The year (and a little extra) that I spent with Android
December 22, 2011
design / mobile
In July of 2010, I decided to buy a smartphone. I didn’t want to leave Verizon, and Apple hadn’t yet announced the arrival of the iPhone, so I did a great deal of research to try to find the Android phone that had the best design available on the platform and on Verizon (by that, I wanted user experience design, industrial design, etc.). At the time, it seemed it was the HTC Incredible, so that was the one I got.
I used that phone until November of 2011, when I was able to get upgrade pricing on an iPhone, and I haven’t looked back. I want to share my experiences and thoughts from this time before I forget the good and bad things about Android, as there are too few designers who have significant experience on Android. That isn’t to say that those who use Android temporarily (John Gruber, for example, or many of the folks he quotes) and then go back to iOS are not helpful, but it’s at least something of a different thing when you do it for so long.
This, then, is the Incredible. You can see it’s certainly not a bad design, from a hardware perspective. It’s obviously borrowing a lot from that version of the iPhone (but who isn’t?), and it does have quirks that separate the two.
A big one is the presence of hardware buttons. Android seems to be gradually moving away from these, as they just don’t fit well with the long-term development of a mobile operating system. But when the Incredible was released, there were still lots of Android phones that had physical keyboards. So there’s that, and I knew this was a better alternative than any of those.
Aside from that, when I compare it with the current iPhone, the 4s, it feels very toy-like. More fragile, less well-made. This is possibly an unfair comparison, as I didn’t spend a lot of time handling anyone’s iPhone that had a comparable age, but I do think it’s worth mentioning.
But again, overall it wasn’t particularly disappointing while I was using it.
The battery on this phone deserves posts dedicated to itself. It is truly unimaginable how bad it is. I was only able to use the default battery that came with the phone for a few weeks. It would be completely drained before the end of an eight-hour workday, starting right after I had charged it overnight. This was without running WiFi, Bluetooth, leaving the GPS on, or doing significant work with it while I was at work. Maybe I’d make a couple of calls, send or receive a few texts, open up an app or two. Not heavy usage, is the point.
So because that battery was so bad, I bought a battery upgrade for $50. It made the phone a lot bulkier, as it was thicker and required a different back for the phone, but I was willing to deal with that. With the same restrictions on WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, and the same typical usage throughout a day, I was usually able to get through most of the evening – the battery would end up dying around 10 or 11 pm.
But note that again: I had to keep the GPS off if I wasn’t using it to navigate somewhere specific. I had to keep WiFi off. I had to keep Bluetooth off.
Since I’ve had the iPhone 4s, I have yet to turn off the GPS, Bluetooth, or WiFi. I use the GPS functionality much more often (I’ll talk more about this further down), I use WiFi constantly when it’s available, and I use more apps at random throughout the day. As it now stands, at 10pm after a day of at least normal usage, I still have 25% of my battery left. ((And again, this is the iPhone 4s. The one that most people say has worse battery life than the previous version, and the one on which Apple says it has been working out battery life bugs.))
The Incredible’s battery life is so bad that it’s disgusting that it was allowed to leave testing.
The operating system
It’s rather difficult to evaluate Android on its own merits and demerits because any handset maker or carrier is allowed to, and clearly feels the need to, customize the system in any way they see fit. They fill it with apps that can’t be deleted, they customize the user interface, and so on. So this is an attempt to look at the system the way it is on the Incredible.
I’ll say this: I really like the layout of the keys on HTC’s custom keyboard. I like the way special characters (from the dot to the @ symbol and many others) are accessible by holding down a key on the main screen. It’s better, I think, than Apple’s method of going to the next page to get those items.
And of course, Android (especially when the Incredible was released) had a far better notification system than the iPhone did. It’s still better, I think, but not like it was (people have showed me the previous system).
That’s where the benefits end. The presence of Flash? Useless, annoying, and a battery killer. The other customizations from HTC? Sum them up by observing that on the default home screen, there were two clocks. Why does anyone need two clocks taking up screen space at the same time? Just because one is big and bubbly doesn’t mean it has a right to exist.
But the biggest issue I ran into were bugs. Genuine, documented-but-never-fixed-because-there-were-almost-never-updates, bugs. For example, my Incredible had an SD card in it, and it had internal storage as well. I never so much as filled up the internal storage, much less the SD card, but constantly the phone was alerting me that it was full and I wouldn’t be able to add any apps, get updates from existing apps, etc. without deleting things.
At first, this would happen every month or so, then every week or so, then every day or so, then every hour or so. Finally, I would get frustrated and delete all the data held by any app on the phone. Contacts, email, social apps, whatever. All data gone. Then I’d have peace for a month or so, after which it would start again, and then before long every hour it would be “full” again. ((Most people I know who had Incredibles also had this issue. But not all of them, and that’s maddening, but it was a documented bug that Google, HTC, and/or Verizon chose never to do anything about. It’s still happening to my friends that have Incredibles today.))
Again, it’s disgusting that any company would let a device pass out of testing with a bug like that, especially knowing it would be next to impossible to fix any bugs due to Android’s insane carrier and device fragmentation.
I don’t know if this bug is as common, but I also had constant GPS issues. I spent some time in Minneapolis in August, for example. Until the day I deactivated the phone in November, the Weather and Calendar apps thought I was still there, and occasionally the Maps app did too. This was after clearing data a few times, restarting several times, and wasting time wondering why my directions were so off. This also showed itself in apps like Foursquare, but I didn’t realize this until I switched.
I’ve yet to run into a bug on the iPhone. That’s not significant yet, of course, but what is significant is that I’ve already gotten more operating system updates since I bought the iPhone than I did in the entire time I used my Incredible.
The stereotype, of course, is that the iPhone has better apps than Android. For the most part this is true, but I want to give credit where credit is due and look at the exceptions.
Google apps, as you’d expect, are really good on Android. The Gmail app shines, and is (I think) better than any mail app I’ve used on the iPhone so far. The Google Reader app is very good (though there are apps that far outshine it on the iPhone – Flipboard especially). Google Maps is very good, and Google’s Navigation app is even better (and, of course, not available for iPhone).
But for me, that’s pretty much it. I thought I’d miss Google’s apps when I switched to the iPhone, but the only one I miss is Gmail (but when the Gmail app for iPhone gets multiple account support, I’ll be happy). Flipboard is amazing to the point that I don’t ever use Google Reader on the iPhone. And Google’s Navigation app is, for me, overcome by Waze. ((This lovely free app not only does turn-by-turn navigation like Gooogle’s Navigation app, but it also changes directions for you based on public traffic data, road conditions data, and the social data it gathers from its other users to give you a faster drive to wherever it is you are going. I haven’t missed Google’s app since I installed this one, and it regularly saves me time, even on a daily drive like my commute to work.))
Now, there were some nice other apps on Android, but the thing is this: all of them are as nice or better on the iPhone. Things like Mint, Facebook, Twitter (and the myriad of other Twitter apps – each one beats anything available on Android), Foursquare (maybe due to the GPS issues I mentioned earlier), Scoutmmob, NPR, WordPress, etc. are far better in every way on the iPhone than they are on Android. Then there are the countless apps that are available only on the iPhone, and this is where the stereotype is most true. The iPhone just has better apps, and it has more better apps.
Many folks think, of course, that this is because developers like iOS better. I think this is true. I also think it’s true that very few, if any, designers have any inclination to work on Android apps, and thus they all end up getting created by developers. Case in point is a crazy brilliant little app that only runs on Android called Tasker. When I first bought it, it was $6, but it seemed so great that I didn’t have an issue with that.
In essence, it allows you to automate almost anything the phone can do. The phone can turn on WiFi when you reach a certain location, turn it off when you leave, turn on the GPS when you open certain apps, turn it off when you close them, silence itself at bedtime, turn the sound back on in the morning, and any number of other things. It truly can do almost anything you can imagine.
But here’s the thing: you basically have to be a programmer to do things with it, or to read its documentation. This is because it was created by a Java developer. A brilliant Java developer, no doubt, but still a Java developer. Not a designer, and not a person who understands how users think.
And that’s the essence of Android apps, from my perspective. If they aren’t matched or outmatched by equivalents on the iPhone, they just aren’t designed well for people to use them, even if they have amazing functionality. I’ve long been clear that design isn’t about making things pretty, but it is about letting people do what they need to do.
So the overall experience I had with Android is terrible when compared with the experience Android users could and should get, or when compared with the one that iPhone users get. The reason for this is that Google isn’t interested in the attention to overall quality first, and specific details second, that Apple is. They seem to be taking tiny steps in that direction with some of their devices, but everything I’ve seen of their current models suggests that even now, the two companies could not be more different in the ways they approach their systems.
As a designer, then, I couldn’t recommend an Android phone of any kind to anyone, unless it was for device testing, development, or other professional use.