smartphones

High-end Android Phones Serve Everyone But the User


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.

My iPhone 4S reaction

Having watched the iPhone 4S announcement, it’s clear to me that Apple is unmatched in overall phone quality for most people: designing everything from the processor silicon, to the camera lens, to the app ecosystem puts them in a class of their own.

The only hope for competitors to make a better phone is to concentrate on niche markets: Geeks who want full control of their phones have the Google Nexus line. Some will swear by their physical keyboards, integration with proprietary cloud apps, or their enterprise-secured OS.

But if your needs are like those of most of us, no matter your budget, there is nothing out there that, on a whole, beats an iPhone.

(Before anyone accuses me of fanboy bias: this post was written from an Android phone, and I have no idea what I will buy next. I’m in that geek niche where there is still a heated competition.)

Jan. 5 CES Highlights & Analysis : Android Goes Slate, Windows Goes ARM, and an iPad 2 Tease

It’s that time again: CES, the annual consumer electronics convention in Las Vegas where companies show off their gadget game plans for the upcoming year.

This is usually the biggest time of year for gadget news – tech blogs and Twitter feeds are overflowing with information, which can be too much for even those paying attention all day. These are the most significant things I noticed from today’s announcements:

LTE smartphones barrel forward while American carriers slap a “4G!” sticker on their 3G networks

Phone after phone gets announced, almost every one of them having the same specs: 4.3″ display, Android 2.3 “Gingerbread,” dual-core 1GHz ARM CPUs, front- and back-facing cameras. The only development here over that of one year ago is the extra CPU core, really- HTC’s EVO 4G and Incredible of yesteryear are almost identical to their HTC ThunderBolt, which only adds LTE to the mix.

Sadly, this year’s announcement of 4G phones doesn’t live up to the hype being generated by the phone carriers. The reason: most of the phones marketed as “4G” run HSPA+, which is actually just the fastest revision of current 3G GSM technology. The real 4G phones have converged on the LTE standard, except for Sprint, which bet its chips on WiMax to get a years’ head start. AT&T today followed T-Mobile’s lead in deceptively rebranding their existing network as 4G. The reason? Their own LTE 4G transition won’t be complete until 2013, while Verizon’s antennae lit up in December 2010. If you’re buying a phone in 2011, take the time to find out if it can even take advantage of these next-generation networks that offer incredible speed boosts.
Sources:

Legitimized by consumers as a new device format, slates turn to Android

Last year, manufacturers flooded CES with slate devices in anticipations of the rumored Apple iPad. Without exception, they all sucked, being low-cost devices with Android 1.5 or 2.0 haphazardly tacked on without any considerations to changing a UI designed for 3.5″ phone screens.

This year, everyone knows the iPad is a bombshell at around 10 Million sold, and wants to get in on an obvious growth market. Google today announced the Tablet-specific version of Android 3.0, “Honeycomb”:

(Stay tuned to ZekeWeeks.com or @ZekeWeeks for my in-depth reactions to Android 3.0 Honeycomb – to be posted soon.)

A possible iPad 2 tease on the show floor

Dexim's purported iPad 2 metal mockup

image credit: Engadget / AOL - click to see their article

Engadget’s bloggers were trying to fit their iPad into a vendor’s unique iPad case on the show floor when they were told it wouldn’t fit, as it was designed for the next iPad. Better yet- the case included a metal mockup with the supposed form for the iPad 2. Is it real, or just a clever PR exploitation of the Apple rumor mill? Read Engadget’s great post about it all, including a photo gallery, here.

Microsoft takes desktop Windows to the mobile ARM platform, while Nvidia takes ARM to the Desktop format

After enjoying moderate success from the Atom-powered netbook boom of 2008-9, Microsoft has obviously read the tea leaves that all the cool kids are building their devices on ARM-based System-on-a-Chip (SoC) silicon, instead of the traditional IBM PC setup that’s been shrunk down to miniature form on netbooks. In an effort to make Windows avoid complete irrelevance take advantage of current ARM innovations, Microsoft has announced that the next version of Windows will run on ARM in addition to x86/AMD64. But all Windows executables will need new ARM-compatible versions, unless Microsoft has a Rosetta-esque dynamic translator up its sleeve. That Windows would even consider this route on consumer devices is interesting, as Windows apps are have been forwards compatible since the 1980s. Perhaps it’s a telling sign of Windows’ ability to compete in the future. (And perhaps I’m looking to far into this.)

On the other side of this coin, chipset maker Nvidia announced “Project Denver,” their adaptation of the mobile ARM architecture to high-power desktops and servers. (Jon Stokes writes more about Project Denver at Ars Technica.)

Yet again, a big web property’s new feature makes independent developers’ products irrelevant; This time, it’s Twitter

This isn’t really CES news, but it still got buried in all the CES coverage: TechCrunch secured confirmation on reports that Twitter will release a first-party Mac application during tomorrow’s launch of the Mac App Store. If it’s free, and even more so if it’s ad-free, third party developers are not gonna be happy (though one could argue that they have ample opportunities to innovate beyond “cookie cutter” Twitter clients.)

So there you have it. Tons of stuff today! Stick around on ZekeWeeks.com or just follow me on Twitter, as I’m sure to post on anything of major significance that emerges amongst the thousands of announcements made at CES. Coming up next is my in-depth analysis of what is to come of Honeycomb, Google’s slate-specific version of Android OS.

Apple’s iOS Development Manifesto: Are They Afraid of Android?

This caught my eye- Apple has released a new video featuring the full gamut of iPhone and iPad application developers, from tiny shops to tech startups to media giants. While I think it’s overall not too remarkable – merely an ad presenting the strengths of Apple’s development platform for mobile devices – I do think it very clearly presents Apple’s approach to the mobile market.

Seeing this video makes me wonder about Apple’s competitive strategy in the quickly evolving mobile device markets. In 2007, they forced the lazy rulers of the cellphone market to start innovating again – and now they’ve finally caught up and started producing high-quality phones, some of whose features apply to many niches better than the “one-size-fits-all” iPhone. Though not #1 in smartphone share, iOS (previously called iPhone OS) certainly dominates among those using their phones for more than SMS and e-mail. But has domination ever been Apple’s strategy? Since Jobs’ return to Apple, the company has shown no ambition to kill the competition; I think they in fact benefit from having competing products around to make the case of Apple products’ superiority. And while the iPhone and iPod certainly lead in their markets, OS X certainly doesn’t – and the three use Apple’s same approach to producing highly-polished combinations of hardware and software.

I’ve maintained that 2010 would be the year of the Android phone, and I think that so far things are turning out that way. Not in terms of an “iPhone killer,” but in terms of a serious competitor. The growth of Android devices, market share, and applications have all exploded, and the Android Marketplace is quickly evolving from a ragtag group of ugly tech utilities to genuinely amazing ones that contend with some of the best iPhone apps. I wonder how Apple views Android now, especially in the light of this video, which takes several shots at perceived downsides to the Android platform. It’s certainly true that today, iOS delivers the biggest return on investment for development work. But where will things go in the future? There are some critical differences in the platforms which affect their potential:

  • Apple’s AT&T exclusivity in the US
  • Approach to usability: Apple picks form & ease of use; Android says, “why not have an annoying menu button if it gives you access to a bunch more features?”
  • Android’s double-edged differentiation sword: can better target various niches, but also introduces fragmentation and compatibility concerns for developers
  • OEM and Developer innovation: On Android, new features can be created just about anywhere, anytime; iOS waits for others to innovate and then introduces a way to “do it right”

I don’t think most of these things are “X is better than Y” values but inherent differences in the appeal of different platforms. As an owner of both kinds of devices, I think we’re going to see Android push smartphone penetration to all kinds of new market segments, and be the new platform for innovation. I see iOS as a major player for the long term, though probably not hanging on to its current dominance of high-end smartphones. There’s plenty of room for both moving ahead, and the only thing that’s certain is that everyone gets more options in their search for the device that best meets their needs.