With my departure from frog I needed to replace the iPhone 4S that I’d been using, and decided to try making the switch to Android. I’ve been curious about Android phones for a while and this this was as good an opportunity as any to give one a go. Ideally I would have waited till after the iPhone 5 came out later this year to make my choice, but I couldn’t delay that long. So I got an HTC One X instead, a phone that I first saw at Mobile World Congress and which I thought was the first really desirable Android device. Here are some early thoughts on the experience so far.
First off I’ll say that I’ve been reminded of the Cold War: back in those days, smaller countries had to choose whether to align themselves with one of the two superpowers, America or the Soviet Union, and along with that would come an ideology. It’s much the same way now for consumers with digital ecosystems. One ecosystem can’t do everything, but in general one must choose sides to get invested in, and that leads to the religious wars. I’m not a fanboy of anything, though I’m a user of Macs since the Mac SE, and have had an on-again, off-again relationship with the iPhone. To Apple’s credit, they fixed most of the things I complained about in that 2009 post, which is why I got an iPhone 4S, and it was a solid product.
But I have been gradually moving away from the Apple superpower for a variety of reasons, none of which individually are show-stoppers, but which collectively add up to a less than enchanting future:
- .Mac/Mobile Me/iCloud - too many transitions, badly handled.
- Recent strong-arm tactics about system/device/application updates moving in lock-step, some of which I can understand but others which seem arbitrary and purely for Apple’s benefit, not mine (e.g iCloud breaking functionality that used to work fine, unless you have a recent Mac with Lion).
- General lack of open-ness and transparency (rules for the app store being one example).
- The Mac App store pushing sandboxing of applications, with likely deleterious effects. Yes, you can still buy direct from the developer, but you can see where this is going.
- In the recent desktop OS’s, all the goofy skeumorphism (I joke that Mac OS 2012 = General Magic 1994), childish animations (dear God, what’s with the bouncy dialog boxes and email windows flying in and out?), and default choices like reversing scroll direction and hiding scroll bars. And Mountain Lion is a UI mess, with iOS elements stuck in that don’t visually blend. I remember when designers complained about the two window styles in older versions of Mac OS, the brushed steel and plain gray - where are the complaints now?).
- A general feeling that Apple has changed from scrappy underdog to dominant bully. Apple is no longer the iconoclastic choice but has become the safe mainstream choice…It seems to want to control everything, even though it shouldn’t it.
I haven’t bought music from iTunes in ages (I use a combination of Amazon and Google Play). Chrome has become my browser, and for me that was the gateway drug to getting more into Google’s ecosystem. I’m not giving up on Mac as my laptop any time soon (despite the above complaints), but for my phone I was intrigued to look elsewhere. Silellak’s article at The Verge, 29 Days with Android, mirrors some of my own thoughts too, though I haven’t gone to the same tinkering lengths he has.
Enter the HTC One X
The HTC One X comes with Android 4.0 (codenamed Ice Cream Sandwich, or ICS for short), skinned with HTC Sense, which generally has a fairly light touch to it compared to older versions of Sense. Let’s put it this way - it has less cutesy graphics and animation than Apple’s desktop OS… Having a phone with ICS puts me in the minority as only 7% of Android phones currently have it. But heck I was proudly part of the 3% market share that Apple used to have in the PC market, so I’m used to being in the minority.
My One X has been through a bit of a torture test in its first couple of weeks as I am also temporarily without a laptop for the first time in years, so the phone has been my primary device for Web, email and so on.
Luckily the One X has a large screen (4.7”, 1280x720 pixels so 312 pixel density) which has made this much easier, not just for viewing but also for typing. (The entire iPhone can almost fit inside the screen of the One X). The One X feels lighter and skinnier than its dimensions imply because of how it’s shaped - it definitely feels slimmer than the iPhone (also in real life iPhones are as much as half an inch bigger than Apple says because they have cases…) The One X is relatively large and it took me a couple of days to get used to, but it now feels fine.
Speaking of typing, I swapped out the standard HTC keyboard for Swiftkey keyboard (one of the appealing things about Android is you can customize almost anything). This thing is like crack it’s so good. It learns as you type and gets creepily good at predicting your next word. It also provides multiple auto complete options as soon as you start typing a word rather than one option when you get far into a word (as in iOS). I’m about as fast on Swiftkey as I was on my old BlackBerry Bold with its physical keyboard. I haven’t tried the beta version of the upcoming Swiftkey but it looks to be even better (don’t even need to hit the spacebar, it figures it out). The haptic feedback on key presses is genuinely useful, somewhat to my surprise. When long-pressing a key to get to a “shift” character (e.g. a/@) you don’t have to look to see if the @ has taken effect, you can just wait for the secondary vibration.
Once you get used to the size, the One X itself is nicer to hold than the iPhone as it’s more rounded and the plastic back is matte finished so it’s more grippy, and the rounded edges fit more naturally in the hand (also makes it much easier to get in and out of pants pockets). Plus I don’t feel compelled to get a case, which I did for the iPhone even though it offended my sensibilities. The fact that it’s so necessary for the iPhone indicates to me as a designer that it’s a poor design - it’s like getting a nice looking car and then covering the entire thing - not just the front bumper - in a bra with just the windows exposed. What’s the point?
Music transfer and syncing with iTunes is easy thanks to Doubletwist, and it can also sync via wifi. Doubletwist also manages my podcasts directly on the phone so I don’t have to wait to sync with the laptop to get the latest Fresh Air episode.
The Google Play store is, despite its awkward name, a good browsing experience, certainly visually more pleasant than the iTunes storefront for finding both music and apps. Apps can be installed over the air either from a desktop browser or of course directly on the phone. The music catalog is not nearly as large as iTunes for now but the bitrates are much higher so the quality is better. My iTunes catalog is now uploaded and over the air streaming is a doddle. The Google desktop “application” for syncing between cloud and PC is a joke however - it works, but it’s far from intuitive or flexible.
Sound quality from the audio jack is slightly better than the iPhone. The One X has Beats audio which does help with cheapo earphones, but with a good pair of phones and Beats turned off the sound is noticeably richer than the iPhone (I did a side by side comparison).
There are a few other things that I prefer about the experience so far:
- Widgets/screen customization: I love having quick access to key information, and also making adjustments like wifi, airplane mode, etc. Android gives you lots of customization over screen layout, and you aren’t locked into a grid of app icons justified top/left. Now I’ve got things arranged, I rarely need to dive into the main list of apps.
- Social integration: I like how contacts are linked to their social profiles (automatically or you can pick and choose), and I also prefer how sending photos or links to Twitter or Facebook launches those actual apps rather than the half-baked in-app interstitial versions that you get with the same sharing action on the iPhone.
- Smart dial: Start typing someone’s name on the letters of 9-digit dial pad and you get their number, rather than having to dive into your contact list. BlackBerrys do this and I couldn’t believe the iPhone lacked it (I found a alternative dialer in the app store that could, but it was janky)
- Chrome: Since this is my desktop browser, having it on the phone too is great as it syncs history and tabs with my laptop (looks like Safari will be doing the same things soon). Chrome more often loads mobile versions of pages than Safari which I prefer for mobile browsing - easier to read, faster to load - but the full versions of the sites are a menu pick away. It’s definitely still beta and lacks some polish (and a history list!), but overall really good.
- Camera: The image quality is at least as good as the iPhone (though I’m sure Apple will up the ante with the 5), but beyond that it’s the other features that are great: hold down the shutter button for continuous shooting; take full res still images while shooting video (no mode switching); and the ability to adjust the default exposure settings (I’ve dialed down saturation and contrast a notch as the images are a bit hot for my taste otherwise). I use Lightroom rather than iPhoto or Aperture so my photo transfer process is no harder than it was on the iPhone (I was shocked that the iPhone didn’t automatically back up photos and videos to the Mac).
- Car mode: This is really well done, giving you fast, easy access to key functions such as phone, music and navigation (including voice turn by turn and 3d maps). An HTC dock automatically puts the phone in this mode. In my new job I’m going to be commuting by car so this will be great.
- Settings: I never liked how on the iPhone settings are clustered together, separate from the app they are related to, as this could lead to some cumbersome back and forth between screens. In Android, settings/preferences are controlled within the app.
- Gesture search: A neat way of finding stuff on your phone, analogous to spotlight on the Mac or iPhone , except you draw letters crudely on the screen until you get what you want, so it’s faster than typing. It learns as you use it and puts frequently accessed items at the top of the results list (more like Launchbar, which I use on my Mac).
- Evernote: One of my most used apps, and it’s considerably better on Android than the iPhone (text editing and formatting are far better).
- Email and Calendar: I didn’t like the HTC stock email or calendar apps that much, so I grabbed the stock Ice Cream Sandwich calendar, and an app called Maildroid that pulls together Gmail, IMAP and POP accounts into one interface, and it also allows rich text editing of messages.
- Battery life: So far this has been excellent, somewhat better than I was getting with my iPhone. I easily get a day out of it when primarily using wifi, even with the very heavy usage due to my laptop-less condition. I fully expect I could go a day and a half, maybe even 2 days in more normal usage. Still, nightly charging is a good habit.
Are there some downsides? Sure:
[Update: This is now fixed.] Multitasking isn’t as smooth as on the iPhone, you feel like you’re waiting for a moment when switching, and in Chrome pages often refresh when you return to the browser, which is annoying. It looks like for the AT&T version of the phone, HTC has instituted an aggressive scheme of killing background tasks, which definitely is annoying when it kills music running in the background. I do prefer the dedicated app switching button on the phone though (just as I like having a dedicated Back button). This is my only significant gripe with the phone so far. On balance, though, I don’t think the time on task is significantly different than the iPhone, it just feels longer.
It does take longer to get working with a Mac (especially if you are all-in on Apple’s ecosystem, and use iPhoto and all the other stuff) but you can have basically the same experience (at least for my fairly narrow usage). HTC offers wireless accessories that mimic Airplay streaming/screen mirroring, but it’s not an all-in-one solution if you are using other devices.
Siri is missing, but I don’t care as I could never get it to work properly, maybe it was fooled by my blended English/American accent. After a few comically bad attempts, I stopped using it. For other people I suppose this will be a bigger deal. The voice transcription for texts and search is quite good in Android.
We’ll see how the phone holds up over the next few months, but for right now I’m pretty happy.