If there is one thing that the world identifies me by, and that is common to both my offline and online acquaintances, it’s being an Apple fanboy. Since 2006, when I bought my first Apple product—a MacBook Pro—my identity has become intertwined with my preference for Apple’s wares.
At that time, I was a member of a popular online forum in India called the Digit Forum, and I often
got involved with started debates about how Apple’s products were infinitely better than whatever crap Microsoft was peddling at the time. Although Apple’s resurgence was well underway by 2006, it was still impossible to predict just how huge the company would eventually become. Still, I, and a few other of my colleagues on the forum (most notably goobimama), knew it was on to something.
I have since professionally written over a thousand articles about Apple and other related topics over the course of four years for five different publications, and helped found one of my own. I have interned at one of the largest development houses for Apple’s platforms in India and founded my own company to do the same. For a short period, I was the proud publisher of a few lines of code that made the lives easier of the few people who ever used it. It has been a rewarding journey.
None of that meant that I would never jump ship if it made sense though. The reason I still use OS X today is that the competition is still clueless and incompetent and its offerings are just as poor as they were six years ago. I use an iPad because it is the best computing device on the planet right now, and let no one tell you anything different. And I did try switching from iOS to Windows Phone 7.5 with a Nokia Lumia 800, but the less said about that useless, terrible operating system, the better.
But the reason I switched to Android is that I genuinely believed that it was now at least on a par with Apple’s offering and was worth experiencing first hand. What’s more, it’s just the sort of thing you’d expect a diehard Apple fanboy to do!
So What’s So Good About Android Anyway?
MORE POWERFUL APPS
For starters, when I get a call from an unknown number, the majority of the time, I can tell who it is before I pick up the phone. That is a fantastic feature, made possible by the level of integration Android allows third-party apps like Truecaller with the system itself. I also use bytNotes to remind myself of things I need to talk to people about the next time I am on a call with them. When I receive a call from them, it shows a small note to remind me on the calling screen. It’s fantastic!
I’ve replaced the stock dialer with exDialer and now I can use a T9 dialer and speed dial shortcuts to fly through my day. From the lock screen, calling my most frequently dialled contacts takes two taps. Just two! It takes a minimum of three taps on an iPhone, and usually more (when the Favourites tab isn’t selected in the Phone app). And searching for contacts and calling them is even faster with T9 dialing (as opposed to switching to the contacts list on an iPhone, scrolling to the top, tapping on the search field, typing slowly on a QWERTY keyboard, tapping on a contact and then on a number to dial it).
I’ve also replaced the stock lock screen with one provided by GO Locker. Like the iPhone (and the stock Android lock screen) gives you fast access to the camera, the lock screen I use gives you similar single-swipe access to the phone and messaging apps. WhatsApp Messenger also integrates beautifully with the system. When I search for a contact on exDialer, I can slide it to the left to send them a text. And here’s the cool part—the text is sent through Whatsapp if they have it, and normally if they don’t (although the latter process needs more streamlining). Do that on an iPhone!
The simple fact that Google gives third-party developers a lot of access to the system’s innards means that Android apps are capable of doing much more than their iOS counterparts. Besides the examples mentioned above, there’s Clipper, a clipboard history app that actually works, unlike Pastebot on iOS, which simply was never going to succeed, due to Apple’s restrictions. Contact Sync for Facebook can fetch high resolution photos of your contacts from Facebook in the background. Apps like Pocket can download articles in the background, so you have them ready to read when your phone is out of network coverage.
Then there’s the third-party keyboard SwiftKey. It was the first app I bought on Android and it immediately replaced the stock Android keyboard for me (which was also very good). It supports Hinglish (the part-Hindi part-English Frankenmonster that is the lingua franca of most of India), has an almost magical ability to make sense of the most wayward of keystrokes and excellent predictive abilities. The iOS keyboard is excellent and I hadn’t thought I would ever use anything better. I stand corrected.
To be honest, I am not entirely sure how multitasking works on Android, but I do know that the multitasking UI is way ahead of iOS. The recent apps switcher on iOS feels bolted on and kludgy. You double-press the Home button and scroll horizontally through app icons, four at a time. On Android, you get a horizontally scrolling list of app screenshots and you can swipe any of them away to kill the app. When you tap on one and switch to it, you can usually press the back button to get back to the previous app that you’d switched from. It feels like the natural way to do things.
Notifications on Android are fantastic! You can slide down the status bar on the lock screen itself, which is very useful—even more so due to the fact that I have toggles for Bluetooth, screen brightness, LED flash and rotation lock (among other things) in the Notification Center (or whatever it is called on Android). Going from automatic brightness adjustment to the lowest setting on Android takes one slide and a tap, anywhere in the system.
In iOS, you hit the Home button, slide to the Home screen with the Settings app, tap on it (assuming that it is not in a folder), tap on the Brightness option (assuming that you do not have to back out of any other settings screen first) and then use the slider. Then you double-click the Home button and tap on the app you were in to go back. Once you’ve experienced the convenience of Power Toggles on Android, it is hard to see the iOS system as anything but stale and unintuitive.
The Notification Center in Android also gives you actionable notifications. I could have a call in progress and, instead of going back into the phone app and disconnecting the call, I can slide down the status bar, slide down on the call-in-progress notification and tap on Hang Up right there. Because this is a feature new to Android 4.2, and third-party app development on Android is not nearly on par with iOS, it is taking time for the feature to show up in more apps, but once it becomes more commonplace, it will save a ton of time.
Speaking of notifications, the notification LED on the front of the phone is another fantastic feature. Using Light Flow, I have it configured to light up in a range of colours for different notifications—magenta for messages, red for missed calls, yellow while charging, white when silent, etc.—and it subtly lights up to alert me of pending notifications. It’s not too bright and isn’t intrusive at all; you only notice it when you look at the phone. It’s perfect, really.
MORE POWERFUL HOME SCREENS
Any discussion of Android Home screens wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Nova Launcher. This replacement Home screen and launcher app is packed to the gills with useful features. You can install a new icon theme and add sections to your app drawer (which is a much better way to organise apps than folders, which Nova Launcher also adds), some eye candy animations, infinite scrolling and gestures to your Home screens. Two of the most useful features are being able to create shortcuts to specific activities within apps and swipe actions. I can create a shortcut on the desktop that takes me straight to a new calendar event creation screen in the Calendar app and I can configure it so that swiping up on the Evernote icon opens the note creation screen within the app. Speed, speed, speed!
While on the subject of Home screens, you can, of course, have as many as you want. You can configure them with icons and folders exactly like you do on an iPhone. But you don’t have to! You can have your calendar events and tasks show up beautifully on the Home screen using the Simple Calendar Widget. You can install a vintage analog clock or a futuristic digital one. You can display the weather there. You can have a permanent search bar…
FEATURES FROM THE FUTURE
Speaking of which, if you have ever used Google Now or Google Voice Search or even plain old Google Search on an Android device, you know that Apple and Siri and Spotlight have a lot of catching up to do. Google Voice Search actually recognises Indian accents and its ability to convert speech to text, though far from flawless, is head and shoulders above what Siri can manage. It’s ridiculously fast and, where Siri takes over ten seconds to produce an inaccurate transcription of what you said, Google Voice Search does it instantly and, usually, accurately. By the time you’ve said “schedule an appointment”, it has already transcribed “schedule an”! I conduct most of my web searches by voice now.
Besides that, you can use the systemwide and ever present search bar not just to search within the default apps but also third-party ones. Search for “ipad” and you get iPad listings from Amazon and eBay. You can tap on them to open them within their respective apps. Searching is instant, both for Google Search results and for those conducted among the installed apps (excepting network delays).
That leaves Google Now, which is just plain from the future. I know that is a cliché description for the service, but it is also the one that fits best. I had a meeting scheduled for 04:00 PM today. At 03:35 PM, without my having done anything at all, Google Now threw up a notification telling me that it was “time to leave for the appointment” and that I should “leave by 3:50 PM to arrive on time”. It knew I was at home, charted out the route to the venue, knew it would take eight minutes by car and threw up that notification at exactly the right time. Tapping on the notification took me to the appointment’s card in Google Now, and another tap started the navigation.
In the morning, I had gone to the railway station to pick up my father. I was fiddling around with the phone and launched Google Now for something. It brought up a card informing me that I was sixteen minutes from home, and offering navigation instructions. Here’s the thing: I never told Google where my home was! Google Now took note of the fact that I spend my nights there and figured out that that must be my house. It did ask for confirmation on that card, and now it knows for sure.
Comparing Google Now to Siri would be like comparing a flying car with a broken Chevy. One gives you an exciting glimpse into the future; the other is a broken, frustrating version of present technologies. It’s no comparison at all.
A MORE ADVANCED AND INCLUSIVE ECOSYSTEM
Then there’s Google’s supporting ecosystem, which is also superior to Apple’s in many ways. For starters, the Google Play Store works properly in a web browser and—this is huge—you can actually target and remotely install apps on the devices you want. On iOS, if you want to remotely install a 2 GB game on your iPhone, you have to download it on iTunes on your computer and watch in barely suppressed rage as it downloads on your four other iOS devices and iTunes on your work computer, only so you can play it on your iPhone. It’s a maddeningly poor implementation and I keep the feature turned off on all my Apple computers and devices.
You also get a fifteen minute refund window when making purchases. As a result, I don’t regret a single one of my app purchases so far. By contrast, of the over $500 I’ve spent on app purchases on iOS over the past five years, the grand total worth of the apps I currently use is probably about $50. You spend far less buying apps on Android and there’s no buyer’s remorse. There are delta updates and they install automatically (which they are configured to only do on Wi-Fi on my phone). Finally, freedom from the app update counts on four iOS devices and two computers! I couldn’t be happier.
It’s great, too, that you get to use the fantastic Chrome, Gmail and Maps apps as your default ones for those tasks. Each of those is way ahead of their iOS counterparts. Google’s ability to keep all your browsing in sync across all your devices is fantastic! So is the granular control and abundant statistics you get for the battery and data usage of your phone in the Settings app. You can set it to warn you when you get close to your monthly data quota and stop it altogether when you have used it up.
A WORD ABOUT HARDWARE
I love the huge screen. It has its problems, but it’s a beautiful and large canvas that is a treat to use. The colour reproduction is fantastic and text is gorgeous on the Retina-caliber display. There’s a micro USB port, so charging cables are dirt cheap and ubiquitous. The device is recognised as removable storage on a computer. It does require the free Android File Transfer utility on a Mac, but once you download it, it’s no different from it showing up in the Finder’s sidebar as a removable drive.
While we are on the subject of hardware, it would be a sin not to point out that I only paid ₹20,750 ($375) for this phone. An iPhone 5 would have cost me ₹45,500 ($825). Granted, the latter would’ve been an official purchase from India and would’ve included the standard one-year warranty, but at only 45% of the cost, I got a phone that is actually better than the iPhone 5. It really is. Not in terms of build quality, perhaps, but it is certainly a better phone overall. And I could buy another one and still have $75 to spare!
Finally, a word about design. Before switching to Android, I had been under the impression that, despite Google’s focus on good design in the past year, Android would be significantly behind iOS in terms of overall user interface design. I’m surprised to find out, however, that this is not the case. Far from it, in fact. Android is, for the most part, a beautiful and cohesive operating system and easily rivals Apple’s best software design. In fact, the whole system and the various bundled apps feel far more in sync with each other than Apple’s do. Because it is inherently more capable, Android can feel a bit more complex and chaotic than iOS, but there is a method to the madness, and while there are some glaring inconsistencies, the same can be said for iOS as well.
What’s Not So Good?
I spent a lot of time singing the praises of the power of Android’s third-party apps, but Android app development has an ugly side…quite literally. There’s no way of sugar-coating it—the overwhelming vast majority of Android apps are such eyesores that you’d probably smash that giant screen to bits if you were forced to live with them. They’re ugly.
One of the most highly recommended apps on Android is Tasker. It is a scripting app that is very flexible and powerful and can take smartphone automation to a whole new level. But look at it—just look at it! And examples like this are the bread and butter of the Play Store; it is full to bursting with them. Even apps that my Android-using friends recommend to me keeping in mind my need for good design often turn out to be so sucky that I’m forced to wonder if they’ve ever used best of breed iOS apps.
That said, the situation is improving now. Due to Android’s fragmentation and, I think, the lack of an OS X SDK, progress is slow, but I’ve found good replacements for most of my iOS must-haves. Still, some exceptions remain. There is no good Twitter app, and the ones that are there don’t support the streaming API. There isn’t any personal finance app worth using.
Then there are the apps that are so needlessly complicated that one wonders how anyone manages to use them at all. For instance, to use location-based reminders on Android, you need to download an app like Astrid and figure out how it works. Then purchase Locale or Tasker and figure out those apps—which, by the way, is no mean task. This step itself was a deal-breaker for me. And then you purchase the Astrid Locale Add-on, which will allow Astrid to use either of the aforementioned apps to serve you location-based reminders. I’d rather not have the feature on my phone, thank you very much!
Another side effect of bestowing so much power upon third party apps is that they sometimes misuse it (either knowingly or due to bugs). Quite a few apps on Android are set to sync every few minutes by default, even though their task could be accomplished perfectly using either push notifications or by only syncing when launched. I installed the popular TV Show Favs app and was surprised to find out that it was using up as much as 25% of my battery just by being installed on the phone (even when not in use). Similarly, apps like 1Password Reader (and others) keep running in the background forever, even though they do nothing useful while they are at it.
That said, this is not a serious problem; the rogue apps are few and are easily avoided. Given the choice between iOS’s severely limited apps and the freedom to install anything knowing that it can cause no harm to the system, and Android’s much more powerful third-party app ecosystem, I will always choose the latter, even with its inherent problems.
Not having a physical home button is by far the worst hardware decision Google/LG made with this phone. I can tolerate the poor placement of the speaker, which gets muffled when the phone is placed on its back, but it’s been three weeks since I started using this phone and I still press the Home button on my brother’s iPhone to check the time in the morning. It is far too easy to press the volume buttons when trying to press the power button, you often end up having to search for it with your thumb and the lack of the Home button on the front means that you are never quite sure which way is the right side up.
It would be careless of me not to mention that the screen, though nice and large and beautiful to look at, is simply not designed for single-handed use. You cannot grip the phone securely while also using it, and even when you are holding it gingerly to try and get your fingers to reach the opposite corner of the display, it is quite a stretch. Typing is best done with two thumbs (which is true of the iPhone too, but you can easily get by using a single thumb on most occasions there) and Done buttons are usually out of the reach of the thumb of the hand holding the phone.
Again, I love how much more stuff fits on this display, and how much better media looks on it, but I never thought the iPhone’s display was too small, and I feel like that was a better chosen set of compromises. But then again, my opinion on this point may be different two months down the line.
GOOGLE NOW IS OPTIMISED FOR SEARCH
Google Now can accurately and effortlessly tell me what is the capital of Uganda and in which year Napolean was born, but it loses its marbles when I ask it to call my father. Simple stuff like creating appointments, sending texts and dialling numbers—though supported features—are so much of a hit-and-miss proposition that you end up not using the feature at all. Then there’s the stuff it simply can’t do: ask it to start a ten minute timer and it will set an alarm for ten minutes later. Exactly what you wanted.
I’ve also been noticing lately that it is quite unreliable. From the Google I/O keynote speeches and reading release notes of the latest versions of Jelly Bean, I was under the impression that voice recognition on Android worked offline. It does, but only for a couple of languages (among them American and British English, of course). For Indian English, it still needs the help of an Internet connection, and even when it has one, it refuses to work a lot of the time. When it does work, the accuracy and speed is off the charts, but it fails often. It’s not nearly as bad as Siri, however.
The one iOS feature whose absence on Android I find the most grating is scrolling to the top on tapping the status bar. Then there is the lack of a systemwide dictionary. Also, Android does not give you the iOS-style in-call status bar when a call is in progress in the background, so you need to swipe down on the status bar and then tap on the call-in-progress notification to switch back to it (but you can swipe down on it and tap on Hang Up to terminate the call, which is a nice feature).
Android’s multiple call handling is a confusing mess. On iOS, if you get a call while another one is in progress, you get a clear set of options: ignore the call, put the other party on hold and answer it, or end the other call and answer it. If you answer it, the interface for merging, swapping and ending the calls couldn’t be easier.
On Android, when I get a call, I always feel like answering it is my only option due to the way the interface is designed. And once I’ve (accidentally) answered it, I can find no way at all to get back to the previous caller or end that call while keeping this one connected. Call management should be simple on a phone with a large touchscreen. There is no reason not to use big, bold icons to denote important actions and label them using plain English words.
Another personal peeve of mine is the inconsistency of the Done button. Almost always, it is on the top right corner of the screen, where it makes most sense, but then in some apps—including the default ones—it will suddenly show up on the top left and throw you for a loop. The add contact screen is one prominent example of this. The infamous Back button can also be wildly inconsistent, sometimes taking you back to the previous screen you were on, and on other occasions stepping you back through the current app’s navigation hierarchy.
Oh, and here’s the best one: I don’t know how to delete contacts on Android. This is not an exaggeration or a joke. I really don’t know. I don’t think it is possible at all.
There’s much more to be said on both sides of the argument, and despite having already rambled on for over four thousand words, I could easily write an essay twice this size on this topic. The ‘tl;dr’ version, though, would be this: Android is a better phone operating system than iOS. Not just more powerful or more customisable, but unequivocally superior overall. I wanted to try an Android phone and managed to score the best one ever made for less than half the price of an iPhone, but now that I’ve used it, there is no way I am switching back to iOS, at any price.
Apple is in a bit of a rut with iOS, too afraid to add anything exciting, too much of a nanny about what you can and can’t do on your own phone, too intent on forcing users to use its own apps, even when they aren’t best of breed. It needs to do something groundbreaking with iOS 7, not to remain profitable, maybe, and not to fend off this imaginary doom that its critics think it is perpetually heading towards, but certainly to win me back as a user.