Nexus 5 and Android 4.4

For anyone who interested in such things (and there are a few of you), here’s what I think of my Nexus 5, and why I switched from iPhone. Maybe it’ll help you in deciding, if you need to, or you’re curious.

Note: I originally started this back at the end of April. Since then I’ve had time to adjust to the new next thing, the software has been updated, I’ve abused the hardware, Apple and Google unveiled their Next Big Things, new memes have been released and I’ve finally finished the damn review. Amendments to my lambasting follow at the end.

tl;dr: I needed a new phone and it was time to try something new while maybe getting a bit more for my money. Oh, and I like Apple stuff, but not blindly. Honest.

No justifications, get me to the hardware part! »
No justifications, get me to the software part! »

So, I’m The Apple Stuff guy who always wades in to defend some piece of Apple kit or to say how something Apple did is better than the way everyone else did it and sticking up for the ruthless billion dollar company as if they actually needed a cheerleader. People have in the past actually apologised to me for buying a PC instead of a Mac. Quite a few people assume that I have all the latest Apple gadgets, and have one of every product line around the house. I don’t. I don’t have an iPad, or an Apple TV. I have a MacBook Pro from 2008, but no Airport or what have you. I like my Mac because for me, it is better. I get more done with Mac OS, running on well-designed Mac hardware. I got an iPhone in 2008 as an extravagance but it won me over, even with its shortcomings at the time.

I genuinely think that a lot of the Apple kit is better designed than a lot of their competitor’s products. They generally think stuff through and that is why I like their products. Even the PowerMac 8600/200 I bought while in college back in ’97, when there was talk of them folding every other week, was very well-designed. The iPhone to me is more of that same attention to detail. Everything was thought through and if it didn’t have a feature then it was the result of a conscious decision to do something this way or that way.

A modern phone as we now know it, isn’t just a piece of hardware with a screen; it also has the operating system. Apple set a benchmark with the original iPhone in this are too, and has followed pretty much the same path until last year’s controversial iOS 7. That was a departure from what came before, some gratuitous changes and what seems to me to be bad visual design just for the sake of it, buttons that are text instead of icons just for the sake of change even though they don’t fit in the given space, bizarre colour and typeface choices, that kind of thing. And even with that, it is still technically excellent and coherent (up to a point; iOS 7.1 seems to be quite unstable.).

Yes, without the iPhone, your modern Android, Windows or Blackberry – oh, wait; Blackberry 7 is still out there – would still have 4cm by 3cm screen and a big physical keyboard and a joystick. True story.

However, time moves on, and my trusty iPhone 4, lightning fast when I bought it, is now getting slower and slower, most probably because the operating system is getting more and more complex, loaded with more features and ultimately designed to deliver more for owners of newer phones. This is partly unavoidable, because new, clever features tax the phone’s ability more (Apple does disable certain features on older phones, where they won’t run well), but also, Apple hopes that I will get a newer iPhone in order to regain a snappy user experience and to get access to some of the newer hardware-restricted features. You called my bluff, Apple. I’m moving elsewhere.

So, I decided to spring for a Google Nexus phone, which is sort of designed and specified by Google but made by LG, and which is their annual effort at getting someone to make reference devices. That is, a device which is uncluttered by carrier or manufacturer modifications, runs a ‘clean’ version of Google’s latest software, demonstrates what Google would really like all the Android manufacturers to be making, and is subsidised by Google (or at least, they’re not making a big margin on it, if any). The results have been mixed in the past, and they cut corners compared to the high-end devices from Samsung, HTC and LG, but the Nexus 5 looked to me to be the ideal answer to moving off iOS/iPhone and onto Android. I liked the design very much, and I was happy enough with where the latest versions of Android seem to be going. I also want the unmodified Google release of Android, as they would like it to be experienced, and with the benefit of getting any updates immediately. I would lose my beloved iMessage (in fact, getting out of iMessage is a world of pain; it can literally take weeks to fully extract yourself from it, with the lingering sense that you didn’t quite succeed.) and have a lesser experience in quite a few apps, but trade those for entry into the world of Android on a far faster device, with a much bigger screen.

The hardware part: Nexus 5 hardware

tl;dr: Somewhat anonymous hardware at a bargain price with few shortcomings.

It’s a very nice piece of hardware, but it gives some clues to Apple’s success. Hardware is, these days, easy to make. Anyone can order up a smartphone, but the devil is in the detail, the design, the thought that has gone into the design and the sweating out of the little details.

The Good: The design is very clean, very light, it’s a beautiful no-nonsense design. Very light, it has a nice texture on back. It has a big, bright, clear screen which really is sharp contrast to the relatively tiny iPhone 4 screen. And it is very fast. It’s great on the web with that big, bright and very sharp screen, and for watching video too. Well, most of the time; The software affects this experience too…

The Bad: It has a symmetrical , somewhat anonymous design which gives few cues to device orientation, it is very hard without some roaming around with the fingers to establish which end is which (the buttons are only slightly raised from the surface). It’s slightly too big for comfortable single-handed operation. The fact that what I’m used to as hardware buttons on an iPhone are implemented in software on the Nexus 5 can actually make use a bit unpredictable.

I had originally listed ‘that flashing light’, the notification light which is on the front and which indicates a new notification, as a ‘bad’. It’s not, but it is an acquired taste. The camera isn’t bad, but it’s still behind the iPhone 4S camera. It’s partly a software issue, but I’m pretty sure that it’s also a hardware issue; the camera could be faster, and focus better. Sometimes it gets caught in an endless focus hunt. If you’re trying to capture that one special moment, you absolutely don’t want that.

I can see that Apple has sweated the details far more than LG or Google, even though I love the big screen and speed of the Nexus 5. They considered the edge cases, even if it took them in a different direction to where I would have liked to see them go with it.

The software part: Android 4.4 for Nexus

tl;dr: Android 2014 is iOS 2011. It’s good enough, but definitely not ‘better’ than iOS and there are a number of little frustrations.

Skip the waffle, give the me goods! ›

I’ve been hearing more and more about how amazing Android is, that it is so much better than iOS, that this is the way forward. And I’ve been keeping tabs on it; I already own a Nexus 4, which I’ve used as a window into the progress of Android. Before Android 4, I wasn’t impressed at all; the Samsung Galaxy user experience with Android 3.x looked to me like an exciting game based on trying to using a mobile device, with the outcome/reward being that you successfully make a call or find a contact. Android 4 without the Samsung interference seemed a lot better, and for 4.4 and the Nexus devices, Google released an updated ‘Launcher’ (the homescreen, where you select apps to run, the first thing you see when you start the device). Google also put the work into making Android faster and more efficient on lesser hardware, so it clearly isn’t going to slide backwards in performance any time soon, unlike iOS.

Bad metaphor time: Yes, the trusty car metaphor; No-one’s ever used that for computing before! Imagine your old (well-known brand) car is reaching the end of its long life and it’s time to get a new one. You could buy another, albeit a newer version, but that’s going to be expensive. Maybe too expensive; You can’t help but think that you’re paying quite a bit of overhead for that brand, as good as that model is. However, you’re aware of another brand, and everyone is recommending it, strongly even! It’s the future, this other brand! Everyone’s switching. Far better value for money, far more features, the models are all far faster and have better fuel economy, more room inside, you name it, it beats the hell out of your old brand. Your old brand is as good as finished, those freeloaders with their brand premium. So you get the new car, and indeed it is much bigger, has better fuel economy, it is much faster, has a heads-up display and so on. Revelation. Now, you know you’ll have to make some changes, different type of baby seat and this kind of thing, but that was always on the cards.

However, on the way home, it starts to rain; You discover that this new car has no windscreen wipers. Really? No, none at all, and it is raining quite hard now. After some calls, your friends tell you that this is true and no models of this brand have them, but it’s ok because you can buy really cheap ones and install them yourself, it’s really easy to do. Well, you’re not impressed because the old car had wipers, automatic ones at that, and it didn’t occur to you that it could be any other way.

And when you get home, you can’t park the car, because it has no reverse. It can only go forwards. No-one is concerned, because who actually needs to reverse park anyway? You’ll just get used to only having forward parking. And this is a lot like my experience with Android. There are things that I can’t imagine not having on a modern mobile device (or indeed, any user-centric computing device) which it just doesn’t have, while delivering in spades in other areas.

I had an epiphany about where Google is at a few weeks ago, when I got a ping from the device to let me know that it had done something and wanted me to come over and take a look at it. It had an ‘auto-awesome’ movie for me. This is where the photos and videos you take are uploaded to Google’s servers, and then software picks out the best photos and videos, and then improves them. In fact, it can take a pile of stuff that it has figured out that you took at around the same time and place, and then edits it into a new, better movie, with editing and some jump cuts, splicing some photos in, a bit of tone adjustment and cropping, some Ken Burns effects, even adding a soundtrack… Turning a straightforward video taken by me, coming home, into an automagically created creepy home movie, which would have been an appropriate intro to a horror movie or some supernatural shocker. It was strange and bizarre. Technically incredible, truly, that software could do this and do a decent job of editing it all together, but… Yeah, software doesn’t really know how to capture a moment of warm family fun; possibly, the youthful creators of the software, who likely don’t get out much or have families or know people, don’t either.

And therein lay my epiphany about where Google is at. It’s very clever, there’s no doubt about that, but shouldn’t that effort have been applied elsewhere, to polish off rough edges in Android or something else? It’s a piece of show-boating, but it doesn’t add anything. It’s what a technologist would do, just because he or she could do it, not because it should have been done or solves a problem for someone.

Ok, ok, here’s what I think of Android:

Android is clearly still chasing the iOS UI experience, and it is getting there. It looks ever more like iOS up to iOS 6, and with Android 4.4 they released an updated Launcher (the Android ‘desktop’, or homescreen) which even re-arranged the navigation to match the iOS experience. But it is a good thing, and arguably the Android interpretation may even be better, if you didn’t take to the iOS 7 experience. It really is a nice experience, if conservative. However, the ability to freely arrange app icons, to add ‘widgets’ to the homescreen, these are things that are great for the user and even though it’s not something I use a lot, it’s great to be able to do it (and I did.).

The homescreen is great in the way that I can arrange it the way I want, add widgets, change the layout of the icons. That’s very flexible, and it’s nice that I can change things to suit myself.

Overall though, I find that Android is still a bit of a disjointed experience which is missing coherence, and fit and finish. There are noticeable gaps here and there – seems to lack disciple or rigid oversight. Apps get updated often too, including Google’s own apps, and while sometimes they include big, welcome improvements, they also sometimes include bugs. This isn’t so welcome.

Missing key features:
Oh, and here’s something. You can’t change the Lock screen wallpaper to be different from the general home screen wallpaper. Odd omission.

The copy & paste functionality is… A bolted-on afterthought, and that’s being charitable. And there is no undo. In 2014, the mobile operating system of the people has no undo for text editing. Auto-suggest works very well (contextually) but only in English, at all. Terrible short-coming. For example, no Romanian spelling suggestions or auto-complete º.

A useful link about Android and ‘copy & paste’:

The video playing experience can be half-arsed in Android. In iOS, by and large, it just works. The OS swoops in and makes it all smooth and wonderful, even on old, pants hardware. In iOS, if a web page has a video and you want to play it, the OS makes it so. In Android, that same scenario is potentially a weird, frustrating game of tapping at things, hoping that you’ll end up watching the video, or a corner of it.

Android needs a security app. I mean, a malware-intercepting, virus-innoculating, customs officer of your mobile device to make sure that nothing bad happens to you or your device, even from Google Play Store. That was, and still is, a new one for me. Shouldn’t the OS be locked down?

A small diversion: I discovered via one of the security apps that I tried, that apps can modify OS settings to suit themselves, switching things on and off, leading me to think that something was wrong with Android. It asked my permission of course, but you can’t know the things an app is actually doing when it is running, and how that affects your user experience.

How do I scroll up a long page with one tap? I can’t. I have to swipe and swipe and swipe and swipe and… You get the idea. Don’t tell me that I can install a third-party browser to do this. That is true, but that suggests replacing every app that doesn’t have this feature with one that does. Or: It’s not an OS-level feature, just like ‘undo’ isn’t. It should be.

Some other points:
The Google Play Store experience is in many ways much better now than iTunes App Store, but for me vetting is a massive missing feature. It’s nice user experience. It’s handy, but also sort of creepy, that I can install apps to any of my devices from the store through a browser on the desktop.

‘Openness’ is not a feature, and what is created on the platform is still dictated by market forces. For example, for iOS there is an OWA app. That is, an app which allows the use of a Microsoft Outlook Web Access installation, which helps to negotiate the possibly circuitous authentication steps, and then presents Outlook Mail with a native interface. It’s a smart trick, actually. No such app exists for Android (none that works, at any rate). That’s purely a result of market forces. Android may be more ‘open’, but there is probably no financial incentive for the original developer or anyone else to make a good fist of such an app for Android.

That leads nicely to general app quality. It can be good, but that often is because the developer is a big name, or has an identical app on iOS (most of the time, the design has largely been honed on iOS and then ported). A lot of what’s left is between barely acceptable and terrible. That’s not to say that the apps aren’t useful, but UI design seems to be too hard to get right or they don’t care, and on a touchscreen UI design is a huge part of the experience. And even when you pay for the app you might get adverts because the developer wasn’t able to get it right. It seems pretty messy to me.

Just to address the flexibility of Android: Replacing the keyboard and the browser to make up for shortcomings of built-in features doesn’t take away from the fact that the features are missing and shouldn’t be. The ability to replace functionality is really a feature to crowd-source fixes for shortcomings of the core system instead of doing it right the first time. That’s just my opinion (I’m trolling a little bit there; It’s a good thing, up to a point, to be able to swap out some functionality.).

On being able to replace any bit of Android with some app or other, such as the keyboard:
I’m using the stock Android 4.4 keyboard, that’s kind of the point. I’m using it as Google intended it to be used. It has a great autocomplete and predictively suggests, but only in English. If I change the keyboard language, the autocomplete is effectively useless. That’s rubbish. And again, no undo? It’s 2014, for crying out loud, and the Android development team still hasn’t figured out good text handling. The editing features are at best ok. Selecting a bit of text without making an arse of things takes time and care on Android. I’m not used to this. I’m used to a basic feature like this ‘just working’.

I’m going to stick it out and hopefully they’ll catch up with the state of the art from 2009 very soon. Android is about 3 years behind (They’ve just cloned the iOS desktop experience for Android 4.4 for Nexus devices. That in itself says a lot about where the Android team think they’re at.).

I get the whole ‘In Android you can use whatever you want’ mantra that Android enthusiasts constantly repeat to me. A series of patches and fixes for what’s missing or inadequate in the core system. However, I would like to experience ‘off the shelf’ Android, as everyone but a few specialists experience it, not least because the design and technical expertise behind many of these patches is suspect. Why wouldn’t it be, when Google can afford to have a big team of the best developers working with original code and hidden APIs? Android is good, but it’s amazing what’s missing from the fit and finish. It only needs to have 80% of the functionality and 70% of the fit and finish, because it is free ºº.

ºº Sort of free. Not really, but as close as, depending on what you’re doing with it and what Google thinks about that. If you want the Google apps in your distribution, you pay for it.

Full support for spellchecking in Romanian language was added a few months ago. That took a while, but good that it has finally arrived, years later.

The iPhone 6 arrived recently. It is big and bigger, having a slightly smaller or somewhat larger screen than the Nexus 5. It has less RAM, but is probably doing more work with it, and has a fast 64-bit processor. It has, by all accounts, a fantastic camera; it is a real talking point. It is thin, has an improved screen and good battery life. However, that all comes at a cost, and it is still twice the price of the Nexus 5. But it may be enough to sway me back to an iPhone, since I still miss some of my creature comforts (although less than I used to).

There’s a great meme out there about how the iPhone is equal to the Nexus 4. LOL!!! Well, I have a Nexus 4, and it and Android 4.2 weren’t the equal of the iPhone 4 and iOS 6 for me.

Apple and Google announced their next mobile OS versions. This is the part that I believe which is harder for everyone to do. Apple introduced a new interface, some new developer features and (it seems to me) some instability with iOS 7 last year. But it had very fast uptake, several updates and has set the new UI standard. This year, they announced and subsequently released iOS 8 with new features and apparently more instability. Google announced Android 5, with… A new, flat-look UI. So if you were taking my opinion that Google is chasing iOS with a big pinch of salt, you may want to get the ladle. It’s a nice look, fixing many of the UI inconsistencies, and I look forward to it, but there’s no mistaking what influenced the Android design team. On the other hand, Apple maybe racing too far ahead, and there seems to be a growing consensus that they need to slow down the frequency of their software releases and perhaps focus on quality and stability. I hope they do.

I’ve since received the Android 5 update. It came in its own good time, when Google decided to push it out to my device, and it has been a mixed bag. It looks good, but it’s not very stable, and some of the changes have made previously simple actions much less intuitive. I’m not sure that they were necessary improvements as much as just moving to a different way of doing things (for example, in Android 4, the power button calls up a dialog to power off the device, or set the device to silent, or the volume buttons could switch on or off the buzzer too, all very easy to understand and use; in Android 5, the power button calls up a dialog to turn off the device only, and setting the degree of notification, including buzzing, involves the volume controls and a sort of on-screen panel which involves configuration and a bit of fiddling about.). Also, it was supposed to wonders for battery life, and it has done no such thing (that I can see). On the other hand, some settings and controls are much easier to access, and it does look much better.

The battery life of my Nexus 5 has cratered. It now requires two full charges a day, and I’m not the only one experiencing this. My own theory is this: The high specs of Android devices, all those gigs of RAM, those big screens, all at low, low prices, they come at a cost; the price of these high points is the battery, which takes a beating. On devices like this, getting more out of less is what matters, not big numbers, and I’m pretty sure that this is why the iPhone 4s can still hold up against the Nexus 5, even though on paper – in numbers – the Nexus 5 towers over the iPhone 4s. The iPhone 4s does much more with what it has, that’s it.

The camera still brings me close to tears with its inability to handle the concept of focusing consistently. Really, it can take a nice photo, sometimes. The other times, it has trouble holding focus, which is terrible.

And of course my perennial favourite, the labeling of anyone who buys Apple gear as one of the ‘Sheeple’. I can’t even.

Follow-on: A conclusion on having switched