23 Dec 2015

Musings on Alex’s Phone

Hail readers!

My poetry and latest Corbyn polemic aside, it is true that I’ve not written all that much here on the Magical Realm. In part, this is because of my continued efforts on the Ark—I have now completed chapter fifteen. But it is also because of a few other things I’ve been occupied with.

In particular, I’ve purchased and set up a new smartphone. This is fortunate, since my old smartphone was five years old; it could barely chug along with 384MB of RAM and a 533MHz single-core processor. My new phone—the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact—has a quad core processor clocked at 2500MHz, along with 2GB of RAM, a 20MP camera (it can shoot 4k!) and, most importantly: it has a fast GPS.

(Here are some additional photos of the new phone.)

This is important, because of another reason: I am once more leaving for Germany this winter. I was hoping to go skiing; but with the spring-like temperatures, I will have little choice but to enjoy the view (and take photos!) Since we’re going by car, a fast GPS—unlike my old smartphone’s painfully slow and somewhat unreliable version—is invaluable.

Anyway: I’ve decided to share a few of my thoughts on the smartphone market in 2015, along with a few photos I’ve dug up. Consider it a light-hearted break from my usual politics, philosophy and literature essays.

A Few Words About the Xperia Z3C

Before I go on about the ideal smartphone, and other philosophical musings, allow me to share a few thoughts on my new phone.

First off: the specsheet is impressive. The phone boasts dust and waterproofing (!); an excellent GPS; 4G, compatible with all major standards; a fast (for ARM) quad core processor; healthy RAM; an impressive camera; and a razor sharp display. With 319 pixels per square inch, the screen is literally as good as printed paper—for fonts, more so, since RGBA anti-aliasing means the horizontal font resolution is more or less tripled.

Tiny icons are rendered picture-perfect. The screen’s brightness is good; the colours are vivid. What more is there to say?

To top it all off: the Z3C only cost me £250 off Carphone Warehouse. It’s not bad for a smartphone of this calibre—not bad at all.

There are, however, some caveats. The first is to do with software. Sony has pre-installed a large number of applications; many are of questionable value. There’s AVG antivirus—surely an insult to Linux kernel security, to Google’s OS, and to user intelligence.

Then there’s Garmin’s Map Pilot. Don’t get me wrong—satnav apps are only too useful, and I’m sure Garmin’s app is decent. Trouble is, Google has already added GMaps to Android. And GMaps is a perfectly capable satnav app—it has voice-operation (I can attest that it works), voiced directions (ditto), and of course, it only takes about five seconds or so for it to find you.

(A note: the phone has its sat-nav antenna to the left. In right-handed operation, my fingers end up obscuring it; although this has no noticeable effect on reception.)

All of this, however, merely makes for some uninstalling when setting up. That is, except for the fact that some apps cannot be removed.

Sony has shipped a number of uninstallable apps with the Xperia, and most of them only fufill functions already extant in the OS; email, for example, but also music-players and a specialised video app are included. Some of these apps are genuinely useful—Sony’s email app should work with multiple accounts, including my Outlook account.

But some are useless for me. I don’t have a PlayStation; what use could I have for Sony’s app?

I could understand it if Sony merely included the apps as part of its UX experience, although—frankly—I would still rather an OS just fulfill its function of providing an interface, interacting with the hardware at the kernel level, and giving me a package manager. (Or ‘appstore,’ in the smartphone parlance.)

But for Sony to waste my internal memory space on apps I have no use for? Bad form, Sony. Bad form.

Other than that, Sony has also shipped a (non-default) UI for Android. Having experienced both it and Android’s offering, I prefer the latter. I find the default Android UI simpler and more intuitive—less getting in the way, more working. That said, Sony’s offering ain’t bad. I’ve found my way round it without having to type ‘man Android’ into a terminal. (Yes, I know Android doesn’t have a command-line interface by default. Yes, I know it doesn’t have a manual either. Shoot me, why don’t you?)

It did take me a while to figure out the overall workings (multitasking, home screens, etc.) but it was no great effort. Although, I do get a sense that Sony designed the interface for social media addicts: there are quite a few widgets that take most of the screen displaying Facebook/Twitter/etc.

Anyway; stay with me for more updates on my experiences with the Z3C. So far, it has proven fast (the CPU is overkill anyway), sharp, and good-looking—even if it is hindered by Sony’s dubious software ethos.

Oh, and one more thing: I know I can root the phone. That would allow me to uninstall Sony’s bloatware. However—I’m not dumb enough to risk bricking my phone and voiding my warranty. Sony’s bloatware will have to remain ignored.

Thoughts on Smartphones

With my mini-review out of the way, allow me to share a few thoughts on smartphones more generally.

Firstly, since it’s already mentioned—let’s address bloatware and user rights. Bloatware might save a few handsome pennies for the manufacturer, but it’s hard to see anyone willingly choosing to accept it in return for a few quid. Like the market for Windows PCs, manufacturers are desperate to increase profit margins; Google or Microsoft would find it difficult to prevent them doing so (since having the software available on a wide variety of hardware is dependent, in part, on giving the OEMs freedom); and consumers, for lack of choice, must go along.

‘Alex!’ you cry; ‘If you dislike bloatware so much, why buy the phone?’

As I’ve said: choice. First off, most Android phones are not actually stock Android—only the Nexus phones are officially vanilla Android, along with a few other phones orbitting the sidelines. Samsung, Sony and HTC are the big players; and they’re all shipping Touchwiz, bloatware, and modifications galore.

I could’ve have bought the Nexus 5—I almost did. The extra £55 wouldn’t have deterred me. What did deter me was the screen size; at 5.2", it was too large to operate one-handed. (The Xperia is small enough to allow this, but anything larger would be uncomfortable.)

The problem with bloatware from Google’s side is that there’s not a whole lot they can do about it. Android is open-source code; anyone can modify it, and sell phones with it, provided that they follow the GPL. Google could close-off parts of Android like the UI, various utilities, and the package-management. While Samsung et al. can code their own interfaces and utilities, package management would likely prove insourmountable. If they went it alone, they would have to find a way of making the many thousands of Android apps work on their implementation.

The problems with Google closing the Android project to open-source development are rather substantial, however. Firstly, any departure from the current .apk packaging would involve repackaging every Android app around—a huge effort for the developers. It could even lead to developers abandoning Android for other competing platforms.

The second problem is that open-source development benefits the Android project considerably. Closing the source would shut the door on that.

The third problem is that if Google changes the OS too much, it would cause even bigger problems for the apps. Conversely, if it changes too little, competing Samsung and Sony OS would still function with Android apps.

The only other possibility for Google would be to re-license the Android code under a more restrictive licence—I’m not an expert on this, but I suspect there would be some difficulties. Still, it would be easier than the above.

There is one more option: the EU could legislate to require that all phones sold within the EU be rooted, i.e. the consumer must have full access to the software. It might pose some difficulties with the EU’s plans to regulate radio devices to prevent them running at illegal frequences or power ratings; since, theoretically, the user could break the law (unlike in a locked-down phone). Then again: should users not be themselves responsible for breaking the law?

But until someone can give us a legislative or technical solution to this, we as consumers will have to put up with it. Maybe the development of Ubuntu for phones, or KDE’s Plasma Mobile will give us more choice in the future; alas, that is not the here and now.

Screen Size

Another issue that’s caught my attention is that of screen size. There’s been a trend recently towards larger and larger phones—up to 6". On one hand, I welcome any initiative to bring choice; and there are people who like, or have use for, large phones. Some people have large hands, and struggle to operate smaller phones. Other people use their phone heavily and want the extra display.

That said, I dislike this trend because a) it seems to be leading to a shortage of smaller phones (most phones are now around 5") and b) some of the features found on larger phones aren’t being included in their little brothers (my Z3C being the exception). I suspect this is one area where we’ll have to just vote with our wallets.

The question of ‘what is the ideal size for most people’ does have an answer though. I suspect any phone that’s too large for a normal-sized hand to operate is, indeed, too large—phones are, after all, meant to be portable. As Steve Jobs said: big phones are like Hummers. Pointless and garish.

Anyway: back to the Z3C. The 4.6" screen seems close to the limit of one-handed operability. Indeed, it takes some effort to reach something on the bottom of the screen if your thumb is at the top; any larger, and I’d be struggling. This is not helped by the fact that the off-button is to the side—I have to perform feats of dexterity to hold the phone and turn off the screen.

So: we can perhaps place a maximum realistic limit of 5" for the ideal screen.

On the other end of the spectrum, my old phone’s 3.2" screen is easy to use—but small, especially when it comes to browsing or gaming. For the sake of simplicity, we can probably say anything between 4" and 4.9" is ideal.

The Role of the Smartphone

Lastly, I’ll deal with a different question entirely: what are smartphones for?

They seem able to do almost anything. They can call; they can email; text; update Twitter and Facebook; they have capable web-browsers; they have GPS, and can play music.

All of these functions pretty much render dedicated music players obsolete (although if you buy Google’s 5.7" monster, you might want a small music player you can take on a jog). A similar story is to be found for satnavs.

And is this a good thing? Overall, yes. One of the boons of general purpose computing is that it can replace a large number of specialised devices otherwise requiring more money, space and hassle to operate.

Still: as the example above shows, there are compromises to be made. Large phones can do web-browsing better but fall foul to simpler tasks; small phones are less capable as an on-the-road replacement for a PC. Personally, I think one should leave serious computing to the desktop, or else (if portability is required) a laptop. Even without the technical advantages that computers have in software availability, processing power, and memory—it’s just a whole lot more practical.

No phone—even a large one—and no keyboard, no matter how finely tuned, can replace a physical keyboard for speed and accuracy. For a writer, that’s a deal-breaker. And if you need to create diagrams, presentations or edit photos; forget it.

One More Aside: Resolution

Before I conclude, allow me to mention resolution; or, more correctly, pixel density. My phone has a pixel density of 319ppi; it’s sharp as a surgical knife. There are phones with higher pixel density and bigger screens—some 5+" phones come with 2560x1440p screens, with pixel densities of over 400ppi.

Let me be honest: while any improvements in the screen’s appearance are debated and to an extent subjective, what’s not debated is the effect on battery life. Phones with enormous resolutions will likely just suck your battery (and your wallet) dry.

To Conclude

If I’ve rambled a bit, apologies. My new phone is proving quite a mouthful. Perchance I ought go back to writing on the Ark—my latest beta-reader (a reviewer of the Necromancer) might even have gotten back to me…

Until next time, have fun. And do choose your phone wisely.

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