Sunday, October 06, 2013

Picking the right Android Phone

I have been an ardent Android user for the last couple of yea or so. I switched from an iPhone. I don't want to get the iOS vs. Android debated started here, but rather clarify the Android purchasing decision. How do you pick the right phone in a sea of hundreds of devices from more than a dozen handset providers. Here is a summary of things we'll discuss

1. Economics
2. Brand vs. Value
3. Hardware Features
4. Skins and Customizations
5. Android Version

Economics of picking the right phone really depends on the country/market you are in. In a lot of countries, telcos offer subsidized phones whilst locking you in for a 1-2 year contract. Typically, the lower upfront cost of a phone is offset by the pricier monthly plans. In Singapore for instance, StarHub, the second biggest carrier had the following plan for the new Sony Xperia Z1

The phone typically costs S$998. So If you go for the cheapest S$38/month plan, you end up spending S$912 over 24 months, while paying S$549 upfront. That's a total of S$1461 or ~S$60/month combined for the next 24 months. Which to be fair, is not a bad deal, considering how expensive similar plans are in other countries. I bet US readers are well aware of how complex AT&T and T-Mobile plans are. Hence look at the total cost of owning that phone.

In markets where phones are not subsidized, it's a lot more straightforward but phones typically are also very expensive upfront. It costs INR 44,900 in India, very similar to the price in Singapore. However, keep in mind the per capita income of India is 50 times less.

Brand is the second biggest consideration. If you are in a developing country, there are a lot of cheap knockoffs you can get, for 1/5th the price. The internals are quite competitive but the build quality might be a but finicky and software quite buggy. The flagship phone for a locally popular OEM called Karbonn, is called Titanium S9, looks like a Note 2, and costs under $325. Lenova and ZTE have similar phones in China.

Karbonn Titanium S9

It's always recommended to get a Samsung, HTC, LG, Sony or Motorola, but I would also suggest giving the cheaper OEMs a try especially if you are on a tight budget. The thing is normal users don't need bleeding edge parts - quad cores, a full HD screen, more than a Gig of Ram, the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon etc.

Features and specs are important but normal users don't need the best specs. In fact, I would argue, the battery consideration should be the foremost feature. What's the point of having the best specs when you phone can't even last a day without charging. For a lot of users, calling and browsing might be their biggest use case. But if you need the best camera or the fastest processor to run the latest Batman Arkham Asylum game, you definitely need a top line phone. You can get a Galaxy Note 3.0, Galaxy S3, HTC One, Moto X or the LG Xperia Z1. All are great devices. Also take note, their resale value also tends to be higher.

Now let's talk about software. Google's vanilla (stock) Android is beautiful and clean. I hate it when manufacturers load their own skins as a key differentiator. Samsung's TouchWiz looks and feels quite different to HTC's Sense UI. I also hate the crapware that comes bundled with some of these phones. Since everyone has their own taste and preferences, do give each phone a try, to see which interface is well suited to you. If you hate all the skins, you can always run Cynogenmod and get close to stock UI.

HTC Sense 5.0

Lastly, comes the discussion around the version of Android. Google is busy working on Android KitKat 4.4. Each version of Android comes with bug fixes, performance improvements and new features. In an ideal world, all Android devices should run the latest and great version of Android; However, in reality manufacturers are a) either reluctant to update the phones to compel users to purchase their next flagship phone b) their own UI/skin customization makes it harder for them to quickly release an updated version of the OS.

Both of these can be solved by using a stock ROM like Cynogenmod, however there are multiple steps involved, including rooting which voids your warranty. The folks at Cynogenmod recently raised $7M to build an easy installer and make the entire process quite hassle free.

Which phone do I own, you might ask.
I have always owned Nexus devices. Google launched the Nexus program as an experiment to showcase its latest software and to set a device standard which can push the industry forward. Lately they have managed to build great hardware at a very affordable and accessible price. The last Nexus 4 which was built in collaboration with LG can be bought for $299 USD unlocked. The biggest advantage is that Nexus Users get the latest update directly from Google unlike other phones which needs to be pushed by the carrier or the OEM.

Obviously for the price, you have to make some sacrifices. The camera is below par and the phone lacks LTE support. In my case, I prefer using my DSLR over my phone for taking pictures. And the lack of LTE doesn't affect me much.

Let's summarize. If money is no issue, get the flagship phone from the Top 5 - Samsung, HTC, LG, Sony or Motorola. Unlocked, they cost upwards of $550 and typically $0-$250 with a plan in some markets. Each of them have their own skinned interface, so play around before your decide. Personally, Samsung and Sony have better cameras, HTC and Sony have better build quality, all three have great screens, Moto X is great to hold and performs really well, and if you need a Stylus, Samsung Note is the best option.

If you are on a tight budget, give some of the local players a try. All the top 5 typically have an under powered handset in the lower price range which are also worth considering. In most cases, there are work arounds to load the latest Android through a 3rd party flashable ROM like Cynogenmod onto them.

And if Google has launched Nexus in your country, and you don't want all the clutter that other OEMs are packing their phone with, you can't go wrong with the Nexus.

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