by Steven B. Combs, Ph.D.
Android has come a long way in the past several years and during that time, there has been a Hatfield/McCoy divide among Android and iOS users. Until recently, the only smart phone I have used is the iPhone. Since standing in line for the first generation iPhone to my latest, the iPhone 5s, I’ve been firmly in the iOS camp. But then something changed.
When Google announced Project Fi, I became curious about lower mobile phone costs, Google’s new dual provider wireless network Android version 5.1 (Lollipop), and the Motorola Nexus 6. I requested an invite to Project Fi and it arrived a month later. I immediately accepted and a few days later, the only phone available on that network, at the time, the Motorola Nexus 6 arrived at my door. I’ve used the Nexus 6 for several months. In December 2015, the phone was upgraded from Android 5.1.1 (Lollipop) to Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) and about a month later to 6.0.1.
Marshmallow brought better stability and battery life to the Nexus 6. My experience with the phone led me to the purchase of an Android tablet. After much research, and a budget of $200, I choose the nVidia Shield Tablet K1. Designed for gaming, the tablet came with an 8” screen and some hefty processing power. It also came with the promise of an upgrade from Lollipop to Marshmallow. Upon turning the tablet on during Christmas Day, the upgrade to 6.0 was available and 6.0.1 was not far behind.
After using these two devices extensively, I now have enough experience to share thoughts around the Android versus iOS debate. One caveat to keep in mind; I’ve tried not to spend too much time discussing hardware as this can differ greatly given the abundance of gadgets that run the Android operating system. I will try to focus my comments on the operating system rather than the devices themselves. This is often hard to do as some of the issues I have with my Android devices cannot be narrowed down to ether a hardware or software issue.
My focus is on major operating system features and I’ve organized my thoughts into the following categories below. You can use the table of contents below to jump to specific section:
Years ago, I would have worried that the app I used on my iOS device would not be available on the Google Play store. I’ve not found this to be the case in 2016. There are a few iOS specific apps (Workflow, Reeder, etc.) that are missing, but I have found adequate replacements.
Despite popular belief, Android apps are not all free. Many great apps require a pro activation. I’m was happy to see this as I don’t mind supporting great developers and the costs are always minimal and comparable with the Apple App Store. There are also ways to get these pro activations for free. That’s a lesson for another day.
NEAT ANDROID FEATURE: App purchases on the Google Play store using your computer browser will install automatically to a selected Android device.
The Android user interface prior to version 5.0 (Lollipop) were a mess. The UI after 5.0 includes the Google material design specification. Android is now modern, functional, bold, attractive, flat and colorful. Material design is also found in Chrome OS bringing consistency across the two platforms. This design specification is also applied to many Google online tools such as Google Docs. I’ve grown fond of material design. When I look at my iPad, it seems dull and dated. That is unless I load a Google iOS app. Google is also applying this design specification to their iOS apps as well.
Many Android app developers have been slow to adopt material design. Most popular apps utilize the design specification, but many smaller titles haven’t made the change. This makes the Google Play store a mishmash of app design. Over time this will improve. Until then, I will not purchase an app unless it adheres to the new specification.
That said, iOS app design is also a mixed bag. While many apps look great, they are not consistent in their UI design methodology and a feature in one app may not work the same in another. iOS 8 brought with it a new flatter design, but my preference is still Google’s material design.
If you are looking to customize your phone or tablet’s user interface, use widgets on any home screen, modify the status bar or even change the app icons, choose Android. Android allows so many customization options that it can at times be overwhelming. Having these options allows each user to have an experience suited to their tastes and usage. If I were to compare customization on a scale of 1 to 10, iOS would be a 3 and Android would be an 11!
iOS forces you to use the Apple application launcher called Springboard. Android also includes a launcher and depending on the phone manufacturer, it may not the same. If you don’t like the default launcher on Android, you simply download another from the Google Play App store.
Currently I’m a fan of the Google Now launcher – Google’s own custom launcher that includes Google Now, Google Now cards and Google On Tap. This launcher provides voice commands (similar, but better than Siri) and contextual information based on the current time of day, your calendar and your search interests. It’s amazing how accurate Google Now cards has become at anticipating my digital assistant needs. One of my favorite features is the automatic display on a map where I have last parked my car.
While Android shines in the sections above, Android battery life is abysmal. I have yet to own a device that can match an iOS device’s battery life. Android, even with the new Doze feature included in version 6.0, can’t match an iOS devices.
The battery in an at rest Android device will drain like there’s a small leak in a balloon whereas an iOS device can sit on a table for days and barely lose a couple of precent points of battery life. Research online suggests that this is due to third party apps not being optimized and containing flaws in location awareness, notifications or other battery draining technologies. The Facebook apps seems to be one of the worst offenders. I’ve experimented by removing some non stock Google applications and can verify that battery life is better. But that kind of defeats the purpose, and fun, of having a smart phone.
I’m sure battery life is device dependent and there may be an Android device that has battery life that can hold its own against an iOS device. If there is, I sure would like to know (leave a comment below).
This area is device specific. Unlike the iOS world, Google does not control the hardware except for their Nexus line. I use, and recommend the Nexus brand. Nexus devices have a pure Google Android experience and are normally the first to receive updates. I use the Nexus 6 on Google’s Project Fi. I have an entirely pure Android experience from Google.
Motorola builds the Nexus 6 and includes the following:
Newer Nexus devices include finger print scanners. Nexus hardware is now equivalent to most iOS devices and in some ways (wireless charging and AMOLED screens) surpass Apple iOS devices. It appears that the only inequity between the latest iOS devices and the Nexus line is the processor performance.
I mentioned the nVidia Shield Table K1 was another Android device I own. This too receives regular updates and provides you with a relatively stock Android experience enhanced with gaming apps and functionality. I recommend it although at the time of this writing, they seem to be in short supply. Could a refresh be imminent? If so, I’ll be buying one!
Attach an external Bluetooth keyboard (I recommend this model for Android devices) to a device running Android 6 and your fingers can fire off keyboard strokes and combinations that will put iOS devices to shame. The ability to control Android with a keyboard is simply amazing. Here’s what you can do with an external keyboard:
Add a Bluetooth mouse to mix and you now have a pointer (arrow) and almost pure desktop experience. The pointer becomes your virtual finger tip. Click on icons, drag, etc. It’s really quite fabulous and a far better experience than what iOS provides with an external keyboard.
Android 6.0+, at least on the devices I use, still has several stability issues including:
The most particularly annoying stability issue is the camera application (see Camera and photos section below). There have been one too many times I have missed a picture because the camera was slow to initialize or the application crashed. With each new Android and camera app update I anticipate a fix, but the camera app still isn’t stable enough. Get on this Google!
I won’t say these are constant issues, but that’s a problem too. There’s no way to troubleshoot the issues when they are random. Some days are worse than others. A reboot or a cache partition wipe will often correct, but that’s not a viable solution in all situations. You will restart an Android device more frequently than an iOS device to improve stability. If you relay on your smart phone’s camera for critical photos and video, I highly recommend you stay with iOS.
The camera on my Nexus 6 is not nearly as good as the camera I had on my iPhone 5s. I do have to make sure conditions are just right in low light levels and the camera sometimes takes entirely to long to activate (see Stability section). I have missed a few good shots waiting for the camera. Android 6 has made the camera more responsive and has added a very nice feature - tap the power button twice and the camera app loads immediately. No need to unlock the device. It’s a great feature, when the camera app responds appropriately. The Camera app also includes all the basic features most casual picture takers will need.
Android 6.0 includes the outstanding Google Photos app. Those using previous versions of Android can also download this app from the Google Play Store. Google Photos is a huge improvement over Apple Photos. Organization, sharing, editing, web access, search, storage management and collaboration are far better than the Apple alternative. One mind blowing feature is Google photos search. Without any tagging on my part, I can search for say a “car” and Google Photos displays all photos that include a car. Searches can be more complex. I can type
steven in the snow and all images with me in the snow will appear. Mind blowing!
Google continues to improve the app and the most recent version also provides options to create albums and collages (no need for a third party app). The app includes video tools so you can create animation and movies from your photos. Once you use Google Photos, you will never go back to another photo app. The app is also available on iOS and I’ve converted several friends and family from the stock iOS Photos app to Google Photos. There is much more I can say about the application and maybe I will find some time to do so in a later post.
The Google Play Music app now includes rudimentary podcast support; however, if you listen to more than a couple of podcasts, you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t use a more robust podcast app. Overcast was my go to podcast app on iOS. On Android it took some time for me find a competent podcast client but I found it in Pocket Casts. Pocket Casts is very similar in function and design to Overcast. A plus for Android users who also use iOS devices, Pocket Casts is available and syncs between both platforms. Like Overcast, Pocket Casts includes a web based version so you can listen to podcasts using a browser. My favorite Pocket Casts (and Overcast) feature is the ability to play podcasts at 1.1 times to 2.0 times the normal speed without a change in voice pitch. I can listen to twice as many podcasts. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take your brain that long to adjust to this change in speed. Start gradually at 1.1 and work your way up to 2.0.
When I made the switch to Android, I worried I would lose the ability to sync data with my Mac computers. There was no need to worry. Many solutions exist for seamless sync across devices. Below is a reference table that shows the data I sync and what tools I use:
|Data||Mac Application||Android App|
|Documents||Google Drive||Google Drive|
|Music||iTunes||iSyncr, Apple Music|
|Notes||Keep, Evernote||Keep, Evernote|
|Photos||Google Photos||Google Photos|
These tools may not be compatible with your workflow; however, they work extremely well with mine. If you have a question about this table, leave it in the comments below. Also share suggestions to sync other types of data.
I mentioned Google Now briefly in the Launcher section above. Google Now is the competitor to Apple’s Siri, or Amazon’s Alexa. Activation is either through a tap of a microphone button or if configured, by the voice command, “Okay Google.” My personal experiences have left me to prefer Google Now over Siri. Google Now is more accurate and provides many additional features to control my Android device. I could write a whole post on the comparison between the two; however, for this post, I will simply state that Google Now is far superior to Siri for my day-to-day use.
As of this writing, I’ve been using both a Nexus 6 and an nVidia Shield K1 Tablet on a regular basis to give Android a shot on both phone and tablet form factors. In the past I’ve owned an iPhone and iPad since the originals and I’ve seen several Android devices become the primary device for family members. I can tell you that over the years, Android has significantly improved. In the past, I would never have considered Android on a primary device. After using the Nexus 6 and the nVidia Shield K1 Tablet I have changed my mind.
Android still has some stability and battery issues; however, while working on this review, a family member was using an iPhone to scan some documents. During the process, the app crashed and they lost their scans. As I witnessed their frustration, I thought about this review. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh on Android’s stability.
So which mobile operating system do I recommend? In my opinion, both can go toe-to-toe with each other as long as we are comparing apples to apples (latest versions of iOS and Android). Both have strengths over the other. Where iOS trumps is in Apple’s ability to control the hardware along with the operating system adding to increased stability and battery life. It is often bad hardware by third party manufactures that cause horrible Android experiences.
While I will recommend Android devices now to my family and friends, I will always recommend they research in detail a specific Android device before purchase. Customer reviews will reveal much. It is also important the device includes the latest version of the Android operating system. I’ve done much of the research already and if you stay with the Nexus or nVidia Shield hardware, you should have a very good Android experience.