Have mobile device makers forgotten about call quality?

Smartphones designers are making enormous strides in displays, speed, complexity, and form, all the while forgetting the most important function—being a phone.

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Image: Jack Wallen

Let me paint you a picture. About three months ago, I purchased a Pixel 3 to serve as my daily driver. At first blush, the device was brilliant: The form factor was perfect, the display brilliant, and the camera was hands-down best in show.

However, not a week into its use people started ending my calls because they couldn't hear me. I thought it was an issue with reception (After all, my home office is partially underground.). But no. That was not the issue. Even with full reception, people complained. On a whim, I switched a call to speakerphone and those on the other end said they could then at least hear me.

SEE: BYOD (bring-your-own-device) policy (Tech Pro Research)

And so, I shipped that device back to Google, assuming it was defective. I received the second phone, and the complaints stopped. People could hear me once again.

Until they couldn't. After about a month of using the replacement, during a call I heard the familiar words, "Are you there? Hello?" And then the call ended. I called them back, and they said the same things they had with the previous phone.

And then the Pixel 3 screen began the dreaded "display flashing" (Figure A). My device was resting before me on a coffee table when I noticed a bright flash. And again, and again, and again. I rebooted the device, only to have it continue.

The screen randomly flashed, with a green or white tint.

Figure A: The screen randomly flashed, with a green or white tint.

Another failed device. Another return to Google.

An interesting development

And then something interesting happened.

While the replacement Pixel was in transit, I went back to using my Essential PH-1. The first time I called someone (who I frequently talk to) he said, "Wow, I can hear you clearly now!"

After that, my friend finally confessed the call quality on the Pixel 3 was terrible: I sounded very distant and muddy on the Google flagship device. Of course, the quality of their call wasn't the greatest either, and he was using one of Samsung's flagship devices.

This made me wonder—and start to experiment. I slipped a SIM card into the oldest Android device I had lying around, a Motorola Moto X, and placed a call. I instructed the recipient that I would call them back a number of times and wanted them to report on all the quality.

What I noticed took me by surprise. The newer the device, the poorer the call quality. Then I started taking note of how calls sounded on my end. Those with older devices sounded better. It didn't matter if the device was Android or iOS, the degradation in call quality was noticeable.

SEE: Samsung Galaxy S10: An insider's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What does this mean?

I think the conclusion can be easily drawn. Phone manufacturers are making enormous strides in displays, speed, complexity, and form, all the while, forgetting one of the single most important functionalities of the smartphone—being a phone.

This functionality is crucial to mobile phones, yet it's not sexy enough to actually sell the devices. You don't see commercials for the Samsung Galaxy, Pixel, or iPhone proclaiming, "Our phone makes the BEST calls!" In fact, you hardly ever see users putting those devices to their heads to place a call.

It seems, according to Samsung, Google, Apple (and so many other smartphone designers), placing an actual phone call has become an afterthought. And the truth is, for most users it has. Most users would rather send a message than place a call. That doesn't, however, mean smartphone manufacturers shouldn't put some effort into the call quality of their devices.

After all, the word "phone" is still a part of "smartphone." Those devices must place calls and must do that particular job well. Most truly important conversations do not happen via SMS, they happen using the voice. We broker deals over the phone. We dig deep into the wells of honesty over the phone. We discuss critical aspects of a project over the phone. We call for emergency help over the phone.

You get the idea.

But do the manufacturers?

I don't think they do.

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It's time to return to the origin story

Samsung, Google, Apple...are you listening? Good. Let me give you a piece of advice. It's time you made a return to the smartphone origin story: The phone. I'm not saying your devices shouldn't continue to push the envelope of functionality and form, but it does need to be a reliable means of placing crystal clear phone calls. You want to toy with foldable phones, knock yourselves out. You want to tuck fingerprint readers and camera lenses into screens, have at it. But no more producing devices such that consumers endure hearing call recipients say, "I can't hear you."

And do us all a favor, don't think you can fool us by overcoming your half-hearted call efforts with software. This is a hardware issue. Microphones are either being skimped on, or placement is getting in the way of making a quality call. On this, you must go back to the drawing board. The quality of calls made on your devices needs to compare to the user experience on the screen, with network connectivity, the operating system, and apps.

This is on you, manufacturers, and it's a problem that you can easily solve. There is simply no excuse for shipping smartphones that cannot make crystal clear phone calls. The old rotary dial phones I used as a child were exponentially better at placing phone calls. And if the primitive tech of the '70s and '80s can best you, you know there's a problem.

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By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.