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Your Next Android Phone: Smaller but Expandable

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor

(Images by Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

BARCELONA — This week, in the sprawling smartphone showroom that is Mobile World Congress, I’ve had a chance to survey the current state of Android phones. Some of what I found is good, some of it is a mess, and some of that mess may not be cleaned up until next year’s MWC.

(Note that I can’t report anything similar about the state of the iPhone based on my MWC visit: Apple does not participate in this show, in keeping with its habit of shunning tech events it doesn’t run itself.)

Expandable storage is back

For a while, it looked as if Android vendors were set to follow Apple in not allowing users to augment their phones’ storage with cheap microSD cards. At MWC, however, several high-profile phones — most notably Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, LG’s G5, and Sony’s Xperia X and XA — all allow you to add extra storage.

And the designers at those three companies managed to do so without making their phones bulkier. They did so by making room for microSD cards in a part of their phones that already opens up: the SIM tray. In Samsung and Sony’s phones, an extra-long tray now includes room for a microSD card; in LG’s, a wider tray has a second opening for the storage card.

This is a good move all around: Flash memory is amazingly cheap when not hard-wired into your device. And it’s a smart way for Android companies to set themselves apart from Apple, which continues to find removable media on mobile devices fundamentally icky.

(FYI: LG and Samsung have disabled Android’s option to treat a microSD card as if it were built-in storage, so you won’t want to install apps or games there.)

Five-inch screens are the new “small”

I failed to find a single phone from a big-name manufacturer with a screen diagonally smaller than five inches. I could count that as a personal setback, since I’ve been railing against big-screen phones since at least 2012. But I also found few phones bigger than 5.7 inches, so maybe my crusade against the enormophone hasn’t been a complete failure, either.

These days, 5.0 inches (Sony Xperia X), 5.1 inches (Samsung Galaxy S7), and 5.3 inches (LG G5) all rate as “small” phones. That’s bigger than I once thought acceptable, but I have to admit that I use a phone with a 5.2-inch screen one-handed and don’t find it unmanageable.

If those screen sizes don’t offer enough real estate for you, 5.5 inches (as seen in the Galaxy S7 Edge and the HTC One X9, not to mention the iPhone 6s Plus) now looks to be your likeliest next step up. That’s more display than I care to use, but it’s not as out of whack as 6-inch phablets like the Huawei Mate 8, the ZTE Axon Max and the older, Motorola-made Nexus 6.

Android alterations continued

Android manufacturers have finally figured out how to ship phones with up-to-date versions of Google’s operating system. I saw only a handful of devices on the show floor running Android 5.anything; many featured the very latest 6.0.1 release.

But those vendors have yet to lose the bad habit of customizing Google’s operating system in ways that should confuse or annoy anybody familiar with Android.

On LG’s G5, for example, the familiar App Drawer — the grid listing of apps you open by tapping the centermost button in the home row of core programs — is gone in favor of iOS-esque app folders. LG also futzed with the standard Quick Settings panel: Instead of getting quick access to basic functions with one swipe down, you must now also scroll sideways to see a wider variety of switches.

Samsung still reverses the order of the Recent Apps and Back buttons. I realize that a lot of Galaxy owners think that’s how things should be arranged. But not that long ago, Samsung also hid the Recent Apps button behind the home button, which you had to press and hold to invoke that menu as if you were trying to bring up Siri in iOS; everybody got over it when Samsung fixed that.

(The S7 and S7 Edge do, however, feature fewer Samsung-only apps and offer a Settings screen that looks more like stock Android than before. Shoneel Kolhatkar, senior product-marketing director, said the company wanted to give users a “cleaned” Samsung version of Android.)

USB-C uncertainty

The versatile, can’t-plug-it-in-the-wrong-way USB-C port is the connector of the future, but MWC exhibitors can’t decide on how distant that future is. LG’s G5 includes a USB-C connector, but Sony and Samsung’s new devices stick with traditional micro-USB, as do HTC’s One X9 and Lenovo’s Vibe K5.

Samsung opted for the older connector to keep the new phones compatible with its Gear VR headset; it can already deliver USB-C-style fast-charging via micro-USB. As for Sony, North America marketing director Don Mesa said the company didn’t want to “drive people to go and buy a Type-C adapter.”

Having brought a USB-C phone to MWC, I had to admit that he might have a point. Almost none of the charging stations on the show-floor could connect to my device. Good thing battery life is another phone feature that’s improved in the last year or two.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.