Switching To Android: Two Weeks In

A funny thing happened on the weekend. I attended a small meet up for a podcast published by the Lifestyle PodNetwork and as is usual at such events, people were tweeting, checking in on Foursquare, and other such activities. But this time was different: three of the six phones being used were Android phones, another HTC Desire like my own, and the proverbial (but now discontinued) Google Nexus One.

The worm is starting to turn, even here in Australia with a limited choice of Android handsets.

It’s been a bit over two weeks since I made the switch from the iPhone 3GS to the HTC Desire after having owned every iPhone since acquiring the original in the Palo Alto Apple store a week after it was launched.

I’ve missed a few things on my iPhone, but I’m not switching back.

The Good

As per the original review, my experience is compared to the iPhone 3GS and not the iPhone 4, and there’s little doubt that the iPhone 4 is a much improved phone, antenna issues aside.The difference really comes down to the operating system, and I’d been using iOS 4.0 for sometime before I’d switched.

Android is noticeably different in how it does things, and that has been my standard response when asked about the switch. I couldn’t say I’m passionately in love with it, as I was when I first purchased an iPhone, but after crashes, GPS failures and reception issues, I didn’t love my iPhone in the end either.

The most powerful feature of Android is the power it gives you as the user to do what you want. Just about everything is customizable, the Android Marketplace is open, and the multitasking is real.

The latter is of particular note: even with so-called “multitasking” on iOS 4, apps still need to reboot (unless it’s an Apple app,) under Android the apps remain truly open and switching between them is just like using a computer with multiple applications open.

If you’re a heavy Google user like I am, the integration with Google is a key selling point. The Gmail experience is flawless, as is integration with Google Calendar and Google Contacts. Google apps on the Android platform are literally a step ahead of their equivalents on the iPhone (where such apps are available, Google offers a number of unique Android apps.) Turn by turn navigation is not available in Australia yet, but Google Maps is quicker, more accurate, and because it knows your Google history, better when searching. For example, if I’ve searched an address in Google Maps on my computer before, Google Maps on the Android has a record of that, so when I start typing, it will prompt suggestions using my history.

There’s been some criticism I’ve read that Google Chrome for Android isn’t as quick or smart as Safari on the Android, but I’ve simply not noticed it: browsing visually seems just as quick, I’ve notice no rendering problems, and most importantly unlike the iPhone, flash is supported.

And did I mention widgets? Instead of pages and page of icons, the use of widgets on the Android platform truly delivers a more pleasurable user experience. Widgets make applications and information easier to get at, and it’s a strong point of differentiation vs the iPhone 4.

The hardware was one of my concerns when switching: I’d had a trial Verizon HTC phone several years back and it was without doubt the worse phone I’ve ever had the misfortune of trying to use. But that was then: the Taiwanese manufacturer has come an awfully long way, even since its first Android phones 12-18 months ago.

The HTC Desire is a smart phone: nice form factor, solidly built, with no obvious issues. The processor is nice and quick, and the camera is decent: sure, not brilliant, but decent for a mobile phone. The flash works as advertised.

The Bad

As mentioned in the first review, the common compliant about Android is that it’s not as simple to use as the iPhone, and that is a fair judgment. It’s not as if it’s particularly hard, vs it just takes a little longer to get at certain things, and until you know where to look, to find them as well.

It’s a catch 22: in offering more customization options, Android becomes more complicated. It’s not a steep learning curve though, it’s just something noticeable when coming from a history with the iPhone.

The Android Market is rapidly growing (estimates range between 50-70,000 applications) however it’s not uncommon to find that there isn’t an equivalent application for apps you have on your iPhone, particularly here in Australia where Android takeup is much lower that the United States. For example on the iPhone I regularly relied on a Metlink Melbourne application to give me travel times on public transport, where as the closest thing on the Android is an unofficial train timetable map. There’s no Tweetdeck for Android yet (it is coming though) and although apps like TwitDroid or the official Twitter application offer a reasonable experience, neither offer columns.

The aforementioned are minor problems though compared to a hardware flaw in the HTC Desire: a lack of memory.

Internal memory on the HTC Desire is 576mb. Yes, you can add up to a 32gb miniSD card to the phone, but here’s the catch: under Android 2.1, applications are installed to the internal memory, not the card (the card will accept data from the apps, pics, music etc, but not the application itself.) Hence, being a little bit app happy, I constantly find the phone giving me low memory messages.

Of note that this is specific to this phone: other Android phones on the market come with a lot more memory built in, but it’s a stupid design error. Android 2.2 (Froyo) which has already started to be rolled out to unlocked HTC Desires in Europe fixes this issue by allowing applications to be stored on the mini SD card, and it can’t come quickly enough.

Conclusion

As I saw the lines here Friday as people rushed to get the latest shiny iPhone, I couldn’t help but admit to feeling like I wanted to play as well. Years of indoctrination into the cult of Apple has turned me into a sheep, be it in a flock that was mostly deserving… until now.

Android is still in its early days, and parts such as the Android Marketplace still have some catching up to do with Apple. But as Louis Gray wrote

“…a bet on Android is a bet on the future. I am betting on an ecosystem and an application environment that encourages best of breed developers to move their product to a growing population of smartphones, and I expect to reap the benefits. I have the utmost respect for Steve Jobs, Apple and all the work Cupertino has done to make my family’s lives better, but I think the baton has been passed.”

Android offers an open, free development platform that is available to multiple handset makers over multiple carriers. I’m betting Louis Gray is right, and I bet a lot more people in the next twelve months will as well.

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