Long-term Device Use

It seems to me that Android phones have recently passed the stage where hardware advances are well ahead of software bloat. This is the point that desktop PCs passed about 15 years ago and laptops passed about 8 years ago. For just over 15 years I’ve been avoiding buying desktop PCs, the hardware that organisations I work for throw out is good enough that I don’t need to. For the last 8 years I’ve been avoiding buying new laptops, instead buying refurbished or second hand ones which are more than adequate for my needs. Now it seems that Android phones have reached the same stage of development.

3 years ago I purchased my last phone, a Nexus 6P [1]. Then 18 months ago I got a Huawei Mate 9 as a warranty replacement [2] (I had swapped phones with my wife so the phone I was using which broke was less than a year old). The Nexus 6P had been working quite well for me until it stopped booting, but I was happy to have something a little newer and faster to replace it at no extra cost.

Prior to the Nexus 6P I had a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 for 1 year 9 months which was a personal record for owning a phone and not wanting to replace it. I was quite happy with the Note 3 until the day I fell on top of it and cracked the screen (it would have been ok if I had just dropped it). While the Note 3 still has my personal record for continuous phone use, the Nexus 6P/Huawei Mate 9 have the record for going without paying for a new phone.

A few days ago when browsing the Kogan web site I saw a refurbished Mate 10 Pro on sale for about $380. That’s not much money (I usually have spent $500+ on each phone) and while the Mate 9 is still going strong the Mate 10 is a little faster and has more RAM. The extra RAM is important to me as I have problems with Android killing apps when I don’t want it to. Also the IP67 protection will be a handy feature. So that phone should be delivered to me soon.

Some phones are getting ridiculously expensive nowadays (who wants to walk around with a $1000+ Pixel?) but it seems that the slightly lower end models are more than adequate and the older versions are still good.

Cost Summary

If I can buy a refurbished or old model phone every 2 years for under $400 that will make using a phone cost about $0.50 per day. The Nexus 6P cost me $704 in June 2016 which means that for the past 3 years my phone cost was about $0.62 per day.

It seems that laptops tend to last me about 4 years [3], and I don’t need high-end models (I even used one from a rubbish pile for a while). The last laptops I bought cost me $289 for a Thinkpad X1 Carbon [4] and $306 for the Thinkpad T420 [5]. That makes laptops about $0.20 per day.

In May 2014 I bought a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition tablet for $579. That is still working very well for me today, apart from only having 32G of internal storage space and an OS update preventing Android apps from writing to the micro SD card (so I have to use USB to copy TV shows on to it) there’s nothing more than I need from a tablet. Strangely I even get good battery life out of it, I can use it for a couple of hours without the battery running out. Battery life isn’t nearly as good as when it was new, but it’s still OK for my needs. As Samsung stopped providing security updates I can’t use the tablet as a SSH client, but now that my primary laptop is a small and light model that’s less of an issue. Currently that tablet has cost me just over $0.30 per day and it’s still working well.

Currently it seems that my hardware expense for the forseeable future is likely to be about $1 per day. 20 cents for laptop, 30 cents for tablet, and 50 cents for phone. The overall expense is about $1.66 per month as I’m on a $20 per month pre-paid plan with Aldi Mobile.

Saving Money

A laptop is very important to me, the amounts of money that I’m spending don’t reflect that. But it seems that I don’t have any option for spending more on a laptop (the Thinkpad X1 Carbon I have now is just great and there’s no real option for getting more utility by spending more). I also don’t have any option to spend less on a tablet, 5 years is a great lifetime for a device that is practically impossible to repair (repair will cost a significant portion of the replacement cost).

I hope that the Mate 10 can last at least 2 years which will make it a new record for low cost of ownership of a phone for me. If app vendors can refrain from making their bloated software take 50% more RAM in the next 2 years that should be achievable.

The surprising thing I learned while writing this post is that my mobile phone expense is the largest of all my expenses related to mobile computing. Given that I want to get good reception in remote areas (needs to be Telstra or another company that uses their network) and that I need at least 3GB of data transfer per month it doesn’t seem that I have any options for reducing that cost.

Huawei Mate9

Warranty Etc

I recently got a Huawei Mate 9 phone. My previous phone was a Nexus 6P that died shortly before it’s one year warranty ran out. As there have apparently been many Nexus 6P phones dying there are no stocks of replacements so Kogan (the company I bought the phone from) offered me a choice of 4 phones in the same price range as a replacement.

Previously I had chosen to avoid the extended warranty offerings based on the idea that after more than a year the phone won’t be worth much and therefore getting it replaced under warranty isn’t as much of a benefit. But now that it seems that getting a phone replaced with a newer and more powerful model is a likely outcome it seems that there are benefits in a longer warranty. I chose not to pay for an “extended warranty” on my Nexus 6P because getting a new Nexus 6P now isn’t such a desirable outcome, but when getting a new Mate 9 is a possibility it seems more of a benefit to get the “extended warranty”. OTOH Kogan wasn’t offering more than 2 years of “warranty” recently when buying a phone for a relative, so maybe they lost a lot of money on replacements for the Nexus 6P.

Comparison

I chose the Mate 9 primarily because it has a large screen. It’s 5.9″ display is only slightly larger than the 5.7″ displays in the Nexus 6P and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (my previous phone). But it is large enough to force me to change my phone use habits.

I previously wrote about matching phone size to the user’s hand size [1]. When writing that I had the theory that a Note 2 might be too large for me to use one-handed. But when I owned those phones I found that the Note 2 and Note 3 were both quite usable in one-handed mode. But the Mate 9 is just too big for that. To deal with this I now use the top corners of my phone screen for icons that I don’t tend to use one-handed, such as Facebook. I chose this phone knowing that this would be an issue because I’ve been spending more time reading web pages on my phone and I need to see more text on screen.

Adjusting my phone usage to the unusually large screen hasn’t been a problem for me. But I expect that many people will find this phone too large. I don’t think there are many people who buy jeans to fit a large phone in the pocket [2].

A widely touted feature of the Mate 9 is the Leica lens which apparently gives it really good quality photos. I haven’t noticed problems with my photos on my previous two phones and it seems likely that phone cameras have in most situations exceeded my requirements for photos (I’m not a very demanding user). One thing that I miss is the slow-motion video that the Nexus 6P supports. I guess I’ll have to make sure my wife is around when I need to make slow motion video.

My wife’s Nexus 6P is well out of warranty. Her phone was the original Nexus 6P I had. When her previous phone died I had a problem with my phone that needed a factory reset. It’s easier to duplicate the configuration to a new phone than restore it after a factory reset (as an aside I believe Apple does this better) I copied my configuration to the new phone and then wiped it for my wife to use.

One noteworthy but mostly insignificant feature of the Mate 9 is that it comes with a phone case. The case is hard plastic and cracked when I unsuccessfully tried to remove it, so it seems to effectively be a single-use item. But it is good to have that in the box so that you don’t have to use the phone without a case on the first day, this is something almost every other phone manufacturer misses. But there is the option of ordering a case at the same time as a phone and the case isn’t very good.

I regard my Mate 9 as fairly unattractive. Maybe if I had a choice of color I would have been happier, but it still wouldn’t have looked like EVE from Wall-E (unlike the Nexus 6P).

The Mate 9 has a resolution of 1920*1080, while the Nexus 6P (and many other modern phones) has a resolution of 2560*1440 I don’t think that’s a big deal, the pixels are small enough that I can’t see them. I don’t really need my phone to have the same resolution as the 27″ monitor on my desktop.

The Mate 9 has 4G of RAM and apps seem significantly less likely to be killed than on the Nexus 6P with 3G. I can now switch between memory hungry apps like Pokemon Go and Facebook without having one of them killed by the OS.

Security

The OS support from Huawei isn’t nearly as good as a Nexus device. Mine is running Android 7.0 and has a security patch level of the 5th of June 2017. My wife’s Nexus 6P today got an update from Android 8.0 to 8.1 which I believe has the fixes for KRACK and Blueborne among others.

Kogan is currently selling the Pixel XL with 128G of storage for $829, if I was buying a phone now that’s probably what I would buy. It’s a pity that none of the companies that have manufactured Nexus devices seem to have learned how to support devices sold under their own name as well.

Conclusion

Generally this is a decent phone. As a replacement for a failed Nexus 6P it’s pretty good. But at this time I tend to recommend not buying it as the first generation of Pixel phones are now cheap enough to compete. If the Pixel XL is out of your price range then instead of saving $130 for a less secure phone it would be better to save $400 and choose one of the many cheaper phones on offer.

Remember when Linux users used to mock Windows for poor security? Now it seems that most Android devices are facing the security problems that Windows used to face and the iPhone and Pixel are going to take the role of the secure phone.

Nexus 6P and Galaxy S5 Mini

Just over a month ago I ordered a new Nexus 6P [1]. I’ve had it for over a month now and it’s time to review it and the Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini I also bought.

Security

The first noteworthy thing about this phone is the fingerprint scanner on the back. The recommended configuration is to use your fingerprint for unlocking the phone which allows a single touch on the scanner to unlock the screen without the need to press any other buttons. To unlock with a pattern or password you need to first press the “power” button to get the phone’s attention.

I have been considering registering a fingerprint from my non-dominant hand to reduce the incidence of accidentally unlocking it when carrying it or fiddling with it.

The phone won’t complete the boot process before being unlocked. This is a good security feature.

Android version 6 doesn’t assign permissions to apps at install time, they have to be enabled at run time (at least for apps that support Android 6). So you get lots of questions while running apps about what they are permitted to do. Unfortunately there’s no “allow for the duration of this session” option.

A new Android feature prevents changing security settings when there is an “overlay running”. The phone instructs you to disable overlay access for the app in question but that’s not necessary. All that is necessary is for the app to stop using the overlay feature. I use the Twilight app [2] to dim the screen and use redder colors at night. When I want to change settings at night I just have to pause that app and there’s no need to remove the access from it – note that all the web pages and online documentation saying otherwise is wrong.

Another new feature is to not require unlocking while at home. This can be a convenience feature but fingerprint unlocking is so easy that it doesn’t provide much benefit. The downside of enabling this is that if someone stole your phone they could visit your home to get it unlocked. Also police who didn’t have a warrant permitting search of a phone could do so anyway without needing to compel the owner to give up the password.

Design

This is one of the 2 most attractive phones I’ve owned (the other being the sparkly Nexus 4). I think that the general impression of the appearance is positive as there are transparent cases on sale. My phone is white and reminds me of EVE from the movie Wall-E.

Cables

This phone uses the USB Type-C connector, which isn’t news to anyone. What I didn’t realise is that full USB-C requires that connector at both ends as it’s not permitted to have a data cable with USB-C at the device and and USB-A at the host end. The Nexus 6P ships with a 1M long charging cable that has USB-C at both ends and a ~10cm charging cable with USB-C at one end and type A at the other (for the old batteries and the PCs that don’t have USB-C). I bought some 2M long USB-C to USB-A cables for charging my new phone with my old chargers, but I haven’t yet got a 1M long cable. Sometimes I need a cable that’s longer than 10cm but shorter than 2M.

The USB-C cables are all significantly thicker than older USB cables. Part of that would be due to having many more wires but presumably part of it would be due to having thicker power wires for delivering 3A. I haven’t measured power draw but it does seem to charge faster than older phones.

Overall the process of converting to USB-C is going to be a lot more inconvenient than USB SuperSpeed (which I could basically ignore as non-SuperSpeed connectors worked).

It will be good when laptops with USB-C support become common, it should allow thinner laptops with more ports.

One problem I initially had with my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 was the Micro-USB SuperSpeed socket on the phone being more fiddly for the Micro-USB charging plug I used. After a while I got used to that but it was still an annoyance. Having a symmetrical plug that can go into the phone either way is a significant convenience.

Calendars and Contacts

I share most phone contacts with my wife and also have another list that is separate. In the past I had used the Samsung contacts system for the contacts that were specific to my phone and a Google account for contacts that are shared between our phones. Now that I’m using a non-Samsung phone I got another Gmail account for the purpose of storing contacts. Fortunately you can get as many Gmail accounts as you want. But it would be nice if Google supported multiple contact lists and multiple calendars on a single account.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Mini

Shortly after buying the Nexus 6P I decided that I spend enough time in pools and hot tubs that having a waterproof phone would be a good idea. Probably most people wouldn’t consider reading email in a hot tub on a cruise ship to be an ideal holiday, but it works for me. The Galaxy S5 Mini seems to be the cheapest new phone that’s waterproof. It is small and has a relatively low resolution screen, but it’s more than adequate for a device that I’ll use for an average of a few hours a week. I don’t plan to get a SIM for it, I’ll just use Wifi from my main phone.

One noteworthy thing is the amount of bloatware on the Samsung. Usually when configuring a new phone I’m so excited about fancy new hardware that I don’t notice it much. But this time buying the new phone wasn’t particularly exciting as I had just bought a phone that’s much better. So I had more time to notice all the annoyances of having to download updates to Samsung apps that I’ll never use. The Samsung device manager facility has been useful for me in the past and the Samsung contact list was useful for keeping a second address book until I got a Nexus phone. But most of the Samsung apps and 3d party apps aren’t useful at all.

It’s bad enough having to install all the Google core apps. I’ve never read mail from my Gmail account on my phone. I use Fetchmail to transfer it to an IMAP folder on my personal mail server and I’d rather not have the Gmail app on my Android devices. Having any apps other than the bare minimum seems like a bad idea, more apps in the Android image means larger downloads for an over-the-air update and also more space used in the main partition for updates to apps that you don’t use.

Not So Exciting

In recent times there hasn’t been much potential for new features in phones. All phones have enough RAM and screen space for all common apps. While the S5 Mini has a small screen it’s not that small, I spent many years with desktop PCs that had a similar resolution. So while the S5 Mini was released a couple of years ago that doesn’t matter much for most common use. I wouldn’t want it for my main phone but for a secondary phone it’s quite good.

The Nexus 6P is a very nice phone, but apart from USB-C, the fingerprint reader, and the lack of a stylus there’s not much noticeable difference between that and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 I was using before.

I’m generally happy with my Nexus 6P, but I think that anyone who chooses to buy a cheaper phone probably isn’t going to be missing a lot.

I Just Ordered a Nexus 6P

Last year I wrote a long-term review of Android phones [1]. I noted that my Galaxy Note 3 only needed to last another 4 months to be the longest I’ve been happily using a phone.

Last month (just over 7 months after writing that) I fell on my Note 3 and cracked the screen. The Amourdillo case is good for protecting the phone [2] so it would have been fine if I had just dropped it. But I fell with the phone in my hand, the phone landed face down and about half my body weight ended up in the middle of the phone which apparently bent it enough to crack the screen. As a result of this the GPS seems to be less reliable than it used to be so there might be some damage to the antenna too.

I was quoted $149 to repair the screen, I could possibly have found a cheaper quote if I had shopped around but it was a good starting point for comparison. The Note 3 originally cost $550 including postage in 2014. A new Note 4 costs $550 + postage now from Shopping Square and a new Note 3 is on ebay with a buy it now price of $380 with free postage.

It seems like bad value to pay 40% of the price of a new Note 3 or 25% the price of a Note 4 to fix my old phone (which is a little worn and has some other minor issues). So I decided to spend a bit more and have a better phone and give my old phone to one of my relatives who doesn’t mind having a cracked screen.

I really like the S-Pen stylus on the Samsung Galaxy Note series of phones and tablets. I also like having a hardware home button and separate screen space reserved for the settings and back buttons. The downsides to the Note series are that they are getting really expensive nowadays and the support for new OS updates (and presumably security fixes) is lacking. So when Kogan offered a good price on a Nexus 6P [3] with 64G of storage I ordered one. I’m going to give the Note 3 to my father, he wants a phone with a bigger screen and a stylus and isn’t worried about cracks in the screen.

I previously wrote about Android device service life [4]. My main conclusion in that post was that storage space is a major factor limiting service life. I hope that 64G in the Nexus 6P will solve that problem, giving me 3 years of use and making it useful to my relatives afterwards. Currently I have 32G of storage of which about 8G is used by my music video collection and about 3G is free, so 64G should last me for a long time. Having only 3G of RAM might be a problem, but I’m thinking of trying CyanogenMod again so maybe with root access I can reduce the amount of RAM use.

A Long Term Review of Android Devices

Xperia X10

My first Android device was The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10i [1]. One of the reasons I chose it was for the large 4″ screen, nowadays the desirable phones (the ones that are marketed as premium products) are all bigger than that (the Galaxy S6 is 5.1″) and even the slightly less expensive phones are bigger. At the moment Aldi is advertising an Android phone with a 4.5″ screen for $129. But at the time there was nothing better in the price range that I was willing to pay.

I devoted a lot of my first review to the default apps for SMS and Email. Shortly after that I realised that the default email app is never going to be adequate (I now use K9 mail) and the SMS app is barely adequate (but I mostly use instant messaging). I’ve got used to the fact that most apps that ship with an Android device are worthless, the camera app and the app to make calls are the only built in apps I regularly use nowadays.

In the bug list from my first review the major issue was lack of Wifi tethering which was fixed by an update to Android 2.3. Unfortunately Android 2.3 ran significantly more slowly which decreased the utility of the phone.

The construction of the phone is very good. Over the last 2 years the 2 Xperia X10 phones I own have been on loan to various relatives, many of whom aren’t really into technology and can’t be expected to take good care of things. But they have not failed in any way. Apart from buying new batteries there has been no hardware failure in either phone. While 2 is a small sample size I haven’t see any other Android device last nearly as long without problems. Unfortunately I have no reason to believe that Sony has continued to design devices as well.

The Xperia X10 phones crash more often than most Android phones with spontaneous reboots being a daily occurrence. While that is worse than any other Android device I’ve used it’s not much worse.

My second review of the Xperia X10 had a section about ways of reducing battery use [2]. Wow, I’d forgotten how much that sucked! When I was last using the Xperia X10 the Life360 app that my wife and I use to track each other was taking 15% of the battery, on more recent phones the same app takes about 2%. The design of modern phones seems to be significantly more energy efficient for background tasks and the larger brighter displays use more energy instead.

My father is using one of the Xperia phones now, when I give him a better phone to replace it I will have both as emergency Wifi access points. They aren’t useful for much else nowadays.

Samsung Galaxy S

In my first review of the Galaxy S I criticised it for being thin, oddly shaped, and slippery [3]. After using it for a while I found the shape convenient as I could easily determine the bottom of the phone in my pocket and hold it the right way up before looking at it. This is a good feature for a phone that’s small enough to rotate in my pocket – the Samsung Galaxy Note series of phones is large enough to not rotate in a pocket. In retrospect I think that being slippery isn’t a big deal as almost everyone buys a phone case anyway. But it would still be better for use on a desk if the bulge was at the top.

I wrote about my Galaxy S failing [4]. Two of my relatives had problems with those phones too. Including a warranty replacement I’ve seen 4 of those phones in use and only one worked reliably. The one that worked reliably is now being used by my mother, it’s considerably faster than the Xperia X10 because it has more RAM and will probably remain in regular use until it breaks.

CyanogenMod

I tried using CyanogenMod [5]. The phone became defective 9 months later so even though CyanogenMod is great I don’t think I got good value for the amount of time spent installing it. I haven’t tried replacing the OS of an Android phone since then.

I really wish that they would start manufacturing phones that can have the OS replaced as easily as a PC.

Samsung Galaxy S3 and Wireless Charging

The Galaxy S3 was the first phone I owned which competes with phones that are currently on sale [6]. A relative bought one at the same time as me and her phone is running well with no problems. But my S3 had some damage to it’s USB port which means that the vast majority of USB cables don’t charge it (only Samsung cables can be expected to work).

After I bought the S3 I bought a Qi wireless phone charging device [7]. One of the reasons for buying that is so if a phone gets a broken USB port then I can still use it. It’s ironic that the one phone that had a damaged USB port also failed to work correctly with the Qi card installed.

The Qi charger is gathering dust.

One significant benefit of the S3 (and most Samsung phones) is that it has a SD socket. I installed a 32G SD card in the S3 and now one of my relatives is happily using it as a media player.

Nexus 4

I bought a Nexus 4 [8] for my wife as she needed a better phone but didn’t feel like paying for a Galaxy S3. The Nexus 4 is a nice phone in many ways but the lack of storage is a serious problem. At the moment I’m only keeping it to use with Google Cardboard, I will lend it to my parents soon.

In retrospect I made a mistake buying the Nexus 4. If I had spent a little more money on another Galaxy S3 then I would have had a phone with a longer usage life as well as being able to swap accessories with my wife.

The Nexus 4 seems reasonably solid, the back of the case (which is glass) broke on mine after a significant impact but the phone continues to work well. That’s a tribute to the construction of the phone and also the Ringke Fusion case [9].

Generally the Nexus 4 is a good phone so I don’t regret buying it. I just think that the Galaxy S3 was a better choice.

Galaxy Note 2

I got a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 in mid 2013 [10]. In retrospect it was a mistake to buy the Galaxy S3, the Note series is better suited to my use. If I had known how good it is to have a larger phone I’d have bought the original Galaxy Note when it was first released.

Generally everything is good about the Note 2. While it only has 16G of storage (which isn’t much by today’s standards) it has an SD socket to allow expansion. It’s currently being used by a relative as a small tablet. With a 32G SD card it can fit a lot of movies.

Bluetooth Speakers

I received Bluetooth speakers in late 2013 [11]. I was very impressed by them but ended up not using them for a while. After they gathered dust for about a year I started using them again recently. While nothing has changed regarding my review of the Hive speakers (which I still like a lot) it seems that my need for such things isn’t as great as I thought. One thing that made me start using the Bluetooth speakers again is that my phone case blocks the sound from my latest phone and makes it worse than phone sound usually is.

I bought Bluetooth speakers for some relatives as presents, the relatives seemed to appreciate them but I wonder how much they actually use them.

Nexus 5

The Nexus 5 [12] is a nice phone. When I first reviewed it there were serious problems with overheating when playing Ingress. I haven’t noticed such problems recently so I think that an update to Android might have made it more energy efficient. In that review I was very impressed by the FullHD screen and it made me want a Note 3, at the time I planned to get a Note 3 in the second half of 2014 (which I did).

Galaxy Note 3

Almost a year ago I bought the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 [13]. I’m quite happy with it at the moment but I don’t have enough data for a long term review of it. The only thing to note so far is that in my first review I was unhappy with the USB 3 socket as that made it more difficult to connect a USB cable in the dark. I’ve got used to the socket and I can now reliably plug it in at night with ease.

I wrote about Rivers jeans being the only brand that can fit a Samsung Galaxy Note series phone in the pocket [14]. The pockets of my jeans have just started wearing out and I think that it’s partly due to the fact that I bought a Armourdillo Hybrid case [15] for my Note 3. I’ve had the jeans for over 3 years with no noticable wear apart from the pockets starting to wear out after 10 months of using the Armourdillo case.

I don’t think that the Armourdillo case is bad, but the fact that it has deep grooves and hard plastic causes it to rub more on material when I take the phone out of my pocket. As I check my phone very frequently this causes some serious wear. This isn’t necessarily a problem given that a phone costs 20* more than a pair of jeans, if the case was actually needed to save the phone then it would be worth having some jeans wear out. But I don’t think I need more protection than a gel case offers.

Another problem is that the Armourdillo case is very difficult to remove. This isn’t a problem if you don’t need access to your phone, IE if you use a phone like the Nexus 5 that doesn’t permit changing batteries or SD cards. But if you need to change batteries, SD cards, etc then it’s really annoying. My wife seems quite happy with her Armoudillo case but I don’t think it was a good choice for me. I’m considering abandoning it and getting one of the cheap gel cases.

The sound on the Note 3 is awful. I don’t know how much of that is due to a limitation in the speaker and how much is due to the case. It’s quite OK for phone calls but not much good for music.

Tablets

I’m currently on my third tablet. One was too cheap and nasty so I returned it. Another was still cheap and I hardly ever used it. The third is a Galaxy Note 10 which works really well. I guess the lesson is to buy something worthwhile so you can use it. A tablet that’s slower and has less storage than a phone probably isn’t going to get used much.

Phone Longevity

I owned the Xperia X10 for 22 months before getting the Galaxy S3. As that included 9 months of using a Galaxy S I only had 13 months of use out of that phone before lending it to other people.

The Galaxy S3 turned out to be a mistake as I replaced it in only 7 months.

I had the Note 2 for 15 months before getting the Note 3.

I have now had the Note 3 for 11 months and have no plans for a replacement any time soon – this is the longest I’ve owned an Android phone and been totally satisfied with it. Also I only need to use it for another 4 months to set a record for using an Android phone.

The Xperia was “free” as part of a telco contract. The other phones were somewhere between $500 and $600 each when counting the accessories (case, battery, etc) that I bought with them. So in 4 years and 7 months I’ve spent somewhere between $1500 and $1800 on phones plus the cost of the Xperia that was built in to the contract. The Xperia probably cost about the same so I’ll assume that I spent $2000 on phones and accessories. This seems like a lot. However that averages out to about $1.20 per day (and hopefully a lot less if my Note 3 lasts another couple of years). I could justify $1.20 per day for either the amount of paid work I do on Android phones or the amount of recreational activities that I perform (the Galaxy S3 was largely purchased for Ingress).

Conclusion

I think that phone companies will be struggling to maintain sales of high end phones in the future. When I chose the Xperia X10 I knew I was making a compromise, the screen resolution was an obvious limitation on the use of the device (even though it was one of the best devices available). The storage in the Xperia was also a limitation. Now FullHD is the minimum resolution for any sort of high-end device and 32G of storage is small. I think that most people would struggle to observe any improvement over a Nexus 5 or Note 3 at this time. I think that this explains the massive advertising campaign for the Galaxy S6 that is going on at the moment. Samsung can’t sell the S6 based on it being better than previous phones because there’s not much that they can do to make it obviously better. So they try and sell it for the image.

Smart Phones Should Measure Charge Speed

My first mobile phone lasted for days between charges. I never really found out how long it’s battery would last because there was no way that I could use it to deplete the charge in any time that I could spend awake. Even if I had managed to run the battery out the phone was designed to accept 4*AA batteries (it’s rechargeable battery pack was exactly that size) so I could buy spare batteries at any store.

Modern phones are quite different in physical phone design (phones that weigh less than 4*AA batteries aren’t uncommon), functionality (fast CPUs and big screens suck power), and use (games really drain your phone battery). This requires much more effective chargers, when some phones are intensively used (EG playing an action game with Wifi enabled) they can’t be charged as they use more power than the plug-pack supplies. I’ve previously blogged some calculations about resistance and thickness of wires for phone chargers [1], it’s obvious that there are some technical limitations to phone charging based on the decision to use a long cable at ~5V.

My calculations about phone charge rate were based on the theoretical resistance of wires based on their estimated cross-sectional area. One problem with such analysis is that it’s difficult to determine how thick the insulation is without destroying the wire. Another problem is that after repeated use of a charging cable some conductors break due to excessive bending. This can significantly increase the resistance and therefore increase the charging time. Recently a charging cable that used to be really good suddenly became almost useless. My Galaxy Note 2 would claim that it was being charged even though the reported level of charge in the battery was not increasing, it seems that the cable only supplied enough power to keep the phone running not enough to actually charge the battery.

I recently bought a USB current measurement device which is really useful. I have used it to diagnose power supplies and USB cables that didn’t work correctly. But one significant way in which it fails is in the case of problems with the USB connector. Sometimes a cable performs differently when connected via the USB current measurement device.

The CurrentWidget program [2] on my Galaxy Note 2 told me that all of the dedicated USB chargers (the 12V one in my car and all the mains powered ones) supply 1698mA (including the ones rated at 1A) while a PC USB port supplies ~400mA. I don’t think that the Note 2 measurement is particularly reliable. On my Galaxy Note 3 it always says 0mA, I guess that feature isn’t implemented. An old Galaxy S3 reports 999mA of charging even when the USB current measurement device says ~500mA. It seems to me that method the CurrentWidget uses to get the current isn’t accurate if it even works at all.

Android 5 on the Nexus 4/5 phones will tell the amount of time until the phone is charged in some situations (on the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 that I used for testing it didn’t always display it and I don’t know why). This is an useful but it’s still not good enough.

I think that what we need is to have the phone measure the current that’s being supplied and report it to the user. Then when a phone charges slowly because apps are using some power that won’t be mistaken for a phone charging slowly due to a defective cable or connector.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

In June last year I bought a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 [1]. Generally I was very happy with that phone, one problem I had is that less than a year after purchasing it the Ingress menus burned into the screen [2].

2 weeks ago I bought a new Galaxy Note 3. One of the reasons for getting it is the higher resolution screen, I never realised the benefits of a 1920*1080 screen on a phone until my wife got a Nexus 5 [3]. I had been idly considering a Galaxy Note 4, but $1000 is a lot of money to pay for a phone and I’m not sure that a 2560*1440 screen will offer much benefit in that size. Also the Note 3 and Note 4 both have 3G of RAM, as some applications use more RAM when you have a higher resolution screen the Note 4 will effectively have less usable RAM than the Note 3.

My first laptop cost me $3,800 in 1998, that’s probably more than $6,000 in today’s money. The benefits that I receive now from an Android phone are in many ways greater than I received from that laptop and that laptop was definitely good value for money for me. If the cheapest Android phone cost $6,000 then I’d pay that, but given that the Note 3 is only $550 (including postage) there’s no reason for me to buy something more expensive.

Another reason for getting a new phone is the limited storage space in the Note 2. 16G of internal storage is a limit when you have some big games installed. Also the recent Android update which prevented apps from writing to the SD card meant that it was no longer convenient to put TV shows on my SD card. 32G of internal storage in the Note 3 allows me to fit everything I want (including the music video collection I downloaded with youtube-dl). The Note 2 has 16G of internal storage and an 8G SD card (that I couldn’t fully use due to Android limitations) while the Note 3 has 32G (the 64G version wasn’t on sale at any of the cheap online stores). Also the Note 3 supports an SD card which will be good for my music video collection at some future time, this is a significant benefit over the Nexus 5.

In the past I’ve written about Android service life and concluded that storage is the main issue [4]. So it is a bit unfortunate that I couldn’t get a phone with 64G of storage at a reasonable price. But the upside is that getting a cheaper phone allows me to buy another one sooner and give the old phone to a relative who has less demanding requirements.

In the past I wrote about the warranty support for my wife’s Nexus 5 [5]. I should have followed up on that before, 3 days after that post we received a replacement phone. One good thing that Google does is to reserve money on a credit card to buy the new phone and then send you the new phone before you send the old one back. So if the customer doesn’t end up sending the broken phone they just get billed for the new phone, that avoids excessive delays in getting a replacement phone. So overall the process of Google warranty support is really good, if 2 products are equal in other ways then it would be best to buy from Google to get that level of support.

I considered getting a Nexus 5 as the hardware is reasonably good (not the greatest but quite good enough) and the price is also reasonably good. But one thing I really hate is the way they do the buttons. Having the home button appear on the main part of the display is really annoying. I much prefer the Samsung approach of having a hardware button for home and touch-screen buttons outside the viewable area for settings and back. Also the stylus on the Note devices is convenient on occasion.

The Note 3 has a fake-leather back. The concept of making fake leather is tacky, I believe that it’s much better to make honest plastic that doesn’t pretend to be something that it isn’t. However the texture of the back improves the grip. Also the fake stitches around the edge help with the grip too. It’s tacky but utilitarian.

The Note 3 is slightly smaller and lighter than the Note 2. This is a good technical achievement, but I’d rather they just gave it a bigger battery.

Update USB 3

One thing I initially forgot to mention is that the Note 3 has USB 3. This means that it has a larger socket which is less convenient when you try and plug it in at night. USB 3 seems unlikely to provide any benefit for me as I’ve never had any of my other phones transfer data at rates more than about 5MB/s. If the Note 3 happens to have storage that can handle speeds greater than the 32MB/s a typical USB 2 storage device can handle then I’m still not going to gain much benefit. USB 2 speeds would allow me to transfer the entire contents of a Note 3 in less than 20 minutes (if I needed to copy the entire storage contents). I can’t imagine myself having a real-world benefit from that.

The larger socket means more fumbling when charging my phone at night and it also means that the Note 3 cable can’t be used in any other phone I own. In a year or two my wife will have a phone with USB 3 support and that cable can be used for charging 2 phones. But at the moment the USB 3 cable isn’t useful as I don’t need to have a phone charger that can only charge one phone.

Conclusion

The Note 3 basically does everything I expected of it. It’s just like the Note 2 but a bit faster and with more storage. I’m happy with it.

Google Hardware Support

Ironically just 5 days after writing about how I choose Android devices for a long service life [1] my wife’s Nexus 5 (with 32G of RAM (sorry Flash storage) to give it a long useful life) totally died. It reported itself as being fully charged and then 15 minutes later it was off and could not be revived. No combination of pushing the power button and connecting the power cable caused the screen to light up or any sound to be emitted.

Google has a nice interactive support site for nexus devices that describes more ways of turning a phone on than any reasonable person could imagine. After trying to turn the phone on in various ways (plugged and unplugged etc) it gave me a link to get phone support. Clicking on that put me in the queue to RECEIVE a phone call and a minute later a lady who spoke English really well (which is unusual for telephone support) called me to talk me through the various options.

Receiving a phone call is a much better experience than making a call. It meant that if the queue for phone support was long then I could do other things until the phone rings. It’s impossible to be productive at other tasks while listening for hold music to stop and a person to start talking. The cost of doing this would be very tiny, while there would be some cost in hardware and software to have a web site that tells me how long I can expect to wait for a call a more basic implementation where I just submit my number and wait for a call would be very cheap to implement. The costs of calls from the US to Australia (and most places where people can afford a high end Android phone) are quite cheap for home users and are probably cheaper if you run a call center. If the average support call cost Google $1 and 3% of phones have support calls then that would be an extra cost of $0.03 per phone. I expect that almost everyone who buys a $450 phone would be happy to pay a lot more than $0.03 to avoid the possibility of listening to hold music!

I received the phone call about a minute after requesting it, this was nice but I wonder how long I would have waited if I hadn’t requested a call at 1AM Australian time (presumably during the day in a US call center). In any case getting a 1 minute response is great for any time of the day or night, lots of call centers can’t do that.

While the phone support is much better than most phone support, it would be nice if they added some extra options. I think it would be good to have webchat and SMS as options for support for the benefit of people who don’t want to speak to strangers. This would be useful to a lot of people on the Autism Spectrum and probably others too.

The phone call wasn’t particularly productive, it merely confirmed that I had followed all the steps on the support website. Then I received an email telling me about the web site which was a waste of time as I’d covered that in the phone call.

I have just replied to their second email which asked for the IMEI of the phone to start the warranty return process. We could have saved more than 24 hours delay if this had been requested in the first email or the phone call. Google could have even requested the IMEI through the web site before starting the phone call. It would have been even easier if Google had included the device IMEI in the email they sent me to confirm the purchase as searching for old email is a lot easier than searching through my house for an old box. Another option for Google would be to just ask me for the Gmail account used for the purchase, as I only bought one Nexus 5 on that account they then have all the purchase details needed for a warranty claim.

While the first call was a great experience the email support following that has been a waste of time. I’m now wondering if they aim to delay the warranty process for a few days in the hope that the phone will just start working again.

Android Device Service Life

In recent years Android devices have been the most expensive things I’ve purchased apart from airline tickets and other travel/holiday expenses. As they are expensive I’d like to use them for as long as possible to get the most value for money. Also as I give my devices to relatives when they no longer work for me I’d like to avoid having relatives hassling me about their phone not working as desired. So I’ve been thinking about the features that I need to make it possible to use a phone or tablet for a long time.

RAM

The way Android works is that when an application in the foreground requests more memory background applications may be closed to free some memory. Android doesn’t use swap by default, there is some documentation on how to enable it (and it’s not difficult to figure out for anyone who has used Linux before) but generally it’s not done.

If you run a larger application the chances of apps closing in the background (causing delays when you switch back to them and possibly a loss of context if the app is buggy and doesn’t preserve all state) are increased. As a general trend apps tend to get bigger to provide more features and also because users who own newer bigger devices don’t complain as much about memory use.

Also to make things worse new versions of Android tend to use more RAM. So a phone that runs well can suddenly start performing badly when you upgrade to a new version of Android (which incidentally usually can’t be reversed) and upgrade to new versions of apps (which can’t be reversed through the Google Play Store).

The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 was a very nice phone when it was released, it ran Android 2.1 very quickly. When I upgraded the Xperia X10s that my wife and I used to Android 2.3 (which was necessary to have the phone run as a Wifi access point) performance dropped considerably. The Android upgrade combined with newer larger apps means that those phones are barely usable now. 384M of RAM was plenty in early 2011 when I first used the Xperia X10 but it’s not nearly enough now.

Recently 2G of RAM has been the minimum for a mid-range or high-end phone. It seems difficult to imagine a new Android feature as compelling as the addition of Wifi access point support in Android 2.3 that would drive an upgrade to a future memory hogging version of the OS. It also seems difficult to imagine Android apps needing enough memory to destroy the performance of a phone with 2G of RAM. But then I couldn’t imagine the 384M in an Xperia X10 becoming inadequate or the 512M in a Samsung Galaxy S becoming barely usable either.

Storage

Until fairly recently storage in an Android device was divided into USB attached storage (a VFAT filesystem that could be directly mounted on a PC) and a Linux filesystem that was used for all internal operations of the phone. On such devices it typically wasn’t possible to change partition sizes without a lot more skill than most users possess and most of the storage space was reserved for USB attachment. If you only had a few Android apps and lots of photos, movies, etc then this worked well. But if you wanted to install larger Android apps then you would have big problems. Even with Android 4.x devices (which all seem to have a single filesystem) you can easily run out of space.

Modern games often take several hundred megs of storage. Games that take 500M+ for the Android package install (which also requires the same amount of temporary space for installation and upgrade) are common. Sometimes games download data files after they have been installed for a total size approaching 2G (such as The Sims Freeplay).

When I bought a Nexus 4 for my wife I got the version with 8G of storage because paying an extra $50 for the 16G version seemed unreasonable. 8G was fine for my wife, but when she got a new phone I gave the Nexus 4 to a relative who wanted to play The Sims and other big games. That relative isn’t so happy about having a limited number of games on their phone and I have to fix it when storage space runs out and things start aborting (when storage runs out the Google App Store program aborts and uses lots of space for temporary files).

I recently bought a tablet with 32G of storage and filled 16G on the first day (tablets are good for watching
TV and TV shows are big). Fortunately the tablet in question has a SD socket so that when space becomes a problem in a year or two I can buy an SD card and keep using it.

An unfortunate recent decision by Google was to prevent apps from being run from a SD card. So even if you have a device with a SD socket you still need to have enough internal storage for all apps and their private data. At 500M+ for a modern game that means a device with 8G of storage (which includes space for the OS) will be lucky to get 8 games installed.

If you want to use a phone to it’s full capacity (playing various media files, games, etc) then it seems that the minimum storage capacity would be 8G of internal storage and a SD socket. For a device without an SD socket (such as the Nexus 5 with 16G or 32G of storage) your future use will be limited. 32G is probably enough for a phone given that you can recode movies to use less space (the FullHD screen on the Nexus 5 is nice but 720p movies will probably look good enough). But the larger screens of tablets demand better video quality so the Nexus tablets are probably a bad choice due to lack of storage space.

Screen Size and Resolution

I have previously written about the sizes of devices and how they may be used by people of various ages [1]. That should be of use for anyone who plans to use their old phone as an educational device for their children (which appears to be very common). But apart from that I can’t think of any reason why size would suddenly make an old phone obsolete. Only young children will have their hands change size in any significant way.

Resolution also shouldn’t be a huge problem, the 480*854 screen on the Xperia X10 is fairly good for a 4″ screen. While a higher resolution makes text more readable at a small size for most users the availability of a higher resolution screen isn’t going to make their old phone obsolete.

CPU

The only Android devices I owned that appeared to develop CPU speed issues late in life were the Xperia X10 phones, and that might be more due to RAM limits and the OS upgrade. All the other devices were either obviously slow at purchase time or are still performing well now.

CPU speed may make it difficult or impossible to play new games, but shouldn’t affect other uses of a phone or tablet.

Conclusion

It seems to me that if you want to use an Android device for more than 2 years then storage capacity should be a major factor in choosing which device to purchase. It seems that lack of storage space is in many cases the main factor that makes older devices annoying or impossible to use.

My First Ingress Anomaly

schwag from Ingress Anomaly

Ingress is an Android phone game developed by Google where you have to go to various places to capture “portals” which are based on landmarks or places of note. There’s a sci-fi back story which I haven’t cared much about (my local library has a heap of good sci-fi books I don’t have time to read). But if you are interested in low quality sci-fi you can start with the Youtube channel for Ingress [1]. But the best thing to do is to download the Ingress client program from the Google play store if you have an Android phone [2].

Periodically they have special events in the game called “Anomalies”, which usually involve many people competing to capture a small number of special portals. Usually a portal is fairly easy to capture so a high level player can easily capture a portal in at most a few minutes, but when there is a large group of players defending a portal by replacing the “resonators” as quickly as they are destroyed it becomes more challenging. I’m not going to try to explain this properly as I presume that readers either already know or don’t care. The Wikipedia page about Ingress has more information.

On Saturday there was an Anomaly where the main city was Melbourne. My team (Enlightened) won the event in Australia but apparently the event in the US at the same time was won by the other team (Resistance).

I had hoped that our event would be similar to some of the ones I’ve seen on the “Ingress Report” (a fictional news service on youtube) in which actors from the sci-fi videos about Ingress attended. But unfortunately it seems that the actors stay in the US.

Every player who was registered for the anomaly received a gift pack that contained three cards and a badge. The picture above shows the cards that my wife and I received along with one of our badges. The badges are green for Enlightened and blue for Resistance (the in-game colors) and have three flashing LEDs – the photo has one of the LEDs lit up. The three cards have “passcodes” which can be redeemed for in-game items, the XMP, Power Cubes, and Resonators weren’t that useful (10 not particularly rare items that I could get through 10 minutes of game playing). The “Medal” cards are for in-game badges showing the anomalies that we have played at, but they are “bronze” badges which again aren’t much use as nothing less than silver will help in leveling up.

Overall it was a good experience, we won, had a good after-party (with free snacks and one free drink per person), and the badges are nice. I recommend attending if there’s an event in your area, and note that you don’t need to be a high level player to attend, even L6 players were able to contribute.