1 in a 1000: picking an android phone

My LG G3 is dying. I’ve had an LG G3 for two and half years (with one RMA) but there’s a hardware problem LG had where the wifi/bluetooth chip stops functioning properly. I’m currently running on this paper trick.

The LG G3 has been a great phone. LG’s QHD, 5.5" IPS LCD panel with nearly no bezels really put this phone ahead of other phones at the time, even if QHD is overkill for this size. The G3 didn’t really have any gimmicks and it packed a lot of features. From day one, I was concerned about having a plastic bezel — and rightly so, as this is the only phone I’ve broken a screen from dropping.

The dying phone prompted hours of research. And spreadsheets. I’ve even placed and cancelled two orders for replacement phones already. After getting asked about it, I figured I’d share my process and try to justify why this took me so much energy.

What I do now

First I dug into all the things I do with my phone now, and tried to get as specific about it as I could.

It’s my alarm clock

Beyond just a standard alarm though, I also wear a Mi Band 2 at night that monitors my sleep activity. It will even wake me up early based on my sleep activity. I honestly feel like it’s more pleasant and less jarring to wake up like this.

Normal Usage

It seemed worth noting I use my phone one handed most of the time, even typing (swiping) most the time with only one hand. I also nearly never use the stock launcher or other apps on the phone, and prefer to swap that all out and customize the hell out of the phone. I’ve considered rooting and running a different mod before, but never gone quite that far. I’ve also used a 32GB micro SD card in the phone since getting it. I don’t own any other camera, and I even use this phone to record videos a twenty or so times a year.

Podcasts and GPS

I listen to podcasts almost any time I’m driving in the afternoon or evening, including commuting. I currently use a magnetic car mount that works better than any non-magnetic mount I’ve ever used. My car (a 2009 Nissan Cube) has builtin bluetooth for calls but not for media, so I connect my phone up to a 3.5mm AUX in as well as micro USB for power.

TV Remote and Chromecast

I use the IR blaster in my phone with an old tube TV in our bedroom nearly every day. It doesn’t even have any other remote. We also have a Chromecast connected all the time to our main TV that we mostly use for Netflix and HBO.

Less Frequently

On longer trips, I’m use my phone as a GPS for navigation, as well as stream music or podcasts. I also have a mobile charger battery I’ve used on a couple longer trips. I did drop and break an LG G3, so I should keep an eye on ruggedness. I replaced the battery once. Lastly, I do record some videos (discussing football) every year.

To summarize, I use

  • It should work with the Mi Band 2 fitness tracker.
  • Phone shouldn’t be too big to use with one hand.
  • Software should be easy to customize.
  • It’s camera should be good, and it should be able to record video well too.
  • It should work with a magnetic car mount.
  • I should be able to connect it to my car’s audio while charging the phone.
  • It should have an IR blaster and work with the Chromecast.
  • It be good if it was more rugged than the LG G3.

Lastly, since I’m going to bother to get a new phone, it’d be nice if it’s internal specs, camera and display were better than what I have with the LG G3. It shouldn’t be too old — I’m currently stuck on Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) and it’d be nice to at least get 8.0 (Oreo) — and I’ve been considering moving off of Sprint, so I’d like to get a phone I can use to migrate from Sprint to someone else.


Turns out no phones released in 2017 meet these requirements.

In 2016, There’s really only one phone (the LG G5, LG’s 2016 flagship.) That said, it’s unclear whether the LG G5 will get Oreo or Android P. The LG G6 (and upcoming LG V30) ditched the infrared and made the battery non-removable. Sprint versions of G5 and G6 are tied to Sprint.

What I need

Removable Battery

I’ve personally bought and replaced the batteries in two of my phones. It’s a piece of the phone I know will wear down faster than most of the rest of the device. It’s also worth pointing out that my concern really solely about replacing a dying battery, not swapping in spare batteries while traveling or such (mobile battery packs serve that purpose easily.)

It’s a feature, but we can live without it. It’ll cost $80–100 and be inconvenient, but not a deal breaker. Hopefully either batteries get better, because it looks like this feature is nearly entirely gone.

Infrared

Infrared have been built into various phones since at least Palm Treos (circa 2002.) I use infrared in my phone nearly every day at home to control a TV with a roku that doesn’t even have another remote.

It’s a feature I use, but it’s unnecessary. Modern Roku remotes can control televisions now. A universal remote would only cost $5–10. It offers a tiny amount of convenience, but it’s a feature I can give up.

The 3.5mm Audio Jack

I’m not attached to the 3.5mm port, but I am attached to being able to listen to audio from my phone while it’s charging. I use my phone to for music, podcasts and as a GPS while in the car on trips, and I want to it to be an issue if I have a 2+ hour drive one way, and have to worry about whether I’ll have enough battery to get home. Two usb type-c ports would work just fine; a usb type-c splitter that allows for charging and audio would be fine too.

It’s a feature I need, probably for at least the next four years. At least until I get a car that supports bluetooth for music and I’m willing to pay for bluetooth headphones to wear while mowing the lawn, this is a deal breaker for me.

micro SD

Every android phone I’ve owned to date has had a micro SD card slot. Every one of those phones I put a micro SD card in and used the micro SD card for storing media. Both Apple and Google charge $100 to go from 32 GB to 128 GB. I expect neither company offers a 64 GB tier to push more 128 GB sales. Looking at current micro SD prices and how quickly those prices drop, it’s hard to justify the increase in cost. Plus, I take some solace that if I completely destroyed the phone, the micro SD card would still likely be recoverable.

It’s useful and keeps costs down, but I can live without this. It’s an annoyance that I’ll have to try to forecast how much space I’ll need for the next few years, and the cost of buying a phone with more internal storage that I don’t really need the performance on is irritating. It also makes services like Google Photos where you can backup photos to automatically much more important.

One Handed Use

The LG G3 is almost too big to use with one hand. I remember handing the Nexus 6P, and that phone was certainly too big. I know most iPhone users never really developed a habit of swiping on a keyboard so the idea of typing with one hand on a keyboard may seem foreign, but I’ve always preferred it.

I’d have to change my every day habits to cope. I could learn new habits, but especially since larger phones usually come with larger costs, this seems like something I’ll personal avoid if I can.

Carrier Independence

The LG G3 predates any need for carriers to let you unlock phones, and Sprint (the carrier I have) is particularly poor about allowing unlocked devices. If there’s anything that iPhone users have been able to take for granted for years that android users still can’t, it’s that you can take iPhones as far back as the 5s/5c carrier to carrier, even if those carriers are Verizon or Sprint. It’s not a technical limitation either — many devices (like the OnePlus 5) are simply not allowed regardless.

This is a big feature. I’m sick of Sprint. I’ve been using Sprint for a long time, and I’m tired of their network. Unfortunately, my wife isn’t quite ready to upgrade. If I get a phone I can use on and off of Sprint, then I can upgrade now and we can keep that device even if we switch off of Sprint; otherwise, I’ll have to upgrading again when we switch and selling whatever I buy now.

OS Versions

Really digging into OS versions, the jumps in features really has slowed down. Beyond that, the LG G3 running Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) is still on par or newer than ~%84 of the the Android phones out here. If the pattern holds, a phone current shipping with Android 7.0 (Nougat) will likely be on par or newer than half of android phones even when Android 10.0 (Q I suppose) is released. If It gets an upgrade to Oreo, it’ll probably still be fine through Android 11 (R??)

As long as the phone isn’t two versions behind, it’s probably fine. The years where OS updates really drove software features is really behind us now.


Conclusions

The LG G3 is a pretty good phone.

Carrier independence and a 3.5mm jack really whittle down the list of devices fast. If I want a device that will likely get Android P, I’m down to choosing between

  • (~$250) Google Nexus 5X (released 2015, might not get P. But it might. Also maxes out at 32GB stored, whereas the other options are either 64GB with a microSD or 128GB.)
  • (~$300) Moto G5 Plus
  • (~$550) Moto Z2 Play (even bigger than the Pixel XL)
  • (~$670) Google Pixel
  • (~$700) Galaxy S8 (I’m concerned about one handed use without a case. Samsung’s notoriously slower about updates too.)
  • (~$750) Google Pixel XL (might be too big for one-handed use)

For now, I’m going to hold out with the LG G3. The Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2 are only a few weeks away, but there’s rumors that at least the Pixel 2 won’t have a 3.5mm jack. Otherwise, it’ll have to decide whether the Google Pixel is worth twice the price of the Moto G5 Plus and how likely I am to switch away from Sprint in the next 18–24 months.

Dropping a requirement to be able to switch away from Sprint, a lot more options open up, including the LG G6 (~$450), HTC 10 (~$385) or even the LG G5 (~$250, but might not get Oreo.) Lastly, the Essential PH-1 (currently $437.46 through Sprint) and perhaps Pixel 2 would be more serious contenders, but it’d have to be worth the ~$130 it’ll cost to swap my car stereo and buy some Bluetooth earbuds.

The features we’ve gained since 2014 (when the LG G3 was released) — OIS, fingerprint scanners, IP68, carrier independence, more memory and better CPUs/GPUs — do outweigh what we’ve lost. I wish we weren’t giving up as much along the way.

Update: after publishing this article, an old colleague pointed out that bluetooth receivers for cars have gotten much better than the last time I investigated, and there’s good options for under $20. The bluetooth earbuds also aren’t as critical, as I can use the normal usb type-c adapter when I’m mowing or such. It might not be as ideal as spending ~$130 for a new stereo and BT earbuds, but an acceptable workaround for a lack of a 3.5mm jack is more likely only $20.