htc

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.

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.

City ID software soliciting a paid subscription

My Solution for the Android Bloatware Problem

City ID software soliciting a paid subscription

City ID, a non-removable app preinstalled on my HTC Incredible by Verizon to get more money from me. They even start off with an unannounced trial of the functionality and hold it hostage 2 weeks later unless you pay up.

Note: Skimmers should definitely skip my overtures and get straight to my recommendations at the bottom of this post.

A lot of concern has cropped up regarding “bloatware” in the most recent batch of smartphones running Android. There are really two sources of complaints in this area:

  1. Custom User Interface skins put on top of the stock Android OS by the manufacturer.
    These skins take a generic, manufacturer-agnostic OS and create an experience unique to an individual manufacturer’s devices. Manufacturers seem to experiment endlessly with these custom UIs, often revising them with each new generation of device. They vary a lot in quality, but in turn also create more options for customers to choose the device best tailored to fit their own personal preferences. (Some will decry the existence of any custom UI, but I am in love with the time-tested HTC Sense UI, and moreover think that an “open” platform should allow for such innovations.) But it’s now impossible to buy a high-end Android phone in the United States without one of these custom UIs. With Google’s removal of their Nexus One phone from the consumer market, there are few examples of phones offering the pure “Google experience.”
  2. Additional “bloatware” programs pre-loaded onto phones by carriers to make a quick buck.
    Just like many new Windows PCs, carriers now compensate for their ever-decreasing margins on device sales by loading programs onto their phones for the purpose of generating more revenue, often without regard for the quality of the customer’s experience with the end product. One phone comes with a non-removable copy of Avatar; another has the search set to Bing by default and doesn’t allow owners to change to another service; AT&T doesn’t allow the loading of programs outside the Android Marketplace; and yet others build basic caller ID or visual voicemail apps and tack disproportionate monthly fees onto the bill for their use.

I’m not surprised or discouraged to see this come up as an issue as the Android OS matures. In fact, Android works this way by design. Android would not have existed as a product if it weren’t for the support of the Open Handset Alliance, a huge consortium of carriers, manufacturers and developers who stood to benefit from such an open platform. Back in 2007, the iPhone turned the smartphone status quo upside down, and did so by taking almost all the power away from the carrier with a vertically integrated product of uniform hardware and software. Any company wishing to make money in Apple’s new market, they had to first cede the final say on all matters to Apple, who in turn prioritized the quality of the user experience above all else. In many ways, Android only became successful because it gave carriers the opportunity to re-prioritize profits over quality products and services.

This isn’t to say that Android is doomed to a future of bloatware and terrible UX. Indeed, we’re seeing rather textbook examples of differentiation in a free market. Android is the best platform for differentiating devices for different preferences and price points. And anyone who oversteps the bounds of what a customer is willing to buy, they won’t succeed. And on top of these economic norms, Android’s open nature and fast release cycle makes it the most accessible mobile OS for innovators throughout the platform, from app developers, to service providers, to device manufacturers.

But at the same time, it’s clear that no American carrier sees economic benefit in selling a “pure” Android phone. Manufacturer-controlled phones from RIM and Apple are seamless integrations of hardware and software, and even Microsoft is asserting more control over the process with Windows Phone 7. With rumors of an imminent end to the iPhone’s exclusivity, it’s possible that carriers could just see Android as a good lower-end option below “premium” offerings on other OSes.

But I think this can be easily changed to keep Android’s momentum working in a positive direction without making sacrifices to openness, profits, or much else. Here’s how:

  1. Change the “Google logo” terms to put the customer’s needs first again.
    Android itself is totally open source and free, but you have to follow some extra rules to get the “with Google” logo and access to Google’s apps, including the Android Marketplace app store. Right now those rules aren’t very demanding, but Google could definitely insist that extra OEM/Carrier things on top of stock Android be removable by the end user. (They could even go as far as to ban custom UIs or bloatware, but I think it wouldn’t fit Android’s open nature, and would be a losing move towards competing with Apple’s business model.) “But what about the lost carrier revenue?” That’s where step #2 comes in:
  2. Give carriers a share of Google’s 30% cut on app sales.
    This gives them an incentive to make more pure “Google logo” devices over crippled alternatives. As carriers worry more and more about becoming generic service providers of wholesale data bits, this gives them a significant new revenue stream that actually rewards them for making the devices their customers really want. “But the Android Marketplace is mostly free apps, this isn’t Apple’s app store…” That’s true, but sacrifices don’t need to be made there, either:
  3. Charge developers an annual fee for the Android Marketplace to encourage paid apps, but protect developers’ existing freedoms
    Apple charges each developer $99 per year to develop and sell their applications in their store, and the only alternative is through jailbreaking. Android’s Marketplace is more financially accessible, and has a lot more free apps. To convince carriers that a Marketplace revenue share is attractive, they would need to change the Marketplace’s composure to a more revenue-driven approach. But the existing community of free app developers should also be accommodated for – I envision creating even more freedom for developers to use alternative distribution methods, first by forbidding AT&T-like restrictions on outside applications, and even – this is probably too optimistic – making root/super user access an easy opt-in setting on every phone for geeks who know what they’re doing.

I have no experience in the telecom industry, and I bet the folks in charge of Android at Google know a lot better than I, but I think something like this would be a logical direction to take as Android moves to new heights of popularity. I wonder especially about revenue sharing in the Marketplace when the carriers are going to the lengths of crippling their own devices in order to compensate for diminishing margins on unit sales.

HTC Droid Incredible thoughts, 3 weeks in

I’ve had my HTC Incredible for 3 weeks now. I don’t have the time to write a whole review, but here are the things that stand out to me after having gotten to know the device:

  • HTC Sense UI is nothing short of amazing. It’s elegant and easy to use, yet quite powerful and well integrated into the OS. I feel like I wanted an Android phone despite its more complex UI, but totally lucked out with Sense. It really is an experience of its own. It can work well uncustomized out of the box, be extended with tons of useful widgets, or even have entire “scenes” of saved layouts to switch functional contexts as the user does. (Weekend scene with no work stuff? Travel scene with useful widgets for being on the go? Yes, please!) Really, this phone is so much more than a generic OEM device running Android. A great overview of Sense UI on the older HTC Hero is here, if you can tolerate the marketing-speak.
    • (I do wish Sense were integrated a little better with Gmail and Google Voice; I only get Sense UI for non-Google SMS and email.)
  • The battery life, in a word, is atrocious. A second/extended battery is pretty much mandatory for long periods away from the charging cable.
  • There are still some rough edges: the soft menu buttons’ LEDs seem to flash randomly, and I’ve had some hard crash reboots as I did with the Motorola Droid.
  • The integrated camera is good, and has a *ton* of good settings onboard, and good autofocus, tap-to-focus, and the optical trackball makes a good shutter button. I find myself using this camera a lot more than my old phones because it’s enjoyable to use. (The color balance is too blue, though, and its 2 LED flashes aren’t adjustable and make me look like some kind of pale ghost.)
  • While the device feels solid in construction, it is still plastic. I feel like since 2008, consumers’ increased cost sensitivity kind of killed the kind of uncompromising design ethic that yielded the 2007 aluminum iPhone. I’m eagerly awaiting a good case for the Incredible from OtterBox as a compromise for the plastic housing.

So there’s the stuff that still matters to me after 3 weeks. Overall, I am extremely happy with the Incredible, even though it keeps me tethered to a charging cable for much of the day.

HTC Droid Incredible first impressions

My HTC Incredible came in the mail today from Verizon. After ripping the package open like a kid on Christmas, I ran into the good and bad of the device very quickly. I don’t have time to do a full writeup on the Incredible right now, but here are my impressions from the first few hours:

(for some perspective, I have been on an original iPhone for two and a half years, and I tested the Motorola Droid for a month after its release before deciding it wasn’t for me.)

Pro

  • HTC’s Sense UI is nothing short of amazing. I wasn’t surprised to see Android have a clunky default UI, seeing as Google is such an engineering-centric company, but HTC really put a lot of thought into streamlining the whole user experience. Sense has a much better keyboard and autocorrection system, which has me typing at almost the speed I type on my iPhone, on which I’ve had two and a half years’ practice. Also, the UI is fully multi-touch, and does so very well.
  • Performance wise, this phone screams. Nothing seems to choke it up.
  • I’m still getting used to the “optical trackball” at the bottom of the phone. I want to use it like an inertial scroll, similar to a finger swipe on the screen. It’s a pain to try and scroll with just the nub of my thumb, but once I swipe the whole length of my finger across the trackpad, it becomes a lot more useful.
  • Speaker quality is very good for both the earpiece and the speakerphone.
  • So far I am impressed with the quality of the camera and its dual-LED flash. The autofocus works very well. I’m disturbed that my phone captures images at 8 megapixels while my high-end point-and-shoot has six.
  • Complaints about the Incredible’s quality of materials are highly exaggerated. I prefer metal phones myself, but this hardware is very solid and have no doubts that it’ll last me through a 2-year contract. (I couldn’t say the same about the Motorola Droid, which had a loosely seated headphone jack and battery cover that was constantly falling off.) The soft touch plastic back feels great, and its unique angular design on the back is a lot more subdued than it looks in pictures- once you feel how thin the device is, it’s a lot less of a problem.
  • Likewise with the display- people say AMOLED displays like those on the Incredible and Nexus One are terrible in sunlight. Yes, it is not very good, but it only becomes a serious problem with the sun beating straight down on it from overhead. (Want a display that deserves a bad rap? Try a Palm IIIc.)
  • Verizon sent a free 2GB microSD card in the box that wasn’t advertised in the pre-order contents. My guess is that this is Verizon’s quick fix for existing compatibility issues for apps that don’t recognize the device’s 8GB of internal flash memory, which is a first for an Android device. Yes, it’s small, but it’s free and unexpected. My bet is that these phones will start coming with microSD cards preinstalled.

Con

  • The display is quite good, but doesn’t blow me away quite like the Motorola Droid did.
  • Cell reception is noticeably worse than that of the Motorola Droid. I haven’t tested this enough to know if it’s a serious issue or not.
  • The Incredible comes loaded with HTC’s version of Flash Light, which works with some stuff and doesn’t work with other stuff. It’s an imperfect solution, and becoming irrelevant as Apple forces the web towards HTML5, but Android 2.2 will have full-powered Flash anyways.
  • The USB port on the device plugs in on the bottom left side in portrait orientation- right where you want your left palm to rest while typing with both thumbs in portrait orientation. You can mangle your fingers around it in an effort to avoid it, but basically you’re going to want to use this puppy in landscape mode all the time while charging.
  • There are without a doubt some growing pains for a brand new device launching just today on Verizon. My data connection didn’t work at first, and Verizon’s technical rep told me it was likely a problem with HTC and Verizon’s initial network setup for this phone. They got it working for me eventually. (The problem was server-end.) Also, some things that could be fixed in a firmware update include an oversensitive ambient light sensor – it seems to make tiny adjustments when lighting conditions barely change – and navigation button LEDs that occasionally turn off when they shouldn’t.
  • Motorola preloaded a lot more interesting ringtones on the Droid than HTC did on this phone. That’s a matter of taste, but I found myself rushing to make my own ringtone ASAP on this thing.

So basically, this phone addresses almost all of the concerns that kept me from keeping the Motorola Droid. Sense UI is a joy to use, performance is increased, and the build quality seems much more solid to me (albeit not metal). I feel like I’m much more likely to choose to keep this and move my contract over to Verizon. The only holdout I have in my mind as of now is the quality of cell reception, which I’ll have to test some more outside of my signal-killing brick house.