29 Days with Android

Introduction

After 4 years of owning an iPhone, I have reached the end of Day 29 of owning an Android phone - specifically, the HTC One X. Why is 29 days noteworthy? Because I have 30 days after buying a new phone to return it to AT&T if I am unhappy - so, if I'm going to go back to the iPhone, it would have to be tomorrow.

I'll go ahead and spoil the ending for you: I'm keeping the HTC One X. If you're curious as to why - read on! If you aren't, well, I'm glad I didn't waste your time. To be honest, this post ended up much longer than I expected it to be, so it's hard to blame you.

For what it's worth, I don't intend for this to be a "Why Android is better than iOS" post, but rather, "why THIS Android phone is a better choice for ME" post. I am still an Apple fan (despite some decisions in iOS6 that I find questionable), and plan to stick with the iPad as my tablet platform for at least the next few years - I'm just an Apple fan who has discovered that, when it comes to a phone, Android, I was pleasantly surprised to learn, has more of what I personally want.

Why did I switch?

Flash back to a couple of months ago. Part of me wanted to wait and see what Apple was going to offer in the next iPhone, but the other (apparently larger) part of me is a gadget lover, and something about the HTC One X drew me in. I suppose it goes a bit further back than even that, though - back to the announcement of Ice Cream Sandwich. Since I like to think I'm not (overly) loyal to any specific brand or platform, I tend to watch all of the big tech announcements, and I came away from the ICS announcement quite impressed. It seemed that Android might finally be reaching a level of stability and UI smoothness that was on-par with the iPhone. Still, I wasn't entirely sold on it - particularly as more and more Android handsets continued to come out with Android 2.3.

Beyond that, I honestly think I was just getting bored with iOS. As great and reliable as it is, it simply hasn't changed that much in the last few years. The notification changes in iOS5 were welcome, but nothing I hadn't personally been using since jailbroken iOS4. This is not necessarily a criticism of iOS, as this strategy is obviously working for Apple, but it just wasn't inspiring me anymore - so, I started looking elsewhere. I briefly flirted with WP7, which I think is great in its own ways, but didn't quite have the mature ecosystem I was looking for. Beyond that, after having had a retina display on my iPhone 4 and more recently on the new iPad, it was hard to imagine taking such a step back in resolution, even with something as otherwise-gorgeous as the Lumia 900.

Enter the HTC One X

I can't remember when exactly I first started noticing the HTC One X. I want to say it was as early as CES, but all I knew for sure is that by the end of reading The Verge's review, it had my full attention. The build quality seemed to be nearly on-par with my iPhone 4 (which had begun to rattle quite a bit around the camera area, not to mention the greatly-overblown-but-still-quite-real issue with reception), while offering a better screen, a better camera, and above-average battery life - the three things I really look for in phone hardware. In general, I can rely on Apple to make good hardware, but in this case, HTC took what I felt was a big step forward design-wise - it reminds me quite a bit of the Lumia 900 in that regard. I remember telling people "If this was the iPhone 5, I'd probably already own it."

After much soul-searching, I decided that if I couldn't wait until the new iPhone hardware announcement, I could at least wait for the new iPhone software announcement. As you've probably guessed based on the date this post was written, even that plan didn't quite pan out. However, I did purposely time my purchase so that I would still have the option to return the phone after WWDC. So, a little over a month ago, I started the process of migrating ecosystems - most notably, I uploaded all my music from iTunes to Google Music. Most of the other services I used regularly were already multiplatform, with the notable exceptions of iCloud, Reminders and iMessage.

Interestingly, Apple was partially responsible for forcing my hand. I had decided I was definitely going to get a One X, and that it was just a matter of when it would happen...then I read the article on The Verge announcing that shipments of the One X had been held-up in customs due to the Apple/HTC lawsuit (http://www.theverge.com/2012/5/15/3022907/at-t-htc-one-x-blocked-at-us-customs-infringing-apple). Having no idea when this would be resolved, I quickly started calling AT&T stores, and found the closest one that still had a white model in stock. Two hours after reading the article, I was officially an Android owner.

First Impressions

I knew more or less what to expect when I got my hands on the phone - I'd spent enough time with friends' Android phones that I was able to find my way around the interface pretty quickly, and nothing seemed any more or less intuitive than iOS. I'd also been to the AT&T store a couple of times to play with the store model, and I'd spent the last few days in XDA reading the General and Development threads - so my only two big questions were:

1. How much would the "Multitasking issue" impact me in my day-to-day activites?

and

2. Could I deal with such a significant screen-size change?

I quickly found that the answers were:

1. Not substantially

and

2. Definitely

It's quite possible the One X's approach to multitasking doesn't bother me because I come from iOS, I'm not really sure, but overall, I haven't encountered many frustrations. Slacker Radio seems a bit picky about running in the background, but that could also just be that it's not a very well coded app. It also seems to run a bit better now that a big fix hsa come out.

Screen-wise, I am, without question, a convert into the Large Screen Club - it didn't take long for me to go from the kind of person who would gladly mock the size of something like the Note, to thinking "Well, the Note is too big for me, but I can totally see why someone might want that."

What I Like about Android

I could probably make an entire post dedicated just to the things I've found that I really enjoy about Android, but I'll try to keep this as brief as possible. The big pluses for me really boil down to Customization (obviously) and Transparency (I'll explain).

If you've used both iOS and Android, you know what I mean by customization. Just some personal examples: I enjoy widgets (though admittedly not as much as I thought I would), I love that I have immediate access to 10 different apps from my lockscreen, and I absolutely adore the beta for SwiftKey 3...and this is coming from someone who swore by the iOS keyboard for years.

Since I came from the jailbroken iOS world, I was used to at least some freedom of customization, but I've noticed a lot of iOS android-style customizations like live wallpapers, attempts at widgets, Springboard animations, Winterboard/Summerboard themes, custom keyboards, etc. will make iOS much more unstable and are often times more gimmicky than functional.

Stock iOS is generally more stable than stock Android (in my limited experience), but a heavily-modified jailbroken iOS is (in much much more extensive experience) generally less stable (and at times much laggier) than stock - or even rooted - Android. After all was said and done, the only real major tweaks I had left on my iPhone 4 were Intelliscreen X and Sprintomize, and those alone slowed down my phone to a noticeable level. Not only that, but my phone would fairly consistently re-spring. In the end, each tweak I added to iOS felt like another gamble. Overall for stability and performance I'd say:

Stock iOS > Stock ICS > Rooted ICS > Jailbroken iOS.

As for Android customization...as a personal example, after a few days, this was the first page of my Android homescreen. Things have changed subtantially now as I've adapted the phone to better fit my personal usage, but it still helps illustrate my point:

Androidscreenshot1_medium

There are a number of things in this picture that can only be done via iPhone jailbreaking, and even then, it may lead to a very unstable system. Just on this screen we have:

  1. App-specific status bar notification icons (note the Facebook and mail icons)
  2. Environment-specific status bar icons (plugged into USB, phone in vibrate mode, headphones plugged in, etc.)
  3. 7 apps in the dock, with ample screen space for all of them. As a bonus, the dock is scrollable.
  4. Instant access to current weather conditions
  5. One-tap access to toggles like WiFi, Bluetooth, and brightness.
  6. One-tap access to functionality like using a camera flash as a flashlight.

So, transparency. For some reason, this is the thing that ended up surprising me the most about Android - probably just because I'd never considered it until using it on a daily basis. The iPhone is a black box, both hardware-wise and software-wise. In contrast, I always feel like I know what my Android phone is doing, thanks to a combination of the built-in (and fantastic) battery and data monitoring tools, along with third-party apps like CPU Spy and BetterBatteryStats. These tools help me track down if any specific customization I've made might be impacting battery life or performance more than anticipated. Of course, you may argue that this doesn't matter if you aren't making major jailbreak-level customizations, and you're right - but this is part of why I believe Android is more appealing than even jailbroken iOS.

This transparency doesn't just apply to lower-level tweakers like me - to begin with, the status bar in Android is leaps and bounds above the one in iOS. Every app has a specific notification icon, so I know, at a glance, what has happened recently. Phone in silent mode? There's an icon for that. Is an app or service is syncing in the background? There's an icon for that. GPS satellites currently in use? There's an icon for that. iOS, as a counter-point, has the general "location services" icon, but when it's visible, it can mean any number of things. As an aside: the larger screen size of the One X shines here as well, since it gives the status bar much more room to breath - I always felt the iOS status bar was overly cramped.

The notification shade is another place where I think Android shines over iOS - I love the distinction between "ongoing" and "standard" notifications, adding another layer of transparency, and functionality-wise, dismissing notifications is much simpler than it is in iOS - one flick and a notification is gone. Or, if you prefer, one tap and they're all gone. This may sound minor (and I admit it is), but dismissing notifications in iOS, particularly on the iPhone's smaller screen, is an exercise in unnecessary frustration. Two-taps - if you're lucky enough to accurately tap the "X" that appears - and that's just for a single application.

Finally, Android's "toast" messages are another way the OS is constantly in communication with the user. As a simple example - if I set an alarm, I get a toast notification telling me the alarm is set for X hours from now. Again, this isn't exactly a huge platform-making-or-breaking feature, but for someone clumsy like me - who has set an alarm for PM instead of AM more than once - it's nice to have the instant feedback.

There are other, obvious examples - the browsable file-system and the notification LED are big ones - but overall, I just feel like Android is more communicative to the user, which for my personal usage, is a big deal.

Obviously, none of these are reasons to go out and buy a phone...these are just specific, personal examples of ways in which Android fits my life better than iOS.

What I Miss About the iPhone

Surprisingly little - and I don't say that with any malice or sarcasm. I legitimately expected to miss more about my ever-trusty iPhone 4...I put my own chances of returning the One X at about 50/50. I'd never been particularly impressed with the Android phones I'd handled before, and I'd always said that I valued stability and reliability more than anything else when it came to my phone.

Before the One X, I always thought my first Android device would be a tablet - I would argue to others, before having used both as a daily driver, that Android would make a better tablet OS and iOS would make a better phone OS, because above all you need a phone to be reliable. Now, post-ICS, I would say my positions have actually switched - Android (and WP 7) both excel at getting to information quickly through widgets and Live Tiles respectively, which is my primary use for a smartphone other than communication. Tablets, on the other hand, are generally used when I want to focus on a single task at a time (like draft this post or catch up on Google Reader). I don't really need widgets or Live Tiles with a tablet OS, because I'm not going to be taking my tablet out of my pocket to check the weather or update Facebook. That's not to say they don't have any value, just that I don't think information-at-a-glance is as useful on a tablet OS - not that I'd mind having a dashboard on my iPad.

So, what do I miss? Certain third-party apps, for one. There's no Twitter app on Android that is anywhere near the quality of something like Tweetbot. The Google Reader app isn't bad, but it doesn't quite reach the same level as Reeder. For the most part, though, the quality of the apps I used the most on iOS are roughly on the same level on Android. I'd heard horror stories about the Android Facebook app, but I think the Android app runs as-good or better than the iOS app did on my iPhone 4. Some apps actually have more functionality - like Dropbox's ability to automatically upload pictures in the background without needing to start the app. It's also refreshing to see how much Android apps are allowed to communicate with one another - I no longer need a silly bookmarklet hack just to save a webpage to Pocket, for example.

I thought I would miss the App Store, but Google Play (ugh, still a stupid name) has been just as easy to navigate, and I've found I like it even more than the App Store...I love that I can install applications directly from my browser, and that "root-only" apps are given equal visibility to all other apps, meaning you don't have to dig through a special third-party app store just because you want to do something "unapproved" for stock.

I miss third-party accessory support. In fact, I still use my iPhone 4 daily, because I have an ANT+ heart rate monitor and an ANT+ iPhone dongle that I use to track my heart rate while I work out. Right now, there's no real equivalent for Android.

I miss a few aspects of the iOS ecosystem - leaving the iOS ecosystem was actually my greatest fear, but it turns out I wasn't nearly as tethered to it as I originally thought. Cloud was a great way of keeping apps on both iOS devices in sync, and Photo Stream was a convenient way to show pictures on my iPad that I'd taken with my iPhone (though Dropbox covers this need somewhat). I miss Reminders seamlessly syncing between my iPhone and iPad...I tried out some decent third-party cross-platform reminder/task applications like Astrid and Any.do, but I didn't find any of them reliable enough to use for my personal use. In the end, I opted to just create a new Google Calendar for "tasks", which works well enough. It doesn't have geolocation-based reminder functionality, but I never really used that anyway. iMessage was a nice-to-have, but not everyone I know uses an iPhone, and a majority of my communication occurs through Google Talk. Also, to be honest, I found iMessage as frustrating as it was useful at times - often my message would end up getting sent as SMS due to network issues, and the distinction between iMessages sent to my phone number and iMessages sent to my Apple ID (finally resolved in IOS6, at least) was obnoxious.

WWDC didn't do much to sway me back, either, unfortunately. I was willing to give it a chance, but it felt like Apple was once again playing catch-up...someone sarcastically referred to the release as "iOS 5S", and it's hard for me to disagree. On a personal note, I can't say I was pleased to see the new turn-by-turn feature excluded from my perfectly capable iPhone 4, either. To be fair, I knew going into WWDC that I was going to need to see a significant revamp of the OS before I'd be willing to go back, and I didn't really expect that to happen. Apple has a good thing going, and there's no reason for them to throw that aside for tinkerers like me.

Finally, I will miss the Apple support system. Say what you will about the company, but my personal experience has been that their support - assuming you are within driving distance of an Apple store - is second to none.

Conclusion

So, what have I learned from all this? First of all, I've learned it's never fair to judge a product until you've used that product for yourself - a lesson I should have learned a couple years ago, after calling the original iPad nothing more than a "giant iPod Touch", only to end up buying (and greatly enjoying) one a couple months later. I knew Android was customizable, but I never really understood the full extent of that until owning one.

I learned that, despite what some people may want you to think, Android has come a long way, and ICS is finally approaching stock iOS-levels of stability and polish. I've also learned that Chris Ziegler was right back in December...if someone asked me what phone to buy, I'd tell them to buy an iPhone, for reasons he explained far more eloquently than I ever could. Of course, if they pressed me, I'd be happy to gush about the One X...but that brings me to my final point.

I've learned that iOS is what Apple wants it to be and Android is, for better or worse, what you make of it. In the last 29 days:

  1. I have rooted my phone.
  2. I have gone from 9 homescreens full of widgets and app shortcuts, to 5 homescreens full of mostly widgets, and finally now to mimilistic approach with only 3 homescreens, one widget on each home screen with a custom lockscreen full of my most-used apps.
  3. I have installed Titanitum Backup and manually frozen bloatware and other unused Sense features.
  4. I have manually unlocked the bootloader, at the risk of bricking my phone.
  5. I've installed custom recovery tools.
  6. I've installed a couple of custom ROMs (CleanROM Lite 1.1 and CleanROM DE 2.3).
  7. I've flashed a new radio.

Can I honestly say I'd be as happy with my Android experience if I hadn't gone through all of this? I don't know. The stock Sense experience I started with a month ago was certainly not a bad one, but it also wasn't as smooth as the custom ROM I am using today. I think I'd still be holding onto the One X, if only for the hardware, but I might be a bit more torn by the decision.

Am I worried that my phone may not get Jelly Bean or Key Lime Pie? Maybe a little, but right now, there's not really much more I want out of the phone - and, as a tinkerer, I am already looking forward to a bright future with this device. There are enough customization options, even without custom ROMs, that I think it'll take me quite awhile before getting bored again - I can always find a new way to mix things up and adopt it to my usage patterns. Once you start talking about custom ROMs (which are surprisingly easy to install), a whole new world opens up - a world I am eager to explore. Every day I feel like I'm learning new things - for instance, I discovered I could make my Foursquare app shortcut in the dock load directly into the "check in" page, rather than always starting on whatever page I last used. Since 99% of the time I'm opening the app, I'm doing so to check in somewhere, this is incredibly convenient for me.

Besides, my iPhone 4 isn't going anywhere. I recently unlocked it through AT&T, and it's still a part of my daily routine. There's no small amount of comfort knowing that no matter what happens with my One X, I still have a great, reliable piece of hardware to fall back on.

Finally, I've learned that between the new iPad, great Android devices like the HTC One X, the new MacBook Pro, and the impending releases of Windows 8, (presumably) Windows 8 Phone, and the next-generation iPhone...it's a fantastic time to be a gadget nerd like me, and no matter what you choose, it's hard to go wrong.

Well, you know, unless you get a Blackberry.