After almost three years of exclusively using an iPhone, I’ve decided to purchase and bond with the HTC EVO 4G. It’s been three weeks since I picked up the device and I’ve been tremendously pleased in some areas and downright frustrated in others.
So how does the EVO 4G shape up when evaluated by a seasoned iPhone user? Read on.
(To learn more about my reasons for putting my iPhone aside and testing the waters with Android via the EVO 4G, read Part I where I detail how I arrived at this point.)
A child can take look at the EVO 4G and the iPhone and tell you that ‘one’s a bit bigger than the other.’ And while many people think that a bigger EVO 4G screen (4.3 inches versus 3.5 inches on the iPhone) means it’s “better”, truthfully there are more important factors than screen size for me. Form-factor plays a small part in my decision about which device is right for me. The phone that provides me with the most usable, functional experience will end up in my pocket. But there have been some things about the EVO’s form factor that have stood out since I’ve been carrying it.
The EVO has a pretty big footprint. When you lay it down next to whatever phone you have now, the EVO will probably dwarf it in size. At the same time, the EVO is not so big that you can’t conveniently carry it around with you. For me, a 4.3 inch screen is probably as large a size as I’ll consider. I always felt that my iPhone’s screen was sufficient (and I still feel that way.) But during the times when I was using both phones and went back to open my iPhone to get a contact that didn’t sync, I definitely missed the EVO’s screen real estate. The screen quality of both phones (I’m using the iPhone 3G, not the iPhone 4) is about even. The EVO definitely has the edge when it comes to screen size. Too bad they don’t use that size more to their advantage. (More on that in a bit.)
…But Is It Too Big?
A person with small hands might find the EVO a bit unmanageable. A few of my female friends who handled the device had a hard time getting a comfortable position with it in their hands. I have relatively average sized hands. And the phone feels comfortable in my grasp. It’s not too heavy, yet it’s certainly not flimsy. But there were times when I was using the phone one-handed where I tried to use my thumb to push a button on the opposite side of the screen. Often, I’d find that my hand will glance past something and launch that instead of what I tapped with my thumb. With two hands, this isn’t a problem. So, as far as the size, it can be a pain depending on what device you’re coming from. The size factor basically comes down to whether you have activities like watching movies or web browsing where those extra pixels would come in handy.
The Wonderful Kickstand
The EVO definitely wins points by having a kickstand. It sounds very rudimentary, but the kickstand combined with the EVO’s large screen is a dynamite combination. The kickstand works in landscape mode only. (I kinda wish it worked in portrait mode). It’s great to be able to use the kickstand to prop the phone up while watching movies. I like to use the kickstand while the phone is on my desk at work, turning it into an expensive desk clock. This is a great alternative to laying the phone down or having to buy an expensive docking station.
I can’t fairly make any realistic projections about what shape this phone will be in after a year of use. Thus far, I’ve been pretty hard on the phone (as I’m in ‘evaluation mode’) and I can pleasantly say that the EVO has stood up to my durability test. No, I haven’t dropped the phone yet. But carelessly tossing it in my bag and in a pocket with coins hasn’t yielded any apparent scratches. There’s a YouTube video of a guy dragging a nail and a razor blade across his screen and he doesn’t seem to have any scratches. This is pretty much the same material as my iPhone – in three years without a cover on the face, I haven’t seen a scratch.
The Power Button
The placement of the power button puzzles me a bit. It’s a bit hard to reach and sometimes I have to actually look at the phone to see whether my pushing of the button yielded the screen waking up or not. The button is kinda flush with the top of the device, so it doesn’t stick up that much. A bit of a problem, but I seem to have grown accustomed to it over the past few weeks. Certainly not a deal breaker.
Besides the difficult-to-reach power button, the EVO has a volume up/down rocker on the right and at the bottom of the screen are the four Android buttons: home, menu, back and search. These buttons were fairly responsive. They aren’t actual physical/tactile buttons. They are capacitive buttons that are flush with the case. The EVO vibrates when you push the buttons to give you a more tactile feel. (This can be turned off to save battery life.)
That Wonderful Camera
My iPhone 3G took pretty good photos. But my EVO is the first phone that makes me consider just selling my Canon Powershot. Images taken outdoors look amazing. And even the indoor picture quality without the flash is acceptable. There’s a dual LED flash on the back of the case and it kicks in (just like on a regular camera) when needed. I prefer taking most of my images without flash and only a few indoor images where there was almost no light had that grainy look that’s prevalent among cameras with low ISO settings. Overall, camera technology in phones has improved over the past few years. The EVO’s camera is definitely part of the trend.
One thing that always annoyed me about the iPhone’s camera is that all of the cool camera modifications weren’t built into the default camera application. You had to use a 3rd party phone application like the amazing Camera+ from Lisa Bettany and taptaptap.com. Right within the default camera app on the HTC EVO are options for exposure/brightness, saturation, contrast, sharpness, and the cool image effects like sepia, negative, black and white, etc. The camera has an ISO setting that goes up to 1250. (I know…. yeah, right. ISO at 1250?? Whatever, EVO.) But I can say that the low light settings have yielded incredible photos. I know the new iPhone camera has been crowned the new king of phone camera, but I’m as pleased as I could be with this camera.
One of the best parts about the camera is the speed of the shutter. I don’t know whether it’s the 1GHz Snapdragon processor or better lens/shutter technology, but I was snapping one or sometimes even two shots a second. I had absolutely no lag in between images. I had a few opportune moments where I wanted to get the camera out quickly and snap a shot and the phone has never let me down.
The Protruding Camera Lens
One unfortunate design decision is that the camera on the underside of the phone has a lens that protrudes from the phone. This design decision may have been made in the spirit of garnering better photos, but the camera lens is certainly on the verge of being scratched. As a matter of fact, I detect some minor scratches already. <Heavy sigh>.
The Back Cover
When most people buy mobile phones, they feel obligated to buy a case. For me, I’d prefer not to have to use a case. Cases stand in between the user and device and often get in the way. If a device is delicate or subject to breakage, then perhaps a case is a necessary evil. But considering that I’ll probably only own the device for a year, I can’t see putting another layer of protection between me and the phone.
Thankfully the EVO 4G has a back case that is made of a rather soft plastic. It’s smooth to the touch. (Almost a bit too smooth). But using it rather haphazardly and tossing it into a bag filled with other gadgets and metal objects has left the back cover with no visible signs of damage. I think it’s a safe bet that this will be a fairly durable phone for those who treat it with just a bit of care.
Other Hardware Notes
There are several items that really don’t interest me, but are worth mentioning nonetheless. The phone has an HDMI-out connector on the bottom of the case. While it’s awesome to think that a phone can output HD quality to a display, I can’t see any practical use for this. The phone has limited storage internally and aside from sharing photos or movies shot with the camera, I don’t see the point. Any HD content that I manage to get on the phone or stream probably won’t be worth watching. There are other ways to get HD out. But it’s a nice-to-have.
The EVO also has a front-facing camera. While this is potentially something that people will find themselves using, again, I don’t see the point. Unless I’m talking to my nephews or trying to get a visual on something that the caller is describing, I can’t see any situations where this would be more desirable than having a discussion in front of a PC with a chat application and camera. I guess it’s just me. Apple is parading around their “FaceTime” application with their front facing camera and even with the marketing, it doesn’t appeal to me.
All in all, the EVO 4G is an impressive specimen, even before you power it on. The large screen and the kickstand really set it apart from many other devices in its class. And while I can’t project the future, the EVO feels sturdy enough to get knocked around a bit and not look like it’s been in a war.
In actuality, this review is a lot less about the EVO 4G and the iPhone 4 and more akin to a comparison of Android 2.1 with Sense and the iPhone OS/iOS 4. My iPhone, despite the shortcomings that I listed in the previous post, has been more stable than any other phone that I’ve owned. It’s dependable. During the course of a month, I might restart my iPhone twice at most – and there are months where I haven’t even restarted it at all. I don’t see any signs of memory leakage (largely due to the fact that the phone doesn’t yet multitask). And after a few minor issues with Safari crashing regularly when the phone first launched in 2007, I can’t recall the last time my iPhone crashed or even quit within an application this year.
The story isn’t quite as rosy on the Android side. It is true that with great power does come great responsibility. Android gives the user access to customize and change just about every aspect of the phone – down to the soft keyboard. These are tweaks that the iPhone might not even be capable of after being jailbroken. But with all of this power comes the potential to cause your phone to be unstable. In my experience so far, I’ve been able to tweak my settings to the point where my phone and I ‘have an understanding’. But it does bear mentioning that multitasking and all of the Android customizations could result in instability. I’ll explain.
Last week I was listening to a streaming podcast using a Google application on the phone called “Listen”. After a few minutes listening to the podcast, I pushed the button to wake the phone to check e-mail… nothing. I tried holding down the sleep/wake button. Still nothing. But the podcast was still playing. Eventually I just decided to finish listening to the podcast until I got home. The only way that I was able to get a response from the OS was by pulling the battery and reseating it. This was an anomaly – my three weeks using the phone haven’t been filled with moments of crashes and despair. But I have experienced more than five situations where loading an application from the Android Market has resulted in crashes of that app or affected other apps.
Often times I’ll find that the Android OS is rather snappy. When you first start the phone, the experience is great. Scrolling through the five home screens is pretty snappy and clicking on icons will result in minimal delay before the app launches. However, multitasking weighs down on this responsiveness if you aren’t careful.
There are times when I tap the screen to launch an application or to perform some action and after seeing no response. So, when I go to retry launching the app, I’ll realize that the phone just had a delay in processing my initial command. Sometimes when it’s really bad, I’ll do 3 or 4 actions or type 3 or 4 words and after about 10 seconds, all of the queued up actions will just happen in a hurried sequence. Again, a lot of this performance inconsistency is due to the Android being able to multitask, and I do appreciate this functionality. And this is the fundamental difference between the iPhone and Android devices: With Android, you will (for the most part) have a more customizable, and tweakable experience, but it will come at a cost of battery power and reliability.
Thankfully it wasn’t too long into my first week of using the EVO before I was introduced to an application called Advanced Task Killer. When I opened ATK, I noticed about 10 applications that were running that I hadn’t ever launched! Most of these were Sprint applications that I don’t plan on using. ATK shows you all of the applications that are running on the phone and lets you determine which ones you want to keep running and which ones you want the program to periodically close when it checks for open apps. ATK has been a godsend, but there are a few things wrong with this picture.
First, it’s sad (and typical of my Android experience) that an application that’s this essential to the experience does not come already loaded on the phone when it ships. Sure, I was savvy enough to download one of the many available task killing applications. But what about the guy who doesn’t live this stuff and just thinks that his phone has horrible battery life? And what happens if you get the “wrong” task killing application. There are about 10 major ones available and each has their own advantages/disadvantages. I think it’s a poor decision not to put some functionality like this in the core experience.
I still don’t understand why certain apps (mostly the Sprint apps) are set to launch when the phone is restarted. You’d think there was a simple, easy-to-find area (Like the Windows MSCONFIG.exe) where I could decide what apps are loaded upon initial boot. Thankfully Advanced Task Killer helps me to achieve the desired result.
While using Android and reflecting on how it would do with less tech savvy consumers, I kept returning to the theme of “my mother”. Would my mother be able to effectively use the core features of this phone without having some prior smartphone experience? Sadly, I don’t think the average person will have the presence of mind to go out and get these applications that are essential to the experience.
These criticisms aside, with a solid task management program like Advanced Task Killer, your experience will be significantly better.
App Store vs. Android Market
Advanced Task Killer brings up another interesting aspect of Android culture: The Android Market. To put my download of ATK into perspective, I first read about it in the forums on sites like Android Central and Android Community. Later on when I had time, I went to search for it. When I got to the Android Market, I did a search for “Task Manager” and was immediately confused during my search because there were so many applications with similar names. Again: I knew what I wanted and had trouble finding it. What hope does my mother have? Now, I’m not complaining about choice. But for an Android newbie like me, some editorial is needed. (Eventually I found it, but I had to go back and read the forum posts to remember which one I read about.)
The Android Market has reviews and comments right under the application listing and a ratings star system. But there don’t seem to be enough reviews to give users enough info about which apps are popular among Android users. Yes, the storefront on the phone and even on a full web experience gives the user a few ways to view applications. You can sort by paid and free apps as well as a few oddly decided upon application categories. But I get the feeling that there are gems that I’m probably missing out on.
The Android Market isn’t a great experience. While the designers have made some attempt to group the apps into categories, I found it incredibly difficult to find out something as simple as “what are other Android users downloading?” Spending a few hours browsing around a few websites with “Top 10 Lists” and “Must Have Apps” posts helped me to download a few of the apps that have become staples in my library. But it was way too difficult getting to this point. For all the criticism that Apple has taken for the App Store having bureaucratic rules about what apps get approved, removed, etc., they have managed to create a store that is relatively easy to navigate. One look at iTunes on the phone and I know what the top grossing apps are, what the highest number of downloaded apps are, what are the most downloaded free apps, etc. I can then break this down further once I’m in a particular category. For instance, the most downloaded finance apps this week or the top grossing games this week. And when in doubt, I can search for something like “Zuma” and the App Store will give me a list of Zuma-like games, even though the actual game “Zuma” isn’t offered in iTunes yet.
Thankfully, Android’s flexibility gives it more options than just the Android Market. There’s a site/service called “App Brain” that does a better job of aggregating apps and pushing the more popular Android apps to the top of the heap. Better still, if you install the App Brain client on your phone and create a login, it can sync any apps that you select while browsing on a computer back down to the phone. Pretty slick. AppBrain also can make recommendations for other apps based on the ones already on your phone and identify you if there are updates available. Overall, my experience showed that searching through AppBrain has yielded better results than via the Android Market.
One great thing about the Android Market is that you have 24 hours from the time of purchasing a paid application to return it and not pay the cost. Very nice.
Before I owned the EVO 4G, I’d watch Verizon Droid commercials where a big globe spun with app icons all over it. It was almost as if the marketers were saying, “Yes, we have a lot of applications too.” But the critical point that the Android marketing campaign misses when trying to compare themselves to the iPhone App Store’s offerings is the fact that it really isn’t about the quantity. I’m sure I’ll catch hell for this one, but the quality of iPhone apps is astronomically better than what’s available for Android. I’m not suggesting that the iPhone is a better phone or even a more powerful phone. It’s not. But developers are recognizing the critical mass that the iPhone has amassed and that has made it the platform of choice. Take a look at the apps available in iTunes under the App Store and compare them to the versions of similar apps (or even the same app) available in the Android Market. More often than not the iPhone version is a better experience. This is true of both games and apps. I’ve tried a few cross platform apps and the difference is so recognizable that anybody who argues otherwise doesn’t understand how good the experience can be. Three specific examples that come to mind are the Engadget app (looks very clean on iPhone and is more responsive), Super KO Boxing and Arkanoid. In each version of the game, the difference is rather apparent – even down to the icons in the app stores.
Now, apps aren’t the be-all-end-all factor that determines whether a phone is useful. Apps extend what should be an already good experience. And let me cut to the chase here and say that in some instances, the stock Android apps alone offer an experience that is superior to the iPhone’s. But by and large, the Android Market and the overall Android app catalog may be growing, but it doesn’t have a quantity problem. It needs to work on its app quality.
One of the most disappointing experiences for me thus far has been the way that the web browser performs. It’s funny – of all the issues that I reflected on when considering my purchase of the EVO, I took for granted that the browsing would be solid.
OK, first the good stuff. The EVO’s big, beautiful 4.3 inch screen sometimes makes for a more enjoyable browsing experience. You can see significantly more information on the screen. Also, in my tests over Sprint’s EVDO (3G) network, pages have been loading rather quickly.
My issues with the browsing appear to be attributed to some feature within the core of Android, because I saw these issues in multiple web browsers. With all due respect to other platforms, the iPhone truly is the best mobile browsing experience on a mobile phone. Using Safari on the iPhone is an intuitive experience. For one, loading a webpage means that the iPhone will render the webpage (in landscape or portrait mode) exactly as it would have appeared on a desktop monitor. While this means that the font will be a bit tiny, you can always double tap and pinch to zoom in on areas of interest. The EVO 4G’s default browser has a huge issue with double tapping in a web page. (Perhaps this is an issue with Android in general.) If I’m using my iPhone and on the New York Times webpage, double tapping on an article in the browser will zoom in to fit the exact size and width of the article. If I double tap on the same article within an EVO browser, the results are wildly unpredictable. It might zoom in way too close on a section of the article. In some cases, it will show the article but annoyingly re-align the text to fit the current width of the screen. I don’t want the browser to alter the text of the screen. I want the browser to conform to what’s already displayed. This is really off-putting considering where I’m coming from and it’s taking a lot of behavior adjusting to work around this.
It’s weird to even consider that a screen that’s as small as my iPhone screen is compared to the EVO would be a better experience, but it is. Flat out, in almost every way except the actual screen size, it’s a better experience browsing on my iPhone than on the EVO.
Despite having hardware that is significantly more powerful than the iPhone 3GS, the EVO is not nearly as responsive as the iPhone screen. To a non-iPhone user, this is probably acceptable and many of my non-iPhone friends didn’t even notice when I showed them. But anyone who’s spent some time with an iPhone knows immediately that the EVO should be a lot more responsive. It’s hard to describe, but to any user, it’s instantly noticeable. That said, the EVO is not unusable. The pinch to zoom and scrolling work relatively ok. There are times when the number of background apps severely affects the responsiveness of the screen, but in fairness to the EVO, you’re able to do so much more. Even when the iPhone 4 is released, users will not be able to multi-task to the degree that Android users can. Whether or not this is worth the performance trade-off remains to be seen.
One of the driving factors behind my decision to give Android a try was the fact that it was a more customizable experience. And I’m not just trying to customize for the sake of variety. As stated in Part I, my dream is to have a home screen that has, at a glance, all the critical pieces of information that I need. So often when I’m in a meeting or in a situation where I can’t pull out the phone for an extended period of time, I have a few moments to ‘steal a glance’ at the screen to know exactly what’s happening. So, was I able to achieve this nirvana? Not quite.
The widgets available on the Android are fairly useful. There are some clocks and some widgets to track the weather and stocks. But the lack of customizability with regard to the size of each widget forces you to have to make sacrifices. For instance, the stock HTC Sense weather widget is beautiful, but it takes up half of the home screen. I would like to shrink it a bit and maybe fit in an e-mail list or a sports ticker. But you have to stuff the widgets into the space given. Granted, with Android 2.1 you have multiple home screens to put either app icons or widgets on. But I haven’t quite set up a view that gives me glanceable helpful information.
One thing that HTC has done with Sense is allow support for multiple “scenes”. A scene is like a Windows ‘theme’. It’s a collection of icons and wallpaper meant to make you more productive. I haven’t made use of these scenes as much as I thought I would, but in theory, swapping scenes would be awesome. For instance, one scene could be arranged for professional settings with a neutral background and a clean look with minimal icons and widgets. Another view on the same phone could be a more sports-focused theme with sports scores and widgets. The widget scene isn’t that prominent to allow for ‘customization nirvana’, but the possibilities are certainly there.
Android has a number of alternate “launchers” that let the user completely change the default launch screens. One launcher that I purchased is called SlideScreen Pro. This is an attractive, contemporary-looking minimalist view that displays a ton of info across the entire Android screen arranged vertically. This is an inspired look and one that I wish inspired more developers to think in more original ways.
Battery life has never been a problem on my iPhone. Not only had the battery life on the 3GS been adequate to get me through at least two days without a charge, I haven’t noticed an appreciable decrease in overall battery life. This is to be expected because the iPhone was pretty much a uni-tasking device. Now that I’ve upgraded my iPhone 3GS to iOS4, I’ve noticed that multitasking is taking its toll on the battery a bit. The iPhone 4 is supposed to have a larger battery and reviews have indicated that it’s phenomenal. But I can only account for what the iPhone 3GS and iOS 4 has shown me so far.
People initially have complained about the EVO battery and I was a bit worried that this would be a deal breaker. Thankfully, it just isn’t. I think the whole battery problem goes back to the fact that most people probably don’t have a decent task managing program. With Advanced Task Killer on the prowl, I can definitely get a day on the phone and a few times I fell asleep without charging it and had more than half of my battery life still available. I charge my phone regularly, so perhaps I’m not the ideal case for a battery life test. (I have a charger at my desk at work and I charge the phone before I go to sleep. But I certainly haven’t seen a battery that’s unusable.
The iPhone has been criticized for not including a removable battery. Sometimes people get caught up in listening to ‘media hype’ and don’t think about the practical situational benefits of having a non-removable battery. For one, who wants to remove their battery all the time? Secondly (and more importantly) it makes so much sense to have a battery that can take a non-standard shape and fill out the empty space on the device, thus insuring maximum capable battery life. Engadget editor-in-chief Josh Topolsky said in his review that they were getting 38 hours of use from a single charge. I wish more companies would think about the user experience rather than implementing what they think their audience wants based on what they’re used to.
This may come as a surprise to many, but I put my iPhone 3G side by side with my EVO 4G and did some speed comparisons with downloading podcasts. At first when my EVO downloaded a podcast in the Google application “Listen” at rates that were getting destroyed by my iPhone (also downloading in 3G), I thought it was Listen that was slowing things down. It wasn’t. I used the web browser to download the same file on the iPhone and the EVO using the exact same link (and even giving the EVO a head start making sure I hit that button first.) In my experience here in Queens and in the tests that I did in both midtown and lower Manhattan, AT&T has significantly faster data speeds. I downloaded a 59MB podcast in six minutes on my iPhone. On my EVO (maybe it was being throttled – each of the six days I did tests) it averaged about 22 minutes (sometimes going as long as a half hour).
There is an area in Queens where my EVO starts to get a 4G signal and this is where the game could well change. I was seeing phenomenal speeds when my phone momentarily roamed into 4G coverage. I’m sure that this will get better as Sprint expands WiMax. It will be interesting to see whether Sprint can expand WiMax quicker than AT&T or Verizon can expand each of their 4G (LTE) networks. Considering the speed I saw on my EVO (albeit momentarily), I’m looking forward to it.
The soft keyboard that Apple has engineered over time is the best touch keyboard experience there is. Period. I’ve used a number of devices with soft keyboards and never have I had the level of accuracy and speed that I do on my iPhone. It has a remarkable corrective feature that has earned my trust. Rather than backspacing all the time, I just keep typing and about 90% of the time, the word is going to be corrected properly.
The EVO brings several keyboard choices – among them are the stock Android keyboard, the HTC Sense keyboard and then a number of other keyboards that can be downloaded free, like Swype, or for purchase, like Better Keyboard. I refuse to use a program like Swype because I don’t want to learn some proprietary technology and it only allows you to use one finger at a time. It just doesn’t seem natural to me, although many people are adopting it. All of the other keyboard options (right now I’m using Better Keyboard) seem to work ok. Like the old T9 method, they seem to use predictive methods to put a list of words that you might be typing above the keyboard as you’re typing. Then you can just click on the selection, saving a lot of keystrokes. Overall I just wasn’t as productive on the Android crop of keyboards. I hope that Google is working to improve the stock keyboard, as this is what the majority of mass market customers will find themselves using.
One innovative feature that the EVO has as part of Android 2.1 is an integrated speech to text feature. On the keyboard is a microphone icon which can be used instead of typing. I found it to be incredibly accurate, only slipping on non-standard names and places. This is a great alternative, especially when driving (although nobody should even consider handling their phone when driving.)
My expectation with both the EVO and the iPhone 3GS using iOS4 was that I would have more flexibility multitasking and I was left a bit unfulfilled with both devices.
Android 2.1 allows the user to multitask, but I never quite knew what was going on in the background until I downloaded Advanced Task Killer. Once I saw what was happening and how the phone was managing applications, it left me scratching my head. Often times there would be applications that I hadn’t thought of opening that were launching. I don’t know if they are being triggered by some sort of event and I’m even considering deleting them. The problem with these apps launching on their own is that if enough apps start launching, I really start to feel the sluggish performance. At one point when I was typing in Facebook, keys were typing at a rate of one every two seconds (even though I was typing at a regular rate.) Then I realized a bunch of apps were open that I thought I closed from.
When multitasking on the Android works, it does so to great effect. However, there are times when it just doesn’t work as you’d expect it to. Sometimes the podcasts that I listen to get released before they find their way into my .RSS feed. Rather than wait several hours for them to download, I just click on the file in the browser. (Long pressing on a file within Android produces several options – one of them is “Save Link As”. This is a long lost feature that I had on just about every previous web browsing capable phone that I owned. I just saved the files to my SD card). Once the download was done and I began to play the file, as soon as I went back to the home screen, it would close. This is the same ridiculous behavior that I experienced on my iPhone. I thought this phone was capable of multitasking?? Eventually I found my way around this problem by associating the download with another audio program called DoubleTwist. I think the key here is that, like on a PC, if you work at it hard enough, there are ways to make things work the way you want them to. But it’s frustrating that on a multitasking phone some tasks don’t work as you’d expect them to.
On the iPhone also, even with iOS4, multitasking is not quite the nirvana I was expecting, either. On both phones, it felt as if the results when multitasking vary. In fairness to iOS4, applications have to be re-coded to take advantage of the multitasking and many developers haven’t done this yet. One app that claims to have been re-coded for multitasking and iOS4 is a podcasting application called RSS Player. Apple has a list of several multitasking scenarios under which the program will work in the background. I can tell that multitasking on an iPhone is going to be a problem already (depending on who’s writing the program) after spending some time with RSS Player. For one, I was hoping that when I queued up several podcasts to download in the background that I could just click away and go to another program. Nope. It doesn’t work that way. Even when I double tapped to switch to Safari in multitasking mode, when I came back, RSS Player had stopped downloading the files I had queued up. The only thing that it is programmed to do in the background is play the podcast. As you can see, multitasking on the iPhone is going to be rather limited to the point of perhaps being almost useless.
Another unforeseen consequence on both phones is the fact that the phones don’t handle multiple apps sharing bandwidth well. I was downloading a file on my Android and when I tried to open another web window to read a page while it downloaded, it felt like I had no connection. The page didn’t download for about a minute. I guess this is to be expected. This isn’t a PC. But when I think of ‘multitasking’ at its most basic use, I think of downloading a file and then leaving that file download screen and going to read a webpage. Right now that seems to be a chore right now regardless of the phone you use. Perhaps this will get better when the 4G networks become more prevalent.
One of the apps that I couldn’t wait to download when I picked up the EVO was an app from Google called Listen. Listen is a podcast manager and it works fairly well. Give it an .rss feed and it will update and let you know when new shows are available and even download them locally. It can queue up shows for you to listen to. One thing that it didn’t handle was a video podcast that I downloaded. This wasn’t quite as fully featured as I expected, but it certainly is sufficient enough of an experience for me to have a good podcast listen away from home.
The story is downright sad on the iPhone. It’s ironic that the company who basically brought the podcast as a concept to prominence can’t seem to understand that having a mobile device might mean that someone wants to listen to a show while they are away from home. For one, the iPod application manages the podcast feed via iTunes and the only real way to manage them effectively is to go back to the machine that the iPhone is linked to and sync it. On the AT&T network, you can’t download a podcast that’s more than 20MB. What’s ridiculous is that I can go outside of the application and just download a file that’s 10 times that size – just not within the iPod app. (It’s like they’re purposely trying to frustrate me). The problem with downloading shows outside of the iPod app is that if something interrupts the download or the playback (say, a phone call or a drop in cell coverage), often times the user will have to completely restart the process. It’s maddening and frustrating and I’m really disappointed in Apple for never having addressed this with some form of podcast application that at least lets you manage your RSS feeds away from home.
The iPhone has pretty much revolutionized portable gaming. Before the iPhone, I would see entire spreads in gaming magazines where mobile gaming companies would try and entice users to download proprietary mobile games that were of extremely poor quality. This year Nintendo gave a keynote and said that Apple is their competition. Major gaming companies including EA, Activision, Square, Capcom and Zynga (Farmville, Mafia Wars) are increasing their focus on the iPhone as a lead platform. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the experiences I’ve had playing games like iDracula, Peggle, Canabalt and Home Run Battle. I never really picked up an iPhone for its gaming capability, but over time and through recommendation and reviews, it’s caused me to almost forget about my PSP and my DS. It doesn’t do full featured games nearly as well as either of those platforms. But it happens to be the device that I have when I’m standing in line or when I have a few minutes while I’m waiting to get on the bus. It’s a “good enough” kind of experience.
I didn’t expect a whole lot from Android gaming and that’s pretty much what I got. It’s really bleak. And that’s fine for me. I’d rather have fewer distractions truthfully. But for people who think that you’re going to get an Android phone and have an iPhone like gaming experience, you’re kidding yourself. It may be capable of it, but the development just isn’t there. People aren’t developing any inspired games for the Android. Even the games that I had on my iPhone have horrible Android ports. Super KO Boxing plays like a poor iPhone port. It’s much more laggy and unresponsive. Homerun Battle 3D is an addictive game with a pretty good hitting engine on my iPhone. The same game on my EVO is so slow that I have to swing a little early to make contact. I closed every application running and it was still sluggish. It’s just unplayable.
Gaming on the Android is pretty tired. But that’s ok with me. The question is whether this is something you might be expecting. If so, you might be better served on an iPhone.
Last year I picked up a Palm Pre and one of the key reasons behind me leaving it was the fact that its music playback left a lot to be desired. It was sluggish to respond and had only 8GB of storage that couldn’t be expanded. (I think I would still own that phone if it didn’t hang for 15-30 seconds when I skipped too many songs in a row.)
Admittedly, I have high music expectations. Because I live in iTunes, my iPhone has been the perfect companion for bringing a large portion of my music library on the go. I have a ton of playlists for every mood. The iPod app on the iPhone has always been responsive and reliable. It never skips or pauses or quits regardless of what else I’m doing on the phone. Actually the iPod application was one of the few iPhone apps that did allow for multitasking. I could play a song and go to another application.
So far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Android music experience. Initially I used a 3rd party application called Sailing Media Sync to sync up several of my iTunes playlists. It seemed to work ok. However, the native media application in Android leaves a lot to be desired. The layout isn’t that intuitive; it has a list across the bottom of the screen that lets you search for songs by artist, album, song title, etc. Pushing the search button without being in the specific area you want to search (for instance, searching “Heatwave” when you’re just on the main music screen) doesn’t yield any results. But these minor niggles aside, it’s ok. One great thing is that like the iPhone, you can skip a track if the phone’s display is sleep without unlocking the phone. Just push the sleep/wake button and you’ll see the album art with options to pause, go back and skip ahead.
DoubleTwist is a combination of a desktop application that lets Android users search for applications, but also creates a bridge to iTunes and lets mobile applications sync through its phone application of the same name. The DoubleTwist Android app is really slick and has become my main music player, although I lose the ability to skip a track when the phone goes to sleep without unlocking it.
One complaint I have with my EVO (and this is something I heard on the forums as well, so I know I’m not alone) is that the EVO’s volume level for the headphones is very low. I am not trying to go deaf, but I know that I heard the same mp3s on my iPhone at much higher levels. But I’m sure there has to be some firmware tweak or application that can address this.
Overall, the EVO has been a worthy substitute for my iPhone as a media player. It plays video files at higher resolutions and on that large 4.3” screen. Music quality is on par with the iPhone and DoubleTwist might even be a better music player than the iPod app.
I did minimal testing with the EVO as a phone, having only made 10-15 calls. Overall it’s been solid. I think I had slightly better voice quality on Sprint when I had my Palm Pre. But the Sprint PCS network hasn’t dropped a call yet and overall call quality has been good.
Android has a strange method of protecting the phone from being unlocked for use after it’s gone into sleep/standby mode. The user can draw a pattern of lines on square grid of nine dots to unlock the phone. Initially I thought this was rather silly. However, I’ve grown to really like it. My finger can quickly draw the patter and unlock the phone without having to remember any codes. Also, I feel like I can draw the pattern (my pattern consists of four lines) faster than I can enter the code. This is probably isn’t as secure as having a code. Sure, someone can see you enter the code. But the pattern might be easy to watch and repeat. Or maybe they’re both easy to repeat. All I know is that I kinda dig the pattern to unlock my phone. (Froyo, the 2.2 release of the Android OS, will include support for using a code to unlock the phone like the iPhone has currently.)
The phone app for the EVO isn’t great. The design is a bit confusing, as it launches by showing you the dialing pad and a list of recent calls above it. You can dial a number or spell a name with the number keys to narrow the list of names. It’s just a matter of preference, but for my money the iPhone app seemed much simpler and had a much easier to navigate design. But this is probably because I’ve been using it for so long. Or not.
Notifications on the iPhone had been the bane of my existence. To call them notifications is actually a bit too forgiving. They are pop ups. Screens will pop up on top of whatever you are doing to let you know that you got a text or that a program has an update. It’s really annoying and I’m surprised that the problem has gone on this long without being addressed. Last month Apple hired the Palm employee responsible for their fabulous notification system, so I expect to hear good things in January or February of 2011.
Android has pretty much led the charge with having a much better notification system. Commonly known as the “window shade”, at the top of the screen is a pull-down list of any pending updates (missed calls, recent texts or SMS messages, application updates, etc.). Clicking on one of them takes you to that application. So far it’s been a pleasure to use and probably one of the best aspects of the Android experience.
Speaking of “best aspects of the Android experience”, I have never felt this connected to my Gmail using a mobile phone. The Android has support for true push Gmail. As soon as a message has been sent – almost instantaneously – I get a notification tone. I actually get a notification tone on my phone quicker than I do with the Gmail Notifier on my Mac. It’s been such a pleasure being this connected to Gmail.
My only complaint with the mail experience comes from the layout and the handling of HTML mail. The layout of mail messages on the main screen is a bit uninspired. I don’t really care for the font that the mail app uses. Also, when viewing HTML messages, often I’ll miss an entire section of the message if I don’t scroll left or right. This goes back to my complaint about web browsing. Android just doesn’t scale down web pages or HTML well enough for my taste. I’d rather start out viewing everything and then decide to zoom in on information. In some cases, had I not scrolled right in an e-mail, I would have missed content.
Chat is another area of Android that is just done perfectly. For one, chat notifications to Google Chat are instantaneous. If enough of the people you communicate with are on G-Chat, there’s very little reason to bother with text messaging. This still doesn’t come close to the ecosystem that BlackBerry has with their BlackBerry Messenger, but this is pretty slick. Chat on the iPhone is remarkably weak and it’s weak mostly because Apple hasn’t led the charge by creating its own chat application for the phone. There are apps like Ping, Meebo and Beejive that attempt to fill in the gap. But none of these 3rd party solutions takes the place of a good integrated solution that everyone who has the phone can use.
New iOS Features / Overall iPhone and iOS direction
As I close in on the end of my trial period with my EVO 4G and have to decide what mobile phone I’ll be carrying for the next year, much of my decision was based on whether or not Apple would address the key areas where I felt the OS was lacking. After having downloaded iOS4 on my iPhone 3GS, It’s become increasingly more obvious to me that Apple is trying to play it safe. They have a huge installed base of customers and changing key components of the OS might have the potential to alienate people who already like the current experience.
The geek in me feels alienated when I look at my iPhone in one hand versus the power that I have with my EVO. Simply being able to download a file to a directory and then connect the phone to a PC and see that download directory is a simple thing that I have been deprived of. My three core issues with the current iPhone OS are the lack of an acceptable notification system, poor remote podcast management and a poor home screen/HUD. Looking at the current iPhone revision in iOS4, I don’t see any of these problems being address. The next iteration of iOS probably won’t be announced until February 2012. So despite the great iPhone hardware revision with the beautiful camera and sleek design, I’m still stuck with a home screen filed with static icons, a virtually non-existent notification system and having to manage my podcasts through poor 3rd party applications. This is the point at which I am realizing that I need a change.
The iPad factor
One thing that makes abandoning my iPhone less painful is the fact that my iPad can run any iPhone application as well as all of the iPad applications. It may seem like a small thing, but I’ve invested a lot of money into my application library and it’s nice to be able to continue to use those apps. It stings a bit that some of the applications that are very useful on a phone (like my subway directions app and my Starbucks app) won’t be on my new phone. But the iPad does make the prospect of leaving the iPhone ecosystem an easier pill to swallow.
‘Fit and Finish’
Often I hear Android users mock iPhone users about their passion for their phones. The argument from Android users is usually centered on specifications like processor speed, memory, resolution, camera megapixels and screen size. What Android users who have never used an iPhone don’t realize is that the passion that iPhone users have doesn’t come from the hardware. The industrial design is nice and the display is beautiful, but there’s much more to the experience. Apple designs software and devices and computers that they themselves would love to use. Using an Apple product like the iPhone is an experience that very quickly becomes familiar. And although my Android phone looks to be taking the crown this year, there is a fit and finish that is present on the iPhone that still isn’t present on Android devices. There is a consistent theme throughout the user interface that makes the experience intuitive.
The coming years for Android will be crucial in determining how the phone is regarded among consumers. Right now there appears to be an unfinished quality that keeps the majority of users who are not technologists from having the connection to their phone that iPhone users do. Right now, Android is the choice for the power user who needs a bit more control over their experience. What the world is wondering is whether Matias Duarte and the other engineers who will shape the next iterations of Android will bring the very technical experience down to a more accessible place for everyone else to enjoy.
All the while during my three plus weeks of evaluating the EVO 4G and iOS 4 on my iPhone 3GS, I knew the painful truth — at some point, one of these phones is going to be retired. After the iPhone 4 mania began, I started to get swept up in the madness. I even went to the Apple site and looked to see how much the new iPhone would cost under my existing contract. For almost the entire time that I carried both phones, it was a toss-up. And honestly I was leaning heavily towards getting another iPhone. The crucial point in my decision came this week. I left the EVO at home for a few days and went back to primarily using the iPhone. It was familiar territory, but there were so many things that I missed from my EVO experience. The larger screen. The podcast application (Listen). Being able to swipe through screens and to see my ESPN widget for the score of the Mets game. And it was during this last week of putting the EVO aside that I decided that I’m going to keep the EVO. No, it isn’t perfect. It doesn’t scroll as smoothly as my iPhone. The battery life isn’t as long. The music playback isn’t quite as good. And there are about ten other things that I’ll miss. But it’s the extensibility of the Android experience that makes it much more adventurous experience. Turning on an iPhone and being greeted with a bunch of desktop icons, no integrated chat application and an unsatisfactory notification system is just not compelling for me anymore. We’ll see if this changes in a year. But right now, Android is the place where I’ll be experimenting. And I’m having a lot of fun.
Ultimately (if you find yourself having to make the same choice that I did — EVO or iPhone), your decision should come down to a few questions:
• Am I looking for a basic, solid, non-complicated phone experience? (iPhone)
• Do I plan on spending a lot of time playing games? (iPhone)
• Am I the type of person who enjoys tweaking and experimenting with my phone settings? (Android)
• Do I live and die by Google based services like GMail, Google Voice, Google Voice and Google Chat? (Duh, Android).
• Am I looking to customize the look and feel of my interface? (Android)
• What is my social network using? (Either)
• Which phone has the better wireless and voice network where I live?
You can’t go wrong by selecting either device. It’s like choosing between a BMW and a Mercedes. Both offer a solid experience. But in the end for me, Android seems like a better place for a technologist to live — at least long enough to get accustomed to the nuances about the experience. Perhaps in a year when Jobs takes the stage again I will be excited about the iPhone again. But right now, despite all the hoopla about iPhone 4, it’s really the same experience that it was a year ago in a much nicer package.
HTC EVO 4G / Android 2.1 Pros
• Attractive exterior
• Kickstand is very useful
• Camera app is fast and takes great photos
• Sense allows for customizable themes that can be easily switched.
• Widgets give the potential for a better and more informative HUD
• GMail notification is almost instantaneous
• Notifications system is almost perfect
• Google Chat gives the feel of a continuous chat conversation without using SMS
• Android Market allows for refunds within 24 hours if applications are uninstalled.
• Can be used as a Wi-Fi hot spot (for an additional $29.99/month)
• 4G (when available) will lead to incredible data speeds
• Critical pieces of the puzzle are missing from the out-of-the-box experience
• For a larger screen, the keyboard experience (accuracy, predictability) isn’t as good as it should be.
• Inconsistent cross-application design
• Battery life might be an issue under heavy use
• Icons don’t make effective use of the screen size
• Camera placement can lead to scratches on the lens
• 16GB seems to be the current available limit for Micro SDHC
• Phone has a front facing camera BUT no solid choice of camera chat application (Qik is a poor experience thus far)
• You’ll pay Sprint $10 extra per month whether you live in a 4G capable area or not
• Phone application isn’t the best
• The Android Market application offering is a mixed bag
• There are inconsistent experiences with applications depending on which device you use (some Android apps work fine on some phones, but not on others)
• Audio from headphone jack is lower than I am used to
• Layout of the Settings is a bit unintuitive.