One of my main reasons for getting a new phone was that the iPhone was unable to get a signal in my flat. This is partly because of the construction and materials, and partly because the radios in the iPhone 3G are not particually good. The Desire gets a far better signal than the iPhone does in the same place, with the same SIM.
As an actual phone, they handle much of a muchness. I don’t actually like making phones on a smartphone, I sweat all over the screen, it gets icky and horrible. The Desire and the iPhone are both as good and as bad as each other in this regard. The speakers and microphones work, the quality appears to work, it works as a phone.
The interface is a different thing, though. The android device keeps its “Phoneness” front and centre, with a button labelled “Phone” at the bottom of the home screen. Press it and you get the phone app, complete with last dialled numbers, missed calls and such. Start typing a name in the search box at the top, and it’ll find the number for anything matching that. Press to dial.
Actually, the press-to-dial is the bit that annoys me. Generally, I don’t want to phone someone unless I press a big green button saying “dial”, and I keep – after a couple of months now – accidentally phoning people when I just want to view their contact details – which is what the same action does in the contacts view, which it otherwise resembles – or phoning someone back when I want to find out *when* I missed their call.
The iPhone interface on this is superficially similar, but more consistent. Clicking a contact brings you to the contact’s page, where there’s a clear call-to-action button to dial, message or email. These things seem small and insignificant, but they’re actually most of the big problem with Android (Including Sense) as a interface, all the functionality works, and sometimes works far better than on the iPhone, but even on native apps there are inconsistent reactions, meaning that you have to second thought most actions, think about where you are in the system, before you can do anything.
For example, the Desire has a “Back” button. What does it do? Most of the time it takes you to the screen you were on before you hit this button. “Back”. But that’s contextual, so if you clicked a notification saying “You have one new Twitter mention”, it takes you to the Twitter app (The official one, in this case) and to the page with your mentions on it. You click the mention, it has a URL, you click the URL, you’re in the web browser, you click a link in the web browser and you’re on a new page. Back, you’re on the previous page; Back, you’re on the tweet that mentioned you; Back, you’re on your Twitter mentions; Back, you’re at the home screen again.
However, if you launch twitter from the icon, you get the main menu. Mentions, Tweet, URL, New page. From there, Back to the URL, Back to the mentions, Back to the main menu, back to the home screen. From the “Mentions” page, therefore, you cannot tell what’s going to happen when you press the back button. If you came in from one direction, you get one action; from another place, another action. If you hit the “Web Browser” icon on the desktop, you’ll get the URL from the tweet. Click back from that and you’re at the home screen, consistent user action leads to inconsistent results.
That’s an example, and not one I have a solution for, but because apps define these behaviours, they all do it differently, and even within the core apps it’s not perfect. The aforementioned contacts problem – where tapping a contact might open up more information, or phone them, sometimes text them – is another. Neither are insurmountable problems, but they require someone to treat them as problems and solve them, rather than hope some kind of consistency comes out in the wash.
There’s masses I can do on the Android device that the iPhone can’t even touch. I could have half a dozen different alarm programs going off at different times. I could install an SSH server and run Aquarionics from it. I run IRC connections in the background while I’m websurfing, I can tell what’s using my battery (Maps drinks it). It’s a massively flexible device, but with that seems to come a lack of focus. I can upgrade the memory.
One of my main uses for a “superphone” is as my local music player. For this, the iPhone is great. I already have all my stuff in iTunes, in playlists, smart playlists, podcasts and folders. I tell iTunes that I want these playlists on the iPhone, and it syncs it. As it’s doing so, it installs the latest versions of my apps, trims heard podcasts and installs new ones. The sync is two way, so when I listen to something on the android, it’s marked as “played today” on the playlists, and the smart playlists update with it. If I play a podcast on my phone, it’s marked as listened to.
The default way of sending music to an android device is to drag a folder full of MP3s onto a mass storage device.
The music player finds any MP3s on the storage device and lists them, sorting by album, artist and collection as best as the tags allow, and this is fine.
Doubletwist is great, because it does the one-way sync bit as well as iTunes does, if a lot slower. It imports my playlists as best it can, it manages podcasts to some extent. I understand the problems a lot of people have with iTunes. It’s heavy and hungry, it doesn’t work under linux and it doesn’t even like Windows very much, and it lacks important music management things (like duplicate detection, lists of MP3s it can no longer find, et. al.) but it gets the two way sync right. Doubletwist is getting there, and I hope one day it works as well.
Finally, there’s the future.
Next year, Apple will release the iPhone 5. Anyone who bought an iPhone 4 will feel slightly dejected that their shiny isn’t the shiniest any more, iOS 5 will work on the iPhone 4 (missing some new features), work barely on the iPhone 3GS (maybe) and not at all on the 3G, which will be consigned to the same “unsupported” box that the original iPhone now resides in. Apple will spend from now until then constructing and polishing the unholy alliance of hardware and software they specialise in.
In the time that it took me to get a Desire, HTC had announced several new phones to succeeded it, some of which have launched by now. Some are faster, some have better battery life and some more memory and higher resolution screen. HTC currently appear to be releasing a new set of handsets – bigger, faster, better – every two months, and are significantly less than speedy about releasing the new Android revisions for the older ones.
Froyo – the new Android release – will make my phone feel faster. It’ll give it more features, more things the Android can do that the iPhone can’t. Gingerbread – the one after that – will solve all my problems with the Android interface, giving me a consistent UI I can trust to do what I want it to.
In the future, Androids will conquer the earth. It’s a great system, and it’s open, and it’s a far more flexible base than iOS is. But Android will be great around the corner, the jam will come tomorrow. The iPhone is here now, and it works.
I’m sticking with the Desire, at least for now. I’ve been a bit harsh on it in these articles, in part because it has so much it could be doing much better, but I like the idea of a system I can open up and fiddle with, even if I’m never going to get around to doing so.
If a less technically-minded person wanted a “superphone”, though, I’d recommend the iPhone. It has jam, and it has it in a pot ready to use.