A guide to Android

The Android ecosystem is an unforgiving place. Buying a phone that offers the same ownership experience you get with an iPhone is difficult and requires a lot of luck or some serious research on your part. Many owners end up with a sub-par experience – with poor battery life, stability and nasty user interfaces being common complaints.

People often say that the open nature of Android is it’s greatest strength, but it’s also responsible for a number of issues – and more often than not it’s the users end up owning these problems, not Google.

When I decided to abandon Windows Phone in June, I was only five months into an 18 month contract so needed to buy a replacement phone outright, and the htc HD7 was only worth £140 on trade-in. This ruled out the iPhone 4 which was still fetching £350-£400 second hand. Initially I considered a second-hand htc Desire but decided not to get another htc phone after my disappointment with various aspects of the HD7. As luck would have it, the Samsung Galaxy S2 had launched recently and a couple of retailers were selling off the original Galaxy S at a discount. I picked a new one up for £210 – a bargain for what is still a very good phone even in the face of the newer model.

The Galaxy S is a great piece of hardware. It’s amazingly light, but still feels well built. The screen is glorious – the Super AMOLED technology provides vibrant colour reproduction and huge contrast. Black really is black on this screen, and the brightness is good enough to be usable outside in strong sunlight. Screen size is perfect – personally I find 4 inch screens to be the sweet spot on phones. They are larger than the cramped-feeling 3.5″ screens of the iPhone, but still small enough to be able to use one-handed when needed. The only disappointment is the cheap-feeling home button, which quite often feels like it’s sticking, and the surface isn’t tough enough to resist getting covered in fine scratches from thumb nails.

An obvious thing to say about the Galaxy S is that it’s design really apes the iPhone (the 3G/3GS rather than the 4). This is also true of the customised version of Android the phone runs. The app drawer has been modified so that instead of scrolling vertically, you flick it horizontally and dots indicate which page you’re on. It’s very, very similar to the iOS home screen and is part of the reason why Samsung is being sued by Apple for infringing on a number of patents.

Samsung's ugly SMS app

The included applications and widgets are nothing to get excited about, and some of the visuals are distractingly awful. The SMS messaging app looks hideous, as does the social networking widget which has a garish pink header area that can’t be changed. This is surprising from a large manufacturer like Samsung, and spoils the overall phone experience. I also disliked the lock screen which is awkward to unlock – requiring a longer swipe than is ideal.

Fortunately, Android’s openness can save us from the less-than-perfect Samsung ROM. Within a day or two I’d got frustrated, rooted the phone and started to try a number of different ROMs. Generally, Android ROMs fall into three categories – those based on the manufacturer ROM but with modifications, “pure Android” ROMs like Cyanogen, and custom builds like MIUI. After trying a couple of Samsung-based ROMs I quickly moved on to Cyanogen Mod 7 (CM7).

CM7 improved my phone significantly – the pure Android interface is clean, clear and feels authentic, like it was all designed by the same team. It’s a bit plainer than iOS or Windows Phone in visual impact, but is still stylish in a low-key way. But CM7 isn’t just a build of standard Android, it includes lots of power-user settings and features which can be very useful. Almost every part of the OS has detailed customisation options, but if you don’t need any of this it never gets in the way.

The downside to installing a ROM like Cyanogen is that it can bring compatibility problems with your hardware. The most common issue is that the camera won’t work as well as it should do, and extra features like the FM radio on the Galaxy S won’t work at all. When I first installed Cyanogen these were all definite problems, along with terrible battery life. For some reason, the battery would drain quickly even when the phone wasn’t in use. The situation was so bad that I had to switch to a different ROM. A few months later and all of these issues are largely resolved, thanks to the developers. Battery life is still not incredible, but it will last the day even with heavy use – which is all I ever expect of a smartphone. The camera now works very well including shooting video footage, and even the FM radio is now functional.

Android myths and misinformation

Android is great for geeks and tech-heads who have the skills and time to spend trying different ROMs to find something that suits them. This can be a thankless task though, especially if you are unlucky. When I was running MIUI, I installed a weekly update that didn’t have a functioning onscreen keyboard, making the phone unusable. Also, no ROM is perfect. They are usually weak in one area or another – as well as battery life issues some have incorrect regional settings, task killers that cause apps to crash and more.

The problem with Android is when the geeks start telling non-technical users that Android is the best option for them. This is just not true -the iPhone is still the best option for people who need a product that has been done right out-of-the-box, and will work reliably without maintenance and tweaks.

People often quote the openness of Android as a reason for buying, but in reality does it make a difference to the user – or is it just the moral crusade of those who are against Apple? Well, there are some apps you can get for Android that are unavailable for iOS – one kind that springs to mind are emulators for running old games. These usually fall foul of copyright and technical restrictions in the iOS App Store. When I had an iPhone I was jealous of this, but with Android I can’t be bothered to run these kinds of programs because of the fundamental problem that playing non-touchscreen games on a touchscreen phone with no hardware buttons sucks. However, I did buy an album out of the Amazon MP3 store for £3.49 which was £7.99 on iTunes. That felt good. iPhone users don’t have any third party options for buying media directly on the phone, although iTunes will happily import and sync any MP3 files, including ones you’ve bought off Amazon or via less official means.

Android’s multitasking is seen as powerful and an advantage over the iPhone, especially when iOS didn’t allow third-party apps to run in the background. While Android multitasking is powerful, but the problem of battery usage is left in the hands of the users. Turn on all the Android auto-sync services and run a few apps or widgets that get data off the internet, and the battery will take a hammering. A misbehaving background service can get stuck in a loop and drain the battery within an hour or two.

The truth is that on a mobile device, multitasking is only needed in limited scenarios – the main one being listening to music in the background. With this in mind, Apple chose to implement a locked down multitasking system on the iPhone that suspends applications and only allows very limited kinds of services to carry on running, ensuring battery life if perserved. Windows Phone 7 has also followed this model, and it really is the best way.

The Android marketplace is very well populated with software, but things are not perfect. Android users are less willing to pay for apps, so developers sometimes stay away. Take the benchmark game – Angry Birds – it’s available but only as a free ad-supported version. If you want to pay to remove the annoying ads, you can’t. The diversity of Android hardware also causes problems for game developers, so the range is more limited. At least all the major names are there, like Amazon, eBay, LinkedIn et al – unlike Windows Phone.

Should you buy an Android phone?

The only really safe purchase is the Google Nexus S. It is the only phone to deliver the genuine Android experience out of the box. It also has a great Super AMOLED screen, just like the Galaxy S. Buy anything else and you’re placing your trust in the hands of the phone manufacturer and their specific brand of Android.

If you had to buy a non-Google phone, the best bet from a software point of view is probably htc. Although I haven’t used it much, the Sense UI looks capable and polished. However, carefully check any htc handset before buying it for problems with poor quality buttons, bad case design, poor touch screen accuracy and screen reflection issues.

The alternative is to buy a well-specified phone like a Samsung Galaxy S (or S2), root it and install a decent version of Android. Running Cyanogen Mod 7 on a Galaxy S is a very close approximation of a Google Nexus S because the hardware is very similar (the Nexus S is made by Samsung for Google).

Choose carefully and Android can be a good experience. Just don’t be a dick by persuading your Mum to buy one.

Video courtesy of tinywatchproductions

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