This is the second post in my November writing challenge series.
I’ve been an Apple convert for a few years now (I started to see the light in 2010-ish), but every 12-18 months, I grab a Google-endorsed device that can run the latest version of Android and put it through its paces.
I do this because I feel obliged to speak without ignorance on the advantages and disadvantages of the major mobile platforms. Also because playing with new tech is fun.
There’s more to it than the UI
When it comes to Android vs. iOS, the differences are much bigger than user experience. Apple’s business model is completely different to Google’s, which impacts on everything about its hardware, software and online services.
Some of the differences are less obvious than others. For example, Google’s efforts to retain and profit from its users’ data are no secret, but most people don’t realise just how much of their personal information is being passively disclosed. Apple, meanwhile, draws most of its profit from hardware sales and actively avoids the disclosure and retention of user particulars.
A more obvious difference is in the area of version fragmentation. Android hardware vendors aren’t obliged to provide timely software updates for their devices–even if they contain critical security patches–and most of them don’t. Meanwhile, iOS updates are made available, to all devices capable of running them, simultaneously. You can guess which of these ecosystems is riddled with unpatched, deprecated operating system software.
But let’s talk about the UI anyway
Assuming we’ve made peace with Android’s underlying constraints, the next question to ask is: how does its user experience stack up?
To find out, I tested Android “Lollipop” (5.1.1) on a Nexus 7 (2013 version). I tried to use it productively for about a week, in place of an equivalent iPad.
I accept that without migrating all of my data to Google’s cloud services, my experience of the platform wasn’t completely immersive, but hopefully you’ll agree that it was immersive enough to make a few meaningful observations.
1. Reading and typing
iOS always set a high bar when it came to the display, entry and editing of text, but with Lollipop, Android has caught up pretty comprehensively. Its new font (Roboto) is crisp and appealing; the default keyboard has an improved layout and responds without the lag of earlier versions; and working with text selections is much less frustrating than it used to be.
It’s not just the keyboard that’s more responsive. Animations are vastly smoother, and scrolling is finally on par with iOS. I can’t overstate the importance of these these improvements–they significantly increase user enjoyment and confidence.
2. App updates
Android’s built-in apps receive updates via Google’s Play Store. This allows core apps to be updated without the overhead of a full operating system update (great!), but it also makes for a volatile experience when the Play Store app itself needs updating (not so great!). After factory resetting my Nexus 7, I had the Play Store app crash, then declare it wasn’t installed, before eventually starting to work again. Unfriendly much?
The Play Store also had trouble resolving dependencies between core apps while they were being upgraded. A bunch of “You must upgrade X before you can upgrade Y” notifications were thrown at me after I hit “Update All”. This sort of thing shouldn’t happen ever, much less immediately after a factory reset (i.e. with no third-party apps in play).
3. Settings, settings, settings
The design of Android’s “Settings” app has improved significantly since previous versions, but I still found it relatively cluttered, with too many superfluous “advanced” options offered too prominently. Your mileage may vary.
Enterprise users will be annoyed to find that proxy auto-discovery remains unavailable in Lollilop. Manually entering a PAC file URL is still necessary. Apple has been all over this for years now. C’mon, Google!
Also, disabling those annoying keyboard tap sounds is not a simple task, because settings for “Sounds” aren’t all in one place. (I eventually found the toggle I was looking for–deep in “Keyboard” settings. Argh.)
Finally: IMAP users still can’t configure the stock email app to use custom mailboxes for Sent messages and Trash. Their names are hard-coded into the app.
I liked that I could turn off all notifications for a set period of time (unlike “Do Not Disturb” mode on iOS, which needs to be manually switched off). I didn’t like that I could allow “priority” interruptions during this notification blackout–simply because it’s not clear what a “priority” interruption is (“Did I configure this? Do I trust my former self to have configured it properly? Is my presentation going to be interrupted by a Facebook message?”) I also didn’t like that the UI for this feature only appeared when I used the volume rocker. It belongs on the main notification panel.
Android as an operating system isn’t bad. Like iOS, it has annoying shortcomings in some areas, but overall, it’s fast, beautiful and easy to use. When it’s not, pop-up tips pick up the slack.
So why do I think it “still sucks”?
It’s the apps.
Or, to be more specific, it’s the tablet apps.
Android has been tablet-friendly for years now, but a large of number of app developers (including Facebook) stubbornly refuse to build tablet versions of their apps. With a few exceptions, most of the apps I tried on the Nexus 7 opened as stretched or magnified phone apps. I could access all of my content, but the apps were so useless I couldn’t do anything with it.
The iOS App Store, meanwhile, is full of high-quality tablet apps.
Also, iOS plays nice with IMAP.
Also, Apple doesn’t hunger and thirst for my metadata.