Fancy Android Phones

Each and every iPhone is the same–maybe you get a slightly larger screen, or you get a more advanced image stabilization module; but if you buy the iPhone 11–you probably can expect every feature in it to be roughly the same on the iPhone 12, or the iPhone 13. There are a couple of oddities (such as haptic touch vs. 3-D touch), and Pro Photo capture is reserved for the premier phones; but the devices are–generally speaking–the same.

That’s not the case over the scope of Android phones. Sure, many phones are the same, varying principally on quality or quantity of various spec-sheet lines: screen resolution and size, RAM, storage, or CPU; but then there are the oddities, often the result of a unique partnership looking at a new convergence angle.

The RED Hydrogen One, the Dior Reverie, the Onkyo DP-CMX1–the Panasonic DMC-CM1. These phones each try to distinguish themselves from other Android phones, trying to dive into a niche with some unique gimmick. Non-standard (for mobile phone) digital audio hardware in the Onkyo; custom video and photo hardware and software in the RED and Panasonic phones. The new Leica phone takes a Sharp phone and adds some customization to the Android experience, and a unique photo processing pipeline. The Sony flagship Xperia, despite lacking any cross-branding, offers some unique non-standard functionality as well. There’s talk of an upcoming Olympus–sorry OM Digital Imaging–phone in the pipeline…

And you–probably–shouldn’t get any of them.

Let’s be clear, I used an Android phone as my principal portable phone for half a decade; and there’s a lot I like about it. I switched from a Nokia N900 to a Nexus 4 running CyanogenMod in 2015, and then complemented it with a Panasonic DMC-CM1 until replacing them with an Apple iPhone X (and later simply an Apple Watch before going back to a Nokia Fold 3710, when that died). I’m not saying you should get an Apple iPhone rather than Android–although that’s not an unrelated discussion point if you want to live in a curated garden–rather, what I’m suggesting is, you should really think long and hard about getting anything other than a mainstream Android phone. That my DMC-CM1 never replaced the Nexus 4 is a case in point.

The problem with the DMC-CM1 was that it never graduated from Android 5.0 (Lollipop, API level 21). It shipped, initially in late 2014 with Android 4.4 (Kitkat), although a couple months later Google released Android 5.0 (Lollipop), so that by the time it was released in North America in June of 2015, it was shipping a major version behind other phones. Presumably, realizing the problem with releasing a $1,400 phone with an outdated operating system in June, Panasonic released an over-the-air firmware update to the operating system on May 27th. The phone would never get an update past Android Lollipop, even though Panasonic would re-release the DMC-CM1 hardware as the DMC-CM10 as a connected-camera (without a dialer app) on February 25th, 2016; when Android 6.0, Marshmallow (API 23) was current.

I’d suggest there are three reasons why people upgrade their phone. The first is because a new phone has new hardware: maybe it’s faster or has more RAM; but it also explains why I bought the Panasonic–or why you might buy that Onkyo phone, because of the better camera or audio hardware respectively. The Panasonic DMC-CM1 really does have a brilliant camera mode, with a hardware switch to quickly activate it, a manual ring for controlling exposure based on the mode, and even a thread for filters or diopters. In goodish light, and ignoring any software-magic found on modern camera-phones, this may still be the best camera on a commercial phone to date. Its 20 megapixel, 1” sensor, is similar to that found in the Sony RX100 III, which still sells for around $600.

While it’s also related to hardware, network support is really a different reason. Maybe you’re moving, maybe you’re switching carriers; maybe your carrier has simply decided to retire support for a frequency band–or is rolling-out new frequencies which mean better coverage for you. This was one of the driving factors for moving off of the Nexus 4 to the DMC-CM1 and later iPhone X: proper support for LTE and then additional frequencies which my carrier was rolling-out. If the point of a mobile phone is principally voice or data access over the mobile network, maximizing compatibility with the networks you use seems like a reasonable optimization–and in the end, one which will likely trump any other decision, and drive you to eventually change your device; with WiFi, Bluetooth, and other technologies–it will often be more practical to connect devices to your phone, rather than target a convergence device–but maybe that’s a different video.

The third reason–after hardware and network compatibility–is software support. For some people, this might be the most important. Beyond simply Apple iOS vs. Google Android, you may need to run applications which only support newer APIs–newer versions of the operating system you are already using. Until recently, phone manufacturers didn’t make any sort of promise for updates; this changed with Google (and Motorola when it was under their ownership).

Motorola started promising at least two major updates for their phones–although, since they were sometimes selling phones with an out-of-date version, this sounded more generous than it was. Google Pixel phones promise three years of major updates (up from the two years on its earlier Nexus phones), and that three-year promise is now matched by Samsung, on their flagship phones.

Apple doesn’t have an official policy for their iOS devices, but because of the similarities between generations, it’s common to get 4-6 years of updates. The iPhone 6S is coming-up on its six anniversary at the end of September, and still runs the–as of now current–version of iOS, 14. Devices are often retired when the OS needs more memory than a device had shipped with, or when there’s a significant architecture shift–such as moving from the 32-bit A6 to the 64-bit A7 with the iPhone 5S. While the iPhone 5S doesn’t support iOS 14, Apple is still pushing-out security and bug fixes for it as it approaches its seventh birthday.

Sony’s been getting a bit of press with their Xperia line, and there’s been some confusing messaging about their update policy–as best as I can tell, the last official statement from Sony was two years from release, which should mean 1 to 2 major Android releases.

And then you’re out of luck.

Just as they’d done before releasing the DMC-CM1 in the US, ten days before they released the DMC-CM10, Panasonic released another firmware update. If you happened to be an Android user in 2015, you probably recall the brouhaha that occurred in June, one month to the day after Panasonic released its initial Lollipop update: researchers announced a critical bug in the media processing libraries–actually a series of them–which meant browsing the Web, being sent Multimedia or even instant messages, could mean you were remotely exploited. While Google, Samsung, and many other users were fully-patched by the end of the summer, Panasonic users had to wait eight months, for Panasonic to prepare a new version for launch.

Now, the nice thing about Android–in theory–is that it’s open; and the absolute fastest way for many users to fix their device was to install a community-built ROM, like CyanogenMod (the predecessor to LineageOS). Community-built ROMs or the underlying open-source projects are the only way to get Apple-like lifetimes in the Android world, and for a mainline device, should serve you well if your only reason to upgrade is when your carrier changes its frequency bands.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t a practical option for many-other-phones, like the Panasonic DMC-CM1, which had locked their boot loader. However, even if users were to have installed a community ROM, they likely would have lost software support for the key functionality for which they had bought their devices originally.

The DMC-CM1, like Leica’s recently released rebrand, and some of Sony’s Xperia phones have custom camera applications or photo processing logic, which wouldn’t work without proprietary binaries. Samsung has gone so far as to disable features–like the camera–if it finds the boot-loader unlocked, even if the phone is still running a stock ROM. Contrast this with a more mundane Android phone with a stock experience, and you’re likely to be able to use the device (minus the increasing number of Google-proprietary apps) with community ROMs much longer than the manufacturer had intended.

There may be cases where one of these specific models ticks all the right boxes, and you can make immediate use of it that saves you time, or solves a problem–if so, go for it; there are a few videos of people using the Sony Xperia as an on-camera monitor. Be aware though, that unlike a proper monitor that you can probably amortize over 5 or more years, and costs a fraction of a flagship Xperia at a similar size and feature set–you’ll be hoping to get half that life out of your phone without sacrificing security or battery life.

I’ve been consistently disappointed by companies making unique Android phones; they’re more expensive to support given the unique hardware, and often seem to be ignored by the manufacturer after shipping. Let me know if you’ve got any counter-examples, or diamonds in the rough. I’ve generally found that the Google-branded phones often last the longest and are consistently well supported by the community ROMs.

Note: Fancy Android logo is based on images shared by the Android Open Source Project under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.