Ads, Smaller Batteries, Jello Displays — How 2017 OEMs Keep Delivering What You Never Asked For
Last year it seemed that all the bad mojo in our industry was focused on one brand: Samsung. The Galaxy Note7 will likely go down as one of the worst blunders in our industry despite its revival as the Fan Edition nearly one year later.
While a lot could be written about how Samsung handled the affair, they walked away rather unscathed judging by the success of this years Galaxy S8. This can likely be attributed to having one of the largest marketing budgets in the industry, or even just because the Samsung namesake is second only to Apple. Smaller manufacturers do not have the luxury of the benefits that helped Samsung through their difficult period. While 2017 has not had a single monumental issue like the Note7, it is littered with painful reminders that, in the age of mass social media that feeds on failure, small mistakes are oftentimes magnified to large proportions by the internet.
The Case of the Curious Screen & Rebooty Calls
OnePlus seems to have an on again, off again relationship with success. While the OnePlus One and OnePlus 3 (or 3T) were both highly successful devices, the OnePlus 2 and now OnePlus 5 seem to be the polar opposite. Fortunately for the company, though the OnePlus 2 was a failure on many levels (and continues to be), the OnePlus 5 is not nearly as bad. However, due to OnePlus as a brand maturing and then slowly edging into the bottom of the high-end and high-priced market, their latest device receives and deserves a greater deal of scrutiny than prior phones. Unfortunately for OnePlus it seems to be a deluge of small problems that have spiraled out of control in the eyes and keyboards of consumers and internet commentators. Starting with our breaking article at the time of launch that showed the OnePlus 5 altering its device behavior so-as to perform better in synthetic benchmarks, the focus quickly shifted to what seemed to be an iPhone 4-like “you are holding it wrong” scenario that caused 5ghz WiFi to suddenly drop out when the top right of the phone was covered. Our own tester model has this issue as well and XDA Editor in Chief Mario Serrafero has described flaky WiFi connection as one “of the most annoying issues” in his OnePlus 5 experience.
OnePlus hardly got a breather before it was hit with the next issue of the oddly-rotated display causing a distortion or jelly effect that, while not everyone can see it or is affected by it, is a very real, very annoying issue to many. Finally, just this week news that OnePlus 5 devices could not call emergency services in the United States broke and quickly hit the Front Page of Reddit, the 9th most visited site on the Internet. While it was found that this issue seemed to affect other devices as well, it was still the OnePlus brand that took the largest hit, perhaps amplified through a propensity to pile on the company due to recent, equally bizarre controversies.
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During all of this though, and making things worse, OnePlus support has been as tone deaf as ever, even pushing some users to make troll-bots on Twitter that tweet everything OnePlus sends out, but upside down…(poking fun at the OnePlus 5’s display and audio recording during video). Finally, even after all indications pointed to the fact that the changes to the display orientation and usage of developer flags to correct it were related to the issue, OnePlus support blamed the screen issue on a “visual staying phenomenon”; they deleted this inconclusive tweet, as they should.
Ads for One, Ads for All
Everyone hates advertisements. We hate them on our televisions, so we invented the DVR. We hate them on our websites, so we created the ad-blocker. We hate them on our phone, so we uninstall egregious applications, root our Androids, jailbreak our iPhones… and even use Samsung browsers. What happens, though, when advertisements are pushed through official channels? HTC found out the hard way that selling out to third parties sometimes can have a very undesirable side effect when their pre-installed
crapware software keyboard from TouchPal started displaying advertisements above the typing space. It’s not like there isn’t a Google keyboard, AOSP keyboard, or Sense keyboard to preinstall, right? While we will put up with advertisements in many applications, one’s keyboard is a sacred area, and this was obviously a little too much for a lot of users who took to Reddit and other forms of social media to express their displeasure. Apparently assaulting their own Sense Home with ads wasn’t enough, so they had to go for the keyboard.
HTC went from the brand that few remembered was still making phones, to a laughing stock of bad programming excuses being featured on popular subreddits like /r/programmerhumor. While the argument can be made, justifiably, that this was not HTC’s direct fault and while there was likely no “malicious” intent, it still shows the risks you take selling out to a third party for a critical function. It is not just HTC that does this either. Samsung’s Device Management application used to be supported by Clean Master, ASUS has a notorious history of bloatware issues, and Lenovo (the parent of Motorola) has a shaky history of malware on their PCs. Unfortunately for HTC it was a culmination of issues that nearly completely overshadowed their Alexa rollout for the US U11 devices and was a really poor stain on a company that is already struggling to remain relevant.
Suggested Reading: Asus, my device “may have junk” — your junk.
The Bixby Remapping Cat-and-Mouse Game
For a long time now we have been waiting for Samsung to be more punctual when it comes to keeping their devices updated. Even as recent as the Galaxy S7, Samsung delayed updates for months failing to keep all devices of the same model on the same security patch, and in some cases even the same version of Android. Samsung responded to this criticism by allegedly promising to push out updates on a more regular basis, and they have been more or less following through. Unfortunately though, there are side effects of this more-rapid pace for updates. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Bixby is currently inhabiting the last place when it comes to smartphone assistants that are actually useful. While it does have its promising aspects which I covered in an earlier article, it is largely a redundant application that does not work all that well at this moment in time. In Samsung’s infinite wisdom though, they thought it would be such a useful application that they even dedicated a hardware key for it, something even more developed assistants like Siri or the Google Assistant do not have.
This normally wouldn’t be an issue since thanks to Android’s openness, we could easily craft a solution to make that key do what we wanted, and not what Samsung wanted. And this worked great for about a day as Samsung quickly swooped in to block the ability to remap its dedicated hardware key. It didn’t stop there, because as time went on other methods were found and thanks to Samsung pushing out updates at a quicker pace, these were also blocked. Samsung has every right to dedicate its key to its service, but continually going after methods that a very small group of individuals use to modify the device is decidedly anti-consumer. One could argue that this is in the same thread as allowing unlockable bootloaders, but it really isn’t. You cannot brick a phone by remapping Bixby, nor expect a replacement. Regular users of Samsung devices may be familiar with package disablers and while some argue they negatively impact a device, which they don’t if you are smart about it, they are very useful to power users. I cannot root my US Galaxy S8, but I can turn off nearly every piece of useless bloatware Samsung thinks I should be using, how long until Samsung blocks these tools from working as well?
It is great to see Samsung taking software updates seriously, and for everyone who is fine using their device the way Samsung provided it is a great phone and now it is somewhat regularly secured. But Samsung forcing software on its users that is buggy, inferior to other options, and rather useless and then having the audacity to forcibly dedicate an entire piece of the hardware to this function is a sign that Samsung may be slipping into its old ways and pushing power users away yet again. Their commitment to Bixby thus predates on an otherwise useful hardware feature that many users would enjoy, that a few consumers seek to reclaim, and that could be a venue for choice and customization even for a mainstream consumer.
The Small Things Add Up
Right now, the market is tougher than ever. Apple looks to be making some serious moves with the iPhone. Glass backs, wireless charging, and OLED edge to edge displays look to be just a few of the things coming to at least some models of Apple’s flagship this year. Despite all of this, Android OEMs are still making stupid and small mistakes that cause them to be poorly received, swiftly putting down the hype surrounding their devices and prompting the conversation sets its sights on the next product instead. The LG G6 looked to be a promising phone before it was announced this year, but it was bogged down by confusing regional exclusives and then seemingly replaced by head-scratching release of the LG G6+. It feels as if this new model, which really shouldn’t be a new model, only serves as a gigantic middle-finger to early adopters with the inclusion of most regional exclusives, but yet still does not afford its users the latest and greatest SOC from Qualcomm… in mid-2017… for $700.
Taking the lead in companies that totally missed the point of success is Motorola. The largely-successful mid-ranger, the Moto Z Play, was a standout device that above all else was renowned for its battery life. This year Motorola keenly saw why the Z Play was a success, and then proceeded to do the opposite. While the Z Play 2 itself is an improvement offering more RAM, a better camera, and a sleeker build – as one would expect. In the first of a series of head scratching moves, they then proceeded to stick a processor in it that is marginally better than the outgoing model (instead of near flagship-level Snapdragon 660) and increase the price. The icing on the cake as it were is the smaller battery that brings it from other worldly to above average, as if having too much battery was a problem with the first model. Motorola totally missed the point of why the Z Play was successful. A great price, plus solid performance and camera, and great battery are part of the smartphone conjoined triangles of success; and it just went right over their head! If you thought this might have been a one off for Motorola – it isn’t. The slimmer Moto Z2 Force looks to be making similar cuts with an over 20% decrease in battery capacity bringing it to what I feel is barely tolerable in a flagship device even with the very efficient Snapdragon 835 powering it, and the single solid 21MP shooter has been replaced with dual 12MP units.
HTC knows the value of good publicity, which is why we are talking about them twice… well, not really. Unfortunately, HTC’s advertising division seems to love throwing money at awfully-executed ideas like the Robert Downey Jr. campaign, or the “what does HTC stand for” commercials (and, of course, this gem). So instead of directly marketing, HTC decided that they would use their camp of willing Elevate evangelists to do their bidding for them by incentivizing them to combat negative press against the U11. Now full disclosure, I was a part of HTC Elevate about 4 years ago during the M7 and M8 era, and while encouraging its members to help market their products is certainly not new, direct engagement of negativity in comment sections is different. The funny thing is that the HTC U11 is a really great device and it did not need this sort of campaign. Even still, HTC tarnished its reputation in our communities and it is difficult to even say something complimentary about the U11 without being accused of being on their payroll, or an Elevate junkie.
These things that I’ve written about today are largely avoidable and are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how Android OEMs are really off the ball in a time when they need every advantage. Nearly every OEM outside of Samsung operate at razor thin profit margins and making mistakes like the ones OnePlus has, or shrinking batteries of proven products like Motorola seems to like doing are not only avoidable, but also have the ability to tank a device and potentially an entire company or division, perhaps not financially but certainly in the eyes of its once-loyal customers. The year is only half over and is already shaping up to be the story of how a dozen small mistakes serve to tarnish the whole, bogging down the excitement after each and every release and leaving engaged Android users with a sour aftertaste with every flagship.
Have any smartphone companies let you down in 2017? Let us know in the comments!