I just got a new Android tablet to replace my 2017-era iPad. Since moving to an Android phone last year (Pixel 3) I’ve come to realize I just like Android more. For ordinary stuff ordinary people do, Android is good, just as good as iOS. Sure there’s nits to pick with both systems, but they’re both great.
What I like about Android is that it also allows a level of more sophisticated stuff. There’s a brilliant capability for apps to interact with each other, for instance, setting things up like Unix pipelines. Android out of the box lets you customize the keyboards, the launcher, really most aspects of the system UI; no jailbreaking required. And a fair number of the Android apps seem more hacker friendly than their iOS equivalents.
Android’s ecosystem also does seem genuinely more open. Firefox integrates as a browser way better on Android than Apple ever allowed. Want to add more storage? There’s an SD card slot. (Why the F has Apple never allowed that?) Want to buy a book in the Kindle app? Of course you can; it’s not like iOS where Apple demands their 30% cut. Want to sideload an app from some random site? No problem, just disable the security check and you can. (A double edged sword, to be sure.)
The big downside to Android is that the vendors don’t distribute vanilla Android, they hack and munge and add crap. Worse they subtract value, particularly in how they sit on operating system versions for months, years, forcing folks to run out of date buggy versions. Google really needs to get more control of this problem.
Another problem with the Android ecosystem is the hardware quality varies. I dorked around with an Amazon Fire 7 briefly but the hardware is such garbage there was no joy in using it. (To be fair, it was super cheap.) And tablets are seen to be a losing market for some reason, particularly on Android, so there’s not a lot of options.
I read a bunch of guides online (this one was the best) and landed on the Samsung Galaxy Tab S5e. It has an excellent screen (2560×1600 AMOLED), is very thin and light, and at $350 is cheap enough to feel like an accessory / toy, not a whole laptop. The Galaxy Tab S6 is the new flagship, better in most every way, but at $650 it’s awfully pricy. The only thing it’s really missing is S Pen support but I had no desire to have that anyway. There’s an S6 Lite coming but it seems worse than the S5e for the same price, I don’t quite get it.
The S5e hardware seems great. Very solidly built. Nice camera I’ll never use, a working fingerprint reader for unlocking, wifi seems good. Screen is lovely although there’s some weird white balance software at work that’s not helping. Only complaint so far is I can’t find a magnetic cover just for the screen; all the cases are wraparound and cover the back too. Oh well.
So, what about the software? First, the big problem; it’s still only running Android 9. Android 10 came out eight months ago. Being on 9 puts me well ahead of a lot of crappier Android devices, but I hate being beholden to Samsung to get around to putting out an OS release.
Still it works nicely as a stock Android system, there’s none of the lockdown shenanigans that Amazon Fire does trying to keep you from customizing. The GBoard keyboard installs fine, including local voice recognition. Samsung’s launcher is OK but I switched to Nova Launcher mostly because it alphabetizes the apps tray view. Also it’s nicely customizable.
Samsung does install a bunch of its own crap, but it mostly stays out of the way. Bixby was the biggest annoyance but Nova Launcher mostly hides it. For some reason there’s two Clock apps and two Calendar apps and the like, one Google and one Samsung. Meh, I can live with it. It’s annoying Samsung won’t let me remove their preinstalled stuff.
But Android is hacker friendly, so you can install them! I followed this guide to uninstall a bunch of apps using adb to get a command line shell on the tablet. (Try that on an iPad, lol.) Another option is to use a guide like this one along with an app and config files which debloats the device for you. I wanted to control it myself, so I did it by hand.
I already had adb on my system thanks to having Android Studio. The adb.exe executable is in
/Users/nelson/AppData/Local/Android/Sdk/platform-tools for me. Here’s a list of stuff I uninstalled by hand:
Special GSAM bonus notes
I use the GSAM Battery Monitor to track battery usage for apps. It works fine by default, but it can work better if you grant extra permissions to the app to let it get at some debugging APIs. There’s multiple conflicting instructions online about how to do this, including a very nice tutorial in the app itself that works right until the final crucial command. I think this worked fine on my Pixel 3? But it didn’t on this tablet, what finally worked was at the bottom of this discussion:
adb -d shell pm grant com.gsamlabs.bbm android.permission.BATTERY_STATS