Quick Notes on the OnePlus One

I’ve been a happy owner and user of a Nexus 4 for about two years (and the Nexus S before that), but in the last few months, my phone was starting to show its age. I was barely getting a full day’s usage out of the battery and after the Lollipop updates, things seemed generally more sluggish in general. It was time for an update, and following my usual habit of a skipping at least a generation when it comes to tech, I was really hoping to get a Nexus 6. Unfortunately, the $650+ price point placed it more than a little out of my reach. I’ve never owned a non-Nexus smartphone, but it seemed like it was finally time to move on to something else.

There’s been a lot of hype and news about the OnePlus One that I won’t bother recapping here. In short, the OnePlus One is a reasonably priced, state-of-the-art Android smartphone that comes unlocked and runs a version of the CyanogenMod ROM. It’s not stock Android like the Nexus line, but there’s no bloatware either and it works just fine with the full suite of Google Apps and (as far as I can tell) most popular Android apps in general. After being invite only for several months, you can now buy one from the OnePlus website, but only on Tuesdays. I’ve had mine for about two weeks now and thoroughly enjoy it. Yesterday a friend of mine asked me about my experiences about the device. I thought I’d collect all the points I made in that conversation and share them here.

For starters, I really like the device. It’s much snappier as compared to my Nexus 4, the large screen is gorgeous and the design in general is well executed. I got the 64GB “Black Sandstone” version. As the name suggests, the back of the phone has a black, sandstone-like texture that makes the device quite pleasant to hold. Time will tell if the texture holds up with daily wear and tear. The battery life is really good—I can easily get almost two days of moderate use on a full charge, and well over a day even with heavy usage. It’s really nice to know that I have a good few hours of usage left even if I forget to plug it in overnight.

I was a little concerned about the large 5.5″ screen, which is pretty massive compared to smartphone screens I’m used to. However, after a few weeks, I’ve gotten used to it and it feels really comfortable to use on a daily basis. By and large, I can use it with one hand (even for input using the swipe keyboard), but it is definitely easier to use with two hands. In fact, the device is light and slim enough that compared to my Nexus 4, it actually feels lighter and less of a burden to carry around. I do a lot of reading on my iPad Air (RSS, websites and Instapaper) but I’ve barely used it over the last two weeks. I’ve been testing out the One as a tablet replacement, at least for format-independent reading, and it’s been working out quite well so far.

I only have two main gripes about the One. First the CyanogenMod ROM that it’s using is still based on KitKat and I got used to Lollipop on the Nexus 4. But in all fairness, there’s nothing I seriously miss or can’t live without. And there’s a Lollipop-based ROM in the works. Second, the swipe keyboard seems noticeably less accurate than what I’ve gotten used to. However, that might just be because I still have the muscle memory of using the swipe keyboard on a smaller phone.

In summary, I think the OnePlus One is currently the best option for an unlocked, reasonably priced smartphone, especially given how expensive the Nexus 6 is.

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A week with the Nexus 4

I bought my first smartphone about a year and a half ago. It was the straight-from-Google version of the Samsung Nexus S, meaning that it came without any carrier-installed crapware and no contract. However, it was already over a year old and a generation behind the times when I got it. That meant that it was already slower than the current state of art and came with the older Android 2.2 (which I upgraded a few months later to Ice Cream Sandwich). Overall it was a good phone, but has been gradually showing it’s age. It was having trouble using newer apps and the upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich had been awkward enough that I didn’t even try to update it to Jelly Bean. I had been using T-mobile as my carrier and though I had one of their contract-free prepaid Monthly4G plans, I had carelessly bought the version of the phone with the wrong radio chipset, meaning I only got EDGE service most of the time.

The thought to upgrade to a new phone had been at the back of my mind for a few months. But the announcement of the Galaxy S4 as Google’s next flagship device made me take a look at the available options. While the S4 looks great, I wasn’t about to shell out $650 for a new phone. However, it turned out that the current flagship phone — the Nexus 4 — is available for $350 and it’s only a few months old. It was available unlocked and a quick search of the Intertubes suggested that it worked well on T-mobile’s network.

Google Nexus 4
The Google Nexus 4

The Nexus 4 is a good, solid device and is definitely a big step up from the Nexus S. The 1280 x 768,  4.7-inch display looks great, it’s slimmer and the 8MP camera is a much better than what the Nexus S. It also comes with Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) and is fast enough to run heavy duty modern apps without skipping a beat. It doesn’t have LTE, but on T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network the speeds I do get are more than sufficient for my needs. The battery life is better than what I’m used to — I can generally end a busy day with about 15-20% to spare. Admittedly, I don’t stream a lot of video or upload lots of photos, so your mileage will probably vary.

On my Nexus S I rarely installed apps and never really explored the Android ecosystem (or rather, the Google Play store). But with a newer phone with an up-to-date version of Android, it was time to go exploring. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Android apps seem to be developing a UI style that is quite different from the iOS counterparts (though not quite as different as Windows Phone). Apps from both large companies (such as Twitter) and smaller operations (like Astrid) sport a sharp, clean and mostly gradient-free design that I personally feel pretty refreshing. I also really like the Google+ app, though I can’t say I use it all that much and I’m looking forward to the new Gmail app. If you need more evidence that Android apps can be just as good looking as their counterparts on other platforms, check out Android Niceties. Sharing between applications and services is also so much nicer and painless than on iOS, though there are some bad apples (I’m looking at you, Feedly).

There are a few quibbles I have about the Nexus 4, but they’re not major and definitely not show-stoppers. For starters, the back of the phone is glass, not plastic or metal. I don’t have a history of breaking screens, but I will sometimes put down my phone pretty roughly on a table and I’m afraid I’ll end up cracking the back soon. Secondly, the headphone jack is on top of the phone. This is probably a good idea if you’re charging and listening to music at the same time, but makes it’s a bit awkward for listening on earphones with the phone in your pocket. With the Nexus S (which had the jack at the bottom) it was quite natural to put the phone in your pocket bottom-up and then turn your hand as you pulled it out to see the screen upright. The corresponding motion with the jack on the bottom seems rather more convoluted, but it might just be muscle memory that will get reprogrammed with time. Finally, (and this isn’t unique to the Nexus 4) I’m yet to find a Android to-do or task management app that is flexible enough as OmniFocus on OS X and Android.

All that being said, I am very happy with the Nexus 4. I really liked the Nexus S when I first got it and I’ve always liked Android. The Nexus 4 is a significant upgrade and I pretty impressed by the current state of the Android ecosystem. Barring unforeseen problems (or a very cheap upgrade option) I fully expect to hold on to this as my primary mobile device for the next few years. I don’t have any experiences with other Android devices (or other smartphones for that matter) so I can’t really compare, but I’m willing to take a chance and say you can’t get much better than a clean stock Android (especially if you use Google services as much as I do). As a final happy ending, I managed to hand off my Nexus S to a friend who decided to move up from a dumb phone. That makes one less unused device for me to keep around.

Upgrading to Ice Cream Sandwich

I’m about six months behind the rest of the world when it comes to phone software, but I finally upgraded my Nexus S  to Ice Cream Sandwich. Unfortunately the process was not as smooth as I would have liked: even though I have an unlocked stock phone from Google I still couldn’t get the OTA upgrade and had to find and manually download it. However, the upgrade basically destroyed my phone. Everything was slow and laggy, apps crashed all the time and battery life was down to a few hours. After a few days of trying to troubleshoot I gave up and did a “factory reset”. The reset removed all apps and reset to just the base OS (the upgraded ICS version in this case). Luckily this seemed to fix everything. Now that I’ve re-installed the apps that I did regularly use my phone is better than ever.

I really the look and feel of ICS. It’s close enough to Gingerbread that I don’t feel lost but it’s different enough to feel like I’m using something new. I like the blue and black theme much better than the previous orange (though I wish there was a selection of color themes). The more 2D feel of the interface (at least for the native Android apps) is really nice too. It’s different enough from iOS but not as different as Metro (or whatever it’s supposed to be called now). Some apps like the music player, the  contacts app and Gmail have had significant redesigns and are a quite a bit nicer to use. I don’t know what changes they have made to the keyboard but it seems much more natural to type on and more accurate. However the caps lock feature seems to be gone which is a bit annoying at times. Most third party apps seem to be unchanged by the design changes. The whole phone seems much snappier and faster. Battery life during actual use seems about the same, though it does seem longer on standby ( I haven’t made any scientific measurements).

I’ve been pretty happy with the Android platform and this phone in particular since I got it. It was not quite as polished as iOS but it wasn’t significantly deficient either. With the ICS update I feel like Android has made small but steady improvements to the whole experience. Since I mostly use the stock Android apps and popular ones like Facebook and Twitter I haven’t explored the ecosystem much. That being said, I have no complaints about the apps and services I do use. I use my phone basically as a quick lookup and occasional texting and calling device — I much prefer a proper computer when it comes to doing work. For those purposes the phone is great. With the improved keyboard I’ve been using it for quick emails and IM as well. If I was in the habit of keeping a shorter blog I think I could use the phone to write for that as well.

I don’t plan on switching phones any time soon and I’m glad to say that it looks like I won’t be forced to. The Nexus S is a solid device (not perfect, but solid). I wish it had a better camera and I’d be happy to pay for an OmniFocus app (even if it was just read only) but apart from that I’m happy with it. The ICS update made it better than it was and there doesn’t seem to have been any unnecessary superfluous changes. I hope the Jelly Bean update (when it comes) will keep going in the right direction.

Sunday Selection 2012-09-02

Hello all. I’ve been on extended vacation for the last month or so. I’ve spent a few weeks on actual vacation and the rest in “vacation mode”. I’m glad to report I made it back to civilization alive and I’m looking forward to the fall. It’s getting cooler outside, I moved into a new office, I upgraded my phone and I’m looking forward to a semester full of low-level systems programming, working on a programming language (or two) and hopefully a good number of fun, random hacks.

I’ve done a good amount of reading while I’ve been gone so I have a long list of things to recommend which I’ll be working through over the next few weeks.

Around the Web

I want to become stronger

There is something about being human that drives us to improve ourselves and become better. The rise of the self-help industry in recent years has brought this aspect of our nature into the mainstream media but I’m unsure of how much positive impact it has had. Of course, self improvement is not new and definitely not uniquely Western. It’s worth looking afield for a philosophical understanding of what is means to want to be better.

Not for the sake of selfishness alone

While philosophical discussions make for interesting conversation and are worth pondering on a personal level, if we really want answers to the questions let’s call on science and technology to give us a hand. This article gives a good overview of scientific research into human altruism and its biological roots.

Depression, digging out and pursuing happiness

As much as we’d like to think that being happy is our default state, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it feels so much easier to just crawl under the blankets, stay there and let the world pass you by. For times like that it worth’s remembering: you are not alone and there are things you can do to make things just a little bit better.

From the Bookshelf

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World has Ever Seen

Humans are probably the only animals that take strenuous, energy-consuming physical activity and turn it into something recreational. If you’re a runner or athlete or have been thinking of taking up some kind of physical activity this is definitely a book worth reading. It combines personal anecdotes, inspiring stories, short biographies and hard science into a very readable explanation of why humans are natural born runners and how far running can take us (literally and metaphorically).

Software

Android Ice Cream Sandwich

Ok so I’m about six months behind the upgrade curve but I just upgraded my Nexus S to ICS and I really like it. The interface looks sharp and refreshing, it’s fairly different from iOS and the apps seem to faster and snappier. If you’re still running Gingerbread I would definitely recommend upgrading (though the path may not be easy). A longer post on the matter will be coming shortly to a screen near you.

Where is the computation?

I’m pretty happy with my Nexus S so far. It’s a decent phone with some solid apps and services. More importantly, it’s a well-equipped little pocket computer. However the more I use smartphones (and similar devices like the iPod Touch) the more I feel a nagging sense that I’m not really these devices well, at least not to their full potential.

While the devices in our pockets might be increasingly powerful general purpose computers I feel like we use them more for communication than for computation. That’s not to say that communication does not require computation (it does, lots of it), but we’re not using our devices with the goal of solving problems via computation.

This is perhaps a very programmer-centric viewpoint of mobile technology, but one that is important to consider. Even someone like me, who writes code on a regular basis to solve a variety of both personal and research problems, does very little computation on mobile devices. In fact, the most I’ve been using my Nexus for is email, RSS reading, Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare. While all those services definitely have good uses, they are all cases where most of the computation happens far away on massive third-party datacenters. The devices themselves act as terminals (or portals if you prefer a more modern-sounding term) onto the worlds these services offer.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that I want to write programs on these devices. Though that would certainly be neat, I can’t see myself giving up a more traditional computing environment for the purposes of programming anytime soon. However, I do want my device to do more than help me keep in touch with my friends (again, that’s a worthy goal but just the beginning). So the question is, what kind of computation do we want our mobile devices to do?

Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure. One way to go is to have our phones become capable personal assistants. For example, I would like to be able to launch an app when I walk into a meeting (or better yet, have it launch itself based on my calendar and geolocation). The app would listen in on the conversation, apply natural language processing and generate a list of todos, reminders and calendar items automatically based on what was said in the meeting. Of course there are various issues (privacy, technology, politics, corporations playing nicely with each other) but I think it’s a logical step forward.

As payment systems in phones become more popular, I’d like my phone to become my banker too (and I’m not just talking about budgeting and paying bills on time). For example if I walk into a coffee shop my phone should check if I’m on budget as far as coffee shops go and check coffee shops around the area to suggest a cheaper (or better, for some definition of better) alternative. And it doesn’t just have to be limited to coffee shops.

Mobile technology is sufficiently new that most of us don’t have a very clear idea of what to do with it (or a vision of what it should do). Most so-called “future vision” videos focus more on interfaces than actual capabilities. However this technology is evolving fast enough that I think we’re going to see the situation improving quickly. With geolocation-based services, NFC and voice commands becoming more ubiquitous and useful the stage is becoming set for us to make more impactful uses of the processors in our pockets. As a programmer I would love to be able to hook up my phone to any cloud services or private servers I’m using and be able to interact with them. The mobile future promises to be interesting and I’m definitely looking forward to it.