what I saw. Android seemed like an OS built for developers, not civilians like me. Likewise, I dislike the model that divorces hardware and software development. As a result, my curiosity about Android remained just that: curiosity.

Meanwhile, I slowly and quite unintentionally added Google apps and services to my iPhone. The Google App for iPhone is fantastic for reminders, scheduling, search and timely news. I check it several times per day and love it. Google Calendar has been my choice for years, and Google Photos has managed my digital image library since it was first released. Likewise, I’ve been using Google Docs and Drive to collaborate for as long as I can remember.

At the same time, I abandoned Apple’s Calendar, Photos, News and Pages. Not intentionally or even consciously. It’s just that Google’s solutions worked beautifully on my iPhone, so I used them.

Enter the Pixel

Google’s Pixel announcement happened just as I was thinking about replacing my iPhone 6S. I was intrigued by a piece of hardware designed by Google, running “pure” Android with deep integration with the services I loved. I held off on the iPhone 7 and took some time to read reviews:

Dieter Bohn liked it.
Walt Mossberg liked it.
Joanna Stern liked it.
John Gruber sent me a brief but glowing “Twitter review.”
Myke Hurley had nice things to say.*

I watched several hands-on videos and listened to – a first here – a couple of episodes of the Android Central Podcast. The hosts were nit-picky but overall enthusiastic.

I felt a stirring inside. The time was right. Which leads me to…

I want the fun of an adventure

I have two children. I try to instill in them a sense of adventure and curiosity about our world. Here’s a quick story.

Recently we spent a long weekend out of state. At one point, we needed to get a new charger for his iPad. He was annoyed that his charger and died, and even more bothered when I told him that he’d come with me to find a replacement. “Why can’t you just go?” he asked.

“You don’t want to come? It’ll be an adventure!”

“Going to Best Buy is not an adventure.”

But it is. We’re in a new state. We’re in a town we’ve never seen before. We’ll travel through new (to us) neighborhoods, see new people and yes, visit a new strip mall. There was a little mom-and-pop corner store that we went into and saw a black-and-white photo of a man in a chicken suit. I got a Coke and we talked to the cashier. He told us about local legend Chicken Man and pointed us to Best Buy. As we drove back to the hotel, my son said, “That was fun.” It was.

Using an Android phone for the next two years will be an adventure. It will be fun. Oh, there will be things I’ll miss, like Twitterrific, Spark, iMessages (I’m REALLY going to miss iMessages) and something I’m calling Knowing How To Operate My Damn Phone, but I’m still looking forward to it. The time is right. The device is right. I might hate it; I might love it. I’m eager to find out.

Of course, I’ll be writing exhaustively about the process here. The adventure begins on Tuesday. See you then.

*Myke offers a bit of “real talk” on the episode of his vlog about his own Pixel XL. He says, in part:

“I can switch phones. It’s totally fine. We’re not fighting a war here, from device to device, from operating system to operating system. Apple isn’t an underdog anymore. Android isn’t an underdog. They’re both levelly placed on this huge playing field…It’s totally fine for people to like two tech companies, three tech companies, four tech companies and enjoy the products that they make.”

Amen, Myke. Now please explain that to my daughter, OK?

Apple Watch Series 2’s shifting focus

watchseries2Apple released the second iteration of its Apple Watch — called Apple Watch Series 2 — about a month ago. This update is in line with the company’s preference of small, steady improvements over huge leaps forward. It looks almost identical to its predecessor and features nice changes like on-board GPS, dramatically increased water resistance, a faster processor and an improved display. All in all, it’s a sweet piece of kit.

Is it enough to warrant upgrading from the original model, which is just 18 months old? I don’t think so. It does, however, offer two things: a renewed focus on athletic owners, and a strong incentive for those who passed on the original. That’s the sentiment I’m seeing in the initial reviews.

Writing for CNN Money, Samantha Murphy Kelly notes that, while still a splurge at $369, “…the Apple Watch is finally getting closer to where it should have been all along.”

I should note here that the original model is still available with a price drop and improved processor. That’s more affordable, but it lacks the swim tracking, superior water protection, brighter screen and built-in GPS that make its successor so appealing.

Over at Ars Technica, Valentina Palladino calls the Series 2 “…still optional, but pleasantly defined.”

Meanwhile, The Verge‘s Lauren Goode hits on something I want to examine further. With this update, she notes, the Apple Watch is first and foremost fitness tracker:

“The Apple Watch Series 2 is exactly [a fitness tracker]. It’s what Apple had resisted calling its wearable for the past year and a half, even declining to categorize it as such when citing industry rankings, opting for the ‘smartwatch’ category instead. It is, definitely, still a smartwatch. But the Watch now has focus, and that’s a good thing.”

Apple even announced a partnership with Nike, resulting in the Apple Watch Nike +. It comes with a few exclusives, including a perforated sport band, Nike-themed watch faces and a list of unique Siri commands, as well as deep integration with the Nike+ Run Club app.

Apple’s renewed focus on the Watch as a fitness device is notable because it contrasts earlier marketing efforts and speaks to its future.

Fitness

When Apple Watch was introduced, Apple positioned it as a fitness tracker but also as a fashion accessory. You’ll remember that model model Christy Turlington Burns joined Apple CEO Tim Cook on stage in 2015 for the device’s introduction. It was a smart move, as Christy — a model and marathoner — represents both fashion and athletics. Christy then posted a series of videos chronicling her use of the Watch in a half marathon.

But really, fashion was the real push.

In October of 2014, shortly after the original device’s announcement, Vogue China featured supermodel Liu Wen sporting the Apple Watch on its October cover. In the following weeks, the Watch appeared on the pages of Vogue France, Vogue USA, Self (USA), and Style (UK). It was a smart move, as it allowed Apple to court an industry that was foreign to the tech giant.

You could argue that is was also a bit of misdirection away from the original model’s deficits: No GPS capability, moderate water protection, a screen that’s hard to read in bright sun. With Series 2, Apple has addressed those issues and is all about touting the device to athletes.

Built-in GPS is great for runners who don’t want to drag an iPhone along. A screen that’s twice as bright as version one means its easier to read outdoors. The real benefit here is for swimmers.

applewatchswimmingApple Watch Series 2 is water resistant up to 50 meters. The Workout app tracks both pool swims and open-water swims, recording laps, distance and stroke. When you opt to start a swim workout, the Watch locks its touchscreen display so that you won’t accidentally engage it during your workout. When you’re done, turn the crown and hit “End.” The speaker then ejects water that was collected while you were in the water.

But really you needn’t be a swimmer to reap this benefit. A water-lock feature is available outside of swimming workouts by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. Ever use the shower at the gym? Now you don’t have remove your Apple Watch and pray that no one finds it.

Should you buy?

What does this all mean for making a purchase decision? If you’re main focus is fitness, and you don’t own an original Apple Watch…and you have $400 lying around…Series 2 is a great way to go. Apple’s renewed focus on fitness bodes will for the device’s future.

Those looking for a one-stop wearable should consider the lower-cost Apple Watch. Current models have a faster processor than the those sold in the first go-round and start at $269.

Finally, WatchOS3 has made many original Watch owners — myself included — feel like we got a new device. So I’m happy with my OG Watch.

As for the device itself, it’s just a bit thicker and heavier than the original, but it’s not noticeable on the wrist. It’s still available in the same case sizes (38mm and 42mm), as well as aluminum and stainless steel. Note that a new high-end material, ceramic, has replaced the gold model.

Smartwatches will likely never be as essential as smart phones (especially as long as they rely on a Bluetooth tether for internet connectivity), but they’re maturing into the useful accessory that manufacturers want them to be. Apple Watch Series 2 is a nice step towards that goal.

What’s making me happy this week, Oct. 7

A look at what’s making me happy this week, and how you can enjoy them, too. You’ll find an archive of my “happy picks” here.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

What if Dracula was a bibliophile?

the_historian__19The 2005 debut novel from Elizabeth Kostova is a vampire novel, yes, but it’s not what you’re thinking of. In Kostova’s story, a woman recounts the adventure that her family endured when she was 16, traveling abroad with her academic father. Their journey leads to dusty crypts, ancient cities, family secrets and the fifteenth-century reign of Vlad the Impaler. Also, books. Lots and lots of books.

Part detective novel, part travelogue, part adventure story and part gothic horror, The Historian is a book I enjoy very much. It’s creepy without fetishizing blood, like so many vampire stories do.

I re-read The Historian every October to get me in that Halloween mood. It’s ultimately a book about the love of books, and the power of knowledge. Plus there’s cool vampire stuff.

The audiobook is also very well done.

Paper Planes

paperplanes

This one requires a smartphone so grab yours and point it to https://paperplanes.world. This utterly charming little web app has you “fold” a paper airplane and mark it with a “stamp” representing your geographical area. Once that’s done, you tilt your phone to the side and give it a shake to “launch” your paper plane.

The thing is, hundreds of thousands of people are doing this at any given time. So, after you launch your plane you’re given something resembling a butterfly net. Again, wave your phone about to catch one, unfold it, and see where it’s been. Every time someone catches a plane, they add their stamp.

I’ve gotten planes with stamps from Ireland, Japan, Taiwan, Johannesburg, South Africa…all over. It’s surprisingly fun.

Ambient 1: Music for Airports

music_for_airportsBrian Eno’s 1978 album of gorgeous, instrumental ambient music sounds like a contemporary indie release. The album was meant to replace what Eno called the “tense” music that’s heard in airport terminals. It was installed at the Marine Air Terminal of New York’s LaGuardia Airport during the 1980s.

The four compositions on this album make perfect backgroud music for quiet, focused work. Seriously, if “instrumental indie” is your thing, this 38-year-old album is for you.

That’s what’s making me happy this week.

You should be watching Fleabag

fleabag

Fleabag is a television comedy from BBC 3 available in the US via Amazon Prime.* It’s written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who plays a single Londoner who’s getting by after a personal tragedy.

That sounds dark. It is.

Fleabag is also supremely funny. It is intelligent. Waller-Bridge makes these asides to the camera that are compelling, endearing and reveal the program’s origin as a one-woman show. On stage, of course, such a practice is invisible, as the performer speaks directly to the audience the whole time. On TV, it can be cutsey, gimmicky or otherwise off-putting. That’s not the case here. Waller-Bridge is brilliant with these moments. The way the asides are used changes in such a smart way as the show goes on, but I can’t say more about that.

The season is six episodes long, and it’s clear that Waller-Bridge knows exactly where she’s going with all this from the start. It gets funnier and raunchier (there’s some sex, FYI) as it drives to a conclusion.

Speaking of: loss hangs over this story. The character has a tenuous relationship with her support system. Bad behavior is the norm and you have to decide, do I root for this person or not? Ultimately she’s a sympathetic character, even as a blatant misanthrope with poor impulse control.

Here’s a bit of a warning: do not watch this on a plan, on a train or anywhere else conducive to a wayward glance from a stranger. But don’t let that scare you away. It’s so beautifully cast and acted, that you’re going to love it.

*No Prime? No problem. You can watch episode one for free right now, and sign up for a 30-day free trial of Prime, which will give you more than enough time to binge all six episodes. 

What’s making me happy this week, Oct. 2

A look at what’s making me happy this week, and how you can enjoy them, too. You’ll find an archive of my “happy picks” here.

Audible Channels

audiblechannelsAmazon turned to Audible last week — which it snapped up for $300M in 2008 — for a new benefit for its Prime members. Audible Channels is a mobile app that features curated collections, or “playlists,” of classic short stories and original audio dramas.

It’s absoutely perfect for a commute or an afternoon walk. Over the last week I heard sci-fi stories, a good, old-fashioned zombie story (it is October after all) and more.

I especially enjoyed an origial series called Damned Spot, which looks at the places at which great horrors have occurred. How does violence change a place? After everything has been cleaned up and life has moved on, what remains?

If you love audiodramas, audio books or great radio, this is for you. Snap it up, Prime members, for a story in your pocket wherever you go.

Smartphone Photography 101

Photography Concentrate with Lauren and Rob has published a fantastic article: Smartphone Photography 101. It’s a very deep dive, covering everything from choosing a phone, composition and sharing. If you simply read my description, it sounds like any number of guides you’ve already read a thousand times. That’s not the case. This is a nice article that deserves your time.

“Soon…” by Flybear

flybearFlybear is a musician with a whole five tracks to his (her?) name. Apple Music suggested I might like the song “Soon…” earlier this week, and it was dead-on right. A dance-y, house-y instrumental track, it’s been putting me in a good mood all week long:

Also, “Flybear” is such a great name.

And that’s what’s making me happy this week.