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I have been wanting to test drive Android for some time now. I had briefly thought of buying a Nexus 7 to experience Android as an OS and the Android as an ecosystem in general. For whatever reason, the actual purchase did not happen. Earlier this week, an opportunity presented itself, where a friend was able to loan me his brand new Samsung Galaxy S4 Active device on Thursday and I could put the device through its paces over the weekend.
And I did. The experience wasn’t exactly smooth and the “getting acquainted” period ended up being longer than I expected. After much frustration, I realized Android as I experienced (via the Galaxy device and Samsung’s flavor of Android) is most definitely not for me. Some things that I liked and would love to see implemented in iOS and Windows Phone, but many things that are baffling and plain annoying in Android for me to seriously consider it as a daily driver.
What is there to like
I love that I could reply to a tweet directly from the notification center. It doesn’t compose the tweet (like maybe the Me tile lets you do in Windows Phone) but it opens the Twitter app directly in the reply window so you can reply and be done with that notification. Rumors are that such a feature is coming to Windows Phone 8.1, and I would love to see something similar in iOS.
If you know me and/or have read some of my thoughts on mobile platforms, you know that I love Windows Phone’s live tiles. These tiles provide information at a glance for things that you only need to glance at, like top news or the next calendar appointment or the current weather. Widgets in Android do something similar and are very useful in providing snippets of information. I like that, and do miss it in my iPhone.
After using a larger screen with Windows Phones for the past few years, I thought the iPhone’s screen size would seem small. It surprisingly has not felt like that. So, using the larger screen on the S4 felt good but only for a bit. You will see the same exact bullet point listed under what I didn’t like :-)
It is quite amazing that I can install multiple app stores on the device. I mean, it already comes with two – Google Play and Samsung App Store – but I was also able to install the Amazon Appstore and get some apps from there. There was an increasing sense as I used the phone that Android seems very much like Windows on the desktop from the previous era, and this “choice” is just another example of that. Just like screen size though, you will see Choice listed under things I didn’t like.
So much not to like
The out of the box experience, which was mostly how I experienced Android in the past (and didn’t like at all), made me feel like I am doing something wrong for not “getting” it. I simply didn’t understand where to start in terms of using the phone. Swiping to unlock was clear, and tapping the phone icon to make a call was clear. But why are there 4 home pages where one of them is to the left of the one marked with the “home” icon? How to create a new page or modify an existing page? Maddening.
There were so many apps that came pre-loaded with the device! The worse part is that most of these bundled apps cannot be uninstalled, they can only be disabled. And because of how the home screen works, “removing” from the home screen does nothing besides deleting *that* shortcut (more on that later) from that home screen.
Not only was it confusing out of the box, the entire user experience is full of inconsistencies and confusion. These are too numerous to list but some that I remembered:
- You can create shortcuts to apps on home screens. That makes sense, but you can create multiple shortcuts of the same app on the same home screen, and even in the same folder on that home screen. There is no difference between an app icon and a shortcut, which means when there are multiple shortcuts to the same app on the same screen, you have no idea why.
- For the longest time I had no idea how to disable icons that show up in the system bar at the top of the device. I did not want my email notification in the system bar but despite going into the email app (GMail app, in this case), I wasn’t able to find the setting to turn that off, nor was there anything under the main settings. Later, by accident, I realized that the first physical button triggers a menu and when I went into GMail app and triggered the menu, I was able to get to settings and uncheck the notification setting.
- Why the heck do apps have a settings screen in-app and also trigger another set of settings via the button? The afore-mentioned GMail app is one big example of this nonsensical user experience, so we can’t even blame “Android developers” as a collective. This is Google’s own developers creating confusion within their prime app by having some settings exposed via app and some via the button.
- I noticed that the lock screen showed a few app icons on the bottom that I could launch directly from the lock screen, but I simply couldn’t find where to change that list. Help from the web seemed to suggest it was under Lock Screen settings but I just couldn’t find it. Later, I realized I had to change the first setting (lock screen swipe) before I could edit that setting. If I had a PIN to unlock, I couldn’t even see how to edit it but it was there by default. This one took a long time to figure out and involved removing my work Exchange account because that mandated a PIN to unlock. This item really frustrated me, more because it was so hard to figure out rather than the actual utility of being able to edit the list of apps.
- Speaking of work Exchange account, when I set it up, I was asked to enable encryption. I understand what that means and why they need it, so I went ahead and agreed to that step. I was asked to set up a password which confused me because I already have a PIN enabled for the device. Regardless, I went ahead with it because I did not have a choice. After the process completed, I realized I ended up having to enter that password upon boot, and then enter my PIN to unlock the device. Both iOS and Windows Phone encrypt the whole device by default and keep the user out of this messy issue. I understand technically what they are doing in Android (encrypting only part of the device that needs to be encrypted for Exchange use), but for a common user, this is a hot mess.
While a large screen felt good going from the iPhone’s screen, it turns out there are more downsides to it than I had imagined. See, I got used to the one-handed use that is possible with the iPhone’s size which I simply wasn’t able to do with this device.
While it is cool (and amazing, really) that I can have multiple app stores on the device, the choice expands to all kinds of apps including keyboard replacements. But this choice is actually a huge problem for a first-time user because out of the box, there are multiple apps for Photos, Videos, Music, Messaging, etc. Samsung has duplicated most of the Google apps for these utility apps but Google itself has duplicated what comes with Android like Chrome and “Internet” browser, Hangouts and Messaging, GMail and Email, etc. I would think it would be a much, much better experience if there were a default app associated with each action at the least, but it would be even better if all add on apps are installed by user upon some sort of a prompt after the device is set up. The choice, in short, is overwhelming.
The device is good but not great. I really prefer the flat edges of the iPhone vs the slightly rounded edges of this device or the even more rounded edges of my Lumia 920. The flatter edges make it much easier to hold the device. The operating system has all the power of what is expected of a modern smartphone operating system, but like Windows XP that was installed on PCs, the OS is full of stuff that a user should not be seeing and the device is loaded with crapware that is seriously unnecessary.
Of course I cannot deny the millions of devices that Samsung has sold and even more so, the billion devices that have apparently been activated with Android, but I can say one thing: Android does not seem like it is something I would enjoy using as a direct consumer of the system. If my next music player has Android built in, and that gets exposed with their iOS app, I don’t care, but I don’t think I have the tolerance or the patience to “work with” Android as it stands today. Now I can at least say this definitively, having experienced the same on (one of) the most popular Android devices.
ps: I realized after the experiment that I did not even care which version of the operating system was installed on the device
Over the weekend, I had a twitter conversation with the Wordboxer developers, trying to get them to port their game to Windows Phone. It brought to light an important point about the Windows Phone (and for that matter, Blackberry) app problem: most cool games and apps are being built by small shops or single developers who just don’t have the time to build and maintain more than one or maybe two versions of their app/game. I really hope the Windows Phone (and Windows 8) teams realize this and create ways and means to reach these folks and help them out with the education needed to have them port their apps.
I know with the addition to C++ and support for cross-platform game engines on both Windows Phone and Windows 8, things are easier in terms of porting, but the point is most devs look at market share numbers and shy away from the platform. Of course, the market share going up and reaching some level of respectability (10% in the US?) may automatically help, but until then, Microsoft has a tough problem on their hands. They have to increase sales of devices, they have to attract the big brands and they have to make sure the indie devs also consider Windows Phone, if not at launch, at least soon after.
Fingers are crossed.
Windows Phone app problem
Small devs really don’t have time to develop and maintain code for more than one or two platforms. Even though Windows Phone dev tools are arguably better than anything else out there, and porting is easier with Windows Phone 8, it comes down to resources. Here is a great example of that.
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