iPhone Blues

I caved in.

After nearly three months of using an Android device as my primary phone, and following the (rather timely) return of Google Maps, I decided to take advantage of an (also providential) employee discount and buy myself a 16GB iPhone 5.

This meant postponing buying a number of other things, and was hot on the heels of the second batch of Nexus 4 devices selling out in the UK and Germany a couple of weeks ago – a few friends offered to buy one for me (since there is no official way to buy them in Portugal), but most of those who succeeded in placing orders are only likely to receive them by the end of next month.

Personal Information (Mis-)Management

But I must stress that Google’s disappointing retail channel management wasn’t really to blame here. The breaking point really came when Android’s contacts, e-mail and calendaring started impacting my productivity and ability to get things done, and the Nexus 4 was unlikely to have fixed that.

Contact syncing almost worked from the get go, but finding contacts and looking them up on the corporate directory was a slow and excruciating experience. Coincidentally or not, I eventually found that some contact fields hadn’t made it across at the same time I started having recurring conflicts with my desktop address book.

Soon after that I began having trouble managing my calendars on the device (I have seven active calendars right now, shared with different people on different services). Appointments wouldn’t sync properly, important fields (like attendance) would go AWOL, and booking meetings directly on the device would repeatedly fail. On Google calendars, too. Even an update to the Calendar app couldn’t fix that, even if it did improve the UI a bit.

But then the time came when I really needed e-mail on the go. And as many people will tell you, the e-mail client1 is simply not up to scratch – whether you’re talking about e-mail viewing, composition or overall message handling (moving, searching, sorting, etc.), it’s fiddly and makes it hard to handle normal volumes of corporate e-mail.

And, of course, there was the browser. Both the stock WebKit browser and Chrome failed me numerous times in terms of stability and functionality, with very slow and inconsistent response times (the same page would either load extremely slow or extremely fast without apparent cause) and random crashes.

I can deal with the lousy typography and layout glitches (remember, I like using things like Opera Mini on occasion), but having no consistently reliable way to look up things online (even casually) soon became an aggravation.

Toss in the system’s inability to at least preview the most common work-related file formats (critical when viewing attachments or files stored on cloud services), and the whole thing soon started falling apart.

My smartphone had become dumber than what I originally expected.

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

I eventually decided to take matters into my own hands and dug out my phone flashing toolset, unlocked the bootloader and proceeded to spend a weekend trying out alternative ROMs (of which there are plenty, given that the Xperia U is a somewhat popular device).

But even CyanogenMod 9.1 turned out to be rather too unstable for my liking at this point – during the week I tried to use it, I had random reboots due to some hardware driver glitches, although to its credit it was smoother and much more pleasant to use than the stock Sony ROM. And even being somewhat close to the latest Android experience, it wouldn’t really fix mail and calendaring.

So I eventually restored it to factory condition and had another go at getting a Nexus 4 (given that Android 4.2 has a number of improvements, and the Nexus would certainly be upgraded frequently), but after a formal review of my family budget2 I eventually caved in and ordered an iPhone 5.

Which is a shame, really. Like I wrote earlier, Android is great for personal stuff, and I honestly like the aesthetics, the internals, and a fair amount of the ecosystem – including the SDK.

But life’s too short to rely on half a solution for my everyday requirements, and even considering that Apple’s product cycles have stopped being predictable, at least I know that it “just works” (even with the occasional glitch).

I will also, as a bonus, stop constantly fiddling with my phone in an attempt to “fix” it, and be able to focus on actually accomplishing something with it instead – and believe me, there is a lot to be said regarding that.

Financially, the whole thing wasn’t very efficient. Even after unloading the Xperia (I’ve put it on the market), this rigmarole effectively means I won’t be buying myself expensive new gadgetry anytime soon – I’m still planning a laptop upgrade to replace my ailing 2008 MacBook, but that’s likely only going to happen next Christmas.

iPhones and Pitfalls

As to the phone itself, I won’t waste your time with a review or gush about it being insanely faster (which it would seem to be if I hadn’t spent quite some time with other devices in the past few months).

I’ll simply point out that a good deal of the current iOS UI conventions do not go along well with continued use of a taller screen – even with my largish hands tapping the top of the screen to scroll, pull down Notification Center or hitting a button repeatedly is a bit more than unwieldy – it makes the back of my hand ache after a while, and that is not a good sign. Nor is the need to hold it with both hands to navigate the calendar or perform other common tasks on the go.

Like many pointed out when the iPad came along, the iOS UI conventions need to be re-thought to stop using actionable items on the opposite ends of where your hands grip the device, period.

And there are still a lot of things I don’t like regarding the way Apple sells their hardware. For starters, Apple’s €100 price difference between 16 and 32GB models is tantamount to highway robbery, and all the more obvious when you consider that for about that much you can buy a 128GB SSD for your laptop.

But, most importantly, iOS is lagging behind Android in at least five regards:

  • Text input in Android can be much faster and less error-prone than in iOS, especially if you’re bilingual. Sony delivers a Swype-like input method with the Xperia range that is simply an order of magnitude faster and easier to use than the (admittedly excellent) iOS keyboard, with the added bonus that it works very well for single-handed operation3.
  • Task switching in Android is easier, faster, and altogether more effective than in iOS. Double-tapping a hardware button is clunky and error-prone, not to mention downright awkward depending on how you’re holding the device.
  • Notifications are much better in Android. The screen doesn’t waste your battery by switching on to display them, they can be more informative and yes, having a dedicated, customisable notification light4 does make a significant difference.
  • Android intents go way beyond iOS “Open In…” functionality, and vastly increase the usefulness of nearly every app. Apple has revamped their UI for content sharing, but the underlying functionality is still lagging.
  • Android gives me a filesystem. An honest to goodness filesystem that makes it a lot easier to manipulate and share data both with my computer and between apps.

Apple really needs to fix these things. I can probably live with their not exposing the filesystem if they fix iCloud and local storage to the point where any app can see each other’s (compatible) data, but effortless text input is a major aspect of the user experience that they’re simply not addressing.

Dictation isn’t an adequate replacement. Nor is Siri (Google’s Now and voice search are way better, if somewhat spookier).

And I don’t really expect them to add a blinking LED to the iPhone 6 – although given my luck lately I fully expect the “5S” to come out by Spring at the latest.

But I do expect them to do better in terms of both user experience and aesthetics, and await further developments (from both camps) with interest.

Because Android is a good alternative for general use, and I fully expect it to become a complete alternative in due time – if only because it might be easier for them to fix e-mail and calendaring than for Apple to change its UI paradigm.

  1. Not Gmail. There is absolutely no way I’ll ever use Gmail as my default e-mail application (or service), and not just because I have to use a mix of Exchange and secure IMAP. ↩︎

  2. That’s a “yes, dear”. I suppose my continued annoyance was quite plain at this point. ↩︎

  3. To be completely fair, Android cut and paste is atrociously bad, but being able to re-input everything (even mixed language sentences) by a few deft finger swipes a good enough replacement. Yes, it’s that good. ↩︎

  4. Please don’t bother telling me you can get the camera flash to blink on iOS – I find that ‘feature’ depressingly stupid. ↩︎