Leaving Android

February 07, 2012

Twenty months ago I wrote about getting my first smartphone, an Android-based HTC Droid Incredible. At the time the primary reason I had for choosing it over an iPhone (the iPhone 4 announcement was only a couple of weeks away) was the lack of 3G data coverage in my hometown.

I've been extremely pleased with my Incredible but I'm ready to switch to an iPhone. What follows are my thoughts about what's been good and what's been not so good about Android.

Crapware

Unless you pay full price for your phone (feature or smart) you are benefitting from a subsidy. The visible cost of this subsidy is the two-year contract you are required to sign. With Android-based smartphones there is a somewhat hidden cost in the form of crapware. Your brand new smartphone will come with several carrier-installed apps that you cannot remove from your phone. At least on a new Windows-based computer you can remove the crapware that comes pre-installed.

Having apps you neither want nor can remove on your phone is a minor niggle but it speaks to the tone of your relationship with the cellphone carrier -- they really don't care whether you want those apps or not.

Lack of Updates

In the case of my HTC phone, operating system updates happen only when, and if, HTC devotes energy to updating their custom user interface, called Sense. Over the summer when it appeared that HTC would not be making Gingerbread available to my model of smartphone I took the initiative and rooted my phone and installed CyanogenMod, a 3rd-party ROM. It was a relatively easy process and it gave me Gingerbread on my phone, but it hasn't been without difficulties. In November after updating from CyanogenMod 7.1 to 7.3 my phone freaked out and it ceased to be stable for any use. I was fortunate enough to have a backup from before the update that still worked.

Honeycomb (Android 3.0) was designed solely for tablet devices so Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) is the latest and greatest operating system from Google. Unless the ROM community steps up and makes an ICS ROM that will work on my now two-year old hardware, I'll be trapped at version 2.3 going forward. (Yes, I could buy a new Android phone, but some of those brand new phones don't come with ICS either. The carriers don't seem to care as long as they are selling devices.)

The average smartphone buyer has neither the technical chops nor desire (perhaps) to have the latest and greatest OS available for their device. I do have that desire, and while I have the technical ability to keep up in spite of HTC, I no longer want to risk bricking my sole telephone.

Google Chrome

Just today I learned that there is a beta version of Google Chrome for Android. Google Chrome is my browser of choice and I would love to have it on my smartphone. However the beta only works on Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.x) and my phone is only running 2.3.x. As I said above, I'm at the mercy of the ROM community to produce a version of Ice Cream Sandwich that will work on my two-year old hardware.

Browser

The stock Android web browser, called "Browser" is horrid. I have never liked it, and compared to mobile Safari on my iPad it is truly lacking. I've tried several other browsers with mixed satisfaction. The latest Firefox betas aren't too bad, but I still find it lacking.

The lack of a decent browser for my phone means I rarely use it to browse web pages.

Turn-by-turn-navigation

The turn-by-turn navigation app is very nice. While I don't travel often, I have made good use of it at conferences or trainings to find restaurants, lodging, and points of interest. Of course several weeks ago while using it in Kansas City to find our way from hotel to concert hall my phone decided to reboot mid-navigation. To be fair I think the reboot was caused by the ROM on my phone and not the navigation app, but it goes to highlight my situation with Android. Either I run a stock OS and accept being two or more operating system generations behind, or I root my phone and install a ROM hoping that it is stable enough on my hardware to be functional.

Alternative keyboards

The stock Android keyboard is good, but some of the 3rd party ones are outstanding. I'm a huge fan of SwiftKey, which predicts the next word with surprising accuracy. There are some texts that I send often enough, a wake-up text to my wife, for example, where I only need type the "G" in "Good morning" and the poke the space bar to accept the suggested word for the entire rest of the message. In preparation for not having a predictive keyboard I've actually turned SwiftKey off and gone back to typing the entire message. Being a nerd is sometimes challenging.

Camera

The camera in my Incredible is just that -- incredible. It takes amazingly good pictures for a device that isn't primarily a camera. The pictures are so good that when we travel I don't think about taking a digital camera at all. More than once I have told Sibylle that it's really a camera with a phone built-in.

Mini USB port

My HTC uses a mini-USB port for charging and syncing. Since this is a standard and not proprietary like the 30-pin connection iPhones use, it feels better. With the huge presence i-devices have any more I think 30-pin connectors are easier to come by than they might have been a few years ago.

Removable battery

I can take the back off my Incredible and remove the battery. This could easily go in the "Cons" column as I need to do this with surprising frequency as the phone does become unresponsive at times. I don't know if this is due to my having added a 3rd-party ROM to the phone or if it would have the same behavior with the stock HTC ROM. Regardless, I can force it to reboot if I need.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.