Switching to Android? Read this first

If you're thinking of buying an Android phone, here are some things you should know. CNET lays out the details and explains the current Android devices on the market.

T-Mobile G1 Corinne Schulze

With the recent flood of new Google Android phones, some of you may be thinking of making the switch. You're right to consider it, as there are many advantages to the operating system, not the least of which is the growing line of attractive handsets. But for the uninitiated, Android can be a bit of a mess. It's supposed to be a uniform operating system across all devices, but in practice, the user interface on each device varies slightly. It offers third-party applications, e-mail syncing, and a media player; however, the capabilities of those features also will differ by handset. Lastly, while Android promises a high degree of user customization, that may not mean a whole lot to the average person.

Understanding the operating system
Fear not, as Android takes only a brief period of acclimation. Even after a few minutes, you'll get the hang of the interface and you'll be able to navigate your way through your phone. Yet, you need to know a few things about Android before making the jump. Below I've told you what to expect, because I'd hate for you to be surprised by what you find. And equally as important, because your Android experience will vary by device, I'll break down the current U.S. handsets and give you the basic scoop of the Android features on each device.

T-Mobile MyTouch 3G Corinne Schulze

It's not the iPhone
A lot of CNET readers readers have asked me if Android is just like the iPhone. The answer is no. Though Android devices are rightly compared with the iPhone, the OS is quite different. Android has moved well past its T-Mobile G1 "only for geeks" roots, but don't expect it to deliver a duplicate iPhone experience (and frankly, there's no reason that it should). Compared with the iPhone, Android generally isn't as slick, its menu structure isn't quite as simple, and it generally has a more technical feel. For example, while the iPhone lets you delete items with a finger swipe, Android requires you to use a "long press" or press menu button for a delete option. Most Android phones also lack a "shake to update" and some features, such as cut and paste, aren't quite as elegant.

I only mention these differences to show that Android is different. They don't make Android inferior, they just demonstrate that's it's not exactly like the iPhone. To new and experienced users alike, Android can feel like a work in progress, so it's important that you don't view it through an iPhone lens. Judge it on its own merits.

Motorola Cliq Josh Miller/CNET

Updates
The good news is that Android will get more refined as Google continues to release updates for it. For example, Android 1.6 cleaned up the Market interface, and version 2.0 added welcome improvements like more camera controls. The only trouble is that since updates are carrier-dependent, they won't happen simultaneously. For example, the Motorola Droid debuted with Android 2.0 installed, but the HTC Droid Eris, which went on sale the same day, has only Android 1.5 (it didn't even get version 1.6). What's more, the Droid is the only handset to offer version 2.0 for the time being. The 2.0 update will come to other Android phones eventually, but we don't know when that will happen.

When choosing a handset, you'll need to keep their differences in mind. We'd love to see Google take a more active role in pushing updates to phones, but we know that's unlikely.

Mutitouch support
As we mentioned, Android's multitouch support is inconsistent. Only the Droid Eris offers both double-tap and finger-pinching zoom, and we can't understand why the Droid lags behind its GSM counterpart in multitouch support. This will change with future updates, but for now, Android lags behind some of its competition.

Samsung Behold II Josh Miller/CNET

E-mail
Android offers full e-mail support and an excellent predictive text that suggests multiple word options. Gmail users in particular will love the seamless syncing for mail contacts and calendar. Android's Microsoft Exchange e-mail support is pretty good, but that feature will vary by handset. For example, though the Droid and Motorola Cliq display in-box folders in the same order as it is displayed on your computer, the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G and the Droid Eris list them in a head-scratching random order.

The handsets also handle meeting invites and attachments differently, and not every device has a unified in-box. Be sure to do your homework before selecting a phone. Also, Android's POP3 support for e-mail services like Yahoo can be clumsy in comparison with other smartphones, but it should be sufficient for most people. While finding e-mails on an Android phone used to involve too many steps, the universal search on newer devices has made the search process easier.

Calendar and contacts
The G1 and MyTouch 3G don't offer native Outlook calendar syncing, which limits their appeal as true work devices. For the handsets that do have the feature, your Gmail calendar remains separate. We'd much prefer to have a unified app. Also, Outlook contacts syncing varies by handset as well. The early Android devices don't offer it, but it became a standard feature starting with the HTC Hero.

HTC Hero Josh Miller/CNET

Applications
Many sources (CNET included) have rightly pointed out that Apple offers more apps than Google. And for now, Apple also has the edge in quality (the iPhone's Facebook app is far beyond its Android counterpart, for instance). Though it's an important point to remember, I wouldn't stress about this too much. As time goes on, the Android Market selection will get better. Apple may continue to have more apps, but quantity matters little at the end of the day. After all, how many of Apple's 50,000 plus apps are really that useful.

Android phones do have removable memory cards, but you can store apps only on the phone's integrated memory. That may not be a problem for many people, but current Android phones offer less than a gigabyte of internal storage. As such, you may have to watch your downloads carefully.

On the other hand, Android's Google app integration is amazing. Whether it's Gmail, Google Talk, or Google Maps, Android is a Google-lover's dream. Speaking of Google Maps, Android's GPS support is quite satisfying on newer devices. On the Droid, for example, you get voice-guided and text-to-speech directions without having to download an app or pay for a monthly fee.

Internet
After the iPhone's Web browser put other smartphone browser options to shame, we were thrilled to see Android step up to the plate. As we mentioned, Android's multitouch support is all over the map, and we don't like that you have to dig through a menu to access a Forward button. Yet, we like the visual bookmarks and Android is lapping its smartphone competition on Adobe Flash Lite support. The quality of Flash video playback on Android isn't perfect, but at least it's there.

Samsung Moment Josh Miller/CNET

Multimedia
Android offers a full media player for video and music, but we've seen better players on even some basic phones. You can use audio tracks as ringtones, but the player interface on most handsets is pretty simple and features are limited (the new Samsung Behold II is an exception). As such, we wouldn't call it a real MP3 player. On the upside, getting music on the phones is relatively easy. Just keep in mind that Android is primed for syncing to the Amazon MP3 store. That may require an adjustment for some users.

Video fans should also remember that Android doesn't offer an integrated video download service like iTunes does. Of course, you can load your own videos on the phone, but I wonder how many people have movie files just sitting around. Don't count on the YouTube app, either. Since the clips are streaming over the air, the video and audio quality can be poor.

Customization
Android advocates are right to point out that the OS is an open and customizable. That means that device manufacturers and carriers have a lot of freedom in how their handsets look and feel. Similarly, app developers benefit because Google takes a much less active role than Apple in controlling the flow apps to the Android Market. Though most consumers won't be altering their phones that much, I'm sure you'll notice that Android phones just feel freer than the competition.

Manufacturer differences
There is a flip side to the customization. At its core, Android is the same on all supported devices, but manufacturers have put their own spin on some handsets. T-Mobile's Motorola Cliq offers the MotoBlur interface, which centers on social networking; the HTC Hero and Droid Eris sport HTC's Sense feature for thorough customization; and Samsung added its TouchWiz interface to the Behold II. Each interface is unique and can make a big difference in overall usability and social networking support. Before buying a device, think carefully about your needs.

Other options
Android offers great multitasking capabilities and you should love the onscreen notifications for e-mails, app updates, and Facebook messages. We're still hoping for a file manager, but having real PC syncing means that you can use your phone as a USB mass-storage device. Also, Android doesn't restrict how you can access the phone from a PC, nor does it limit file transfer.

Motorola Droid Josh Miller/CNET

Handsets
Choosing an Android handset already is daunting, and it won't get any easier as time goes on. During the past six weeks, CNET has reviewed the same number of new Android phones, so we understand if you don't know where to start. Here's a brief rundown on the current handsets on the market. T-Mobile remains the Android leader, though Sprint and Verizon are catching up. AT&T has yet to announce plans for an Android phone.

T-Mobile G1: More than a year after its release, the world's first Android phone is looking like an antique. It offers fewer features than its newer counterparts, and we never loved its clunky design. We also can't recommend it for its $129 price.

T-Mobile MyTouch 3G: Though it's just a few months old, the MyTouch is beginning to look dated as well (such is life in the cell-phone world). It lacks Outlook calendar and contacts syncing and you're stuck with the HTC proprietary headset jack. Still, it's a likable device that costs $149 with service.

Motorola Cliq: T-Mobile's Cliq is one of our favorite Android devices. We loved its sturdy and comfortable design, interface tweaks, and great feature set. Just be aware that MotoBlur is the centerpiece of the device. It works well, but it also can be overwhelming and unnecessary. Think about how much you'll use it. With service, you can get the Cliq for $199.

Samsung Behold II: The newest Android phone only debuted for T-Mobile on Thursday. The touch-screen device has a brilliant display and the best media player of the bunch. The TouchWiz interface, however, feels somewhat redundant. and we're not loving the $229 price tag.

HTC Droid Eris Josh Miller/CNET

HTC Hero: Sprint was the second carrier to offer an Android phone. Its Hero doesn't have a physical keyboard, but the HTC Sense interface adds deeper customization than on other devices. It was the first Android phone with Outlook calendar and contact syncing, and it marked HTC's move to a standard 3.5mm headset jack. The price with service is $179.

Samsung Moment: It's a bit normal when compared with its counterparts, but the Sprint handset performs well and it has a fast processor. If you need a physical keyboard, it's a nice alternative to the Hero. It's also $179 with service.

Motorola Droid: Verizon's first Android phone is arguably the most hyped Android phone. It's boxy and bulky, but if offers an amazing display, Android 2.0, high-quality features, and excellent performance. For now, it's the king of Android phones, but it won't cost any more than the Cliq ($199 with service activation).

HTC Droid Eris: This rebranded Hero has a slightly refined design and a couple of extra features, but its multimedia performance isn't quite top-notch. Still, its call quality is admirable, and it doesn't skimp on features. What's more, you can't beat the $99 price.

 

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