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Google Pixel 4a Review

If you look through my history of cell phones, you’ll see that that my last purchase was a Samsung S7 in October of 2016. That was our first Android phone and I went for a top of the line experience. I wanted to see the best of Android as I switched platforms.

Fast forward almost FOUR YEARS and those phones are still chugging along, but they’re getting pretty sluggish and the batteries are annoyingly week. By lunch time I’m lucky to have a 30-40% charge. Last fall when we hit the three year point, I decided to push the purchase out a bit longer and wait for the Pixel 4a. That announcement usually happens in May but COVID. Yada yada yada, we finally got our new phones! After having them for a couple weeks, here are some thoughts:

Pros

  • Google gave us $58 each for our old S7’s. That brought the total with tax to $636.44 for two phones. That’s less than we paid for one of the S7’s. With many flagship phones over $1000, I’m ready to give a mid-range phone a chance and see how that goes. If we got 4 years out of a flagship and we get 2 years out of these, I’ll be happy and ready to upgrade.
  • The camera is gorgeous. I don’t have experience with other modern phones, but the reviews seem to indicate that this is a really solid camera. The Night Sight feature is incredible and really does work as well as the reviews say.
  • The phone doesn’t have expandable storage, but it comes with 128GB. We were living with 32GB internal + 64 SD storage on our own phones and never came close to filling that up so I expect this will be fine for us.
  • MORE POWER! While I’m sure a flagship phone would still trounce the 4a, these are way faster than the S7. For example, I’ve been playing with some autonomous drone software (Dronelink) and it didn’t work at all with the S7. It’s not flawless with the 4a but it’s plenty good. And when Elijah and I play Mario Kart Tour together, I don’t have to think about how his cheapo tablet is so much faster than my phone. Android Auto in my truck is much snappier too.

Cons

  • There’s no water resistance rating on these phones. While we’re careful and wouldn’t expect to take our phones into a pool, it’s nice to not worry about the phone if you’re out in a drizzle.
  • I really loved the wireless charging on my S7. I used it a lot especially as my battery was dying off. I can’t imagine that’s a super expensive part given that the tech has been around for so long, but they left it out of the 4a.
  • The screens are only 1080p. I did enjoy the WQHD (2560 × 1440) resolution on the S7’s but most of the time I don’t notice.

All in all we’re thrilled with these new phones. They’re so much faster than our old ones and the photos are amazing. They’re a perfect fit for us and since they were on the cheaper end of the phone spectrum, I won’t feel as bad about replacing them in a couple years when (hopefully) 5g is more prevalent.

Dronelink

One reason DJI sells the Mavic Mini for less than its other drones is that it doesn’t have as many autonomous features. However, they recently published an SDK do a number of 3rd party companies have added the Mavic Mini to the list of drones that can be controlled by their existing software. I ended up paying $20 for a hobbyist license to Dronelink. The price was low enough that it seemed like it was worth a try.

The main customer of the software seems to be companies who need to get aerial photos of buildings, bridges, etc but they don’t have a stable full of expert drone pilots who can quickly get the shot perfectly every time. With the software, the route planning can be done completely from a website and then executed via a phone app connected to the controller. You can also create simpler programs out in the field directly from the phone.

My old S7 was woefully underpowered and while it would run the software, the drone had barely taken off before it complained about the lag and refused to continue. My new Pixel 4a does a much better job but for a complex curving route where the gimble is constantly adjusting to keep pointed at a specific object, there are noticeable glitches. For simple routes, it seems to do a good job.

Here’s an example of a “trucking shot”. Imagine someone driving along in a truck with a camera pointed out the side. I didn’t make a perfectly straight path so you can see some points where it turns but overall, there isn’t stuttering to the movement.

Now here’s an image of a more complicated route followed by the video that resulted.

You can see the stuttering as my phone tries to chug through all the commands in real-time. I suspect that if I had one of the flagship phones, that stuttering would go away.

For $20, I’m still happy with this purchase. I want to try to plan out a route that is simple enough to capture smoothly and then run it every week or so and try to stitch it together into a timelapse after the construction is complete. I’m guessing I won’t be successful but I suspect I’ll learn a lot in the process.

Davinci Resolve

One of the big reasons I built a new PC recently was to make it easier to edit 4k video footage as more and more of my devices are able to record it. I’ve been using various versions of Adobe Premiere Elements for 10 years, but I’m starting to feel like I’ve outgrown it. The problem is that the next level of video editors is the same stuff the pros use which means it’s complicated and expensive. The main contenders are Adobe Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro from Apple. Thankfully there’s a third option: Davinci Resolve.

Resolve initially started as a color correction tool but evolved to include a full editor and special effects tool. The best part is that it is FREE. That’s right. Free! Or at least it’s free until you start editing the next Marvel movie and then you’ll want to shell out a few hundred bucks for the Studio version of Resolve. But there’s no way a mere mortal at home is ever going to get that far.

One downside to Resolve is that it has a very steep learning curve. Thankfully I’m not totally new to editing and our library also includes a free subscription to Lynda.com. I took a ~5 hour course, learned the basics, and then plunged into my first video: a full church service.

Because we’re staying home, we decided to publish as much of a normal church service online as we could. Pastor spent many hours at church recording the various segments and DaveK recorded some organ pieces from home. I was able to get it all pieced together and posted. You can find it on our Facebook page and our YouTube channel.

Other than having to do some searches to find a few very basic things, the experience was good and it didn’t add a huge amount of time to the way I did things before. As I get better I’m confident that I’ll be able to make them look even nicer and do it faster than before. Specific things I’m already enjoying:

  • It has a feature that syncs separate audio and video tracks with a single click! This was a constant source of pain for me before because even if I got them synced up, at some point they might start to drift by a couple frames.
  • The titles are done through their full-blown effects system so the sky is the limit. I stuck with the built-in titles for this first video but I thought even those looked very nice.
  • Rendering is FAST. This software uses both my CPU and video card to get the rendering done as quickly as possible.

The three of us put in a huge amount of time getting this one service done, but it looks like we’ll have a lot more chances to optimize our workflow. The biggest hiccup was transfering ~12GB of files around but it turns out that just dumping them on the PC at church and letting Backblaze put back them up was the easiest and most reliable solution. The upload speed there is very slow (2Mbps) but reliability proved more helpful than raw speed.

It was also really tempting to try to use the special effects to light the candles, but I resisted. We’ll get those lit in real life and made some other small tweaks for next time, but if you’re using these videos and there’s anything we can do to improve your experience, please share them with us!

4k Video Editor Build

When we got our new Go Pro 8, I learned that my PC wasn’t new enough to play back the HEVC encoded video, much less do any editing with it. Sure, I could save the video in a different format, but I’ve been itching to upgrade my PC at home and this, combined with the 2.7K video that my drone records, was a good reason to go for it.

My requirements were that I wanted to be able to smoothly edit 4k video, view video in 4k resolution, and render edited videos as quickly as possible.

Every PC I’ve built or purchased before this point have been Intel CPUs, but lately, AMD has been kicking Intel around the block in terms of price to performance ratio. Just check out what the stock market thinks about the two companies over the last 5 years. The Ryzen 3770 seemed like a good price point for my build. It has 8 hyper threaded cores running at up to 4.4GHz. I built out a nice system around it with 32GB of DDR-3600 memory and an NVMe SSD. I’ve had no personal experience with that kind of SSD but wow, it’s FAST! Remember how much faster your computer was when you switched from a spinning hard drive to an SSD? This new drive is 10 times faster than the SSD in my last desktop. It reads data at a speed of 2.5 GB/second!

Here is the full parts list:

The build went pretty smoothly. The pcpartpicker.com website helped me avoid some incompatibilities. Once I got all the parts together, I flashed the BIOS, tweaked a few settings to get my RAM clocked up to the right speed and then installed Windows. Or rather, I tried to install Windows. It kept getting to about 60% of the way through and dying. As an “I don’t know what else to try” step, I rebuilt the installation media on the USB key and voila, it worked!

I capped it all off with a 4k monitor, the Asus MG28UQ. That felt like a splurge because my existing monitors were plenty good (though not 4k), but wow, once I got this all assembled, I ended up staring at YouTube demo videos and being amazed at the clarity. Plus it’s fun to see my drone footage in its full glory.

For a perf test, I fired up Handbrake on my old desktop and this new one, gave it a beefy video file from the drone and adjusted Handbrake with the same settings on each machine. This new machine got through it almost exactly 3 times faster than the old one. It’s not all roses though. I had a much nicer CPU cooler on the old machine and this new one is noticeably louder (but it has built in RGB leds… oooooo.)

It’s fun to have this new machine and it’s certainly going to make editing all those videos for church less painful. I’m also very excited to start watching things in 4k. I expect this will translate into a 4k TV before too long and then a 4k projector once my current one dies.

As a small reward for reading through all this nonsense (or at least scrolling to the bottom), here’s the first video I edited on the new machine. It’s all 2.7k footage from my Mavic Mini. Elijah and I went down to 60 Acres and took turns flying it around.

Seatback Phone Holder

I spent a few hours watching my phone on a recent flight before and ended up with a sore back from looking down at my phone for so long. That’s when I got the idea to make some kind of a phone holder hanger that would attach to the seatback tray table when it’s folded up.

But of course someone has already done it.

The good news is that there are a few different approaches to the scenario so you can pick your favorite. I used this Unitron World model on my flight to and from Israel and loved it. It worked quite well on all the flights I was on and it made it a lot easier to power through 34 hours of flights. They’re fairly inexpensive it’s not a huge deal if you want to try a couple different versions, but I really liked how solidly this one held my phone at any angle and how small it folded up.