I fear falling into the abyss of the phone. Is it really better than the world outside? Electronics used to be a tool. A means to an end. Now they are becoming a destination. The harsh glow of the TFT panel has become a security blanket, filling every spare moment with entertainment, making reflection and relaxation a distant memory.
Personally, I found my life was evolving into a struggle to clear notifications. The smartphone, like an abusive partner, lures you in with promises of comfort and help, but in time, combined with endless complicated apps, causes more anxiety than you had before. Something had to be done, and yet, I’m addicted. Most of my life was spent without a smartphone. How did I become so dependent on it? So I decided I would start by simplifying my device a bit. If nothing else maybe I can at least get the battery to last longer.
Iphones, which seem to get bigger, heavier, more expensive, and more complicated with every release, not to mention a complete lack of customization and control, are obviously off the table. Iphones have also gotten worse battery life per mAh with each subsequent release while other manufacturers have improved.
Even android phone makers seem dedicated to ever more power and more features and don’t trust their users. Every smartphone I’ve owned has left me frustrated with its complexity, battery life, bloatware, and lack of control. I resent not having root access to a device I paid for. However, I had heard good things about Xiaomi and after some time studying GSMArena I settled on the Xiaomi Redmi 2. The Redmi 2 has a highly capable Snapdragon 410 quad core CPU manufactured on a 28nm process node, 8MP camera, 2GB memory, QuickCharge, and though designed for the primarily 3G Chinese market, has LTE capability. Another nice feature is dual SIM cards. I feel for people that have to carry around 2 phones. It also costs $129 unlocked, weighs 133g and is 9.4mm thick. Not bad.
However, I was searching for a phone with an HSPA+ radio only. LTE is unnecessary and wasteful. To optimize for battery life and network speed we look at spectral efficiency, a measure of the amount of information that can be sent over a radio link per amount of bandwidth. Thanks to a brilliant encoding scheme, HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) has spectral efficiency of 4.22, while LTE is 4.08 and LTE-Advanced backtracks further to 3.75. LTE does, however, support wider bandwidths and so in theory can download faster, but only at the expense of battery life and spectrum clogging. HSPA+ supports downlink speeds up to 337.5 Mbit/s, many times what I should need, while saving power and using less spectrum, hopefully meaning fewer retransmitted packets and lower latency. As an aside, I’m still miffed carriers haven’t adopted SCTP over TCP, which makes much more sense for mobile.
LTE also has a tangled web of frequency bands, over 40, meaning engineers have to make different radio front ends for the same phone in different markets or different carriers. Designing antennas to support even the LTE channels for one carrier in one market severely hurts performance. The UMTS bands used by HSPA are much more streamlined and standardized, residing on the same 5 frequency bands worldwide, and are shared with the much older GSM bands, simplifying carrier upgrades and speeding deployment.
Bands supported by various iphone 6 models. That’s a lot. The radio and antenna are hamstrung due to a high number of disparate LTE bands. Note HSPA frequencies are supported by all models so if your iphone is unlocked you can switch to Ting
With a more sensitive antenna and simpler radio front end, HSPA devices should in practice have better reception and battery life than those using LTE while making development easier for phone designers and carriers alike. The Redmi 2 does support 6 LTE bands, none of which are common in the United States. With deployments scattered across so many bands LTE makes a global smartphone practically impossible.
Next I had to ditch Verizon. I don’t need their contracts, their horrible customer service and their aggressive advertising. I also don’t think phones should be sold in silly dealerships like cars. I bought a new Redmi 2 on Aliexpress and it arrived in less than a week, free shipping. To my surprise it came not just unlocked but rooted. Even though designed for the Chinese market the Redmi works on the UMTS HSPA+ bands used by T-Mobile. I got excited when I heard about Google’s “Project Fi”, which allows you to pay for data as you go, but then found it requires use of an expensive Google phone. The MVNO Ting provides the same pay as you go model, and also allows BYOD (bring your own device). I popped in a SIM card I bought from ting.com, entered my ICCID, and it worked right away. They even grabbed my number from Verizon overnight. I thought I’d be a heavy data user since I tether and travel a lot but so far I am saving over $100 / month. Maybe I’m on wifi more than I thought.
Service is fantastic. Verizon used to drop my calls and time out for data all the time. Maybe it’s because the UMTS bands are mostly empty these days but I haven’t dropped a call yet and I get a consistent 6.5MBps downlink on HSPA+, indoors and out. That’s fast enough to torrent a movie while I’m in line to board a plane.
I’m still optimistic one day we’ll have true mesh networking, or LEO satellite internet, but Iridium is probably going to have investors scared for some time.
One of Xiaomi’s main value adds is the beautiful and capable MIUI. However, I personally found it buggy and slow, and I wish manufacturers would make life easier on app developers by sticking closer to the stock UI. I installed the TWRP recovery image and CyanogenMod 11S, which is a version of the CyanogenMod Android ROM customized by OnePlus, a promising new smartphone maker. CyanogenMod replaces the OS entirely with a baseline version closer to the Android Open Source Project. This means I can get the latest versions of Android without waiting for the manufacturer or carrier and all bloatware is stripped away. Installing CM11S brought significant improvements in speed and responsiveness, on par with my previous phone, the much more expensive LG G3.
I cleared out the home screen, uninstalled most Google apps, and now run all the programs I need from a sidebar and gestures via NovaLauncher. Swiping up opens Chrome, which is easy to remember as I feel like I am looking up in to the information ether. Swiping down opens Maps, which feels like staring down on the earth. Pinching in opens Slack for internal communications, pinching out opens Gmail for external communication. Double tapping opens the camera. Other than these I use Lyft, Spotify, Dropbox, Drive, Amazon Underground, Phone, SMS, and Calendar. Instagram is my only social media app, mostly because I think the @soylent account is awesome. That’s all I allow myself. So I have no need for an app drawer or multiple app pages. I also used the Xposed framework to center the clock and disable most of the annoying ever-present status bar. I left the network icon though so I know when I’m on HSPA or HSPA+, mostly out of curiosity.
Previously, opening my phone lead to instant confusion and analysis paralysis. Now I’m in and out and back to what I wanted to do. This also helped me silence the itch that used to make me pull out my phone and disappear whenever I had a split second of down time. For better or worse, my friends and significant other don’t expect me to respond to messages immediately, but I pay them back by not constantly checking my phone when I’m with them in person.
I also finally got the battery life I was looking for. My LG G3 would require charging in the middle of the day or I would lose it at night. I had to get in the habit of carrying around a bulky external battery and still I would sometimes be stuck with a dead phone when I needed it most. I’ve spent more on gas station and convenience store chargers in the last year than I spent on this new phone. The Redmi 2 lasts me a solid 2 full days on average, more if I’m not traveling and diligent about turning off wifi and bluetooth, and it refills fast with QuickCharge.
But most importantly, I feel like I got a big chunk of my brain out of my pocket and back in my head. Software may be eating the world. But it’s not going to eat me.