Solid Phones for the Budget-Conscience

Now that top-end smartphones are not making leaps anymore between releases, something interesting is happening.  Low/Mid-end phones have always been given a bad rep, and for good reason.  They’ve historically been slow, had terrible displays, and quite flimsy build quality.  But because they’ve always trailed behind flagship phones, they’ve gotten better.  And now that the high-end is slowing down, that’s given the lower-end the opportunity to catch up, as they still have room for improvement.

Being that these phones do not make as much headline as flagships do, I thought there would be value in making a list of what are the good, non-budget-busting smartphone choices of today.  So without further ado…

Asus ZenFone 2

Asus is known for making some fantastic computer hardware.  However, they have been having trouble really making a stamp in the mobile space, at least in the US.  And it’s not exactly well-deserved, they’ve had with some solid and interesting attempts.  Anyone remember the PadFone X, that phone/tablet hybrid system? (link)

Like many manufacturers nowadays, Asus settled on a flagship label to stick with, known as the ZenFone, originally introduced in 2014.  This year it was followed up naturally with the ZenFone 2:

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Asus ZenFone 2 [source]

Introduced at CES 2015, this guy made some great impressions with its “high-end” like specs:

  • 2.3 GHz Intel Atom SoC (64 bit)
  • 4GB Ram
  • 13 MP f/2.0 aperture rear camera
  • 5.5″ 1080P IPS LCD display
  • 3,000 mAh battery
  • Multitude of color and textured chassis choices

Spec-wise, the ZenFone 2 can hold its own against popular flagships.  But where Asus really made a stance was the price, at about $400 off-contract (not confirmed, as US launch is slated for May 18th).  This is in a world where top-end smartphones retail for around $700.

However, the picture ain’t perfect with the ZenFone 2.  Reviewers have knocked it’s camera and battery performance.  But if you’re not expecting some trade-off for the price, you’re dreaming.

Update:  Via Phone Arena, the ZenFone 2 will be on sale for just $337 for only one day, on May 7th.

Lenovo K80

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Lenovo K80 [source]

The Lenovo K80 was in the news recently, noticed for being a very good competitor to the Asus ZenFone 2, with the following specs:

  • 1.8 GHz Intel Atom SoC (64 bit)
  • 4GB Ram
  • 13 MP with OIS, rear camera
  • 5.5″ 1080P display
  • 4,000 mAh battery

See the resemblance?  But Lenovo does up the battery to a whopping 4,000 mAh, which is crazy for a budget phone!

Unfortunatley, the K80 is for the Chinese market at the moment.  Hopefully like many, it can be acquired through an international online shop.  The pricing translates to about $290 US.

Moto G and E (2nd Gen)

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Moto E on left and Moto G on right [source]

We can’t talk about budget phones without talking about Motorola’s offering.  In my opinion, Moto has stretched the dollar the farthest in the mobile space.

It is important to note that the latest Moto G was released 6 months before the more-budget Moto E.  Therefore, although the Moto E is the cheaper of the two, their specs are actually very close.  This will change once a Moto G refresh comes out.

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Source:  Droid Life

Being that the prices of the Moto G and Moto E are currently $179 and $149, respectively, keep in mind that these phones are not gonna soar.  They get the job done.  And following Moto’s ways, you’ll get virtually stock Android and updates fast.

Huawei Ascend Mate 2

The phablet-loving folk also have some choices in the budget arena, a good one being the Ascend Mate 2.

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Huawei Ascend Mate 2 [source]

Huawei has been making some headway in the US lately, with cheap beginnings but moving up steadily.  The Ascend Mate 2 is a 6.1″ behemoth but retails for a budget-friendly $299 unlocked ($249 currently on Amazon).

  • 1.6 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 SoC
  • 2GB Ram
  • 6.1″ 720p Display
  • 13 MP f/2.0 aperture rear camera
  • 3,900 mAh

Can you pinpoint where the compromises were made?  Although the Ascend Mate 2 is equipped with a decent camera and large battery, the Huawei had to let go on the processor and display resolution to meet that budget price.  But if you’re more about function and want that huge screen, this might be the one for you.

HTC Desire 626

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HTC Desire 626 [source]

HTC’s Desire line of phones is often overshadowed by their huge push for their more premium One flagships.  But lately, the Desire phones have not been too far off spec-wise, for a significant less cost, removing the metal for more traditional poly-carbonate (more fancy way of saying plastic).

One of the more recent release was the Desire 626:

  • 1.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 SoC
  • 1 GB Ram
  • 5″ 720p Display
  • 13 MP camera
  • 2,000 mAh battery

Spec-wise, this guy is more of a competitor to Moto’s low-end.  This is reflected by the price as well, at about $200.  But if you’re a fan of HTC’s software and build quality, this might be the budget phone for you.  Via @upleaks, it is slated to be a prepaid Sprint phone at some point.

Alternative option

It must be said that your choices aren’t only limited to new phones if you’re budget conscience.  Why not consider a flagship that was released last year?  As updates come out, the old ones drop in price.  They’re going to be right in line with new mid-end phones (maybe even better).  Here are some good examples, as of today’s writing:

Hope this helps anyone with a tight budget.  Yes, some of these aren’t US, but they can be acquired, try a Google search.  Just bear in mind that the warranty may not work if it’s in a different country, but being that the price is lower, many are willing to take that risk.  Also check radios for compatibility with your carrier!  The world uses GSM, so no-go for Verizon and Sprint folks.

LG G4 Impressions!

LG finally took the wraps off the G4 yesterday, and if you’ve been following teasers/leaks, quite frankly not much was left to be surprised about.  Here’s a recap of the spec list:

  • Display:  5.5″ Quantum QHD (2560×1440) IPS LCD screen
  • SoC:  Snapdragon 808 (6-cores, Adreno 418 GPU, 64-bit)
  • Ram:  3GB
  • Cameras:  16MP f/1.8 aperture with 3-axis OIS and laser focus rear camera and 8MP f/2.0 aperture front camera
  • Storage:  32GB internal and microSD slot supporting up to 2TB
  • Battery:  3,000 mAh removable
  • Speaker:  Rear-facing
  • Software:  Android 5.1 Lollipop with UX 4.0 user interface
  • Chassis:  Leather/Ceramic/Plastic, removable back cover with multiple color choices

So what I underlined above are really the interesting points about this phone, which outlines my discussion.  Otherwise, what we have with the G4 is a pretty typical, solid flagship.  And depending on what you value most, probably the most perfect phone for you.  That’s what’s great about Android, choice 🙂

Let’s begin.

Quantum Display

If you’ve viewed any coverage on the G4, you can tell that a huge focus is on the screen.  Pocket-lint has a good overview of the technicalities, here.  To summarize, in comparison with the G3 display:

  • 20% greater colour reproduction
  • 25% brightness improvement
  • 50% greater contrast

And while not using more battery life.  Also, the Quantum display has a 98% DCI colour gamut, reaching for those richer AMOLED color saturations.

Snapdragon 808 SoC

The SoC chosen for the G4 would have to be the biggest knock I give it.  Allegedly, LG chose the Snapdragon 808 instead of the 810 to save cost.  But I would only be okay with this if meant cost-savings for customer, and I’m highly doubtful it will.

Android Authority wrote a piece on why LG chose the 808 instead, here.  What bugs me is this excuse from Qualcomm’s head of marketing:

“The decisions on which chipsets to put on which handsets come from over a year ago”

Well, why is the HTC One M9 and even LG’s own Flex 2 (announced few months ago) using the 810!?  I think by cutting corners, LG brought a little negativity to the G4 that just shouldn’t have been.

And why does the 808 have the Adreno 418 GPU while the older 805 has an Adreno 420?  Is it still the greater the number, the better?

One last thing.  While the 808 does support Quick Charging, the G4 does not.  And no wireless charging either.  Some things to think about.

Camera

I’ve already shown my appreciation towards the G4’s rear camera when it leaked a few week ago, here.  I love the focus LG is putting on the camera.  Lowering the aperture to f/1.8 should be great for low-light capturing and there are tons of manual controls that make it feel like a dedicated camera.

One option that caught me off guard (in a good way) was the 2.0 OIS.  LG up’ed the optic to stabilize in the “z” direction, not just planar “x” and “y”.  What this means in layman’s terms is that the optic can now move in any direction to help to stabilize the shot for you shaky image takers.

The Laser focus makes a return from the G3.  However, LG has added a Color Spectrum Sensor (CSS) to capture more accurate colors of ambient light.  Here’s a good read on it, from Phone Arena.

It seems like this is the phone for you if you value the camera.  Cannot wait to play with it!

Removable Back Cover

Now, it seems funny that I’m counting this as a feature.  Back when Android devices were developing, this was something they all had in common.  Nowadays removable back covers are foregone for the sake of a “premium” design.  Just why can’t we have our cake and eat it too!?

As much as the G4’s design leaves some to be desired, I just can’t help but applaud that you can plop in another battery and increase your storage with a microSD card, up to 2TB.  Yes, TB is not a typo!  Do they even have microSD cards this large??

Comment down below on what you think about the G4!  Impressed, meh, or disappointed?

Nexus Speculation, with a side of rationality

It may be too early to talk about the future of the Nexus line, but some negative news has recently popped up about Nexus sales:

“Other revenues grew 23 percent year over year to $1.8 billion, but were down 2 percent quarter over quarter, driven really by year over year growth in the Play Store, offset by decline in Nexus, and the currency fluctuations,” the company announced (via 9to5Google).

The discussion goes on to specify that the Nexus 6 was partly at fault, not selling as strongly as the Nexus 5 did a year before.  Unfortunately, the negativity leads to an opportunity for several tech sites to bash the Nexus 6.

Before I move on, know that I don’t do fanboy-ism.  So this isn’t a cry in reaction to people picking on stuff I love.  But I will definitely throw up a “WTF” at nonsense.  For instance, this quote from trustedreviews:

“The Nexus 4 was groundbreaking. The Nexus 5 inspired. The Nexus 6, however, has been something of a flop.”

I’m curious in what sense of the word would the Nexus 6 be considered “flop”?

Let’s take a trip back to Nov. 2014:  Nexus 6 announced, Android world explodes.  We hear complaining that it’s too big, costs too much.  Pre-order day comes, sells out in seconds (if even).  Next pre-order window comes, same story…and this repeats for months.

I think we can all agree that the word “flop” would righteously attributed to the Amazon Fire phone and HTC First (Facebook) phone, but I’m failing to see the resemblance here to the Nexus 6.  What I’m seeing here is taking advantage of any shred of negativity to bash something.  Because a phone does not sell as well as its predecessor is not reason enough to call it a flop.

So rather, lets look at this in a more analytical way:

  • The fact that you couldn’t get your paws on a Nexus 6 had to hurt sales.  The main market for Nexus devices are tech savy folks and many could have been deterred to another device because the Nexus 6 was impossible to get for a long time.  This is nothing wrong with the device, but rather the managing of it.
  • The other market for Nexus devices are budget-conscience folks.  Since LG took the reigns with the Nexus 4, the Nexus phone was the best off-contract offering.  But Google lost these customers when they up’ed the quality and price proportionally.
  • Many were not open to a device this big.

This bring me to the question we should be asking:  Shouldn’t it be expected that the Nexus 6 would not sell as the year before, due to the challenges in front of it?

The analyst behind these products aren’t stupid (even more so that it is Google).  I wouldn’t be surprised if, in actuality, the Nexus 6 performed much better than expected.

I’d be more inclined to believe that the Nexus 9 did poorly.  Although it’s a fantastic tablet, things got pretty quiet after its launch.

Have something to add?  Leave a comment down below!

Plateau? I hope not.

There has been clamoring about smartphones reaching a plateau in design and features, and recent/upcoming releases are not really proving otherwise.  We’re now seeing only minor iterations from the top Android OEM’s.  This excludes Samsung in 2015 with the S6, but if you think about it, Samsung is just playing catch-up.  They’ve ridden a mundane design as long as they could before making something actually worth the money they’re charging.

So is the Smartphone perfected?  Hardly.  There are still weakness and they that are crying for some clever engineering.  We’re far from done.  Let’s review it:

  • Cameras – We’ve up’ed Megapixels to our hearts’ desire, but that’s not what drives camera quality.  The restriction of lens size is what makes it difficult for cameras on phones to be good.  Phones like the Galaxy Zoom variants and Asus Zenfone try to address the issue, but design gets hugely affected by priority put on the camera.

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Samsung Galaxy K Zoom from last year [Link]

  • Battery – The all-important battery life.  Now, to be fair, this is more about the lack of advancement of battery technology rather than a knock on smartphones.  We’ve seen manufacturers trying to help the problem with more efficient software and better charging options (quick and wireless charging).  But it is sad that we still have phones coming out that can’t quite make it through a day for many users.

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Image Link

  • Storage Size – It has always baffled me how storage on hard drives, flash drives, and microSD cards continually increase but the onboard storage on phones have been cheated.  And that several manufacturers today are choosing to leave out the microSD card slot just exacerbates the problem.

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Saygus with dual microSD slots for up to 320GB storage [Link]

  • Bezels – Some are making an effort to improve the screen-to-body ratio, like LG, while others (Sony and HTC) don’t seem to give it enough priority.

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BGR Smartphone Infographic [Link]

  • Robustness – Why is it that rugged phones always have mediocre specs?  Is it because they can’t be as thin?  Is this why waterproofing have taken a backseat as well?  Does the market care about thinness as much as the priority OEM’s give it, or would we gladly sacrifice thinness for a more robust chassis?

samsung-galaxy-s4-active

Samsung S5 Active [Link].  Where’s the S6 Active this year?

  • Audio quality – Regarding external speakers, I think I’m safe to say that HTC is the leader here, they’ve done a fantastic job with BoomSound.  However, what about headphone output quality?  The DACs on phones are good enough, but no where near audiophile quality to power our awesome headphones.

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M9 BoomSound with Dolby software [Link]

I certainly hope we’re not done!  And speaking of innovation, what ever happened with Project Ara?

Google-Project-Ara-Large

Project Ara, Modular Phone [Link]

Let me know in the comments if there’s something I’ve missed.

Google’s Project Fi Impressions

Well looky here, it happened!  If you don’t know what I’m referring to, it’s that Google’s wireless network speculation has been floating around the web for a while now.  Google has finally made it a reality with Project Fi.

project_fi_2

Now, this isn’t your run-of-mill, piggy-backing wireless network.  This is Google after all, so the expected cleverness, out-of-the-box thinking is certainly present.  There are some interesting things to discuss.

The primary thing is the “seamless” integration of changing internet signal between tower and wifi sources.  The most crazy thing about this idea is that wifi spots are gonna be a part of your wireless network availability!  *Mind blown*.  How is Google achieving this!?  They claim “millions” of wifi spots are gonna be available to the customer.  Only a giant like Google could round up agreement with enough companies’ routers to make this a reality!

signal

Credit:  Google

So why is Google doing this?  The idea is that they want you to have the best signal at all times, automatically (I can already see Verizon ads mocking this, saying “Pssh, we don’t need wifi to give you the best signal all the time”).  Google, with all their power, is trying to solve the weak signal frustration.

So are they building their own cell towers?  Nope, they’ve partnered with both Sprint and T-mobile, to utilize their towers.  Funny enough, these two networks are the lower ranked carriers, falling signficiantly behind the giants that are AT&T and Verizon.  Lets ponder this for a second:

  • There has always been separation of wireless technologies used in the US.  Verizon and Sprint use CDMA while AT&T and T-Mo use GSM.  By using Sprint and T-Mo, Google is bridging the gap.
  • The Sprint and T-Mo networks aren’t nearly as strong as the two giants, hence, I wonder if Google came up with the wifi access as a solution to that.
  • It’s a win-win for everyone:  Google gets a network, Sprint and T-Mo make money, the market has another option other than the Big Four.

So how’s the pricing work?  Fortunately, simple.  Very simple!  As simple as I wish it’s always been!  $20/month for the basics (calling, texting, and even wifi tethering) and +$10/month more for each GB you want available for internet.  That is it.  No contracts. Simple.

Oh, and another thing.  Google is +1’ing T-Mo’s data-rollover strategy.  You actually get your money back for the amount you didn’t use:

project-fi-price

Credit:  Google

The catch?  There’s always a catch!

1)  There’s an invite system (sign up here:  https://fi.google.com/signup).

2)  You’ll need a “special” SIM card from Google.

3)  And the biggie…you need a Nexus 6.  Ouch.  Big ouch.

About that third catch, how did you think your GSM-only or CDMA-only phone was gonna work on this system?  Remember I said Google is using Sprint and T-Mo networks?  This is only possible on the Nexus 6, it’s the only phone that has both radios.  Part of Google’s master plan when they made it?  You bet your sweet Android!  Like I said in the beginning, clever.

I’m really interested to see how “seamless” Project Fi will end up being.  It is certainly a bold move, even for Google.  What does everyone think?  I’m certainly excited for this!

https://fi.google.com/about/

Google’s Push for Web Mobility

In case you haven’t heard of Mobilegeddon, the term arose due to Google’s strong preference for web developers to make mobile versions of their sites for phones.  So much in fact that they’ve changed the search algorithm when using your phone, leaving out those websites that don’t comply.

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I’d like to reach out to the Android community and find out if this is a good thing or not.  Do we welcome mobile version of websites or don’t see why it needs to be??

I hope I’m not the only one sided towards the latter.  I’ve always looked at smartphones not as phones, but as small computers.  Thus, I don’t want them to have specialized treatment.  Or even from a fragmentation standpoint, web developers have to do two sites for the same site, rather than put their effort into one.  This just isn’t efficient.

And what’s wrong with using a “desktop” site on a phone anyways?  I rarely find a problem and actually like all the content I can fit on my big, high-res screen.

Do you share my annoyance towards mobile sites or is Google doing a good thing here?  Comment down below!

HiFi from your Android

I always feel that Hifi audio is generally a tricky subject to talk about.  I feel like people either don’t believe in the value for the money it costs or people simply don’t care, they hear the music and that’s all that matters.  So to either of these ends, I beg to ask, we’re hearing the music, but are we really listening?

Bringing the conversation back to smartphones, we all care about top-end specs, like display quality and resolution.  We care about processing speed and graphics capability.  Could you tell me what kind of Digital-to-Analog converter (DAC) your phone uses?  What about the output impedance out of your headphone jack?

The sound processor is a separate entity in your phone’s SoC, and no, not all smartphones have the same one.  This is not dissimilar to how displays function.  What if the instructions sent to the pixels aren’t a good representation of the image desired to be portrayed?  Similarly, the sound waves your headphones shoots at your ears are via instructions from the DAC.

Let’s keep going with the display analogy.  Why do we care about screen resolution?  Well, with more pixels we get more accurate detail of what we’re looking at (more clear, less fuzzy).  The goal?  The goal is to see the image as if we are actually there (which is the goal of camera image capturing too!).  So this leads me to the question:  Do you feel like the music you’re listening to sounds like you’re actually in the recording studio, next to the artist?

I think I’ve made my point :).  But this isn’t meant to just be a discussion about audio, it must be more than that.  I had to set the stage first.  Like I said, audio is a tricky subject to talk about with people.  I didn’t used to care either, until I started testing the waters.

Now, let’s go back to the talk about your phone’s DAC.  Well, it’s not that great.  That is, with regard to accurately resolving the digital audio data, it’s not that great.  There’s only so much they can do with the limited space in the phone.  In other words, if you’re running those pricey set of cans out of your headphone jack, you’re not hearing them to their full potential.  Yup, if you’re a mobile-only kinda of person, sorry to tell ya this, but you wasted your money 😦

Just kidding!!  Haha, good times.  Luckily, for us awesome Android users there’s a nifty feature we’ve known as USB OTG.  Yes, we can actually offload our sound processing to go through a dedicated DAC instead, via our micro USB port.  There are several portable DACs to choose from, but make sure they support OTG!  I was recently in search for a good bang-for-your-buck, portable DAC to drive my Shure se846 in-ears (if you know their price, you’ll know why I didn’t want to spend much more money!).  Let me introduce the iBasso D-Zero Mk2 DAC/Amp combo:

DSCN4095

This guy runs $120 and is as basic as it gets.  Like everything, you can up and down in price, but I feel that the DAC should be a fraction of what your headphones cost.  The car costs more than the engine, right?  For the more budget-conscience, I would recommend the Fiio e07k, which runs around $80.  It is a good entry-level device, from proven company, and works with Android (after all, the goal is to get as close to perfection as our budget allows).

So how does a DAC device thing work?  Let’s take a look:

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– Input into the DAC from the source comes in through a mini-USB port (don’t ask me why, but many DAC OEMs go with mini-USB).

– Conveniently, the DAC has a battery, for mobile use.  There’s a switch to charge the DAC from the source’s power.

– A switch for Low (+3dB) or High gain (+9dB).  I haven’t talked about the Amp’ing ability of this guy because I wanted the focus to be on the DAC.  Being a mobile-orientated discussion, we probably don’t care about amp’ing the signal, as you don’t need a lot of power to drive portable headphones (we’ll save this for a later discussion).  Therefore, mine is always set to Low.

On the other side:

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– A 3.5mm headphone or Aux port

– Power switch

– Analog volume control

That’s it!  The mobile setup ends up looking like:

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So are we done?  Nope!  I’ll give ya hint.  Going back to the display analogy:  What if you had an amazing screen but streamed a low quality video?  That awesome screen suddenly doesn’t matter anymore, huh?  When you have a higher bit-rate audio file, you’re capturing more information that was recorded.  Yes, with typical compressed audio, detail is removed for the sake of file size.  In other words, there are sounds you’re missing from those songs you think you know!

What I don’t understand is that the market doesn’t mind putting this kind of effort towards visuals, but audio is generally given a shrug.  We can stream video at full HD while audio is capped at only 320 kbps.  We’re content with “good enough” for our audio but never for video.  Why is that?  I mean “seeing” and “hearing” are both senses.  Is it that we’d rather be deaf than blind?  Maybe.

Think I’m getting off track, let’s come back.  So I made the point that there are things you’re missing from your music.  What we do about it?  This is the most tricky part of the equation I think, and I wish it weren’t.  When you put all the pieces together, and you hear your music for the first time, it’s a beautiful thing.  There are two options:  1) Find a way to obtain uncompressed versions of your audio, or 2) use Tidal.  I’m sure you’ve seen Tidal in the news recently, as Jay-Z recently bought the company and is aggressively marketing it.  If you haven’t, Tidal is a music streaming service.  What’s makes it unique is you can stream the audio uncompressed (aka lossless audio, 1,411 kbps).  The drawback (aside from potentially eating up your wireless data cap very quickly) is the price:  $20/month.  Ouch.

So maybe I’ve answered my own question, on why Hifi audio hasn’t been popular.  It can be seen as complicated (source + DAC + headphones to chose from) and expensive.  What do you guys think?  Have I brought up some good points, or should I just shutup?  Comment down below!