The questions that mobile phone reviewers never ask

One of the fundamental problems with the mobile phone industry is that most of the people who review phones only focus on the superficial aspects and don’t ask the right questions about the phones. It is hard to find a mobile phone reviewer who is even worth reading/watching.

The typical mobile phone review doesn’t provide much information beyond what can be gleaned by simply glancing at the phone’s spec sheet. The only real value they add in my opinion are their comments about each phone maker’s modifications to Android and their evaluation of how well the cameras work.

Most of the mobile phone reviewers such as Marques Brownlee (MKBHD), Lewis Hilsenteger (Unbox Therapy and Lew Later), Mrwhosetheboss, Verge, CNET, Engadget, etc. don’t have much technical knowledge. Only a couple reviewers like Anandtech and Android Authority bother to delve into the tech underlying the phone. Most of them blather on about style, how it feels in the hand, bezels and the screen notch/bullet-hole. They focus on the superficial aspects that anyone can figure out just by picking up the phone and looking at it, rather than informing the public about the unobvious aspects that truly matter for the long-term ownership of the phone.

Here are the questions that reviewers should ask when evaluating a mobile phone:

  • How long is it likely to receive security updates?
    Reviewers can provide the OEM’s history with previous phone models in the same market segment to tell people how long they can expect security updates.
  • How long is it likely to receive operating system upgrades?
    Again, most OEMs don’t tell you, but reviewers can provide the OEM’s history with previous phone models in the same market segment.
  • How likely is the phone to break if dropped?
    Reviewers should be conducting drop tests, but even if they don’t want to destroy the phone, they can look at the engineering and make some assessment of its durability. If it has a glass back, a curved screen or little bezel or casing to protect the screen, the phone is more likely to be damaged in a drop and reviewers should inform the public about those aspects of the phone, rather than focusing on its style.
  • How easy is the phone to fix if it gets damaged?
    Reviewers should open the darn thing and tell us how hard it is to replace the screen and the battery, because those are the two components that are most likely to need replacing. Reviewers should also tell us whether the parts can be bought and roughly how much a replacement screen and battery will cost.
  • How hard is it to root or jailbreak the phone, so preinstalled apps can be deleted and the configuration changed?
    It drives me bonkers that phone reviewers never cover the fundamental question of how to root/jailbreak a phone. They expect people to just accept whatever comes preconfigured and preinstalled in the phone and seem to believe that people should have no right to change it.
  • How hard is it to unlock bootloader?
    Reviewers never tell us what is the OEM’s policy toward unlocking the bootloader, so we have no idea whether it is possible to install another bootloader program like TWRP that allows complete device backups or install another OS, like LineageOS or another AOSP derivative.
  • How likely are TWRP and AOSP derivatives to be ported to the phone?
    Reviewers need to spend some time on the phone’s XDA-Developers forums and give us some idea of how likely it will be possible to keep using the phone after the OEM stops providing software updates. You usually can make an assessment even if porting work hasn’t started just by looking at the processor and the history of that OEM’s other phone models. OnePlus and Google phones always have good TWRP and LineageOS ports because they provide a lot of info to the community, they use Snapdragon SoC’s, and they have active users to do the ports, but it is hard for people to know when buying phones from other OEMs. Reviewers should let us know whether a phone has hardware that allows for porting, whether porting work has already started, and tell us whether similar models from the OEM got ports in the past.
  • What’s inside the phone?
    Reviewers should crack open the case and tell us what they think of the components they find. If they don’t have the tech knowledge to talk about what is inside a mobile phone, then they have no business being phone reviewers.

I have never read a mobile phone review that covers all these questions, which are fundamental to determining what will be the long-term utility of a phone. Every time I buy a new mobile phone, I have to spend hours investigating the phone at different sites such as iFixit and XDA-Developers forums to find the information that phone reviewers should be covering, but they don’t.

I see two fundamental problems with how mobile phones are reviewed. The first is that many phone reviewers don’t know much about the tech that they are reviewing. The second is that reviewers don’t seem to care about the total cost of ownership and the longevity of phones, so they don’t inform the public about the aspects of phones that matter for maintaining them over the long term. Tech reviewers seem to think that most people want to throw away their phones every two years.

Because mobile phone reviewers don’t focus on the questions that I listed above, people make poor choices when buying phones, because they aren’t informed about the total cost of ownership of different phone models. The longer a mobile phone lasts, the lower the annual cost of the phone. Because reviewers don’t cover these questions, the public doesn’t look to buy phones with a lower total cost of ownership and OEMs have little incentive to make phones that are less likely to break, easier to fix, are supported for longer and have longer lifespans. Phone reviewers are helping drive an industry that is based on planned obsolescence and locked-down devices that afford the user few rights.

2 thoughts on “The questions that mobile phone reviewers never ask

  1. Marrk J Kropf

    One small addition here: If talking about the nature of updates, how long would the security updates of the phone be considered to be maintained? If updates are only to be offered for some 2 or 3 years or if some new venture was unsure and was to possibly fold with no provision for support, of what benefit is a device which otherwise appears wonderful. As new and independent alternatives hit the market is important to understand that making a change in the platform is different from keeping both firmware and security updates viable in an environment of shifting needs created by hackers and by other factors.

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