I am annoyed at smartphones, because I am about to get one

Two reasons.

One has to do with the carriers. Modern cellular networks are entirely digital. Make a call, and the phone is digitizing your voice and sending bits through a radio network. Send a text, and the phone is sending bits through a radio network. Load a web page, and the phone is receiving bits through a radio network. It makes absolutely no sense for phone companies to split their plans into “voice,” “text,” “email,” and “data” segments. Really, it’s all data. The network hardware doesn’t care whether the last byte you sent was voice or text or web, it was just a byte. Bit-bit-bit-bit-bit-bit-bit-bit. It took the same amount of bandwidth to send. The only reason phone companies structure things in this way is that they can get people to pay for more things than they otherwise would if, oh, let’s say, Congresspeople realized that it’s all just data and that the phone companies are charging customers several times for the same thing.

The other is that I think the manufacturers, carriers, marketers, and (most annoyingly) customers have forgotten where the second half of the compound word “smartphone” came from.

I have had my eye on the Droid Incredible for a little while now, so I’ve been following many smartphone reviews to see how newer phones match up, and they almost universally agree that call quality on all these devices is okay at best. Today I played around with an Incredible for a bit in a Verizon store and tried calling someone else with it, chatting for a bit, then switching phones with them and chatting some more. On both ends, the voice I heard was clearly intelligible but sounded like it lacked the full richness of tone that I would hear in normal conversation. It was a bit filtered sounding, maybe with a little bit of background. I figured it just sounded like a voice over a phone.

But then I called the other person on my old LG VX5400, a basic flip-phone that was inexpensive enough to be fully subsidized by Verizon, and repeated the chat-swap-chat sequence. There was a marked improvement in voice quality; it sounded like I heard a fuller frequency range through the connection in both cases. The other person agreed with my assessments.

This puzzles me: why would the Incredible both record and play lower-quality audio? I can think of a few of reasons that might apply:

  1. The Droid Incredible has both an inferior speaker and inferior microphone to my old phone.
  2. The Droid Incredible has an inferior antenna to my old phone.
  3. The Droid Incredible uses more lossy encoding schemes to digitize and play voice audio.

I think there’s no excuse for any of these scenarios. For the first two, clearly better hardware was available to the manufacturer and clearly that hardware is within Verizon’s subsidy budget, so there’s no particular reason to cut corners and make a less capable product. In the third case, well, that’s just silly; why would the manufacturer put software in place that detracts from the performance and appeal of their product?

Obviously, smartphones are being marketed to consumers on the basis of their web access and mobile computing features, rather than their capabilities as phones. But I’m looking at upgrading my primary (and only!) phone line, so it’s important to me to be able to clearly understand others and clearly express myself in phone calls. The hit on voice quality from the Droid Incredible isn’t quite enough to outweigh the reasons I have to want its other features, and I’ve seen anecdotal evidence on the Internet that goes both ways on its call quality, but a noticeable reduction in voice quality was enough of a disappointment to make me briefly reconsider the other features. This device is supposed to be better than my flip phone; yet while it may be “smart,” it’s not better at being a phone.

Maybe this is why many of the people I know who have obtained smartphones immediately became harder to get in touch with…

2 thoughts on “I am annoyed at smartphones, because I am about to get one”

  1. Hey JP,

    We have 3 Droid Incredibles in the family and we love them. You observation about voice quality is mostly accurate. In fact, as you imply, it’s not just the Droid Incredible but just about every smartphone on the market today that suffers from this. I think your assertion that people look to these devices more for the data capabilities, be it web or e-mail, than voice capabilities is probably right on. Regardless, I find it to be a very good voice telephone as well. If you do decide to get one, I’m sure you’ll be pleased with it and not notice the difference over time. Uncle MJ.

  2. Yup, that’s what I figure. (And, of course, I wouldn’t be in the market for a smartphone if I wasn’t interested in its other features!) It’s just kind of annoying to think that as technology advances, those improvements have to come at the expense of the earlier, more basic, features.

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