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    Testing: Pros and Cons of the LG G3's 2560x1440 Screen

    When 1080p screens came to phones, the general consensus was that the resolution race could be coming to an end. After all, who needs more than full HD resolution on a phone? Whether or not we need it, LG took the stage a few months ago and announced the LG G3 with a quad HD (QHD) screen clocking in at 2560x1440 pixels. The G3 is the first device in the US market with a QHD panel, but LG had to make some sacrifices to get there. So is it all marketing nonsense, or did LG win the resolution race?

    More Retina than Retina

    The conventional wisdom has long been that anything north of 300 pixels per inch would be sufficiently high resolution that the average human would be unable to make out the individual pixels at arm's length (the G3 is 534 PPI). This is absolutely true if you're talking about picking out pixels, but reality is a bit more muddled than that.

    While 300 PPI makes it impossible to see pixels for virtually everyone, the images displayed on the screen might benefit from a higher resolution. For example, the eye can detect very small changes in the angle of a line that are well below the normal "retina resolution." Likewise, the alignment of two parallel lines can be seen with a startling degree of clarity--on the order of 4-5 times that of normal visual acuity. So, you might conceivably need 1500 PPI to account for all these cases.

    A QHD screen might also perform better when it comes to rendering curves--antialiasing, basically. The mathematical relationship between discrete points (pixels) and continuous elements (lines) is murky at best, but when you toss human vision into the mix, it can be hard to come to any firm conclusions. So what does this mean? A straight line made up of pixels you can't see is just a line. However, a curve made up of pixels exactly the same size might not look continuous as the pixels will produce a very subtle aliased (jaggy) edge. It would be up to software to clean that up, and having more pixels to work means better results.

    The way the eyes and brain process this visual data probably varies from person to person, but some analyses of the numbers point to roughly double the resolution requirements to prevent visible aliasing. So we're talking about 600 PPI, and the G3 gets close with 534 pixels per inch.

    The bottom line is that there's SOME basis for thinking that a QHD screen could offer a better viewing experience. Although, it's definitely not going to be a marked improvement in quality like jumping past 300 PPI.

    Tested In-Depth: Android Wear LG G Watch

    Will and Norm sit down to discuss Google's Android Wear platform, testing the new LG G Watch, and compare Google's smart watch to our experience living with the Pebble Steel watch. Here's why we think smart watches have the potential to be really useful accessories for smartphones.

    Scratch Testing an Alleged iPhone 6 Screen

    YouTube tech reviewer Marques Brownlee (MKBHD) recently posted two videos with what he claims is the front panel of Apple's as yet unannounced iPhone 6. The panel was supplied to him by Sonny Dickson, an Australian who has a history of procuring prototype phone components from suppliers in China. In Brownlee's testing, he found that the screen was much more scratch resistant than the iPhone 5S', using two different types of sandpaper. The alleged 4.7-inch iPhone screen was not impervious to damage, though, which Brownlee attributes to it being a sapphire-glass composite as opposed to being pure sapphire, like the iPhone 5S Touch ID/home button.

    Android Auto vs. iOS CarPlay: How Your Car Will Get Smarter

    Google's announcement of Android Auto at the recent Google I/O conference should surprise exactly no one. Apple is gearing up for its own in-car infotainment service later this year called CarPlay. It's long past the time when Google would hang back and see how Apple's approach to a new market worked out -- Android Auto is going head-to-head with CarPlay later this year.

    Both companies want their mobile platform with you all the time, but how are they going to convince people to embrace connected cars?

    Touchscreens separated at birth

    If there is something surprising about Apple and Google's move into in-car entertainment, it's the overall similarity of the approach. The implementations don't rely on hardware inside the car to do any of the thinking -- the smarts are all packed into your phone so you can upgrade your apps and features independent of the car. This circumvents one of the long-time weaknesses of pricey in-car infotainment.

    What good is that fancy touchscreen if Apple changes its connector and makes your whole system obsolete? Oh, your car only works with USB mass storage devices? Sorry Android doesn't do that anymore. Since your phone's mobile data connection is used for the dash system, you also won't have to worry about getting yet another data plan for your car, which I'm sure is a sad turn of events for Verizon executives.

    When Apple announced CarPlay, it sounded at first like you'd have to get a new car to have CarPlay-compatible setup, but thankfully component makers like Pioneer have stepped up to develop aftermarket decks that will support Apple's platform. Google announced several car audio companies right from the start including Alpine, Pioneer, and JVC. This is a technology segment that has seen decline in recent years as people simply made do with smartphones tethered to inexpensive decks and stock audio systems via Bluetooth or even an audio cable. CarPlay and Android Auto are an opportunity to make aftermarket decks interesting again. This is just another thing Android and iOS in the car have in common.

    In Brief: Samsung's VR Gear Solution Could Launch at IFA

    Engadget's report that Samsung is developing a virtual reality solution in partnership with Oculus VR to work with its Galaxy phones is becoming more believable. While neither Samsung nor Oculus have confirmed that a device is in the works, SamMobile claims to have the first images of the device design, along with details about its name and debut. The Gear VR name sounds believable, as well as the purported IFA unveil (Sept 5-10). Three new technical details stand out from this leak: first that Gear VR would use a cushioned elastic band to hold the headset in place, that it would have a dedicated button to activate the Galaxy phone's camera to let users "see through" the HMD, and that the side controls would be a touchpad. The latter two make sense as good UI, especially the see-through button--something I hope the consumer Oculus Rift will include. If calibrated properly with a camera lens, the see-through option opens up augmented reality potential for this kind of HMD.

    I'm still unconvinced that smartphone screens (as run through smartphone GPUs) can achieve the low persistence of vision that Oculus fans are expecting, but that's based on my experience using Google's Cardboard with an LCD-based phone, not Samsung's AMOLED screens. The other weird thing about this is that we're not expecting the Oculus consumer release any time soon, so Samsung's Gear VR may be the first Oculus-related virtual reality device to hit the consumer market. I'm not sure that would be a good thing for Oculus and the VR community if the reception isn't anything but glowing. If Gear VR does get announced at IFA, it'll be something that may distract from Oculus' agenda just two weeks later at their first Connect conference.

    Norman
    Testing: OnePlus One Android Smartphone

    We just posted our OnePlus One phone review, and I wanted to distill some of those thoughts in a post for anyone searching on Google or looking to find more information about the phone. As I said in the video, this is one of the best Android phones I've ever used. It's faster than the HTC One M8 and costs less off-contract than even Google's Nexus 5. And as of today, I'm still using it as my primary phone, as the benefits of its awesome battery life outweighs the disadvantages of its massive size.

    Aside from its price, here are some of my positive take-aways from testing the OnePlus One.

    1080p is lovely for a 5.5-inch screen. I've seen the LG G3 in person, and couldn't tell the difference between icons, text, and photos on that high-density screen and the images on my 5-inch 1080p Nexus 5. Only 1400p video was noticeably better. The OnePlus One also has a 5.5-inch screen, but 1080p suits it just fine. In a blind test (covering up the bezels), text and photos on OnePlus looked indistinguishable from those on the Nexus 5, reinforcing my opinion 1080p is an optimal resolution for smartphones.

    The camera is top-notch. One of the reason's I'm sticking with the OnePlus over the Nexus 5. It has a smartphone camera that I actually want to use on a regular basis. I haven't felt that way about a smartphone camera since switching over to Android from the iPhone 5. The 13MP Sony camera takes great HDR photos in good light conditions. Low light photos tax the shutter, and photos can get blown out if shooting toward the light source. I'm just a little bummed by the heavy JPEG compression, and am looking forward to Android L's RAW support. Also, shooting 4K video actually makes sense on this phone because I can pipe it directly to YouTube, which supports 4K video playback. (These still aren't clips I'm going to sync back to my desktop to edit.)

    Battery life is unbelievably great. The big win for OnePlus. The OnePlus One is the first phone I've used that I haven't been able to fully drain in a day without forcing it. Outside of a video playback test where I was streaming a high-def video over a cellular connection, the OnePlus has never gone below 25% battery in any day I've used it. I'm a pretty heavily phone user, and use several milestones throughout the day to gauge battery depletion--when I get to the office, noon, early afternoon, and leaving work. With my use, the battery on other phones typically dip below 70% by noon, but it takes until 3pm or so to get to that point on the OnePlus. It's been consistently above 35% by the time I reach home at around 7:30pm.

    Tested In-Depth: OnePlus One Android Smartphone

    We test the new high-end Android smartphone from OnePlus that's unique because it comes with Cyanogen built-in, and only costs $300 off-contract. And with a 5.5-inch screen, it's also one of the largest phones we've used. Here's what you need to know about the OnePlus One if you're vying for an invite for buy it.

    How RAW Photography Will Change Smartphone Cameras

    One of the things we think Apple does better than other smartphone manufacturers is build great cameras into its phones. It's one of the reasons that iPhone is one of the most popular cameras in the world, period. Based on our experience, the iPhone 5S' camera produces better-looking photos than that on high-end Android phones like the Nexus 5 and HTC One M8, and it's a safe bet that the next iPhone will have yet another camera upgrade. Sony currently supplies the small CMOS camera in iPhones, and it's also the supplier of camera sensors on a variety of Android phones. The difference in photo quality between those devices, then, can partially be attributed to the lens system used. But photo quality is also tied to the imaging software built into the phone's OS. And on that front, Android may take a leap over iOS later this year.

    While Apple is opening up manual camera controls to developers in iOS 8, one feature that's sorely lacking is support for RAW photo capture. And coincidentally, that's one feature that Google is bringing to Android L--support for camera apps to write raw pixel data from the camera sensor as a DNG (digital negative) file. While this may not sound like a big deal for most smartphone users, it is in fact a huge deal for photographers who are doing more than just taking photos to immediately share on social networks. As I've said before, the post-processing of a photo is just as important to the whole of the photography process as the act of snapping the shutter. The ability to save smartphone photos as RAW files instead of just JPEGs is the equivalent to an immediate and free upgrade to the camera, regardless of the sensor make.

    Photo credit: iFixit

    To understand the benefits (and costs) of RAW, let's quickly go over the limitations of JPEG images. JPEG is a lossy file format, using image compression algorithms to reduce the file size of an image while retaining as much details as possible. Standard JPEG settings allow for a compression ratio of 10:1 from the original image without noticeable reduction detail, especially on small screens. JPEGs are also most commonly saved with 8-bit color profiles. That means that each of its RGB color channels top out at 256 gradiations. 256-degrees of brightness for each color channel is plenty for a photo, but camera sensors can actually record much more detail than that. Digital imaging chips can process light coming into sensors in 12 or 14-bits--light data that is lost when converting an photo to a JPEG. That extra data, when run through a RAW image processor, allows for more flexibility when editing and helps avoid image artifacts like light banding.

    Another limitation to JPEGs is the inconsistency of compression engines between smartphones. The amount of compression used to save a photo in the iPhone is different than that of an Android phone, and can vary between camera apps. For example, a 13 Megapixel photo taken on the new OnePlus One Android phone is compressed to a file between 1-2MB at the highest quality setting. The iPhone 5S, using a 8MP sensor also made by Sony, saves JPEG photos that are also around 1.5MB each. (By comparison, the 14MP camera on the Phantom 2 saves 4-6MB JPEGs). So where did that extra megapixel data go? While some camera apps have JPEG quality settings, the amount of compression isn't always transparent, so you don't know if you're getting the best possible photo you can from your phone.

    Photo credit: DPReview

    RAW image files eliminate that ambiguity, because it's just storing the unfiltered image data taken from the camera sensor. And the best part is that saving in RAW isn't a hardware limitation. All digital camera sensors have to pass that raw information through the phone's image processors--it's up to OS and camera software to give users a way to save that data before it gets lost in the JPEG output. The high-end Nokia Lumia phones have RAW photo capability, and previous phones like the Lumia 1020 were granted RAW file saving with a software update. DPreview ran a comparison of RAW and processed JPEG photos with the Lumia, and I ran own tests with a small-sensor camera to show you the image detail differences.

    In Brief: Early Android L Battery Life Testing

    Ars Technica's battery test of Google's Android L developer preview release is getting a lot of traction in the Android community today, and for good reason. Using the same battery test run on new phones for his reviews, Ron Amadeo was able to squeeze 36% more battery life on a Nexus 5, compared with a fresh 4.4.4 KitKat install. That amounted to about two more hours of runtime, with the screen on, and constantly loading webpages over Wi-Fi. This was also done without enabling Android L's performance throttling battery saver feature, which switches the phone to a low power mode at 15% battery. While I trust Ron's testing, this kind of bump shouldn't be expected across all Android phones--the Nexus 5 used isn't exactly representative of a phone running all the background processes users need for everyday use, and the Nexus 5 is notable for its low battery capacity. Nevertheless, this first battery test is a good sign of the Project Volta initiative in Android L.

    Norman
    Tested: Google Camera vs. Best Android Camera Apps

    So you've picked up a spiffy new Android phone, but the camera interface isn't to your liking. Even if you don't have any strong feelings either way, you may still wonder if there isn't something better out there. The Play Store has plenty to choose from, but most aren't doing anything particularly impressive. A few might be worth your time, though, and of course Google has thrown its hat into the ring recently with a stand-alone photography app. Let's see how the Google Camera app stacks up against the best third-party camera options.

    Photo credit: Flickr user janitors via Creative Commons

    Google Camera

    If you have a Nexus or Google Play Edition device, this is the stock camera app. For everyone else, it's an alternative downloaded from the Play Store. It's a complete redesign of the old default app from AOSP that fixes many of the issues people have been complaining about in the camera UI for years.

    This is by no means a unique feature among your camera options, but Google's camera app finally shows the full sensor frame. Previously, it would crop the top and bottom of 4:3 images in the viewfinder, making it hard to frame the shot. It now gives you the option if you want to take wide or square shots (the crop depends on the device). This alone makes it a better app for Nexus users.

    Some of the "advanced" features we used to see in the stock camera are gone with this new version, which might make it a deal breaker for some people. There's no timer mode, no white balance, and no color control. The user base for these features is probably smaller than the complaints online would make you think, and you DO still have manual exposure control. The rest of the features will probably trickle back in over time.

    Everything You Need to Know about Android L

    Android has had the same basic aesthetic since Ice Cream Sandwich debuted two and a half years ago. Sure, the colors and layouts have changed a bit, but Holo has been alive and well all this time. KitKat showed the first break from that design when it was announced last year, but Android L is going to be the start of a new era for Android.

    This is the biggest update to the platform since at least 2.0, but the more I see of Android L, the more I think this could be the biggest thing to ever happen to Android. As an Android user there are a few things you need to know about L, so let's dig in.

    Android is about to get pretty

    The design of Android 4.4 was fine, but take the Google Now Launcher out of the equation, and it was very much the same as Jelly Bean with a few color tweaks. Android L (we don't have a name or version number yet) has officially ditched Holo as the interface design language in favor of Material Design.

    The best way to think about Material Design is that it's about layering UI elements while still keeping the design flat and "natively digital." The new Android SDK will allow developers to set an elevation value for different UI elements and have the OS render subtle shadows on the edges to make it look like some parts of an app are floating just above others. The new post button in the updated Google+ app is an example of this technique.

    Google is also doing an about-face on the subject of colors in Android. Material Design on Android L will stress bright colors and eye-catching design. The revamped Calculator and Dialer apps were included in the developer preview of L as an example of what's to come, and they really stand out. It is going to be a little jarring with apps using so many reds, blues, greens, and even some pink. It doesn't makes a lot of sense until you begin to explore Material Design apps and see how the use of bold colors can make even basic apps feel interesting in a way Holo never could.

    The key to Android L's new look and feel will be the way Material Design handles animations. Throughout the system UI, the use of animations for touch interaction is so much more immediate than in older versions. Nothing simply refreshes in a changed state with Material Design -- even buttons and checkboxes have animations attached to them when they are tapped. Some of this feels a bit like Android's design head Matias Duarte is reaching back to his Palm days to bring some webOS flair to Android.

    Pebble vs. Android Wear Smart Watch Features

    Yesterday, Google laid out more of its vision and plans for Android Wear, the software platform for manufacturers like LG, Samsung, and Motorola to build Android-compatible smart watches. And while smart watches like the Pebble, Metawatch, and Samsung's own Tizen-based Galaxy Gear have been around for a while, Google's offering may be the catalyst for the general public to start taking these wearable devices seriously--at least until Apple makes a smart watch announcement. But not all smart watches are created equal, and the approach that Google is taking with Android Wear is fundamentally different from the goals of the Pebble. It's not about hardware or software limitations--Android Wear and Pebble want to achieve different things, and have been designed with different strengths and weaknesses. That means Android Wear doesn't make Pebble obsolete--there's room for both to co-exist, depending on what users want.

    But that's exactly the problem--smartphone users don't know what to expect or want from a smartwatch. Those who adopted early smart watches like the original Kickstarted Metawatch have not had the best experience. The $200-250 price tags on these watches are likely as low as manufacturers want to go, but this is still an an early-adopter category. We've been testing the Pebble Steel for a month now, and will be getting the LG G Watch early next month to test. But based on my experience with the Steel (which I like) and what Google and the I/O attendees have shared about the new Android Wear devices, here's how I see the platforms differ.

    Tested In-Depth: Pebble Steel Smart Watch

    What's the point of a smart watch, and how does it complement your use of a smartphone? That's what we wanted to figure out in our testing of the Pebble Steel. Will and Norm both use the Pebble for a month and discuss how it changes the way they regularly interact with their iOS and Android phones.

    How To Shop for a New 2014 Android Phone

    There are plenty of Android devices out there to choose from, and it's easy to make general statements about which ones are the "best." This is something we try to do each month, in fact. However, when you're buying a new phone this year, it's worth taking a look at the state of the industry as a whole and consider what's important to you. How important are the internals? What about OS updates? Are there must-have hardware features on today's Android phones?

    Let's dive in and check up on the state of Android in 2014 so you'll know what to look for in a new device.

    The Guts That Matter

    OEMs are fond of saying how many CPU cores a device has and how fast they are, but this is not the aspect you should be looking at when considering ARM chips. The model number tells you much more about what a processor is capable of, and you might have to dig a little to see which one it is.

    Qualcomm is dominant in the mobile device sphere currently, and the Snapdragon 801 is the top-of-the-line for the moment (805 is still in its infancy). It's not that it's much faster in absolute terms than the Snapdragon 800, which is still shipping in a great number of high-end devices. The big improvements in 801 come in the form of additional power-saving features, which is what allows devices like the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5 to implement their super power saving modes. It's a slightly more efficient chip in general, but yes, it's also very fast.

    Amazon Announces Its Smartphone, Simply Called Fire

    So here it is, Amazon's first smartphone. It's called Fire (big surprise there), and it'll be released on July 25th. Here's what you should know about it. It's been designed as a high-end device, and priced that way. Partnering with AT&T as the exclusive US carrier, the Fire will cost $200 on contract (32GB) and $650 off contract. That's a different strategy from Amazon's previous Fire products, the Kindle Fire tablet and Fire TV set-top box, both of which where priced close to cost (ie. very little profit just on the hardware) to get user on board Amazon's Fire OS platform and ecosystem. So Fire is going to have to be competitive with the likes of iPhone and flagship smartphones like the Nexus 5, Galaxy S5, and HTC One. To that end, it has some pretty familiar specifications.

    We'll get to the Fire-unique features in just a second, but let's run through its core specs. It's a 4.7-inch phone with a 720p screen. Size-wise, it's about the size of the Nexus 5 (though just a little taller and not as wide), but also 30 grams heavier. That's probably due to its additional cameras and the 2400mAh battery. Fire runs Fire OS 3.5 on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 CPU with Adreno 330 graphics and 2GB of on-board memory.

    Those are pretty high specs for a 720p display, especially on the GPU side. That's because Fire has the rumored 3D interface--one that tracks your face and eyes with four front-mounted cameras and infrared LEDs to shift the UI's perspective and give the illusion of depth. Called Dynamic Perspective, it's basically the head-tracking experience that Johnny Chung-Lee hacked together in his Wii hacks demo. The camera uses two of its four 120-degree FOV cameras to guess the position of your head, and renders a skewed version to simulate the parallax effects of depth "beneath" the screen.

    That gee-whiz feature is neat (and likely battery-intensive), but the big flagship feature for Fire is an object-recognition system called Firefly. Activated with a native camera app or the dedicated FireFly button, the phone can send photos of objects for Amazon's servers to identify and direct you to the shopping page. Whether it's text, barcodes, movies, music, or other physical products, as long as it's in the database, FireFly will want you to be buy it from Amazon. The point, obviously, is to make the "showrooming" of brick & mortar stories that much easier. It's something retailers have feared for a while, and is difficult to stop.

    Other than the Dynamic Perspective feature, there's little in Fire that makes its hardware unique from any other smartphone. Fire is going to have to compete not only with established flagships, but also a new crop of affordable high-end smartphones--Nexus 5, Motorola G LTE, OnePlus One, for example. I'd be really surprised if the FireFly feature wasn't released as an iPhone or Android app in the future, too. Amazon isn't in the business of making its profits from hardware; they want to get their services and platform on the most mobile devices as possible. Fire may get a lot of headlines, but isn't a big step in that direction.

    Amazon's Fire smartphone is available for pre-order now, and for a limited time includes a full year of Amazon Prime membership (basically $100 credit). Is this a phone you're interested in, and would like to see us test?

    10 Things To Immediately Do To A New Smartphone

    So you’ve got the latest and greatest phone, whether it be Android, Apple, Windows or… something else. And while it’s very tempting to just fire that sucker up out of the box and go, there are some important things that can extend the battery life, security and overall usefulness of your phone. Here they are.

    In Brief: Samsung Collaborating with Oculus for VR Headset

    We've actually heard this rumor independently before, so I have reason to believe it's true. Engadget is reporting that Samsung has been working with Facebook and Oculus to develop its own VR headset hardware, using Oculus as the software platform to render and display VR-optimized content. The difference between this headset and the Oculus Rift's eventual consumer release would be that Samsung's device would be a caddy for Samsung smartphones, which would act as the display and electronics powering VR. The accessory would basically be goggles with Oculus-approved optics. That would reduce the cost of such a headset, and also make it work independently of external computing hardware. On the downside, that limits the rendering capabilities of the VR experience--think smartphone graphics--and putting a lot of the bulk and weight in the front of the device. (The Galaxy S5 weighs 145g). The design of the headset would have to support that kind of weight distribution to be comfortable to be worn, either with counterweights in the back (maybe battery?) or a flip-down visor system that Sony's Morpheus prototype uses. Engadget says that this will be a media-centric device, so it's not competing directly with Oculus' own hardware. As long as it gets Oculus access to Samsung's next-generation high-density displays, we're cool with experiments like this that'll help bring VR to the masses.

    Norman
    In Brief: Rise of the 1440p Smartphone

    LG has just announced the the G3 Android smartphone, their flagship for 2014. This comes less than a year after the August unveiling of their previous flagship, the G2--which Android fans will know as the basis for Google's awesome Nexus 5 phone. The G2, which sold below LG's expectations (at least when compared to rival Samsung's flagship Galaxy GS4), was given new life as the Nexus 5, though sold basically at cost. Though Google boasted Nexus 5 sales, it likely didn't do bonkers for LG's bottom line. I'd be surprised if LG is projecting the same path for the G3, though, which is one of the first phones to use a 2560x1440 display (on a 5.5" screen). That resolution and pixel density sounds ridiculous and will likely come at the cost of battery life (the G3 has the same 3000mAh battery as the G2), but I'm impressed that LG was able to fit that screen into a chassis that's not that much larger than the G2. They've done a good job at keeping their phone bezels thin. Anand has some early impressions of the G3, and good news for potential users is that it'll be coming to all four of the major US carriers this summer. Just don't expect it to cost $350 like the Nexus 5.

    Norman 3
    In Brief: Plastic vs. Metal. vs. Glass in Smartphones

    Ever wonder why smartphone manufacturers choose to build their products with one type of material over another? For example, why did Apple choose to give the iPhone 4/4S a glass black, and then switch to aluminum for the past two generations? Why does Samsung make its smartphone bodies out of polycarbonate (plastic)? Anandtech's Joshua Ho discusses the pros and cons of the three prevailing materials used for smartphone shells: polycarbonate, aluminum, and aluminosilicate glass (more commonly known as Gorilla Glass, when made by Corning). Each has strengths and weaknesses in their structural stability (affects minimum thickness), thermal conductivity (which affects processor speed), and radio signal attenuation (which affects reception). There's no mention of Sapphire glass, the material rumored to be used for at least the screen cover in next-gen phones. The truth is that OEMs actually use a combination of materials--for example combining a magnesium mid-frame with a aluminum shell--when building their phones, and are still figuring out the right mix of performance, design, and build cost tradeoffs that resonate with consumers (and their bottom line). What smartphone build material do you prefer?

    Norman 1