Buying an Android phone

I have resisted buying an android device for many years. As a free software activist, I kept hoping for a freer system to arise in the mobile space, but the Maemo/LiMo/Meego/Tizen saga has never produced a viable competitor to Android. I never liked Google’s insistence on making everyone write specialized apps in Java just for their operating system. I kept waiting for a free system that would run the standard Linux applications with the GTK+ or QT toolkit, like Maemo did quite nicely back in 2006, but it never appeared. Even more troublesome was Google’s questionable commitment to the ideals of free software and its closed development style. The restrictions Google places on downloading software from their repository, the Google Play Store, are down right infuriating.

Nonetheless, I’m now involved in the development of a Google app, SimiDic, so I needed an Android device to test it. So despite all my reservations, I finally broke down and actually bought an Android cell phone. At first I thought that I would pick up the cheapest Chinese knock-off device that I could find, but I wanted to be able to replace the manufacturer’s version of Android with CyanogenMod, because I wanted as free of a system as possible. Sadly, the volunteers who work on porting CyanogenMod to different devices don’t waste their time on the cheap Chinese brands, so I realized that I would have to spend at least $130 to get a model which ran a recent version CyanogenMod. If I was going to spend that much money, I decided that I might as well get a cell phone which could double as a decent ebook reader and media player, so I wanted at least a 4 inch screen with at least 800×480 resolution. Then, I decided that I might as well get a decent camera as well, if I was going to spend that much money. I will probably never use it to make phone calls, since I fear the heightened radiation from smartphones, but I do need a decent note pad/scheduler/camera/watch/dictionary/radio/flashlight and the techophile in me just wants to play with a cool minicomputer that fits in the palm of my hand.

After wasting hours reading dozens of reviews online, I finally decided to get an HTC Sensation 4G, because it has qHD screen resolution and an 8MP camera and can run CynogenMod 9 (Android 4.0). More importantly, the Sensation is now considered outdated, so I could pick one up a used one on ebay for $180, whereas this year’s hot models cost over $300 on ebay.

What shocked me when my Sensation arrived today in the mail was the incredible quality of the screen and the speakers in such a tiny device. With 540×960 pixels packed into 4.3 inches, the Sensation screen has 256 pixels per inch. I can’t even distinguish individual pixels in the Sensation screen like I can with a normal laptop screen which has around 100 pixels per inch. The Sensation produces remarkably good sound in its tiny speakers and I judge its audio quality to be better than my Lenovo Thinkpad T410 laptop. The Snapdragon 8260 dual core 1.2 ghz processor is probably more power than I will ever use. Playing with my Sensation, I am struck by the wonder of being able to carry around such a powerful computer in the palm of my hand. The technology of a modern cellphone is truly a testament to engineering ingenuity, but I find myself asking what is the point of it all this processing power. Do we need to carry supercomputers in our pockets?

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