My everyday smartphone is an Apple iPhone 4, which replaced my two-year old iPhone 3G mid-2010, so by this stage I’m fairly deep in the Apple camp as far as using a smartphone OS goes. Add in the fact that part of my job involves reviewing iPhone apps and it won’t come as much of a surprise to learn my app library is quite large too.
But what if I want a change? There are a lot of exciting Android phones out there at the moment which I’d love to own, however the thought of changing operating system is so terrifying it brings me out in a cold sweat. What about all my apps? Will I find them for Android? How much extra will they all cost? What about syncing my contacts, email, music and so on?
In addition to all these questions, something else bothered me about giving Android a try – the hardware. Buying an iPhone is straightforward, you just pick the amount of storage you want and that’s it. But buying an Android phone is very different – there’s absolutely loads to choose from all at different prices. Is the experience that much different? How about firmware versions? If it’s a minefield for someone with a background in mobile technology; how is it for someone who’s only ever owned a £20 feature phone?
Of course, there’s a good chance many won’t care about the technical minutiae, but the smartphone is an addictive tool and if you ‘get it’, you’ll soon grow out of that basic model; so it pays to choose wisely.
Over the course of a week I tried using three Android phones, all with different firmware versions and specs, to see just how different things were on the Android side of the fence and whether I could really give up my iPhone 4 – at least as my everyday device.
The first Android phone into my hand was one of the cheapest available, the little ZTE Racer. It’s a very basic device and using the Racer was like time-travelling back to 1999 and one of my earliest smartphone experiences – Windows Mobile. The resistive touchscreen killed most of the joy of using a phone like this, and the thought of having to find a stylus put me off instantly. It’s certainly cheap, but it’s that way for a reason.
Android itself was fine, but the experience was dulled by the shaky interface and I repeatedly needed to ‘calibrate’ the touchscreen – see what I mean about a trip back to 1999? Even if I’d have come from a feature phone, using Android on the Racer wouldn’t have felt like a step forward, and I couldn’t use it for any meaningful length of time without becoming frustrated.
Things Can Only Get Better
Goodbye Racer, hello Blade! The Racer was never going to endear me to Android, so I spent some time with its big brother, the Blade; also known as the Orange San Francisco. The setup process was painless and performed without syncing with my computer, and my Google contacts and email were imported straight away. The contacts needed a little tweaking as many weren’t relevant, but otherwise the phone was ready to use very quickly.
Next, I needed apps. Being used to the iPhone I initially went to the computer, as it always made more sense to download apps from there, and got my first taste of the newly revamped Android Market.
The big difference here is over-the-air downloads. Choose your app from the online store, hit the download button and off the app zips to your phone and installs itself; all without any further interaction from you. It’s a brilliant feature and a big time-saver.
Browsing the store on the handset wasn’t quite as enjoyable, and nowhere near as good as the App Store on the iPhone. It did the job though, and apps downloaded instantly to the phone; again with little prompting needed.
I chose a selection of apps to find and download based on ones I use on my iPhone. These were the official Twitter client, Foursquare, GetGlue, PicPlz, Pulse News Reader, Skyfire, Angry Birds, Espgaluda II and R-Type. This little lot comes to a touch under £10 for the iPhone, and are all excellent apps.
CAVE’s brilliant bullet-hell shooter Espgaluda II isn’t available for Android and neither is an R-Type arcade conversion, but all the rest were there. Best of all, they cost absolutely nothing, a huge benefit for someone coming to the platform from iOS. I’m also sure that a good search would reveal titles similar to my two missing games too.
Both Twitter and Foursquare felt a little less polished that their iPhone equivalents, but Pulse was equally as good. It was also refreshing not to have to pay for Skyfire’s great web browser. Discarding the weather app that came pre-installed, I went for Weatherbug, an app which also improved over its iPhone equivalent; but for a very special reason – widgets.
Packing homescreens with widgets is one of the two major differences between using Android and iOS. Having handy information at a glance instead of opening an app was another time-saver, and gave an interesting feeling of being more interactive with the phone. But it’s when the widgets are combined with notifications that Android comes alive.
The Android notification system is superb. Small icons alert you to new events, and a pull down tray provides at-a-glance information. While the device still has to be unlocked to see this, the lock screen does clearly display what’s waiting for you. In iOS, unlocking and opening apps is the only way to get the full story of what’s happened; especially if you’ve received more than one alert.
It wasn’t all good though as unless you put app shortcuts on your homescreen, finding the one you want means digging through an ugly, confusing list of icons – where it’s all-to0-easy to miss the one you want. iOS also has screens of apps, but with folder organisation and much clearer text, finding what you want is quicker.
When it came to adding other email accounts to Android, I had to enter everything manually, whereas with the iPhone it synced not only all my mail accounts but my calendar and bookmarks too. I’m sure there are ways to do this with Android, but the point is, iOS plays nicely with OS X; and sometimes simplicity is all you want.
What put me off the most were the pauses and sometimes pure unwillingness for it to do what I wanted. Honestly, there were times when returning to iOS and its wonderful level of responsiveness was a relief! Fiddling with hardware buttons for the refresh button was annoying, as was dithering about in far too many bland menus to alter a setting; plus transferring files or music from my PC to the phone’s SD card was hardly the most intuitive act, as the phone had to be unplugged before they showed up.
The Final Frontier
Overall, using Android 2.1 on the ZTE Blade was good. But what would happen to Android on a top-of-the-range device? I opted for the Google Nexus One with a fresh install of Gingerbread to find out.
Gingerbread solved a lot of the lag in the interface, something helped out by the 1GHz processor I’m sure, plus the visual tweaks made it more interesting; but using it over Android 2.2 wasn’t all that different.
You see, by this point I’d moved on from Android 2.1 and tried a couple of custom ROMS. There are so many available and they’re really not that hard to install on your device, and each gives a different take on Android. A clean Android 2.2 setup on the Blade ran just as well as Gingerbread on the Nexus One, and the variety of themes available from the Market made the visual overhaul of 2.3.3 redundant too.
While the iPhone can be ‘jailbroken’, the process has never appealed to me, but tinkering with Android and getting involved with the custom ROM community was far easier and more accessible to me as a newcomer.
To Switch or Not to Switch?
Spending more than just a few hours with Android has been enjoyable, but despite the positive aspects such as the notifications, cheaper apps and ease of modification, I won’t be switching on a permanent basis. The thing is, I’ve got several years already invested in iOS, which means lots of apps and accessories and a switch would feel like change for change’s sake; as I’d be saying exactly the same thing if the situation were reversed and I was testing out an iPhone 4.
What’s clear is how important locking us into an eco-system is to these manufacturers, and why a healthy application store is key to their success. If you’re confused as to whether to go for an Android or iOS phone, make sure you try them both out to see which suits you best – as you could be committing to it for longer than you imagine.