Buying a Smartphone – Samsung Galaxy J7
I finally got around to buying a smartphone. I thought’d I’d do a little experiment and type something up on the NEO and then hook the NEO up to the phone (using the keyboard emulator function) and see how easy it is to send an email.
The story of this smartphone could already take up a few hundred words, but I’ll try to keep it under control. As you know, I was interested in buying a Windows phone. I started looking into that because of the promise that a Windows phone would integrate seamlessly with Windows on my computer. Then I became more interested when I learned that the Microsoft Lumia phones were very well built and well engineered and well designed. Android phones always came with caveats. But the Lumia 640 XL, for example, seemed nearly perfect in terms of design and function. Plus the camera was one of the best on the market, the battery life was among the best, it was made with Gorilla glass and a strong body, and the price was very good.
However, when I learned more about smartphones in general, I came to understand how limited the Windows ecosystem was. People talk about the “app gap”. At first, I didn’t believe in it. After all, sheer numbers don’t tell the whole story. There might be 1.5 million apps available for Android. But people use just seven or eight apps each. Who needs 1.5 million apps when they are all stupid games and things you don’t need? There are hundreds of thousands of apps for Windows, and surely that is enough.
But when I drilled down into the apps, I realized the app gap was no joke. The main app I was interested in was called Maps.me. With this app, you can download OpenStreetMaps for every country in the world and store them on an SD card on your phone. This app is not available for Windows, and I could not find a Windows equivalent. Perhaps one exists, but I couldn’t find it. Windows has its own map service. People say it is really good, but I don’t like the appearance of their maps, and you can’t save them to an SD card. You have to use the phone’s internal memory. So maps were out when it came to Windows phones.
I really don’t know if I will end up using these apps, but I also learned that apps for Couchsurfing, Warm Showers, SmugMug and dozens of others are not available on Windows. It looks like these apps are filled with bugs and are very unreliable, but it would be nice to at least have the option.
Windows phones, I concluded, also do not have the USB OTG feature. This is the feature that I will use to eventually connect this NEO to my smartphone and download this file. I wouldn’t be able to do that with a Windows phone. I also wouldn’t be able to attach a regular keyboard, a mouse, a memory card reader, a flash drive, or any other USB device. I believe Microsoft intends to develop this capability with something called Continuum. With Continuum, your Windows phone will be able to serve as a computer replacement. You simply pop your phone into a dock at your home, and it will be connected to your keyboard, mouse, and monitor. They will add what they call USB dual role to their phones through a high-powered USB-C connector. But all of this is still in the future and will only apply to new (perhaps high-end) phones. The Lumia 640 XL does not have a USB-C connector or the other hardware necessary for Continuum.
Long story short, as much as I mooned over the Windows phones, I couldn’t buy one. I went back to looking at Android phones. The decision there about which phone to buy would be an easy one if you were going to buy a flagship. But when you look at budget and midrange phones, the decision becomes very difficult.
I will probably end up regretting my decision (since I regret everything), but I bought a Samsung. Sony smartphones have the advantage of being waterproof, but I really don’t like their design, and they are significantly more expensive. I like the Motorola phones, but the model that made sense for me is not available in Malaysia yet. There are a lot of tempting Chinese brands, but I don’t trust them. You get very high specs for your money (fast processors, HD screens, etc), but I think the execution is lacking and the quality control is unreliable. Plus there is the question of a lack of service centers and accessories. So as tempted as I was by the XiaoMi Mi4i, I didn’t really consider it. I was also interested in a Lenovo phone, but the model I wanted was also not available in Malaysia yet. You can buy it in India and other places, but not here.
In the end, I kept coming back to the Samsung phones. They are extremely popular here. American reviewers are somewhat down on Samsung phones, but Asian reviewers are much more positive about them. And luckily for me, Samsung has just released a new model that was nearly the equivalent of the Lumia 640 XL. I think the camera on the Lumia is a bit better, but the Samsung Galaxy J7 ticked all the boxes.
Did I really need a good smartphone? Probably not, but I had become obsessed with the idea, and I had no choice but to buy one. It’s kind of funny actually. One of the really weird things about my time in the Philippines and here is how annoying smartphones are. It’s insane how addicted people are to them. You’ll see ten backpackers all sitting in the common room of a hostel and every single one of them is glued to their phone. No one talks anymore. They just stare at their phones. Workers, too. I think productivity has gone down 80% around the world because I see employees everywhere doing their work with their cell phones in their hands. So why introduce such a monster into my life? Well, it’s pretty easy to see the advantages. I’m carrying around a cell phone anyway. I have a basic Nokia brick phone with a physical keyboard. If I’m going to carry around a phone and batteries and a charger and cords, I might as well have a phone that can do more than just make calls. Again, I’m thinking mainly of maps – something that can be done with or withought an Internet connection.
The Galaxy J7 has a 5.5 inch screen, which puts it in the phablet category. I liked the idea of the larger screen when I did my research and when I played around with phones in the stores. However, now that I own it, I do find it a bit too large. A smaller phone might have been preferable. It’s much heavier and larger in the hand and in my pocket than I imagined it would be. I also disliked the texture or lack of texture to be precise. It’s very hot and humid here, and my hands get sweaty, and it becomes very difficult to hold onto the smooth and slippery surface of the phone. You can only hold onto it from the edges because if your fingers or thumbs or palm touch the surface, you end up launching programs and doing other things. The entire front of the phone is essentially a touch surface filled with buttons, so your hands can’t get anywhere near the front. So how do you hold on to the monster? I found it to be very difficult.
Luckily, I found a solution to that problem. Samsung also makes a very nice flip wallet for this J7. The wallet is not a case. You don’t put the phone inside it like you would a case. The back of the wallet actually replaces the back of the phone. You remove the original back and then you snap on the wallet in the exact same way. However, the wallet is made of leather and is very easy to hold on to. Since it replaces the phone’s back cover, it adds nothing to the thickness there. And the front part is extremely thin, so the phone is only the smallest bit thicker than without the wallet. The leather surface of the wallet is not the only thing that aids in gripping the phone. It also has edges all the way around, and these sharp edges make it much easier to hold onto the phone. The phone itself is rounded and smooth and as easy to hold as a brand new bar of wet soap. The phone also feels very luxurious. It’s dense and fancy and when I handle it, I feel scared of breaking it. It’s supposed to be a tool, but a tool isnt much good if you can’t knock it around a bit. When I first bought the thing, I was scared to death. I couldn’t just put it on the bed next to me, because the darn thing was so slippery, it would get pushed off and crash to the floor. I hardly dared put it on the bedside table because there were too many items there and it could get damaged. Instead of carrying it around, I put it back in its box to keep it safe. That’s pretty pointless. It would be like buying a really amazing hammer made out of glass. It looks great, but you can’t actually use it to bang nails or toss in a toolbox. This flip cover completely transforms it and makes it a very useful tool. I can now hold onto it easily and I have no problem carrying it around and using it. The flip cover also has a built-in magnetic sensor. If you turn on the feature in the phone, opening and closing the front cover of the wallet will automatically turn the phone on or off. It goes to sleep when you close it and wakes up when you open it.
Not surprisingly, I had to tell the clerk in the Samsung store about this feature. He had no idea the flip wallet could do that. I kept telling him about this and asking him questions about the details of this function, but he insisted that this wallet didn’t do that. I event pointed out the picture of the magnet on the flip wallet itself, but he insisted that meant nothing. While discussing the merits of this flip wallet with the clerk, I pointed out one problem with it. It makes it a bit more difficult to use the phone as a camera. With this Samsung, you can use the volume rocker as a shutter button. It’s very convenient to do that instead of touching the screen. But when you put on this cover, it’s difficult to reach the volume rocker to take a picture. The clerk insisted this wasn’t a problem because the volume rocker doesn’t act as a shutter button. I kept telling him that it did, but he insisted that I was wrong. Why is everyone so bad at their jobs?
I was quite lucky to get this cover. It was sold out nearly everywhere I went. It only comes in black and white, and I found one store that had one left, but it was white. And I wanted a black one. I was about ready to give up. I had even gotten store owners to make calls all around the city to other stores and outlets, and everyone reported that they were sold out. But just before giving up, I was reminded that there was a large shopping center across the street. There is another official Samsung outlet there, and I decided to check there. They had one cover left, and it was the black one. The clerk was totally useless and kept pressuring me to hurry up and buy it, but I was happy just to have found it. Malaysians told me to forget about it. They said it was far too expensive, but I thought the price was reasonable especially considering how well-made it is.
Here, again, I find I’m on the opposite side of nearly everyone. It’s weird. To me, it is just common sense. The Galaxy J7 as it was originally was almost useless to me. I couldn’t carry the damn thing around. It was too awkward and too delicate. Yet, few other people see it that way. Everyone just carries around their smartphones bare without a case. When I tried to talk to people about my search for a good case or cover for my phone, they all told me not to bother, that I didn’t need one. I find a good case essential for almost everything. But no one else does. Of course, a very high percentage of those people have phones with broken screens.
I think I mentioned in a Facebook message that I also had trouble with the USB charging and data cable. The one that came with the phone is very short. It’s very annoying. I went out to buy a replacement cable and ran into a solid wall of ignorance on the part of the store clerks again. But I persevered and eventually bought a much longer cable. It seemed to be a reasonable cable. It was certainly the best that I managed to find. But I ran into a problem the very first time I used it. The plug end that you insert into the phone is very small and very slippery. I managed to insert it into the phone, but it was nearly impossible to remove. It was in there really tight, and I couldn’t get a grip on the sucker to pull it out. I ended up having to wiggle it from side to side and work it out bit by bit. THAT is clearly a bad thing to do. The original Samsung cable is too short, but it is much better designed. It has a substantial plastic tab around the cable end and this tab is tapered upwards so that it gives you a firm grip. It would have been nice to have been aware of this problem with the replacement cable, but there was no way to try it out in the store, and the clerks were of no help. I had no choice but to buy it and hope for the best. Luckily, it didn’t cost much. In fact, the low price was one of my concerns. I’m pretty sure that there are differences in quality between cables and that some of them are better in terms of transmitting data and power and maintaining a connection. Yet, all the cables in these stores cost between 18 and 25 ringgitt, which is about $4.50 to $6.50. That seems too cheap. I kept looking for the premium cable that was clearly superior, but I couldn’t find one. I’ll probably end up using the Samsung cable. There is no point using the new longer one if I’ll eventually warp and twist the USB plug on the phone.
As far as my experience using the phone, I’ve had some success but a lot of trouble too. The phone has not disappointed. The screen is extremely sharp and bright. The touch sensitivity is perfect. The camera is great. The phone operates fast and efficiently. The battery life seems great. But when it comes to apps, things get murky. I find it very difficult to understand how apps work. The only way to learn is to install the damn things. Then there are lots of problems. But it becomes complicated because I can’t tell the difference between a feature problem and a bug. The app will do something that I think is wrong. But there are so many bugs and errors that it is impossible to know if the app just operates that way or if it is a bug. I also have to adapt to the smartphone Android environment. My instinct is to use the phone as a computer, but the Android operating system is very different from Windows. It mimics Windows in many ways, but it is fundamentally different and that is reflected in the apps. So you have to learn an entirely new way of doing things.
Documentation is a big problem. The lack of documentation, I should say. I decided yesterday to try out the SmugMug app. The reviews were very good, so I figured it couldn’t hurt. But read as much as I could, I could not figure out in advance how it worked. How was using the SmugMug app different from just logging into my SmugMug account through Google Chrome? I didn’t know.
Anyway, once I installed the app, I started to see the differences. But I couldn’t make sense of them. For one thing, the app appears to be designed to download all your photos to your phone. But how can that be? I have many, many, many gigabytes of photos on SmugMug. How can all of that be stored on my phone? It’s impossible. So does it just download thumbnails or small versions? What exactly does it do? No one could tell me. All I could do is run my own tests to see what it did, but that was problematic because of all the bugs. For example, in the settings menu you could choose whether or not the app downloaded videos. You generally wouldn’t want to because video files are massive. So I selected “NO”, do not download videos. But when I turned on the app, it appeared to be downloading videos. No matter how many times I selected “NO” and restarted the app and restarted the phone and cleared the memory cache, etc, it still seemed to be downloading videos. So does that mean I had done something wrong? Or was it a bug? It’s impossible to know for sure. It was impossible to tell what the app was doing. Was it even downloading photos? Thumbnails or originals? I could see photos in the SmugMug app, but then I had no idea where they were being stored on my phone. I couldn’t find them. I let the phone run for hours and there appeared to be thousands of photos from SmugMug on my phone. Yet, those files were listed nowhere. And they were taking up zero memory on either the SD card or the phone’s memory. So what was going on? It was impossible to tell. I eventually decided to start over and I chose to delete all the downloaded photos. (I would need a larger memory card anyway.) The deletion went just fine. The app deleted all the photos from the SmugMug app. But when I turned on the app, all the photos were still visible on my phone! I turned off the wireless connection to the Internet, and the pictures were still there. So what had happened? I deleted all the photos using the SmugMug app. Yet, all the photos were still there. I could see them. Yet they took up no memory on the phone. Clearly there was a problem, but I had no clue what it was. This is just a small taste of the many, many problems I’ve had with every single app I’ve tried out.