I recently gave up on my aging iPhone 3G, the GPS hardware had failed, the upshot of which was that if I turned on GPS in any app the phone slowed and locked up. The lack of software updates for the older iOS on the 3G meant that worked turned off access to the corporate email because Apple even stopped issuing security patches for older devices. Finally, battery life, even without corporate email, was so poor I could easily get caught out without a usable phone. Also, and most disturbing, my 16Gb phone was full, I’d used it all up on music, I’d stopped synching TV and movie files, then eBooks, but eventually it stopped synching all together.
So, I waited, and waited, would the rumored new iPhone 5 be everything I wanted? Could I wait that long (this was back in August)? Also Amazon announced the Kindle Fire, a simple but nice Android tablet with a great price, I knew I wanted an Android tablet, even though as an Apple household we had an iPad. I really never objected to the Apple lock-down of my phone, after all I always needed it to be able to take a call and didn’t want rogue apps turning it into a brick, but with the table, why can’t I develop on it? why am I restricted from running an interpreter? I know Apple did lighten up on some of that, and I did run scheme on the iPad which was kind of fun but I coveted the tablets I could shell into and run Python. So, the Fire is definitely on my wish list.
So, October arrives and the iPhone 5 became the iPhone 4S, I’ve seen colleagues with different Android phones, Droids, Atrias, Galaxys, but certainly the Galaxy S II seemed to have both traction and really looked nice. So, when my 3G finally because just too much of a pain, I bought a Samsung Galaxy S II to replace it, upgrading my iPhone on my AT&T plan which was a bit of a circus but eventually managed to keep my unlimited data.
So, Thursday, in a meeting a few of us were talking phones and when I said I’d gone from iPhone to Android (or should I say iOS to Android, Apple to Samsung, or iPhone to Galaxy S II?) I got the response “but isn’t that a downgrade?”. Which caused me to think, what have I given up, what isn’t so nice about the Samsung phone or Android OS? The fact I even asked the question implies that I assume that I’ve given something up, right?
So, after a full week with the phone, and I use my phone a lot so its a short enough time to remember first impressions but long enough to have made some lasting ones too, I wanted to muse on that thought for a while.
Setting up the phone was easy, there were no manuals apart from the usual fold-out getting started guide, but I was able to figure out the general operation and the Androidy way of doing things such as the fixed navigation keys etc. I love the screen on the Galaxy (I’ll drop the S II now), and while I know the iPhone 4/4S has a great screen the brightness, depth of color and size (4.3”) is really nice. The phone is fast, I mean really fast and with the new AT&T network it browses fast and downloads fast and while its not so fast at home in our cell-challenged area, it actually works which was always at best a 50/50 proposition with the iPhone. So, in initial impressions, did I lose anything? well I guess I lost rounded buttons, the Android buttons are very square, there’s no alpha-blended lighting effects either, but funnily enough the buttons work just fine without that - wow, who’d have known?
Also, in terms of giving things up, I knew I needed to get my music back on my device, or did I? Along with the iPhone 4S launch we heard about iCloud, but to be honest Apple is so late to the party all the good drinks and nibbles were finished ages ago. All my personal email is with Google, I use Google reader, documents on Google Docs and Evernote, and now I have my Amazon CloudDrive and Cloud Player. So do I need that much on-phone storage any more? For this first week I decided not to sync more than I had to, it worked fine, my email, contacts, docs and more connected with my phone easily and seamlessly, I listen to my music and ebooks on the bus streaming from Amazon, read using my Kindle reader and while some of those things wrote to the phone it’s really now just a cache, not long-term storage. This really does feel much more like a cloud phone than the iPhone will for a while.
So, I started to think about my next bug-bear for usability, consistency, one of the nice things about the Mac as a platform which we expected to transition to iOS was that Apple’s design guidelines and aesthetic have led to a consistency of look and behavior across apps on the platform, which directly leads to the easy adoption of the platform by new users, when you learn the basics most apps seem pretty familiar. Now, I know there are exceptions to this, in fact Apple has some of the most egregious exceptions (can anyone explain the UI on Aperture?) its far more consistent than the alternatives. The interesting thing is that this consistency didn’t really transfer to iOS, in many cases you feel that they did try and provide a common way to do things, you imagine Apple designers asking “OK, we need to figure out how users should navigate this feature. So, how would Steve want to do it? … Great, then well do it that way and the users will just have to behave like Steve.”. However, it really didn’t follow through, here are two annoying examples.
Settings, so where do I configure my app? some apps like the stocks and weather apps use the little “i” in a circle icon that you click to make changes which was taken from the Mac Dashboard. Some have settings buttons and pages in the app such as Twitter which I used a lot and finally some contributed settings into the “Settings” app. While the first has the advantage of locality, the last has the advantage of consistency, the very existence of three different models is confusing.
Delete, OK, this sounds really anal, but its a good indicator on how the user experience team thinks about common and repeatable tasks. In many apps I need to delete items, so how many gestures can the iOS team come up with to delete things from a list? Well, the Mail app does two things, the stocks and weather apps do something different, the Text app is slightly different and with this guidance apps have come up with even more schemes to do a simple thing like delete.
So, how did Android stack up? Well, first let’s re-imagine our design conversation from earlier, “OK, we need to figure out how users should navigate the home page?”. For Android you get the feeling the response was “Well the users kind of didn’t know, they thought you might swipe from side to side, some said it would be cool if you could tilt the phone to make the icons slide about, others suggested that you could hold down your finger and speed scroll, others liked the on-screen organization but wanted a place to see all their apps alphabetized.” . So the response? “Cool, lets do all of them!”, So Android can be a little confusing at times when you put your finger on the screen expecting behavior #1 but because you left your finger in contact slightly longer than normal you invoke behavior #2. But I guess it does allow you to pick a style you like, after all with the iPhone if you dont think like Steve the experience can get very frustrating after a while.
So how did the Android do on the Settings and Delete tests? Well on settings it did well, Android clearly separates out two classes of settings, system settings and app settings. Systems settings are accessed via a stand-alone app and pretty much cover what you’d expect, including your accounts which then control email access and so forth. The addition of the dedicated menu button really helps, apps now have a consistent way to present a menu to users, including a settings option. Settings windows/views have a consistent look and feel and are on the most part well layed out. I changed font sizes on a number of app, adjusted sync settings in email and calendars and all those first-week tweaks without any fuss or confusion (except changing the default font on the SMS app which apparently is not possible).
As for delete, Android is no worse, but no better, Most apps support “press long enough on an item and get a menu, which include delete” behavior which is great, for one-by-one action. The gmail app and others leave a checkbox on the screen next to each item, when you start selecting items you get a delete button (or move or other action), Messages, Mail and others have a Delete menu option that then adds check boxes to the display although Mail has them on the left, Messages and Files put them on the right with a “select all” option.
So, bottom line, did I give up anything? not really, I got a better screen, a much faster phone, I like the ability to manage the home screen(s) with icons and widgets and all my cloud services (and yes, Amazon Video on Demand works just fine so was watching TV on the bus home too). Do I miss the comfort of the iPhone as a device i knew, and its intimate connection to my Mac, well yes, but right now am definitely impressed with both Android and the Galaxy.