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ryan

July 5th 2012 8:06 pm

The Android Challenge: update one (days 1 - 3)


Alright, the first update from the Android Challenge! For reference, I'll be writing and editing these a few days behind so as to make sure my reactions aren't initial or superficial, but have actually stuck with me.

Android fans, I'll warn you now: this first update (which the first three days) will probably be a lot more negative than subsequent updates. I'd wager that's mostly because the biggest, most irritating differences one will encounter during a switch to any new platform will be the ones you notice right up front.

For those new to this thread, background on the Android Challenge here: gdgt.com­/discuss­/an­-iphone­-user­-five­-years­-later­-i...

tl;dr for the first time in five years I'm leaving the iPhone and trying an Android device as my primary device. Here's how it's going.

Day one
This is weird. Definitely a major sense of insecurity. It's not a feeling of "I can't live without my iPhone.", but more like, "Well, now I'm not so sure I'll be able to do _____ when I need it." Kind of reminds me of taking a big trip with an iPad, but no laptop, or being overseas without cellphone service. It's by no means desperate situation, but I'm nowhere near as confident. Remember, I've tested and used many Android phones, but I've never left the iPhone home and used it as my one and only device. I want to ask all kinds of questions of Android folks, but I'm going to do my best to be as self sufficient as possible on this.

Hardware
I'm already really liking the device and form factor so far. I wouldn't say it feels significantly higher quality or anything, but it does feel a little more organic than the slabs I've been using for a while now. I forget that the iPhone's super small, uniform, dense form-factor makes it feel significantly heftier than larger phones like the Galaxy Nexus.

As confirmed in our review data, the Galaxy Nexus's camera is awful. Just painfully bad -- definitely deserving of the pitiful 5.9 / 10 we have it at (gdgt.com­/samsung­/galaxy­/nexus/). That said, this isn't a hardware review, this is about an iPhone user going Android, so I'm gonna try to keep it on track.
One major area where hardware and software intersect, though, is in device size and scale, and I am having some real dexterity issues when it comes to the size of this phone. I don't have super long thumbs, and I'm noticing that many of the most common actions in Android apps require taps to the upper part of the device, which I'm finding to be extremely difficult.

Now, the ability to tap any point on your device's screen with a single thumb is a long-debated issue in the tech space, and my assumption prior to switching to Android was that phone makers probably needed to curb the growth of mobile screen sizes to better enable better one-handed usage. Now, though, I think I may be wrong that screen size is the primary culprit.

There might be a better way to deal with the problem of using larger phones one-handed.

Most of what's on your screen at any given moment tends to be either passive areas (i.e. the data and content of a given app) or active areas (such as application chrome, the keyboard, etc.). Too often the chrome is split between top and bottom, with key elements out of reach on larger displays. But if it were easier to get at the active UI elements, that might alleviate some of the issues with using larger devices one-handed.

I may be wrong on this, but I don't think devices need to be smaller so much as on-screen interfaces should just be much more bottom-heavy with the UI, and top heavy with content. In other words, perhaps mobile interfaces should be better optimized for the way our thumbs work.

Given their very passive stance on interaction guidelines to date, I doubt Google will push hard to balance software usability with physical screen real estate. But this actually feels like it might be a problem that can be solved by rethinking interface design guidelines for larger devices.

Email
Being big on email, one of the first things I noticed: the Gmail app that Android users constantly rave about is actually not very good. It's not awful, and I'd be willing to go on the record that it's probably a bit better than Apple's iOS Mail app (but that's not saying much).

Simple stuff like mark as unread is missing. [Mark as unread is there! I just didn't spot it. Thanks, Daniel!] I have three Google accounts linked to my device (one personal, one work, and one legacy), but there's no unified inbox. That alone makes it almost unusable for me. There's a lot of little stuff, like the fact that you can't switch your reply-from account when replying to an email (only when creating a new email thread).

The interface is busy as hell. Why are attachments posted at the top of the message? And why don't rich emails format properly / zoom out? I don't get it. I thought the Gmail app was supposed to be a hallmark feature of Android. Sparrow is, in my opinion, lightyears ahead -- push or no push.

Still, while the Gmail app isn't what I'd call great, it's workable and I'm definitely able to get by. Its push and notification tray integration is pretty great, I will grant it that -- in fact, I'd say it's significantly better than anything on the iPhone. Quickly glancing at incoming email without opening the app is actually a pretty pleasurable and addictive experience. Apple got a little closer with last year's revamped notifications, but it's not quite this good.

Challenges
I was getting ready to go out for a run on day two, but Rdio wouldn't play anything. The app boots fine, I'm logged in, on WiFi, but there's just silence -- no playback errors or dialogs. I tried logging in and out, nothing; so I consulted the interwebs, which suggested I uninstall and reinstall the app. That seemed to fix it. All told, I spent 25 minutes trying to get the thing to just play some music.

This may or may not have even been Android's fault, it's really hard to say given the lack of information. But it's definitely not the kind of thing I've ever seen happen in iOS, and it really soured my morning with Android. But we're cool now -- everything's working pretty well and I can play music.

Etc.
Boy, the iMessage situation I got myself into was pretty bad -- but don't worry, it's definitely not Android's fault. Let me explain. Okay, so the way iMessage works is: if an iOS user has communicated with you in iMessage before, that client will continue to try to send you things via iMessage (regardless of whether that it's actually receiving messages from you in SMS or iMessage). It's a little confusing, but this is part of how you can switch between iMessage on your iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

So when I switched to an Android phone and texted folks on iOS, they were replying back to an iMessages-enabled iPhone that was turned off. Which basically meant communication was mysteriously one-way for a couple of days. Not fun.

Eventually I learned I needed to get on my iPhone and disable iMessage from that device. This, in turn, instructs Apple's iMessage network to disallow iMessages to me, and forces my iOS-using friends to instead send as SMS. Blech. But we're back in business.

Coming soon in Android Challenge updates!
  • Google Now: could it be my favorite new mobile thing of 2012?
  • Extreme ambivalence about the back button: it may just be the most simultaneously awesome / sucky navigation element anywhere.
  • Thoughts on Android app consistency.
  • I am starting to believe it's not just the iPhone, and that I'm just naturally terrible at typing on touchscreen keyboards -- but will Android be able to help me?
  • Lots more!
Update two (days 4 - 7) is up! Read it here: gdgt.com­/discuss­/the­-android­-challenge­-update­-two­-...

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95 replies
eawortman

I thought maybe I was the only one that didn't consider the Gmail app on Android to be very good. It's good at handling managing mail, but I thought it was not very good at actually looking at mail. As you mentioned, the inability to zoom out on a message is not good. It feels a bit disorienting to be zoomed in on a message and have to do a bunch of panning to figure out what it's about.

For screenshot reference to what is being talked about, here you go.




Disclaimer: These screen shots are from when I switched from iOS 4 to Android on a Samsung Galaxy S2 (2.3.4), I have since switched back to iOS 5 for now.
7 like dislike
fortyoneacres

I read through the majority of replies but didn't see a response to something you wrote: you can actually change the reply from account when replying to email. I believe you have to set up the reply from email addresses in your Gmail account on a computer, but once done you should see a small diagonal arrow/corner in your "from" field, select that & you should see different addresses to reply from.

Hope that helps
4 like dislike
TheoC

Was going to say this. Works well.
0 like dislike
Triple5Light

You can ad additional email addresses via your android phone, at least if it's running ICS
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PantsOnFire

Interesting notes on one-handed usability. I have had similar thoughts, and I really think that while Google did a lot of good with Android 4.0, the getting rid of the menu key and moving it to a soft button at the top of the screen really messed up one-handed usability. Not that it was ever spectacular in Android, but it wasn't always this bad.
3 like dislike
deitiphobia

I totally agree. They are trying to get rid of subverted menus under the menu key to make it easier, but I think they just totally traded the ease of use of one hand functionality to get there. That's why I like that the Galaxy S III has put the menu key back at the bottom. Also, when I had my gnex, I put a ROM on there that allowed me to bring back my menu button on the bottom along with my other buttons. It's just way faster.

It's just too hard to reach to the top right of the screen to hit menu, when your screen is 4.65 inches.
2 like dislike
PantsOnFire

Totally agree, but unfortunately, the menu key on the Galaxy S III doesn't entirely solve the problem. On new, Holo-themed apps, you still have to reach up to hit the new menu key to access a lot of functions. It's most irritating in the official Google Reader app, where Mark all as Read and Refresh are all the way at the top of the screen.
0 like dislike
autosuggestion

Not if you're running CM9 on it, I use the menu key to mark all as read all the time.

Also, its wonderful being able to turn the lights for the menu and back button off.
0 like dislike
frankspin

CM9 or rooting shouldn't be the answer.
1 like dislike
Guapo

I disagree. That's the beauty of having an Android phone, especially a Nexus. Don't like something? It is very easy to make it the way you want.

Not so easy on the other side of the fence.
0 like dislike
PantsOnFire

It might be easy for some one who is technically inclined, but it most certainly is not for the average consumer. Telling someone that they need to modify something to correct an out of the box issue is a cop out.

And you were replying to a statement about the mainstream Galaxy S III, not the Galaxy Nexus.
1 like dislike
Guapo

It isn't a cop out. It is a choice. The average consumers aren't going to be complaining about where the menu button is compared to where it used to be. The button works fine where it is. You may not like where it is, but that doesn't mean its an "out of box issue" that needs to be addressed. I don't like my iPad's lack of a back button. Does that mean Apple needs to address the out of the box issue?

As for the Galaxy S3 vs the Nexus, my comment was more about Android, but highlighted the point about the Nexus because that is what Ryan is using in his experiment.
0 like dislike
frankspin

If your technology illiterate friend or family member came to you with an issue on their Android based phone you're honestly going to tell them to root their phone?
0 like dislike
Guapo

My technology illiterate friends wouldn't be complaining about the placement of the menu button.
0 like dislike
aoctavio

It's interesting. I use an iPhone 4s normally, but travel with a Galaxy Nexus (still in Ice Cream Sandwich, I have been hesitant about installing ClockworkMod and dealing with that forever, instead of just waiting a couple of weeks, well a month, more likely). Your comment about the gmail app is interesting, because I use the gmail app in iOS! I prefer the android what, but can't for the life of me understand why it can't open appointments in calendar (.ics attachments, luckily there is an app for that).

I appreciate the larger screen sometimes, but my small hands think the iPhone is the perfect size for a phone that I carry all day. The few times when I want a slightly larger screen do not justify the problems carrying the device and using it one hand. I have serious doubt this can be fixed with UI redesigns, but I am going to wholeheartedly support your idea so that, maybe we'll get some consistency in the interface.

All in all, good luck. I would bet you return to the iPhone, the only reason I don't travel with the iPhone is the difficulties unlocking it and the small sim that is, sometimes, harder to find. I am unwilling to spend a couple of hours on a trip trimming down a normal size sim to use the iPhone, academic since it is locked anyway.
3 like dislike
slightlyoffbeat

I could be wrong (perhaps it is different with the nexus?) but my android ICS phone has "mark as unread" as one of the primary icons on the bottom of every email. Its usually the one in the bottom right. I use it all the time. The file cabinet is "archive" an the envelope is "mark as unread"
2 like dislike
PantsOnFire

That's another one of the major usability problems that Google overlooked with ICS. The lack of labels on on-screen buttons is confusing and not very helpful to new users. Or even experienced users with poor memories. ;)
3 like dislike
lemon

Press and hold any icon for a quick tool-tip on what the icon does. Works in pretty much every stock app.
2 like dislike
PantsOnFire

That's a very good (and useful) tip, but it is painfully not obvious to a new user. It's almost like some one at Google was like "shoot, no one will know what these icons mean so we had better do something about it."
3 like dislike
sawilson

So you could say it's similar to not knowing you have to quickly double-tap an arcane physical button to access task switching? How about a four finger swipe? Is that obvious? How about having to chase down settings in maybe general, or maybe in the app because there's no continuity? Maybe there are no settings at all? Each OS has it's peculiarities.
0 like dislike
PantsOnFire

Right, and they can all be improved and made better. There are many usability things that can be fixed on every mobile OS. That's the point of my argument, not "platform A is better than platform B."

FWIW, I think that while Google made a lot of leaps forward with ICS, this is one area where it took a step back.
2 like dislike
sawilson

Agreed!
0 like dislike
crasher35

Honestly, I HATED the label-less buttons when they first came out with it, but after a while of using them, I actually like them better. It took me a little bit, don't get me wrong, but once I got it, I don't really need to think twice about them.
2 like dislike
ryan

Bingo.
1 like dislike
simieski

I disabled labels on iOS with Springtomize (app from Cydia). It enables me to fit 5 x5 apps on my homescreen, I could not go back to 4x4 now, so much wasted space.
-1 like dislike
ryan

Thanks! I updated the post to reflect that, good call. However, PantsOnFire's comment below is right on: the over-reliance on opaque iconography in Android has made it a real pain for me to get up to speed with.
3 like dislike
razgriz94

Quick tip, if there is an icon in the Action Bar that you're not sure of it's function, press and hold it. You'll get a small toast notification that will tell you what the button is. Some of the icons can be confusing, I know. But this little (not obvious) tip should greatly help you out with Android 4.0 apps.
3 like dislike
aaronfg

I never knew this. Excellent!
0 like dislike
EdwardC

There's an unfortunate tendency for people undertaking this kind of exercise to say "Product B is painful to use because the weird, opaque behaviours are different to all the weird, opaque behaviours I've become used to in Product A (and have come to regard as "standard behaviour"). You see it with people switching from iPhone to Android, Android to iPhone, Windows to Mac, Mac to Windows etc. and it pretty much sucks all the value out of an article.
2 like dislike
slightlyoffbeat

I agree. Also it took me a while to figure out what the envelope meant. At first I thought it meant "archive". I didn't even realize the other icon was a file cabinet. I also did not know about razgriz94's tip. Handy, though a bit hidden.
0 like dislike
slightlyoffbeat

support.google.com­/ics­/nexus­/bin­/answer.py­?hl­=en­&a...
1 like dislike
deitiphobia

i'm running a droid incredible with Android 2.3 and my gmail has mark as unread. you must hit the menu button first, then there you will see mark as unread. This works when your looking at a single email, and also when you select multiple emails from the list view.
0 like dislike
PantsOnFire

To be fair, the Gmail app is quite different from Android 2.3 to Android 4.0. None of the buttons are labeled in the Android 4.0 version. New users either have to "press and guess" or just assume that functionality is not there.
0 like dislike
sbatwater

Re: On-Screen Keyboard

I have found the stock ICS keyboard to be pretty solid, but have tried some of the third-party options (one of my favorite Android features).

I'm wondering if you've given Swype or Swiftkey a shot. I recently converted to Swype. Never cared for it much in earlier versions, but this latest version is actually pretty awesome. Makes one-handed typing pretty easy.
2 like dislike
Jx2west

I use Swype as well. Takes a little bit to get used to but once you do it's annoying to use a regular keyboard like when i use my iPad.
0 like dislike
sawilson

Honestly? I was a swype user for a while, but I went back to using stock keyboards. I prefer typing the first three letters or so on a good predictive keyboard. I really like the Jellybean keyboard. It's *almost* as good as the iOS keyboard. About 95 percent of the way there.
0 like dislike
Jx2west

It's all aboutpersonal preference and that's what's great about Android.
2 like dislike
jngai

The issues you had with Rdio is something I experienced on a daily basis with my Nexus S. It usually goes like this: install a app, that app either eats up too much CPU cycles or that app doesn't work well with another app. A critical function (phone call, podcast, 3G connection) stops working. Power cycling usually resolves the issue until I get again the next day. The permanent solution I have is to stop installing apps. Crazy, right?
2 like dislike
sawilson

Sounds like you have a sick phone. I never had that issue on my Nexus S. Did you upgrade to ICS? You got a factory update. I'm just assuming you have a broken phone because the OS will kill apps once they stop behaving normally. That's why Android is more stable than iOS now.
-2 like dislike
wyldtek

I have large hands and even I have trouble reaching the top of the screen with one hand at times.

I actually prefer the separate Gmail inboxes but I probably get infinitely less mail than you do. The vast majority of my email goes to my main personal inbox so I like it to be clear when something goes to my business and school accounts. I keep things very segmented.

Mark-as-unread is the envelope icon that's the second from the right while viewing a message. It's third from the right if you are in the list view and have emails selected. Long-pressing on the icon will give its name.

The rich text zoom thing is quite annoying. I don't see it often but when I do it's maddening.

I agree with you on the Galaxy Nexus camera. I switched to the Nexus from a Galaxy S II mostly because of Jelly Bean. I love the Nexus but the camera pales in comparison to the GS2. I didn't buy a Nexus when it was released because of that. But getting one with Jelly Bean from I/O pushed me to switch.

I live on Google Voice so my issues with switching devices/carriers/etc are a thing of the past :)

Side Note: You should play with the Light Flow app to customize the notification light.
1 like dislike
Mitchellmckenna

Re: Screen Size Growth vs. Dexterity Issues

One thing Google is trying out to combat this is Quick Gestures in the Browser. I've gotten really used to using them and love it for quickly navigating back/forward, getting to url bar, sharing, and getting to menu options without having to go to the top or bottom of the phone. It might not make sense for this type of thing in other apps, but for now, in the browser, it's awesome, give it a try:
www.droid­-life.com­/2012­/02­/07­/tip­-browser­-quick­-co...
1 like dislike
EdwardC

Do people rave about the Android GMail app? I know people rave about the overall integration of Google services (myself included), but the UX of the GMail app rarely seems to be praised as anything better than "good". Most people probably have a better time of it simply because they don't have more than one GMail account. I agree about the zoom thing though - that's a weird design decision.
1 like dislike
sawilson

The inability to zoom in gmail drive me nuts to no end. It's torture when you really need it.
2 like dislike
simieski

WOW!! For someone who is considering switching to Android soon, this has been a really interesting piece so far. NO Unified inbox??? You what??
1 like dislike
sawilson

It's not as important on android. You find yourself increasingly grabbing things from your notifications bar, which functions more like an "everything box" rather than simply an email box.
0 like dislike
eawortman

Grabbing things based on notifications works fine as they are coming in, not that great when you wake up in the morning with 40+ emails to go through and respond. That being said, I personally don't consider it a deal breaker, just a lot more convenient.
0 like dislike
Guapo

All my emails are unified at the server level at Gmail. I have multiple email accounts (including a secondary gmail) setup to all pipe through my primary Gmail account. I can send or reply as any one of the included accounts all within the single login on the Gmail app.

It is simply a different way of doing things than Apple does it, and takes some getting used to.
0 like dislike
LunaticSX

Some people simply cannot have all of their email piped through to a primary Gmail account due to security policies/etc.

This is not an "Apple" thing, it is a corporate/government thing. It's why a lot of people using BlackBerries held on to them until other mobile OSes added a unified Inbox feature, as well.
1 like dislike
sawilson

And that's why along with Gmail, Android provides full Exchange connectivity, along with full remote wipe privileges for the exchange server in case of theft and was approved for the military and Goverment, while iOS was not deemed secure enough because it isn't open and can't be manipulated.

www.cnn.com­/2012­/02­/03­/tech­/mobile­/government­-andr...
0 like dislike
eawortman

Don't confuse the free consumer Gmail with Google Apps for Government.
0 like dislike
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