GearMonk

An Android User Goes Back to the iPhone

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For the first time in almost six years, I’m a regular iPhone user again. As someone who’s used Android as a primary platform for both handsets and tablets for over five years, the obvious question is why switch back? Was it an Android failing? An iPhone feature? Some combination of both?

The answer is none of the above. The reason I switched back to an iPhone is ironic, actually, considering the nature of both the Android and Apple ecosystems. Theoretically, part of the promise of Android is the diversity of choices available. There are dozens of Android manufacturers manufacturing dozens of different devices. The only vendor producing Apple devices, on the other hand, is Apple. And there aren’t that many of them: two form factors for phones, three for tablets. Which would imply that if one of my primary drivers was physical handset size, I’d stand a better chance of getting exactly what I wanted from the Android ecosystem.

Except that’s not what happened.

I’m not a fan of the large phone craze, you see. Drives me crazy, in fact. I do not understand on any level the mass market demand for enormous phones. Part of it is that I have a tablet (Nexus 7 2013), I suppose, but I can’t figure out how people with smaller hands use giant phones. I don’t have enormous, Koufax-ian hands – I can’t quite palm a basketball – but they’re reasonably sized. And most of the phones manufactured today are just too large for me to use comfortably. What about the majority of the population with smaller hands?

My platonic ideal in terms of size was the orginal Moto X. It fit the hand perfectly and the entire screen was easily reachable. Unfortunately, I broke that phone and replaced it with the second generation Moto X. It was, predictably, expanded from the original: around a half of an inch taller and a third of an inch wider. Still usable, but barely.

With the battery on that phone prematurely shot, I began looking for an Android replacement. The problem? They were all even larger. Part of the problem, to be fair, is that I won’t consider most of the Android manufacturers because they modify stock Android in unhelpful ways, are glacially slow to roll out operating system updates, or both. But then again, that’s a problem that Android has created for itself, so my sympathies are limited.

Anyway, the only models I really considered because they a) offered a pure Android experience and b) would provide reasonable updates are manufactured by Motorola or Google itself (Nexus). Which were all too big.

The successor to my already-uncomfortably-big Moto X, the Moto X Style? It’s half an inch larger (again), and a little less than a third of an inch wider. Enormous, in other words. Rumor had it, however, that Google was coming out with not just one Nexus device this fall however, as it typical, but two. One large, and one small. Even better, they’d have fingerprint sensors and use the same USB-C port as my Macbook.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when the small phone turned out to be larger than my current Moto X. Which was, again, too big. The best “small” phone on the market, then, turned out to be the iPhone 6S, which was shorter, narrower and thinner than my Moto X.

So back to an iPhone it was. It’s funny that I had to go back to the platform of limited choice to get the choice I wanted, but until (viable) Android manufacturers offer something other than too large, larger and giant models, I’ll probably be an iPhone user.

For better and for worse.

In the meantime, here are some thoughts on the transition.

The Good

  • Hardware: I mentioned above that the original Moto X was my preferred size, but the 6S is pretty close in terms of the experience. It’s very comfortable in the hand, and short enough that I can get to the entire screen easily. The packaging and physical design is what you’d expect from Apple as well, which is to say excellent. So, as expected, the hardware is great.
  • Battery: Every time an iPhone comes out, someone takes it apart and everyone pretends to be surprised at how small, relative to competitive hardware, the batteries are. In a market in which additional battery life is typically added via additional physical battery material, Apple’s total control of the entire device down to the chip level is a big differentiator. The battery life on the iPhone, in the few weeks I’ve had it, is materially and noticeably better than my Moto X. It’s not night and day – under heavy use over half a day, the iPhone will still be in the fifties percentage-wise – but Apple remains the indisputable leader in battery efficiency.
  • Install: The last time I was on an iPhone, everything had to be routed through iTunes, which was in stark contrast to Android which needed no such intermediary. In the interim, Apple has removed this restriction, and there is no need for iTunes to install apps or even update the OS itself. The ability to install via a desktop has been retained, however, and in my case it was a nice benefit. The morning of my iPhone delivery, I went into iTunes and queued up all the applications I wanted. When the phone arrived, then, I installed everything in one shot. Even better, I could manage the placement of the apps on each screen, though that process is hilariously clunky.
  • Camera: I’m not much of a photographer, so this isn’t the priority for me that it is for a lot of buyers, but the iPhone’s camera is a lot better than any Android handset I’ve had. It’s not just the image quality, either: Apple has consistently been ahead of the competition in terms of delivering interesting new camera features, from slo-mo to hyperlapse. The latest are “Live” images, which I have not used yet.
  • Storage: If you ask people in the mobile industry why Android handsets have always lagged their iPhone counterparts in available storage space, you get different answers. Some argue that it’s a function of Apple’s supply chain prowess; that Apple has made it effectively impossible to produce devices with comparable storage at scale. Others point to Google’s historical tendency to advantage network services over local device capabilities. Whatever the cause, it has meant that no Android phone I’ve ever been able to purchase has had enough on board storage to accomomodate my entire music collection (~90 GBs not counting audiobooks). The new 128 GB iPhone, on the other hand, does, with room left over for movies and anything else I might want to store. Big advantage for the iPhone for my usage, because with mobile and even home data plans inreasingly capped, streaming all of my media as Android handsets would encourage me to do simply isn’t economical.
  • Fingerprints: This isn’t unique to iPhones, of course. Several Android handsets, including the Nexus devices I decided against, include these. But it’s a feature that I didn’t have before, and it’s a nice one.

The Same

  • Apps: One of the things I was curious about coming back to iOS as a primary device was whether I’d notice a bump in app quality and aesthetics. So far, with two notable exceptions, everything’s been pretty much the same. The apps I use on Android are also available on iOS, and most of them are consistent in terms of aesthetics across the two platforms. The only big addition is Tweetbot, a better Twitter client than anything on Android, in my opinion. This is offset by a much less robust Google Now implementation, but I’ll come back to that. At some point I’m sure I’ll benefit from the tendency of apps to debut for iOS before Android equivalents are made available, but I haven’t experienced that in the couple of weeks I’ve had the iPhone.

The Bad

As a brief caveat before getting into the specifics of things working less well, let me state up front that I’m following what I’ve referred to as the Manjoo Doctrine: “Buy Apple’s hardware, use Google’s services and get media from Amazon.” To the letter, in this case. There are a variety of reasons for this. I can’t go all in on iTunes, for example, first because I still use Android devices and second because my workstation is Linux. The utility of iMessage, meanwhile, is massively tempting, but its questionable track record with detaching phone numbers from iMessage and the fact that I am by no means wedded to an iPhone for life leaves me disinclined to use it. As for iCloud, well, it’s iCloud. So no thanks.

The net then is that I’m an Apple hardware buyer who a) buys his media (books, music, etc) primarily from Amazon and b) relies heavily on Google services (Gmail, Apps, Music, Maps, Now, etc.) Which means, by definition, that my experience is going to be fractured and higher friction than someone who relies on Apple for everything top to bottom.

That caveat out of the way, these are a few areas of frustration for me at the moment.

  • Music: As mentioned above, I can’t go all in on iTunes because a few of the platforms I rely on (Android/Linux) don’t support it. Even if I could, however, I wouldn’t, because iTunes as an application is a tire fire. In Apple’s defense, there aren’t many music applications I can point to that are provably superior, but iTunes is bloated to the point of being unusable for me. While Pandora has substantially eroded the incentive for me to create custom playlists, to the extent I still do that, it’s in Google Play. This means that I can access these playlists on any of the platforms I use regularly: Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, even Sonos. The problem is that Google Play doesn’t offer me any method for downloading my entire library to my phone for offline use as I can finally do with the 128 GB iPhone. Nor can, if I sync the entire library over to the phone via iTunes, Google Play access that media. So the net at the moment is that I can have my entire library on my phone via iTunes, or I can have my current and up to date playlists via Google Play, but not both. It’s unclear how I’m going to resolve this moving forward, but it’s irritating.
  • Books: On Android, the way I managed my audiobooks was simple. I manually copied the directory of an audiobook, either by connecting it to my desktop or more frequently pulling it from Dropbox, to my phone. A very nice little app called Smart Audiobooks would then index the directories, and then add useful audiobook specific features such as remembering place, time left in the book, intelligent restart and so on. On iOS, the correct audiobook approach is substantially less obvious. You can sync them via iTunes, but then it’s a pain to switch between audibook and music. And you lose the book specific features. Theoretically you can have another app like Audible read your iTunes audiobook directory – they have to be manually assigned the type audiobook in iTunes, simply having that in the genre metadata isn’t enough. But while Audible could see my iTunes synced audiobooks, it lost the metadata in the process so that none of the files were in sequence. At the moment I’m using an app called “Book Mower” that pulls directly from Dropbox, but this process is easier on Android.
  • iMessage: As mentioned above, this is due to a deliberate choice on my part as opposed to a functional limitation on Apple’s, but with no Mighty Text equivalent for iOS and being unwilling for the mentioned reasons to register with iMessage, I can no longer send text messages from my computer. It’s not a big deal because most of the local friends I might text are on a personal Slack instance, but I miss texting my brother and best friend from the desktop. Whether they miss that is a separate question.
  • Tethering: On the Motorola and Nexus Android devices I used, turning my phone into a hotspot involved nothing more than a click. On the iPhone, I apparently have to call AT&T to set that up, and presumably pay them more money for the data I’m already paying them for. Not ideal.
  • Back Button: I wanted to give this a fair shot, rather than complain about it after a few days usage, but I’m still a believer that Android’s dedicated back button is simpler and more efficient than the app-specific implementations iOS relies on.
  • Google Now: On the vanilla Android implementations I’m used to, the screen to the left of the home screen is dedicated to Google Now. Populated by current weather, stories from websites I rely on, traffic reports, scores from the teams I follow and so on, Google Now is one of the most useful Android features for me. It’s available on iOS, which is nice, but it’s buried in the Google search app, so it’s much less accessible. For an app whose utility depends on easy access, that’s less ideal. Apple has a few similar features in its notifications, but that’s the wrong place for them in my view. Which brings us to…

The Ugly

  • Notifications: My first question to all of the Apple people I talk to about this transition is: what’s the deal with iOS notifications? The first problem is the pulldown menu at the top. When I’m looking for notifications, I want notifications. Apple has instead attempted to use the pulldown menu to combine Google Now-style weather updates and so on with device notifications, which is one function too many in my opinion. Even after I click over to the notifications tab once I’ve pulled down the notifications menu, however, the notifications are more burden than helpful. They don’t roll up if there are multiple notifications, for one. Then I have to clear them all by day; as far as I can tell, there’s no dismiss all.

    It’s possible that I’m merely suffering from Baby Duck syndrome, but Android’s dedicated Google Now screen / notification-only pulldown menu split seems cleaner. The current state of iOS notifications is a real surprise coming from a company of Apple’s abilities.

The Migration

I’d meant to address this in the original review, but I did in fact use Apple’s Move to iOS application as part of my transition from an Android device to the iPhone. The good news is that it mostly worked – the text messages in particular made the transition more or less intact. The bad news is that it didn’t work perfectly and it took a very long time. Contacts, in particular, got mangled: in many cases, I have three or four entries for a single contact that are devoid of any actual contact information. I haven’t yet figured out how to resolve that. And in spite of the fact that I did not ask the application to migrate my photos – both because I knew it would take a long time and because they were all already in Google Photos – the migration took several hours, which seemed a bit excessive given that the information to be transferred over could presumably be measured in megabytes rather than gigabytes.

The net is that Apple’s migration app is probably better than nothing, particularly if you just want to preserve a text history, but expect a lot of remediation work post-migration.

3 comments

  1. You could use Whatsapp for texting from the desktop Steve.

  2. The tethering thing is an ATT issue. With my mobile provider it involves nothing more than a click, and costs no extra.

    But, no argument on the notifications.

  3. I find the iPhone 6/6S pretty much the idea phone size because it’s essentially as big as it can be while I can still operate it one handed. I fiddled around with phones in Apple stores way too many times when the 6 and 6 Plus came out and tried to convince myself that the bigger phone would work for me and serve as my only phone/tablet device while traveling. But I just couldn’t.

    Funnily enough though, I’ve pretty much stopped traveling with my full-size iPad in any case.

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