As fun as it can be to marginalize and criticize them, smartphones are magical pieces of technology. From something as mainstream as an iPhone 6 to something as fringe as a G Flex 2, today’s pocket communicators are modern miracles of miniaturized intelligence. As I say at the top of every Pocketnow Weekly podcast, these real-life tools are the manifestation of many childhood dreams, mine included … and it’s incredible to stop and think about just how complex they really are.
All of which makes it doubly frustrating when these supposedly “smart” devices screw up so spectacularly. Here’s five more smartphone problems that should’ve been fixed a long time ago. While most of them are Android-specific –the majority of phones we use and review at Pocketnow are Android-based– they’re frustrations that most platforms have faced at one time or another, so this isn’t a Google hit piece. More importantly, like the last batch of problems we complained about, they’re shortcomings that have plagued us for far too long … so now it’s time to shine a light on them.
Android: System sounds (still) ruin streaming media
I mentioned podcasts in the intro up there, and not just because I want you to listen to our award-winning Weekly. I listen to a lot of other podcasts, from mainstream hits like Serial to niche series like Mission Log, usually via streaming podcatcher Stitcher. And every time I fire up a podcast without first remembering to silence my notifications, I live to regret it.
The reason: Android stinks at playing two audio streams at once, as it momentarily has to do when interrupting music or podcast audio for a notification sound. We mentioned this in the last go-round, but the problem actually seems to have gotten worse with some apps: Stitcher, for example, will cut out to accommodate the Hangout or SMS chime, then restart the stream from a point a second or two earlier (presumably so you don’t lose your place in the show). That’s great and all, but if you get one of those itchy trigger-finger people hitting you with a Hangout every 20 seconds, it can make listening to a podcast almost impossible.
It’s not just notifications, either. The majority of the time I’m listening to a podcast, I’m enjoying the great outdoors on a walk or a hike – and if I decide to take a picture of a squirrel or whatever, I need to be prepared for the audio stream to dramatically hiccup (to accommodate the camera shutter sound) or stop all together if I’m shooting a video. When I’m done filming, the podcast doesn’t automatically resume; more often than not I have to restart my podcast app to get back to where I was. Speaking of which …
Android: Memory management is horrible
If you’ve read any of my Android smartphone reviews this year, you know I’ve got huge beef with how Lollipop manages available RAM. The majority of smartphones I’ve reviewed have been utter monsters as far as specs go: the Galaxy Note 4, Galaxy S6, LG G4, LG G Flex 2 and Nexus 6 all pack 3 gigs of the stuff, an enormous amount of memory that should allow for juggling all the apps I want (within reason). But there’s something else in common across all those devices: none of them use that raw power effectively. Read each of those reviews and you’ll see that even something as simple as keeping a fitness application running in the background while trying to do something else in the foreground is too much for most of them – including the brand-new, $700 Galaxy S6.
Android enthusiasts weary of these criticisms are within their rights to point out that Android 5.1 claims to fix many of these issues; most of the phones above were running a variation on 5.0 when we reviewed them, so this is valid. But then there’s the curious case of the ASUS ZenFone 2, a $300 Intel-powered flagship with one of the heaviest software skins we’ve ever seen. That phone multi-tasked like a champ, letting us fly in and out of even the heaviest apps and games with the tap of a finger, almost never making us wait – despite running on Android 5.0. Whether we have the Atom processor, the custom skin, or the whopping 4GB of RAM to thank isn’t clear, but whatever ASUS is doing, I sure wish other OEMs would emulate it.
Android/Windows: Double-tap-to-wake only works when it wants to
Double-tap-to-wake is one of the coolest innovations in mobile interface design. Rather than reaching for a button awkwardly placed somewhere on the sides of your phone or tablet, you can just tap twice on the dark glass of your device, and it will spring to life. Sometimes. Almost never on the first try, though. Actually, it never really works when it’s most convenient. But it almost always works when you don’t really need it to.
You’re already going down to the comments to report that you’ve had a flawless experience with double-tap-to-wake on your Nokia or HTC or Nexus or whatever – and you know what? Good for you. We’re gonna call for comments at the bottom of this piece anyway, so kudos on taking the initiative. Also, though? You’re a dirty liar.
Because you know it’s happened to you: you’ve delivered a sharp double-tap to the display glass of your phone, your other arm encumbered by groceries or a struggling infant or whatever the hell people are carrying these days, and your phone has just stared back at you, dumbly, waiting for you to either try again or just give up and hit the just-out-of-reach power button on the edge. Or you were innocently strolling along, listening to Spotify with your phone in your back pocket, when suddenly the audio started skipping time and otherwise jumping around like a maniac. Yep: you were the victim of a pocket-double-butt-tap, your vigorous walking pace activating the display cushioned against your … cushion and playing havoc with the controls. And if it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. You just wait.
Android: Facebook’s machine-gun updates
This one is tough to reproduce if you never turn your phone or tablet off (or you don’t use Facebook), but for the rest of you, this is probably familiar. Post a contentious Facebook status update about religion or politics, then turn your phone off for a few hours and go see a movie. When you turn your device back on and the avalanche of notifications arrives to inform you that three family members have un-friended you and twenty of your long-lost acquaintances are embroiled in a 60-post-deep thread about all the different ways [political figure] is wrong, you’re going to want to drop-kick your gadget into the nearest swimming pool just to get it to stop going off like a bag of Jiffy Pop.
Because rather than intelligently dumping all of the updates into a single notification like any civilized program, Facebook for Android will hit you with every. single. update. in. sequence. They’ll arrive in a massive tidal wave of Facebook “pop” sounds, relatively unobtrusive in solo mode but hugely annoying when hundreds are landing at once … and it only gets worse if you’ve got vibration mode enabled. Sure, it passes quickly, but fixing it would be such a trivial matter that it earns a spot on this list out of sheer stupidity.
Every platform: cheek presses hang up a call
You take a call, put the phone up to your ear, and the screen obediently goes dark as it senses it’s approaching your face, allowing you to carry on your call without the danger of phantom button-pushing. Pull the device away from your head and the screen turns back on. Job well done, phone! Killer use of 2007-era technology!
But nestle that handset in the crook of your shoulder like you’re talking on some kind of mid-90s office phone with the receiver extender, and your smartphone will make you pay for ever having worn high-waisted jeans or laughing at a Tim Allen joke. Mark my words: that screen will come alive. The next thing you know, your cheek is mashing the number keys, giving your caller the world’s shortest DTMF symphony before an errant pimple or cheek mole finds the “end call” button … and closes the channel. Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t have been trying to juggle a phone call while also pouring myself a glass of seltzer, or maybe I should have been using one of the billionty-leven Bluetooth headsets I’ve got kicking around here, or maybe the whole call should have been over speakerphone. Maybe I should just give up on phone calls entirely. But with so many sensors on today’s smartphones, you’d think they could at least tell the difference between being actively pulled away from an ear and just being jostled a few millimeters away from it.
The good news
You know the great thing about all the problems above? Relatively speaking, they’re tiny. Like the screen-rotation and WiFi woes we called out in the previous installation of this series, they’re first-world problems of the highest order. By and large, using smartphones in 2015 is a fantastic experience; you only need to look back a few years in our recent mobile history to remember that, as Joe Levi is fond of saying on the Pocketnow Weekly, “it’s a great time to be alive.” So while we really do wish these hangups would get fixed, we’re content to keep using our capable and feature-packed smartphones in the meantime – at least, until the Runcible arrives to usher us into the simpler, quieter future we secretly crave.
Got some suggestions for smartphone problems more worthy of attention than those above? Drop your own issues in the comments! Then catch up on the mobile news of the week –from the Galaxy S6 Plus to the Moto X 2015 to the coolest mini thermal camera around– in Pocketnow Weekly 151!