Monday, 6 June 2011

First Impressions of an Android

androidOver the weekend my wife finally received her new Nexus S mobile phone. I won’t bore you with the dodgy purchase experience that led us to that point, an experience that included being lied to by multiple sellers (eBay shops, other online shops, and most interestingly – Vodafone). Nor will I go into the details of having the phone delivered to us by Fedex, which necessitated us driving to the Fedex depo instead in order to pick the phone because a Fedex delivery means they'll deliver at time and a place convenient to them.
Instead I want to discuss my first impressions with the Android operating system, where this Nexus S represents my first proper hands on experience.

I will start with the conclusion. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the history of both my wife and I coming from the Apple iOS world but consciously choosing to move to Google Android land: Android beats the crap out of the iPhone.
I am not basing this conclusion of mine on the fact that hardware wise, the Nexus S is quite superior to my iPhone 3GS. It is obvious it’s going to have a sharper screen and better performance; after all, there are almost two years of development between the two.
My conclusion is based on the functionality of this latest incarnation of Android (2.3.4) when compared to that of the latest iOS release running on my iPhone, 4.3.3.
First and foremost, with Android you don’t need iTunes or any other form of bloatware. You stick the SIM into the phone, you push the replaceable (!) battery in place, and you switch the phone on – that’s it! With the iPhone you need to activate the phone via iTunes on your PC/Mac, which is also used for all system updates and for updating the music/video library on your device. Android had me download the latest operating system directly off my wifi connection, while music is copied over simply by copying files to the phone – it couldn’t be simpler!
Then there is the matter of functionality that is simply unavailable to the iOS world, at least not for free and/or out of the box. The Google Maps app offers superior functionality on Android over its iOS version, to name one example. However, the killer app is the Android’s Navigator app: it uses Google Maps to offer turn by turn live navigation instructions on a user interface that wouldn’t shame Tomtom. The potential this represents is huge: land at a foreign country? Instead of buying a local map for your GPS for a three digit figure (if one is available), get yourself a local SIM (which you wanted anyway in order to be able to surf the net) and drive along.
Then there’s the matter of apps. iTunes is famous for having the numbers, and I respect that: Australia in particular is the land of the iPhone app. However, I cannot ignore the fact most apps are nothing more than a glorified bookmarker for a web page; nor can I ignore the fact Apple artificially limits the apps it makes available to those it wants you to use. Things are different on Android: you can get Flash, you can get Grooveshark, you can get Firefox or Starfire browsers... You can get anything you want that someone bothered writing for you – there is no one holding the gate to prevent you from accessing the app you want.

The Android operating system is not devoid of issues, and the glaring one – at least by my limited exposure – is the poor tools with which it lets users manage what apps are doing in the background. After all, you don’t want your apps to churn at your 3G data allowance and cost you a bundle without you knowing about it, nor would you want apps to upload the personal stuff on your phone to parties you wouldn’t normally hand your details to. Not to mention the load these background apps pose on your phone battery.
Android does have a system wide feature to prevent apps from transmitting data in the background (that is, when you’re not directly using them). However, if you enforce this then many applications that need this background facility to run, starting from the Android Market (the main place for getting and updating apps), wouldn’t work. In short, you have to succumb to the will of your apps even if you know that some of them will abuse you. This is not a hypothetical question: the Skype app for Android is a fine example for an app that keeps on running in the background unless you take special measures.
Apple is definitely better in this regard, if only marginally. Their closed garden policy means they exclude the worst offenders, while killing an app on the iPhone is easier and more reliable than on Android.
It appears the best solution towards addressing the problem, at least until Google decides to do something about it, is to root your Android phone. Rooting means going through certain technical motions to take total control over your phone but potentially rendering it useless if you don’t know how to do it and if you don’t do it properly. Luckily, the Nexus S is dead easy to root and un-root by design (read here for Wired’s advice on the rootability of selected Android models, Nexus S included).
Once rooted, you can install some of the apps Gizmodo lists here and make progress in claiming your phone to yourself. Me, I’m waiting for the wife to give me the green light before I do her phone.

Image by Saad Irfan, Creative Commons license

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