I’m starting my new job in several weeks, and I recently had to make a decision about a work phone. As a gadget geek I took this decision pretty seriously and gave it many hours of thought. I’ve made my pick, but instead of letting all that work fade into the ether, I thought it would be useful to record it here for others who might be in a similar position.
There were three basic decisions involved:
(1) Keep a separate personal plan/phone or merge it into the firm plan?
(2) iPhone or Android?
(3) If Android, which phone?
My thoughts and answers to each of these questions are found after the jump. (TL;DR: I picked the Moto X).
Decision #1: One Phone or Two?
My firm offers two overall approaches to a work phone. Option #1 is to start a separate work plan and receive a new firm device. Another option is to transition my personal plan to the firm’s account, and then either continue using my personal device or receive a new firm device. (Another option that basically no one chooses is to decline any firm plan or device, and just receive reimbursement for each business call made from my personal device).
I asked around as to what others at the firm have done. Some recommended Option #1 because they felt it was nice to maintain some personal/work distinction, and also mentioned it can sometimes be nice to have a second phone for battery life purposes. The downsides, of course, are having to keep up with two devices and having to continue footing the bill for a separate personal plan. Others recommended Option #2, with the major advantage being able to avoid the disadvantages of Option #1. The largest downside is the blending of personal life and work life through use of a single device.
I decided to go with Option #2 and transition my personal account to the firm. I decided that it would be more trouble than it was worth trying to maintain two devices, and as one future colleague put it to me, why pay over $1000/year for a phone you’ll use only 20% (or less) of the time?
Decision #2: iPhone or Android
Once I decided to have a single account through the firm, I had to decide on a device. I’ve had my Samsung Galaxy Nexus through Verizon for a little under two years. It’s been a pretty good device, but it’s become remarkably laggy in the past several months (even after a recent factory reset). So, it’s time for an upgrade: having the firm provide me with a new device seemed like the right call.
I shared my thoughts on iPhone vs. Android a couple years ago, but a lot has changed since then. Here are some updates on my thinking:
Apps: Pretty much the same as 2011, with Android continuing to catch up. There are still certain iOS-only apps that I wish Android also had, but for the apps I use every day, there is essentially parity between the two. Many developers continue to do simultaneous iOS and Android launches, and many others bring their apps to Android within weeks or months. As time goes on, I am less and less inclined to make app availability or quality a major qualifier in my recommendations to others.
Hardware: I still stand by my 2011 conclusion that most Android devices are at feature-parity (or beyond) with the iPhone. I think the iPhone’s real hardware competitive advantage right now is the camera. I have yet to see an Android phone review that says the camera meets or exceeds the iPhone camera quality. The iPhone design itself is beautiful, yet seems very fragile to me with all that glass. The iPhone’s Retina display is matched or exceeded in pixel density by several Android devices. In short, although the iPhone is iconic and probably the most premium-looking hardware, it’s not enough to weigh especially heavily in my choice of phone.
Operating system: My thoughts are essentially the same as in 2011, except that the iPhone has benefitted from Google releasing several key apps for iOS, including Gmail, Maps, Chrome, and Google Now. In fact, the iOS version of Google Maps was significantly better than the Android version for several months. Importantly, however, the iOS Google apps cannot be made the “default” applications on iOS for opening links, etc. I still find Android to have tighter integration into the Google universe, which is where I long ago decided to make my virtual home. The more device permissions that Android makes available to developers also result in some more interesting features in Android apps, as well.
Music: Since 2011, Google has come out with Google Music, which is a cloud-based approach to music management. Your personal music library is scan-and-matched to Google’s cloud (and uploaded when there is no match), and then you can stream your collection through the Android app (or a web browser). For $10/month, you can subscribe to Google Music “Unlimited” which lets you stream any song in Google’s library on demand à la Spotify and create smart radio stations à la Pandora.
The benefit of Google’s approach is that wherever you have a data connection, you have access both to your personal music collection and (for a fee) a whole universe of on-demand music beyond your collection, all without taking up hardly any space on your phone. You can also save music to your phone for those times when you’re offline. I’ve found Google Music to be pretty fantastic. I would be surprised if Apple didn’t come out with something similar for the iPhone, but right now in my view Google has the lead.
In the end, I have been an Android user for over five years and so I am fairly dedicated to and invested in the platform. If I had gone the two-device route, for experiment’s sake I might have tried an iPhone for work; but when choosing between the two, I’m sticking with Android. The iPhone is a fantastic phone and iOS a fantastic platform, but I think Android is just as good if not better in many respects. At my core, I guess, I’m still a Google guy.
Decision #3: Which Android Phone?
Having decided to stick with Android over iOS, the final and toughest call was picking an actual device. It did not take much research to discover that the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One have been almost universally praised as the leading available Android phones. However, a couple of weeks ago Motorola announced the Moto X, which is the company’s first Android device fully developed after its acquisition by Google.
The Moto X presented a curveball in my decision process, because (as discussed more below) it competes less on specs and more on the overall experience. So I’m going to organize this section as I did my decision process. First, I needed to eliminate the Moto X from my thinking and decide a winner between the Galaxy S4 and the One. Second, I would compare that winner to the Moto X and make a decision.
Round 1: Samsung Galaxy S4 v. HTC One
There are so many reviews of both of these devices that I would waste space here by trying to recap all the pros and cons of each. Instead, let me run through the key factors that caught my attention and helped me make my decision. (TL;DR — The One prevailed).
Software: Both the Galaxy S4 and One have software layers applied on top of stock Android by the manufacturers. Although I have never owned an Android phone with one of these layers installed, I really dislike them. They often dumb Android down or make it worse rather than better, whether in terms of function or design. (Google does make available stock Android versions of both phones, but you have to pay a premium for those unlocked devices, and I don’t think my firm would have gone for it).
I tried display units of both phones at Best Buy, and came away hating the One software less than I hated the Galaxy S4’s software. The One deploys a homescreen widget called Blink Feed that — after you plug in some social accounts and other information — presents you with a continuous-scroll feed of news, pictures, and other updates. This actually seemed pretty smooth and useful. Otherwise, though, having become used to operating in stock Android through my several Nexus devices over the years, I can’t say that I “liked” the One software overall.
The Galaxy S4 software was way too cartoony for my tastes. It was packed with a lot of interesting extras like ways to scroll by waving your hand, to pause videos when you look away, to track your fitness, to call up extra information when you hover your finger over the screen without touching… but all of this seemed more likely to be cool one time, rather than useful over the life of the phone.
In short, the HTC One prevailed by being the lesser of the two evils in this category.
Screen: Based on my testing, the screens were equivalent to me — both very clear and bright. I know they use different technologies, but my hands-on revealed no real distinction for me. The Galaxy S4 has a bigger screen (5″) as compared to the One (4.7″), but the One screen is not “small” by any means. So this came out fairly neutral for me.
Feel: The One has been praised for its unibody aluminum form and great feel, and I concur. This device looks and feels great to hold. The Galaxy S4, on the other hands, has been panned for its cheap plasticky feel, and I also agree with that assessment. The One is taller than it might otherwise be due to its front facing stereo speakers (see below), but I didn’t find it uncomfortable. It fits my hands better and overall it feels more like a premium experience than the Galaxy S4’s toy-like feel. One point for the One.
Sound: The One wins hands-down here because of its impressive front-facing stereo speakers.
Battery: The One is reported to be more of a battery hog than the Galaxy S4, so this put a point in the latter’s column.
Camera: Camera quality is not paramount for me. I take a few pictures here and there but I’m not a photo junkie. I’d prefer the camera not to be crappy, basically. From my research, the Galaxy S4 camera was rigged with almost every camera feature you could dream of — and perhaps too much so, resulting in a very busy camera screen. The One has a simpler interface, but it appears the image quality may be slightly inferior. Overall this was neutral, but leaning towards the One since I am very much a casual photographer and so prefer minimal chrome to out-the-wazoo settings.
Subjective factors: Almost every review that pitted the One against the Galaxy S4 came out in favor of the One. This wasn’t decisive, but I trust the opinions of those who make a living playing with these devices, so this had a lot of influence on my decision.
In the end I came down in favor of the HTC One. The Galaxy S4 seems solid, but between the software ugliness and its cheap feel, it just didn’t hold up against the sleek, simpler One.
Round 2: HTC One v. Moto X
Let’s start at the end of the story. I picked the Moto X over the HTC One. As you’ll see below, this was obviously not done on a pure spec comparison. And I can’t lie that my choice is partly based on a bias towards supporting Google in new endeavours. But I also have come to believe that the Moto X is the superior device — not when you look at it on a comparison chart, but when you actually pit the experiences of devices against each other.
Thus, the fairest comparison is between the feature “experience” of the devices rather than a pure spec-off. That’s sort of what I did in pitting the One against the Galaxy S4 above, but the following really focuses on what it “feels” like to use the Moto X.
Specs overall. The Moto X presents an interesting twist in comparing it to the HTC One. Comparing their specs, the Moto X is inferior to the One in many ways: a lesser screen resolution (720p / 316 ppi v. 1080p / 468 ppi), slightly thicker, dual core v. quad core, and a smaller battery. However, it does have a few traditional advantages: slightly lighter, more compact overall despite having the same screen size, compatible with advanced wi-fi bands, and more camera megapixels.
Nevertheless, Motorola positions the Moto X as being superior than the HTC One and others because the hardware is designed and tuned to the specific software usage. This is a very Apple-like approach, in fact. The iPhone doesn’t have the latest and greatest of everything, but there is a clean match between its hardware and software. At first I thought that this was Motorola explaining away a decision to build a mid-range phone with mass appeal instead of a higher-end device that targets gadget lovers. However, after a lot of reading and playing with the Moto X myself, I think Motorola is actually on to something.
Battery experience. The Moto X claims to provide 24 hours of “mixed” use. It’s unclear what this means. Part of the reason it can probably deliver on this promise, despite having the same or smaller size battery than other phones, is because it sends some tasks to separate, lower-power cores. In my work I’ll be at a desk often and so able to frequently charge, but for those times where I’ll be away from power for a while in my personal or work routines, a longer battery life is very welcome. So the Moto X gains some points here.
Software experience. Happily, the Moto X is essentially stock Android with a few extra apps thrown in. These apps look like they are actually very useful. One feature will pulse notifications to your smartphone screen, using minimal pixels, so you can avoid having to unlock your phone several dozen times per day to see what’s happening on your phone (like a new email, tweet, text, etc.). Another will recognize when you’re driving, in a meeting, or sleeping based on sensors, calendar, and other signals, and react accordingly: for instance, if you’re driving, it’ll read incoming messages and prompt you to respond by voice; if you’re sleeping or in a meeting it will silence rings and notifications except for those it knows are important enough to let through. And finally, the Moto X is always listening for your voice commands to set an alarm, play music, perform a search, etc. — no need to invoke this by pushing any buttons; it’s always on.
And that’s it. No Blink Feed, no fitness tracker — just a few useful additions to the already useful stock Android experience. It could very well be this is pleasing only to those who are used to the stock / Nexus experience of Android, but that’s me, and so the Moto X software experience was a big plus for that phone.
Feel experience. Looking at the Moto X, it’s hard to imagine that it could compare to the HTC One’s sleek form and smooth feel. However, I had a chance to hold and use the Moto X on display at AT&T, and the Moto X actually feels really great. Whatever they have done to the contour on the back, it really fits very nicely and snugly in the hand. It is not the same cool, metallic experience as the One, but it is nevertheless remarkably sturdy and premium feeling. The Moto X is more compact with the same screen size, and while this may mark it down for sound (given the One’s extra size is partially due to its front-mounted speakers), I think the Moto X prevails here in terms of proportions.
Screen experience. As noted above, the Moto X has a less dense and lower quality screen than does the HTC One… on paper. But both screens looked really amazing to me, and I’m not enough of a pixel zealot to fault the Moto X for lacking a 1080p display. The Moto X screen also goes almost right to the edge of the phone, which is snazzy. I’d put the phones on even footing here.
Sound experience. I didn’t have a chance to personally test the sound on either the HTC One or the Moto X. The HTC One seems like it must be superior given the high praise given its speakers, although at least one review I read said the Moto X didn’t pale significantly to the One. The One probably gets the edge here, but sound is not a big factor for me anyway.
Camera experience. The Moto X camera is one of the most stripped-down UIs out there. By default, you just touch the screen to shoot. You can change a few settings here and there, but there’s not a whole lot to change and it’s worlds apart from the Galaxy S4’s clutter. The image quality is not spectacular, and maybe even less than the One — but again, for a casual photographer like me, I just don’t care as much. The Moto X camera is not bad, and that’s all I really cared about. I put them as equal in my book.
Although I might be taking a bigger risk with the Moto X, my gut tells me it has promise and will be a great device. It’s not the flashiest phone on the market, but I think it strikes the right balance among specs and features to produce a reliable and enjoyable phone. I’ll report back when I’m a few months into the device.