Sunday, July 10, 2011

iPhone(TM) vs *droid

Switching environments is always a good time to reflect on their relative merits... I've just left Android for iOS and have some thoughts on the matter.

First, the timeline... a loyal Blackberry user through the 2000s, I was used to a few basic concepts like "email in my pocket" and "talk on the phone". Apps like mapping and chat and location aware searching gradually entered, but every one of them served to highlight the platform's shortcomings in terms of speed and stability. AT&T in the Bay Area wasn't doing me any favors either... it's tough to tease out where network problems end and phone problems begin, but by August of 2009 I couldn't rely on the phone for talking or email. I left LANDesk for BigFix that month, and I happily shipped my Blackberry 8800 back to Utah and went to Verizon for a Blackberry 9000. Network performance was better, but the phone was physically cheap, no faster than any older BBerry, and far less stable. I gave up and replaced it with an original Droid.

The Droid had some rough edges to it, but it was excellent in four respects: I could reliably talk on the phone, read email (with attachments even!),  use the Internet, and install cool apps. When I found Tasker, I was truly in love with the phone. Screen widgets are pretty cool, and I really liked the quality hardware build, but powerful automation was the real hook. There are many examples on Tasker's website, but here's a few things that I learned to take for granted:

  • My phone will not make unnecessary noise during an important meeting, and I don't have to flip a switch to make that so.
  • My phone is loud when I'm outside, and quiet when I'm inside, and I don't have to switch profiles manually.
  • My phone diverts calls when I'm busy or from people I don't know to voicemail and transcribes their message for me to read. All I have to do is leave it on the table in front of me and the screen lights up with the message.
  • My phone turns on, unlocks the screen, and starts playing music when I plug in headphones or a car stereo. It pauses the music, locks the screen, and turns off the display when I disconnect.
  • My phone is automatically silent at night, unless there's an emergency call.
  • Bluetooth is turned off if I'm not in my car, and turned on when I am.
  • Wifi is turned off if I'm not at home or work, and turned on when I am.
However, all was not perfect... the Android OS has its issues, and speed is a big problem. All of these awesome features worked fabulously, one at a time. However, receiving a phone call while it was trying to do something else could really throw it for a loop... nothing says "smart phone" quite like:

  • pressing the camera button and waiting 5 seconds for a picture to happen, and another 10 for control of the phone to return to you
  • struggling to answer a call with a touchscreen that won't respond to your touch
  • killing your battery 3 hours into the day (hello, GPS navigation). 
I learned to avoid the cool features in order to save hardware resources for the basics. One home screen, one widget, minimal apps. OS upgrades came, and while each one brought some nifty new feature or promised a new level of stability, those promises didn't really pan out. By the time I'd carried it for a year, I was ready to root it and install a GPA build of Bugless Beast.

In many ways, this move was analogous to the Blackberry 8800>9000 transition... one last chance to see what the platform could do with the latest OS. Sure enough, performance of single tasks improved, and the phone could now often do two things at the same time. Best of all, it would go for a whole 24 hours between charges. However, it also lost the ability to receive email by push, needed to reboot every couple of days, struggled to maintain network connectivity, and occasionally would just reboot itself, no questions asked. It was a lot like having a Linux laptop again... manually kicking off tasks, troubleshooting bizarre behavior, and learning a lot more about the internals than is maybe necessary. So, last week I went to Verizon to see what there was to see in terms of next generation hardware.

It's not looking good for *droid. I looked at the X, Incredible, Thunderbolt, and Charge. They're all more or less the same phone, with tweaks here and there. It's a flimsy feeling, plastic device with a huge screen and a fast processor. It has a good camera. Some of them have a front-facing camera, maybe even with software to use it. But the real work of differentiation has been devoted to breaking compatibility with the core operating system. Motorola has Blur, HTC has Sense, Samsung has TouchWiz... all of them are fantastically annoying and if you just want Android and Tasker, you'll need to pony up twice the cash and go to a Nexus S... which is the same damned piece of hardware! Or root it again... another weekend gone. To draw an analogy, home market PCs were very much like this in the late 90's, when Compaq, Packard Bell, Dell, and IBM were slugging it out in a race to the bottom that only Dell would walk away from... because only Dell shipped plain old Windows on hardware that wasn't drastically broken by design.

I did some research and ruled out the Motorola phones because of locked bootloaders, then picked a Charge because it had the best screen and didn't have that stupid kickstand. The screen was awesome, the processor was fast. Taking a picture was like using a regular point and shoot camera. The phone was half full of bloatware that I couldn't remove. Let's Golf? Rock Band? An IM client that bridges IM into SMS? WTF? Half of my clever Tasker profiles didn't work any more because Samsung had removed stock Google applications and replaced them with their own versions that didn't work the same way. No more ability to automatically control the display and screen lock state... the forums say this is Gingerbread's fault, but it wasn't a problem with Gingerbread on my original Droid.

Then, music... I really like to listen to music in the car and at work. I don't do much Internet streaming, and I don't do playlists... I just like to load my phone with good music and hit shuffle all. Then I expect to see cover art, Artist/Album/Song tags, and a couple of control buttons. Apparently this is a really high bar to hit, because the default TouchWiz music player had no way to do it. I downloaded half a dozen alternate music players from the app store, and they wouldn't play MP3s at all. Really? Reboot, 1/3 of my music plays. Reboot again, none of it plays. Reboot again, all of it plays... until the phone freezes up a few hours later. It's just like Linux on a laptop... everything you try fixes some of the old problems while introducing some new ones. Did I mention that whenever it reboots the BIOS plays a long Michael Bay sound effect at the top of its very loud volume, and that there's no way to shut that up? That's awesome when it's randomly rebooting itself every couple of days. So, I exchanged. I did my research and found just as many stability and bloatware complaints around the Thunderbolt and Incredible... so I went for an iPhone 4.

I miss the awareness and capability of Android. I miss the ability for a weather icon to tell me something (silly in the Bay Area's eternally balmy climate, but why show me a weather icon at all if it isn't accurate?) I miss the Google traffic widget. I miss the computer-less, entirely OTA capabilities of Android. I miss the huge wad of time that it took to import my music into iTunes and sync it to the phone. However, I really like having a phone that just does what it says on the box, reliably and quietly. Through two Blackberries and two Android devices of mine, my wife has had an iPhone 3GS and an iPhone 4. The 3GS was just fine up until the end of its contract. Both phones have just quietly worked for voice, messaging, Pandora, social networking, news browsing, and baseball game streaming. No fuss, no hassle... there's a lot to say for limiting features to the ones that work with certainty.

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