Android and me

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few different Android handsets for review. This started late last year with the LG Eve handset (running an older version of Android)

LG Canada Mobile Event

followed by the Motorola Milestone (aka Droid) running 2.0.1 version of Android:
Motorola Milestone (Droid)

I’ve made a few serious attempts at using these handsets as my primary phone for a few days here and there, followed by a few full weekends and while I was in Austin for SXSW, I used the Milestone full time for a week. For a diehard iPhone user like me, at first it was tough but I figured it was the only way to give these devices a true test. Austin was probably the best test since I had no choice but to use it since turning on my Rogers iPhone would have killed me thanks to their expensive roaming/data plans.

I have to say after giving them the ‘college’ try, I’m actually rather impressed. There are plenty of shortcomings when compared to my beloved iPhone but at the same time, a lot of positives that I wish the iPhone had. Like Homer Simpson designing his own car, I realize that a hybrid phone that incorporates the features of both types of devices would be a frankenphone but some of the differences are undeniably attractive.

Take for instance the Android notifications. While nothing new as I had similar notifications on my old Treo, but this implementation is quite possibly one of the biggest time savers and single most useful thing I noticed while using the Milestone daily. Without even having to touch the device, I can see via a single LED light that I have new email, a new mention/direct message on Twitter or both – possibly more types of notifications if I installed more apps. In contrast, on the iPhone, I’d have to unlock the phone, launch the applicable app in order to see if there is anything new (assuming you have inbox:zero and/or only one email account, this may not be as big of an issue). Even when using multiple email accounts though, the notifications keep me updated on which account has new mail. I liked being able to pull down the notifications tab and get a preview of the updates from within any app. I could then choose to got back to the app I was using or click on the appropriate notification and be taken to that app for the full story.

LG Eve

One thing that I thought was behind us is the useless error messages like this that tend to pop up while launching an app:

LG Eve

The iPhone has app related crashes as well, it just seems to handle things better than this – especially for less tech savy users. Either the app will work or it won’t…a simple reboot usually fixes things. On the Android devices, there were a few apps that I could never get running no matter what I tried. This could be due to a number of variables but I’m leaning towards blaming the issues on the fragmented Android Marketplace where there are lots of apps with little or no quality control not to mention confusing requirements for usage based on the handset, carrier and version of Android you happen to be running. I’m also pretty sure the fact that I tried a few of these apps from Canada (via two different carriers) also caused some strange behaviour.

Performance
The LG Eve was running Android version 1.5 and it seemed a little sluggish to me. The Milestone on the other hand, running 2.0.1 of Android, seemed just as fast or faster than my iPhone 3GS. Apps loaded quickly and using various internet related functions were very fast. I also think Telus’ network contributed to the spryness of the device since it was running at 3.5G speeds. Even in my notoriously bad living room where one end of my couch is typically a Rogers deadzone (the other end is fine), Telus gave me full bars throughout the room.

The Camera
The Milestone has, on paper, a better camera than the iPhone (5 vs 3 megapixels). It also has a flash and an autofocus lens. I’m a camera geek and was flat out frustrated by the camera on the Milestone. So much so that I stopped bothering to try to take a decent photo with it. It was slow, had brutal shutter lag and inconsistent flash performance. It had a number of scene modes for things like macro and portrait (like a point and shoot) but simply navigating these options was slow enough to ‘ruin the moment’. Often the photos I’d take would end up looking like webcam stills, complete with raster lines. The iPhone camera may be lesser appointed, but at least it works. I also tried a number of the 3rd party apps and was still disappointed.

Battery life
The Milestone appeared to be pretty comparable to my 3GS. I had pretty much everything turned on for both devices (GPS, notifications, etc) and both devices would last a typical day after my moderate usage.

Keyboards
Both of the Android devices I used had a slide out keyboard. I still find these to be useless to me. Both the Milestone and the Eve had solid keyboards but both took up a fair amount of space and using the keyboard was still just awkward no matter how much I tried to get used to them. I actually preferred the Milestone’s onscreen portrait keyboard with its type ahead spellchecker function that would display all the possible words as you were typing. Like the iPhones spellcheck function, the Android system had some interesting replacement words that weren’t what I was trying to type…but at least I could see it on screen (along with other spellings and suggested words) and click directly on the correct one. It’s pretty unobtrusive but I did find a few times that I typed a long passage and realized that I had been auto-corrected incorrectly a few words ago. Correcting these was more clunky as being able to target a specific letter in a word was often an exercise in frustration trying to tap on it but not so hard that the useless context menu would pop up.

Form factor
I really liked the size/shape of the LG Eve…even with the unneeded keyboard, it was comfortable in my hand and slightly more comfortable than the iPhone. The Milestone on the otherhand, is bigger, thicker and heavier than the others. It’s also quite boxy. It’s not very comfortable in the hand due to its odd placement of the micro usb port and square lines. This is really too bad because it is a stunning device to look at, it’s just not great to hold onto for long periods of time. I’ve (briefly) played with a Google Nexus One and it seems to hit the sweet spot in Android land as far as form factor goes.

Conclusion
So like I said at the beginning of this post, I am impressed with what Google has done with Android, even more than I was expecting to be. There are still a number of rough edges but it has come a far ways in even the last couple of iterations. First time smartphone buyers owe it to themselves to at least check out devices like the Milestone before deciding on the iPhone.

Tonight I updated the Milestone to version 2.1 of Android and will be exploring those changes soon. Its also been interesting to see what the different manufacturers have done with their handsets running Android. Unlike Apple, there are a number of different form factors for people to choose from so while none have won me over like the iPhone, at least there are options out there that will only get better in time.

Unfortunately, Canada still gets the shaft as far as the delayed timing of the handset and firmware releases (and even the device names across the border) but perhaps that will change with the advent of Google selling the Nexus One handset directly (and factory unlocked) – others like Motorola and LG will hopefully follow suit. Nokia has been selling unlocked handsets directly for awhile now so it’s a trend I hope grows.

I’m also glad that Android is truly becoming a competitor for Apple…competition is great and only makes these devices better for consumers.

One Comment

  1. Andy says:

    I loved the review and comparisons and completely agree with the last line – competition drives innovation and it can only be a good thing! I myself have been interested in the Android platform aswell but I just love my iPhone too much to switch. The Nexus One looks like a decent phone but I can’t bring myself to spend $500 without even playing with it.

    I’d love to see 2.1 on them milestone sometime so let me know if you ever want to grab a coffee! Maybe you could give me a demo?

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