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Pixel Buds first thoughts

I bought a pair of Google’s new Pixel Buds this week (technically they’re the Pixel Buds 2, I suppose, but since the Pixel Buds 1 are better forgotten let’s just all stick with Pixel Buds without a number), and they arrived on Friday. So far I like them: easy to set up, comfortable to wear, good sound quality.

One feature in need of better design is the real-time translation, though. It’s a promising idea; trigger the Assistant and ask it to help you speak another language (e.g., “help me speak French”), and when it hears you speak English it’ll speak the French translation in your ear so you can speak it to the other person. And when the other person speaks French (continuing the example, the Buds will hear the language and speak the English translation in your ear.

So what’s wrong with it? Two things. First, the Assistant speaks the translation way too fast; by the time it’s finished translating a phrase you’ve already forgotten the first part of what it said. It needs to slow down when speaking the phrase, possibly saying it more than once until it detects you saying it, and potentially giving the option to display the phrase on your phone as well.

Second, there’s no cue to the other person when they can speak. If you try to explain to the other person what’s going on and when they can safely speak, you’re likely to confuse the Assistant and have it translate your attempts at explanation (which could, of course, be what you want). It’d be better if you could either provide a cue to the Assistant when the other person is saying something you want translated, or provide a cue to the other person when the Assistant is ready for them to speak (possibly again using your phone).

So as a wireless music and Podcast listening tool, I like the Pixel Buds so far. But I can’t see actually using them for real-time translation except in an utter emergency.

Please wear a mask in the bank

We stopped by the ATM at a local bank on the way to the farmer’s market today, and there was a security guard standing outside. It seemed a little strange, but times are strange and he confirmed the ATM was available. It was only while using the ATM that I realized why he was there: the bank was now asking patrons to wear facial coverings before entering. So that’s how far we’ve come in a couple of months: from “please don’t cover your face and remove your hat and sunglasses”, to “please cover your face”.

Day One and Google Photos are taunting me

Technically it’s our daughter’s spring break this week. It’s not really a vacation, though. She doesn’t actually have classes, but with AP exams approaching she still has plenty of homework. And it’s not like we can actually go anywhere. But in prior years this week has commonly been one where we’ve taken family vacations.

I typically take photos on vacations to remember them, and for awhile now I’ve been using Day One to capture thoughts and experiences from those vacations. Awhile back I uploaded lots of our vacation photos to Google Photos, so that we could have our Google Home Hub display a rotating carousel of those images. Normally I like that both services remind me of previous photos or journal entries: it’s a chance to be reminded of a fond memory. Now that we’re all trapped at home for an extended period of time, those reminders are a little painful.

Remember last year, when you were in the San Juan islands and Victoria? How about this trip to Joshua Tree? Yosemite? The trips to wide open spaces seem particularly painful now. Why yes, I do remember hiking through Yosemite and think it’d be awesome to be wandering through the meadows right now (well, ok, except for the increase in bears casually wandering around). Except, oh yeah, the park is closed. Joshua Tree? Closed. Pretty much every place we’ve spent spring break in the past is now closed (and even if it weren’t, it’d be hard to get there).

And yet the reminders go on. Daily, because the software isn’t smart enough to realize that the individual entries actually belong to larger events. So for the past week I’ve been treat to daily tauntings of when we could go out and enjoy ourselves as a family. Sometimes our “intelligent” software? Not so intelligent.

Changing buying patterns

It’s been interesting over the past few weeks of grocery shopping to see how buying patterns have changed. First there was a run on toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels (and it’s still nearly impossible to find them in stores around here), and then it was meats and frozen foods. In the last week or two people have shifted to buying out sugar, flour, and yeast (local stores have been limiting how much yeast each customer can buy, just like they’re limiting toilet paper supplies). CNN today had an interesting article this week talking about how this pattern is occurring across our society in general; apparently next up is hair care equipment and supplies now that we’ve been unable to visit salons and barbershops for weeks.

The NY Times also had an article today looking at how the virus has changed how Americans spend money. Travel spending has gone through the floor, as has spending on fitness and entertaining in general. Spending on groceries, by contrast is up, even after people have slowed their panic buying. Video streaming is also up, and gaming has jumped a lot (Google has opened up Stadia Pro to everyone for free for two months; I’m still playing regularly – I finished Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, and now I’m working my way through Shadow of the Tomb Raider). It’ll be interesting to see if people continue to cook as much at home once we can go to restaurants again, now that they’ve had a chance to practice their cooking skills, or whether they give it up and resume eating out.

My tablet use is through the roof

Speaking of tablets, my tablet use has been through the roof while we’ve been stuck sheltering-in-place. Reading the news over breakfast in the morning? Tablet. Take a break from work during the day? Tablet. Relaxing in the evening? Tablet. Since I’m pretty much always at home, my tablet use now substantially outweighs my phone use.

My primary tablet is now several years old, and with the increased use I’ve noticed that its battery doesn’t seem to last nearly as long as it used to. Just a month ago I feel like I’d only have to charge it once a week or so, but now I find myself charging it every other day. Some of that increase is due purely to the increased usage. What I can’t determine is how much is also due to the battery no longer holding its charge as well as it used to. If we end up stuck at home for a substantial period going forward (here in the Bay Area we’ve been ordered to shelter-in-place at least through the beginning of May) I may end up doing a little bit of my part to prop up the retail industry by ordering a new one. Or at least getting the battery replaced.

Is it a 2-in-1 if you only use 1-in-2?

I have a Pixelbook that I use regularly. I like the fact that I can log into it with both my work and personal accounts, so pre-Covid-19 times it was a way to be able to access work email and tools when necessary without always lugging my laptop home. Now, of course, I’m home all the time with my work laptop, so that’s less useful. I also liked that I could bring it, rather than my much heavier Macbook Pro, when traveling for work, and I could both stay on top of work and use it for personal entertainment on flights and in the evening. That too is something I haven’t needed in awhile, but hopefully will again in the not-too-distant future.

When I first got the Pixelbook I thought I would potentially use it as both a laptop and a tablet; that is, after all, the premise of a 2-in-1 device. But in practice I almost never use it as a tablet. There are two primary reasons. First, Chrome OS doesn’t provide a great tablet experience. Sure, it’s usable. But touch interaction feels like it’s bolted on, rather than a first-class citizen. And Android applications still don’t provide good tablet experiences (if they provide tablet experiences at all). The NY Times app for Android, for example, is slowly getting better, but it’s still not as good as the iPad version.

The second reason is that I just don’t like resting my fingers on the keys when the device is folded into tablet mode. Yes, the software disables key input when the device is in tablet mode, but it still feels wrong to be randomly pressing keys while holding the device as a tablet. I thought I might get used to it over time, but nope. When it comes to laptops and tablets, I definitely prefer separate devices. Or tablets with detachable keyboards. I know the Pixel Slate wasn’t well-received when it was released, but as a dual mode device I actually prefer the Slate to the Pixelbook. As a pure laptop, of course, I prefer the Pixelbook.

More walkers, runners, and bikers than cars

California still has a car-heavy culture, even in the Bay Area (where someone is always more environmentally conscious than you). In the past when I’ve gone running on the weekends, drivers outnumber walkers, runners, and bikers by an order of magnitude. Actually, it’s more like two orders of magnitude.

With the current shelter-in-place order, however, that’s changed. Now you only see the occasional car on residential streets, and as the weather has gotten nicer (we got a batch of cold, rainy weather just in time for the shelter-in-place order, and it’s only now starting to clear) more and more people have been spending time outdoors (most are good, if not downright paranoid, about maintaining 6+’ of distance). Today when running I think the ratio of people I encountered flipped the other way: an order of magnitude more walkers, runners, and bikers than cars (I’d be tempted to say it might have been close to two orders of magnitude, but I briefly pass over 85 and there were still a fair number of cars on the freeway). Even after a couple of weeks of sheltering in place it still feels weird to see so many people going places without driving.

Stock coronavirus email

Dear <Name>,

In these trying times, we wanted to let you know that we at <Company> are here for you and want to support your <company focus> needs. However, when we say we’re here for you, we don’t mean we’re physically here for you. Our stores are closed. And our call center people aren’t here for you either, so please stop calling. What we mean when we say we’re here for you is that our website is here for you. Please visit it.

Thank you,

<Corporate executive>

Alton Brown’s Pantry Raid videos

Alton Brown has started a series of short Pantry Raid videos to tide us over while we’re all trapped at home during the coronavirus outbreak. Each video is fairly short, and so far they’re covering timely topics (how to make popcorn to go with all the streaming content you’re watching, making cookies for the kids, making a cocktail for the adults, and what do to do with old Saltines you find in the cupboard. Worth watching.

Thoughts on the Galaxy Fold after a few days

I wanted to get some first hand experience with foldable devices in order to start building a sense of their potential, so I borrowed a Galaxy Fold from our device library at work and set it up as a personal device. I’ve been living with it for the past few days, and here are my initial observations:

  1. When folded, the Fold is not a good phone. The external display (for use while the device is folded) is too small to use for more than quick glances, and it’s not even particularly good for that since it presents a stock (but small) launcher. The display needs to be bigger (so that it can actually be used to get things done when held in a single hand). Another approach would be to redesign the experience for the smaller screen to emphasize glanceable interaction with apps (which would require deeper modifications to Android), but would still require unfolding the phone and using it two-handed for any sustained interaction.
  2. When unfolded, the Fold is not a good tablet. The aspect ratio is too square to really support structuring applications with a focus+context approach (and it doesn’t help that Android apps don’t tend to provide useful tablet designs). The end result is a form factor that doesn’t feel like a good tablet (not enough horizontal space to support full tablet layouts) or a good phone (enough horizontal space that scaling up an interfaced designed for a phone feels weird). Even if more apps provided tablet layouts I’m not convinced they’d work well with this size / aspect ratio.
  3. Keeping the screen clean is an issue. I keep my phone in my pocket, and it undergoes a certain amount of cleaning just from sliding against the fabric as it moves around. If the screen picks up more severe smudges, some harder swipes against a leg or my shirt tails is sufficient. With the Fold that’s a problem: it’s closed when in my pocket, and I don’t dare rub the screen hard enough to remove fingerprint oils. The interior screen has picked up smudges, and I have no idea how to clean it safely.

My current opinion is shaped by my circumstances: I have the luxury of being able to afford a smartphone, a laptop, and a tablet. Given those circumstances, so far I wouldn’t replace my current smartphone or my tablet with a foldable device. I’ll keep using the Fold to develop a better sense of it, but so far it looks like foldable devices still have lots of room for improvement.