Buying a Good Phone

Buying a good phone is really frustrating these days. It seems that most manufacturers just go for the shotgun approach, hoping something will stick. And unsurprisingly, really nothing works. It’s just absurd.

“They put a 4.3” screen? Put in a 4.5” screen.”
“Oh, someone did that two minutes ago, okay make it 4.7.”
“Oh they did that? Forget it, 5.0”! Bigger is always better.”

These phones are being made by the marketing department; to sell, not to use. Pick any feature. Size?

“Thinner is always better!”
“But boss, then there will be a bump twice as large on one side.”
“Doesn’t matter, we can advertise it as thinnest ever anyways.”
“But sir, the battery will be too small.”
“It’s okay, they can recharge it twice a day.”

I could go on with how most feature sets of current “top tier” phones make the phones impractical, or in a lot of cases, utterly useless for consistent, enjoyable, long term use. There should be minimum usability criteria that every phone should meet before someone should even consider purchasing it. By someone, I don’t mean these are things that my next phone must have. These are the minimum requirements that everyone’s next phone must meet. They are:

  • The phone must be capable of comfortable one-handed operation.
  • Flagship phones cannot use last generation hardware.
  • The phone must be as symmetric as possible.
  • The phone must be shipped with the latest operating system version.
  • Core software tools must be flawless.

Those are the minimum criteria that every phone should meet. The order doesn’t matter. All of them must be met. I have clearly left out a lot of important considerations here: application and entertainment ecosystem, customizability , “value-added” software, local and cloud syncing, etc. The phone landscape is so bad that I think there needs to a minimum threshold before anyone starts considering all the higher level features. Thus the five minimum requirements. The reasoning behind each requirement:

The phone must be capable of comfortable one-handed operation.

The phone is not a tablet; you shouldn’t need a bag to store it. Yes, I know, a lot of women put their phones in their purses. It’s because the phones are too bloody big. The tight jeans don’t help either I suppose. I guess hipsters are in trouble as well. But these new phones are going to outgrow everyone but the biggest men’s pockets very soon. But all this is circling around the point, not quite making the point.

The phone is the quintessential mobile device. It’s with a person everywhere they go. It must be pocketable. It must be usable for hours on end comfortably. A phone must be capable of comfortable one-handed operation. Something meant to be used “on the go” can’t be used like that if both hands are needed to operate it. These new phones from manufacturers, the ones with 4.7” screens, 5.0” screens, are completely, utterly, dysfunctional. They can only be comfortably used by a minority of the population.

Let’s do a quick back of the envelope calculation here. My hand size is average according to Wikipedia. If I try to reach for the top of my 4.3” phone, my grip becomes loose and uncomfortable—I would easily drop the phone if someone gives me a gentle but unexpected push. This is not subjective; anyone with my hand size (or smaller) will have trouble reaching the opposite side. This means that, assuming a normal distribution, half the male population can’t use the phone easily. I cannot find a hand size distribution for women, but I found height distribution data, and if I assume height is somewhat proportional to hand size, 95% of women in the US cannot comfortably use a 4.3” or larger cell phone1. That’s basically three-fourths of the market being neglected for a pointless numbers game. This means a usable mass-market phone must not be greater than 4.3”. Ideally two sizes, 4.3” and 4.0” for large and small hands, respectively, will probably cover the entire market2. There’s an idea: actually useful differentiation!

Flagship phones cannot use last generation hardware.

I’m a geek; I love looking at all the specifications and benchmarks when phone reviews come out. But practically, any decent phone will perform adequately for most folks. A difference of five to ten percent in benchmarks isn’t something to worry about. What is unacceptable is developing flagship phones with last generation specs –this means if the market is flooded with a dual core, 8 megapixel, high-resolution displays, the manufacturer should make sure not to use outdated3 components. Typically a consumer is buying a phone for two or so years. They shouldn’t spend $200 to buy an already outdated phone.

The phone must be as symmetric as possible.

I must admit, this is a strange “minimum criteria”. But I think it is still important for a good user experience. I don’t expect phones to be completely symmetric. I do expect them to be something people enjoy using. A symmetric (or as close to possible) design goes a long way in doing just that. Phones today usually half ass the design to get some useless differentiation for marketing—usually it’s for the dubious “thinnest phone” distinction. The most common annoyance is the unseemly “hump” on the top or bottom. A few phones taper from top to bottom as well. These design flaws usually lead to several usage problems.

Firstly, once you get over the marketing speak, you realize the phone is really as thin as its thickest point. If the phone has a “hump”, it just makes the phone uncomfortable to hold with the hand wrapped around the “hump”, not just because there is a discontinuity, but also the weight distribution gets skewed. If the phone tapers, it becomes awkward to grip the phone in landscape orientation, usually while watching videos, playing games, or even typing.

All the problems can be minimized by trying to keep the design symmetrical. I might compromise on the hump. A small hump is tolerable; I’m feeling generous; let’s say anything less than twenty percent thicker is tolerable. As for tapering? Taper symmetrically around all the edges. It looks fine, tricks the eyes, and doesn’t cause problems in any orientation.

The phone must be shipped with the latest operating system version available.

This one is a no-brainer. Ship the latest version of the operating system. One should never buy a phone on promises of upgrades “coming soon”: that can be anywhere from months to never. As this is a list of minimum criteria, I’m not even demanding immediate updates once newer versions of an OS are released. Just ship the latest version at the time of release. This guarantees that the consumer is using the best feature set possible, and given the pace of improvement these days, that can be a substantial improvement from the previous version. It’s really not hard. If manufacturers change their goals to keeping customers happy instead of selling phones, they might be pleasantly surprised to sell the same customers a new phone two years later4.

Core software tools must be flawless.

This also seems to be a simple concept. The basic functions of a modern phone—for example, unlocking, dialing, texting, contact syncing, emailing—should function flawlessly. This means that I should never find myself cursing at the phone because these basic features require anything more than a fraction of a thought. Scratch that. These things shouldn’t require thought. I should be able to do these things as easily as I breathe.

So far I’ve intentionally avoided examples. But in this case, examples are necessary. I’ve used the Google Nexus One, circa 2009. It was flawless in all the above aspects. I logged into my Google account, and for the next eighteen months, I didn’t have to think of any of the above mentioned functions. It was glorious. Then I had the misfortune of using a couple of devices—one from Motorola, and one from HTC –that failed to do at least one of the above. Both devices have their modifications—a topic for another day5—that actually break the core functions of the phone.

In both cases, the easiest example is the contacts management system. In Motorola’s case, they use their proprietary, and far more importantly, needless, redundant syncing system just to force the user to use their tools. When the phone needs to be reset—it happens—you have to go through a long unintuitive process through Motorola’s portal to restore the contacts. This is ridiculous for two reasons: it’s needlessly circuitous, and Google had a flawless mechanism built into Android on day one.

HTC, on the other hand, uses their own contact manager (and syncing)6. Its fatal flaw is that it automatically combines different contacts—say a contact’s Facebook and Skype ID. It’s a good feature, but it is completely useless because the matching algorithm repeatedly fails. Which would have been okay if it just failed. But it actually combines several unrelated contacts into one contact. When you need to look up a number on the fly, this is aggravating. Looking up someone’s information for your own bloody contacts list should be as easy as breathing. It’s not. This cannot happen. As consumers, we must demand flawless operation from basic functions. It’s as simple as that.


There you go. Those those are the absolute minimum requirements a phone should meet before a consumer even considers buying it. I leave it as an exercise to figure out the only flagship phone in the market that meets all the above criteria.



[1] The data is from the US population, provided by the CDC (PDF). The 95th percentile of female population is the height that matches my height, which is about median for the US male population. I couldn’t find any reliable source showing strong correlation between hand size and height, but it is a rough calculation to begin with. back up ↵

[2] Of course, the 50% of men with bigger hand length might prefer a larger phone, but I’m just laying out a minimum sensible path. Folks in Asia will probably have an even smaller sweet spot. If manufacturers really want a large screen with a comfortable body, they can minimize the bezel around the screen. That will probably shave off 5-8mm off most phones. back up ↵

[3] This rule really only applies to flagship phones. For the sake of this post, a flagship phone is any phone that costs greater than $200. So, a $100 phone or budget phone using old components is perfectly okay. Oh, and let’s say outdated means a year old cpu, gpu, camera sensor, etc, etc. back up ↵

[4] In the US, it’s a two-years contract. back up ↵

[5] I really wanted to focus on what I think are the minimum expectations from a phone. I won’t go into custom skins, hardware locks, software bloat in this post. back up ↵

[6] The other problem arises from carrier meddling with syncing (and in general), but that’s beyond the scope of this essay. back up ↵

One comment

  1. JVS says:

    I was just talking about the exact topic with someone recently, and over the last few months, with new phones coming out everyday, I doubt even the manufacturers know what the consumers want (love your intro!). This is where I like the iphone (not saying that is the only great phone, just pointing out that they do have it right from a customer’s viewpoint), where the phone is not so much about the technical specs, as it is on the end-user experience. It should be a unified experience, comfortable and intuitive.

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