Google Hardware 2018

Some days I wonder why I write fiction, when real life so easily out-weirds–or at least out-coincidences–me.

Like today, for instance. Google’s hardware announcement event kicked off with a bit of hype for their artificial intelligence technology and a touch of horn-blowing over their elite security skills. This came, of course, one day after the announcement that they’re closing the highly unpopular Google+ social network in the wake of a massive security breach.

Imagine how much longer that introduction would have run if the two events had been reversed.

But anyway, new hardware.

In another, unrelated security breach, Google’s done a lousy job of keeping their new toys under wraps. We know about the Pixel 3 phones, the Chrome OS tablet, new Chromecast and Google Home, and probably a few other things I’ve already forgotten about.

But at least now it’s all out officially. Let’s take a look at what’s coming–as usual, thanks to Ars Technica for their live streaming report on the unveiling–and see if there are any surprises left.

First up is the Google Home Hub. It does all the usual digital assistant stuff, but it’s the first Google-branded model with a screen. Interestingly, it does not have a camera, unlike all the other screened digital assistant devices. They’re quite blunt in saying it’s to make users more comfortable putting it in the bedroom and other private spaces. That’s a brilliant PR move, even if its microphone means your privacy can still be painfully broken.

The “Hub” part of the name refers to its ability to control “smart home” devices. Lights, thermostats, and all the other goodies that work so much better than a simple wall switch… Anyway, Nest will be assimilated more tightly into the Google collective, and their hardware will work seamlessly with the Home Hub.

Next was the Google Pixel Slate. It’s something new, and not, Google emphasizes, a laptop trying to be a tablet. Okay, so what is it then? As best I can tell, it’s a tablet. The “new” is that it’s running Chrome OS instead of Android.

Which means, since Chrome now runs Android apps and Linux programs, it’s also an Android tablet and the long-awaited* Linux tablet.

* By the small minority of people who actually use Linux on a daily basis.

Much is being made of the round keys on the matching keyboard accessory. I dunno. It looks like the Logitech K380 bluetooth keyboard I’ve had for a couple of years. It works. It’s not my favorite keyboard, but it’s far from the worst I’ve ever used.

The flexibility is enticing, but with prices starting at $600, not including the keyboard ($200) or stylus ($100), I’m a bit dubious about the price to performance ratio. And with a complete lack of announced specs–including size–and release date, I’d file it under “intriguing but so what?” Wait and see if it even makes it out the door.

Moving on to the Pixel 3. What can I say? It’s a phone. This year’s models (the 3 and the 3 XL, what a surprise) are bigger than last years, but “feel smaller”. Okay. Better cameras with better low light and zoom. No surprise there.

Hey, there’s a new Google Assistant feature: the phone will answer itself when someone calls, and the Assistant will interrogate the caller to find out if you want to talk to them. That’ll apparently roll out to older phones next month, too.

I’m up for that one, actually. If it cuts down on spam, I’m all in.

There’s a stand accessory coming, as well. Wireless charging and turns the phone into an “ambient display”. Which sounds like it’ll work as a something of a low-end Google Home device.

Not a word, apparently, about the new Chromecast. Oh, well.

Interesting toys, but nothing that sets my heart aflutter. Other than that phone-answering feature. Too bad you can’t choose the voice it’ll use–“Ve haf vays of makink you tell us who iz callink”.

Maybe next year.

An Extra Large Oreo

I’ve been using my Pixel 2 XL for a couple of weeks now, so it’s probably time to throw out a few thoughts.

First, now that I’ve seen the specs on the thoroughly-leaked Pixel 3, I’m less bothered about not being able to consider it as my upgrade option. That might change if there really is a low-end version in the works, but for now, I’m happy.

Also, all of these comments are based on the phone running Android Oreo. Pie is downloading as I type these words, so I’ll save my thoughts on the upgraded experience for another day.

My immediate reaction after unboxing the phone was “Holy cow, this thing is huge!” But it doesn’t feel nearly as big in my hand. It’s not that much heavier than the 5X, and it’s very well balanced. I’ve yet to feel like it’s trying to slip out of my hand. It is a bit of a stretch to hold it at the balance point and still get a finger on the fingerprint reader, but not a painful one.

There’s no reasonable way to operate it one-handed. I have fairly long fingers, but even so, my thumb can only reach about half the screen. I’ve always been a “hold it in one hand, operate it with the other” user, so I haven’t had to make any changes in my habits there. But if you’re a “do everything with one hand” sort, you’re going to need to change your habits.

And that’s just as well. One-handed operation encourages multitasking, and I’d really rather you weren’t using your phone while driving, waiting in lines, or anything else that requires you to pay attention to what’s going on around you.

The fingerprint reader doesn’t have the same problem the 5X did with false triggering when the phone is in the pouch. That was half the reason why I wound up putting the 5X in a hard-shell case. The other half was that the car holder I use hits the 5X “Volume Down” button; that’s also not a problem with the 2XL. So I may not bother with a case this time around.

Setting up the phone initially had a couple of hiccups. Recent Android versions assume you’re moving from an older device, and they really want to transfer your data and settings. Since I couldn’t do that, the 2XL sulked a little, primarily around the first Wi-Fi connection.

To be totally fair, though, since it made the first connection, it’s been rock solid on multiple Wi-Fi access points, much more so than the 5X ever was–and much faster on the same ones. Transferring large files to and from the phone run as much as two times faster.

That said, the transfer from Wi-Fi to cellular data seems to be a little slower. If I’m streaming audio (say, listening to a baseball game in the car) I get a break of as much as ten seconds before it gives up on the Wi-Fi signal. But, to be fair, the switch from cellular to Wi-Fi is nearly instantaneous.

Fast is definitely a recurring theme. Apps launch instantly, data refreshes in a snap. Some of that is because I had to make a clean start and I haven’t reinstalled many of the apps I almost never used. Fewer apps and not having two years of photos on the device* means I have about four times as much free storage space as before, which translates into a speed boost. Though, naturally, most of the increase is just down to the more powerful hardware.

* Of course, all the pictures and videos are still available through Google’s Photos app. If you don’t have your phone set to automatically back up all your pictures to the cloud, give it some serious thought. Aside from its everyday benefits, it makes the transition to a new phone easier.

The photos are much better. You can see the improvement in last Friday’s post, where Kaja and Kokoro are clearly visible, even though they were backlit. And the difference is even more striking in low light conditions. There’s much less blockiness and the colors are clearer, probably because the automatic white balance seems to work much better.

Focusing is faster, too, which means I can get the shot I’m after before the subject wanders off or tries to sniff the phone.

It’s not perfect. It’s very reluctant to use the flash when it’s set to automatic. But the HDR is improved enough that it almost doesn’t matter. Almost.

The battery life is fine. I’m reliably getting by charging the phone every other night. Granted, I probably use the phone less than Google’s target audience. If I was watching videos for a couple of hours a day, I might feel otherwise. That said, videos look great, and the audio is noticeably better than on the 5X.

Other complaints.

The Home screen has a lot of wasted space, especially vertically. There’s nearly a whole icon’s worth of unused space above and below the “At a Glance” display (currently showing only the date and weather). And I could fit in a whole additional row of icons without affecting usability if I could put them closer together. (To be fair, I’ve gotten spoiled by the default launcher/home screen on LineageOS, which I’m running on my Nexus 9. That lets the user change the icon size and spacing.)

I’m also not a fan of the much-ballyhooed “Active Edge” feature. That’s the one that makes the sides of the phone pressure-sensitive, so you can launch the Google Assistant by squeezing the phone. I lasted two days before I turned that off. I hold the phone by the edges. Every time I picked up the phone, the Assistant triggered. Decreasing the sensitivity didn’t help; if there’s a sweet spot between “too sensitive” and “doesn’t register at all,” I couldn’t find it.

No great loss. Holding the “Home” button or using the voice activation is plenty good enough for this neo-Luddite skeptic.

A minor annoyance: Much as I love the “always on” display when the phone is locked–and I do–I wish I could add more data to the display. The current battery percentage would be nice; I shouldn’t have to wake up the phone to check that. Baseball scores. Some people might like to have a stock ticker. You get the idea. I hear Android Pie adds the battery percentage. Maybe Quisp will include some kind of widget-like functionality that third-parties can tap.

Bottom line: If you need a new phone, you could do far, far worse than the Pixel 2 XL. But there’s nothing here so compelling that you should immediately abandon whatever you’re using now.

And now, I’m going to hit the “Reboot” button and see how I like Pie.

Pie

Google startled the tech world yesterday by releasing Android P. Many techies were unprepared for the news, not expecting the release to happen until the twentieth.

Naturally, the surprise didn’t stop anybody from playing the name game. Now that we know Android P, aka Android 9, is officially named “Pie,” the just-released OS is ancient history, and everyone is speculating about the name of next year’s release.

Let’s face it, there just aren’t a whole lot of foods beginning with “Q”–and most of those aren’t sweets by any stretch of the imagination. Quesadilla? Quiche? Quinoa? Goddess preserve us. Pun intended, because the most likely choice I’ve been able to come up with is Quince, which is frequently found (to the extent you can call it “frequent”) in jams, jellies, and preserves.

But you know, there is a dark horse candidate.

Quisp Cereal
(Image copyright Quaker Oats.)

It’s a sweet. No more so than any other sugared cereal, I suppose, but yeah, there’s a lot of sugar in those boxes. It wouldn’t be the first time Google has done a corporate tie-in for an Android release. And really, wouldn’t Android’s robot mascot look great with a propeller mounted on its head?

Android Robot
(Android Robot owned by Google, naturally.)

Come on, Google, make it happen.

If you think I’m pulling that idea out of my rear end, you’re partly right. But there is a possibility that Google is prepping us for a bit of MTV-generation nostalgia.

Consider: Why did they choose yesterday, August 6, to make the Android Pie release? 8/6 is hardly a date of significance to pie. But it starts to make more sense when you consider that news reports citing Google’s announcement started appearing around 9:00 (US PDT).

I can’t find the actual press announcement from Google, but… Allow reporters a bit of time to pull up their stories and add last-minute details. That would imply the release came out around 8:00. Might it have been 7:53:09? Just saying.
Counter-arguments that yesterday was three months after Google I/O will be cheerfully ignored. Secret conspiracies are much more fun. And besides, why do you think they chose the date they did for I/O?

Joking aside, there aren’t a whole lot of surprises in the release. Google revealed most of their plans at I/O back in May. And, of course, developers and the incurably brave have been using the public betas for the past three months.

Perhaps the biggest surprises are those of omission. Two big pieces of planned functionality–“Slices,” which will allow apps to export content to other apps and the “Digital Wellbeing” initiative, a set of features designed to make you put down your phone and interact with humans–aren’t included. Google says they’ll both be released “later” this year.

That’s a little disappointing. I was looking forward to seeing Digital Wellbeing in action; some of the announced bits of it sounded useful.

I guess I can spend the intervening time getting the hang of the new navigation. The changes to the Back button should be simple enough–either it’s there or it isn’t–but when it is, it should work more or less as it has in the past.

Doing away with the “Recent Apps” button will be tougher. I use that one a lot. Sure, I’ll eventually retrain my muscle memory to swipe up from the “Home” button and to swipe left/right through the apps instead of up/down. But the whole thing smacks of change for the sake of change.

Unless, of course, Android Quisp is going to introduce some startling new functionality behind a button located where “Recent Apps” used to be. In that case, getting the button out of the way now, in order to give sluggards like me a whole year to reprogram their brains, is an excellent idea.

I’ll undoubtedly have further thoughts on Android Pie once I get my hands on it. I’m still waiting for it to show up on my shiny new Pixel 2 XL. You’d think Google was being cautious with the rollout. It’s not like Android ever has unexpected bugs, right?

The Inevitable

My humblest apologies for the lateness of this post. Sadly, my beloved smartphone passed away last night, and I’m in the throes of grief. Ah, Nexus 5X, we hardly knew you.

Well, okay, considering that I’d had the phone since April of 2016, I’d say I knew it pretty darn well. So did you all, for that matter, since 99% of the photos I post are taken with my phone. And I wasn’t spending (much) time weeping and wailing; I was trying to revive it.

The fatal disease in this case is the so-called “boot loop,” in which the device gets partway through booting, then starts over or shuts down–mine fell into the latter group. It’s a known hardware problem with the 5X. Apparently some component unsolders itself from its circuit board. And in retrospect, I probably should have seen this coming. The phone has been having increasing difficulty connecting to Wi-Fi for the past few months–which some websites suggest is a related issue–and the constant attempts to reconnect raise the phone’s temperature, which hastens the major component failure.

I have to give kudos to both Google and LG (the actual makers of the phone) for their handling of the situation. The Project Fi customer service representative had me do one simple test to confirm the problem, then told me that LG had extended warranty coverage to all devices that fail this way, so there would be no cost for a repair, not even shipping.

He then conferenced in an LG customer service representative and introduced us before dropping off the call. She was equally polite and efficient, confirming that the repair would be done under warranty and would take about two weeks. It took her longer to get my address into the computer than everything else combined*.

* To be fair, the address problem was not the rep’s fault, nor, really, was it LG’s. Blame the US Post Service. My zip code is shared between two cities. Companies that auto-populate the city based on the zip code using the official USPS database always get it wrong, and usually have to fight to override the default.

I’m currently waiting for LG to email me the FedEx shipping label; that should come today, I was told, but may take a little longer than usual because of the address override. Fine. What’s a day or so in a two-week process?

Because, really, two weeks without a phone? Inconceivable!

The Google rep suggested that if I have an old phone, I could temporarily activate it with Fi, but I’m not sure that’s feasible, since my previous phone was with Sprint, which didn’t use SIMs at the time. But I’ll try, because why not?

But I’m not counting on it working, so I’ve ordered a new phone. Yeah, I know. Bad timing: Google is widely expected to introduce the Pixel 3 series in October. But let’s face it, about 95% of my phone time is either listening to baseball games, sending email, or taking pictures of cats. And the Pixel 2 camera are still widely regarded as among the best phone cameras available. It’ll be a major upgrade over the 5X camera, certainly. And spreading the payments across two years makes it more or less affordable.

In the worst case scenario, if the Pixel 3 series renders the 2 series totally obsolete, well, I’ve got a phone that’s a major step up for what I do. By the time it’s paid off, I can trade it in for a Pixel 5 (which obsoleted the Pixel 4 that made the Pixel 3 look like trash).

If you believe Google’s estimate, the new phone could arrive as soon as tomorrow or as late as Monday. Four days is a hell of a lot easier to face than two weeks. With a bit of luck, next Friday’s cat post will feature photos taken with the new phone.

So why am I getting the phone repaired if I’m buying a new one? That Google rep again. He pointed out that the trade-in value of a working 5X is almost double that of a dead one and that I’ve got thirty days–four weeks, twice as long as the repair should require–to send in the old phone. Logical and helpful. Thank you, Google Support Guy!

Or, heck, I may keep it around as an emergency backup. Maggie has a 5X, after all. It probably won’t drop dead–it seems to be from a newer production run which may not have the same unsoldering issue–but keeping the old phone would provide a little peace of mind.

Rest in peace, Nexus 5X, secure in the knowledge that your resurrection is pending.

Google I/O 2018

As promised, here’s my usual cynical rundown of all the exciting things Google announced in the I/O keynote. As usual, thanks to Ars for the live stream.

Looks like a great year ahead, doesn’t it? See you Thursday.


Okay, okay. I just had to get that out of my system.

First up, Sundar admitted to Google’s well-publicized failures with the cheeseburger and beer emojis. It’s great that they’ve been fixed and that Google has apologized publicly. But when are they going to apologize for their role in inflicting emojis on us in the first place?

Anyway.

Google has been testing their AI’s ability to diagnose and predict diabetic retinopathy and other health conditions. I’m hoping this is not being done via smartphone. Or, if it is, it’s fully disclosed and opt-in. I’m quite happy with my medical professional, thanks, and I really don’t want my phone to suddenly pop up a notification, “Hey, I think you should see an ophthalmologist ASAP. Want me to book you an appointment?”

I do like the keyboard that accepts morse code input. That’s a nice accessibility win that doesn’t have any glaring detrimental impact on people who don’t need it.

That said, I’m less enthusiastic about “Smart Compose”. I’m not going to turn over writing duties to any AI. Not even in email.

But I do have to wonder: would it improve the grammar and vocabulary of the typical Internet troll, or will it learn to predict the users’ preferences and over time start composing death threats with misspellings, incoherent grammar, and repetitive profanity? Remember what happened with Microsoft’s conversational AI.

And I’ve got mixed feelings about the AI-based features coming to Google Photos. I pointed out the privacy concerns about offering to share photos with the people in them when Google mentioned it last year. Now they’re going to offering the ability to colorize black and white photos. Didn’t Ted Turner get into trouble for doing something of the sort?

More to the point, how many smartphones have black and white cameras? Taking a B&W photo is a conscious decision these days. Why would you want Google to colorize it for you?

Fixing the brightness of a dark photo, though, I could totally get behind.

Moving on.

Google Assistant is getting six new voices, including John Legend’s. Anyone remember when adding new voices to your GPS was the Hot Thing?

More usefully, it’ll remain active for a few seconds after you ask a question so you don’t have to say “Hey, Google,” again. Which is great, as long as it doesn’t keep listening too long.

That said, it’ll help with continuing conversations, where you ask a series of questions or give a sequence of commands; for example, looking up flights, narrowing down the list, and booking tickets.

And, of course, they’re rolling out the obligatory “teach little kids manners by forcing them to say please” module. If it starts responding to “Thank you,” with “No problem,” I will make it my life mission to destroy Google and all its works.

Moving on.

Smart displays–basically, Google Home with a screen–will start coming out in July. I can see the utility in some areas, but I’m not going to be getting one. On the other hand, I haven’t gotten a screenless GH, nor have I enabled Google Assistant on my phone. I just don’t want anything with a network connection listening to me all the time. But if you’re okay with that, you probably ought to look into the smart displays. It will significantly add to the functionality of the home assistant technology.

Good grief! You thought I was joking about your phone offering to make a medical appointment for you? Google isn’t. They’re going to be rolling out experimental tech to do exactly that: your phone will call the doctor’s office and talk to the receptionist on your behalf.

Not just no. Not just hell no. Fuck no! No piece of AI is going to understand my personal constraints about acceptable days and times, the need to coordinate with Maggie’s schedule, and not blocking my best writing times.

Moving on.

Google is rolling out a “digital wellbeing initiative” to encourage users to get off the phone and spend time with human beings.

Just not, apparently, receptionists and customer service representatives.

It’s a worthy cause, but let’s face it: the people who would benefit most won’t use it, either because they don’t recognize the problem, or because being connected 24/7 is a condition of employment. I’m sure I’m not the first to point out that Google employees are likely to be among the most in need of the technology and the least likely to use it.

Moving on.

The new Google News app will use your evolving profile to show you news stories it predicts will interest you. No word on whether it’ll include any attempts to present multiple viewpoints on hot-button topics, or if it’ll just do its best to keep users in their familiar silos. Yes, they do say it’ll give coverage “from multiple sources” but how much is that worth if all the sources have the same political biases bases on your history of searches? Let’s not forget that Google’s current apps with similar functionality allow you to turn off any news source.

Moving on.

Android P (and, as usual, we won’t find out what the P dessert is until the OS is released) will learn your usage patterns so it can be more aggressive about shutting down apps you don’t use.

It’ll offer “App Actions” so you can go straight from the home screen to the function you want instead of launching the app and navigating through it.

Developers can export some of their content to appear in other apps, including your Google searches.

The AI and machine learning functionality will be accessible to developers. Aren’t you thrilled to know that Uber will be able to learn your preferences and proactively offer you a ride to the theater?

And, of course, the much-ballyhooed navigation designed for a single thumb. The “recent apps” button will go away and the “Back” button will only appear when Android thinks it’s needed. And some functionality will be accessible via swipes starting at the “Home” button. Because the “Back” button wasn’t confusing enough already.

I do like the sound of a “shush” mode that triggers when you put the phone face down. I’m using a third-party app to do that with my phone now. Very handy when you want to be able to check in periodically, but don’t want to be interrupted. Sure, you can set the phone to silent, but putting it face down is faster and you don’t have to remember to turn notifications back on.

On to Google Maps.

It’s going to start letting you know about hot and trending places near you and rate them according to how good a fit they are for you. I’ve got serious questions about how well that’s going to work, given the number of times Google’s guessed wrong about which business I’m visiting. If they start telling me about popular Chinese restaurants because there’s a Panda Express next door to the library, I’m gonna be really peeved.

Oh, and businesses will be able to promote themselves in your personalized recommendations. How delightful. Thanks, Google!

Okay, the new walking navigation sounds useful. Hopefully it will learn how quickly you walk so it can give reasonably accurate travel time estimates. Hopefully there’s also a way to get it to make accommodations for handicaps.

Of course, if you don’t want to walk, Google–well, Waymo–will be happy to drive you. Their self-driving program will launch in Phoenix sometime this year. Which seems like a good choice, since they’re unlikely to have to deal with snow this winter.

I guess people in Phoenix will be getting a real preview of Google’s future. Not only will their phones preemptively book their medical appointments, but they’ll also schedule a self-driving car to get them there. Will they also send someone along to help you put on the stylish white jacket with extra-long sleeves and ensure you get into the nice car?

Neglect

Google Photos can be scary.

Not their facial recognition, although that can be startling.

Certainly not the automatic grouping of photos by date and location; that’s downright useful.

No, I’m talking about the Assistant function. I think The Algorithm gets bored sometimes.

It’ll find similar pictures and stitch them together into an animated GIF, or apply some crazy color scheme and call it a “stylized photo”. Most of them are useless, and I just delete them.

But every so often, it’ll decide one of the cats isn’t getting enough attentions, and it’ll go to a very weird place.

A couple of days ago, it decided Yuki was feeling neglected, and as a result, it created this.

Google Photos. Don’t neglect your cats.

Google’s Turn

Well, the Twins started well, but it went downhill rather quickly. I think I’ll avoid picking a new team to root for–why jinx somebody?–and just enjoy the spectacle for the rest of the month.

But enough about baseball for now. For now.

In addition to being in Playoff Season, we’re also in New Hardware Season. Apple announced theirs a few weeks ago, and it’s Google’s turn this week.

Spoiler alert: Google didn’t announce a new tablet. They also didn’t announce a “Google Watch”. I find one of these failures disappointing.

As usual, I’m taking my cues from Ars Technica’s coverage of the unveiling and filtering it through my own prejudices.

Google is still talking up their Artificial Intelligence plans. In essence, they aim to make AI omnipresent and indispensable. ‘Nuff said; we’re here for the hardware they’re going to put that AI on.

First up is the Home Mini. Shrink last year’s Google Home down into something that looks like a fabric-wrapped hockey puck. Functionally, it seems to be pretty much the same; presumably, the new voice commands they talked about will be rolled out to all of the gadgets.

Google Home products will be able to interface with Nest’s home security gadgets. The example they gave was asking Google Home to show you who’s at the door, and it’ll not only put the feed from the camera on your TV, but it’ll also use facial recognition to tell you who it is. No thanks. I’m going to say right now that I’m not going to visit anybody who sets this system up. Bad enough Google knows where my phone is, but I don’t want them tracking my face when I go to friends’ houses.

At the opposite extreme from the Home Mini is–surprise!–Home Max. Same brains, but a big speaker for better sound quality. Pardon me. They talked about it’s ability to get loud, but didn’t actually say anything about how good it will sound. Interesting omission, isn’t it?

Then there’s the new Pixelbook. A thin, light laptop running Chrome OS, with support for Android apps. It’s actually a two-in-one: there’s a 360 degree hinge so you can fold the screen back against the keyboard and use it as a tablet. A fourteen inch tablet. Sorry, guys. I see the convenience factor, but fourteen inches and over two pounds is too damn big and heavy for actual tablet usage.

Nor do I find the “Pixel Pen” particularly compelling. It does all the usual stylus things with one unique feature: anything you draw a circle around will be searched on Google. Sounds like a nice convenience–though I hope that’s disabled in your art programs–but not worth the extra hundred bucks they’re going to charge on top of the thousand or more for the computer.

Moving on.

Two new Pixel phones, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. All the usual enhancements for the modern era: better screens, faster CPUs, improved cameras, no headphone jacks. Other than size, supposedly the two are identical.

The Pixel 2s will come with a new version of the Home screen. Google Search will move to the bottom of the screen, making room at the top for your next appointment, traffic, flights, and similar “what’s coming” information. No word on whether that’ll make its way onto older phones eventually.

Also no word on whether “Google Lens” will be a Pixel 2 exclusive forever. Lens is an upgrade to Google Goggles, the visual search tool. Point the camera at something to search on it. Or recognize it, apparently. They said it will identify emails, phone numbers, and addresses. Hopefully it’ll actually do something with them once they’re recognized. I don’t need my phone to tell me “Hey, that’s an email address!” I need it to add the address to my contact list without doing a manual copy/paste.

Moving on again.

An upgrade to the Daydream View. That’s the “use your smartphone as a VR headset” thing. New lenses, new fabric, new higher price.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

And, since there’s no headphone jack on the Pixel 2, you’ll need wireless headphones. So of course there are the Pixel Buds. They’re not totally wireless: there’s a cord connecting the two earpieces. Which actually makes sense to me. I imagine it’ll be a lot harder to lose than the separate Apple buds. One cool feature: live audio translation among forty languages. If it works well in less-than-acoustically-clean settings, that could be very handy. Especially if one of those forty is “Boss”.

Nor is Google neglecting video. Want to let your camera decide when to take a picture? Of course you do! Sign up now for your Google Clips. You just set it down somewhere and it takes a picture or short video clip when it spots something it thinks is photo-worthy.

What’s photo-worthy? Pictures of people you know, apparently. Great if you’re heavily into selfies, I guess, but how is it for landscapes, museums, tourist attractions, and all of the things you don’t see every day?

On the brighter side, it sounds like it’ll make a great stalker cam. Just attach it to your belt and go about your day. Check the photos when you get home.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I hope Google Clips goes straight to the same rubbish bin as the late, not-particularly-lamented Nexus Q.

Bottom line: some interesting goodies and some real trash. If I were in the market for a new phone, I’d give the Pixel 2 serious consideration, for all the usual reasons, but I didn’t see anything so compelling as to make me rush to upgrade my Nexus 5X.

And I shall remain resolutely free of household automation.

OS Power Up?

My phone is running Android Oreo.

As I type this, my iPad is downloading iOS 11.

And I’m asking myself why. It’s not like either OS introduces new features on my years-old devices. Yes, there are security fixes. Those are important, certainly, and in both cases installing the entire update is the only way to get those fixes.

Okay, yes, some of my current disenchantment is depression brought on by looking at the current news. But still, why do we have to have major OS updates on an annual schedule?

Remember, Android and iOS upgrades are free. Google and Apple aren’t making any money directly off of them, and they’re spending a bundle to tout the new features. Sure, the iOS release is tied to the release of new iPhones, which is where Apple lives. But they’d sell just as many iPhone 8s and iPhone Xs if they came with iOS 10 point something.

For the record, it’s not just phones and tablets. OS X is doing the same thing. Windows is even worse–we’re getting two upgrades a year.

And every time an upgrade comes out, we get reports of bricked phones and scrambled computers, followed by the eternal reminder that “it’s impossible to test every combination of hardware.”

I’m not suggesting the OS vendors should stop upgrading their software. Just thinking the annual upgrade cycle might possibly have more downsides than up.

What about a slipstreamed approach: roll out new features year-round in a series of smaller upgrades that’ll be less likely to break things?

Of course there are problems there. Problems in design, development, and testing. I may not be doing much formal QA these days, but I haven’t forgotten that much about software development. But the approach works well at the application level. It’s worth a try at the OS level.

On a related note, remember a couple of years ago when I griped about software upgrades violating user expectations? I just found a nice example of not doing that in iOS 11.

For the past couple of iOS releases on iPad, swiping up from the bottom of the screen with four or five fingers has brought up the list of running apps. Quick and easy, and I’ve gotten used to it. (Windows users, think “Alt-Tab”.)

In iOS 11, Apple introduced a new “Dock”: a list of frequently-used and currently-running apps. You can pop the dock up over your current program by swiping up with a single finger. And swiping up a second time brings up the new-and-improved list of running apps.

But, and here’s the important thing, the four-finger swipe still works! Even though there’s now a new route to the task switcher, I can still use the old route.

Mind you, I wouldn’t be surprised if the four-finger gestures disappear in a later release, but at least my muscle memory is safe for another year.

SAST 06

I need to close out a few open issues from recent blog posts, so it’s time for a Short Attention Span Theater.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a poor QA/good customer service issue I had with the Project Fi Travel Trolley.

I’m pleased to report that Swyft customer support came through with the promised travel socks. And they’re just as silly as we had hoped.

Let’s be clear: these aren’t the full height compression socks designed to prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis. These are ankle socks. But they have little rubberized bumps on the underside to prevent slippage when you take your shoes off to go through the TSA’s scanners. If you follow the often-quoted advice to take off your shoes on the plane and walk up and down the aisle a couple of times during the flight, they should be fine for that. They even seem rugged enough to wear to bed so you can stagger into the bathroom in the middle of the night without having to hunt for slippers.

Most importantly, though, they’re black, they’re fuzzy–kind of snuggly, in fact–and they’ve got a Project Fi logo on the side. Amusing. And I intend to wear them next time I fly.

And I will test the Travel Trolley again.

Moving on.

Last Thursday, I mused a little about the Mariners’ attempt to get above .500 for the first time this year.

Not only did they win Thursday night behind rookie Andrew Moore, but they also won Friday behind veteran Felix Hernandez.

Friday, they also sent Moore back to the minors. Weird game, baseball.

No, it wasn’t because they were displeased with his performance. Whoever made up the schedule decided the Ms needed two days off this week. Never mind that the All-Star Break is less than two weeks away and will bring almost everyone in the league a four-day holiday.

But with both Monday and Thursday off, the Ms didn’t really need five starting pitchers, so Moore went down to AAA. Chances are he’ll be back with the Mariners sooner rather than later.

But I digress. After that victory Friday the Ms were two games over .500. Celebrations ensued.

Saturday and Sunday, they lost to Houston, the team with the best record in baseball. Tuesday and Wednesday, they lost to Philadelphia, the team with the worst record in baseball.

Just like that, they’re back in familiar territory, two games short of respectability.

But that’s the Mariners for you. Ever since Houston came over from the National League, the Mariners have had trouble beating them. And losses breed.

Even with the losses, though, the Mariners are still only three games out of the Wild Card. Of course, the are eight other teams at three games out or less, so it’s a bit of an uphill climb.

Based on their performance so far this season, I expect the Mariners to bounce around .500 for the next few weeks, until they go to Houston July 17. That’ll put them in a short decline. They’ll recover and get back to .500 or a bit more in August, make a serious run at the Wild Card–and then go into a nose dive when the Astros come to Seattle September 4.

Because Mariners.

Moving on.

Apple is promoting the new iPad Pro it introduced earlier this month. The commercials are in heavy rotation during baseball games.

That’s expected. What isn’t is how stereotyped the ads are. The emo girl who hates everything. The power addict who literally explodes with pleasure. The ghost of a dead laptop.

Really, Apple? If you can’t give us a revolutionary computer–and let’s face it, the iPad Pro may be a heck of a good computer, but it’s neither years ahead of the competition nor unique–can’t you at least give us a revolutionary ad or two? One that doesn’t rely on the same easy compartmentalization we’ve seen in the media for far too long?

WQTS 11

Would you believe there’s a WQTS (Who QAed This Shit) story with a happy ending?

I’ll get there. But first, a tale that’s not so much WQTS as WTTWAGI (Who Thought This Was a Good Idea).

I’m calling out the Holiday Inn Express in Sedalia for gross violations of common sense in their handling of technology. And, just to be perfectly clear, I’m not talking about HIE hotels in general. As far as I know, these problems are unique to that particular location.

Let’s start with the hotel Wi-Fi. Finding good Wi-Fi in a hotel is a rare event, one that should be celebrated with parades and (hopefully brief) speeches by elected dignitaries. The Sedalia Holiday Inn Express’ Wi-Fi is not that sort. To be fair, once you get connected, it’s no worse than many other hotels’. It’s just that getting to that point is by far the worst experience I’ve had with, not just hotel wireless, but any public wireless.

Like most such, the SHIE uses a “captive portal” setup: once you connect, a web page launches, allowing you to enter whatever login credentials are needed. Many hotels either ask for your name and room number or a global password which changes periodically. The page is generally simple so it can display cleanly on anything from an old phone to a modern laptop.

SHIE has a huge page filled with text. That’s necessary because it offers three different ways to log in. Three.

There’s the traditional “last name and room number”.

There’s a numeric code. The web page calls it a PIN, but the envelope your room key comes in calls it an “Internet Access Code”. Calling the same thing by different names is just asking for trouble.

And there’s the third method, which requires half-again as much screen space as the other two combined. That’s because it’s only available to Holiday Inn Express Club members, and the portal login page has to explain all of the benefits of club membership, only one of which the ability connect to the Wi-Fi in any HIE hotel with your email address*.

* No password, at least not on the login page–I’m not a HIE Club Member, so I didn’t try to go any further–but the text strongly implied that all you need is your email address. Which means that if you know an HIE Club member’s email address, you can get all the free Wi-Fi you want in Sedalia. Assuming you want hotel-quality Wi-Fi. I wouldn’t want to download illegal images on something that slow, but if I wanted to launch a virus, how better than to do it through a hotel using someone else’s email address?

The login methods, all crammed onto the one login page. Any half-way competent user interface developer or QA engineer will tell you that having multiple methods of doing the same thing risks confusing your users. And indeed, while I was checking in, there was a couple at the front desk asking for help connecting their laptop to the wireless*.

* They were looking for where to enter that Internet Access Code. Remember, the page calls it a PIN. At least on a laptop they could see the whole page. Imagine how much zooming and scrolling they would have had to do on a phone before they even arrived at that level of confusion.

For the record, the desk clerk couldn’t help them. She had to call the “technical expert”. I left before I got to overhear that conversation. Must have been a doozy.

And don’t forget, by the way, that the portal was set up so you had to re-enter your login information every time you reconnected to the Wi-Fi. Go to dinner? Re-enter. Lose signal? Re-enter.

But enough about the wireless. Let’s move on to the computers in the so-called “Business Center” in the lobby. The hotel is very proud to have Microsoft Office on the computers. So proud, they put up a sign advertising it. And, to be fair, it’s a big step up from last year, when the only software on those machines was Windows itself. But let’s face it: Office is the least you can expect to find on the computers in anything that calls itself a Business Center.

I was impressed to see that the computers were running Windows 10. I was rather less impressed to see that they needed a password to use. Why bother? It’s not like the hotel was exercising any control over who uses the machines. I asked for the password at the desk–and note, by the way, that there were no signs telling would-be users how to get the password. Amazingly, the clerk knew it. It’s all lower-case, with no digits or punctuation, and it’s one of the first three words anyone of even moderate intelligence would try–and it’s not “password” or “guest”. I don’t know if they’re supposed to confirm that users are staying in the hotel, but if so, she didn’t.

So if you’re not limiting usage, why put passwords on them? If you want to exercise enough control to keep kids from tying the up all day playing games, just have the clerks glance in that direction occasionally. The computers sit in the lobby, no more than ten feet away from the front desk.

And it’s not like the password prevents people from mistreating the machines. I couldn’t use the first one I tried because some prankster had changed the password and locked everyone out of the machine. On the other machine, someone had created his own account, presumably so he wouldn’t have to remember the hotel’s password.

On many public computers, the USB ports are disabled to keep people from installing malware. Well-designed Business Centers have heavy-duty virus protection, but allow you to use the USB ports to transfer your work from your laptop to the computer. SHIE found a different security method: they put the computers under the desk, forcing users to crawl around on the floor to plug in a thumb drive. OK, so it’s not totally effective security, but it’s better than nothing.

The final blow? There’s no printer in the Business Center. Instead, there’s a networked printer hidden somewhere behind the front desk. Can you imagine what your corporate information security team is going to say about you using that printer to run off last-second changes to your presentation about buying the Holiday Inn chain?

sigh

OK, ready for that happy ending? This one really is a WQTS story.

This time last year, I wrote about Project Fi and how pleased I was with it.

I’m still happy with Project Fi, and when I heard about the Project Fi Travel Trolley shortly before my Sedalia trip I was totally charmed.

The Trolley, in case you haven’t already heard about it, is a glorified vending machine set up in several major airports around the US. It’s stocked with small items that might be of use to travelers: USB cables, luggage tags, sleep kits, playing cards, and–the real prize–fuzzy travel socks. Project Fi customers can get a free goody just by tapping their phone against the kiosk. The kiosk and your phone use NFC to validate your Fi account and generate a QR code. The kiosk then scans the code and dispenses the prize you wanted.

That’s the theory. In practice, somebody missed a bug.

Either there’s a hidden problem in the kiosk’s NFC reader, or nobody thought to test the scenario where a customer has more than one account on their phone.

Maggie and I both have two accounts on our phones. When we tried to use the Trolley, instead of getting QR codes, we got an endless series of browser windows opening, each of which informed us that we were logged into the wrong account. Logging into Google with the correct account did no good. Neither did any of several other methods we tried to convince the system we were Project Fi customers.

No fuzzy travel socks for us.

Our trip wasn’t ruined. Somehow we soldiered onward, cold toes notwithstanding. (For the record, temperatures in Sedalia were in the high eighties. Frostbite was not a significant concern.)

The happy ending?

I reported the problem to Project Fi support, who referred me to Swyft, the company that manufacturers and supports the Travel Trolley kiosks. Within minutes, I received an apology for the “bad experience,” an assurance that the issue will be investigated, and a promise to send us socks.

Now, it might just have been a bedbug letter. We’ll find out next time I fly through an airport with a Travel Trolley–I fully intend to see if they’ve come up with a fix. One can never have too many sleep masks and earplugs, after all.

But I’ll take a Happy Ending For Now–as long as I really do get my socks.