By Nick Saint
To switch, or not to switch? It took me a long time to build up the courage to get rid of my iPhone and buy an HTC Droid Incredible. The iPhone is an amazing accomplishment, and I had a great few years with it. But there were a few things that kept driving me crazy.
It’s been a few months since I took the plunge now, and I’m ready to deliver a final verdict. Here’s what you need to know if you’re thinking of making the switch.
AWESOME: Android gives the user much more power to customize Switching from the iPhone to Android is all about getting control. Apple is all about figuring out the right way for things to look and work, and making them look and work that way.
Android lets you decide for yourself. You can add widgets to your home screen that give you updates without your having to launch a dedicated app. You can add direct links to songs, pictures, websites, or whatever else you like.
If there are settings you frequently adjust, you can set up icons to toggle them straight from the home screen, instead of searching through menus for them every time (a pain in either iOS or Android.) Or you can install a third-party app that completely replaces your home screens and does all of this its own way.
AWFUL: You NEED to customize, because your phone just isn’t that smooth out of the box
The power to do all that customization is great, but most users won’t ever want to think about any of it. Which is too bad, because Android phones just aren’t set up that well by default. That varies a lot based on your phone manufacturer and your carrier, since both tend to make some tweaks, and in many cases install custom UIs (Blur, Sense, etc.)
But many people find the default layout on their phone to be excessively cluttered. Managing your files isn’t so nice until you download Astro. And — again, depending on the phone — battery life can be a complete disaster if you don’t load some widgets that let you quickly turn off wifi and GPS when you aren’t using them.
AWESOME: Your Android phone is synched with your online life
With all due respect to Ping, Apple doesn’t operate any of the services that are central to many consumers’ online lives. Many people, on the other hand, use Google products that are great to have synched up on mobile devices: Gmail, Calendar, even your search history.
And Android is better integrated with Facebook, which is actually huge. When you first set up your phone, Android asks for your Facebook info. If you provide it, your contacts are pre-populated with all your Facebook friends, complete with phone numbers if they happen to list theirs on the social network. Extremely convenient.
AWFUL: Let’s face it, Apple still designs the best hardware
I got rid of my iPhone because I didn’t like how little control Apple gives its users. That is essentially a software complaint. I have absolutely no complaints about Apple as a hardware company. iPhones are pretty amazing objects.
The latest and best Android phones are getting pretty close. HTC and Motorola both have some very nice phones. But none of them quite nail it the way the iPhone does. Look at this picture of our HTC Incredible. If it’s plugged in, it’s incredibly awkward to hold. How do you blow something so simple? Antennagate notwithstanding, Apple gadgets just don’t have flaws that basic.
AWESOME: Life without AT&T
The most obvious reason to make the switch, the one that has probably tempted some of the most dedicated Apple fans, is that Android phones come on all carriers, not just the dreaded AT&T. AT&T’s 3G network was absolutely overloaded by its exclusive iPhone deal.
Though the carrier has done its best to keep pace, here in New York, it’s still pretty crummy. And in San Francisco, it’s an absolute disaster. After a few years locked in to AT&T, I couldn’t be happier to have the company out of my life forever.
AWFUL: You still need a carrier, and it WILL make your life worse
As huge an upgrade as Verizon is over AT&T, it’s still the worst thing about my mobile experience. The latest version of Android lets you use your phone as a mobile hotspot, letting you wirelessly access the Internet from your computer using the phone’s data. Except that in most cases, carriers deactivate that feature unless you pay extra for it.
Carriers also load useless bloatware and prevent users from un-installing it. Android has native turn-by-turn navigation, yet the universally panned VZ Navigator is right there on my phone (with a disturbingly broad set of permissions) and can’t be removed.
That’s not because Verizon is a bad carrier — it’s the best carrier we know of. It’s because carriers have an oligopoly on delivering data to mobile devices. Unfortunately, they’ve discovered that it’s easier to extract the value of that oligopoly in all sorts of indirect, irritating ways, than by simply charging more for data.
AWESOME: Great apps you can’t get elsewhere
The Android Market is still much smaller than the App Store, but lots of my favorite mobile apps are Android only, starting with some of the ones Google makes itself. Google offers plenty of apps on other platforms, but its most impressive apps are often late to hit the iPhone, either by design, or because they are banned.
In particular, I think Google Voice and Google Goggles are both must haves. Voice, which lets you set up a second phone number for free and tie it to your phone, has been struggling for App Store approval for ages. Google Goggles has been blowing minds on Android since last year, and just hit the App Store yesterday.
There are also lots of powerful third-party apps that wouldn’t be allowed on the iPhone. I really like Tasker, for instance, which can trigger a wide range of actions based on changes in your phone’s state. That’s more multitasking, energy-hogging activity than iOS allows.
AWFUL: Android is still second on most developers’ priority lists
Unfortunately, for most app developers, Android is still a distant second best. BlackBerry is still number one in install base, and Android is growing faster than anyone, but the App Store is where developers make money.
So generally, people develop for the iPhone, then expand to Android when they can. That’s very irritating, especially if you need to write about the latest features coming out of software startups.
But, wait! This is all nitpicking
I thought very long and hard before switching to Android. And, because it’s part of my job to care about the relative merits of gadgets, the little pluses and minuses of making that switch have been a big deal.
But here’s the truth: An iPhone and a high-end Android phone are very, very similar. And for the 99.9% of people on earth who have never owned either (or one of a handful of other super smartphones), the difference is pretty insignificant.
Sure, there are differences between the iPhone 4, the Droid Incredible, the BlackBerry Torch, etc., but compared to the feature phones and quasi-smartphones that still dominate the market, these differences are pretty insignificant.
The truth is that, when you take a step back, all of these devices are pretty similar: magic, touch-screen computers that fit in your pocket. This is the future, and I think it’s awesome. They aren’t perfect, but our basic complaints apply to all of them: the battery life isn’t good enough yet (but the iPad gives us hope). The touchscreens are amazing, but not typing is still harder than it could be (and they get streaky too easily).
And the carriers you have to deal with to use them are awful, and slow the pace of innovation. But, again, they’re awesome, and I recommend getting one if you don’t already have one.
The #1 reason to stick with the iPhone is that it’s easier to use, and a cleaner experience
On the iPhone, everything just works. You don’t have to know anything about technology to use one. Even if you do, the experience will just feel cleaner and simpler. Android still has some rough edges, and if you don’t want to deal with them, the iPhone is a good choice.
Buy an Android for the freedom, or as a bet on the future
There are two main reasons to go with Android. First, as we covered, you have a lot more freedom to set your phone up the way you like. That is a big deal to me, and to a small but substantial minority. If you’re in it, get an Android.
The second reason has to do with where things are headed. I believe that Android will be the dominant mobile OS before long, that it will get easier and cleaner, and that it will end up being the first thing companies develop for.
That is, I think the iPhone will be like the Mac — hugely popular in its niche, but a niche nonetheless. Just as most people have PCs, I think most people will have Android phones. That doesn’t mean you should have one now. But if you’re on the fence, it might be time to start using the OS that will be on the phone you buy four years from now.