How Smart Does Your Smartphone Have to Be?

Normally I use this blog to explain things. In this case, perhaps I need you to explain something to me. Specifically (in Jerry Seinfeld voice) what's the deal with those expensive phones?

Call me Rip Van Mark. I may review the latest and greatest in surround sound speakers and receivers but when it comes to mobile phones my needs are stubbornly basic. I didn't get my first cellphone till 2003, and when I did, it was the most primitive clamshell-type phone imaginable. I used it until it died in 2011, when I adopted a BlackBerry knockoff with a sliding keyboard. It was brilliantly compact and great for texting, but though it was Bluetooth-capable and loaded with tunes, I rarely used it for music. Incredibly, it was not until this year that I got my first touchscreen smartphone.

However, I'm not a complete Luddite—I've been running phone apps on a first-generation iPod touch since 2001 as well as tablet apps on two iPads and a recently acquired Android tablet. I've avoided smartphones mainly because I'm a work-at-home employee and use the same internet connection for work and play. At the end of the day, I turn off my PC and 24-inch monitor and pick up a wi-fi tablet.

I rarely need a mobile phone except when I leave my cave and even then I rarely use it. If I'm running quick errands in the neighborhood, I don't even carry it—a phone that follows me around is my definition of hell. On an average day, if I my phone weren't giving me shipping notifications, I would hardly touch it at all.

However, as I wrote a few months ago, my most recent tablet purchase got me into the Android universe and I decided it was time for my phone to move in the same direction. I also wanted to cut the bill for my rarely used mobile phone to the bone. So I signed up with MetroPCs and got a Samsung Galaxy J3 free for switching carriers (normal cost $49, list price $139).

My service costs $30/month including taxes and fees with unlimited talk and text and 2 GB of data. That is actually more mobile data than I need because my home/office internet connection covers most of my needs. I switch on the data only when I need it and have yet to break through the cap. The network is T-Mobile, which may not be toppermost of the poppermost, but it gives me a stronger signal at my hard-to-reach desk than did my old carrier, Sprint. (I rejoiced when their latest round of merger talks failed.)

What I need you to explain is why people pay so much more for smartphones than I did and get so much less. How is that smart?

Facebook friends often bemoan that their iPhone batteries have died and they need to go to the Apple Store or, sometimes, find a guy. When my new phone's battery starts huffing and puffing, I'll do what I've always done—order a new one from Amazon for less than ten dollars and pop it in myself. I never fail to point this out to owners of expensive phones. I also tell them my phone has a microSD card slot for cheap memory upgrades. They "like" my response but I know this is a courteous substitute for I hate you I hate you I hate you. And well earned, I might add.

My phone also has a headphone jack, so I can plug in a vast array of headphones with an analog connection and no awkward dongle. My editor assigned me to review an LG V20 (now replaced by the V30) as an audio device to assess what is billed as a better-than-average headphone amp. It was pretty good, though not as good as, say, one of Astell & Kern's dedicated music players. Of course, if you really want to step up your game with a separate DAC, the AudioQuest DragonFly Red and Black are now efficient enough to run on phone-supplied USB power (with Android OTG or Apple camera adapter). I've tried it, but the double-dongle thing irks me, and with power supplied by the phone's USB jack, the headphones have to be pretty efficient to achieve reasonable volume.

I don't use my budget phone for games or other demanding apps, so its budget processor is not a limitation I ever notice. I'm conscientious about killing needless apps, so its limited RAM hasn't fazed me—except once, when a long Facebook trawl induced a full system freeze that no amount of button pushing would fix. I rebooted by yanking and reinstalling the battery. So there's a second reason for having a user-accessible battery.

The one thing I'm hankering for is a good phone camera. My traveling companion's iPhone 7 leaves my Samsung J3 in the dust. In a phone-to-phone faceoff, his food-porn shots always look better than mine. But I'm used to carrying a separate point-and-shoot on vacations and business trips anyway. My new Canon ELPH 360 keeps up reasonably well with the iPhone.

While my budget phone makes a lousy camera, it offers peace of mind in other respects. If the clear silicone case in which I installed the J3 fails to protect it, MetroPCS will charge me just $49 to replace it. That's a lot less dosh than the $1000 Apple is charging for the glass-front-and-back iPhone X, which Apple bills as its most durable ever. Here's how it fared in a drop test:

"The glass from three of the four corners cracked at different degrees of severity and scuffed up the side of the camera mount. The bottom right-hand corner took the biggest hit and had the largest fracture flanking the corner. Even the stainless steel on the frame looked chipped on this side where the phone hit the floor. The top right corner also had a small tear and scuff on the frame, and another tiny bump on the bottom left hand corner of the glass. Not good considering it was the first drop." Ouch.

A pertinent question might be why a guy who advocates for high-end and midpriced receivers is satisfied with a decidedly low-end phone. A possible answer is that I also advocate for $599 receivers, they do a lot more than they used to, and they are the right choices for budget-conscious readers and those putting together starter systems.

But maybe there's something I've missed and you'd like to give me an argument (it gets awfully dull around here when you don't). Go ahead, tell me what I'm missing.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, available in both print and Kindle editions.

drny's picture

Mark, I venture to guess you are a male over 50.
Therein your issue with expensive smart phones.
I never had to pay for any cell phone as my employer holds us (Field managers and National mngs) forever hostage.
At 50 plus emails per day with attached file downloads, calendar reminders, and two dozen calls per day the smart phone is only reasonable for business. Otherwise is a child's toy for the overly bored, and for egocentric maniacs who want everyone to know what they're into every second and who else is into the same junk.

Mark Fleischmann's picture
Male over 50 -- guilty as charged. I use webmail for everything, including my company address, so all my attachments are in the cloud. If I do download an attachment on the phone, I do it manually, and my phone stores it on the 128 GB microSD card I added to it. I don't get two dozen calls a day (thank heaven) but MetroPCS voicemail could probably handle that.
dnoonie's picture

I have to agree with the above statements. I eventually broke down and got a smartphone (bottom of the line Motorola, I've upgraded 2x so far) so I could have email access for scheduling job calls. It has replaced my laptop which I no longer carry, I use the big computer at home for complex tasks.

My first smartphone got wet and died and I got another Moto (water resistant with gorilla glass!) which started being really slow after 5 years so I got a J3 like you have. I think Moto makes a better bottom of the line phone and Samy makes a better high end phone. My aging Moto was water resistant and had gorilla glass, the J3 has neither.

I've ended up using all the smartphones for more than what I got them for, they are quit capable little devices but I can't imagine using them for audio or video editing, give me a full sized screen, Keyboard, mouse or fancy "touchpad" for ergonomics and usability.