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Moving from the Note 5 to the Pixel 2 XL

Pixel 2 XLI typically replace my phones every two years; in that time the technology generally advances enough that a new phone offers a noticeably improved experience. Plus after two years a phone’s battery tends to hold its charge for a noticeably shorter time, so a new device also avoids the need to charge as often.

I held off replacing my Note 5 this fall because I was considering moving from Samsung to Google, and if I did I thought I might switch to a Pixel device (since I would likely be working on Android, and Pixel devices are the only way to use the latest and greatest Android version).

I did indeed move to Google in November, joining the Android UX team. But I held off getting a new device, largely because I wasn’t sure whether to get the Pixel 2 XL or the Pixel 2. The choice would normally be a no-brainer; I like bigger phones. But the LG display in the Pixel 2 XL has gotten a lot of bad press, while the Samsung display in the Pixel 2 has gotten praise (Samsung does make great displays).

Last week I finally went ahead and bought a Pixel 2 XL. I’ve been using it for about a week now. I also switched carriers for the device, from AT&T to Project Fi. That choice was driven by two factors:

  1. AT&T’s coverage the Googleplex sucks; my Note 5 battery was draining extra fast because it was straining to contact AT&T’s cell towers.
  2. International data rates that are (in most countries) the same as domestic rates.

It was also a nice bonus that I could use my Google Voice number for the phone directly.

Here are my observations about the switch so far, in no particular order:

  • The Pixel 2 XL display does indeed exhibit a blue tint at a much smaller angle than Samsung (and Apple) devices I’ve used. It was really noticeable for the first day of use, and then I totally stopped noticing it, due in large part to the fact that I generally look at my phone directly while using it. So yeah, the display should be better. But it’s really been a non-factor in daily use.
  • Battery life has been amazing. Even with Location kept enabled (ti’s using the first thing I disable on a Samsung device to preserve power), I’m generally only using 20% of battery a day. Now those are days where (a) I’ve got WiFi available most of the day, (b) I don’t use the device a ton, and (c) I turn the phone off from roughly 10 PM to 6 AM. But still, that’s way better than I ever got with my Note 5. I think the improved battery life is a combination of a new battery, Project Fi (shifting radio use more to WiFi than cell), and improved software (both Android O and Google vs. Samsung). It’s also a factor that I haven’t set up a smartwatch with the phone yet (I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to just use my Gear S3 with it or try out an Android Wear device), so the phone isn’t using the Bluetooth radio much.
  • Unsurprisingly, Android seems snappier. TouchWiz (now the Samsung Experience, I suppose) has gotten better, but it’s still got room for improvement.
  • The one thing I miss from Samsung’s phones is Samsung Pay. Android Pay is fine for NFC payments, but Samsung devices offer MST (Magnetic Secure Transmission) so that you can use Samsung Pay with swipe credit card terminals. I won’t be able to use the Pixel for payments in as many cases as I could my Note 5.
  • Project Fi offers much better account handling and tools than AT&T. Shocking, I know.

I haven’t used the camera much since I haven’t gone anywhere particularly interesting since switching, but I’m looking forward to trying it out.

Role swapping in political parties

One of the things I remember most about AP History (oh so many years ago) is how the political parties sometimes totally switch places. During the Civil War, Republicans were anti-slavery and Democrats were pro-slavery (yes, simplifying). During the civil rights era, Democrats were pro-equal rights while Republicans were pro-segregation. During the Civil War, Republicans were for a strong federal government, while the Democrats were all about states rights. During the civil rights era, Democrats were for a strong federal government, while the Republicans were all about states rights.

I always thought switching roles like that seemed a little strange; how could a party be for one thing at one moment, but then somehow be against it the next? After all, while I was growing up, the parties seemed pretty set in their roles. Republicans were:

  • For free trade and international commerce.
  • Strongly anti-Russia.
  • Strongly pro-law enforcement.
  • All about family values and “moral’ behavior.
  • Fiscally conservative.

And yet in just a couple of years, the Republicans have completely reversed themselves. Now they’re:

  • Protectionist and America-first.
  • Pro-Russia.
  • Anti-law enforcement (since when is the FBI a tool of liberals?).
  • Tolerant of divorce, infidelity, and other “immoral” behavior.
  • Free-spending.

I wonder what people who were part of the Republican Party when they held that first set of values feel about the party now, and whether the shift will be long-lasting. If so, it’ll be very interesting to see if the Democrats now shift to again diametrically oppose the Republican values. With their recent anti-Russia and pro-law enforcement positions, they’re certainly being pushed that way. Or will we see the creation a new 3rd party that grows to supplant the Republican Party? It’s happened in the past; it’d be interesting to see it happen first-hand.

Bitcoin and other digital currencies

I find it hard to see breathless stories about Bitcoin and other digital currencies and not be reminded of previous investment manias, like tulip bulbs. Where at least, when the market inevitably crashed, you’d at least be able to grow tulips. Or the beanie baby craze of the late 90s, where you at least ended up with stuffed animals you could give as gifts to small children. When digital currencies also crash, what will you have? A lot more pollution. Aaaaaand that’s about it.

Normally I’d just be somewhat amused by the latest crazy investment fad and go about my day, but living in Silicon Valley it’s hard to escape the breathless hype about transforming society through inventing a new, libertarian currency, free of the control of nation-states, that also provides true anonymity. Part of me hopes that the people peddling such tripe are just blowing smoke to prop up their investments, but, Silicon Valley being what it is, I know that there are unfortunately true believers who somehow believe their hype. They manage to ignore the fact that cash is already a perfectly fine mechanism for anonymous payment. And that Bitcoin isn’t actually anonymous: if all your transactions are on the blockchain, then you’re pseudonymous, not anonymous. Oh, and if the vast majority of your currency is concentrated in the hands of the few, then you’re just trading control by a nation-state (which is governed by laws) for control by a small minority of power brokers who have pretty much no constraints at all. Yeah, that’s a big step forward.

The latter group, despite seeming to have few if any interactions with regular people, seem to think that digital currencies will usher in a new egalitarian society. At least the folks hyping the Web, which was probably the last technology that was going to bring us universal peace, prosperity, and openness, could point to it as a mechanism to provide voices to millions, nay billions, of people and to increase access to information. And how’d that turn out? Well, let’s just say that it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. So far all that digital currencies have demonstrated is that there’s a sucker born every minute, and that people are always looking for a way to make a quick buck. You’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath while waiting for the new and better society that they’re going to usher in.

Biking and company buses

One of the parts of my job that I really enjoy is that I can bike to work. And living in Silicon Valley, I can pretty much bike to work every day between May and October because it won’t rain. November through April is the “rainy season”, which means it does occasionally rain, so biking is a little more hit and miss, and I actually have to check the forecast before deciding whether to bike.

When I decided to change jobs from Samsung Research to Google in November, one of the benefits was that on rainy days I didn’t have to drive; I could just take a Google bus (there’s a stop roughly 2 blocks from where I live). Now my car use is pretty much restricted to a couple of uses on the weekend; were it not for the fact that my daughter is going to start driving soon, my wife and I would seriously consider getting rid of my car.

But there’s an additional benefit. At Samsung, once I decided to drive, I was committed to driving that whole day. At Google, however, that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes we have rain forecast for the afternoon / evening with a 60% probability. At Samsung I’d go conservative and drive, and occasionally the rain wouldn’t happen and I’d regret the fact that I hadn’t biked. With access to the buses, though, I can bike in the morning, and then if it does rain I can take the bus in the evening, take it back the next morning (when the roads / trails are likely to still be wet and slippery), and then bike home that evening. Instead of potentially two days driving, I’d still get in a bike trip each day. And if it doesn’t rain, I just bike home in the evening. I tried that approach out for the first time this week, and I quite like it (it helps that it didn’t rain and I could go ahead and bike home).

Now Silicon Valley just needs to install more bike racks, so it’s easier to run errands by biking (it’s pretty sad how few businesses have them).

Our definition of augmentation is too narrow

I’m pretty down on the current, through-the-lens version of augmented reality. The need to set up a new spatial map each time limits sustained interactions, and most prominent use cases aren’t actually that common. Interior decorating! Measuring things! Leaving random notes floating around the environment!

But part of the issues is that people are settling for a very narrow definition of augmented reality. We already have AR technologies that work great. Google Maps, as one example, is a great example of an app that augments your current reality. It’ll provide you with information about what’s around you, and if you want to go somewhere else it’ll help you get there. That’s a really useful augmentation. But it’s no longer novel, so we take it for granted and don’t regard it as that neat.

Through-the-lens augmentation is what people typically think of when they hear AR. That requires (in various incarnations) identifying objects in front of you, understanding the spatial arrangement of those objects (plus possibly the broader space), and determining how to render content to appear to blend in with that space. Neat when it works, but there are a host of technical challenges that haven’t really been solved. Spatial understanding sort of works in certain situations for relatively simple environments. Object recognition sort of works for some objects, particularly visually distinctive ones, ideally with some text on them. Think books and movie posters. Otherwise it’s kind of lousy. Identifying that something is a chair isn’t necessarily that useful. What kind of chair is it? An Eames chair? An Aeron chair? Before you can augment an object, you need to know more than just it’s general type.

I’m actually all for augmenting users’ realities. I just think we should be aiming to build more general augmentations rather than getting too caught up in flashy through-the-lens demos. Useful augmentations, not just neat augmentations.

So how’s that AR transformation going?

Before the public release of ARKit with iOS 11 there was lots of breathless speculation about how AR on our phones was going to fundamentally transform how with interacted with information. Never mind that most of the public demos centered around interior decorating, measuring things, and games. Surely, people insisted, there were other amazing use cases that would catch on or, perhaps, there was a large, unmet need for better interior decorating support.

Fast forward a few months after ARKit’s release, and how often do you hear people mention ARKit now? If you’re an iOS user, when was the last time you used an AR app? The week iOS 11 was released?

I regard much of the buzz around AR as a fundamental failure to distinguish between neat and useful. Yea, AR is neat. No, there just isn’t that much need for interior decorating support.  And in fact, unless you’re actively engaged in motorcycle design or architecture (two common AR-for-work examples), most of the things you do are probably 2D tasks, not 3D tasks, and so are unlikely to benefit from accurate spatial perception and blending real and virtual 3D content. But hey, AR is neat.

I don’t miss finals

My daughter started high school this year, and she had her first series of finals this month. It took me back to high school and college and reminded me how much I don’t miss final exams. Oh, I was always good at them. But looking back, they were (and are) a pretty lousy way of measuring mastery of a subject. I aced finals in classes where I’d now struggle to remember any of the material. It was a great day in grad school where I reached the point where I’d never have to take another final again.