I don’t know why I can’t quit this Moto X. It’s three years old, and it didn’t have a top-speed processor when it shipped, but so many of its features – always-listening voice assistance, 2 GB of RAM, a 4.7” AMOLED display, multiple processors to handle certain functions with lower power consumption – are things that took longer to show up on the iPhone, if they showed up at all. In fact, my dream for the iPhone SE2, if it ever comes to pass, is that they have the AMOLED display and some way of switching to a black-and-white line-art sort of mode for Ultra Low Battery Mode. And maybe find some way of getting rid of the huge bezels top and bottom in favor of getting more useful display in a smaller package.
That’s a big part of the draw of that Moto X (aside from the intangibles of being able to spec out the colors myself and engrave it and that it was an American-assembled device, rarer than a unicorn) – it’s a bigger screen without feeling like an unreasonably bigger phone. The iPhone 6 family feels gargantuan after three months back on the SE, but the Moto X still doesn’t.
It’s slow, though. That inhibits a lot. So does the generally poorer quality of the apps – Reeder isn’t without its issues on my iOS devices, and the amount of background processing it does is inexplicable to me, but it kicks the shit out of something like Press for an RSS reader. Pocketcasts is…all right, I guess, but not great. Obviously I don’t have much media on the X, so one of the biggest battery-killers I have isn’t really a thing. In fact, the limitations of performance and media walled garden mean that most of what the Moto X is useful for is…let’s see…
* INSTAGRAM. It doesn’t do well with Instant Stories and can be slow to load, but it’s mostly fine and the 10MP camera on the X is good enough to shoot for the ‘Gram (if markedly inferior to any Apple camera since the X came out).
* SWARM. It can handle check-ins. More or less.
* KINDLE. Actually it’s great for this. Set for white text on black background and the processing load is minimal, and it can buy new content from within the app, unlike the iOS equivalents.
* BANKING STUFF. Basic but doable, at least from a “check the balance and do I owe anything on this credit card I forgot I had” sort of standpoint.
* FIREFOX. The browser works fine in a pinch, especially as an alternative to the godawful Twitter for Android app.
* TRANSIT/CITYMAPPER/MAPS. Not the fastest, again, but usable in a pinch.
* OUTLOOK. Let’s face it, Microsoft makes the best email client for Android if you don’t use GMail (I don’t), and this is passable.
* ALLO/DUO/HANGOUTS/WHATSAPP/SIMSME/SIGNAL/GOOGLE VOICE. The Moto X has become the tackling dummy for new communication apps that require your actual phone number but which I’m unlikely to ever use in a meaningful way, so why not test them out on something that doesn’t have my (hopefully) permanent number associated with it?
And in a pinch, I could use it as a credit card via Android Pay, order something on Amazon with the app, or even (gasp) place a phone call with it. And while its battery life is challenged in a way any three-year-old Android device would be, I have at least two charger packs with integrated micro-USB cables, so there’s very little preventing me walking around with the ability to top it all the way back up twice.
But it doesn’t have a lot of my contacts on it. I specifically went through and wiped all but about a dozen numbers from it – not that I ever added that many, but at some point the entirety of my iCloud address book got dumped into the burner Google account I use for this phone, so I went through and flushed it so as not to dump them all into WhatsApp or Allo or whatever. There were former coworkers, there were former work hotline numbers, there were defunct moblogging services, there were at least three people now deceased. It was unsettling.
And that drove home the point for me: this Moto X has become more than an experimental device, more than an artifact of an alternate universe – it’s the phone I want to carry when I don’t actually want to get in touch with anyone. It makes perfect sense that it’s all murdered out in black-with-carbon-fiber-look, because it’s the stealth phone. Carry this and disappear in a way that I just can’t make myself do with the iPhone. And yet, the performance and the frustration and the polish always have me running back to the iPhone within a day or two. Even peace and quiet has its limits.
The other thing that creeps to mind, though, is at what point I’ll be legitimately down to only one device. My six year old Kindle bit the dust last month (and has been handed over to my tinkering niece to see what she can make of it) and while my trusty iPad mini is just fine on iOS 10, the original iPad I got for my 40th, my Dynabook, is at the end of the line for OS upgrades and will remain stuck on 9.3.5 in perpetuity. (That said, it took four years to miss an OS update; the Moto X took two. That’s bad arithmetic.) Then there’s my work iPhone, which has bad battery issues and lives in a drawer where it can be safely ignored. The question is, what would it take to get me down to just one device at a time, possibly for good?
Well, start with battery life. The new iPhone 7 supposedly has similar performance to the SE, achieved with the cunning use of multiple variable-power CPU cores and a larger battery made possible by donking off the headphone jack. That’s not bad, but the SE also occasionally fails to get me through the day. Most phone makers are only willing to expand height and width, but if they’d just go a little thicker, we might be able to get a legit all-day battery in something smaller than a six-inch phone.
Then there’s the screen. I got the Kindle because the 3.5” display of an iPhone didn’t get it done for two years, and while the 4” screen of the SE is better, the 4.7” of the iPhone 6 was better yet and the 4.7” in AMOLED of the Moto X was dead solid perfect. While I could read Kindle content on the SE, it’s easier on a larger display and more kind to the power supply on AMOLED.
Then, obviously, the camera needs not to suck. Time was that meant you had to get an iPhone, and the best cameras meant the biggest phones. Still does, if you want the dual-lens setup on the iPhone 7 Plus, but even the iPhone 7 has optical image stabilization and a pretty good sensor at this point. Not enough to make it worth paying the difference over my SE, though, especially when the SE has a damn good camera AND equal battery life AND will actually FIT IN MY POCKET.
In some ways, I guess, this explains the drive to 5-inch-and-larger phones, especially at the lower end of the market (the dirt-cheap Moto G began with a 4.5” display in 2013 and now has a 5.5” screen at the same price point) – when your smartphone is your only computing device, you err on the side of a screen big enough to watch video and read easily and ensure that the battery behind it can carry you all day. It’s possible that the iPhone Plus is the natural and inevitable coming thing for me by 2018 or thereabouts (can I get another two years out of the iPad mini? Almost certainly, but a five year lifespan on a tablet sounds about right when that’s all I got out of the Kindle or the AppleTV box). Still, a 5.5” phone would almost be doable so long as you could get away with a jacket every day and didn’t have to commute standing on a train. Of which…