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Some Android phone reviews

posted to writings on nov 6th, 2013 with tags android, motox, and nexus, last updated on nov 21st, 2013

I recently decided to upgrade my Galaxy Nexus to something with a better camera. I liked much about the HTC One Mini, but I refuse to get a phone with logos on the front of it, so that ruled out the HTC One and all of the Samsung phones.

Moto X Developer Edition

I first got the Moto X Developer Edition which only comes in one color: a black front with a white "woven" design which is just kind of cheap. The phone is plastic but with a solid feel. It has a smaller footprint than my Galaxy Nexus and the rear of the phone is curved and fit in my hand nicely. The screen is bright and colors are sharp. The camera is great, and very quick to respond which is one thing I really hated about the Galaxy Nexus. Its HDR mode in the Camera app made for some pretty decent pictures in various light.

The Android experience appears mostly stock but actually has a bunch of Motorola crap installed and running in the background. While it doesn't have Motorola's full-blown spyware sending all of your passwords to Motorola, I did sniff the traffic and find that it does have its own checkin service and other background communications with Motorola's servers that made me uneasy.

While it claims to be a "developer phone" with an unlockable bootloader, the entire process is ridiculous. You have to get some serial numbers from the bootloader with fastboot and enter them into Motorola's website, which then gives you some codes that you put back into the phone to unlock it. Of course, doing all of this marks your phone as forever unlocked and your warranty is instantly void. Not as in, "if this breaks because of your changes and you send it back to us still unlocked, don't expect us to fix it for free", but as in, "your entire warranty is now instantly void and you will never be able to re-lock the bootloader or get any kind of support again, and we're going to remind you of this every time you boot the phone with a big scary warning". That's right, the bootloader is not able to be re-locked, regardless of anything to do with the warranty. A user with an unlocked bootloader can't re-lock it to ensure that nobody can flash new software without wiping out the user data (which is how Nexus phones work with fastboot oem unlock).

Worse than that were the random reboots. While out walking around for a day, my Moto X randomly rebooted in my pocket half a dozen times. This was especially annoying because I use Android's encrypted disk feature so I'd have to type in a long passphrase every time the phone reboots. It's done it many times before and after that, but it usually seems to happen when I'm on the move so maybe it's related to GPS or something.

The one good piece of Motorola software that I did end up liking was the Active Display. By using the ambient light sensor, the phone senses when you take it out of your pocket and turns on only a small number of pixels on the screen (by taking advantage of the AMOLED display) to show you the time and notification status without you having to hit the power button. Rather than just a notification LED that flashes, the screen will pulse on and off showing you the actual details of the notification. While this software was almost enough to keep me using the Moto X, there's a third party version which works almost as well and works on any phone.

The random reboots, old Android (4.2), and Motorola's crappy software made me want to return this phone, but of course I had unlocked the bootloader so it was not possible. I never wanted a Motorola phone before the Moto X, but I surely won't be buying any more of their hardware unless it comes with completely stock Android from Google and has a bootloader unlocking policy like the other Nexus phones. It's also worth noting that their Developer Edition with 32Gb costs $650 while the Nexus 5 with 32Gb is only $400.

Update: A few weeks after I posted this and sold my Moto X, Motorola announced they are no longer voiding warranties for bootloader unlocking, and are providing factory restore images.

LG/Google Nexus 4

As I was getting ready to dump the Moto X, the Nexus 5 was generating all kinds of buzz. I wasn't paying attention to any of it because I pictured a 5" screen just being way too big, so I decided to get a used Nexus 4 from eBay.

As soon as it arrived, I could tell I was not going to like it. The phone felt very big and cheap, despite its rear glass. The vibration motor was very lethargic which I seem to equate with feeling cheap and old. The power button on the side was difficult to press. The screen looked extremely washed out, especially compared to the bright one on the Moto X. The Android software was of course stock, and running 4.3 which my Galaxy Nexus was also on.

While reading some news about the Nexus 5, I noticed the specs and saw that it was actually thinner and lighter than, and the same weight as, the Nexus 4, despite having a larger screen and a bigger battery. The Nexus 5 had just launched and Google's ordering page was showing a 2-3 week delay, so I figured I'd order it anyway and live with the Nexus 4 for a while.

LG/Google Nexus 5

But the Nexus 5 shipped 2 days after ordering it, so I didn't have to live with the Nexus 4 for long.

The Nexus 5 feels much more refined than the 4, with an all-rubber back and sides and a thinner profile. The power button is easier to press and the volume rocker feels solid. The rubber back is sort of slick like my Kindle, so it's rubber enough to not slide around on a table but slick enough to get in and out of a pocket easily.

The screen is bright and much higher resolution at 1920x1080 than the Nexus 4's 1280x768. The colors are a tad washed out compared to the Moto X, but not as bad as the Nexus 4. I haven't taken many pictures with it and none in low-light yet but hopefully it will be as good as the Moto X.

Android 4.4 feels fast and shiny with the transparent status bar and thinner Roboto font. The new creepy always-listening "Ok Google" voice search thing on the home screen can be disabled. Overall, it continues Google's path toward making more components closed source, like replacing the stock Browser app with Chrome and integrating SMS into the Hangouts app. Although I'm an advocate for open source software, I don't really care about Android. It's never been properly open sourced anyway, but I think this is what Google needs to do to sidestep slow-moving carriers and phone manufacturers to get quicker updates onto older devices. As a developer, it means I can more quickly take advantage of new features and not have to carry around tons of compatibility baggage. As long as Android always has hooks in it to allow Google-ified apps to be replaced, those of us that don't use Google services will be fine. I already use Firefox Mobile as my web browser, TextSecure as my SMS app, Nova Launcher as my home screen, and K-9 Mail as my e-mail client.

Comments? Contact me via Twitter or e-mail.