Reflections about buying a new mobile phone

For several years I have been giving talks about the environmental impact of planned obsolescence in electronics and the need to avoid the endless upgrade cycles of modern electronics. I tell people that they should install Linux in their PCs and LineageOS in their phones to extend the lifespan of their devices, since the manufacturing phase of personal computers, tablets and mobile phones consumes roughly 80% of their total energy. I have tried to practice what I preach by buying used phones off eBay to avoid creating new electronics and to lower my carbon footprint.

The last new phone I bought was back in 2006. Since then, I have only bought used phones. Nonetheless, I decided last year to cause the manufacture of a new phone by crowdfunding the Purism Librem 5. I decided to increase my carbon footprint because I wanted to support the development of the first phone that would run on 100% free/open source software because the world desperately needs an alternative to the Android and iOS duopoly. I justified this decision, because Purism promised to make a phone that wasn’t designed around planned obsolescence.

The Librem 5 will have:

  • An openable case that uses standard screws, so it is designed to be fixed, rather than junked when something breaks,
  • A replaceable battery, meaning that the phone doesn’t have to be junked when the battery starts to degrade after 500 recharge cycles,
  • A replaceable cellular modem on an M.2 card, meaning that the card can be replaced when needing a different cellular band, rather than junking the whole phone,
  • A replaceable Wi-Fi/Bluetooth on another M.2 card, meaning that the phone doesn’t have to be junked if needing new wireless standards in the future
  • Purism promises “lifetime support” for the phone, which is a very credible promise because it runs on free software drivers which the Linux community can easily update, and its i.MX 8M Quad processor will be manufactured by NXP until 2028, so it has to keep providing Linux updates.
  • Purism promises to sell batteries and as many parts as it can for the Librem 5.
  • The schematics files for Librem 5 will be released immediately with a free license, and the Gerber files will be released in 3-5 years, so third parties can manufacture parts and upgrades for the phone.

Unfortunately, my existing phone was stolen and I am currently using an HTC Sensation from 2011 which has a horrible camera, a cracked screen and broken volume buttons. I had hoped that the Librem 5 would finally be shipping, but it now looks like I won’t get mine until the second quarter of 2020, and it will likely have serious issues. Currently, the cameras, Bluetooth, and video out don’t work, and it has poor cellular reception, and the battery has to be charged twice per day. The Librem 5’s i.MX 8M Quad processor wasn’t designed for mobile phones and has poor energy management. Its mainline Linux drivers are still being developed and they aren’t yet optimized for energy efficiency. Because of its hardware kill switches and its use of 100% free software, the Librem 5 needs 9.5 times more surface area in chips packages to equal the functionality of one Snapdragon that is 154 mm2 in size. It takes more energy to run all those separate chips whose circuits can be cut to turn off the camera/microphone, cellular modem, WiFi/Bluetooth and all other sensors (GNSS, gyrometer, accelerometer, magnetometer, light sensor and proximity sensor). Purism has announced that it will need to redesign the circuit board to put the i.MX 8M Quad on the other side and add a metal heat spreader to dissipate the heat through the metal frame.

The phone has been met with a constant barrage of criticism on Reddit’s r/linux and r/Purism forums. I have been battling daily with people online who seem to be determined to discredit and cast doubt about Purism and the Librem 5 at every turn. Nonetheless, the critics might have a valid point when they question whether a cellular modem designed for the Internet of Things will have the energy efficiency and good enough reception to work in a mobile phone. My feeling is that we will never get to a better world, unless a plucky few are willing to suffer through the risks and tribulations of being early adopters. I don’t expect the Librem 5 to be fully functional on arrival, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it takes several years and several iterations before Purism’s phone becomes an adequate replacement for a standard Android or iOS phone. I will need a decent phone and camera while I go through through the tribulations and excitement of being an early adopter.

Since I’m back in Bolivia, I can’t just order something off eBay and expect it to arrive within a couple days. The shipping will take 2-4 weeks if I don’t want to pay a fortune for it, and Bolivian customs will likely seize it, so it will take another 1-2 weeks and many hours of bureaucratic hassle to get it out of customs. I can buy a used phone in Bolivia, but I want one that is compatible with LineageOS. I will probably need to replace the battery if I buy a used phone, and the only way to get most phone batteries in Bolivia is to order them from China and wait 3-4 weeks for them to arrive.

Since my camera was stolen several years ago, I have been relying on my phone when I need to take pictures, and the camera in the Librem 5 is probably not going to be very good. It will have a 13MP back camera and 8MP selfie camera, but its processor has no DSP or ISP to process the camera’s output and the Librem 5 won’t have any proprietary software and AI to pretty up the image like most of today’s cameras, so I’m expecting very basic functionality.

I could buy a cheap point-and-shoot camera, but since I need a phone anyway, I decided that I should buy a phone with a decent camera. The cameras in today’s phones are so much better at taking low-light shots than the cameras in used phones which are several years old.

In the end, I decided to violate all my environmental principles and buy a new phone. I walked around looking at the different models on sale. Shopping in Bolivia is a real hassle because you have to ask the price of everything, and the sellers are often very ignorant about what they are selling. I often know more about the hardware in phones than they do. When I ask what kind of cores are in a processor, they generally have no idea. When I ask what kind of focusing tech and image stabilization is in the phone’s camera, they give me a blank look. If is usually a waste of my time to ask the sellers for more technical details, because they often don’t understand what I’m asking, and I can look it up online faster than they can.

The only practical benefit to wandering through the electronics market is the ability to pick up a phone and see how it feels in the hand. If I ask if I can trying using a phone to check the camera or listen to the audio quality before buying it, they make me feel like I’m obligated to buy the phone, if they have to pull the sticker off the screen so I can test it. If they have the phone in a sealed box, they are very reluctant to break the seal. Since they are small sellers, every phone that they put on display needs to be sold. After you ask a seller to pull a phone out of the glass display and pull off the sticker so you can test it, that creates the expectation that you will buy it, which annoys me greatly.

I generally don’t want to hear their sales pitches, since they can’t tell me whether I can install LineageOS on a phone or anything else that I really want to know about a phone. If I need recommendations about what to buy, I do far better reading the reviews online, than asking Bolivian market sellers, since they will only recommend what they have in their limited stock. The only useful information that they can give me is the price, and I’m never sure whether they are giving me the price that they expect to sell at or the elevated price where they want to start the negotiation. I have learned how to bargain for a better price, but it isn’t in my nature to enjoy doing it, so I usually just walk away. If I wander from stall to stall and ask the prices on a particular model, the range of prices I will receive often vary as much as $30 for a $200 phone. The fact that I’m a gringo always makes me suspicious that they are jacking up the prices just for me.

In the US, I can get any phone that I want at a good price by ordering online, but only a limited selection of phones are sold in Bolivia, and it can be tricky finding one that is compatible with LineageOS. Judging from what I see displayed in the market stalls, probably 90% of the phones currently sold in Bolivia are made by Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi. There are a few Sony, Motorola and LG models as well, but many of the flagship models and none of the enthusiast models make it to Bolivia, so forget buying something like the Pocophone F1, OnePlus 7 or Google Pixel 3 in Boliva.

What I found when phone shopping was that most of the models for sale in Bolivia that have decent cameras in my price range didn’t support LineageOS. It takes a while for the community of volunteers to create ports of LineageOS for a particular phone model. You have little idea when a phone is first released whether a good port of LineageOS will be created for it, so it is best to wait until all the major bugs in its LineageOS port have been fixed before buying the phone. By the time that you are sure that a good port will be made, the phone is often no longer being manufactured and the sellers of electronics in Bolivia work on a small scale and need to turn over their stock quickly, so it is hard to find last year’s models for sale.

I only found two models with good cameras and LineageOS support in my price range: Xiaomi Redmi Note 7 and the Motorola Moto G7 Plus. I would have liked to buy the Moto G7 Plus, because its back camera has optical image stabilization. The Moto gestures such as the double chop to turn on the flashlight and the double twist to turn on the camera are very convenient and I like the fact that Motorola maintains a good online forum for its users. Unfortunately, its LineageOS port has a problem with low microphone volume. I had the same problem using the Moto X Pure Edition, because LineageOS didn’t support its second microphone used for background noise suppression, so people who I called couldn’t hear me very well. The problem might get fixed or it might not, and I didn’t want to take a chance on it. The fact that I didn’t see many posts on the XDA-developers forum for its LineageOS port tells me that there are few people working on the Moto G7 Plus, so its bugs are less likely to get resolved.

In contrast, there is a very active thread for the Xiaomi Redmi Note 7 and all its major bugs have already been fixed. Xiaomi used to make people wait anywhere between 3 and 15 days to unlock the bootloader, but now it allows immediate unlocking, and it is now releasing a lot of information about its phones for modders. I hoped that I could find a better Xiaomi model, but I couldn’t. The Samsung ISOCELL Bright GM1 image sensor in the Note 7 looks impressive on paper at 48 megapixels, but it is pixel binning to only output 12 MP and tests show that its photos aren’t as sharp as other image sensors, although the pixel binning gives it decent low-light photos. I would have liked to get the Redme Note 7 Pro which also works with LineageOS and has a better Sony IMX586 image sensor, but it isn’t for sale outside of India. I was very tempted by the Xiaomi Mi A3, since it has a better selfie camera and an extra wide-angle lens on the back camera, but I can only find ROMs in beta status based on AOSP 10 for it. The Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 also has an extra wide-angle lens in the back camera, but it is too new to know whether a good LineageOS port will be created for it. The Redmi Note 8 Pro uses a MediaTek processor that I know will never be supported by LineageOS, so I had to cross that one off my list as well. What I really wanted was a phone with telephoto lens, but I couldn’t find an phones for sale in Bolivia which supported LineageOS.

I had already gone phone shopping with my girlfriend several month ago, so I knew that I could buy the 64GB version of the Redmi Note 7 for 1220 bolivianos (US$175), but I wanted the 128GB version, and the sellers kept telling me that it was no longer in stock. It made sense, since most people willing to pay extra would buy the newer Mi A3 or Note 8 Pro. I finally found a market stall with it in stock, but the seller wanted 1500 B, which I thought was too expensive. I kept asking around, and finally found someone who would sell it for 1420 B (US$204), but she only had it in a red case. It was a darker shade of red, so it didn’t look too feminine, but I don’t care for flashy colors. I went to a couple more stalls until I found another seller who had it in blue. He wanted 1430 for it. I asked, “Nada menos?” and he counter offered 1425. I told him 1420 and he looked over at another guy standing nearby, who nodded that it was OK. I wondered if I could have bargaining better, since the other woman had told me 1420 without any bargaining, so I probably could have gotten 1400 or 1410, but I was tired of looking and didn’t feel like dickering about the price.

As the seller was unpacking the phone to show me that it worked, I mentioned that I wanted that particular model because it ran LineageOS. Of course, he had never heard of installing custom ROMs on phones, so I started telling him about how Google collects all our information, and how he can avoid that by installing a custom ROM like LineageOS and only using free software apps from the F-Droid repository. I started to acquire an audience, so I got on my soapbox and started talking about the importance of free software and our digital rights. That led to me expounding on the two Linux phones coming onto the market and how they would have many years of software support, unlike Android phones that only get 2 to 3 years of software support. The seller was very interested and asked me how to spell LineageOS, Purism Librem 5 and PINE64 PinePhone, so he could look them up online.

He was also very impressed by the fact that I looked at the charger, and was able to tell him if it supported fast charging. I explained to him that it had 5 volts and 2 amps, so it would charge at 10 watts, which was double the normal rate of 5 watts, but I had read online that the Note 7 supported QuickCharge 4.0, so I informed him that he could sell an extra 18 watt charger with the phone. Then, I explained to him that some phones are now supporting the new USB Power Delivery standard to charge at 27 watts. He was very attentive, and seemed to want to know more, even ignoring other customers so he could listen to me jabber about tech.

Then, I wandered around looking for a MicroSD card, that I needed for my Raspberry Pi 4B. I had read that the SanDisk Extreme and Extreme Pro supported wear leveling, so they should last longer than a standard card. I found a girl selling the SanDisk Extreme Pro 64GB for 150 B, but I wanted 128GB, which she didn’t have. There was only one other stall selling that card, but the seller wanted 220 B, which was more than I wanted to pay, so I wandered back to the first stall. The girl had been replaced by an older woman, who looked at me and asked how many I was prepared to buy. When I said “just one,” she told me that the price was 120 B (US$17.25). She saw me talking for a long time with the other seller and then walk away, so she figured that I wasn’t going to buy unless she gave me a good price.

Instead of feeling happy that I got such a good price for the SanDisk microSD card, I walked away frustrated with the whole process. Markets in Bolivia are a very inefficient way to buy and sell things, and they require so much more energy for both the buyers and the sellers. I would much rather buy online, where I can check out user reviews and not have to worry about whether I’m getting a good price or not.

On the other hand, old-fashioned markets do provide employment to a large number of people. There is also degree of human interaction that I find endearing, when I’m in the mood to deal with the extra hassle. I was very happy to be able to preach about the benefits of free software to the guy who sold me the phone, and I never would have gotten the chance to do that if I had bought the same phone online at Amazon or eBay or walked into Walmart or Best Buy in the US. Maybe there is some value in having to talk face to face to people for everything you buy. Certainly, Bolivians seem to have fewer mental health problems than North Americans who are rarely forced to talk to anyone, if they don’t want to.

Now that I have increased my carbon footprint by buying a new phone, I have to say that I’m really amazed by how good the screens, cameras and processors have become in today’s mid-range smartphones. Still, I find so many of the modern trends in smartphones to be very troubling. The Redmi Note 7 is better than many phones on the market, but it shares many of the problems that I see in modern phone design.

There are a number of good aspects to the Redmi Note 7:

  1. It has an 3.5 mm audio jack, so people are not forced to junk their existing analog headphones. The fabrication of USB-C and Bluetooth headphones usually has a higher environmental impact than analog headphones, because they contain electronics. Bluetooth headphones require separate charging of batteries that will eventually degrade, so they have limited lifetimes. In addition, analog headphones generally have better audio quality than comparable digital headphones.
  2. It has a microSD slot, so the phone is less likely to be junked prematurely once its internal eMMC memory is filled up.
  3. It includes a case in the box, which is essential for protecting phones from damage, since today’s bezelless phones are designed to be easily broken.
  4. It has an IR blaster, which means that people can avoid buying and charging batteries for the remotes of other devices. It also means that these devices can still be used even after the remote becomes lost or broken (as long as the IR blaster was previously trained to replicate them).
  5. It has a good enough camera that most people can avoid buying a separate point-and-shoot camera, which means less fabrication of electronics. (On the other hand, a point-and-shoot camera doesn’t become functionally obsolete very quickly and it has replaceable batteries, so it is likely to last far longer than today’s smartphone.)
  6. Unlike most phones on the market today, the Redmi Note 7 uses standard Philips head screws, so specialty screwdrivers aren’t required to take it apart.

These good points in the Redmi Note 7, however, are outweighed by its bad features which are pernicious trends in today’s phone industry:

  1. Like virtually every other mid-range and upper-range phone on the market today, the Redmi Note 7 has a case which is sealed with glue. It can only be opened with a heat gun and 10 minutes of delicate prying by a plastic spudger, guitar pick or old credit card. Because the Redmi Note 7 is only rated as “splash-proof,” it doesn’t require the use of suction cup pliers to open its case like many which are rated as “water-resistant,” but it is a good idea to use suction cups to avoid breaking its glass back cover when taking apart the phone.
  2. Like virtually every other high-end phone on the market today, the Redmi Note 7 has a glass back cover, which is far more prone to being cracked or broken than a plastic or metal cover. Plastic has the lowest economic and environmental cost to manufacture; it is the best material for absorbing the impact of falls to protect the screen; and it doesn’t interfere with radio frequencies and wireless charging. Plastic doesn’t transmit heat, so it isn’t a good heat sink, but it doesn’t feel too hot in the hand when the processor gets hot or too cold during the winter. Plastic’s only downside is the fact that polycarbonate is less likely to be recycled than an aluminum case, but there is no recycling of phones in Bolivia, so this isn’t really a consideration. Unfortunately, modern style dictate that phones have to have glass cases because they look better in a store display and the glass has a more premium feel.
  3. 3. Like 91.7% of the new mobile phone models from 2018 (400 out of 436 models in the gsmarena.com database), the battery in the Redmi Note 7 is not replaceable, so most people will throw it away after the battery starts to degrade. The cobalt-oxide-lithium batteries in smartphones typically lose 20% of their charge capacity after 400 recharge cycles, and they start degrading rapidly. It is possible to design phones with both water resistance and replaceable batteries, as shown by the Samsung Galaxy Xcover 4S, but it makes the phone a bit thicker and the battery a bit smaller, which runs counter to modern phone design. The profits of phone manufacturers are based on short product life and rapid turnover. Gluing together the case, gluing the battery to the case and soldering its connectors costs a tad bit less than plastic pressure tabs or screws in the back cover and removable battery connectors, but the fact that manufacturers are still making low-end mobile phones that cost $30 – $100 with replaceable batteries shows that the cost isn’t that great of a factor. I suspect that the real reason that phone makers stop including replaceable batteries in 2015-17 was that they realized that it would force consumers to keep buying new phones every couple years, even thought there was no compelling reason to upgrade, since the advancements in the tech was offering diminishing returns in terms of practical utility.
  4. The Note 7 certainly doesn’t have the thinnest bezels on the market with a screen to body ratio of 81.4%, and it doesn’t have a screen that curves over the edges, but it still has very thin bezels compared to phones 5 years ago. The glass covering the screen goes to the very edge of the phones so a drop on the edge of the phone is liable to crack the glass. Even worse, the glass is raised higher than the plastic frame on the edges of the phone, so the frame and bezels provide no protection to the glass over the front screen in a fall. Roughly 60% of all phone repairs are replacements of the display because its glass has been cracked or scratched due to the lack of adequate protection in modern phone design.

As I download the LineageOS port for the Redmi Note 7 so I can install it on my new phone, I wonder about the compromises that I make to live in the modern world.

On the one hand, I am delighted by the sheer power of the Snapdragon 660 processor. Even though the 2.5 – 3 million transistors at a 14 nm node size is considered nothing special by today’s standard, the Snapdragon 660’s four Cortex-A73 cores and four Cortex-A53 cores have an unimaginable amount of processing power, when I compare them to first IBM PC 5150 released in 1981. My father gave me an old clone of that first PC when I started college in 1992, so I recall it well. Its 8088 processor running at 4.7 MHz was capable of processing 390 Dhrystones per second, and its 8087 coprocessor chugged through 50,000 floating point operations per second (FLOPS). My tests with Andhrystone and Linpack find that the Redmi Note 7 processes 258,755 times more Dhrystones per second and 24,986 times more FLOPS than the first IBM PC. The Snapdragon 660 can run all eight of its 64-bit superscalar cores at once, with two operations per clock cycle, compared to one 16-bit operation per clock cycle in the single core of the 8088. The Cortex-A73 and Cortex-A53 cores are running 468 and 382 times faster than 8088, respectively, but when all the cores are running at the same time, the Snapdragon 660’s CPU is processing 6809 times more operations per second at 4 times the amount of bits.

It is hard to know to count all the additional operations per second being processed in the Snapdragon’s graphics processing unit (GPU), video processing unit (VPU), digital signal processor (DSP), image signal processor (ISP), cellular baseband, global navigation satellite system (GNSS) and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/NFC. There are also probably separate processing cores running its communications over USB, MIPI DSI, MIPI CSI and SDIO. Even the Quick Charge 4.0 controller is probably processing more operations per second than the 8088 did. The IBM PC 5150 had 29,000 transistors in the 8088, 45,000 transistors in its 8087 coprocessor, and 147,456 transistors in its 16 KB of RAM. In comparison, I would guesstimate that the Redmi Note 7 probably has around 11 billion transistors (2.7B in the Snapdragon 660, 4.3B in 4GB RAM, 3.4B in 128GB of TLC V-NAND Flash and 0.4B in image sensors), which is 50 thousand times more than in the first IBM PC.

The amount of processing to be able to display 2.53 million pixels at 60 frames per second on the Note 7’s screen is astounding, not the mention the ability to capture 48+5 million pixels of light and process them to produce a bokeh effect in real time. The amount of processing power found in today’s smartphones boggles the mind.

Nonetheless, I see how all that that power comes wrapped up in a pretty little package, which is unopenable and unfixable. It is designed to delight and beguile me for a couple years, until its battery stops holding a charge and its manufacturer stops offering software updates. I will become convinced that I can never be happy in life unless I am carrying around the latest doodad in my pocket with all sorts of whizbang features. If it doesn’t have 5 camera lens, a foldable OLED screen, a 5G network connection, a voice assistant that can answer my every question, and offer me artificial intelligence that can identify everything that I see and constantly amuse me with assisted reality geegaws, then I must throw it away and buy anew, because consuming fulfills me and validates my sense of self-worth.

The modern smartphone is a lovely, sleek device covered in crackable glass that beguiles the eye in the light and traps our attention, so we never notice the all the natural resources that were consumed in its making, nor the greenhouse gases that it generated. The piles of e-waste that it causes are out of sight and out of mind.

Because it is so fun to play it and has become such an integral part of our daily lives, we never notice that it was designed to spy on our every action in order to colonize our minds with targeted marketing. It gives both little brother (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.) and big brother (government intelligence agencies) ways to track our every step and monitor who we talk to. The modern smartphone is so enticing, so beguiling, that we often don’t notice how it has entangled us in the web of surveillance Capitalism and deprived us of our right to privacy. We feel so empowered all its processing power and all the possibilities that it opens up to us, that we rarely notice how helpless we have become to escape its constant spying.

I know that I will take the first steps to liberate myself by stripping out Google’s spyware when I install LineageOS and FLOSS apps from the F-Droid repository. Then, the need to talk to my parents over Skype will arise, and my girlfriend will want to chat with me over Whatsapp. I will have that burning need to monitor what is happening with all my “friends” on Facebook. I will start out with the best intentions, but within a month I will have installed all the tools of surveillance Capitalism in my new phone, just like in the previous one.

What makes the modern smartphone so seductive and dangerous is that it takes our very human desire to connect and share with others and turns that desire into the means to exploit us. I may be a little more aware of how it is done than most people, but that knowledge makes me no less resistant to its appeal. With this worry swirling in the back of my head, I now sit fiddling with my newest toy, both in awe of its power and in fear of its consequences.

1 thought on “Reflections about buying a new mobile phone

  1. Anon

    If you ask a hospital supply for their selection of surgical levers, you will get a variety of beautifully-shaped stainless items with carefully smoothed surfaces, like miniature art-nouveau prybars. Some are very useful for opening cases. They are surprisingly cheap, and if a surgeon has rejected one (say, for a small pit in the surface), they may be free.

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