Zeke Weeks

Web {Developer, Strategist, Native}

High-end Android Phones Serve Everyone But the User

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Yesterday, I headed to my local Verizon Wireless store to try out the Galaxy Nexus, the latest designed-by-Google phone from Samsung. While I was there, I also tested the current top-of-the-line LTE phones from HTC (the Rezound) and Motorola (the DROID RAZR). I’ve written my impressions of each below, but in testing all three, I noticed something telling about the overall current state of high-end Android phones.

Despite the fact that the Android operating system is by far the best fit for my needs, I can’t say I’d recommend any of the current high-end Android phones over an iPhone. Even the best Android phones seem to be unbalanced attempts to serve the various agendas of the OS vendor (Google), the designer/manufacturer, and the wireless carrier. It feels like these organizations are too focused on their own priorities to harmoniously collaborate in the design of a product which is great for the user. Google seems happy to focus on doing the bare minimum to get their Nexus “proof-of-concept” phones shipped, and leave innovative hardware design to other folks (who install crappy software.)

This disconcerted effort of unaligned agendas recreates the market conditions which allowed Apple to disrupt the smartphone market in 2007 by refusing to cede any control of the customer experience or business relationship to another company. Apple’s integration of software and hardware, coupled with their power to keep carriers subservient, allows them to focus on their own goals, a large part of which is the user’s experience. They also support their old devices better and longer.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying the iPhone is better than Android. Everyone has different priorities in picking the best fit for their smartphone. I am saying that on average, the iPhone is usually the best match for someone who wants equally good software, hardware, and customer support. But doesn’t mean much in reality, as buyer’s desires are as diverse as the selection of phones available to them. Personally, I care a whole lot less about build quality than I do about software stability, reliability, and geek-friendliness, so I’d probably still buy a phone with “pure Google” software if it were installed on a hardened turd with an LTE antenna.

Overall, I think the reinvented smartphone industry is now quite mature, and every device out there basically does the same thing. There are so many choices out there, but I’d really like to see more folks than just Apple focusing on delivering excellent products and service to the end user. I feel like HTC is almost doing that with its Android phones, but needs to release fewer devices and support them better, and that Google needs to give manufacturers better access to prerelease builds so non-Nexus phones don’t lag the rest of the industry by 6-12 months.

Galaxy Nexus (designed by Google in collaboration with Samsung)

Pro:

  • It’s a “pure Google” device. This means it’s the first to get updates, and Google controls them. This means it will probably be more stable, secure, and up-to-date than any other Android phone (until Google releases another one.)
  • The camera’s shutter and between-shot delay is FAST. So fast that what I thought was a delay for focusing was actually the picture being taken.
  • The Galaxy Nexus recreates the Nexus S’s beautiful “blank black” face, and improves upon it by moving menu buttons onto the screen in a dynamic fashion.

Con:

  • The quality of materials and industrial design is nowhere near competitive with phones even half its price. Google says it’s got a metal frame inside which many phones lack, but the plastic is cheaper feeling than everything sold for $199 since the iPhone 3G/3GS. I don’t know what happened here, since Samsung did a pretty great job with the previous Nexus S.
  • The speaker really sucks, which is a shame since the screen could be really great for multimedia.
  • Matters of my own personal preference: I don’t like the headphone jack’s location on the bottom, the not-quite-gigantic 4.65″ screen (though nice for typing), or the exposed dock connection pins.
  • For some reason, the AMOLED screen is worse than the one Samsung uses on its own Galaxy S II phones, and its PenTile layout reduces the effective pixels-per-inch relative to the competition. At this price point, I don’t understand the cost cutting. (The screen still looked pretty darn good, but the bar is set high.)

HTC Rezound:

Pro:

  • As always for HTC, this phone has excellent industrial design. Despite my dislike of phone screens above 4 inches, the fit in my hand was nice, the soft touch of the back casing eliminates any “slippery” feeling, and overall it felt solid.
  • This phone has an LCD display, unlike the Nexus and RAZR’s AMOLED variants. I thought this display was by far the best in the group.
  • HTC’s Sense UI is “love-it-or-hate-it,” but I’ve always fallen in the “love it” category. Sense 3.5 is smooth and takes awesome advantage of the high-specced hardware. I particularly liked how functional and usable HTC’s camera UI is in Sense 3.5.

Con:

  • This phone adds “Beats by Dre” branding to the already packed company of Sense, HTC, Verizon, and Google. Other reviews say the first-party music app uses audio “enhancement” which doesn’t extend to the rest of the OS.
  • The phone is great right now, but its software is already old. HTC releases quality software updates, but it takes them 6-9 months after Google’s release to prepare them.
  • This phone’s bootloader is locked (by Verizon’s choice), making it much harder to install custom Android distributions like Cyanogenmod, which have been instrumental to me in compensating for HTC’s slowness to update their operating systems. Since I want Ice Cream Sandwich, this is a potential deal breaker for me.
  • HTC pretty much doesn’t update Sense features after a phone’s release. They’re a selling point, not a supported and modernized part.

Motorola DROID RAZR

Pro

  • Design and build quality. I didn’t expect this (I returned two original Droids which couldn’t stand the test of basic wear and tear), but I was quite impressed by the fit and finish on this thing. The expensive Kevlar backing is kind of a confusing touch, but it’s good for RF transparency.
  • The super AMOLED display looked great and fared quite well in bright sunlight.

Con

  • Verizon is quite clearly using its DROID brand to aggressively assert its own campaigns. I had really weird stuff going on, like Verizon logos in the camera app with a “You don’t have geolocation turned on, go turn it on, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want that!” nag.
  • Motorola’s custom UI isn’t intrusive, but it is butt-ugly. I have no clue what these folks are thinking, and Verizon’s locked bootloader makes installation of a vanilla Android less attractive. Hopefully Google’s acquisition of Motorola will stop this.

So what am I gonna do?

I don’t know. These phones all feel like they’ve been designed as the best solution to one of the companies’ goals, instead of the best fit for me. The Galaxy Nexus realizes Google’s vision for Android 4.0, but fails to make an attractive consumer product. The HTC phone is excellent for right now, but will feel really outdated in just a year. The DROID product line just feels like Verizon’s attempt to bake in as many upsells and in-house branding spots as possible. I really wish I could take the HTC Rezound, but get the support of a “pure Google” phone. (That was the excellent Nexus One of two generations ago, before Google switched to Samsung as a launch partner.)

Who knows, I might decide once again that “It’s the software, stupid!” and just buy the Galaxy Nexus. At this point, it feels like I’d be happiest either doing that or going back to the iPhone.

2 thoughts on “High-end Android Phones Serve Everyone But the User

  1. Dirk Diggler

    I’m glad you’re not saying that the iPhone is better than Android… with that disclaimer, I probably would concede that overall the iPhone might be a better choice for an average user.
    I do think that users who already use Gmail as their main email should seriously consider an Android phone, just for convenience, as Android does such a good job of integrating Gmail into the phone experience.

    Funny story, marginally related…
    I have a friend who asked me whether I liked iPhone or Android better, and I answered Android. She had an Android HTC Nexus One, brand new in box sitting around, but she eventually bought an iPhone 4S instead. –Within 2 weeks, she lost the thing and ended up activating the Nexus One (far from the latest/greatest Android) and seems pretty happy with it.

    1. Zeke Post author

      Yeah, the Nexus One is probably the closest thing to what I’m wishing for with the current smartphone generation. I’m a sucker for HTC’s attention to detail in their designs, and they made a beautiful complement to Google’s excellent software work. I am pretty likely to stick with Nexus devices because the software experience is that good – it just becomes a lot harder to justify now that iOS is starting to catch up to a lot of the stuff I’ve preferred about Android for a while.

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