Over the last month or so I’ve been spending my days learning Java and Android development. As an iPhone user I find myself trying to make sense of Android apps through the lens of years of iPhone use. I realized that I needed to be a real Android user. Much to the dismay of most people who know me I visited the Google Play store and bought a Nexus 5. After receiving the Nexus I went to AT&T to get a micro-SIM and I made the switch.
The first surprise was the price. Unlocked, no contract, no carrier commitment: $350. The last time I purchased an unlocked iPhone it set me back $950. Why are Android devices so inexpensive?
The second surprise was the quality of the software experience. I’ve had various Android devices over the years for testing purposes but they all seemed cheap and clunky. The Nexus 5 runs vanilla KitKat and it is years beyond older versions in every way. I liked the lack of manufacturer kludge as well. My Samsung Galaxy S2 testing phone was highly customized by Samsung and felt clunky. Vanilla KitKat comes close to matching iOS 7’s finish in many areas and
Most of the apps I use on a daily basis, Spotify, Twitter, Facebook, Circa, Pocket, Fliboard, Zite and NPR News are all first class citizens on Android. Aside from a hellish logging-in-to-all-the-things experience my digital life ported over nicely. The Gmail app worked great. Hangouts was mildly confusing but ultimately worked well for texts and instant messaging. The experience also gave me the excuse to move my wife’s calendar and my calendar from iCloud over to Google Calendar. Since we both use Gmail it was something I’d been meaning to do for awhile.
The best feature of Android is the back button. Navigating between apps is seamless. Its hard to explain this feature to an iPhone user. It doesn’t sound that sexy but oh man, it is sexy. The flow of jumping from one app to another and tapping back to jump between apps is such a better flow than the iPhone’s app switching. It just feels more natural and useful.
Another feature of the Nexus that I loved was the screen size. At just under 5” the screen is big and beautiful. The full 1080p screen has room for much more content then an iPhone 5s. I hope the rumors are true about larger iPhones coming this fall.
Google clearly excels at cloud services. The thoroughness and reliability of their offering is impressive. Their services cover almost all possible needs and are available everywhere. The portability of using Google’s services over Apple’s gated ecosystem is attractive. Gmail, Google Drive and Hangouts are as reliable as anything else out there and considerably more reliable than Apple’s several attempts at cloud based services.
Google Now was a nice surprise. It is integrated directly into the OS and is incredibly useful. Being able to configure Google Now along with it’s learned behavior made my experience with the device personal and contextual.
Android has the concept of widgets, small subsets of an app’s features that are installable on the phone’s home screens. The two widgets I actually used displayed the current weather and another that launched a specific Dropbox folder. Due to a great architectural decision in Android it is possible to deep link into apps all the time. Deep linking is a must have feature for future version’s of iOS. The productivity gains from going directly to the area of an app you need are huge.
While the Android Apps I used had come a long way since they were first introduced some aspects of the experience felt less refined than on iOS. For example, the lack of rubber banding on scrolling lists felt off and unnatural.
The first pain point came when I stopped receiving “texts” from all my iPhone friends. These were of course iMessages and Apple’s servers failed to release my phone number and start sending standard sms texts instead of iMessage. While not a problem caused by Android this drove me insane. I have several Apple products connected to iMessage; my mac book pro, multiple iPads and my iPhone 5s. Turning off iMessage for my phone number did not fix the problem. Apparently I am not the only one who has had to deal with this: iMessage purgatory.
After the whole text/iMessage fiasco (Apple’s fault for sure) the next biggest challenge was visual voicemail. AT&T has an Android App for visual voicemail. Despite a good hour of trying and another hour on the phone with AT&T I never got visual voicemail working. Its amazing how fast certain features become expected. Using a smartphone to call and retreive my voicemails felt antiquated and frustrating. Android users have since told me that Google Voice is the best app to use for visual voicemail. I never tried it unfortunately.
I found the entire experience to be less cohesive than iOS. I’m not sure if the problem is too much choice or if it is just a maturity issue but I didn’t open the box, turn it on and have a smooth, working smart phone. The experience was impressive and the phone was beautiful but somehow the combination of all the parts did not add up to something greater than the whole. Apple consistently nails this.
How long did I use the Nexus 5 as my primary phone? 5 days. I’m back on the iPhone and I don’t miss the Nexus much. I am glad for the experience though. When I work in Android now I have a much clearer idea of what users expect. iOS users and Android users should and do expect a different experience. The interaction is different so our applications should match those expected interactions. Google has done some amazing work in a very short amount of time. Apple has some work to do if they’re going to remain competitive with Android.