The Great Android Test 2012

It sounds like some sort of desperate attempt to gain geek credibility, but I’ve been using smartphones and PDA’s for years. My desire to have my very own tricorder took me through the joys of an HP Jornada, a Compaq iPaq, a Dell Axim, a Palm Treo, and a couple of HTC Windows Mobile 5 and 6 based devices. I held out against the iPhone incursion for as long as I could, until I succumbed to the siren song of the 3GS.

The funny thing is that, for someone who changed device every 6 or 12 months, I’ve now had the same 3GS for nearly 3 and a half years. The combination of solid hardware and an active ecosystem meant that, despite the temptation of a higher res screen, I’ve not really seen the point in upgrading. Buying an iPad probably helped as well.

Anyway, the 3GS is getting slower and slower, and the battery has suffered from about 1500 charge cycles, so it’s time for a replacement. And being a gadget whore, I thought I’d check out the competition before lazily falling back into bed with another iDevice.

First up was the HTC One X. I’d loved my previous WinMo HTC devices, and I’d heard about the lovely screen on the One X, so I was excited. When I got it, however, I took an immediate and not entirely rational dislike to it. The hardware is solid and the screen is wonderful, but there were very quickly some minor annoyances. The power connector is at the side instead of the bottom, making charging while in a case a challenge. There’s no physical ‘home’ button, and the power button is way up at the top, making it hard to reach on such a big phone – so even turning the thing on and off was a little bit annoying. The major issue, though, was the software, although weirdly I couldn’t pin down exactly what it was that I didn’t like. It was like looking at Mickey Rourke 20 years ago and now, and trying to work out exactly what had gone wrong; it just felt lumpy and misshapen.

So, that went back and along came the legally contentious Galaxy S3. This was a very different experience – slick, smooth, well thought out. Some people complain that it’s too plasticky but, coming from a 3GS, that isn’t something I noticed particularly. There’s a physical home button, the power button and power connectors are in sensible places, and the screen, like the One X, is wonderful. And though there are alot of complaints about Touchwiz, the software seemed much more polished to me, even if there are a fair number of Samsung specific apps I have no intention of ever touching.

Widgets and screens
Things I absolutely love about the S3, and indeed the wider Android experience, are:

  • That huge screen. Going back to my 3GS is difficult. There’s a chance it might be slightly too big, but so far I haven’t tired of it (although my right pinky is getting a little sore from anchoring the bottom while doing big stretches).
  • Widgets. I love being able to grab information at a glance, and Android widgets are fabulous for that – on opening my phone I can check out the weather, the stock market and my agenda for the week, without touching a single app icon.
  • Differentiating between apps on your phone and shortcuts to launch them. On iOS the apps and their launch icons are one and the same thing, leading you to stuff apps you don’t use very often into poorly named folders. On Android you have a special ‘apps’ manager where all your apps really exist, leaving you free to keep your main screens uncluttered.
  • Proper background multitasking. Not quite as useful as I thought it might be, but as someone who uses a newsreader all the time, it’s good to know that it’s always going to be up to date.
  • Not having to pay an absurd amount of money to get an extra 16gb of storage. £70 to go from 16gb to 32gb is one of those examples of Apple hubris that never gets old.

Unsurprisingly, after 3.5 years of iPhoning, I have one or two gripes:

Useful notifications on the lock screen.
I like to pin-protect my phone, and as I mentioned above I’m a sucker for seeing lots of useful information with as little effort as possible. iOS has a killer feature for me here – all new emails, texts and missed calls are shown on front screen as soon as you touch the on button.

Here’s an example:

The sort of information I want to see on a lock screen.

On Android by default, the best you get is an icon telling you how many missed emails you have. There’s the pull-down notification bar (which Apple shamefully ripped off in iOS 5) which shows alot more info, but that groups emails together, once again leaving me with the certain knowledge that I have some emails, but no information on what they are.

After hours of looking around there’s an app called Executive Assistant that seems to do most of what I want, but there are still problems. Most annoyingly, because Google locks down the email database from third party apps, EA has to fetch emails itself, which both messy and a waste of battery. It also doesn’t clear the list of new emails automatically on unlock, so you have to clean it out manually.

No decent email client
I was enormously surprised by this, given Google’s background, but the stock email apps in Android seem a little… sucky. Yes there’s the GMail app, but I’ve personally never particularly liked the GMail interface, and like many people I have other email accounts. There’s the stock email app, which is okay but does threaded conversation views rather clumsily. On the app store, K9 is a nice free alternative, but that doesn’t do threaded conversations at all. Ultimately Maildroid looks like the best option – good email threading, fast delivery, nice interface.

However, none of them do as good a job as the stock iOS mail of squeezing emails into a small screen space. If you get emails with lots of embedded pictures (Amazon being the email nemesis in this regard), iOS does its best to ensure you never have to scroll horizontally. All of the Android apps behave as though you’re at your desktop, looking at things through a very narrow web browser. Here’s an example of what I mean.

Minor things
There are a couple of other niggles too:

  • Scrolling up and down is still jerky. On my old, slow 3GS scrolling is still, always, silky smooth. In Android it’s lumpy, despite the hardware being 10x as fast and having 10x as much ram. I hope that Jelly Bean’s slightly tardy and unfortunately named ‘project butter’ will fix that.
  • Lack of consistency. The S3 comes with quite a few stock apps. In addition, once you’ve downloaded a new email client, a new browser, tried to fudge the notification experience into something a little more helpful, etc, the core, day-to-day phone experience feels inconsistent. That’s probably partly my fault for having trying to contort the OS into my pre-existing usage patterns, but all the same, it makes things feel unpolished.
  • Minor app gaps. I miss Toodledo. I miss Alienblue (BaconReader isn’t quite as friendly).
  • Backups. With iOS I know that, should I lose my phone, everything has been backed up to the cloud, and I can remotely wipe the original phone. It could be my unfamiliarity with Android here, but I have absolutely no idea whether or not things are backed up and, even if they are, if that backup is going to be global to all Android phones or specific to Samsung. I also can’t tell if I can wipe it or not.
  • I have a 3GS that’s nearly 3.5 years old and it’s running the latest version of iOS. Jellybean came out 3 months ago and, while there’s a rumour it’s coming to the S3 any moment, nobody really knows. Apple knows how to make me feel that my phone will last.

My conclusion, at the moment, is slightly inconclusive. Android is clearly a very capable platform and, once you’ve seen the S3 screen and experienced the joy of live widgets, iOS seems like a very dull place. At the same time, some very core parts of my phone experience are lacking on Android – lock screen notifications and a nicely integrated email client being the being main ones. At the moment I’m inclined to fall back to what I’m more familiar with, but that doesn’t seem as much fun…


3 thoughts on “The Great Android Test 2012

  1. Pascal

    Hey, I love my Sony Ericsson Neo using Android. I am a huge fan of the S3, never having owned it though. In Europe, mainly the Netherlands, iPhone’s are insanely expensive. I would like to give you some hope for android. When you get a custom rom (from Jelly Bean), Cyanogen being the keyword there, some big issues disappear. I have been using Jelly Bean already for 2 months now! (even though the official version is not rolling out yet)
    It seems Jelly Bean listened to your post here:
    – It now has the most amazing lockscreen; preview of emails, Google Now information, preview of text msgs (including a call back button), shortcuts etc. They now believe the notification screen is the future.
    – Once you use a custom rom, I would advice to overclock. I have been overclocking my Neo from 1.0 Ghz to 1.6 Ghz, and the smoothness is so much better. The initial values are from 126mhz to 1 Ghz. I think this is partially to blame to non smoothness. I just put min and max to 1.6 Ghz. Battery drain? Yes. I get through the day so all is good.
    – For backup you have some free services for about 5gb, paid will get you more. I would advice Sugarsync, since you are not stuck to your dropbox folder, but can actually just share any folder on any device. Doing all the “get free mb” puts the counter on 8 gb. Another popular option is TitaniumBackup, which can indeed backup all your stuff. For me, I got a 16gb SD card with my phone. Works really well, I switched ROM’s over 10 times, and wiped the settings, while having all the stuff backed up on my SD card.

    Hope it eased the pain a bit,

    1. bbbscarter Post author

      Thanks for the tips!
      Regarding the lock screen stuff you mentioned, is that directly on the lock screen or via the pull down notifictations?
      And indeed, the best backup system does appear to require rooting, which is a shame. In iPhone land I know that if I lose my phone everything is automatically backed up all the time, which is reassuring; restoring an idevice is an almost magical experience.

      Anyway, I’ll keep playing, thanks for the help!

      1. Pascal

        Yea my bad, i meant pulldown notifications. Though some updates ago, Cyanogenmod also allows a lot of tweaks to the lockscreen.
        It sounds really nice indeed. Rooting is no problem, you can even “unroot” your cellphone. I asked for warranty, and they said if you bring it back unrooted (even after being rooted) it’s just fine 🙂 If you read stuff carefully, no real risks with rooting anyway.

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