Earlier this year, I wrote about my departure from AT&T and the cult of iPhone, in which I extolled the virtues of simpler technologies like those found in Blackberry devices. It was nice to leave the App Store and its countless fart-apps. It was nice to have an indicator light to tell me when I had a missed call or message. It was nice to no longer be under the thumb of AT&T, which is without a doubt one of the worst companies in existence today. Above all else, it was nice to no longer be lumped in with a crowd that I had grown increasingly resentful of over the past couple of years — the masses of dim-witted socialites with delusions of techno-hipster prowess. I can’t possibly say it any better than I did back in March:
“I was tired of AT&T. I was tired of feeling limited by Apple, and unable to use my own phone the way I wanted to use it. I was tired of every braindead woo-girl on the street having the same phone as me, and acting like it suddenly made her not only “an Apple user” — but a “geek.” I grew to hate my iPhone. I hated what it stood for, I hated what it did to me, and I hated the way I felt every month when AT&T sent me a notice of assrape they politely call a bill, just so I could feel privileged enough to have an iPhone in my pocket. I had had enough.”
So for the next several months, I used the Blackberry as a sort of respite from mobile technology (since it barely qualified as a smartphone). Eventually, I began to simply leave the phone at home when going out. It wasn’t long before I left the phone turned off for a month at a time — something I could do on a whim with my T-Mobile no-contract plan. It was relaxing in a way, but like any vacation, it had to come to an end sometime.
While I enjoyed my nearly year-long sabbatical, the time did finally come when I felt the need to be mobile again, in the same way I was able to be mobile with my iPhone. The only catch was that I absolutely would not relent on my defection. As beautiful and tempting as the iPhone 4 may have been, it wasn’t enough to woo me back to the clutches of AT&T, and the crowd of Apple sycophants had only grown since my disgust with them led me to turn my back on my favorite tech company to begin with. And therein lay the problem, because I didn’t feel that any other smartphone currently on the market could possibly pique my interest like the iPhone did. Serendipity proved me wrong.
We had stopped into the T-Mobile store one day to reactivate my Blackberry’s service (as I had accidentally let it lay dormant for 90 days), and there against the wall I saw a phone that resembled a Nexus One, but wasn’t. It was a G2, which is also known as an HTC Desire Z in Europe, but is technically known as an HTC Vision by the people who designed it. The “G” monicker means that it was meant to be the successor to the G1, the first of what’s become an exploding population of Android devices, but I honestly see very little of the G1 in it. On the other hand, I see plenty of Nexus One — enough to make me believe that some engineers at HTC had been under the impression that this phone could possibly be sold as the Nexus Two (and I think it should have been, but more on that later).
Needless to say, I immediately fell into a state of technological lust. After going back to play with the phone several more times, I bought it outright from the store, and switched my no-contract plan to cover it instead of the decaying Blackberry (whose lifeless corpse has been sitting on my desk ever since). The G2, I can honestly say, was the first phone that I felt could actually replace my iPhone. It felt solid, and looked almost spartan — yet well-designed. It’s powerful, and though obviously not a Retina display, the screen is beautiful and quite sensitive as a touch-interface. It has a keyboard that actually works as a keyboard.
I was simply blown away by it, and even more so by the fact that few people outside Android circles know that it even exists. Shortly after it released, T-Mobile began to push its sister-phone, the MyTouch 4G, with an unrelenting vengeance. Shortly after that, Google began releasing hints about the Nexus S — which turned out to be a Samsung Galaxy S that had been slightly modified and fitted with a near-field communication chip. Both the Mytouch and the Galaxy S feel like cheap plastic toys, trying to out-iPhone the iPhone in looks and marketing, and NFC technology won’t even be worth worrying about for at least a year or two. The G2 is a sturdy, slightly heavy phone, encased in metal. Because it it lacks a front-facing camera, it doesn’t get much marketing, but because it’s a G-series phone, it doesn’t get bogged down by carrier-specific garbage like a Sense overlay (which does nothing but slow down the phone and delay OS updates by several months). Basically, it doesn’t feel like a cheap overpriced phone; it feels like an expensive piece of handheld equipment, and that’s exactly how it should be.
The phone comes from the factory with its processor severely underclocked to 800MHz. It didn’t take me long to find out that there’s a thriving dev community supporting the G2, and that with a minimal amount labor, the phone can be completely unlocked, internationalized, rooted, and overclocked to 1.47GHz — all while running perfectly stable and perfectly cool. Some have even managed to get the phone up to 1.8GHz with little rise in operating temperature. In my case, I chose CyanogenMod to replace the stock Android install, and the overclocking is done painlessly with SetCPU. The phone runs amazingly fast, but the battery lasts enormously long — typically using just 50% in a full 14 hour day of somewhat heavy use. And that brings me to the real point of all this — the capabilities of Android.
I’m not going to sugar-coat this. I really do like Android, but I want to open up with the negatives first, because they ought to be recognized up front.
To call the switch to Android from iOS a culture-shock is something of an understatement. For one, there is the vastly unexplored set of possibilities available for Android, its developers, and its users. But with that freedom comes a rather large, negative hurdle: There is a seemingly endless amount of pure scum on the Android Market.
I’m serious about that one. If you thought the iPhone’s App Store was rife with fart-apps and useless garbage, then you may well be terrified by the sheer amount of useless scamware that clogs up the completely unorganized Android equivalent on a daily basis. It’s like a reflection of the Internet as a whole, with its endless porn, SEO dirtbags, and spambots — only miniaturized and dealing with apps.
There are hundreds of cheesy themes, ugly widgets, worthless bloat-apps, and rip-off “matching” games, many of which are pornographic in nature. Most of the afore-mentioned crap costs money, because the sleazy bastards who created them are, after all, hoping to make a quick buck. What’s worse is that many of them require far too many security privileges, because their creators know that the average user isn’t about to notice that sort of thing. They’re all basically spam. It’s hard enough to find what you’re looking for with all the noise, but it makes aimless app-browsing nearly impossible.
This is a problem that will continue to hold Android back as a platform for a very long time, because even though Steve Jobs’ App Store is a “walled garden,” it’s a relatively clean one, and it makes a difference. Luckily, there are other ways to go about finding good apps. One of them is the XDA Developers Forum, which has proven itself invaluable to me in my short experience with an Android phone. Then there are sites like AppBrain, which more or less mirror the official Market, but are a bit easier to navigate in a browser. These things help, but they don’t stop the spamware, scamware, and spyware from filling up the Market.
The other problem is the very real lack of good apps. Apple’s got every dev in the world working overtime to code apps for iOS, but the same can’t be said for Google and Android. It certainly doesn’t help that the carriers insist on layering proprietary garbage on top of Android, which in turn helps to cause OS version-fragmentation. New changes implemented in Android 2.3 should make things a bit better (and more appealing) to the dev community, but very few devices will even get updated to it within the next year. That means there will be devices out there running any one of five different versions of Android. There is only one version of iOS.
These sorts of issues are potential deal-breakers for many people who might otherwise switch from iPhones, but it’s not difficult to see past them if you can stomach the drastic loss in quality apps. But enough with the negativity, let’s talk about what Android allows me to do.
Most of the social apps that have helped make iPhones so popular — like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Yelp, Tumblr, Bump, and Dropbox — are all available for Android, with many apps to choose from. Any and all Google services work better on Android than they do on iOS — and that’s a fact. Google Voice is directly tied into my phone. Gmail is a pleasure to use on Android, and Google Maps has Latitude and Hotpot built right into it, and can run happily in the background in perpetuity.
I won’t bother with games, because there really aren’t any worth mentioning. There’s a reason that Angry Birds is such a big deal for Android users — it’s one of a very small handful of games for the platform that aren’t terrible.
Utilities, on the other hand, are a very different story. Take a look at this, it’s one of several home screens (you flip through them just as you do in iOS), and it’s where I keep my most-used utility apps:
The screen isn’t even full, but the apps it houses are enough to let me more or less replace my netbook. Apps shown:
That’s just one half-empty screen I keep on hand; there are many more apps on the phone that are nearly indispensable — like Titanium Backup and ROM Manager, which allow me to backup or restore both single apps and the entire phone any time I want.
Then there’s music; iPhones have wonderful music playback, but Android phones tend to fall flat (literally). I use a utility called DSP Manager, which runs in the background and starts at boot, to make audio from my Android phone sound just as good (if not a little better) than my iPhone ever did.
All in all, it comes down to how you use your phone, and what’s important to you. I don’t play many games to begin with, so the lack of them doesn’t kill me (yet, I’m being patient, and at least I can play pokemon in a Gameboy emulator). Apps like Hipstamatic are also sorely lacking, but Vignette does a surprisingly good job replacing all of them. I can’t use my Android phone as a remote for my iMac, but I can use ssh to shell into any system I have running the world over. My phone doesn’t have a Retina display, but it has a keyboard, a small Blackberry-esque trackpad, and an indicator light. In fact, it’s a bit like having the best of iOS and Blackberry all rolled into one device, backed by Google. If you, like me, make extensive use of Google services, then Android can make a huge difference in your daily life, and pocket-games won’t seem so important compared to that.
…And as much as I hate Flash, I have to admit it’s useful to have a phone that plays it.