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Moving from OnePlus5 to Pixel 4a Smartphone

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I got myself a new Google Pixel 4a smartphone (running Android 11) which will replace my three year old OnePlus 5 which is still running Android 9 (OxygenOS 9.0.11) although the OTA upgrade to Android 10 should have been rolled out by now.

The OnePlus 5 is still working. Battery life has declined but more than enough for one day, camera is still great, I could easily live with the internal storage space, no scratches or reasons to replace it.

However, I chose to replace it because of the issues reported in the "Disadvantages" section of my review article on the OnePlus 5 which also explains why OnePlus is not an option for me as a brand any more.

The same article also mentions my thoughts on mobile phone requirements. You can even read more about my thoughts on an ideal smartphone.

This is a personal blog article which does not try to compete with the many review articles about this phone out there. Here are some things that came up during the decision and setup phase of the Pixel 4a I've got for a week now: device choice, cost perspective, notable features and a few issues worth mentioning that I have found so far.

Device Choice

The mentioned article about my ideal smartphone aged well so far. And if you follow the smartphone market, you will notice that there are hardly viable options for me to choose from. So the new Pixel 4a with its limited physical dimensions, a very good camera system, and its pure Android experience was almost a full hit. Pixel phones are known to have the best update support of all Android phones.

The only things I miss here are the hardware switch for setting the device to vibrate only or mute it and the missing Dual-SIM option.

Cost

With this article, I summarized some statistical data to the cost of my smartphones as of 2019-10. I published an updated version on the occasion of the new phone.

Setup

There is a proposed transition process by Google which requires you to connect your old and the new phone via a USB cable. Furthermore, there might also be a Google-cloud-based method to transfer apps, settings and data between phones.

I don't want to use the cable method because I want a clean, fresh system. My fear would be that too much OnePlus-specific stuff could be moved, old data I want to get rid of will be transferred and so forth.

Frequent readers of my blog will know that I value privacy over convenience. Therefore, I don't want to use any cloud-based sync mechanism.

Another reason against both methods is my fear that I miss any activated sync mechanism which results in my address book or other data to be stolen by Google.

Well, this decision comes with a price and I paid with approximately twenty hours of manual setup effort time for the basic setup.

Of course, any setting by Google that has the ability to transfer my private data to Google is activated by default or I'm asked to activate it. Going through the whole system preferences and disabling all those data leaks is a must, before you start with your setup process.

The web-interface of the Google Play Store offers the ability to install apps on any registered device. Since I'm still using the Play Store, I was installing most apps with this method.

Setting up the apps was more tedious. I'm very thankful for every app provider who implements data export and import methods.

In order to get rid of the Google search bar, I had to switch to an alternative launcher app. I settled with Nova launcher which turned out very capable. However, I only use a fraction of its features. Disabling the labels of the desktop icons is a cool feature I don't want to lose.

Some apps aren't available any more. So I have to find alternatives.

Notable Features

You can find reviews and technical specifications for the Pixel 4a all over the web. However, there are a few things I'd like to mention in no particular order.

Photos

The camera of my OnePlus 5 is still a great one. During bright daylight conditions, I can not tell any big difference in quality compared to the Pixel 4a. I noticed that the OnePlus 5 photographs are slightly bigger in resolution.

A very big difference can be seen when "Night Sight" takes pictures during low light or even dark night environments. This results in a level of details that definitively exceeds the ability of a human eye and amazes anybody who experiences this feature.

Here are some example images.

Without night-sight mode: more or less how it looked to myself. (click for a larger version)
Same perspective with night-sight: much more details I could not even see. (click for a larger version)
Without night-sight, the camera was not even able to focus here. (click for a larger version)
With night-sight, the scene looks very different. (click for a larger version)
For comparison, the same scene by daylight - although not that impressive. (click for a larger version)

I can't complain about the camera. "Photo Sphere" is awesome. However, I can't tell the practical use of it. You require a special tool to pan around this large image. Time lapse videos, slow-motion videos and other advanced features I still have to test myself. Panorama works as good as on the OnePlus 5 from the first impressions.

Fabric Case

My OnePlus 5 was the first mobile I was using with a thin, wooden case. The main reason was that the backside of the device is that slippery that I was worried to drop it way too often. A nice-to-have property was that the wooden case looks quite good.

Google offers a set of fabric cases for the Pixel 4a. I ordered one because I love the haptic experience of this material. An investment I don't regret. Furthermore, it specifically protects the glass of the camera and the whole phone when dropped in general.

Audio-Jack

Unfortunately, I do have to mention that the Pixel 4a still has an audio jack. Many mobiles aren't providing this interface any more.

Although I moved to Bluetooth headphones a while ago, I still like to quickly plug in the audio cable in the car. This way, I don't have to fiddle with activating Bluetooth, connecting to the correct Bluetooth car device which may be "stolen" by my wife's Bluetooth and so forth. There is still a beauty in a simple cable.

Guesture Navigation

Android 10 introduced guesture navigation to get rid of the classic three button navigation: back, home, menu/multitask. Since the Pixel 4a is my first Android 10+ device, I wasn't used to this method.

I've made several transitions here. My first Android phones had physical buttons that worked perfectly well. Then I had to move to sensor buttons which worked as good to my astonishment. I do have bad experience with (maybe cheap?) sensor buttons in everyday's products. With OnePlus 5, I had to move to on-screen buttons. And now, there are even no on-screen buttons any more.

To my surprise, I accustomed to this new method within an hour or so. During the setup process I was using the same navigation on my OnePlus 5, resulting in irritation and low level of frustration on my side. So I guess this is a huge plus.

Unfortunately, it also came with a drawback: I really do miss the double-tap on the menu/multitask button in order to switch to the previous app which relates to the classic Alt-TAB-shortcut on any desktop OS. Maybe there is a trick out there that brings back this feature I was using all the time without enabling the button navigation I don't want to use any more.

Issues

After praising the phone, I would like to add some minor issues I faced during the setup phase and afterward. Again, in no particular order.

App Migration Issues

This might be obvious to some people but it still is worth noting that app migration to a different phone is not simplified when the app does require a login. Most apps are using the server-based login for storing general data but not for app settings.

Mastodon is an example of a service that syncs some preferences between server and app. I'd love to see more apps following this approach.

For most apps, I had to manually re-configure everything which is tedious, error-prone and annoying.

As a heavy user of Tasker which has excellent export/import functionality, I still had to adjust minor things. For example, the time-stamp format is different. It changed from YYYY-MM-DD to DD-MM-YYYY. Therefore, I had to use this trick to deal with this issue once and for all.

Migrating some apps is really a pain in the ass. For my banking app, I had to fill out a PDF form, send it in via (unencrypted) email and wait for an activation key a few days after. There is no security gain here since I am able to hand in such a request for anybody else.

For TOTP 2FA authentication, I was using FreeOTP. It's a nice app, does not need network, is open source but does not have export/import for security reasons. There are alternatives that do provide export/import functionality. Since I had to backup the secret keys and the QR codes anyway, I continued to use FreeOTP.

With Pixel 4a working with my SoloKey NFC FIDO2 (OnePlus 5 had severe issues powering those devices), I may migrate more and more 2FA services from TOTP to FIDO2.

The version of K-9 Mail from the Play Store is very old (2018!). While setting up the app after importing my backup, it kept crashing right away. So I manually downloaded the up to date package from GitHub. While I faced crashes again, I could manage to make it work by not providing the account passwords after data import and enabling them one by one later-on. So far it works. The new UI is something I still do have to get used to. Instant email notifications does not seem to work.

No Built-In Method to Disable Network Access

For a privacy-aware person, it is inevitable to force many apps not to use the network connection. For example, a calculator app, a keyboard, a voice recorder, and so forth do not need network access.

The OnePlus 5 had the possibility to disable WiFi and/or mobile data usage within the app settings. With pure Android, there is no such option. Google has a strong bias that any app is able to communicate with the cloud. Therefore, you get permissions to prevent apps reading your contacts, using the location service and so forth but you don't get the ability to deny network to any app.

Fortunately, there is NetGuard which provides this feature even without the necessity of rooting your device which I don't plan to do for security reasons.

Built-In Dark Mode

With Android 10 and 11, a dark mode is a general option for the OS. Furthermore, apps may follow the OS setting of having either light mode, dark mode or a dynamic setting that changes from light to dark mode according to the surrounding light conditions (or sundown time, I don't know for sure).

Currently, I prefer the dark mode setting and I was positively surprised that many apps are re-using the theme setting from the Android preferences.

Google Keyboard

I was using SwiftKey keyboard for many years - far longer as they belong to Microsoft. It's a very decent keyboard. However, with losing the ability to export/import my personal dictionary, I might as well use the Google keyboard and see how it works out.

So far, I do miss a few things here. For example, SwiftKey provided a "delete the previous word"-feature by simply swiping to the left over the keyboard keys. Google do seem to offer such a feature by swiping to the left from the delete key. For this, I need to hit the delete key which is not as straight-forward as a general left-swipe anywhere.

Keyboard layout is different with the Google keyboard. For example, SwiftKey has different positions for *-+$":;/? for long-pressing the main keys. This requires much adaptation for my brain, slowing down my typing speed for now.

One very big plus is the ability to search for emoticons by keyboards also in my two main languages: German and English. In general, the keyboard can be configured so that I might type English and German without having to switch language manually, just as SwiftKey does.

No Fast Mute

Maybe this can be fixed with an easy trick. However, I was not able to find out how to mute the whole device.

OnePlus is providing extremely handy physical sliders to switch between normal sound, vibration only and silent mode. In silent mode, I can not even playback video sound which is a requirement to me. No sound, no vibration, but still receiving (silent) notifications.

With the Pixel 4a, I found the DND mode (which I rarely use). The only possibility to mute my phone seems to go to the advanced sound level dialog and move all four sliders (media, call, ring/notification, alarm) to the far left in order to silence my phone. This is not an option to me for usability purposes.

Maybe you can help me here?

A nice feature is the ability to put the phone on the table face down in order to get the silent mode. Now I just need to find out how to get to this mode with its display being in use or not facing downwards.

Camera: Image/Video File Names

As good the camera seems to be, I do have to criticize some decisions here. Google does use UTC time-stamps for the file names produced by the camera.

So if you would like to follow my file name convention properly, you do have to postprocess the image and video files with a tool like exiftool which corrects their time according to their exif meta-data. And yes, video files may have exif data as well, as I learned.

 vk@sting ~2d/test % ls -la
 -rw-r--r-- 1 vk vk  3549463 Nov  8 17:46 PXL_20201108_144523923.jpg

 vk@sting ~2d/test % exiftool '-FileName<CreateDate' -d %Y-%m-%dT%H.%M.%S%%-c.%%e PXL*jpg
     1 image files updated

 vk@sting ~2d/test % ls -la
 -rw-r--r-- 1 vk vk  3549463 Nov  8 17:46 2020-11-08T15.45.23.jpg	  

Be careful, the time of the Exif meta-data is only correct for the image files. For the video files, you need to correct both, the file name and the wrong Exif time-stamp. It's a mess.

Therefore, I had to extend my guess-filename tool to deal with this mess for me. I analyzed all possible image and video files and developed a heuristic to fix the inconsistent situation such that I get proper time-stamps within file names that are based on the local time-zone. I would advice you to use this tool to rename the camera files directly after synchronizing to the computer because the heuristic relies on the modification time-stamp which gets altered with every modification.

Camera: No Downward Horizontal Panorama

I found out that the camera app of the Pixel 4a does not allow horizontal panoramas when the camera is not pointing to the horizon.

While some of you might think that this is a somewhat awkward thing to do, it makes perfect sense when you're standing on an elevated point, trying to capture the scenery below using a panorama. For example, when you're at a mountaintop, you might want to capture the valley below. Or standing on a skyscraper you want to get a nice picture of the boulevard below.

In situations like this, I don't want to read: "Capture stopped. Taking a vertical pano? Rotate phone to landscape."

FAT File Name Restriction

While syncing my usual files using syncthing, I noticed that some of them were not able to be synchronized to the Pixel 4a. After analyzing this situation, I found out that the internal storage of the Pixel 4a does have file name restrictions like the old Microsoft file system FAT. While FAT still being the most popular file system for thumb drives and memory cards, the non-replaceable internal storage should not have those limits. For example, you can not use common characters such as colons, quotation or question marks within file names.

A quick test showed that semicolons, exclamation marks and spaces are working fine. Files that contain at least one of the following characters can not be synchronized or created with the Pixel 4a:

Since my OnePlus 5 with Android 9 never had any issues with file names like that, this does not seem to be a required general Android restriction. I really don't have any explanation why Google is following this strategy here with the much newer Android 11 on the Pixel 4a.

From a user perspective, this is the most annoying downside of the whole product so far for me. Until I find a solution (if there is any?), I need to process all files and search and replace said characters.

Lost RemindMe Notification App

I already mentioned that some apps are no longer available. One app I was using on a daily basis was RemindMe. Therefore, I need a replacement app for notifications. However, although the list of my requirements isn't long, I can't find matching apps so far. Do you have a tip for me?

I think that these are all highly desirable features. However, I can not locate any reminder app that features all of the requirements above. Since there are tons of notification apps out there, there is a high chance that you know a matching app.

With RemindMe, I was able to define a new reminder only with this minimal set of interaction:

That's it. Simple as that.

Current suggestions are Three.do or Tasks.org. Both are somewhat nice but they need more interaction that RemindMe and they don't provide relative timers.

Speaker Sound

Cpmpared to the OnePlus5, the Pixel 4a has a lower subjective top volume. The sound of the Pixel 4a is in stereo, which is a plus. Furthermore, by using the top speaker, its sound is directly directed to the user wheras the bottom speaker is not.

When the sound volume is maximized, my Pixel 4a tend to have a jarring (?) sound that may be caused by vibrations of the case.

eSIM

Dual-SIM is only possible with one physical SIM and one eSIM.

Google promotes the phone with a Dual-SIM feature. Unfortunately, the second SIM is an eSIM which is not an options for most telecom service providers at this point in time. My personal provider also does not support eSIM yet but it is announced for Q1/2021. So I'm currently using my OnePlus 5 for business purposes until I can merge the phones next year again.

Until eSIMs are not as common as physical SIMs, I do not consider this device a Dual-SIM device.

Summary

Although the last sections are mentioning some issues I do have with this nice phone, I still do think that it is the best Android phone in the current market situation for my set of requirements by far.

I'm happy that things like GPS is working like charm. With my OnePlus 5 I always worried a bit when being in an unfamiliar city where I could not navigate through the jungle using my phone. NFC is also working perfectly with my SoloKey devices. So I get the whole Android experience again. Let's hope that this device lasts as long as possible.


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