The Apple iPhone 4s, left, is displayed next to the Samsung Galaxy S III at a store in San Francisco, Monday, Aug. 27, 2012. Apple Inc. on Monday submitted a list of eight Samsung Electronics Co. products it wants pulled from shelves and banned from the U.S. market. Apple submitted the list after a jury found Samsung copied the iPhone and iPad in creating and marketing the products. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Updated: October 12, 2012 6:18AM
I didn’t just give the Samsung Galaxy S III a great review this summer. I truly liked this phone as a consumer. As usual when reviewing Android handsets, I spent a week or two with it as my daily phone so I could burn away any meaningless “this works differently from my iPhone” resentments, and really get to know it. It was a great couple of weeks. When the review was finished and filed, I knew I’d miss it when I switched back to my iPhone.
So I didn’t.
Well, not completely.
See, I’ve always had respect for Android. Even when I thought that the handsets were kind of shoddy, the apps were terrible, and the user interface felt a little like trying to pull live angry lobsters out of a tank using only my face, I thought Android brought much-needed hardware diversity and alternative philosophies to the field of multi-touch handsets.
But active, sincere enthusiasm for an Android phone was an altogether new sensation for me. So for the whole rest of the summer, I decided to perform my longest-ever deep-soak test of Android. Yes, dear readers, I was bi-handset-curious. Everywhere I went, I had both my iPhone 4S and the Samsung Galaxy S III in my pocket. I still used my iPhone for phone calls and texts, but for everything else, I could pick up whichever I wanted.
Turned out that I was overwhelmingly favoring the Samsung.
Why? Was it just a dumb fling, after five years of staring at the same screen and the same tools? I’ve dropped the Android phone cold-turkey for a week and a half, so I can compare the two experiences a little more clearly. What do I miss about the Samsung? And would my return to iOS reveal that I had carelessly been giving Android a free pass on some big deficiencies?
It isn’t hard to come up with a list of the things I love about the Samsung Galaxy S III, and by broad extension, Android in its 2012 form...
Actually! Why don’t I be blunt and say that it’s a two-item list: “The big screen” and “Everything else.”
The big screen
See, the Galaxy S III’s 4.8-inch screen is truly that much of an improvement over the iPhone’s 3.5-inch display it made as strong and positive an impression on me as every other Thing I Love, combined.
The S III is probably about as big as a phone can be without getting clumsy and silly, like the Galaxy Note. As is, the added bulk brings some unavoidable drawbacks. The S III periscopes slightly out of the top of my shirt pocket, whereas my iPhone 4S disappears inside. The Samsung’s larger dimensions also mean that I can rarely operate it one-handed, even with my big, beefy, he-manly mitts. The iPhone’s screen falls almost completely under the sweep of the thumb of the hand I’m holding it in.
But a larger screen makes any phone a much better device in so many ways. It feels like a great compromise between a phone and a tablet. Email and webpages are easier to read. I almost never bothered with the Kindle app on my iPhone, but on a 4.8-inch screen, an ebook reader seems much more practical. Movies and TV shows are more fun to watch.
The bigger screen also means that an onscreen keyboard is larger and less cramped, so my typing is faster and more accurate. The big screen makes the S III a much, much better car computer. Maps and driving directions are big, bold, and clear, and the controls for my music player are big targets that I can see and hit easily without shifting my focus from the road. My iPhone now seems to vanish into my peripheral vision, even though it’s now back in the same car dock in the same location it’s sat for many years.
I’m glad that the next iPhone will have a larger screen (barring a stunning repudiation of mounds of evidence in that direction). The aforementioned evidence is pointing to a longer widescreen aspect ratio, instead of a more tablet-scale shape and form. Let’s see how that plays out.
In 2007, a 3.5-inch multitouch smartphone was a breakthrough. In 2012, it feels like a party favor. Larger devices like the S III are more relevant to the new world of content that the original iPhone helped to encourage. The fact that each of Apple’s competitors are choosing large screens for their flagships, and that small screens have been banished to the budget lines, demonstrates how clearly the public has endorsed this evolution.
But it’s not just the larger screens that I like about the 2012 graduating class of Android phones. Despite the wide variations of features from maker to maker, there are some great themes that seem to have penetrated the entire Android ecosystem. In no particular order:
1) Swype-style keyboard input. This is an alternative input system in which you slide your finger from key to key instead of lifting and tapping. It took me only twenty seconds to get used to it and the increase in speed and accuracy was dramatic and immediate. I’d trade iOS or Android’s speech-to-text input for this system in a heartbeat.
2) Customizability. A few of weeks after taking an Android phone out of the box, it’s “yours” in a way that no iPhone will ever be. Because if there’s something you don’t like about how it behaves, there’s usually a way to change it. Partly this is down to basic design philosophy but it’s also a benefit of the deeper access that Android developers have to the hardware. When I hold the volume-down button on the S III, it eventually mutes...just like on every other phone. But thanks to an app called “Shush! Ringer Restorer,” the phone also displays a dialog that lets me set a timer. Two hours later, when the movie’s over, the speaker goes back to its previous setting automatically. Neat.
3) The Desktop. Android gives you blank pages that you can set up however you please ... and the pages aren’t limited to just apps and Web bookmarks. I’ve set up my Android desktop pages as “dashboards” designed for separate purposes. When I’m driving, the screen consists of a widget for my nav app, a controller for my audiobook player, and direct shortcuts to my four favorite playlists. Three apps, working together in the same display. In iOS, the Desktop is a grid of app icons that are a holy pain to keep organized. There’s no way to pull up a list of all installed apps, and once you surpass a certain magic number, additional apps won’t show up at all. I actually launch most apps by searching for them in Spotlight. The iOS desktop is in desperate need of an overhaul.
4) Sideloading content. iTunes is another Apple product that ought to be sent off on a Warrior’s Journey of some kind, but it does work. I just wish there were other ways to put stuff on my iPhone. I can connect an Android phone via USB and just drag a 1.4 gigabyte movie file right onto the device without first having to import it into my desktop media library and tell iTunes what to do with it. Ditto for any other kind of file. The micro-SD storage slots in almost all Android phones also makes it easy to move data in directly, including from cameras and other devices that use the SD standard.
5) Feature diversity. Apple wouldn’t include a feature like near-field communications unless they were certain that the feature would be relevant to nearly all of their customers. Android makers just throw features at the wall and see what sticks. The NFC feature of many Android phones are fab. Cheap stickers with NFC chips can be programmed to interact with the phone when tapped. I have a sticker on my car dashboard. One tap, and it changes a bunch of system settings and launches a bunch of relevant apps. On the iPhone, I need to spend ten to thirty seconds tunneling through the interface to achieve the same thing. I love that...and as an individual consumer, I don’t care that 90 percent of phone buyers probably would never use NFC. I’m glad that phones with that feature are available.
6) The “back” button. I used to make fun of it, and for good reason: The use of this system-wide button was so poorly defined that it became meaningless. Google seems to have whacked the right knuckles with the right kinds of rulers, because now the button almost always means “Move one step backwards in the interface.” I came to rely on it so much during my Galaxy S III experiment that I now find myself thoughtlessly tapping the lower-right corner of my iPhone’s face whenever I’m a bit lost in an app.
7) Accessible settings. I swipe down from the top of the screen and can turn Bluetooth or any other important system setting on or off with just a tap. In iOS, many of these things are deeply buried.
8) Replaceable batteries. I love the idea that I can swap out a dead battery for a charged one and go on my way. I like the idea that I can pull the battery completely and render the phone dead, dead, dead. I’m not terribly paranoid (in that I think that only some, not all, people are out to get me) but the fact remains that a phone with a battery connected to its circuitry is always a potential silent tracking device.
There are still many things that iPhone does way, way better ... and the things on that list aren’t trivial:
1) Less need to adapt. Android allows you to customize more things, but with iOS, there’s less of a need to. The thought, planning, and execution on display in iOS and the iPhone are all at a higher level than any other company seems capable of. It’s hard to explain, but it’s immediately evident. It’s like the difference between a window that’s clean and one that’s so clean it seems invisible.
2) iOS is just less squirrelly in general. I rarely need to force-restart my iPhone. Even at the end of two months of daily use, I was still restarting the S III once every few weeks. That sort of finesse runs deep. iOS keeps apps (and developers) on a very tight leash, which results in a far more stable and predictable experience.
3) iOS is more secure. Android developers have a lot more freedom and a lot less oversight than iOS developers. Which means that Naughty Developers can do some very, very naughty things, indeed. Google’s made some important improvements on that score, and iOS has its own security problems. But I just never worry about that stuff on my iPhone.
4) There’s no mystery about OS updates. When Apple releases iOS 6, nearly every iOS device Apple makes — including a three-year-old phone design — will receive a free automatic update that same day. Android OS updates are pushed out at the pleasure of the phone carriers. Google released Android 4.1 months ago. Will the Samsung Galaxy S III (which shipped with 4.0) receive an update? No comment from Samsung or AT&T. It’s rumored to arrive within the next few weeks. But seriously...it’s the hottest phone of the summer, and its buyers have to hang their hopes on rumors?
5) Accessibility. Stevie Wonder once famously boasted that he can do anything on his iPad or iPhone that any fully sighted person can do. Apple has done fantastic work making their mobile devices functional for people with vision, hearing, motor control, and even developmental issues.
I’m surprised to be leaving a certain item off that list: the iOS app library. The iPhone’s app library is much larger and deeper than Android’s. The best iOS apps are almost universally better than the best Android apps of that same category.
That said: I really didn’t miss out on much during my two months with Android. An important app will almost always be written for the iPhone first, but it’ll almost always be rewritten for Android eventually. All of the apps that I use every day were available directly in the form of Android editions. Nearly all of the second-tier apps were either available for Android, or I at least found an alternative that was just as good.
The iOS app library is still a huge advantage. But the surprise is that it’s no longer a dealbreaking one. The Google Play app store has finally clawed its way past the Line of Adequacy and has collapsed, exhausted, with its chest over the “Very Good” boundary.
And here’s the point where I say that I have forsaken the iPhone and am switching to Android.
That’d be a fine dramatic way to end this column but ... naw. Apple has a plan for computing that extends far beyond this one phone. There’s also the iPad (which I’m using to finish this very column), the Mac (which I used for the first draft of this column), iCloud (which allowed me to leave my office this morning and head for the airport, secure that this column would be waiting for me on my phone and tablet when I arrived here at the airport) and plenty of other products and services that offer a clean and consistent experience. The entirety of the Apple experience is a mighty weapon.
But this summer-long experiment has led to a significant permanent change. When people ask me “what phone should I buy?” I can’t respond properly until I’ve asked a hell of a lot more questions. I used to open with “Well, I think the iPhone is the best thing going ... but it’s not for everybody.” Now, I think it’s a close and exciting market.
The choice between an iPhone and a flagship Android phone is like a choice between pizza or hamburgers. They’re both fantastic. It really depends on what you’re hankering for.
One thing remains refreshingly constant, though: Android on full-size iPad-style tablets remains a damn-near hopeless endeavor. My opening line in that discussion remains “You’re considering a 10-inch Android tablet? For God’s sake...if you want to cheese off your parents, why not just get a tattoo?”