Smartphone Switchers: Mobile users on the move

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Pros and cons: Why I switched from iPhone to Android, Part 3

For me, switching phones didn’t involve a dramatic moment of decision. It was a gradual process. I carried both the Samsung Galaxy S III and my iPhone 4S around every day for a couple of months and I kept both of them synced with the same apps and data. Any time I needed a screen in my hand, I could pull out whichever device I wanted.

It wasn’t long before I noticed that I was almost always choosing the Samsung. Usually, I went for the iPhone when I needed a piece of data that could only easily sync between Apple devices: things like Reminders, and documents stored in iCloud. I switched those services over to platform-agnostic alternatives, which arguably is something I should have done even if I’d stuck with iOS.

After that, I’d only pull out my iPhone for one reason: to take a photo. The iPhone continues to kick the butts of all challengers as a camera.

I noticed that I was charging the Samsung every night and that the battery in the iPhone was lasting a whole week or more. And that’s when I realized that I needed to get over a totally fake, self-absorbed stigma (“But…I’m an iPhone user. This other phone isn’t an iPhone!”) and get on with it.

But I’m actually a bit of a wimp, aren’t I? I stepped off of one nice boat and onto another.

If you’re not a tech columnist and you don’t have the option of experimenting with Android and Windows Phone and Blackberry 10 without first making a two-year commitment, switching from any device platform to any other requires a leap of faith and a period of itchy uncertainty. You’ll dog-paddle through choppy seas until once again there’s a steady teak deck under your feet and an umbrella drink in your hand.

In the meantime, yeah: you’re going to swallow a lot of seawater. A transition to Android is particularly tough because so many of the platform’s problems are so well known and emphatically repeated.

I’ve heard them all. Hell, I’m probably one of the tech columnists who originated some of those same criticisms; I’ve written about and reviewed every edition of Android and every wave of phones since the beginning. But it’s 2013 and nearly all flagship phones ship with Android 4.1 or 4.2. Most of the problems I complained about from 2009 to 2011 have been solved, or else they’re no longer nearly as serious as they once were.

And that observation was just as important a factor in my decision to switch as any of the four big Android features I wrote about in parts 1 and 2. When Google addressed these deal-breaking complaints, they put Android in a position where the right phone could be an attractive option for me.

Fragmentation

Fragmentation (the problem of releasing one piece of software that works on such a bewildering range of devices) is an issue with the release of Android OS updates. I’ll have more to say about this later.

Fragmentation doesn’t seem to affect the Google Play app library, however. I use the same broad collection of apps with every Android phone I test, and I can’t remember the last time I encountered one that doesn’t work on all devices. Even games, which make intense and specific demands of the hardware, are a “one size fits all” release. Accessing Android apps is no different from accessing iOS apps: it’s all one big pool, provided that your phone runs a modern edition of the OS.

Malware

Malware is certainly a threat, but after a year’s worth of wary exploration of the subject, I believe it to be a manageable one.

The quantity of Android malware cited in reports from Trend Micro (a maker of security software) and other researchers is shocking. The details of Android malware tell a more reassuring story. It’s a familiar one: if you don’t want to unwittingly install malware on your phone, don’t install pirated software. That’s the primary vector for malicious Android software.

Further, if you only use Android’s canonical app repository (Google Play), the numbers say you’ll avoid 99.5 percent of all Android malware. Want to drop the risk to almost nil? Spend all of five or ten seconds looking at the app description in the Play Store before installing. Play Store app descriptions contain much more information (including a ballpark on the number of downloads, and a list of the permissions the app requests) than the iTunes App Store. For maximum safety, avoid apps with few downloads and few reviews.

Android phones can be jailbroken (in a sense) to run unsigned software just by digging into the prefs and flipping a switch (another example of the choice, choice, choice offered by Android). That increases the risks. Android phones can also be pwned through malicious links (via sites, emails, or texts), like any other phone.

But the bottom line is this: Yes, an Android phone is less safe than an iPhone… but that doesn’t make it “unsafe.” The best practices I use when installing new software on an Android device are no different from what I use with my iPhone. Overall, I don’t feel as though my Galaxy S III is any riskier to use.

Does the increased risk from malware make Android tougher for me to recommend to novice users? Sure. But the iPhone already wins that recommendation well before the issue of security hits the table.

Stability and Reliability

Android is less stable and reliable than iOS, but that doesn’t make it “unstable and unreliable.” I need to force-reboot my iPhone about ten times a year. On Android, it’s… mmmmaybe twenty five? So yes, it’s a higher number on Android, but no, both devices need a kick in the head so infrequently that I can never recall the last time I administered one.

Flickr: allaboutgeorge

And the frequency of app crashes are probably even closer. The main difference is that an iOS app crashes elegantly: it simply fades backwards into the app launcher, like one of the upper-class dames on “Downton Abbey” fainting into a chaise lounge upon hearing frightful news.

An Android app crashes, sometimes with a dialog box and an error code, even. There’s an argument to be made that Android is more helpful than iOS in death. When an iOS app keeps crashing, all a user can do is wait for the developer to release a bug fix, or delete the app (and all of its associated data) and reinstall it from the App Store. An Android user can see if a web search for the error code turns up an explanation of what went wrong and how to fix it. An advanced Android user can also take an active role in fixing the problem if he or she wishes, by manually clearing app caches and stores.

That said, yeah, the user would probably have preferred that the app never crashed to begin with. Anyway. Overall, I give iOS a grade of A- for stability and reliability. Android gets a B+. It’s a difference that shows up easily on a yearly spreadsheet but it’s difficult for me to see the iOS advantage in day-to-day usage.

Where are the apps?

Android’s App Store isn’t as rich as the iTunes App Store, but the two are damn close. I wouldn’t have switched if I couldn’t find the apps I needed to make the Galaxy S III do everything I was doing with my iPhone.

Even some of my favorite obscure iOS apps are on Android.

Most of the time, I could find feature-equal Android versions of the same apps I had been using in iOS. When I couldn’t, I found Android substitutes that I liked just as much or even more. BeyondPod is as good as Downcast, and Press is the Google Reader app that I kept hoping to find for my iPhone.

I just can’t name a single iOS-exclusive app that’s important enough to me that it would prevent me from switching.

That’s a subjective call, of course. Plenty of people define their phones as “the host organism for OmniFocus.” Samsung could give away free unlocked Galaxy S IIIs in every box of Cheerios and it wouldn’t convince those folks to switch. Also, games produced by smaller studios are typically “iOS first” or even “iOS only.” I’m not a serious gamer, so that limitation doesn’t affect me.

The sole significant limitation of the Android app library, as I experience it, is that the very best apps available on iOS are usually better than the very best apps available on Android. Mostly I’m thinking of the apps that Apple creates in-house. iPhoto, iMovie, and iWork are breathtaking achievements; each is an example of a developer working through the limitations of a teensy handheld device. I can’t think of examples that correlate in the Android library.

This shouldn’t be interpreted as “iOS apps are better.” I find that it’s no longer universally true that iOS apps are better designed than Android apps. Indeed, most of the top mobile apps available cross-platform have absolutely identical user interfaces across all devices.

Nor is it true that the Android editions of successful apps usually arrive long after the iOS release, or not at all. iOS has an edge there, but I find it to be a small one. The real advantage of the iOS app library is that new ideas usually land there first, and then they arrive on Android after a successful incubation period. Android users have Flipboard and Instagram and Path, but they had to wait for 'em.

I was pretty surprised and thrilled by this example: pClock, one of my favorite iOS apps of all time. You’d expect to see Evernote or Waze or other big-studio apps in both app stores. But even this tiny, esoteric app (it helps me keep track of time when I’m giving a presentation) is available for Android. I’m just not hurting for apps in any way.

The Price Of Android

Security, Stability, and Software. I can’t say that Android is superior to iOS in any of these categories. But it’s so close now that none of them presented any sort of obstacle to switching. The difference is so slight that they were easily obliterated by the advantages of Android, as I perceived it.

Which isn’t to say that Android devices are the best phones that anybody can buy, or (oh my word, no) that the platform is free of nuttiness and frustrations.

OS Fragmentation

The largest problem with Android by far is the fragmentation of the platform for OS updates. When Apple fixes bugs or adds features to iOS, every iPhone receives it simultaneously. Android users only get this kind of simplicity and security if they own a Nexus-branded device. Those phones receive their system updates directly from Google.

The Samsung Galaxy S III shipped in late spring, with Android 4.0 preinstalled. Google started shipping Nexus devices with Android 4.1 in July. By the time AT&T pushed the update to my phone in December, T-Mobile S III owners had already had it for a month… and Google had begun shipping Nexus devices with Android 4.2.

Amazing, isn’t it? And the Galaxy S III isn’t some freak media player manufactured in North Korea. It’s the hottest Android phone from the market’s dominant maker of Android devices. Sure, I’m confident that the Galaxy S III will receive updates for the entire natural life of the device. But I’m just as confident that this is going to be a pain in the butt forever.

And who’s responsible for bug fixes? Another major hassle. Even a patch for a critical problem has to pass through several turnstiles before I’ll receive it. First, Google fixes Android. Then, Samsung gets the fix, and it applies it to its own OS distribution. AT&T gets the update from Samsung, and then, finally, it’s pushed to the customers.

Lots can go wrong at any step of the process…and this example assumes that Google and Samsung and AT&T don’t waste time bickering about where the problem is.

Pre-Installed Carrier Junk Apps

Another terrible problem with Android: bloatware and crapware.

Kate Vandenberghe

Phones often come preinstalled with page after page of apps and onscreen widgets that offer no benefit to the user, and which try to trick them into using their carrier’s paid services instead of the free alternatives bundled with Android. Some carriers even lock these apps to the device, so they can’t be removed.

The Galaxy S III is (largely) uncontaminated by this practice, because Samsung decided to impose some discipline. Nexus devices are free of crapware because Google wants to maintain the brand as “pure Android.” But God help an inexperienced user who walks into a store and picks up any of the Android devices at the other end of this spectrum. They’re right to wonder why the Home screen of the app launcher contains a huge NASCAR widget, instead of a shortcut to the web browser.

Power Management

I wish that Android phones were as aggressive about protecting battery life as iOS. Many Android apps can get away with keeping the GPS radio powered up long after it’s needed, for example. iOS keeps a steel ruler at the ready. It raps the knuckles of an app at the first sign of power-greedy behavior.

The Galaxy S III delivers about the same battery life as I got with iPhone 5, or the iPhone 4S. But its battery has half again the capacity of the iPhone. I wonder how much longer it would last if Android provided better power management.

That Camera!

This isn’t an Android fault per se. But dear Lord, how I miss the iPhone’s camera!

I performed some meticulous cross-platform camera tests last fall. I posted a series of blind comparisons to my Flickr account and was pleased to find that readers often picked a Galaxy S III photo over one from the iPhone 5.

Fab. But you don’t prize a camera for taking great photos outdoors on a sunny day. The iPhone can take decent photos under anything but the most wretched of circumstances. That’s why I still often carry my iPhone 4S with me. It’s a tiny camera that takes terrific photos and it has both iPhoto and WiFi.

The iPhone is still the only phone that has what I consider “a real camera” as opposed to “an excellent smartphone camera.” Both Nokia and HTC have made solid first steps towards bringing their cameras up to that standard. But while they're pointing to their cameras as a signature feature and an object of pride, only Apple is backing up those claims with camera that's truly great from wall to wall and floor to ceiling.

Next page: Yep, I'm an Android user

Yep, I’m An Android User

As I said at the very beginning, this isn’t the story of why Android is Way Totally So Much Better Than iOS. This is the story of this one dude who switched phones. Andy Ihnatko moving to Android isn’t a pivotal moment in the history of mobile computing. I just thought that a detailed piece of my observations, concerns, and experiences would be of interest to anybody who’s curious about Android. And given the revolutionary improvements in the platform over the past year, I thought it was timely.

Nonetheless, I held on to this article for a few weeks. I kept rereading and rewriting, and along the way I expanded it from a newspaper column to a multipart web series. I just wanted to be extra-sure that I had expressed my opinions and my intentions clearly.

I anticipated that many would find value in what I wrote, that many others would find fault with it, and that both would make solid points when they shared those opinions. I was proven correct.

I was also correct when I anticipated that a small percentage of Android and Apple fans would unite in misreading this series as a merciless takedown that slams Apple for being a doomed, stuck-in-the-mud company whose smug pride allowed better companies to innovate their way past the iPhone. Android and Windows fans who have descended to tribalism want to see Apple die. They want it as badly as Gollum wants the Ring, and they express that sentiment with just as much dignity. Apple tribalists see the corporate logo as a tattered but proud flag that cries out for brave men and women to rally round, link arms and defend it; even praise for a competing product is seen as an attack.

The members of both of these tribes need to hear something important: it’s time to stop talking about “iOS versus Android.” That stage of mobile device development is done. From this point onward, we should to talk about “iOS and Android.”

We should all be thrilled that consumers can choose between these two highly-polished platforms. They’re being produced with creativity and pride by two companies with sharply different philosophies that target different audiences. We should also be intrigued by Windows Phone, and curious about Blackberry 10, and hopeful that the Ubuntu On Phones project evolves into something great.

I can sense that this isn’t getting through to a few of these folks, so I’ll be blunt: If you give half a damn about which multi-billion-dollar corporation “wins” a totally made-up contest, then you need to drop acid and spend some time in an ashram.

I switched for a wonderful reason: because Apple and Google and Blackberry and other makers are all competing with each other to produce a phone and an operating system that I, personally, will love. Has there ever been a better time to be a tech consumer?

I didn’t switch because Apple has in any way dropped the ball. Apple is in fine shape. The iPhone, and iOS, are terrific products that continue to speak to people on a direct, compelling level. The iPhone, and iOS, improve and impress with each iteration, despite some well-documented wobbles along the way.

Claiming that Apple has fallen behind is nonsense. Besides the evidence of their entire product line, it denies proper credit to Google and the makers of Android handsets. Android has received so much traction and attention because it’s had a hell of a great year. Google finally delivered a version of the OS that combined power, stability, and even sophistication. Samsung, HTC, and other makers finally shipped some phones that in their own individual ways were just as well-made and feature-rich as the iPhone.

And while nothing can equal the style of an iPhone 5, a good Android phone no longer looks like the remote control to a DVD player that you threw away nine years ago.

As late as 2011, the iPhone was the phone you wanted if you wanted the most powerful and sophisticated smartphone on the market. Android was the phone you wound up with if your company refused to approve the iPhone you wanted. I look at the marketplace today and I insist that these two platforms are absolutely on equal footing. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. It’s just a matter of figuring out which device suits you best.

The iPhone simply no longer suits me, that’s all.

I’ve always admired Apple for avoiding tunnel vision while still not distracting itself from a clear, simple definition of what the company is supposed to be doing. It adds new things to the product line the same way an architect adds new buildings to a property.

(“A trampoline park would be awesome. But how does it further the objectives of an assisted-living facility for the elderly?”)

Over the past ten years, Apple’s been transitioning further away from the user of 1977, who delights to discover that their new computer came with a complete schematic and a disassembly of its boot ROMs. It’s been focusing more aggressively on the kind of user who doesn’t particularly care that they just bought a $1300 desktop whose RAM and hard drive can’t be upgraded.

With every move and every update, Apple increases the appeal of its products to mall consumers. These consumers want the document they created on their notebooks to miraculously show up on their desktops and their phones as well. They don’t care about sharing it with others. They want desktops that are sleek and beautiful. They’ll probably buy new ones before they’ll consider upgrading the desktops they already own. They don’t want to have to figure out why a feature that works with 29 of the apps they’ve installed doesn’t work with the other six; they’d rather do without that feature entirely, no matter how powerful it is.

These are all just neutral observations, not scathing accusations. Apple’s focus on consumers created iCloud, the 2012 iMac, and a simple mechanism for sharing photos to Facebook and Twitter. These are perfect products for consumers.

I still recommend the iPhone and iOS highly to people who can clearly define the function of their phones. I wouldn’t say “people who don’t expect very much.” The iPhone is ideal if your needs are easy to anticipate. That means Apple is likely to have anticipated them. The iPhone ecosystem tends to fray when you’re looking for a custom fit and a flexible tool.

The iPhone is still my go-to recommendation for people who want as few surprises as possible and the easiest phone to use and maintain. An iPhone is a delight fresh out of the box and for the life of the device. An Android phone is a delight starting around…week two, after you’ve made a bunch of minor adjustments that change it from “Good for the majority of users” to “great for you, personally.”

That said, you should keep in mind that “easy to use” comes in two forms. The iPhone is superior to a flagship Android phone at “easy to use on day one.” But it plateaus after a month. Android, I suggest, keeps getting easier to use as it continues to adjust to you and you keep learning new ways to get better performance.

The damnedest thing about my six months with the Samsung Galaxy S III—and the one line from this whole series most likely to be quoted out of context by Apple-bashers—is that my Samsung is easier to use than my iPhone.

In my experience, that is. Your needs aren’t my needs, your relationship with a phone is different mine, and maybe you can even stomach the flavor of cooked broccoli.

Choice, choice, choice. Ain’t it grand?

And that’s the story about how and why I switched from an iPhone to an Android phone.

And in the end…

I will end this the same way I’ve often ended so many discussions of Apple products:

I’ve switched from the iPhone to the Samsung Galaxy S III because it’s the best there is at the kind of things I need my phone to do. And as soon as something comes along that’s better, I’ll switch again.

I bet the first device that makes me think about switching from Android is something made by Apple. I still love my MacBook and haven’t even considered switching, despite liking a lot of the features and concepts in Windows 8. And though I like Android as a phone OS, on tablets it’s still mostly hopeless. My iPad is still the blue flannel security blanket that I must carry with me everywhere I go and it remains an indispensable part of my workflow.

I’m still an Apple fan and still glad to be an Apple user. It’s a relief to know that if I’d gone through with that idea to get an Apple tattoo in 2003, I wouldn’t need to get it lasered off today.

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