On switching to Android from Windows Phone

About a month ago I purchased a Galaxy S4 Android smartphone to replace my Lumia 920 Windows Phone. I didn’t take this decision lightly, and I do very much have a vested interest in seeing Windows Phone succeed in the marketplace. I feel I’ve gained quite a lot of perspective in the past few weeks after making this switch, and I’ve invested significant time in using the operating system and some of the different applications which it has to offer, especially focused on power user scenarios. While my reaction was initially very positive (as with many gadgets), over time I’ve come to a more balanced feeling on both platforms.

First, I’ll give a little background so you can understand where I’m coming from in terms of different platforms. I primarily use Windows on all devices, and I tend to avoid Google services with the exception of Maps/Search. I used to be a heavy Gmail user but switched to Office 365 last year after the Gmail web interface changed and became cumbersome. I’ve been using a smartphone since 2006, when I switched from a Motorola Razr to a Samsung Blackjack (Windows Mobile 6). Since then I’ve owned the following phones: iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 4, Samsung Focus (WP7), HTC Titan (WP7), Lumia 920 (WP8), and now the Galaxy S4. I was exceedingly enthusiastic about the original iPhone and admittedly felt a sense of withdrawal when switching out of the Apple ecosystem and onto the first Windows Phone. I do not have adequate perspective on iOS versions higher than 4, so I won’t make too many corollaries to that ecosystem.

While I had briefly used Android phones running version 2.2/2.3, I did not feel that they provided a good enough experience to consider as a platform worth using every day. It’s important to me that the phone be quick and reliable, though I also did find that Android 2.x was not very attractive as well. Task killers and other such management software were seemingly required in the 2.x days, though I do realize that some asserted they were not necessary even at that point in time. It is irrelevant however, as I primarily felt that the UX was just not quick enough to prevent frustration with simple interface manipulation. Hardware-wise, I did find many Android smartphones to be acceptable. Many complain that only the iPhone “feels right” or other such vague complaints, but I have found the vast majority of mainstream phones to have a good physical feel and acceptable size/weight/etc. characteristics.

While I still like and appreciate the design of the Windows Phone software, I became increasingly frustrated with my Lumia 920 throughout the 6 months in which it was the only device that I carried. First and foremost, I found that the hardware design was simply fair. The body of the phone is sturdy, but I always find that gripping the device is challenging. The phone simply does not “stick” to my hand, and this was frequently frustrating as there was concern that it’d drop onto the ground. This problem actually plagued the original iPhone, and was corrected in the 3G edition, but was since undone in later versions as well. Perhaps I have different standards or there are other factors at play, but I simply felt that the phone was hard to hold confidently.

Software-wise, I found that while Windows Phone is very polished, it did not always enable me to get things done quickly or to execute long-running tasks. The system is designed around apps having very little say in when they execute and when they are suspended. In many ways this truly is advantageous, I can have complete confidence that when I turn off the screen and place the phone into my pocket, nothing is running and nothing is draining my battery. Some tasks can complete once the application has been closed, such as ongoing music or background upload/download. This is helpful and certainly these are necessary contracts, but there is another user confidence issue that comes about with selectively executing programs in the background. The issue is that when only certain tasks can complete after leaving the app, the user cannot predict which tasks will and will not be broken by switching away from the running application. There is even a second issue in that while applications can run “under” the lock screen, they will prompt to do so only once, and the application itself must decide whether or not running under the lock screen is necessary. Since the prompt only occurs once and I find myself to be fickle about allowing permissions without first understanding the ramifications, it’s unclear what the app will do when the screen is shut off. I’m not yet making a judgment call on which user confidence issue is worth addressing, but merely calling out that both approaches have a confidence problem that is to be reconciled or ignored.

After visiting a friend back home and briefly playing with his GS4, I was pretty blown away seeing the slickness of both the hardware and the system software. After doing a little research and determining that the S4 was currently best-in-class, I took the plunge and ordered one online. At the same time, I did some research on accessories (just for kicks initially), and also ordered a USB cable (to provide a full-sized USB port on the phone), and HDMI cable, and a Qi wireless charging adapter that fits snugly inside the phone. These accessories are hardly necessary but I wanted to see how powerful this platform could be, and all together it was pretty inexpensive.

The stock system software on the at&t GS4 works nicely. I did not have any serious problems with the included value-add apps, though most of them were ignored as they didn’t add value to the experience I wanted or the things I used the phone for. Samsung has included a number of “Smart”-branded features, all of which I found gimmicky and ultimately not useful. Actually, I was unable to even get the vast majority to work at all. Ultimately using your hand to scroll the phone is unlikely to be useful in all but the most contrived use cases. I did find it interesting how much of the tech journalism surrounding these features amounted to “These things don’t really work, but ‘A for effort’ anyway.” Regardless, they can all be switched off and fundamentally did not degrade the user experience. The one feature that I did appreciate (having since switched to Cyanogenmod) was the ability to run multiple apps on the screen at the same time. For those of us who want to use our phones more like a powerful pocket computer than a temporary view into our world, that’s a breath of fresh air. It wasn’t perfect and was actually a little bit confusing to set up, but it is a solid value-add.

After recognizing how much Samsung had changed Android (with TouchWiz), I wanted to take a look at what a Google experience looked like. I have a lot of respect for the engineering work going on at Google, so I did (and continue to) believe that their experience would be better. After surfing XDA and building a list of ROMs I wanted to try out, I was able to install 4 or 5 of them before arriving at a “pure Google” ROM and then finally Cyanogenmod. My opinion is that the vast majority of ROMs are unstable and broken in some way—I would not bother with them again, but Cyanogenmod has very high quality. The “pure Google” ROM was also very good, though Cyanogenmod has a number of options which I would not like to give up (for example, the built-in LED notification light configuration options). One caveat with the current Cyanogenmod build I’m using is that Miracast (Wireless Display) is no longer functional. This is disappointing but is something I can live with, other ROMs had major performance/battery problems or unworkable USB MTP mode, which is unacceptable.

Having settled on a ROM and installed many of my favorite apps, I turned my focus to organizing them. I’m not fond of the launcher choices on Android. Both the default launcher (Trebuchet) and popular third party ones (Nova, ADW, etc.) do not offer anything more than a surface to pin widgets, and a grid of icons. There is a high level of customization in terms of how folders work, the number of rows/columns and the orientation of pages, but fundamentally they feel like a different take on the same experience. I’m not proud to say that ultimately I have settled on Launcher8, which is a Windows Phone 8 Start screen imitation. Launcher8 is not without bugs, and due to my widget configuration UI lag is introduced, but I found it to be the only workable launching surface. Without having a grid system to align widgets to, they do not fit together well and are simply not visually pleasing. Many are confused when I attempt to explain this, but after assembling many information sources into compatible widgets, I simply found that a grid of icons with widgets mashed in didn’t provide an appropriate amount of information density. Again, I’m not happy that the WP8 imitation was the only workable solution, as my intent was never to make my Android phone look like a Windows Phone. It is however telling of the platform that I’m able to take one of the best features from a competitor and successfully make my experience whole. Furthermore, I found that the “app drawer” with pagination was unwieldy and hard to scan. Nova and other launchers thankfully support a one-dimensional list of apps, which Launcher8 also supports. Perhaps I’m just stuck in the Windows Phone design philosophy at this point, but I continue to feel that scanning discrete pages of apps is not a great experience on mobile devices.

I’ve found that many of the mainstream apps on Android are quite striking, with good UI design and great attention to the details. Twitter is beautiful and slick, taking many design cues from other platforms to create a really top-notch app. Some apps, like myAT&T still use the Android 2.x visuals, which are pretty displeasing, but the app itself is fully functional and it isn’t a much of a problem. In general the lack of consistency on Android is still very much prevalent, but I found that while the UI might be unexpected, it’s always easy to use and straightforward. When it comes to the UX of the device, the most striking thing I’ve found consistency-wise is how often the device will throw out technical jargon. I certainly do appreciate a device that puts me in control, though I wonder how workable this can be for the masses. I know many real people that find Android confusing, so I think the problem should not be understated, but the mainstream parts of the system work really well and are straightforward. Sometimes there is too much chrome, but often there is just the right amount to understand the context and next steps, which is appreciated.

One of the most interesting apps on Android that I’ve used is called Tasker. Tasker allows you to configure specific profiles based on contexts which the phone can monitor. For example the AC power charging state of the device, geographical location, events like “screen on” and so much more. These triggers can be used to launch tasks, which can in turn change state on the device, call web services, set variables, or update widgets (with the help of Minimalistic Text). Tasker is incredibly powerful and amazingly it is pretty straightforward to use given how much power it offers. I very much appreciate that I can set up a profile that says “if I’m near work, mute my phone” and “if I’m at home, turn the sounds on.” This example may seem trivial, and it actually is, but this is only scratching the surface of what is possible. Another profile I have set is “alarm done” which will use Text-to-Speech after calling a web service and give me a “morning briefing” with news and weather after my alarms is silenced. I could live without all of this, but again I appreciate the power this offers. For me, this is a platform differentiator.

My biggest complaint with Android is the email situation, specifically Exchange. I’ve tried just about every EAS/MAPI app in the Play Store, and found them all to be absolutely unacceptable. Either the UI is clunky or some key feature is completely missing. Initially I rejected Google’s built-in Email app because it enforced whole-device encryption, but after circling back through all of the other options, I’ve found that Google’s app is by far the best. This is a severe disappointment and regression from Windows Phone, where email is powerful and a joy to use. Note that I have no opinion on the Gmail app, since I no longer use nor want to use Gmail. I do suspect however that the Gmail app is a much better experience.

Additionally I feel that I can no longer have true confidence in my phone. It’s not that Android has failed me very many times, but I just have a hard time trusting it to be there in the way that I was always able to trust my iPhone or Windows Phone. While traveling across the country last week I took pause and also took along my Windows Phone, just in case. Thankfully I didn’t need it but it’s just hard to shake the feeling that the software on this device might just implode one day. Android provides you all the power to shoot yourself in the foot if you like (which, again, I do appreciate). Once I accidentally disabled the startup entry for the Alarms app, but that was completely my fault. Right now I see a random reboot roughly once per week, which is not great but most devices I’ve owned would reboot out of the blue at some semi-frequent pace. I’ll call that acceptable until it happens while I’m trying to answer a call. :)

I’m sticking with Android for now, but I’m still open to see what the next version of Windows Phone offers, and even iPhone if a large-screen variant comes into existence.

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August 17, 2013