I bought my first iPhone in 2008 and my first iPad in 2010, and I've upgraded both devices several times since then. Over the last five years, iOS has easily been my second-most used operating system by hours of usage after Windows (which I have to use for my day job as a Java developer). I've never seriously looked at any alternative mobile OS, as I have a substantial commitment to Apple's ecosystem in terms of app purchases, content storage, and sheer muscle memory.
So it was something of a plot twist for me when I recently landed a job offer from Google London, working on one of Android teams. As I don't have a great deal of hands-on time with Android, I was nervous that I didn't have a very deep idea -- or even a fairly shallow one -- of what's what on the other major mobile OS. The Google recruiter assured me I wasn't expected to have prior knowledge, but even so, if I rocked up on my first day next year not knowing anything, I'd feel like a complete chump.
I figured that I should pick up an Android device and get my feet wet. Having made that decision, and already owning an iPhone 5 and an iPad 3 that I was happy with -- and not wanting to spend any more money than I had to -- the logical decision was clear: a Nexus 7, Google's flagship small tablet device. It's relatively cheap, at $229/£199 for a 16 GB device (compared to $399/£319 for the forthcoming iPad mini with Retina display). In addition to being an Android testbed it also fills a role that I don't currently have matched up with a device: a small, semi-pocketable, one-handable tablet. My life will soon contain a fair bit of commuting via busy London public transport, so I thought a device that needed less elbow room to use than my 9.7" iPad might be a good idea.
During my first few days with the device, I kept some detailed notes on what I saw that I liked, as well as what I didn't. I present these notes now for your consideration. I'm not going to pretend that this is any sort of a review; I don't use enough different tablets to be a capable judge. It's just my personal take after a few days of intensive use, from the perspective of a long-term iOS loyalist.
Screen and form factor
In any tablet, which generally consists of little more than a screen plus a thin bezel, these two subjects are intrinsically linked.
Unlike many Apple-centric writers, I've long been intrigued by the 7" tablet size. I picked up a first-generation Kindle Fire from the US for a friend in 2011, long before the release of the iPad mini that legitimized the small tablet form factor for many people. Although the Fire was in many ways a deeply iffy device, my first impression on using it for an hour or so was that a tablet light enough to be comfortably held in one hand is a qualitatively different device to one that cannot. Subsequently, using my wife's iPad mini and now this Nexus device has further cemented this belief.
Firstly, in terms of display quality, the Nexus 7 is top notch. Anandtech reports it has terrific color calibration, it's pin-sharp with a better-than-Retina-display dots-per-inch, it's simply lovely all around -- the equal, to my eyes, of any of my iOS devices. One minor gripe though: even at the lowest setting, it's too bright to read at night without illuminating the entire room. The Nexus isn't going to displace my Kindle Paperwhite for that. And of course, the Kindle enjoys battery life that any LCD-packing device could only dream of.
So display quality is very similar. In contrast to Apple's offerings, however, the Nexus 7 adopts a very different aspect ratio. The iPads, both mini and traditional, have a 4:3 ratio, so the overall tablet is squarish. To my mind this is an aesthetically pleasing ratio; balanced, if you will. Neither too tall nor too short. There's a reason that 4:3 is a common proportion in photography stretching back over many decades; it's just nice to look at.
The Nexus 7, however, has a 16:10 screen; relative to an iPad the screen is narrower but much taller -- like the iPhone 5. This brings some significant advantages. It makes the device itself narrower, which I found made it easier to carry -- the Nexus 7 will fit in the inside pocket of most of my jackets and the back pocket of my jeans, whereas the iPad mini does not. It also means I can more comfortably "span" the device with one hand, with my left thumb curled around the left edge and my fingers curled around the right edge. I find this a bit of a stretch on the mini (I have smallish hands, though).
The reduced screen width is also a good fit for some reading tasks. Apps that reflow text to fit the screen (such as Kindle or Pocket), using a font size I find comfortable, and with narrow margins, end up adhering pleasingly close to the typographical rule of thumb that 66 characters per line gives optimum readability. On the iPad mini, I'd need wider margins or a larger font to achieve that.
And of course the screen is a natural fit for 16:9 video content. The Nexus 7's screen is 16:10, so widescreen video has just a very small top and bottom letterbox. It's 178 mm across the diagonal, which means it's 151 mm along the long edge and 94 mm on the short edge. With the letterboxing applied, a 16:9 video will therefore be 151 mm x 85 mm in size. By contrast, on an iPad mini with its more expansive 4:3 screeen with a 201 mm diagonal, widescreen video content will be 161 x 91 mm -- barely larger because of the letterboxing. It's not a big deal, but now I've done all the math to prove it's not a big deal I'm damned well going to include these results!
However, it's not all sunshine and roses in widescreen land. I found many web pages to feel somewhat cramped. In portrait mode, the text of a typical desktop-layout web page is often a little small until you zoom to just the content column, but now you've sacrificed visibility of the navigation tools and any other horizontal content. An iPad mini would be able to show the whole width of the page without bother. Perhaps tellingly, Google's Chrome browser defaulted with the option to "request desktop sites" set to false, thus preferring mobile sites. Some mobile sites, however, looked a little odd to me on the 7" screen -- sparse, somehow, as they are blown up into an amount of space they were not designed for.
Then there's landscape mode, which exacerbates these problems; I feel like I'm peering at the world through a letter box, condemned to scroll every few seconds as I reach the bottom of the screen again and again. The keyboard occupies over half the screen, leaving only six to eight lines of text visible in even a smallish font -- hopeless for text editing. Fortunately the Nexus, like the iPad mini, is narrow enough to make thumb typing in portrait mode quite practical. I wrote most of this article that way and found it reasonably agreeable, although I wouldn't want to write a novel on it. It's no substitute for my iPad paired with my trusty Logitech Ultrathin keyboard cover.
A tale of two app stores
Much has been written about the relative sizes and quality of Google's and Apple's competing app stores. Perhaps too much emphasis is placed on this, in fact. Consider Apple's recent boasts that is has paid $13 billion to iOS developers across the lifetime of the platform, and that lifetime sales of iOS devices now stand at 700 million. Big numbers, to be sure. But divide one by the other and you calculate that the total amount spent on apps across the lifetime of the average iOS device is just $26.52 -- so perhaps 15 or 20 paid apps purchased, in total. I do wonder if the typical person simply doesn't care about apps as much as we power users do (or, perhaps, that they gravitate toward only free or freemium apps).
I must also note that anyone's experience of an app store is going to be highly personal. For example, I have it on good authority that music production tools (of which GarageBand is merely the most visible tip of the iceberg) flourish on the Apple App Store, whereas the Play store has little to compete. I don't make music beyond some therapeutic drum playing occasionally, so I cannot comment on that with authority. Likewise, there are many other categories of app, and doing a detailed comparison across the hundreds of thousands of apps across the two stores is impossible.
But I will add a few notes on how I fared with the apps I care about, most of which are (I think) pretty mainstream. I was pleased to find that most such apps are on Android, even less famous ones like OurGroceries (an outstanding cloud synced shopping list app, by the way) and Paprika (my favourite recipes app). Flipboard synced my subscriptions over from iOS. Common services like Flickr, Foursquare, Simplenote, Pocket, Tumblr, Yelp, iPlayer, BBC News, the remote control for my Sky DVR, and more were all present and correct. The financial impact wasn't very large, either: I'll have to spend about £10-15 or so ($15-20) to replace all my must-have premium apps.
It wasn't all great, though. The most glaring casualties, however, were the very top tier of iOS apps:
- I've tried a few but found no Twitter client that's even in the same league as Tweetbot. (To be completely fair, I must acknowledge that my love for Tweetbot is so great that it has come to mold how I use Twitter, and no other client on any platform can compete with it for my affections either.)
- The field of Dropbox-powered Markdown-supporting text editors, whilst not completely barren, is much reduced on Android; I can't find anything to challenge Editorial or Writing Kit. Although niche, these are tools I rely on for writing on my iPad.
- Alternative calendar apps also seem to be thinner on the ground than on iOS; I can't find anything to challenge Calendars+, Calvetica, or my personal favourite, Fantastical.
- There seems to be rather fewer interesting games on Android, although the big names like Where's My Water, Candy Crush Saga, and Angry Birds are of course all there. This strikes me as a shame as the Nexus 7 would probably be a better gaming device than either my iPad 3 (too heavy) or my iPhone 5 (too small a screen). Several bigger games I would have liked to have tried on it were missing, like XCOM, Civilization Revolution, and Baldur's Gate (although the latter is "coming soon").
On the other hand, the Play store has emulators in it for various consoles, which opens up the intriguing idea that I could play Advance Wars DS on my tablet. I intend to investigate this at some point. The idea of playing action games intended for physical controls on a tablet via touch screen controls doesn't thrill me (and using a PS3 controller with the Nexus, whilst possible, seems fantastically clunky) but more sedate games should survive the transfer relatively unharmed, I think.
Related to the topic of app store size is also media store size: music, TV shows, books, films. I don't watch a lot of video on my tablet so I'm not best placed to draw conclusions from the brief look I did have at. However, anecdotally, I've heard many people say that Google's Play media store is rather smaller than Apple's, particularly outside the US where the tangled web of international video distribution rights makes it hard to get a good range of content. Of course if you mostly use independent services anyway -- Netflix, Kindle, and so forth -- then you'll find an equivalent experience on any platform; I find that a reason to prefer that sort of service, personally.
Much tedious squabbling has been done about the openness or otherwise of the Android operating system, and I do not intend to retread that tired ground here. However I must note that there are real, practical advantages to Android's willingness to allow users to customise aspects of the user experience that can make iOS feel a bit chafing and oppressive by comparison.
- Keyboards can be swapped out, a feature that has allowed experimental alternatives like Swype and Swiftkey to become established.
- Alternative browsers and mail clients and PDF viewers and photo galleries and so forth can be installed, as with iOS, but then can also be configured to be used as the default choice throughout the operating system. [Google's "shadow ecosystem" on iOS allows Chrome to launch Google Maps along with similar interactions among Google-branded apps, but does not change the wider experience. –Ed.]
- The home screen can be populated with a variety of information-rich widgets for at-a-glance access to whatever you care about most. I must admit I found this less compelling than I thought I would, but it's early days and I'm still experimenting with the large range of options available to me. I think I'll come to value this more as I find a mixture of widgets I'm happy with.
- The arrangement of app icons on the home screen, whilst snapped to a grid, does not need to be filled from the upper left corner first -- a small point, but I found this particularly liberating.
- The "sharing" feature works properly, which is to say it works like the Services menu in OS X. Once an app is installed, it appears throughout the operating system; so in Chrome, for example, I can send a URL directly to my Twitter client, or to Evernote, or to Pocket, or Tumblr, or any number of other apps I have installed. This is much more useful to me than the situation on iOS where only services Apple blesses (so just Twitter and Facebook) can get into the system-wide sharing options.
- There are further intriguing possibilities for customisation on the horizon, like the forthcoming app Cover. Cover adds to your touchscreen a strip of icons for the apps it thinks you're most likely to want right now, based on data culled from various sensors on your device, like location and travel speed. So if you're in work, you get options for your corporate mail and your calendar; if you're at home, you might see icons for Flipboard and Facebook; if you're driving, you might see Google Maps and Spotify. I think this trend of smartphones becoming better at predicting our needs by harnessing their rich trove of data about where we are and what we're doing is going to be important in the future. Apps with this anticipatory computing backbone are becoming more prevalent in both Google and Apple's ecosystems.
Much the same as Apple, Google integrates voice recognition deeply into the operating system. Voice prompts can be found in various search boxes and in any text entry field via a dedicated button on the keyboard, very similar to iOS. You don't get many spoken responses back like Siri provides (or at least, I didn't -- there is a setting somewhere for a car mode so it must exist), which makes it seem rather characterless. You don't get Siri's jokes and Easter eggs either. But it can do many of the same tricks, like setting reminders and alarms, creating calendar entries, and so forth; getting information about sports scores or actors or movies works by shunting you to a Google search.
More importantly, however, than the fine-grained features is how fast and accurate Google's voice transcription is. It's like night and day compared to Apple's offering. If you've never seen it, find someone with an Android phone and try it out -- then think about how much more often you'd reach for Siri if it was this good.
Lightning port vs micro USB
Apple's introduction of the Lightning port produced a lot of heat and noise across the blogosphere, mostly focussed on how expensive the charging cables were. Defenses of the standard usually hinged on the fact that it's a much more capable port than micro USB. However, via its micro USB port my Nexus 7 can:
- be charged quickly from the supplied 7 W charger (by comparison, the iPad mini comes with a 5 W charger and the iPad Air a 12 W one)
- be charged slowly from any USB port, over a generic cable I can buy for a few cents; spare Lightning cables cost $19 or $29 depending on length
- be connected to a USB card reader via a $1.38 adapter; the equivalent Apple adapter costs $29
- be connected to a HDMI television via a $15 adapter; the Apple equivalent costs $49
Lightning has theoretical advantages, particularly in terms of future expansion, and the bidirectional plug is a pleasure to use. But I'm struggling to see meaningful practical advantages here. What I found in the Nexus was a tablet that can connect to everything I want it to connect to and save me a decent chunk of change into the bargain.
Online services and lock-in
My Google email, calendar and contacts list all work on iOS just fine. Yet my iCloud email, calendars and contact lists are inaccessible to Android. Hence, if I want to be free to access my data on all my devices, this asymmetry means I'm much better off with all my data in Google's hands than in Apple's. I wonder if, in the long term, that's a good thing for Apple; is it driving people who care about interoperability into the hands of competing providers? Certainly, I find myself giving serious thought to moving my primary calendar over from iCloud to Google now.
[Update: numerous commenters below and elsewhere have pointed me to various Android apps that can bridge this gap, allowing you to access iCloud calendars and reminders on Android. SmoothSync seems to be the most common recommendation. Also, iCloud mail of course supports standard IMAP (which had entirely slipped my mind) so can be directly access through standard Android apps.]
On the other hand, several times I wanted to reply to an iMessage, or tick off a completed task in Reminders, and I found myself reaching for the Nexus before realising that wasn't going to work and picking up my iPhone instead. My reminders list is shared with my wife, so I can't easily leave that behind. Many of my friends use iMessage, so when messaging with them I enjoy free texts (sometimes internationally), high quality images, and the ability to see when they have read a message and when they are typing a reply. (Plus sometimes iMessage even delivers all my messages promptly and in the correct order. Bonus!)
All these Apple-only integrations create little patches of friction that stand in the way of me leaving iOS behind, and in aggregate they provide a powerful disincentive for me to try and run a mixed environment where some of my devices run iOS and some run Android. But another option I have is to entirely abandon iOS and embrace competitor devices and platforms wholesale. If it's easier for me to bypass this friction forever by dropping iOS than endure the hassle of mixing my devices across platforms... well, let's just say I'm not sure that's what Apple wanted to achieve.
[Update: I neglected to add, photo syncing is a major pain point for me. I'm fully committed to Apple's infrastructure: Aperture for post-processing and storage, various albums synced to iPhone and all my photos synced to my iPad via iTunes, and Photo Stream for ad hoc sharing with friends. Integrating Android into that workflow in any meaningful way has so far defeated me. I had high hopes for an Everpix Android app, which would be perfect, but the company's sad demise has scuppered that option.]
The "hardware" back button
I say "hardware" because on the Nexus 7 it is actually a strip on the bottom of the touchscreen, albeit one that is almost omnipresent. Video playback apps and full screen photo viewing sometimes reduce it to a blurred-out dot, presumably to be less intrusive; apparently in the next release of Android they will be able to hide it entirely.
I found the back button to be a mixed bag. About 80% of the time, it did exactly what I thought it would: took me out of a full-screen image viewer and into the app that opened it, say. Or if one app had just loaded another, it went back from the second app into the first; that was disconcerting at first but came to feel natural.
But some apps were less consistent and I find myself agreeing with John Gruber's spot-on observation. In the Twitter app Carbon, for example, you swipe between three panes showing your timeline, @-replies, and private messages. Many times, I would move from one of those views to the other, then instinctively press the back button to move back to the previous view: but that would usually exit the app entirely instead. This was maddening, and I can't seem to reprogram my expectations so I'm still pressing that dratted back button!
Now, you could argue that this was an isolated example of an app that implements this feature clumsily. Or, as Gruber posits, you could equally argue that this is an idea that's ripe to accidental misuse by devs and is simply never going to work right across every app in the Play Store. I'm not sure which side of that line I sit on yet.
A few extra small observations that didn't deserve a section of their own.
- You can easily create a Google account without attaching a credit card -- something which requires arcane incantations on iOS. Free apps can also be downloaded without entering your Play password.
- Screenshots go into their own gallery -- far preferable to the iOS approach where they are mixed in with your photos.
- Apps can have free trials -- for example SwiftKey allowed me to install a feature complete version of the software that will work for a month. That's not allowed under Apple's App Store rules.
- All my full-size iPads have been Wifi-only models, and that's never bothered me. But the sheer portability of the Nexus 7 make it somehow jarring that I have the Wifi-only model of that. I expect I'd feel the same way about the iPad mini if I owned one myself rather than just borrowing one occasionally.
- A curious psychological effect: you know how the iPhone 5's larger screen makes the iPhone 4 feel cramped and constrained when you go back to it? The Nexus 7 made me feel that about my iPhone 5, like the screen was suddenly too small. What's curious is that my 9.7" iPad has never done this; I think it's because it feels like a totally different device (due to the weight, mostly) whereas the Nexus 7 and the iPhone 5 are somehow more similar. It makes a little bit more sense to me now why massive smartphones like the 5" Nexus 5 seem to be popular with my friends.
- The Nexus 7's stereo speakers are on the left and right of the device when it's held in landscape mode, whereas the iPad mini's are on the left and right of the device when it's held in portrait. I most care about getting stereo sound out of my tablet when I'm watching video, which means it's in landscape mode; I find Apple's decision here highly questionable. The Nexus doesn't sound bad, either, by the standards of tiny tinny tablet speakers. (Disclaimer: I'm a speaker snob. 5.1 floorstanders in my lounge and I disabled my TV's built-in speakers immediately after installing it.)
- [Update] Craig Grannell reminded me of something I liked but forgot to write about: on any web browser signed into your Google account, a single click of a button in the Google Play store can remote install an app to your Android device. That's something I wish Apple would copy.
- [Update] The notification center has a "remove all" button. C'mon Apple, throw me a bone.
- Jerky/laggy/hesitant scrolling -- particularly bothersome in the Tumblr app, but I've seen it in lots of places, including official apps like Play. Pages with large graphics or embedded videos seem to be particularly grevious offenders. Somewhat baffling given the very high specs of the Nexus 7 (a quad core CPU and 2 GB RAM). I've heard some reports that the experimental ART runtime that can optionally replace Dalvik in KitKat can help with this.
- Android seems to have no equivalent to iOS's scroll-to-top tap-the-clock feature. I miss that dearly. Flinging a long list like a Twitter client again and again to get to the newest content is clunky. Some apps include it as a button or menu option, but not many.
- After I installed the BBC iPlayer app, I tried to watch something and was confronted by a dialog saying "to watch BBC programmes you need to install the BBC media player from the market place." I had to download this second app from the Play store before it would work. Could be something specific to the BBC, although I can't help but think that anything that clunky would never make it through Apple's app guidelines.
- Duplicated versions of apps -- for example, out of the box, I was confronted by "Photos" and "Gallery". I believe the former is an older, less powerful app that is part of the Android Open Source Project, whilst the latter is a closed-source official-Android-only more powerful app, but it's confusing to have the duplication and the difference isn't made explicit anywhere. [Update: Apparently I had this backward; Gallery is the older app, and "Photos" -- which was "G+ Photos" until recently -- is the newer. The general feeling seems to be that Photos will replace Gallery in time, as has happened with Chrome replacing the older Browser app.]
- The .com popup button on keyboard when entering URLs offers .net and a few other alternatives -- but it doesn't have .co.uk, despite my keyboard being set to "English (UK)." Apple gets this right.
- No AirPlay -- there's some sort of open standard equivalent, Miracast, but I don't have any compatible receivers to test it with. I don't use AirPlay a lot for TV watching but it does get a reasonable amount of use in our house for my wife and I to share content or shunt short YouTube clips and the like to our lounge TV. Of course, the Google Way would be to pick up a Chromecast for this use case. [Update: commenters below have pointed me to several options on the Play store for third-party apps that can stream to AirPlay receivers.]
- The camera's mediocre at best, but that doesn't bother me at all. I've taken no more than a dozen photos with my iPads in years of use.
- [Update] I miss my red badges on app icons. I think that, enabled sparingly on only those apps you care about, they are an elegant way to draw your attention to the stuff that matters most to you (whereas the iOS notification center is a cacophony of things I don't care about that I mostly ignore). I suspect that careful selection of homescreen widgets is a more Android-ish way of addressing this use case, so perhaps this feeling will pass.
Stuff where I was tripped up because of my unfamilarity:
- It took me ages to find the rotation lock -- repeated Google searches returned conflicting information relating to different versions of Android and various other devices. Turns out the answer is to pull down from the upper right of the screen to access a quick settings panel (as opposed to the upper left, which is the notification centre.)
- The setting to turn off the odious key click sounds is found under "keyboards" and not "sounds", which confused me briefly.
- Swiping keyboards -- all my Android using friends are nuts about these swiping 'boards, and I gave Swiftkey a good go, but I can't seem to get on with it. I'm going to persevere as it's supposed to adapt to your writing style over time. I must admit to getting a rather queasy feeling when installing it, however, and clicking through a warning dialog that pointed out that third party keyboards could "see anything you type, including passwords and credit card numbers". Food for thought, for sure, and I daresay one of the reasons that Apple doesn't offer user-installable keyboards under iOS.
- Text selection semantics are different to iOS -- the way in which you position your cursor and select blocks of text is different. This has consistently driven me crazy when drafting this article.
The bottom line
The Nexus 7 is a really nice little bit of hardware. I'm very pleased with how portable it is and the quality of the screen. On the software side, there were some rough edges in adapting to Android -- some of them rooted in my own unfamiliarity rather than any outright badness, to be fair -- but overall this has definitely been a positive experience. If you find yourself torn between an iPad Air and an iPad mini with Retina display, if you really want both the big screen and the ultimate portability but both iPads is more than you want to spend -- well, you could do worse than consider an iPad Air with a Nexus 7 as a sidekick. It's working for me.
[Update: One striking thing, as I have noted in some updates throughout the body of this article, is how many of my observations can be addressed through third-party apps that would be impossible on iOS. Background services that sync iCloud calendars to the Android calendar list, for example, or third party apps that install AirPlay services. This is, it seems to me, a key strength of the Android offering -- that third party apps have more control over the operating system, more flexibility to serve your needs. Of course with great power comes great responsibility; this very control leaves the door open to all manner of malware. I've certainly been wary of installing random apps from the store, rightly or wrongly, finding myself scrutinising the trustworthiness of an app in a way I never would on iOS.
I am greatful to anyone who took the time to leave a comment and point me in the direction of apps that solve my problems. Many thanks to you all. --Rich]