One UI 2.0: The BirchTree Micro-Review

One UI 2.0: The BirchTree Micro-Review

Alright, let’s do this thing! I’m calling this a micro-review because there actually isn’t a ton to say about this update to Samsung’s Android skin. But hey, it’s rolling out to Galaxy S10 devices now, with S9 phones coming soon, so here are some of the highlights from my 2 months in the beta.

Overall Feelings

The biggest change here is the upgrade to Android 10 under the hood. Check out my Android 10 review to see what I liked and didn’t like about that release, but the TLDR version is:

  • The new navigation gestures are a complete rip off of the iPhone ones, and they work 90% as well.
  • Dark mode is a nice addition
  • Tons of updates to privacy mean the system will ask you allow apps to do more than before. This is a good update, and again makes it basically like iOS.
  • Focus mode is cool and is similar to iOS’s “downtime” but more easy to toggle on demand.

Screen Recording

This is a huge update for me since I use this feature pretty regularly on my iPhone. You can trigger this from the notification shade toggles and after a 3 second countdown, you get a video of the happenings on your screen. As this is Samsung, there are more options than iOS’s version of this:

  1. 1080p vs 720p recording quality (why you’d choose 720p is beyond me)
  2. No audio, just the media audio from the phone, or media and microphone audio.
  3. When recording, you can have an insert of video from the front-facing camera so you can show your face while doing the things you’re recording.
  4. When recording, you can draw on the screen to highlight specific things happening.

Ultimately, this works well, and my only complaint is that it seems the video plays back at 30fps, not 60fps like it does on the iPhone and iPad.

Dark Mode

One UI previously had a dark mode, but it was Samsung’s own custom mode that only worked with Samsung-made apps. This lead to an inconsistent dark mode that largely made it a disappointment to turn on for me. One UI 2.0 adopts Android’s native dark mode, which is to be expected since Google now does the hard work for them, and all Google and third party apps going forward will implement this dark mode if they support it at all.

And unlike stock Android 10, you can schedule dark mode to turn on and off on your own schedule. I do this on iOS, so it’s nice to be able to enable it on an Android phone running the latest OS. I have to imagine Google will add this natively to Android 11 later this year.

Camera Changes

Outside of some minor UI tweaks to the app overall, my favorite change is the ability to customize what camera modes are displayed front and center when you launch the app. Previously, you can make certain modes available or hidden, but now you can drag and drop modes behind a “more” option, which makes it easier to hide modes you rarely use, but access them easier on those rare cases you need them.

Oh, and Samsung added slow motion video to the selfie camera. So if you were “upset” with Apple for adding this “stupid” mode to the new iPhones, now you get to be mad about the whole S10 and Note 10 line having it now.

Finally, sort of related, Samsung has added an option to have the native Gallery app sync with OneDrive, giving you a non-Google option for syncing your photo library online. Yes, you could have done this all along with the OneDrive app for Android, but I found that to be less than a seamless experience, and building it into the stock app means it should get more adoption.

Conclusion

Amazingly, we’re at the end of this micro-review, in large part due to the general lack of changes this year. Again, this update takes the foundation of One UI from Android Pie to Android 10, so you get a lot of changes there, but if you’re looking for changes only Samsung users will get, the list is pretty short.

There’s some changes to the layout and arrangement of settings pages, and the power share feature now lets you disable the feature at whatever battery percentage you want (used to be just 20%), but I’m hard pressed to think of anything else.

My overall impression of this update is that I didn’t feel nearly as much of a change as I was expecting. If you have never used Android 10, then you’ll have a good time experiencing some of those updates, but the stuff Samsung added on top of that is very minor. Basically, if you liked One UI last year, you’ll still like it this year. If you didn’t like it, then this didn’t do much to change your mind.

The Morning Show

The Morning Show

My wife and I sat down to finished Apple TV+’s The Morning Show last night. I was excited about the talent behind the show, and despite some grumpiness about the show’s reviews, a majority of critics liked the first 3 episodes, I thought it had a chance to be really good.

To say I was disappointed with the early episodes of this show would be an understatement. I would say that without question, the first few episodes of The Morning Show were the worst TV episodes I watched this year. The writing was borderline amateur, the production value was both high and low somehow at the same time, and the cast turned in uncharacteristically awful performances.

The next few episodes were much of the same, but two actors started to stand out: Jennifer Aniston remained strong for basically the whole time and Billy Crudup seemed to be getting a whole different set of stage directions than everyone else, turning in a truly bizarre, but wonderful performance.

Episodes 8-10 which close the season bounce back remarkably though, and I thought they were largely pretty compelling television. The actors finally started to get a hold on their roles and the corporate intrigue was far more interesting than the schlocky storytelling we were getting for most of the season. With the exception of the final scene, I thought these wrapped up the season very nicely.

The Morning Show is not great television in my view, but it at least became good television by the end. I hope that season 2 hits the ground running.

AirPods Pro Mini Review (cold weather and travel)

AirPods Pro Mini Review (cold weather and travel)

I know, I know, you’ve already seen enough AirPods Pro reviews to know the deal, but I wanted to share my feelings on Apple’s new wireless earbuds anyway. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it brief.

I’ve had these new Pods for 3 weeks and have used them in near 0°F weather, as well as on a trip down to Austin, Texas to escape that terrible weather for a bit.

Traveling

AirPods were already great for travel since they were very small and had a battery that could make it though pretty much any stint in a car, bus, train, or plane. On the downside, they didn’t block out much of the outside world, so they are close to useless on most airplanes.

AirPods Pro have a slightly larger case, but it’s only by a few millimeters on either axis and you only notice the difference if you hold it right next to a standard AirPods case or if you happen to fit them into a particularly snug coin pocket in your skinny jeans.

The batter life is also basically the same (mine dropped from 100% to 65% through a 2.5 hour flight with noise cancelling on the whole time), and they still stare up 4-5 more times in the case before you need to charge the case up again. You can of course charge the case wirelessly or with Lightning, so you get maximum flexibility.

The real difference is in the new noice cancelation feature, which does a good enough job of keeping plane noises out so you don’t have to crank the volume up to 100% just to make out what you’re listening to. It’s not as good as my over-ear Sonys, but it’s totally good enough.

Transparency Mode

Before we get too far off of sound, I wanted to mention transparency mode, which is basically the opposite of noise cancelation. In this mode, sounds around your are amplified instead of blocked. I find this far less useful day-to-day, as most of the time I prefer to block out the world when I’m listening to stuff, but there are cases where I prefer to have it on.

The first case is when I’m working around the house. The house is usually relatively quiet, so noise cancelling isn’t required, and I sometimes listen to something my wife has no interest in. So instead of forcing her to hear my stuff though a HomePod or something, and instead of closing myself off from her, I pop in my AirPods Pro and listen with transparency mode turned on. This lets me hear her if she calls for me without making her listen to my tech podcast and distract her from her work.

I also like it for shopping. I never wore earbuds when shopping because I felt closed off from the rest of the store. But with this mode I am able to keep track of everything going on around me without stopping my podcast or book. It’s not always ideal, and I usually shop without headphones, but when I do, this is super nice to have.

Cold Weather

It’s been cold here in the Midwest recently, as it always is, but this has been a great test for these new AirPods. One issue I had with the old ones is that they would stop working in really cold temperatures. We’re talking like 10°F or lower, and they would just shut off, almost as if the insides froze up. I would get them home, warm them up, and they would turn back on. So far I have not had this problem with these buds.

The other thing I wondered about was how the squeeze gesture would compare to tapping. While I greatly prefer the squeeze gesture, in no small part because now I get play, pause, rewind, and forward all on each bud. But how would they work when wearing big winter gloves? Well sadly, they are completely impossible to use when wearing anything more than a very light glove. There simply isn’t enough to grab onto and squeeze, while the old ones would work by banging the side of my head through my glove and hat. Now if I want to do something I can take off my glove and do it. Definitely annoying, except…

Hey Siri

These were on the second generation AirPods as well, but I never had those so these are my first AirPods with Hey Siri support, and good lord, I love it! The top time I use these headphones is when I’m walking my dog. We live in the suburbs and either walk through the neighborhood or through a nature preserve. This usually means we are not too close to anyone most of the time, so it’s not awkward to ask Siri to do things in stride.

Being able to say, “hey Siri, fast forward 3 minutes” to skip a podcast ad or “is it going to rain?” if I see some suspicious clouds on the horizon has been lovely. Especially with gloves on, it’s becoming more and more my preferred method of doing things when on the move.

Overall Feelings

Overall I really enjoy these headphones. There are no downgrades from the cheaper AirPods, only differences. So while these work well for me, there may be reasons you still prefer the less expensive model. If you don’t like in-ear earbuds, I can tell you these are more comfortable than most, but they are still deeper in your ear than standard AirPods. Also, they don’t have nearly as many accessories as the old ones (partially because they’re new, partially because they’re going to be more niche) and they don’t fit perfectly in their case since they need to accommodate 3 ear tip sizes.

But if the price doesn’t scare you away (and if you’re in the market for noise-cancelling wireless earbuds it should not) then these are absolutely worth it. They are another fantastic product in a lineup that we should only expect to keep growing.

Google Pixel 4: The BirchTree Review

Google Pixel 4: The BirchTree Review

This is going to be a different type of review. In part because you’ve likely read and watched a bunch of reviews already which go over the spec sheets and basic functionality. Instead, I’m going to address only the parts of this phone that I find interesting and where I have not seen my opinions widely voiced out there already.

It’s a wild idea, I know, but I hope you enjoy!

The Pricing Conundrum

The Pixel 4 starts at $799; that’s for the 64GB smaller model. However, as you have likely seen from most reviews, no one can recommend the smaller one due to its small battery, so they suggest you get the XL model, bringing us up to $899.

Then you have to contend with the fact that 64GB is not a lot of storage for a phone in this price range, and people who spend this much on a phone will likely want the 128GB model, bring our total up to $999.

If you want more than this, too bad, because we’ve maxed out the phone already.

Where this gets dicy is when you look at what this phone offers and what other competitors are doing right now. The iPhone 11 is $699, and $749 if you want to match the Pixel’s 128GB storage1. The 128GB Galaxy S10e, my favorite Android phone of the year, goes for $749. And the just-released 128GB OnePlus 7T goes for a chill $599.

Obviously phones are more than their spec sheets, but when we look at what the Pixel 4 is offering, Google is asking us to pay hundreds of dollars more that other flagship phones in this class. And I can happily recommend any of those phones from Apple, Samsung, and OnePlus without hesitation. If someone tells me they’re thinking of getting a Pixel 4, I might still recommend it to them, but we have to have a serious conversation about the opportunities.

Strategy

I don’t always talk about market strategy in my reviews, but I think the Pixel 4 warrants it more than most other phones. As I just talked about, the pricing for the Pixel 4 is quite high considering the spec sheet and I think we’re seeing a lot of reviewers struggling to contend with this fact in their reviews. They like the phone but they have a hard time justifying the price. Again, since most of them say “you need 128GB and the better XL battery, so it’s $999,” the price comparisons get silly2.

Add onto this the fact that after 3 years of Pixel phones, Google has struggled to garner any significant market share or grow sales in any significant way. I would totally believe you if you said each Pixel sold more than the previous model, but we’re still solidly in niche phone territory here. In fact, according to a recent report, Pixels account for 5% of the phones Verizon sells, with a whopping 90% going to Apple and Samsung phones. And that report even called out the Pixel 3a as the main driver of Pixel sales, not the high end Pixel 3.

I think the Pixel line has always been priced wrong. Google failed to gain any real traction with the $649 Pixel 1 and 2, and they didn’t move the needle when they raised the starting price to $799 last year. The only thing that got them anywhere was the Pixel 3a this spring that took us all by surprise with how great it actually was. I personally called it the MacBook Air of smartphones and I stand by that phone being a great value with a camera that punches way above its weight class.

With the $799-999 Pixel 4, I think Google has assured that they will not make any significant changes this year either. I just think that they’re trying to play a game that they can’t win while they should be focused on the game they have every ability to dominate.

Google is currently attacking iPhones and Galaxies, and frankly in the US Apple and Samsung have that high end market locked up tight. Google is trying to beat them head on when they should be trying to flank them with something different.

My Pixel 4

I swear I’ll talk about the phone as it exists today soon! But before I do, let’s look at what I would have done to get the Pixel 4 down to that $599 price point I think they should have targeted. Of course, I don’t know Google’s margin or exact component pricing here, but I’ll try to ballpark based on what other phones are out there.

First, I’d remove the Motion Sense radar sensor. The Soli project was debuted half a decade ago and the version released on the Pixel 4 is so far less advanced than that 2015 demo that it’s actually kind of shocking. More details in the “It’s Freaking Radar, Man!” section below, but I think they could remove this and have a phone that’s just as useful. And it would let them sell the phone in India, which is kind of a big deal.

Second, kill the 90Hz screen. I know, I know, it is very nice and I’m happy to have it, but it hardly adds any value, is something most people won’t even notice, and currently it only runs that fast when the screen is over 75% brightness, so basically only when you’re outside. Oh, and because the battery is so small, many reviewers say you can turn it off entirely to make the battery more acceptable, at which point it serves zero value.

Third, speaking of the battery, I would do whatever it took to put a bigger battery in here. Maybe that’s removing more components or making the phone a little thicker, but one way or the other, the most important thing for phone buyers is the battery and the Pixel can’t fall this far short.

And finally, if that isn’t enough to get them to that $599 price point, I hate to say it but throw out face unlock and bring back the fingerprint sensor. I like secure face unlocks far more than fingerprint readers, but there are plenty of people out there who still like the fingerprint option and if it cuts a significant amount off the price, then it has to be done.

To recap:

  1. Remove the radar
  2. Use a 60Hz screen
  3. Boost the battery
  4. If needed, go back to a fingerprint sensor instead of face unlock

While I get that these changes would make this phone less “cool” they would also make the phone better for almost everyone, and it would make this a phone people have to twist themselves in knots to recommend into something they can recommend without hesitation.

This Thing has a Battery in it, Right?

If I had to describe this phone’s battery in one word, it would be “brutal.” The above screenshot is from this Sunday when I used the phone a little bit (2.5 hours) which burned through 74% of my battery. Comparatively, my iPhone 11 Pro with a very similar 2.3 hours of screen on time sits at 69%. For lack of a better word: nice.

And this is without having a SIM card in there this day! It’s not like it was searching for a hard-to-reach cellular network or anything. I’ve even tried turning off all Motion Sense features to see if that Soli chip is what was killing it, but that didn’t really move the needle for me.

I don’t know what’s going on here, but this is by far the worst battery life I’ve ever experienced in a smartphone3. It’s just very, very bad.

It’s Freaking Radar, Man!

The Soli radar sensor, or Motion Sense, in the Pixel 4 is certainly the most unique hardware aspect of Google’s new phones, and the ways Google has integrated it into Android range from pretty clever to very questionable. I’m going to look at each one from most useful to least.

Making Face Unlock Even Faster

The best use for Motion Sense is in how it helps make unlocking your phone incredibly quick. From my testing, the Pixel 4 recognizes my face exactly as quickly as the iPhone 11 Pro, but the Pixel feels faster because it uses its radar system to notice when you’re reaching for it and turns on the screen and face unlock camera system before you even touch the phone. This makes it so as soon as your face comes into view it unlocks and is ready to go. This is a very clever use case and it’s effectively invisible to the average user. Their phone just feels like it’s fast, and that’s the whole point.

This would also be a good time to mention that just like the iPad Pro, this face unlock works from any angle, so it works in bed, unlike my iPhone. Love this.

The only downside of this in my experience is that it’s too aggressive in activating so my phone has been unlocking way more than I actually want it to. For example, my phone sits on a charging stand on my desk at work. With my iPhone, I tap the screen, it unlocks in milliseconds, and I can see my notifications. With the Pixel 4, any sudden movements I make trigger it to light up and unlock. I’ve had it happen when I simply lean forward a little in my chair and BOOM the phone is unlocked and on my home screen. I also have an annoying issue where simply putting the phone on the charger makes it unlock. It also typically unlocks itself when I place it on my wireless charger on my bedside table. It also unlocks when I move it from my desk into my pocket.

Basically, the Pixel 4 seems to think that if you touch it, you want to unlock it, which is absolutely not the case and makes me handle my phone differently. And as has been well-documented, since the Pixel doesn’t care if I’m looking at it or am even, you know, alive, I can’t close my eyes or something and prevent it from doing this.

This problem is mostly mitigated by changing the default behavior to only unlock the phone but not take you to the home screen (go to Settings app, Security, Face Unlock, and disable the “skip lock screen” setting), I recommend most people change that as soon as they get the phone.

Quieting Alarms, Timers, and Calls

This one is pretty cool too. When a timer, alert, or phone call is beeping, you can reach out to the phone and it will quiet the noise. It doesn’t silence it, mind you, just make it quiet. Then you can decide what you want to do with it. In all cases, you can swipe your hand over the phone to dismiss the timer, stop the alarm, but oddly not reject a call.

The part with quieting the noise when you reach for the phone works very reliably, but the swipe to dismiss is a little less so (more on this below).

Saving Battery When You’re Far Away

This one is very subtle, and you may never notice it’s even happening, but the Pixel 4 will try to detect when you are far away and turn off the always-on screen to conserve battery. As soon as you get closer, it turns on the screen. Again, this is subtle and it’s actually kind of hard to test as you need to get far enough away to make it work.

All in all, my screen always “feels” like it’s on even though it’s not actually always on.

Controlling Media Playback

And finally there is the one that Google is marketing the most, all while being, in my experience, the worst of the bunch: media controls. This works in lots of apps, but not all. It works in all my music apps from Apple Music to Spotify to Google Play Music, and works in YouTube as well. It does not work in Pocket Casts, though. It doesn’t appear that apps need to integrate to this themselves, the system determines if an app is playing media and enables the media gestures on its own.

But this is a feature I’ve turned off because my use of it can mostly be broken down like so:

  • 5% using it because it’s useful
  • 20% using it for testing
  • 60% struggling to make it actually work
  • 15% accidentally triggering it and wanting to throw my phone across the room

The feature just isn’t reliable or predictable. I can’t get it to work reliably, and more importantly, I can’t find a spot in my life where it’s actually useful. The cooking example comes up all the time, but (a) this is the only example anyone can come up with and (b) I use my phone all the time when I’m cooking with pinkies and knuckles. The biggest thing this solves is advancing to the next track when the screen is off, which I will admit is nice, but isn’t a major pain point for me.

What’s frustrating is that this gesture seems to work one minute and then not the next. Sometimes it recognizes left swipes as right swipes and does the opposite of what I want. And that 15% I mentioned above, that comes when I’m making breakfast and happen to walk too close to the phone and it skips tracks. Or other times I’m getting ready in the bathroom and I put my toothbrush away, only to have YouTube skip to the next video because I thinks I was swiping it.

Google showed this off as having some smarts to recognize intentional vs unintentional swipes, but it’s unreliable enough that I got way too many false positives. In the end, this is the thing that made me turn the feature off; it made me feel like I had to tiptoe around my phone lest it do things I very much did not want it to do.

As many have already said, the media controls are very limited, presumably because Google wanted to do a few things well and build from there, but this very limited functionality is very bad right now. My fingers are crossed for some updates that make this work better.

All of this adds up to very little in my experience, and when I turned off Motion Sense to try and save battery life, I hardly even missed it.

Cameras

There is tons to say about the cameras on the Pixel 4, but let’s just look at how the Pixel 4 camera stacks up against the iPhone 11 Pro in some situations.

First up is a comparison of:

  1. Computational zoom past 2x
  2. Portrait mode
  3. Low light indoors

https://youtu.be/Z_KRvCnBNdE

And then here are some side-by-sides in good lighting. iPhone is always on the left and the Pixel is always on the right.

Next up, here are some night shots taken with each phone (iPhone still on left, Pixel still on right).

And how about another one for fun? Here’s the iPhone 11 Pro:

And here’s the Pixel 4:

As a whole they look pretty similar, but the details show some differences. The Pixel has much more color noise in the sky, as well as a little less detail in the grass and bushes. Here’s the deal: the iPhone tends to do better in handheld night mode shots and the Pixel tends to do better when using a tripod.

And finally, we have to try out some astral photography and see how the main new feature in this year’s camera update.

That’s not how it comes out of the camera, of course, that’s how I made it look after a minute in Lightroom. This is what the camera app gives you:

I sadly don’t have any other examples right now since it’s been cloudy and rainy every night here in the US Midwest. What I can tell you is that I went out a few weeks back with the astral mode on the Pixel 3a, and got very similar results to what I’m seeing on the Pixel 4. Google is showing off some remarkable photos in their marketing but I haven’t seen anyone online get much more than I am. Maybe we all just have too much light pollution where we live to see that many stars.

Oh, and I should probably show what the iPhone gets when trying the same thing:

Also good, but not as clear as the Pixel. Again, this is a 30 second exposure while the Pixel used the full 4 minutes possible.

My Opinion on Still Photos

When it comes to still photography these phones are really neck-and-neck. The Pixel 4 applies much less harsh contrast to every photo which was my main complaint with the photos in years past, which is wonderful. I’d say I still prefer the colors in iPhone shots more often than Pixel ones, but it’s so close that it’s not worth discussing further…so I won’t.

When it comes to detail in shots, it’s really a toss up and varies from shot to shot. Sometimes the iPhone got a better image and sometimes the Pixel did, but they were both almost universally excellent so it didn’t really matter.

That said, in low light, but not night time, the iPhone consistently gets sharper photos, largely helped by the excellent addition of “Deep Fusion” in iOS 13.2. Additionally, portrait mode I find far better on the iPhone in 90% of shots.

Nighttime is where things are most interesting, as both haver upped their game significantly from the Pixel 3 last year. This is again a toss up from photo to photo, but the Pixel 4 probably won out 60% of the time, giving it the slight edge.

One big caveat with the Pixel 4’s night mode, especially when you throw it on a tripod and it switches to “astral photography” mode, and that is that the exposures take waaaaaaay longer to take than on the iPhone. Handheld night shots take 3 seconds on the iPhone and 10 seconds if you’re using a tripod (you can manually boost those to 5 and 30 seconds, although the difference in image quality is usually trivial and not worth it). Meanwhile, they are somewhere around 7 seconds handheld and 2-4 minutes on the Pixel 4. Take that first photo of the life saver: that was a 210 second exposure on the Pixel 4 vs 10 seconds on the iPhone. When you consider the photos look effectively the same, it’s really hard to justify the 20x time commitment. Seriously, you don’t appreciate how long 3 minutes is until your phone is incapacitated for that long while you wait.

All of this said, if you don’t want an iPhone then none of this is going to bother you. The Pixel 4 reliably shoots some of the best still photographs you can get on a camera, let alone a smartphone camera.

My Opinion on Video

Video is a whole other story, as this time it’s not even close, the iPhone 11 Pro smokes the Pixel 4 in every single way. If we look at lenses, the iPhone has an ultra-wide lens4, so it’s more flexible. If we look at modes, the iPhone shoots higher resolutions at higher frame rates, at higher bitrates, and with noticeably better video quality at all times.

https://youtu.be/E0n30RJk9XQ

Taking the iPhone out of the picture, the Pixel 4 still doesn’t hold up that well on the video front. The video okay overall, but there are far too many instances of artifacts in the footage, especially in scenes with lots of texture like grass or trees.

I don’t have nearly as much to say about video as it’s not my forte, but I’ll say this about video: every video I take with the Pixel 4 makes me go “yeah, that’s okay” while everything I take with the iPhone 11 Pro makes me go “I can’t believe how good this is!” I’d love to see Google put their photography smarts towards video as well.

Software

Next to the cameras, the software on Pixels is what really draws people to them. The Pixel 4 has a good number of software improvements that make it a better Android experience than most other devices out there.

The New Google Assistant

I’m not the biggest user of voice assistants on my phone, although I’m all in on smart speakers, so I don’t have a ton to say here. What I will say is that Google moved all voice processing onto the device and this makes everything feel stupid fast. Doing things locally like dictating a message or asking Google to set a timer happen with almost zero lag. Seriously, setting a timer feels like it’s done before I’ve finished asking for it! I went frame-by-frame in a video of me asking for one and it took 0.83 seconds for me to finish saying the word “timer” to the timer being started.

Other things like being able to navigate your phone and issue sequential requests have not been nearly as good for me. For example, asking Google “show me my dog pictures” from the home screen does a search of my photo library with all my dog pics, but then asking “only ones from last week” doesn’t return anything, despite there being tons of dog pictures last week.

But this isn’t particularly new, and the features Google showed off at I/O this spring that let you control your phone entirely with your voice seem to not be here yet. And if they are, I have not been able to find them, so please let me know if I’m wrong here.

Overall, Google Assistant is similar to the one on all other devices, but the voice recognition is much faster, so everything is a bit faster than before.

Voice Recording Cranked to 11

The Pixel 4 ships with a new app called Recorder and think of it like Voice Memos on the iPhone but with automatic transcriptions built in. All you have to do is hit record and you’ll get a nice sounding recording of whatever is going on, and the app with automatically (and in real time) transcribe everything it records. It does this all offline and doesn’t send anything off your device. In fact, unlike Voice Memos on iOS which syncs your recordings across your devices, Google’s Recorder specifically tells you that nothing leaves your device. If you would like, you can share these recordings one at a time, either as audio files, text files, or both.

And the quality of the transcriptions is pretty good, although it’s not perfect by any means. This might not be a perfect test, but I played the first 90 seconds of my most recent podcast for the app and this is the transcription it created:

Good morning everyone and welcome to the. Mycast today. I want to talk about what I would like in a pro. I.

So the iPhone 11 Pro came out just over a month ago, so we've had if you got it at lunch you had your phone for a month and two days at this point, so one of the common threads in many of the youtuber view. The iPhone 11 pro is people saying what's the pro for what's pro about this?

And. Get mentioned our stuff like if it was going to be called pro I think you should get rid of the notch. I think you should have a high refresh display and I don't think those are things that's quote unquote pros actually need like is that really what is going to keep someone from using the iPhone as their smartphone?

And believe that problematic to.

I don't think so, so if I think about what a pro device actually. Mean do I do? I care about the naming I guess.

General. The word pro typically.

The one that we sell to everybody but has higher specs can do. A little bit more is a little faster when.

The transcript is okay, but it’s far from a word-for-word transcript of what I said. Is it useful? Yes, but is it going to give you word-for-word transcripts of that it’s hearing? Not unless you’re recording someone talking very precisely at all times.

Car Crash Detection

And finally on the software front, there is a new car crash detection feature that acts kind of like the fall detection on the Apple Watch. If the phone detects you were in crash, it will make a loud noise and ask if you are okay. If you don’t respond in time, it will call emergency services and your emergency contact. The app says it uses the accelerometer, location, and audio sensors to guess if you were in a crash, and is off by default when you get the phone. To turn it on, just go the Safety app and enable it from there.

No, I did not test this out, but I did use the demo the app lets you try out and yeah, it’s pretty loud: you’ll notice if it goes off.

General Notes on Hardware

  • The asymmetrical top and bottom bezels don’t really bother me, but it’s definitely not ideal. Is it better than a notch? Depends on who you are, but for me it falls into the “minor annoyance” category.
  • The phone overall feels quite nice in the hands. I love the brushed edges for being far more grippy than the polished steel on the iPhone 11 Pro or the brushed, slippery aluminum on the iPhone 11. The white modelI got is also very striking and I think looks fantastic with the black accents and single splash of orange on the power button. Interestingly, I asked my wife what she thought about the feel and she instantly said it felt cheap and she didn’t like it compared to her iPhone 11, so your mileage my vary.
  • The screen is very good and works well for me. It’s bright enough and the 90Hz screen looks amazing when it’s activated. However, it currently only goes 90 when the brightness is over 75%, which is not often when you’re indoors. This is to conserve battery life, but it makes it so the screen feels normal most of the time and only silky smooth occasionally. You an force the screen to always do 90Hz in the developer options, and that’s quite nice, but it slays the battery, so it’s only worth changing if you’re always topping up thought the day.
  • The power and volume buttons are decent, but are a bit soft. The power button feels good if you hit it dead in the middle, but if you’re off center at all it loses its clickiness.
  • Face unlock works when I’m lying down in bed! This is my only time Face ID on the iPhone lets me down, and I’m happy that the secure face unlock on the Pixel 4 works from all angles, just like the iPad Pro.
  • Speaking of face unlock, the fact that it can be used even if I’m not awake or even alive is not ideal but is also not the end of the world for me. The same can be said for any fingerprint reader, so I won’t go so far as to say this is useless, but an attention requirement certainly should have been there from day one, and not months away in a yet unconfirmed software update.
  • The haptics on this phone are second only to the iPhone. They’re just great.

My Buying Advice

The Pixel 4 is a really hard thing for me to recommend. It has great cameras, very good software (if you’re cool with Android), nice hardware, a questionable price, and a piss poor battery life, and all that adds up to a device that only works for people who really value the things it does well to an obscene degree. If all you want is the best still camera in a smartphone, I think the iPhone 11 Pro is better, but on the Android front the Pixel is still king. If you love Google’s opinionated take on Android and want to always have the latest updates, then the Pixel 4 is also the best way to go.

But if you are looking for the most bang for your buck, it’s hard to think of a phone with a worse value per dollar. If you want a phone you can trust to make it through the day, you’re also hard-pressed to find something worse. If you want ultra-premium hardware, I don’t think you’re going to get it here either. And if you take more videos than photos, then the camera is going to let you down more than other options out there today.

If you fall into the camp that really wants one of the things the Pixel 4 excels at, then have at it, but know what its limits are so you can plan accordingly.

Finally, I won’t pretend to be able to tell you what you should do, but in general in the US in late 2019, I think people who would consider the Pixel 4 might enjoy a few other phones instead.

The Samsung Galaxy S10e is $50 less than the Pixel 4, has double the storage, all the same specs5, and takes much better video. It also comes with One UI which I think improves on Android in some ways and has all of Samsung’s additional software which many people enjoy and is much better than it has ever been. I loved this phone and I think most people would enjoy this more than the Pixel 4.

The OnePlus 7T is $200 less than the Pixel 4, has double the storage, and has a slightly faster processor (855+) with more RAM (8GB). And while the photos from this phone are not as good as the Pixel’s they’re competent and have the advantage of a 3x telephoto lens (vs the Pixel’s 2x) and an ultra-wide lens as well. It also shares the 90Hz display and has a nice premium build. Oh, and did I mention it was $200 less expensive?

Google’s own Pixel 3a is also a contender for some folks. Yes, it’s slower and has last year’s camera, but it’s been updated to get the new astral photography mode and also will receive software updates the same say the Pixel 4 will. If you want the Pixel experience while spending half the price of the baseline Pixel 4 and get the same 64GB storage, then the 3a should be in the conversation.

And finally, it’s not Android, but the new iPhone 11 is $100 cheaper ($150 cheaper if you compare the 128GB versions) and comes with all the benefits of iOS, but we’re not going to go too far down that rabbit hole today.


  1. I’ll leave a note here that the iPhone 11 Pro Max also has 64GB in its $1,099 model, which is insane as well. There are plenty of reasons the 11 Pro warrants its price tag, but storage is not one of them.

    I’m not reviewing the 11 Pro Max here, but this is to fend off the “um excuse me, but the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which you love, has 64GB too!”

    It does, I don’t like it, and I don’t think anyone should get that one. It doesn’t excuse the Pixel 4. 

  2. Compared to other good battery 128GB phones: $250 more than the iPhone 11, $250 more than the Galaxy S10e, and a whopping $400 more than the OnePlus 7T. 
  3. Standard disclaimer that I don’t review every single phone that comes out, so I’m open to there being worse ones out there. 
  4. Which I find more useful for video than still photos. 
  5. 1080p screen, Snapdragon 855, and 6GB RAM 

Apple Watch Series 5 Review: One Major Feature and One Major Question Mark

The newest Apple Watch is an odd duck when it comes to updates for Apple’s “more personal device ever.” Depending on your measurement, it’s either the most or least significant update to the hardware Apple has ever put out, and that just makes it a funky product to review. For some history, these are what I’d consider the highlights of previous Apple Watch updates.

So what does the Series 5 bring to the table?

  • Series 5 adds an always-on screen

Yeah, that’s basically it, but let’s jump into what exactly that means for this product.

What Stayed the Same

Before we hit the always on screen, let’s talk about what stayed the same from the Series 4. The Series 5 has effectively the same processor1 as the 4, right down to clock speeds, so there is no upgrade in performance this year. This is fine for me, as I’ve never thought the Apple Watch is slow for a couple years now, and this is really a compliment to the silicon team at Apple for being so far ahead of anyone else out there.

The screen (outside of the always on trick) is exactly the same as well, sporting a 448x368 LTPO OLED display in the 44mm model2. It still has the same screen-to-body ratio as last year and looks great on the wrist.

The haptics remain unchanged as well, and they still feel very good across the board.

The aluminum models look the same, have the same color options, and and indistinguishable from last year’s models. There are new finishes in the Edition line, with titanium and ceramic options, but I didn’t spring for those this year and can’t speak to them. All I will say is the ceramic one looks hot and I wish I could justify the cost for it.

Always On Everything

But like I said, the one significant new feature in the Series 5 is the new always on display. I have two things to say about this before we get into more detail:

  1. For some people this will be reason enough to upgrade from any Apple Watch, even the Series 4. For many others, it will finally convince them to jump on the Apple Watch train for the first time.
  2. Apple is doing the feature way better that what other smartwatches are doing with always on screens.

Why This is a Big Deal

I’ve never had a very hard time seeing the time on my Apple Watch. From the very beginning I’ve been mostly accepting of the “raise to wake” gesture since it was mostly easy to do, and in the 3.5 years I’ve been wearing an Apple Watch, I’ve gotten used to it to the point I rarely thought about it as a limitation. That said, those rare times it didn’t work, like when I was in bed or when I was in a meeting and tried to subtly look at the time, it was indeed a bit frustrating.

Now that the Series 5 always shows the time, my success rate at seeing the time on my watch has gone from 98% to 100%, and that last 2% is very satisfying.

Another reason this is a big deal is that it makes watch face choices mean a hell of a lot more than they used to. Previously, your watch face was really just for you. The rest of the world only saw the black slab of the Apple Watch’s off screen, but when you raised it to your face you personally got to see the face. Now that the screen is always on, your watch face is visible to the outside world at all times, and it made me think more about the watch as a fashion item. Not only does my watch face need to give me the time, information, and look good to me, I want one that gives off the right feeling to the rest of the world. Maybe that’s silly, but fashion matters to everyone, even if you don’t really want to admit it.

But it’s not just fashion, it’s a great step in adding some diversity to the Apple Watches you see in the wild. We all know what an Apple Watch looks like, and people have tons of band options to personalize their watch to their liking, but the watch itself always looks the same. Now everyone will be able to have their own look from the screen to the band, and I think that’s pretty great.

This Ain’t Your Father’s Always On Screen

Always on screens are nothing new to smartwatches, as most Wear OS and Samsung watches support this feature. These watches usually blank out the display and then flash up a new watch face that’s a minimized version of whatever watch face you’re using. From what I’ve used, this means just the time remains, and all on-screen complications disappear.

Instead, the Apple Watch Series 5 smoothly dims the screen from normal to always-on mode, and then brings up the brightness smoothly when you tap the screen or raise your wrist. It gets it to the point where I often can’t even tell if the screen is in its normal mode or always on mode. When you see them one after the other you can definitely tell, but when you just glance at your wrist, I never really know what version I’m looking at, and that’s probably the point.

Inconsistent Behavior

My biggest problem with the always on screen is how watchOS handles it in software. Here’s what’s good:

  1. If you’re on the watch face, the screen fades out to the always on watch face and looks great.
  2. If you’re in an app and smack your palm on the screen to turn it off, you go straight back to the watch face (because you’re gesturing you want to close the app).
  3. If you are in a workout, your data stays on screen and updates once per second.

But there are other times when the always on screen doesn’t work that well.

  1. When using navigation, the directions should always be displayed. Instead the watch goes into a “semi-on” mode that blurs the navigation until you raise your wrist. This should be like workouts and show you the next move at all times.
  2. The Now Playing app (or the app for whatever app is playing audio) makes the watch face go away and you get the blurred version of the media controls. This is not useful and means for hours each day I get the blurred clock screen, not my actual watch face.
  3. Notifications come in, I glance at them, and lower my wrist, and the notification stays on the always on screen (in the blurred view) for a minute or two.

Basically, I don’t like the “blur the running app and show the time in the upper right” view and every time I see it I feel like the watch isn’t doing the right thing. Maybe for the first issue above Apple would say you shouldn’t be looking at your watch while driving, but why do they have navigation there in the first place if that was their feeling? Similarly, why not do that if I have walking or transit directions and am not driving a vehicle?

Here are my solutions to the 3 issues I have:

  1. Treat Maps like Workouts. If I’m currently navigating, show me the current directions on the always on screen. Updating every second is completely fine for navigation just like workouts.
  2. Either make the Now Playing app show on the always on display or preferably, just show my watch face on the always on screen and if I raise my wrist show me the media controls.
  3. Notifications if I lower my wrist while a notification is displayed, wait like 5 seconds and then go back to the watch face. If I’ve looked at it and didn’t do anything, the vast majority of times I’m done with it and don’t need to see it again in 30 seconds when I go to check the time.

This isn’t a disaster by any means and I still enjoy having the always on screen, but this first implementation has some behavior quirks I don’t agree with.

Battery Life

If I was writing this review in a vacuum this is where I would say that the battery life on the Apple Watch Series 5 is excellent and is right in line with what I have been getting from my Series 4 over the past year. I usually charge up my watch before I go to bed and wear it while I sleep (using Autosleep to track my sleep). I then wear it all day and night and put it on the charger for 30-60 minutes before I go to sleep. I even wore both watches for most of a day to see if they were any different and the results were…almost exactly the same with the Series 5 doing slightly better.

In my time with the Series 5 this behavior has been the same, and the watch has always been in the 30-40% battery range after 23 hours off the charger. Extrapolating out to 0%, I’ve always been on pace to get 36-48 hours out of this watch.

But I’m not writing this in a bubble, and the experience above is not universal. I wrote an explainer about what’s going on, but the short version is that some people are experiencing terrible battery life, often like 12 hours total. The problem seems to be almost exclusively with people who have the cellular model.

There is an update to watchOS coming soon that apparently solves this problem, but it is not out yet and it’s unclear how much it will help everyone with this issue.

This part of the review remains up in the air for now. I can tell you that I am very happy with the battery life and it has not changed my usage of the watch at all, but that’s not a universal experience right now. I’ll update this part of the review once watchOS 6.1 is out and we have better data on if it solves the battery issues others are having.

The Compass

The Apple Watch now has a compass built in. This was actually news to me as I kind of assumed it always had one, but apparently not. Anyway, some apps you’ll probably never use can take advantage of this, as will Maps, but you’d like the compass in your iPhone was already mostly handling this.

Anyway, this is a very minor change and the only reason it gets a shout out in this review is because it’s one of two changes to the product.

Buying Recommendations

If I’ve done my job as a reviewer you should already know whether this is a buy for you or not. But in case you skipped to the bottom or I just didn’t communicate as effectively as I’d like, here are my recommendations.

If you have never owned an Apple Watch before, this is a great time to jump on board. The always on screen makes this feel like a traditional watch more than ever and I think it makes the product fundamentally more useful. That said, if you are still unsure if a smartwatch is right for you, the Series 3 currently goes for $199, and will likely be closer to $129-149 over the holidays, and that’s still a damn good Apple Watch, so it’s a lower risk entry point into the ecosystem.

If you own a Series 4 then there is no reason to get this except the always on screen. If you have been waiting for this feature since the Series 0 and lost your mind when you saw Apple announce this feature on stage, then maybe this is worth it for you. As of writing, you can sell your Series 4 for about $300 on Swappa, which might make the upgrade not horribly painful. But seriously, that is the only difference, so you have to ask how important that difference is to you3.

If you own a Series 3 then I think this is a solid, if not essential update. The Series 3 is still quite fast and gets good battery life, so you’re really upgrading for the always on screen as well as all of the physical upgrades the Series 4 got last year. This is more a software thing, but you also get access to a ton more watch faces, as Apple seems to really only be adding watch faces to the Series 4/5 at this point.

If you own a Series 1 or 2 then this is a no-brainer update in my book. The performance updates are enormous and they will change how you use your watch, and the new physical design will make you go “whoa, this is nice.” You’re also likely not getting any more software updates after watchOS 6, so if you want to keep up with new functionality and improvements this is the time to jump onto a newer model.

And finally, if you have an original Apple Watch then I’m impressed you made it this long and this is going to be a huge update for you. Not only will it have nicer hardware, a battery battery, and tons more watch faces, it’s also going to jump you up from watchOS 4, which was the last update the original watch got.


  1. Only differences from the S4 to the S5 chip is stuff to handle the variable refresh display and the compass. 
  2. And slightly smaller, but just as sharp, in the 40mm model. 
  3. And again, there is no performance upgrade over the Series 4. The S5 chip is exactly as fast as the S4 and all the changes are around managing the variable refresh rate screen and compass functionality. 

watchOS 6: The BirchTree Review

watchOS 6: The BirchTree Review

The Apple Watch has grown up quite a bit in the past 4 years, evolving from a piece of hardware that was woefully underpowered and software that was barely ready, to a very capable smart watch with very solid hardware and software. Even from its humble beginnings, watchOS has been the best smart watch platform by a mile, and with watchOS 6 Apple extends that lead over the competition.

watchOS 6 is not a massive update to the platform, and you will likely use your watch in largely the same way you always have, but there are some new apps, nice usability updates, no real regressions, and frameworks that will allow third party apps to get better in the future. Basically, it won’t all change your life, but there is probably at least one or two things that you’ll really enjoy in this new update.

Let’s take a look at the highlights of watchOS 6.

Health

As always, Apple has put an emphasis on health-related features this year. For my money there are four really notable changes:

  1. Apple Research
  2. Activity trends
  3. Cycle tracking
  4. Noise tracking

Apple Research

Apple partnered with Stanford a few years ago on the Apple Heart Study, which took heart data from over 400,000 participants and looked into atrial fibrillation. From Stanford’s summary of the report:

“The results of the Apple Heart Study highlight the potential role that innovative digital technology can play in creating more predictive and preventive health care,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. “Atrial fibrillation is just the beginning, as this study opens the door to further research into wearable technologies and how they might be used to prevent disease before it strikes — a key goal of precision health.”

This year we see Apple take this to the next level with an upcoming Apple Research app which they will be able to use as a platform for future studies. And given the Apple Watch’s massive, and engaged user base, these will hopefully see even more enrollment. There will be 3 studies:

  • Apple Hearing Study being lead by the University of Michigan
  • Apple Women’s Health Study lead by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Apple Heart & Movement Study lead by the American Heart Association and Brigham Health’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital

These are coming later this year and I plan on enrolling in the two of them that I’m eligible for.

Activity Trends

The Apple Watch and Activity app have done a great job of giving you a look at your activity over the course of a single day, but it never did much in the way of showing you how you were doing over time. They had streaks which were nice, but didn’t mean a ton, especially if you took a day off regularly (like I do), and they also let you look at a calendar view and go “wow, look at all those rings,” but that was really it.

The Activity app, paired with watchOS 6 allows you to more easily see how you’re doing not just today, not just this month, but for the past year. If you go to the new Trends tab in the Activity app, you’ll see up to 8 metrics on how you’re doing over the past 30 days and how that compares to your previous behavior. These metrics are:

  • Calories burned
  • Minutes active
  • Stand hours
  • Stand minutes
  • Distance travelled
  • Walking pace
  • Running pace
  • Cardio fitness

The app will tell you if you’re doing better, worse, or about the same as you have over the past year. It’s worth noting that you won’t have trends for stand minutes and cardio fitness, as both of those are new in watchOS 6 and therefore don’t have any historical data to look at. You need at least 6 months of data for each stat for it to show up as a trend.

You can tap into any of these stats to see a chart for how you have done over the past year, which helps you see longer term trends. I dig this, and it let me see things like how much more active I am in the summer, as well as how much more I’ve walked since getting a dog at the end of 2018. This is all cool stuff and it’s not useful everyday, but I’ve incorporated it into a monthly review I do for myself and it’s been very rewarding to have what feels like actionable information when I check this out.

Workouts

As of watchOS 6 there are 77 total workout types, which is the same as last year1, but none of the ones I’ve been asking for years for! I am still waiting for things like snow shoveling, lawn mowing, leaf raking, and dog walking to be added The full list of workouts is below.

  1. American Football
  2. Archery
  3. Australian Football
  4. Badminton
  5. Barre
  6. Baseball
  7. Basketball
  8. Bowling
  9. Boxing
  10. Climbing
  11. Core Training
  12. Cricket
  13. Cross Country Skiing
  14. Cross Training
  15. Curling
  16. Dance
  17. Disc Sports
  18. Downhill Skiing
  19. Elliptical
  20. Equestrian Sports
  21. Fencing
  22. Fishing
  23. Fitness Gaming
  24. Flexibility
  25. Functional Training
  26. Golf
  27. Gymnastics
  28. Hand Cycling
  29. Handball
  30. High Intensity Interval Training
  31. Hiking
  32. Hockey
  33. Hunting
  34. Indoor Cycle
  35. Indoor Run
  36. Indoor Walk
  37. Jump Rope
  38. Kickboxing
  39. Lacrosse
  40. Martial Arts
  41. Mind & Body
  42. Mixed Cardio
  43. Open Water Swim
  44. Other
  45. Outdoor Cycle
  46. Outdoor Run
  47. Outdoor Walk
  48. Paddline
  49. Pilates
  50. Play
  51. Pool Swim
  52. Raquetball
  53. Rolling
  54. Rower
  55. Rugby
  56. Sailing
  57. Skating
  58. Snow Sports
  59. Snowboarding
  60. Soccer
  61. Softball
  62. Squash
  63. Stair Stepper
  64. Stairs
  65. Step Training
  66. Strength Training
  67. Surfing
  68. Table Tennis
  69. Tai Chi
  70. Tennis
  71. Track & Field
  72. Volleyball
  73. Water Fitness
  74. Water Polo
  75. Water Sports
  76. Wrestling
  77. Yoga

Cycle Tracking

Now obviously I’m not the target market for this feature, so I deferred to my wife who gave this feature a quick once-over. Her review basically boils down to: this looks fine, but I’ve been using other apps for years and I don’t see a good reason to switch over.

The only thing I’ll add here is that there may be people out there who prefer to keep this information with Apple vs some of the other companies who make apps for this.

Noise

I didn’t think I’d have much use for this app, but it turns out I’m fascinated by how noisy certain things are. I went to a concert and confirmed that while it was indeed louder than is ideal, I wasn’t going to ruin my hearing immediately2. I also realized just how much ambient noise there is all the time. I could sit in what felt like a very quiet room and still see 35-40db going on. This was a little distressing until I remembered that decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale and that actually what we consider “quiet” still usually has quite a bit of ambience.

I didn’t use the app that much, but instead opted to use the complication that works on most watch faces. Seeing a live noise meter whenever I raised my wrist was oddly addicting and I still have it on a few of my watch faces for fun.

New Watch Faces

Apple still didn’t give us third party watch faces this year, but they did their best to fill the gap by adding more new watch faces than they have any year since watchOS 1.0. Depending on your Apple Watch model, you’ll have more or less new watch faces. If you have a Series 1, 2, or 3 then you’ll get:

  • Numerals Mono
  • Numerals Duo

These are nice watch faces, and I use the Numerals Duo face on weekends, but these aren’t that exciting. The real excitement is for Series 4 and 5 owners. They also get:

  • California
  • Modular Compact
  • Solar Dial
  • Gradient
  • Meridian

You can use the screenshots to decide for yourself which ones you like best, but what I think makes these really nice is how much they can be customized. For example, here are just some of the variants of the California watch face. There are 6 colors, 6 numeral, and 2 shape choices, adding up to 72 combos before you even start looking at complications. Similarly, the gradient has 6 variants, Numerals Mono has 8, and Numerals Duo has 9 (plus all the color options watchOS offers). Modular Compact has fewer options and Solar Dial has basically nothing to customize, but overall this set of watch faces is the most flexible Apple has created yet.

And what have I landed on, you might ask? I’ve become partial to California with the circular watch face and 5 total complications. I also like Modular Compact, but I still prefer the Infograph Modular since it has 2 extra complication spots. For weekends, I’ve been using the California in full screen mode, as well as the Numerals Duo which I think has a fun, sporty style.

Series 5 owners will have the added benefit of getting all of these watch faces, as well as all the existing watch faces in always-on varieties. I’m writing this before I have hands on with a Series 5 watch, but what I have seen encourages me that Apple is doing this well and the watch faces will be very “complete” in even when they are in the power-saving mode, showing even the complications on your watch face.

Of odd note, the Siri watch face, one of my favorites, appears to have gotten more confusing since last year. You used to be able to go to the watch face configuration page in the Watch app on your iPhone to customize what apps can appear on the face. This is gone in watchOS 6/iOS 13, and had me fooled for a bit (thanks to David Brown for showing me the light). Now you need to go to your iPhone's Watch app and go to "Clock" and scroll to the bottom. There you'll see "Siri Face Data Sources" which you can edit like before. I wonder if this is something Apple saw basically no one used and therefore wanted to tuck it away, because this is not discoverable at all.

New Apps

Apple shipped a few brand new apps with watchOS 6 and each is a pretty good in its own right, although which ones people actually find useful will surely vary from person to person.

Voice Memos

This one has proven surprisingly useful for me. I don’t often use Voice Memos on my iPhone, and I’ve actually recorded more memos this summer on my Apple Watch than I may have ever on my iPhone.

The app doesn’t have much to it, you just open it, tap record, and then stop it whenever you want. The recordings are synced back to your iPhone and appear in the Voice Memos app on all you Apple devices. That’s it, there are no settings and things just kinda work as you’d expect.

What makes this app work for me is how damn easy it is to use. I always feel weird recording with my iPhone because I have to make a show of getting it out and starting a recording. Then I have to leave my phone alone for the whole recording to avoid weird audio dips and noises as I tap out messages that the microphone picks up. With the watch doing the recording, I can just tap my wrist and then do whatever I want when the recording is going on. As long as I don’t bang my wrist on a wall or something, I get a very clean recording that sounds really good.

For example, this was useful while I was in the emergency room with my wife (everything’s fine, don’t worry). The doctor was telling us what we needed to do at home and I was able to record the instructions on my watch and take written notes on my iPhone. The recording was on my iPhone by the time we got home3 and we were able to listen back to the conversation and remind ourselves what was said.

Calculator

Listen, this is a basic calculator and works…fine. It really only does addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, but really how often will you do this on your watch? There’s also a tip function that doubles as a bill-splitting function, but again, I would expect most people would use their phone for this. Then again, the watch is better for having this as an option if you ever need it, but I suspect this will not be used by most people.

Books

Books?! On a watch?!?!?!?

Relax, these are not ebooks, but audiobooks, which makes total sense on the Apple Watch and I’m happy to report the app works well. It’s very basic, and is basically just a list of your audiobooks and a now playing screen, but what this really allows is the ability to sync books directly to your watch. So if you want to go for a run without your phone, you can load a book onto your watch and listen to it while you’re far from your phone.

One downside is that you can’t stream books over cellular, so for example if you forget to load your book before a run, then you simply can’t listen to it.

The other downside is really the elephant in the room: Audible. I personally own 3 audiobooks in Apple Books and my most recent one is from like 10 years ago. I, and basically everyone I know, uses either Audible or library-affiliated apps like Libby. If you like to get your audiobooks from Apple Books, good on you, and this update will make you happy, but I suspect this is a pretty small subset of iPhone owners.

Reminders

Reminders isn’t a new app, per say, but it has gotten a pretty substantial update this year to match the changes made in the iOS 13 version of the app. This isn’t a huge change, but the main screen uses the big, colorful icons and everything from iOS and lets you add tasks and mark them done from the watch. It’s easy, simple, and works well for your basic reminders tasks. You’re not going to want to do serious work in the app, but for quick interactions it’s pretty nice.

I still think Things is the best GTD app for the Apple Watch, but Reminders works for a ton of people and they will all find this update to make their workflows a little nicer.

Compass

This app is exclusive to the Series 5 watch and therefore I have not been able to use it yet. Apple showed it on stage and basically it will enable you to see what direction you're facing at all times, which will be doubly useful when using the watch for something like navigation.

You can also plop the compass on your watch face as a complication and see your heading at any point. You probably won't use this often, but I could definitely see this being useful if you were camping or hiking for a day or two and wanted to just have easy access to this at all times.

App Store and Independent Apps

This is something that I think made more than a few people raise an eyebrow during its reveal this summer: the App Store on the Apple Watch. Oh yes, you can indeed search for an app from your wrist, and the App Store even has a Today view like iOS and macOS where there are featured apps Apple really likes. You can of course also search for specific apps with your voice or scribbling out whatever you’re looking for.

The App Store is surprisingly full featured, including every watchOS app out there, as well as reviews, descriptions, release notes, version history, privacy policies, and more. Are you going to use this often? Probably not, but it’s nice to have in a pinch, and is an essential brick in the road to a fully independent Apple Watch.

Speaking of independence, the App Store also allows for something I found difficult to test in this pre-release period: independent watch apps. These are apps that are installed on your watch, from your watch, and may not even have a corresponding iPhone app.

For example, think about the Workouts app as it has existed for the entirety of watchOS’s life: it’s a watch-only app that has no interface at all on the iPhone. Apps like RunKeeper and Strava could do this as well, and even apps like task managers, podcast players, or meditation apps could update their apps to not require anything on the iPhone.

Sign in with Apple

One of the big obstacles for watch-only apps in the past has been authentication. Without an iPhone, how do I sign into my RunKeeper account? Apple has you covered with their new Sign in with Apple feature, which works much like the other single sign on buttons you are likely familiar with from Google and Facebook. This new authentication method will be enabled with iOS 13 and watchOS 6 and will let you sign into whatever apps support it with a single tap.

Time will tell how much traction this authentication method gets, but Apple has said that any app that offers Google or Facebook sign in buttons must add Apple’s option, so I have expectations that this will show up in tons of your favorite apps.

All the Small Things

And then there are all the little things that you’ll notice here and there when using watchOS 6.

Updates can now install directly on the watch. Previously, you always had to initiate and check for updates to the watch from your iPhone, but watchOS 6 lets all this happen directly on the watch. Just go to Settings, General, and then Software Updates to see any available updates and install them from there. You still need to be over 50% battery, must have the watch on a charger, and they still take longer than makes any sense, but this is a move in the right direction.

Siri has more power than before. There are now fewer questions that will kick you over to the iPhone to see the results, and you can ask Siri to show you a specific website. Maybe you’ll notice these changes or maybe not…I’m guessing not.

There is a new animation when you put the watch on a charger.

Your face and name appear in the Settings app, but they don’t do anything. Why? Who knows, but there you have it.

The list app view looks better than before. It’s a subtle change, but I prefer this new look over the previous list view.

The Now Playing app makes it easier to control devices besides your iPhone. For example, I can easily start controlling my HomePod from my watch with 2 taps while this used to take a very specific, yet mysterious set of moves on your iPhone and watch to get this to work before.

The incoming call screen has a new look. This lets you auto-reply with some canned messages, which is much more discoverable than before (where you had to scroll the page to see replies), but it also makes the decline button smaller and makes me paranoid about hitting the wrong button when I just want to ignore a call. I haven’t yet, so either I’m more nimble than I expect, or they’re doing some “touch targets aren’t exactly as big as the visible buttons” magic. Either way, it’s fine by me.

Maps has an optional visual mode. By default, you still just get basic visual and audio cues on what your next move is, but you can tap “back” after starting navigation to see your real time location on a map on the watch. Rotate the crown to cycle between the upcoming moves, or just watch the first “card” to see yourself move around. I would not recommend this for driving, but it’s actually quite useful when walking. I used this when walking to Summerfest in Milwaukee this summer and it was nicer than trying to guess “how far away in 1000 feet?”

This is a teeny tiny one, but the lock icon is now a lighter, greener blue than before. I know, I know, I saved the best for last!

Conclusion

watchOS continues to grow up, and each year it gets objectively better than the year previous. The team behind this product have done a fantastic job of maintaining its simplicity all while adding on genuinely useful features that don’t always feel like much at the time, but have added up to an improved platform in almost every way.

That said, the techie in me feels like the Apple Watch is kind of in need of a complete rethink. watchOS 1 was the result of a company who didn’t know exactly what that product was and they threw everything against the wall to see what stuck. A few things like activity and workout tracking, watch faces, complications, and communication ended up being the biggest hits, and they’ve evolved those from their initial incarnations very well. But I feel more than ever like we’re getting to the point of diminishing returns and each update is proving less and less impactful on the product as a whole.

While I have written close to 4,000 words about the changes in watchOS 6, and there are still things I didn’t touch on at all, after 3 months of using this update everyday, I can’t say I feel much different about my Apple Watch than I did a year ago. I still use it fundamentally the same and if Apple simply cancelled watchOS 6 and we had watchOS 5 for another year I’m not sure my general satisfaction with my Apple Watch would drop much at all.

Additionally, Apple’s own apps continue to be much better in almost every way than third party apps. This is not due to a lack of trying from other devs, but the fact that Apple doesn’t offer them sufficient tools to make apps that are as good as Apple’s.

I think we’re ready for a big change on the Apple Watch. Apple keeps selling more and more of these things every quarter, and I’m very happy with its success, but I’m slightly worried that the platform is going to stagnate and die off like the iPod if they can’t figure out how to make it a more transformative experience.

I think the Siri watch face back in watchOS 4 was a great step in the right direction, as they dipped their toes into a watch face that dynamically changed based on your current situation, and I’d like to see them continue pulling on that thread. The Apple Watch is at its best when it’s helping you do things quicker than you expect, so I’d love to see a whole UI redesign that focuses on this concept. The current app-centric model has served them well, but I think the platform is ready to do more.

On the other hand, things like the new Apple Research app and studies it will allow, as well as the work Apple continues to put into things like watch bands and new watch face designs makes me think they are putting their efforts into different things. There is even a patent floating around out there about a watch band with sensors in it that will enable god knows what.

I guess what I’m saying is that Apple is moving the Apple Watch forward, but it feels like it’s advancing at a comfortable pace right now, and maybe that’s just a cost of being a successful, 4 year old platform with very little real competition.


  1. I’ve heard some people with watchOS 5 have all of these, and some who don’t have them all, so honestly I’m a little confused by this one. My wife, for example, doesn’t have fitness gaming, not did I on watchOS 5, but some people on Twitter say they see it, so who knows. 
  2. It was outdoors, which surely helped. 
  3. It was probably there sooner, but I wasn’t exactly in full on “watchOS reviewer mode” in that situation. 

Logitech MX Master 3 Review

People speak highly Logitech’s MX Master line of mice, and I’ve joined the chorus over the past few years since I got one for myself. I loved it, but it was basically the last device is my life using micro-USB and I lamented literally days ago that all I wanted was a new MX Master with USB-C. Thankfully, Logitech has come through with the MX Master 3 which adds USB-C and a whole lot more.

What’s New?

  • New colors, graphite and “mid gray”
  • Metal scroll wheels instead of plastic
  • App-specific button setups for some Apple, Adobe, and Microsoft apps
  • USB-C quick charging (3 hours from one minute of charging)
  • Linux drivers for “most popular Linux distributions”

What’s the Same?

Most things on this mouse are the same as the last model.

  • Same 500 mAh battery that lasts 70 days
  • Same 7 buttons as before
  • Same 4,000 DPI tracking accuracy
  • Same 3 device pairing that can be toggled from buttons on the bottom
  • Same Bluetooth or Logitech unifying USB receiver
  • Same Logitech Options software
  • Same Flow feature for copy/pasting between computers
  • Same price of $99.99
  • Still only works as a wireless mouse, even if it’s plugged in with the USB cable

Feel (and a Disclaimer)

The MX Master 2S is the best feeling mouse I’ve ever used. It fits perfectly in my hand and has removed all instances of hand strain when using a computer for many hours in a day. The new version feels very similar, but was immediately distinct from the last model. I’ve used it for 2 days now and the difference is already pretty much gone, so I’ve gotten used to it quickly, but I’d say this mouse feels little narrower in the hand than the last one. I don’t know if that’s technically true, but that’s how it feels to me.

The disclaimer on this is that I have of course only used this mouse for a few days and i may feel differently in a few months, but my initial impressions are “slightly different, but not in a bad way.”

The New Scroll Wheel

This is the real star of the show for me. The Master 3 uses a magnet system of some sort to hold the wheel in place and it spins and spins and spins… Seriously, the old model was great here, but the new one puts it to shame.

And even more important to me, as someone who works in an open office, the wheel is effectively silent when it’s spinning. The old one was quiet, but if the room was quiet, everyone could hear me crank on the wheel as I scrolled down a super long document. Not anymore, as the new wheel is inaudible even to me, sitting 2 feet from it.

If you prefer to use your mouse wheel the traditional way in the “ratchet” style, it can of course do that too, but the mechanism is totally changed, and I think uses the same magnet system to stagger your scrolling and provide haptic feedback. This is also quieter than I’m used to from a mouse and it did feel a little different from other mice I’ve used, but I never use this mode so I mostly went “huh, that’s interesting, but whatever.”

Finally, it’s not a big deal, but the wheel is now made from metal instead of plastic and it makes it just feel really, really good.

The Other Buttons and Wheels

There are an assortment of other buttons on the mouse, and while this is not a gaming mouse by any means, it has plenty of options for being a “professional mouse user.”

Button on top. This button can either toggle the scroll wheel between modes, or you can assign it to specific functions on your computer. I have this set up to simulate a keypress that Keyboard Maestro uses to open the main kanaban board in Jira. Thrilling, I know, but it’s a page I have to go to a ton and many of my conversations start “hey, could you check out task…” so being able to pull up my board at a moment’s notice is a huge feature.

Back and forward buttons. These are markedly different from the last version of the mouse and I think they look wore, but are easier to use. The old style had these kind of stacked together and the back button was pretty easy to hit, but the forward one was a bit out of the way. They were so close together I also sometimes accidentally hit one when I meant to hit the other. No more as these are completely broken apart and rise out more from the side of the mouse than before. They’re easier to find, and hit the right one, although they are exactly the same shape, so there still could be an issue with mixing them up from time to time, but it has not been a problem for me yet.

Side wheel. This wheel on the side of the mouse is a little nicer than the last model’s. It too is made of metal this time and feels nice, with sharp ridges that make it easy to turn with a light touch. I do wish that this also had the free scrolling option that the main scroll wheel has, since I find scrolling things like Final Cut timelines or large documents in Sketch takes longer than I’d like.

Gesture button. This was on the last version as well and works basically the same as before. The only difference is there is a little nubbin that reminds you the button is there, but I still don’t use this for much. I know some people get value from it, but it’s still placed too far down and back on the mouse to make it easy to access with my thumb and I generally end up just ignoring it.

Wireless Only

The Master 3 is a wireless-only mouse. This means that even if you plug it into a computer with the included USB-C cable, it will only charge over that cable, not actually become a wired mouse. This isn’t a big deal most of the time, but sometimes your computer might not have Bluetooth active or you’ll want to use it with something like a Raspberry Pi which has not been set up yet to turn on and sync over Bluetooth. In these situations you are basically SOL unless you have a wired mouse around.

In theory the bundled Unifying dongle might work, but I think you need to “sync: your mouse with that specific dongle before it’ll work with any old computer. I never use this dongle, so I’m not 100% sure, but make sure you hold onto it juuuuuust in case.

Worth an Upgrade?

I think the changes to this mouse don’t make it a must buy for anyone using an MX Master 2S but there are a few things that made me find this a totally worthwhile buy.

  1. USB-C is enough of an upgrade for me to get basically anything. Unifying my cables to one plug has been revelatory over the past couple years and this removes the one micro-USB cable I had to keep around for semi-regular use.
  2. The ultra-premium feeling scroll wheels are excellent and make the mouse a joy to use. I know this is technically unnecessary, but I like nice tech and this feels like a killer upgrade.

If neither of those speak to you, then feel free to stick with the 2S and not feel any FOMO.

But if you are looking for a new mouse and have literally anything else, then I think the MX Master 3 is a great option and one that should definitely be on your radar. The price definitely keeps it in premium territory, but for something you likely use for 8+ hours a day, you should really do everything you can to get the best option you can budget for.

It’s worth noting that Logitech is still selling the MX Master 2S for $79, but I’d say that the $20 price difference is worth paying to get the newer model, if only so you don’t bring another micro-USB device into your home or work in 2019.

Android 10 Review

Android 10 Review

Android is not my favorite mobile operating system. You know that, I know that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t spend a lot of time with Android and have feelings about it (both good and bad). If you don’t believe me, check out my Oreo review from 2017 or my shorter Pie review from 2018. In general I’d say I’m happy with the direction Android is headed, but none of their changes are enough to swing someone like from from the iOS camp. How did Google do this year? Read on to find out.

New Gestures

It may be hard to believe, but we are just one year past Google trying to reinvent navigation, but it was indeed only Android Pie where they tried a two-button system that was less than ideal. I said in my review at the time:

I’m sad to report that this change leaves both of the problems there were before (confusing back and too much space) and doesn’t improve on any of the things that were already good.

I stand by that today. The change made no actions easier and everything else harder. Android 10’s gestures are far better than before, but they are still not up to the standard set by iOS. Here’s the best way I can sum it up:

By completely stealing iOS’s gestures, Android has made navigating home and between apps easier and more intuitive than ever before, but the new back gesture piggybacks on the old back button’s behavior is is just as confusing as ever.

It’s hard to explain this experience in writing, so I won’t dive into it here (there are plenty of videos showing this off) but I would say it’s like they replicated the macro part of iOS’s back gesture, but they weren’t able to address any of the micro elements that make it so intuitive. I’ve gotten used to it over the summer, but it’s not great yet.

The home and multitasking gestures are pretty great though and I’m totally into them.

Dark Mode

I’m all in favor of dark modes, and many third party manufacturers have been shipping their own dark modes for a while now, but it really matters for the platform owner to do their own. For example, my Galaxy S10e has a dark mode, and all Samsung apps use it, but nothing else on the phone does. With a standard way to do dark modes, I expect more apps to implement this in a predictable way.

The mode itself is well done, as Google has done the same with Apple and used a pure black theme, not the “dark gray” version some people (like me) prefer, but that’s fine, and it does look very good.

The one thing that raises an eyebrow for me is that many Google apps do not seem to care about dark mode. Google Assistant, which is built into the phone, is still bright as the sun, as is Google Home, the Google Play Store, and YouTube do not care at all what mode you’re in. Presumably these apps will be updated in due time, but it feels far less complete than something like iOS 13 where basically every single Apple app is converted (and certainly every built in app is).

Surely Google will keep updating their apps to integrate dark mode, but it would have been nice (and pretty expected IMO) for this to be there at release. It's also unclear how long it will take for third parties to adopt this mode. I'd like to assume quickly, but if using Android for many years has taught me anything it's that new features get added all the time that devs simply have little interest in supporting. Fingers crossed on this one.

Sharing

The share sheet in Android 10 got a big update this year and I think has become more usable, but still not as good as what I’m used to in iOS. One change I like is that you now get a preview of the thing you’re sharing in the share sheet, which I find quite helpful in keeping track of what you’re moving around.

I also like that the list of apps is less shuffled than in years past. I used to feel like I got a new arrangement of share options every time I tried to share something in Android, but that’s better this year as you get a row of “people” to share to, a row of “likely actions” and then an alphabetical list of other apps. Additionally, if you’re sharing some form of text, like a link or paragraph, you see the option to copy that right at the top, which is very often exactly what I want to do.

I still think that the “people” sharing options are terrible and never show me useful things, and in fact mostly show me Slack channels I rarely post to1, and I also wish I could manually sort these options so that the sheet always has the things I do most at the top.

But despite my gripes here, I think this is the best Android sharing has ever been and I hope it continues to get better.

The one straight up omission is Android Beam, which was Android’s super slow, but at least convenient way to share flies between tow Android devices. You tapped your phones together and whatever you were sharing would send over Bluetooth. This was okay for links and text, but images or god forbid movies took forever! Google talked about a new method of sharing back at I/O this summer, but while Android Beam is gone, this new direct sharing method is nowhere to be found in this first stable release of 10. I hope it comes soon because Android could really use a real AirDrop competitor.

Privacy and Security

One area I can not fault Google on is their new privacy and security features. There’s quite a bit here, and while some of it is causing consternation amongst the Android faithful, I think these are all good changes overall.

First up, and the thing you’ll likely notice first is the fact that apps now have to ask permission to access your location. I know, right!? Now when an app, including those you already have installed, tries to use your location, the system will prompt you to either let the app use location all the time, just when you’re using it, or block it entirely. It’s crazy Android has not had this before, but I’m happy it has it now.

You can also go to the Settings app and review what apps have access to your location and change their settings on the fly. This will all sound very familiar to iOS users, but it’s an objective good to have them in Android now.

Additionally, you can now control access to your health and activity data, which again will sound like old news to some, but is a good update for Android.

On the security front, Google is doing stuff like preventing apps from kicking off processes when they are not in the foreground. This will be a problem for some apps, but Google has added some official APIs for apps like Skype that need to be able to take phone calls and bring up an “incoming call” interface. Fewer hacks and more official integrations is good for users overall and I’m happy to see Google making these changes, even if they upset some diehards.

Announced at I/O, Currently Missing

Right after I/O this year I mentioned that I thought the thing they showed off that would not ship this year was the super-quick Google Assistant phone navigation, and that proved to be correct. This amazing demo of someone doing things on their phone with just their voice and using natural language to tell it what to do is not in Android 10 right now. But that wasn’t all that was missing from this initial release. According to Google, we can expect this to release with the Pixel 4, likely coming out next month.

Honestly, this isn’t too bad considering how many I/O features don’t quite make it to the initial launch of the new version of Android in the summer.

All the Small Things

And now we’re on to the small things. I’m definitely going to skip over some things, but these are the things I noticed and made a noticeable difference in my use of the phone this summer.

Night Sight is now a top-level mode in the camera app. Instead of diving into the “more” tab, you can now access this mode just like you would portrait mode on the iPhone.

Your estimated battery life remaining will now show when you pull down the notification shade. It gives you the specific time it expects your battery to last until based on your current usage. I found this to be accurate enough for me to make an educated decision on how desperately I need to charge up.

Speaking of battery, if you turn on batter saver mode, you’ll automatically also switch into dark mode (to save that teeny tiny amount of battery from black pixels). Your phone will also turn itself back to normal mode when it hits 90% battery life so you can turn on low power mode at night, plug in your phone when you go to sleep, and then not have to remember to turn it off when you wake up to a full charge.

Snoozing notifications is dead. Well, kinda. You can turn on this feature in settings, but it’s hidden pretty well and likely is on its way to being wiped out. Interesting how snoozing emails is all the rage and in basically every mainstream app these days, but snoozing notification never caught on.

Notifications 2: You can now hold down on a notification to change that app’s notification permissions quickly.

Notifications 3: You can tell notifications to deliver “quietly” which means they will show in your notifications tray, but won’t buzz you. Again, for iOS users, this is the equivalent of “deliver quietly.” What’s nice here is that these notifications will show at the bottom of your notifications tray, which I think makes a whole heck of a lot of sense.

Since there is no home button anymore, you need to trigger Google Assistant a new way this year. Pixel owners can still squeeze their phones, but everyone else has to swipe up and in from the bottom right or left of the screen. It’s a little weird, but is really just a variation of the lock screen gestures many Android phones have already. I don’t love these, but they totally work fine.

Focus mode lets you decide that apps you want to disable at certain times. This is similar to iOS’s downtime feature, but this mode lets you toggle it on and off more at will than the shcheduled time that iOS allows.

Finally, Live Transcribe is here and enables those with issues hearing to quickly enable this mode and see a real time transcription of whatever is going around them.

Conclusion

Writing this review made me realize that iOS and Android are more in lock step with each other than I think they ever have been before. Things like dark mode are getting added to iOS and Android literally like 2 weeks apart and each of their digital wellness features are growing up at about the same time and pace. Meanwhile, lots of the new and welcome updates to Android 10 had this iOS user going “finally!” more than a few times. Updates around security, privacy, and gestures all made this iOS fan like Android more, all the while feeling very familiar. This is neither good nor bad, but inevitable. These platforms are getting quite mature and there is only so much low hanging fruit to be had.

All this is to say that I think Android 10 is a fine update to a platform I like well enough, but do not personally prefer. I think the new gestures are going to rub some people the wrong way and they will continue to use the three button option for as long as Google keeps it around. I also think the changes around security and privacy will upset peoples’ workflows who rely on certain apps to things, but I think these are wins for the platform and will hopefully prevent bad actors from doing things they aren’t supposed to do.

The Essential Phone and Xiaomi’s Redmi K20 Pro got updated to Android 10 today and the OnePlus 7 Pro got a new beta, so hopefully We’ll keep seeing more phones get this sooner rather than later2. It almost goes without saying, but this is the best version of Android to date and while I don’t think it will convert anyone who prefers the other horse in this race, I think it will make most Android fans happy.


  1. iOS 13 adds more of this type of sharing and does it much better, in my opinion. 
  2. I’m not holding my breath for my Galaxy getting an update this calendar year though. 

Google Pixel 3a Review: The MacBook Air of Smartphones

Google Pixel 3a Review: The MacBook Air of Smartphones

Most phones are judged on 4 things:

  1. Build Quality
  2. Performance
  3. Camera
  4. Software

If you buy an $800+ phone then you can usually get all of those but spend any less and you’re going to have to compromise. The $400-$700 phone market is interesting because it’s full of phones that are making compromises to appeal to the most people while sacrificing enough to turn a profit. In most cases, phone makes will stuff the bet sounding chips into their phones and will skimp on build quality, software, and the camera. This gets headlines like “a top-of-the-line processor in a mid-range phone!” headlines and surely moves some devices from tech enthusiasts.

Google chose to go a different route as I think they are the only major phone maker who has leaned 100% into the camera and skimped on raw performance. As a result, they have created a midrange phone that’s hard to compare to anything else.

I think that the Pixel 3a has immediately made it hard for me to recommend anyone looking for a midrange phone look at anything else right now. If your budget is $400 then this is a no-brainer, and even if you’re willing to spend a little more and you bring the OnePlus 7 Pro into play, I think this phone will hold its own very well for a lot of people.

That said, this is not the phone for me personally, nor is is a “flagship killer.” Let’s take a look at why that is and if the compromises it makes are the right ones for you.

Camera

We have to start with the camera because that’s the simgular thing that makes this phone the most interesting. There is literally no compromise here as Google put in the same back camera that they have on their $1,000 flagship. Basically, if you think the Pixel 3 takes the best photos of any smartphone, then the Pixel 3a takes exactly those same photos, so you’re going to love them.

I’ve compared this camera to the iPhone XS and despite liking the photos from the iPhone more, the fact I’m comparing the cameras on a $400 phone to a $1,000 phone and they’re basically neck-and-neck is a huge compliment to the Pixel 3a.

This review is going to be read mostly by iPhone users, so here’s how I’d say the cameras stack up to Apple’s latest iPhones (which again, cost 2-3x more):

Just like the iPhone, you can basically trust this camera to get at least a good photo every time you snap an image. I miss the telephoto lens from my iPhone, but I also appreciate having Night Sight, which adds a whole new type of photo I can take.

If I had to simplify it way down, I’d say I’d prefer to use the iPhone during the day and the Pixel at night. The iPhone gets incredible photos during the day, and I think its HDR capture is way ahead of Google here. As I’ve said many times now, Google’s camera algorithm “optimizes for drama” which can be good, but can also lead to photos that look artificial or lose data due to the extra contrast applied to each photo. Here’s an example:

Which of those photos do you prefer? People will differ on this, but I greatly prefer the bottom photo, which was taken on the iPhone XS. The Pixel 3a image is crushing the shadows to create an image that looks decent, but (a) removes details that I can’t get back in editing, (b) does not reflect what this actually looked like in real life, and (c) is less saturated than what made the scene look so nice in real life.

There was also a time I switched my profile photo in Slack at work to a selfie taken on the Pixel 3a and people came out of the woodwork to ask me how many Photoshop effects I applied to that photo because it looked super fake. I had to tell them that none were applied and that’s just how selfies on the Pixel look. I ended up changing the image.

At night time though, I’ll take the Pixel 3a every time. In the standard camera mode it does pretty similar to the iPhone, although the iPhone usually has better white balance at night. But the Pixel separates itself by having a solid flash mode as well as Night Sight, which gives you another option to get a photo if the main shooting mode isn’t cutting it.

Moving past stills on the back camera, we get to places where I think the Pixel 3a falls well behind the iPhone. The selfie shooter is fine and has a wider angle lens than the iPhone, but I think this wider lens produces less-flattering selfies as people’s faces are shaped weird. This is the nature of wide angle lenses, but that wide angle lens also makes it easier to get selfies with more of the background in them or to cram more people into a shot.

Video on the Pixel 3a is quite good, although I’d say it falls well short of the iPhone XS and even the Galaxy S10e I used before this phone. That said, the 4k 30fps footage looks very good and Google’s stabilization is really solid. I don’t think it’s best in class, but it’s damn good video that you’ll enjoy watching.

This is what I remind you that this phone costs less than half of the iPhone XS, barely over a third of the XS Max, and basically exactly half of the XR. The fact that I’m splitting hairs here with $1,000+ phones is a victory in and of itself for the Pixel 3a. This is truly a no compromises camera for a phone in this price range and it’s what sets this phone apart from the rest of the mid-range market. Frankly, this is the only mid-range phone I could ever use as my daily driver for any extended period of time since the camera is so important to me. Kudos, Google.

The Build

The Pixel 3a absolutely feels like a less expensive phone. The plastic body is light in the hand and feels good, but you don’t think of it as a “precious object” like you can with some of these more premium phones. This is totally fine, as phones in this market don’t need that premium feel to bring value, but it’s worth noting.

Despite the less luxurious feel of the phone, it’s built well and feels quite nice in the hand. It’s a bit slippery and its top and bottom bezels make the 5.6” screen a bit harder to handle than on the bezel-less phones out there, but pretty much everything else is a win here.

The colors are here are great. I got the “Purple-ish” model and the name does not lie, this is just barely purple. Most people think it’s a white phone and it’s not until I tell them and they look closer that they say “oh yeah, I guess it’s a bit purple.” And then there’s the accented green power button that just looks great. It’s a slick and distinct look and I totally dig it.

The Display

The display is an extra tall 1080p screen with rounded corners. It’s 5.6” and has a pixel density of 441 pixels per inch. This is basically the same as the iPhone XS and much higher res than the iPhone XR. The screen just looks fine overall though. It’s a good screen, but not a great one. Colors appear pretty accurate, but are boring when set side-by-side with higher end devices. This isn’t something you’ll notice much when using the phone like normal, but there are fewer “wow” moments here.

The biggest problem with the display is using it in sunlight. It’s not terrible, but it does not seem to get as bright as the iPhone or Galaxy phones I’m used to and it becomes difficult to see outside.

One last note on the display, this phone has what I consider the best always-on display functionality in the game. It looks nice, displays notifications well, and has the flat-out brilliant “now playing” feature that tells you what song you’re listening to1.

Fingerprint Reader

The fingerprint reader on the back of the phone is top notch. It’s fast and seems quite accurate. In the spectrum of authentication methods, I prefer face unlocks over anything else, but if I have to have a fingerprint reader, I prefer them on the front of the phone, then on the back, and then on the side. The Pixel 3a has it on the back, so it’s not my favorite method, but it’s fine. This is what I said in my Pixel 2 review and it holds true for this phone as well:

People say this location is great because it’s were your index finger naturally is when you’re holding the phone, but my index finger simply does not rest there when I’m using the phone. I can put my finger there easily enough when I pic up the phone to unlock it, but my hand shimmies down the phone to actually use it. I’m about an inch below it and need to stretch to reach it, which is not comfortable.

Battery Life

Full disclosure, I do not have real battery life tests since I have not moved my SIM card over to the Pixel 3a, but I can say that it holds a charge better than my Galaxy S10e which is also in WiFi-only mode right now. Here’s what I said about that phone:

Coming from the iPhone XS, this is pretty much what I’m used to.

So yeah, if you have an iPhone XS then the Pixel 3a will probably get slightly better battery life.

Buttons and the Squeeze

I mentioned the buttons in passing already, but they are all on the right side of the phone which I quite like and they are nice and clicky. The iPhone has the best buttons in the game, but the Pixel 3a has good buttons that hang with the best of them.

And then there’s Google’s “active edge” feature which lets you trigger Google Assistant by squeezing the phone. I hate this feature. Despite setting it to every sensitivity option and trying my best to work with it, I accidentally trigger it about 10x more than I do so intentionally. It just makes me feel like I need to baby my phone and not grab it too hard, lest I get Google Assistant asking me what I want to do when all I wanted was to check the time. Maybe you’ll enjoy it, but for me it’s never convenient enough to make up for the constant annoyance it causes for me.

I/O and Charging

There is a USB-C port on the bottom of the phone which does all the USB-C things you’d expect, but you’ll probably just be used for charging, which is fine. I’ll also mention that this phone does not have wireless charging and I miss that feature more than I realized I would. My life is all in on wireless charging, with my iPhone (and Galaxy) sitting on a charging mat at night and a charging stand during the day. The Pixel 3a made me add wires to these setups and I personally hated it. Outside of reviewers like myself, I don’t know who else is going to go from a wireless-charging phone to the Pixel 3a, but it’s hard to do back.

And last but not least…well, actually yeah, least…there is a headphone jack on this phone. Just like wireless charing, my whole life has moved on from wired headphones, so this port was basically useless for me, but I’m sure plenty of people will enjoy having it. I do need to talk about its placement though, which is on the top of the phone and seems stupid.

Why, Google, why?

Storage

This story is pretty simple as the 3a and 3a XL only come in one storage size: 64GB. I think this is fine and makes perfect sense for the price point they’re hitting. Would I love more storage? Sure, but 64GB is going to get the job done for most people and I think the only real problem here is that you can’t throw another $100 at this phone to upgrade to more if you want it. There are no higher storage options nor is there a micro-SD slot for additional storage.

Android does a pretty good job of not absorbing all of your storage so this has been okay for me so far. I have been using this for my podcasts, music, audiobooks, and games, and I currently have 43GB free.

Performance

If you were waiting for me to get to the MacBook Air comparison from the title, then wait no longer. This is where Google saved some cash and you can tell it’s not a top-of-the-line phone when it comes to speed. That sounds like a dig, but it’s not meant to be. Some people want/need a specced out MacBook Pro, but many people are perfectly fine with a MacBook Air. Different products, different categories, and different customers.

The Pixel 3a ships with a Snapdragon 670, which doesn’t mean a whole lot on its own, but the important bit is that this benchmarks a tad slower than the 2017 Google Pixel 2. This is according to Geekbench and all the web benchmarks I could throw at it. In terms of iPhone speeds, that’s somewhere between an iPhone 6 and 6s for single core and and close to the iPhone 7 for multicore. If you were curious, the iPhone SE benchmarks 33% faster than the 3a in single core, and is a little slower in multi-core.

But benchmarks only matter so much and real world performance is what is actually important in a phone. Sadly, the benchmarks tell the story pretty well here as the Pixel 3a feels very much like a slower phone than the higher end options out there. This is one of those things that you have to let sink in for a while, as most phones, including this one, feel perfectly fast up front. Watch literally any review of any phone ever and they’ll say something like “and it handled everything I threw at it without any trouble.” This line bugs me so much and is the sort of thing you say after using a phone for a few hours.

After 3 weeks with the 3a I can confidently say that this will do anything you want it to, but it’s going to do it all slower than you’ll get with a higher end phone, as well as many of the similarly-priced budget phones out there.

Apps usually launch quickly…until they don’t, and animations are basically always a bit choppier than I’d personally like. None of this is a disaster, and you can absolutely get your work done on this phone, but the difference between a high end Android phone and this phone is absolutely noticeable.

But here’s the thing about this phone’s performance: if you are a more average customer and are getting your phone from a carrier, then this phone contends much better. Look at what Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint have in the $400 range and this is going to keep up with or beat most of those options. It’s only once you get into some of the Huawais and Pocofones on Amazon that you get phones that really smoke this thing in terms of performance. Of course, getting those phones means a far worse camera and pretty darn objectionable software layers over Android. If you care most about power, then the Pixel 3a isn’t for you, but if a great camera is worth tolerating acceptable speeds, then the 3a is really hard to beat.

Software

Bringing up the rear is software, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s simply not going to be my favorite part of any Android phone. Also, as a Pixel phone, we don’t have much to talk about since it’s really just stock Android.

Ultimately I think this is a good version of Android but it lacks some things I’ve grown to like about, and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, Samsung phones. I miss the lock screen customizations Samsung offers, I think the dark mode is better, I miss the health tracking features, I miss the UI tweaks of One UI, and I even miss Bixby routines.

But the Pixel line is not all about having tons of features right out of the box. You can download apps to add a lot of power to the device, so it’s not that big of a deal. And Google would probably tell you that Google search and Assistant already give you tons of power on their own.

One of the great things about Pixels is that they are not overwhelming and I love that about them. As far as Android phones go, the Pixel 3a has a good stock experience, not a big one.

Recommendation

If my phone budget was sub-$500 then the Pixel 3a would absolutely be the phone I would buy. I appreciate speed and love having it in a phone, but the most important to thing to me is a camera, and it’s what has prevented me from using cheap phones as my “daily driver” for very long. I need my phone to have a great camera and the 3a delivers here like no other phone in the price range. Despite my gripes about performance, I’d rather trade that for a good camera any day of the week.

I’d also recommend the Pixel 3a to any iPhone user who is Android-curious. I think you can get a good idea about Android from this phone without breaking the bank on a flagship. I suspect this will not convert you and make you want to sell your iPhone, but if you have the budget to have a second phone, then this is a very good option.

If you must have more speed then something like the OnePlus 6T is a good option and will cost you $100-150 more. And if you want to spend what flagships used to cost before they got insane, the iPhone XR and Galaxy S10e are great choices in the $650-750 range. I’ve never used it personally, but if you want to spend a little less than $400 and get better performance, then the Pocofone F1 seems to be the winner.


  1. To clarify, it tells you what song is playing in the world around you, not the song playing on your phone itself. 

SliceCharge 2 Wireless Charging Mat Review

SliceCharge 2 Wireless Charging Mat Review

I recently picked up the SliceCharge 2 from Hard Cider Labs and thought it warranted a quick review. I normally don’t review charging products, but this one is worth a look.

Shipment

I don’t know anything about Hard Cider Labs, but they have had a few products funded on Kickstarter and they seem to deliver on their promises so far. That said, I bought this straight from their website long after the Indigogo campaign was over and it took 7 weeks for my order to ship. I emailed them about this and they said they had a wave of orders after the AirPower cancellation and orders were just backed up.

Hopefully this is not a normal thing, but the shipping was so delayed I had to mention it here.

The Setup

The SliceCharge 2 looks like AirPower from the outside, but it is not a 1-to-1 replication of what Apple was going for their their defunct charger. Here’s how the device is set up:

There are two standard wireless charging coils on the left and right of the pad and a magnetic Apple Watch charging puck in the middle. None of Apple’s magic “place the devices anywhere you want” here.

The pad comes with a 30W charging brick and a USB-C cable you can use to plug it into the wall. The instructions clearly tell you to only use a 30W charger and that you should really just use the one in the box.

What this gets you are 2 Qi-compatible spots that will charge up to 10W on each coil. This will max out the wireless charging speed on phones like the Galaxy S9 and 10 lines, and will of course get iPhone up to their 7.5W max. The Apple Watch charged at 3W, which I believe is the same as the standard Apple Watch charger, but I can't find hard numbers on that.

Usability

Those specs sound pretty good, but how is the SliceCharge 2 to actually use? Well, I’m happy to say it’s pretty good. No, it’s not as beautiful as the dream of AirPower, but if you’ve used wireless charging before then you should have no trouble using this.

The “sweet spots” on either side of the mat seem totally average for wireless charging pads and those worked for me without a problem.

The Apple Watch charger is a little harder to mail as you need to line that up just right. It’s magnetic, but only slightly and it’s very easy to miss by just a few millimeters if you’re not careful. Ideally, this magnet would be super powerful and lock the Apple Watch into place, which is exactly how the official charging puck works. Update July 8, 2019: After a few months of use, the Apple Watch charger has become incredibly slow. It takes up to 12 hours to go from zero to 100%, which is just insane. I’ve tried to fix it every way I can, but it’s basically uselessly slow now. It was fine at first, but it has degraded over time. The phone chargers remain the same as before.

No matter what you’re charging, you’re going to need to use the device’s feedback to see if you are charging. The mat itself has no visual indicators to tell you it’s charging. From an aesthetic perspective this is great, but from a usability side it’s a bit more challenging. My Galaxy S10e makes this easy with a nice animation and a small bit of text on the always-on display telling that it's working. The iPhone is a little more difficult as the screen shows it's working for about a second before turning off. The Apple Watch is similar here but at least it has a pretty big animation that plays when it hits the charger.

Looks

I think this charging mat looks great! The navy blue model I got looks very clean on my dresser and the little leather tab that sticks out the side is a nice, subtle flourish. Even the USB-C cable that comes in the box feels like it’s made out of metal (not sure if it actually is) and feels very nice.

Basically, this is exactly my aesthetic.

Conclusion

I bought this for $80 and it came bundled with a red Apple Watch band. For me that price seemed fair. It’s maybe a little much to ask for a charger, but as someone who needs to charge more devices than the normal person, this product is super useful.

At the time of writing, the SliceCharge 2 is $20 off, which might make it more compelling to a wider audience. Check it out.