In Android Police’s private chat room – deep in the bowels of a place known only to a select few… Android Police writers – conversations are often had over what makes a phone good, and what makes a phone bad.
And, of course, views on this issue vary. Some have a strong preference for stock Android, and anything attempting to subvert or otherwise ‘break’ Android the way Google intended it (unless Google’s intentions sucked) is a waste of time. Others are more concerned with how it works: is it smooth, fluid, and functional? And, of course, there are the typical arguments about SD cards, removable batteries, and plastique.
With any newly-announced phone comes the time for the passing of judgement: is there a dealbreaker? That is, would a particular flaw (or feature, as the case may be) actually be a reason to not buy a phone? As anyone in any tech blog comment section will tell you, literally every single smartphone on the market has dealbreakers. All of them.
That is such a backward-ass way of thinking, and excuse my bluntness for saying it, but it’s utterly counterproductive.
I am not without fault when it comes to this. I’ve reviewed high-end smartphones I simply couldn’t recommend. Most of those reviews I stand by steadfastly, because I honestly believed a phone was not enjoyable to use. That really is my benchmark at the end of the day: did I like using the phone? One or two, though, give me pause.
Since writing for Android Police, I’ve conducted 19 phone reviews. Which seems like a lot, to me at least. And while I may get a reputation as a negative Nancy, I consider 10 of those reviews to land in the “Positive” category pretty definitively. Only 4 are outright “Negative,” and the remaining 5 come down in the sort of “Meh” area. That means I’ve liked more phones than I’ve not liked or been ambivalent about combined! Hard to believe, I know.
And I’ll say that even of those I outright panned (DROID Incredible 4G, Xperia TX, Meizu MX 4-Core, DROID Charge), I really only feel like one, the Xperia TX, might have deserved a slightly easier time. I harped on the build quality pretty hard, but I’ve held worse phones, and now that it has a Jelly Bean update, I’d be curious to see if the experience has improved. I just did not like using it at the time. The app push sync was unreliable, battery life was subpar, and the camera was a total stickler to use.
Anyway, back to dealbreakers. Some of the ones I hear often are SD card or a removable battery. That is, lacking those things is basically smartphone sacrilege. Sometimes, though, they’re a little more… eccentric. Maybe you absolutely 100% need an MHL-compliant phone for HDMI out. Or an unlockable bootloader is necessary. And perhaps you just can’t live without a video app that pops out and floats over the UI.
The thing is, though, none of the aforementioned things (including SD cards and removable batteries) are actually necessary to have a good experience on a modern smartphone. I’m sorry, they just aren’t. They’re only necessary if <insert relatively niche circumstance here.> And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, because there isn’t. Not that many people need an SUV that can go off road with more than 1′ of ground clearance, but there are vehicles out there that will readily meet that specification, and that’s good. But let's be realistic: nearly 40% of all smartphones sold in America have a 4" or smaller display, no expandable storage, and a totally locked down user experience. And, shocker, most of the people living with those products are decidedly happier with them than the industry average.
To put it a little more succinctly: just because a particular phone is the best phone for you, does not make it the best phone for me. Or really anyone else. And just because another phone lacks the things you need doesn’t make it a bad product. It makes it a phone that isn’t good for you specifically. That’s really all you’re saying. They are two very different things. No one reviews a Range Rover and says it’s a terrible car because it gets relatively low gas mileage and doesn’t handle very well – if those are you concerns, why would you even consider it? That’s what really gets my goat: people who know full well they won’t like a phone because it won’t suit their personal needs, but go on ahead and shit all over it anyway like it’s actually objectively terrible. And again, sure, I’m guilty of this as well sometimes.
I’m writing this right now because I’m going to start working on my review of the HTC One this weekend. Spoiler alert: I like it kind of a lot.
But, I can already see the 5-10 comments not simply lamenting the lack of a removable battery, an SD card, or whatever new software features Samsung’s packed into the Galaxy S4, but absolutely blasting the phone because of these things. I’m not trying to stop those comments with this post, because frankly, who could? The internet will be the internet. It’s going to happen. But I’m not going to respond to them, even though in all likelihood one will rise to the top with DISQUS’s wonderful voting system. And feeding that "discussion" (yes, that word needed sarcastic quotes) would be about as useful as debating a moon landing hoaxer.
Fear not, though, SD card enthusiasts – your ire will get to me at least a little bit. And that’s primarily because I take pride in the evaluation I give a phone. I want to convey my feelings accurately and impartially, and issue a relatively definitive judgment on a product. I want to be able to say “This is a good product,” “This is an OK product,” or “This is a bad product.” I find it very disappointing to get to the end of a phone review and discover a non-conclusion. I want to be conclusive.
I’m also not saying there aren’t objective, rational reasons to dislike a phone. Of course there are. No one likes bad battery life, or a display that looks poor. No one likes a camera that takes crappy photos. I can’t think of anyone who yearns for a slow phone, or one which is poorly constructed. But even the Xperia ZL, which I roundly “Meh’d” a couple weeks ago, is still a decent phone. I didn’t hate it! I promise. But I did look at it on the merits, and it was very difficult to understand why it was any better than its competitors when it is clearly inferior to them in some big ways – the screen is worse, the battery life is worse, the camera is worse, the speed is worse, and the build quality wasn’t anything outstanding. And that’s why it got a pretty "meh" review – you have noticeably better options at your disposal, and I can’t go recommending something knowing that those options exist. I want to guide people to the great phones, not the ones that you can live with. People got upset anyway, because, well, internet.
The fact is, I like the HTC One. I very much predict that I will like the Galaxy S4. I also like the Optimus G Pro, which I’m currently testing out as well. Every single one of these phones has / will have flaws – objective ones. I will probably like one of them more than the others, and I already have a good idea which one it’s probably going to be. But please, don’t tell me I'm wrong for liking something because I can’t use both of the cameras to record video at once, store all 50GB of my pirated movies, or flash a ROM to stock. You're perfectly welcome not to buy it for any of those reasons, but claiming that makes it ‘bad’ is hyperbole, plain and simple, and I'm getting a little tired of it.