The Year of Phones

IMG_20150721_115738

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.

Cooling Down the Nexus 6, Once and For All

1EA48070
Long have I writhed in doubt, regret, and anger over the heat emitted by the Nexus 6. What ought to be the perfect phone for me – for its design, its high-resolution display, its pure Android software, and its sheer size – has always stopped me just short of sheer contentment by getting simply too hot to be comfortable to hold for long periods of time. And I want to be able to hold it for long. Periods. Of time.

I know that this is not some endemic flaw with the Nexus 6. My anecdotal surveys of Nexus 6 owners tell me that the vast majority of users have no issues whatsoever with its heat. However, a small number of folks I’ve found on message boards have shared my frustrations, and some of them simply gave up and rid themselves of the device. This, added to my own experience of having gone through a few different units when I thought the heat was a mechanical flaw, at least indicated to me that 1) the Nexus 6 does generally have a propensity to get too warm even under light or casual use; and 2) it is a problem that can be (and is usually) mitigated to an acceptable level with some more or less trivial adjustments to use.

So I became determined to make it work, to give this beast one final shot. (It was also “one final shot” because my wife made me promise I’d stop switching phones for a while, for which I am half-grateful.)

I did some research. Whenever I found any official Google sources addressing the issue of heat, or really any advice on the subject, the common theme of “rogue app” was raised repeatedly. Some app or apps could be making the Nexus too hot by their misbehavior. Maybe I could find those apps, kick them out, and find replacements for their functionality.

I installed a couple of “cooling” apps, not so much because I thought they could cool down the phone, as I suspect they’re just shy of snake oil, but to get a look at which apps might be causing the heat to begin with.

I also found a study released earlier this year by AVG that looked at which Android apps consumed the most system resources and had the biggest impact on the battery. A phone heats up when its resources are being taxed and when the battery has greater demand placed on it, so I hoped this would give me a little guidance. And it did!

One of the biggest offenders, according to the installed utilities and the AVG report, won’t surprise you: the Facebook app. I’d eschewed installing it before, and I was happy to remove it this time as well. Its mobile website is almost identical to the app anyway, and includes messaging, so no big deal there.

AVG says Spotify is another big one, but I’m not a subscriber, so no problem ditching that. Of course games are major consumers of resources, but I take that as a given, and accept the consequences of playing a phone-taxing game. More to the point, a game will be less likely to use resources in the background when the app itself is not running. Not so for something like Facebook, which wants to know what’s up all the time. Instagram was similarly called out by AVG and my utilities, so for that time being, it also went.

One app the cooling utilities highlighted, that the AVG report did not, was Evernote. I have always disliked how bloated an app Evernote is, but continuing to use it for its ubiquity and connectivity to other services. But while I wasn’t surprised to see that it was taking up more of my phone’s resources than it ought to, I was surprised to see to just what degree. At one point, I found it using almost 200MB of memory just to do some kind of interaction with Google Play billing – and I don’t even use Evernote’s paid service. That was the last straw, and I decided I’d make do with Google Keep for my note taking. Out went Evernote.

I also uninstalled Pocket, an app that likes to refresh and download background content. I never look at Pocket, but only use it to store links for The Morning Heresy, and literally nothing else, so I am fine to send links by email to Pocket. I don’t miss it.

My favorite RSS reader, Press, also went, if only temporarily, to see if it was similarly doing too much in the background. In the meantime I’m using the more lightweight gReader.

Here’s something I think will surprise you. Two particularly greedy apps are Amazon’s main shopping app and Amazon’s Kindle app! Now, you already know that Amazon and I are not getting along as we once did, and this was like being kicked while I was down. Despite my exile, I still have full access to my Kindle content, so I frequently used the Kindle app. Well, not anymore! Using some, let’s say, means, I extricated my Kindle books and got them into my Google Play Books library, and gleefully uninstalled both of these Amazon apps.

So this was my setup for a few days. I’d removed Instagram, Pocket, Press, Facebook, Kindle, Evernote, and Amazon shopping. I’d installed a “cooling” app to monitor the CPU temperature and check what other apps might be getting troublesome, and let Qualcomm’s Snapdragon BatteryGuru do its own thing in the background, learning my usage habits and making its little adjustments.

And you know what? It was working! The phone could still get warm, but it never got so hot that, say, the screen was uncomfortable to touch. Most of the time, it was just fine.

Feeling pretty confident that I was getting somewhere, I decided it was time to bring some apps back. The funny thing was that there were so few I even wanted back! I could certainly try reinstalling Pocket, for example, but there’s almost no reason whatsoever to do so, as it’s trivially easy to send links I’m saving to Pocket over email. It was nice to know Facebook was not eating my phone alive from the inside, and saving the website as a bookmark on my home screen makes it almost as though it’s there anyway. gReader is fine. Google Keep is fine. And Amazon can, of course, get bent.

The only thing I missed was Instagram, just for the raw convenience of sharing photos to several networks at once. So a few days ago I experimented with allowing Instagram back on to the device.

At about the same time, I found out about a utility called Greenify that seems to be well regarded as a non-snake-oil way to “hibernate” apps that are asking too much of a device. Mitigated by Greenify (and perhaps also by BatteryGuru), Instagram didn’t seem to be causing me any problems.

So here I am, a week or so into my experiment. A handful of apps are gone from my device, and the Nexus 6 has been almost entirely perfectly comfortable. Again, it does sometimes get a little warmer than I think it ought to, but so has every phone I’ve ever used. But importantly, I no longer find myself being frustrated by the heat it emits, I no longer feel any regret for my purchase, even when it gets a little warm.

I think I have this under control, which is awesome. And not a moment too soon, since I’m not allowed to get anything else, and boy oh boy that new Moto X looks amazing.

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.

Nexus 6, You’ve Burned Me For the Last Time [Updated]

Image originally from Phone Arena

*** UPDATE *** I have very much changed my opinion on this device. Please see here.

The Nexus 6, I have determined, is chintzy. I thought it was me, at first, but after having returned several units that had various problems (which has earned me the ire of Amazon, but that’s another story), I think it’s not me, it’s the phone.

One unit had discolored banding problems on the display. Two others got uncomfortably warm during normal use, and too damned hot when doing anything like watching video or playing a game, such that the glass of the display was almost painful to touch. A great deal of googling showed that this seemed to be an issue relatively few complained of, so I thought perhaps I had gotten a lot of first-batch units that had since been improved. Or perhaps the Android 5.1 update, not available when I tried the Nexi, addressed the issue. Or perhaps it was an issue with the AT&T-specific variant. Or perhaps it was just the blue ones.

So I gave it one last shot with a new-batch, unlocked, 5.1-running, white Nexus 6. And?

And it just gets too goddamned hot.

Plus, every unit had something somewhat odd about its vibration, each one had its own sound and quirks. Plus, they all hummed when charging (although the latest one hummed from the AC adapter, not the phone itself).

And the screen’s glass isn’t all that smooth, a little too much friction.

And the battery is not very good.

Neither is the camera.

But it’s fast and runs stock Lollipop! And it’s really big! Which I really like!

But still. I think despite the place they hold among Android nerds as the big-ass pure-Google beast-phablet, they’re just not made very well. Whatever decisions Motorola made to keep the thing affordable to manufacture, they cheaped out. LG did amazing work with the Nexus 5 in 2013, with a phone that was a joy to use despite its lame camera and battery. Motorola really just made a big stock-Android phone, but nothing to hang their hat on.

It’s a damn shame. I was ready to have quite an affection for the Nexus 6. I tried extremely hard to make that relationship work, to the detriment of others. I am finding I now feel closer to my Galaxy Note 4 after all.

Update, Next Day: Playing some more with it the next day, it still gets warm but it seems not as much. Perhaps this had something to do with it being its “first day” and running lots of setup processes? I obviously don’t know. And even the battery life and camera seem improved, and that may be due to the 5.1 update (which I thought I was getting on the Note last night, but alas, it was a small .0.1 update). I can certainly tell that the Nexus 6 is extremely fast now, with none of the UI lag that I sometimes get on the Note.

This may not be over. Perhaps it actually has burned me for the last time.