This week something happened.

Actually, a whole lot of stuff has been happening, but I’m going to try to focus on the light side for a change – I desperately need to get my mind off a number of things, and this is as good an opportunity as any.

So I’m having lunch with a friend, take out my phone to check the time and she nearly cries out in horror:

“An Android? Who are you? What have you done to Rui Carmo? This is simply not you!”

I guess I have a bit of explaining to do at this point.

As it turns out, I’ve been using an Android phone for well over a month now.

Why? Well, it has a lot to do with my overall approach to life in general, actually – your phone does define you, or at least it is one of the many possible embodiments of what you care about.

So, about life right now. Considering recent local events (the government is shambling through a fiscal reform after backtracking in its initial attempts, and now wants to raise taxes in a way that will wipe out our already stressed out middle class while leaving richer folk practically unscathed), and after asking around for second-hand devices, I eventually decided to take one of the options I had outlined a while back and buy a low-to-mid-tier Android device1.

My research soon led me to the Xperia series, which has a number of things going for it:

  • Sony is now (rather unsurprisingly) seen as a middle-tier manufacturer, and as such can’t command a premium for their handsets
  • They have pretty decent build and component quality
  • They seem to know what they’re doing with Android (if you discount their tendency to cram a bunch of useless Sony ecosystem apps into their devices)
  • They are even now upgrading most of their current devices to Android 4.0 (which is iffy, but better than average, even if they’re leaving 2011 devices behind)
  • Their design aesthetic is on the boxy, black side, which I am rather partial to
  • They’re not Samsung.

Seriously, the last bit matters when you’re looking at mid-tier devices.

Even though I was quite fond of the notion of getting a Galaxy Nexus, I only considered that to get hold of an official, Google-supported device (which would nevertheless have cost almost twice as much at the time), and would never buy any of their mid-range devices – they’re awfully designed and too cheaply manufactured to be of any use or interest to me.

So it was down to Sony or LG, and Sony just happened to have a cheap, petite and readily available device that struck my fancy whereas LG has (ironically) very little market presence here, even though many hard-core Android folk swear by their gear locally.

Another of my requirements was that it had to be a fully unlocked phone, untouched by the vagaries of any carrier (yes, after having worked at one for a decade, you know too much about what happens with carrier customizations to feel comfortable).

So I got an Xperia U from the UK, at a slightly lower price than the locked version would cost me (even with an employee discount). That was interesting, and we shall pretend I didn’t mention it, OK?

I like the Xperia U, really. The thing is small, handy and has been reviewed to death elsewhere, so I will stick to the interesting bits: It has no SD card, features a piddling 4GB of internal storage (which seems ample enough for the moment), sports a relatively paltry (but serviceable) 5 megapixel camera, and has a very good (if slightly narrow) screen that is quite pleasant to look at. And I can charge it literally anywhere without bothering with stupid adaptors.

On the whole, it’s more of a “side grade” than any kind of upgrade – it’s considerably better than my 3GS as far as response times are concerned, but in the broad scale of things it’s somewhat of a throwback to the days where I insisted on using a mid-range phone rather than the top-tier devices product managers coveted to show off2.

It was also a calculated risk – a way to test the waters and see if I could really, truthfully, use a normal Android handset without cheating by getting a top-tier device, or by getting a mid-tier, rooting it and flashing the latest CyanogenMod nightly – I am comfortable with doing the latter on my Nook, but there’s no way I’d throw away that kind of cash (or a warranty) in the current situation.

So my Xperia U started out by running Android 2.3.7 (Gingerbread), and as such the user experience was for a while well below par with the equally modern but trendier handsets you tend to read about in the news. The ICS upgrade was a shambles, since Sony clearly doesn’t have their act together yet – they’re upgrading the devices according to shipping lots and local variants, which is understandable but overwhelmingly obtuse in this day and age.

The whole process was a thoroughly enlightening (and character-forming) experience, to put it mildly.

Android 4.0.3 runs OK on the Xperia U, but I loathe the thing’s e-mail client (Android turns out to be a good way to stop obsessing about work e-mail), find its calendaring (and other corporate features) laughably bad, and the only thing that worked for me was, ironically3, Evernote, which I used both on my phone and on a loaner Android tablet (where I’m running CM10) to keep track of everything.

Ironically, Android is pretty good for personal stuff, and I have come over the past few weeks to stick to a small and (quite predictable) set of apps that work mostly the same anywhere – even if I ended up lowering my expectations altogether to the point where anything the phone did beyond my personal sphere had a fair chance of registering as a plus, since there are very, very few genuinely good applications.

But, overall, the time I spend online on a phone has converged, slowly but irrevocably, to pretty much zero. Oh, I’ll check the weather or read the daily news on it every day, sometimes more than once (invariably through Google Reader or Flipboard – which, incidentally, was mysteriously broken on two of my Android devices for weeks) and I still reply to various flavors of pings on the requisite social networks, but my usage patterns have definitely changed.

I now seldom search anything but locations on it, given that a) Google Maps works exquisitely well and b) browsing the web on it with any browser is a hideously bad experience, with random hiccups and very poor page rendering – which is fascinating, really, because Twitter, Facebook and Google+ all seem to be way faster and more responsive than on my 3GS.

The hardware might be at fault here though, since I found the core Android experience to be (gasp!) superior to iOS in many respects – and I’ve grown so used to the customization options and to the ease with which I share content and multitask between apps that iOS seems, well, staid to me these days4.

(I’m going to skip the whole bit about the OS being open and whatnot because it’s not really relevant to anyone, and even having built my own versions it’s not something I consider relevant for myself…)

But the really fascinating thing for me is that despite the drawbacks, I feel no real need to use an iPhone. The Xperia U is tiny, flexible and quite pleasing to use (as compared to the current crop of 4” behemoths), better than my 3GS, and, more to the point good Android handsets are still half the price of an iPhone.

So I’m going to keep using it for a while, even as I look for a way out of this conundrum. My friend did have a point – I’m really not quite myself these days, and something has to change, but I’m not sure it has to be my phone.

Well, at least not yet.

  1. Obviously, Murphy was strong and I took that choice mere days before Google announced the Nexus 4, but considering that it’s pretty much impossible to buy one right now, I’m not complaining much (then again, if you can ship me one by all means do get in touch with me immediately). ↩︎

  2. I did that partly because those expensive headsets gave you a completely skewed perspective on the real user experience, and partly to annoy my Marketing peers, who never really understood that using mid-tier devices gave you a real edge with the testing teams, since those were the devices they had the most trouble (and needed the most help) with. ↩︎

  3. And I say ironically because its recent Mac and iOS client updates are astoundingly, almost criminally bad, to the extent where I’m considering ditching their Premium service. But more on that later. ↩︎

  4. And no, I’m not going to go on about skeuomorphism, other than say that I very much like the clean, spartan Android aesthetics (starting with Holo, of course). Overall, it looks and feels a lot more like a truly modern phone UI than what Apple delivers in iOS, and it is quite a shame that Android apps are, overall, crap. ↩︎