Summer 2013 Phone Thoughts

moto-x

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 fac­torsAlmost 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.