Let's get this out of the way: I deeply admire Apple. No -- I love Apple. To my friends I am "The Apple Guy," and to my Android loving brethren, I represent everything they hate: I stand in line for hours to purchase Apple's latest creations, I buzz with electric excitement the morning of an Apple announcement, I sport hipster glasses and I drive a Prius. I have been told that I look like an "Apple guy," even before someone knows my affiliation. Steve Jobs is my guru, and I'm not embarrassed to admit it. So what could have turned me to the Dark Side? What could have compelled me to even consider purchasing an Android device as my daily driver? Plain and simple -- boredom. No matter how often a new iPhone is released, it's essentially the same product. The 2011 release of the iPhone 4S was a bit of a letdown, with the same iPhone 4 body, and usual iOS interface. Heck, you can only eat filet mignon for so long before hamburger begins to look pretty good.
I have actually had the taste for Android building on my tech palate for a while. My secret Android desires began when I started to become frustrated with Apple's modal notifications. iPhone text messages and notifications ceased all onscreen action, grabbing your entire attention, forcing you to respond or dismiss regardless of what you were doing. An important work email? BAM! -- an app notification that your friend just whomped your high score in Doodle Jump! An urgent text message regarding your ailing family member? POW! -- a Facebook post from cousin Eddie asking if you could send that corn dog recipe! Apple's notifications were severely cramping my style, where Android's powerful yet subtle system was done properly from the start. Larger screens and different form factors worked their way into my subconscious too, and I became Android curious.
Before I would ever consider purchasing an Android device -- just to see what it's like, mind you -- I had several requirements that had to be fulfilled:
- I wanted a pure Android device, which Google calls their Nexus line of phones. A key argument against Android is that each phone is so different. I had seen what Samsung, HTC and Motorola made of the Android interface, and I didn't much care for their sensibilities. Plus, I wanted to compare apples to Apple (pun intended), so it would have to be a pure Android device, or nothing.
- The phone had to be comparatively cheap. Nexus devices are the technical leader among their Android peers, meaning that they have the best hardware, and a price to match; starting at an unsubsidized price of $500.
- I didn't want to purchase a new line, or start a contract with a new carrier, so it had to come unlocked.
Everything Falls Into Place
At Google's 2012 developer conference, Google I/O, they announced the latest update to Android, code named Jelly Bean. To drive adoption of Jelly Bean, Google lowered the price of their latest Nexus phone, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, to $350, selling it completely unlocked. With all of my requirements met, and with my iOS boredom growing by the minute, it was time to strike. There was a complication, however; Apple was granted an injunction, ceasing all sales of the Galaxy Nexus. Perhaps Apple had sensed my iPhone agitation? In a week’s time Google wormed its way out of Apple's legal stranglehold, and the Galaxy Nexus was on sale again. This back-and-forth of availability made the purchase seem even more the forbidden fruit, and I excitedly made the purchase, wondering if it would show up at all.
This is the point at which I began to feel like the unfaithful husband. I had anxiously flirted with the idea of another, and now I had committed to a date. What will my friends think? What about my co-workers who hold me as their go-to Apple guy? And worst of all, what will my wife think? I am her tech guy, and she's my greatest defender, so what is she going to say when I tell her I bought the competition? A few days after the purchase is when I let it slip and she was, as I should have expected, very supportive. So supportive that we decided to make this a double experiment, selling her iPad 2 and replacing it with a Galaxy Nexus 7. These were daring times, indeed.
The Fun Begins
My first Google purchase experience was similar to those with Apple. I was given a wide arrival date, 1 to 2 weeks, and the device shipped in 5 business days. I was delighted to see it awaiting me on my doorstep. Like my Apple purchases before it, I quickly opened the package and admired the hardware. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus really is a beautiful phone. Picture a large, black curved slab of glass which is extremely light for its size. In fact, it's so light that the weight is the first thing everyone notes when holding it for the first time. The phone slipped coolly in and out my back pocket, negating any worry that it might be too large. Unlike the iPhone, you couldn't really see the edge of the screen when turned off. It truly appeared a borderless monolith. Cellphone tech felt cool again, and I was leading the pack. But of course, all good things must come to an end.
As beautiful as the phone may be to the eye, it is cheapened by the plastic snap-on back cover; it smacks of high tech meets Playskool. To insert a SIM card into the phone you must literally pry the back off of the Nexus. This means the phone requires an un-supplied companion tool. A hint to Samsung: Butter knives should never be a required accessory. Once open, the inside consists of a SIM clip and battery. I attempted to insert my iPhone micro-SIM, and much to my chagrin, no dice.
After setting the battery it was time to close up the interior; again, a herculean feat by tech measures. Placing the backing on the phone was more difficult than removing it. Small plastic clips must be inserted into barely viewable holes. Any average person immediately gets what is required, which is what makes reapplying the back so frustrating - you just can't do it the first time without having to remove it and try again. With my excitement quickly fading, I hoped that Google's new operating system, Jelly Bean, would make up for the loss in the hardware department.
The Software - The Good, the Bad and the… UGH
Like Windows before it, Android sates the anxiety of its user during boot up. Upon boot, you are greeted with an animation. A little choppy, it nonetheless communicates that something is happening. Comparatively, the iPhone simply presents a reflective Apple logo -- cool, but it provides no feedback to the user that something is happening. Once I made it to the home screen I was presented with a set of widgets and icons. Like the iPhone, the typical phone, mail and text messaging icons were available. Although the layout was slightly different, any iPhone user would feel comfortable navigating the interface.
At Google I/O, Google promised that Jelly Bean's interface was greatly optimized for speed. After swiping between screens, checking out the notification menu, and reviewing the pre-installed apps, I failed to see the great fluidity Google had promised. Thinking something might be wrong, I checked the version number of the installed OS, and it appeared that the phone came preinstalled with Ice Cream Sandwich - Google's OS prior to Jelly Bean. This was a little confusing, as Google announced that the Samsung Galaxy Nexus would be the first phone with Jelly Bean. I later reviewed my Google Play invoice, finding that I was a little snookered: It read "(soon with Android 4.1, Jelly Bean)." Never one to allow officialdom to get in the way, I found that the Nexus checked for new updates periodically, and that by clearing the OS cache the system date would be set back by many years, forcing the Nexus to check for OS updates. After several attempts at clearing the cache, the Nexus decided it needed Jelly Bean - and who am I to stand in the way of progress?
After a quick download and a reboot, the Nexus was loaded with Jelly Bean. Google is correct, the interface is faster, but I can't really say it was much faster. Menus seemed to open smoother, but not much smoother. Widgets quickly responded to my touch, but not that much quicker. Overall it appears that the speed improvements, codenamed Project Butter, are truly better than all of Jelly Bean's predecessors, but I can't report that it was so much better that anyone would care too much. Perhaps this is more of kudos to Ice Cream Sandwich and its obvious strides to better the Android interface. Jelly Bean is only a 0.1 increment, after all.
A keen feature of Android is the ability to swap the software keyboard if you don't like it. I first tried the stock keyboard, which all-in-all is nice, but I found myself making too many mistakes. I think this is in part due to where Google expects the user to place their finger on each key. It appears that Google expects you to place your finger at the bottom of the key, where the Apple expects the top. Worse off, the keyboard's built-in dictionary is either sparse or lazy, as words which were primarily spelled correctly were left misspelled, requiring a careful manual reentering. With little success with the stock keyboard, I changed to Swype, a popular third-party alternative. Swype allows you to drag your fingers across the intend keys, instead of pecking. The result is satisfying and much more exact than the built-in keyboard. I could really see myself getting into it, but its steep learning curve was more than I wanted, and I switched back.
Another frustration was the odd mixture of the Android and Gmail mail clients. For instance, why does Android come pre-stocked with two mail clients? You can certainly configure the default mail client for Gmail; however it supports none of the mail prioritization and feature set of Gmail, practically forcing you to use the Gmail client. This wouldn't be a problem if you only ever used Gmail, but like many I am in an enterprise environment, and I need Microsoft Exchange connectivity. To use corporate mail, I configured the primary mail client for my Exchange account. The end result is the need to think before checking or composing email. Do I want to send a personal email, or is my email to a coworker? This required too much thinking for something that should be so simple.
Configuring the primary mail client also plugged my Exchange data into the built-in calendar app, which was nice, if I cared for the calendar app. Compared to the iPhone, the calendar app is a mess, with a tiny font and sparse menus. This is one of the things that is so odd about Android, it appears to be a mixture of good and bad ideas. Some apps and menus look like a lot of thought went into them, but the next app or interface element looks hastily cobbled together, as if to simply comply with a long feature list and move onto the next. Why is this so difficult for a multi-billion dollar company?
Move Over Siri
A keen new feature of Jelly Bean is Google Now. Google Now is part Siri, part something cool from the future. Like Siri, you can ask Google Now questions, although a bit limited compared to Siri. Google Now provides an impressively quick response, often providing a very direct answer. When Google Now doesn't know the answer, it provides you with a search of results related to the question; just as if you had typed the question into Google and hit return. This is especially great when driving, or needing the quick answer to satisfy a question. Google seems to know what the user wants, and that's to ask a question, get an answer and move on. Even with Siri's improvements in iOS 6, Siri seems too wrapped up into looking for the answer and acknowledging what you said before finally providing the answer, if it understands you at all. Apple could definitely learn something from Google here.
The moment of truth came merely one week after the Nexus arrived. While traveling back from a day trip in Indianapolis, I needed directions to get to the highway. I had traveled plenty of times with my trusty iPhone at my side, and various single-purpose GPS hardware in the past. The perfect opportunity to put Android and the Galaxy Nexus to the test. I loaded the popular Android Navigation app, anticipating the usual request for a street, city and state. Instead, I was asked to wait for the GPS to lock. Waiting for a GPS to lock onto satellites is nothing new to me, and so I wasn't too worried; but Android, like the iPhone, has the ability to triangulate itself using cell tower data in order to overcome the minutes long wait that traditional GPSes require. Something didn't seem right, and I was quickly running out of time before I needed a different solution. I tried reseting the destination, killing and relaunching the app, and even restarting the phone -- all to no avail. I was running out of time, and so I did the necessary thing -- I grabbed my wife's iPhone 4S. This is when the light turned on for me. Familiarity of the interface aside, the iPhone simply zoomed between screens, in one app, and out to another. I pulled up the TomTom app, ably entered my home address without a single mistake via the onscreen keyboard, and choose "GO." No waiting, no GPS locking messages, the iPhone simply showed me where I was, my current speed and told me where to turn. This all seems so simple, but honestly it was an awakening for me. The phone I want had been the iPhone the entire time. My phone boredom was quickly replaced with respect and appreciation for a device, and I'm sorry to say this, it "just worked."
To be fair, until the arrival of iOS 6 the iPhone won't have a GPS application that provides turn-by-turn directions, but I don't believe this was my issue. What I found important is that the iPhone was rock solid and fast. That's what I want and need, not a lot of alternative to every feature within a feature. I respect that many people want this, but it's my opinion that the great majority just want a phone that gets the job done without much upgrading or side-loading.
That evening I plugged my iPhone 4S back in the charger. My morning was scheduled so that I could easily stop by an AT&T store and pick-up a new iPhone SIM on the way to the office. I was like a kid on Christmas. The phone just felt so fresh and new again. I was happy.
There are several areas where the iPhone and Android seem about on par. I found that as a general use device, meaning just getting things done, Android really seems to meet the iPhone toe-for-toe. As a phone, well - it's a phone. Call quality was decent, and the phone app itself didn't seem to miss any major features. Sending texts wasn't really any different (aside for Apple's iMessage, a steep advantage), and composing emails, regardless of which email client, is as simple as typing the email and sending. Perhaps what I got the most out of all of this, is that as much as I don't care for the aesthetics of Google's software or Samsung's hardware design choices, Android and the Galaxy Nexus simply give you what you want and need, even if it's not as solid, beautiful or fast. Had I been handed this phone prior to the iPhone's introduction, I would have said it was the most amazing device I had ever seen. This may not be so much a matter of preference, but a matter of price and availability. Joe Blow doesn't care what he uses, as long as it's in his price range and gets the job done, and that's why Android is currently winning, by the numbers at least.