Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Computer Guy

Most of my professional career has been spent in the software industry. I've designed, developed, and maintained software for a variety of computer systems from old corporate Unix systems to personal computers to smartphones and tablets. Because of this, when friends, neighbors, and family had computer problems, I was the guy they would usually call on to ask for help. This is one aspect of my old life that continues to be part of my new life.  I've helped people deal with misbehaving computers, helped install and configure software (usually boat or navigation related such as OpenCPN), provided guidance on wireless networking, or dealt with smartphone related issues. The last few days I've been playing tech support for my wife and her new phone.

While I've been happy with our cell phone service, this new phone we purchased for my wife is another story.  It has been a bit frustrating.  My wife had been using a phone she had on T-mobile for the last 5 or so years and, as is typical in any computing device, the newer versions of software required more memory and processing power than the old device could muster.  The final straw was once we realized that the battery was no longer able to hold enough charge.  So we looked at a variety of solutions for a replacement.  We were about to go with a refurbished Google Nexus when we stumbled across a company called Blu.  For about the same price as a refurbished phone, we could have a brand new device that had a feature set that sounded nearly ideal for our purposes. We checked what reviews we could find, didn't see anything alarming, and decided to give it a try.

The Blu Phone...or my nemesis.

Now, given the price, I didn't expect the phone would be perfect.  And initially it seemed to be better than I had expected.  But that didn't last for long.  After playing with the phone straight out of the box for a bit, we synced up the new phone with my wife's account and allowed the sync to install all her applications from the old phone. It wasn't long after this that we started having some problems.  The phone became rather sluggish to respond and would occasionally stop responding to input. I installed a file browser to look around and it made things worse. Rebooting the phone would take forever (15+ minutes is forever in computer time) and when it rebooted it would go into an "optimizing apps" process each time before the phone was usable. It really wasn't looking good at all.  I was starting to think we had made a big mistake with this phone and the debate became not if we should return it but when.

Being "the computer guy" and an engineer, I just couldn't let it go and wanted to understand what the issues were, so I started doing some research.  As it turned out, the boot and optimize problem also seemed to occur on other devices (the Moto X, one of the Google Nexus phones, and some tablet I don't remember the name of) and there were some solutions posted online that worked for some of them.  So, I began trying the various solutions.  I checked the system memory usage and found it to be much higher than it should have been for the number of applications installed.  I uninstalled a couple apps and that helped a little, but not significantly enough to call the phone usable.  I then tried booting the device into the diagnostic/repair mode and clearing the system cache, but that had no effect.

Since it would be a couple days before we could return the phone anyway, my last thought was to do a factory reset on the phone and start setting it back up from the beginning.  This time, instead of letting the device sync with Google and download all the applications that were on my wife's old phone, I told it to treat the phone as a new device.  Once through the initial setup, the device again seemed responsive and working as one would expect.  I rebooted the phone and it took less than a minute.  Once the phone restarted, I went in and removed the few non-standard applications that were pre-installed on the phone (the phone was surprisingly clean and only had some Amazon and Yahoo apps) and rebooted once again.  The phone still seemed fine.

I then started reinstalling the applications that my wife wanted on her phone.  Instead of installing them all at once and then trying to move them to the installed SD card at the end (basically the process we used the first time), I installed each application one at a time.  For the first couple of applications I installed the application, rebooted, moved the application from the internal memory to the SD card (because the OS setting to install applications to the SD card didn't seem to be working), and then rebooted again. After the first application was installed, I saw the optimizing application cycle during the reboot but that was the only time it happened.  The reboot process seemed reasonable after the first couple of applications so I continued installing the rest of the applications, omitting the reboot in between the install of the application and moving it to the SD card.  The rest of the installs went fine, and at no time did we experience a lag in the reboot process.  I also monitored the memory consumption as I performed the installs and by the time I was done I noted that, instead of the 300MB of free space on the internal storage that was found the first time around, the device now reported over 2.75GB of free space.

The phone seems to be behaving much better now, so much so that we may not return it after all. There are still a couple glitches with the phone (the Chrome browser seems to be slow at times and the battery life isn't the best), but  the overall behavior is much improved and the glitches are more in line with what I would have expected from the phone.  With a little more research, I'm thinking that most of the issues may not have been an issue with the hardware but rather problems with the operating system and attempting to sync the applications from her old phone to the new one all at one time.  Only time will tell if this phone will continue to behave, but at least there is a little hope for it now.

So, what does all of this really have to do with living on a boat?  Well, actually, there is a lesson that does apply here.  Being able to work through a problem and some occasional thinking outside the box will serve you well when living on a boat.  It may not be a misbehaving cell phone, but what will you do when your refrigerator stops working at anchor?  Or your boat electrical system starts acting strange? Or your port side engine decides to die after running for a couple minutes? When you just can't pick up the phone and have a repairman show up a few hours later, being able to solve problems can save you a lot of hassle and expense.

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