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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The Alpha, the Omega, and the Google

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Photo by Daniel Cukier CC BY-ND 2.0

Rumor has it that Google is set to recast itself as a full-fledged smartphone maker, with the expected introduction of its new “Pixel” phones on October 4. I think I understand what they’re up to.

To quickly catch you up, Google has for years offered up phones under the Nexus brand, but these were devices built by other manufacturers in partnership with Google, mainly intended as a “reference” for other manufacturers like Samsung, LG, HTC, and Sony, and to serve the Android die-hard fanbase. Nexus phones offered the “pure” Android experience, as opposed to the phones made by other manufacturers which usually layer manufacturer-specific alterations to “stock” Android. Nexus phones get software updates as soon as they’re available, and they are usually very well received and affordable relative to Samsung and Apple flagships.

Now it’s being reported that “Nexus” is gone, and the new name is “Pixel.” Pixel is not new, of course, being the brand under which they’ve been producing high-end Chromebooks and one (so far) Android tablet. Google reportedly intends the Pixel line of phones to not just serve as showcases for stock Android, but to assert a new level of control over the entire Android experience. The devices themselves, which will be built by HTC, will not carry any HTC branding. Not Nexus, not HTC’s Nexus, but a Pixel phone. A Google phone.

David Ruddock at Android Police has a piece today in which he ponders what the grander strategy is, and this part grabbed me:

This “Pixel versus Nexus” distinction matters a great deal. By framing the Pixel and Pixel XL as Google products and not as Android ones, and by removing all discussion of “partners,” Google will finally be able to assert that, if only implicitly, it is offering a counterpoint to Apple’s iPhones.

It’s more than a name change, and more than Google simply throwing more weight around. This is part of Google’s overall effort to instill in consumers the idea that it is “Google” that they can trust to make their lives better.

Let’s back up. This past summer, Google unveiled its own take on the digital-assistant-in-your-house thing with Google Home, more or less a googly Amazon Echo. This same digital-assistant tech will also live in its upcoming messenger platform Allo, and already more or less exists in a less-personified form in Google Now on Android phones.

But what’s different about what Google does here than what Amazon or Apple does? I mean apart from whatever back-end, A.I., deep-learning, jiggery-pokery is going on in server farms. When you want to talk to the digital assistant on an iPhone, you talk to Siri. When you want to talk to the Echo, you ask Alexa. When you want something from Google, you just ask Google.

Google doesn’t want to separate itself from its interactions with you. It doesn’t want you to imagine some “character” answering your questions. Google wants you to ask Google. Google is the company and the character.

Google is also the search engine. You don’t look up information at the “Nexus Search,” you google, as in the neologistic verb. Your photos live in Google Photos, your stuff is synced on Google Drive. Google is the agent, the entity, that you look to.

But not with phones. Not now, anyway. Following digital thinking, I’m going to guess that “Pixel” is the name of the phone model. There’s the Apple iPhone, the Samsung Galaxies, the Amazon Kindle, and now the Google Pixel. Not “Google and HTC’s Pixel,” but the Google Pixel.

That means it’s an honest to goodness Google phone, just like the Pixel C is a Google tablet and the Chromebook Pixel is a Google laptop.

And perhaps most importantly, again leaning on digital piece, is that the new phones aren’t “Android phones,” any more than Apple is known for “iOS phones” or Samsung for “TouchWiz (gag) phones.” For years, the tech press discussion has been about iPhone vs. Android, but Android means a million different things in a million different contexts in a million different iterations.

Android is just the operating system, and it’s not the brand that regular consumers seek out. Almost no one other than enthusiasts go into carrier stores and ask for the latest Android phones. They might ask for the latest Samsung or Galaxy phone, but not Android. Again, no more than they ask about the latest “iOS phone.”

I frankly think Android as a brand is more or less alienating to most folks, evoking the image of something geeky and complicated. Notice that the Android device manufacturers almost never mention the word Android in their PR. They know that no one other than techies care about that. Brands like Apple, iPhone, and Galaxy give feelings of bedazzlement over cool, useful things. “Android,” I suspect, sounds like homework.

But you know what people do feel comfortable with? Google. You know what’s a nice, cute, safe word that feels both phone-related and still friendly? Pixel. Androids are semi-humanoid robots who have no feelings and might want to take over the world. Pixels are colorful things that make screens glow!

(Imagine how confused folks will get when their Google phone breaks and and they then google “how to fix dead pixel.”)

Google Home, Pixel, and all these other initiatives are of a piece. They’ve decided, I think, to stop making disparate products under disparate banners. Phones, operating systems, tablets, laptops, browsers, search engines, IOT/home devices, digital assistants – we’re meant to stop thinking of these things as separate brands in various arenas. They’re all just part of one thing, and to integrate them into your life, you just think, “OK, Google.”

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Apple is Both Tone Deaf and in Tune

Settle in as I express my deep disappointment at Apple, and then turn around and vigorously defend them on a totally separate point. On one issue, I find them being arbitrarily and arrogantly dismissive of an enormous proportion of their users, and on another, I find them  with what users need and want from a smartphone. They are simultaneously in tune and tone deaf. I know, it’s dizzying! Join me, won’t you?

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Photo credit: woodleywonderworks via Foter.com / CC BY

As you are no doubt aware, the newly-announced iPhone 7 and 7 Plus do not have standard headphone jacks. No reason they’ve offered up for this decision holds water to me, and the fact that Phil Schiller characterized the decision as an example of “courage” is simply laughable. There’s no feature or innovation of the iPhones 7 that, as far as I can tell, required nixing the headphone jack. And its presence wouldn’t have prevented them emphasizing Lightning port-connected or wireless headphones. They could still have included Lightning headphones in the box, if they really think they’re so much better than analogue headphones.

I know the term is becoming cliché, but ditching the headphone jack is user-hostile. iPhones, to be sure, are high-end luxury devices, and on paper you might presume that anyone who can afford one can certainly make a change to all-wireless or all-Lightning headphones without much pain. But we all know that freaking everyone has iPhones. With carrier subsidies and installment plans, iPhone owners span economic strata. People of all means, ages, and technical acumen own iPhones, and want to have the latest iPhones.

Headphones, meanwhile, are a real democratizing technology. Yes, there are high-end headphones that cost ridiculous amounts of money, and even “mid-range” headphones are out of reach for many consumers. But anyone can afford cheap earbuds and enjoy the audio on their phones. Companies like Panasonic make incredibly inexpensive and well-regarded headphones that anyone can buy and afford to replace if they get lost or break. Headphones can be had by anyone, and enable anyone to hear what their phone can produce.

Apple doesn’t care about that anymore. I know they included a Lightning-to-analogue adapter, but people will lose it. They included Lightning EarPods in the box, but those will also get lost or break. And millions and millions of people already own headphones they already like, and Apple’s decided that it doesn’t really matter. Headphones were the great equalizer for these astoundingly-great, expensive, high-end electronics. Not anymore, as far as Apple’s concerned, and I think that kind of sucks.

This is part of why this is not analogous to Apple’s rejection of previous computing standards, like their nixing of floppy drives from the iMac and the end of optical drives in latter-day MacBooks: the user-base of floppy and optical drives does not begin to approach the universality of analogue headphones. Excluding floppy and optical drives in computers effected a certain subset of consumers who 1) used computers, 2) used Macs, and 3) made regular use of those drives. That’s a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. On the other hand, we have the set if people who use iPhones (approximately 79 bazillion), and the subset of those who rely on the headphones jack (approximately all). It’s a failed analogy.

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Photo credit: Luis Marina via Foter.com / CC BY

Now, they have every right to change their product any way they choose, and the market can decide whether or not such a change is a deal-breaker. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s wise or in keeping with the ethos I feel like they purport to be guided by.

Okay, now, take a breath, I am now going to defend Apple. Here’s the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo on the iPhone 7, who says “Apple’s aesthetics have grown stale.”

As competitors have borrowed and even begun to surpass Apple’s best designs, what was iconic about the company’s phones, computers, tablets and other products has come to seem generic. …

… The bigger problem is an absence of delight. I recently checked in with several tech-pundit friends for their assessment of Apple’s aesthetic choices. “What was the last Apple design that really dazzled you?” I asked.

There was a small chorus of support for the MacBook, the beautifully tiny (if functionally flawed) laptop that Apple released last year. But most respondents were split between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5 — two daring smartphone designs that were instantly recognized as surpassing anything else on the market.

Readers of this blog know that I have not been an iPhone user since the 5S, and have happily been in the land of Android…almost too happy. So I have no brand-identity motivation to defend Apple’s choices. (I mean, I just got finished crapping all over them, so.)

I’ve heard a lot of this kind of hand-wringing over the fact that the iPhone hasn’t changed in its broader design over three product generations. I shared some of this feeling for a while, wondering why Apple hadn’t been going out of its way to blow us all away with some delightful new novelty in phone design. But now I think I get it.

What’s a smartphone, really? It’s a computer with a touch display, meant to be held in the hand. There are theoretically any number of ways one could approach coming up with a form factor for such a device, but particularly when you’re talking about something so utterly ubiquitous as an iPhone, there’s not a lot of wiggle room left after you get down to “thin rounded rectangle.”

Now, I adore some of the more novel smartphone designs of many Android phones. I thought the LG G4 was surprisingly wonderful with its leather back and ever-so-slightly curved screen; Motorola’s 2014/2015 aesthetic with sloping backs, rear “dimples,” and metallic edges I thought was delightfully striking; the Nextbit Robin is beautifully quirky and industrial; and of course Samsung’s current line of Galaxy S and Note devices are almost jewel-like. They’re all great.

But the current iPhone design is great, too. I’ll admit, I at first was a little underwhelmed by the look of the 6-era iPhones when they were introduced. But hold a 6/6S Plus in your hand (without a case) and the cold, smooth feel of it is startling. You almost feel like you shouldn’t be trusted with something like it. Before we switched carriers, my wife had the black iPhone 6-regular, and I was jealous of it. Not for its software experience, but just for that shape and that color.

But even if I hadn’t personally found the iPhone design so evocative and attractive, the market has spoken, and it has said loud and clear with the chorus of tens of millions of voices, “This design is great.” People like the shape and feel of iPhones as they are now.

And that design also just works. People find it sufficiently ergonomic, and the basic form factor allows Apple to put into the phone what it feels like it has to (at least up until its rebuff of the 1/8″ aux port). You know what that also sounds like? Computers. Which the iPhone is, by the way.

Look at Apple’s MacBooks. They fiddle around the edges of the design, but all in all, their laptops have looked more or less the same since 2001. The biggest shift in design was the MacBook Air which morphed to the current-day suffix-less MacBook, and that’s been consistent since 2011. This is because those forms work really, really well and also happen to look really good. And really, the entire laptop industry is essentially made up of products that are variations on screen-that-folds-down-on-keyboard. I mean, tablets haven’t been able to meaningfully hurt laptops because it turns out that the platonic laptop form is just about right.

Here’s more from the Manjoo piece:

The company says it does not change its designs just for the sake of change; the current iPhone design, which debuted in 2014, has sold hundreds of millions of units, so why mess with success? In a video accompanying the iPhone 7 unveiling on Wednesday, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief, called the device the “most deliberate evolution” of its design vision for the smartphone.

As much as I have been rolling my eyes at the grand pronouncements of Jonny Ive of late, I agree with him here. The design is deliberate, not the result of a lack of vision. They got it right in 2014, right for the market as it exists. To interpret the fact that they didn’t totally overhaul the iPhone form (perhaps a sphere? or something like this?) as a lack of vision or chops is, I think, short-sighted, and probably a symptom of focusing on a relatively new device category as it starts to mature.

I think it’s enough that each new phone released by any manufacturer is better than its predecessor. There are a lot of ways to be “better,” and only one of them is cosmetically.

And shit, you’re just going to put a case on it anyway.

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The Mystery of the Too-Perfect Screen Protector! (Or, Paul is Stupid)

I am either very stupid, or something strange is going on. I’m leaning heavily toward the former, but, nonetheless, mark me.

I have never liked screen protectors on phones. It used to be that they clouded the display and reduced the sensitivity of the touch sensors. Plus, they were and are extremely difficult to apply without misaligning them, getting air bubbles that won’t push out, or dust trapped underneath that can never be unseen. Eventually, too, they would fray or peel. In other words, a total shitshow.

But clearly they have vastly improved since the time I avoided them, circa 2011. Now there are brands that are robust, invisible, and have no effect on touch sensitivity, and they come in both a kind that is sort of plasticky film as well as hard tempered glass. I once bought a used tablet with the screen protector already applied, and it convinced me that these things were now up to snuff.

Nonetheless, I could never get one on myself to my satisfaction. With each attempt to install one on my phone, with either the film or glass kinds, I would screw it up to the point that the protector became unusable. Usually, even when all other things had been done right, there would still be some dust or crap I’d discover, taunting me from beneath the transparency. Away would go to the protector.

But then a few days ago, I took one last shot with a Spigen Crystal screen protector, of the plasticky film variety, which came in a pack of three. I made sure I did everything very carefully, but not so intensely carefully that I’d make a mistake by overthinking. And after I pulled the front cover off the the screen protector, I was amazed: Perfectly straight, no bubbles, no dust. I smiled from ear to ear. And it looked and performed perfectly.

After a few days, though, I thought that maybe it was too perfect. I found that I couldn’t even tell it was there. Not as in “oh, you’ll just forget it’s there,” but as in, “wait a minute, where are the cutouts around the speaker and the home button?”

I stared and rubbed and scraped and could not for the life of me find the borders of the protector. Was I going mad? I took out the unused protectors from the package to compare, and seeing their cutouts I was convinced.

There was no screen protector on my phone.

What on Earth was going on? I had done this phenomenal job of perfectly applying a screen protector for the first time in my life, and now it’s just gone?? How could that be?? I retraced my use of the phone as best I could until I remembered back to the installation itself – that perfect installation. Was is too perfect?

It dawned on me. Perhaps, oh god perhaps, when I peeled off the protective front layer of the screen protector, I had also unwittingly peeled off the protector itself, and simply never noticed. Could I be that stupid? Could I really make myself believe that I had done a perfect job of installing a screen protector when in fact there was none there at all? And there I had been, using my phone with less concern about scratches on the screen, thinking there was a layer of defense that was all in my head. I am fortunate I didn’t perpetrate any horrors upon its glass.

I am capable of some epic idiocy, but this seemed too much even for me.

And yet, I am forced to conclude that it is the most likely explanation. The only alternatives I can think of would be that someone intentionally peeled it off (and who would that be? My kids? I never leave this phone where they could get to it), or it came off by itself, perhaps in a pocket. But how shoddy could this product be that this would happen a mere day or so after installation? Neither of those explanations seem plausible.

So in all likeliness, I am just extremely stupid. Perhaps you knew this already.

If there is a silver lining, it is that I made a second attempt with another one of the protectors, and I did it pretty much perfectly, again for the first time. There’s a little bit of a “halo” around the very edges where the phone’s glass curves a smidge, but it doesn’t bother me. Otherwise, nicely straight, no bubbles, and no dust. And, again, it performs just fine.

And I have learned something, something about the depths to which we can fool ourselves, and believe things that are not so, despite was is literally right in front of us, in our hands, and under our fingertips.

Leaving the Day Behind (Tablets Re-Reconsidered)

I have been on a kind of device-consolidation kick for a couple of years now, shedding gadgets that I feel overlap in their use-cases a bit too much to justify keeping around. Last year, I wrote about how the tablet was being made redundant by the big-screen phone and the super-light laptop, and, becoming a phablet convert myself, I sold my beloved iPad, and my Kindle to boot. My creativity/productivity stuff was covered by the laptop, and the reading/kicking-back stuff was covered by the phone. What did I need a middle device for?

What I’m coming to realize, or at least be reminded of, is that there is a lot to the psychological baggage of a device (and really, all objects). I work all damn day on my laptop, and it is particularly tweaked and arranged and fussed over to serve that purpose. It is an optimized and remarkably powerful tool for getting my job done. But when it comes time to pursue some kind of creative endeavor or hobby, or just relax and browse, all the distractions and stresses of work carry over. It’s like trying to read a rich novel in the middle of a noisy office. That stuff stays in my head.

The phone is a little different in that it’s the device I use all damn day for, well, almost everything. It’s always at my side or in my hand, getting used. (I do adore it.) Achieving a switching of gears becomes difficult, because that object you wish to lean back and read something on is also the same object that you were just doing texts, emails, calendar checks, and (of you’re me) Angry Birds 2 on. The tactile sensation as well as the visual data of the display size make it harder for me to get away from all of that.

So I can see, once again, why it’s nice to have a middle device that can take on the lean-back tasks and for shits-and-giggles activities that the laptop and phone can also do just fine. It’s about leaving the other stuff behind intentionally.

Photo by me.

I was spurred to think more about this thanks to this piece at Medium by Tiago Forte (hell of a name) about the benefits of read-it-later services. He points out that other apps and services can serve the same functions as Instapaper and Pocket, but they bring with them their own baggage:

A common response when I recommend people adopt yet another category of apps is “Why don’t I just use Evernote?” Or whatever app they’re using for general reference or task management. Evernote even makes a Chrome extension called Clearly for reading online content and Web Clipper for saving it.

It is a question of focus. Why don’t you use your task manager to keep track of content (i.e. “Read this article”)? Because the last thing you want to see when you cuddle up with your hot cocoa for some light reading is the hundreds of tasks you’re not doing.

On a laptop, and on your phone as well, all your tasks are literally a click or tap away. Indeed, they may be blinking at you without input needed. And both of these devices invite you to act on those distractions. That’s what’s so great about them: they allow you to do so much. Sometimes you don’t want to do “so much,” though. You want to do very little.

That’s good territory for tablets and e-readers to cover, I think. I don’t know that it’s territory that’s worth, say, top-of-the-line-iPad money to cover, but something more affordable? More modest? Yeah, I can see that. Now. Again.

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.