Friday, February 10, 2017

My ideal mobile phone

It doesn't happen often, but once in a while, I'll get into a discussion with someone else about things about our phones that suck, and what we'd look for in our next one. On a whim (and noticing I haven't written much lately), I figured I'd just list all the specs/features I'd want for my next phone, and why; hopefully this sparks some discussion!

I'd like to start, however, with what I already have: two Motorola phones. My daily driver is a Droid Turbo, and my previous DD was a Droid RAZR M, which I still have. (I have a handful other older and budget phones, but those were never DDs, so I'm ignoring them for now.) Respectively released at the end of 2014 and 2012, the Turbo is still going pretty strong and recently got an upgrade to Android 6.0.1; the RAZR M's final official OS is Android 4.4.2, and while I ran custom ROMs on it for a while (mainly CyanogenMod 12), I ultimately dropped back to the official 4.4.2 (with a patched kernel to address an audio bug) for stability's sake. Nonetheless, the RAZR M is showing its age, as the Google apps and services grow ever larger; free RAM is obviously scarce, and the older NAND flash just can't keep up with things like it was once expected to with a similar app loadout. But I still use the phone almost daily, for one reason: playing music. The RAZR M has a microSD slot, while the Turbo does not; consequently, I've loaded most of a card with music and have pushed almost all other duties exclusively to the Turbo.

Oh. My crystal ball tells me that you're thinking "too long, not reading". All right, fine, I'll move along.

So! My ideal phone.

  • Compared to the Turbo, I think shrinking the height and width slightly, while increasing thickness a tad, would allow for more effective one-handed operation (at least for my hands, obviously) while still potentially allowing for a 3500+ mAh battery.
  • A 720x1280 or 1080x1920 screen would be my ideal resolution. Anything greater than 1080p is just extra pixels that I'm not going to discern (there's barely any video content over 1080p and I'm not going to run games at their max graphical settings because that chugs battery power!) - plus it increases power consumption for little gain in daily use - and lower than 720p starts to enter "you can see the pixels without trying" territory - not that I mind seeing pixels, but it can be very distracting with various colors if the display is PenTile (see: the RAZR M) and makes small text harder to read. I'm not sure if I'd have the display tech be good ol' LCD, or OLED. OLED displays may have prettier colors and true blacks, but they degrade noticeably early on.
  • I'm torn between physical (or "physical") buttons over on-screen buttons - especially if the display would be OLED, since on-screen is just an extra spot for the burn-in effect to be noticed. I like the "physical" buttons on my Turbo overall, but it drives me a little nuts that they're forever stuck with the KitKat design and can't support adapting to context. On the other hand, they never vanish for Immersive Mode.
  • Direct OS support from Google, a la Nexus/Pixel. I'm sick to tears of the official firmware being years behind on my Verizon Moto phones, and Moto was pretty good about updates for a while! (I hate that I never got to use a Moto X or G before the company was absorbed by Lenovo.) I'd also like to see official support last for around five years - this is the one trait of Apple's devices that I envy iPhone users for (timely updates AND long-lasting OS support - at least, long by smartphone standards).
  • Android 7.0 or newer as the starting OS. A clean build with zero bloatware or carrier apps. Pure Google plus AOSP plus the necessary firmware/drivers.
  • A 3.5 mm analog headphone jack. No sale otherwise.
  • I know USB C is the future, but I kind of want to hang on to microUSB for just a little longer. I still have absolutely nothing that uses USB C, or even USB 3.0 (save for a couple of flash drives whose full potential I cannot use)! Plus I'd have to get an adapter for my dual-mode flash drives, and new OTG adapters, and ... ugh, I'll switch once USB C has proliferated a lot more, okay?
  • A microSD slot. I know it's a performance bottleneck, but I want to use one, mounted as a separate volume (i.e., as opposed to the new mode introduced in Android 6), filled with all of my music, some movies, and other content that's almost exclusively read, sequentially. The United States' mobile broadband has a long way to go before I'll even consider streaming as my primary means of consuming content. I will keep software on the internal storage, though - and with the increasing size of both the Google apps and many games, I think I'd want 64 GB as the minimum for internal NAND. Even 32 GB is just too cramped for me now.
  • Speaking of broadband, I'd really like full compatibility with all US carriers (and many carriers in other countries). Also, a pony, as long as I'm wishing. The current standard for LTE seems good enough that (on Verizon at least) I can make VoLTE calls almost anywhere I'd want to go.
  • 801.11 n/ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1 or newer, though I imagine this hardly merits mentioning. Throw in NFC even though I never use it.
  • A freely-unlockable bootloader, or an official service that makes it fairly easy to unlock. (I guess it goes without saying that it won't be sold through Verizon.) This plus direct OS support would likely make custom ROMs well-supported by homebrew devs/enthusiasts.
  • A low-energy chip that helps the phone always listen for hotwords, screen on or not, without doing more than barely sipping battery power. The Moto X had this; and I've had the equivalent feature enabled for a while on my Droid Turbo, which I believe has no such chip, and I love it. I can bark commands at my phone while it's charging before bed, which is super handy when I'm asked to remember (to get) something for tomorrow. (My memory sucks.) 
  • An easily-removable battery - and I'd be okay with making the phone a little chunky to accommodate a biggish one (say, 3000 mAh or a bit more). I think one of the biggest problems with smartphone batteries in general right now is that they're all different - if phone manufacturers and battery makers could collaborate in the name of improving the customer experience, I bet they could come up with "universal gumstick"-shaped rechargeables and multiple phones that would accept these, in a manner not unlike what we have/had for devices that accept AA and AAA alkaline batteries and their rechargeable replacements. (I imagine doing this could, potentially, improve overall quality control and reduce costs for manufacturers and customers, since there wouldn't be so damn many battery models to juggle!) All of this would make it possible to make removable batteries much more practical for all parties, since customers would stand a chance of finding replacement batteries for their device in good condition without resorting to sketchy "el cheapo" third party equivalents, which often become the only option for older phones as parts stop being made by the OEMs. Phones could therefore be made to last longer, especially since the year-to-year power increase has flattened for now and makes buying a new phone every year or two hardly worthwhile beyond having a fresh battery inside.
  • ... man, I went off on a tangent there, didn't I. Oh well. Probably a pipe dream anyway, considering how much phones and many standard PCs are clearly designed to be disposable these days ...
  • Specs! To start, I'd really like to see 4 GB of RAM, maybe even 6. It's a lot for a phone now, but give it a few years. Devs are going to keep targeting "MOAR POWER", just as devs for the PC market did and do. And in the meantime, it'd let me shuffle through multiple programs ("multitask") like a champ.
  • A recent SoC, but not the latest-and-greatest. ARM CPUs and GPUs for phones seem to have gotten to the point where they're plenty fast even if you want to push some serious computing and/or gaming. The problem is that they all get too hot too fast to do that at top speed for any meaningful length of time, and thus the quest for more speed is wasted. Instead, I'd want a SoC that's about a year old for the phone's time (say, the Snapdragon 820), but tweaked and revised to consume less battery power and stay cooler at the higher clock speeds - plus, put some heat pipes in the phone to dissipate the heat even further. Avoid thermal throttling for as long as possible - that's what I'd love to have seen with even an older SoC, like the Snapdragon 805 in my Turbo. SO MUCH potential is lost because we (or SoC makers, at least) are too damn busy chasing faster theoretical performance instead of trying to squeeze out more speed - and better efficiency - in real-world usage.
  • A really good rear camera. (I'm not picky about the front camera other than that (a) there is one and (b) it's good enough for video calls.) I'm real fuzzy on technical specs for these, but I heard the Nexus 6P's camera was pretty good, so something like that I guess? Optical Image Stabilization would be very appreciated, and I wouldn't mind a camera bump if it meant good focal range, focus accuracy, and a high quality sensor. (12 MP would easily be fine, 15+ seems insane to me unless you're using a DSLR.) RAW support in the stock photo app would be nice, too; I like the camera app on my Turbo for the most part, just wish it gave me more manual controls. Also, I wonder if anyone is working on cramming in an optical zoom ...?
  • I really don't like how my Turbo's SIM tray is behind the volume buttons; IMO it makes them feel flimsier, plus I can't press both volume buttons simultaneously which limits what combinations you can do. I think the SIM+microSD tray that a lot of phones use nowadays is pretty cool. You know, the one with the pinhole that has a button inside? Seems better overall; at least it's less stressful than the push-push spring-loaded slots in my RAZR M. One slip of the finger and my SIM or microSD would go flying out of that.
  • Whatever microphone setup my Turbo is using, I'd want to replicate that. Voice recordings with a good recording program (I like Sony's) at lossless quality sound superb.
  • GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, lux, all the usual sensors.

I think that about covers it. If I forgot something, let me know and I'll add it in. If you made it this far (and didn't rapidly scroll down from the top to get here), thanks for sticking with me. Which details do you agree with? Which would you change? Sound off in the comments!