The Prodigal Son - An iOS Convert's Review of Nexus 7 and Android 4.2

Background - About Me

Before I begin this, I'd like to go into a bit of my own background with technology - which is strictly as a consumer. I'm currently a second-year political science major, and my first real piece of modern technology was an iPod touch, purchased with my own money a bit after Christmas of 2008 - Amazon was having a sale.

The following December, my parents bought me a Motorola Droid for my birthday. I was absolutely ecstatic. The only handset I had owned up to that point had been an LG Chocolate 2; I loved the phone to pieces, but this was a smartphone!

I used the Droid in conjunction with my iPod for a while, until I sadly lost the iPod. Eventually I figured out how to get music from iTunes onto my Droid, and I discovered the pleasure of having one mobile device for everything.

But we grew distant, and the honeymoon finally ended early in 2011 - it became apparant that my phone was done receiving updates, and it started to seem slow and clunky. Everything lagged, apps often quit, and basic functions (email, texting, calling) wouldn't work as they were supposed to. I spent the last half year of my contact an unhappy camper with the performance of my once stellar device.

When my contact came to an end I scraped together my pennies and purchased my own phone for the first time: the iPhone 4S, a device that I use and love to this day. After spending so much time struggling against my phone, it was so nice to have one that seemed willing to get out of my way and simply let me do what I want to do.

But, of course, as soon as my iPhone was in my hand, I saw it. The Galaxy Nexus. That big, beautiful, curved device with an enormous screen running software that in no way resembled the ugly mess that I was used to. Android, it seemed, had made a quantum leap in terms of design and usability. And I found myself wondering: did I make the right decision when I switched ecosystems?

I started paying attention to the phone wars. Over the past year I've gotten a lot more into "phone culture", if that's what you want to call what we do here on The Verge. I've spent a lot of time inside stores playing with all different kinds of tablets and phones, done research on every flagship that's been released, never stopped questioning my decision.

So, when asked what was on my list to Santa, I didn't ask for clothes or video games - in true geek fashion, I asked for a Nexus 7. And now that it's been mine for the past couple weeks (thanks mom and dad!) I've formed some opinions on Android that I'd like to share with you all. I’ll divide my opinions into two categories: what I like, and what I don’t like.

The Good

The Openness

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The one thing, above all else, that I truly love about Android is how open it is for me to do with as I wish. I can plug this tablet into my MacBook and (with the help of the Android File Transfer app) easily move files to and fro. In my time with the device I’ve already watched an episode of Downton Abbey and three episodes of The League, all of which were easily played with a video player I downloaded from the Play market with ease. Which brings us to our next big bonus of Android...

Custom Defaults

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This goes hand in hand with the openness, and together, they form the core of why I have a soft spot in my heart for Android. This is the one feature where I think that iOS is truly lagging behind. Apple doesn’t need to completely restructure iOS, they don’t need to give us access to the file system, and they don’t need to allow sideloading. But they definitely need to let us choose our own default browsers, maps, reminders, and notes.

It’s important to note, however, that Android’s manner of doing this is a bit ham-fisted. Whenever you tap on an action that’s handled in another app, it spits up a pop-up of basically every single application on your device that could possibly have anything to do with this action. Pop-up alerts on a small device are never a good idea, never mind pop-ups as confusing and convoluted as this. iOS would probably have the user configure this in settings to make it more user-friendly, but as of right now it even give users the option. This one goes to Android.

Google Now

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Google Now is an incredible experience. It integrates with other Google services, and if you don’t mind it peeking into your email and search history it can do amazing things. I searched for Patriots scores and now there’s an NFL card there. I searched for a local store and Google Now shows a card with directions to it. I have a flight confirmation email and there’s a card there for it, and of course, it shows me my Google Calendar appointments and when to leave for them.

My only complaint is that it integrates tightly with websites as opposed to apps. This provides a sub-par experience as soon as you move out of the Google Now application, to look at sports scores or movie showtimes. Also, while this is a voice search complaint and not a Google Now complaint, it takes longer to get talking to your device than it does on an iOS product. Swipe-and-tap on opposite ends of the screen vs. holding down the home button. This, obviously, is a pretty minor complaint.

Notification Shade

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iOS may have lifted the idea for Notification Center from Android, but Android definitely has it implemented better. The expandable notifications are absolutely beautiful, and the ability to swipe them away one-by-one is much easier than having to double-click the little X in the corner of an iOS notification. In particular I really appreciate having the double-drop-down setup that came with Android 4.2, allowing users to swipe down on the right to access quick settings. I always disliked the idea of having quick settings in the notification shade, and this is a much better solution.

Other than lock screen notifications, which I think iOS handles much better, the notification system on Android is far and away the winner here. Notifications were ugly and unorganized in 2.X, but they’ve really come a long way.

Gesture Typing

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I don’t think I’ve ever fallen in love with any feature on any operating system faster than I’ve fallen in love with gesture typing. Just to give you an idea, I wrote my first draft of this review in Google Drive on my Nexus 7, using gesture typing. It’s fast, accurate, and fun. I can’t think of any negatives, other than that it strangely doesn’t let you remove the block on explicit language. You’d think Android of all OSes would have that ability baked in somewhere.

So, that’s what I like about the device. And don’t make any mistake, anything that I listed up there is something I love about the operating system. Android is a well-put-together offering that gives great features to its users. But, of course, all operating systems have their downsides. Which brings us to...

The Bad

Design

You’ll remember that I came from the Motorola Droid and observed that Ice Cream Sandwich seemed like a quantum leap - well, I definitely wasn't wrong about that. This Android, 4.2, is something completely new. The holo design language is streets ahead of the odd white/green/orange thing that was Android 2.2.

But, really, this isn't about comparing Jelly Bean to Froyo. It's about comparing it to iOS. And Android certainly holds its own here: focusing solely on looks, Google takes the crown. However, I'm not going to give Android the trophy here, and I’m going to put this in the dislikes column, because in terms of usability and user-friendliness of design, Android is still way behind Apple's offering.

I know some of you are crying fanboy right now, but believe me, I have my reasons for saying this. My biggest complaint: the back button. I know this is a cherished feature of the operating system, but from the perspective of usability it's just confusing. So many apps have their own back buttons built in. Sometimes these two buttons do the same thing, making them superfluous, and sometimes they don't, making them confusing.

From what I can gather, the system button always brings you to the last thing you had in front of you, which includes switching between applications, while the in-app button moves you to the previous layer of that app. This makes sense, but is hardly intuitive, and is far from consistent. Even in Google's own Play store, pressing the store's back button while looking at an app brought me back to the top level of the app when I just wanted to go back one level. The system back button provided the desired effect.

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I suppose one could say that this kind of setup is more efficient, giving me access to both a "back to app list" button and a sort of "back to store home" button, but it doesn't feel efficient because it doesn’t feel intended. It feels like the store is broken, and it just happened to sort of work out in my favor.

That’s my biggest little niggle with Android’s design, but others can be found throughout the OS. For instance: the "voice call" action in Google Talk, instead of having a phone icon like you’d expect, has a microphone icon that is literally identical to the "voice typing" icon in the keyboard.

And let’s not even start on how little sense THIS makes - The Nexus 7 ships with two email apps, three maps apps, and two IM apps. That's seven apps where there should be three. This is a huge user-friendliness pitfall.

Abysmal Third Party Apps

I’m sure this is much more of a tablet problem than a phone problem, but the apps that I use most are simply awful. Facebook and Twitter are both absolutely terrible, and that’s a very big problem. Social networking, also known as wasting time interacting with friends, is a huge part of my computing, and I’d wager it is to many other people, too.

The Facebook and Twitter apps are very clearly just big phone apps, and phone apps that aren’t even as good as the iOS equivalent: the swiping gestures don’t work in Facebook like they do on my iPhone, and the app itself will frequently crash. Both Twitter and Facebook have ugly stretched-out layouts with lots of wasted space that can’t compare to the Facebook and Tweetbot (not available on Android!) apps that I love on my phone and would love to love on a tablet.

The only social app that’s any good on an Android tablet, it seems, is Google+, and I think that’s a great microcosm for Android as a whole. Android (Nexus in particular) devices are powerful and packed with potential, but only Google’s official apps really tap into that potential. All the great selling points of Android fall short when put against the backdrop of a nonexistent app ecosystem.

No Complete Desktop Experience

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Google has come a long way in their products and services, but they still don’t offer a complete, native desktop experience like Apple and Microsoft do. Everything Google done on a laptop or desktop is done through the browser, whereas everything Apple done on a laptop or desktop is done through native apps. This might just be a personal thing, but I much prefer native programs for different tasks to Google’s solution of "everything through the browser".

Bonus: The Ugly

This isn’t an Android complaint per se, just an unfortunate occurrence: my Nexus 7 has a screen deficiency that’s pushed me to return it to where it was purchased, which is unfortunately leading to a lot of jumping through hoops. For someone used to Apple’s customer service, having to call reps on the phone and mail a device back into a warehouse hoping for an eventual refund is a pretty jarring experience. It, along with the app troubles, is enough to have me second-guessing whether or not I should get a replacement Nexus or simply take my money elsewhere.

At this point, I’m leaning more towards sitting on my cash and hoping for an iPad mini with retina display to come out. And that’s likely what I’ll do.

The Verdict

Android is a great operating system with tons of strengths and, just like every other player, its share of weaknesses. In my own case, as someone who has a higher-than-average-but-still-undisputedly-casual grasp on computing, who relies on apps and enjoys quite a bit of social network surfing, and is heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, the Nexus 7 will probably end up not being the right device for me.

I would like to emphasize, however, the fact that what’s true of one person is never 100% true of another. Maybe you’re an iPhone user who uses Gmail heavily. Maybe you aren’t too big into apps and instead love browsing with Chrome. Maybe you’d like a bigger screen on your phone, or a smaller one on your tablet. No matter who you are, if you don’t at least try out different ecosystems, you are selling yourself short. Android, iOS, and Windows all have different, unique, and wonderful features to offer users.

Never be a fanboy or fangirl. Try everything, don’t be afraid to return what you don’t like, and never stop looking for something that suits you better. It’ll serve you well in the long run - if you find something you like better than what you have now, that’s awesome, and if you find that what you have now is perfect for you, then great! You’ll have removed doubt that would otherwise have hampered your enjoyment of your awesome product, be it an Apple, Samsung, or HTC, running any operating system that you prefer.

I leave behind my experience with the Nexus 7 knowing and understanding more about Android, and appreciating it all the more. I don’t regret anything about it.