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.

Actually, Note 5 #Penghazi is Less Stupid Than I Thought

MacBreak Weekly on TWiT.

Yesterday, I wrote that the controversy over the Galaxy Note 5’s S Pen was overblown. Quickly: if you stick it in backwards, it gets stuck and does at the least significant damage. People cried “recall,” “design flaw,” and invented the (hilarious) hashtag #penghazi. Apple-loving pundits couldn’t contain their glee or smugness. I said that this was silly, that it was akin to trying to shove a floppy disk into a drive upside-down and then blaming the manufacturer when it breaks something.

What I didn’t realize, however, was just how easy it was to do this accidentally. I didn’t understand that until I saw this clip of Leo Laporte, who was just casually discussing the controversy on MacBreak Weekly, fiddled with the S Pen going in butt-first into his Note 5, and lo and behold, not even halfway in, it got stuck.

I had been fiddling the very same way! It didn’t happen to get stuck, so I may have dodged a bullet.

So, I’m obviously reevaluating my hard and fast position of “just don’t do that.” It’s simply too easy for this to happen by accident.

And even if it wasn’t all that easy, before I even came to this new realization I thought about ways that Samsung could address this if it was inclined. Now I feel like these have moved from “could do” to “must do.” (Samsung’s not known for being classy or anything, so who knows what they’ll ever do.)

First, no-questions-asked returns on Note 5 devices. If someone bought this and they’re worried about it, or worse, they’ve gotten it stuck, they can return it for a full refund.

Second, they should cover all repairs related to this issue, free of charge.

Third, presuming they’re not going to redesign the whole phone, they need to make a new S Pen with a wider butt-end, maybe with a rubbery nub, such that it is impossible to stick into the phone backward, and send one to every Note 5 owner, free.

Alternatively, at least issue (free of charge again) a rubbery cap of some sort to put on the end of the S Pen to serve the same function of keeping it from going in the wrong way, some kind of cap that’s more or less impossible to take off again.

And that should be that.

So I largely take back the last post. This is a much bigger problem than I thought.

I’m delighted with my Note 5. It’s a wonderful device, and chances are this S Pen problem would never have even come up for me. Now I confess to being a touch nervous about it, but it’s not enough to make me regret my decision to get this phone. It’s still amazing, and it’s still a keeper.

But I’ll take that redesigned S Pen, now.

Poor Leo.

The Note 5 Backwards-Stylus ‘Design Flaw’ Hubbub is Really Stupid [Updated with Me Being Wrong]

* * * UPDATE: I have largely reversed my position on this due to new evidence. So consider this post an archive of my being wrong, or at least, insufficiently informed.
From the Note 5 manual.

Apparently, some folks have decided to 1) purchase a Samsung Galaxy Note 5, 2) Stick the S Pen stylus in backward, getting it utterly stuck, and 3) Blame Samsung.

What?

It sucks, no doubt, to have your new phone suddenly broken due to something that seems so innocuous.

But come on. You have to wonder, why in the name of sweet flappy jeebus would you want to stick your S Pen in backwards? For one thing, this particular version of the S Pen features a clicky spring-loaded nub on the end of it, which is specifically constructed to eject the stylus from its compartment. This ejector would not function if inserted backward into the phone, so by doing so, you’ve already negated (nay, violated) the whole concept of the S Pen’s design. And there is literally no reason to stick the stylus in backwards. Even if you did so accidentally, when you go to push it in and your thumb or finger feels a point instead of a flat, springy surface, that ought to be a clue that you’re about to commit an error, and so reverse course.

So, fine, I’ll grant that accidents happen. A kid could get ahold of the device and mess with it, or a person who doesn’t know any better might just find the whole “what would happen if” concept irresistible. Sure, Samsung says in the instruction manual not to ever put the pen in backward, but whatever, nobody reads those. It would absolutely been better if Samsung had made sure this kind of thing couldn’t happen by accident, and would have added value to the product.

But do we hold the manufacturers of USB devices responsible if someone tries to jam a plug into a port upside-down, damaging the connectors? If I shoved a floppy disc into a drive backward, and screwed everything up, would that be the manufacturers’ fault? In either case, would we demand a recall of these products? Of course not.

Look, Samsung is a big, rich company, and they can certainly afford to replace some devices or rejigger their design, I don’t feel bad for them or worry about them. Puh-leez. But I have to give an even bigger “puh-leez” (maybe a few more e’s, like, “puh-leeeeeeeze”) to the idea that this is some unforgivable design flaw on Samsung’s part, that they somehow blew it because a few people couldn’t help but “see what happened” if they did something obviously wrong to their expensive, delicate hardware made of super-precise, miniaturized mechanical parts. It’s an $800 piece of technology, folks. Treat it like one.

And for full disclosure: I got a Note 5, it’s amazing, and I have not been tempted to stick the S Pen in backward. Ever.

Update: Andrew Martonik sees the real design flaw.