“Every stupid thing Samsung does makes Android better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh No, Not OLED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

“Apple Released a Surface, a Roku, and a Samsung Phone.”

Photo credit: Brett Jordan / Foter / CC BY
Summing up the latest Apple event in which a slew of new products were introduced, including a giant-ass iPad, a better Apple TV (low bar), and new iPhones–6 with some odd gimmicks in them. The Verge’s Nilay Patel said on Periscope (and I’m paraphrasing), “Today, Apple released a Surface, a Roku, and a Samsung phone.”

And yeah, they kinda did. I think that’s fine, though, I’m not one of those folks who think Apple or any other company has to be 100% original with every product they produce. I’m glad they rip each other off and learn from each other’s good ideas. It makes all the products, in the aggregate, better.

That said, Patel’s joke was funny because it was largely true. The iPad Pro is Apple’s answer to the Microsoft Surface, which, despite some genuine confusion of what it was for, now seems to be a well regarded device for folks in particular fields and with particular needs. (Anecdotally, I’ve seen a number of them with college students who get a lot out of the tablet-PC combo as well as the stylus.) I’m glad they copied the Surface! Since the Surface was introduced, I hoped Apple would make something like it, and they finally have. I’m glad they took the stylus as an input device very seriously. Is any of this any good? Who knows.

I do know one thing: It’s way too goddamned expensive for me. Baseline $800 without the stylus or keyboard cover, which kick you over $1000. Nope. I’m sure that’s very worthwhile to a great many people, but not me. Halve that, and I’d consider it.

(Kyle Wagner at The Concourse writes of the tablet-PC combo: “I have no idea why you’d try to marry the two, outside of blithe cowing to other people’s dumbass ideas. It is profoundly dumb. They will sell 500 million of these.”)

The Apple TV looks nice. And it does a lot of things other folks already do, but probably very well. That’s about it.

And then the phones, the iPhones 6S and 6S Plus. The big changes here are “3D Touch” and “Live Photos.” Until I use one of these devices myself it’s impossible to know just how useful or interesting either of these new features is, but I’m a tad skeptical. 3D Touch, where additional information can be gleaned about something on screen by pressing harder on it. I’m less interested in the hardware aspect of this, where the device knows how hard you’re pressing, and more interested in the UI side, where the user can now “peek” underneath things, or get quick access to actions or items without opening a full app. That could be pretty cool if done well. Will it be? I thought Apple had answered my prayers when they added third-party keyboards to iOS, but they turned out to mostly do it poorly, so who can say.

Live Photos strikes me as the Samsung-y move here, a kind of Harry Potter move where a photo also gets a bit of video recorded around it. It’s cute, no doubt, and will probably yield a few cool items, especially with kids. But Google, of course, auto-animates a series of photos into GIFs, which is similar in idea but very different in the actual output. And other Android manufacturers have had the photo-as-short-video feature before and no one really cared, including me.

(I’ll have more to say about the ups and downs of Samsung’s approach to iteration in another post.)

So it’s not a reason to buy a phone. Neither is the 3D Touch for that matter. But Apple will expect you to, and chances are, “you” (meaning the general smartphone consumer) will.

So, yes, Apple is (finally?) doing some of the things its competitors have done, and it pretended not to be interested in (like the stylus). That’s good, and they’ll likely do it very well, it’s all in the execution for them, as Josh Topolsky wrote at The New Yorker (I know, I was surprised to see him there, too):

That’s part of the reason why Apple’s “me-toos” end up feeling like “me-firsts.” In the age of digital, execution is staggeringly important, and there isn’t a single company in existence that can pull off polish and simplicity like Apple. While other companies struggle just to get all of their devices and services talking to one another, Tim Cook and friends are worrying over the details that actually make consumers pay attention. The products don’t just work the way they should; they feel the way they should. Reducing friction, even a single click, can change the way a user perceives an entire product.

Yes, but! I’m not so sure Apple is all-in on “execution” like it used to be. If it were, Apple Music wouldn’t be driving people nuts, iTunes wouldn’t be a software shitshow, and the new generations of iPhones wouldn’t start at 16GB. That’s right, those “Live Photos” you’re taking, those iTunes movies you’re downloading, and that 4K video you’re shooting will have more or less no room on that expensive new device. Matthew Yglesias gets why this is a huge mistake, because it sacrifices the quality of experience for short-term monetary gain, which it doesn’t even need:

Killing the 16GB phone and replacing it with a 32GB model at the low end would obtain things money can’t buy — satisfied customers, positive press coverage, goodwill, a reputation for true commitment to excellence, and a demonstrated focus on the long term. A company in Apple’s enviable position ought to be pushing the envelop forward on what’s considered an acceptable baseline for outfitting a modern digital device, not squeezing extra pennies out of customers for no real reason.

The fact that this is still around shows a degree of cynicism and greed that should worry the Apple faithful. As more of a Reformed Apple-ist, I can appreciate and wonder at how well they’ve executed on so many things. But I can also take a step back and ask if they really sweat the details like they say they do. Not giving customers a sufficiently capable device is a big detail to miss.

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.

The Diminishing Returns of Flagship Phones During the Mid-Range Renaissance

Moto X Style, image by Motorola.

I gotta say, I’m not so sure there’s much reason these days to buy a phone that retails (unsubsidized) for more than $600. Merely a year or so ago, I wouldn’t have said this, as the most well-regarded and reliable phones were those such as the HTC One M8, the Galaxy Note 4, the LG G3, the Nexus 6, and of course the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus. All of them came out at prices over $600, and reached into the realms of $800–1000.

There were exceptions in the flagship realm: the 2014 Moto X was just under $600, and the OnePlus One blew minds at the low price of $350 or so – that is, if you could actually get one. The Nexus 5 was technically a 2013 phone, but at about the same price at the OnePlus One, remained a strong contender.

But generally, unless you wanted to take a chance on a crazy “flagship killer” with hit-or-miss service and a decent chance for receiving a lemon, or you were okay with using a year-old device, you had to spend at least $500, but more likely closer to $700 or $800, if you wanted a solid, well-made device. Goddamn that’s a lot of money.

But today? While the current crop of high-end flagships are great, they’re not so much greater than the new middle-range, which is in the midst of some kind of sudden renaissance, to make the extra few hundred dollars worth it for the general customer.

I recently wrote that last year’s flagship phones are usually a better bet than a current-generation mid-ranger, but that truism has been exploded entirely with a slate of recent announcements. Last week, Motorola announced its new flagship, the Moto X Pure Edition (or “Style”), which will start at $400, a hundred less than last year. (It’s also got a new Moto G, which competes competently for under $200!) OnePlus has a new Two, which is only a little more expensive than its last phone, under $400. Asus has its Zenfone 2 at $300, and Alcatel has its Idol 3 at $250, both of which have been widely heralded as excellent, far exceeding the expectations set by their prices.

The LG G4 looks gorgeous. The upcoming Note 5 will certainly be a powerhouse. The Galaxy S6 has a screen so gorgeous I could just die. And so on. But for most people, there’s almost no reason to get any of them instead of one of the sub-$500 phones in the previous paragraph.

Here are the exceptions: General consumers who simply can’t be bothered to learn something new, who will be so flummoxed by anything that’s not iOS, or are utterly entrenched beyond all measure into the Apple ecosystem (or just spent an enormous amount of money on an Apple Watch), they should still get an iPhone. They’re amazing, they’re beautiful, and are far more than the sum of their specs. (I played with a 6 Plus the other day, and I swear, its display seems sharper and appears bigger than it actually is. It’s a marvel.) But a lot of folks who think they fall into that easily-flummoxed category would actually be just fine with the stock-Android experience offered by something like a Moto X or Moto G. We still don’t know what the next Nexus (or Nexi) will be or how much it will cost, but if it goes the 2013 Nexus 5 route, it will also be an easy recommendation for this crowd.

Also, those who have a specific need for high-quality stylus work, clearly you’ll want the Note. (Though the Note 4 will remain a kickass phone well into the next year, so I’m not so sure how necessary the 5 will be, but we’ll see.) If you must have the absolute best camera possible on a smartphone, get an iPhone, a Galaxy S6, or an LG G4. By all means!

But for everyone else, I am becoming convinced that spending the additional $300 or $400 one would spend on a high-end flagship will yield ever-diminishing returns. Manufacturers are getting better at what they do, understandings of software interface and optimization are improving, technology is advancing, and the general consumer who needs an excellent phone simply doesn’t have to drop a fortune to own one outright. Whether or not they’re usually iPhone people, now’s a great time to doff the high end, save some cash, and still be happy.

Unaligned Ports, Unhinged Punditry

I really respect Rene Ritchie at iMore. He’s a great reporter, an eloquent writer, and has a nuanced perspective of the larger tech world that few in the tech blogosphere even aspire to, let alone achieve. He really understands not just the technology, but how real human beings, the “normals,” use technology. Check out his review of the iPad Air from 2013, which I remember as one of the best tech reviews I’d read in a long time (and I told him so over Twitter). And overall, iMore is a very good site staffed with talented folks and stuffed with useful information on all things Apple. (I’m also a devoted MacBreak Weekly fan, on which he is a host.)
You know there’s a big “but” coming, right?

He has a piece that exemplifies for me the worst excesses of Apple apologetics, lauding Apple for centering and aligning the ports and speaker grill at the bottom of the iPhone 6 (which is fine), and shaking his head at Samsung for only centering but not aligning them at the bottom of the Galaxy S6.

Ritchie says:

Some people might not care. Like painting the back of the fence or finishing the underside of the cabinet, it’s a detail that only people who take tremendous pride in craft really care about. And, of course, people who look for just exactly that kind of quality.

That’s because it takes an incredible amount of time and resources to achieve it. It takes an incredible amount of planning and coordination as well. It also takes the willingness to not do something if you feel doing it right is important enough.

To align everything along the edge of a device takes designing and mounting the boards in a certain way, and the ports and speakers, and the buttons and jacks, and the grills and every other detail so they all line up at exactly the right place at the end. Painstaking is likely an understatement.

… [O]nce you know the back of the fence wasn’t painted, not only can you never un-know it, you can never stop wondering what else wasn’t given that same care and consideration.

The principle he’s talking about is totally sound. That attention to even the tiniest detail is also why I love Apple products. But this is off the deep end. The perfect-center-alignment that Ritchie is looking for is a matter of taste, and it’s entirely subjective as to whether it matters or is indicative of anything. To Apple’s designers, and to him, aligning everything that way is pleasing and worthwhile, and so they go to painstaking effort to achieve it. Samsung’s folks probably don’t feel the same way about that kind of symmetry. Or they do, and just made the choice to allocate their time and energy to other things.

It’s a fallacy to presume that this was an oversight or neglect on Samsung’s part, and not a mere difference of priorities. The Galaxy line, while not to my own aesthetic tastes, has obviously delighted many, many people with the choices Samsung has made. They like the things Samsung said “yes” to, such as the curved screen on the Edge model, the glass on the front and back, the superior camera, etc. Some of those same people are less than delighted by their decision to say “no” to a removable battery, for example, but I can bet that their delight is unhindered by Samsung’s saying “no” to utter pan-dimensional symmetry in the ports.

This kind of nit-pickery frustrates me, not just because it seems a bit silly, but it’s part of an attitude that implies not just an aesthetic but an almost moral superiority for one design approach over another. I know that this is not Ritchie’s intent by any means, but his piece feeds into this morass of a zeitgeist among Apple pundits that creates a perception of snobbery, whether fair or not, that turns so many off. I love Apple stuff, but I am woozy from it.

Samsung’s designs are not for me, and I do indeed vastly prefer Apple’s sensibilities to Samsung’s, but I also recognize that this is just a subjective preference, and does not imply that I am therefore a better person or smarter user of technology. I think, for example, Motorola’s designs of late for the Moto X and Nexus 6 have been just as striking as Apple’s.

Just in case, I checked to see if my Nexus 6 is “aligned” to Apple standards, and while the power and volume buttons on the side are indeed aligned, the headphone jack is not aligned with the SIM card tray on the top. So obviously, it’s junk, right? As a very happy user of this phone, I clearly don’t know enough to make my own technology decisions, and Motorola and Google obviously don’t care about design or their customers.

And I’m sure their fences are disgusting.

My grossly unaligned Nexus 6. The horror.

UPDATE: My friend Justin Sapp (designer of this site’s banner), made this for me. Enjoy:

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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.