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TIMO ZIMMERMANN

balancing software engineering & infosec

Buying an Android phone is hard

posted on Friday 10th of May 2019 in

I like iOS. I do not think this is a secret. But leading the iOS and Android team at Nurx means I also have to be proficient when it comes to Android. While I trust my engineers and our design team to make the right calls, there are situations were some input from me is required or a pair of fresh eyes help with feature exploration and planning. My last Linux based mobile device – except some test devices – was a Sharp Zaurus, so it was definitely time to get my hands on a recent Android phone and make it my daily driver to get a better understanding of the platform, the applications and what differentiates excellent applications from the other 99% in the Play Store.

My test devices are usually on the lower end. I think all Android engineers I have worked with own a relatively recent and powerful device. And since most of what I did in the past was some light testing of the applications I settled with the lower end device class to make sure the app is still running nicely on CPU and memory constrained devices. My current test device is a Huawei Y6 (2018) and let me tell you, this thing is garbage. The plastic is clearly above the screen and you can feel pressing the display in when using it. The stock OS lags when doing nearly anything. There are third party apps I cannot uninstall but surely do not want on my device. It is basically a manifestation of everything that can be bad about a phone.

So when I set out to get my phone I started with a very simple requirements list.

Initially I thought that those are reasonable things to ask for. Oh was I wrong.

Comparing phones is hard. Especially because the software is a big unknown. You can find some that have only small customisations and a few that run stock Android. While you can look at CPU specs you never know how much of it will actually be required to run the 10 bloatware and spyware services shipped by the manufacturer or how bad the custom UI is actually treating the phones resources.

And do not get me started on the CPUs itself. After some research it looked like the Snapdragon 845 is powering last years devices while the Snapdragon 855 is powering the new flagships. But wait, a wild Kirin 980 appears. With a variety of cores and clock speeds. While you can look at benchmarks that tell you how the CPU itself performs compared to another one, it does not give you the smallest hint how well the device overall will perform.

Looking at Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi – it is still a dev device, so budget is a concern – and others I did not find a clear answer which device would check all boxes. From what I can tell OnePlus comes the closest to what I would expect at a sensible price point. Talking to some friends who primarily work with Android I got a variety of recommendations, but one was included in nearly all conversations: Google Pixel 3. Funnily I was offered a brand new one for the same I would be paying for a OnePlus, so I settled for the Pixel 3 XL.

What bothers me is that this was not a conscious decision. It was an opportunity that showed up and I know it will check above boxes. Would the other phones? Who knows. I can only watch so much tech reviews on YouTube that ignore the interesting parts like haptics.

Now compare this to buying an iPhone.

Obviously not everything is perfect and there will always be reasons why people do not like an iPhone. Some of those might be hardware related, some might dislike iOS and others simple do not like Apple. All good reasons to not get an iPhone. But what if you decide you want one?

Apple extended their device line up making it a bit harder to find exactly the phone you are looking for and forcing you to think about the tradeoffs and advantages. Remember the iPhone 6 / 7 era? Decide on the form factor. Done. Want to save money? Get the previous generation model.

Apple provides a few more options today. But all of them check the very simple requirements list and you cannot make a horrible mistake buying any of those – especially as a consumer. Android on the other hand provides a variety of,… let us call it experiences… depending on the brand you choose. And the model. And the spec of the model. And the year it was build in.

It is hardly possible to blame Android, the operating system, for the fragmentation and what manufactures did to it. I am glad they picked a free, decently supported operating system instead of trying to build their own. WebOS showed where this leads to – I am sorry my dear WebOS fans, but obviously not to a working mobile OS with longterm viability. The real problem here are the manufacturers who introduce all the problems outlined above. There only seem to be two to three brands that actually apply common sense, the rest just makes sure the whole ecosystems reputation suffers.