It has now been a little bit more than two years since I bought my current smartphone, an HTC Evo 4G LTE. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that (I’m led to understand that the HTC One X and its variants were pretty popular back in their day, even if they were thoroughly overshadowed by the Samsung Galaxy S3) but in my case, it’s the “More than two years” part that’s rather unusual in this case. With my last couple of phones, by the time my two-year upgrade rolled around I was pretty much ready to jump onto the Next Big Thing as soon as I could. In both cases, the new phone was a clear upgrade from the old one, and represented a pretty significant leap in technology. Fast forward a couple of years, and at this point, for various reasons I find myself in far less of a hurry to upgrade than I normally would be.
That isn’t to say that I couldn’t use an upgrade about now. My current phone, in spite of the fact that it’s held up surprisingly well given what I’ve put it through, is definitely starting to show its age about now. Battery life is still surprisingly decent most of the time as long as I don’t do something to aggravate the thing, and for the most part everything works the way it should, but for some time now it’s had a habit of rebooting itself at inopportune times (less now than it used to once I figured out that I was pushing down on the power button if I tried to tie a shoe with it in my pocket) and lately it’s taken to quarreling with the local WiFi in my apartment, to the point that it quickly drains its battery banging its proverbial head on the proverbial wall if it can’t connect. But the most obvious issue that has cropped up recently is the fact that somehow, my phone has gotten bent. I have no idea how it happened, but at some point the top portion of my phone managed to actually develop a slight kink in it, as you can see above. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem to impact functionality at all (nor does the display appear to be affected in any way,) and for the most part I don’t even notice it unless I actually take the cover off and look at it. Nonetheless, even if it’s not actually doing anything it just makes the thing look weird.
Of course, if you’ve been keeping up with the latest trends in smartphones, you’ll know that curved displays are one of the things that shockingly large quantities of R&D money has been poured into, and as a result of this a couple of smartphones with these curved displays have shown up on the market (the Samsung Galaxy Curve and the LG G Flex.) In spite of the fancy new display technology, both of these phones seem to be decidedly middle-of-the-pack on specs, and the reviews on both seem to be pretty lukewarm. Of course, given the fact that large quantities of R&D money has presumably been spent on the displays, someone had to make them, right? I actually got to spend some time messing with an LG G Flex at work the other day (one of my responsibilities at work is to run interoperability tests against our head unit with a number of different models of smartphones roughly once per quarter) and in spite of the unusually large screen and the allegedly fancy curved display, I couldn’t shake the feeling that in spite of the bells and whistles there just wasn’t much to distinguish it from any of the other nine Android phones I have tested to date in the current interoperability pass.
Which brings up the question: Just what distinguishes one phone from another these days? Basically, what it boils down to is that you have roughly three or four flavors of phone OS out there depending on who you ask (While I was writing that it took me a minute to remember that Blackberry somehow still exists, which says something about just how far and how quickly they’ve fallen off the radar lately.) In terms of most mainstream users you’ve got iPhone flavor, Android flavor and Windows Phone flavor. The iPhone side isn’t all that difficult to figure out since you have just one manufacturer and a handful of models to worry about. On the Windows Phone side your choices won’t be all that much more complicated (over there you pretty much have Nokia and a few miscellaneous devices from the likes of HTC and Samsung, and not much else.) Then you get to Android, and things get a lot more complicated in a hurry. On the current round of interoperability testing I’m working on at work (which is unusually large because it accounts for two quarters worth of devices) there are only four iPhone models (basically the four most recent ones, barring whatever Apple happens to announce in early September) but there’s also twenty different Android handsets from eight different manufacturers. Granted, Samsung accounts for eight of those by itself (and there aren’t any HTC models on this particular round of testing,) but that’s a lot of testing on a lot of different handsets that seem largely identical, at least on the surface. Most of the ones we’re testing run some variant of either Android Jellybean or Android KitKat, and even with the various customizations that most handset manufacturers seem all-too-willing to paste all over the stock Android, in the end the only way I ever seem to notice any of that is when the custom UI does something that breaks my standard workflow.
Anyone remember when people thought the iPhone 5 was going to be too big? Me neither.
So far, out of the handsets I’ve tested during this pass, the only one that has really stood out (at least for reasons other than bugs filed during the tests) would be this one, the Sony Xperia Z Ultra. Yes, apparently you’re supposed to carry one of these things around and use it as your phone. And while it is possible in theory (in a pinch, I’ve found I can actually cram an iPad Mini into a pocket of my jeans, not that I’d recommend it) but you’re going to look awfully silly doing it. I suspect the idea is that you hire some guy to follow you around carrying your phone. in spite of the apparently impressive size of the screen, when it all boils down there really isn’t all that much to distinguish this from a lot of the other phones on the market. Which seems to be the problem that just about everyone has these days. Sure, you get different cases and a few scattered gimmicks here and there, but by and large when you start using a lot of different Android devices it becomes clear pretty quickly that there really isn’t a whole lot to distinguish any one of them from another.
Which, ironically enough, makes it harder than ever to shop for a phone. If you read the two posts I linked above, you can see some of the thought process that went into my last couple of phone purchases, but in each instance the choice was pretty straightforward, and the devices that I replaced my then-current one with were pretty significant upgrades over the previous one. But now when I look at the choices I’d have available, it’s not really all that clear that I’d really be gaining all that much by replacing my current phone. Sure the new one would be new, shiny and presumably not bent, but it seems that it would be an incremental upgrade at best. And aside from a couple of rumors about some of the Nexus devices we might get later this year, there isn’t really anything that sounds interesting on the horizon. I suppose I’ll eventually figure out something, but to be perfectly honest I’m not in a big hurry. I suppose if I really wanted a change I could go for an iPhone, but I’ve just never really been all that interested in using an iPhone. I have one at work I use as a test device on a regular basis, and I don’t really have anything against them (which might shock some people who have been reading my stuff for long enough) but they really don’t fir into my workflow as well as Android phones do. Which is basically a fancy way of saying that I prefer the other brand. It’s really just another Coke/Pepsi situation these days, only the cans cost several hundred bucks and you usually only drink one every couple of years.
I suppose in the end, the problem with having used smartphones before using smartphones was cool is that at some point you get bored of the things. And it’s up to the manufacturers to try to figure out how to convince you that you aren’t bored of the things.