Monthly Archives: April 2013

A customizable phone is a nice dream, but it probably is just that – a dream.

With all the X phone stuff going around right now, I just have to add in this tidbit about all the “build your own phone” rumors. I will say this: I’d believe RAM options before I’d believe build material choices.

Apple – the number one single-model smartphone manufacturer on earth – offers its phone in two colors, and with the iPhone 4, it couldn’t even get the white one right for six months. Believe it or not, building a device that goes in and out of your pocket on a daily basis for a year+ that doesn’t look like complete shit or crack after a few weeks is fairly difficult in and of itself, even if it’s just plastic.

The thought that Motorola – a company with comparatively little capital goods and supply chain connections to work with – will be able to offer a phone in dozens of colors, let alone frames made of multiple materials, is ridiculous. R&D costs aside, tooling factories to build the near-endless combinations of phone designs would be stratospherically expensive. Motorola would never get its money back – it simply wouldn’t be profitable.

The only way such “customization” would be possible is if the exteriors were little more than glorified snap-on cases, meaning they would never fit perfectly, and would substantially increase the bulk of the phone, as well as reduce its overall rigidity as compared to an integrated chassis design.

The reason car manufacturers can offer you 20 colors is because you’re buying a product that costs tens of thousands of dollars. And sure, they’ll paint it any color you like, if you cough up $3000 more. Leather? $1500. 

My point is this: customization of mass-market, high-tech products built on assembly lines products is not about the cost of the materials to customize, it’s about the cost of having an assembly line that can do that sort of thing and still meet volume requirements, and thus maintain profitability for the business. 

Tl;dr – Samsung would probably offer you a Galaxy S4 made of wood if they thought they’d make any money on it.

On the HTC One’s camera, and comparisons to the Galaxy S4.

I’ve received a lot of comments on the One review claiming the S4 has a superior camera, and that I am flat wrong about the One’s camera. I’ve been looking at many photo comparisons between the two, and in some respects, I am inclined to agree that the S4’s camera is superior.

The S4 without a shadow of a doubt will produce superior detail at full crop – it’s not even a contest. Most of that is because of the One’s lower resolution, though, and is to be expected. If you’re concerned about full-crop detail, the S4 will have the better camera, hands down. So will the Xperia Z / ZL, and likely so will many other phones this year. Heck, the Galaxy S III has way better full-crop detail than the One.

I am far less convinced of any outlet claiming the S4 has superior low light performance. Maybe it has superior “low-ish” light performance, but for photos actually taken at night? I would be seriously surprised to see the One lose out, and the one real night shot comparison I’ve seen has the One easily besting the S4 / Xperia Z even when night mode is turned off.

I also have yet to see any motion shot comparisons, which I am quite confident is a comparison the One would win because of it’s ultra-wide aperture (f2.0 vs f2.2 on the S4) that allows extremely fast shutter speeds, along with OIS to keep the camera steady. This is doubly important when taking shots of actual human beings at night – they move!

Finally, I’m seeing a lot of daylight photo samples that look to have been taken with a dirty lens on the One, something that it is unusually sensitive to. I had to scrap about 1/3 of my review photos because I neglected to wipe the lens before shooting – it causes major washout / overexposure. Without a doubt, this is an issue. I wipe the One’s lens off every time I go to take a photo just in case.

But to say the S4’s camera is definitively better? I think some people are getting a little ahead of themselves.

On Dealbreakers And Breakthroughs: Why You Really Shouldn’t Hate Any High-End Smartphone Right Now

In Android Police’s private chat room – deep in the bowels of a place known only to a select few… Android Police writers – conversations are often aroused over what makes a phone good, and what makes it bad. (Tablets much less so, oddly.)

We each have our own stance on the issue. Some have a strong preference for stock Android, and anything attempting to subvert or otherwise ‘break’ Android the way Google intended it (unless Google’s intention sucked) is basically bad. For others, it’s less about how it looks, and more how it works: is it smooth, fluid, and functional? And, of course, there are the typical arguments about SD cards, removable batteries, and plastique.

Then comes the time for the passing of judgement: is this a dealbreaker? That is, would a particular flaw (or feature, as the case may be) actually be a reason to buy or not to buy a phone? As anyone in any tech blog comment section will tell you, literally every single smartphone on the market has dealbreakers. All of them.

That is such a backward-ass way of thinking, and excuse my bluntness for saying it, but it’s utterly counterproductive.

I am not without fault when it comes to this. I’ve reviewed high-end smartphones I simply couldn’t recommend. Most of those reviews I stand by steadfastly, because I honestly believed a phone was not enjoyable to use. That really is my benchmark at the end of the day: did I like using the phone? One or two, though, give me pause.

Since writing for Android Police, I’ve conducted 19 phone reviews. Which seems like a lot, to me at least. And while I may get a reputation as a negative Nancy, I consider 10 of those reviews to land in the “Positive” category pretty definitively. Only 4 are outright “Negative,” and the remaining 5 land in the sort of “Meh” area. Yes – that means I’ve liked more phones than I’ve not liked or been ambivalent about combined! Hard to believe, I know.

And I’ll say that even of those I outright panned (DROID Incredible 4G, Xperia TX, Meizu MX 4-Core, DROID Charge), I really only feel like the Xperia TX might have deserved a slightly easier time. I harped on the build quality pretty hard, but I’ve held worse phones, and now that it has a Jelly Bean update, I’d be curious to see if the experience has improved. I just did not like using it, to be honest. The app push sync was unreliable, and the camera was a total stickler to use.

Anyway, back to dealbreakers. Some of the ones I hear often are SD card or a removable battery. Sometimes they’re a little more… eccentric. Maybe you absolutely 100% need an MHL-compliant phone for HDMI out. Or an unlockable bootloader is necessary. And perhaps you just can’t live without a video app that pops out and floats over the UI.

The thing is, though, none of the aforementioned things (including SD cards and removable batteries) are actually necessary to have a good experience on a modern smartphone. I’m sorry, they just aren’t. They’re only necessary if <insert relatively niche circumstance here.> And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, because there isn’t. Not that many people need an SUV that can go off road with more than 1′ of ground clearance, but there are vehicles out there that will readily meet that specification, and that’s good.

To put it a little more directly: just because a particular phone is the best phone for you, does not make it the best phone for me. Or really anyone else. And just because another phone lacks the things you need doesn’t make it a bad phone. It makes it a phone that isn’t good for you specifically. That’s really all you’re saying. They are two different things. No one reviews a Range Rover and says it’s a terrible car because it gets relatively low gas mileage and doesn’t handle very well – if those are you concerns, why are you even considering it? That’s what really gets my goat: people who know full well they won’t like a phone because it won’t suit their personal needs, but go on ahead and shit all over it anyway like it’s actually objectively terrible. And again, sure, I’m guilty of this as well sometimes.

I’m writing this right now because I’m going to start working on my review of the HTC One this weekend. Spoiler alert: I like it kind of a lot.

But, I can already see the 5-10 comments not simply lamenting the lack of a removable battery, an SD card, or whatever new software features Samsung’s packed into the Galaxy S4, but absolutely blasting the phone because of these things. I’m not trying to stop those comments with this post, because frankly, who could? The internet will be the internet. It’s going to happen. But I’m not going to respond to them, even though in all likelihood one will rise to the top with DISQUS’s wonderful voting system. Mostly because doing so would be about as useful as debating a moon landing hoaxer.

Fear not, though, SD card enthusiasts – your ire will get to me at least a little bit. And that’s primarily due to the fact that I take pride in the evaluation I give a phone. I want to convey my feelings accurately and impartially, and issue a relatively definitive judgment on a product. I want to be able to say “This is a good product,” “This is an OK product,” or “This is a bad product.” I find it very disappointing to get to the end of a phone review and discover a non-conclusion. I want to be conclusive.

I’m also not saying there aren’t objective, rational reasons to dislike a phone. Of course there are. No one likes bad battery life, or a display that looks poor. No one like a camera that takes crappy photos. I can’t think of anyone who yearns for a slow phone, or one which is poorly constructed. But even the Xperia ZL, which I roundly “Meh’d” a couple weeks ago, is still a decent phone. I didn’t hate it! I promise. But I did look at it on the merits, and it was very difficult to understand why it was any better than its competitors, when it was inferior to them in big ways – the screen is worse, the battery life is worse, the camera is worse, the speed is worse, and the build quality wasn’t anything outstanding. And that’s why it got a pretty ‘meh’ review – you have noticeably better options at your disposal, and I can’t go recommending something knowing that those options exist. I want to guide people to the great phones, not the ones that you can live with. People got upset anyway, because, well, internet.

The fact is, I like the HTC One. I very much predict that I will like the Galaxy S4. I also like the Optimus G Pro, which I’m currently testing out as well. Every single one of these phones has / will have flaws – objective ones. I will probably like one of them more than the others, and I already have a good idea which one it’s probably going to be. But please, don’t tell me wrong for liking something because I can’t use both of the cameras to record video at once, store all 50GB of my pirated movies, or flash a ROM to stock. You can choose not to buy it for that reason, but claiming that makes it ‘bad’ is like complaining that a burrito isn’t crunchy. You knew what you were getting into.

Ouya and GameStick remain basically flawed – stop trying to shove a TV into my mobile games.

Look at this review of Ravensword – for a mobile title, the amount of polish is impressive. This is very near or at the level at which one would call a smartphone / tablet game “AAA.” The visuals are of a high quality (generally), the game is pretty original (as original as a 3rd person sort-of-medieval open world RPG can get), and the amount of content seems perfectly reasonable given the price and scope of the game. This really is about as good as it gets for a “serious” open world RPG on Android.

I would never, ever want to play this on my television. I wouldn’t even want to play it on my computer monitor. The demands of the game’s open world rendering mean major sacrifices on terrain and foliage textures, and the limited power of mobile GPU’s also heavily limit the amount of active character models you can render at any one time. Everyone loves to talk about ‘console-quality’ graphics being just on the horizon for mobile, but that’s just not true. You can be tricked into seeing something that is approaching original Xbox / Gamecube / PS2 levels, but you are being tricked: it’s only because you’re inside a dark room with a few bad guys, no shadows (or very simple ones), no dynamic lighting, lame physics, and dead-simple wall textures that it looks at all “good.”

This game (Ravensword) doesn’t hide the capability of mobile GPUs. Sure, some things look pretty OK, but a lot of the environmental stuff (eg, the walls, trees, ground) could pass for Nintendo 64 textures.

The alternative is the Infinity Blade approach – 1 enemy, small, controlled environment. Yes, everything looks pretty, but it’s only because the GPU is focusing on rendering a few complex elements, as opposed to 50. And who wants to play something like Infinity Blade on their TV? Not me – it’s much more convenient to sit back with a tablet. Fact aside that games like this were designed from the ground up for touch, and its inherent imprecision. Playing most mobile games with a gamepad kind of sucks – you expect a lot more control, precision, and customization than you actually get.

The sad (but also good!) truth is that many games can be simplified such as to be enjoyable and playable on a smartphone or tablet. A tablet is more portable than an Ouya or a Gamestick will ever be, and it’s a lot more versatile, ubiquitous, and easy to use. These companies are trying to ‘reinvent’ the game console on the notion that consumers can be convinced that many of the reasons they play mobile games (convenience, ease of access, portability) should be sacrificed in order to use a controller and a television.

I don’t need a controller and a 60″ screen to play the DS port of Final Fantasy III – and I don’t want those things. I prefer it on my tablet. It’s more laid back. It’s more convenient. Yes, 15 years ago, you might have wanted to play a game like that on a TV – but if someone gave you the option to play it on a 7″ screen using a touchscreen for controls on a device with always-on internet and no cartridges or CDs, guess what: that would sound god damn amazing.

This game just adds to my point: you can make good mobile games meant for mobile devices. This one needs a bit of work, apparently, but it doesn’t change the fact that the TV and controller really aren’t what people want. People want good games, and developers are adapting to the medium they want them on.