When I was trying to decide between my first Android smartphone and an iPhone, the comparisons I saw kept portraying it as a battle of features versus flair: That you could do more with an Android smartphone, but that using an iPhone was easier and more fun.
As it turned out, they were right. But before I got into Android, I didn’t know what that really meant in terms of what it’d be like. What was it like to use Android’s “features” … and were they more trouble than they were worth? Here’s what I learned, and which Android smartphone features might really be points in the iPhone’s favor.
Even a lowly LG Optimus S, an Android smartphone that’s about equivalent to 2009’s iPhone 3GS and can be bought for under $100 off-contract, can have its memory expanded to up to 32 GB using a microSD card. That means more room for movies, apps, and games, right?
The problem is, in Android part of each app still has to be installed on internal memory. And not only do many low-end Android phones have less than 1 GB of internal memory, but in Android 2.3 Gingerbread, the most common version out there, you have to go into the settings menu and tap “Move to SD card” for every single app. Built-in apps like Gmail can’t be moved at all.
On Android, “apps are created equal.” You can replace the web browser or even the home screen with a third-party app, like Firefox or the popular ADW Launcher. You don’t have to if you’re not interested, but if you are the option is there.
The problem is, so can the smartphone manufacturers. And their custom launchers and “trashware” not only slow down many Android smartphones, but can’t be removed without a complex procedure called “rooting” your phone.
The iPhone is pretty much one-size-fits-all, and if it doesn’t fit you then you’re out of luck. In contrast, Android phones come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and can include features like hardware keyboards.
The problem is, it’s hard to write games and apps that work on all those different smartphones. Many reviews on the Google Play store are left by people complaining that an app didn’t work on their phone, and developers like DoubleTwist have to do a lot of work to make beautiful apps like their Alarm Clock work their best on each Android device.
What’s Google doing about it?
First, Google is pushing the state of the art in the Android world ahead with its Nexus devices. These Google-branded smartphones define what it means to be “Android,” and over the years they’ve shed unnecessary features like a microSD card slot and trackball — yes, Android phones used to have trackballs. They’re also free of carrier “customizations,” and get Android operating system updates much faster than other smartphones (which sometimes don’t get them at all).
And second, Google is creating design guidelines for Android’s Holo interface, which is a different way of looking at how a smartphone should work. Instead of the iPhone’s heavily textured, skeuomorphic (“looks like a real-world object”) designs, which are hard to translate to multiple screen sizes, it uses layouts similar to web pages, that reflow to fit different screens. It’s arguably not as classy, but it has a style all its own.