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May 17th

Lollipop

It’s been a long while since I’ve written about mobile phones, so I thought I’d provide an update on the HTC One M7 I started using a year and a half ago. But other considerations soon came to the fore, and I found myself poring over Android 5.0 instead, so consider this my long-term review of both.

Purple Rain, er… Haze

Let’s start by getting the bad stuff out of the way: the M7’s camera (and HTC’s quality control) are… sub-optimal. Besides their original “superpixel” cop-out (in which they claimed the 4Mpx sensor was actually an improvement due to increased light sensitivity), the camera is prone to developing a hardware defect by way of which your photos become shrouded in a purple haze that becomes progressively worse as the phone warms up.

Mine has fallen afoul of that — I can still take photos, but hardly any are of any decent quality. Even when the phone is cool, not even HDR and Snapseed trickery can salvage the pixelated pap the sensor delivers, whis is especially sad given that otherwise the M7 has held up very well indeed.

Thanks to a Poetic case and my usual careful handling (I’ve managed to only drop it twice, as far as I can remember, and only once on stonework), the only noticeable sign of wear on the phone itself is a little yellowing of the composite that binds the aluminum shell together. In a world of cheapskate Android devices with shoddy build quality, the M7 is (almost) an exception.

Going Senseless

Another significant pain point was the default user experience. Not Android’s, but HTC’s.

Let me just say that I really, really wish HTC had never come up with Sense. I hated its precursor in Windows Mobile devices, and I came to loathe it on Android with a passion. HTC waxes lyrical about their OS customizations and their rather dubiously useful BlinkFeed, but I’ve long considered the whole thing to be more than enough reason to re-flash the M7 with a vanilla Google image (given that the M7 was one of the Nexus Experience devices, that was entirely feasible without resorting to too many hacks).

However, and despite the insane amount of time I spent doing Android builds for other devices, I never found the time (or patience) to do so, partly due to HTC actually providing regular updates to the M7, some of which progressively lessened the gap between their Sense UX and mainstream Android.

But it was easy enough to install the Google Now Launcher, the Google keyboard, calendar app, Hangouts and (lately) Messenger for SMS. With those in place, I never see HTC’s interface beyond the lock screen. So unless I drop down into Settings or their perversion of the Android dialer/contact manager, it looks and feels very much like a vanilla device.

A little aside regarding the dialer and People apps — HTC seems to have taken sadistic pleasure in making sure that searching for contacts and using the device as an actual phone is a thoroughly frustrating and counter-intuitive experience, to the extent where I was practically driven to use Google Now to search for and dial phone numbers. Fortunately, I hardly call anyone and use mostly SMS and IM (plus a little Skype) these days…

Sweet Lollipop

The Android 5.0 update (which I got by the end of February) made things significantly better by also getting rid of HTC’s clumsy task manager and replacing it with the Lollipop card view, so the overall feel became even closer to a vanilla device.

I also started using two other devices (an LG phone, as a tentative replacement for my iPod Touch, and a Nexus 7, as an e-book reader), both of which were upgraded to Lollipop.

But what I didn’t quite expect was that Lollipop and Material design brought a marked improvement in overall aesthetics across just about every application, to the point where I now actually find myself prefering Material design over the stately, staid monochrome of iOS.

Yes, it’s garish sometimes. And the round “plus” buttons that float atop scrolling lists on the bottom right corner (often obscuring useful information) are, in a word, stupid.

But color provides contextual cues (like making it obvious what app you’re in, or in which section of an app), and the overal hard-edged look makes it look significantly more modern than iOS. Smoky transparent panes are a cool gimmick, but Android actually looks a lot cleaner and (dare I say it) more professional than iOS these days.

The Wins

Using an Android device on a daily basis was a bit challenging at first, but as time progressed I came to appreciate a number of things — for starters, It’s almost exhilarating to be able to charge your phone off a standard, no-frills micro-USB cable anywhere on the planet without an overpriced adapter.

User Experience

But the big wins for me were in terms of user experience. For instance, a lot has been written about Android‘s “back” button — most of it written by iOS users who found it (sometimes through quite amazingly contrived arguments) redundant, confusing, or both.

Guess what, the back button makes perfect sense. And with a 4.7” or 5” device, it is undeniably easier to tap a button right next to my thumb than trying to reach the usual iOS-style back arrow on the upper left corner - having to resort to a cop-out “feature” like Reachability to get at it is just… ridiculous.

Then there’s my ancient quest, multitasking. On Lollipop it is, in a word, wonderful. I’ve long abhorred iOS‘ reliance on an actual physical button, and being able to switch apps with a simple tap (not a fiddly button press) and quickly scrolling through the Lollipop card view (which displays more apps at once than the iOS task switcher) is a lot more practical.

It’s no wonder Google decided to cram a facsimile of that UI (complete with back button and “multitasking” buttons) into its iOS app — it’s like they managed to smuggle a little haven of Android UX past the App Store review process.

Living In The Future

Over time, Google Now slowly became less creepy and eminently useful — the public transportation data is great, but the overall experience turned out to be much better than Siri and the Today view in various aspects, and not just in terms of contextual notifications. Google‘s speech recognition wipes the floor with Siri in both English and Portuguese, and I can switch languages on the fly without any hassle.

That’s what I call the “living in the future” angle — in which I include screen casting (mirroring in iOS parlance).

There’s an entire sub-post about screen sharing/casting options and how stupid it is that we haven’t got a cross-platform standard for this in 2015, but I’m going to save you the trouble of reading that for now…

At the office, we recently added Chromecast dongles to all the TVs in the meeting rooms (because they work with any laptop running Chrome, which we all have anyway), so I can just walk in to a meeting, pull up a document on my phone, and cast it to the screen —that’s now built in to Lollipop, and works quite well indeed.

You simply can’t do that using iOS. Well, at least not without replacing all of those dongles with Apple TVs for three times as much, but then nobody using Windows or Linux would be able to do presentations or demos with them.

A Dash Of Style

Then there are the nice touches. For instance, one thing I particularly like (and actually miss in iOS) is the way any music player can show interactive “now playing” notifications (which I prefer to the player widget in the iOS Control Center) and set the current track’s album art as the lock screen background.

The background featurette may seem rather whimsical, but it has the unexpected side effect of making the device a little more personal - and actually feels nicer than the way Apple‘s Music app takes over your lock screen on iOS.

It’s The Notifications, Stupid!

Nevertheless, the one thing that really makes a difference for me is Android‘s notification system.

I could go on and on about how it is, overall1, much better than iOS‘, but I won’t because it’s not really fair — Apple provides a little more (centralized) control over what notifications are allowed, but there is still no privacy control to disable message previews for third-party applications (only for Apple‘s own apps).

The lack of “proper” interactivity in iOS notifications, together with the way Notification Center is shoehorned with the Today view, make them much less useful and harder to deal with.

The key thing here is that pretty much all Android notifications I get are easier to understand and immediately useful.

For instance, all third-party IM apps can display an avatar as part of a notification, which causes me to perceive those interactions as contact-oriented rather than application-oriented — a much nicer experience than in iOS.

But going back to the way it tries to deal with notifications and the Today view, I should probably mention that I don’t use widgets of any kind — There’s no need to, for Android notifications and Google Now are a potent context-aware combination that makes iOS‘ Today widgets seem laughable, poorly performing and almost completely useless.

I have never been a fan of widgets on either platform (although I would love to have Google Now Now as a Today widget on iOS).

The Utter, Dismal Failures

The first big Android failure is, of course, platform management.

Although 5.0.1 seems to be the end of the line as far as support for the Sense-enabled M7 is concerned, it seems that 5.1 will be available for the Google Edition devices, so I’ll eventually end up hacking mine — which is regrettable, but still the only real way to keep your Android up to date after the manufacturer gets tired of supporting it.

That’s the Achilles heel of Android devices, really, and the main reason why investing in one is still a dicey proposition.

Next up, contact management (and privacy, and maybe even security) is still a mess — even on vanilla Google devices, from the moment you grant an application access to your contacts, you’re pretty much hosed — LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. will play merry havoc with your contact list, and it will take ages to sort out (or link) duplicate contacts.

Put that together with the utterly dismal phone dialer, and you begin to understand why using an Android device as an actualy phone is… awkward.

Google now has a very nice web app that goes a long way towards lessening some of the pain (and that is actually nicer than iCloud‘s equivalent), but Android’s support for multiple contact providers (and the inability to control what they are up to) limits the amount of damage it is able to undo.

Mostly the same applies to calendaring, with the added pain that pretty much nothing on Android seems to be able to handle corporate scheduling. Fortunately, the built-in Exchange synchronization works (even if the handling of meeting requests doesn’t), and you can hack your way through work with it to some degree.

I did try to use Outlook for Android for many months as a stopgap, but despite a (very recent) update I eventually gave up on it and went back to the built-in Exchange syncing functionality.

The truly damning bit as far as productivity is concerned, though, is that where it comes to mail, none of the various alternatives I tried worked well enough.

HTC bundles a moderately useful mail application (that is, however, hopeless at navigating my IMAP folder hierarchy), but there is nothing, literally nothing out there that worked well enough for me — including the official Gmail client, which I’ve always found to be nearly useless for personal mail, let alone corporate stuff.

Kind of ironic, really.

The Ecosystem

One of the reasons I wanted to spend an extended amount of time using a non-iOS device was to see if I could wean myself off the Apple ecosystem and reduce the amount of distractions.

And, by and large, it worked.

There’s an important distinction to be made, though, in which I’ve only bought one Android application, ever. That was Jump Desktop, which I need for secure remote desktop access.

But all the stuff I needed was readily available:

  • 1Password is available (in read-only mode) for free. I’ve needed to update passwords more than a couple of times, but have held off paying for it until the implementation is better (I’m sure AgileBits can get it to both work and look nicer than what it does right now).
  • As stated above, I used the official Microsoft Outlook client for a long while because it dealt slightly better with meeting requests and attachments.
  • The Microsoft Office app is simply amazing, to the extent where I removed all the alternatives (full disclosure: I’m an Office 365 Home subscriber).
  • Evernote is still exceedingly usable (if characteristically buggy on its own), and works almost as well as the iOS version on the go (and for the moment at least, it still edges out OneNote).
  • The social nuisances (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) work about as well as you’d expect them to. Same goes for Instagram and Snapseed.
  • MEO Cloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc. work fine. I’m not losing out on anything critical.
  • MEO Music and Play Music also work fine (and I took the time a few months ago to upload a broad cross-section of my iTunes Library to Play Music, so around 80% of my music was on tap without hassle)
  • Play Books turned out to be a nice surprise — I actually prefer it to iBooks these days (even on my iPad), because I can upload reading materials from any machine.

Everything else is just junk, except for a little gem called Twilight, which does the same thing as f.lux — i.e., it progressively changes your screen color range (using a tinted overlay and brightness tweaks) as the sun sets, which I find absolutely invaluable to avoid eye strain. Forget the pseudo-science, it works for me, period.

Sadly, Apple doesn’t have anything like it on iOS (it doesn’t even provide an API for third-parties to have this kind of control over the display or its color range), which is why I stopped reading on an iPad — I went back to reading on an Android tablet largely thanks to Twilight, and run f.lux on all my Macs.

The Value of Android Apps

But, overall, I’ve wasted exactly zero cash on Android apps — whereas I would grab a new iOS app every other month, I pretty much never download anything from the Play Store.

Then again, I hardly ever play games (and most of the nicer free ones are readily available), and using Android was a long term experiment — albeit one that forced me to re-think the way I used my phone.

That was for the better, I think, although the results might be a problem for a lot of people including the ones that worry about developing for mobile and whether there’s any revenue to be had.

Well, as far as I’m concerned, I haven’t seen anything running on Android that was actually worth paying for — and the best applications I have are merely fronts for paid services that I already used and would have ponied up for anyway (and I’ve always taken care in picking cross-platform ones).

The End Game

Eventually the time came to switch back to iOS full-time (or, rather, to an iPhone with a working camera), and I just did it.

Regardless of other factors involved, I wanted to do it (even though I now have a more balanced take on iOS‘ foibles and shortcomings) because of three things:

  • There is still nothing else out there that is at least as good in terms of hardware quality and software integration.
  • Google has zero direct (or even indirect) retail presence, and their reference devices (which they manage in a seemingly random fashion) might as well be made of unobtainium.
  • Apple has a set of reference devices that they sell everywhere in the world and are exactly the same everywhere, whereas Google lets their partners fragment the platform to the extent that two different iPhone generations have more in common than any two random Android devices.

There is, in effect, one iPhone platform. Even considering the multiple SKUs and hardware configurations, that platform is a much better foundation than anything Google has ever churned out, and Lollipop can’t change that.

I can go into an Apple store anywhere in the world (well, anywhere but Portugal, but who cares, right?), buy an iPhone and get exactly the same product — a predictable, uniform experience that makes it trivial to replace or upgrade a device.

Just you try that with an Android device — replacing it or upgrading to another Android phone is like playing Russian roulette. There’s no guarantee whatsoever you’ll get the same user experience, the same hardware specs, or even the same platform.

Epilogue

So would I go back to Android?

In a word, yes. In fact, I will keep using it, and hope that Google sorts out their retail strategy to the point getting a reference device with vanilla Android is as easy (cost aside2) as getting an iPhone.

If they ever bother with nailing that (and assuming their reference devices are as tightly integrated as iOS and Apple hardware), there’s a good chance they’ll actually be ahead of the game.

In the meantime, I’m going to wait until the Windows Mobile dust settles, and as soon as Microsoft has reference devices for Windows 10 (if ever), I’ll see if I can give it a whirl.


  1. The one irritating aspect of it are “icon droppings” on the status bar, which can get pretty ugly when you have, say, pending notifications from more than three apps. 

  2. Seriously now, I can see Google making a killing on mid-range devices in the coming years, provided they can make them as “boring”, standard and consistent as the iPhone


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