12/10/13 UPDATE: The Android 4.2.2 update made a huge difference in the photo quality. Take a look on my Google+ page if so inclined.
Last year, I got and posted my thoughts on the Neuxs 7. From time to time, I get an itch to see what is going on in the Android world and get my hands on a device to see how things stack up to iOS. I’ve been a fan of Nexus devices mainly because they are quickly updated, generally sold unlocked, and don’t feature the bloatware that HTC and Samsung put on their phones. I’ve owned a Galaxy Nexus, a Nexus 7 (a tablet) and now the Nexus 5. It’s a 5-inch smartphone made by LG but sold by Google and features the latest version of the Android operating system. While I currently own an Apple iPhone 5, I’ve had a desire to try out Android more seriously because of the direction iOS 7 is taking us.
So, without further delay…
Out of the gate, I was pretty impressed with the Nexus 5. The packaging was similar to what I’ve seen in the other product offerings from Google – minimal, colorful and easy to get to the product. They’re taking cues from Apple in this area for sure, and it shows.
The phone has the same rubberized back that is on the 7, which feels nice in your hand but you wonder how long it’ll last before falling apart. It also shows fingerprints and smudges quite easily, so I’m not sure how I feel about that. While extremely lightweight, the phone is very thin but wide and tall. I’m coming from an iPhone 5, but the phone is just a bit too big for my tastes. It’s tough to easily hold with one hand sometimes and I’m afraid I might drop it. That being said, the screen is bright and beautiful, but it’s hard to get over how huge it feels in my hands and I’m not able to touch every part of the screen easily. I’m sure over time I’d adjust to this, but it’s definitely something that is always in my mind when using the Nexus – how stinking big it is.
The camera lens protrudes a bit out of the back, and it seems like the sort of thing that could easily get it broken or scratched. Quality wise, the photos are quite good, but actually taking the photos is unbearably slow. Invoking the shutter takes a few seconds at times which makes it nearly impossible to get shots of my son, who I used as a test subject (and I just like taking pictures of the little guy). If you can manage to get a good shot, the colors are rich and the depth of field seems very good as well. However, that slow shutter speed is a killer. Apparently Android 4.4.1 will drastically improve the camera speed and quality, which gives me hope that it’s more of a software issue than a hardware one.
Overall battery life seems on par with my iPhone 5 (keep in mind that’s a phone with over a year of use). Idling, they use about 5% of energy every hour, and can go 12+ hours without a charge with fairly regular use. The Nexus 5 has Qi charging, which is a standard for inductive wireless charging much like the Nexus 7 and others. It’s so nice to be able to simply place it on a pad and have the device charge up.
Hardware wise, I’m quite impressed with this device. It’s light and thin, but the overall screen size and protruding camera do concern me a bit. Further, the camera shutter speed is extremely slow but future software updates will address this.
I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but I think I like the UI of Android better than that of iOS 7. I feel that the recent moves Apple made make the OS less intuitive, more generic-looking (every app is basically an entirely white canvas with text buttons), and the icon styles on the first party apps are particularly horrendous. Not everything is bad about Apple’s newest OS – the background updating feature makes things feel faster but it’s sadly overshadowed by the direction iOS 7 took visually. I think these issues will eventually be remedied by 3rd party developers and Apple alike, but I do wonder if the folks in Cupertino are biting off more than they can chew these days. All that is to say, Android looks and acts the way I’d like a mobile OS to, and I think it’s time to give it a serious shot.
Android’s notifications and background updating run circles around what iOS offers, without sacrificing battery life as Apple bloggers love to talk about. This may have been a problem in the past or I just don’t use apps that hog the battery, but the battery life is comparable. Android’s notification shade makes it so much faster and easier to catch up on everything that you’ve missed since last using your device and you don’t have to play whack-a-mole with badges on every app, either. That sounds trivial but it’s a vastly superior way to use your device and going back to iOS notifications after using Android for a while is painful. KitKat refines a lot of the things under the hood with Android all while putting a fresh coat of paint on the OS, making things look a bit more uniform. Scrolling is snappy, which is a change from previous Android phones I’ve used.
Google Now’s predictive search card interface is easily accessible from the home screen and is a huge improvement over Siri in a lot of ways, but you can also do a lot more with Siri conversationally right now. Setting reminders, texts and emails are a bit easier with Siri still but searching the web and getting answers to basic questions is way easier with Google Now.
The entire OS feels snappy and the good Android software is starting to become easier to find. Things are looking more consistent, and developers are paying attention to the little things. All in all, KitKat’s software update lacks a ton of surface features but nips and tucks in all the right places to offer a very good user experience. Right now, Android works the way I’d like my phone to better than iOS does.
Apps & Exclusives
Android and the apps that are in the Play store have come a long way even in the past year. It’s still a very phone-focused store, with most tablet apps just being blown up versions of the phone app. There are a few things that are going to make it extremely diffiuclt to ditch iOS whole hog, though. An an exercise, here are the apps on my iOS home screen right now along with their alternatives if they exist:
- OmniFocus (no viable alternative. Wunderlist or Any.DO are cross platform but neither holds a candle to OmniFocus.)
- Calendars 5 (nothing as polished on Android but stock Calendars app or Calendars by Any.DO will suffice)
- Evernote (Good Android version available)
- Check the Weather (nothing quite as good but lots of alternatives)
- Rdio (Average Android version available. Syncs in background, which is a huge plus)
- Pocket Casts (Great Android version available)
- Photos (No Photo Stream alternative available, but the G+ Photos feature is close. Offers some things better but sharing to iOS users won’t be as easy.)
- Day One (No alternative available. Apparently there is an Android version in the works, but for now I’d have to give up Day One on my phone)
- Tweetbot (Sadly, nothing even close. Falcon Pro or Tweedle is the best you’ll do)
- Instapaper (Good Android version available)
- Reeder (Press is better than Reeder, so no dropoff here)
- 1Password (Awful Android version available, but v4 for Android is in beta now)
- Pincase (Nothing close available for Pinboard users on Android)
- Chrome (Superior Android version available)
- Instagram (Good Android verison available)
- Byword (Good dropbox text editor alternatives available, nothing quite at the level of Byword though)
- Google Drive (Superior Android version available)
- Drafts (Can’t find anything close, but it’s not as needed given the way Intents work on Android)
- Mail (Gmail or built in Mail app will do)
- Messages (Google Hangouts fills this void but I’d be giving up iMessages. This is a huge deal given some of my family don’t text that much but do send messages from their iPads a lot to me).
- Phone (Android’s phone app is amazing, huge upgrade here)
- Camera (Downgrade, photo quality and the app itself are a big step down right now)
Writing this all out makes it clear there are alternatives available, but iOS apps are generally so much more polished than their Android alternatives.
A few notes:
- Rdio kinda stinks on Android. Taps sometimes don’t register, it’s slow, loses connection at times and just feels buggy. However, it syncs tracks in the background and that’s amazing.
- Chrome for Android is so much faster than anything I’ve ever used on a mobile device.
- There are just no great calendar apps for Android. Odd how that’s a UI playground on iOS but a wasteland on Android.
- Swiftkey is magical most of the time. After using it for a few days, I really hate the iOS keyboard.
- Most apps I use now have great Android versions. There are a few exceptions, but generally you can use both OSes and have everything in sync between the two platforms.
So, how to switch. I’m currently on Verizon so I’m considering paying an ETF and switching to Ting. They will pay 25% of that cost and if you use a promo code (by clicking on this link) you can get a $25 off your first device or your service. Since it’s no contract, if the coverage sucks I can switch onto my wife’s AT&T plan or another prepaid plan. I could then sell my iPhone to even further recoup costs.
Is it worth it?
That’s a good question. Android for me has finally crossed into that “good enough” territory where there isn’t a great reason to NOT use either platform. Android does a lot of things way better than iOS and the contrary is definitely true as well. If you’re an Apple loyalist that’s a scary thought I suppose, but in my opinion it just opens the doors for consumers. If Apple has to do more to keep folks from jumping to Android they’re going to have to do one of two things:
- Get better at the things that are currently weaknesses (good for consumers)
- Create more vendor lock-in (bad for consumers)
Apple tends to do best when they are an underdog anyway. They’re not the best ‘benevolent dictator’ (nor is any tech company FWIW). In a lot of ways, the fact that both companies offer a product that’s 80% the same and both do 10% better on each side makes a decision even more difficult. As I said though, this is a great time for consumers, as even Apple nerds have a viable alternative finally.
That still doesn’t answer the question, though. What am I going to do? Let’s break it down one last time.
- I’m kind of bored with iOS and don’t feel Apple is moving in the right direction with their mobile products. It seems as if they are either out of ideas or have bitten off more than they can chew.
- Android offers a lot of system level stuff that makes for a better experience and Apple will probably never match it.
- I can use an unlocked Nexus 5 on any non-Verizon carrier and save a lot of dough.
- Most of the apps and services I use are platform-agnostic so either platform can serve my needs.
- I have an iPad and an iPod touch so it’s not like I’m abandoning the iOS ecosystem anyway. Great games and apps can still be used on my other devices.
- There are a lot of great iOS apps and games I’d be giving up by moving to Android.
- Google does some shady stuff with your data. Do I want to further invest in that ecosystem?
- A lot of the cool stuff Android allows isn’t even taken advantage of by developers at this time. It’s nothing like the iOS ecosystem, where developers are always using the latest and greatest APIs.
- The camera on the Nexus 5 isn’t up to par at all.
I’m genuinely torn for the first time. The tradeoff is a drastically cheaper phone bill (to the tune of $500+ a year, on top of $225ish that I can net for an iPhone 5 on Gazelle) along with a more intuitive operating system in exchange for not having access to some of the amazing apps I have grown to love and rely on (at least on my phone). I know there are tons of Android gems out there that I don’t know of right now and it’s possible that if I do switch, I’ll find better alternatives for some of the apps I feel like I’d be giving up. I think I’d be willing to do that as long as I can still use my phone as a camera when out and about or around the house, as I love to take photos and videos of my son. Right now. that’s just not possible.
That’s a really long winded way of saying that I’m going to wait for Android 4.4.1 to see if the camera improves at the level that the Verge writers say it does. If that’s the case, I think that I’m going to sell my iPhone after the holiday season and give the Nexus 5 a go until I either run back screaming to an iPhone or post here again saying I’m an Android user for the foreseeable future.