What's the best Android phone to get for a developer?
April 11, 2011 10:08 PM   Subscribe

What's the best $100-150 (new or used) Android phone to get for a developer?

I'm breaking into the world of Android development, and I'm noticing some serious shortcomings with the emulator in terms of being able to tell if certain things actually work or not as they would on a real phone. I already have an iPhone as my primary phone, and I don't want to get a second contract phone.

I'm looking to spend about $100-150, and I want to get something powerful enough to see if my fairly basic apps are working, but not so fast as to give me the idea that my stuff is working better than it would on most cheap-o Android phones. Eventually I'll get a nicer one when I'm bringing in a little cash, but for right now I'd like to stick to that budget.

I was looking at the prepaid T-Mobile Comet, but it looks like the screen on that is a little too small to get a real idea of whether things are working properly.

I was also thinking of maybe getting a used Motorola Droid (original), rooting it, permanently turning off the cellular radio (sticking with WiFi for data, since I'll mostly be doing testing at home where there's WiFi) and installing 2.2 as my base OS. I'm tempted by this phone in particular because I have several older family members with this phone and I'll be able to help them troubleshoot much more easily if I have the same phone.

Anyone out there either have experience with one of the above options or have a better suggestion for me?
posted by loudguitars to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Geeksphone Zero if you want to go with a new phone.
posted by cmonkey at 10:33 PM on April 11, 2011

Response by poster: Looks cool, but it's a little out of my price range since €179 = $258 at current exchange rates (and I can't imagine shipping from Europe to the US is going to be cheap, either).
posted by loudguitars at 10:43 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

$150 will get you any number of those 7-10 inch iPaddish tablets running Android, though not Honeycomb. 2.2 is common. That bigger screen might be easier on the developer eyes.
posted by rokusan at 11:06 PM on April 11, 2011

$100 will get you a G1 (the original Android dev phone). Here's are the G1 auctions on eBay.
posted by zippy at 11:45 PM on April 11, 2011

Once you have a phone, you'll probably develop some things that work fine on your phone but not on all the other varieties of Android that are running around. A tip I got from a developer at a small startup was to post your app at an obscure URL, then go to a local phone store, download your app, test on their phones, and delete when you're done. The price is right, and you can test on a bunch of different phones!
posted by asphericalcow at 12:29 AM on April 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @rokusan - I'd actually prefer something phone-sized since that's where my apps are targeted. I want to deal with the actual size (or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof) of device my customers would be working with.

@zippy - Good call on the G1 - I'd looked into the Nexus One but they're still eBaying for ~$350. I hadn't realized until you suggested and I looked up the specs that the G1 had a 528mHz processor - that's pretty beefy considering how long ago it came out, and that should be a good comparison vs. low-end phones of today.

Any further suggestions are still welcome, though!
posted by loudguitars at 12:31 AM on April 12, 2011

Response by poster: @asphericalcow - Heh, nice trick. I'll keep that in mind going forward, but at this point I need at least one phone to test on.
posted by loudguitars at 12:33 AM on April 12, 2011

The ZTE Blade, aka Orange San Francisco?

Easiest way to get one is to have someone buy an PAYG one in the UK and post it. Downside is that it doesn't handle T-Mob's weird 3G frequencies, but if you're sticking with wi-fi, that's not a problem.
posted by holgate at 1:26 AM on April 12, 2011

I'd second holgate on the ZTE Blade. However, the article he links to is a little out of date in places:
  • The phone is no longer being produced with an OLED display, instead you'll get one with a TFT screen.
  • Unlock codes are now available free online.
  • The Froyo ROMs are now, while not official, pretty much as stable & bug-free as official releases.
You should be able to get one for just under US$150 and the only downside is that it's such good value it might not give you an accurate representation of what 'cheap-o Android phones' are like!
posted by Busy Old Fool at 1:39 AM on April 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I write software for Android and iOS for a living; I wouldn't recommend a G1 for developing new Android apps; the last officially released firmware for that phone is Android 1.6, which accounts for less and less of the existing install base. They made a lot of substantial changes to the SDK between 1.6 and 2.x. For new applications, I don't think it's worth targeting anything less than 2.1.

If you're only going to use one phone for development, I would *avoid* non-official roms at all costs. Rooting is ok (and can help with debugging), but custom roms will totally throw off your ability to develop and debug for the general Android public. You'll want the environment on your sole development phone to be as boring and vanilla as possible.

The majority of new Android phones these days use the HDPI resolution target (~240dpi), as opposed to MDPI (~160dpi), used by the G1 and a few newer lower-end devices (the HTC Aria is the only one I can think of). If I were to pick a singular device to do my development on, I would pick an HDPI device with an officially released 2.1 or greater firmware. The original Droid fits the bill, though the processor is considered on the slow side these days. Given your budget, I would probably try to find a used HTC Droid Incredible on eBay or Craigslist; Verizon has been practically giving them away (or selling them 2-for-1) and people get rid of them quite often due to the lackluster battery life. They're a pretty good baseline for development. HTC also makes it easy turn off the cellular radio (it's actually an option in their standard Welcome funnel).

HTC's Android phones are probably the best from a developer's perspective (they *did* produce the first 3 ADP models); in my experience, their hardware is the least fussy to deal with and their vendor-specific on-deck apps are the least broken of the major manufacturers.
posted by strangecargo at 2:24 AM on April 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, I forgot to mention: One thing the original Droid has going for it is that it has a hardware keyboard. Hiding and showing the keyboard can cause certain types of Activity lifecycle events (similar to orientation changes, but... different) to happen and it's hard to code for that sort of thing if your development device doesn't have a keyboard. I guess taking that into account, the ideal development device would be something like a T-mobile G2/HTC Desire Z, though that's a little beyond your desired price range.
posted by strangecargo at 2:34 AM on April 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

One of my all-time favorite Android devices is an HTC Magic (a.k.a. the T-Mobile/AT&T "myTouch") which you can find unlocked on eBay for about $180.

Google actually used these for their Android IO conference. In terms of form-factor, they are my favorite Android device (even more than my much-fancier, much-prettier Samsung Epic 4G).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:07 AM on April 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

nthing the ZTE Blade as the only real answer to this question.
posted by turkeyphant at 6:36 AM on April 12, 2011

Response by poster: @strangecargo - Thanks for pointing out the OS restriction on the G1 - probably should have researched that before getting too excited. However, looking at the HTC Droid Incredible prices I might find something that would work for me on price there.

@Civil_Disobedient - I actually see the Magic MUCH cheaper if I get a T-Mo version rather than unlocked. I need to do some more research on it, but that looks like it might be a good option.

Thanks to everyone who's suggesting the ZTE Blade. Right now, I don't have contacts in the UK who'd be willing to front the money to buy one and have me reimburse them, but if I do wind up going that way, I see some on eBay for around $250 shipped.

Again, any further suggestions are appreciated - Right now I'm leaning towards the Droid Incredible for the reasons @strangecargo listed, but I'm keeping an open mind.
posted by loudguitars at 11:51 AM on April 12, 2011

I guess taking that into account, the ideal development device would be something like a T-mobile G2/HTC Desire Z, though that's a little beyond your desired price range.

Probably the cheapest hardware keyboard phone is the Xperia X10 Mini Pro, but the screen is tiny and Sony stranded it on Android 2.1. I personally love the hardware as a personal phone, but the screen res is probably less than useful as a primary testbed.

Ideos have some good, cheap models available in NZ that would be in the price range, but I don't know if they're available up where you are.
posted by rodgerd at 11:58 AM on April 12, 2011

Response by poster: The Ideos X5 looks promising, but unfortunately it's not available in the US for at least another couple of months.
posted by loudguitars at 12:05 PM on April 12, 2011

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