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.

The Right Device Isn’t Always the “Best” Device

20150417_162356The other day, I wrote that I felt the Nexus 6 was not the premium piece of hardware it has been billed as. I called it “chintzy,” citing issues with the camera, battery, and more than anything else, heat.
I have on a couple of occasions called the Galaxy Note 4 the best phone available (that I know of), due to its amazing display, powerful innards, removable battery, great battery life, expandable storage, excellent stylus, and almost unsurpassed camera.

And despite all this, I can’t bring myself to stick with the Note 4, and I’m instead – finally – ending my phone quest with the Nexus 6. What the hell is going on?

I should say that since my tantrum about the Nexus, I checked in with some smart folks on Google+, and generally got the sense that I wasn’t giving the phone enough time. And I have to say, they were right. Yes, it’s still warmer than I want it to be, and the battery isn’t as good as the Note’s, but the warmth is now tolerable, and the device is now becoming undeniably compelling to me again — which I suppose is why I keep coming back to try it again and again.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the irrational feelings of affection one can have for a piece of technology. (It doesn’t have to be technology, of course. Humans feel affection for all sorts of inanimate objects, but for some reason I think there’s an alienation people feel when they think about affection for something like a smartphone as opposed to something like an old book or tchotchke of some kind.) I talked about how the actual capabilities of a given device do not necessarily translate to attachment. I was thinking of the Nexus vs. Note comparison, among other examples, when I wrote it, but it’s applied to all manner of device categories in my life, especially since I became a Mac user, when the question of raw utility versus “style” or “design” really came into focus for me for the first time.

IMG_20150417_162438I remember how I described my choice to move to the Mac from Windows to people back in 2004, when doing so was still kind of a weird, niche thing. I said that the 12″ Powerbook I’d settled on drew me to use it. I wanted to spend more time writing blog posts and recording music, and I therefore wanted a computer that would make me want to do those things more. I wanted my machine to feel inviting; not just a means to an end, but a joyful part of the experience. So despite the limitations I may have run into, I was delighted with my choice. I never looked back.

The Note 4 is an amazing piece of technology, a real milestone in function and power. But it is by no means inviting. It’s not unattractive. In fact it’s rather striking, a very serious-looking bit of power-user hardware. Almost sleek, but also business-like, like it belongs in a Fortune 500 board room. But I am not drawn to it, other than by my default to be drawn to the screen in my hand.

The Nexus 6, in contrast, is simply lovely, particularly the white one. Tastefully sloped and curved, it sits happily in my palm, with enough of a border around the screen for me to grip its bezels (which you can’t do on a Note because of its annoying capacitive buttons). It runs stock Lollipop unburdened by Samsung cruft, and does so more smoothly with far fewer instances of lag or stuttering. Its display is only 0.26 inches bigger than the Note’s, and yet somehow, because of that slight difference, it is much more immersive and, well, inviting. I am drawn to use it.

(Seriously, you’d be amazed what a difference that tiny difference in screen size makes. When I’m reading a book or a comic, doing so on the Note feels like reading off a very large phone, which is nice, while reading off the Nexus feels like reading, well, a book or a comic, which is fantastic. The feeling of “I’m staring at a phone” disappears and becomes “I’m reading a book.” To me that’s a tremendous value.)

I think that the feeling of being drawn to the Nexus 6 is part of what makes the heat issue so aggravating for me. It’s like the device is asking me to use it, a lot, but then gets tetchy and demands to be put down again. (One of the things recommended to me from my Google+ inquiries was that within a few days of use the heat becomes less of an issue, though I have no idea why this would be other than these Nexus 6 owners simply getting used to it, or some kind of confirmation bias, which might wind up being the case for me as well.) The Note gets warm as well, of course, though not quite as easily, but it doesn’t bother me in the same way. Perhaps this is because I feel generally more ambivalent about it as an object. I’m not attached to it, so it doesn’t affect me when it becomes less comfortable. It was never “comfortable” to begin with.

The Nexus 6 is a flawed device. A so-so camera, a so-so battery, and other quirks. I was all but ready to click the submit button on Swappa to sell it in order to forego those flaws in favor of the superior-on-paper phone. But I couldn’t pull the trigger. One phone may be better in terms of what it technically offers, but the other seems to just suit me. It’s time to find a buyer for the Note.

The Nexus 6 feels like, for better and worse, my device. The Note 4 feels like I’m borrowing someone else’s, someone who is nothing like me. I think I will expend less energy and anxiety if I just accept all of this, and finally, finally, begin to obsess over something else.

Not headphones, though.

Update, May 27: You know, the Nexus 6’s heat was manageable for a time, and then the summer weather started kicking in. Now it feels like it’s always freshly out of the microwave no matter what I’m doing. So much for the right device! Maybe I should have stuck with my first true love.

Affection

I’m thinking a lot lately about what draws a person to a particular device. As you might know, I’ve been trying a gazillion different different phones, in some possibly futile attempt to settle into the “perfect” device, or in other words, the thing I’ll stick with for about a year as opposed to a month or so.
Not too long ago, I was convinced that, despite its drawbacks, the Nexus 5 was my one true love. But I was convinced I needed something with better specs. After a few million switcheroos, I landed on a Galaxy Note 4. It’s by many accounts the Best Phone Available, but it’s nonetheless failed to win my heart in the same way the by-all-measures inferior Nexus 5 did. But why?

Think about that brand new MacBook, the one I know I can’t make use of due to its single port and low-end processor. It’s not winning on points, but by the looks of it, it’s going to hook folks on an emotional level.

A couple years ago, I was trying to decide between the 15-inch MacBook Pro (pre-Retina) and the 11-inch MacBook Air. These computers could not have been more different, and based on the idea that the 15 was “better,” I agonizingly went with that. But I was pulled, oh was I pulled to the 11. I mean, it was just so damned adorable. I returned the 15 and went with the 11, and I was delighted. It was capable of less, its screen was scrunched and wee, and yet I had a palpable emotional attachment to it. I hugged it! I’m certain the SSD was a huge factor there, but it was also just something about its size and, well, cuteness.

The same happened when I first switched to Macs with my first 12-inch Powerbook in 2004. I could have gotten yet another Windows laptop for far less money and with more power or screen real estate, but the Powerbook wooed me with something intangible. I was drawn to it all the time that I owned it. I think the iPod halo effect had something to do with it, because I had a similarly fluttery heart for my 3-button 2003 iPod. Obviously the iPod brought me the wondrous ability to carry my music collection everywhere in a svelte little cigarette-pack-size object (that glowed!), but I think it was more than that.

All things are not equal here. Often there is more value and utility to be gotten out of one device that doesn’t tug at one’s heart strings than the one that does. I’m typing this on a 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina, and it’s definitely the right machine for the work I do. But I don’t feel much for it other than satisfaction from its usefulness.

The 2013 Moto G was on some flash sale at Best Buy for $25 today. It’s Verizon-only, and I don’t have Verizon, but I grabbed one anyway. It seems, I dunno, cute.

Withdrawal

This we know to be true: I have something of an unhealthy enthusiasm for gadgets, currently focused on smartphones. (Sometimes it’s tablets, though not now, sometimes headphones, and it goes on.) When I find the one I like, it becomes a rather precious thing to me.
Remember when I was without a mobile device for a whole day a couple months ago? I didn’t do well.

A few days ago, a tripped while attending to a whining child at the breakfast table, at which point my Galaxy Note 4 flew from my hand, and though it was in a very good case, landed screen-first onto the rim of a cereal bowl. Though the bowl had some milk in it, there appeared to be no liquid damage (time may tell otherwise). But, alas, there was a chip in the glass of the screen.

A tiny, tiny, wee chip.

My wife couldn’t even see it herself without help from me to point it out.

But I couldn’t bear it. The phone was very expensive, and I’d sold three other devices to afford it: my previous phone, an iPad and a Kindle. I’d only had it a few weeks. I kept it in a chunky Speck case to minimize any chance of accidental damage.

But I never liked screen protectors. I may be changing my position on them.

So there was that chip. That tiny, tiny chip. Not a scratch, mind you, not a thin line, but a small piece of the glass, now gone. A tiny, tiny piece that many would probably not even notice.

But I noticed. Always noticed. My eyes were always drawn to it. I see you there, distorting and discoloring the underlying pixels into a rainbow of pain. I see you there.

So I’ve sent the phone away to be repaired. (All the local repair places only do iPhones. All of them!)

Because I need some kind of phone for work and keeping in touch with my wife throughout the day, I was able to borrow an old, abandoned iPhone 4S from my wife’s uncle. The WiFi on it doesn’t work, but whatever.

Photo on 3-9-15 at 3.18 PMAnd it’s so small. When I had my own 4S back in 2011, I adored it. It was my favorite device ever. When the iPhone 5 came out, I thought it was a little too big.

Times have changed. The 4S now seems comically miniscule. It’s like a Fisher-Price phone. It’s small enough to be my Apple Watch that actually does useful things. And since the WiFi doesn’t work on it anyway, I’m using it as little as possible, only when necessary.

So without a tablet, without an e-reader, and without a phone I get any pleasure from using, I’m experiencing what I have to admit is a kind of withdrawal. I’m refreshing status update pages obsessively. I’m bemoaning my state on Twitter ad nauseam. I’m twitching.

How long will this take? According to FedEx, as of this writing, my phone hasn’t even yet arrived at its place of repair. Then days for it to be evaluated and fixed. That’s assuming they have the parts they need. It could be days for them to order and then recieve the parts. Then a couple more days to be shipped back.

All this for a tiny, tiny chip in the glass.

I don’t know if I’ll make it.

I’m told they once printed books on paper, bound into a kind of codex. I may explore that as a stop-gap.

I should say that my 5-year-old son, unbidden, and based solely on his perceiving my disquiet, offered me the use of his Fire HD 6 tablet “whenever you want.” He’s such an angel.