It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my tenure as an iPhone user. It was easily the best designed piece of electronics I have ever owned. Imperfect, yes, but as close as I’ve seen.
But perfection comes at a cost, and over time it just became too high for me. Frustrating as it was being a Linux user with an iPhone (the two platforms, unsurprisingly, don’t get along although Linux can see and play audio off the device), I could live with the one to one dependance on a Mac or Windows machine because I have both around at the office, at least. Absurd as I find Apple’s self-righteous censorship of its application store, the material impact of this filtering on my personal usage was pretty much neglible. The lack of Flash was a pain in the ass, but enough sites have retooled that it wasn’t a deal breaker. As for the hermetically sealed operating system, well, I must admit that my appetite for tinkering with my phone is significantly less than for my desktop. I was even fine with AT&T as a carrier: where I happen to live in Maine, they’re pretty much it for coverage, on land and especially on the water.
Like many iPhone users, I could live with all of the above issues, frankly, because the alternatives were less than compelling. I love the Palm software, but I didn’t love the hardware. Blackberry held zero appeal because email isn’t why I own a mobile device. And until its recent reboot, Microsoft’s Windows offering was not even a consideration.
Which left Android (yes, the Symbian omission was intentional). Google’s mobile operating system may have taken the market by storm in the last 18 months, but my limited time on the early versions of the platform did little to sell me on it as an iPhone replacement. Parts of it were compelling, but as you’d expect from an engineering-centric organization like Google – or indeed any company that’s not Apple – the user experience left much to be desired. Still does, in fact. Seeing as this is a post about switching to Android, however, you’re probably curious as to what tipped me over the edge. Besides the above Apple and iPhone frustrations, of course.
First, and most importantly, MLB ported its At Bat application to Android. I’m not joking when I said this was a must have for me. The value of being able to watch (graphically) and listen to a ballgame when I’m walking down Third Street in San Francisco cannot be overstated for this Red Sox fan.
As it was for Dan Lyons, it was FroYo, however, that really sold me, that convinced me it was time. Which is funny, because Google hasn’t yet shipped it to my Nexus One, and I haven’t seen fit to find and apply it myself. Nor is it clear when that will happen. Nevertheless, everything Gizmodo said about it is true. Sitting in the audience at I/O, watching the demos at Google I/O, I began to explore how I might make the jump. The first step was obtaining a handset. Conveniently HTC and Sprint solved that one for me. As we’ll see. On to the review.
As Ars’ Ryan Paul documented earlier today, HTC and Sprint were kind enough to issue every attendee of Google I/O – even us press/analyst types – a brand new HTC Evo 4G. Take every feature you’ve ever wanted in a phone – huge perfect screen, WIMAX, even HDMI out – and that phone has it. Sure, the battery life is awful, but you just have to see this thing in action. It’s legitimately incredible. Possibly even more so than the HTC Incredible, though I can’t say.
The only problem for me, besides the battery life, was that the HTC was a.) locked to Sprint and b.) compatible with CDMA/EV-DO networks only, i.e. not AT&T. Which is the only network I can use. So I set about finding a trading partner. Which after some fits and starts, I did via Twitter. A very nice gentleman who I won’t out here agreed to trade me his brand new AT&T compatible Nexus One for my mostly-brand new HTC Evo. Which was what Tim Bray – see his review of the device here – had recommended to me at the House of Shields after hearing I was pretty much stuck with AT&T. Even off a red eye that morning, I managed to stay awake just long enough last Friday to greet the Fedex guy who delivered my would-be iPhone replacement. So I’ve had a long weekend to play with the device, the software and the network.
While there are differences in the implementations of Android from device to device – the HTC Evo I had, for example, featured their custom “Sense” UI which I actually found rather perplexing – the following may be useful for others considering a switch to Android.
As for the handset itself, I actually prefer the Nexus One to both the Evo and – surprisingly – my iPhone. The form factor of the Nexus One is, to me, superior to both. It’s about 4 mm longer than my iPhone 3GS, but it’s thinner and less wide. It fits in the hand very well, and the pocket acceptably. Better, it feels solid and well constructed.
- Battery Life:
The published numbers claim longer talk time than the iPhone 3GS; it’s seemed relatively comparable to me. That is to say that it sucks roughly as much. I love smartphones – can’t live without them, in fact – but their battery life is just abysmal if you use the network services heavily. Like its predecessor, I have to nurse the Nexus One through the day by letting it sip on my laptop’s power regularly. Speaking of the power cord…
- Power Cord:
Unlike the iPhone, which uses a proprietary connection, the Nexus One uses a Micro USB cable for connectivity to a PC. Importantly, this means you can purchase extra cables on Monoprice for about a dollar, which beats the hell out of Apple’s $19 connector cable. Of course this is even more important since there’s virtually no aftermarket for Android device parts, but let me come back to that.
The screen on the Nexus One is absolutely tremendous…as long as you’re not outdoors. Outside, in bright sun, the screen is not quite unreadable, but it’s close. Sitting down on the dock this weekend, I could read Gmail, Twitter et al, but I had to squint or create some shade. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the display otherwise puts my iPhone’s to shame. It’s bigger, brighter, and I really haven’t noticed the rumored oversaturation. The touchscreen is mostly fine, probably a shade less responsive than the iPhone’s.
The camera crammed in a few extra megapixels, apparently, so the pictures appear a bit better. The real surprise for me was the flash; I had no idea it had one, and was shocked when it went off taking the first indoor shots. It’s certainly not a professional class device, but it’s really not that bad. All the pictures from the Memorial Day parade here were taken with the Nexus One, to give you an idea of the camera quality.
- Bottom Buttons:
Tim says he hasn’t had any issues with the hardware buttons that line the bottom of the screen, so apparently he is a better man than I. They work for me, but not always, and occasionally not even on the second try. I appreciate having a back button, as Steve Jobs’ manical one button focus never made any more sense to me on the phone than the desktop, but the execution here could use some work in my opinion. [Update: Corey Gilmore writes in to say that this is actually a manufacturing issue. The silk screened buttons are simply lower than they should be by about .5 mm. And when pressing slightly above the button, it works as expected. Thanks Corey!]
The only other hardware-ish note: the headphones included with the device are simply awful. They’re as bad as those included with the iPhone, and that’s saying something. Why manufacturers can’t come up with something that’s at least comfortable, if not high quality, is beyond me. I get that you don’t want to step on your aftermarket’s toes, but seriously, the default headphones are borderline worse than nothing.
Android – whether it’s HTC’s flavor or Google’s – cannot match the user experience of the iPhone. Let’s just get that out of the way up front. Apple is the best in the world at what they do, and Android, while much improved, still has a way to go to match the seamless quality of the Apple experience front to back. That said, the Android is far more usable than I anticipated. There’s a bit of a learning curve involved, but once you figure it out, it’s relatively easy to navigate, and there are some nifty features that even Apple could stand to learn from.
Everyone talks about the multi-tasking, and it mostly lives up to the hype. Being as big a fan of the MLB At Bat application on the iPhone as I am, it was constantly frustrating to have to exit that completely to check email or Twitter, then navigate all the way back to the game after I was done. Even understanding, via Robert Love, why Apple might have done things that way, it was a pain in the ass. It took me a little while to get used to navigating between open applications in Android – hold the home button down to access those recently used – but once you get it, it’s killer. I can have MLB At Bat up and running, pop over to check Twitter, and pop back over when I’m done. In this, Android is clearly superior to the current Apple experience.
Still, Android could use some work here. The fact that I have to download an application to kill other applications I don’t want to run anymore is what we in the business call “supoptimal.” I have yet to figure out how to turn off Google Talk, and as a result I keep getting IMs directed to my phone when I’m not paying attention.
The browser on the Nexus One at present is fine. It’s reasonably fast, but otherwise undistinguished. The usability is slightly worse than the iPhone’s, in my opinion: it’s two clicks to get to the browser windows menu, versus one on the iPhone, and the bookmarks are likewise less acceptable. All of that’s bad.
The good news is that whatever they’ve done to the browser in FroYo is working. As Alex King and I have discussed, the browser in FroYo is that fastest I’ve seen. Not the fastest mobile browser, the fastest browser, period. The benchmarks I’ve seen don’t support that claim, but the experience really has to be seen to be believed, in my view. Better, FroYo adds experimental support for Flash, so all of those sites that are currently opaque to the iPhone will become just another site to Android.
The thing that Android sucks worst at relative to the iPhone, in my opinion, is being an iPod. For many users, I’ve found, this isn’t an issue as they don’t use the iPod functionality. For me, it’s core, as my iPhone replaced my iPod after about a month. I simply can’t be bothered to keep two devices a.) charged and b.) loaded with music, and I’ve really come to appreciate having my music on me all the time, so the huge delta in iPod-like functionality between the iPhone and my Nexus One is a gaping hole. Maybe I’ll find something suitable in the Market, but the stock Music player on the Nexus One is barely adequate. Big win for the iPhone here.
The wildcard here is the pending music streaming feature. The idea is that you don’t load your entire music catalog to your phone; the latter simply accesses it over the network. If this works even marginally well, it will be an absolutely killer feature. You have to think the carriers are terrified of this from a bandwidth perspective, however.
A small feature I miss is the iPhone’s native ability to take screenshots. Hold down home and hit the power button, and the iPhone drops a screenshot into your picture gallery. As nearly as I can determine, Android offers no similar function. There’s an app for that, as they say, but it should be native, IMO.
- Google Integration:
Ask anyone about their Android device, and guaranteed one of the first things to come up will be the Google integration. Put simply, if you’re a consumer of Google services – Gmail, calendar, etc – Android is not only magic, but probably the best device for you. On activation, the phone asks you for your Google account credentials, and with those it transparently populates the email app, your calendar, etc. And yes, Google Apps accounts are supported. I’ve got my Apps account integrated for email and calendar, while my contacts are pulled instead from my regular Gmail account.
If you hook up Google Voice, you can let it replace your provider voicemail. Or at least you can on AT&T; Sprint didn’t allow this when I was using the HTC Evo they issued me. The tight if not exclusive integration of their email, calendar, IM, and voicemail services makes for a very compelling experience from an application perspective.
How does the device perform as a phone? Fine, I guess. Frankly, I use this functionality as little as possible, so I can’t really comment here. Hasn’t dropped a call yet, though, so I suppose that’s a positive.
Android’s market is obviously well behind Apple’s from a volume standpoint, but it’s also outclassed from a UI perspective. Not that Apple’s store is perfect, but the Android market’s categories are limited, its reviews tend to be sparse, and discoverability is extremely subpar. The commerce functionality also needs some serious TLC. After about a half dozen failed attempts to buy my first application – MLB At Bat, of course – in which I kept being asked to login to my Google account over and over, I finally discovered that you can’t purchase items using Google Checkout from a Google Apps account. It has to be Google Checkout attached to an @gmail.com account. Someone might want to fix that, or at least warn users ahead of time. The Market’s got some areas for improvement, in other words.
Still, I’ve wasted no time loading up my Nexus One with apps. Here’s what I’m using at present:
- Advanced Task Killer
- (MLB) At Bat ’10
- ConnectBot (SSH terminal)
- SMS Migrator
- Twitter for Android
- USAA (my bank)
Other than At Bat, not obvious favorites yet. Just the regular suite of apps that keep me productive, happy or both.
One other observation on the Market: it’s not obvious to me why there is no clear aftermarket supplier for Android accessories. Presumably Google expects the carriers to satisfy the bulk of such requests through their retail outlets, at a substantial markup, as is traditional. But there are surely a great many folks like me that need accessories for their phone, such as replacement headphones, extra power cables, car chargers and so on. At this point, however, I’m not sure where I’d get those as the Nexus One isn’t sold by my local carrier.
Seems like an odd customer need to ignore.
My Nexus One setup actually could not have gone more smoothly. At least once I found out how to insert the battery. Word to the wise: the little slot on the back of the device is not for prying the back cover off, it’s the speaker. Simply press the back with two fingers and slide up. As an aside, it would have been nice if that was in the documentation somewhere.
Anyway, after figuring that out, it was pretty straightforward. I pulled the SIM card from my iPhone, inserted it into the Nexus One, followed with the battery and the booted it up. Everything pretty much just worked. The phone powered up, found the network, and had no issues whatsoever. I could make and receive calls, texts and browse the interweb. [Update: couple of folks wrote in this morning to warn me that not informing AT&T about the new device would eventually cause me problems, particularly with the awful new plan changes about to hit. So I called them, and after getting the IMEI (
Settings: About Phone: Status), they confirmed me on the same data plan as I had previously. Hold time with customer service was approximately 3 minutes.]
A couple of issues I had, however:
The Nexus One will sync your contacts with various Google accounts, Facebook, even Twitter. Which sounds like a great idea, until you consider just how many contacts that is. In my case, it’s a lot. More problematic was the fact that many of my contacts weren’t in any contact database except my iPhone. Not having people’s phone numbers was a slight problem.
Initially, I thought I could fix this by enabling Google account synchronization on my iPhone. As far as I can tell, however, that doesn’t sync, it merely replaces your iPhone contacts with what’s in Google. Which was exactly what I didn’t want.
What I ended up doing was opening the Address Book in Mac OS on the machine my iPhone is tied to, selecting all of my contacts, and exporting them to a vcard. I then uploaded that vcard to my Google account, merged the info with existing accounts where necessary, and – at least in theory – I have all of my prior contacts synced.
Only slightly less important to me are the hundreds if not thousands of text messages that have accumulated on my iPhone. I was loathe to leave these behind simply because I was making the jump from one device to another. So I looked around and found a solution. At least I think I did. Here’s the process:
- Step one was buying SMS Migrator (~$1) from the Market and downloading that to my Nexus One.
- While that was in process, I plugged my iPhone into my Ubuntu laptop. As usual, it mounted cleanly and displayed the filesystem. After a bit of research, however, it became clear that in their infinite wisdom – and out of their concern for me, I’m sure – Apple has chosen to hide the SQL Lite database containing all of my text messages from me. Instead, I turned to these instructions.
- Based on those, I spun up my Mac, navigated (on the command line, the Finder didn’t display the folder) to
~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup/. In there, I had two directories: one that was updated today (I backed up my iPhone before attempting any of this), and another updated last June (presumably my old iPhone backup). I moved into the second one, and located a file called
3d0d7e5fb2ce288813306e4d4636395e047a3d28.mddata. I copied that over to my Linux machine.
- Over on the Linux machine, I downloaded iphone-isms-free, a Java app for exporting the SQL Lite database into a format SMS Migrator could import.
- To do the export, I ran the following:
java -jar isms.jar -csv "sms.csv" -sql "3d0d7e5fb2ce288813306e4d4636395e047a3d28.mddata" -backup
- From there, I copied sms.csv to the root directory on my MicroSD card on the Nexus One.
- I then activated SMS Migrator, told it what program I’d used (iphone-isms-free), what the file was called (sms.csv) and let it do its thing. Which it’s been doing for over seven hours at present, where it’s 96% complete. It seems to be working, though I’ll have to report back on the good, the bad and the ugly later.
One bit of weirdness: my Nexus One, which has in theory the same network capabilities as my iPhone, was unable to connect to the network in my fiancee’s hometown, while her iPhone showed a normal AT&T signal. After activating Data roaming (seriously, when was the last time you heard about “roaming” in the US?) under
Wireless & network settings: Mobile networks, the phone connected as normal and displayed a signal strength equivalent to that of the iPhone on AT&T. But it insisted it was roaming, not on AT&T. This one, I still haven’t figured out.
Android is ready for prime time. It’s not going to beat the iPhone – not yet – but it’s ready for mainstream users. Which is probably why they’re shipping 65,000 of them a day. FroYo will only make this readiness more evident. The hiring of Matias Duarte, formerly of Palm, only underscores Google’s commitment to improving the UI.
Apple will undoubtedly reset the bar with its forthcoming iPhone 4GS, but Google’s catching up fast and has some sustainable advantages to exploit, not least the lack of a client dependency. Apple seems to have something of a blind spot with respect to the cloud, as Dan Lyons asserted, and whether that’s an artifact of its Mac desktop investments or a larger strategy, it’s going to have them playing defense. Soon. But as I said back at Google I/O, the great thing about fierce competition like we’re now seeing between Apple and Google is that customers are the ultimate winners. We’re going to see even faster rates of innovation moving forward, and I for one am looking forward to what the competition yields.
In the meantime, I’m happy having made the jump to Android, and hope the above might help those of you with questions about the process. Questions? Other suggestions? Feel free to chime in below.