I bought a new phone today, a Google Pixel 3a. It was a long overdue purchase, but I agonized over the decision and spent far too much time researching options.
I’d had my previous phone, a Moto X, for a good five and a half years. The screen cracked last November, and then again on July 4th, at which point the deep spider-web cracks had pretty broad coverage of the screen. It was hard to see things well, and especially read text in the more cracked areas. The phone was back on Android 5.1, thus without OS level security updates for years. The battery lasted well for its age but still wouldn’t always make it through the full day. Sometimes it would just power itself off for no reason, or crash. It had troubles with the network occasionally. Calls often went straight to voicemail. Sometimes apps were slow or buggy, such as Google Maps. It was missing various features of newer phones.
I liked the phone, and held out as long as I could with it, but it was time.
I went with the Pixel because it seemed like the best balance of characteristics versus other Android phone options. Some factors:
- Size / Weight: Most smart-phones these days are much bigger and heavier than the Moto X (4.8″ screen). The Pixel was on the lower end here of current ones that seemed otherwise good to me.
- Android updates: It comes with Android 9 (Pie) and is guaranteed at least 2 more OS versions and security updates for 3 years (from May). It’s more likely than most to have this pushed further too. Update longevity is a common problem with the Android ecosystem.
- LTE: The phone has many more LTE bands than my Moto, including band 71, which may become important for T-Mobile. It should have no problems with switching to any other carrier, and should get me the Sprint bands if that merger happens.
- Camera: It has a highly rated camera, particularly in low light.
- OLED screen: It can do the same display of the clock and notifications without lighting up the full screen as my Moto, is good quality, shows black blacks.
- Mid-range price: Much like the Moto was, it isn’t super expensive like flagships, and may make jumping to another phone I’d like (see below) in a couple years more reasonable.
- Fingerprint sensor: It will be nice to not have to type my password so constantly, even if this could be seen as a security risk.
Other Android phones I considered were:
- Moto G7 Play: Much better price, light water resistance, but poor low light camera, not Android One
- other Motorola options: I like Motorola hardware and the light features they add on top of Android. They do make some other interesting options, but none seemed to be compelling enough to overcome the Pixel
- Nokia phones: All phones are Android One (same update guarantee as the Pixel), plenty of options, but they seemed to be missing features, not as good cameras, mediocre reviews, other issues. The 7.x line would probably be the most appropriate for me, but the most recent is getting old and the next version is going to be released in a month, maybe a bit longer than I’d want to wait.
- Unihertz Atom: Cool, very small phone, waterproof, ruggedized, most features of full-sized smart-phones, but already old OS version, very poorly rated camera, no band 71, unknown manufacturer.
The Purism Librem 5 is the phone I’m most excited about. It’s a Linux based modern-style smart-phone with fully open-source software and as close to open-friendly hardware as any smart-phone. It has hardware kill-switches for the baseband modem, the wi-fi, and the camera and microphone. The company takes both open-source and privacy very seriously. The phone has a lot of general features I like.
I would really like to have one of these phones, and to support the project, but:
- They’re not released yet, and the date has been pushed back several times already.
- There are many pre-orders, so I’d be at the back of the line, and this being their first phone, production and distribution might take a while. So, I probably wouldn’t get mine right on the release date.
- There might be some bugs and kinks with their first phone.
- They might have issues with cellular networks, particularly with newer features like VoLTE.
- Their baseband options don’t have a lot of LTE bands, particularly their default one. Their option with more I’ve only seen mentioned in one place, not on the main product page, and there’s no option when adding to cart, so I wonder if it’ll be available right away or at all. No band 71 for either.
I will definitely want to buy one at some point, but it may be a couple years down the line, once problems are worked out, things are stable, and maybe new baseband options are available.
I had some trouble purchasing the device. When I finally made up my mind to do the purchase today, I became locked in to making it happen, but it resisted happening.
I went to the T-Mobile store nearest my house. I waited for the guy to finish talking to the couple he was with when I first walked in, then he came over to me. I told him I was interested in the Pixel 3a, and he talked about it and showed me the floor model. He said they had the Pixel 3a XL (the bigger one) in stock, but not the 3a. He said they could have one shipped to me. After talking a bit, I asked if other stores had one in stock. He called the nearest one up and asked. They said no, but then went to check, and then said they had one. So the guy told them to hold it for me. I thanked him, and headed over to the other store.
I haven’t been in Summit Mall in a long time, and it took me a while to find the store. Once there, I told the guy I wanted the Pixel 3a, and he went in the back to get it. Then there was some discussion about how to do the purchase with him and another employee. It was apparently $30 more with a prepaid account, unless purchasing another month at the same time. So we decided to do that, but my plan was too old to do this with. If I wanted to save the $30, I would have to switch to one of their newer plans. I had wanted to do this at some point anyway to save $10 a month from what I was paying, but this would lose half a month of my current plan. I decided to go ahead with it.
He struggled to get the purchase set up on his tablet for a bit. Then he tried my card several times and it failed. I gave him my other card, but that failed too. I had a check, but they don’t accept those. He said I could pay cash, and that they were open for two more hours, giving me time to go get some.
I rushed to the nearest branch of my bank. As I pulled up, the ATM screen showed a dollar selection dialog as if someone else was still using it. I hit the cancel button on the screen as well as the number pad, and commenced trying every other button, but the screen was just frozen. I had no interest in trying to insert my card, so I headed for the next nearest branch, slightly farther away in the opposite direction from the mall. I didn’t see it, but my phone told me it was in the Acme. I went in, got out a large stack of $20s, and then headed back to the mall, parking closer to the store this time.
The guy I dealt with was talking to a couple, so I had to wait a bit. He then brought out the phone and started working on it. It took him a little bit to re-set up the transaction. I counted out the $20s for him to verify the amount. He gave me my change. He then discussed the account / number transfer part with the other guy, and they took care of that. He took out my phone, swapped the SIM, started it up, got the account connecting, printed the receipt, then put everything in a bag for me to head off.
Not long after leaving, a thunder storm rolled in with some wind and powerful rain. It was loud in the Home Depot I had gone to, and looked way too rough to go to the outside garden center area I had wanted to go to. A bit of water was coming in under the doors.
I took the phone to a bench and began my part of the setup journey. I logged into an open wi-fi to start updating some apps. Looking in the settings, I noticed the phone number wasn’t mine. I texted my brother to verify, and sure enough, it wasn’t mine. I stopped the app updates and headed back to the store. After some discussion and some time checking things on their tablet, the one guy said it may take a couple hours for the number to switch. He said he was sure it would work because it showed the other account as cancelled, which he showed me on the tablet. I would get a text when the number switched. He sent me off again. I still haven’t gotten the text and it still shows the temporary number. That may be another debacle for tomorrow.
When I got home, I went through all of the settings and tweaked them to my liking. I then went to the setup wizard, which had me transfer stuff from my old phone. The phone luckily came with a USB adapter to connect them together. It took a while to transfer however many gigabytes. It had me log into my Google accounts as it went. I got a number of emails verifying all this. The transfer of the apps transferred some data, but not the apps, which had to be downloaded from the Play Store. Since I don’t have wi-fi, it didn’t want to, but I eventually decided to let it download the 900ish megabytes. Some of the apps didn’t copy at all, and some of the data didn’t. For instance, none of the browser tabs copied, so my 150ish are stuck on the old phone.
I’m not sure if all of this was a sign that I shouldn’t have bought the phone. There were a lot of points where I had to do extra work to keep moving forward, and the purchase process took several hours. I’m a little worried that I won’t be able to get my phone number back or some of the data that didn’t transfer. There are definitely some cool things about the phone, but some things that may take getting used to. A lot of things aren’t that different from my previous phone. My frustration so far has made it hard to feel excited and enjoy it. I think I will be happy with it after things are resolved and I’ve used it for a bit.