After twelve years of iPhone use I made the jump last week to Android phones. I’ve been curious to see how the other half lived and Google had a one day sale on the Pixel 3 that was enough to make the jump. (The new Pixel 3a just released is a hell of a good price.) This marks a slow migration for me away from Apple products. They aren’t quite the quality innovator they used to be, and their closed approach to ecosystems has always bummed me out.
So far I like the Android quite a bit. Everything I expect from a fancy phone works. And I’m enjoying discovering new things. I think part of the fun here is just I’m revisiting how I use my phone from the bottom up; maybe I’d think it was juts as neat if I were switching to iOS for the first time.
Anyway, here’s a bunch of thoughts I collected as I learned the new platform
The first setup where it copies from the iPhone is slick. Particularly like how it matches the apps you have. Sadly it can’t copy app data or state like logins.
Pretty much every single app I cared about on my iPhone also had an Android version. About 75% of those were found by the migration tool, the rest I had to install by hand. I only had to buy one app; Paprika, the recipe software. Most software I pay for has an account subscription model like Spotify, not a one-time app purchase model. The one app I could not get on Android was Overcast, no surprise given its author’s Apple fanboy status. Fortunately there’s lots of other podcast players for Android. PocketCasts is probably the best choice. I’m trying Podcast Addict for now but it’s a pretty rough UI to love.
It’s nice being in Google‘s loving embrace; Gmail, Photos, Drive, etc all well integrated. Apple’s policies are better for users since Apple isn’t an advertising company. But their services like iCloud are not very good, I’m really glad to not be living under iCloud anymore. Google’s services are good and I’ve been using them for years, nice to have a phone that wants to integrate with them.
I like the home screen! I particularly like the ability to have widgets from apps draw little decorative things on the home screen. I also like the back button. This bit of UI is a source of confusion for many, and often myself, because it can both go back in a single app and also go back between apps. But it mostly seems to do what I mean when I press it. The shortcuts for switching between apps are good too.
Android apps are small! They are 1/3-1/5 the size of their equivalent iOS apps. For an extreme example, Facebook is 450 MB on iOS and maybe 50MB on Android. It’s common to see many Android apps < 10MB download. I haven’t read a completely convincing explanation why, but see here for some ideas. There’s also a new tool to make builds even smaller. The smaller size definitely results in noticeable bandwidth and storage savings; maybe RAM too.
The 1Password integration in the OS is terrific, particularly with apps. Way better than what iOS has tried to kludge together. More generally the integration between apps in general is quite nice on Android, it’s fairly easy to share data from one app to another in a way that never seems to work on the iPhone. The “intents” system lets apps publish APIs for other apps to use. There’s even complex automation for chaining apps together. iOS has something similar now in Shortcuts, but I’ve never used it.
Android has a file system! You can browse it with Amaze File Manager. Apps naturally share files through it, like Sonos playing files Podcast Addict downloaded. You can also bridge out to Google Drive fairly simply and then have the same files on your desktop computer. iOS has always had a notion of files too but they are well hidden and seldom (never?) cross-app.
I can run a real Firefox! With real Firefox addons! None of this “must use Apple’s embedded WebKit” crap. Firefox on iOS is a heroic effort and has a lot of useful Firefoxy features, but when you pull the mask away it’s still Old Man Smithers underneath. There’s something to be said for platform unity, but there’s something to be said for competition too.
Notifications are awfully spammy. Every app (say, Amazon Store) wants to send you notifications all the time. Even with something where it could be useful (say, Washington Post) it’s mostly annoying. It takes some looking but you can extensively customize notification behavior. Some apps have an in-app bunch of settings. And the system has Notifications settings on a per-app basis. Each app has notifications one of many channels (often only one) and for each channel you can configure whether it makes sounds, vibrates, etc.
The phone definitely feels more hacker-friendly. In particular there’s a reasonable chance interesting apps are open source, like GPS Logger. I can’t think of the last open source iOS app I saw. Also I like that I can realistically write code for my Android phone using any computer, not just MacOS. My brief look at Android Studio is encouraging, it seems like a solid IDE.
I gather Android version proliferation is a real problem. I’ve got Pie, which is version 9 of the OS. The development kit tells me if I write code for this version less than 1% of users will be able to be run it. Version 6 only has 63% of users! Also from what I see online the UI changes radically between versions. Always improving, hopefully, but change has a cost.
I also gather vendor Android modification is a real problem. Carrier-sold phones in particular have all sorts of crap on them, as do a bunch of the cheaper Android phones. Some of that crap is locked and hard to remove. I bought a Pixel because I definitely didn’t want to mess with Verizon or Xiaomi’s idea of how they could make an extra $20 off me. The only other brand of phone I’d consider buying is a Samsung Galaxy Note.
I haven’t gotten too deep into lower level system hacking, but it’s nice that Android lets you do it. Even without rooting the device. The is pretty good if you want a quick look at the (non-root) filesystem and some easy upload / download. The GSam Battery Monitor is amazing if you want low level battery watching stats. Even includes using some just-short-of-root debugging interfaces for extra detailed stats.
Android Auto seems fairly good. Not quite as slick as Apple CarPlay, but then not as proprietary either. (Apple for years prevented any other maps from displaying in CarPlay, for example.) One nice thing is you can run Auto even when you’re not plugged into a car display, it has a car-optimized display right on the phone screen. Good for testing or using in an older car without the ability to plug a phone in.
Pixel 3 hardware
In general the hardware is lovely. Flat slab of glass, no distinguishing features except an ugly bright orange button (a feature of the pink-backed phone). Under the hood the Pixel 3 has gotten some criticism for being underpowered for the price but I don’t have any perception of that. The camera is as lovely as people say. Coming from an iPhone I don’t notice the lack of an SD card although in retrospect I wish I had one. Also baffled why there’s no dual SIM; so useful! The new eSIM alternative is proving to be an inadequate kludge.
Cables continue to be a problem. The Pixel 3 has one USB-C port and nothing else (like a goddamn Macbook.) Worse though is I don’t have a USB-C port on any computers here, and they don’t ship with an adapter to a male USB-A connector. They do have an adapter for a female USB-a port, which you use when syncing two phones together, but I had to order the rest. Nevermind that most every USB charger, automobile port, radio port, etc is not USB-C. Argh. At least it’s not fully proprietary like Lightning.
It gets trickier with charging. For wired charging Pixel 3 supports 18 Watt “rapid charging” which apparently is USB-PD, an open standard only now being implemented (Apple’s new phones use it too). AFAICT USB-PD is a USB-C only thing in practice, older type A cables don’t allow USB-PD 2.0 or above. Older fast chargers on a type A cable use Qualcomm’s Quick Charge or some other proprietary thing; the best I’ve been able to do is 8W from them, maybe 10.
It gets more confusing with wireless charging. Google has a proprietary system that allows 10W wireless charging. Other standard wireless chargers (there are such things?!) are limited to 5W. In theory third parties can build 10W compatible wireless chargers but there aren’t any yet.
Of course there’s no analog headphone jack, which is as obnoxious as I feared. But I can live with it. Also the Pixel 3 apparently has no capacity to send HDMI out a wire. The USB-C adapter for headphones works OK but has different wiring from Apple’s proprietary, so I can’t use a full Apple headset with it. The supplied wired headset is fine, the fit sure is better for me than Airpods. Also the sound output is way louder than the iPhone’s ænemic headphone out.
I don’t much care for the fingerprint sensor in back. It means you have to pick the phone up to unlock it. Also the sensor is not accessible on the Pixel Stand; you have to pick up the phone. Don’t miss not having a hardware button in front for the home screen though. And the sensor itself works well. It doubles as a shortcut for “show notifications” too if you turn that feature on.
I like my new Android phone! I was going to spend weeks migrating; I ended up switching over the day I got it set up and haven’t missed the iPhone once. In most ways it seems to be fuctionally equivalent to an iPhone. I’m surprised the UI polish is better than I feared. And I like the relative openness and hack-friendliness of the Android.
My next goal is to start writing apps for the thing. Will no doubt have lots of notes when I get to that.