Moving to Android

So I moved off the Mac at the end of 2017, but I continued using my iPhone: model 4S, with an okay camera and a nice big SSD, but short on RAM and processor power by today’s standards. Possibly also “improved” with an Apple slowdown update to “extend battery life”. It was usable, but a dog.

So with a newfound income stream from UPS I broke down and bought a brandy-new Samsung Galaxy S6 Android phone. A few generations old, so even new, with a big SSD and 8-core processor it was only $200 off eBay. Add an extra $15 or so for an Otterbox Defender, because I like my valuable electronics to last.

My experience is… interesting.


1. Software

Android is pretty and fairly easy to use. In these respects, it’s pretty comparable to iOS.

But on other levels, it’s very different. Traditionally, Apple provided all the features I want, and little more. More recently things have become gadgety, but there is still some attempt to help the user achieve what they want to do.

In the 'Droid, I can get stuff done, but I’ve felt I’m getting stuff done despite the device, not because of the device. Initially, some of this is struggling with a new interface—but there’s more than that.

1.1. Bloatware and Nagware

First off, my first Android came with a bunch of non-removable Verizon bloatware. The phone was GSM unlocked and I used another carrier, so this shit was useless but there was no way to get rid of it without rootkitting the phone. Apple phones come with a solid set of applications, and nothing more. No vendor-provided crap that I’ve ever encountered. (Someone contradict me if I’m wrong on this.)

And it’s not just carrier bullshit, there’s all sorts of add-on junk I don’t want and can’t remove. The phone came preinstalled with Facebook, Amazon, InstaGram, Peel Remote and other non-removable cruft. Over 10GB are stolen from me off the top. At least the NFL junk it came with was fully removable.

And despite all that shit, they didn’t provide iCalendar subscriptions built-in. You’ve got to use Google Calendar to broker your data (snoop, snoop), or install an add-on app for that.

Not only is this shit there, but it comes with nags. I never even opened the goddamn Facebook app, but it sends notifications to pay attention to it. I figured out how to block notifications, and you can “disable” applications (not uninstall them though!), but in the first several days of ownership I was continuously beating down the fires of “helpful” applications bugging me.

1.2. App Store

And then there’s the app store. Did I mention the device came without a compass? It’s got a magnetometer, but no application to use it. So I went shopping for a compass application. I figured I’d have to pay $1 or $2, but fine—wait, they’re all free?

The App store is a slum filled with ad-supported wares and trial editions and subscription-based software. Nothing charges up-front. To be fair, it’s nice to try-before-I-buy. But the pricing isn’t up-front, it’s all “free.” You have to install it, open the app, and only then can you find the true pricing options. It makes shopping a real pain in the ass.

1.3. App Permissions

Android provides a sandboxing system, and although it’s improving, it still isn’t always granular enough. My impression is audio, video, and other files are lumped into one big pile; granting music access includes granting other files. That is not safe. And while I grok a music application having access to call status (for pausing/resuming for calls), it doesn’t need call details (who I’m talking to, call history). These shouldn’t be lumped together.

On the other hand, the granularity is gradually improving, and the option to permit actions only when using the app is a nice addition. Still, I can imagine some some users becoming habituated to blindly granting permissions to get stuff to work. And I recognize it’s a balancing act, because if there’s too many inquires, baby boomers will hammer away in hopes of making the goddamn thing go, blindly offering up their address books and our contact information to every little data thief of a program on the Play store:

Compass wants to access my audio, video, and other files? Why? Audio player needs access to address book and call status (caller/callee) info? Fuck you. Why even let this shit on their store? I’m pretty sure Apple curates the wares in their store a little. Ridiculous entitlements mean someone over in Cupertino is going to bounce the application back. Android? Laissez faire, user beware.

2. Hardware

I said earlier that the hardware does its job. Unfortunately, that job is defined by the manufacturer, not by me. So while the OS/device integration is good, the hardware supports the system lock-down by the manufacturer. If the device thinks it’s been hacked, it registers this in hardware and disables a bunch of capabilities, supposedly never to return.

On the one hand, if a device containing my payment data detects hacking and commits harakiri to prevent banking abuse, on the surface that seems like a good idea. But why not just wipe the data? It seems like this is more a vendor-driven thing to increase risk for users trying to customize devices to remove vendor and carrier bloatware.

3. Advice for Buyers

3.1. Android vs iOS

Should you use Android or iOS? Apple’s hardware is unserviceable lately, and I’m not into paying through the nose for something that’s not going to last or be fixable. But mainstream 'Droids struggle with this too (thanks to the EU for at least mandating batteries be replacable).

But for baby boomers and others who have no understanding of security, don’t read the messages, and just clicking away on authorizations until it works (granting the keys to the kingdom along the way) I think iOS offers a safer choice.

3.2. Not all Androids are the same

My impression of Android is it’s the “Windows of the phone world”. It’s not tied to a specific vendor’s hardware, which is awesome, but that comes at the peril of vendor add-on bloatware. It’s like a modern Windows with a solid kernel, but applications that are impolite, with no qualms about interrupting.

I came into the Android world with no idea what to shop for, and frankly, I bought the Compaq or HP of the phone world, complete with all the add-on vendor shit that mucks it up.

Not all phones are like this. While there isn’t quite the build-it-yourself device, there are hacker-friendly models that allow loading other Android images. But if you don’t want one that’s ready to shoot itself in the fuse if it detects tampering, you need to research your options.

So do your homework before buying into Android. I suggest researching hackable phones, even if you don’t intend to hack it:hacker-friendly phones include less bloatware, and when they do include pre-installed software it’s more likely to be removable. By choosing an option for easy rooting and modding, you may eliminate the need to root it in the first place.

On the positive side, Android doesn’t explicitly try to hamper or restrict productivity. Plug it into a laptop, and you can access a decent chunk of the filesystem. Try doing that with iOS! With effort and research, Android can be coerced into doing what I goddamn want it to do—instead of you adapting to the machine, like with Apple.

3.3. Get more storage than you think you need

The OS takes up more space than iOS (or is that just bloatware?), and everyone wants you to have their app, so plan for more SSD space than you think you need. On the other hand, the app sizes usually run smaller than comparable iPhone apps. Some devices have micro SD slots to allow for expansion, which seems practical but apps are terrible about knowing how to use it.

3.4. Setting up

Be prepared for a few days of configuration. Start by going into Apps, Settings, Notification and gagging unwanted chatter. Then go through the applications and remove any vendor-provided stuff you don’t want.

3.5. The 1/8" audio jack is gone

Face reality, you won’t find it on a phone anymore. You can buy a pair of USB-C to 1/8" adapters for $10 on Amazon.

4. App suggestions

K9mail (website)
A decent mail client that does POP and IMAP protocols. Lacks the option to rescale images when sending them, but otherwise a nice set of features.
Simple Scan
Scan stuff with your phone. Has a lot of cloud provider support. Supports OCR through the cloud, and possibly locally. Flat-rate $90 when I was shopping, or subscription-ware. (Ad-supported free trial, like everything on 'Droid.) Documents are stored where you can’t get them, but export to PDF and share via Syncthing (see below) to save to the filesystem.
Document Scanner
Another scanner, this is the one I went with. A flat-rate $40 gets OCR (cloud-based, I think), great compression for text, some clumsy and rudimentary editing including signing. Includes the ability to directly save to the filesystem.
Music Player a/k/a Muzio Player
Play your MP3s and other music. Some vendor ones are nicer, some don’t exist.
Like games? Everybody puts a finger on, and this picks who goes first or groups you onto teams at random.
Compass Galaxy
Compass, and that’s all.
Compass with latitude and logitude.
Compass & Altimiter
Compass with altimeter.
QR Code & Barcode Scanner
This is usually built-in now, but if not, this will do it.

4.1. Utilities

SyncThing (website)
This app is useful for loading data onto the phone, and getting images or other collected data off. It also offers itself up as an option when sharing things, allowing you to save documents to the filesystem when apps don’t let you do this themselves.
Check power usage.
File Manager
Manage files on the filesystem. Some vendor ones are nicer, but aren’t.
Sync iCalendar on the web directly to your device.
Another iCalendar sync utility.
SSH and SFTP client.

5. Advice for Google: Platform improvements

What do I think Google could do to improve Android?

  • Make entitlements more granular. Improved, a little more to go
  • Let apps include specific explanations for the entitlements they need.
  • Don’t go crazy protective like Apple, but at least sanity check stuff going up on the store.
  • In the store, list the app’s entitlements Done
  • In the store, list in-app purchases and prices so I don’t have to install it to find out.
  • Add iCalendar subscriptions (despite the name, these are IETF standards, not an Apple thing).
  • Limit security settings only to relevant items–for example, only show a “notifications” switch for apps that use notifications-to make it less overwhelming to non-techies. Done