One Week with Android
Not my greatest piece of writing here. I was meaning to wrap this up. There’s plenty to talk about, so this just reflects some of the experiences.
A couple weeks ago my roommate and I finally settled on a two-week exchange to swap smartphones as a learning experience. He is an avid Android user with a Motorola Moto X (and an iPad 2) as I am a heavy Apple user of sorts with the latest iPhone 5s. While we originally agreed to two weeks, I had our deal reset to one week.
The debate over Android and iOS isn’t a matter of what’s fundamentally better, but more a debate of philosophy. Android is the unregulated free market of the smartphone platforms. It runs on devices of which there are a wide range of brands, screen sizes, processing power, and OS skins. Android has been defined as a features and choice-based system. Android loves marketing features so much that it is entirely willing to sacrifice design, power, and certainly security and privacy to market those features.
The problem is that giving anyone too many choices paralyzes the user experience. Also, because Android is sold by commission-based cellular providers, there isn’t an empathetic means of support. And because Android devices are created by Google, whose products are supplied to its users for free, there is no customer support when you need help. Features mean a lot to Android, but the problem is that many of Android’s features are half-baked and devised for largely bragging rights as being the first to something instead of making the concentrated effort to be the best at it.
The Motorola Moto X is Motorola’s flagship smartphone and the first released after its acquisition by Google. I understood going in Motorola wanted to make an affordable phone and purposefully did not pack this with the fastest processors, the most advanced display or the best camera. This was more about experiencing Android - and yes, perhaps experiencing Android has plenty to do with the phone’s hardware. For some perspective, according to Geekbench’s benchmarks, the iPhone 5s and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 are twice as fast as the Moto X.
After my roommate restored his phone, I had to find a mail app for my Apple iCloud account. The better part of Android’s openness showed when I was able to find an app that could push iCloud email to an Android phone without Apple having to submit an app to the Google Play Store.
I exported my iCloud contacts into a vCard format and then emailed myself the contacts. I used Chrome as my web browser and was able to find versions of pretty much all of the apps I use frequently. There’s the main screen and then there’s the App drawer where all of your apps are stored…similar to OS X with the Dock and Launchpad. The number of apps preloaded on the phone were sort of mind-boggling and included an assortment of native apps for the phone, Motorola services apps, Google apps and Verizon Wireless crapware.
The Motorola Moto X is certainly one of the better looking Android phones out there. Considering Motorola’s history of manufacturing chunky black rectangles, it was nice to see that they had seen the light in terms of design. The Moto X has a 4.7” screen and has a resolution just high enough for Retina status. Using this phone reinforced my belief that 4.7” is the largest smartphone I could use and not feel like a midget or a douchebag. I’d even prefer a 4.5”, but using a larger display made me realize there are some benefits to the additional real estate - no deal breakers though. Viewing angles are fair, but they aren’t the same IPS panels Apple uses for clarity at 178-degrees. I am a sucker for things that are matte and even more for matte white. I held the Moto X in high regard for this.
This is pretty simple. The camera was hit or miss, and more misses than hits. It would do well when there was a ton of light around, but where there was even less than that, photos would appear too soft and especially over-saturated. I could tell the phone sometimes had trouble processing some photos and determining what tint to apply. When there wasn’t much light around, the photos did not always accurately reflect color - and in low-light, well, forget about it. I’m certainly not the only one who has said or is surprised by the fact that it is 2014 and there still isn’t a single Android camera that can compete with the iPhone.
While using the phone in a lot of cases, it sometimes felt like Android was designed around the use of a stylus rather than a finger. It’s the incessant pop-ups that tell you to “do this” and then “do this”. And some of it took me back to the horrid days of Windows XP. Android is complete with some modern additions like a Google search bar built right into the main screen, but some functions had remnants of old-school Windows.
On here, one doesn’t delete apps by simply holding down and tapping an ‘x’ like on iOS. Instead, one goes into their app drawer (because they cannot be uninstalled from the main screen), then one would hold down on the app and drag it to a trash can labeled “Uninstall”. There’s a prompt that says, “Are you sure you want to uninstall?”. One would tap “Yes”, and briefly a screen takes over the phone with an uninstall progress bar. If you grew up on Windows, never used a Mac or iPhone, bought an Android smartphone from your shady Verizon Wireless rep as part of a “six-phones-for-the-price-of-one” fire sale, then this interface makes perfect sense to you. To me, it seemed at most clumsy and the very least inelegant.
On notifications, swiping down from the top of the screen revealed all notifications and a list of missed phone calls and texts, breaking news and weather. At the same time, there were a bunch of things that cluttered Notifications including unnecessary information including screenshots I had taken, files I had already uploaded, and reminders to check out the latest on Flipboard. When I would be elsewhere on the phone and a notification came through, it would appear as a way-too-subtle tiny line of text at the top of the screen. I was surprised to see that I couldn’t tap on the banner as it appeared to access the app the notification was sent from but instead had to pull down on notifications and then tap on the alert.
On Android, there are no app badges (a friendly number next to an app indicating something new) so to find out if I received a text, I have to constantly check notifications or go into the app itself which was cumbersome.
One inferiority that I knew I’d run into was scrolling. There isn’t a device I’ve used that scrolls as smoothly as iPhone. The scrolling on the Moto X is obviously acceptable, but often would not match the pace of my finger. It would attempt to replicate the on-point inertial scrolling of iOS but couldn’t. Scrolling was important because I had to do a lot of it. I was disappointed that, unlike iOS, when I was at the bottom of a website or my Twitter feed, I couldn’t tap the status bar to shoot me back up to the top of the page.
The touch navigation buttons were nice and not as clumsy as I thought they would be. They would fade away when you took a YouTube video full screen, though some sites with high-def video in Google Chrome would almost get to full-screen but would be bound by these ugly black bars on the right side and top of the video.
One thing I really liked were widgets. I think Android has a big advantage here. Being able to access basic functions of specific apps from the main screen is powerful, pragmatic and was well-designed. Creating a Tumblr post or checking the weather without having to do into an app was nice.
A big feature of specifically the Moto X is Touchless Control where one would begin a command with “Ok Google Now…”. This was impressive. The best part was the phone could be on my desk or in my pocket and I could get information I needed like the weather each morning. Using it in public and having to say “Ok, Google Now” frequently isn’t entirely practical but one still has the option to tap a button and ask Google anything, similar to the Home Button with Siri on iPhone.
Last thing I’ll say in this part is the fact that I hit a Verizon Wireless paywall to access visual voicemail. Let me repeat that. In 2014, I had to pay money to access visual voicemail. Let that archaic notion sink it.
Lots more could be said about the OS, but I’ll leave it here.
The battery life on the Moto X was good and similar to my iPhone 5s. I’m sure with some further tweaks to my preferences, I could get some additional time. Battery life was overall acceptable.
The app selection in the Google Play store was fine, but a lot of apps were riddled with fat buttons and tiny text and I could tell that some Android developers struggled to maintain a common aesthetic across so many phones and screen sizes. Again, these things do not matter to tech geeks or first-time smartphone buyers walking into their cellular provider’s store, but the quality of apps were important to me. I also did constantly have the lack of oversight in the Play Store in the back of my mind. Of course, the Apple App Store is curated through an approval process that weeds out any malicious content. The Google Play Store operates in the opposite fashion and allows a free range of apps, some of which you never quite know are safe.
I won’t let my experience with the Moto X allow me to pass absolute judgement on Android as an operating system, but from what I tried for a week, I fundamentally did not enjoy using the Moto X. I don’t mean that in a dismissive, condescending way. I mean that in a way that is fundamental to anyone enjoying any consumer product. There isn’t much Android implies that asks you as a user to do more with your phone - you just know that it can do things.
I don’t use my iPhone just to get things done on it. I use it because I enjoy actively using it and appreciating the cohesion, consistency, animations, and visual cues. The addiction of the iPhone comes from an infant-like attachment to good design, sensible color palettes and intuitive interactive elements. These things matter to the user experience and I think this is the biggest area where Android lacks, not in just decent aesthetic design but functional design. Part of me thought for a while that whenever someone said an iPhone was user-friendly, it always sounded sort of vague and half of me questioned it as a real distinction from the competition.
After using the Moto X for a week, I can say that one thing Android is not is user-friendly. Time and again we see this in customer satisfaction ratings and consumer usage statistics. We know that despite the fact that more people in America own some type of Android smartphone (and perhaps feature phone), people access the Internet on iOS devices by a 2-1 margin over Android.
You can call the iPhone the smartphone for your mom and dad (though you should probably look up some stats on which devices kids want most for the holiday and which ones are most desired by teenagers) but it’s appeal is purely philosophical. It isn’t right or wrong, it just is. It says the greatest focus will be placed on refining the quality of features over the quantity of them. In the end, people choose the well crafted and truly applicable. People wait longer to buy something great before they buy something soon.
Despite my dissatisfaction with Android, if someone were entirely turned off by iPhone and iOS and was in the market for any Android smartphone, I would likely recommend to them the new HTC One and give an honorable mention to the Moto X.
I’ll be sticking with my iPhone 5s and continue to remain entirely confident in my choice.