Nexus One vs Iphone 4

Nexus One vs Iphone 4 A couple of weeks ago I got a shiny new Nexus One Android phone. I thought long and hard about whether Android was a better choice for me than iPhone and eventually decided that it was - although both platforms have their fair share of nice touches and frustrations.

The purpose of this blog post is to convey my initial thoughts that went into the purchase process (specifically iPhone4 vs Android), and explain what I do and don't like about the Nexus / Android. I'm well aware that this topic has been covered before, but actually I was surprised at what things actually mattered to me once I started using it.

In favour of the iPhone

I thought long and hard about getting an iPhone 4. There's a lot to like.
  • I'm yet to meet an iPhone owner who is unhappy with their iPhone. That speaks volumes.
  • There are some cool apps available that aren't yet available for Android. I'm looking at you Civilization Revolution.
  • The iPhone 4 has addressed some of my main complaints with previous versions - most notably the data frequencies it uses in New Zealand allowing it to work better in more rural places.
  • It has Skype. Skype for Android isn't available due to some political agenda between Skype and some US carrier. Or whatever. If Skype can work on iPhone and my wife's Nokia, I don't get why they can't do an Android version. (Update: Android has Skype now, it's great)
  • It looks good. Seriously, Apple have nailed this - the device looks fantastic, whereas Android phones look comparitively ho-hum. My Nexus One was advertised as "Passion-Brown".

There is a lot more that is cool about the iPhone 4 to be sure, I'm only listing things that Android doesn't have and things that actually matter to me.

There were some off-putting things too.
  • Apple's insistence on proprietary phone chargers and sync cables is old-fashioned and serves no purpose. "Proprietary for the sake of it" doesn't work for me.
  • Itunes is horrible - I find it's impossibly hard to use for syncing our ipod, so I don't fancy having to use this with my phone.
  • The non-removable storage and the non-removable battery isn't great either.
  • If I want to write apps for it (which I do), I'll need to buy a Mac - which adds pretty significantly to the total cost of ownership. This is a biggie for me. (Update: Apparently you can now develop iPhone apps on a PC)
  • No flash. Why Apple is being stubborn about this is beyond me. I'm all for open standards, but not supporting flash simply delivers a lesser user experience.
  • This whole nonsense about having to jailbreak your phone to run anything Apple doesn't approve of - say for example, anything that competes with Itunes. I just don't like the idea of innovative, useful applications being declined by Apple due to political agenda.


So, weighing in the good and the bad - I decided I would deal with less apps, an uglier phone, a less-established platform and no Skype in exchange for being able to write my own apps, upgrade my storage capacity and use a standard low-priced charger cable of my choice. It's probably fair to say that I went with Android more to avoid Apple's proprietary nonsense rather than on the merits of Android itself.

Surprises

It's been an interesting experience so far. Let's say now that I didn't really need a new phone, and this is a toy - so any joys or frustrations are hardly going to be life-changing. I spend most of my day in front of a big-screen PC on a fibre connection, so for 'real work' I'll be using that. I don't go to meetings because all my clients are at least 2,000km away from where I live, and any local appointments are for serious things like the local Toy Library or going skiing for the day. I bought a smartphone because I wanted one. There - I said it. If I was a road-warrior like I was a couple of years back, different story.

Upon opening the box, I was disappointed that the removable SD-card isn't as removable as I thought. Unlike my previous Nokia which had a flip panel in the side, to remove the SD card you have to open up the case and pull out the battery. That's a lot less removable than I was expecting. Currently you can only buy 16Gb Micro SDHC cards (which I did, added $100 to the cost but I knew about this before I bought) - however it is only a matter of time before 32Gb cards are available and cheap.

Worse still - the Nexus One has only 190Mb available for installing Apps. This point somehow escaped me when I was doing my initial research, but you can only install apps to the miserable internal phone storage and not the ample-sized SD card. Meaning the downloading of any app is a calculated decision, and you have to think twice before downloading something "large" - like, 5Mb. A 10M meg app had better be pretty damn good to warrant using over 5% of your app space.
Android 2.2 Froyo allows you to move apps to the SD card, however this doesn't work like you might expect. A 2Mb app might allow you to move 1Mb of it to the SD card, but a lot of apps don't support this feature at all. While this helps make the space go a bit further, the app space limitation is still a huge limitation that Android needs to sort out. Given that I now know the SD card isn't all that easily removable, and you can't store apps on the SD card, I hate to say that Apple win this round. Easily.

Treats

On the plus side, the screen is beautiful, I'm enjoying the ample homescreens and widgets that are available, and I'm getting into the app-writing - albeit slowly. I already have my own app for turning on/off call forwarding on my landlines, and another for displaying French and German words I'm learning on my homescreen (I couldn't find an existing app that did this well). I'll also likely be making a snow-report widget for the homescreen too, although the spring snow is running out rather fast. I managed to get a car charger for a whopping $6 off TradeMe, and I chose a nice quick 16Gb class 6 Micro SD card for additional storage space. Moving music onto the Android is a breeze, and can be done as simply as copying it to any other external media. No evil music-sync software required.

Android has good apps for many of the things I want to do - IMAP email, geocaching, Facebook, maps, and a camera that takes well-decent photos. Firefox Mobile for Android is coming soon too. It can also be used as a wireless hotspot, which I will definitely be using when I next travel. I found a great app for monitoring the voice / data / SMS usage on my plan, so I can tell at a glance where I am up to in terms of free minutes etc - couldn't do that easily on my old phone. A less-practical but seriously cool find is Google Goggles - you photograph something, and it tries to match what you photographed from the web. It never ceases to amaze me what this thing can recognise. The Google star map app is fantastic as well, which demonstrates the accuracy of the internal compass inside the Nexus One. Aside from the fact that looking at a bright screen destroys your night vision, this is a cool app. Having flash in webpages is good too - but actually it's something you just expect to have and not something to get excited about.

The upgrade to Froyo (Android 2.2) was painless. I was worried I might have to run through some dodgy hack to get this installed, but the phone did it all by itself as soon as I turned it on. Obviously Vodafone NZ and HTC didn't feel the need to add any proprietary "enhancements" to the Android OS, which was nice of them. Froyo offers some nice improvements, notably the wifi tethering and partial moving of apps to SD card. If you are looking at buying a new Android, I wouldn't seriously consider any phone that didn't have Froyo on it or at least a firm promise of it coming soon. Froyo also has turn-by-turn navigation for us in your car, but when I tried to use this I got some random message about it not being available in my area. I'm not sure if they mean 'not available in Wanaka' or 'not available in New Zealand' (Update: Turn by Turn navigation now works in New Zealand). Nobody would actually need this in a town as small as Wanaka, but damn I wish I had this with me last year while travelling Europe.

Apps

I get the feeling the apps are more polished on iPhone. Unsurprisingly, many of the apps on Android appear a bit, well, "homemade" - which is of course part of having an open development environment as opposed to big brother approving everything in the store. Browsing the Android Market for apps is hard work, and generally I find it easier to read some reviews online then specifically search for the app by name. I would have thought the world leader in search technology could have made it a bit easier to find stuff in the app store. Once you find something you like, buying apps couldn't be easier or faster - and being able to get an automatic no-questions-asked refund on any app within 24 hours puts the onus on developers to deliver value, which I think is a fair system for all concerned.

Gaming

I'm disappointed with the games offerings on the Android. I'm still a little misty about the lack of Civilization Revolution, but that aside, I just haven't seen much which utilises the power of the platform or offers much entertainment value. I downloaded a few kids games for our 3 and 5 year old girls and these have been great - the touchscreen really comes into it's own, and the kids picked it up quick smart. However, some of the free games were ad-supported, and were showing ads that were basically pornographic. I'm not a prude and don't mind being served saucy ads while I'm browsing (OK, I quite like it) - however - whoever wrote the code that serves these ads in a Dora the Explorer game needs their head checked. It renders most of the free kids games useless. (Update: Looks like this might have been sorted, haven't seen a dirty ad in a kids game for a while now)

Nexus One Enhancements

The N1 offers a couple of nice things. Firstly is the voice recognition, built into any text input box. This works reasonably well if you speak slowly and clearly, and providing it gets it right, is definitely faster than typing on a touchscreen keyboard for SMS messages etc. On the downside, it seems to use a web-based API for doing the voice recognition, so this feature is too slow to be useful when you aren't on a wifi connection. It's probably ok on a proper 2100MHz 3G connection, but we don't have one of those in Wanaka.
People also commented a bit negatively regarding the usefulness of the trackball on the Nexus One. I disagree - this thing is very handy for selecting a specific point on the screen (like correcting a single character in a word). It gets in the places that your fat fingers can't, so this is a good feature to have available.

App development

And this is really the driving factor that got me onto Android rather than iPhone. I'm a developer and I like to develop. Android apps are written in Java, and installing all the required software and getting the development environment setup was painless. From 'click here to download' to 'hello world' in less than an hour. I can test apps on a virtual device on my PC, or on my Android phone - both very easy to setup. Working with Java is a rude shock for a PHP programmer - I'm all for Object Oriented code, but it does seem monumentally difficult to achieve things that would be straightforward in PHP. To be fair, I have 10 years experience with PHP and 3 weeks with Java. I wonder if that has anything to do with it?
I have written 2 workable apps already, and ideas for plenty more. And this is why I love the concept of a smart phone - being able to write apps designed just for me that can talk with the other various pieces of technology I own and do something useful. The internet is all about APIs now, and there are some really good sources of data out there now that you can mash up into your own app. Fun times.

I'm yet to create an app worth publishing, but one annoyance is that Google won't let developers in New Zealand (or most other countries actually) publish paid apps through their market. I'm not sure if there is an actual reason for this, or if it's politically motivated in that Google doesn't want to be seen to use Paypal for paying publishers (which is the logical alternative to Google Checkout which doesn't seem to work here). If Google has an aversion to Paypal, I don't see why they can't just tack on the app income to the Adsense cheque they are already sending me. I'm hoping they sort this one out soonish, although I suspect it might take a while before my app-writing skills are worth more than a dollar to someone other than myself :)

Related to this is the fact that apps can only be purchased in 14 countries (luckily, NZ is one of them). As a developer, this is a way smaller market to sell to than iPhone and Google really need to sort this out if they want to attract the serious developers. Apparently piracy is a major issue for Android and it's not hard to see why - people are pirating apps because they aren't allowed to buy them, which is the most ridiculous situation I have ever heard. Google says "We're working hard to add more countries, so please stay tuned!" - really, what's so difficult about it? Developers have been selling their software worldwide since the internet was invented and Apple must be laughing their heads off at Google's inability to sort this out. Another case of political agenda getting in the way of innovation, and it's harming the platform.

Overall

So, this is hardly a glowing review for the Android, but then I suspect my iPhone 4 review (had I purchased one) would have been full of different frustrations. The simple fact of the matter is that both Android and iPhone do some things very well, and royally screw up other things. You'll need to pick the platform that fits with what is important to you and in my case I still think Android was the right choice - but Google do need to pull their socks up if they want the widespread appeal that the iPhone has. Google needs to throw the developers a bone and let them sell apps in more than 14 countries, and open up that SD card instead of forcing all apps into the tiny internal storage area. These are big issues, but should be easily solvable. The Google suite of apps are fantastic, but it was always going to be the strength of the third party apps that make or break this platform, and Android is losing this battle in my opinion where it most definitely shouldn't be.
Digg StumbleUpon del.icio.us technorati blinklist furl reddit sphinn