Do average phones last two years?
July 20, 2012 5:41 PM   Subscribe

Do I need a top of the line Android phone to make a 2-year contract worth it?

In a couple weeks I'll be eligible for a phone upgrade with AT&T. I'm currently on a family plan with two phones, 2GB of data each, for just a hair over $100/month. I'm willing but hesitant to change carriers or go pre-paid; what I have is a pretty good deal in the US considering handset subsidies. I'm moving from iOS to Android and, like everyone, confused by so many choices.

I don't need to watch a lot of video on a phone. I'll be doing a lot of web browsing and texting, though. Still, I'd love a smaller phone (possibly even smaller than the iPhone, but I don't care how thin it is). I also plan to tinker with mods and use it as a VNC client.

I've seen this similar question, but since I'll be stuck with a 2-year contract I'd really like to know fellow MeFites' opinions on the longevity of mid-range phones. Will I be missing out? Is there a small but powerful phone I don't have to compromise on? Or, of course, try to talk me into pre-paid and a quirky imported phone. I can wait a few months for my contract to end if I must.
posted by monkeymadness to Technology (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would say that you're going to live with your phone for two years you might as well get a good one. HTC is better quality and nicer user interface - Samsung's seem a little cheap - still good phones though.

We have lots of phones for testing apps. HTC are clearly the better quality.

Avoid LG, Motorola Huawei etc. These phones are terrible.

For a cheapie - the HTC Explorer ain't bad. Better that the similar motorola
posted by mattoxic at 6:11 PM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there a small but powerful phone I don't have to compromise on?

Not really. The fundamental problem in the mid-range for Android in the US, especially looking at AT&T's lineup, is that the physical specs are dictated by the market and by the underlying tech (big screens! big batteries for LTE!) and once you get past the headliners, you run into obvious shortcomings and questions of long term support from the makers. That's proving to be fine for a lot of users who don't really treat smartphones as pocket computers, but probably not for a tinkerer.

The HTC One X is the probably the pick of the bunch right now for AT&T, as noted by Terrence Russell for The Wirecutter -- but as he notes, it's probably worth waiting until later in the year to see what appears, before you lock yourself into a two-year deal.

The miserable state of the carrier market in the US means that the up-front cost of the phone is usually a fraction of what you end up paying, unless you're prepared to accept a different set of compromises with a MVNO like Cricket or Virgin Mobile, and that shapes the handset market. All that said, JR Raphael makes a decent case for the pre-paid Galaxy Nexus on T-Mobile.
posted by holgate at 6:17 PM on July 20, 2012

If you are going to get the top o the line - buy a Galaxy Nexus direct from Google, no contract, unlocked, $350.00, it's a beautiful thing. works on AT&T and TMobile 4G networks and HSPDA.
posted by kanemano at 6:24 PM on July 20, 2012

I got a top of the line Android about 1.5 years ago, and using it today, I really wouldn't want to have got less.

Even in this short amount of time, apps have been getting noticeably more hardware-intensive on average (as app-writers tend to optimize for nearly-current phone specs), and I notice that my phone is starting to get less responsive at times as competition for the CPU rises.

But also importantly, the phone is going to be an important tool in many aspects of your life for the next two years, and you will be spending a lot of time using it. That's really not the kind of thing you want to skimp too much on (unless you're in the habit of throwing your phone into the wall when you get mad :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 6:47 PM on July 20, 2012

Ok, so I looked up the T-mobile plan. For $60/month we can get two lines, and for $700 we can get a pair of Galaxy Nexii. That's $2140 over 2 years, vs. $2672 on our current plan before the upfront cost of new phones. That's a no-brainer. That means I'm stuck using my cracked iPhone for 4 months until my contract is up with AT&T but I can manage.
posted by monkeymadness at 7:22 PM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also recommend the Galaxy Nexus. I'm coming to it from a Galaxy S ii and to that from an HTC. Indeed, the HTC is the better buit phone as they're mostly metal, but they're also therefore heavier. I'm not clumsy and don't care if the phone is mostly plastic.

The Nexus is indeed a beautiful thing.
posted by dobbs at 7:26 PM on July 20, 2012

monkeymadness: "Ok, so I looked up the T-mobile plan. For $60/month we can get two lines, and for $700 we can get a pair of Galaxy Nexii. That's $2140 over 2 years, vs. $2672 on our current plan before the upfront cost of new phones. That's a no-brainer. That means I'm stuck using my cracked iPhone for 4 months until my contract is up with AT&T but I can manage."

You can repair the cracked glass in the interim for around $80. Still a no-brainer.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:29 PM on July 20, 2012

Or you can buy the Nexus now, replace the screen on the iPhone and sell it before the next iPhone comes out.
posted by dobbs at 7:37 PM on July 20, 2012

I had iPhones (up to the iPhone 4) until I switched to the Galaxy Nexus. I actually would not recommend the Nexus if you're coming from an iPhone and are very used to iOS.

It still has a lot of bugs, the battery life is absolutely ABYSMAL, and all-in-all, it's just not as refined as the iPhone.

Some examples of kinks include:
1) When exiting an app or program, all the widgets and app buttons on the home screen will disappear for 2-3 seconds, as the phone tries to reload everything. You'll see an empty home screen until everything suddenly repopulates.
2) Texting -- the text app is constantly 'refreshing' and you get a lot of keyboard lag (i.e. you type quickly, and all of a sudden, input stops and 2-3 seconds later, 10-15 letters appear in a matter of seconds as the CPU desperately tries to catch up).
3) 4G-3G switching: unless you live in an area that has strong 4G connectivity, you'll find that the phone switches between the two constantly, as you move in and out of buildings, as you drive from mile to mile, etc.
3b) Another issue is that the phone not only connects to cell towers, but also to Google's network. Basically, the reception bars on the phone are colored light blue when the phone is connected to the cell phone network and Google's network. If the phone is switching between 4g/3g, it will lose connection with google and things like voice input don't work. The reception bars will turn grey to reflect the fact that the phone is connected to cell towers, but not to Google's network.

The only two things I like about it are 4G (which doesn't really give it that much of a competitive advantage, especially if/when the new iPhone comes out in 3-4 months, which is in your time frame of upgrade eligibility) and the big screen (again, not a huge competitive advantage anymore).

I switched to the Nexus back in December when it first came out and I will promptly sign another 2-year contract with Verizon once the new iPhone comes out.

The absolute worst flaw of the Nexus is the battery life. If you ever thought you had battery anxiety, the Nexus introduces a whole 'nother level of battery anxiety.

Seriously, reconsider the Nexus. It's supposed to receive the latest updates for Android the quickest since it's the pure, unadultered version of Android.. but it took MONTHS after the promised time frame for us Nexus LTE users to get the latest OS update.
posted by 6spd at 10:44 PM on July 20, 2012

The battery life on smartphones other than iPhones trends to not be great in my experience, but for many (including the galaxies but not the HTC One series) you can get spare batteries and stand alone chargers for them (cheers you can also plug the phone into at the same time). I always have a charged spare in my pocket, and almost never actually plug my phone into the wall.
posted by K.P. at 12:57 AM on July 21, 2012

6spd, the GSM Galaxy Nexus from the Play Store is the first to get updates now (it ships with Jelly Bean now), and not having the battery sucking LTE radio helps keep the battery life decent. It lasts about 24 hours for me. IMO, the only thing to complain about is the camera. It's just not that good even compared to other 5MP units.

I haven't used a Verizon Galaxy Nexus, but my experience with the GSM version hasn't been like yours. My only complaint is that the camera quit working after I went for a swim with it in my pocket. oops It wasn't that good anyway, but it was good enough to be useful.
posted by wierdo at 2:43 AM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

While I'm not willing to repair the glass myself, I'm thinking of taking the advice to get the Nexus now to finish out my contract with and then move to T-mobile. I'll find someone to do the repair myself and sell the iPhone.

Will I regret not having LTE on the Nexus, though? I'm still considering it a two year commitment in order to make the savings worth the switch. Also, $350 seems rather cheap for a top of the line unlocked handset. Is it really comparable to the S3 and HTC?
posted by monkeymadness at 3:48 AM on July 21, 2012

It's not as beefy, CPU-wise as the S3 or the One X. It's been out for quite some time now. I think it's fine for anything I'm really interested in doing with it, but if you're looking for a jesus phone, the GNex isn't it at the moment.

As far as LTE vs. HSPA, HSPA is definitely not as fast. I don't think it's a terribly important difference, but I get maybe 7/1 at best, usually more like 5/1 with a 90ms ping on at&t here. (LTE is more like 10/5 and 50ms ping on a Gnex) If you aren't planning to use the wifi hotspot with your laptop, you'll see little difference in real world usage. If you are, there is a definite advantage to LTE. However, keep in mind that LTE is still fairly new, so battery life is relatively bad on LTE phones. Probably not as bad as the first couple of rounds of UMTS phones, but still not great. On Verizon, the difference between the EV-DO network and the LTE network is much greater. I wouldn't want an EV-DO only phone were I buying today. HSPA will be fine for the next couple of years at least.

If you don't want a contract and don't talk a lot, T-Mobile has a $30 Monthly4G (prepaid) plan that gives you 100 minutes, unlimited sms and mms, and 5GB of data. If you like at&t, one of their MVNOs (Straight Talk) is only $45 a month for unlimited talk and messaging and 2GB of data. The downside to the prepaid options, of course, is that you can't do the family plan thing and add on another phone for little money. Not that anything involving data on at&t postpaid can be had for little money.
posted by wierdo at 12:18 AM on July 22, 2012

Just as an addendum, a nice piece by Sam Biddle for Gizmodo on the current state of the market, bemoaning how smaller smartphones are invariably also dumbed down.
posted by holgate at 10:17 PM on October 2, 2012

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