iPhone Man's Adventures in Androidland

ADVENTURE 1 - ANDROIDLAND

Background:

I'm no stranger to Android. I've bought and discarded a wide variety of Android-based devices over the last few years, from TV boxes to cheap tablets and KIRFy mobile phones. This experience is supplemented, somewhat against my will, by tight-fisted acquaintances - for some reason I still get lumped with the setup and support jobs for friends and family who ignore my best advice and buy cheap Android phones.

Case in point: in the last few months my sister in law and my aunt bought cheap Samsung Galaxy phones. One is a Samsung Galaxy Play, the other a Samsung Galaxy Y or something. These nasties are common here in Australia, given away for free on budget phone plans or sold for $150 or less on pre-paid. The amount of difficulty I had merely entering my WiFi password and their email addresses and passwords was enough to fill me with horror that people are actually buying these, and that they are included in 'smartphone' statistics. They are truly awful devices, and I pity anybody who uses one.

I've written all these devices off as a waste of time and money. You buy cheap, you get cheap. And nasty.

Last year I bought a Nexus 7, having read glowing reviews both on The Verge and from Apple stalwarts - MG Siegler, John Gruber and others. I'd long been a fan of smaller form-factor tablets, and Apple had not yet produced one. So it was a day 1 buy for me. The best hardware running the latest Android build for a couple of hundred bucks? What could go wrong?

My sample was physically excellent, suffering none of the hardware issues that plagued early units. As expected, I found the smaller form much better for reading and lugging around. But it was very soon apparent that it wasn't going to replace my iPad.

I found the janky scrolling irritating. I couldn't type on the on-screen keyboard without it having a minor fit and inserting strings of random characters (this was fixed some weeks later). I couldn't properly select text for editing within text-boxes on websites because Android's interpretation of my taps and swipes lacked the context-awareness that made these tasks a breeze on iOS.

But that was nothing compared to the apps. Many apps I tried to download told me they were not compatible with my device. Not compatible with the latest stock Android running on the latest Google hardware? Eh? Others downloaded and failed to launch. Two others worked fine, until an automatic update rendered them unable to open, and several weeks later, unfixed, were deleted. I'm not talking backyard apps here, I'm talking Ski Safari.

The 'scaled-up phone apps' complaint is both real and valid. I found most apps simply stretched small menu items and buttons that would work fine on a small screen across the much bigger screen. Fine, I guess, but then what's the point of the larger screen when the same app shows the same amount of information on a smaller screen, without looking so bad?

I wanted a simple match-3 game, addicted as I was to Bejewelled 2 at the time. Bejewelled was on the Google Play store, but again, 'not compatible with your device'. I side-loaded a pirated APK, which ran, but the graphics were glitchy and corrupted. So I looked for alternatives, and found many. None were very good. But what really bugged me was that the scaling issue was drastically worse. Bitmapped graphics for backgrounds and gems were stretched indiscriminately to the larger screen, looking blurred and low-res, and mechanics designed for the smaller screens just didn't work well scaled up.

The big problem though, was that I couldn't get stuff done with Android. Google's first-party apps were mainly superb. Cross-platform apps were mostly okay, where they existed. The Kindle app, for example, though lacking compared to its iOS version - more on this later - did what it's supposed to do, as did Rdio (though the audio output from the Nexus 7 is rotten) and Twitter. What let me down was the lack of high-quality apps I'd become accustomed to using on my iPad. There wasn't even a decent dropbox-syncing text editor, a simple niche that is filled many times over by top quality apps on the iPad. And I hadn't realised how much I relied upon some iCloud apps until I didn't have them - iMessages, Photostream, Music Reminders, and iCloud Backup.

And so, within a few weeks the Nexus 7 had become nothing more than a Kindle reader, and since the iPad mini arrived, it hasn't even been touched.

The Nexus 4:

I bought a Nexus 4 a few weeks ago. We needed a second mobile phone in the house, as my wife's employer decided she didn't need a new one and her ancient Nokia had broken. I was waiting to trade my iPhone 4S for an iPhone 5S, and couldn't justify the steep price of an outdated iPhone for only a few months of use. So I ordered the Nexus 4 - The best hardware running the latest Android build for a couple of hundred bucks? What could go wrong? ( I know, right?)

As it turns out, very little. It's a very nice device.

Hardware-wise, it feels very good in the hand, high quality and sleek. It feels like a $600 phone, not a $350 phone. It's not perfect though:

  • The screen colours distort if I tilt it even a little way in any direction.
  • The power button is idiotically recessed into a slight groove on the side, making it difficult to press.
  • It's slippery as hell - think air-hockey puck - and throws itself to the floor repeatedly. It won't sit on the arm of a lounge chair, or on my knee, or on a car seat, or even a slightly wonky table, without attempting suicide every few minutes.
  • The camera is mediocre. My iPod touch takes better photos.
  • Battery life was awful, and is still ordinary. I was getting well under 3 hours of screen-time prior to the latest update, which bumped that up to around 4 hours.
  • Radio signal strength isn't great. Using the same network in the same place, it goes to Edge when my 4S still has 2 bars of 3G, and loses signal altogether where the 4S is still able to make calls. At home, it reports lower WiFi strength, and loses it altogether several metres closer to the router than my iOS devices.

On the OS/performance front, it's fast as hell. It still features the janky scrolling I noticed on the Nexus 7 (I believe this is a significant part of 'Project Butter'), but the effect is less pronounced on the smaller screen, to the point that I don't notice it unless I'm looking for it. Navigation is quick, load times are short, apps and games run fine.

My initial complaints list was short:

  • A lot of stock Android is ugly as hell. Take the camera, gallery, SMS and settings icons, for example. Sure, I can change them, but you know what's better than being able to change icons? Not needing to change them, and not wanting to.
  • The persistent Google search bar on the home screens. Again, it's ugly as hell, and it's something I have never, ever used, and never expect to. It can be disabled, with a bit of rummaging around in the disorganised settings, but disabling it also disables Google Now, and leaves an empty patch at the top of the home screens that can't be used for icons or widgets using the stock launcher.
  • Bzzzt! Bloop! Not only does this phone have a sound for every keypress (honestly, this should be banished from the world, including iOS), it vibrates. No worries, I'll just switch that off then. Should be in settings under.... Hmm, nope. Maybe under... nope again. Guess it must be under... UGH!
  • Typing is hard work. I can't get used to Swyping (or Google's KIRF of it) and it's never going to be faster for me than muddling through on iOS and letting the dictionary decipher it (something that my iPhone does incredibly well). Tapping the keyboard works fine, but autocorrect is more miss than hit, and my typing, despite the very responsive and larger sized keyboard, is less accurate. I'm baffled. I think it may even relate to the slipperiness issue - no amount of finger grease and gunk gives my thumbs any purchase on this screen.
  • Persistent on-screen software navigation buttons. No. Just no. Always and ever.

So, I got to work making the phone mine. Customising it, like a boss.

I swapped in a new launcher - Nova, and tried (bought) a few skins. Good god of amateurs, what is that eyerot? I switched to ADW, then to GO Launcher (holy mother of crapware!), then to Espier with an iPhone skin for a laugh. I even tried one that gave me 2 options on startup - Allow Us To Track Your Everything and Cancel - neither of which worked. Like, nothing happened, no matter what I did. A hard reset took me straight back to the same screen. Uh-oh, I have a feeling I pressed 'Always' instead of 'Just Once'. I remembered that I could get to Settings via the notification pane, and several minutes of dead-end rooting around in the Settings finally took me back to the stock launcher. Phew. Delete.

I installed new clocks and a text widget that displayed the date and time and location and weather in fancy text and drained a quarter of my battery in 30 minutes. No thanks. Delete.

I wanted to replace Chrome with the stock (pre-4.1?) Android browser, so I rooted my phone (hubba-hubba), renamed some files using a root filebrowser, side-loaded the Browser.APK, then got a notification that a new version of Android had been downloaded and was ready to install. Pressed okay. The phone rebooted, and showed an image of a little dead green robot. Oops. Turns out that renaming those files as root had broken the updating. Fortunately, hard-resetting got me back in and I was able to fix them, but then no amount of prodding would get the thing to update. It told me I was already up-to-date, while the Android Version told me I was still one point-version behind. No matter. A week later I got the update message again, and it updated to Android 4.2.2 without a hitch.

Then I tried to get rid of those on-screen buttons. Gawd how I hate them. They're ugly. They waste screen space. They're located right below the keyboard so a mis-tapped space key throws me back to the homescreen. I found something called GDW Gesture Control, which is supposed to allow me to hide these hideous things, and reveal them with a tap or swipe from the bottom of the screen. Just the thing. Requires root access, but that's fine, I've already rooted it, right?

Wrong. The 4.2.2 update had removed root access. And though I glossed over it earlier, rooting the Nexus 4 is far from straight-forward. The tools require a kludgy process of removing and replacing Windows drivers, then navigating a maze of awfully designed (?) menus and instructions, where one mis-step requires a do-over. Oh sure, it tickles the hacker gene, but it's also enough of a pain in the arse that I haven't bothered to redo it. Seriously, the worst iOS Jailbreak tools (and I've used many over the years) are vastly more straight-forward and intuitive than the Nexus Root Toolkit, and they even have some degree of design flair to them.

Scratch that, I'll just use the damn thing the way it was intended.

I installed all the apps and services I like to use which have Android versions:

  • The Verge
  • Twitter (and Janetter Pro - at least Android phone offers 3rd party Twitter clients that aren't ugly, which is not true for Android on tablets)
  • Pocket Weather AU
  • Kindle
  • Tumblr
  • Rdio
  • Pocket Casts
  • Instagram
  • PicFrame
  • Bejewelled 2 (yay, it works!)

I needed a decent app for writing, a WriteRoom alternative for Android. - all my words are stored in Dropbox as plain text files. Sadly, that app does not exist. The nearest I got was Epistle, which is not very good, doesn't handle large files well, doesn't automatically sync to Dropbox. So instead, for my cross-platform writing needs, I installed Catch Notes on the Nexus 4 and my iOS devices. It's a great little app. It does the job well and syncs seamlessly, but without access to Dropbox it only gets me part-way there.

The rest of the apps are a mixed bag. Instagram works fine - I'd be as happy using it on Android as I am on iOS, if only the camera was better. Pocket Weather is decidedly low-budget. It loses the smooth interface, pull-down to refresh, and several features from the iOS version. Ditto for Kindle. It doesn't have all the features of its iOS counterpart, doesn't reliably refresh automatically, doesn't do page-turn animations, doesn't have the font options from iOS. Search is hidden under a separate settings menu. And the screen brightness doesn't have nearly the same level of finesse as on iPhone. Brightness is an Android-wide issue. Screen brightness doesn't work properly when set to auto, and the lowest setting is almost always to bright at night. Twitter and PicFrame and Rdio work well enough.

Bejewelled 2 worked okay at first, but is missing some game modes compared to the iOS version, but sometime in the last week (perhaps after the 4.2.2 update) it stopped loading, throwing an error 'Unfortunately has stopped responding'.

The other thing I've become acutely aware of is how much I use the iOS gesture of a tap on the status bar to scroll to the top of whatever I'm doing. From webpages to Twitter streams to text editing, to reading The Verge, it's just a part of how I expect things to work, how I navigate iOS. It doesn't work on Android. Many apps offer a solution, a button to scroll to the top, but many don't.

Finally, I installed iLauncher, which provides a 95% perfect clone of the iOS experience, especially once I'd replaced a couple of icons, renamed a few apps, and replaced a few others with KIRFs of iOS apps - Reminders, Clock and Messages. It's seriously close to iOS in function, and looks (this is not surprising since most assets are stolen from iOS, not merely imitated). Every few days it has some kind of failure and needs a reboot, but that's a small price to pay to get rid of the ugly that is stock Android.

That's it. That's the end of my Adventure in Androidland. I'm left with mixed feelings. I like the Nexus 4, but it can't replace my iPhone. For a first-time smartphone buyer who hasn't already become reliant on iCloud services and iOS apps for which Android doesn't offer an alternative, it's probably a fine choice. Certainly a whole different class of device to shitty cheap Galaxy phones. But there's a reason why I've become reliant on those iCloud services and iOS app: they're really good.

When I use iMessage dozens of times every day and my conversations are free and synced between my iPhone, iPad and Mac, I wonder what kind of price I would put on that? How much value does it hold for others? Ditto for iCloud backup and restore. When I look through my 5 screens of iPhone apps which aren't available on Android, I ask why would I want to forgo them. Would I really recommend that somebody else forgo them?

The answer is, for somebody who has clear and rational preference for Android (there are plenty of things that a person might want to do with Android that they cannot do with iOS - mainly cosmetic and/or geeky things, not productive things), it's a very good phone for a very cheap price. For anybody else, I'd suggest they decide whether the cheaper price makes the trade-off in app availability and quality attractive.

For me, there's no question that I can get more done with an iPhone, with less headaches and hassles, and less ugly, so the choice is easy - I'm still getting the iPhone 5S later this year. I no longer get a kick out of futzing about with my computers, though I once did and totally understand those that do.

The other thing I came to realise is that if Apple offer a 5" as well as the 4" screen, I'll be choosing the smaller one, despite everything I've said in the past about choosing the larger one.

Up Next:

ADVENTURE 2 - WINPHONELAND

Coming Soon:

ADVENTURE 3 - UBUNTULAND (Hey, you didn't really think I was going to live with those persistent software buttons on the Nexus 4 did you?)