Moto G5 first impressions

Cheap, cheerful, and competent

In January 2018 I found myself looking for a new mobile device. The main use cases were playing music, displaying a map offline, making phone calls, and sending short text messages. The timing was driven by going on a three-week trip abroad.

Devices currently available on the smartphone market generally fall into one of the following two categories:

  1. large and cheap smartphones with outdated software and no guarantee of software updates, but with features like SD card slots and standard headphone jacks
  2. large and expensive premium smartphones with newest software, sometimes with guarantee of software updates, taking less-is-more approach to features

A middle ground where one would hope for up-to-date software for under 400 EUR is rather hard to find. Phones smaller than 5″ screen are very niche.

I chose the first category, and bought a Motorola Moto G5 for 159.99 EUR including taxes (241.24 CAD at time of purchase).

It’s great. It’s cheap and cheerful. It’s plastic fantastic. It doesn’t feel premium and that’s awesome.

I don’t worry about dropping it, breaking it, losing it, getting a case for it. I just use it. It’s not everything I’d want, but for the price it’s just fine.

It’s grey and black and plastic and there’s not much more to it. There’s a “Moto” text on the front which isn’t too obnoxious, and an M logo on the back which I covered with a stick-on kickstand. It’s probably a bit thicker than a Nexus, but, whatever.

I have resolved the size issue by not carrying my phone as often. I won’t drop a phone taking it out of my pocket if I don’t have it in my pocket.

Quick intro to technology: It’s model XT1676, version PVT1. It’s got a 5″ screen, 1920×1080 IPS, you don’t need more. It’s got 16 GB of onboard storage, a microSD card slot, a microUSB connector, dual SIM slots, and a 3.5 mm headphone/microphone jack. It’s got 2 GB of RAM although you might want a bit more. It’s got a fingerprint reader on the front which works fine.

Here are a few catches: Because the bezels around the screen are quite large, so overall the phone is somewhat larger than a Nexus 5. As I initially wanted my next phone to be smaller, not larger, that’s not great, but a small cheap phone doesn’t appear to be a possibility in 2018. The camera is nominally 13 MP, but in reality is quite a bit worse than the camera on a 2015 Nexus 6P, and is only about as good as the 2013 Nexus 5’s 8 MP camera. 2 GB of RAM is not quite enough for Android running Maps.me and Firefox with more than one tab loaded. The SD card and the SIM cards are not hot-swappable.

The software situation is rather grim, as expected. In January 2018 I bought it with Android 7.0 (the latest is 8.1) and security updates up to August 2017. In late February it received an exciting update to Android 7.0 with security updates as of November 2017. A Nexus this is not. Of course, the economics of providing a 160 EUR device with timely updates are terrible, so it is unlikely anyone will do any better barring an industry-wide move to open source bootloaders and drivers for mobile devices.

Out of the box

Thankfully, the stock install is low on bloatware. Motorola was kind enough to just let Android do its thing. The complete list of software installed out of the box is:

  • Calculator
  • Google Calendar †
  • Camera
  • Google Chrome
  • Clock (standard Android alarm clock and timer)
  • Contacts
  • Device help (some Moto app, not obnoxious)
  • Downloads (Android’s “it’s not a file explorer we swear”)
  • Google Drive
  • Google Duo †
  • FM Radio
  • Gmail (also supports email servers other than Gmail)
  • Google search app
  • Google Maps
  • Messages (SMS)
  • Moto (configures gestures and ambient display settings)
  • Phone
  • Google Photos
  • Play Movies & TV †
  • Play Music
  • Play Store †
  • Settings
  • Voice search
  • Wallpapers
  • Youtube

As part of my attempts to degooglify, I’ve not logged in to my Google account on the device. In general, this works alright — better than I had expected. However, software marked with dagger † above doesn’t work without a Google account: Calendar (won’t start at all); Duo (the video chat app – it wants me to opt in to something on startup, I didn’t investigate since I don’t use it anyway); Play Movies & TV; Play Store. Google search app works just fine without logging in. Maps works without logging in, except for saving locations. Play Music works with music files copied onto the device.

Google Photos initially used to show images on the device just fine. Since the February update, it continuously sends notifications that it won’t run unless I update Google Play services (which I can’t do without logging in to Play Store), but seems to actually still run fine.

“OK Google” always-on-listening works by default in launcher, without a Google account; it can be disabled in settings. There is a default widget for weather from AccuWeather.

None of the default apps are removable, but they can be disabled. This hides them from the launcher app list, which is enough for my purpose: avoiding distraction.

This being Android, software installs fine from APK files. In particular, Firefox and Maps.me run well. More on third-party software later.

My usage

  • Playing music: works fine. An SD card slot means I didn’t have to overpay the manufacturer for onboard storage. When used mostly for music a couple hours a day, the battery life is about a week.
  • Running an offline map: competent in Maps.me, which uses OpenStreetMap data. The phone came on a three-week trip with maps of Vietnam and Hong Kong, and worked well. Offline search was mostly fine, occasionally laggy, but that might have had something to do with Maps.me downloading all of Guangdong to cache Hong Kong.
  • Making phone calls: competent. Dual SIMs were nice for staying connected just-in-case when we had a local SIM on the trip, but I don’t use them day-to-day now.
  • Sending short text messages: yep, it does that, with a standard Android keyboard.

It’s a functional enough little computer, and it makes phone calls, too. I am satisfied.

Nexus 5 exit review

Or, it is not a good idea to make a thing you’re likely to drop out of glass.

In 2015, I wrote a review after ten months of using the Nexus 5. As I wrote then, I had bought the Nexus 5 based on wireless networks supported, size, software hackability, input methods, software updates, storage size/options, and the camera in roughly that order; it was the most expensive phone I had bought to date, after I previously bought both my Blackberry Pearl 8100 and my Nexus One lightly used.

The big reason for writing the review in 2015 was my reaction to breaking the glass over the Nexus 5 screen. I continued to use the phone; a few more drops broke the glass on top left of the device but didn’t impact the screen greatly. In December 2016, I dropped it one last time trying to check directions while cycling. This time the liquid crystals in top left broke, and the touchscreen stopped responding. That does mean that the phone ultimately survived two years with cracked and weakened top glass, so that’s something.

After two and a half years, I still agree with most of my ten-month review: it did look nice; the screen was nice; reliability and durability of the all-glass front is not good. Size is too big for single-handed use and not suited for use on the go. The enclosed, non-field-replaceable battery didn’t end up being a problem in the end. I really liked wireless charging with Qi. I hardly ever used NFC.

It wasn’t critical, but I would have liked a bit more storage space, or upgradeable storage space. The camera was workable and automatic panorama stitching was neat. The keyboard was alright when using two-hands, not suitable for single-handed use, and not suitable for typing without looking down at the keyboard. It’s still silly to think that a phone has 2 GB of RAM.

By the way, when sitting idle with the screen off, a two-year-old Nexus 5 has a battery life of about a week.

Some changes from the older review: I have ran into some really annoying edge cases with MTP mounting and am wishing for direct USB mass storage mounting to make a return. The soft-touch finish has aged better than I thought it would, which makes the fragile glass front all the more annoying. The missing stickers from within the “Nexus” cut-out logo on the back are not a huge problem visually, though I still think they could have been omitted in the first place.

I wonder how much more durable the phone would have been if the plastic casing extended into the front face a tiny bit, instead of the front being edge-to-edge glass. The screen cracks propagated from the edges inwards, and I noticed my old Nexus One had many scratches on its front corners that didn’t impact the glass.

One other issue I have noticed is hairline cracks in side bezels around the SIM card slot on the right hand side, and around the volume rocker on the left hand side. These look like stress from falls and bumps breaking the thin side pieces at their narrowest.

Ultimately, two and a half years of use is shorter than I’d like, but I guess not terrible. It would probably feel a bit more acceptable if this was a $200 purchase, not a $400 one.

Perhaps my foremost problem was that I wanted the Nexus 5 to be a phone: a device to use single-handed, on the go, designed to account for the reality that it will sometimes be dropped. The Nexus 5 is not that kind of phone.

2017

  • I lived in Berlin and mostly worked.
  • Summer weather wasn’t as great as last year, but it was nice enough. Sitting in the park with a beer got admittedly a little less novel, but sitting by the riverside with a book did not.
  • We travelled around Europe what felt like a lot: went to Vienna in January, Mallorca in May, Gdynia in June, Copenhagen in July, Hamburg in August, Lisbon in September/October, Dresden in early December to see the market, and Warszawa over Christmas. In March we went on a beach holiday in Maldives. We got a little travelled out.
  • I felt guilty for flying quite a lot. By Atmosfair’s estimate, just the flights put me more than twice over the yearly climate budget. This wasn’t helped by planning a trip to Vietnam and Hong Kong next January — also a lot of flying — late in the year.
  • My main software project, electric2go, fizzled out almost completely after March. In a fitting end, public APIs are slowly being turned off — DriveNow in April, car2go announced for early 2018 — and I increasingly lose interest as privately-run public transportation gets more private.
  • But luckily, I found Electricity Map, which rekindled my interest in energy, and I was able to contribute a little bit.
  • I read a satisfying amount of books, and set a new record for amount of pages read (15059, by Goodreads’ count). Half of the books I read were nonfiction. I didn’t get into a major series this year; I read four books each from Joanna Chmielewska (well, re-read) and Brandon Sanderson (including the newly-released Oathbringer), and late in the year started and almost finished the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series.
  • Music: not much live (setlist.fm). We saw the Rural Alberta Advantage in January and then next show was Svavar Knútur in September. We saw Sigur Rós at Tempodrom in October, and later on, FM Belfast and Sólstafir with Árstíðir in December. With five shows, this beat 2016’s four, but I’m still old.
  • Only a concerted effort of actually listening to music saved me from lows of 2016, and overall I scrobbled 2338 listens on last.fm, though this is still the second lowest since I started scrobbling. Early in the year I discovered You Say Party’s 2016 self-titled album and really liked it. I liked FM Belfast’s new album Island Broadcast, and listened to it a fair bit after seeing them live. I had a few listens to Stars’ new album There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light as well, and otherwise listened mostly to Röyksopp (Melody A.M. in particular) and Of Monsters and Men (My Head Is an Animal). Two of my favourite bands — Broken Social Scene and The Rural Alberta Advantage — came out with new albums but I haven’t listened to them yet. Oops.
  • My German improved a bit, but I would still hesitate to call myself fluent. Maybe one day.
  • I used a paper notebook, and wrote a diary for the whole year. I liked it. I started a paper to-do list in November and while not a magic bullet, it helped a bit.
  • I did not succeed in cleaning out. I’m still too attached to too much paper, much of it stuff I feel I shouldn’t feel attached to. I also wanted to clean out more older possessions. I didn’t do much in terms of separating myself from Google. Last but not least, I wanted to write more for my blog. But I feel alright about it all. It’s alright.
  • Underside.

… a young man who is always sensible is to be suspected and is of little worth—that’s my opinion!
— Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Pannier

I have recently bought an Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic bicycle pannier. Ortlieb only sells them in pairs, but my local bike shop helpfully sells singles for 65 EUR. My main need is carrying a 14″ laptop on about a 20-30 minute bicycle commute.

I have not had a pannier before. I’ve used backpacks and smaller shoulder bags (in particular an older model of MEC Pod Sling). Here’s some of my notes in case some other newbies are considering one.

The pannier is a lot better for cycling with, both in heat and in rain. In the heat, it greatly improves the sweaty back problem. In the rain, it helps your breathable rain jacket do its job. And of course, it’s quite literally a load off your back.

It mounts on a standard bike rack very easily, stays secure, and comes off easily when you want it. The mounting is very well thought through and executed, I was pleasantly surprised.

It makes a big difference in comfort for a weekend day trip. It’s no longer a question of “do I want to carry the weight of this bottle of water and this sketchbook on my back”, it’s now “does it fit in the pannier? then go ahead.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Estimating Canadian electricity CO₂ intensities

I recently became interested in the Electricity Map project. It uses real-time electricity generation data to estimate real-time CO₂-equivalent emissions and intensity per kilowatt-hour — essentially, how green a region’s electricity generation is.

For instance, Germany routinely varies from over 450 g CO₂eq/kWh (grams CO₂-equivalent per kilowatt-hour) to under 250 g CO₂eq/kWh on windy or sunny days, while Poland varies from over 750 to 600 g/kWh. Other jurisdictions, like France or Ontario, have large baseline low-emission generators (often nuclear and hydro) and might vary from 20 to 50 g/kWh. The idea behind Electricity Map and the related CO₂ Signal API is that energy-storage consumer-level devices like batteries, heaters, or coolers can use electricity when it’s greener, or in case of an electric vehicle crossing a regional border, where it’s greener.

For this we need real-time information, for some definition of real-time. Electricity Map can show changes for every 15 minutes, but hourly updates are also common for some jurisdictions. Daily updates are too coarse. Generally, the availability of real-time data is correlated with privatization or decentralization of electricity systems: when different companies operate power stations, the transmission grid, and consumer billing (or some mix of these), real-time information on supply and demand is normally needed to determine purchasing price and in turn generation mix.

The site currently includes data for a few Canadian provinces: Alberta, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and partial data for New Brunswick. Alberta and Ontario have privatized markets, and Prince Edward Island is showcasing how much wind generation is currently taking place (remainder of PEI’s electricity is imported from New Brunswick). New Brunswick provides interchange data (how much electricity it’s importing and exporting) and their demand — possibly driven by their relatively central location, passing on cheap plentiful hydroelectricity from Québec to Nova Scotia, PEI, and the U.S. I want to give credit to Nova Scotia: despite not being privatized nor particularly green, they report their generation mix hourly (in an attempt to highlight their renewables — but they report their coal faithfully too).

Spurring this particular write-up is Prince Edward Island. They report on-island generation and load, and imports can be inferred from this. However, the imports are from New Brunswick, which doesn’t have real-time information, so Electricity Map doesn’t know their generation CO₂ intensity. In these cases, Electricity Map by default assumes the import is the same intensity as the in-province generation.

This assumption doesn’t hold for PEI: local generation is almost always all wind, which has a much lower CO₂ intensity than the electricity imported from New Brunswick. As a result, the value shown in Electricity Map is often too optimistic and too low.

We don’t know New Brunswick’s real-time generation mix — but we can estimate it based on historical data, to at least get within an order of magnitude and hopefully within a margin of 2.

Statistics Canada has the data. The most interesting source is CANSIM Table 127-0002 (linked from CANSIM Energy consumption and disposition). Use “Add/remove data” to control it:

  1. select the desired province or territory in Step 1;
  2. deselect the subcategories “electric utilities” and “industries” in Step 2 since that’s not useful for us;
  3. select all types of electricity generation in Step 3. (The types in Statistics Canada don’t line up with Electricity Map’s fuel divisions – for instance, StatCan distinguishes “Conventional steam turbine”, “Internal combustion turbine”, and “Combustion turbine”, but won’t tell you if the turbines are heated by coal or gas – but we can estimate this later.)
  4. in step 4, select a date range – Table 127-0002 has monthly data from 2008 until 2015, which while not perfect (2016 data would be nice), is not too bad.

The second useful source is CANSIM Table 127-0008, which gives local supply and use vs imports and exports. Unfortunately, this only provides yearly data, but can be used to get a general sense of how electricity systems in the province are used. In this table, “interprovincial deliveries” are exports from a province, and “interprovincial receipts” are imports to the province.

I have put together a Jupyter notebook showing how to obtain and process the data — the numbers below mostly come from there and straight from the StatCan tables.

Because of a chain of imports within Atlantic and Eastern Canada, a brief overview of a few provincial electricity systems might be helpful.

Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland and Labrador (population 530 thousand, GDP around $30 billion) largely runs on hydroelectricity. There is one particularly large hydroelectric project in Labrador, Churchill Falls, the electricity from which is exported to Québec. Per Table 127-0008, about 70-75% of all generation in the province is exported. Québec is Newfoundland and Labrador’s only current export link; an undersea link to Nova Scotia is under construction and should finish in late 2017 or early 2018.

Per Table 127-0002, in 2014-2015, between 94.1% and 97.6% of NL generation came from hydro. By monthly averages, the ratio was higher in the summer and lower in the winter. Between 0.2% and 0.3% of NL generation came from wind. The remaining generation was turbine generation, which, according to Wikipedia’s list of generating stations, consists of a vast majority of fuel oil/diesel and a tiny bit of biomass.

The monthly CO₂ intensity for electricity generated in Newfoundland and Labrador as a whole is around 30 to 70 g/kWh (higher in winter). The electricity exported to Québec is all hydroelectricity (assigned 24 g/kWh on Electricity Map). I haven’t yet calculated the intensity of the local supply excluding the Québec export.

Québec

Québec (population 8.4 million, GDP around $380 billion) mostly runs on hydroelectricity. It imports around 18% of its supply, mostly from Labrador (Labrador’s exports are 15% of Québec’s supply). It exports around 13% of its supply (16% of its generation), 10% of it to the U.S. and 3.3% to other provinces. Its import-export balance ends up fairly neutral, and it essentially acts as a conduit from Labrador to the U.S. (Newfoundlanders and Labradorians aren’t too happy about the economic arrangement.)

Between January 2014 and December 2015, Québec’s generation has been between 98.8% and 99.3% hydroelectricity. Fossil generation varied between 0.5% and 0.7% (for offgrid, peakers, and back-ups), and wind generation varied between 0.2% and 0.6%. The only nuclear plant in Québec (Gentilly) shut down in December 2012.

Estimated CO₂ intensity of Québec’s generation is around 25-30 g/kWh. Imports from Labrador, at 24 g/kWh, keep the supply intensity around the same value; the remaining imports, at 3% of the supply, likely come mostly from the other big Canadian province, Ontario, which has CO₂ intensities below 100 g/kWh and thus will not change the Québec intensity significantly.

New Brunswick

New Brunswick (population 760 thousand, GDP around $33 billion), the subject of the post, has a diverse generation mix. Since restarting their nuclear power plant (Point Lepreau) in late 2013, they have had around a third-each split in generation from nuclear, fossil fuel (coal, gas, and oil), and hydroelectricity; however, this varied a lot month-to-month. The CO₂ intensity of generation has bounced around a lot depending on the mix, but stayed around 300 to 400 g CO₂eq/kWh most of the time.

Between 2011 and 2015, imports constituted between 25% and 40% of the supply. Most of the imports come from Québec, at 25-30 g/kWh, thus reducing the CO₂ intensity of the supply by around a third. Over several years, about 33% of supply is exported — around 10% to other provinces and 23% to the U.S.

I would then suggest, in absence of better data, to assume that Prince Edward Island imports electricity which is around 300 g CO₂eq/kWh.

Prince Edward Island

Prince Edward Island (population 150 thousand, GDP around $6 billion), as mentioned, mostly imports electricity from New Brunswick. Local fossil plants (oil and diesel) serve as back-up and sometimes winter load peakers. There has been an increasing amount of wind turbines, which sometimes — but so far not often — cover the island’s complete load.

The Statistics Canada data for PEI is not terribly accurate. There is a large discrepancy between “Total all types of electricity generation” from Table 127-0002 and “Total generation of electricity” from Table 127-0008, present in StatCan’s source table and visible in the Jupyter notebook charts. Perhaps the system is too small to have accurate data.

Sources and programming

The source data is from Statistics Canada. The programming is in a Jupyter notebook on Github Gist. Further analysis or improvements could start from the notebook.

I hope to write further posts about the other provinces and territories.