Pixel 3 128GB First Impressions

I’ve had the phone for 4 days, cheeky me.

The original plan was to not upgrade this year. My Pixel 2 had a failure in the camera in September (2 days before I left for Taipei and Hokkaido for family vacation). Google sent a replacement while I was away, and basically when the Pixel 3 was announced I had a 3-week old refurb Pixel 2 128GB Black. The phone has a 2-year warranty and that means I will be set even for the next Pixel.

From the keynote and marketing material, it was clear that the Pixel 3 was an incremental improvement over the 2. What’s more, all the cool software features, most of them were slated to be released on the 1 and 2 anyway. I didn’t have much of a reason to upgrade.

Then the sales hit. BOGO on Fi and Verizon? I decided to go in with my sister on Fi and reap that $800 credit. She was going to jump from a Nexus 6P, so it’s a huge jump. We ordered the day it was announced. Reselling the refurb plus the credits would basically pay for 90% of a new Pixel 3.

The downside was switching to Fi. I’m not entirely sure if I have signal inside the river crossing tunnel. I have not personally checked, it is spotty as is on Verizon, and half the time I was still clinging to the work VZW hotspot. At times it feels like I have signal in there, though… The other issue was losing my Google Voice capability. It’s forwarding to my work phone (which is VOIP software anyway). I used that number for work and I definitely can’t lose it, and I also can’t lose my personal number that I use for everything else.

The upside to Fi was it’s a lot cheaper, and it has high speed data overseas included. It’s a major savings, as I pay 4500JPY for 7gb in Japan for 30 days (including voice and text). That’s a big fat zero on my next trip, now that I’ve paid the cost to verify my JP number (which means I still have to activate it once a year).

Swappa gave me about $410 in actual cash after the sale of the Pixel 2 (didn’t even took 24 hours to sell). The fees were 15 from Swappa, 15 for shipping (and insurance), and 13 from Paypal. This is nuts. The Pixel 3 128GB is 955 or so after tax. So I’m still on the hook for 145, or 15% of the cost. Maybe I should have held out for a better deal.

Onto the phone. Oh, just to detail the activation process, I followed first the invite email from my sister to set up the porting info. Then when it’s time to load the phone, I followed the on-screen prompts. It would let stuff run in the background while the rest of the phone is being set.

Basically after I got to the home screen, there was a notification waiting for me telling me there was an issue porting. Going to the notif takes me to th Fi app, and tells me what was wrong. Seems like invalid pin? I was suppose to put in my last 4 digits of social for Verizon porting, but I just set a pin on the Verizon account anyways and used that, and it worked minutes later.

In short, the phone is a refined Pixel 2, or what Pixel 2 really should have been. You can say that the Pixel line is a bit behind the release cadence. OnePlus for example, do 2 phones a year (6T looks good!). The next gen Galaxy phone is due in a few months. iPhone news comes out in September or early October. I would say the overall package of the Pixel 3 matches what is really, a better than-iPhone X.

That is great really, except we live in a world with the iPhone XS/Max. So on paper the Pixel 3 is not leading in any category besides its still class-leading camera powers, and other things that people who live inside Google’s ecosystem would enjoy. Thankfully that describes me to a tee.

I say with no irony that this is the most iPhone-y experience I’ve had yet on Android. It’s not a knock as a copycat, but it provides finally that fit and finish matching post-iPhone 8 hardware, with a visual presentation to match. I didn’t know how much of that edge-to-edge look added to this phone. I had it side by side with the Pixel 2, and despite similar displays, the Pixel 3 knocks things out of the park just because the angle my eyes see the edges of the screen, making it “float” towards the top like an iPhone X does.

As for features, it’s similar to the Pixel 2 on Pie. The only quirk is the tall screen makes pulling down the notification shade harder than the 2, and the wider aspect makes my full screen games look slightly different.

Besides the screen, there are major improvement in the speakers–they have a lot more depth and reverb and makes it sound way more solid than the Pixel 2’s. The buttons feel much better with better flex and feedback, where as the Pixel 2’s feels like they could get stuck. The haptic engine is improved, but I normally don’t use it anyway. These 3 points are in the order of decreasing importance, if you didn’t notice.

Wireless charging is something I can actually live without, but I splurged for a Pixel Stand. I can use one for my desk, and I still haven’t messed around it enough to give a proper review. So far it’s mainly just to fast charge, show the time and notification, and do the sunrise alarm thing. I think I am staying clear of a wireless charging pad on the Tesla Model 3, but I can see the appeal if the wiring situation is squared away (long story). Maybe in the future when they’re cheaper (the cheapest one I would buy is $50).

Not much to say otherwise. There are some integration in the Pixel 3 that makes sense which hasn’t rolled out to the Pixel 2 yet. Putting a photo scan link in the photo app makes sense, but I think this might be in Pixel 2 already. New nav for camera makes more sense than before, and it’s easier to use. I sideloaded the night mode beta and it is definitely as jaw-dropping as they say. Sample photos here and here.

In conclusion? This is the phone the Pixel 2 should have been. I don’t want to mention the XL line here because the 2 XL is a much closer presentation to the 3 XL than 2 was to 3. In a way, the Pixel 3 is actually the non-notched answer to our burning need for a modern, iPhone X-y device. LOL. Too bad the iPhone X is going to be a year old in December.

As for the rest of the competition… if you are looking at this phone and not, say, a 1+ 6T or Galaxy Note 9 or Huawei Mate 20 Pro, then nothing more needs to be said. Software superiority is something real. Integration matters. This is still the heart of the Pixel experience, where you get real-time chat and support over the web, your phone (as in not voice, but app), as well as traditional telephone service. It still has a long ways to go to catch Apple in terms of physical stores supporting users, but it’s slowly getting there. At least it needs to solve my Pixel 2 camera problem with less lead time than 48 hours!

I think I see clearly where Google is trying to catch up, and it’s a lot of stuff difficult to market. It doesn’t show up on a spec sheet. But for Americans it matters… So I think I will continue to use a Pixel phone in the future, and let Google take care of my personal info in exchange for services it provides.

Graphics and AI convergence

In PC parlance, when we talk about graphics cards we think of what Nvidia and AMD sell, these addon boards for desktops that you can put in, and these video cards accelerates the graphical rendering capabilities of games. Today, Nvidia has a lineup of real-time raytracing capable chips.

But also recent times, these GPU makers are into what’s more generally known as accelerated computing. General-purpose CPUs can do a lot of things fast, but GPUs are designed to do certain things in a massively parallel kind of way. This is why they can quickly render graphics when CPUs cannot. This is also how machine learning training and prediction can quickly be processed in a massively parallel kind of way, and slowly when using general-purpose CPUs.

Said Nvidia lineup that has raytracing also has dedicated “tensor cores” which accelerates  machine learning computing.

And what I’m saying is, the two is actually becoming the same: the workload of rendering realistic or desirable graphics quickly, and the ability of compute complex machine learning models.

This is most recently exemplary in smartphone cameras, or specifically, Google’s HDR magic that enables its Pixel phones to take great photos using fewer lenses or smaller sensors. More recently, Google announced its low-light Night Mode system which allows ordinary phone cameras (currently the APK only runs on Pixel phones) from 2 years ago to take amazing low-light photos which renders the results clearly with low enough noise and smearing to be fully visible. It is all done via machine learning prediction on a series of photographs recomposited via a HDR-like process.

In fact, HDR is kind of like machine learning, just algorithmic. Augment it with a neural network and voila.

It opens eyes, because imagine if the compute power is there to take this low-light tech into real time: make videos in which you have computational night vision? No need for a flash ever? It’s pretty nuts. You can even build in protection against drastic contrast/level changes. Such kind of augmented vision obviously have a ton of use in everyday life and in filming, but also obviously military applications.

Now, it’s software magic at work. But ultimately these breakthroughs are coupled with improvements in ML hardware as well, which means it could be possible as Nvidia and AMD continue to bring out more powerful ML and video hardware. I wonder if this still means we will have different components (either as chips or parts of SoC) to handle video rendering and AI workloads, and if things like Google’s HDR voodoo will lead us down yet another path of customized compute hardware.

My Tesla Model 3 Review Part 3

I just want to compile some thoughts and info here. I’ve gotten over 1000 miles and a couple more road trips under the belt. Some local driving, too, LOL.

Parts 1 and 2 linked.

A lot of people’s reaction to the Model 3 is based on what they are used to. We are all used to ICE cars, but those run the gamut. I came from a Mazda MX-5, but if all you drove were plush luxury cars or Toyota Camrys or pickup trucks, those people will have different first impressions and reactions. So take that as a major consideration when you read reviews online. On Youtube, a lot of the vbloggers also live in Socal, which reflects a drastically different experience than the US Northeast. Plus, things have changed a lot for the Model 3 even between Q1 2018 and Q3 2018, just in terms of firmware updates, supercharger availability (and other chargers), and the amount of accessories out there. At first, I watch/read a lot of car magazine type reviews, and those tend to consistently praise the Model 3, so I knew that was a trustworthy baseline. In my month+ with the car, I heartily concur with those car/driving-based reviews. The Model 3 is a fun vehicle, and I even came from a MX-5 daily driver! It’s not as emotional, but at the same time it is definitely more American than Audi/BMW/MB, and overall “quality” but not “luxuriously quality.” It’s got a lot of quality components, that were put together fine, but it just isn’t quite on the same level of a top level European or Japanese car maker in terms of the construction. But it isn’t a negative or a minus, just different.

On the cost of ownership side, I can say that it is definitely anywhere between 20% to 75% less expensive to fuel up the vehicle compared to a similar ICE car. If you compare it with a similar BMW 3 series you will be putting in premium 92+ octane fuel at like, 25mpg at best, depending on your driving situation. I think the Model 3 beat it by a ton, but given the cost of the car itself that is not much more than a drop in the bucket. If you drive 15000 a year that’s about $400-600 in electricity cost, which is not even close to gas. Of course, if you live in non-USA where gas is probably twice the price, you’ll save over two thousand USD a year if not more, so it makes a lot of sense in Asia and Europe..

What you really save for us Americans is maintenance. You don’t need to change any oils or any oil filters. The only fluids relevant here are brake fluid, coolant, and wiper fluid. The last you’re on your own, but the other two are done only by Tesla maint team annually during the checkup. I think you get at least 2 for free… Model 3 maintenance is an unanswered question at this point.

The brake pad can wear out, so that might be the only other thing you’re “using” with the Model 3 other than the wheels/tires. The wheels are the usual deal.

One note I want to add is charging at home in general, it can be tricky. Installing a 14-50 plug is overall the best way to charge–could be other types of level 2 charging. The reason is you get good efficiency without possibly damaging the battery. Although some reports out there suggest supercharging doesn’t really matter, which might be the case in the end. However, what I am doing now is using a household 110v plug, which has lower efficiency and will cost probably 10% or 20% more in power overhead.

Vampire discharge is an issue, especially if you park in the sun during summer, the AC may run, the fan may run. Even if you don’t,  you might lose a few miles a day. It isn’t anything to worry about if you are on a road trip, but if you don’t live with a garage that you can plug your car in, that might be an issue. Overall it is basically a non-issue for me.

Living with the 110v plug does mean you have to plug in basically all the time, but since I don’t drive every day, this is more than doable. I might put in a 14-50 plug in my garage in the future, but it’s not necessary. You can definitely get by with 110v if you can keep the car plugged in when not in use, and drive less than maybe 40-50 miles per day on average. I get up to 5 miles per hour while charging, so assuming I can charge 12 hours a day, that’s 60 miles. You can do the math.

One more note before I move on, the right way to calculate cost of charging is:

  1. supercharging costs–when you supercharge a Model 3, just plug it in. Tesla then bills you later via your account assuming a credit card is hooked up to it. It will also show up online and in the battery menu in the Model 3 console.
  2. cost of electricity: you can prorate any carriage costs that you paid. Note that some youtuber in San Diego pays 22 cent per kwh, that’s nuts. I pay like 12c, FWIW.
  3. cost of charging: The amount of electricity gained by charging the car is not the same as the amount of electricity used to charge the car, since charging is not 100% efficient. If you use level 2 chargers it’s like 90%. if you use 110v plugs, it’s 70-80%.
  4. amount of power consumed per mile/unit time: Also, the power used by the car includes not just for moving the wheels, but all of the car’s systems. It might make more sense to do a month of charging, and a month of driving, and just clash the numbers together, instead of measuring it on a per-trip or per-mile basis.

So you tally up that total and you’ll have your charging costs, and you can divide that into miles driven to get a per-mile price. Like I said, it’s kind of a drop in the bucket, but it does add up. Maybe I’m just biased because I drive so little.

The Model 3 ownership experience, as I said before, is also about the lack of good info for a revolutionary car. There is quite a bit of a learning curve for people who has never owned an Tesla or electric car. It is not comfortable for many new owners, I imagine. The owner’s manual is important and covers all the key elements, but it doesn’t address the ownership experience well. The youtube videos you are suppose to watch online is also just the minimum.

Tesla’s Model 3 first-party accessory game is kind of eh. The third party game has been better, but with spiking delivery rates, comes spiked demands. I got the bare minimum for my car, and some cleaning equipment, but there are more I could use. For example, I could use a good trunk mat set that lets you protect both the top and bottom layers, and let you access the lower layer.

Lastly, here are some Youtube videos about the Model 3 that probably are helpful for new people. I found these to be worth watching.

Undocumented features ahoy: This relatively no-nonsense review of the car is pretty good covering some details and features I didn’t know after even owning the car for a month.

Road trip experience video below is basically the same as my own experience. Especially that part where parking at the supercharger require you back up all the way, since I made the same mistake. The tiny butt and the fact that the rear wheels are almost at the edge of the car takes a bit of getting used to while parking. I also experienced the same wiper issue this guy did.

I’m linking the below video for the center console wrap. That is sick. I personally use a different floor liner but these looks worse than mine, although I’m sure it works just fine. The waterless car wash is an eye opener for me. But this video is a shameless shill, at least it’s educational for a car care noob like myself.

I guess if there are updates to the ownership experience, I might write more on this. But that’s probably it for now.

My Tesla Model 3 Review Part 2

[Part 1 here]

After picking up the car from the service center, I didn’t really get to drive it much. I originally expected 1+ months of waiting, from ordering till delivery, but I got it in 2 weeks. August is a bad month for me as I have cons and other trips. The Model 3 can’t fly so it doesn’t work going to Japan…

I managed to squeeze in a road trip with it, however, so here’s a very different perspective than the part 1 post, which was written before the road trip. The odometer had 129 miles before I went on the trip, and after the trip it’s almost 500 miles, so here goes.

The main points I want to talk about are the more well-known aspects of the Tesla cars: charging an electric car, the autopilot features, and just the overall experience after spending more than a half-dozen hours in the car in the span of 28 hours. It turns out, this car (judged as a car) is actually really good. The car reviewers and the youtubers out there are largely right. I don’t think it’s a car for everyone, but it’s a good deal and I don’t think I will regret buying it.

First of all, while the car displays its “fuel” or battery levels in both % and miles remaining, both are not really that exact. It’s fairly accurate, but not super exact, I should say. I definitely realized the mile thing, while close enough to real miles to count on, depends a lot on how fuel-efficient your driving style is. You can definitely squeeze that aerodynamics and get more from your tank of electricity than my driving style, which is largely keeping it around 75 mph up and down I95.

I did touch 90mph in a short burst, and the car feels more or less the same as it does at 80mph. It’s really stable, not only because there isn’t a roaring engine, but the Model 3 motor doesn’t even whine. It’s just road noise and wind noise. The latter isn’t even really notable.

As far as charging the car goes, I left the house without bringing my cord. Which I think is the intended mode of use? LOL. I had maybe 290 miles left when I left the house, and one-shotted my friend’s house with about 12% left, or 40 miles of range. The next day, I drove to a nearby supercharger (it’s in Northern Virginia so there are quite a few destination chargers and a few superchargers in 40 miles range). My friend didn’t get the difference between the destination charger at the Tesla dealership at a nearby mall versus the supercharger, so I had to look it up and explain. Anyways, the closest supercharger was about 11 miles away and I had a nice lunch while charging. After an hour I was at about 85%, and I took another 20 minutes to go to 95%. That gave me enough juice to one-shot back, plus a detour.

As a M3 owner I should have to pay for my supercharging, but to actually use it, it is just plug-and-go. There was nothing to fiddle with. Supposedly the bill comes later on your Tesla account, but I didn’t see it when I looked for it later in the same day. So yeah, it feels like supercharging is not as convenient as going to the pump, but it does make me feel like getting Extended Range model on the M3 was a good choice. If I didn’t, I would have had to stop over once on the way down and once again on the way back.

I come to realize that, at least in sports mode, the M3 steering is very sensitive. Maybe this is why some people say the ride is rough. Compared to the Miata, this is actually pretty similar. It manages to tell you a lot about the road and about the car itself. Without an engine, though, there’s not a lot the car will tell you about itself. So that leaves the road. And maybe it is a little more chatty than some likes. Not for me though. To me this is a hallmark of a fun-to-drive vehicle. You have to feel the road in some way. Some say this might be partly due to how pressurized the tires are (and the tire pressures are displayed in PSI numbers in one of the on-screen views, which is very neat). It’s at like, 50 PSI, which is kind of high.

I don’t know, however, if a very responsive steering is a good play for Tesla, given its autonomous driving system. And it’s a hard thing to talk about. First of all, I get this from all kinds of people, but there is a lot of misunderstanding about Enhanced Autopilot in the form that other manufacturers have similar features already in their cars. This is partly true, but mostly false. First of all, if we break autopilot down into the features working together: adaptive cruise control, autosteer, auto lane change, I don’t think there is anyone except GM Supercruise. [Nissan comes kind of close…] The Germans and Japanese cars have similar but differing features. For one, a lot of them have lane detection but it’s to make sure you don’t drift out of lane. They don’t steer for you: if you let go the wheel, it will ping pong between the lane markings. It would also complain if you let go the wheel in a curve. It’s a very subtle distinction that a lot of car guys don’t get, but the point of Autopilot is that it’s driving, and you’re just awake enough to make sure it doesn’t screw up. A lot of the alternatives people say it’s the same are the reverse: you’re suppose to be driving and the automated features make sure you don’t screw up.

This is really the core thing and I don’t blame them for not understanding it as it is very unintuitive. Truth is it’s hard to advertise autopilot features when society is probably not fully ready for it, or welcomes it. However, there is value in such a system and unless you know how it works and the different versions of it on the market, you don’t know if it’s worth the money or understand how it fits in a car/automobile ecosystem. And I didn’t until I drove the M3 for a few hundred miles…

Basically, it’s the distinction between “driver’s assistant” system and “self-driving.” The former is normal driving with bells and whistles (basically every other system except Tesla’s, GM’s and maybe Nissan’s). The latter is driving in a new way and learning how to drive all over again.

So the thing about Autopilot is that, at first when I was using it, I felt awkward. It was partly a trust issue. It was partly an instinct issue. I wasn’t sure I could trust leaving steering to the machine and I wasn’t super sure if I can trust adaptive cruise control to do its thing. Driving is muscle memory of hand-eye reflexes. I got over that on this road trip after seeing how Autopilot works in a variety of conditions, and in some difficult environment (night time driving in heavy rain). But make no mistakes, Autopilot drives the car in a certain way. You have to get used to it, and learn how it works, in order to make the right decisions (when it is likely unreliable; when to best disengage autopilot; when to enable auto lane changes to smoothly pass a slow car; etc). It’s literally learning how to use this system, learning how to drive this particular way.

After the psychology, the next barrier was trying to de-program myself. I had to be hands-on-the-wheel for Autopilot, but it was hard to do this while not trying to drive the car, LOL. Unlike GM Supercruise, you had to keep your hands on the wheel. It will nag you every 90 seconds when you don’t, which is fine if you wanted to stretch or get a drink or something. But it’s not what you’re going to do most of the time. What I did was, eventually I learned to “pretend driving” in order to coexist with its detection system. And in essence, that is the whole point. You don’t have to do anything except hold the wheel and look at the road. Well the latter is even optional LOL, since there’s no face tracking in the Tesla.

And using Autopilot like that was a learning curve that I had to get over with. It’s not trivial, in that ultimately I am still the guy who has to get a benefit out of the system. I shouldn’t be a servant of the autopilot AI, babysitting the car-computer to make sure it doesn’t screw up, even if that was what I had to do. It’s pretty weird, but I guess I can get used to it, and thousands of other Tesla owners?

How was it being the safety driver instead of the primary driver? I can say it’s definitely less tiring on a longer road trip. The Tesla Model 3’s “vegan leather” seat generally did not get very warm after sitting on for hours on end, so that’s a plus, but it still gets a tad warm. With Autopilot you can take plenty of time to stretch, to shift your butt on the seat, pull up your pants, whatever, without any worries. That helps a lot, LOL. However, it is still kind of “work” supervising Autopilot, and its strict wheel-holding requirement meant my arms can’t be slack while driving it, unless I want to just wiggle the wheel every time it nags. That felt like too much work–I just want to zone out driving, freeing my consciousness from low-level driving tasks and think about other stuff without interruption.

And this is another reason why maybe the Model 3 isn’t for everyone…Well, this is more a self-driving isn’t for everything thing. All consumer self-driving system require this sort of babysitting in the present and in the near future. Even GM Supercruise requires you to look at the road, which is much less tiresome but probably just as annoying.

I think once I get more practice with Autopilot I will become happier about the car. There was definitely an initial wow period when you realize this car really could drive itself. The fact that it can’t some of the times, is no big deal. It’s more like even when it could, you are required to play this role as Autopilot’s spotter, that is problematic. But I think even with practice that could be a better experience than what I had to go through.

The real question is, why let the computer drive this car when the human probably enjoy being the driver more than being the spotter for the computer? That is not fun. Which is just to say, if the Model 3 was less fun to drive, it might make Autopilot more compelling. As is, driving the car is a good break from being bored as the spotter behind the wheel, trying to pay attention to the computer not screwing up and killing both of us.

Okay, it is still not the pure joy of driving that was the Mazda MX-5, but the Model 3 is pretty good, all in all, and still can be entertaining as a car, in more than one way. It might be the little things (like knowing it can play hi-res flac in the USB port, or that the charger cover opens and closes automatically, and that the car is full of undocumented features AKA Easter Eggs). It might be the way it accelerates and corners. It might be that you get to relearn how to drive. Thankfully this car gives you some options between all those things.

Next…

My Tesla Model 3 Review Part 1

For proper entry to mid-life crisis mode, I have purchased a Tesla Model 3. I guess this is probably the first post of at least two parts, since I’ve not driven it enough to give a good assessment and a car is a thing you probably will live with for some time.

Just to keep all of this as personal as possible, it’s going to be mostly compared to my previous “daily driver” or the Mazda MX-5 Miata (NC 2012, MT, PRHT). In quotes because I don’t drive that often, but yeah I traded it in for the Model 3. So here is going to be a review of sorts from someone who came from a really fun-to-drive, emotional and just all-around blast of a car and “downgrading” into a mid-range luxury sedan. If you know me well enough you might know that for most of my driving life I drove a variety of cars. Before the MX-5, they were: a beat up Acura Legend (RIP x2) or a beat up 240SX (RIP), and occasionally in a CR-V, a Ridgeline, or an old RAM (RIP). Those who know me even better might know I used to rock a Mazda MVP (RIP). Very decidedly middle-class, and no, I don’t Toyota (although I did rock a ’91 Corolla for a very short while–was fun wondering if the car had enough juice to get over some on-ramps…). I am probably missing a car here or there, but that’s what happens when your Dad sold Hondas for a living (at least for a while) and gave/sold good value used cars as a charity to help out poor Chinese immigrants. Very Christianly of him to buy out the cheaper used cars (his customers’ trade-ins) and then turn them around, which meant I got to use some of them while we were “storing” these.

I thought the Miata was enough of a midlife crisis kind of thing, but I got a great deal on it and honestly it was priced similarly from a well-equipped Accord or Camry anyway. Why would anyone drive those cars when they can drive a Miata? I had the support network of beat up pickup trucks and sedans in the rare case I need to move or carry something big. The MX-5 is by a long shot the most fun I’ve ever had with a four-wheeled vehicle. It’s like you just need to drive normally and the whole thing is fun. No need to go to a track–just any nice, scenic road without a lot of traffic, and maybe nice weather so you can roll down the top. Revving up that linear engine to a massive whopping 40MPH in the MX-5 was as much fun as drag racing anything. It rolled more than you’d expect in turns, but what it really is doing is teaching you how to shift a car’s weight coming into corners. It is definitely the most exciting teacher I’ve had. And I miss it.

However the Model 3 is a good consolation.The TL;DR is that the Model 3 is an alien spaceship but that electric motor acceleration is sugar crack cocaine. Overall car is still just a compromise between luxury, utility and performance, once you get past its disruptive features and the fact that it’s electric from the ground up. Not that those things are bad by any stretch, if you can get used to how alien it is. And compared to the Tesla S and BMW/Audi generally,  you’re getting a sweet bargain at this price.

The Model 3 I have is the primary config Tesla is actually delivering in 2018: rear wheel drive only, extended range, and with premium interior upgrade. I added the 19″ wheels and Enhanced Autopilot to bring it to a total of ~55500 before doc and delivery fees. There are no taxes in the State of New Jersey for electric vehicles, which is a nice touch, but it isn’t as plush of a incentive than some other states. This is all on top of the Federal tax incentive, an issue that really got me thinking of picking up the car now rather than later.

Before deciding to take delivery, what I wanted was actually the same car, but standard range. Truth is, I drive very little these days–before I traded in my MX-5 it had only ~12000 miles on it after 6 years. I don’t know if I will drive my M3 more, but I don’t think working in the City and commuting by train will make things any different than before. That $9000 extend-range upgrade will largely come into waste I figured, but it should mean there’s some residual value I can count on. Plus, it’s cold in the winter here, so maybe that range could still be useful as a buffer.

Since most people buying the M3 are buying Teslas for the first time, the current process is like this. First you have to go and commit to a configuration. I was a day-1 reservation holder, which just meant I put down a $1000 refundable deposit 2 years ago (all-in-all, it took about 26 months? LOL). That $1000 reservation thing is something newcomers can ignore. The new, non-refundable $2500 deposit guarantees your config and if your config is one that they can produce now, until someone jumps in front of you in the priority queue, you’re going to be in line for that car. In other words, say if you want a M3 Dual Motor, which is the hot new one people lining up for, and you didn’t have a $1000 deposit on top of your $2500, you will lose priority to people who did and want the same car and paid the $2500 around the time you are in that queue to manufacturing and VIN assignment. But at some point, you will still get your car even if there are others waiting for it with priority, if they didn’t put that 2500 down early enough. The factory is working non stop to crank these out, so you might get lucky. If you are going for a config with a shorter queue, such as the one I got, you probably can get your car in a month or so barring any odd configurations. For example, I think eventually they will make the white interior available as an option to more M3, and that one is definitely a thing you have to wait for even in the M3P/M3DM.

It took me exactly 14 days between putting down the 2500 and taking delivery of the car. It was frankly way too short, less than what I expected, and a learning experience. The configurator said 1-3 months, given my standing and config. I even made a minor change the day after I put down the deposit (before getting the VIN), but that didn’t make a difference (adding Enhanced Autopilot).

The process, as up to that point, was largely hands-off. I got maybe 4-5 emails over the 2 years from Tesla proper on Model 3 updates, but the news cycle does a good job telling me what’s going on, since it is a certified story in mainstream press. I would rather not this has to happen that way, but I follow tech news and such is life.

Oh I guess the reservation process was not entirely hands off–the initial $1000 deposit I made was at a Tesla store in Manhattan. I waited in line for like 30 minutes, and got my preorder at around 1pm.  I talked to a sales guy then, I looked at the MS and the then-new MX. Not too interested given those price tags. I got a couple emails after that to make sure I can log in and see my order, the estimator, etc.

Anyways, back to the near-past. On Thursday, or about 48 hours after my 2500 deposit on that Tuesday, I got an email from a rep based in Brooklyn about my order. He explained all the steps I need to do to get the car, at a high level. It was basically the same things on the website linked to you after you put in the deposit. You can make changes to config, you can input your driver info, insurance info, trade in, and financing. It was nice to have a human explain some of the things, even if the online configurator and process was straightforward.

The email also gave me a VIN, and gave me some rough estimate when my delivery would be. Yikes. It was soon: either 7/30 or 7/31. I got called a day later to walk through the items and I completed my trade in info later that week on Saturday. I also had to photograph a proof of ownership the week after because I had forgotten. The week after was also when I called about auto insurance, and shopping for insurance didn’t make that much sense, so I stuck with Metromile.

I didn’t figure out my financing situation until Tuesday the week after, but by Thursday I was just about completely done, which meant I can just chill and read up on the car over the weekend… Riding my MX-5 that one last time? LOL.

I probably spent the most time dealing with financing. My sister works for a credit union so I asked her to check their rates. It was worse than what Tesla was offering. Well, then. Second was the car insurance. For some reason, I guess due to billing cycle ending the same time as the delivery date, they can’t change it once I make the change? It was weird, but all it meant was I had to call the Monday before Tuesday’s handover date.

Metromile also had another wrinkle. For those who don’t know, Metromile is a bill-by-the-mile insurance system, and it requires the cars to have a GPS/cellular dongle installed. Typically it goes into the OBDII port. First, all my bad, I left my old dongle in my MX-5 but I got that recovered thanks to the helpful Tesla employees at the service center where I picked up the car. Second, the Model 3 does not have a OBDII port. I did not know this until I googled it–and it isn’t even reported by any official source. The two Metromile reps I talked to didn’t know either. The Tesla employees don’t know, as far as the ones I talked to. What I did find was that others have had this same issue, so Metromile (the entity and the system) does know about it, so it’s easy to get that addressed you if you call and ask. Basically, Metromile will mail you a different dongle, one that looks just like the OBDII plug you had, but the box also comes with a cigarette plug extension cord that you can plug into the same outlet in your M3. Well, I got that done too. The only complaint I have is that the plug is a little too long, and it runs into the tray inside the armrest storage thing. I hope it doesn’t damage the cord.

Well, I also hope Tesla allows 3rd party apps that could integrate more directly with Metromile, for example. A car is ultimately just a platform, so ways for 3rd parties to integrate with cars is vital. Just like how you can buy a camera lens case for iPhones and enable added features, you can do all kinds of things with a car. Like, how some people swapped out the spring shocks for the M3 and lowered it for a better ride, for example…

Or in my case, I bought some aftermarket floor liners. It is supposed to dampen road noise while being all-weather floor mats. I kind of don’t like the way if you put them on top of the existing floor mats, it makes the space from the back seats, between the floor and the front seats, kind of crammed. It works well for the front seats though, and given there isn’t a first party solution, these mats are pretty decent…for $200 that I got off of eBay. Tesla needs to make some M3 all-weather floor mats pronto.

On the day of the pickup I drove to the service center in Springfield, NJ and overall it took about 45 minutes to get the car. A lot of it was waiting and going over paperwork. I got a quick tutorial on the M3. We walk through setting up the app on the phone, registering the car, and the one guy helped put up the temporary plates in the rear license plate holder. Other unique things worth noting is how the trade in required an extra waiver because Tesla is a Californian company. And they won’t do vanity plates for you. You were given the option of keeping your old plates or get new ones, which I presume gives you the usual 4-year inspection waiver as it typically does for new cars in NJ. All of that gets mailed to you, supposedly, a month later. So I don’t have my new plates or registration yet. In comparison, it typically takes 2-3 weeks at a normal dealership, as fast as a week sometimes.

It’s through this exercise I “feel” that what Tesla is doing is different than what dealers do. And that’s true, it’s direct sales versus franchising dealers. Okay, I guess, but I still have to pay a doc fee and a destination fee. It feels like if I am not going to get a red carpet type handling without the middleman, this direct sales model is a bit of an inferior product that the customers are still going to pay for. Dealing with financing and everything is stuff you have to deal with at a dealership but someone is there to help you through the process. It isn’t like I needed that someone, but it would be nice to not have to put up most of the elbow grease on my own, jumping through hoops that other dealers don’t have to deal with.

I was worried about the M3 fit and finish, as with most people. Turns out it’s mostly FUD because mine was pretty flawless. It’s not super tight, but it’s uniform and lacking in obvious flaws. I talked to the delivery dude about this and he says this has been the case with all the recent deliveries. Only the ones from last year were bad (and some were very bad). So let’s put that to rest. If there was a little quirk…it would be the wipers. Feels like they pushes on the windshield too strongly. Not a bad thing until it squeaks.

Driving away from the service center, I realized I didn’t actually pair my phone with the car yet. This is important because while setting up your phone as the key is one thing, that’s separate from the bluetooth audio connection needed to play music from your phone. I also left my EZ Pass tag in the trunk, so I had to pull over on the NJ Parkway to address these items. It’s not unfair to say getting into the M3 is like switching on an Android phone if you are a long time iPhone user, getting his or her phone for the first time. There are a lot of things that are just done differently in this car that there are few analogs to in other cars. I suppose the blinkers, for one, are like some luxury cars where the stalk doesn’t stay up or down while blinking. The nav is like Google Maps, minus auto traffic routing/Waze functionality (a big negative IMO) despite the ability to show traffic on the map. The Nav does a lot of other stuff Google Maps don’t do, such as automatically giving you waypoints if you need to Supercharge or something.

The on board audio, which is upgraded via the interior option, sounded pretty great. It comes with free internet streaming (AT&T) so TuneIn and Slacker is there. I didn’t get the time to poke around with it but it comes with some Utada, Cowboy Bebop, and the Pillows. Just weeb enough. That said I have not had the time to really play with it yet. Googling and researching says I should first get my login to my Slacker account and up the bitrate. It sounded better than Bluetooth from my phone (SBC probably), but only now I found out it can take files from the USB ports.

And that goes for other tidbits, besides the OBDII port and audio features. It extends to not just these kind of day-to-day experience stuff, but a lot of the car is an enigma. Maybe a never-ending Easter Egg kind of thing. I still remember a line from the customer rep at the service center, among all the “omg new fancy car” excitement, that some people enjoy discovering the features. I’m not sure I’m one of them, but I sure am discovering stuff…!

During the past month or so I did a lot of research on the Model 3, as you’d imagine. What I found was there is a lack of definitive source of all the info. What I also found is that your orientation changes before and after owning the car–you actually know exactly what to google now, rather than before it was more just a vagueness. The basic car-related functionality is well documented, the autopilot, the acceleration, etc. The car itself, however, is badly documented I think. The important stuff is the manual, but a lot of the things are just not documented outside of Reddit and the other two big Tesla forums. I hope someone put it all together in a way that is easy to read, but I also think this is one of those versioning nightmares since newer cars of the same model might have different features, and all of it can change after each firmware update, which comes out more frequently than Android versions, LOL.

Well, the driving experience is well documented, but as someone coming from a Miata it felt a little one dimensional. Maybe a better way to phrase it is that it drives like a quality, solid luxury sedan with little body roll. Paired with that instant and big acceleration the whole vehicle feels almost a bit go-kart-y. As much a 4000lb thing can be a go-kart, anyway. Is it good? It does not feel heavy and solid like German luxury, but in exchange it has a more lively performance characteristics. Perhaps, it feels more American? I only really handled the car in sports mode setting, for reference.

I’m not a huge fan of this steering wheel, coming from the Miata. The M3 steering wheel is a good wheel and I like the texture, but I don’t like the button placements. I didn’t use the buttons on my wheel much back when driving other cars, come to think of it–maybe only the Acuras were well-used, and the buttons were ergonomically well placed given the way that steering wheel was designed. It’s just okay on the Tesla. I’m sure part of it is I’m not fully used to it, and frankly I don’t know what it does half the time.

The big touchscreen that controls everything is fine. It is pretty sensitive and does the job. I sometimes wish the touch interfaces (buttons, dials, +/- signs) were a bit bigger so it’s easier to hit while on the road. My strategy has been to use the bottom menu buttons as the go to. The car icon brings up all the important controls immediately. Pressing the same thing again bring up the background, which is usually the map. Having to swipe up and down on a big screen to get the audio menu up is probably the worst part of the UX I think.

The real holy grail of in-car interface is really voice. And it works for the most part. I speak with poor/below average pronunciation so it doesn’t do a great job picking up everything I say correctly, but it generally works okay. As long as I stay away from anime names I guess. In other words for nav, it works well. For audio, it barely works. I don’t even know how to change inputs via voice (probably the most important thing). Anyways, YMMV on this, I don’t think it’s bad but I’ve not gotten used to it yet. Nor do I know where I can find a list of commands to try…which goes back to what I was saying earlier.

Oh, I guess I should also say that the even better UX solution is “auto” mode that is right. Light and wiper are automatic, and for the most part they do a fine job. I’m a bit OCD about wiper speeds, and they would be PITA to change on the M3 if I were to manually change the speed. Auto is fine usually.

I do use the summon feature. Oh, so I had to clean out my garage to fit the M3, since it’s full of my Dad’s junk, and the Miata is a tiny car by comparison–mostly in length. And the M3 fits, barely. Surprisingly Summon can drive the car in it automatically. It has this really cool display in the interior touchscreen when it’s in that “parking” mode, and it’ll show you literally the area near the front or rear of your car and the distance of the closest point to collision. Great for parking in a tight spot as you can now get a 180 degrees view of all the nooks and crannies. Which is to say my garage is small, so God bless summons, which lets me park and pull out the car without opening the door. Although I might still want to drive in to the garage manually…

Charging the car is a big question mark even today. Because my garage is detached across the backyard, it will cost me like 1400 to wire up a 10 gauge and plug in a NEMA 14-50. We would have to trench the driveway. Thankfully the 120v in the garage juices up to 5 miles per hour, which is more than plenty for my use. If I go on a long road trip I will have to user a Supercharger anyway. In this sense it is really just like charging a cell phone… One that can blast air conditioning and have kickass speakers. (Hey Musk, Camper Mode before the summer’s over please?) Well, more like I have not driven enough to have a conclusive thought on the range and electric aspect of this yet.

I can drone on for a few more. But in retrospect, the lack of good information and easy-to-access information on how to get to all the nook and crannies of the Model 3 annoys me almost more than the fact that I have to drive an electric car that doesn’t “creep” or trying to get used to Autopilot. Those are straightforward things I can adjust to. Not knowing how stuff works because it’s not in the manual is a very different thing. Sometimes it’s kind of important, like not having a OBDII port.

And yes, that acceleration. In the car, you let it roll, on highway speeds, you stomp on the gas pedal, it zooms. It’s better than a go-kart. It better be better than a go-kart. I wish they would release the track mode mod for even the regular M3…

To be continued…