Mobility

Why hardware is a big stumbling block for Android phones

It's become a challenge to select a new Android phone because manufacturers have been hit or miss with the hardware. Here's Jack Wallen's take on one of Android's biggest issues, going forward.

I've been working with my OnePlus 3 for a long time. Lately, however, I've been jonesing for a new device. This started when my wife opted to upgrade to a Samsung Galaxy 8. All of a sudden, I realized how out of date my phone was. Although it is currently running Android Oreo (and doing a stellar job), we all know there's this certain thrill of having new technology in our hands.

This, of course, led me down a rather frustrating rabbit hole—one many an Android user has experienced. With every single smartphone I examined, there was something about it that didn't appeal to me.

  • Pixel 2: Cost and no headphone jack.
  • Samsung Galaxy S8: Cost and Bixby.
  • Essential Phone: Probably won't be on the market much longer.
  • OnePlus 5: Fairly generic, out of date, design. No waterproofing.
  • Pixel 2 XL/LG G6: Size. I don't want a phablet.
  • Sony Xperia XZ Premium: Cost.

The list goes on and serves as a point of frustration with nearly every type of Android user. Not one manufacturer has created the perfect Android phone. Google has come very close with the Pixel 2, but then they had to leave out the headphone jack. Although I have a solid pair of bluetooth headphones, the sound they produce pales in comparison to my main drivers—which require that standard jack. Sure, I can work with a dongle, but who wants a dongle hanging off their smartphone just so they can use a pair of headphones?

SEE: Special report: Cybersecurity in an IoT and mobile world (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What this indicates

If there's one thing the Android smartphone market proves, it's that manufacturers and designers don't always listen to the needs of those that actually purchase their products. In some cases, they don't even listen to themselves. Case in point, Google lambasting Apple for getting rid of the headphone jack, only to jettison it themselves on the newest Pixel phones. Another example is Bixby. It doesn't take too much effort with Google to discover how dissatisfied users are with this Samsung-specific assistant. And yet, Samsung continues to press forward (instead of just adopting the far superior Google Assistant as the one true tool).

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The perfect phone

After months of looking, I've concluded the perfect Android phone doesn't exist. In fact, one would have to Frankenstein a phone together to achieve such perfection. We can do that with my above list. Such a phone would look something like this:

  • Samsung Galaxy S8: Case and screen
  • Essential Phone: Yummy titanium goodness
  • Pixel 2: Camera, vanilla Android, Assistant integration, and quick platform updates
  • OnePlus 5: Price
  • Sony Xperia XZP Premium: Display

Now that would be a phone I'd purchase in a heartbeat. It would match all of my necessary criteria and not be plagued with size, software, and price bloat. Of course, that device doesn't exist. In fact, chances are, such an Android phone will never exist.

Get off my lawn

I realize this sounds like the machinations of a grouchy old man. It's not (at least that's what I'm telling myself). I'm not trying to scream at Android to "Get off my lawn!" (shakes fist in the air). This is something that has been going on for quite some time—something that doesn't effect the iPhone crowd—only its getting worse. It used to be one could find everything they needed/wanted in most of the Android offerings. At this point, however, every manufacturer seems more intent with separating themselves from the crowd, at the expense of end-user satisfaction. The Android device landscape has made the prospect of selecting a new phone exponentially more frustrating than it once was.

That frustration could lead to migration away from Google's platform—which is a shame, considering how, with every iteration, the Android operating system sees dramatic improvement. In fact, I would call Android Oreo, by far, the best release yet. It's smooth, fast, efficient, reliable, secure, and offers plenty of customizations. Unfortunately, the hardware driving the platform isn't doing Android any favors; not when each of the flagship devices has something that could serve as a deal breaker for some users.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (Tech Pro Research)

Back to perfection

I realize I might be aiming far too high in demands of my devices. But when you're shelling out anywhere from $500-$1000 for a pocket-sized piece of tech, you'd much prefer that device be exactly what you want. To make matters worse, the last thing you (or, if I'm being honest, Google) wants is for the Android landscape to suffer from the same parity it had to deal with in the early years. Remember when nearly every OEM shipped devices with their own take on Android (such as HTC Sense and Samsung's TouchWiz)? At one point, it grew so bad, critics were predicting the demise of the platform. Fortunately, Google reined that in and a more generic take on Android became the norm (although there are still some OEMs not following that particular lead). The same thing is going on with hardware now.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this is a call for manufacturers to start selling generic devices that are all matchy-matchy. Diversity is good and it helps to ignite innovation. However, if any one of those OEMs are going to develop the perfect Android phone, they need to start listening to consumers and stop innovating simply for the sake of change. Samsung, the Galaxy S9 doesn't have to take the design back to the drawing board—you almost have a perfect phone. Get rid of Bixby and you're close. Google, add a headphone jack back to the Pixel, lower the cost a bit, and you're good to go.

Consumers don't want to spend weeks trying to decide which device to buy. Anyone that designs an Android phone needs to listen much more closely to their target audience. What works? What doesn't work? What fads can be forgotten and what design elements need to remain?

I know that perfect doesn't exist. But a smartphone is something we not only depend upon, we use constantly. Having to settle for a less-than-ideal piece of hardware is an exercise in frustration we do not need.

Android phone manufacturers must understand this, before users begin jumping ship for less confusing waters.

Also see

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Image: Jack Wallen

About 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.

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