The necessary introduction
Before I even begin to share my observations on Android, there is one important premise to consider: my experience is based on hardware that is three years old, and on an Android version that is rather dated by today’s standards: 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s important and fair to emphasise this because later versions of Android have made significant progress with regard to user experience, so I may be complaining about details and issues that have been addressed and/or solved in the meantime. In general, from what I’ve seen, I’d say that with Android your mileage definitely varies, and your experience with this mobile operating system heavily depends on which hardware and OS version you’ll use.
My test unit
My wife recently upgraded to an iPhone 5, and this is the phone she was using before. Since she no longer uses it, I borrowed it and have used it as a secondary phone for the past month and a half or so. It’s a 2011 Sony Xperia Neo V smartphone, and these are its main tech specs:
- Display: 3.7 inch, capacitive touchscreen, 854×480 pixels, 16 million colours, 265 PPI.
- Rear Camera: 5 megapixel with auto focus, 16x digital zoom, LED flash. Video resolution: 720p.
- Front Camera: Video resolution: VGA.
- CPU: 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon (single-core)
- RAM: 512 MB
- Storage: 1 GB of internal storage (320 MB free); supports up to 32 GB of external storage via MicroSD card
- Wi-Fi: 802.11b/g/n
- Bluetooth: 2.1 + EDR
- Cellular: GSM, UMTS, HSPA
- Ports: Standard 3.5 mm headphone jack, Micro USB, Micro HDMI
- Sensors: Proximity, Ambient light, Accelerometer
Software-wise, this is what I’ve done:
- Rooted the phone.
- Installed a customisation-free version of Ice Cream Sandwich.
- Performed a small hack to have applications installed on the MicroSD card by default (instead of the phone’s internal memory).
- Installed the free version of the Nova Launcher to spruce up the phone’s UI a bit.
- Uninstalled or deactivated a bunch of apps and features that were useless to me (many little apps and services Sony installs by default, Facebook integration, etc.)
This article wants to focus on the software, on my experience with Android, so I really haven’t got much to say about the hardware. The Xperia Neo V is a decent-enough phone. It’s made of plastic, but doesn’t feel too cheap when holding it. It doesn’t feel particularly luxurious either, though. The on/off/wake button, positioned on the top of the right side of the phone, is a bit too small and recessed for my tastes, and the Volume Up/Down rocker is too thin. The typical trio of Android buttons — Back, Home, Menu — positioned on the bottom is better, and the buttons, while thin, are clicky enough. As a long-time iPhone user, I’m accustomed to having the rear camera on the top left of the plate, and the central placement of the camera in this Sony smartphone feels awkward and I often placed my fingers on the camera lens involuntarily while holding and handling the phone.
Responsiveness: in general, using the camera app, and scrolling
I guess that a modern Android smartphone is usable enough out of the box. This phone, when new, shipped with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich is the last version you can officially upgrade to. Considering the phone’s responsiveness when I started using it right after my wife passed it to me, I’d say it’s wise not to try to install anything newer. The first impression I had was that the phone had become increasingly sluggish upgrade after upgrade, and that it needed some significant spring cleaning to gain a bit more speed and responsiveness. That’s why I proceeded with the customisations mentioned above.
Such customisations involved quite a bit of time spent visiting blogs and forums. Android is certainly an operating system for tinkerers, and if you’re looking for the best OS customisations for your phone, you’re going to lose yourself in a maze of forum threads, ROM variations, often hastily-written install instructions. (A lot of Android enthusiasts tend to assume you’re familiar with the slang, but if you’ve just entered the Android world and you’ve always used your iOS device without jailbreaking it, you’ll have to get accustomed to the various procedures to apply such modifications and customisations to your Android hardware, and sometimes you’ll stumble on install instructions that feel a bit cryptic.)
At the end of the process, and after a few restarts, the phone was overall in better shape, as I had practically wiped it and reinstalled the OS from scratch (on iOS, it would be like restoring an iPhone to its factory settings, and setting it up as a new phone). The UI was more responsive than before, but not everywhere. The two places where this Android phone keeps being sluggish no matter what I do are scrolling (especially inside apps; menu and interface navigation is okay) and the camera interface. The latter is especially frustrating because it produces an impossibly long shutter lag. The usual shooting experience is as follows: you launch the Camera app, you frame your shot, you tap the on-screen shutter button, there is an awkward pause where you don’t know whether the button tap has been registered, you finally hear the shutter sound. If, during that awkward pause, you moved the phone slightly to check whether the tap was registered or not, your photo will come out blurry. Sometimes I tapped the shutter button twice or three times, then I heard two instances of the shutter sound, thought that the phone had actually taken two or three shots of the same scene, but ended up with only one (bad) photo.
This particular phone has a dedicated hardware button that acts as camera shutter, and gives a comparatively better shooting experience. The problem is that it’s a tiny, mushy button: at first, what you think it’s the fully depressed position (the ‘shoot photo’ position) is actually the half-press position used to focus on the subject. To take the photo, you have to exercise a stronger pressure on the button which, in turn, makes you move the phone a bit, often leading to blurry photos. In short, to take decent photos with this phone, you’ll need to be patient and have very steady hands. Oh, and the hardware camera button works best in landscape mode, of course, since it’s positioned in such a way that it only makes sense when you hold the phone horizontally.
As for scrolling, it’s always been one of the most problematic features in Android. I’m sure modern phones with the latest versions of Android have achieved a certain smoothness when scrolling, but this phone, with Ice Cream Sandwich, performs noticeably worse than my three iPhones — the 3G, 3GS and 4 — which are all older hardware than the Xperia. The annoying bit is that the smoothness in scrolling actually varies from app to app: the built-in browser is jerky, the Gmail app less so, and the Twitter and App.net clients I’ve chosen (Tweedle and Dash, respectively) are definitely better and smoother. But even these different performances may vary according to the background processes going on at any given time, so that the performance is often unpredictable or even degrading the more you use an app.
Things that surprised me positively
Just in case you’re still reading and thinking that this is one of those pieces written by an iOS aficionado with the sole purpose of bashing Android, my experience hasn’t been completely negative.
- True, the camera software’s responsiveness is disastrous, and scrolling is sometimes jerky, but the overall responsiveness of the system has been, so far, better than I had anticipated. My previous brief experiences with older Android devices and OS versions made me develop a certain degree of prejudice towards Android. I still think iOS’s has an unparalleled level of smoothness and responsiveness, but I honestly thought Android would be much worse, and I stand corrected.
- I was similarly prejudiced towards Android apps, but in my Play Store explorations I’ve stumbled on a certain amount of polished apps, and those few I have installed (Google apps, the aforementioned Twitter and App.net clients, the Dropbox and Evernote clients, the IMDb app, Spotify, and an app called TV Show Time to keep track of the TV series I follow, are all great apps with clean, elegant interfaces.
- Speaking of the Play Store app itself, I think it’s actually better designed than iOS’s App Store. Search and navigation are often better, and I also like how the information for a single app is presented in more detail.
- Say what you want about Roboto, the system font. I’ve found it to be quite readable and functional.
- Another pleasant detail, but this is also related to the hardware: the notification light. This Xperia smartphone (like many other Android phones) has an indicator light near the on/off/wake button which lights up when charging the phone, but that can also be used by apps as a blinking notification light. I think it’s very useful, firstly because you can receive notifications in a subtler way, and secondly because you don’t have to wake the phone every time to check if you’ve received notifications while you weren’t looking or were otherwise busy.
- There are certain customisation aspects in Android that I do like, such as placing useful widgets directly on the screen. iOS has got widgets and extensions in the latest iOS 8, but they’re placed on another layer of the UI, a layer you actively pull down every time you want to see a widget or interact with it. On Android, widgets can be permanently visible, and for certain applications and use cases, this makes a lot of sense.
Some aspects of Android I keep finding baffling
The status bar — I don’t know in version 5, but all the Android devices I’ve seen and interacted with so far are plagued by a status bar that gets messy and crowded with icons rather quickly. The problem with Android’s status bar is that it’s used to display both permanent and temporary bits of information. You have the time, the battery indicator, the signal strength indicator, the Wi-Fi icon when connected to Wi-Fi networks. But then you have transient icons that appear on the status bar after a notification and remain there until you pull down the notification sheet and see what it’s all about.
The two issues I have with these transient icons are: 1) Sometimes they’re obscure — at least for someone who’s accustomed to iOS. The other day I saw a small rectangle in the far left of the status bar and had no idea what it represented nor why had it appeared, until I pulled down the notification sheet (it was a warning that the SD card was not mounted). 2) Sometimes they repeat themselves, and that produces unnecessary clutter on the status bar. For example, the other day I woke the phone, and since I had received two mentions on Twitter and two on App.net, there were two Tweedle icons and two Dash icons in the status bar.
An additional, mildly annoying detail is that in my experience, apart from the clock and battery icon, the icons on the status bar don’t have a fixed position. They load on boot in a manner that reminds me of the right side of the Windows taskbar, where the icons of memory resident programs appear from right to left as they load. In both scenarios, icons don’t always appear in the same sequence. I’m accustomed to iOS’s status bar, where icons have a generally fixed position, so I get the information they display with just a quick glance. On Android, I often feel I need to pay more attention to what happens over there in the status bar.
The Back hardware button — It’s both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes an app misbehaves or hangs, and you usually manage to get back one screen thanks to the Back hardware button. Or the app hasn’t the clearest of UIs, you really don’t know how to go back one step, so the Back button comes to the rescue. The problem is that it works inconsistently throughout different apps. One behaviour the Back button should not have, in my opinion, is to let you go so far back as to quit the app. There’s the Home button for that. The Back button should just take you back in the hierarchy of screens or menus inside an app as far back as the main screen/menu/state; that’s it.
The Menu hardware button — Again, it’s very useful and predictable 90% of the time. In my experience exploring the Xperia phone, pressing the Menu button has generally meant invoking a context-aware options menu. The problem is that there are apps where pressing this same button invokes the app’s main menu. It’s not a big deal, functionally: you wanted a menu, you get a menu. But it’s not consistent from a GUI standpoint. Most of the times the invoked menu slides up from the bottom of the screen, and it has the graphical appearance of a system menu, but there are instances where, as I said, the menu you get is just the app’s main menu, the same you would obtain by swiping right or tapping the Hamburger icon.
The handling of background processes — I don’t know if this has got better with newer Android versions, but on this phone and with Ice Cream Sandwich, this has been possibly the single most infuriating thing of my whole Android experience. It all seems quite random and I haven’t been able to reproduce the issue but, long story short, sometimes one or more processes go rogue, keep the system occupied in the background, and the result is the fastest battery drain I’ve ever seen. I’m talking from full charge to 28% in less than an hour. This despite setting up Gmail to check for email manually, having turned the GPS off, having turned off account syncing, having turned on the Don’t Keep Activities and Show all ANRs options in the Developer options menu and having limited the number of allowed background processes.
Sometimes this excess activity that results in battery drain appears to have something to do with the Internet connection, because as soon as I enter Airplane Mode, the draining stops. Other times it happens anyway: last week I charged the phone overnight, checked it was charged 100% in the morning, then picked it up a few hours later and the phone wouldn’t wake from stop: the battery had drained completely and the phone had shut down. Checking in Settings > Battery usually reveals abnormal resource usage by “Android OS” and “Phone idle” processes. I searched the Web and, again, lost myself in a maze of forum threads; I’ve tried the occasional trick, but nothing really seems to be a definitive fix. I’m sure it can be fixed, but I’ve lost patience and just use the device for brief periods, keep an eye on battery drain, and put it on Airplane Mode or recharge it as needed. Needless to say, I couldn’t rely on this phone to be my primary phone unless I brought the charger along as well everywhere I go. And I’m a tech-savvy user — imagine what would happen to a regular person who doesn’t even know where to look.
Multiple default apps that basically do the same things — On this Xperia phone, I have three default apps to see photos: “3D Album,” “Gallery,” and “Xperia Gallery.” I have a “Clock” app and an “Alarms” app that appear to be just two different shortcuts to enter the same app. Then there are two camera apps, “Camera” and “3D Camera”. Then two “Calendar” apps (same name, slightly different icons). Then an “Email” and a “Gmail” app. I’m sure there were more, but I must have deleted them.
The whole internal memory / MicroSD card storage division and storage handling — Again, I don’t know how current Android phones handle this, but on this Sony Xperia Neo V this division drives me nuts. The phone comes with an internal memory storage of 1 GB, and the operating system takes at least 2/3 of it, leaving you with roughly 300 MB free. In theory, this is all the free space you have at your disposal to install new apps. With a MicroSD card inserted, you can of course move certain apps from the internal memory to the card (not all of them indiscriminately, though), but even when you move the largest apps to the MicroSD card, the internal storage appears to be used anyway by the active apps as a sort of swap space. Despite the two hacks I performed to avoid this bottleneck in storage handling — rooting the phone allows me to move more stuff from the internal memory to the MicroSD card, and setting up the MicroSD card as default destination lets me download large apps from the Play Store and install them on the card directly — I am presently stuck with only 47 MB free of internal memory, and I can’t install the 6 pending app updates because I get the “There is not enough memory on this device” error — and I have 4.6 GB free on the MicroSD card!
The irony is that from what I’ve seen in my experience using this device, Android apps tend to be a bit smaller in size than iOS apps on average, and the Android OS takes up less space than iOS. Yet, this bizarre way of handling internal/external storage severely limits the amount of apps I can install — or simply update — despite having plenty of unused space. (On my iPhone I can’t expand the internal storage with a MicroSD card, but at least the 16 GB I have are handled uniformly and can be used to install apps, store photos, music, etc. all in the same place.) When I asked my wife how she handled this situation when she used the phone, she told me that she had basically given up installing new apps, that whenever she found an app she wanted to install, she had to delete another to make some room for it. I hope Android has got better at handling storage in newer versions because as an iOS user, all this really seems insane to me.
The experience overall — final observations
I have talked at length about what I don’t like or find problematic. The experience wasn’t a complete disaster, however. Despite the issues, and despite the fact that I used a relatively old device with a relatively old Android version, I found the Android OS to be better than I expected. I was eager to test drive an Android phone because I was worried I was getting too prejudiced in my criticism against Android, so I wanted to experience it more extensively and thoroughly than just playing around for ten minutes with a handset borrowed from a friend. There are many things to like about Android, and its design and UI are definitely getting better version after version. If my iPhone stopped working and I had to resort to a cheaper Android phone for a while, I guess I could switch without too much hassle.
But it must be a current phone, with the latest Android version, certainly not this Xperia with Ice Cream Sandwich. The root of pretty much everything negative about my experience with this specific Android hardware and setup has been this: I’ve often had the feeling I wasn’t dealing with an intuitive, standalone, homogeneous device, but rather with a computer crammed into a smaller interface, having typical ‘computer problems’ to attend to or to watch out for. Remember Windows Mobile 6? That was a complete disaster because even the UI looked like a shrunk Windows computer and you had to delicately tap microscopic targets and menus and options with a toothpick-sized stylus. Android’s UI is much, much better on the outside, but still, the troubleshooting part in particular reminds me all too well of the kind of computer problems I had to deal with when I was doing tech support as a freelancer.
In other words, a smartphone owner shouldn’t worry about stuck or misbehaving background processes that eat up resources, slow down the whole phone’s interface, and drain the battery in a couple of hours. A smartphone owner shouldn’t spend time seeking hacks to make the phone store apps on the MicroSD card by default. A smartphone owner shouldn’t even spend time searching the Web for the shortcut to capture a screenshot. A smartphone owner shouldn’t worry about constantly moving apps from the internal storage to the MicroSD card to save space, space that’ll run out very soon anyway. All these are issues for geeks, tinkerers and power users, not regular people who use their smartphone to do basic tasks and trust their smartphone to perform such tasks with minimal to no fuss.
iOS is far from perfect, but it’s still pretty much ahead on this front. Again, as I said at the beginning, my impressions are based on the specific experience with dated hardware and software. If you’d like me to try more modern Android hardware and software, feel free to send it to me, and I’ll gladly write a review.