Note

A month with Android: surprising and less surprising results

5 minute read

© Google

Thanks to Automattic I had the chance to get myself a second mobile device to test my designs, and given I’m a iOS user I decided to get a Nexus 5. And to really get it I decided to do a full month using exclusively that as my primary mobile phone.

While I’m a big fan of competing platforms and different perspectives, there is one thing that still surprised me: Android and iOS are basically at the same level in terms of normal usage.

What I mean with this is that given the different approaches and philosophies behind the two platforms I expected bigger differences, but in the end, there weren’t. Most of the time it boils down to “does that application exists?” to which the answer is generally “yes” with the exception of small studios apps and more broadly games.

This just reinforced for me the idea that the continuous fanaticism for one platform or the other is, mostly, pointless. While the iPhone at launch was like comparing a Ferrari to a bycicle, today it’s like comparing a Ferrari to a Maserati: both high end, but different audiences.

So, of course, there are differences.

These are mostly minor, in a sense, and given 80% is there on both platforms, in the end it boils down to specific usages, personal preferences and taste.

Being an iPhone user switching, my list of negatives is longer than the list of positives, but that’s expected. This doesn’t necessarily prove anything more than my personal taste and preferences. These are listed in the order I noticed them.

Negatives:

  1. SIM hole too small for clip: this was unbelievable for me, even if it’s a device-issue of the Nexus 5 and not Android, it was the first thing that surprised me. The clip I use when I travel doesn’t fit the hole. I really wonder why.
  2. Reboot when changing SIM card: this was my “seriously!?!” moment. Changing SIM requires a reboot. I understand it’s not an issue for 99% of the users out there, but come on.
  3. Tab bar at top: this is one of the worse things on Android for me. Huge screens + tabs at top = the impossibility to use the phone with one hand, or crazy circus contortions. This really feels like a relic from a PC pattern that wasn’t converted to proper mobile contexts.
  4. Scrolling a bit awkward: it might be just habit, but scrolling doesn’t feel as good as on iOS. It’s just less smooth, but I’m don’t think anymore it’s the CPU. I think it’s just the algorithm. The lack of rubber-banding at the end plus the kind of curve they used maybe. I’m not sure. Just feels different.
  5. Huge list of unused WiFi: after just a few days of going around I started having a list of old WiFis in the WiFi screen. Why? Why should I care about WiFis that I used in the past?
  6. Auto suggest too far away if you touch-type: I can’t say I’m completely touch-typing, but I almost do that. This means that I keep watching the text, not the keyboard. And this also means that the auto-correct words are… far away from where I’m looking (above the keyboard). Yeah I know, it’s a very very minor one.
  7. No tap to scroll to top: for the first few days I thought it was just me, but then I searched and discovered it’s really missing: on iOS you can tap the status bar and any scroll area below it will scroll to top. Android? Nothing. Ouch.
  8. Settings are more inconsistent: this was a huge time waste. Settings for basic things were all spread out. Something in the apps, something in the configuration. Now, I understand it’s in a sense the same in iOS, but certain core things in iOS are aggregated, for example the notification settings. It took me ages to reduce the notifications from the various apps.

Positives:

  1. Task manager: Android is just better here. Partially for the one-touch button, but mostly for a really clear and effective UI. You can see many elements, swipe to remove them. I’m not sure how Apple still did a “one app only” UI for the task manager when they redesigned it for iOS7. What’s the point to visualize recent “tasks” if I still have to swipe to get to the next one?
  2. Swipe out for notification, task manager, Chrome, …: this is one consistency aspects where Android is doing well: a consistent gesture to remove items from temporary lists. The swipe out to remove is very nice, and since it happens in multiple parts on the OS, it’s something easily learnt.
  3. Icon free form placement: this is another thing that I don’t really get in iOS. I want to place the icons anywhere on the screen, not just tiled from top to bottom. This seems a basic thing, in the sense that if I’m already the kind of user that moves things around, it should be fine to leave me with the freedom to place them anywhere.

In a more general sense, I feel that Android lacks general consistency. Even things that are incredibly nice most of the time don’t fit together. There’s a beautifully done turn-off animation like a old-style TV, but that doesn’t match the sci-fi glowing UI of the lock screen, and that doesn’t again match the flat UI of the notification screen. Each part, as excellently designed as it could be, feels done by a different person.
The iOS architecture (a design work that maps to specific UI development objects) really helps to get a consistent platform across different apps, with a direct impact on ease of use and UI trust. On Android it feels more a free for all. Every new app feels more difficult than on iOS mostly just because it’s so different from the others, to the extent that even the same company building for Android often does a lower quality job there (worse animations, worse UI, etc). Twitter being a prime example of that, but also Foursquare and others.

Using Android for the “extra 20%” feels more challenging, but it’s also very satisfactory when you get it right. iOS is surely less configurable, but again plays on the old Apple philosophy of “just works”.

Mind that: this difference in philosophy between the two isn’t a matter of the open vs closed thing. Android could be led – and could have been led – in a way that it achieved the same result. It just didn’t.

However, to reiterate the initial point: right now, there’s no substantial difference between the platform but personal usage and taste.

Sidenote: in comparison, it also makes me laugh about the heavy-handed criticism that was done to iOS7. The level of criticism iOS7 got would utterly destroy Android as it stands now. But this doesn’t mean that Android doesn’t do its job. It just means that iOS has a hugely higher standard than any other platform. This is both good and bad. ;)