When I switched out my iPhone 3GS for a Galaxy S II in January, it was a choice I made with some hesitation. I had an Android tablet and so I knew what I was going to, but having had the iPhone 3GS for two and a half years and never had any issues with it, I wasn't sure if Android was up to the task of being a reliable tool rather than more of a toy. When a video of an Android user's thoughts about the iPhone versus Android went viral last week, I figured I might as well share my experience as well.
Learning that yes, it is possible.
iOS has always been the more polished OS in my opinion, and that hasn't changed since Android took over the majority of my device stable. The thing is though that you can polish a turd, but it will still be a turd. I'm in no way saying that iOS is a turd, I'm just saying that sometimes it's not about how shiny something is.
The biggest thing I had to become used to with Android is that software has a differently level of access that on iOS. I've not rooted my S II, though my Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus tablet is rooted, and I also have a jailbroken iPad 2. If I were to rate the OS solutions from least to most open, it would have to be iOS, jailbroken iOS, Android, and rooted Android. Some might disagree with me on the order of the middle two, and in some cases I agree, but generally speaking even stock Android is more open than even jailbroken iOS. This took some getting used to, even if it wasn't my first Android device. It's about how a phone is used compared to a tablet that opened up for all these new possibilities that I never explored on my tablet, and couldn't have explored on the iPhone.
Some of the most useful app-based features I have on my phone include known WiFI-based security pattern deactivation, automatic number look-up for unknown numbers, and automatic Dropbox syncing for things like camera, screenshots, and app configuration backups. None of these require root, and yet none of them are available on iOS. It's a mindset you have to get into that if you can imagine something that would be useful, there's likely a way to make it happen. I'm still having these moments where I sit down and think to myself "hmmm, how can I make this better", and actually come up with something that makes me smile from ear to ear.
"Open" isn't the word I would use
That being said, Android is far from the image of openness that some people want it to be. Google has made some decisions with Android that to me are so amazingly stupid that I wish there was some sort of award I could give Google for messing up in ways I never imagined someone could mess up. As an example, the built-in compatibility checker in Google Play never ceases to amaze me – in a bad way. If an app says incompatible with the iPad in iTunes, it actually doesn't work on the iPad. If it says that in Google Play, there's about a (subjective guess incoming) 25% chance that it actually isn't compatible, and a 75% chance that it's some sort of issue related to the app requirement – an issue that was unintentional. I sometimes feel like I'm spending more time emailing developers about manifest problems than I do using my Android devices, and while granted the more niche Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus is the source of most of them – and it being rooted and tweaked seven ways to Mars being the majority of that again, the principle remains: if you cannot with 100% accuracy determine if an app is going to work, then give the user the ability to override your automated services. Finding .apks on the internet shouldn't be the way to get free apps that work perfectly well on your device.
Another example is what Google allows a company to do to a device. Bloatware is just part of the software industry, but locking a device's ability to uninstall things like a music store is very different. I know I should be blaming Samsung for this, and I know that I can flash another ROM (or even just root, freeze, and generally show them who's boss) to do something about it, but that's not the issue here. The issue is that Google, as the maker of Android, is putting too much power in the hands of device manufacturers. It's what Apple does with itself, just to a much lesser degree. I understand that uninstalling some things would be bad, and I'm not suggesting that device-harming actions should be allowed, it's just a simple matter of saying "no, you can not put Social Hub on the never uninstall-list." If that's not acceptable to Samsung, it can go make its own OS. In my personal, subjective opinion, Google isn't always acting on behalf of the users, and in my book, that's one of the top requirements for calling anything "open".
There are also the minor quirks here and there that sooner or later leads back to the fragmentation argument. I was visiting a friend this weekend, where between us we had two S IIs – his with ICS, mine with Gingerbread – and my Galaxy Tab. We used the S IIs for video to his HDTV all weekend, and I thought it would be nice to program one of his Wii game controllers to act as a media remote with pause/play, next/previous, and volume up/down. That's in theory a simple task – in fact it was a matter of seconds to set up on my Galaxy Tab – but it turns out that neither of the S IIs could use the Wii remote apps in Google Play due to the Bluetooth stack that Samsung uses in that specific device. While that's a Samsung-caused non-Android issue, it's the kind of thing you have to deal with when you're handling Android devices. Of course iOS doesn't have the ability to do that (without jailbreak) at all, but it just shows that sometimes there's more to getting something to work than just having the software there to do it in theory.
Later on that weekend I also discovered that the WiFi unlock app didn't work without device admin mode in ICS due to some changes in the OS – whereas it works on my Gingerbread S II. I don't care how theoretically justified or grand-scheme unimportant it is, if something makes me not want to update to the newest version of some software, then something is very wrong in my opinion. Oh, and I unlocked his phone using the contact picture of him I had on my phone… I know they warn you it isn't as secure as a PIN or pattern, but even allowing people to use it and call it "security" is worthy of a lawsuit in my opinion.
To be fair though, connecting a phone to a TV via HDMI and playing 1080p unconverted video to it is something that you can only dream of on an iPhone 4S – not because it's not technically possible, heck the hardware is even available, it's just another one of those Apple restrictions that you bump your head into every time you try to use iOS. Transferring video files from a laptop using a USB flash drive that happened to sit in the laptop already is yet another item on that list.
I could of course talk about these differences for hours, and I do kinda feel like I'm cheating both sides of valid arguments when I don't, but but for the sake of not having to release this article as an ebook I will simply move on to the customization aspect of Android. If you ask me, this is where Android really stands out. Keywords here are launchers, widgets, keyboards, themes, and while I haven't done so with this device, custom ROMs. I dare say that most true Android users will recognize their home screen (wallpaper aside) in a split second, which is not the case with most iOS users.
I'm using GO Launcer EX and WidgetLocker on my S II, and those two platforms have single-handedly made it impossible for me to ever go back. Now that I have everything set up the way I like, the concept of a home (and lock) screen that isn't custom tailored to me would be like having a phone that I'm actually just borrowing from someone else, like using a public PC at a library. Things like being able to activate the LED from the lock screen, have invisible icons to control brightness and access other features, and having a range of icons that work differently based on what they're for (like having a Unified Remote shortcut that opens a section in the app, not the main menu) are things that just become so second nature that I don't understand how I ever managed without them. I guess I didn't, really, as I use my phone for so much more now than I used to – because it can be used for those things. Even simple things like staying logged in on an IM service is a pain on iOS with that annoying push notification system that isn't really multitasking and frankly doesn't really work that well.
The biggest issue for Android the way I see it is apps. There are a few gaping holes in what apps are available for the OS compared to iOS, as well as all these tiny holes when it comes to niche apps. My near-blindness vision without glasses or contacts means that the app on my iPad that lets me clap and be told the time when I wake up at night really does make life easier. There not being such an app on Android doesn't. Just one example from a list that between my tablet and phone has grown so long that even thinking about it makes me want to smash something in frustration. I guess it doesn't really matter if you stick to core apps, but the more you try to tailor an Android device to you as far as apps go, the more you'll notice the difference.
It's not just about apps that are on iOS but not on Android either, but also about apps that should have been on Android. Apps that use Android's unique abilities, apps that wouldn't be possible on iOS. I've been trying to set up a system where I'm notified of a task when I leave home (leave the range of my WiFi network) in order to get smarter shopping list notifications. There are apps that claim to do it, but I've yet to find one that actually works as well as Unlock With WiFi works for turning on and off pattern unlock based on the same criteria. I say "yet to find" instead of "there aren't any" because I'm still going through potential apps and automator systems to see if there's a way I can make it happen.
Don't get your panties in a twist
The original video that made me sit down and blabber this much caused a lot of uproar, and I think that is because some people have a notion of "best" that is far more black and white than the world has ever been. You have two popular mobile device platforms here that both have their merits and features that make them suited for some people but not for others. When this article then favors Android over iPhone, that is based on how I use my phone. As there was no queue outside my bathroom door this morning, I'm quite certain that no one else is living an exact duplicate of my life, which means that your mileage will vary to some extent. Calob's recent article proves that, as he has completely different reasons for not liking his iPhone.
To me though, an Android phone is like a dog. Once you get him house trained, you get used to him, and him to you, you have a friend for life. One that you forgive for his sometimes erratic behavior, even if you sometimes wonder if licking his own junk moments before licking your face is an intentional act. The iPhone is like a robot dog. More predictable, but so dependent on a software company to learn new tricks that it never feels like it's truly yours, and at the end of the day it doesn't really cause any emotional response outside of "that's going to be expensive" if he happens to fall down the stairs.