The world's most popular smartphones are underpowered, unusable hot messes

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My 5-year-old phone works better and does more than these brand-new budget phones. A quick check shows that it currently goes for $150 in mint condition on Craigslist. There must be a retail pipeline that gets older but better phones than these into developing world markets.


I still have a Moto E 2 that was a better rated “shit” phone. It works but I’m low on memory, and it messes up sometimes. I see there is a new Moto E 5 which fixes some of that and it is still $60. Sure I’d love a $800 fancy phone, but that’s a lot of beer money.


I find it amusing that half of those “apps” exist as internet pages when used on a computer. I don’t have the Facebook app installed because it does chew through a ton of storage space in cache files. I use Firefox mobile and…and obviously Facebook limits that functionality because they want you to use their app, but it works for everything I need it to do.


Ouch, i can see why that would be painful to use.

My previous phone (that was ~4years old when i eventually upgraded) Was a Galaxy S3 with a similar speed CPU and 1GB RAM, 16GB (+16GB SD) storage and i had installed a custom ROM with support for compressed ZRAM to get the most out of that crippling 1GB RAM for modern apps (pokemon go worked, barely)

A phone with half that RAM… Nasty… Though a quick googling shows it probably has a SD slot, so that should help on the storage front.


I have the same phone and I can report exactly the same experience.

Which is frustrating. 15 years ago, a desktop PC with 4 CPU cores and 1 GB of RAM was a studly, fast machine. By 2016, though, those specs made for an under-powered phone. Even with all-solid-state storage, the phone is less responsive in many respects.

Rebooting my phone often helps things work better for a few days. I suspect the issue is (as it always seems to be) mostly software quality. No one sees the point in making the software more efficient. Everything is built on top of a web framework that’s built on top of a virtual machine framework that’s built on top of some other framework. Even the calculator app consumes megabytes.



When one visit 3rd world countries, one finds out that there are many “smart” phones that are considerably less powered thant the ones in the article. They don’t even run Android. They are advertised as

  • “able to use whatsapp” or
  • ditto but “abble to access Facebook”

They can also be used to transfer money, that is actually changing the life of billions if people as we speak. These phones are a fascinating social experiment, that nobody in the West talks about.

The security and privacy are zilch.


It occurs to me on reading the thread that it is not so much the hardware specs at fault here, but a disconnect between said software requirements and the hardware you’re running it on.

I can remember earlier smartphones i’ve owned running on a fraction of the specs of this mentioned phone, and running quite well, but they had software to match. (i had this once )

The Galaxy S3 i mentioned in my previous post, worked fine with it’s default ROM, i’d just upgraded it well beyond it’s intended limit and was running a version of Android 2-3 releases newer than it was designed for. This phone seems to be doing the same, but with lesser hardware pushed even further beyond it’s limits…

This particular phone seems to have the problem of running software designed for (RAM/Storage) levels 2-4x greater than it actually has. Of course it’s going to end badly…

(apologies for hardware nerdery :D)


Maybe we should call these “average intelligence phones”.

  1. Sweet baby Jesus - a whole 12 seconds! Someone has never had to load a program from cassette tape :confused:

The way I see it is - software developers simply do not give a fuck about slimming their programs down once memory and power became increasingly available. The old days where programs had to fit on a floppy, or <1mb of RAM to run your program are gone. Those days lead to some really ingenious work arounds. Even something like the classic Super Mario Bros had to have short cuts to make it all work on the cartridge.

So to your point - the bloat of the OS is probably the biggest culprit. All OSes seem to get more and more bigger monsters with the solution to run them is - get better hardware.

But as you sort of alluded in your post, this is fixable with more stream lined software and OS systems. China is investing heavily in Africa and China for developing new markets. These places and India are going to so see the largest growth in numbers for this sort of technology. I believe even with underpowered hardware, they will be useful as local solutions are made to create software that do more with less. All three regions have large numbers of programmers and more coming everyday. I honestly think they will find ways to make it work. And of course the cheapest hardware will slowly get better and better.


Plus all the Google apps keep getting larger, and there’s no option to move them to the SD card.


Assuming there’s an SD card to move them to. Those slots seem to be vanishing from new phones along with headphone jacks.


This is all temporary, right? I mean, a problem that will probably be solved in a year may seem permanent to somebody very impatient, but…

We’re used to the amazingness-per-dollar of high tech products increasing exponentially: by pretty much any measure, a $300 or $1,000 gizmo is twice as amazing as the comparable gizmo from, say, 3 years ago. So what you would think is that the inverse is roughly true as well, such that a 2015-class gizmo should now cost $150 or $500 new. And at the bill-of-materials level that is indeed somewhat true. The thought-provoking question then is: how come you can’t buy an Amiga-3000-level smartphone for $5?

A lot of it is about how much harder it is to run a low-margin, high-volume business, and jejune stuff like that. But on a more primal level, it’s about software, and how it expands to consume the available hardware resources. Without some kind of artificial barrier (like the embargo that forced Cuba to focus on maintaining pre-Castro American cars instead of buying new ones), there’s only one zeitgeist at a time, and modern software development is about doing impressive stuff on absurdly powerful hardware, not wringing OK performance out of a 68030, which is a very different activity.

This isn’t about developers getting lazier or dumber (the “kids today!!” theory is never right). What it’s about is that new hardware allows for useful new platform components – for crypto and video compression and machine vision and relational databases and what not – but for those to be usable without a specialist PhD, you need increasingly high-level “glue” to make the components easy to integrate, and that glue drives up the baseline hardware spec. Like, a “modern” Windows program using C# / .NET might run twice as slowly as the exact same program using old-fashioned C++ / Win32 (which might run twice as slowly as the DOS version written in assembler). But in many common scenarios, the modern paradigm is the only one that will work at all, and it’s fast enough, so that’s the default way folks develop software.

It’s like how, on a fancy yacht, you can have all the stuff from a normal kitchen in half the space, because it’s all custom and the sink folds up into the oven or whatever. But if you’re building a regular land kitchen, you use standard modules because it’s ten times cheaper and faster, and you can afford to take up a bit more space.

The only way I can imagine developing-world / disposable-type phones being non-shitty is if a whole new platform were created for the purpose. And probably only if it were created by actual developing-world folks, rather than someone in Mountain View trying to imagine what using a phone in Bangladesh is like. I doubt that’ll happen, but it’d be cool if it did.


They don’t get updates or security fixes, though. (Then again I doubt the examples in the article do either.)


That’s a minor pet peeve of mine; lack of optimization in this kind of day to day software. Like when you are forced through a 200mb update that on the surface seems to change absolutely nothing, doesn’t improve performance, , doesn’t add apparent features, etc. Does nobody think about the etymology here? How is this an ‘update’, if nothing in the user experience changes (for the better)?

You’d think to yourself, ‘man, back in the day we called those ‘patches’ and they were around 1 or two mb, if I recall correctly.’


Some well informed points here; food for thought. Thx.


I think you’re absolutely correct. Unfortunately, the idea of regional winners (as opposed to global winners) has pretty much died, except in China. Instead the developing world seems likely to be perpetually stuck with software (including Android) that will never be designed from the ground up to with their constraints in mind.

Not only that, but the developing world will never offer enough profit compared to the first world to make the big winners care, nor from a financial point of view should they.

Globalization has its benefits. But one of the costs is decreasing the status of local products until they can’t compete, even if they offer a superior experience for the average customer.


There’s a class of problems that Silicon Valley solves very quickly. It doesn’t overlap much with the class of problems that are exclusive to people who make $1,600 a year.


Good point. Come to think of it, I’ve seen several stories about some genius who’s developing the $5 superphone for the Kalahari bushmen, but I’ve never seen a follow-up where the phones are actually working and improving peoples’ lives.