How I fixed the lag issue on my Nexus 5x

If you Google Nexus 5x lag, you will see many users complaining about lag on the Nexus 5x. If you follow the threads, some people will complain about lag. Others will say they've experienced no lag. Some seem to think it has to do with faulty units (vs. non-faulty units). Others seem to think it has to do with not-yet-optimized-for-Marshmallow apps.

I, too, experienced the lag, but I chalked it up to Marshmallow still needing some kinks ironed out or the difference in performance between an encrypted Android vs. an unencrypted one. It also wasn't horribly debilitating a lag—it was just slightly annoying. It would be an extra second switching apps or an extra second for an app to load after being selected.

I tried uninstalling some apps I thought might be problematic. I also tried clearing the cache partition (that would make things a little better for maybe an hour or so, but then the lag would return).

Finally, I did what I really didn't want to do: I did a factory reset. I backed up all my data to my computer and did a full wipe of all my phone's contents. Now this, I think, is the most important step: when setting up the phone, I chose not to restore backed up data from Google's servers and just do a fresh, clean setup. It was annoying, of course, because I had to go through all my settings and tweak them and manually download all my apps again, but it was totally worth it. Now there's absolutely zero lag. The phone performs just as well as my old Moto X 2013.

I don't know that this is the definitive solution, but it worked for me. So if you're one of those Nexus 5x users who's experiencing the dreaded lag, take the 3-4 hours to back up your data locally, do a factory reset, do not restore backed-up data associated with your Google account, then re-download your apps, restore your local backup, and re-configure everything again fresh. You, too, may find it totally worth the trouble.


Nexus 5x: Second Impressions

Here's a follow-up to last week's Nexus 5x: First Impressions post.

What I've liked so far

Basically, it's all the same stuff that impressed me at first—mainly the camera and the fingerprint sensor.

What's bothered me so far

While this list may look long, it doesn't mean I'm not enjoying using the phone, but I do have some nitpicks, so here they are:

  1. Even though the double-tap on the power button launches up the camera no matter where you are (great!), you'd think (as it did on the Moto X after a double-twist) that the phone being already unlocked would return you to an unlocked state after you launch up the camera. Nope. Whether the phone was unlocked or not before you launch the camera with the power button double-tap, it will be relocked after you're done with the camera. Sure, you can unlock it again quickly using the fingerprint sensor, but in terms of usability and user expectations, there's no reason launching up the camera should change the phone from an unlocked state to a locked state.
  2. Google will prompt you to enable Google Now cards and Google Now on Tap. That's fine. That's what I expect them to do. But even after you click to enable them and then decide to disable them again, there will still be a prompt, when you hold the home button, to enable them. Advertise once, please. Once I've seen it, I don't need to see it again. I opted out. Don't bug me.
  3. If you plug your Nexus 5x in to a computer, it will always default to charging only and not to transferring files. There is no way to change this default. The behavior is even more bothersome if your main computer is a Mac, because Android File Transfer (the Mac program you have to use to transfer files to/from Android) will automatically launch up when a phone is plugged in, but since the phone isn't set to transfer files, Android File Transfer will think the phone is just locked and give you an error message, which means you have to temporarily (again, no way to permanently change this setting) set the phone to transfer files and then re-launch Android File Transfer.
  4. When you first set up the phone, it asks if you want to require a password every time the phone boots up. Two issues with this—if you select to require a password, there's no way to change it back without factory resetting your phone; and even if you select not to require the password, it will still require a password!
  5. Apps aren't all updated to work with Marshmallow yet. Not exactly the fault of the phone, but just something to keep in mind. I tried using Firefox with Adblock. and it would constantly cause the phone to reboot (Chrome and Opera operate just fine). VolumeNext doesn't work to skip forward with a regular auxiliary cable (not headphones) but can skip backwards—didn't have that issue with lollipop. Those are just two examples. There will probably be others for other users. After a while, the app developers will update their apps to be more compatible with Marshmallow.
  6. The camera aspect ratio defaults to 4:3 instead of 16:9. The phone is advertised at having a 12 megapixel camera, but if you change it to 16:9, it drops to 8 megapixels. It may be fine to have 4:3 for Instagram, but when you look at your photos in the Photos app, there will be black bars (because the phone itself has closer to a 16:9 aspect ratio). I've changed it to 16:9, and it seems to be much better. I don't believe the drop in megapixels adversely affects the quality of the photos.

Do I still recommend this phone?

Hell, yes! As I mentioned before, those are tiny nitpicks people should be aware of, but the day-to-day use of the phone is great. Still a bit too large for my tastes, but there is no 4.3-inch screen on a new Nexus phone, so it's at least smaller than the 6p.


Unboxing the Nexus 5x

Useless Backstory: Moto X to Nexus 5x

My by far favorite Android phone since 2009 has been the Moto X 2013. Indeed, if it were not for its subpar camera, I would say it is, even now, still the best Android phone. The Moto X 2013 had innovative new features (ones that—had Apple released them in the iPhone—iPhone fans would be gushing about as evidence of Apple pushing new boundaries and being very user-centered in its design... since Motorola's marketing department isn't as good, most people just ignored these features): ambient display, double-twist to activate camera, OK Google Now, etc.

That said, I find myself using my phone's camera more and more often and being very sad about especially the low-light shots from the Moto X 2013. I've also found the fingerprint sensor on the new iOS devices to be pretty cool, and the reviews said the sensor on the Nexus 5x is even more responsive. I also find it a bit awkward to press my thumb on the home button of an iOS device to unlock it. I like the idea of the sensor being on the back of the phone where your index finger might naturally rest when picking up the phone.

More Useless Backstory: Fed Ex Annoyances

I was dumb and decided to have Google deliver to my apartment instead of my workplace. So Fed Ex attempted a delivery when I wasn't home, and then I tried to get it over the weekend and called Fed Ex, but the customer service representative, whom I could barely understand, said the facility was closed over the weekend, so I couldn't pick it up in person. Oddly, I couldn't redirect the destination either—something I'm pretty sure I've done in the past. When I did happen to be home the second time, the Fed Ex delivery person said, "This is the second time I've tried to deliver this," as if he were scolding me. Seriously? I'm supposed to be always home? What the...? I didn't say anything smarmy back to him, though, because I was excited to check out the new phone.

The Unboxing: Featuring my bad photography skills

Yes, I like having a good camera. No, I'm a terrible photographer. Most of these shots I took with a shaky hand using my old Moto X 2013. A few of the later ones I took using an iPad Mini.

2015-10-26 13.36.12 It comes in a very cute small square box.

2015-10-26 13.36.30 Once you get the cover off, the front of the box has a logo that's supposed to be an X, I suppose.

2015-10-26 13.36.43 You can open the box without scissors. It's taped down on only one side of the square.

2015-10-26 13.36.54 LG took a cue from IKEA and put in some cryptic wordless instructions. The phone itself comes in a translucent sleeve, which is really just for show (my Moto X 2013 came with a screen protector on it, which I used for two full years and never had to buy a third-party protector to replace it with).

Then, there's the USB-C cable and the charger.

2015-10-26 13.37.43 Beneath the phone is a playing card that tells you you get a 90-day trial for Google Play Music. There's also a small Safety + Warranty booklet.

The tiny, shiny circle with a pin at the end lets you pop up the SIM card holder from the phone. I was also able to use this same one to pop out the SIM card holder for my old Moto X 2013.

2015-10-26 13.38.12 Another random shot of the cable and charger.

2015-10-26 14.47.06 Here is the Nexus 5x next to my Moto X 2013. The Nexus 5x is enormous compared to my old phone, which I'm a bit sad about. I really wanted a new Nexus phone, and the Nexus 5x is smaller than the 6p, so I opted for the 5x, but it's still huge!

2015-10-26 14.47.24 I didn't do any actual measurements, but the phone thickness seems okay, It's more flat than curved but about the same thickness as the Moto X 2013.

2015-10-26 14.47.44
Another gratuitous "Why is this phone so big?!" shot.

I haven't had a ton of time to play around with the phone yet, but the camera seems good (I haven't tried it in low light yet, though), and the fingerprint sensor is indeed fast in terms of responsiveness.


Why I’m looking forward to the Google self-driving car

It's actually been a few years since I first saw a video of the Google self-driving car in action. A friend of mine from high school had the luxury of being in an early test vehicle (a Prius in a parking garage), and he posted it to Facebook with the caption Autobots... roll out!

It was amazing for me to see how the car could swerve and navigate sharp turns around cones flawlessly, driving over 50 miles per hour in a small parking structure.

Since then, Google has had self-driving prototypes logging miles and only one accident... when the car was in manual override instead of automated mode.

Recently, The Oatmeal had a short blog post on the Google self-driving car. Its author seemed excited about the possibilities, though there are things to be worked out:

Despite the advantages over a human being in certain scenarios, however, these cars still aren't ready for the real world. They can't drive in the snow or heavy rain, and there's a variety of complex situations they do not process well, such as passing through a construction zone. Google is hoping with enough logged miles and data, eventually the cars will be able to handle all of this as well (or better) than a human could.

I have to say, as I've gotten older and have begun to view driving as more of a chore than an exciting adventure, the self-driving cars (Google or otherwise) cannot come soon enough.

When I was younger, I almost got into a couple of accidents, because I was too tired to drive. I would blast loud music, punch myself in the stomach, roll down my window in freezing winter temperatures in (sometimes vain) attempts to keep myself awake. Sometimes I'd pull over to rest. One time I actually fell asleep on the highway and woke up two lanes over (luckily, I didn't hit any other cars, and I didn't hit the guard rail, either—pure adrenaline alone kept me awake for the rest of the drive).

Even as I got older, my stamina in keeping awake got better, but I would often have to forsake a drink in order to be the designated driver. My wife and I have been out to dinner many times and have had to negotiate the "Do you want to get a glass of wine? It's okay if you do... I'll drive" dance.

How nice would it be to just tell your Google self-driving car "I've had too much to drink. Take me home." or "I'm feeling tired. Can you drive me home?" Or just have the opportunity to eat or text or do whatever in the car, while the car gets you home?

Now, I know some people are suspicious about automating things. After all, if all cars are controlled by a computer, isn't Skynet just a few years away? Could be. But that ship has already sailed. Cars are already computer controlled. And there have already been some out-of-driver-control accidents that have resulted in recalls (I'm thinking, for example, of the accidental acceleration of Priuses a few years back). At least in early prototypes, Google has included a manual override option.

That said, I predict that there will be at least one catastrophic failure of the self-driving car that will result in hundreds, if not thousands of deaths. It's a little but of the trolley problem. Each of those deaths will be tragic, but they won't compare to the 30,000+ motor vehicle deaths that happen every year in the U.S. since 1946.

My biggest gripe with a self-driving car will be the navigation! One time, Google Maps took me and my wife to a random street in Redondo Beach, when we were trying to go to the Getty Malibu. Another time, we tried to have Google Maps take us to White Castle, and we ended up at some random house in a suburban street. I'm hoping that as the self-driving aspect improves, so will the general Google Maps navigation... at least for getting home.


Memo from 2008: Chrome stores passwords in plain text (*gasp*)

Just when I thought shoddy tech "journalism" couldn't stoop any lower, there is now a supposedly "new" report out that Chrome stores its passwords in plain text.

From Google Chrome security flaw offers unrestricted password access at The Guardian:

A serious flaw in the security of Google's Chrome browser lets anyone with access to a user's computer see all the passwords stored for email, social media and other sites, directly from the settings panel. No password is needed to view them.

Absolutely no mention that this has been known for years. Why this is being reported now, I have no idea.

From Google Chrome flaw exposes user passwords at The Telegraph:

Software developer Elliott Kember stumbled across the vulnerability when importing his bookmarks from Apple's Safari browser to Google Chrome. He discovered that it was mandatory to import saved passwords from one browser to the other – something he described as 'odd'.

After doing a bit more digging, he found that Google does not protect passwords from being viewed when a user is logged in and running Chrome. Anyone with access to the computer can view stored passwords by going to the advanced settings page and clicking on the “Passwords and forms” option, followed by “Manage saved passwords”.

Here the reporter goes a step further to make it sound as if this is some new discovery.

This is not a new discovery. Many people, including the developers at Google, know about this, and have known about this for years. It's a deliberate (albeit bad) design choice. I knew about it in 2009, and I've known about it ever since.

Someone back in December 2008 already reported it to Google:

Google, Why does your browser Chrome not have a master password for saved passwords? This is ridiculous

and Google's response:

Hi everybody,

We understand that many of you want a master password for your saved passwords in Google Chrome. You’ve laid out many scenarios in which this might be useful, but the most common is that if your computer were to fall into the wrong hands, that person would then have access to your saved passwords.

While we agree that this situation would be terrible, we believe that a master password would not sufficiently protect you from danger. Someone with physical access to your computer could install a keylogger to steal your passwords or go to the sites where your passwords are stored and get them from the automatically filled-in password fields. A master password required to show saved passwords would not prevent these outcomes.

Currently, the best method for protecting your saved passwords is to lock your computer whenever you step away from it, even for a short period of time. We encrypt your saved passwords on your hard disk. To access these passwords, someone would either need to log in as you or circumvent the encryption.

We know this is a long-standing issue, and we see where you're coming from. Please know that your security is our highest priority, and our decision not to implement the master password feature is base

Okay. It took Google almost a year to make that official response, but that's still almost three years ago!

I thought the "There are millions of Android malware apps (which no one is actually installing)" scare headlines were bad enough. Now known bugs that are deliberate design choices are suddenly newly-discovered security flaws. I can't palm forehead this enough...

If you want to store passwords with a master password, use Firefox. The master password encrypts your saved passwords. It's not a perfect solution, but it's better than what Chrome's doing... and has been doing for years.


Solution to Chromebook won’t wake from sleep problem

I've greatly enjoyed the new Samsung Chromebook with ChromeOS. The one huge problem I've encountered is it sometimes not waking from sleep. I'd open it and the power light would be on, but the screen would be dead. The only workaround was to force a shutdown and then boot up again. Very annoying.

Dead ends
I did a bit of Google searching and came across some threads that led to nowhere:
Series 3 (ARM) Black screen of near death
New Samsung chromebook not waking up
Does the Chromebook suffer from the sleep of death?
My Chrome book did not wake up when I opened the lid this morning

No real solutions in any of those threads. I thought an update might fix it, so I switched to the beta channel. No updates. I thought perhaps I'd screwed up some setting, so I did a factory reset. Didn't work. Same problem.

Real solution
I don't know how I didn't notice this before, but my time zone was incorrect. I went into my user settings, changed the time zone to the correct time—I haven't had a resume-from-sleep problem since!

I hope this information helps others experiencing this problem.


Samsung Chromebook First Impressions

I've read literally hundreds of reviews on the Chromebook (the US$249 light one that's slightly more expensive for the the 3G version—both versions of which are completely sold out at Amazon, Best Buy, and the Google Play store). Finally got one, and here are my first impressions.

Taking it out of the box
Yes, the bump in the back is ugly and ruins the otherwise sleek look of the Chromebook. It is made out of plastic but feels solid and doesn't flex too much. I like that there's no latch when you close the lid, except that you can't open it with one hand without flipping it over (a neat little trick Apple's perfected with its MacBook line). The power cord isn't the magnetic ones I'm used to from Mac laptops (I'm clumsy and often trip over power cords), so I'll have to be extra careful with this one. The cord is also a bit shorter than I'm used to. With the long battery life (haven't done a full test, but it appears to be upwards of 8 hours, based on what the taskbar says), I'm hoping that won't be a problem.

First bootup
A lot of reviews talk about how simple the setup is for a Chromebook. You boot up, connect to a wireless network, and then sign in, and that's it. It is, of course, a lot simpler than some of the other setups I've done (Windows, recent Mac versions, and Ubuntu). But it could be simpler. First of all, when you enter your wireless password, there's no option (as there is in Android) to see the password as you're entering it. Hey, I have a complex wireless password, and it's kind of annoying not to be able to see it to double-check I'm typing it in correctly. The other more annoying problem was that, after entering in everything, instead of just going straight to my login, I got a long system update to install. Hey, user experience team for ChromeOS at Google, that's not what people want to see when they are excited and first booting up the computer! It'd be much better to have the system log in, download the update in the background and then just install it the next time you boot up.

User interface highlights
There's a lot Google gets right in terms of making the Chromebook and ChromeOS experience good for the user.

  • Your user settings load in quickly. When you log in with any Google account, your bookmarks, add-ins, and general preferences all load in almost immediately, so that you can be up and running in no time. I foresee this being very useful in case I ever lend this to a friend who has a Gmail account.
  • The trackpad is large and very Apple-like. It isn't quite as responsive as a MacBook Pro or Air trackpad, but this is also a fraction of the cost. For a US$249-329 laptop, the trackpad is amazing, as is the keyboard, which feels almost exactly like a Mac laptop chiclet keyboard.
  • The ChromeOS-specific keys make sense. Granted, they take some getting used to, but after you do get away from what you're used to (Windows, Mac, or Linux), it's easy to see why Google made the choices it did. The Control and Alt keys on the left are huge and easy to press without having to be precise in aiming. There are also smaller Control and Alt keys to the right of the Space bar, which make doing a Control-click with one hand a lot easier than on some laptops. There are dedicated keys for toggling fullscreen or switching between open windows. The Caps Lock key (usually useless) is a search key instead, but you can easily enable Caps Lock by pressing Alt-Search.
  • Powering on and waking from sleep are nigh-instantaneous. Yes, I'd already read reviews about how many seconds it takes to boot up a Chromebook. It's just that when I read "seconds," I was thinking I could sit there and twiddle my thumbs for a few seconds while it boots up. Nope. You hit the power button, get the ChromeOS splash screen, and then you log in afterwards. It boots up more quickly than I've seen some Windows laptops resume from sleep.
  • The trackpad gestures are the essential ones. You can two-finger scroll up and down, tap to click, and tap two fingers down to right-click. Standard stuff that makes the laptop functional and easy to use.
  • There isn't a lot of annoying feedback when you change settings. If you lower the volume, there are no annoying chirp noises to tell you the volume is being lowered (you get a brief visual display of the volume going down or up, but that display disappears quickly to get out of your way). There are very few alerts or random dialogues that pop up in your face. ChromeOS doesn't constantly ask if you're sure you want to change a setting. The changes just happen, and this is extremely refreshing, especially after some of the changes in Mac OS X in recent versions (Lion and Mountain Lion). No notifications. Nothing in your face except what you're actually doing.
  • The file manager seems separate. I didn't use earlier versions of ChromeOS, but I did read about how basically ChromeOS was a web browser. I think it still is, but Google has made it now at least appear to be a full operating system, even with something so simple as opening a Chrome browser window maximized by default and opening the file manager window not maximized by default.
  • When you click the Space bar or hit Alt–down arrow to scroll down a page, the scrolling is smooth without the animation being annoying or overly flashy.
  • The interface is responsive. There isn't a lot of lag time, spinning mouse cursors (with an hourglass or beachball). You launch a "program" (really usually just a bookmark to a website), and a new tab immediately opens. The Chromebook really focuses as much as possible on putting you in the web browser and making you productive.
  • As many other reviews mention, this Chromebook is silent and cool. No fans. No overheating.
  • This isn't a major plus, but I did read some reviews implying that videos are terrible on the Chromebook, that having too many tabs open slows it down considerably, or that the viewing angles on the screen are bad. None of this is true in my experience. I've had 25 tabs open with no sluggishness. Yes, if you view the laptop from an almost 180-degree angle, you can't see anything, but you'd never do that! And I played back some YouTube and Hulu videos, as well as a Google Play Movie, and all played back fine. No stuttering. The resolution wasn't the finest, but no noticeable pixelation or fuzzy blocks either.
  • It comes with a matte screen. Glossy screens stink. This screen is a pleasure to look at for long periods of time. No glare or reflection.

User interface improvements needed
Lots of good stuff with this Chromebook. Still, there are definitely some major things Google needs to revamp to make the experience near-perfect.

  • It's great that Chromebooks now let you have offline files. Too bad that's not enabled by default. It's also not an immediately noticeable setting in Google Drive. I had to Google how to do it (on the left side, click More to expand the menu, and then select Offline Docs).
  • The SD Card slot on the side makes the SD Card jut out quite a bit (almost half the card sticking out). If you're hoping to get more than 16 GB of storage, think again.
  • You can't, as far as I can tell, keep any Google Play Music offline without downloading individual songs. One of the nice things about Android is you can launch up Google Music, select a playlist to keep offline, and Google will keep that playlist offline for you. I don't want to download and organize individual songs. And I also believe there's a limit to the number of times you can download songs from Google Music. If you want to keep people in your ecosystem, make your ecosystem seamless!
  • Most apps in the Chrome App Store are just bookmarks. Some people have called them "glorified bookmarks." No, they're not glorified at all. They're just bookmarks. The Google Maps app is just a bookmark. Dropbox is just a bookmark. Pretty much everything apart from games (Angry Birds, for example) is a bookmark. It'd be great if one could get, for example, some Dropbox integration going, or even a decent VNC app. I actually love the Chrome Remote Desktop app, except that it's tied to one account, which leads to my next criticism:
  • No fast user switching stinks. Granted, I have a particularly odd setup, but I can't be the only one who'd like fast user switching. My wife and I share a Mac Mini, which is headless and acts as a file server and general random computer we can remote into. Chrome Remote Desktop can be set up with only one particular Google login. So if my wife wants to remote into it, it has to be set with her Google login. If I want to remote in, it has to be set to my Google login. In other words, fast user switching would be handy, because if the Mac Mini is set up with Google account X, and I'm signed in on my Chromebook with Google account Y, it means I have to sign out of my account, sign into another (just to remote), and then sign out, and sign back in with my original account. The other useful related feature would be to allow Chrome Remote Desktop to work with multiple accounts remoting into a single server. I did try using private browsing mode to see if I could switch users for remoting in. No go.
  • It's not at all obvious how to move the taskbar (which defaults to being on the bottom). Had to Google that as well (type about:flags in the address bar and change the appropriate setting), and the change requires restarting the computer. If you do get the taskbar over vertically, the time gets split (first half on top of the second half) instead of just being a slightly smaller font, which could easily fit horizontally.
  • It's also not terribly obvious how to rearrange certain apps or bookmarks on the taskbar. You have to right-click them to unpin and then repin them to the taskbar. Sometimes a pinned app will open as two separate icons (one the pinned, the other that's open), which is visually confusing, given the direction Mac, Windows, and Ubuntu have all headed. The apps button (the equivalent of the Start menu, I guess) can't be moved at all, as far as I can tell. It's always last, no matter what you unpin and repin.
  • Clicking the wireless icon and battery icons does bring up their status, but the window appears to come out of the user icon and not the icon you clicked on. Hovering over these icons gives you no information at all (How much battery is left? What wireless network am I connected to?).
  • You can't right-click on the clock to change the time. You have to do that through the settings menu in the Chrome web browser.
  • The power button has a little light in it to show you the computer's on, even though it's clearly on already, because you're looking at the screen—useless information and a waste of energy (the battery life is already amazing on this, but I wonder how much longer the battery would last if that light stayed off).
  • If you use Google Hangouts, the webcam seems to do a weird zoom on your face so your face takes up the whole box if not more than that, but if you turn on the webcam via the Camera app, you appear (even at the same distance away from the webcam) to be a normal distance away and framed appropriately.
  • The sound if the Chromebook is on a table is fine. If it's anywhere that's not a hard surface, don't expect to hear anything, even with the volume cranked up, because the speakers are weak and oddly placed on the bottom of the laptop.
  • If you turn off tap-to-click, you also turn off two-finger tap-to-right-click. I happen to like the two-finger tap-to-right-click, since the alternative is Alt-click to right-click, which is fine, but not as convenient. And I like turning off tap-to-click because I find otherwise I often accidentally click stuff.
  • Even though the Chromebook gives you a nice orange light when charging and a green light when fully charged, the light is in the back of the laptop, so it's not terribly convenient to check on.
  • I'm hoping it was a fluke, but after only one day with this new Chromebook, I've already had a random reboot. If it's not a fluke, I'm hoping this is something Google can address in a future OS update. I'm looking forward to having these updates install automatically, too.
I don't want to give the impression that the Chromebook is annoying to use. Those are all little annoyances, but the tiny annoyances do not outweigh all the good points. When it comes down to it, the fast bootup, matte screen, convenient keys, and focus on productivity definitely outshine some bad defaults and a few interface polish niggles.

Chromebook perks

  • The Chromebook comes with 12 Go-go in-air internet passes. I haven't tried them yet, but it seems a good value, considering how cheap the laptop is.
  • The 100 GB free of Google Drive storage for two years seems a dubious benefit, though. First of all, if you do enable offline files, you can't enable them all to be offline, since the storage is only 16 GB on this laptop, and then you otherwise have to make only some offline and pick and choose individual files. Annoying. Also, after two years, then what? If you do actually use up the 100 GB, they either all go up in smoke, or you end up having to pay for that 100 GB. No thanks.
  • I got the 3G version of the Chromebook, which comes with 100 MB free of Verizon data per month for two years. That's a pretty good deal. 100 MB isn't a lot, but most of the time I'll be connected to a wireless network of some kind. It's good to have the 3G connection as a backup, and I can always turn off images if I want to save bandwidth. Setting up the 3G connection wasn't that easy. Verizon gives you a useless "this may take several minutes" warning with no progress bar. It took far more than a few minutes. In fact, I waited ten minutes, rebooted, tried again, waited less than ten minutes (I think it was eight or nine), and then it finally activated. I didn't risk trying this out, of course, but in theory the Chromebook isn't supposed to use the 3G unless you're not connected to a wireless network. I don't trust that, so I made the 3G not connect automatically (manually only). There also doesn't appear to be a way to easily monitor your data use (how much of the 100 MB have I consumed so far this month?).

What is it good for?
I wouldn't recommend a Chromebook to everyone, but I think it can be a very handy machine if you know what it's good for. First of all, in almost all cases there's no way this is your only computer. You have a regular laptop or desktop you use for heavy applications or mass storage. The Chromebook is for on-the-go web browsing and typing. It can definitely be used for consumption, but I actually think it's ideal for production, mainly writing. If you want a consumption-focused device, you're better off with an Android tablet. If you want a general-purpose computer, you're better off with a Mac, Windows, or Linux laptop.

The Chromebook will get you to a website quickly or allow you to blog or write documents with very little distraction. You can also use it as a great guest computer. Anyone with a Gmail account can just sign in, and you don't have to worry about your personal settings or documents being messed with (intentionally or accidentally). It's also good for people who don't do serious computer work (email and web browsing only) and don't want to worry about installing system updates or avoiding malware.

Where I'd like to see Chromebooks go
I'm glad Google did a recent promotion to get $99 Chromebooks in the hands of schools. They got to the $100 laptop goal faster than One Laptop Per Child did. Chromebooks would be great for education, particularly for schools that are already set up on Google Apps for Education.

I do think Google could go further to make their brand integration work better (the way Apple's does... or even Google's own Android does). Google Music should be a better experience than it currently is, for example. Photo management seems to be almost non-existent. Maybe some more apps that aren't just bookmarks? I do know Google updates ChromeOS frequently, so I'm excited about future developments. I've had this Chromebook for only one day, and it's very cool to use (despite all its problems, which I've outlined above).


Nexus 7 Review

I've been burned before buying products I haven't had a chance to try out in person. The Eee PC 701. The HP Mini 1120nr. Those were the days when I wanted to buy only Linux-preinstalled computers. In random stores, I've played around with 7" tablets. There always seemed to be something sluggish or off about them. When I read reviews of the Nexus 7, I thought it might all be hype. For some reason, I bought one anyway.

Staples Fail
I tried to get it at Staples. They had a display copy that was clamped down with a security clamp that obscured part of the screen and also pressed on the screen so you couldn't actually use the thing without it interpreting everything as a second finger touch. They also didn't have any in stock. So I ordered it off Google's site on faith (okay—so I saw it in person, but I didn't really get a chance to use it properly).

Packaging Fail
When it arrived, I tried to open it. Whoever did the packaging needs to take some lessons from Apple. This was the most difficult box to open. It's a smaller box inside of a box sleeve that slides off, but the fit is so tight that the sliding off requires a lot of force. Then the box itself has some heavy tape keeping it shut. This was not fun to open.

Personalization Win
Of course, once I did open the box and get to the Nexus 7 inside, the fun really began. First of all, since I ordered it through Google using my Gmail account, it had already been set up with my Gmail username with a message saying "Hi, [my real name]!" I still had to enter my password, of course, but the personalization was a nice touch from a customer service perspective.

I can't believe it's Project Butter
I've been using Jelly Bean for a few weeks now on my Galaxy Nexus phone, and Jelly Bean works way smoother on the Nexus 7. Everything is quick—no lag. Even some of the buggy UI stuff is gone in the Nexus 7 version of Jelly Bean (for example, in the Google Play settings if you add in a PIN, the Galaxy Nexus Jelly Bean will just pop up the dialogue without the virtual keyboard, but the Nexus 7 Jelly Bean will pop up the virtual keyboard as well).

No screen lift problems
I'd read some reviews talking about some kind of screen lift issue on the left side of the Nexus 7. Didn't see it on mine. Don't know if that means I got a special rare working unit... or maybe those were just the bum early ones that were rushed to order when the Nexus 7 first came out.

Android Apps
One nice thing Android has is a lot of paid-for apps working the same on the phone as on the tablet. For the iPad and iPhone I know you sometimes have to repurchase iPad apps that you'd already bought for the iPhone.

Party in the front, speakers in the back?
Unfortunately, like the iPad and like pretty much every iPhone or Android smartphone I've seen, the Nexus 7 has its speakers in the back, which means to get the absolute best sound, you have to cup your hand a bit to redirect the sound... or just use headphones. The speaker sound itself is decent. I'm not an audiophile, but I also know tinny when I hear it. It's not tinny. It's also not award-winningly clear. Just decent.

Storage and money
I was debating at first whether to get the 16 GB or the 8 GB model. My wife convinced me to get the 16 GB. With a few movies, pictures, Android apps, and iTunes playlists, it fills up decently and would be overflowing with only 8 GB. Plus, US$249 with $25 of Google Play money included isn't bad at all. It also comes with some Transformers sequel that was not that great when I saw it the first time.

Overall, if you're not obsessed with expandable storage, and if you use your camera or phone (instead of a tablet) to take pictures, this is a very good purchase to go with.


What’s really going on with Android “fragmentation”

This is a follow-up to a post I did last year, “Does Android “fragmentation” actually affect end users?”

Unfortunately, tech news sites keep referring to this Android “fragmentation” problem in the same tired old ways. Here are some recent takes on it:
Has Google Done Enough to Keep Android Phones Up-to-date?
Google: Android fragmentation ‘up to manufacturers’
The Android era: From G1 to Jelly Bean
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean: Can it Solve Android’s Fragmentation Problem?
Newest Android Operating System Insufficient for Developers, Fragmentation Top Priority
Google Copies Microsoft, Not Apple, To Fix Android Fragmentation
Fragmentation, OS upgrades: Do people even care?

First of all, as I mentioned in my earlier entry, the Android “fragmentation” problem almost all tech journalists refer to basically doesn’t exist or is a non-issue. The vast majority of Android users are running either 2.2 or 2.3, and there’s not that huge a difference between the two versions (yes, I’ve used both on more than one phone). If you are a developer making an app, code it for 2.2+, and you’re targeting almost all Android users. Again, as I said before, I’ve used Android 1.5, 1.6, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, and 4.0 (just flashed 4.1 on my Galaxy Nexus this week, too). Every single app I use has worked on every version I’ve had. When I get a new version of Android, I restore all my app backups using Titanium Backup, and they all work. Same deal if I install them from Google Play (Titanium Backup is just faster and adds in user data).

I did discover this year, though, what real Android fragmentation looks like. It isn’t running different version numbers. It’s running different skins and apps.

A friend of mine has a Droid X, and she wanted to know how to make Google Voice the default texting app. Basically, couldn’t be done. Had nothing to do with the fact that she was running Android 2.3. When I ran Android 2.3, I had no problems making Google Voice the default texting app. I was running a relatively vanilla (CyanogenMod) 2.3, so when you tap to text someone, it prompts you which program to use. On the Droid X, the built-in messenger app automatically loads up, even if you set Google Voice as the default texting app. Thanks, Motorola for your wonderful Motoblur interface. It stinks.

Then I had a co-worker who wanted to add her work Exchange email account to her phone. She had an Android phone, so she thought I could help, as I also had an Android phone. I also had initially thought my being an Android user would help in this situation. Nope. She had some random LG phone with its own skin and default apps. The email client offered POP3 and IMAP, but Exchange was simply not an option. Again, this has nothing to do with the Android version number. After all, she also was running Android 2.3. In the regular Android 2.3, the Email app can do Exchange. So I had to do some browsing around Google Play and test-drive a few free apps to finally find one that did Exchange.

Those examples are what real fragmentation is, not people using Android 2.2 v. Android 2.3.

Many people don’t know where to put the blame. Is it Google’s fault? Is it the handset manufacturers’ faults? Is it the wireless companies’ faults? Well, I don’t really care whose fault it is, but I know two simple steps Google can take to fix the problem (yes, the real problem, not the one the tech journalists claim to be the problem):

  1. Change the way skins work. Handset makers want ways to differentiate their Android phones from each other. So they take a regular Android operating system from Google, and then they customize it or “skin” it with some overlain interface. For Motorola, that’s Motoblur. For Samsung, it’s TouchWiz. For HTC, it’s Sense. That’s fine. I don’t mind them customizing the interface. The only problem is that then the customer cannot uncustomize the interface without rooting, and it’s a very small percentage (probably in the single digits) of Android users who will actually root their phones to install custom roms. So instead of just saying “Here! Bake in whatever you like so it can’t be undone,” Google should make it so Android can be skinned through a theming engine, and the handset makers can then make theirs the default theme, but then users who are interested can go back to the vanilla Google theme or download other themes from Google Play.
  2. Make all stock apps available through Google Play. I shouldn’t have to go hunting down an alternative to Email that includes Exchange support. That should just be in Google Play, ready to install. So handset manufacturers or wireless providers can put on whatever stock apps they think people will need, and then customers who don’t like those apps can then install the stock Google apps instead.

Google has taken a few steps in the right direction, and when more Android users are on Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0) or Jelly Bean (4.1), then they’ll appreciate these steps more. In Ice Cream Sandwich, you can disable preinstalled apps. And in Jelly Bean, you can disable notifications from certain apps, even if you keep them enabled.

I’m a big open source fan, but sometimes Google just has to take some control back. Give carriers and handset makers the right to customize, but then give users more of a right to uncustomize. Then you’ll get less of the real fragmentation problem.


Cloud Music: Google v. Amazon

I know some privacy nuts are very anti-cloud storage, but I’ve seen enough distraught users having just lost all of their data from a failed hard drive, accidental deletion, or stolen computer to know that even though “The Cloud” isn’t for everyone, it’s still good for most people. Most computer users do not make regular backups of their personal files, and most corporations have redundant backups. So is it theoretically conceivable that Amazon or Google might somehow lose your personal files if you store them on a remote server? Sure. But it’s far more likely you’ll lose your files if you store them only locally.

More importantly, cloud storage doesn’t have to be the only storage. I back up to two external hard drives, a second computer, and the cloud. While I do value my privacy to a certain extent, I don’t have a privacy-at-all-costs approach to life, and there are other things I value just as much, if not more (e.g., photos that cannot be retaken, a music collection it’s taken me decades to build), so I was excited when this spring Google and Amazon each decided to release a cloud-based music player. Here are my pros and cons on the two services.

Google Music Beta Pros

  • Storage of up to 20,000 songs. I have only about 6500 in my collection, and that’s my total collection that it’s taken me decades to amass, so I’m highly unlikely to ever go over that storage limit.
  • Relatively fast upload. Given just how many GB of songs I had to upload, it took only a few days to upload. Not bad.
  • Decent-looking interface. It’s no iTunes (and I know there are iTunes haters out there, but I think it’s a great program, except for having no Linux port).

Google Music Beta Cons

  • Right now it’s invite-only. Eventually I did get an invite, and so did my wife, but I don’t really think the invite system is really necessary, considering the program has the word beta in its name.
  • There’s one song that just refuses to upload. It isn’t the wrong format. I’ve tried the workarounds Google and others have suggested. It just won’t upload. And there’s no way to manually upload it.
  • The upload client is Windows or Mac only. Some clever Linux users have found a way to make the Windows client work in Linux using Wine, but Google really should release a Linux native client. Or, better yet, upload straight through the web browser using a cross-platform tool like Java or Flash.
  • This is the real deal-breaker for me: it isn’t really a cloud back-up solution, since you cannot re-download the songs once you’ve uploaded them. You upload them, and then the only thing you can do is stream the songs or delete them. For me, this totally defeats the purpose of cloud storage. And even when, on my Android phone, I marked certain albums as available for off-line use, the actual music file doesn’t show up anywhere on my MicroSD card, so for all practical purposes, it’s still just a streaming service, because I’m cut off from re-downloading my own music.

Amazon Cloud Player Pros

  • You can download songs after you’ve uploaded them.
  • You get free storage for any newly purchased Amazon songs or albums.
  • You get 5 GB of free storage, but you can bump that up to 20 GB if you purchase an Amazon MP3 album once a year.
  • The Amazon MP3 uploader actually shows you the progress of each individual upload. Google Music Beta will show you just the current number out of the total.
  • You can manually select a location (not just all of iTunes) to upload.

Amazon Cloud Player Cons

  • The upload verification process is buggy. I tried to upload only songs from a particular playlist in iTunes. One time it said it was done uploading but only half of the songs had actually uploaded. Another time it was supposed to simply resume uploading where it had left off, but it started again from the beginning and created a bunch of duplicates I had to manually delete.
  • The uploader itself is buggy. It works just fine on my Macbook Pro running Leopard, but it hangs on Loading… on my wife’s Macbook Pro running Snow Leopard. I’ve Googled but haven’t found a solution to this. Uninstalling and reinstalling the uploader doesn’t help, nor does installing the latest version of Adobe Air, quitting all the other programs, or rebooting the computer.
  • Like the Google Music Beta uploader, the Amazon one is for Windows and Mac only. I’m not sure if it’ll work in Linux using Wine or not. Again, why not just use Java or Flash? Why a separate application?

Oh, and for both Google Music Beta and Amazon Cloud Player, why isn’t there a way to display and then purge duplicate songs? The algorithms for detecting duplicates before upload is deficient for both services, so at least they should make an easy way to clean up after upload.

Overall, I’m pleased that Google and Amazon have started down this path. I’m mainly going with Amazon, though, just because it allows the ability to re-download songs, so the cloud storage is real storage (a back-up solution) instead of just a way to stream songs. Perhaps after Google Music comes out of Beta it’ll be a bit more polished. Then again, Amazon’s Cloud Player is not in beta, and it still lacks some of the polish Google Music Beta does.