what makes a good smartphone? how do they spark joy?
i’ve watched the smartphone market for the last year, hoping something might catch my eye as my device’s lifespan dwindles alongside my confidence in technology.
behold! markets evolve toward peak nonsense as i cry in anguish. for i, but a simple denizen of the vast net, am met with the realisation that my place is not to be found among others. they look on at with adoration at that which strains my patience. here i sit, nursing RSI as i pound these keys, brooding; “will these infernal machines ever reflect the beauty in my heart?”
google sucks at phones now
ive owned a pixel 2 xl for several years now. at the time of purchase it was a great choice. the nexus line and original pixel had impressive track records. things went downhill fast from there, though…
their major version and patch release process deteriorated after the first major android upgrade, routinely breaking sensors, introducing bugs, and generally causing headaches. i chose their phones to get timely updates, but it became an unacceptable tradeoff of instability for features.
with android 10, goog started trading off customization for “usability.” this manifested at best in hiding configuration options in deeply nested ‘advanced’ menus, and at worst, removing them or forcibly changing settings to address complaint volume from user misconfigurations.
when it came time that my handset reached support end of life and i started looking at the new pixel phones, i was thoroughly underwhelmed:
their optical sensors were stagnating, having made no upgrades. competitors are catching up, and boast some advantages, too.
between gcam mods bringing their software enhancements on this front to other devices, and the removal of “neural core,” a dedicated gpu for post-processing, they no longer have an advantage in this space.
others have scathing things to chime in with too. androidcentral (mirror) flashed a bold headline, “Google’s Pixel 5 is missing the one thing it needs most: a reason to exist,” with jumping out at me:
Ars Technica titled an article covering an Android Central’s exclusive Pixel 5 report as “Pixel 5 is slower than the Pixel 4, has same camera as the Pixel 2”. […] Even the Pixel 4a, reviewed widely as an excellent back to basics phone, caused Input Mag to question whether Google “had lost interest in phones”
i think theyre a little off-center here, but the article otherwise brought some interesting takes.
mkbhd crystallized the sentiment better (despite the disappointing runtime) in his claim that goog has finally recognized that they can’t compete in the hardware space. instead, they’re returning to what we saw in the nexus line: affordable, mid-range phones with flagship software. and that’ll probably hold true if you churn devices every year.
they made my life harder 😭
what finally made my mind up was when it was announced that the exclusive device benefit of unlimited cloud storage for photos at original quality is sunsetting (mirror) Q2 2021, for the most part. free “high quality” [tn: compressed] will remain available to pixel models 2-5 until the last of their components suffer the hazards of entropic aging. no new devices produced thereafter by goog will tout this exemption.
(this makes me vaguely interested in busting out my nexus 5 once the deed is done to see how it behaves in this regard. i wasn’t able to find much mentioned for this line, but apparently such privilege was destined (mirror) for those devices the same month i moved to a different handset)
this was by far the biggest perk for me, personally, or so i thought at first… it got me excited! i saw the value in it! Photos was a terrific, feature rich product pleasant to use and kept getting better. apparently i didn’t look closely enough because there were warnings from the outset (mirror) that it wouldn’t last
it alleviated the urge to figure out how to comparatively index my photo collection for great searchability at zero cost. they did this with ML powered auto-categorization, and contextually activated features that live up to the marketing pitch of goog being Helpful. it’s a beautiful work of art that they’ve created and i applaud this project’s dev team!
…turns out i dont look at my photos all that often though. ive since devised multi-cloud, automated backup strategies with restic, and integrated hydrus network into my workflow for wrangling media libraries.
from the outset, Photos offered free, unlimited, high-quality cloud backup for shots taken from any android device.
Google Photos gives you a single, private place to keep a lifetime of memories, and access them from any device. They’re automatically backed up and synced, so you can have peace of mind that your photos are safe, available across all your devices.
And when we say a lifetime of memories, we really mean it. With Google Photos, you can now backup and store unlimited, high-quality photos and videos, for free.
goog is infamous for enticing their free users into giving them massive amounts of data to capitalize on through other offerings. undoubtedly, they quickly amassed the data necessary to further train and enhance their models, enabling GCP Vision API to go from initial public beta to GA within the next 11 months.
since then, GCP in general has seen wide adoption, with big names in the enterprise service space jumping on board their platform as the world embraces shifting workloads and workflows to other peoples’ computers. im not sure what the final trigger was to usher out the peasants and urchins, but they presumably milked that painfully large dataset for all it was worth.
sparing themselves the PR nightmare of killing Photos after a billion users dutifully confided in the almighty megacorp to keep their memories safe for them until the day they died and beyond, probably people wouldnt mind (mirror) paying a few dollars a month to keep their backups flowing.
“Since so many of you rely on Google Photos as the home of your life’s memories, we believe it’s important that it’s not just a great product, but that it is able to serve you over the long haul,” Google Photos product lead David Lieb wrote (mirror) on Twitter Wednesday. “To ensure this is possible not just now, but for the long term, we’ve decided to align the primary cost of providing the service (storage of your content) with the primary value users enjoy (having a universally accessible and useful record of your life).”
after all, the buck stops only at being caught in a lie after monetizing your drunk-texted lewds. that’d be Evil!
if dreams came true
my ideal fone and the surrounding interfaces would have at least the following qualities…
a physical keyboard; kudos to the OG android smartphone, the HTC Dream/G1. it was magnificent. my first handset, i was in love. i hacked on that baby for years until it got so slow from shoving slimmed down android upgrades into it that it was completely unusable from ram exhaustion and slow as shit at multitasking. that keyboard though!! 🤩 the snappy tactile response, the speed at which i could compose messages, hell, i could even comfortably use a terminal with it! rip my old friend, you’ll have no equal in my eyes 😔
privacy first development; android and goog service integrations have been improving at this with permissions and security framework overhauls, granular activity logging controls, and other tools, sure. they still have a lot to answer for. selectively resetting gboard preferences thru updates to re-enable keystroke usage callbacks is absolutely abhorrent! granted, its anonymized and not tied to your account, ill give them that. still sketchy af! each feature should have a knob if it has privacy implications. a lot of things do, ill give them that. they’re responding to the outcry of late. that shouldnt be necessary! for that matter, opting out of web and app activity shouldn’t disable other features, like discovery or assistant controls.
longer device support overall; security updates lasting for years as an industry trend would be of huge benefit to end-users. sortof inexcusable that the default is 2-3 years when operating systems on other form factors easily make 5 years on average. make an LTS model of a flagship or something, idk. i hear justifications for this being greediness or playing into consumerism. the charitable interpretations would be that they’re matching software lifecycle with expected hardware lifespan, but that doesn’t really hold water across manufacturers - namely apple, but there are plenty of other handsets that run fine over the long-term.
longer major os version support; similar to the the point above, id like vendors not to force major version upgrades by halting security updates once theyre ready to push out the next great iteration. i could concede this point if major functionality changes such as ui overhauls were optional, or there were more effort invested into ui customization available to the user.
case design on par with handset shell design! i don’t use cases, nor do i have a mobile repair insurance plan. im in a privileged position to be able to consciously make this trade off, accepting the risk of damage from drops in exchange for better handling and aesthetics. as much as i hate to admit it, my stupid fucking phone makes me happy when it feels good in my hand and looks pretty to my eye. i hear something resembling pride in my voice during the honeymoon period when talking about it with others. i also dont want to have to take these risks! can the industry not work together to produce handsets and cases that don’t diminish these qualities?
automatic battery charge cut-off at 80% to prolong cell life (mirror) ala accubattery’s (apk) charge alarm function. lion cells take a hit being charged up to their full capacity past this threshold. it degrades their chemical composition similarly to letting their charge fall below a certain threshold. battery saver in android can help with this latter point, but its function is targeted at prolonging charge for continued handset operation in the moment. this isn’t even a handset thing! this has to be baked into the chargers, where the sensing mechanism already is and serves to cut off at at max capacity. why isn’t there already something for this when it exists for non-integrated cell charging devices? am i missing something that limits this inherent to the usb-c spec or something?
what else is out there?
lots of companies make phones. are they any good?
apparently blackberry is still dying (mirror) and hasnt released a phone in a number of years. also what the fuck is up with the decision to slap a physical keyboard on the face of the phone?? sure, slider mechanisms have historically been the point of contention in build quality but god damn that looks stupid uncomfortable to use!
motorola is moving to carrier-locking their devices in spite of still touting the pure android experience thing, which is pretty weird tbh. makes me this theyre getting a bit confused who their target audience is in a sense, but hey, what do i know?
a tangent: apparently they have a smart flipfone (mirror) marketed under the antiquated razr line that almost got me excited until i realised it doesn’t have a physical keyboard. rather, it uses emerging folding display tech because that’s exactly what the people wanted, right?
…as i recall, the complaint around the time this tech started getting explored was that sitting on ur phone resulted in fucked displays. we saw bendable phones for a bit, but then apparently manufacturers lost sight of the objective? or maybe they fixed the shell problem and i didnt notice because it didn’t happen to me?
anyway, this weird combination of retaining their software experience values while omitting band ranges and investing in superfluous tech makes me think theyre gonna go the way of bb if they dont get their shit together soon
apple’s new iphones are shiny af! i almost impulse bought one on the physical design alone,,, at 3am on a sleepless night, lying in bed, alone, high on vitamin d3 (mirror) and trazodone… somehow i was able to convince myself better of it, thankfully. their software strategy is still repulsive to me. i feel like this is a simple case of incompatible desires.
as i kept thinking about the tradeoffs, i easily deflated my excitement:
- apple has yet to implement a Focus Time / Digital Wellbeing equivalent, though perhaps theres some $20 app that will do it.
- i cant even that iOS still doesn’t have app-based DND exemptions!
- …oh theres more
sure, i could have pagerduty call or text me instead, and their app even has a feature to keep the contact card of dial-out numbers updated (at least on android), but i don’t want to rely on those services when im on wifi 90% of the time with an internet connection that’s far more reliable…
im not interested in using a mac for my other computing needs, and apparently id need to do that to get sms access on a desktop. goog has spoiled me, and thats why i loved android from the start, the customization, and the focus on improving the lives of knowledgeable computer users. there are a lot of concessions im apparently willing to make for good aesthetics, but Messages for Web / Google Voice are too good to let go of!
fxtec was funded by a kickstarter to make the pro1 (mirror) a couple years ago, but they haven’t followed it up with a hardware refresh. they announced some model idr the name of but afaict it just replaced stock android with lineageos. anyway, it’s old by now, and id be flashing roms for updates. the optics werent stellar, there were build quality issues in the keyboard, the other sensors were problematic, and i just … had it been executed right i would have jumped on that shit, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be
straight up didnt look at samsung… apparently, i still have a grudge against their BrAnD from being thoroughly disgusted by past security/release practices and ecosystem lock-in 🤷♀️ maybe they’ve gotten better but i didnt rly give enough of a shit to dive into the device options and ecosystem implications. (there’s others; essential, xiaomi, asus, etc. they were also excluded for half-baked reasons and wanting to get the decision over with.)
pick of the runts
i ended up going with the oneplus 8 pro. by this point, i was ready to settle. this was the second year in a row that i’d been thoroughly disappointed with the state of the smartphone market. it was obvious to me that what i wanted wasn’t popular enough to exist while also meeting my quality standards and appealing to the princess in me with high tech bells and whistles.
what attracted me?
- a number of my like-minded friends had gone with them, against google and samsung
- oxygenos is pretty clean, privacy focused, and they have a track record that shines to keep it that way. this elevated them in my mind as being power user-focused.
- the specs for their flagship were good enough, but not top of the line. oh well
- the camera seemed fine, and i reasoned that i could get a point and shoot if i hated it or a gcam mod didnt work out.
- i just wanted some comforts and excitement that i remembered enjoying with my early switch to the nexus 5 and pixel 2. the featureset reminded me of playing around with cyanogenmod years ago, and admittedly, that nostalgia probably influenced my decision too
- the ability to root and flash it without it being a crapshoot if id brick the thing was a leg up; ill say, goog does know their shit with security, and i never did get over my nervousness to try that with their handsets.
- honestly i just dont use phones all that much, and less so since suffering a herniated disc in my neck a couple years ago,,, something ive yet to fully recover from, hampering my ability to look down or even hold devices in my hands for long periods of time. i didnt need my choice to be lovable and dreamy
plus, it was the season of
giving spending! sAlEs AnD diScOuNtS were to be had! 🙄 in all seriousness though, i did save like $200 on it during black friday, and getting it straight from them landed me their wireless earbuds for free. this might actually be the first year in the last 5+ that i’ve actually bought something on black friday. the shopping holiday is a joke tbh
at first i was like
which,,, good job me for remaining stoic in that moment, i guess. now, after using the thing for a few days, im disappointed (more on that in another post).
look, i get it. people want their lux products. they’re affordable with no interest payment plans. why shouldn’t we all have these nice things?
they’re seen as status symbols, fueled by the ongoing rat race to get ahead. under capitalism, one-upmanship is encouraged through competition, often to toxic degrees. people boast, rubbing their new precious piece in their “friends” and acquaintances faces.
theres an obsession with economic and personal growth. its gets all twisted up such that thinking about what personal value is being fulfilled got lost somewhere. does spending all this time and money and words on phones and the activities surrounding them make you feel seen and understood and satisfied? you might say yes. think again…
people get addicted to social media, games, scrolling mindless content. it’s available to them any time of the day or night, wherever they are. often this is a dissociative escape mechanism for an otherwise dissatisfying life. but we all have our vices right?
because it’s absolutely essential that everyone have a phone, well, what once was a complicated, new, confusing technology is now ubiquitous. over two decades of progress, manufacturers have perfected the formula of satisfying the most people. they run analytics on device usage and watch trends detailing complaints and desires. most people are happy with the product they receive!
it just so happens that im not part of that demographic, unfortunately. oh well! what else is new?
i’m bitter, i can see that. this is mostly a rant, sure. that’s not aligned with my morals. this has been a long time coming, and it feels good to get it out. does that justify the time i spent on it? oh, probably not. but we all fuck up sometimes right? (did i need to spend 3 hours providing an apk mirror and hyperfixating on file checksumming and package signing key verification to simply fucking mention a battery monitoring app, for that matter? fml)
dont own a smartphone unless you Actually Need one… really think about what benefit it brings to you and if that’s essential to your life. if youre resourceful and knowledgeable i think you’ll find it’s hard to justify it.
if you are going to possess a phone, consider the mid-range tier or below. its possible to offload or eliminate most of the things smartphones to other devices, services and processes. its also likely that those other pieces of tech involved with have longer lifespans, remaining far more stable in operation over the years. you’ll save money, have less headaches, and thank yourself later
by all means, please let me know if there’s something you know of, a phone, rom, accessory, whatever, that does any of this better! slide into my DMs and tell me that i failed to consider some cool nerdy thing you’ve found. i’d love nothing more than to be hear your excitement over sharing this struggle and how you’ve dealt with it~
i’m not practicing what i preach, here but i’d like to. my one hope from this writing is that some sufficiently advanced life-form may show me the way. shepherd me out of this small part of our dystopian hellscape to cooperative, Sustainable pastures full of organic, non-toxic patterns cultivated by loving nerds who are delusional in completely different ways (uwu)