Why I’m making the jump to Android, one year later

In June of last year, I finally decided to commit to an Android device. I had carried every flagship iPhone up through that point from the original iPhone to the 5S. To the world around me, I heaped the praise into a life transforming device, but in my tech circles, and on my blog, I frequently posted about my frustration, mostly with shackles and intentional limitations imposed. So last year, why I decided to make the jump to Android. I outlined 10 reasons why I was finally ready to make the jump to Android’s 4.4 release, KitKat. A year has passed. It’s time to revisit my original assertions and complaints with some follow up and see where I stand one year later.

I cited several reasons for choosing the KitKat release as the marker heralding Android’s readiness.

I’ve been waiting a long time for Android to get to the point that it was fast and responsive enough, with a big enough application warehouse, wide enough support, and a smooth enough experience, to support me. Android is maturing with a consistent, system-wide look-and-feel, almost every major service now has an Android app as the counterpart to its iOS-first experience, and has a bright future with wearables, home automation, and more.

So, let’s approach this in two sections: first, I’ll review my own iOS complaints as they stand today on Android. Second, I’ll score Android as a standalone mobile OS experience and register a list of complaints that I have with Android Lollipop similar to what I did with iOS last year. Before we jump in, let’s look at all of the devices I’ve carried in the last year:

iPhone 5S
HTC One M8A work device running a second phone number
Moto X (2013)my first Android device, noticeably laggy, returned immediately
Nexus 5my first full-time Android phone, loved it, eventually upgraded because I found it underpowered
Moto X (2014)first modern flagship, bought the day it was released, used it until it hard failed. Motorola replaced it.
Windows Phone 635A holdover until my new Moto X arrived. I actually really enjoyed Windows Phone, but couldn’t find quality apps
Moto X (2014)Motorola’s replacement of my bricked Moto X
Samsung Galaxy S6

I forced my major iOS issues into 10 categories. It seems fair to see how Android compares on the issues I highlighted.

iOS UI/UX inconsistencies

iOS 8 is, to some, beautiful. To my eyes, iOS 8 is more of the same. I simply don’t like the style Apple adopted with iOS 7. The move to “flat” for Apple doesn’t feel like a complete thought. I find Yosemite less sexy than even Tiger was over 10 years ago, and I feel that iOS has less of a visual identity than any pre-iOS 7 image.

When I wrote my original article, Android’s current release was KitKat and Google I/O had just given us a preview of Material Design. So, How does Material Design stack up? Subjectively, I find Material Design to be best-of-breed today. The “layer” concept, the animations (which I routinely speed up in developer mode), the bold colors, the fabs, the buttons, I’ve been eating it right up. Design is undoubtedly subjective, but in this area, I simply couldn’t be happier. I absolutely love Material Design and appreciate every bit of thought that went into it.

Jony Ive, a design genius if there ever was one, has a lot on his plate, and I have no idea what percentage of iOS, if any, is actually influenced by him as opposed to his team. But I see so many areas where I think Material Design surpasses Apple’s design language, starting with confusing buttons/links and ending with a impossible to click widgets in the notification shade.

Verdict? For me personally, Android wins by a landslide

The Keyboard/Auto-Correct

Not much to say here. Third-party Android keyboards can be laggy and they’re inconsistent with their access to emoji, voice control, auto-prediction, and autocorrection. And every one of them is miles better than the default iOS 8 keyboard. Third party keyboards on iOS have gone through growing pains, but I know dozens of people who’ve had frustrations with rotation and lack thereof, and I’ve seen plenty of “keyboard won’t go away” issues. My co-worker, literally today, reported “every 2 to 3 days, I have a keyboard stuck in the wrong place, but I just quit my apps and it’s fine. But third party keyboards, forget it.

I also hear users complain that they don’t understand why the keyboard switches. This is, of course, because the iOS keyboard reverts to native on “secure input.” This is a feature with noble aim that is unquestionably good protection, but several users just don’t understand it.

Verdict? For anyone objective, it’s hard to argue that Android isn’t the clear winner.

Siri

Siri has clearly been massively improved in the last few years, and it seems recently it’s gotten much, much better. It’s got some contextual awareness, and it has gotten far more accurate. I think Siri has impressively closed the gap in a big way.

But Google is the gold standard here, and Siri has a lot to live up to.

Verdict? Again, Google wins, but by much less of a margin than last year.

Integration Degradation

The AppleTV appears to continue to gain steam, and while Apple has evidently shelved the announcement of major AppleTV upgrades from WWDC 2015, I expect it’s coming. I fully expect AppleTV to be the center hub of Apple’s HomeKit-based vision of a smart home. But the AppleTV is such a garbage device for media. For Airplay? Amazing! But getting movies to the AppleTV is such an unnecessary pain in the butt. Like I said last year, my Roku is so much faster, with a better remote, supports Plex, supports Google Play, and has the ability to add over 1000 channels.

Sharing media from the iPhone is still a mess. AirDrop is still barely used by anyone I know, Handoff and Continuity are far from “it just works,” and Instant Hotspot is problematic. It’s worth noting that many of these problems may be due to Apple’s relatively new discoveryd network management process, which, at least in recent OS X betas, Apple has mercifully reverted to mDNSResponder.

Instant HotspotGoogle’s first suggested result reveals issues with Instant Hotspot

On Android, I use Airdroid, a little app that starts a mini-web server on my phone that allows me to do a surprisingly large amount of things from my desktop browser. I also can use Google’s simple Android File Transfer for large media files and occasionally, Bluetooth. Truth be told, so much syncs effortlessly to the cloud at this point that much of the time, it’s just pulling something down on my desktop.

AirdroidThe Airdroid Interface (click for full size)

Android segregates pictures from apps into their own folders. I can choose not to backup photos downloaded from reddit, Facebook, and other third party apps with camera photos, cluttering my history with disposable garbage. Big win there.

Verdict? Not much has changed for my lifestyle here. Android is a clear winner again.

Lack of interactivity

iOS 8 is far more interconnected than iOS 7, but the home screen remains a woefully dead shell that does nothing save the “parallax” effect. I’m 100% certain that Apple has the technical prowess to allow for widgets or some form of interactivity. What I don’t know is whether those limits are technical (i.e. it eats up too much battery life) or philosophical (i.e. too confusing for the standard user). Apple has a long history of making compromises to make products simpler. Historically, they’ve been very measured in employing these limits, and for the better. But over the last few years, we’ve seen iMovie, Final Cut, and iWork, amongst others, reduce their interface and remove features. So I think it’s possible Apple just hasn’t come up with an implementation that isn’t scary or overwhelming.

On Android, you can wholesale replace your application launcher, which equates to iOS’ Springboard. Depending on which Launcher you use, the process of modifying the launcher is different. But noteworthy here is that even different phones come with different launchers, making this not so much an obscure power user ability as much as a differentiator from phone to phone. The Google Now launcher, Blinkfeed, TouchWiz, Sense, They all bring their own flavor of launcher and interactivity.

My launcher (which is Nova Launcher Prime) consists of 5 widget-heavy pages, none of which animate, but all of which provide some sort of information. I have a weather widget, an embedded calendar, Google Music controls, podcast controls, a widgets that shows recent texts, and a widget that shows recent Hangout chats. These are tremendously useful. Also, I occasionally change icon sets, just one more customization bonus of alternative launchers.

My Launcher
My Launcher
2 of my 4 Android Launcher pages

As far as actionable notifications goes, I overestimated Android a bit. Notifications before Lolipop were limited to three actions, all of which simply did one thing. “Archive,” “Like,” “Delete,” etc. The S6 has customized notifications which I’ll revisit later, but the default SMS client allows a reply from the notification itself, and Google’s “Messenger” does the same. A few other SMS apps support this as well, but very few other app notifications do anything besides offer a single verb of action. My experience with iOS suggests it’s mostly the same. So, we’re merely on par there.

Verdict? My Android launcher screens are far more useful and informational than my iOS home screens ever were. Notifications are a wash. Once again, point goes to Android.

Lack of system control

Last year, I bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t set “Mailbox” as my default mail client, or “Google Maps” as my default maps client. This year, if anything, I’m overwhelmed with choice. I’ve cycled through several mail clients (most recently Nine, but finally settled on the S6’s default Mail app for Exchange and Mailbox for Gmail), several text apps (including chompSMS and qkSMS before settling on Samsung’s default SMS app), several reddit apps, several music apps, several photo apps, several camera apps, several calendar apps, several twitter apps, several dialers, Do you see a trend here? There’s no discussion on the iOS side: you use the apps you’re given or you accept inconvenience. There’s no middle ground, and I don’t see this changing anytime soon, although I’d love to be proven wrong.

My phone feels like my phone, because I use my chosen apps. I don’t need more words here: iOS not allowing you to change defaults hurts the app ecosystem, because sometimes, it’s just easier to submit to the defaults.

Verdict? Android continuing to dominate.

Inter-app communication

Credit goes to the iOS team, iOS 8’s extensibility is pretty awesome. I didn’t expect this at last year’s WWDC keynote, and I just love where it’s going. For as many developer’s on the Mac who have not embraced the app sharing concept, iOS apps really have, and I think we’ve really just scratched the surface of what’s possible. I suspect the APIs to blow this out of the water are still one or two major releases away. For now, while it appears that Android integration is much deeper, on a day to day basis, this is a pretty close call. I just don’t do things routinely that require much deeper integration than iOS offers.

There are a few areas that are great though: when an app saves its first photo, it creates a new folder, and immediately, the system asks me if I want it included in backups. I can register default apps for individual scheme names and/or URIs. So I can tell the system that URLs for reddit.com open in Baconreader, and apps from youtube.com open in the YouTube app, repeat for IMDB, Amazon, Instagram, etc.

Verdict? In the iOS 8 world, it’s probably safe to call this one a tie.

Privacy controls

Let’s not overcomplicate this: I prefer the Android way of classifying privacy controls, but there is no doubt I got this wrong and iOS, which allowed granular permissions from the get go got it right and Android with its “all or nothing” got it wrong. Thankfully, Android M (which I’m betting is “Marzipan”) will fix this, and as far as I can tell, you’ll be able to access permissions by app as well as by permission.

Android M Permissions
Android M Permissions, “Finally”

Verdict? iOS is on the board with its first point!

Central account registration

Nothing has changed here. This is still awesome. iOS supports this for a few chosen providers, but has no API for other services to store credentials in any sort of global keychain.

Verdict? Android, iOS doesn’t even compete.

Stability

I wish both operating systems were far better than they are. But both are a mess. On iOS 7, I experienced what, in retrospect, must’ve been a bum install: constant Springboard crashes, constant camera crashes. In iOS 8 on my wife’s iPhone 6 Plus, I see plenty of issues still exist: she still experiences Springboard crashes – apps that become unresponsive followed by the Apple logo and a drop to the lockscreen. As mentioned above, there are plenty of issues with the keyboard alignment and rotation. I see these problems frequently.

On Android, background services constantly crash and report their crashes via a modal alert dialog. The lockscreen doesn’t unlock or appears frozen with some frequency. The keyboard sometimes just refuses to come up until after some inexplicable delay.

Verdict? Both have a long way to go. Both are equally, but much differently frustrating. For me, personally, I’d prefer the Android method of alerting me, only because I can say “Hey, at least the system knows something is wrong!.” But I’ll call it a tie, because I think this is more preference than evidence.

iTunes

One year later, Google Photos is now my authoritative storage for photos, because getting photos back into iPhoto, and now OS X Photos, has been difficult. Even with iOS, this would be confusing, because of the insane prices of iCloud storage. I won’t rehash the entire debate, but when you buy a 16GB iPhone, the smallest iPhone out there, you can eclipse your storage space, and you can’t really use iCloud Photo Library without buying more space unless you have a very small photographic history.

Google Music is amazing, beautiful, far easier to manage than iTunes, and available anywhere, For free. I never load music on my phone anymore, because I just use Google’s shuffle, which caches an ungodly amount of music into the free space on my phone. I have access to my entire library, and no, I don’t have to subscribe to Google Music Match to get that feature.

I load media via the methods I detailed above. In fact, I never really have to use iTunes for anything anymore. And I feel my Mac experience is better for it! This is a double win.

iTunes is a disaster. It’s just as bad and bloated as it was last year. I really wish Apple would break it up into multiple apps: a syncing daemon, a video manager that supports far more codecs than iTunes, and a music manager. Having iTunes live in the periphery of my life and my Mac experience rather than at the center of it has made my computing experience less frustrating. For everything good/great that iTunes is, it’s lived past its prime.

Verdict? Android wins. And so do I.

Part I Conclusion

So where does that leave me? One year later, almost all of my concerns are no longer concerns or, at least, I am happier than I was with iOS. 8 points to Android, 1 to iOS, 2 items too close to call. Seems like the move to Android was a good one for me.

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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44 Comments

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