My Moto G4 Play, going back to Android 7.1, and device longevity

Dom Corriveau

Dom Corriveau

Over the ear headphones connected to a mobile amplifier next to a logitech wireless keyboard with the Motorola G4 Play phone with screen on all resting on a dark kitchen table.

About a month ago I switched to a Moto G4 Play that I purchased on eBay after my Honor 7x screen started to separate from the frame. Running Android 7.1 and full of Amazon bloatware, I have had a surprisingly good experience. But it has me thinking more about where budget devices live in the mobile device ecosystem, how budget users are treated, and how it can be better.

Dreaming of a better budget future

Although it has been fun using a blast from the past, I must admit the phone has worked surprisingly well. For my normal use case of podcasts, email, Discord, and occasional maps, I haven't had any significant issues. Occasionally the GPS is slow to pick up my location, making navigation troublesome. However, part of that is the fact that I live in a very rural part of Washington state and no matter what device I use there are data and GPS issues. I did not encounter GPS problems while traveling in Phoenix, a much larger and better supported metro area.

What has been nagging at me while using the Moto G4 Play (amz XT1607 for you nerds) is the culture around budget devices. Both the manufacturers and tech press are actively hostile to users of these devices. Both treat people who purchase budget devices with a condescending "be happy with what you get" attitude.

First with the manufacturers. The Moto G4 Play device I am using is an Amazon partner device. When it was released, Amazon was subsidizing the cost of the phone in exchange for pre-installed bloatware and completely blocking the ability to unlocked the bootloader. Amazon is pervasive throughout the experience. All Amazon apps cannot be removed, which I guess was to be expected. What I didn't expect is that even turning off notifications is blocked. No matter what you do, Amazon is allowed to push notifications to the device and they cannot be stopped or hidden.

For their part, Motorola put in a decent effort in updating Android during the support cycle. Originally released in 2016, it received its last security update in December 2020. For a period of time other versions of the G4 Play were unlockable through the Motorola website, but not the Amazon version. Currently none of the G4 Play variants are supported and they are no longer available to be unlocked. This means the device will not receive any security updates from Motorola and they won't release the device to the public to maintain, which boggles my mind.

Owners of budget devices purchase them because they don't have the funds to buy new tech constantly. I know that 4 years is considered to be a long time for supporting a mobile device, but this is still planned obsolescence. The hardware in this device is still functional in 2021. This isn't just a Motorola problem, this is a mobile device manufacturer problem.

I understand supporting a device isn't free. It takes resources and personnel to do so. I'm not asking Motorola to continue to support this device. I'm asking them to automatically unlock the bootloader for all unsupported devices. By unlocking the bootloader, you allow the community to pick it up and take over the maintenance, which isn't guaranteed. There are many devices with unlocked bootloaders that are no longer maintained by alternative ROMs. By unlocking it, you at least give me the option to try.

And not just Moto, but all Android OEM's. I have a device that is not only not supported, but also blocked from me making any changes to it myself to extend its life. You just picked a date in which you felt I should no longer use it. Dropping support plus refusing to unlock it is a reminder that we don't actually own these devices. We are renting them from the OEM, Google, and your mobile carrier. You and I are not part of the equation.

Budget device wishlist

Since I am making requests, lets not stop at unlocking bootloaders. My ideal budget device has:

  • User removable battery
  • SD card slot with support up to at least 1 TB
  • FM radio
  • USB-C w/DisplayPort video out
  • Unlocked, both carrier and bootloader

This doesn't seem that hard but is nearly impossible even for flagship devices in 2021. I did find a device that is close. In 2016 LG released the V20 which had all of these features, but at flagship prices. To be honest, I would pay for a new device that used 2016 hardware if it had these features.

I talk a lot about user replaceable batteries and why this is so important for both budget devices and stopping e-waste. Most people upgrade devices because it slows down. Yet, the primary reason it slows is because the battery can no longer supply the necessary energy to keep it running at full speed, so the device slows. With glued in, impossible to replace batteries, the user is left with no choice but to buy a new device. This is why the Right to Repair movement is so important.

I want something beyond right to repair. I want phone back plates to be easily removed and the battery swappable by the user, just like in the early days of Android. Remember when this was a differentiator? Remember when Android devices were different than Apple because you could use a SD card and replace the battery?

Aside from battery replacement, video out is critical for budget devices. Obviously this won't work on my G4 Play which is still has a micro-USB port. But for new phones, budget devices should have DisplayPort or MHL support as the buyers of these devices need it the most. These are the users who are more than likely to not have a PC at home. Budget device users can't afford buying multiple devices for a single use case. Adding display support would enable many, many people access to a full desktop experience, even if it is the limited Android version.

It is criminal that display support is locked to only high end, $1,000+ devices, such as Samsung Dex or Xiaomi PC Mode. It is apparent why they do it, though. Nearly all mobile device manufacturers also make PC's. When looking at the product verticals in these companies, you can see where they draw the line so one vertical doesn't cannibalize another. Of course phones and tablets can't have full PC functions, that would cut into laptop sales. They need to have a synergistic strategy that encourages customers to buy into the whole ecosystem. This is why iPadOS exists, so it doesn't cut into iPhone sales. And iPadOS can't get too close to MacOS so it doesn't jeopardize Macbook sales.

I am a heavy user of Dex Mode on my Samsung Tab S5e (which is where I'm writing this now) and it is fully capable for me to do remote work or even for my kids to do their online school. Yes there are limitations. But for video calls, chat, email, and docs it is more than enough. In fact, I can do my full marketing job from Dex Mode except for hardcore photo and video editing. I am fully confident that if a $400 phone had the same features, I could hand it to my son who could do his school work and have a quality phone.

What's next

I'm sticking with the G4 Play for a while. There are obvious security issues using such an old device, so I doubt I will be on it for long. I've been surprised with the performance over the last month and has worked incredibly well on the road. I will admit I am cheating, slightly. I obviously carry around my tablet, which does a lot of heavy lifting for road warrior work. I also self-host many of my own services which have very light companion apps. Plus, I use third party apps for many popular services, which are historically small, lighter, and faster (with less features) than the official apps.

My eyes are firmly set on the release of the FxTec Pro1x this fall. It matches everything on my wishlist, plus official support from Sailfish OS and Ubuntu Touch. It is more expensive than a true mid-range or budget device, but is the exact device of my dreams.

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Email: obscurednarration@gmail.com
Twitter: @domcorriveau

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