posted by Adam S on Fri 5th Jun 2015 15:26 UTC

Part Two: The Android Scorecard

In reviewing the first page of this article, you might conclude that I am an Apple hater, a blind Google lover, and/or completely satisfied with Android. But all three of those would really be unfair characterizations, because none are really true.

I’ve been using OS X full time since Panther. My house has two Airport Extreme Base Stations and an Airport Express, an iMac, a Macbook Air, a Macbook Pro, a Mac Mini, several iPads, several iPhones, and one last iPod Touch. We still have an AppleTV in the guest room. We are unabashed Apple lovers, even if the iPhone and AppleTV have lost me.

But more importantly than that, and certainly more relevant, is that it’s not all roses and butterflies with Android. Android has its own set of challenges. In no particular order, here they are:

  • Backups
  • Background service policing
  • Inconsistent hardware
  • Android File Transfer
  • Better SD card support
  • Integrated voice mail
  • Video calling
  • Hangouts
  • Lockscreen
  • Encryption

Backups

Without question, the number 1 issue with Android is lack of quality backup/restore. Now, I tried not to include things that will be resolved in Android M, and this is thankfully addressed in M. As it stands, when I get a new Android phone, as we saw I’ve done several times, I have several apps in which I simply lose my data. Games that don’t use Cloud Save data? Fuhgeddaboudit. They choose not to so the game is usable offline, which means that if my phone dies, the data is gone. Email configuration? Options in every app? History. The iCloud restore process is such an out-of-the-park home run that it ends the conversation before it begins.

iCloud BackupiCloud Backup is the Gold Standard

Android M allows developers to include all app data up to 25Mb, to include only specific files, or to exclude specific files. That seems like a great solution, with 25Mb seeming like enough, but almost certainly increasing as time goes on. Unfortunately, it will be 24 months before even half of Android users can use this feature. People in 2017 still won’t have reliable phone backups. That’s not okay. This is Android biggest weak point. I get that Google’s hand are tied: they can’t force manufacturers and carriers to update old phones. But it’s taken too long to get this right and should be embarrassing for them.


Background service policing

I started to notice that not only was my Galaxy S6 less responsive, but also the battery even less impressive. As a last ditch, I uninstalled scores of unnecessary apps. I’m an app guy, I had close to 200 apps, so I uninstalled the majority of them. Made an immediate difference. Turns out that many apps were running background services. Amazon is always running on my S6. I want that app on my phone, but I can’t tell it that it can’t run in the background. Without the ability to limit an app to foreground activity, I have to either live with the toll it takes or uninstall it. Sadly for your developers, most of the apps are getting the axe.


Inconsistent hardware

The Nexus 5 and the Moto X both have three soft buttons in this order: back, home, and app switcher. The Galaxy S6 has two soft buttons around one physical button, in this order: app switcher, home key, back. How did we let this happen, you guys? You can’t let Android water down to the point that each phone decides how to implement your main navigation paradigm!

Allow them to move around buttons on the sides and top, let them make soft keys or physical buttons, let LG put those goofy buttons on the back of their phones, but please don’t let them tinker with the order of your primary required navigation. It’s just feeding those trolls that complain that Google can’t manage Android.

Android should have a standard button order. For the record, it took me a long time to get used to the S6 order, but I still prefer the back button on the left, because for one handed use with my right hand, I can reach the back button with my thumb and hold it steady, even though the key is farther away. Either way, it should be standard. It’s less an everyday niggle than an "Android, get your crap together!" one.

Android File Transfer

This simple app works incredibly well! ...Except when it doesn’t. And it doesn’t a lot. The wrong cable? Doesn’t work in this app, but works in others. Either way, getting content onto an Android phone shouldn’t be a challenge. If there’s a technical challenge here, I’m not aware of it, but I will say that I’ve very rarely seen issues with Apple’s 30-pin or lightning cables.

Android File TransferAndroid File Transfer is awesome... If you've got the right cable


Better SD card support

Android "supports" SD cards. The way it *should* work is that when I add my SD card, I just have that much more storage. I understand why, programmatically, this can’t work: we can’t have a borked device when I remove the card. But I should be able to store apps, photos, and media on an SD card without issue. Evidently, that’s not quite the case.

In KitKat, Google changed the rules so that Android apps can only write to their own folders. This is a good move for security, we don’t want a rogue app modifying my system files. By the same token, we don’t want some game or photo viewer to be able to read my bank balance or my texts or my local Lastpass data.

The SD card needs to be formatted, and if we format it with ext3 or ext4, as Android typically uses on system partitions, it can’t be removed and natively read by Windows or OS X. So it has to be FAT32. But FAT32 doesn’t include any sort of file system level security. You see the challenge? There's no easy fix here without trading off data security or portability.

If I were the sole system architect, I'd write SD cards as ext for advertise that once a card is formatted, it is essentially Android system extension and can not be removed and used elsewhere. That said, I'm certain some chunk of people would be unhappy with that solution. We basically have four options: use an SD card to extend system space, use an SD card to offload some data without security or access control, remove SD card support entirely, or do nothing and leave us in purgatory. For me personally, I want the space, there are plenty of other ways to get data off of the device. I understand why that viewpoint hasn't been universally adopted and why more manufacturers and just leaving SD card support out.

Globally: if we’re going to champion our OS as "SD card system expansion" capable, we need a consistent, logical solution.


Integrated visual voice mail

If Apple can include a visual voice mail app in their OS image, why can’t Android? Does AT&T really need a different, crappy, slow app than T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon? I realize there are other carriers in the world, but why Android doesn’t have a visual voicemail application out of the box is confusing to me.

I owned several unlocked Android devices over the past year, none came with reliable voice mail until I bought the S6 outright from my carrier. Turns out AT&T has a material design visual voicemail app that works... Kinda. The one featured in the Play Store isn't the same app, and it crashed constantly on my Moto X Pure Edition. How come I'm bouncing between voicemail apps in 2015? I don't even like getting voice mails.

Either way, I have an app that works. But why? You’ve gotta give people the complete experience, and no one should buy a phone and not be able to get voice mail.


Video calling

FaceTime. Do I need to expand upon this? FaceTime is so much better than Hangouts video it’s not even funny. Even iPhone to iPhone, Hangouts doesn’t begin to compare.

The Hangouts experience, even on incredibly fast Wi-Fi, is still a grainy mess that requires all sorts of plugin magic to work. It doesn’t have to be unbundled from Hangouts to be a premier video calling solution, but on my wish list would be: a downloadable client for Mac and Windows that isn’t a goofy Chrome extension, an Android and Mac app that doesn’t make it tough to get installed.

And then it should be smooth: not pixely video, not boxy, flanged audio. I use this method to talk to my kids when one of us is traveling, but we always revert to my wife’s 6 Plus for FaceTime. Why? It’s a much better experience, from the calling (integrated into everyone’s contacts) to the quality.


Hangouts

Hangouts is the centerpiece of modern Google Android. So why is the app itself so slow and unappetizing. Even with its Material Design update, Hangouts is still a dog. If one were to use it for SMS and chat -- and no one should, because there are far better and more featureful SMS clients -- don’t store too much history, or the app will be painfully slow to open.

Google HangoutsHangouts: core to the experience, painful to use

Hangouts is a core part of my daily routine. It’s a shame that there’s no open API if this is the app that Google chooses to present their premier service, because a beautiful native desktop client would go a long way.


Lockscreen

The Android lockscreen got a facelift on Lollipop. But as much as I love the notifications, I wish you could customize it more. I realize that manufacturers and carriers have already customized lockscreens, and that there are replacement lockscreens, but vanilla Android should offer more at a glance than just notifications. If my watch can do weather and traffic, why can’t that be a permanent part of the Android lockscreen?

Android L LockscreenThe Android Lollipop lockscreen needs more life

Yes, maybe this is a nitpick. But these are things I think would put Android miles above the competition. And when iOS 9 is announced on Monday, I expect there to be support for "complications," or little informational bits from apps. Imagine a quick tally of notification by app icon. Again, third party lockscreens already do this, the default should too. The lockscreen is an area where Android should be better than iOS, and shy of complete replacement, it’s not currently.


Encryption

It seems odd to me that Android doesn’t have much better security tools and features than iOS, but with the secure enclave, Apple has literally stored your security keys on your body. Android M will feature a fingerprint API, but there’s no evidence it will create a device image mountable only with a fingerprint (or a recovery key).

If Android is truly the OS of the masses, we need better device-level security. I realize there’s motivation for Google to keep its fingers in our data (pun intended), but this is a case where we need strong privacy advocates protecting us.

It’s really necessary for us to have reasonably unbreakable encryption on our devices, and that a device wipe actually works.

If someone gets access to my Gmail account, they could seriously destroy my digital life: several services depend on my Gmail credentials, my photos, music, email… I’m all in. In return, I let you sniff my personal content and display relevant ads. But, in exchange, I need security.


Conclusion

Android isn't perfect. iOS isn't perfect. But ultimately, having been deep into both, there are parts of each I admire and parts of each that excel. More importantly, there are certain bits of each system that will appear to individuals more than others. For me, Android is unquestionably the right decision today. But I don't think the iPhone is a bad product by any stretch.

I do think the iOS system is unnecessarily shackled. And I also think the Android system is less stable and consistent in favor of freedom. Ultimately, there isn't a clear winner for everyone: just preference.

I'm sticking with Android.


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Table of contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Part One: iOS Complaints, Android Style
  3. Part Two: The Android Scorecard
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