Over the past few years I've invested a lot into Apple's products and services.
If you come by my house, you'd find four of the latest Apple TVs, two iMacs, the latest MacBook Air, a MacBook Pro, more than five AirPort Express stations and Apple's Time Capsule. You could touch every single iPhone, from the first up to the iPhone 5, iPads ranging from first generation to fourth and we recently added two iPad minis.
My iTunes Library comprises well over 8,000 songs – all purchased via the iTunes Store. No matter whom you would ask, everybody will confirm that I'm what some folks call an Apple fanboy.
The reach of Apple's products goes beyond my personal life.
As the co-founder of Germany's largest mobile development shop, I'm dealing with apps – predominantly iOS powered – in my daily professional life.
Driven primarily by the business I run, I tried to give Android a chance more than once.
In various self-experiments, I tried to leave my iPhone at home for the Motorola Droid, the Nexus One, the Samsung Galaxy S II and S III – and always switched straight back to the iPhone. None of those Android devices have worked for me – yet.
And then I got the Nexus 4.
When the latest Google flagship Android device shipped, I almost expected it to turn out as yet another "take-a-look-and-sell-it-on-ebay" experience. Little did I know.
It's now almost two weeks since I switched the Nexus 4 on for the first time – and meanwhile I completely moved to it, leaving my iPhone 5 at home. Do I miss anything? Nope. Except iMessage. More on that later.
My motivation is not to bash Platform A over Platform B. On the contrary: I will try to summarise my very personal findings and experiences based on years of using iOS. I've seen the Apple platform evolve while Android was playing catch-up for so long. When iOS 6 came out, for the first time I complained about the lack of innovation in this major new release. I asked myself, whether we might see Apple beginning to lose its leading position in mobile platforms.
Before you read on, it's important to emphasise that I'm a pro user.
I'm not the average smartphone owner, who makes just a couple of calls every now and then or runs an app once in a while. By the nature of my job and out of curiosity, I deal a lot with social media outlets, social networks and constantly try new services. With that said, my judgement might not be suitable for everyone. In case you consider yourself being a demanding power user, though, you might find this helpful.
At the time of this writing, I've been using Android Jelly Bean 4.2.1 on an LG Nexus 4.
Putting it into a single line: The latest version of Android outshines the latest version of iOS in almost every single aspect.
I find it to be better in terms of the performance, smoothness of the rendering engine, cross-app and OS level integration, innovation across the board, look and feel customisability and variety of the available apps.
In the following paragraphs, I try to explain why.
Performance and Smoothness of the Rendering Engine
I know there are benchmarks which measure all kinds of technical performance on a very detailed level. That's not what I've done and, honestly, I'm not interested into that much. I'm talking about the performance I feel in my daily use.
Using the Nexus 4 with Android 4.2.1 is a pure pleasure when it comes to performance. I don't exactly know what Google has done with "Project Butter" in Jelly Bean, but the result is astonishing. In the past, Android felt laggy, sometimes even slow and responses to gestures didn't feel half as immediate as on iOS.
This has changed completely.
I'd say both platforms are at least even. In some cases, Android even feels a bit ahead of iOS 6. I especially got this impression when it comes to rapidly switching between apps – which I constantly do now – and scrolling through a huge amount of more complex content. (I'm not talking just tables with text here.)
While Android still doesn't give you bouncing lists and scroll views – primarily, because Apple has a patent for this specific behavior – every transition between views has been reworked, polished and modernised. In most cases, it feels more modern, clean and up-to-date than its iOS counterpart.
Cross-app and OS level integration
One of the biggest advantages I found during my daily use is the level of cross-app and OS level integration.
This also is the area where I was most disappointed when Apple introduced iOS 6.
In fact, I think iOS has reached a point where usability starts to significantly decrease due to the many workarounds that Apple has introduced. All of these just to prevent exposing a paradigm like a file system or allowing apps to securely talk to each others. There is a better way of doing this. Apples knows about it but simply keeps ignoring the issues.
On Android, it's quite the opposite. One can see the most obvious example when it comes to handling all sorts of files and sharing.
Let's assume I receive an email with a PDF attachment which I'd like to use in some other apps and maybe post to a social network later.
On iOS, the user is forced to think around Apple's constraints. There is no easy way to just detach the file from the email and subsequently use it in what ever way I want. Instead, all iOS apps that want to expose some sort of sharing feature, do have to completely take care for it themselves. The result is a fairly inconsistent, unsatisfying user experience.
On iOS, you might use the somewhat odd "Open in…" feature – in case the developer was so kind to implement it – to first move the file over to Dropbox, which gives you a virtual cloud-based file system. If you're lucky, the other app, from which you want to use the file next, offers Dropbox integration, too, so you can re-download it and start from there. All because Apple denies the necessity of basic cross-app local storage.
On Android, it's really simple.
I can detach the file to a local folder and further work with it from there. Leveraging every single app that handles PDF files. In case I receive a bunch of mp3 files, I can do the same. And every app that somehow can handle audio playback, can reuse those mp3 files.
Another great example: Sharing stuff on social networks. On iOS, I have to rely on the developers again. Flipboard, as one of the better examples, gives me the ability to directly share with Google+, Twitter and Facebook. On my Nexus 4, I have 20+ options. That is, because every app I install can register as a sharing provider. It's a core feature of the Android operating system.
But it goes even further: On Android, I can change the default handlers for specific file types – much like I'm used to from desktop operating systems.
If, for example, you're not happy with the stock Photo Gallery application, that shows up whenever an app wants you to pick an image, you can simply install one from over a hundred alternatives and tell Android to use it as its new default. The next time you post a photo with the Facebook app – or have to pick an image from within any other app – your favorite gallery picker shows up instead of Android's own.
All of this is entirely impossible on iOS today. I've stopped counting how often I felt annoyed because I clicked a link to a location in Mobile Safari and would have loved the Google Maps app to launch. Instead, Apple's own Maps app is hardcoded into the system. And there's no way for me to change it.
The customisability is simply stunning
Let me make this very clear: Gone are the days where home screens on Android phones almost always looked awful.
If you don't believe me, hop over to MyColorscreen and see for yourself.
Also note that all of those are real Android home screens, not just concepts provided by designers. They are not beautifully photoshopped wallpapers, but fully functional screens with app icons and active widgets.
And all of those can be configured pretty easily just by installing a couple of apps and tweaking settings. Here is an album showing my current configuration, which I was able to achieve after just a couple of days using Android as an absolute newbie.
Getting inspired? Here are some more of my favorites:
Now, iPhone lovers might argue that the average Joe doesn't want to deal with widgets, icons and custom animations. I've used the same argument for years. Well, guess what, you don't have to. The default Jelly Bean home screen looks beautiful already. But in case you want a somewhat more individual phone, the possibilities are endless.
For years, what you could do with Android, simply yielded awful looking home screens. This has changed. Significantly so.
And believe me or not, but after having configured my Nexus 4 just the way I always wanted – providing me with the fastest access to my most frequently used apps along with the most important information on a single screen – whenever I grab my iPhone for testing purposes, iOS feels pretty old, outdated and less user friendly. For me, there currently is no way of going back. Once you get used to all of these capabilities, it's hard to live without them.
App quality and variety
Yes, there are still lots of really ugly apps on Google Play.
In my opinion, this has two primary reasons.
First, the obvious one: The lack of a centralised quality control and review. It's great for encouraging variety, but obviously it also allows for some really cheap productions to be published to the store. Usually, you can spot those immediately from the screenshots on Google Play.
The second reason is more low-level: The way developers declare user interfaces (it's primarily done in an XML configuration file) allows for rapidly hammering together dirty UIs. That's what happens a lot and users can see and feel it. iOS developers tend to be more aware to involve designers and iOS UIs cannot be crapped together as easily.
However, I no longer feel as though the apps I use most greatly fall behind their iOS counterparts.
The Facebook app is identical in terms of look and feel and features. As a plus, it has better cross-app integration. The Google+ app is better on Android, but that's to be expected. Flipboard is fantastic on Android, plus better integration. The same is true for Pulse News. The list goes on: Instagram, Path, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Quora, Pocket, Amazon Kindle, Spotify, Shazam and Google Talk. They are all great on Android. Plus better integration. Plus home screen widgets. You sense a scheme here?
And if you want to experience some real UI magic – even if you just need an argument when you're bumping into an iPhone owner the next time – install Zime, a highly addictive calendar for Android which features smooth 3D animations and really innovative UI.
Talking about variety. This is where Android's openness pays off.
On iOS, many things I always wish to see being developed simply cannot be done because of the strict sandbox Apple enforces around apps. On Android, I use an app to block unwanted calls. To auto-respond to incoming short messages. And to lock some specific apps with an extra passcode, so my customers don't play with my Facebook profile, when I hand over my Nexus 4 for demos.
I also have apps that give me great insight into the use of mobile data across the device and all apps. Or the battery consumption. Or which apps talk home and how frequently.
None of it is available for iOS. And possibly won't be at any time in the near future.
What I miss
I said this earlier: The only thing I miss is iMessages. I'm not kidding. Letting go of iMessages was difficult, as many of my friends are on iPhones and used to text me via iMessage. While there are perfect alternatives (Facebook Messenger, Google Talk, WhatsApp, to name only a few), from time to time I still find a couple of unread iMessages, when I switch on my iPhone 5.
My most frequently used apps
I'm an Android newbie. During the last couple of days, I had to ask many questions and received hundreds of recommendations for apps. I installed, tried and uninstalled. And kept the great ones. My sincere thanks go out to the great Nexus and Android communities over at Google+.
In case you decided to give Android a try before you read this article, or got inspired here, I'd like to save you some of my journey. Here is a list of the apps I found most useful (and beautiful, given the high standards set by years as an iPhone addict):
- Nova Launcher Prime – a must have if you want to get creative with your home screen(s)
- MX Player Pro as a really versatile video player that handles almost all formats seamlessly
- TubeMate to make YouTube videos available for offline viewing
- QuickPic as a replacement for the stock photo picker (Gallery)
- Pixlr Express as the most amazing photo editor I've seen on a smartphone. Forget about Camera+ on your iPhone.
- Wifi Analyzer if you ever want to fine tune your wireless LAN
- Zedge for free access to hundreds of thousands of ringtones, wallpapers and notification sounds
- Power Toogles for home screen level access to toggling bluetooth, WiFi and other settings
- Remote for iTunes as a 100% replacement for the Remote app on your iPhone
- Minimalstic Text to create beautifully simplistic text widgets for your home screen
- ASTRO File Manager if you want to fiddle on file system level
- AirDroid to remotely manage all aspects of your phone from a browser on your desktop PC
- BeyondPod if you're an avid podcast listener as I am
- ConnectBot, a really capable SSH client
- Eye In Sky weather widget for beautiful weather on your home screen
Note: I always use the paid / pro version of apps, if one is available. Coming from iOS, I simply cannot adjust my eyes to in-app-ads and probably never will. Google Play now offers credit cards, PayPal and some other payment alternatives. Plenty of choice. I encourage everybody to give back to the developer economy and not just go for the free versions.
In case you're wondering why I took the burden to include all of the links to the apps above, well, here is another advantage over iOS: Google Play allows the complete remote install via the Web. If you're logged into your account you click the install button after visting one of the links in any browser, and wherever your phone is, the respective app will be installed silently.
My Android Wish List
Let me finish this post with a couple of wishes I've got for the next major version of Android, hopefully made available at this year's Google I/O:
- More and centralised settings for notifications, or, a notification center. The rich notifications introduced in Jelly Bean and the overall usability of the notification bar and drawer are already far better than those on iOS. (On a side note, I never understood why usability masters like the Apple engineers decided to make the "clear" button so tiny, that you can hardly hit it without using a magnifying glass.) However, the level of customisation you get for Android notifications is currently 100% up to the developers.This means, even though Android offers a great variety of possibilities, they are not consistently available in all apps. In fact, some apps barely let you switch notifications on and off, while others allow you to customize every aspect, from notification sound to the colour of the notification LED to do-not-disturb times. These should be made available globally and enforced through the APIs.For example, I'd love to be able to receive notifications on Facebook messages, but don't want them to show the full message preview in the notification bar.
There are some apps which let you choose whether you want a complete preview, or just a standard "you've got mail" message, without revealing its content. But it's up to the developer whether you've got the choice or not.
Or: Android has support for a notification LED that can flash in different colors. I configured the LED on my Nexus 4 to blink green on new WhatsApp messages. Incoming stuff from Facebook notifies in blue and new business mail causes the LED to flash in white. What sounds like a tiny feature is really valuable: While sitting in a meeting, you can grasp immediately whether you might want to check your phone right away or not. Unfortunately, not all apps let you customise the LED colour. Again, it's up to the developer to provide these settings as part of their application. This belongs into a centralised notification centre.
Options I'd like to see centralised: LED colour, notification sound, content preview. They could also be exposed on app level, but the Android Notification Centre should allow for overrides.
- Support for multiple accounts in Google Now. I'd love to see Google Now taking advantage of multiple configured Google accounts. On my device, I'd like my Google Apps for Businesses account to drive the calendar based cards but my private one for everything else (location and browsing history, etc.). Currently, Google Now can only leverage a single account. I therefore had to switch browsing and location history on for the Google Apps for Business account I use professionally. This should be a no-brainer for Google and I keep wondering why the folks at Google tend to forget these multiple-account scenarios.
- Solving the inconsistencies grouped around the back button. I've actually found this on many lists and from what I've read it has already gotten better in Jelly Bean. However, at times I still get confused about the multiple navigation hierarchies that are caused by the native back button which is part of the OS and a second back button available within apps. Oddly enough, the mostly fantastic Google+ Android app suffers from this issue, too. Sometimes I end up on my home screen just because I "went back to far". It's not a big issue, but one which needs to be addressed.As a starter, how about giving the damn back button a different color if the next time you hit it, you'll be taken out of the app.
- Indicate whether an app uses Google Cloud Messaging or some other technology to stay connected. I believe this one to be huge: On iOS, there are essentially no long-running background processes, except for VoIP or Navigation apps. This means all apps that notify users of incoming data while they are inactive, make use of a centralised service operated by Apple, called Push Notifications. It has a great advantage with respect to battery life, as there is only a single process on the OS level, that monitors all incoming messages and distributes them to the targeted apps, instead of potentially many apps doing whatever they want to do to stay connected. Android has a similar service, named Google Cloud Messaging. Unfortunately, there is no obvious way to differentiate apps that leverage this service from those that constantly poll or even keep a socket connection to their home servers. I'd love to see the ones making use of Google Cloud Messaging identified in Google Play and on the OS level, maybe in the already available App Info screen. That way, I could dramatically increase battery life by stopping those that constantly talk back home and encourage developers to make use of Google's Cloud Messaging service.
One last word
At the beginning I stated, that I tried Android many times before and it never worked for me. I figured, there are two main reasons for this. First, Android has made a major step forward with Jelly Bean. It just wasn't on par with iOS before. Second, and more important, I found the stock Android experience provided by Google the best you can get. After switching to the Nexus 4, I tried my Samsung S III again, and it did not work for me.
What Samsung does with its TouchWiz modifications and many of the other tiny changes – and other non Nexus vendors, too – totally ruins the experience for me. If you're coming from iOS I highly recommend choosing one of the Nexus devices with guaranteed updates and a clean Android environment the way Google envisioned it.
Closing it off
This was rather lengthy. I figured, switching the mobile OS platform should be worth an in-depth view. Hence this post. I hope you've enjoyed it.
Will I sell my iPhone 5? No. No. No. I never sold one. I'll keep it. Maybe it'll manage to win me back with iOS 7.
Ralf Rottmann is a serial entrepreneur from Germany, CTO at grandcentrix and former editor for The Next Web. He successfully sold his last business to Alcatel-Lucent. Find him on Twitter @ralf and Facebook and Google+.