The Google Pixel 2 XL: Great phone, brilliant camera!

I’m continuing to enjoy using my Google Pixel 2 XL phone.  It is quite the beast.  I love almost everything about it – including Android.  Took me a few days to get used to how Android deals with things, but one the adjustment period is over – it comes naturally.  I do still kind of miss having a front fingerprint scanner – I do keep putting my finger over the camera flash from time to time, but I’m sure muscle memory will eventually kick in.

But what I really love about this phone is the camera.  It truly is best in class despite only having a single lens.  Google’s computational photography outdoes Apple considerably.  The Google Photos service is also a remarkable thing – far better in many ways than iCloud Photo Library – though I do wish Google would maintain up-to-date support for the latest camera RAW formats as my Sony RX100 mark V isn’t supported and I can’t upload my RAW images.  Otherwise, Google Photos for me has been the best experience in managing and organising photos since the Apple Photos app.  I can download the whole lot via Google Takeaway – though I’d also appreciate some form of API so that I can plug in another cloud service (thinking Backblaze B2) to back up all photos on the fly.  One cannot escape the cloud these days!

Taken at Surbiton Station with a Google Pixel 2 XL.
Pizza time at work. Taken with Google Pixel 2 XL. Note that at 100% crop, you can read the Samsung logo on the TV clearly. With Apple, this would be like am expressionist painting.

The photos are good enough, IMHO, to leave the proper camera at home.  I’m very happy with the quality that Google brings to the table.  When the Pixel 3 XL comes out, I’m sure it’ll be even better.

Interestingly enough, I’ve been going through my photos that are now stored in Google Photos and it’s interesting to note that after the iPhone 6S, the (mainly Samsung) Android phones that I have had produced much better imagery than the iPhone 7, iPhone 7S and even the iPhone X!  At least to my eye.  There’s something that Apple did from the iPhone 6S onwards that seems to have resulted in “painting like” imagery when cropped at 100%.

Getting back to the phone itself, customising ringtones is dead simple to do on this phone – unlike iOS where you have to jump through a number of loops beforehand.  I also really like notifications – though a bit in-your-face at first, they are highly customisable and I like that one can easily copy codes from SMSes or reply/acknowledge direct from the notification centre.

Google really make use of the bigger screen resolution to fit more icons on, and this also means that apps such as Authy allow me to cram as many 2FA sites on there than I could with the iPhone X.

Apple Music on Android is a bit of a pain, however.  It can often just open, sitting there with a blank screen until I click the pull-down menu and fuss about with it.  Then there is the issue that it doesn’t seem to recognise purchased content which IS still available in the UK iTune store and is also downloaded to the phone:

Apple Music – 3 years later, and being a pain in the arse on a different platform.,

Apple still has much to learn about co-operating with other platforms.

I regret nothing switching to the Pixel 2 XL.  Bring on the Pixel 3 XL later this year.  Unless Apple really pull something out their sleeve…

Escaping Apple’s Luxury Prison part 443,211: Google Pixel 2 XL and Fitbit Versa

So, this happened:

Great Googly moogly..

The biggest problem with Apple’s ecosystem (aka the luxury prison) is that it doesn’t tend to work well with others.  I’ve been scratching my head over how to integrate iCloud Photo Library with Windows properly, but it is slow and a pain in the arse to use under Windows.  I don’t want to use iTunes to connect my phone to the computer – a straightforward USB to use-as-a-disk is fine.  The iPhone X did not let me do that.

The Google Pixel 2 XL has been receiving many rave reviews over the past few months.  It’s stock Android which means that there is no bloat from the phone manufacturer or telecoms company, and it receives the very latest security updates ASAP as well as the latest feature updates too.  And you know where you stand with their update policy – this phone is supported up until late 2020.  Apple seems to keep moving things forwards and backwards and forwards with their support lifecycle for various products.

Now, I picked up my Google Pixel 2 XL at a bargain price.  Carphone Warehouse had knocked off a good £170 off the RRP, so I decided to go with them.  I also bought a Google Home Mini to replace the Apple Homepod.  I’ve got to say, Google has absolutely nailed it with the home assistant.  Not only is she responsive, but the response is natural and quick.  For example, when I ask how best to get to Woking, she tells me the correct bus number to take, when the next bus is, and the nearest stop.  And as it integrates with various smart related technologies around the home, it Just Works(TM).  I always found the Apple HomeKit system to be far too overly complex to operate.  The UI is a mess, and Siri has to think about things before responding.

The Pixel 2 XL itself is great.  The images it takes are the sharpest of any smartphone I’ve ever used, and even some compact cameras.

Everything’s peachy with the Google Pixel 2 XL camera
Dog keeping me company while I eat a ham sandwich.

The device is larger than the iPhone X, and also offers a greater number of app icons to be shown on screen at once.  All apps I’ve had on the iPhone are available under Android.  It took about 2 hours to transfer everything and set-up the phone as new (never trusted these transfer processes).  Instead of Apple Pay, there is now Google Pay.   Again, same support from the banks and credit card companies.

Gone is Face ID and replaced with a fingerprint scanner again.  This time around the back.  Its placement feels natural enough and makes looking at the phone at 3am in the morning much easier than trying to get Face ID to recognise you with your face against the pillow.

Another change Apple made without telling anybody is Wi-Fi calling.  Thanks to the hoo-hah over batterygate and Apple slowing down older phones whose battery is wearing out, they made a change to Wi-Fi Calling which meant that Wi-Fi Calling on iPhones will use cellular if it’s strong enough and fallback to Wi-Fi Calling if not.  There is no way of overriding this.  On the Google Pixel 2 XL, this works full time if you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network regardless of cellular signal strength and you enable Wi-Fi Calling.

The G-Team

But what about the Apple Watch?  I’ve replaced it with a Fitbit Versa.  This looks to be a device formed from the assimilation of the Pebble watch team.  It’s a lightweight watch that incorporates the usual fitness tracking.  But it works with both Android and iOS, and unlike the Apple Watch has a battery life of up to 4 days between charges.  So far it’s been great – though the Fitbit app is rather confusing.  The GPS connection warning started up immediately even though I wasn’t exercising, and I couldn’t figure it out, though it seems that it has something to do with the Always Connected versus All-Day Sync option.

The Fitbit Versa’s wrist straps are relatively straight forward to change.  I had to swap out the smaller strap for the included larger one, but to do this requires fiddling about with pins in the straps.  I managed to cause my fingernails to bleed when applying pressure to the pin heads.

My one concern is that of how tough the front glass is – there are many reports of the face getting scratched easily, though so far I haven’t managed to ding mine and I’m quite rough with it.

After 4 days, the Pixel XL is going back..

.. because of the lens flare problem.

I know I said it wouldn’t bother me, but having experienced it a few times after that post, I just can’t justify locking myself into a two year contract when the hardware isn’t up to scratch.  It is a hardware issue.  I know Google has said it would fix the problem with a software patch that will detect and remove the lens flare through the use of complex algorithms, but having experienced it first hand, I just don’t think this is the right way to do it.  Short of a full recall with redesigned camera assembly, software isn’t going to cut it.   There have also been a few Bluetooth issues that have cropped up as well.

So I’ve arranged with the carrier to return the unit to them next week and downgrade back to the SIM only plan.  I’ll just stick with the iPhone 7 Plus.  Having now had what appears to be two flagship Android handsets returned in four months – both of which were designed in a bit of a rush[1], at least I know what I have with the iPhone.


[1] Apparently the Pixel/Pixel took just 9 months of development time.  Samsung rushed the Note 7 to try and beat Apple, and look how that ended up.

The new MacBook Pro – dongles galore!

Having had some time to digest yesterday’s Apple event regarding the new MacBook Pros, I’ve to conclusion that Apple have gone completely stone bonkers in a good and bad way.  Let me explain.

The Good – USB-C

USB-C is the future.  It’s a reversible connector that can handle up to 10Gbs throughput through the USB 3.1 specification.  When you add Thunderbolt support to that, the throughput can reach up to 40Gbs.   The old USB-A ports have gone, and you now have FOUR USB-C ports. Additionally they can be used as DisplayPorts (for connecting to monitors), and also to charge the machine.   Which is fantastic, since you can now charge on either side of the machine.

The Bad – USB-C

USB-C devices are a bit thin on the ground, but more are coming.  The really silly thing is that the iPhone 7/7 Plus comes with a USB-A to Lightning port cable.  This means if you want to charge or connect your iPhone to your new MacBook Pro, you’ve got to buy an adaptor.  Remember: the iPhone 7 was released in September.  So Apple knew these changes were coming and did nothing to ensure that iPhone users who would want to buy it are looked after.

This is going to lead to a lot of more adaptors hanging off those USB-C ports until the tech industry starts standardising on USB-C connectors.  That will take a good few years to come to fully come to fruition.  So accessory makers are going to sell loads and loads of dongles in the mean time.

Speaking of charging through USB-C – this does mean that the supplied charger will not feature one of the most popular features of the MacBook/MacBook Pro lines – the Magsafe connector.  This means that the power connector is anchored into place with magnetics.  If something (or somebody) trips over the power cord – the power lead is pulled out safely, without taking the entire laptop with it.  So people are going to have to be a lot more careful about where and how they charge the new MacBook Pro.

The Good – The Touchpad

It’s a LOT bigger.

The Bad – The Touchpad

This means the keyboard is smaller.  Apple have used the second generation keyboard from the refreshed MacBook.  When I had a chance to play with it earlier this year waiting for Apple to replace the bricked iPad Pro, I have to say I didn’t like it.  The key travel felt as if you’re simply typing on a virtual keyboard. But apparently this 2nd gen version is meant to be better.  We’ll see how people take to it.

The Good – The Touch Bar

Perhaps the most radical change to the MacBook Pro range is the Touch Bar.  This is a vertical OLED touch-sensitive strip that sits above the number keys of the keyboard.  It can be made to display keys, images and a lot more.  It also holds the Touch ID sensor which means that you can unlock the Mac with your fingerprint (rather than password – I assume that maybe users will be allowed to do both for extra security) and pay for stuff with Apple Pay.  It also serves as the power button.  The Touch Bar itself will adapt to individual applications.  If you’re using Final Cut Pro to edit a video, the Touch Bar will display the timeline which you can use to “scrub” through video, and so on.

The Bad – The Touch Bar

No physical “Escape” key.  An engineer’s friend, the “escape” key is used heavily in coding and for us sysadmins, accessing serial consoles.  Apparently there are specific Touch Bar keys that will come into play when Terminal is being used.

The Good – The Display

Better colour gamut means that photos and videos will look much more vibrant than before.  Additionally the bevel has been reduced considerably, making for a smaller device.

The Bad – The Display

No changes to the resolutions supported.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’d have been nice to see Apple up the max resolution to UHD/4K and scale it down appropriately for the 13″ and 15″ display.  Apple are THE best when it comes to scaling higher resolutions, and was the reason for me going back to the Mac.

The Good – Everything Else

For the 15″ MacBook Pro, Apple has jumped two generations of Intel processors from Broadwell to Skylake, bumped up RAM speed, and given almost 2-3x performance boost to the SSDs.  This was a long time coming, and is most welcome.  While Kaby Lake chipsets/processors are now available, I doubt we’ll see those in MacBook Pros until mid-late 2017.

The 13″ MacBook Pro comes with the Intel Iris 550 graphics, which based on my experience of the 540 on the Dell XPS 13 is excellent.  I wouldn’t rely on it to play the super latest games, but it sure as heck gets things done.  For the 15″ MacBook Pros, you get the Intel Iris graphics along with the AMD Radeon Pro 450 or 460 – the next generation of Radeon graphics.  Very worthy inclusion.

The Bad – Everything Else

The price.  Oh dear Gods, the price.  A fully tricked out 15″ MacBook Pro will cost you over £4,000.  Apple has raised the prices and aligned them to the weak pound, so you’re definitely going to be smacked in the face if you’re going to go for one of these things.  But as with most high end laptops, this is something that’s going to last for a good three to four years.  I love Apple for their ability to create computers that actually last that long – often without ever needing repair.

The Good – Selling & buying a Mac

Now is the perfect time to pick up a second hand Mac.  As people sell their Macs to get the next generation, you’ll often be able to pick up a bargain.  Definitely a buyer’s market right now.

Game of Phones: Apple iPhone 7 Plus is out, Google Pixel is in

A while back I posted something (now deleted) about the new Google Pixel XL going too much in the direction of Apple.  Then I thought about things for a bit. With Microsoft having now firmly established themselves in the hardware sector with their Surface range of laptops (and now desktop PCs), it seems that the major players in the tech industry have effectively decided that yes, doing an Apple – designing both hardware and software – is the most efficient thing to do.

I initially wrote off the Google Pixel and Pixel XL as Google aping Apple.  Similar design, similar principals.  The user would get the latest and greatest feature updates and timely security updates as Google designed both the software and hardware themselves.  I was concerned that Google would not look favourably to other flagship Android manufacturers as a result, and Android – as an ecosystem – would become insular.  I was concerned because my experience of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was the best thing I ever had with an Android phone.  The Galaxy S7 Edge was nice, but felt super bulky and – dare I say it – almost cartoony alongside it.  The Note 7 was slim, had a beautiful screen and screen layout, packed full of features .. and the potential to explode at any time.

So my reaction to that was to go back to Apple.  Apple is safe.  Apple is good.  But the thing is, Apple just isn’t as good as they used to be.   They occasionally come up with some products that are truly excellent (their Beats Solo 3 wireless headphones are the bees knees, for example – the battery life of that thing is incredible), but I’ve notice that over the past couple of years, more and more bugs and other issues have crept into their products which has put a bit of a downer on things.

It’s expected that new MacBooks and MacBook Pros will be announced today, and given leaks from the MacOS system itself, it appears there will be a lack of a physical “escape” key.  As a sysadmin/engineer, the “escape” key is one of the most important keys on a keyboard.  I spend a great deal of time on serial consoles which require a combination of ‘escape’ key combinations to diagnose and bring servers online.  If Apple does take away the ‘escape’ key – or turn into a virtual key through the much rumour OLED touch bar – this is going to be a problem.  I am super glad that my return to the Mac is with a design that has served Apple very well for the past 8 years or so.  I shall let others figure out whether the new design is going to work out or not.

The iPhone 7 Plus is good all round pocket computer.  But it’s not great.  The CPU is the fastest in the industry as demonstrated many times over.  The optical zoom is a nice feature to have, but I find that iPhone 7 Plus photos are too soft and looking at images at 100% resolution yield too soft (almost paint-like) qualities to it in comparison to something like the Samsung Galaxy lines.  But my biggest bugbear with the iPhone 7 Plus has been the cellular capabilities.  With the Samsung phones, the reliability of 3G/4G has been superb.  Handover between Wi-Fi and cellular and back again – no problem.  iPhone 7 Plus with iOS 10 – many problems.  Many are blaming Apple’s use of Intel modems for this (whereas with the iPhone 6/6S phones, Apple used Qualcomm).

So I’ve made one more exchange.  I’ve turned my SIM only contract into an phone contract and gone for the Google Pixel XL.  The iPhone is going.  The brief time I’ve had with the Pixel XL has sold me that even if it took Google just 9 months to get this thing out, it’s still done a better job than Apple has with the iPhone 7/7 Plus.  With the Google Pixel XL, cellular connectivity is spot on, the raw Android OS does everything I want of it, and the camera is just superb – lens flare issues or not (again, bringing up the concept of improving imagery with smaller sensors using computational photography – Photoshop before you Photoshop so to speak).

I can live without iMessage and the recent update that allows people to place stickers and animated GIFs all over the shop.  I hate it, to be honest.  There’s a lot of UI associated with that I’d rather see gone.  I can live without iCloud Photo Library.  Google’s Pixel provides unlimited free storage for photos and videos shot/taken on the Pixel, and given that I can backup my entire Google Account through the use of Spanning Backup – no problem!  I’m also a lot more confident of Google’s cloud infrastructure than I am of Apple’s.

Google is definitely aiming to get iPhone users to convert, and I think they’ve done a pretty ruddy good job here.  Given that a lot of my personal workflow goes through Google’s G-Suite for Business, it makes more sense for me to use a device running Android that can make the best use of it.  The problem in the past has been that Android was never completely there for me.  It is now.  And having Google take the lead over other Android flagships gives me a major advantage.  Perhaps now Samsung and Co. will do more to ensure they get out security and feature updates to their Android phones faster.  My initial analysis was wrong – Google is showing others how Android should be done.  And long may it continue.

But Martyn, you may ask yourself, what about the iPhone 8 (or whatever they’re going to call it) next year?  Well, next year is next year.  Providing Google continue to roll out updates, and providing they’re committed to Android and Pixel, I think I’ll be a proper Android convert for a very, very long time.

Where do we go from here?  The next big thing in IT that’s going to shake things up a bit: artificial intelligence.  There’ll be a blog post on that soon.

P.S. – no, definitely no more phone swaps for me for at least a year (and if I do, it’ll be through the phone contract).  I’m keeping the iPad because I’ve still yet to see an Android tablet that renders books, newspapers and magazines as well.