It’s been a few days since I got my Galaxy Note. I’ve managed to insert my microSIM into the device using an adapter.Has it been a smooth ride?
Not at all. There are some significant issues which I feel are worth addressing here, particularly coming from the allegedly “inferior” iOS platform. To be entirely balanced (well, as much as an opinion piece can be) there are lots of things that are far easier. And then there are some things which are just “different” but not necessarily better. Honestly the entire experience has left me feeling pretty ambivalent towards the platform. Thus far the only two real benefits have been “no iTunes” and “bigger screen” but the latter has nothing to do with Android itself. I’m by no means a Mac fanboys (I HATE OS X, it’s the most backwards OS I know of, mostly because of the Finder and Apple’s insistence that their way is the only way) but Android isn’t the saviour. For the record, I love the Note’s form factor. I’m not a huge fan of the plastic build materials but the build quality itself is good. The S Pen is okay I guess, it’s not revolutionary but I’ve definitely had worse stylus experiences.
I’ve rewritten this article about 5 or 6 times trying to find a suitable way of airing my concerns about the Android platform in comparison to iOS while also trying to be balanced with my strikes at iOS, because both platforms have their problems. But then I just thought “Screw it, fanboys gonna hate” so I’ll just stress that this is my opinion only, as with pretty much everything on DisCONNECT unless I’m specifying otherwise. Clear? Cool.
Firstly, on the whole I actually like the Note itself. The screen size is quite liberating, to use a weasel word. The screen size makes mobile web browsing a lot more comfortable, which is largely what smartphones do these days after all. The screen size definitely is an improvement. The S Pen is probably the best stylus-like device around these days, including those weird things with the bits of conductive foam on the end that are borderline useless. My biggest problem is that the power button is on the side of the phone, which is right where someone’s fingers or palm is likely to be. Quite often I’d find myself accidentally hitting it and locking the phone. I don’t know why they thought that would be a good idea. Maybe to make it easy to reach? That’s okay, but I can still reach it at the top of the phone, and I’m not likely to accidentally trigger it. Also the size itself can sometimes be a bit of the pain; although I could actually operate it one-handed it wasn’t overly comfortable to do so (and my thumb made an awesome clicking noise when trying to reach the far side of the screen) and it worked best in one-handed operation. But apart from that, the form factor of the Note itself is great. It didn’t fit safely in all of my pockets (in some of my pants it’d slide out when I sat down… hehe, innuendo) but apart from that having an oversized smart phone did have its uses. I’ll highlight that before we go any further: the Note is an excellent smartphone on its own.
But for some reason Samsung chose Gingerbread, which is an older Android release and isn’t particularly good. All of the criticisms of the Note that I can come up with are levelled squarely at the Android platform, and partially at Samsung. Some of them boil down to convention and what I’m used to, and therefore aren’t valid criticisms but might be pertinent to you if you’re looking to swap from iOS to Android. Others however reflect the underlying problem with the Android platform: fragmentation. Trying to support such a huge array of hardware is incredibly difficult, and as you’d know if you’re a PC user, compatibility can sometimes be a pain. But on the PC we have power in abundance so we can suffer performance overheads to improve compatibility. Phones? Not so much. Ice Cream Sandwich might solve these problems, but again it wasn’t available in an official release at the time of writing, so I can’t comment on whether or not it solves any of these problems. Yes, you can root the phone and flash a custom firmware. But the majority of smartphone users aren’t going to do that, just like the majority of iPhone users don’t jailbreak their phone. Flashing a custom ROM can be a lot more involved than jailbreaking as well, so the people likely to attempt it are much more tech savvy anyway and not part of the general populous of tech users. So before any of you point that out: yes, I have given consideration to that, but I don’t find it overly relevant just at the moment.
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT ANDROID:
No iTunes. That’s pretty much the whole argument right there. iTunes is a nightmare, an abomination in desperate need of an overhaul. It’s a friggin’ mess, particularly under Windows, and should have been drastically overhauled some 5 releases back. I can remember hating iTunes going right back to when I had an iPod (the classical ones, with the clickwheel and micro HDDs). It’s slow, it’s painful to use, the Library thing pisses me off, and it breaks UI conventions under Windows. Apple would kill you for breaking UI conventions under OS X, why the hell do they think they should be permitted to do so here? Putting an MP3 file or a movie on an iPhone or iPad shouldn’t be this difficult. Why is it so hard to let me transfer a file across? Why the hell do I need to add it to the iTunes library just to sync it across? For Christ’s sake, it’s just copying a file! I can appreciate the other functions offered by iTunes for the iPhone, such as easily backing up the device and allowing me to restore that backup to another device. That’s great. But I shouldn’t have to jump through hoops in converting files to a supported format and adding them to iTunes just to get them to play on my iPhone/iPad. That’s bullshit. While we’re on the subject, general compatibility is much better too, namely because iTunes isn’t the constraining factor. Android as a platform allows apps that support a wider variety of file formats than iOS, to the point where going back to iOS feels positively restrictive. I mean I can load up GoodReader to read a PDF file, and GoodReader is a fantastic app, but I’m either using iTunes to transfer files, or messing with creating a network link or using a web interface. Under Android I can just copy the file like it was a USB device.
Android’s greatest strength is its flexibility in pretty much everything. I don’t need to use the inbuilt browser as the default. When I click a link and I’ve got more than one thing capable of handling it, it’ll give me a choice as to which one I want to use and what should be the default. Under iOS, your options are basically “Safari” and… well, that’s it. Some formats (like PDFs) will give you an option to open in something else, but the default always sticks and can’t be changed. Apple, this might come as a shock, but there are people out there that make better software than you. Actually that’s pretty much everyone when I come to think about it. Don’t force me to use your shit.
On that topic, Google don’t impose ridiculous restrictions on what can and can’t be posted to the store. Apple don’t like things that duplicate existing functionality. Google don’t mind, so you can replace your default dialing application if you like. There are lots more interesting applications available such as ports of DosBOX for Android devices than there are under iOS. To be fair, the majority of apps in the Play store are absolute trash; soundboards, noisemakers, stupid joke apps trying to grab cash from idiots… the really useful apps are fewer in number than the shit ones. But the same thing happens on the iOS App Store despite Apple claiming to disallow apps with limited functionality.
Also the Android platform has no problems offering full support for removable media. Under iOS you can pull pictures off an SD card, and that’s it. Under Android, you can do pretty much anything. Which is pretty useful because as we all know iOS devices come with very specific onboard storage sizes with the increased cost being purely about that storage capacity. It’s cheaper to get an Android phone and then get a microSD card and use that.
Finally, Android devices offer a lot more scope for customisation. Under iOS you’re stuck with the grid of icons. Under Android the possibilities are endless… though to be fair, by default you’re still stuck with whatever launcher your manufacturer has bundled you with. They do however offer support for Widgets, little applets that run on the screen to provide quick access to information. That’s something iOS can’t do. The way to get the default Android experience (which from what I’ve seen is far superior) is to either flash a custom ROM like we’ve said, or to get a Nexus phone. Then again, Nexus phones tend to be fairly basic.
WHAT I DON’T LIKE ABOUT ANDROID.
Talking about interfaces, let’s talk about TouchWiz. It’s BULLSHIT. It’s clunky, slow, ugly, and installed on the Note. Much of the “customisation” about Android ultimately comes from flashing custom ROMs, which isn’t something the majority of smartphone uses will be doing. By default you get widgets, which is an improvement over iOS, but there’s still a worthless UI layer that manufacturers insist on loading onto the phone which is ugly. I seriously hate TouchWiz. Any gain in functionality by widgets is easily offset by the fact that it’s a clunky mess of icons. I can’t stand TouchWiz. I’ll take the iOS icon grid, thanks. It might not be as functional but it’s a hell of a lot cleaner, and without widgets TouchWiz is still just a grid of icons. It’d be a particularly clunky grid of icons though.
On the subject of TouchWiz, I’ll also include Bloatware. If you buy an iOS device, you get only what iOS comes with. Carriers can’t bundle custom apps. Under Android they can, but every manufacturer can also bundle their own bloat with the phone (and I’m going to include TouchWiz here as well) which can make the phone slow, reduce battery life, and clutter up the phone with things you’re never going to use. Speaking specifically of the Note, although things like S Note are excellent apps to include, a large number of included apps are absolute trash and things I’d never use in a million years. But without rooting the phone a lot of them can’t be removed. Also TouchWiz is a friggin’ mess, but again unless you root the phone, you’re not going to get the stock interface. With all the talk of choices and such, why can’t I choose to use the stock interface? Especially when the stock ICS interface looks particularly good? This is my biggest issue with Android phones and it’s something I’d rather not have to deal with at all. Give me the option to use your software, but don’t lock me into it.
The fragmentation issue rears its head with compatibility. Some apps I’ve downloaded simply haven’t worked properly on my Note; they’ve failed in interesting ways (half working, sometimes crashing, sometimes failing to launch at all) despite the Play store insisting that they should be compatible. Coming from iOS this is a real pain in the arse; unless you’re using an older device (like an iPhone 3G or original iPad) pretty much everything should work perfectly fine. Android apps can be a bit of a minefield if the developer doesn’t cater for your device, which is a little bit frustrating. I understand why that’s the case, but I don’t particularly like it. Of course for the popular apps out there compatibility isn’t an issue, but for the less popular ones (and the kind of apps that make Android more attractive) compatibility does become an issue.
Also the selection of apps, while less restrictive than iOS, still hasn’t approached the iOS App Store. Popular things like eBay or Angry Birds is there, but I’m sure Angry Birds has been ported to the Antikythera mechanism by now. Some things don’t show up on the Play market, or operate as unofficial versions. Look for Doom, for example. There are a few ports, the best being DoomGLIES, but it also relies on an external 3rd party site which apparently runs on a dialup connection based on the download speeds I’m getting from it. Look for Wolfenstein 3D. It’s there, but it’s not particularly good. Same goes for Spear of Destiny. Meanwhile, on iOS, id Software has official ports (except for Doom 2, which annoys me) which work flawlessly. Android clearly isn’t the primary market for lots of app developers, which hampers the platform somewhat, and apps ultimately make the platform. Why doesn’t anybody use Windows Phone 7? It’s not because the OS sucks, it’s because there’s no friggin’ apps for it. There’s no apps because nobody uses it because there’s no apps. Talk about a vicious cycle!
Even then where apps do get an Android release, it seems to me that their Android versions are a bit messy by comparison. One app I use a lot is Medscape, partially for clinical updates but also as a reference. The iOS version is a lot smoother and more responsive, and has a cleaner interface. The Android one feels messy, particularly in some areas where the title at the top of the screen has a slightly different colour background than the bar it sits on which looks terrible. It’s easy to criticise the developers but I think it’s more indicative of a wider problem where Android isn’t the primary focus for many cross-platform devs. Even the eBay app looks pretty bad compared to the iOS version. My biggest issue with Android, after all is said and done, is the applications. Freedom is great, but not when I’m trying to guess whether something will or won’t work for my device. Also some of the apps I used under iOS that have Android versions either aren’t feature complete, or look worse than the iOS app.
THINGS I’M AMBIVALENT ABOUT:
Battery life and multitasking go hand in hand here. For starters, it’s a friggin’ phone. I highly doubt anybody needs true multitasking on a phone. Most people want a phone to easily last the whole day with moderate usage, which my iPhone manages without trouble. Yet Android battery life often doesn’t hit the same standard, and part of the cited reasons is true multitasking. On a tablet true multitasking is desirable. On a phone? Really, given the screen size, what exactly am I supposed to be doing that requires something to continually remain active in the background? The pseudo-multitasking under iOS works well enough and doesn’t punish the battery. I’d happily surrender true multitasking on my phone if it meant better battery life. Of course the fact that Android supports true multitasking is important to highlight as a strength, but by the same token it’s not usually necessary.
I’m also a bit ambivalent about custom ROMs in general. Although the option is certainly appreciated, at the same time most of the ones for the Note tend to reduce its functionality. At present, the Note doesn’t really gain much from installing custom ROMs, and honestly it’s a lot of messing about for little real game. The status quo may change later on, but as it stands with the new ICS updates slowly crawling to devices, custom ROMs don’t offer that much more than the default installs. But as I say, the fact that the option exists is nice, and I want to draw a distinction between flashing custom ROMs and rooting the phone.
This will be a bit controversial, but I’m not really sold on widgets. Again, it’s great that the option exists, but I’m not convinced that they’re super fantastic advances in home screen technology. Often I’l find myself opening up the main application anyway because the widget is limited in what it can do. Maybe the apps I use just have shitty widgets, or maybe it’s an endemic problem.
Flash support is a non-issue for me. Personally, I hate Flash. Most of what you miss without Flash support is a bunch of shitty advertisements. Most Flash games aren’t really suitable for a smartphone, which means that the only thing remaining are flash videos. But since iOS is the current darling of the industry, most major websites with streaming media tend to have MP4 video and HTML5 players. Android looks set to lose Flash support in the future anyway, so the argument of “Android is better because it supports Flash” might be dead in the water.
Finally it’s worth mentioning the update cycle. ICS has been out since October 2011, yet the Note is only just starting to receive the update at the time of posting. Even then, not every device can get the update via official channels. This is a problem endemic to Android devices, except for the Nexus devices since they’re built to Google’s specifications. On the surface iOS doesn’t suffer from this issue; one iPhone is much the same as any other so when an update rolls around pretty much every iPhone can get it. Granted, some older devices don’t, but an Android update can fail to be supported by a device or manufacturer for entirely arbitrary reasons. Apple sometimes has a valid reason for not supporting an older device (iOS 5 pretty much turned my original iPad into a sluggish piece of shit, they shouldn’t have supported it) but at least I know that my iPhone 4 can be updated to the latest version regardless of my carrier or the region the phone was purchased in. Not so on Android. But then again the iOS releases are irratic and it’s hard to put a real timeframe on them. The open source nature of Android naturally complicates the entire process, so release times probably don’t directly translate. Hell even some Nexus phones don’t get their update direct from Google like they’re supposed to!
OVERALL IMPERSSIONS: POSITIVE.
In terms of the Note itself, it’s an impressive phone. It has a fantastic feature set, the screen size genuinely makes it more useful for consuming information, and apart from a few design flaws it’s an outstanding device that knocks the iPhone 4S out of the park. You might look silly holding it up to your ear, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assume most people use their phone for SMS messages and mobile browsing, not phone calls, so I doubt it’s really important how it looks in that regard.
In terms of the Android platform itself, my inclination is actually to suggest it’s better than iOS, but with an important qualification. In general, Android is a hell of a lot less painful to work with than iOS by the simple fact that it doesn’t require iTunes. Some of you might love iTunes, but quite frankly anything that gets in the way of copying a single MP3 or PDF file does not get my seal of approval. Being free of iTunes is a blessing in itself. The open nature of the platform brings problems but by and large the increased flexibility as a vast improvement.
I’m not a fan of TouchWiz and it reduces my enjoyment of the platform. But it’s not a terminal problem which turns me off the device, and again with a bit of effort you can replace it. The key word is “choice” which is something Apple aren’t fond of apparently. I don’t understand why OEMs like to put their own custom bullshit on the phones and force us to use them. I should be able to use the default interface, I shouldn’t be forced to use TouchWiz. Let me choose!
All of this however doesn’t really net the platform severe negative points. Rather, it’s the Google Play store that causes me the most concern for the platform. Granted, pretty much the whole thing relies on developer support. But while it’s easy to criticse developers for not investing the time into Android apps, I have to think about it from a consumer’s perspective. Whatever platform you choose, if the apps aren’t there, you’re not likely to want to use it. Look at Windows Phone 7 for proof of that. Android apps tend to be a bit behind their iOS counterparts, either in looks or in functionality. Many cross-platform apps are functionally identical, but the iOS ones can be a bit more aesthetically pleasing. Some devs flat out won’t support Android, or only do so as a token gesture. iOS seems to be the favourite as things stand, so for straight-up app support and numbers, iOS wins.
There are a few other issues, like battery life, but they are inevitable trade-offs from increased functionality. Taken as a whole, Android tends to be the better platform. It’s just the apps that occasionally let it down. There are other issues such as compatibility but for the popular apps it isn’t really an issue.
A lot of fuss is made about how many Android phones there are verses iPhones, but the numbers aren’t really worth much. Many Android handsets can’t compete with the iPhone; they’re cheap handsets attached to cheap plans or sold cheaply to developing markets where absolutely no-one can afford an iPhone. They’re entirely different from the high-end handsets like the Galaxy Note which compete with the iPhone. I don’t think that quoting such numbers is worth considering when looking at the Android platform. If anything, it further strengthens the argument that the app support is behind iOS, given that iOS has a smaller market share than Android yet tends to have more apps and is often the lead development platform. But with all that said, I’d still give the crown to Android. And that comes from an iOS fanboy.
Part 3 will turn up whenever I finally get ICS on my Note. That might take a few weeks. See you then!