HTC U11 Review: The Phone Worth Not Waiting For

With the 10th anniversary iPhone looming, with a second Google Pixel coming soon, with Andy Rubin’s debut of the Essential Phone, and with the release of the Galaxy Note 8, little attention has been given to the HTC U11, other than a few obligatory reviews that range from “hey this is great” to “this is good but I don’t care.”

That’s a shame, because people are overlooking a great device. I know this because after a year with my deteriorating Galaxy S7, I was ready for a new device, and I picked the U11.

The red one.

I could have waited to see what was in the offing with all these other big-name releases, but I didn’t need to. It was pretty clear that the U11 was the one for me. And now that I’ve had it for a couple of weeks, I feel even more certain I made the right call. In no particular order, Here are some reasons why.

It’s so red.

Oh my god it’s so red. “Solar Red” is the name HTC gave this particular variant of shining, liquid, blazing red. The other colors available also looked fantastic, but good god damn, that red.

I mean come on.

The software and performance.

HTC’s Sense skin on Android has been shaved down so thoroughly, that if you use a different launcher than HTC’s, you’d almost never know it wasn’t stock Google. And mercy me, it is fast. Now, the Galaxy S7 I had used to be fast, but it never felt as crazy-fluid as, say, my Note 5 did for a time. But the U11 is in a different league altogether. It’s such a pleasure to just zip through transitions, animations, app launches, share menus, and the rest.

The display.

It’s quad-HD and LCD, which is just what I needed. Yes, I’m a stickler for 1440p over 1080p if the screen in big enough to notice, and at 5.5″, this one is. (Would I notice the difference in normal use? Probably not. But I’m not normal, and when it comes to making imperceptible a display’s pixels, I check. Up close.

The fact that it’s LCD and not AMOLED like Samsung and OnePlus use means that the colors aren’t super-saturated and my eyes aren’t put under as much of a strain in just, you know, absorbing all that color. HTC’s LCD screen looks gorgeous, bright and crisp and easy on my eyes. It lacks the ostentatious pop of a Samsung display, which can be quite nice, but it’s truer to life and more akin to an iPhone or iPad display. But, of course, with much higher resolution. It does suffer more under direct sunlight and heavy glare than a rich AMOLED, but I’m cool with that.

It has bezels.

Yeah I said it. I like bezels on my devices. I like that I can actually hold a phone with my human hands made of meat and then operate it without the constant worry that I’m inadvertently making contact with the touchscreen on the sides. The U11 has just enough of a border around the conventionally-proportioned screen to look awesome and remove accidental-touch anxiety. Which sounds dirty now that I see it typed. Hm.

Oh, and HTC was kind enough to include a clear case with the phone, but it’s crap. I’m using, and would recommend, the Spigen Liquid Crystal case.

The fingerprint sensor.

It’s so fast! It’s almost too fast. With the S7, making contact with the fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone was all like touch, wait, click sound, unlock, whereas with the U11 it’s more like touchHOLY SHIT IT’S READY TO GO! It may even be too sensitive, waking the screen when any part of my hand comes near it.

The squeeze gimmick.

If you heard of the U11 at all, you probably heard that it is equipped with something called “Edge Sense,” wherein was literally squeezes the phone to activate certain functions. Most reviews have been critical of this feature, but it seems to me that they’re either not making good use of it or were simply predisposed to think it was silly before they ever tried it.

I think it’s default setting is to launch Alexa, but you have several additional options for what a squeeze does, and you can differentiate between short and long squeezes. Me, I chose the function that seemed the most useful and, frankly, the most obvious.

I made it turn on the flashlight.

I know, right? You’re like, damn, Paul that IS a good idea! I have the long squeeze activate Alexa, but I might even turn that off, since Alexa is also activated by the usual voice command.

The camera.

This is the feature that is being most lauded by folks like Vlad Savov and Daniel Bader, saying the U11’s camera rivals or even bests the Pixel. I have to say, it seems great, I have no complaints, but the S7’s camera was pretty great, too, and it doesn’t seem to my untrained eye to be obviously superior, but that’s fine.

It’s also a lot faster than my previous phone, especially when HDR is turned off, and that makes a huge difference, especially when you have squirrelly kids.

The sound.

I saved this one for last because it’s the area where the phone both enrages and delights me.

Let’s get this out of the way: It does not have a headphone jack.

I always thought this would be a deal breaker for me, the thing that solidified my alienation from the iPhone. I still think it’s stupid and needless to omit the headphone jack, and it will prove, I have no doubt, a pain in the ass for the length of my ownership of this phone. No headphone jack is a strike against it. Yes, it does include a USB-C adapter dongle for wired headphones, but still. (And third party adapters won’t work because of HTC’s proprietary DAC technology. Double-grumble.)

But also included with the phone is a pair of USB-C earbuds. But not cheap EarPod type earbuds (though I think EarPods sound fine for what they are), but truly great sounding earbuds that – get this – have active noise cancellation built in. Now, this is not Bose-level noise cancelling. I think it’s fairer to call it “noise dampening,” but it nonetheless makes for a fantastic listening experience. Ambient noise mostly melts away and the music has the space and depth it needs to shine. I still think I like the sound of my Zero Audio Carbo Tenore earbuds better, but not enough to make me miss them when I have the U11’s included headphones.

(There’s always a lot of attention paid to HTC phones’ hardware speakers and how loud and full they sound for teeny tiny phone speakers. And they’re fine, but I don’t think they’re anything to get excited about.)

The bottom line.

As I said at the beginning, I was pretty sure I was going to like this phone, and while I may be engaging in some post-purchase confirmation bias, fine. The fact remains that not only did I wind up being happy with it, but it delighted me far more than I expected.

The tech press has been pretty unanimous in its warning to consumers to refrain from buying any new phones until the big release season is over. I’m sure the next Pixel and iPhone are going to be stellar, and that the Galaxy Note 8 is a technological wonder to behold. I would simply add to that warning, “unless you plan to buy the HTC U11.” As much as I’ll gaze in a awe at the devices to come, I’ll be happy to do so from afar, cradling my weird and wonderful U11.

And it’s red.

* * *

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“Every stupid thing Samsung does makes Android better.”

Jerry Hildenbrand is the deep thinker of the Android blogosphere. While the default response to everything Samsung does with its phones is to express exasperation, Jerry has a different perspective. In his review of the Galaxy S7 Edge, he says:

I want Samsung to never stop messing around with Android and making it their own. The open source part of Android is made better by companies doing stuff to it and changing it. That’s how open source software works. I wish more of what they do was available to everyone at the code level, but the ideas and the critical changes that improve Android make their way back to Google. They then make their way to everyone. Every good thing Samsung does makes Android better. Every stupid thing Samsung does makes Android better.

I can take 20 minutes and strip away the stuff I don’t want. I can disable or uninstall some of it. I can hide most of the remainder. Buh-bye Milk Music. Adios Gear Manager. Go away forever Flipboard Briefing. You can do the same things to the stuff you don’t want.

It’s the Apple ethos to presume that there is some platonic ideal for a given product, but Google’s has always been about inviting tinkering and elaboration. Despite this admittedly overly-broad distinction, the common wisdom is that Android is best, and indeed only really acceptable, when it’s pure, stock Android straight from Google. 

But that’s Apple thinking. There’s nothing wrong with Apple thinking, it’s resulted in some of the most beautiful and popular products ever made in any category. But it’s not the idea behind the Google ethos…or at least its mythos. 

Hardware companies going all-out to make Android work as well as it can for their devices is the right idea. It happens, alas, that very often (more often than not?) they go too far, or simply do it poorly. The most acclaimed versions of Android tend to be the most untouched, like Motorola’s or Nvidia’s. LG, HTC, and especially Samsung are berated for loading Android up with gimmicks and bloatware.

But just as Jerry says, some of those gimmicks aren’t just gimmicks, but valuable new features. And sometimes gimmicks evolve into valuable features. And sometimes, a variation on Android suits the device in question so well, it’s a revelation. Many will point to Motorola’s ambient display, which was quickly adopted by many other manufacturers. But my favorite is Samsung’s S Pen for the Note series. The precision and usefulness of the stylus is unmatched by almost any accessory I’ve used for any phone.

And that’s because of Samsung’s software, that’s “TouchWiz.” 

So yeah, keep at it, Samsung, and all you other guys. I mean, try to keep it sane. You know, have some mercy. But keep at it.

Oh No, Not OLED

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It is being reported that Apple will begin to use OLED displays in an upcoming iPhone generation, as opposed to the IPS LCDs it has always used. And I’m not at all happy about this.

I’m not an iPhone user at the moment, so in the near-term I don’t really care what Apple does to its phones. But it can’t be denied that anything significant that Apple does with its most important product will likely be aped by most other manufacturers, if they aren’t already doing the same thing.

And the problem is that I seem to have some sort of ocular allergy to OLED. Throughout my Year of Phones, several of the units I tried out had AMOLED or Super AMOLED displays, and I recently spent some time with a Dell Venue 8 7000 tablet, which is OLED. And with only one exception, all of the OLED devices gave me headaches when looking at them for more than a few minutes. Indeed, I feel the strain on my eyes almost immediately.

I have no solid explanation for why this is so. OLED devices with which I’ve had significant experience, Notes 4 and 5 and the Venue 8, while they are truly excellent, each gave me the same problem. I thought perhaps that there might be some difference between Samsung’s proprietary “Super AMOLED” and Dell’s vanilla “OLED,” but no. They both produced the same effect.

And no settings-tweaking helped. Lowering the brightness, lowering the saturation level, adjusting hues, nothing mattered.

Some folks in forums have speculated to me that this has to do with an imperceptible “flicker” that OLED displays produce and LCDs don’t, but that’s just a guess from a few people who are otherwise as stumped by this as I am.

There was one exception, however, the Nexus 6, the device with which I had a stormy relationship. That has a Quad-HD AMOLED display just like the Notes 4 and 5, and yet with all the problems and delights I had with that device, I don’t recall headaches being an issue at all. I have no idea why.

On the flip side are LCD displays, like that on my beloved LG G4, and on every iPhone and iPad ever. I have never had any problem gawking at iDevice screens for hours on end, and my G4 Quad-HD LCD display is so lovely I can sometimes hardly believe it.

Also, I’ve seen far more problems with OLED displays than LCDs. This is anecdotal experience, of course, but on OLED screens I see far more burn-in, ghosting, dark spots, dead pixels, and the like. I do know that it’s currently a fact that they degrade more quickly than LCDs. They seem, from my personal experience, to be far less reliable.

But now Apple will, well, saturate the market with OLED, making it the new normal. OLED displays, at their best, are far more eye-catching and rich than most LCDs (though the G4’s is right up there), so they have obvious appeal. But if they are less reliable, why would Apple commit to them so wholeheartedly?

Boy Genius Reports speculates that Apple is prepared for OLED’s degradation problem, saying, “It stands to reason that Apple is confident that the aforementioned drawbacks can and will be addressed in the years ahead.” But I don’t think that needs to be true at all. Apple has already introduced its own leasing program so that folks can get new a new iPhone model every year, so we know that Apple very much wants to push regular consumers to upgrade at a rate that’s high even for many tech enthusiasts. If they’re confident that an enormous number of their users are going to get rid of their phones after a year anyway, why should they care if the OLED displays start to lose their “oomph”? You’re buying the new one anyway.

But what this all means for me (which is what this is really about, remember) is that the best phones on the market in the coming years will all be OLED in one way or another, which means that, unless they change something as-yet-undiagnosed in the displays or my eyeballs, I will be squinting in agony at the objects I would otherwise hold most dear. It’s like an Van Gogh devotee who gets a small electric shock whenever they look at one of his paintings.

There is still the anomaly of the Nexus 6. Perhaps there’s something in the way its display was made that holds the answer. Or perhaps LG will continue to improve its LCD displays to the point where it’ll be clear that it’s the better alternative.

But with my luck? I’m going to need a new drug.

Lurve the Curve: Why I’m Nuts about the LG G4

Photo credit: TheBetterDay / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

In my last tech-related post, I detailed my year-long persnickety quest to find the One True Phone that I could finally, finally call my own. As I wrote then, I ended up with the LG G4, with a commitment to stick with it for the next year. Luckily, I made very much the right call.

I adore this phone, and I really wish I had picked it up as soon as it was released. Here’s some reasons why.

The most important part of a phone experience for me is the display quality, and this has the best display I’ve ever used. One might argue that it’s Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays on the Galaxies S6 and Note 5 that are the absolute tops, but to my eyes, Super AMOLED causes truly palpable eye strain, especially when I’m doing any long-term reading on the device. (One Reddit commenter suggested it might be due to an imperceptible “flicker” in AMOLED, but I don’t know for sure.) Given that book-reading is one of the primary things I do with a phone, an IPS LCD is by far a better solution. And I’ve never seen a better one than that of the G4. Sharp, vivid, bright, and, importantly to me, very pleasant to read off of.

Now, of course, this phone has the particular quirk of being ever-so-slightly curved. When LG introduced its Flex line of seriously-curved phones, I rolled by eyes. It seemed a pointless gimmick, but now I’m a believer. The curve on the G4, which is far subtler than that of the Flex phones, really does make the phone a joy to hold. It sits happily in the palm, and something about the arc even makes the weight of the phone rest in just the right places. The display isn’t distorted by the curve, and actually feels nicer to swipe around on, with a little swoop you can feel. If anything, I wish the phone had just a bit more of a curve. I lurve the curve.

Like the G3 before it, the buttons are on the back, which is exactly where they should be. It’s so obvious and natural, I can’t believe that this configuration isn’t more common. I can double-click the volume-down button when the screen is off to launch the camera, and double-tap the screen to wake up the phone. Excellent.

The performance is great. It’s not the powerhouse that the Note 5 is, where everything happens absurdly fast, but the G4 is plenty quick. There are occasional instances of lag, weirdly sometimes with the camera shutter, but on the whole, it’s an extremely smooth experience.

Oh right, the camera. It’s phenomenal. I actually like it better than the ostensibly “better” camera on the Note 5, because it looks to me that the G4 gives me more true-to-life images, less saturated, and more finely detailed.

Battery life is fine. I’ve had no problems, and if I did, I can swap the battery out.

And guys, the backs are swappable. The base model I got was a deep blue color, which was okay. The bezel and buttons in blue looked better than the plastic back, which didn’t look great, with an uninteresting diamond pattern. But then I slapped the red leather back on it, and it now looks and feels fantastic. Not like a technology product, but more of an organic object, not unlike a small book. The deep blue buttons popping out of the deep red leather back is really classy looking. It even smells good!

And here’s something I discovered wholly by accident. The other day I had the phone in my hand, I think to grab a picture of my kids doing something silly (as usual), and I needed to deal with a smudge on my glasses. Holding both my spectacles and the phone, I realized that, entirely unintentionally, I had bought a phone that matched my glasses. If you can’t tell from the image below, there are dark-red arms on the specs, dark-blue frames around the lenses.

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It really was meant to be.

The Year of Phones

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One year ago today, I began a weird, fun, stressful, ridiculous, and revealing process of choosing the right Android phone for me. That process didn’t end until just a few days ago, meaning that I had so much trouble settling on a phone to stick with for the long term, the Earth had to get all the way around the Sun before I could bring the project to a conclusion. But this first-world consumerist quest is indeed over – as it must be, because I promised my wife I’d be done, and stick with what I have for at least one year. And that’s okay, because I also happened to have finally nailed it.

On Halloween of 2014, I popped open my newly purchased, lightly used Nexus 5. I had owned a different Nexus 5 briefly earlier that year, but got cold feet over being on Android after being an iOS devotee since the first iPhone. For most of 2014 I was on an iPhone 5S, but Android remained so compelling to me, especially as 5.0 Lollipop was being announced. Feeling increasingly bored with iOS, I sold the iPhone, and just in time for Lollipop’s rollout, I dove back in with this Nexus 5.

There was so much to love about it, but its abysmal camera and poor battery life were frustrating me, Lollipop or no Lollipop. Now that I was skipping the whole carrier-contract rigmarole, and simply buying a device outright, I felt rather liberated to try other devices. I knew that if I shopped wisely, and sold my used devices skillfully (or returned them when necessary), I could freely experiment with different phones until I found one that suited me best, and more or less remain, as they say in Washington, “revenue neutral.” More or less.

This turned out to be mostly true as the year unfolded, if I do say so myself. But this is not to say there were no ill side-effects to what started as a sort of hobby, and turned into something of an obsession.

I won’t go over every detail of every device I tried. I will give a rundown of my impressions of the individual models later in the piece, but as far as the process itself that went from one October to the next, it’s as you might expect. I’d get a device, put it through its paces for some length of time, and decide that some aspect of it wasn’t working for me, and try something else instead. A few times, of course, I would receive genuine lemons, devices that were defective or damaged in some way, which had to be returned. There were a lot of opening and packing up of shipping boxes, a lot of waiting for the UPS truck to pull up, a lot of trips to the post office, a lot of listings on eBay and Swappa, and a lot of accessories bought, sold, and returned as well.

As readers of this blog know, one problem that arose from this process was that Amazon apparently grew weary of my returning items, and exiled me. I have documented this story in detail already, but I’ll simply say here that, as I mentioned, I got quite a few bum devices that simply had to be returned, and I also returned devices that I simply wasn’t satisfied with, which I assumed was fine until they unceremoniously gave me the boot. All of which I may or may not have deserved, but that’s another discussion.

The larger lesson of the Amazon exile, however, was not really about my behavior as a customer, but about my state of mind in regard to seeking out a satisfactory phone. Why was I going to such lengths and expending such mental resources on this project? Couldn’t I have settled at some point far earlier in 2015 and been just fine?

Eventually, it would be my wife that would shake me out of my pursuit of the technological white whale. It was she who pointed out to me the disparity between the effort I was putting into strategizing and researching and buying and selling and plotting for the sole purpose of having a gadget I’d be marginally happier with than I was with the last one, while there was so much else in our life that required those resources. It wasn’t an accusation or a complaint that I was not available, or that I needed some kind of A&E-style smartphone intervention, but a dose of perspective about what it is I was prioritizing in my free time, my limited finances, and my emotional bandwidth. And she was right. It had started out as a fun project, until I gave it too much of myself. This came about as I had One Final Device on the way, and I promised her this would be the last one for one whole year.

I had made that promise before, actually, and wriggled my way out of it in order to give it one more go. That in itself, that I felt the need to weasel out of an agreement with my wife on something so relatively trivial, showed me that I needed to be done with it. Again, not because anything was being hurt by it, but because nothing about a consumer purchase decision should have this kind of gravity in my life.

So, enough about me. Let’s take an overview of the devices that passed through my hot little hands during the Year of Phones.

Photo credit: iamos / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Nexus 5: I don’t know what it is about this device, but it inspires genuine affection not just from me, but from a legion of fans. Something about how it feels and how fast and simple it is, and how inexpensive it is, made me come back to it even after abandoning it. But there was simply no getting past its bad battery life (for a heavy smartphone user, this is a huge pain), and its terrible camera, which simply wasn’t doing justice to my adorable and very fast-moving children. It had to go. But man, that red one.

OnePlus One: When I got ahold of this one, I decided rather abruptly that it was just too big, and this was before I began to become a phablet convert, so I might have a different reaction today. But I also began to feel a little panic over some horror stories I’d seen online about wretched customer service from OnePlus, with many units turning out to have been shoddily manufactured, and I decided that this was just not something I wanted to put myself through. It probably didn’t get a fair shot, but I’m sure whoever I sold it to is very happy now.

HTC One M8: I actually got three lemon M8’s in a row, buying them used off of Amazon and eBay. This critically acclaimed device, I assumed, had to be a good fit for me, but it was not to be. Even after returning the damaged units I received, the undamaged one I tried to use (which was still the wrong color from what I ordered, by the way) was physically slippery and slow in performance. No one else ever complained about poor software performance from the M8 before, so it may too have been a bad apple, but after a fourth try, that was it for me.

Moto X 2014: Bought direct from Motorola, opened it up, saw it had a defective screen, returned it, and never tried again. Though I was often, often temped.

LG G3: This came the closest to being my keeper, such that when one phone experiment didn’t work out, I’d think, hey let’s just go back to the G3. It was by far the least interesting phone. Not much to look at, but comfortable and reliable, with a great screen, a great camera, a swappable battery, and expandable storage. The main reason I didn’t stick with it was that its size, which was big for me at 5.5 inches, convinced me that big phones were in fact the way to go, and that, if anything, I should get something bigger. Which led me to…

Photo by the author.

Nexus 6: My relationship with this phone was a rollercoaster, such that I went through several units over several months. First, because I found that the phone got so ridiculously hot, that surely, surely they must be defective units. A couple returns resulted, until I had to simply face the fact that this is just what this phone is like. But I loved the enormous screen and the pure Android software experience. After rejecting and returning to this phone a few times, I tried my damnedest to mitigate the heat problem, but I finally gave up. But the desire for a big screen was unsated.

Galaxy Note 4: A truly excellent phone in so many ways. But I found that I had trouble reading off the screen for long periods of time, for reasons I could not for the life of me pin down. By this time I had sold my iPad and my Kindle because my big phone (whichever one that was) would now serve all those other device’s purposes. To experience discomfort reading off this phone was a big blow against it.

Xperia Z Ultra: Similar story to the Moto X. A used unit, it came with a bum screen, bad pixels, and it had to go. But I was also pretty sure that it was a little too old of a device, with a crummy camera to boot, such that further investigation was not warranted – despite it’s massive 6.4-inch screen, which I really did appreciate.

Galaxy Note 5: I got this sight-unseen upon release, which turned out to be a mistake. I grew to really love the S Pen, the ability to write on the screen when the display was off, and the raw power of the phone. But I found I was having the same problems with reading off the screen as I experienced with the Note 4, which I really should have predicted. What is it about Super AMOLED, anyway? Whatever it is, I also just felt like this superphone was too precious, too apt to be accidentally destroyed at great cost, and simply uncomfortable to use.

You may have detected a theme. Most of the time, when I’ve rejected a phone, if it’s not because it’s simply broken, it’s because of some physical discomfort. Too hot, too slippery, too breakable, etc. A device that I’m going to use so often and for such lengths of time, to serve as my escape and as the vessel of my augmented self, I felt I needed to be “at home” with it. It should fit me, rather than I having to try and fit myself to it. This is why the Nexus 5 and LG G3 were the only devices I really have “fond feelings” for as I look back on the Year of Phones. They fit me pretty darned well, even if they didn’t check all the boxes.

Oh right, you need to know where I landed.

Photo credit: Janitors / Foter.com / CC BY

LG G4: I am very lucky that my last shot was a bullseye. Purchased October 19 of this year, and I am entirely delighted by this phone. Its display is a joy to read off of for long stretches, its camera is excellent, it has expandable storage and a swappable battery, it looks cool, it performs well, it’s light, it doesn’t feel fragile at all, and perhaps most importantly, it’s really damned comfortable. You might know that the G4 is ever-so-slightly curved, not as severely as its cousin the G Flex 2, but just enough that it feels so nice to hold. And for reasons I don’t quite get, the curve also makes the touch display feel nicer to use. Why??? I really don’t know. Maybe it’s just novelty, but it makes me look at non-curved phones now with a sense of disappointment. As of tonight, as the Year of Phones finally ends, I can really say that I think the G4 is my favorite phone I’ve ever owned.

So that’s where we are. I’m done for the entire year. As of right now, I really do feel like I landed on The One True Device for me. And so it shall be, from here on.

Or at least until October 19, 2016.

Not that I’m keeping track.

Why I’m the “Princess and the Pea” of Phones

Photo credit: Street matt / Foter / CC BY
If you read this blog, follow me on Twitter, or are my wife (hi, honey!), it should be obvious by now that I have a little problem when it comes to smartphones. One might say that what I call a genuine enthusiasm for the devices is really an “obsession,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. Really, it’s that I can’t seem to settle on what is the Right Phone For Me. This search for said phone hasn’t harmed me or anyone else, though it’s a major reason I was exiled from Amazon, but it has gone from being a fun (and at one time frugal) exploration of technology to being something of a source of stress, as no single device feels like it checks sufficient boxes. My wife aptly said that I am the “Princess and the Pea” of phones. Bullseye.

But why? Why am I not as hung up on tech devices in general? I’m perfectly happy with my laptop for example, and I was so far from being obsessed with my tablet and Kindle that I divested myself of them. There must be something about the particularities of the smartphone that have caused some specific neurons to fire in me, and keep firing.

Let’s take a few steps back and take account of who we’re talking about. I am a severe introvert. I am curious. I am creative. I am anxious. For decades people fitting that description have found solace in technology, and in personal computers in particular. The advent of the Web raised computing’s appeal exponentially, but we’re still talking about a device – a desktop or laptop computer – that more or less stays in one place a few feet away.

The smartphone takes everything that’s great about personal computers, and rather than manifesting in an external appliance, puts it all into a small device that is more or less attached to you. It’s in your pocket, it’s in your purse, it’s in your hand. All the time.

My phone is not just a way to “get things done” wherever I am, nor is it just a way to amuse myself in any given situation. To me, the phone is an extension of myself, an augmentation of myself, and a way to safely (more or less) interact with the rest of the world.

Through my phone, at any given moment, I can inform, educate, and entertain myself. I can execute a panoply of tasks, plan for the future, and relive my past. I can express myself just as I like, and converse with the population of the Internet, all from a place of my choosing, at a safe impersonal distance. And from that impersonal distance, I can become as open and personal, or as distant, as I choose.

(Would that these devices had existed when I was a teenager, and as ubiquitous as they are today! I can’t help but think they would have been quite the release, quite the tonic, quite the safe house, for my alienated, terrified, self-hating, miserable adolescent self.)

And so the value of the phone to me cannot be overstated. That means the container of that functionality becomes extremely important; it’s the vessel for my augmented self. Things like size, weight, shape, and overall performance become all the more important, but so do considerations like tactile feel, cosmetic appearance, and myriad miscellaneous factors that I’m not even conscious of. I’m going to use the damned thing a lot, and it has to be something I enjoy using. I need to feel, yes, an affection for it. “It does what I need it to do” is totally insufficient.

A lot of the peas under this particular princess, however, I think have been totally legitimate. The HTC One M8 was too damned slippery, and (the unit I had at least) was unbearably slow. The Nexus 6 got too goddamned hot in my hands no matter what I did, and I went through several different units before I gave up. The Nexus 5 had an abysmal battery and camera. I could go on. But a couple of other phones I tried, I could have/should have just stuck with. They were great, but in ways big and small, still had me looking for something else.

What makes this a more or less recent phenomenon for me is the switch to Android from iOS late last year. With iPhones, there’s not a lot of choice, so not a lot of internal debate. “You want the big one or the little one?” is a very recent addition of variety to the platform, and it’s the whole shebang. Once you buy, that’s what you’ve got, at least until the next one comes out a year later. Nothing to gnash one’s teeth over until then.

With the Android universe, you have dozens of manufacturers making dozens of models of devices, and many of them are simply amazing (and many at amazing prices), especially now. But the paradox of choice sets in, and the knowledge that these variations on the Android theme proliferate, it’s hard for me to feel satisfied that what I have is what will suit me best. This is not healthy for me, of course.

I admit freely that I’m too focused on this, surely to the detriment of other things (though let’s not kid ourselves that I’d otherwise be curing cancer or something), but I hope it’s a little clearer as to why this little quest has been as important to me as it has become. My phone is my way to a safer, happier, more “realized” Paul, a Paul that I like better. The tool, the extension of myself, that enables this, therefore, has a big responsibility. So I don’t choose that tool lightly, even though I could stand to dial the gravity down a touch.

* * *

Update: This princess is now resting comfortably.

Can Alphabet Ever Mean as Much as Google Does?

Original image: PMillera4 / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Google surprised pretty much everyone today when they announced that, well, they weren’t going to be Google anymore.

Google CEO Larry Page (well, former CEO) said in a statement today that he and Google co-founder Sergey Brin would form a new holding company, Alphabet (with the best domain name on Earth: abc.xyz), of which Google would now be a wholly-owned subsidiary, led by Sundar Pichai, who until today was Google’s head of Android and Chrome.

I have some immediate concerns about it, but I should stipulate I’ve only known about this for a couple of hours. Before I get into that, a bit more on what Alphabet is, and what Google is – and no longer is. Page explained how Google would now be one company among many, each focusing on particular areas and industries that were all once housed under the Google banner:

What is Alphabet? Alphabet is mostly a collection of companies. The largest of which, of course, is Google. This newer Google is a bit slimmed down, with the companies that are pretty far afield of our main internet products contained in Alphabet instead. What do we mean by far afield? Good examples are our health efforts: Life Sciences (that works on the glucose-sensing contact lens), and Calico (focused on longevity). Fundamentally, we believe this allows us more management scale, as we can run things independently that aren’t very related.

… Alphabet will also include our X lab, which incubates new efforts like Wing, our drone delivery effort. We are also stoked about growing our investment arms, Ventures and Capital, as part of this new structure.

I should point out first that I don’t have any problem with the idea of a wholesale reorganization of Google. Giving each disparate aspect of the company its own territory, its share of breathing room, could very well be exactly what they need to thrive. I can’t say one way or the other, but it certainly seems that Larry Page, who lusts to be ruler of a magical libertarian island, at the very least could not be content to be the head of a mere search engine company. And Sundar Pichai, though I find him a little frustrating as a spokesperson for his company, is obviously doing wonderful things, as I can only personally attest by my wholesale embrace of Android over the past year and my admiration and fascination with the Chrome OS. So, functionally, this sounds more or less positive.

My concern is more about what Google means to the culture. In a more crass sense, I suppose my concern is over things like “branding” and “marketing,” but I also think it’s about something a little bigger. In the same way that Apple, in the minds of millions and millions of people, stands for something grander and more esoteric than being a really good gadget company, Google is more than a search engine and browser company.

When people think of Google (or at least when people who think about this kind of thing think of Google), the association goes far beyond their products and services, far beyond search results and targeted ads. It’s about all the other stuff, the (gag) “moonshots”: bringing Internet access to the developing world from the air, building automated vehicles to revolutionize transportation, the attempts to lengthen the freaking human life span. All of that, along with Android and Fiber and Chrome and Nexus and everything else.

Now, a whole lot of that, the boldest, craziest, and most out-there, will now be Alphabet. Google, though it will no doubt continue to do great things within its newly confined realm, won’t get the benefit of that association. And Alphabet won’t get the benefit of being Google in name. It’ll be an uphill battle for this new thing to win that kind of mindshare. The insiders will know, I suppose, the tech press of today will more easily make this psychological transition. But for all of those who are just observers or enthusiasts, or even for those who are simply too young to have a long association with Google, there’s an ethos that could be lost.

I could be really wrong. But if it were me, I’d do the reorganization under the Google banner, let the restructuring be an insiders’ story, and keep the (gag) moonshot mojo under the old name.