Back in 2002, Firefox was the new hotness in the world of web browsers. Rising from the ashes of Netscape Navigator, the browser emerged as a true competitor to the horror of Internet Explorer. It offered competition with superior rendering and web compliance without the plethora of security issues plaguing Internet Explorer. While Firefox grew in popularity against Internet Explorer through the mid-2000’s, it eventually started to decline in the face of Google’s Chrome browser which took the browser market by storm with its release in the latter half of 2008. People appreciated the speed and efficiency of Google’s new browser, leaving Firefox to languish.
Over the past decade, however, Firefox has undergone a slow yet steady transformation. Prior to the arrival of Chrome, Firefox was fixed on becoming the browser that could do everything, for better or for worse. At the peak of its decline, Firefox was trying to be your web browser, your RSS reader (for the minority of users who had any clue what RSS was), and your IRC client (for the significantly smaller minority of users who had any clue what the hell IRC was), which overall made the browser require more resources for features that most users didn’t need or want, all the while the browser existed inside of a single, monolithic binary. By comparison, the Chrome browser broke each tab into a separate process so that complications with one tab wouldn’t impact the operation of the others.
Recently, though, the tables have begun to turn yet again. After achieving dominance in the browser market, Google has started to act like a GOP senator; they’re willing to sacrifice the good of their constituents (users) in favor of their own interests. For example, Google recognizes the impact of adblocking on its own business. As a result, they’ve proposed changes which would cripple adblockers. While they’ve bounced back and forth on this particular change since they first proposed it in January, they’ve continued to flirt with the idea; clearly Google doesn’t see blocking advertisements as a good thing. Chrome’s resource utilization continues to grow.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and if you want the full details just read all of the articles linked above. The tl;dr is that Firefox now opens a separate process per tab so that each tab can operate independently. Firefox has taken a stance on blocking trackers and other invasive behavior to fingerprint users. Firefox has improved performance on macOS significantly over the past year. Do you fucking hate the pop-up you get from what feels like every website where they want to give you notifications? Firefox is going to block those by default, and users have to actively opt into them. And as ISPs start to act even more shady in an attempt to circumvent user attempts to block tracking, Firefox is the browser empowering you to put the power over that tracking into your own hands.
As time goes by, it becomes more and more clear to me that Firefox is the browser focused on user rights and privacy. While I like the idea of Chromebooks and the simplicity they represent, they continue to become less attractive as I have to look at other options which don’t completely disregard my privacy. I’m feeling as though I’m better off getting a cheap laptop that I install my Linux distribution of choice on and use Firefox over opting for a Chromebook where Google will dictate my privacy choices on my behalf.
Brandi and I both love ProtonMail; we like it so much that it got the honor of being a topic in our very first episode! The biggest draws for paying for a ProtonMail Plus account are:
Support for a custom domain (e.g. @unusually.pink)
5 GB of storage (up from 500 MB)
5 email aliases
The ability to send up to 1000 messages per day (up from 150)
Some of those are really nice perks! I have 3 different email aliases, one of which comes from a custom domain I added to the account. I don’t personally use a lot of storage… for now. I do my best to keep my inbox empty. Note that I said “inbox”, though, rather than “mailbox.” I do have an archive folder where I throw messages that contain something important that might be useful later… though I’ve been trying my best to stop storing things like that in email and storing them in 1Password instead.
While I have plenty of real-estate left in my inbox, last week ProtonMail made it even more difficult for me to start bumping my head against the storage limit; they gave me additional storage for free! In an email with a subject of “We’re giving you extra storage to say thanks”, they described how they’ve added 10 million users to the service over the past year, and how they’re working on a redesigned ProtonMail interface while also continuing to flesh out ProtonCalendar and ProtonDrive, none of which would have been possible without the support of paid accounts.
As a way to say thanks for your early support, we are giving everyone with an existing paid plan 5GB of extra storage for free. […]Because the bonus is to thank our longtime supporters, it only applies to users who upgraded before Nov. 10, 2019. This bonus storage upgrade is permanent as long as you continue your subscription with us.
To me, this is super awesome. I like being able to support a service like ProtonMail, a service that I’ve come to rely on for my personal email. I’m also eagerly awaiting the arrival of ProtonCalendar and (especially) ProtonDrive, so it’s nice to see that my payments are helping to facilitate the creation of those services, too. While I don’t particularly need the 5 GB of storage right now, it could certainly come in handy later on down the road, especially considering I have no plans on letting my service lapse. I checked out the billing on my account and verified that it was added as a line item to my subscription for a $0 charge.
Also, if you happen to be looking forward to the redesign of ProtonMail, I recently realized you can check it out over at: beta.protonmail.com
The new interface is pretty slick, in my opinion, and I’m excited to see what other great things the future has in store for the service. Keep on encrypting, and stay pink!
If you’re a dedicated fan (or just, like, really bored all the time) you may recall that I talked about the upcoming release of the Google Pixel 3a and 3a XL back in the spring. I eventually decided to pull the trigger on a Pixel 3a XL in the summer during a 4th of July sale, but I’ve been hesitant to do any sort of write-up with my thoughts on the device just because they’ve been changing over time. What were initially extremely positive thoughts have become decidedly less so over the past 4 months of daily use.
If you’ve been living under a rock or simply don’t follow technology news — in which case I have no idea why you’re reading this post, but thanks! — the Pixel line-up is comprised of devices sanctioned by Google and produced at their direction (by Foxconn, but let’s not think about that too much) that represent a “pure” Android experience without OEM skins on the operating system and bloatware cluttering your application list. They’re a chance for Google to show off what’s possible with their mobile operating system, something the fact that Pixel sales are historically terrible compared to flagships like those produced by Apple and Samsung doesn’t deter them from. I’ve never had a Pixel phone before, though I had several Nexus devices which is what the Pixel line-up replaced. Brandi has also been a staunch Pixel supporter for the past few years, so it seemed worth a shot.
Let’s start on a positive note and talk about what’s good with the Pixel 3a XL. I don’t know if this is something that Google should be happy about or not, but by far the biggest selling point is the price. I managed to snag mine for just north of $300 during a 4th of July sale. That’s $300 for a device that I own. It’s not a lease, it’s not tied to any sort of agreement with the carrier. I’m not paying a monthly fee on my bill. That’s insane in a world where a smartphone regularly costs more than a decent laptop… by a wide margin. If nothing else, it’s important to frame everything within the perspective of that price.
The other selling point for any Pixel device is that it gets love straight from Google. New version of Android? A Pixel is going to get it before anything else, likely 6 months or more before anything from Samsung. Similarly, Google releases a monthly security patch for Pixel devices. In the event that a security vulnerability is found I don’t have to worry about waiting months on end before a fix is released.
The last of a dying breed, the Pixel 3a XL also features an endangered headphone jack. I was honestly super stoked about this when I got the phone, though I’ve found myself less and less enamored with it recently if I’m being completely honest. It’s not that I’m against having a headphone jack; I just feel like I overestimated the usefulness of it. I just don’t need it that frequently. If you live and die by your 3.5 mm headphones, though, this would be a huge boon for you.
The device packs a 3700 mAh battery that provides crazy amounts of power. I use my device pretty heavily, and it’s not at all uncommon for me to end the day with 60% or more in the tank. The Pixel does a decent job of power management… kind of. It isn’t a miracle, and there are some real trade-offs that get so much performance out of the battery. More on that in some of the more negative sections.
I feel obligated to mention it here, but allegedly the camera is also insanely good. It apparently has the exact same camera as the regular Pixel 3; that was the one area that didn’t get downgraded for the “a” lineup. I personally couldn’t care less about the camera in my device and this wasn’t a selling point for me in the slightest, but it’s worth knowing if you’re really into photography but don’t want a real camera.
While they kept the camera up to par with the full-fledged Pixel 3, most other specs on the device took a bit of a hit to reach the price-point. You’re stuck with a Snapdragon 670 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and 64 GB of storage. That being said, those specs aren’t horrible, especially for what you pay. I don’t play any games on my phone at the moment so the Snapdragon 670 is typically more than enough for navigation, Spotify, and some YouTube videos. Likewise, I’m sitting at 25 GB of storage used on the device so 64 GB is plenty for me. While the specs are laughable compared to a flagship, this device most certainly isn’t a flagship. If you want to play PUBG on the highest settings you’ll likely want to consider something else; if you want a phone to just do phone junk then this will likely fit the bill. Just expect some occasional slowdown, stuttering, and general jankiness when you happen to have a lot of apps open, especially when using the application switcher.
Similarly, the design is just okay. The back actually keeps the same cool, two-tone frosted finish as the regular Pixel devices, even though they swapped from glass to plastic to keep the cost down. That being said, if you’re like me then your clumsy ass is putting a case on, and you never look at that anyway. The front of the device has some pretty righteous bezels; they don’t particularly bother me, though I know some people who are insanely triggered by them. If you’re anti-notch then at least you don’t have to deal with one of those.
Now to the fun part. This list has been steadily growing over the last few months. In order from least problematic to most problematic, we’ll start with the fingerprint reader. It’s there, which is a good thing considering Google dropped it entirely from the Pixel 4. While that move has been receiving a lot of backlash, Google may have just been trying to do everyone a favor if the reader in the Pixel 4 would’ve been as terrible as the one in the Pixel 3a XL. It generally works fine… right up until it doesn’t. While there are all sorts of random “Get bent and type your PIN” moments, the consistent issue is that the fingerprint reader will not trigger for a few seconds after the display has turned off. It happens to me with irritating regularity; I get distracted while doing something with my phone and my display turns off after the timeout period I have configured. I’m already holding the phone in my hand with my finger right next to the reader. So I put my finger on it to wake up the screen, which works even if the device isn’t locked. Only… nothing happens. Tick tock, tick tock. 5 seconds go by and now the fingerprint reader works. Hilariously, it’s actually faster in this situation to tap the power button to force a lock and then hit the fingerprint reader. Stellar.
Even worse than the fingerprint reader, though, is the display. It’s a fairly “whatever” 6.0” 1080 x 2160 resolution; it’s not bad but it’s not standout regarding how it looks. Even though the automatic brightness adjustment is a little “Seriously?” sometimes, it does a good job of rendering text and playing video. Where it does a heinous job is registering that I’m touching it. Swiping notifications away? They’re just as likely to open as if I tapped them. Trying to swipe up on the lock screen to reveal the PIN input because the fingerprint reader is trash? Good luck pulling that off. Swiping to the next page of whatever you’re reading in Google Play Books? Nah, you just highlighted the word “bag” because you’re clearly an idiot and wanted a definition of it.
I already know what most people are likely thinking; I’m the problem and not the device. As someone who has been working in IT for the past 14 years I would be inclined to agree; my first assumption is that I’m the problem. In this scenario, though, I’ve been operating the same way that I have for the past 9 years that I’ve owned a touchscreen phone. If it worked for just shy of a decade before running into issues with this one device, I’m going to have to throw some shade at the device.
Easily the most glaring flaw, though… is the software from Google. I know, I know… It’s the bleeding edge of Android! I’m getting monthly patches! What more could I want? I’d like updates that don’t make me feel as though I’m playing Russian roulette each time I install them. I can never feel confident I’m not going to run into new bugs. Since July I’ve had problems where the keyboard simply won’t render, where Google Assistant stopped working (which makes Android Auto pretty useless), and where hitting the back button too quickly would result in random apps from the app switcher activating. In fact, I still experience the latter two as of the time of this writing; they haven’t been fixed yet. Even better, the Android Auto issues actually seem to be getting worse.
On top of buggy updates, Pixel devices are plagued with by design “features” that make them infuriating to use. Remember how I get amazing battery life? That’s because the device aggressively closes any app it feels like for any reason. It’s a documented thing. It continued happening on the Pixel 3 even after an update was supposed to fix it, and it’s still happening on the 3a XL. I’m all for closing apps that aren’t being used, but it often feels like the device is actively fighting against you. For example, I’ll frequently open Spotify on my phone, pick some music to shuffle, pause the music, and slip the device into my pocket. I’ll then walk outside, hop in my car, and swap the audio input over to Bluetooth. In the roughly 2 minutes it took me to go outside, lock the door, walk downstairs, unlock the car, start it, and switch my audio, Spotify will frequently be closed and nothing will play when Bluetooth becomes the car’s audio source. I then have to fish my phone out of my pocket, and when I unlock it, Spotify (which was still the open app) will refresh itself and start playing. How the hell is this helping me? Even worse is that I’ve gone into the app settings within Android and told the OS that Spotify’s background usage can’t be restricted. Clearly that setting doesn’t actually work, though, because Android continues to close apps with that flagged regardless.
Software this bad just makes the device feel frustrating to use; it’s a chore rather than being seamless. While I like the idea of what Google was going for with the Pixel 3a and 3a XL, I don’t think they succeeded. That’s unfortunate because I think it was close, and some software improvements to fix the fingerprint reader and to just generally make Android’s handling of background apps not a complete dumpster fire could’ve done wonders for it. Given that the phone is about 6 months old, though, if Google hasn’t fixed the problems by now then I don’t think they’re going to. That tells me this phone is one to avoid.