Goldstuck on Gadgets

Solving the Case of the Grumpy Smartphone

August 23rd, 2017
We all wrestle with the frustration of love affairs with fresh new phones that end in frustration as they become ageing grumps. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK looks at reasons and solutions.
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When that fresh new smartphone enters our lives, it often matches both our budgets and our lifestyles. It’s an expression of ourselves and of the hope that, this time, it’s going to be a long-term relationship.

A year later, it’s just like all the rest of them. Slow, cantankerous, temperamental, and prone to shut down on you just when you need a meaningful conversation.

Are phones designed to become ageing grumps? Is this a form of planned obsolescence that guarantees the manufacturers will keep selling new, improved devices as we become more addicted to the faster, better and – the real hope – fresher?

Well, yes. If phone makers didn’t keep making better phones, they would go out of business. But the truth is, they can’t help it. The technology going into the phones that are made today is simply not advanced enough to cope with the demands that we all make of the devices tomorrow.

As new apps emerge that give us new capacity and capability in our work, social, and entertainment lives, we push last year’s phone to the limit and are surprised that it groans under the weight of our expectations.

It’s not just that new apps are ahead of their time. In most cases, they could work on phones made six years ago or more. It’s that there are just so many of them. This is the main clue to The Case of the Grumpy Smartphone.

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The core reason why smartphones were so much faster than humans is that they are not smart enough to clean up after themselves.

There are a number of specific reasons. These include two major slowdown factors:

1. Most apps run in the background on the phone, even when you’re not using them. As you install more apps, more apps are running in the background, using more data, more battery power and more system memory. This gradually slows down the phone, even in the absence of any use of these apps. Because they are also constantly draining the battery, they reduce the life of the battery.

2. As your storage fills up with saved files (photos, videos, documents), as well as cached files from websites you visit or attachments to your chats and received emails, each new file is stored in small chunks of data spread across the phone’s drive – the storage that lies within the device. As more chunks of data are spread more widely, it makes retrieval of the files slower, but also slows down the storage of new files.

You would think that deleting a file or app would solve the problem, but it does such a messy job, it’s almost as bad as spilling coffee on the handset. As one does. When you delete files, the freed up space is spread out across the drive, and new files have to find enough space in all these new holes to fit in comfortably. All of this results in the phone becoming less efficient over time.

There are many workarounds to clean up the mess, but none of them represent a real solution.

The first smartphone to address the problem directly, the Huawei Mate 9, was launched in November 2016. It introduced machine learning algorithms that monitor the user’s behaviour, shuts down unused apps, optimises processor use for the tasks at hand, and prevents fragmentation of files.

In short, it cleans up after the user, using artificial intelligence (AI). Not the kind that will graduallly develop self-awareness and take over the world, but rather the kind that has context awareness and keeps doing one job better as it learns.

At the launch, Huawei claimed that, over an 18 month period, you would end up with a more efficient, better performing phone.

We’re now at the halfway mark in testing Huawei’s claim, so the phone still has 9 month to prove itself. If it performs as advertised, “machine learning” may well be the next standard feature in smartphones.

“In future we will introduce more AI fucntions, like components in charge of different aspects of the phone’s performance,” says Likun Zhao, GM of Huawei Consumer Business Group in South Africa. He feels strongly that the evolution of the handset is about to enter a third era, following the early feature phones as the first and the basic touchscreen smartphone, pioneered by Apple, as the second.

“We think the big change from version two to version three is AI. The smartphone plus AI equals the intelligent phone.”

Huawei, he says , defines the intelligent phone according to three key features: “First, intelligent interaction, which is very simple: the phone will be like your eyes, your ears, nose, tongue and brain; the smartphone can listen, hear, taste, and feel.

“Second, is borderless display. Today it all depends on the screen, text, and voice, but we think in future it will also be based on the actions of users, behaviour of users, and even proactive perception, like tracking your eyes automatically. This means the screen is no longer the border; it extends to your body.

“Third is proactive, intelligent services, starting with machine learning, but with AI becoming like the brain, where the phone can think, and can study behaviour.”

At that point, the phone begins to refresh itself, which means it is also likely to start treating its users better. But this could be anything from two to 10 years away, so what do you do in the meantime?

First, on most Android phones, there is a maintenance option. On the latest Samsung S8 devices, it’s labelled Device Maintenance, and allows the user to optimise the phone’s “maintenance status”. With one click, you can close apps running in the background, free up storage from temporary files, identify apps that are making abnormal use of the battery and shut those down, and clean up apps that are vulnerable to malware, which can infect and damage the phone’s software.

The function also balances battery life and screen resolution for everyday use, or enhances specific functions for games, entertainment or other forms of high performance. Most Samsung and Huawei smartphones have similar functions.

If the function is not available on your phone, or it does not offer a powerful enough set of maintenance tools, many apps perform a similar role.  For example, AVG Cleaner conducts an analysis, doing a particularly good job of identifying content that has been cached and can be deleted if not needed on the phone. Its only drawback is that it demands payment for a Pro version that allows automatic cleaning and to optimise battery use.

It’s worth shopping around in your app store to find equivalent phone maintenance apps that don’t demand payment for every additional function. However, it may also be worthwhile forking out a few rands or dollars to protect your investment in a device that cost hundreds or thousands when you were first persuaded to enter a relationship.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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