Monday, August 1, 2016

Thoughts from an "Average Joe" on Moving from HTC to OnePlus 3 in the U.S.

Alright. First of all, I don't honestly expect many people to read this, but, I felt like writing it. If you're stumbling upon this post from the world wide webs, these are my reflections on the new OnePlus 3 and my transition (as a casual but discerning Android user) from HTC to OnePlus, a heretofore relatively unknown brand to me, and a distant outlying brand in the United States.



History

My smartphone history has gone something like this: I left an early-generation Windows Mobile flip-phone for a Samsung BlackJackII, and I tried to make-believe that Microsoft was poised for dominance in the mobile marketplace. But, after watching my wife foray into iPhones, I left that sad fairytale behind and sprung for a touch-screen HTC Inspire 4G. I was wooed by the sturdy build and the already-rich development of Android OS; HTC had a beautiful UI that was friendly for productivity widgets and the phone itself was a notable departure from the chintzy plastic blocks that other manufacturers were putting out.

My smartphone history, 2009-2016
Given, I relented to plastic a few years later (though it was at least a unibody design), having a short romance with the HTC One VX (interesing fact: it's one of the only HTC phones to NOT use a Qualcomm chipset... basically, a talking point for nerds), before hopping into HTCs trademark metal unibody with the HTC One M8.

I made this move as quickly as I could, just moments after my contract was up. To be clear, this upgrade was an absolute necessity. I was at the end of my rope with the One VX, as OS updates became rapidly impossible in its tiny 8gb system partition - a critical design flaw - forcing me to run with almost no apps installed for several months despite using an SD card for storage. The One M8 was a bit more my style, a return to the solid and substantial look and feel I was used to with the Inspire, and I was relatively happy with its performance and the pace of its OS updates.



Dissatisfaction

So, long ago, way back in 2014, I would have told you that I was still "HTC all the way." By comparison to other phones I held and tested, it was simply more solid. Physically, it held up to numerous drops and scuffles, it didn't feel like I was going to crack it by squeezing it, and I was, by this point, rather accustomed to the Sense UI. On the flip side, this was the first phone I had ever paid more than about $400 for, and something about that just didn't feel right. My expectations when I spend $650+ are that this is going to last me, frustration-free, for several years - beyond my 24 month "payment plan," at least. It wasn't to be.

By this time last year, I was already starting to notice some severe lag issues, and by Christmas, 2015, these were coupled with a clear battery-life issue. In January, I started the search for this phone's replacement, noting my "AT&T Next" payoff date coming in June. Come March, I was not even able to get eight hours of life with maybe a sum of 30 minutes of screen on time, and the lag was so impossible to manage that it was often faster to boot a computer to look something up online or to send text messages using my wife's phone. Wiping the cache partition seemed to help, but I found myself needing to do it constantly - at least once every two weeks - to maintain usability.

So, as one might imagine, I felt a little... burned. And burned out. And burned up. Being the "loyal customer" I once was, the release of the HTC 10 with all of its "Power of 10" fanfare should have enticed me, but, instead, it kind of repulsed me. "Fool me once..."



Stores

As I started to examine the alternatives, nothing seemed to jive. It's not just that I felt let down by HTC - I felt duped by AT&T and this endless cycle of brainless $28-a-month commitments for phones that just aren't worth it.

I walked into the local corporate store several times, and none of the smiley, college-aged puppy dogs who accosted me there wanted to really get serious about phone technology. First, they wanted me to get the LG G5... but mainly because, hey buddy, I could also get a free tablet and start another line... it's just $10 extra per month... don't even give it a second thought, right?

Wrong. That's $900 or more, plus a charging technology conversion. I don't need extra devices - I just need a phone that's going to last longer than the payment plan. Then, when I went back a few months later, it was "I'm a shoe-in for the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge," because curved screen, and, oh yeah, get a free smart-watch and a free tablet...

Obviously, one does not have to say yes to the sales pitch, but, I'm pretty sure a lot of people do, regularly, and sincerely don't think twice about what they are dropping by committing to extra lines plus the cost of devices. WHAT do people do with all of this bloatware-laden shit from AT&T, anyways? (Well, we all know what we do. We sign a two year agreement, buy it, and then go in and buy the next "it" again a year later and add yet another line and yet another crappy device that won't last to our account so that we're always paying for two or three extra devices we barely use and two or three extra lines we don't need.)

Anyways, it's all great for AT&T, but it's simply absurd for me. I like to spend money like any other good American, but I definitely inherited my dad's "penny-saver" spirit, which has begun to rear its head in this particular department.

So, I decided that I was finally moving beyond the carrier store (cue eerie music). Now I'm kind of wishing I would have done that a while ago.



Alternatives

There just aren't a lot of alternatives in the U.S., though. You can go to major retailers and get a FEW up-close looks at select non-carrier phones. I knew that within the past year or two, I had at least heard of people buying the Google Nexus devices. I had also heard musings online about smartphone products from Sony and ASUS, among others - even Lenovo? These brands are familiar in the U.S., so, I thought, surely I'll find something.

Turns out, I was right. But I really had no idea how wrong I had been about what the alternatives would really look like.

You see, in case you're like me and you're just now waking up to the impact of global production, you might not realize that the phones so popularized in the U.S. account for a sincere fraction of global smartphone shipments. There are entirely unique markets, especially in Europe and Asia, with leading brands that are an entirely different composition than in the U.S. To get specific, best estimates show that among Android makers worldwide, Samsung, LG, and Motorola, only make up about 35% of the global Android market combined. That includes U.S. sales.

Samsung's Galaxy S7 launch event, 2016
You thought EVERYONE had a Samsung Galaxy, right?

Yeah, no. In the most densely populated areas, namely China and India, Samsung has been handily outpaced the past few years by other companies - none of them on the U.S. mobile pop-star list.

This means that there is some beautiful, mysterious laundry list of other brands which are now in the hands of hundreds of millions of consumers worldwide - to the tune of over 60% of Android smartphone users. Some of these brand names make no qualms about their Chinese heritage, either. Headline stars (some of which have snuck into the U.S. on occasion, but usually unbranded or carrier-branded) are Xiaomi, Huawei, ZTE, Coolpad, Alcatel, Oppo, Meizu, OnePlus, Vivo... the list goes on

When you look at this from a global perspective, U.S. carrier "alternative brands" like HTC, Blackberry, and Microsoft (Nokia), don't even begin to touch the market space of these "unknown" brands. And because of these brands' focus on Asia and Europe, it won't be long before even our carrier favorites here in the U.S. are completely out of sync with those of our brothers and sisters overseas.



Decisions

This brings us to the present, honestly. This June, after about six months of frustration-powered "research," I was winding things down to a few contenders - phones I could touch. I was debating between a Google Nexus 6P or 5X and the Samsung Galaxy S7. None of these had my heart.

The Samsung has the current generation specs (pro) and wouldn't require much investment in new charging gear (pro), but at $700 (con) just for the phone? That's a hard pill to swallow, even on a payment plan. The Samsung phones also feel unsubstantial to me, and while I know feel isn't everything, it does matter. The whole polished metal facade still has this almost-plastic feel to it, and I can't shake it (though I'm sure I could drop it)! I don't so much mind the UI, because I'm a geek. I think the phone works fine. But it still feels cheap. It just does.

The Nexus phones? The 6P is crossing the border into a phablet-class device (con), but still priced well and designed to tempt by the sexy Chinese manufacturer Huawei (pro). The 5X is a complete regression to a plastic body and noticeably designed by LG (con), but definitely coming in at a sub-$400 price point (pro). Both would basically start me off at least a half generation behind with regard to chipsets (con).

Try as I might, I couldn't get my lists to unbalance on the "pro" side. When suddenly, out of internet nowhere, came the OnePlus 3.



Honestly. It popped up in my news list one night as I was searching through reviews for these other devices. It was set to be released within days. The company had a U.S. site accepting U.S. orders, which is more than most of the other Chinese powerhouses. The company had three other devices under its belt, all of which had been vetted thoroughly enough to place this one into the hands of U.S.-based tech review sites. Call it luck, call it serendipity... but at the very least, I was interested!



Conversion

So, the OnePlus 3 became my search obsession for a few weeks. I compared every spec, I read every pre-release and test-unit review, and I started watching social media and the OnePlus forums for user reports of problems or dissatisfaction once the device started shipping. There wasn't much dissatisfaction, and the things reviewers were dissatisfied with were completely moot points to me (see next section).

Still, I loaded up my shopping cart on the site at least three times before I decided to pull the trigger. The tipping point came after making one last (what was I thinking?) stop by the AT&T store to check out the just-released Galaxy S7 Active (taking note of its $100 premium... but dude get a free smartwatch and a free tablet and...). I left, drove home, and I bought the OnePlus 3.

My order was pretty solid: I got the phone, an extra rapid charger (they call it "Dash Charge") and extra USB-C cord, a tempered glass screen protector (I will admit that added tempered glass face protection has saved me a few times on my HTC), headphones, a signature OnePlus "Sandstone" case cover, and, still being skeptical of the Sandstone case finish despite raving reviews, an OtterBox.

Had this been a Samsung or a Nexus 6P, this order would have rung up to a $1,000 or more. But, since this was a OnePlus 3, it was actually right around $500 shipped. Which, after holding the phone and driving it daily for a few weeks now, I must say, makes me question why anyone is paying anything more than $300-400 for any smartphone on the market.



Reflection

Let me save you some time. Almost all the reviews from one end of the internet to the other list a few glaring "cons" for the OnePlus3:
  • FHD display
  • NTSC colorspace only (fixed)
  • RAM management issues (fixed)
  • No expandable storage
  • Camera is not flush to body
  • No water resistance
  • GSM only (AT&T/T-Mobile)
  • No front facing speakers
Of course, I have taken a little bit of time to reflect on these having bought the device, and I'll address them in order here.

Display

When it comes to less than a 12 inch screen, I don't have much to say in the FHD/QHD debate. Moving from the FHD HTC One M8 to the FHD OnePlus 3, I gained a half inch diagonally and lost about 40ppi, giving the OnePlus 3 about an iPhone 6 ppi equivalence. If you can find me someone who can tell the difference in a blind panel to panel comparison, let me know. I'm kind of with Apple on this one - get above 300-400ppi, and not many humans can discern the difference. But, your battery sure can... the more pixels it has to light up, the more juice it's going to use. In fact, aside from the obvious cost savings, OnePlus actually cites battery as the number one reason for going FHD over QHD. It probably isn't true, because dollars are dollars. But it's plausible.

Either way, I'm simply not deterred by this common qualm, or by the NTSC colorspace complaint (I have NOT enabled sRGB mode, even though it is available now after the last Oxygen update). I found a color balance that suited me right away and I think the screen looks crisp.

If I had a complaint about the screen, it's that the tempered glass protector I purchased does NOT come to the left and right edges, leaving almost 1.5mm on each side. Supposedly this is due to the screen's extremely slight curve to meet the body. The reason matters not. This still leads some text to cross the "threshold" of the screen protector on occasion, making it difficult to read and, to say the least, making me feel kind of annoyed. I also cracked the screen protector with my fingernail when I was applying it. It's not OnePlus' fault, but, it's also kind of like causing the first scratch on your brand new car with your own keys. Come on, man.

RAM

This phone has 6gb of RAM. It's "nothing impressive." You'll never need it; I'll never need it. However, the OS was doing some pretty excessive RAM management erring on the side of battery life, causing the OnePlus 3 to lag several seconds behind its flagship counterparts like the Galaxy S7 in app launch tests.

OnePlus is apparently working to find a middle ground by patching this up - at least a little bit - in its latest OS update. Some more current reviews now have the OnePlus 3 outpacing the Galaxy S7. I've noticed no difference in battery life. I'm still getting almost two days with average Joe "work day" use, one to one and a half days with average Joe "weekend" use.

Storage

A few years ago, 64gb of storage meant at least a $200 premium. It's still almost that much with the Nexus 6P. I will admit, I filled up my 32gb on the One M8. But at least half of that was pictures. With cloud storage and anywhere access to stored items as the growing norm, I should never, ever have a storage problem with a phone that has 32gb or more. And neither should you. I contend that if you've got enough apps or games to fill up 50gb of free space, and you use all of them, you must not work or have kids. That's nuts. I'm just saying.

Camera

The camera itself on the OnePlus 3 is great, and most reviews are praising it. As someone who prefers to shoot "professionally" on an SLR camera, for me, phone cameras are usually about convenience and capturing moments. As long as it launches quickly and offers some button customization, I'm pretty happy.

The camera complaint for the OnePlus 3 is that it protrudes from the back of the phone. This isn't new for smartphones, but it is a stray from the HTC layout I'm used to, and, of course, the idea is that anything protruding is at greater risk for dust, smudges, and scratches.

However. the addition of even the thin OnePlus case is enough to bring the camera just under flush with the case, making this point moot unless you plan to use the phone with no case.



To be completely fair, I used my HTC without a case for almost the entire time I had it, but, the OnePlus, even with a case on, remains almost sexy thin, with only a fractional difference on the One M8 at rest with no case. In fact, with no cases, the OnePlus 3 officially rings in at 2mm thinner than the M8, 1.6mm thinner than the HTC 10, 0.55mm thinner than the Galaxy S7 or Nexus 5x, 0.05mm thicker than the Nexus 6p, and 0.25mm thicker than the iPhone 6.

Durability

I have definitely dropped my phone in water. My wife would be happy to tell you that story, but, needless to say, I got what was coming to me. I've never had a phone - in my history of phones - that was water resistant by "certification." The only people I know who have that are Samsung Galaxy owners. In the meantime, I'm not a contractor or a professional swimmer or whatever. I've walked and talked in the rain, used my phone in the kitchen, scanned Facebook while peeing, etc. I'll take the risk. I'm not paying $300 more for "guaranteed" water resistance. Feel free to do so if your profession sincerely calls for it.

Network

I can't help you here. I've been with AT&T for too many years to count. It's kind of happenstance that these Chinese phones are omitting CDMA bands. Sorry. The OnePlus 3 does have dual SIM slots, though, so, theoretically, if you had a work phone and a personal phone both using GSM, you could combine your devices into one without much ado - especially with Android OS mainstreaming multiple user profiles.

Speakers

I have a similar take on this as I do concerning the camera. I won't lie - I liked having front-facing speakers on my HTC devices. But, I'm not married to it. Since I don't spend a significant amount of time listening to music on my phone when I'm not streaming it through my car or a pair of headphones, the opportunities for me to compare are relegated mostly to speakerphone use. Here's my one sentence review: front-facing speakers will always be louder and clearer. If this is a deterrent for you, don't buy the OnePlus 3 (or most other major flagships this year that aren't HTC).



Satisfaction

How do I sum this up? There is another choice. There are other candidates. The OnePlus 3 is like the Gary Johnson of available smartphones in this mid-year 2016 flagship climate.

As a relatively utilitarian smartphone user, but with enough nerd within me to care about the quality and longevity of my electronics, I personally found the OnePlus 3 to be a bit irresistible. Since I addressed the common "cons" above, let me conclude with my take'em-or-leave'em reasons that I'm finding myself completely satisfied with my purchase:

The phone is balanced, albeit about as large in size as I think I can handle. Not quite a phablet, but a big stray from iPhone "standard" class, it does manage to remain relatively uniform in shape, and, because it's so thin, it's still easy to hold despite gaining a few millimeters in length and width over my HTC. It's almost identical in weight to my One M8, which, as you may have discerned, I quite like. The metal unibody is what I'm used to, and OnePlus has produced this style without skimping on quality. My only complaint would be that, because they've gone basically edge to edge with screen, a case is almost mandatory.

Still, the design of the OnePlus branded case shows a great deal of forethought. I can't speak for the other available finishes, but I can now understand why the Sandstone finish was directly integrated into earlier OnePlus phone models. With this case on, the phone feels complete, and I must say, I've never used another case like it. It's smooth to touch, but grippy on virtually every single surface. In my car, I can set it anywhere (leg, dash, console, seat) and it won't slide around while driving. It does not get "hung up" in my pocket, nor does it slide out "accidentally." It's easy to grip at every angle, but doesn't feel sticky, the way a matte plastic or silicone style case feels. It's a unique experience - one I think a lot of people might like.

The level of available customization for screen taps, gestures and buttons is admirable, stretching deep beyond double-tap-to-wake. And the physical button layout is intuitive; after years of power buttons being on top of my phone, the least useful position for one-handed phone use, I'm pretty excited to have the desirable power-on-right, volume-on-left layout. Some may prefer the LG-style power-on-back layout, but I don't. I've tried it a number of times. The natural grip for me is low on the phone, thumb to chin, middle of the phone, thumb to side, or left hand across the phone, middle finger to side. The OnePlus 3 has the right setup.

The addition of the three-mode alert slider on the left is also incredibly welcome for me (and many others). While some power-users out there are lodging complaints about the inability to reverse the alert slider's direction or utilize other software sound profiles, I'm sitting over here saying, "hey, why is this seriously one of like three Android phones made in the past ten years that even have this as a feature?" It's arguably one of the most functional features of an iPhone, and OnePlus, in my view, brings it to another level with decent customizations for the "Priority" mode. Not to mention that the ability to silence my phone with a simple switch - without even pulling it from my pocket - is something I've missed for many years as a working professional, a churchgoer, an exhausted parent... the list goes on.

I've not had a single issue with the Oxygen OS overlay, save for the absence of a decent stock date/time/weather widget. I also don't quite understand "shelf" or its real function (it's like a home screen that scrolls? I was a much bigger fan of the Sense UI news feed), and I've essentially just adopted the "shelf" as my Google widget screen.

On the other hand, I am a major fan of system-wide "Dark Mode," and I'm not the only one to laud its availability. Some things I like about the software are "welcome back" features, like options to clear (and memory sweep) ALL running apps, an ability I had at one time or another on my HTC devices, but then lost with an OS update along the way a few years ago. Otherwise, as most reviews will tell you, if you've used stock Android before, you'll find the feel of Oxygen to be... pretty stock. As aforementioned, I will admit that I liked some features of Sense, too, like the keyboard and its gallery app, but Oxygen is fine, and, quite frankly, I don't anticipate it crash or time out, which was an unfortunately common experience with Sense.

As for speed and reliability... it would be silly for me to say much, at this point. I've had the phone about a month, and I've never been unhappy in a month with a brand new phone sporting the latest tech specs. It's as fast as I expected it to be, and I've received two OTA OS updates since I got it. As I mentioned up above, I'm getting a rock solid 24 to 36 hours of usable battery right now, but I still haven't done some typical battery-draining setups, like connecting via bluetooth in my car. Still, I can 100% confirm that I can indeed charge from near 0% to 100% while I shower and get ready in the morning. The rapid-charging technology works, and the phone remains cool to the touch. This is a notable change for the better, and I hope we start seeing this technology get picked up in other brands.



Last Words

The OnePlus 3 default homescreen wallpaper displays their marketing slogan, "Never Settle." While I don't feel like I've "settled" by choosing HTC before, I know I can't be the only person that feels like the carrier store offerings just aren't living up to their $600 or $700 or more promises. Still, I didn't order the OnePlus 3 expecting to be satisfied, either. I was informed, but I remained skeptical. It pleases me to say that, for now, I'm satisfied.

If you stumbled across this during a depressing search for your next phone, here's hoping you'll find some satisfaction somewhere out there, too. All I'm really saying here is that your most satisfying satisfaction might not come from Mikey Sims, AT&T Junior Sales Consultant. It seriously might come straight from China (unless Donald Trump gets elected and screws that up for you, too. In which case... well... best of luck. #GaryJohnson2016).

--korywilcox // www.korywilcox.com

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tonight

Behold, the battered pieces of straw
  flitting about the queen city sky
The languid confetti of mobs and klans
  tugging their own children backward.
Hark, the echoes of sadness and sorrow
  filling her in, passing them by
The yesterdays she wishes they'd had
  will be for our children tomorrow.

--korywilcox // www.korywilcox.com

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Gone Someday

We had a good run,
but we cannot stay
and let time slip away.
We let time slip away.

But we had a good run,
had some boom, had some bust,
just the two of us
and our miracles...

They say:
"home is where the heart is"
and that death's just a heartbeat away.
So, if your heart's already left
then you better not stay,
because we'll all be gone someday.

We had a good run,
but it's coming to a close-
the wind blows where it blows,
the Spirit goes where it goes.

But we had a good run,
had some laughs, had some fights,
had some terrible nights,
had some talks with God...

They say:
"actions speak louder than words"
but the heart speaks for both anyway.
So, if your heart's already left,
I guess there's nothing more to say.
I guess we'll all be gone someday.

The heart's been accused of great deception;
there's a chance it might lead you astray.
But if your heart has up and left ya'
then you best be on your way,
because we'll all be gone someday.

--korywilcox // www.korywilcox.com