The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

August 7, 2014

I Have Absolutely No Idea How Much Phone I Really Need.

Filed under: Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:59 am

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.

July 18, 2012

Seriously, How Much Phone Do You Really Need?

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:22 am

All four of the HTC-made smartphones I’ve owned over the years. You can definitely see the family resemblance…

It was a bit more than two years ago on this site that I wrote this post on this site discussing my then recent purchase of an HTC Evo 4G to replace the old and worn-out HTC Mogul I had been using as my phone for the previous couple of years.  That isn’t to say that the Mogul was a particularly bad phone; for its day it was actually just about the best smartphone you could get, although it should be noted that in this particular case, its day just happened to last around two weeks or so, at which point the first iPhone was released.  I think we all know how that one turned out (in fact, if I recall correctly I got a hold of this particular phone second-hand from someone who was switching to an iPhone at the time.)  I don’t recall exactly when I started using the Mogul as my primary phone, but I’m sure a particularly clever web archaeologist could trace the change by going through my old Blog posts and finding out when the photos started going from being merely blurry to being extra-blurry.  Although the camera on the Mogul was theoretically better than the one on my previous phone (a Sprint/HTC PPC6700,) in practice I could never get the blasted thing to focus properly, and as a result I was never particularly satisfied with the photos it took.  Anyway, by now that’s all ancient history.

By the time I replaced that phone it was pretty badly in need of retirement, although surprisingly when I plugged it in and turned it on for the first time in two years to take the photo above it came right up and promptly beeped out a calendar notification for something that happened all the way back in May of 2010.  After some digging through my stuff to find it, it turns out I was able to do the same with the PPC6700 as well, hence the “reunion” photo showing all four of the Smartphones I’ve owned over the years (not shown: a pre-production Palm Treo 700WX I used for about a month as part of some sort of beta test for Sprint, but that’s even more ancient history by now.)  To make a long story short, I must admit that few (if any) tears were shed when it came time to retire the Mogul and replace it with what was at the time the absolute top-of-the-line phone you could get on Sprint (and quite possibly even the best phone on the market that wasn’t an iPhone if you read some of the press at the time:)  The HTC Evo 4G.  It came with a monstrous 4.3 inch screen running at 480×800 resolution, which is quite the step up from the 2.8 inch 240×320 screen on the Mogul.  To be honest, pretty much any halfway decent Android phone would have been a significant upgrade over the Mogul by the time I finally replaced it, but since most phones these days come attached to a 2-year contract it pays to get as much phone as you possibly can for the money, and at the time the Evo seemed to be the best choice by far.

Now that I look back at this purchase two years (plus another month or so) later, I have to say that for the most part I’ve been pretty satisfied with the Evo.  It’s served its purpose well, has given me few technical problems (aside from some random shutdowns I may have been complaining about a couple of months ago, but eventually I traced those to the third-party replacement battery I had installed not to long before the trouble started) and has for the most part been more than capable of performing the various tasks I use a Smartphone for.  On the other hand, battery life has been passable at best and notoriously brief at worst, and I’ve encountered a number of occasions where I could drain the battery in a couple of hours with light-to-moderate usage, which can prove to be pretty inconvenient when you’re miles away from your nearest charger (still better than draining the battery on a two-minute call like my last phone did shortly before I got rid of it, but definitely enough to be annoying.)  Still, in spite of a few relatively minor annoyances here and there, the phone has done its job with a

Even so, the two-year contract signed for that phone when it was purchased has now expired, and as it always does, technology moves inexorably forward.   And although the phones of today aren’t quite the same huge leap forward from the phones of two years ago that the Evo was from the Mogul, the improvements over the last generation are pretty clear.  The screens are getting bigger with higher resolutions, the form factors are getting thinner, the processors are getting faster, and the user interface is getting smoother and more polished.  Unlike the last time I got a new phone where I was practically spending three months counting down the days until the Evo came out so I could finally get rid of my decrepit old Mogul, at this point I still had a phone that was, for the most part, still reasonably functional.  I’m pretty sure I could have easily gotten at least a few more months (if not another year) out of my current phone, so technically I didn’t really even need a new phone.  Even so, a number of tantalizing new choices have found their way onto the market in the past couple of months, and if I was going to be getting a new phone, the decision on which phone to get wasn’t going to be nearly as simple as it was the last time.

Right now, the two kings of the proverbial hill (at least on the Android side of things, your mileage may vary depending on your phone and/or manufacturer preferences) seem to be the Samsung Galaxy S III and the HTC One X, which serve as the flagship models for Samsung and HTC respectively.  In this case, Samsung has opted to retain the Galaxy S III branding on Sprint (which is the first time they have done this, as both the Galaxy S and the Galaxy S II used the Epic 4G branding) while a variation on the base HTC One X has been released on Sprint as the Evo 4G LTE.  Although there are a handful of clear differences between these two phones, most of these are in relatively minor details, and when it comes to the big features there really isn’t enough difference between these two phones to make either one a clear choice over the other.  The Galaxy S III has more RAM and a replaceable battery, but the Evo seems to have better build quality overall, and a better user interface.  Ultimately, I had to try out both phones a number of times to get a feel for each one, but ultimately I decided on the Evo.  Aside from being a logical upgrade path from my previous phone, I also found it a bit easier to use overall, and I thought it looked a bit better too.  I suspect I could have been just as happy with the Galaxy S III if I had gone in that direction, but as I’ve discussed on this Blog before, sometimes when it comes to technology you just have to make a decision and get something, lest you find yourself forever waiting for the next big thing to come out.  Honestly, just because I chose the Evo over the Galaxy S III doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily any better or worse, just that there are two choices out there that are for the most part equally suitable.  In addition to these, there were also a couple of other options in the Galaxy Nexus (which is basically a Galaxy S II running plain vanilla Android, something I might actually consider if I was still working with Android apps on a regular basis) and I could have even gotten an iPhone 4S without having to switch carriers for the first time if I was so inclined (I wasn’t, but that shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone who has known me for long enough.)

So far I’ve only had a few days with the new phone, so I haven’t really had a chance to fully get used to it yet.  Even so, I’ve found that in spite of the larger size and larger screen, it actually seems to be easier to carry around in a pocket, mostly owing to the fact that it’s a fair bit thinner than my previous phone.  I’ve also found that the battery life seems to be better than I Was getting with the old Evo, but that may just be a matter of the phone being newer without a battery that’s been used for most of the last two years.  Owing to having an evolved version of the same HTC Sense user interface that my old phone had, I’ve also been able to largely replicate all the apps and UI layouts from my previous phone, making the transition between the two relatively seamless.  Perhaps at some point I’ll revisit this with some longer term impressions of the Evo, but for now it seems to be doing a pretty good job of things.  But, as mentioned above, technology doesn’t stand still for anyone, and no matter how nice this phone turns out to be in both the short term and the long run, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be having this same conversation again two years from now.

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