- 1. Software
- 2. Hardware
- 3. Carrier support
- 4. The Windows of the Smartphone World
- 5. Not all Androids are the same
- 6. Advice
- 7. Summary
So I moved off the Mac at the end of last year, but I continued using my iPhone. It’s an iPhone 4S, which has an okay camera and a nice big SSD, but is short on RAM and processor power by today’s standards. It’s usable, but it’s a dog.
So with my newfound income stream from UPS I broke down and bought a brandy-new Samsung Galaxy S6 Android phone (a foolish choice of devices, in retrospect). It’s 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.
The hardware does its job. The software experience, however, is mixed.
The OS seems pretty slick. It’s pretty, and pretty 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.
First off, the thing came with a bunch of non-removable Verizon bloatware. The phone is GSM unlocked and I don’t use Verizon, so this shit is useless, but there it is occupying space and I can’t get rid of it without rootkitting the phone. Apple provided 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. Why is fucking Facebook on this thing? I don’t want fucking Facebook, but there it is occupying space. It’s got a big Amazon app cluster pre-configured on a big swath of the second launcher pane. Just what I don’t want, and though I can remove the items from the launcher, I can’t evict them from the SSD. After the base OS plus Verizon, Facebook, InstaGram, Peel Remote and other cruft, over 10GB are stolen from me off the top. At least the NFL junk 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.
And then there’s the app store. Oh, did I mention there’s no built-in compass? It’s got the magnetometer, but no application. So I go shopping for a compass application. I figure I’ll have to pay $1 or $2, but fine—wait, they’re all free? Yes, because they’re all ad-supported or have in-app purchases. I didn’t see a single paid application. Deal with ads, or install the app and open it up to find the true cost. Ugh.
Next up, the permissions the apps want. Compass wants to access my audio, video, and other files? Huh? Audio player needs access to address book and call status (caller/callee) info? Fuck you. Who lets 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. Google? Laissez faire, user beware. It’s a free market, if those baby boomers don’t know better and click away in hopes of making the goddamn thing go, that’s their problem, right? Except when the rest of us are in their address books, and now our contact information is off to some scummy shitheads who collect data via a free, useful little data thief of a program on the Play store.
And though it looks like the Android has some sort of sandboxing system, it doesn’t look 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.
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.
I use Tracfone for my phone service. Prices are good, service alright.
The new phone takes a nano SIM, but I only had a micro SIM which used the AT&T-network. Since the phone was Verizon-branded, when I got a new SIM, I went with one of those. Initially, it didn’t work, and nobody knew why. After a week, a boyfriend suggested swapping the phone for his iPhone 5SE, as he wanted to escape Apple too. We were waiting to get together when, with no explanation, service started working.
It worked for about a month before it conked out without any explanation either.
I ordered an AT&T SIM. There was a little stumbling with minutes getting lost when activating the new phone, but a call to Tracfone fixed that and it’s working again. Hopefully as well as the AT&T-based service worked on the iPhone, although time hasn’t had long enough to tell yet.
When we moved David to Tracfone, they insisted he get the T-Mobile-compatible SIM for his iPhone 5. It worked, but service was spotty and unreliable. That issue was also resolved my moving to the AT&T-compatible SIM.
So I guess the moral is, if you want Tracfone to work, go with their AT&T-compatible SIM.
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. There are attempts at security, but they feel rough, granular, unrefined. Messages about applications wanting permissions are so generic and so frequent, users become numb to the security risks and just grant away.
On the other hand, it’s a platform where I can see a decent chunk of the filesystem when I plug it into my laptop. With effort and research, it can be coerced with some hacking into doing what I goddamn want it to do, and I suspect behaving more or less how I want it to behave–something not so easy with Apple, where you adapt instead of the machine.
I came into the Android world with no idea what to shop for, and frankly, I screwed up. I bought the Compaq or HP of the phone world, complete with all the add-on vendor shit that fuck it up.
But not all phones are like this. While there isn’t quite the build-it-yourself device, there are hacker-friendly models. And if I had known better, I’d have gotten one of those: one that doesn’t shoot itself in the fuse if it detects tampering, but instead provides some support for loading other Android images.
Do your homework before buying into Android. I suggest researching hackable phones, even if you don’t intend to hack it, and here’s why: the reading I’ve done suggests the hacker-friendly phones include less bloatware, and when they do include pre-installed software it is 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.
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.
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.
For loading data onto the phone, or getting images or other collected data off, check out SyncThing.
What do I think Google could do to improve Android? Make entitlements more granular. 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, in-app purchases and current prices so I don’t have to install it to find out. Make the built-in apps removable–after all, it’s not like I can’t reinstall. 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.
So do I prefer Android or iOS? Personally, iOS, I think. But Apple’s hardware is unserviceable lately, and I’m not paying through the nose for something that’s not going to last or be fixable. I can work with Android.
But for baby boomers and others who have no understanding of security, don’t read the messages, and will end up just clicking away until it works (granting the keys to the kingdom along the way) I think iOS offers a safer choice.
To my old Galaxy S6’s credit, the hardware survived the abuse I put it through for over 4 years—including bike trips, being dropped, riding around with the crap in my work backpack. And it was still healthy in the end.
But Tracfone got bought by Verizon and demanded I switch to one of their SIM chips, which once again refused to work. In the process, it looks like my account and number got lost entirely, although I didn’t push for recovery: Opal had been talking about needing a better plan anyway, so we went together and got a combined plan and a new phone for me.
I got a Cat 62, built by the Bullitt Group but branded by Caterpillar, the construction machine manufacturer. It was touted as durable and a workhorse. It is certainly heavier and thicker than my prior phone, and the battery has 50% more capacity. Nice.
There were a few vendor and carrier applications pre-installed, but they’re removable; it’s mostly free of bloatware. This is way better than the Samsung experience.
I’ve acclimated the to interface over the years, and it works okay.
But the whole Android app ecosystem is a slum of advertising-driven “freeware”. Many apps, perhaps even most, have a way to opt-out by paying a few dollars. Although it’s a bit of a hassle, the advantage is I can try out the apps for a bit (and suffer with ads) to see if they’re alright before coughing up a few bucks. It would suck to have to pay only to quickly find I’d bought a piece of crap and then suffer buyer’s remorse.
A downside is that the bog-standard 1/8" audio jack is no longer so standard, but I was able to get a USB-C to 1/8" audio adapter for a few bucks, and it works fine.
Beyond that, my impressions match my earlier views.