Adventures back to a (carrier) Android phone

I’ve been switching up my primary personal phone about twice a year for a while now and have been on an iPhone SE for the past 6 months despite not particularly liking iOS or any of Apple’s bundled services.

I’ve used pretty much all the Nexus/Pixel phones as the primary device and mainly disliked the wonkier third party apps on Android and the general trend of bigger phones in recent iterations.

So I wanted to give the Samsung S8 a try. In person, the screen is absolutely noticeably better than anything else (besides previous iterations of the Samsung Galaxies). And the physical build was way better than 95% of all the other Android devices I’ve used (maybe except the Pixel which was pretty good as well).

First, the buying experience. I haven’t bought a non-Google/GPE Android phone since the early days of HTC G1 and Moto Droid. I had forgotten how hard it was to actually buy a phone in North America. Samsung isn’t selling/shipping the unlocked version in the US yet for another 2 weeks so I had to get a locked carrier version. First was trying to figure out how many actual models of the phone there are. US/international/carrier/unlocked all had non-trivial nuances like entirely different chipsets that had performance consequences, different costs, different radio, obviously the fact that it’s locked/unlocked and even likelihood of getting Android updates (with the unlocked versions being seemingly abandoned by Samsung more readily).

Once that’s figured out and I opted to buy the easiest but likely crappiest variant (a US Verizon), it’s still really hard to conduct a transaction whereby you give a retailer money and they give you a box with a phone in it. I went to Costco and they needed my carrier account number and account PIN which I don’t have despite me not wanting to upgrade or finance or do anything else that had anything to do with the carrier. I just wanted to give them the full retail cost money in exchange for a crippled phone. Alas, it wasn’t possible. I could also go to a Verizon store that had more account admin powers that could help me fish out whatever the account PIN was during business hour. Though it turned out Best Buy was less restrictive so yay! I got a phone.

The boot screen was Verizon branded. Yuck. Once it’s booted, the terrible flashback from 2010 is back. There’s so much bundled malware from every middleman that had a hand in the process. Samsung is bundling some CNN edge news app, Verizon is bundling some NFC app. So before doing anything with the phone, I started trying to delete/disable all the junk that’s preloaded. I was pleased to find out that almost 50% of them are actually deletable without rooting. Another 20% are disablable. Though there are still a number of very unsavory ones that I can’t do anything with. For instance, VZ protect’s Play Store description is

“Verizon Support & Protection (VSP) with mobile security helps your device be at its best by keeping it safe from viruses and securing it if it’s lost. Total Mobile Protection customers can download a premium version to provide one click access to premium support, remotely locate a lost device, and monitor battery life.”

I’d rather trust a used syringe from a greyhound station’s public toilet more than this. At least I can see the blood in the stool if I swallowed said syringe.

Samsung also replaced every basic app with their own version. Gallery, contacts, phone, messages, everything. And every single one of them suck. Though the good part is they didn’t cripple too much the default app chooser part of the Android OS. So it’s still possible to download the Google apps and just leave Samsung apps alone. The bad part is that almost all their apps have built-in permissions for https://developer.android.com/reference/android/provider/Settings.html#ACTION_MANAGE_WRITE_SETTINGS which is a malicious software developer’s wet dreams and Samsung is not shy to abuse it. Many of the prebundled apps are just plain viruses. They’ll wait a day after you buy and sneak force install other malware that aren’t deletable. Sometimes I have trouble understanding why aren’t every single Samsung exec in jail.

The screen aspect ratio is great. Definitely a welcome change after the squarer shapes with Nexus 6, Nexus 5x etc. Though it’s still too big for comfortable full on one handed usage. The common back/hamburger button pattern on Android is unreachable as is the status bar swipe.

The much publicized failed fingerprint sensor is indeed a fail and a huge regression vs the Pixel and even older Nexus phones. I partly made the switch because the first-gen fingerprint sensors on first-gen screen iPhones (5/5s/SE) sucked. This is definitely not an improvement at all. Success rate is similar to the Nexus 5x at ~20%, inferior even to the iPhone SE at ~50%. The ergonomics is at the same level as playing barre chords (though a mistake will probably cost you 200$ instead of just boos from the audience). You can’t safely have the phone rest safely in your palm while reaching for the sensor. Even their own onboarding screen is self-satirizing stating to be careful not smudging the camera when training the reader.

Animations smoothness is in the upper tier of Android phones as you’d expect from a flagship phone. Without all the superfluous animations between every task, you can probably get things done faster with the S8 though visually, it still feels like a steroid pumped athlete furiously fumbling and stumbling to the finish line all bloodied up vs iPhones where it looks like a ballet dancer gracefully dancing towards the 100m dash finish line. Animations are already janky and skipping frames after 1 hour of use but mostly is acceptable.

On the subject of UI, like all Android phones, third party apps are uglier than their iOS counterparts as expected. Full Material Design apps are great but most developers don’t fully deliver on the specs, especially the motions components. Given the general SDK’s ease of making the UI graphically more boxy and angular, apps generally look more win32-y than anything modern.

All in all, every time you pick up the phone again, the vibrancy of the screen reminds you why you bought it. But again and again, you also get reminded of some of the absolutely contentious things Samsung does with their forced malware which makes you wonder why you’re using a phone made by someone that hates you.

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