My Dinner With Android

An iOS user's exploration of Google's mobile OS

Oct 19

Four months with Android: reflections, grievances and some tenuous metaphors bundled up into a weighty tome

OR, The longest, most awkward dinner of my life

tl;dr version: I’m really glad to have an iPhone 4S.

(Note: this was written over multiple days, spaced weeks apart.)

I approached this experiment with a lot of questions, the primary of which was quite simple: why do people use Android? I had my own preconceived answers — they dislike Apple or couldn’t get an iPhone for one reason or another — but I dove in with an open mind regardless. After over four months of Android 2.3 on a Nexus S, I’m left mostly answerless.

That’s not to say I didn’t learn a lot. I have a solid grasp of what makes Android Android, the ins-and-outs of the OS, and, yes, there are even a few really great features I will miss as I transition back to iOS.

But at the end of the day I’m left with mostly a bad taste in my mouth. What follows is a summation of four months exclusively using Android. They’re my opinions. I’m not trying to sway anyone away from the platform, and I’m not looking to troll Android fanboys. I am but one man who likes stupid gadgets and decided to conduct a dumb experiment. Let’s go.

The Honest Truth

Fans of Android, let’s not tiptoe around this: Android exists because it is a rip off of iOS. Sure, it has grown into its own in a lot of ways, but its roots are decidedly placed at the introduction of iOS in 2007. Consider the before and after that caused a stir last year. Things changed when the iPhone came out. Apple changed the mobile phone game, and Google did a one-eighty to realign with what they recognized to be a better direction.

I’m not faulting Google for this; it was a smart move. And I’m not going to get into the legal aspect of what’s going on between Apple and Android OEMs right now because I find that immensely boring. But what’s important to consider here is that Android is built upon the same fundamental design and UI concepts that Apple pioneered made intuitive.

Again, this was smart. “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” I heavily approached using Android as I did using an iPhone. I received a lot of shit for this, though. I was told I was “using Android wrong.” But for me, as soon as I started moving away from the iOS-like features, and started going down the way of unique Android features, the whole experience started to fall apart.

I’ve found home-screen widgets — save for the quick access to turn radios on and off — to be useless, ugly, space-and-battery-life hogs. Live home screens are performance killing novelties. Dedicated hardware buttons are inconsistent and hide important UI information.

Sure, you could dismiss this all as surface-level flaws. But on devices like these, their effects reverberate downward as you begin to use the OS more. Apps lack cohesive UI and UX touches; there seems to be no common “Android language” when it comes to designing apps. Hardware buttons change what they do on a whim, including some apps that eschew them all together and include controls in their UI chrome.

Design, UI and UX communicate a lot about a device. In most cases, iOS feels like a clean, modern, civilized place. Everything is where it should be, whether you’re on a home screen or drilled down in an app.

Android feels like the wild west. And in the end…

It’s all about the feel

When iOS came out, it became apparent why previous touchscreen devices failed: feel is important.

These are digital devices that are trying to be analogous to the real world. It’s why styluses suck: when else do you manipulate anything like that? It’s nothing like writing, save for holding the damn thing. But using your fingers to manipulate what are essentially buttons is something we are accustomed to. The problem is that it needs to feel like you’re manipulating real objects when you’re actually pantomiming across a piece of glass.

The iPhone got this right. Presses, swipes, scrolls and zooms work and feel so good because they happen close to realtime and to a 1:1 action.

With Android, at least on my Nexus S, nothing feels this good. Everything still feels like an input that is creating a reaction. You do something with your fingers, the OS interrupts it, and stuff happens on the screen. The performance isn’t there, and to me it feels bad.

The best analogy I can come up for this is when my older brother taught me how to drive a standard transmission over a decade ago. When you start out, it feels overwhelming: off the gas, on the clutch, shift, let the clutch out a bit, gas at friction point, let the clutch out. It seemed like a series of insurmountable tasks. After an hour of stalling, I was fairly frustrated and not getting anywhere. My explanation for my failure: I couldn’t perfectly pull off everything I had to do so close together with enough accuracy to pull it off. His advice: stop thinking about it as a series of procedures; it’s one motion carried out by your whole body, not four or five different things. Ten minutes later, I was driving us home.

iOS feels like a manual transmission being operated by a seasoned driver. Android is a dumb teenager constantly dropping the clutch, and seemingly getting more and more frustrated as time goes on.

Aside from the feel of the OS, which is the biggest criticism I have, the following are some big points that ruin the Android experience for me.

Apps Make The Device

Market sucks compared to the App Store. There’s not a whole lot else to say. The quantity and quality just isn’t there, save for the handful of apps that come from Google. I don’t know if it’s because developers don’t see the platform as viable financially, or if the tools to make apps are horrible. Whatever the reason, I found no apps in the market place that even came close to the best apps on iOS in terms of design and usability.

Browser

Another short winded point, as I’ve gone over this before. Android’s stock browser, Browser, is trash compared to Mobile Safari. It is slow (often to the point of being unusable), renders sites poorly all too often, and is generally a bad experience. And I’m letting the atrociousness of the Droid family of fonts slide.

I made a comparison video of the Nexus S and iPhone 3GS side-by-side. (Ed- I said the 3GS is on the right when it is clearly on the left and I even pointed to it. I’M SORRY. I AM DUMB.) Now, you might say that that page isn’t a fair comparison because it’s not a mobile site and there’s lots going on, code wise. But the 3GS handles it perfectly and the Nexus S turns into a paperweight. It’s fair, and the iPhone wins handedly.

Media

Media management on Android is pathetic. It’s like wrestling a bear with your arms tied behind your back. There’s a reason people carry Android phones and iPods. If you’re a Android user, thank your magical deity that the doubleTwist guys are trying to make things better.

The Niceties

Look, it’s not all bad. There were some things that I really enjoyed and will miss on iOS.

As a devout Gmail addict, the native Android app is really great. The information density isn’t the best, but you get the full Gmail experience: tags, folders, smart threads. It’s really nice, and I’d love to have it natively on iOS. (The web app is good, but it’s still not as good as native.)

While Apple has pushed ahead significantly with iOS 5 — and has shamelessly riffed on Android as Android has on iOS — I still think I prefer the way Android handles notifications. iOS 5’s implementation is great, but it still lacks the at-a-glance ease that Android’s status bar gives you. It’s close, but the edge goes to Android.

By far what I’ll miss the most is the share menu. I’ve discussed it before, but it’s worth bringing up again because iOS 5 now does something similar but only with Twitter, and Microsoft has talked a lot about similar features in Windows 8. The share menu lets any app share its services across the OS. So from my camera, I can immediately send a photo to my Dropbox. Or Twitter. Or Tumblr. Or almost any web service that has an app on the phone. I can move around bits of text to Simplenote, or quickly email a bookmark or link. It’s deceptively simple, and it just works top-to-bottom in the OS. There’s zero set up. You download an app, put in your credentials if required, and it immediately appears in the menu. It’s wonderful, and I won’t be surprised if Apple adds something similar to iOS in the future. But they haven’t yet, and to me this is the standout feature of Android. It gives you the illusion of a filesystem without the cruft of a filesystem. And then goes further by integrating it with the web. I will go on record: I love the share menu.

Sadly, these things aren’t enough to keep me on the platform. There’s still too much that’s wrong with Android from my perspective. It’s not thoughtful enough. Much of it feels like it’s working against the user. A lot of it seems hastily thrown together. As I said in an older post, Android still feels like beta software five major revisions in. There are some inherent design and user experience problems, and things lack polish both literally and metaphorically. Maybe some people can cope with this, but I find it infuriating and the sign of a bad product.

Questions Unanswered

To be frank, I still don’t know who Android is for.

If it’s for those who don’t want or simply refuse to as a product with an Apple logo, that’s sad, because all you’re getting is an inferior facsimile.

If it’s for those who still want to make some sort of argument predicated on shouting the word “OPEN!”, that’s sad, because Android’s “openness” is a meaningless bullet point to average users and a facade championed by its most devoted. If anything, the openness of Android is its biggest threat with the imminent release of the Kindle Fire.

If it’s for hackers and tinkerers, I can somewhat understand that. But jailbreaking iOS seems like a more enjoyable path, and one supported by many of the computer engineers I’m surrounded by at my day job.

I know there are people who simply choose to use it, and I accept that. I don’t really care. But I just can’t wrap my head around any of the arguments that come up in support of it.

If I could simultaneously re-experience my first time using iOS and my first time using Android, I don’t know how the two instances could ever reconcile. iOS feels like technology that’s years ahead of Android just through polish and design. And while a lot of Android users have told me that stuff doesn’t bother them, I can’t get over it. Why choose the tool that feels worse?

Moving Forward

Putting things in perspective, Android is not the worst thing in the world. It works as advertised. You can use it to get things done. It has some neat features. The fact that it exists illustrates what an amazing era we live in. I simply won’t be using it going forward. (Though I will check out Ice Cream Sandwich.) But I’ve taken the time to give it a shot, and my opinion is that Android pales in comparison to iOS. This is probably more than what most of the fanboys from both sides of the fence have done.

It just isn’t as good as iOS to me. Some of it I can explain, some of it is just strange subtleties that add up to an unenjoyable, uninviting experience. But even now, after being back on iOS for a week, going back to use Android feels completely foreign, as if the previous four months never existed. I have no explanation for this other than iOS just works better for me. Maybe Android works better for some of you. I really can’t say.

Though I still feel clueless about Android in a lot of ways, what I do know is I’m absolutely overjoyed to be using an iPhone 4S today.


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