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Ask Help Desk: Big phones, big problems

In our last Q&A column of the year, we grapple with Google Photo and ponder how to downsize our cell phones

(Brinson + Banks/Washington Post Illustration)
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This year has been tumultuous to say the least, but one thing has remained constant for us here at the Help Desk: Our cup runneth over with your questions and requests for advice. And as always, we’re glad to help.

We’ll be taking next week off from this column to spend time with our families, but that doesn’t mean we’re fully closing up shop. A few of us will still be keeping an eye on the Help Desk inbox ( to answer any pressing post-holiday tech questions, and if the amount of money people are expected to spend on tech gifts this year is any indication, we may get quite a few. (In other words, don’t be shy!)

That also means you’re looking at our last Q&A column of 2021, which I’ve decided gives me an excuse to be just a touch sentimental.

On behalf of all of us here at the Help Desk, we hope you have a safe, healthy and altogether wonderful holiday. In a year that has too often felt short on silver linings, getting to help you live a little more comfortably with your technology has been a genuine pleasure. And beyond that, we’ve been floored by the trust many of you have placed in us in the months since we launched. We’ll do our utmost to keep deserving it in 2022, and beyond.

Now, on to this week’s questions.

A rose by any other name: My family uses multiple Amazon Echo speakers, but my teenagers have said they feel a little strange calling it by a person’s name. How do we change “Alexa” to something else?

— Daniel, Silver Spring, Md.

Your family isn’t the only one grappling with the weirdness of Amazon’s decision to give its voice assistant — one of the most widely used in the world — a human name. A spokesperson told The Washington Post this year that its choice of name was meant to invoke the legendary Library of Alexandria. But if you’re itching for a more neutral way to talk to your Echos, the fix is pretty simple.

Simply ask your Echo to “change the wake word.” From there, it’ll respond with a handful of options like “Amazon” (if you’re the literal type) and “Ziggy” (if you think your life could use a little more Bowie). My personal favorite is “Computer,” which I will always attempt to pronounce like Patrick Stewart.

There’s just one thing to keep in mind, though: As far as I’ve been able to find, there’s no simple way to change the wake words for all your Echo devices at once. If you have a lot — and it sounds like you might — you may want to make those changes via the Alexa app instead. Open it on your phone and tap More -> Settings -> Device Settings. Then tap each of your Echo devices, tap the gear-shaped Settings icon, scroll down to Wake Word and make your choice.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Done deal: I have a MacBook Pro and my phone is a Pixel 3. My understanding is that I get unlimited Google photo storage on my Pixel until the end of January, at which point I still get storage, but with lesser quality. Is there a way for me to upload my photos on my MacBook by way of my phone so I can consolidate my pictures in one place? Of course, I’d like to do this without paying for extra cloud storage.

Alan Fenster, Tiburon, Calif.

I love this question because it gives me the chance to 1) offer some practical advice, and 2) rant about Google Photos a little. Let’s start with that second thing.

In case you’re unaware, Google launched a revamped Photos app in 2015, and its main draw was unlimited high-quality photo and video uploads that wouldn’t count against the remaining cloud storage space associated with your Google account. It was a wonderful feature until it wasn’t: For most people who use Android phones, that sweet deal ended in June 2021. (To keep this column from becoming a three page diatribe, I’ll just leave it at that.)

Because you’re a Pixel 3 owner, Alan, you’re right that you have until the end of January to sort out your photographic affairs. To get started, let’s get those photos off your Android phone and onto your MacBook. Your best bet is to download and install Google’s official Android File Transfer app — then connect your Pixel to your laptop and fire up that new software. If the File Transfer app says something about not being able to “access device storage,” find the notification on your phone that mentions charging over USB — tap it, and select the File Transfer mode.

Ask Help Desk: How do I get my stuff back out of the cloud?

From there, you can open the folder called DCIM, and another called Camera should contain all of your photos and videos. Drag and drop them over into a new folder on your Mac and you should be all set. And if you really want to make sure all your photos are accounted for, check out Google’s data Takeout site — with a few clicks, you can start downloading all the files you’ve already uploaded to Google Photos.

One final note: I know we’re trying to avoid spending additional money, but you might want to consider buying an external drive of some kind to store all this stuff on. I’m a fan of Samsung’s reasonably priced T5 external solid state drive — about $110 will net you 1TB of storage, which should be enough to last you for a while at least.

The smaller the better: I use a Samsung phone that is about 5 years old. I find it and iPhones too large to carry around. Is it time to consider a flip phone from Samsung? I use a cellphone mainly for GPS and navigation and phone calls.

John Burns, Mexico and Canada

John, I have been writing about phones for a long time — like, a “I-started-in-a-dull-English-lit-class-in-college” long time. And for most of that decade, I thought I’d never want to use anything but the biggest, fastest, newest smartphone out there, with all the features I needed and even a few I certainly didn’t. Then I turned 30, and started seeing things your way.

This sounds like one of the cases where a fancy foldable phone might be the right choice, and I suspect that’s what you’re getting at. The beauty of Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip 3 is that it acts just like a normal smartphone when you need a big screen, and transforms into something relatively tiny when you don’t. And after living with one for a while, I’ve come to mostly enjoy using it — the biggest knock against it is its middling battery life.

What to know about the top smartphones of 2021

If you feel comfortable spending around $1,000 on a gadget, Samsung’s flipping foldable might do the trick. That said, I worry it might be overkill considering what you actually use your phone for. For a moment, you had me seriously wondering if an honest-to-goodness, 2005-style flip phone may be the better option here, but not all of them support GPS navigation and that sounds like a dealbreaker.

To me, the best compromise in terms of price and performance is a solid, small smartphone — they really do exist! Apple sort of has the market cornered with its newer mini iPhones, and its $399 iPhone SE is a fantastic budget option. If you’re devoted to Samsung, well, I come bearing bad news: Most of Samsung’s phones are enormous, even the budget ones. I’d recommend Google’s Pixel 5 instead — it’s not the newest phone out there, but it’s speedy enough for what you need, and mercifully small compared to most other Android phones.