Why I Traded My Galaxy Note 5 for a Midrange ZTE

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The night my Samsung Galaxy Note 5 died, I was at a film screening, and used it for all the usual tasks: taking notes, posting snippets from the director's Q&A to Instagram, tweeting my take on her movie, booking an Uber home, and checking email en route.

When I got home, the battery was dangerously low, so I plugged it in with the fast charger. That's when I realized it had turned itself off, something it had been doing for the past three days.

An hour later, I was beyond frustrated. I fired up the laptop, crawled through the official sites looking for reboot hacks, switched out cables, tried other chargers and different power outlets. There's no removable battery, so I couldn't do a forced restart. I remembered an old Palm (RIP) hack where you unscrewed the stylus and pushed the sharp pointer (or a stretched-out paper clip) into a recess, but there was no such thing on the Note 5. When all else failed, I watched Android troubleshooting tutorials on YouTube. But nothing worked.

I decided to try again in the morning, and searched the house for an old watch battery-powered alarm clock; thank goodness for the tech graveyard drawer.

In the morning, it was still dead.

I had a busy schedule that day, which I now had to get off my Chromebook and write on a piece of paper along with useful phone numbers and hastily sketched maps of how to get places. I was beginning to realize how digitally dependent I was: no Google Maps, Gmail, Internet, or phone. There was a window of opportunity between appointments at noon when I could go to the AT&T store and sort it out. Until then, I'd just have to acclimate to analog.

Grabbing my Metro Tap card (because I recently quit my car, even though I live in L.A.), I headed out to mass transit. Automatically, I went to check the Citymapper app to see which combination of bus/train/walking would get me to Ocean Park fastest. I looked at the blank screen, groaned, sat down at the bus stop and waited.

Within 60 seconds, I was jonesing for distraction: news, weather, email, horoscope—anything—even (I'll admit it) "I wonder how many people liked my sunrise shot on Instagram?" I'd love to tell you I had a zen morning of disconnected bliss, but I did not. I thought of the emails piling up, the unanswered texts, and calendar events I needed to reschedule. Thank goodness I had my recently purchased iPod nano; I plugged in and tuned out.

The worst part was the questions. I had no idea how many run through my head in a constant stream, but Google was maddeningly out of reach. By far the weirdest aspect of being phone-less was asking people "Do you know what time it is?" They looked at me as if I'd arrived from the last century.

People with phone and tablet

As soon as my interview was over, I dashed to the Expo train to get back into the city. I looked enviously at everyone with their head bowed, communing with the digital world, connected and happy.

Oddly enough, considering it was the middle of the day, there was a very long wait at the AT&T store. Had there been a virus during the night that took down more smartphones than just mine, I wondered?

Finally, it was my turn. The salesperson came over. I checked his name badge. "Eric," I said, pushing my malfunctioning device across the table, "It died."

He picked it up and fiddled around a bit until he concurred that yes, it was no more. Then he let slip it would take at least three days for AT&T to return my phone to the manufacturer and replace it under warranty. Or I could go to the Samsung store and see if they could help me.

I held up my hand to stop him. "Eric," I said, firmly. "I'm not leaving this store without a phone. Let's hear the other options."

Unsurprisingly, in a world where manufacturers and mobile operators do deals for carriage and subsidize access to the latest devices, there aren't many options when a phone dies after just five months. I refused point blank to buy a new phone, start a new contract, or hope that the warranty would kick in some kind of refund at a later date.

Then something interesting happened. By this point, Eric had learned I was a journalist (if one is in possession of double X chromosomes and finds oneself in a digital emporium, this is a useful thing to communicate). So Eric and I had a nice chat, about how I met Elon Musk and what Ridley Scott is really like, while he outlined my options on his digital screen.

"There's always the ZTE," he said, finally, pointing at a basic shelf of phones that looked—at a distance—exactly like the iPhones and Galaxy S ranges that dominated the rest of the store. "Watch my stuff," I said, "I'll just check them out."

I stood in front of the shelf and picked up one of the ZTE devices; it was light and not unattractive to look at. Then I did a double-take when I saw the price tag. It was THIRTY DOLLARS. To. Buy. Outright.

Eric and I wrapped up business pretty quickly after that.

"Does it come in a range of colors?" I asked.

"No," he laughed, and went out the back to open up the latest shipment boxes, returning with a basic, but classic-looking, black phone. "You could use this as your backup," he suggested, while transferring my phone number to the new SIM card, "Once you've sorted out a new Galaxy device at the Samsung store."

I told myself the same thing. I'd just put up with it as a temporary measure, to get me hooked back into the cloud and onto the mobile cellular networks again. But that night, while the ZTE Maven (Z831) was charging, I took a closer look.

ZTE Maven (Z831)

It was perfectly serviceable, really. I combed through the tech specs online; it had Qualcomm Snapdragon, was running Android 6.0.1. (aka "Marshmallow"), and humming along nicely on the 4G LTE network. Logging into Android for my various accounts brought emails, calendar, contacts, and access to Google Drive streaming in from the cloud (oh, the relief at having the digital universe restored).

I did my customary mobile cleanup operation I've done on every device I've ever owned: turned off all app notifications to save battery life, switched out the wallpaper to "The Divers" from Vogue 1930 by George Hoyningen-Huené, downloaded the apps I really wanted and disabled all the carrier-mandated bloatware (bye bye, YP) that I didn't.

I changed as many of the settings as I could (sadly you can't override system fonts on the ZTE, or if you can, I can't see how), tested the built-in speaker with a BBC radio streaming audio feed (not bad), took a few photos (not great, but I don't mind the slightly muddy mid-70s look on Instagram, it's kinda retro), and made some phone calls. All worked fine.

ZTE Maven (Z831)

So what don't I like? The messaging function, bizarrely, doesn't pull data from Google contacts, so I downloaded Contacts+ and use that as a phone dialer/SMS function instead. I wouldn't use the system calendar or browser, but I don't need to with an Android login to Google's productivity apps suite and Chrome.

Storage? An agonizingly meager 8GB (discipline will be required, but that's no bad thing) and the gallery doesn't have the option to select all and delete photos and videos. The haptics are a bit much; I'm getting used to it but at first it was like sticking my fingers in a live electrical socket.

Still, 24 hours later, I've decided to keep the ZTE.

The decision is mostly because it cost $37 dollars including tax, and I'm so very tired of being ripped off to the tune of $700 per year for something I never own outright and that becomes obsolete long before its upgrade cycle ends. Sure, it's stripped down, but smart enough for my purposes.

But here's the moment that tipped the balance for me: In a cafe this morning, a friend walked in and did a double-take at my phone. He narrowed his eyes. "Is that something new? What is it? Where did you get it? Who made it? Is it a pre-release demo unit? Where can I get one?"

I can spot tech-envy at 50 paces. "Nihao," I said, holding up my new device.

"You brought it back from China?" he said, craning his head to see the quality of the display (certainly not as super-shiny as an iPhone, I'll admit). I didn't respond, just drained my coffee, put my vintage sunglasses on, popped the ZTE safely into my black patent messenger bag, and left as swiftly as my Dr. Martens would allow.

Hello, ZTE. The era of the smart enough super cheap smartphone has arrived.

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