Hello all! I know… I know… you probably got tired of waiting on me to update. Sorry, I have been busy with finishing a very challenging teaching term at Liberty, going through holidays and countless other things. I have not done a whole lot of tinkering around or techy things worthy of mention on my blog outside of installing three monitors to connect to my iMac in the DJ6i studio. However, something has happened that is useful. My wife was tired of dealing with her aging iPhone 4s and it made no sense to upgrade her phone and not upgrade mine. Her phone was running out of space and the camera was starting to lag compared to other modern tools. My phone was working relatively well but the camera never worked inside because of some bug in the Zoe software that caused all indoor pictures to have a purple/red hue. Considering that photos of my kids and photos as a whole are a vital part of of our lives, I wanted to replace my phone too.
In the end, she ended up going for a Galaxy S6. I thought I was getting an HTC One M9 (the direct successor to my M8). I ended up realizing later (because the case I ordered did not fit) that I had actually purchased the A9 which is even newer than the M9. I still have no Otter Box case for it (it is so new that no such case exists) but I found an acceptable case for the short term. That being said, I felt it would be fun to discuss my findings about this A9 phone. However, since the only thing I have to compare it to is my M8, forgive me if the review seems somewhat biased.
The phone is almost the exact size of my M8, though the screen is bigger (mostly due to the fact that there is only one hardware button now instead of three so the screen is ‘stretched’ father than the old phone. It is about the same weight as my M8 but feels lighter since it is not in the Otter Box case that I am used to. One of the first things I noticed from the use is that the phone only has a single hardware button that is basically a ‘home’ button. No longer can I double tap my home button and get the display of all open windows. I now have a windows soft button on the left, a home soft button in the middle and a back soft button on the right. This lack of double tap home still confuses me even though I have had the phone for two months or more. However, with the inclusion of the soft buttons, it does seem that my apps tend to be much more standardized as far as which button does what and this is a great improvement over the old Android OS. There is still a hard ‘lock’ button on the right side of the phone and hard volume up/down on the right just above my lock button. This took some getting used to since my M8 (and almost every smart device I have had in recent years) had the lock button on the top. I still instinctively push the top and sometimes get confused when it does nothing but that’s getting better. Another ‘button’ interest that I found is the fact that the hard home button also serves as a fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone instead of the standard pattern lock that I am used to (though this is also still available as a backup). It took a few tries to get it to accept my fingerprints but in the end I got it working. This screen is BRIGHT, there is no doubt about it. Even if I set brightness at level 2 of 3 (instead of Auto which I found to be difficult sometimes with Android), it will freaking blind you in the morning when you are bleary eyed and trying to turn off your Sleepbot alarm clock (everyone uses that, right? If you don’t then you should!). I have the option of using a native flashlight app (better than the now questionable flashlight apps that appear to sell unneeded information to third parties) but I rarely have to because that screen will give you all the light you need (provided you use a lighter theme as I tend to). The multiple processors and improved onboard RAM make this a snappy phone in a performance test (see bootup and other stats in the Software section). Speaking of lights… holy cow this camera has a bright flash! I am very glad to see the much improved camera without the annoying purple haze but if you want to take a picture in the dead of night, that flash is likely draw moths to you for a few seconds. Don’t even try to take a dark picture on an unsuspecting photo subject, even if they are asleep, that flash will wake them right up, camera sound or not (not that I tend to take pictures like this other than my children if they are sleeping in a funny position).
About the only real negatives I have found thus far are the power plug type and the speaker. My old phone had two speakers, one on the top and one on the bottom which allowed for a ‘stereo’ sound when listening to videos or using speaker phone, etc. This new phone only has one speaker on the bottom. The main concern I have for this is that it makes audio harder to hear than my old phone. Granted, I am not the person who spends all day playing movies, games and music aloud on my phone; I prefer to use a headphone jack whenever possible and even then, I rarely watch anything more than a YouTube video here and there on my phone. I do play some video games on the phone and the speaker makes it somewhat harder to hear when I am not using headphones; it also seems to be a very small speaker as I have found that if I hold my phone with one finger horizontal along the bottom of the phone and another on the left side, perpendicular to my other finger on my other hand, the speaker is easily garbled or almost muted by my finger, a simple move of my finger slightly further back on the bottom fixes this but it is awfully strange. The power plug type itself, is also slightly different. I understand that almost all new phones are using the advanced microUSB because it makes charge time a lot quicker (from almost empty to full in about 4 hours). Yes, my standard microUSB plugs (which I have in great supply as I acquired them over the 3+ years I owned my old phone) do ‘fit’ and they don’t give me some message about charging slower because of the plug (charge itself is almost identical regardless of plug) but the fit doesn’t feel as ‘clean’ as it used to. The new plug on my phone tends to grip down hard on the charger you plug in (good to avoid spurious disconnects of power when accidentally bumping your phone) but it disconnects just as quickly with the ‘new cable’ that it came with. On my old plugs, this charger connection bites down on them like a rabid pit bull and a simple tug on the cord is no longer sufficient to disconnect. I have actually stripped the head off two of my old chargers by accidentally trying a quick disconnect on the new phone. The only thing that seems to work is to physically grip the sides of my charger by sticking my fingers in the small gap between the charge connector and the top of the charger, and gently pull it loose. This may not seem like a big deal but if you are rushing to get ready in the morning and forget to do this, you may kill a cable or worse yet, have a MicroUSB head plugged in to your phone but stripped from all wires that requires you to engage in cell phone surgery to remove.
From a software perspective, there are a number of updates that I found interesting. One of the first things was the fact that it automatically encrypts the device after you have it established. I am actually very excited about this fact because my old phone did not do this without a considerable amount of effort and when I did so, it seemed to add 10 to 45 seconds on to the boot up process. With this native encryption, I do have to put my pattern in twice after a full power off cycle (once at the encryption stage and again to log in to the phone after boot), but it only adds about 5 seconds on to the boot up time and is considerably more secure to boot. Being an IT Security guy, this is a good thing. The actual boot time from completely powered off to fully operational seems to be no more than about 15 seconds which is pretty fantastic overall. The performance of Android Lollipop is greatly enhanced as well. There are a number of buttons and widgets that live in a different place now but I was able to restore most of the same functionality I had with my old phone and then some. My old friends were still readily available – HTC Sense, HTC weather, Facebook Widget, system icons (brightness, wireless on/off, bluetooth on/off and account sync on/off), and various others. I already shared the hard versus soft buttons and the new button locations so those bear no repeating. I will elaborate on the seemingly more universal button use now, however. Historically, a big complaint about Android devices is that the back and home buttons tended to have no universal standard for functions across the Play Store app library. Sometimes, hitting the back button would take back a screen (in your web browser or in a software application) and other times hitting it would kill the app completely and send you to the home screen. The ‘Home’ button would usually send you back to the home screen but might also return you to the main navigation page of the app you are in and of course, if you accidentally double-tapped it, it would give you a task manager. This has been changed (and improved overall) with the Lollipop. I now have three soft buttons, period, and they are always there in the bottom of my usable space. The back button seems to have finally gotten its act together and will universally send you back a page in any application you are in. If you happen to press it at the main page of an app, 95% of the time, the app will tell you that if you wish to exit, double tap the ‘back’ button. Yay! No more complete and total loss of data if you accidentally hit that button. Home, will always return you to your home page or essentially serve as a ‘minimize all windows’ type button. Of course, the ‘task’ button will always show other tasks you have open and simply allow you to close one but they have also included a nice feature that says “Clear All” which I REALLY like considering that I am OCD about closing all apps when not in use. Rarely do I find that I leave some battery sucking app open that does not wish to be turned off when I go to my Home screen. I hit the Task button and now I can close a single window or all of them.
I really don’t have a lot of bad things to say about the Android environment itself. As with any new change to the familiar way of doing things, I had to re-learn some ways that I do things but this was very minimal. I did not find many applications that didn’t work except my TaskManager Pro application that I bought back when I had my old M8 because I was tired of the aforementioned battery sucking apps. I can load the app and it still shows the list of applications that are running, but using the ‘force close’ option no longer does much but this doesn’t really matter because I can use the “Task” soft button and it will do this. I ultimately ended up uninstalling Task Manager Pro and I haven’t missed it. I did still run into some common errors such as the ‘Link Contacts’ issue wherein I can have a contact that is saved in my phone, I try to link them to a Facebook or LinkedIn only to find that the link refuses to work from time to time. Most of these issues are related to how the individual apps deal with linking rather than how the Android OS deals with it. In fact, Facebook even told me that the linking option on contacts was having issues but was being repaired. Unfortunately, I found that this option was removed by Facebook however, I found Sync.Me which seems to do the trick.
The User Experience with the new phone, though much the same as the experience with my old phone, has certainly improved. As mentioned in the hardware section, this phone has a very snappy response and almost all of my apps are quick to open (though they may take a second longer if they have to use internet to validate something). I can seamlessly switch apps without issue and even having 10 to 15 apps open at once does not seem to hamper performance. The Swype keyboard (which has become a requirement for me anymore) still seems to struggle with interpreting my keystrokes when I go very fast but this is more of a Swype/finger state issue than with the phone itself. Of course, Android itself is pretty much Google OS so if you do not have a Google account to link to your phone, you will be high and dry. The phone does seem to allow me the distinction between a GMail account and a Google+ account but the differences between the two are relatively nonexistent anymore. The phone does still have a bit of an issue if you have three or four Google accounts connected at once but this is usually just limited to Google+ related things and these more or less work themselves out with account switching. My contacts from Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and G+ work really well and the inclusion of the Sync.Me application allows me to sync Facebook as well so my phone contacts are doing great.
The only main downside from a UX perspective I have found seems to be limited to the performance or registering of taps, double-taps and swipes on certain applications. The most prominent example of this is one of my obsessions, Subway Surfer. If you are not familiar with this, look it up, it’s a great 3D platform game available on Android and iOS and lets you run around and jump over subway cars while collecting coins. This game is something that is easily one of my biggest time dumps on my phone as I tend to play it when I am waiting on anything (like an appointment), when I am bored at home and other places. The game does suffer a little jitter on graphics when a new game is first launched after the game has been closed but otherwise performs great. However, I have found that because of the sensitivity of the A9 phone’s touch pad, sometimes I don’t do enough motion for the game to register which causes me to smash into an oncoming streetcar or miss a critical jump. I have found that I have to make my motions more pronounced (aka more distance between start and end points when swiping up/down/side to side) this usually goes away but it is highly frustrating when I am close to beating a top score and then the game suddenly fails to detect a critical motion because I didn’t move far enough. I have notified the game developer, though I do not know if I am the only person experiencing this or not.
When it’s all said and done, I am very happy with this new phone. It has a few minor annoyances but the overall performance and style is awesome! I just wish Otter Box was faster at developing a case. I keep thinking that the screen will shatter any time I drop the phone since the current case I have does not have a front screen protector. Otherwise, this is great!