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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.