I guess I haven’t updated my blog for quite some time. Too lazy as it’s easier to rant on twitter. LOL. Anyway, back to the topic at hand.
I’m a Mac and iPhone user, mainly. Apple’s ecosystem has been great and working for me. However, I’m thinking, what if sometime in the future, the iPhone is no more? I mean Steve Jobs is not going to man the company forever. Although I’m sure the rest of Apple will do fine, keeping the same Apple philosophy, but what if? So here I am, thinking the what if scenario. I love my iPhone, and I think it’s the best phone. Looking outside Apple ecosystem, what are the alternatives? Let’s see:
-Symbian: Yeah, right.
-WebOS: It’s great, but obviously it’s on life support.
-Windows Phone 7: This would be a great alternative, but it’s not out yet.
So, that leaves Android. Android seems to be the next best thing in terms of smartphone OS/platform. It has the same idea and UI concept as iOS. The downside is, at least in the US, all Android phones are carrier-controlled. This is in contrast of iOS where Apple is the one in control, not AT&T nor any of the carrier partners all over the world. There was one pure unadulterated Android phone, the Nexus One (N1). Yeah, was, because Google doesn’t sell the Nexus One openly anymore. Now, it’s only available as part of the dev program, and only the T-Mobile model (no 850 3G support). Luckily, I managed to get the AT&T 3G supporting Nexus One before it was too late. I was hoping Google would drop the price, but then decided to just get it. Lucky me, as now this phone is extinct.
Let’s go straight to the experience. While the iPhone is obviously designed around Apple’s ecosystem, the Nexus One is obviously designed around Google’s ecosystem. The first thing it asked was a Google account. If you don’t have one, you have to create one. Now, if you already use Google services for your contacts, calendar, and email, once you put in your Google account credential, the Nexus One is ready to go with all your contacts, email, and calendar all setup. It’s awesome! No need to “activate” the phone first, unlike the iPhone which needs to be activated with iTunes. Now, there’s something that’s even more awesome. Google Voice. I’m a Google Voice user since before it was bought by Google (it was called GrandCentral). Using Google Voice on the iPhone is very clunky as there is not a native app. You pretty much rely on the Google Voice website to make phone calls. Not intuitive. On the Nexus One, Google Voice is fully integrated. All you need to do is tell it to use Google Voice, and everything is transparent. You still use the phone’s dialer and contacts, and it will automatically route your call via Voice. Pure awesomeness!
The beauty of iOS is the app ecosystem. Android is not too far off. Most apps that I use on the iPhone are available for my Nexus One. Facebook, Twitter, epocrates (albeit beta and not updateable), Foursquare, Gowalla, etc. Unless you’re into games, you won’t find much problems finding the apps you want on Android. The only problem I see is the market app itself. Apple has designed its App store fairly well in terms of layout. The market app on the Nexus One is very basic, and it feels very difficult browsing the store. A lot of the apps don’t have much useful descriptions. Even worse, many don’t even include any screenshots, leaving you guessing what the app can do. The reviews are not helping either. Apple’s app store seems to have more helpful reviews, while the Android market reviews seem to be mostly people complaining about the app FC. FC this, FC that, one star. Not really helpful. Oh, and what’s FC? Yeah, at first I was like WTF? FC is a short for force close. Meaning the OS have to quit the app forcefully (aka, the app crashes). And these 1 star FC “reviews” are all over the place. Trying to get the gist of how good the app is becomes futile. Why? Because who knows whether these people having issues are using which Android phone/custom ROM/rooted phone/task killers, etc. But at least if you stick with the well known apps, you should be fine. I myself never experience a force close on my Nexus One.
Okay, most of the apps I would use are available. Great. I also use my iPhone as a calendar. The Nexus One sync its calendar with Google calendar. Pretty neat, but the calendar app itself doesn’t look great. It feels like a Winmo app for whatever reason. I do like the agenda view. One thing I was looking for on my Nexus One main screen and failed to find was anything that shows the day’s date. I was baffled at first. Why? Well, iOS made it simple, by making the calendar’s app icon to show the day’s date, just like in OS X 10.5 onward. Sounds simple, but it’s intuitive. Not the case on my Nexus One. The calendar icon is only a generic non-interactive icon. Well, that’s useless. On the bright side, there are widgets.
Ah, widgets. The Nexus One already come with various widgets, like weather, music playback shortcut, etc. Going through the Android market, and you’ll find even more widgets. So many that it’s ridiculously confusing. Just search for a weather widgets and you’ll find gajillions of them, although most of them are the same widget with different skins. I finally found a simple date widget that simply shows the day’s date.
One extremely under-rated feature on the iPhone is the silent hardware slider. Sliding this switch automatically silences the iPhone. There’s no such switch on the Nexus One. On the bright side, there are widgets that provide shortcut on the home screen to quickly toggle between silent/vibrate/normal mode. The downside is, since this is a software solution, you have to do it with the screen is accessible. Meaning if the phone is on stand-by, you have to push the power button, unlocked the screen, find the widget, and toggle it. On the iPhone, I simply switch the hardware slider. Much simpler huh, especially if you have your phone inside your pocket.
Another annoyance on the N1 is that the only way to activate the phone out of stand-by is with the thin power button at the top. This is annoying. The trackball button does nothing. The 4 “buttons” on the face of the phone are touch buttons, not physical buttons, thus won’t bring the phone out from stand-by. On the iPhone, I can simply press the home screen to activate the phone from stand-by, which usually is where my thumb is. Tiny details like this is what makes me appreciate Apple products.
One the the apps I use often on my iPhone is maps. The Nexus One obviously has Google maps built-in. One thing I immediately noticed is that even though the maps app on the N1 supports multi-touch, instead of being able to zoom-in/out smoothly, it seems that there are only several pre-set zoom levels. Although the zooming effect is smooth during pinching, after I lift my finger, the map snaps to the nearest pre-set zoom level. I find this very annoying as I’m used to the maps app in iOS where it simply stays to whatever zoom level I did after pinching. On the bright side, the navigation mode is better than iOS. The N1’s maps app allows showing directions as a list of text, something that sometimes is easier to read than tiny letters on a map screen. To top it off, the N1 has a its own navigation app, which providers GPS navigation, for free! There are nav apps for iOS too, but it’s hard to beat free. The nav app on the N1 pretty much turn the phone’s UI into a “car mode.” It replaces the home screen with several big icons, typical of a GPS navigation device. Also, using this mode is one way to quickly keep the phone’s screen from turning off without specifically changing the settings.
Android has a slightly different paradigm on showing apps on the home screen. In iOS, all the apps you have is on the home screen. That’s it. Pre iOS4, you can kinda pre-set specific home screens to contain specific apps for a bit of organization. iOS4 introduces folders to make organization more manageable, but the idea is straight forward, all you apps are all directly accessible from the home screen. Android took a more traditional desktop OS paradigm. The home screen is your desktop. You can put shortcuts, widgets, etc on it. Your apps are accessible through the program drawer, which will infinitely scroll through however many apps you have. Not that easy if you have a ton of apps, so most people would end up putting the apps’ shortcuts on the desktop to mimic iOS. You can also create folders on the Android’s desktop. However, it’s amazingly flawed, which made folders in iOS4, albeit late, is a ton more intuitive in terms of implementation. Why? Well, in Android, once you put a shortcut into a folder, you cannot rearrange the icons. Yeah, sounds stupid isn’t it, but that’s the case. The icons will simply be sorted based on the order you put the shortcuts into the folder. In contrast with iOS4, you can simply tap and hold, and you can freely re-arrange the icons in any order you want. Another drawback is due to Android using the paradigm of a desktop OS. Inside a folder, you have a bar at the top representing the folder’s name, and an X button at the right corner to close the folder. In iOS4, once inside a folder, you can simply close it by touching anywhere outside the folder. Easy. Not the case with Android. You have to touch that X button to close the folder, and the button is fairly small for my finger that sometimes I need to press it several time to close a folder. Not intuitive especially when you’re on the go and you want to do things quickly using one hand. Just another situation that makes you appreciate the tiny details in Apple products.
Okay, so what else do I usually use my iPhone for. Pictures. Putting pictures on the iPhone is actually a hassle, more than it supposed to. Unless you use 3rd party apps, you have to use iTunes to sync pictures to the iPhone. That may sound okay, but today, I have pictures all over the place. My computer, Flickr, Picasa, Facebook, etc. There’s no integration in iOS. You have to pretty much use one or more 3rd party apps outside the built-in photo app. This is true even for Apple’s own MobileME service. This going in-and-out apps just to view your pictures is not intuitive. On my N1, when I put in my Google account, its gallery app automatically pulls and sync pictures from the Picasa account associated with the Google account. Very nice! You can add more than one Google account too if you have more than one Picasa account. Also, this means the pictures are not stored internally, only downloaded on demand, saving storage space. The gallery app on the N1 is very nice, uses the accelerometer to simulate tilting the “photo album.” Of course, it’s not all perfect. The app only syncs picture with Picasa. You have to rely on 3rd party apps if you use other online services outside Picasa. One app that I like is called justpictures, an aggregator app for your pictures from various online services, including Facebook. Oh, and it’s free. This is something that Apple needs to re-think on their approach in iOS. Windows Phone 7 supposedly will offer even more integration as its default picture hub can aggregate pictures from various online services outside the box.
I use my iPhone heavily as an iPod. iTunes is just an amazing jukebox software, especially for podcast, and the integration of syncing music and podcast with the iPhone is just beautiful. So, how do I do this on the N1? Well, it’s a journey of frustration. The N1 doesn’t have any desktop client app. So, my first though is to download podcasts directly on the phone. Google has an app called Google listen. It’s a simple and straight forward app, allowing you to subscribe, download, and listen to podcasts. However, there’s quite a bit of downsides. Downloading podcasts straight to my phone is slow, even on wifi. To me, the iTunes approach is faster as the heavy duty lifting is done on the desktop, and iTunes simply copies the files to my iPhone. Also, Google listen is not integrated with the default music app, and doesn’t have its own widget for playback control. This means I have to go to the app for controls. Not intuitive. I rather have a solution that integrates with the default music app, which has a playback control widget. So my next idea is to simply have a desktop software solution. The first one that comes up to mind is doubletwist, an iTunes clone. But then apparently the Mac version doesn’t have podcast syncing. BOO! Next alternative is Songbird, but I find that its podcast support is fairly bare, not even supporting some feeds. I finally found a more straight forward syncing solution, Salling Media Sync, which is just a simple syncing program that syncs contents directly from iTunes to the portable device of your choice. Looks great, but you have to pay $22 for a fully syncing feature. Oh well, at least I can try it for free. It works okay. Since the N1’s music app doesn’t have a built-in podcast support, Media Sync simply creates a podcast playlist, and dumps all the podcasts you wanted to sync in that playlist. Not ideal, but I guess it works. At least this way I’m using the default music app.
As for using my N1 as an iPod, well, it’s like having a basic MP3 player. Luckily, my Apple earbud works with the N1. The microphone and play/pause button work fine. Only the volume buttons don’t work, and I have to use the volume button on the N1 itself.
But the journey of frustration didn’t stop there. My next step is to find a solution for listening to those podcasts in my car. My car is old, it doesn’t have an AUX input, let alone USB or iPod support. So the only way to listen to contents from an external device is via an FM transmitter. Sad isn’t it. So my first step is to find a universal FM transmitter, ideally the one that also providers USB charging so I can charge my N1 at the same time. Well, looking around, I realize that everything now is “Made for iPod/iPhone.” The proliferation of iDevices have been so significant that every company is focusing on accessorizing the iDevices, nothing else. What a bummer. 😦 Finally I found a solution from Griffin, a universal FM transmitter (out of dozens of models they make for iDevices). It’s a simple FM transmitter with a 3.5mm audio plug and a USB jack for charging. As for mounting, I got a generic mounting harness that attaches to the air vent in my car. Attaching my N1 to this setup, it’s cables galore since I have 2 cables hanging from my N1, the 3.5mm audio cable and the USB cable. This is also when I found out about the “car mode” of my N1, forcing the screen to remain on. The solution is not pretty, and it’s quite a hassle, especially compared to my previous solution for my iPhone, using this FM transmitter from Belkin. It’s a cleaner solution as it also acts as a holder for my iPhone with a built-in dock connector.
Okay, after all these, I took a step back and realized, why am I doing this. I mean why went through all these hassle just so I can listen to podcasts in my car? I already missed the ease of iTunes syncing with my iPhone. I miss the smoothness and polished feel of iOS. Also, I have to remember that epocrates on Android is not updateable. Finally, I gave up, pulled out the SIM card from my N1, and put it back in on my iPhone 3GS. After waiting for the Apple logo to finish booting iOS, I felt a huge relief. LOL. Yeah, it’s true. Using my iPhone again feels like a blessing. I felt like a lost lamb, going back to the comfort of Apple’s bubble after being lost in the woods of Android. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of things on my N1. Google Voice integration is a huge one. Another thing I like is the notification system. Let’s face it, notification on the iPhone is at the level of a dumbphone. However, there is this level of comfort when using iOS. I cannot describe it, but I know I feel this surge of relief when I returned to using my iPhone after a mere ~3 days using my N1 full time. It made me laugh.
My N1 will be a backup phone from now on. Android is marching on, getting more polish with each version. My only worry is that we will never see a pure Android experience anymore, with all Android devices are pretty much OEM customized (HTC, Motorola, Samsung, etc) and/or carrier controlled. The next excitement will be Windows Phone 7, and maybe it will be the better alternative. In the meantime, I’m back at the comfort of the church of Apple. LOL. 😀