Why I became an Android fanboy

After a few months, Google's mobile-phone operating system won me over with a powerful new generation of phones.

After four months in the Android realm, and in particular one week each with an HTC Desire and Google Nexus One, I've become a convert.

Android isn't perfect, but it works very well for me, and no doubt we'll see further improvements at the Google I/O conference this week . My biggest complaint had been performance, but that's been put to rest by the powerful hardware of new-generation models--not just the Desire and Nexus One, but also HTC's Incredible and Evo, Motorola's Droid, and doubtless many others on the way.

The Apple iPhone is easier to use and boasts a vastly better range of applications. No doubt the upcoming fourth-generation product, along with iPhone OS 4.0, will boost performance and answer my complaints about nonexistent multitasking. But in January, I dove into the Android world and ended up mostly happy. Here's what happened.

When I moved to the United Kingdom at the beginning of the year, I reluctantly had to leave my iPhone 3G behind. Through the infinite wisdom of Apple and AT&T, the iPhone can't be unlocked, so I sold it for scrap rather than suffer the complications of a jailbroken lifestyle. (My attempt to export my own phone is a story unto itself, with three fruitless conversations with AT&T and one with Apple, but I'll forgo it beyond sharing a link to a service with which I was satisfied: NextWorth.)

So I decided to give Android a whirl, and since January I've primarily been using the Google Ion developer phone released last May. It's essentially the HTC Magic, a model marketed also as the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G.

The HTC Desire edged out the Nexus One as my top Android phone pick.
The HTC Desire edged out the Nexus One as my top Android phone pick. Stephen Shankland/CNET

It was the second Android phone I used, the first being the very first one on the market, the T-Mobile G1, aka the HTC Dream. The G1 was distressingly sluggish, and the Google Ion wasn't much better. The G1's hardware keyboard and blocky design were swapped out for a smoother body and a virtual keyboard, a design I prefer overall. But oh, boy, were the first Android phones slow.

At first I thought I'd try the Ion until I got serious enough to get a real phone. But slowly, I started coming around to it. I learned the ins and outs of the interface, found some applications I liked, and generally found it up to the responsibilities of the era of the Internet-centric smartphone. I liked the way Google improves its applications and operating system rapidly, and found the range of applications on the Android Market much better than in the early G1 days.

HTC Desire: Aha!
Then I got a Desire to test.

It was one of those "Aha!" moments. The performance of the phone is stellar, and that performance made the phone a delight to use.

The Desire booted twice as fast as the Ion, and programs launch with little lag. Switching among different programs is fluid, encouraging the multitasking lifestyle where you skip about from e-mail to Twitter to Facebook to the camera to the browser. Arrays of program icons whizzed by with a finger flick. And gone were the Ion's period freeze-ups where, I presume, it was purging its paltry memory of stale bits.

Some of this I expected. Three aspects of better performance were more revelatory.

First, the browser. Web pages load fast. Even with a Wi-Fi connection, the Ion and iPhone 3G just didn't have the processing horsepower to fetch the bits and parse HTML well. The Desire was the first mobile phone I've used that felt like a member of the broadband era, not the dial-up era.

The consequence of this change was that browsing the Web was a pleasure, so the dedicated applications for what was essentially glorified browsing on the iPhone or Ion--The New York Times or USA Today applications, for example--felt much less necessary. And more intriguing was that Web applications such as the browser-based version of Gmail are no longer second-class citizens. They're not up to the speeds of the native applications, but they're a much more compelling option.

The second surprise of better performance was better typing. I hadn't realized how much my Ion typing speed had been held back by the hardware, not by the smaller screen. The Desire and Nexus One had larger screens, which of course helps, but also the typing lag was gone.

The third surprise was the effect of this snappy performance: because it's easier to move among and within applications, there was a lower barrier to jumping in and doing something with the phone. There's a lower activation energy, to borrow an apt analogy from chemistry: there's a lower a barrier to overcome before you do what you want to do.

The Google Ion phone from 2009, while imperfect and a couple steps behind the iPhone, mostly gets the job done when it comes to Net-enabled smartphone use.
The Google Ion phone from 2009, while imperfect and a couple steps behind the iPhone, mostly gets the job done when it comes to Net-enabled smartphone use. Stephen Shankland/CNET

I've seen this advantage with Mac laptops, which are so much better at being put to sleep and woken up than Windows machines in my experience, that given the choice for a quick online map or movie search, I naturally gravitate toward a MacBook. And I've seen it with Web pages, where I find myself coming back to the ones that load and respond quickly. With the faster Android phones, there was little penalty to moving among different applications that it made the phone a much better multiple-personality device. It's true the phones have feeble battery life, partly as a consequence of the multitasking approach, but it's a trade-off I'll take.

What's good about Android
What else was good about Android? A few items, some of them real eye-openers to me:

• I like how the phone applications increasingly offer a "share" button with a range of options--e-mail, Facebook, AnDrawing--that hands off one item to another application smoothly. I fear this will become cluttered in some cases, but for now, it works well. Of course, this is made more useful by multitasking.

• The built-in support for Exchange e-mail is great, but the fact that it can't support corporate calendars is a big drawback. Here, the iPhone is years ahead, though applications such as NitroDesk's $20 TouchDown can fill the gap.

• The "back" and "menu" buttons. For years, Apple thought I'd be better off without a second mouse button, and with the iPhone, it again thinks one is enough. I disagree. The menu button on Android phones lets you take a number of appropriate actions from a given application, and the back button is very handy not just for the obvious Web browsing situation but also for moving within and around applications. The button clutter has its drawbacks: I don't use the search button terribly often, though, and in many cases it can be confusing whether in-application screen controls or the menu should be used. And the buttons don't control Web application interfaces.

• Google's Listen, My Tracks, and navigation applications. I consume lots of podcasts, and the Listen application is a great way to do so. You can subscribe to podcasts, search a large number of podcasts for whatever search terms interest you, and queue podcasts up for serial listening. My Tracks records where you go with the built-in GPS system, showing your location on a map, calculating elevation gains and average speed, and letting you share tracks with others or record the data for purposes of geotagging your photos. The standard-issue mapping application is very handy not just for car navigation but also for search, though when following its directions, I think it should be easier to switch among the map view, turn-by-turn instructions, and auto sat-nav style spoken instructions. If I lived in the United States, I'd probably like the Google Voice application that's banished from the iPhone, but it's useless outside Google's country of birth.

• Good-bye, iTunes. There's a place for an all-purpose program to synchronize your phone with your PCs, but I've never liked iTunes, and I resent the fact that it's required for using an iPhone. Android errs on the other side of the spectrum, with no application whatsoever, but I'd rather have a phone I can get to with ordinary means such as USB than a shackled connection such as iTunes. If I listened to more music and watched more video, then iTunes would be more of an asset, to be sure, but for now I'm happy to listen to my own MP3 files or buy them through other means such as Amazon.

Google's logo is common on search, but the company is spreading it to mobile phones as well.
Google's logo is common on search, but the company is spreading it to mobile phones as well. Stephen Shankland/CNET

• Voice controls. In newer versions of Android, the microphone icon can be a handy way to enter search queries. It's not flawless, especially when there's background noise, but Google is steadily improving this aspect of its online services, and typing is a drag if not downright illegal when you're walking or driving.

• A keyboard with a comma. It's a small thing, but I use commas almost as often as periods. I also liked the long-press options in Android to get alternate characters. And the predictive word completion is helpful.

• The status bar. On a computer with a big screen, I prefer to have a menu bar built into application windows, as in Microsoft Windows, rather than having a permanent menu bar, as in Mac OS X. But on a tiny-screen mobile device, Android's status bar at the top is good at offering a quick glance at what's going on.

• A way to reposition a cursor in a text field. With the iPhone, you have to jab at what you think is the right spot, but as often as not, your cursor is one character to the left or right. I handle a lot of text, and I hated this aspect of the iPhone. Some gripe that Android phones' trackballs and fingermice are redundant since the phone has a touch screen, but I say they offer precision when it's needed, and I need it a lot.

Where Android falls short
Not all is smooth sailing:

• Probably the single biggest weakness of Android phones is application availability. There are lots, with more arriving steadily, but it's no match for Apple, especially when it comes to games. Note that iPhone games also run on the iPod Touch and now the iPad, so the incentive is powerful for developers to reach that market. No doubt Android will follow somewhat into those parallel markets, but for now, it's clearly not the top priority among mobile programmers. I find it baffling, for example, that there's no Yahoo application for using Flickr, though the Web-based mobile site is reasonable and it's simple to upload a photo via e-mail. I missed the Kindle application , but with the Aldiko reader app, I've discovered the glories of out-of-copyright books such as Grimm's fairy tales, "Tarzan," "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," "Oliver Twist," "The Three Musketeers," "Moby Dick," and a bunch of Rudyard Kipling tales (I read aloud to my son a lot). (Update: Amazon said Tuesday that Kindle for Android will arrive this summer .)

• A user interface that's at times clumsy and/or incoherent. The worst example here is when filling out forms such as entering passwords or addressing e-mail. The virtual keyboard covers a lot of screen real estate, and navigating among the input fields can be awkward. Overall, the iPhone was just simpler and more direct to use . I'll cut Android a little slack here, since the iPhone can be obtuse with complicated actions such as e-mailing multiple photos.

• Painful browser zooming. Double-clicking to get maximum width out of a column of text is nice, but if the animation can't be done right, it shouldn't be done at all. Here, the iPhone wins, hands down, and the feature is more than cosmetic, because it really does help you keep track of where you are spatially in a Web page.

• Copy-and-paste is unpleasant, if it works at all. It's not trivially easy on the iPhone, but it's better.

• And my single biggest gripe: Typing is just better on the iPhone's virtual keyboard. It's faster and more accurate for me. When I went back to an iPhone briefly after a couple months not using it, I experienced mild distress when I found my fingers flailing around looking for a back button--but when it came to typing, I breathed a sigh of relief. I hadn't known what I was missing.

Google's Nexus One uses the comparatively bare-bones Android user interface, but I like it better overall.
Google's Nexus One uses the comparatively bare-bones Android user interface, but I like it better overall. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Which Android is better?
This is a tough call. The HTC Desire and Nexus One, close cousins in hardware and both available through Vodafone here in the U.K., obviously are far superior to the older Google Ion, not just in performance but also in screen, camera, and videocamera quality. There are new higher-end Android models en route--HTC's Incredible is clearly a contender--but for the phones I've tried, I think I have to give the edge to the Desire.

I thought I'd lean the other way: the Nexus One has noise-cancellation, which at least on paper is a good idea for a voice-controlled phone; the trackball is low-tech but better than the " fingermouse " for my primary use, and I lack the enthusiasm most seem to have for HTC's Sense user interface. I'm happy with the standard Android UI and don't like the overcrowded bottom row of the Sense UI's keyboard.

So why did the Desire come out on top? In short, I found the Nexus One a bit flaky at times. Sometimes the touch screen would register touches where I wasn't touching, once even preventing my ability to reboot the phone for a time. Perhaps some of that is an artifact of the move to larger Android screens, and it mostly afflicted my favorite logic-puzzle game, Andoku, but it was still a serious shortcoming.

In addition, I hated the screen-based control buttons at the bottom of the phone. My palms would inadvertently launch the search box or pull down the status window at times, and when using the trackball, my thumb brushing the screen would sometimes type the letter P. It's much better to have the hardware buttons that take up the same room but offer better tactile feedback and aren't so easily pressed by mistake.

Finally, I found the Nexus One had more trouble than the Desire in latching onto a 3G network. I never saw it get the faster HSDPA version of 3G wireless network technology, unlike the Desire. Perhaps I had a lemon, or perhaps the T-Mobile network on which I tested both phones was having an off week, but I did notice problems. (Update: a helpful reader pointed out, accurately, that the Nexus One can use HSDPA, but it just doesn't tell you in the status bar when it's doing so.)

Anyone considering getting these phones should proceed cautiously given the high price of the phones themselves and of the contracts, but I recommend either overall. It's unfortunate that I found both not quite up to their potential, but it's clear to me that Android has arrived.

The iPhone is a force to be reckoned with, but Google's operating system and the new phones on which it runs are competitive and for me at least, the better choice.

 

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