Let's face it: This was always going to be about the iPhone. Like comparing your new girlfriend to your ex, or every other woman on earth to Ms. Johansson, the competition has to not merely compete with, but obliterate Apple's 500-pound gorilla. From the day Google's smartphone platform was announced, it's been hailed as the alternative, an open-source savior from the do-no-evil geniuses in Mountain View. So, has Android lived up to its hype? Has it become a proper cure for our iAddictions?
The Good: You can have any iPhone you'd like as long as it's an iPhone, but on Android there's a zoo of hardware to choose from, some of them with quite the killer features, from quality QWERTY sliders like the Motorola Droid 2 to 4.3-inch behemoths like HTC's Evo 4G. If you want your pick of form factor, Android's the place to be; hell, even on the Samsung Galaxy S I took a liking to, with its unremarkably iPhone-esque design, the Super AMOLED screen's incredibly dark blacks and deep contrast got more than its share of oohs and ahhs.
In some areas, Android isn't just on par with the competition, it's in the lead. It has features like homescreen widgets, giving you quick access to clocks, news feeds, and the like. There's also the pull-down notification bar, which unobtrusively shows text and e-mail notifications, not just how many signal bars you're death-gripping away. The Android Market has matured well, and if nothing else covers all the essentials (Yelp, Angry Birds), unless you're inconsolable without your beloved iGarageDoorOpenCloser 2.5. There's no doubt, from first glance down to the gritty details, this is a mature platform that's ready to rumble.
The "Meh": More than a few people I handed an Android phone to commented, "You know what I notice? The scrolling isn't as good." Touch inputs aren't as fluid or precise as their Apple counterparts, and though it's come a long way from its beginnings on the dork-tastic T-Mobile G1, the interface still lacks that last bit of shine and polish around the corners. Without a really close comparison—or a smartphone review—in mind, however, for the most part you'd be hard-pressed to care.
The "Huh?": What's "Sense," "Blur," or "TouchWiz"? The thing about open-source software is, it's open for meddling. Most smartphones these days are little more than big rectangles with screens on them. If you're making an Android phone, how do you differentiate yourself from everyone else slapping the same software on their own slabs? Thus, manufacturers are fond of adding what they call "user interface enhancements"; we've come to call it "screwing everything up."
The net result is the Android experience that can vary widely (and disasterously) from phone to phone. What does the home screen look like? How do I unlock my phone? What order are the hardware buttons in? It depends. You'll constantly hear the anguished cries of reviewers across the land, wishing that Manufacturer X's sexy new Phone Y would've just stuck to Google's stock code. The carriers get in on it too, hard-wiring each phone with their own usually useless (AT&T Maps?) sometimes unforgivable (the search engine is Bing, and can't be changed?) modifications. It's like if a McDonald's franchise could swap out fries for onion rings... or candy corn: You never know what you're getting. It's why Google tried its hand at standardization with its self-branded Nexus One, and why the rumored/upcoming Nexus S has Android enthusiasts all aflutter.
The Cool Factor: As of today, pulling out one of the glitzier Android phones at a party is bit of a conversation piece. But, with its rapidly growing user base, it's one that'll soon lose its novelty. So when the day comes that you're in the subway with four dozen other Googlephoners, what are you left with?
Well in some ways, a pretty freakin' nerdy phone. Full-on multitasking sounds great, until it can be a bit of a drag; in fact, Advanced Task Killer, one of the most popular Android apps, does nothing but quit all the background apps you forgot to close. "Hey babe, I'll jot down your number, right after I free up some RAM..."? We think not. And that's one of the ways you can see its techie roots still showing: It's just that bit steeper of a learning curve, and the slightest bit less of a solid, consumer-friendly device. It's certainly a compelling choice. Depending on how you look at it, it might even be the right choice. But is it cool? Call it ease of use, call it Cupertino's voodoo magic, but even as the iPhone becomes so ubiquitous your dog probably just got one, it still reigns.
Buy one if... you don't mind a slight learning curve, maybe because you and your comp-sci buddies had a great time modding Linux distros back in the day. Or if you're just sick of Jonathan Ive making off with your wallet every Christmas.
Friday, March 18, 2011
Smartphone Home: The 5-Minute Android Analysis: Gear + Gadgets: GQ