Saturday 7 July 2018

I Didn't Get Where I Today by Not Understanding Subjectivity!

Android has stretched so far and wide as we get into 2018, that I think it's harder than ever to pick a phone that suits. I’m laying aside the options to step outside of Google's mobile OS for the purposes of these thoughts.

I do have the benefit of many devices passing through my hands, being involved in the PSC scene, some from PR, many bought and returned/sold on and a few just kept because they tick so many boxes for me. And that was the point of these musings really, today. Which devices do I value, for what, and which device gets most 'pocket time' because it leads my little pack. Subjective it is, of course, and if you stick with me here, you'll realise that much of it is not about specs and core hardware components but rather often about usability, irrational leanings and personal preference. Get an extra large coffee!

So, to the current 'pack' - some in-hand, some recently used, some long gone and one or two in-pocket! Here, then, I'll list the considerations which hit my tiny brain when cogitating on the first world 'problem' of which phone to use most - and some thoughts which might be useful to mull over for anyone else choosing a phone. But before I get to the devices in question, here’s some generic thoughts on attributes which assist and hinder the decision making process!

Battery and Charging
Mad as it may seem when none of us are away from power much these days - even on public transport, cafe's, libraries - and when we are, we have fabulous and cheap powerbanks to take with us, there's something reassuring about having enough juice in the tank to last the journey and not have to look for fuel en route. Bigger batteries, however, seem to be rare these days and the drive towards thin devices doesn’t help that. Emulation of the iPhone form-factor seems to just drive space away from decent sized batteries. Then there’s Wireless Charging making a comeback - after most of us had been-there-done-that, Samsung and Apple make sure that it’s back on the table! And so part of the decision making for us users is about how important it is to be able to Qi away as well as the size of one's battery.

This follows the battery, really - an irrational desire to have as much as possible even though it's not often needed. Cloud solutions offer most of us streaming (though it costs, one way or another) of most any media we care to mention, quickly, efficiently. The likes of Google want us all online, as much as possible, and have encouraged an infrastructure which serves them with that end an awful lot of the time. However, I don't trust MicroSD Cards. Never have. So high up my list is Storage - and for me, I'm happy enough just now with 128GB. Can live with 64GB. Can't with 32GB.

Screen Tech.
Screen technology is getting better all the time of course, but AMOLED seems for me to remain the most desirable option. I know that recent developments with LCD has brought things forward and closer, but there are again decisions to be made in the mix about which ones are best for each person. There are screens with colour hues which make white not white, there's inconsistent brightness controls and levels to take into account, there are manufacturers who let you adjust colours and saturation and those who don't. And some real inconsistencies in brightness levels in some, against battery use in others.

Screen Size/Ratio
The current trend it seems is to go 18:9 (2:1) and make devices less wide in the hand but taller for media consumption. Again, the trend is to push screens out to the very edge of the device so as to present little or no forehead/chin/bezel. Many still hold out against that, but it's certainly the trend. I reckon there's benefits to both and drawbacks because of both. 2:1 content is not out there (yet) much - and may never be! The 16:9 standard has a long history now and really, in my view, there's nothing much wrong with it.
From Wiki... "In the 1980's Dr. Kerns H. Powers first proposed the 16:9 (1.77:1) aspect ratio at a time when nobody was creating 16:9 videos. The popular choices at that time were: 1.33:1 (based on television standard's ratio at the time), 1.66:1 (the European "flat" ratio), 1.85:1 (the American "flat" ratio), 2.20:1 (the ratio of 70 mm films and Panavision) and 2.39:1 (the CinemaScope ratio for anamorphic widescreen films)."
Do we need another, just to get phones taller? What's next, 3:1?

Screen Resolution
Another consideration for the phone buyer is the screen resolution, particularly in relation to the screen size. The age of one’s eyes, the screen tech (as above) and whether or not a person can really see any dots on screens, then if so, is the payoff on battery and smooth viewing worth the hike. The view could be taken that any screen under 5.5” is perfectly good with 1080p for all but the keenest, youngest eyes.

Always On
Yes, the display again. Some phones do nothing with their screens unless you actually press a button. Some you can wave at to wake. Others are 'always on' regardless of screen tech. Some which are 'always on' are lit at such a low level to render them useless, some are bright and vibrant and use all the battery, others come on when the device is lifted. There are many implementations, some work well, some not, all subjective.

Fingerprint Scanners and Other Unlock Features
This is a big one! Maybe they all are! Some fingerprint scanners on the back, some on the side, some on the front, some in awkward to get places! The on-the-side ones are largely disappearing. Sony have now switched to the back which leaves Razer of the mainstream players. I think. Some fire up the screen, some shut it down again. Some do both. Most of them these days are pretty fast, even on budget devices. Differences in operation tend to be nano-seconds. Then there's other stuff, like iris scanners and face recognition software and Voice activation. Which works for the user and which method is preferable is, again, fairly subjective.

3.5mm Audio Socket
This seems to be the elephant in the room at the moment with the industry shift to USB-C and the use of dongles for the time being until 3.5mm plugs have been buried and adaptors are no longer needed (certainly supplied in case). A lot of this will depend on how much we use head/earphones of course and how much confidence we have in Bluetooth. Bluetooth is moving forward and is better than it's ever been. More and more head/earphones will no doubt arrive with USB-C plugs on the end of any cables. Are we likely to want to plug our phone into an audio device, for example, for audio-out, or assume that receiving equipment can do it some other way. I think it's nice to have, but it's clearly going, so we'd better get used to it.

I'd hike this one higher up my personal list than most people probably as when I don't have a case for my phone, I'm usually very twitchy and try to find a solution. Most phones have a range of options for cases. There's an industry built around it. But there are a few that don't. Sometimes very new phones, or phones which aren't too commonly in use. I know people who insist on going bare as I'm sure you do, but with phones invariably made of glass these days, and even if they're not then metal or plastic that will scratch easily, it's a topic for consideration. A subjective choice to be made about what's going to make the user comfortable.

Most phones these days connect in the standard range of ways. Cellular, WiFi, Bluetooth etc. But some aerials are clearly better than others. Leaving aside the fact that meters on phones' Notification area can't be trusted, we know when we can connect and when we look at pages loading, eyes raised to ceiling. Again, most modern phones are good with this now and very reliable, but we do still hear about ones which don't do so well - and others which don't have a person's 4G band covered, so some care might be needed outside of the mainstream. Potentially a deciding factor when all else is equal.

Plenty of choices out there of course. Some Launchers are better than others, some better supported by developers, some enabling more themes, bells and whistles than others - or there's the insistence that only the purest driven snow will do (see next section). Pick the right Launcher, though, and the user can dwell in the illusion that they're actually using something else, be it Windows Phone, iOS or whatever blend of Android they like. In many ways, to find a Launcher that is really flexible, the manufacturers' provided skin, theme or style really doesn't matter. One name comes to mind of course when discussing this - Nova!

How important it is to be on the latest version of Android and the latest Google security update is also an area of preference, which we have to take into account when deciding on a phone. It's something that I, on a daily basis almost, balance up in my head. Phone A is great for reasons B and C but it's still on last year's software - and no sign of the pesky manufacturer updating it anytime soon. As we move forward, more manufacturers and operators seem to generally be getting quicker at this, but our G+ Communities remain littered with people frustrated that their phone is not up to date. Another balance to be had and sometimes in order to be bang up to date and wallow in the peace of mind that goes with that, there's very limited choice.

For many, the camera is the focus of what their phone is about. Many people choose their phone (and phone OS, in some cases) forgiving all else in order to have a connected, integrated and converged experience for taking photos in their pocket. And again, the choice is huge. From huge MP monsters on one to paltry weeds on another. From exhaustive Professional Mode wielding, wide-angled, clever software supported high-tech brain-boxes to those which just get by and assume (mostly quite rightly) that all that's needed is a snap for social media. Point is though, that the choice is huge and depending on one's approach to photography and desire to not have to carry a camera as well, selection of phone will be significant.

Chipset and RAM
Here’s an interesting one. So many devices with a Snapdragon 6xx chipset have been tried and tested by many of us and coupled with 3/4GB RAM, it’s really hard to say that there’s any earth-shattering differences in daily use between these and the latest, greatest, fastest. Yes, OK, if you’re really into gaming you might want to argue the point but for normal users, going about the 90% of tasks on a modern smartphone you have to really take stock with this one and ask yourself if you really need it. Even some of the most budget-friendly devices running Snapdragon 4xx chipsets hardly miss a beat and work with ordinary tasks nano-seconds behind the leaders. There will be exceptions and limits of course, but it’s worth considering when spec-chasing.

Do you need to have great sounding speakers, I ask myself regularly. The arguments for and against this remain. Of course we have bluetooth speakers which are going to sound, for even £30, oodles better than any smartphone on the planet. But you need to consider whether or not you’ll have it with you. How long the battery will last. How small it is. How to readily charge it. Are some of the best sounding speakers available on smartphones simply worth having just because they will certainly be with you if your phone is. Maybe you’re more likely to use head/earphones. In which case, the speakers on the phone don’t matter a jot. Most smartphones now will, regardless of speaker quality, pump out good enough alerts, notifications and tones after all.

And lastly, yes, taking into account all the above, there’s money! Android smartphones in the mainstream from under £100 to the best part of £1000. Yes, money may be no object and you just want the best you can get, but even if that's the case, getting the best you can won’t necessarily tick all the boxes above. Compromises have to be made right to the top flagship and all along the way. Are the ways in which a £900 phone better than a £200 phone really worth four and a half times the cost, you may ask. Even for those with pots of money, there’s always something else to use it for, so a sensible decision can be made when purchasing a phone taking into account all the above - and more so in order that a person feels comfortable in the knowledge that they’ve made the right decision for themselves.

And that’s where I started, really. The subjective choices applied to which phone to buy. If you’re reading this (and have got this far), you’ll love mobile phones as much as I do - and you’ll enjoy ‘the hunt’ involved in your next purchase.
These have been some of the areas that I think about when dabbling with ideals and justification for purchase! I hope they might help others. I’m sure you’ll have thoughts of your own and areas that I’ve missed when choosing for yourself. Because it’s you that has to use it. Possibly for a couple of years.

And so to The Pack...

LG V30 - This one ticks so many boxes for me. It’s a great device with a fabulous fun camera including wide-angle option, has Qi charging, great always-on screen with ticker-tape scrolling controls, super day-and-a-half battery life, nice big screen, 3.5mm audio jack with Quad DAC output, there are lots of case options and it has a bright P-OLED screen. It’s hard to fault it, but being picky, it has some LG Bloat (though it can be got rid of), the speaker is not the best (though certainly on the much better side of average), LG are not great with updates (though this one has 7.1.2. And January 2018 Security) and it only has 64GB Storage (though the + version has 128GB). Armed with Nova Launcher Prime and the Companion App. it can be Pixel’d nicely. At time or writing, it can be had in the UK for £599 (or less imported, also Plus version via that route). A compelling argument for this one, particularly at this price and if you’re going to make use of the Quad DAC.

Nokia 8 (128GB) - Another interesting device, currently £469 in the UK, which pretends to be a Pixel! It also ticks many boxes, including solid camera optics and options, an always-on screen (though a little dull), 3.5mm audio jack, pretty decent speaker, a near-Pixel software experience kept bang up to date (so far) by Nokia - at time of writing, 8.1.0. And February 2018 security. Can’t get more up to date than that! Good whole-day+ battery life, lots of case options, bigger 5.3” screen than the Pixel (though it’s 16:9 not 2:1 if that’s important) and the screen is LED - having said that though it’s a very bright and colourful one, 128GB storage/6GB RAM, though the 64GB version is cheaper with 4GB RAM. Annoyances are few, except that it feels a bit boring and I dislike very much the HTC-style ‘letterbox’ fingerprint sensor on the chin, with capacitive Navigation buttons. They need to lose most of the chin really (and forehead) and get those controls on the screen, like Pixel, and fingerprint scanner on the back. Allegedly coming very soon with the next generation Nokia models! Loads to love about this though. Great price, fast chipset and near-Vanilla experience.

Moto Z and Moto Z2 Play - clubbed together here, though they are really first and second generation devices. The first is now feeling a little older with 32GB Storage, though it does have MicroSD. The Z does, however, have the faster chipset and is faultless with 4GB RAM in terms of operating speed. The newer model has a lesser chipset, but you wouldn’t know it. It flies. One of the great things about both of these phones is the Super AMOLED screen. They are so incredibly bright and colourful that I usually (indoors) have them set to 10% brightness on the slider scale and they’re brighter there than many other devices at much higher settings. Moto are trying to keep up with Android, but both remain on 7.1.1. And December 2017 security. Promises of Oreo made of course. They both have the same 5.5” screen with good reason. They of course fit all the Moto Mods! These are covered by me and others elsewhere in this Manor of course so I won’t bang on about it again, but it’s a compelling argument. Bolt-on speakers, projector, camera, keyboard (coming), shells and most importantly for me - batteries! I seem to attach high priority to batteries over much else, even though in reality, I don’t need to - as previously mentioned. The always-on screen is fabulous - swipe your hand over the sensor on the front and up it lights! All the information needed with a move of the hand. Love it. The front-facing fingerprint sensor is beautifully placed and works perfectly - phone on my desk and touch to screen-on, touch to screen-off. The only real downside of the Moto Z family IMHO is casing. For love nor money can I get a satisfactory casing option for any Moto Z device when a battery is in place on the back. The good thing is that the (now) base model Z2 Play is only £350 - and that model has a 3.5mm audio socket.

Google Pixel 2 - It’s a Pixel! It’s a Pixel with stereo front-facing speakers which are really quite loud and of good quality. It’s pure Vanilla of course in every way. It has 128GB Storage, lovely sharp AMOLED screen, bright, vibrant. Fast chipset, bang up to date software of course. Loads of casing options and fast fingerprint scanner on the back. A truly pocketable smartphone which will do most of everything for the user. However, there’s no 3.5mm audio socket, the screen is really a very small 5” and the battery a weedy 2700mAh. Now, to be fair, the battery gets me through a day usually. Just. Depending on how much I use the speakers, and there’s a 3.5mm to USB-C adaptor in the box if you want to use older earphones. I have to admit that when I use it, it tends to be in tandem with another device which does other things, or is other things. It’s a dinky pocket-dweller for me with such a good camera that it really does replace any need for a separate compact camera.

BlackBerry Motion - 32GB Storage. End of! Yes, I know it has expansion available, but it ticks least boxes because of that for me. It’s a big device running 7.1.2. with January 2018 security. It has a nice big 4000mAh battery, good for 2 days. It’s littered with BlackBerry software, though to be fair, you can choose not to use it. But it’s big. Big chin and forehead. Capacitive Navigation controls on the chin - including - get this - a hardware press-in Home button in the middle! Clickity-click. In 2017. Speaker is pretty good and some of the BlackBerry stuff is useful for the non-BB bod. The chipset and RAM is fine and it runs along perfectly well, but just feels a bit like a brick and a big one at that. It’s built like a tank! It has a 3.5mm audio socket, too. For the right person, maybe coming from BB who wants a workhorse, solid and reliable with big battery, it could be just fine. For me, apart from anything else, the storage kills it off.

BlackBerry KEYone - Much of the above remains valid for the KEYone for the 32GB/3GB RAM variant. I have the 64GB/4GB RAM variant, so things are more likely and it does have my SIM Card sometimes. What I love about it is that it’s beautifully made. A real slice of nostalgia. The hardware keyboard, love it or hate it, find it pointless or interesting, for me is lovely to use. For a while! It has to be used to be appreciated. Really nice to the touch. I love to use the KEYone without a case as it feels so lovely in the hand. This is an example of one device wow’ing me largely on look and feel. It’s probably the most premium device I have. 3.5mm audio socket, speaker is pretty good, screen is smaller of course, to make space for the hardware keyboard, 7.1.1. with January 2018 security on board, much the same as above with BB software. The fingerprint scanner is in the space key, which doubles up as a camera shutter button. If you don’t use the BB Launcher, some of the shortcuts don’t work, so it depends on how much you might want to use it as an Android with a hardware keyboard as opposed to a BB evolution. I keep going back to it. In my equation deciding on which device to use daily, this is the one which irrationally draws my lust and attention!

Razer Phone - and last but not least, this giant gamer! You will know that the USP is the huge stereo speakers, nicking the Marshall London crown. They sound great and I keep getting drawn back to this device time and again whenever I hear pretty much any other mobile phone trying to splutter out any sounds. It sounds fabulous with Dolby Atmos in line. No more to say! Away from sound, it’s got Nova Prime Launcher on the front end and it works really well with a next-to-Vanilla experience with only the essential Apps. added in order to service Nova, the Dolby Atmos, camera and gaming. It’s running 7.1.1. with January 2018 security. The phone is huge! It has a massive screen and huge chin and forehead for those great speakers. In deciding on this device, you really need to check the size of your pockets! There’s no 3.5mm audio socket, amazingly for a gaming phone, though there is a 24-bit DAC 3.5mm to USB-C dongle in the box, which sounds amazing. There’s a horrible side-mounted fingerprint scanner, the same place Sony has been placing them on the Xperia range, which is just naff. Rubbish. I’m not sure where it should go, on the back I guess, but not on the side. Shame. This is one of the main deciders for me when routing the use of this device and it more often ends up as a bedside media player than a carry-out phone.

I should be grateful with so many choices to hand, though I certainly ain’t the most prolific phone collector and changer in this Manor! I can’t say which is best, which is why I change my SIM Card sometimes on an hourly basis. But I thought I might just share my thoughts here with you and let you know that my conclusion after all this, is the question I pose to myself most days. If you had to keep/buy one device, taking into account all the above, and keep it for 2 years, which would it be? I’m guessing that you’d know that I would choose the Moto Z2 Play with Nova Launcher (as long as I can also have all my Mods.) as it represents (on balance) the broadest range of options, fiddle-factor, interest, performance, feel-good and satisfaction than any of the others. Fortunately, I don’t have to choose.

All the best with your choices when deciding what to buy.

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