I’m a Mac and iPhone developer and I’ve just spent the past week using a Google Nexus One as my primary cell phone rather than an iPhone as I have for the past three years. I wanted to do this to become more acquainted with what Google has to offer since my only exposure to Android has been a few demo devices and an hour with a friend’s phone.
Android is certainly a capable smartphone operating system. In fact, if the iPhone never existed, it’d be pretty great. Where Android fails is the little things. Apple is notorious for sweating the small stuff so when another device doesn’t, it sticks out. Despite its lack of polish in key areas, I really do like Android and really hope that Apple steals some of its best features such as notifications, desktop widgets and Froyo’s new cloud backup capabilities.
For the Instapaper Crowd
If you are following me on Twitter over the past week, you’ve no doubt been inundated with my live play-by-play of the entire experience. I had a few requests to summarize the entire experience, so here goes.
The big question that came up when I started the experiment was why? I’ve been first in line the past three years to pick up the iPhone, iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS and it has changed my life for the good. Despite my frustrations with Apple’s path with regards to development on the iPhone and the iPad, it’s never been enough of an issue that I’ve wanted to stop using my phone as a consumer. Others that I’ve seen try this Android experiment such as John Gruber and Jeff LaMarche would probably say the same thing.
My only experience with Android is a bit of face time with demo units and an hour with a friends phone: hardly enough to have an educated discussion about the benefits and tradeoffs of the two major smartphone platforms. I’ve had an itching to get an Android phone for a while, and then the opportunity to get a Nexus One popped up last week, I jumped at it.
Once the phone arrived, I committed myself to using the phone as my primary phone for seven days. I popped the sim card out of my iPhone, transferred it to the Nexus One and placed my 3GS in the desk drawer.
While the main purpose of this experiment was to get accustomed to Android as a platform, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few things about the actual Nexus One hardware:
- The device is thinner than the iPhone, but feels about the same weight.
- The removable battery isn’t all its cracked up to be. The back of the Nexus One is hard to slide off without a bit of force.
- The screen is terrible. While it looks nice when you are indoors, it’s completely unusable outdoors. A smartphone is an on-the-go sort of device so having a screen that is nearly unusable outdoors is frustrating to say the least.
- The Nexus One has a rollerball at the bottom of the device which is more of a nuisance than anything. The ball will light up when there is a notification as well as allow you to scroll through the home screens and applications. I’ve never used it and don’t understand why I would want to rather than tapping and dragging on the screen.
Android First Impressions
Overall the first impressions of Android coming from three years as an iPhone user were not too good. While on the surface both devices are smartphones that let you make calls, surf the Web and obsessively reload Twitter, Android is missing those extra bits of polish and attention that Apple is known for.
One of the first issues I ran into with Android was in the SMS app. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t auto-completing my brother’s work cell number when I typed his name. It turns out that the application will only autocomplete numbers that are marked as ‘mobile’ in the Contacts application. In the case of my brother, I mark his work Blackberry as ‘work’ and his personal iPhone as ‘home’. On the iPhone, it will search any of the phone numbers and let you add them no matter how they are categorized.
Android also has lots of hidden bits of UI. Tapping and holding on the home screen will expose a menu that lets you add different shortcuts to your home screen. Tapping and holding on the home button will popup an application switcher. Both are ridiculously useful features, but I didn’t discover them until a few days into my experiment because they were non obvious.
Despite the rough first few days, there is a lot to like about Android.
- Notifications: Android’s notifications system is awesome and so far superior to the iPhone. Whereas the iPhone you get a single notification at a time and once its dismissed its gone forever, Android will queue up your notifications so you can go through them when its convenient for you.
- Multitasking: With Android I can play Pandora in the background while surfing the Web or refreshing Twitter. This is coming in iPhone OS 4.0, but it’s already here in Android and works pretty well. One of the nice things Android has with respect to multitasking is a battery usage monitor that will show you what apps or system services are using the most battery. The Nexus One screen uses more juice than anything.
- Android home screen & Widgets: Like notifications, Android’s home screen drinks the iPhone’s milkshake. Beyond the ability to organize icons in whatever order you desire (including leaving spots blank), having the ability to add widgets to the desktop is incredibly useful. Rather than having a static icon that will open my calendar application, I instead have a calendar widget with today’s date and my next upcoming event listed. On my social media home screen, I have a Twitter widget that has the latest tweet in my timeline and the ability to reply to it. Android bundles a News & Weather application that also includes a widget that will fetch the latest weather for wherever you are (determined via GPS) as well as headlines from Google news.
- True cloud syncing: One thing I’ve never understood about the iPhone and iPad is its reliance on a Mac or PC to sync data. With Android, you enter your Google account credentials and it will fetch all of your data. With the iPhone, you can do this with a MobileMe account but that’s another $99 a year. It gets better with Android’s 2.2/Froyo release. Google will not only sync your email, contact and calendar information, but also third-party application data so whenever you switch phones it will automatically pull your data from the cloud.
- Account syncing: Both the official Twitter and Facebook applications offer to sync your followers and friends with your contact list. This works fairly well. When I click on a user’s contact card, it will have the information I already had stored in my Mac’s address book, but will also offer to open their Facebook or Twitter profile right from there. Even better, it will update the user’s profile picture to match their current online avatar and most recent status update.
- Contacts on the desktop: Along the lines of account syncing, the ability to add specific contacts to my Android desktop is something I’ve long wanted on the iPhone. Clicking on the icon will pop up a dialog that lets you perform a variety of tasks: call, view contact, send a text message or view their twitter page.
- Speech: Voice Control on the iPhone is a joke compared to what you can do in Android. The soft keyboard is usable, but not great so I am starting to actually speak many text messages and let Google’s servers translate it. It does a pretty good job and saves me some typing. Speech isn’t just limited to text. The microphone button is on the keyboard, so you can speak to populate any field that accepts text.
- Live wallpapers: It’s a gimmick and there are a lot of tacky live wallpapers, but there are a few that I really like. For instance the Substrate wallpaper I’m using presently will slowly etch a pattern on the home screen over the course of an hour. It’s not distracting at all1.
What’s Not So Good
Where Android shines in some areas, it really falls apart in others. Things that are ridiculously simple on the iPhone such as taking a screenshot involves installing an SDK and going through a 15 step tutorial to do on Android.
iTunes is the central hub of the iPhone experience. It lets you easily copy your music, movies, podcasts and a variety of other media to your device. Google doesn’t really have a central hub like that so copying media to the device is a convoluted process:
- Plug your Nexus One in via USB
- Mount the SD card on your Mac’s desktop
- Locate your media in the Finder
- Drag it onto the SD card.
- Unmount the SD card and let Android read in the changes.
DoubleTwist aims to be the iTunes of the Android platform, but it was way too buggy for me to seriously use. If there was anything I sincerely missed about the iPhone experience, it was how well integrated my music and podcasts were in the iPod app.
Podcasts require a separate application called Google Listen, which works for listening, but its search library is severely lacking. It was able to find many of the This Week in Tech podcasts but when I searched for any of Dan Benjamin’s shows, it came up empty.
A few smaller annoyances in Android:
- Gallery: The Gallery app is a fairly capable photo viewer, but it uses Picassa. Yes, I know its a Google property, but I don’t know a single person who uses it. Wouldn’t it make more sense to also tie into Flickr and Facebook to automatically fetch photos?
- Littered SD cards: Android phones allow for external storage on SD cards. You can copy photos and music on there while developers can copy caches and other application data. (See example). Users should never see that sort of information.
- Email sucks…unless you use Gmail: For some reason there are two email applications on Android: one for Gmail users and one for IMAP/POP3/Exchange. The Gmail client is pretty nice and supports push email. The regular Email app doesn’t, nor does it support moving messages to folders. It does everything you want so long as thats just reading, composing, replying and deleting.
- Speed: I’ve been using Android 2.1, which compared to the iPhone OS is dog slow. Animations are not nearly as fluid. Swapping between home screens has a bit of a lag. Even double-tapping to zoom in on a section of a Web page has an odd slow motion feel. I haven’t seen animation this slow since I was buying games that touted their CD-ROM GRAPHICS. The good news is that Android 2.2 is on the horizon and real world benchmarks are showing it to be anywhere from 2-4x faster. I look forward to checking it out.
- No bounce scrolling: One thing I immediately noticed is that Android’s list views (their equivalent to UITableView) doesn’t have any sort of bounce scrolling. When you reach the top or bottom of a list, that’s it. You’re done. I never imagined this would be something I’d miss, but it’s just another small detail that works really well on the iPhone and you’ll notice when its gone.
- Browser: Why is the browser called Browser rather than Chrome?
Is There An App For That?
These new smartphone platforms are nothing without a capable AppStore. Android’s Marketplace doesn’t have as many applications as the iPhone, but for the most part I wasn’t missing much. There were some great applications like Twitter, Foursquare, Gowalla and Seesmic that are a pleasure to use2.
There are a ton of really bad applications too, however. The Facebook application is capable, but other than a single newfeed view it pushes you to the mobile Facebook web pages. The Epicurious app is fantastic on the iPhone, but its Android port looks and behaves exactly like an iPhone app rather than something native to the specific platform.
There are two applications I dearly miss on my Nexus One: Instapaper and NetNewsWire. Both of these are apps that I use when I’m at the gym or waiting for a table at a restaurant. In the case of NetNewsWire, there are indeed several RSS apps on the Android Marketplace, but they are terrible3. The Google Reader Web interface is the most usable solution which is unfortunate considering how many great RSS apps there are for the iPhone.
After a week of using Android, I’m conflicted. If you had asked me last Wednesday what phone i’d be using a week from now I’d without a doubt say the iPhone. Now that we’re here, however, I am sticking with Android until the new iPhone ships. Widgets, home screen customization, background processes and the notification system are things that I’ve grown incredibly fond of and would miss if I went back to the iPhone today. I’m also eagerly waiting the release of Froyo for my Nexus One, which will offer a lot of new features I’d like to toy with in the near term.
More than the unique features and OS updates, I’m actually having fun exploring a new platform. I’m discovering new apps, analyzing a new platform and even toying with their development environment4. It’s not often you get to experience something completely new for the first time. I don’t want to cut it off just yet.
And yes, there are five different variations of the Matrix to be used as backgrounds↩
In the case of the Twitter app, it may be my favorite Twitter app ever made↩
Which will conclude in a separate blog post↩