iPhone to Droid X: Lots More Good Than Bad
It’s been almost 4 weeks now since I left my iPhone behind for a launch day Droid X. I gave my quick impressions earlier; now I want to dive a little deeper.
Android Goodness: More Than I Expected
I had pretty low expectations for the Droid X and Android in general when I started; my high expectations were reserved for the combination of Motorola and Verizon’s engineering. Coming from Apple’s “Style is God” methodology, I expected a jarring transition. But you know what?
Nice damn OS, Android.
Android, at least at version 2.1, is pretty polished. Don’t get me wrong, it is nowhere near Apple’s level of polish, but it is much more than usable. Most of the rough edges look pretty simple to fix, so I’ll be really interested to see what Froyo brings at the end of the summer.
Particularly, the default widgets that most apps use are … stark. UI elements like lists, choosers, radio buttons, etc., are really simplistic, really industrial. Really boring. Coming from iOS, it can seem downright nasty at times.
But new widgets? Polishing existing ones? That’s some low-hanging fruit. Hard to get to bothered by it.
So for me, it looks pretty good. Some of the goodness:
- Pluggable Home/Launch managers. I use Launcher Pro and SmartBar, which gives me both an Expose-like home launch pad, with 7 separate screens and direct access from the notifications bar.
- Speaking of which, Oh My God, how nice is the notification framework? The boys in Cupertino should be walking around shamefaced. Until you use it you might be hard-pressed to understand how well it works, and how badly it does not work on the iPhone. But it is a real wow. The slide-down interface is just beautiful and intuitive.
- Multitasking. Yeah, the iPhone has this now, but it is hard to imagine they did it better than Android does it. Yes, there are lousily written apps who don’t background well; they get deleted real fast. And you really don’t need to stop background apps; well-written apps take up no resources when quiescent. It all just works, and you spend no time thinking about it unless you run into a badly written app.
- Apps. Man, there are a lot of good apps. Most come within 90-95% of their iPhone counterparts. The brand name apps, like the Amazon app, ESPN’s apps, Amazon’s Kindle app, Evernote, and such are often better than their iPhone counterparts.
- Universal search. I had missed this in my first week until a commenter clued me in. The search button is not just a configurable machine-wide search, oh no, that would be plebian. No, when you press it inside and app, you get a context sensitive, app-specific search. Brilliant!
- The Android Market is pretty good. Oh sure, there is no “Freedom from Porn”, but there are a lot of good apps, and it is as useful for app discovery as Apple’s App Store is (er, not useful at all. Sigh).
- Wifi Tethering. I don’t need to tether often, but when I do, I do. I rooted my phone quickly, just so I could use one of the many apps in the Marketplace to tether my laptop via Wifi. Worked flawlessly, no extra charge.
- The Droid X’s battery life is a large step up from my 3GS. I understand the iPhone 4’s battery life is a big improvement, but I can make it a day with heavy streaming with the stock battery in the X, and I’ll be happy to add 1mm of thickness to the phone for an additional 50% of battery life when the extended battery comes out. I can do that because, er, I can replace the damn battery myself.
- The touchscreen is much closer to the iPhone’s than I expected. I had heard horror stories about Android phone screens being much less responsive than the iPhone screen, so I was worried. Two years ago I flirted with a Samsung Omnia before giving up on Verizon for an iPhone; the touch screen was an embarrassment. So I was worried about the touchscreen. But at least on the Droid X, the touch screen’s performance is very close to Apple’s in everyday use. Nice.
- Swype, which I know is hard to get for lots of phones, is a dream. One finger typing works much better when you are swyping as opposed to typing; after three weeks with Swype I am faster at text entry than I was after two years on the iPhone.
- Long-press keyboard options. This is ridiculously great: long-press ‘f’, get ‘5’. Long-press ‘w’, get ‘@’. Long-press ‘e’, get ‘#’. Like, OMG! So useful. Much better than Apple’s semi-customized keyboards. Particularly, in Twitter, having ‘#’ available from the main keyboard is a real timesaver. It always bugged that ‘#’ was two modes away when composing Tweets.
- Oh, the Google apps. Maps, Latitude, Nav — those Google apps are really sweet.
- Ringtones are easy. With Ringdroid you can just pick snippets from songs, no problem.
- NO ITUNES! Yippee yay! Being released from the iTunes shackles is a real win for me. I buy my music from Amazon, what I don’t stream from Rhapsody that is. Syncing is easy, thanks to mounting the SD Card as a mass storage device.
The Case of The Astonishing Back Button
The Back button, it is wonderful. I said this before, and after nearly a month I am even more convinced, the lowly back button is the most significant architectural advantage for Android. Essentially, by codifying your navigation between apps, it effectively blurs the line between applications themselves.
You know how every Twitter app on the iPhone has its own built in browser? And how each embedded browser works almost, but not quite like, all the other embedded browsers? With each embedded browser having different buttons, different scaling strategies, different rules for rotation? All of this exists to prevent you from having to leave your Twitter app and go to Safari, which would render the link properly. Going from TweetDeck to Safari is a big deal. After you switch to Safari, when you are done reading the link, looking at the picture, whatever, then you are stuck at a precipice — you want to go back to TweetDeck right where you left off. How do you do that? Home. Restart TweetDeck. Hope it is written such that you pick of where you left off. But traversing through the Home key and the Springboard is incredibly interruptive. Indeed, leaving TweetDeck or any other app in order to go to Safari feels like a huge step on the iPhone.
Contrast that with the Android Way: just click on the link, and whatever app you set as the default handler for that action springs open. Noise around, read it, whatever. Then just hit the back button and you are right where you left off. No barrier. It truly blurs the line between applications. It makes incredibly good use of Android’s multitasking nature to provide a serial computing experience. Really, really cool. You can string hops between apps together as deep as you like, then wend your way back. It just works.
And apps that ignore this paradigm are annoying. NewsRob, an otherwise decent Google Reader client, insists on embedding a browser inside the app. This just sucks, so I stopped using it.
Motorola Goodness: Hello Moto!
I was a fan of my old Moto phones. Mainly, this was a fondness built on reception quality and build quality. My old Moto’s were incredibly resilient (my old Moto Q still powers up at this point) and I always had great call quality. So I was hopeful the Droid X would live up to my expections in terms of hardware.
Moto, take a bow. Really.
The Droid X is built. No, it is not the Bauhaus dream of Apple’s iPhone, but at least it isn’t so slippery that I drop it constantly. No, this Droid model is too large to easily pocket, but it is, as my sister remarked: “…. so big, it is like using an iPad!” Everything about it is solid, and the radio is a dream. Check it out: I have yet to drop a call. In three weeks. Moto/Verizon FTW!
The Motorola software is far more hit and miss. I eschew much of the MotoBlur stuff as less than useful candy. But thankfully, if you ignore it, it ignores you. The bloatware is ignorable but it bugs nonetheless because you can’t easily delete it. I still can’t get my hands on an extended battery, which will (hopefully) let me ignore battery charging for the day completely. I pine for a Mini-USB conenction, but Micro-USB is much better than some properietary connector. (I like Mini better than Micro because the slightly larger form factor seems far more durable. Time will tell.) And so far, the phone has worked with a wide variety of random Micro-USB cables and chargers I had lying around. A far cry from my Moto Q which was very finicky about which cable it used.
Somehow, the Droid X seems like it will still be fully functional long after I am seduced onto a new phone. My 3GS, on the other hand, has a noticeably degraded battery after a year. Sigh.
I know the Droid X is currently a top-of-the-line phone (along with the EVO and the Galaxy S), but I see no slowdowns in the software. This thing is fast.
The Bad: Growing Pains Abound
Somethings are just not there yet. For example:
- IMAP email is very weak. Really weak. Even the third party clients are weak.
- Just like on the iPhone, no unified IM client that supports Jabber multi-user chat.
- Every couple of days, you do need to reboot the phone. This is not an Apple experience.
- Really, there is no cellular data while you are in a call. Mostly not a problem, but occasionally a real annoyance.
- No support for Apple’s switch/volume control headset interface. Poor headset switch integration in general, unless I am missing some app that let’s me set this up. And because of the missing volume control on the headset, the phone doesn’t know the different between being plugged into speakers and plugged into a headset like the iPhone did. Grr.
- No cloud push in Android 2.1. I know this is coming, but it is a hole.
- HD Video recording and Camera is merely OK. And the fact that it doesn’t understand what orientation you took the picture in is a big inconvenience.
- When you want to add a shortcut to your desktop, or search your apps, it takes forever for the OS to list and sort the installed apps. Like a minute. Really nuts. I hope this is better in Froyo.
- Separate email apps for Gmail and everything else. Yeah, Moto has a unified inbox, but it is weak. iOS 4 does it better.
- You can’t remap all the long press variants of all the buttons at will; Moto seems to have hard-coded some of them. Stupidly.
- Many, many of my fave games are missing. In particular, Glu Games excellent Glyder series is missing, as is the ever-popular Angry Birds.
- The whole mount/unmount the SD Card thing is unnecessarily complicated. WinMo (surprisingly) had this right: it just mounted the whole device as a USB mass storage device with the SD Card as a subdirectory. You know, the way the Android file manager shows it. This was much more sensible than the “either the internal memory/or mount the SD Card separately” garbage Android is saddled with now. Blah.
One Network Irritant
One irritating issue I have, however, derives from one of Android’s strengths. Mainly, the OS (and therefore the apps) are really clunky at switching between voice/data/wifi. This was something Apple clearly worked at on the iPhone, and assuming the iPhone’s radio and AT&T’s network were up to it, it was as seamless as possible.
On the Droid X however, things are rougher. When Wifi is on, 3G data seems to be turned off completely. Saves power I suspect. This is all well and good, but when Wifi is lost, it takes some time (seconds) for the OS to notice and decide it is really gone, then it takes a bit for 3G data to come back up. Streaming apps (Cherry RPlayer, ESPN Radio, MLB At Bat for example) seem to be written with more understanding of this than their iOS counterparts as they work much harder to reconnect automatically when the signal is interrupted. The net effect is you get more service interruptions as you move around, but the apps keep trying until the stream comes back. This is better, in my opinion, than the iPhone experience where it worked great while it worked, but most apps were very fragile if there was any data service interruption.
I suspect this all stems from the combination of CDMA 3G’s split between voice and data, and Android/Motorola’s power saving software. So … it bugs me, but I understand it, and think it is better than the iPhone experience. Meh.
Froyo Next Month
Android 2.2, codenamed Froyo, is due for the Droid X the beginning of September. I am very curious to see what it adds. If the past is prologue, I’ll like it a lot; the current reviews on Nexus One devices are vary favorable.
Am I Happy?
Oooooooh yeah. I was always a reluctant Apple customer, hating iTunes, uncomfortable with the App Store policies, and loathing the dropped calls. But I loved my iPhones for the power they gave me; and will always think well of Steve for what he birthed.
But my Droid X is a far better app phone than my old iPhone.