Had I taken my Android vacation two years ago, it might have ended a whole lot differently. Back then, Apple was still trying to convince us of the benefit of thumb-to-screen ratio, and if I would have used the 4.9-inch Nexus 5 for a month, I’m not sure I would have switched my SIM back so quickly.
To be honest, I don’t really want to go back to my iPhone 6 now. My time with the Nexus 6P has convinced me of the benefit of so-called phablets, and as soon as it’s available I’m preordering an iPhone 7 Plus. But while I loved the physical size and the overall craftsmanship of my Nexus phone, I simply didn’t enjoy using it as much as I do my iPhone.
It’s a funny thing. Android phones started the large-screen trend years before Apple jumped on the bandwagon, but over the course of my time away from my iPhone, it wasn’t my iPhone that I missed most, it was iOS. Using Android for a month showed me that Apple has done a much better job with crafting its OS to compensate for the specific challenges giant phones create.
Beauty over brains
It’s a shame, because I kind of love the 6P. Its sturdy, metal enclosure isn’t entirely unlike a supersized iPhone 4 or a boxier iPhone 6, and being outside of the iEcosystem with my main device wasn’t nearly as crippling as I feared (though I missed getting notifications on my Apple Watch). I wasn’t even all that bothered by the bulging camera strip on the back.
Because, really, who cares what’s on the back when you’ve got such an amazing screen on the front. I’ve never any complaints about Apple’s best-in-class LCDs, but the 6P’s 1440×2560 Super AMOLED display is a thing of beauty. It’s like using a 5.5-inch Apple Watch, and the day Apple figures out how to produce a couple hundred million of them a year can’t come soon enough. It’s the one aspect of the 6P that consistently outperforms my iPhone, and the thought of going back to an LCD is a bit of a bummer.
But while its glorious screen is wondrous to look at, actually using it isn’t quite as blissful. A phone this size begs to be used in landscape mode, something Apple immediately recognized with the Plus. Oddly, Marshmallow doesn’t include a native setting for home screen rotation, and I had to rely on the kindness of launchers to replicate the feature on my 6P. It doesn’t make sense that it’s not a stock setting for phones of this size, especially given Android’s years-long head start on phablets.
The major physical difference between the Nexus 6P and the 6 Plus is a distinct lack of a home button. It’s not an entirely uncommon phenomenon among Android flagships (my Nexus 7 tablet doesn’t have one either), but getting acquainted with the Nexus 6P after seven years of daily iPhone usage took some time. Clearly this is the direction all phones are heading, but my experience with virtual buttons was far more awkward than I anticipated.
While having a fixed back button at the bottom of the screen is a nice change of pace, it comes at the expense of gestures or really any kind of navigational shortcuts of any kind. Apple is constantly tweaking iOS to make it easier to get around (and decrease reliance on the home button as a navigational aid), but Android seems very much tied to its navigational buttons—so much so that if an app freezes, I have to wait for its quit dialogue box to appear before I can continue. On iOS, my fingers are generally able to stay in the center of the screen, but on Android I find myself constantly jumping down to the bottom of the screen.
And then there’s that symmetrical design. As I said before, the phone is gorgeous, but picking it up in a usable direction is pretty much a 50–50 proposition. It might not seem like a major problem, but flipping your 5.5-inch phone a half-dozen times a day because you picked it up upside-down does increase the probability of dropping it. It’s a relatively easy problem to solve: Take a page from Alcatel’s OneTouch Idol 3 and make the whole thing reversible. I can pretty much guarantee that the first buttonless iPhone will be orientation agnostic, both for the home screen layout and the phone speaker.
In fact, I’m sure that there are buttonless prototypes of iPhones aplenty in Jony Ive’s laboratory, but there’s a reason the iPhone 6 (and in all likelihood the iPhone 7) still sports a big old home button. iOS 8 has already laid the groundwork for a button-free experience, with smart gestures, 3D Touch, and a smarter, savvier Siri, but Apple isn’t about to pull the plug on the home button until the experience is perfect.
Touch and go
With no buttons on the front of the 6P, the fingerprint sensor is located on the back. While the idea is intriguing, it forces me into a specific and somewhat uncomfortable grip, using my pinkie finger and palm to cradle the phone while I unlock it with my index finger. On my iPhone, I have five fingerprints stored and I can unlock it any number of ways (including when it’s resting on a table, which is impossible to do with the Nexus), but I never added a second one with the 6P. The placement of the sensor is really only conducive to one type of unlocking, and oftentimes it’s just easier to revert the old-fashioned swipe-to-unlock method.
Putting the sensor on the back makes it seem more of an afterthought than a key component. The Smart Lock feature certainly helps in this regard, eliminating the need to unlock altogether when I’m at home, work, or in my car. Trusted places were a bit wonky in my experience—the reliance on location instead of Wi-Fi caused occasional issues—but it’s a fantastic feature for phones big and small, and it seems especially useful for one this big. I’d be surprised if it didn’t pop up as one of the tentpoles of iOS 10.
But it’s not just the inconvenience of the sensor that’s irksome. Touch ID on the iPhone 6 is simply more natural and central to the experience—in fact, none of the apps I downloaded on Android utilize the API—and whatever the iPhone 7 looks like, Touch ID will be front and center, where it belongs, whether that’s inside the home button or under the screen.
Building for big
Evolution may eventually make our thumbs elongated to compensate for the stretching we need to do now, but if portrait is going to remain the default mode for smartphones, one-handed operation is always going to be a thing. But it needn’t be about finger aerobics. It’s about bringing key parts of the operating system closer to the bottom of the screen where they can be easily reached. Apple didn’t increase the size of the iPhone without carefully considering this, but even with a several-year lead, Android doesn’t seem to get it.
Like iOS, there’s a Control Center-like set of shortcuts and quick actions, but rather than put it within thumb’s reach at the bottom of the screen, it’s positioned all the way at the top, and you need to swipe through the Notification Center to get to it. And there’s no Reachability-style tap or gesture either (at least not without rooting your phone first).
While I was figuring out which grip was best, I encountered another issue. With my iPhone 6, I’m often wrapping my fingers around the edge out of fear of dropping it. Sometimes my fingers or palm encroach over the bezel, but iOS is smart enough to disregard these touches. Holding my 6P the same way results in a flurry of unintended taps and pinches, and when I think an app is lagging or frozen, it’s usually the result of too much flesh peeking over the edge.
The big picture
Using Android for a month reminded me of something: Apple is a software company. For all the pretty hardware it makes, none of it really matters if the foundation is broken. iOS is by no means perfect, but Apple has a clear plan for it. Part of that is the close marriage of hardware and software, but the reason I bought a Nexus 6P is because it’s a Google phone, and I expected all the parts to work together as one amazing whole. That just isn’t the case.
Android fans will argue that these issues are minor and remind me that I can tinker with the OS until I get things just the way I want them. That may well be true. But out of the box, I would’ve thought Android would have delivered a superior experience. Instead, using it was kind of like disillusionment by a thousand paper cuts. Early on, I chalked up my woes to inexperience (or rather, too much iPhone experience), but there are areas where iOS simply excels, and no amount of practice or study will change that. It was nice to be able to enhance the functionality of my phone without waiting for Google to push an update, but most people just want their phones to work they way they want without visiting the settings, let along an app store.
At times it seemed like the 6P’s enormity was acting in direct opposition to Android, a feeling I’ve never experienced with my iPhone 6. It’s finally become clear to me that iOS 7’s redesign wasn’t just about its modern design; it was about rebuilding the user experience to make iOS smarter, quicker and more intuitive.
Maybe by Nutella, Android will get there too.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.