About a month ago I bought my first Android phone. I want to document my reasoning behind why I bought the phone that I did and in time I can review my decision making and hopefully improve next time I buy a phone.

I had previously used an Apple iPhone 5, my first smartphone (yeah, I know, I was late to this smartphone party) but with the release of iOS 11, Apple no longer would support the iPhone 5 with updates of any kind and the phone was starting to feel very very slow. I had previously replaced the battery once, which helped with battery life but there really isn’t any way to improve the phone. I also simply wanted something newer and more capable, especially a better camera.

My budget was to keep the purchase price under $300 for a brand new (not refurbished or used) unlocked (from a carrier perspective) phone with a warranty and a good camera. Buying a new phone with a warranty was important to me because I cannot afford to throw away a few hundred bucks, so if the phone has any issues then being able to immediately get the manufacturer to fix it for free is important. I had bought my iPhone 5 refurbished, but not by Apple, and the LTE never really worked correctly. My price point was $300 because that’s as high as I could convince my wife to let me go, but having a reasonable price ceiling was good as it limited my choices so making a decision was easier. Buying an unlocked phone was important to me because I’ve previously switched carriers a few times in my life and not needing to buy a new phone in order to make a carrier switch just seems like a reasonable thing to expect in 2017. Having a good camera is important to me because I have small kids and take a lot of pictures/movies of them.

Secondary goals were to get a phone which had expandable flash, an easy to replace battery, an unlockable bootloader, waterproofing, and support from one of the 3rd party ROM communities. All of the secondary goals relate to being able to keep the phone for a long time without worrying about outgrowing it or losing software update abilities.

I bought an LG G5, model RS988. I paid $250 plus tax at B&H Photo at the end of October 2017. Overall, I’m pretty happy with my decision.

The LG G5 is a 2016 flagship phone that was launched in the first quarter of 2016. It has a Snapdragon 820 SoC (2x Cortex-A7x-like cores and 2x Cortex-A53-like cores) which is decently powerful, 4 GB of RAM which is still quite good in late 2017, 32 GB of flash, an SD card slot, and a fairly highly rated camera for when it was released. The LG G5 originally came with Android Marshmallow, was then upgraded to Android Nougat 7.0 in late 2016/early 2017, and is expected to probably get Android Oreo soon.

The RS988 is carrier unlocked and has good support for the frequencies used by Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile in the USA. When I first received the phone I used it on Ting’s T-Mobile MVNO network and it worked fine although service at my house was less than stellar. I’ve since switched to AT&T’s prepaid service and get very good service at my house but less than stellar service at work. My lesson learned here is that mobile phone provider coverage maps lie and one must actually test each provider’s coverage in the areas which matter to you. Verizon, based on coworkers’ phones, has good coverage at my office but my company is moving in the spring to a new building so I’ll likely stick with AT&T for now. I really liked Ting, they have great customer service and decent prices, but T-Mobile’s network is lacking where I live.

The RS988 has an easy to replace battery. You power off the phone, hold the top securely in one hand while depressing a small button, and then slide the bottom of the phone away and the battery comes with it. Pop the old battery out of the bottom piece of the phone, insert new battery, and reassemble. The total experience is very easy and takes only a minute or two. I am very excited by this as in a year or two when the original battery starts to show reduced capacity I can easily replace it without the use of any tiny screw drivers, plastic spudgers, or heat guns as are needed on 98% of phones today.

The RS988 has an unlockable bootloader. LG has a website and an official policy where you can request a bootloader unlock key so that you can install any software you like onto the phone. I’ve requested and received my bootloader unlock key but I haven’t yet actually unlocked the bootloader as doing so will likely cause Netflix to stop working and possibly not allow me to receive software updates from LG for the stock ROM.

Other LG G5 models have official support from Lineage OS and the RS988 model is included in the build system for Lineage. Hopefully this just means that no one has actually stepped up to take ownership of a Lineage RS988 build but I haven’t yet learned enough about AOSP to fully understand this. Possibly this is an opportunity for me to continue to get software and security updates for many years once LG drops support.

The one downside of buying a carrier unlocked phone that I’ve learned since getting my G5 is that the fancy calling features like VoLTE (voice over LTE), HD Voice (which may simply be VoLTE, I don’t really know), and Wi-Fi calling do not generally work as the carriers block these services from working on non-carrier-branded phones. This isn’t a huge deal except that if Wi-Fi calling would have worked for me then I would have been able to stay with Ting as I have decent enough Wi-Fi at home even with poor T-Mobile coverage so making calls still would’ve worked fine. The VoLTE issue is likely only to present itself in areas where a carrier only has LTE coverage and no 3G service, which is likely fairly rare, but is something that T-Mobile is doing now apparently. I’m unsure if Apple iPhones which are purchased directly from Apple unlocked have these features be usable or not.

My transition to Android has gone fairly smoothly, I’m still able to sync my calendar and contacts from iCloud using DAVdroid, so my wife and I still can share these while she’s still on her iPhone. I was able to replace the stock LG launcher which tries very hard to be like iOS, but fails miserably, with OpenLauncher which is pretty simple and works well. I tried a bunch of different email clients and have found K-9 Mail to work really well for my needs. And I like that I can use Firefox for web browsing (I’ve been a Firefox devotee since shortly after its 1.0 release, and a Mozilla/Netscape user since I first got on the web). The G5’s camera is pretty good, I actually really like the wide-angle abilities, although the camera app is full of features which I don’t care about (the selfie cam can fix your blemishes! For goodness sake…).

The biggest things I miss from iOS are:

  • IPP Everywhere (Air Print) printing, it just works on iOS but most printers seem to need an app/plugin for Android.
  • mDNS name resolution just works everywhere in iOS (and in Linux with Avahi and on Windows with Apple’s Bonjour) but doesn’t seem to be something Android offers (although mDNS-SD does work).
  • iMessage. Apple does iMessage very well. I’ve yet to find an app like it on Android which doesn’t provide plain text to Google which is anywhere close to iMessage’s abilities.
  • Timely software/security updates. My G5 is still on the July 2017 security update while my wife’s iPhone has gotten multiple security updates that fix CVEs since the iOS 11 release in September. This can be resolved by using Lineage OS but I really hope LG does better after Oreo lands.

But for a $250 phone, compared to paying much more for an Apple phone, I went into this understanding that there’d be trade-offs and changes from iOS and that likely I’d need to put in some time and effort to get a 3rd party ROM working in the long run.

Just today, November 28th, 2017, B&H Photo now lists the RS988 model as discontinued. There’s still a few vendors online who will sell new one but I expect those will decline fairly quickly now. The G5 seems to have been a fairly unloved phone by reviews sites so hopefully the used market will provide the ability to buy low cost gently used RS988 phones in the near future so that I can get one cheap to work on Lineage OS with :)


28 November 2017