Great Experiment: Have a break, have a Kit Kat

By | 2014/01/07

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Introduction

Somewhat tired of my “Telstra Exclusive” LG Optimus G being stuck on Android 4.1.2 for no other reason than Telstra being too lazy to release OS updates for their “exclusive” handset in Australia, I got myself a Google Nexus 5 handset over the christmas period.

Apparently ordering devices on the Google Play store is easy and efficient. That’s apparently the case if there’s nothing awry with the order. For me, there was a slight irregularity and my order placed on Boxing Day was still showing as “pending” up until 6 hours after I signed for it at the Toll depot on 3 January after two failed delivery attempts*. I found out that it had been shipped after 8 emails exchanged between two different Google staff and a phone call to their Play help store. In fact, for a brief while I thought Google were giving me the phone, as they didn’t charge me until a day after I signed for it.

So technically it wasn’t a “Google Play” experience, but a “Gooooooooooooooogle Play” experience.

The sheer fact that I had to do this is proof positive that the “Android is free, no walled gardens” hype heard on a daily basis is just that – hyperbole. It’s a rubbish statement uttered by homotechnicals (ahem: fanboys) who don’t have a clue what they’re saying.

Sure, Google provides Android for free. To the device manufacturer.

Sure, Android has no walled gardens. For the device manufacturer.

But at any point before the device hits the end user, the device can be locked down tighter than Great Aunty Bernice the Nun’s panties by anyone along the chain and the user can either suffer it or learn how to become a hacker. That’s not choice, that’s chains.

Apple’s “walled garden” is a simpler lock down, preventing unapproved apps from being installed, but also granting far greater ownership of the device to the end user. When Apple releases an OS update the end user gets to install it on the same day**. For the most part, Android users remain beholden to their telco or their device manufacturer.

The premise

So, before I get bogged down in a long discussion about sophistry, I should come back to my premise: to try another SmartPhone operating system and platform out for a 2 year period. Since I carry two phones*** (work, personal), I’m trialling the alternate platform on my work phone.

I had initially started with Windows Phone on a Lumia 920. Having recently switched back to the 920 for a week before ordering the Nexus, I reconfirmed just what a bad choice Windows 8 Phone is. The tile interface is singularly one of the poorest user interfaces I’ve ever dealt with, and Windows Phone 8 provides internet tethering like TNT provides whale-carcass removal services. (It has two modes: Failed, and barely working.)

Failing the Windows Phone after 6 months of trying to work with it, I moved onto Android via LG. The Optimus G was quite a nice phone, but Telstra locking it down to Android 4.1 left me feeling a bit out in the cold. That’s where the Nexus came along.

By comparison, I feel compelled to mention that my iPhone 5 is now almost 18 months old, is running iOS 7, independent of Telstra, and continues to work flawlessly, other than a consistent refusal on the part of Siri to set my alarm when I say “wake me up before you Go-Go”.

Before I started the Great Experiment, I had been using an iPhone 4 running iOS 6. So I’m now onto my third phone in my quest to achieve the same functionality as an iPhone 4, acquired in June/July 2010. (I’ve still not managed to reach functional equality, as will be explained later.)

The good

Hardware

Without a doubt, the Nexus 5 is a beautiful phone. It’s sleek, slim and despite having a larger screen, feels smaller than the Optimus G (it’s not really) thanks to the incredibly slimline bezel around the left and right sides. They’ve packed an awfully big screen into a comparatively small form factor. I understand the non-Nexus badged LG equivalent uses a bigger screen, but the 4.95 inch screen on the Nexus 5 is about as big as I’d want a phone to get. As I’ve mentioned in the past, even at this size I can’t comfortably operate the phone one-handed as my thumb can’t reach the diagonally opposite edge of the screen.

That being said, it’s a gorgeous phone that feels fresh and modern to hold.

The camera on the Nexus is quite good – none of the over-bright effect from the Optimus G, or the slightly-green cast of the Lumia 920. Its HDR mode is crisp and effective, and while I’ve read complaints that it’s not the fastest SmartPhone camera on the market, I’ve used my Canon EOS M enough recently that I’m satisfied it’s hardly got the slowest shutter speed on the market either.

That being said, it’s curious that they’d stick a ugly-arse IMEI sticker on the back of the phone. I’ve been using the phone for less than a week and it’s already almost rubbed off:

Nexus-IMEI

Aesthetically, I find that unpleasing.

The phone is fast, too. Blazingly fast. Highly responsive and smooth to use. I heard Google have done a lot of optimisation for Android 4.4, so between that and the general hardware specs, it’s a powerhouse of a phone to use.

Owner Info

Both the Optimus G and the Nexus 5 had the facility to set “owner info” text that appears on the lock screen. This may seem trivial, but I find it incredibly handy to insert an “In Case of Emergency” style ICE message for my phone lock screen. I never do it on my iPhone because I have open whatever wallpaper image I’m using in a photo editor, add the text, re-save the image and then apply it.

It’s something I think Apple should add … but rather than calling it “Owner Info”, there should simply be a setting in general preferences for “Lock screen text”. Simple, important and useful, particularly to someone else in an emergency if you’re unable to communicate.

The bad

(Don’t) Back Me Up

I used Google’s backup process, and the subsequent restore process, to switch phones. It was remarkably good at downloading all the Apps I’d downloaded or purchased from the Play store again. It didn’t re-establish home screen details, but to be honest, I didn’t expect that given the wildly variable options for launchers and screen sizes/resolutions.

But I did find it somewhat annoying that not one password was backed up anywhere.

Every app that came back down again was restored naked and without application data. iOS is streets ahead on this front. In fact, not so much streets ahead as a Concorde vs a Steam Train.

In fact, given my actual career is in enterprise backup and recovery, I’ll say this: Google’s Android backup functionality is not a backup at all. It does not deserve the name, and they should stop fibbing to end users.

Do Disturb, Please

Do Not Disturb has been a greatly useful feature for me on iPhone since it was introduced. I thought Android had this by default – there was certainly a notification black-out period on the LG Optimus G/Android 4.1.

Unless I’m blind, this functionality is missing on stock Android 4.4 on the Nexus, which seems a miserly oversight. It’s incredibly useful, and feels silly no longer being present. Instead, I ended up paying for Tasker, an application with one of the most cumbersome UIs I’ve used in quite a while in order to create a black-out period on the phone. Using Eric Raymond’s Aunt Tillie model, Do Not Disturb would be a failure on stock Android 4.4.

Wallpaper vs Lock Screen Wallpaper

Stock Android 4.4 makes no differentiation between phone wallpaper and lock screen wallpaper. One is one and all alone and never more shall be so.

WTAF?

Persistent Notifications

I complained about this on Twitter today and was told it was actually introduced in Android 4.3. A persistent notification is a notification in the notification pull-down arena (including the “You have notifications waiting for you” icons) which the user can’t dismiss.

It looks like you have unused icons on your desktop. Would you like help cleaning them up?

This is such an utterly moronic user interface design that it beggars belief. It’s so bad it’s practically contemptible. Whoever thought this up should be sent to UI design school. Whoever approved it should never be allowed to work with UI design again.

Here’s what I’m talking about: the notifications screen, with a bunch of notifications on it:

Notifications pending dismissal

Notifications pending dismissal

At the top of the screen, the 3-bar movement-effect icon is used to dismiss all notifications. Here’s what things look like for me after I’ve touched that:

Notifications after dismissal

Notifications after dismissal

What’s more, I can’t even manually swipe those notifications to dismiss them. The only way I can dismiss them is to force quit the app.

In short, there’s a vast gulf between a notification and a system information panel, and the two should not be commingled. And whoever thought they should be is clueless.

The ugly

The compromises begin again

On the LG Android 4.1 phone I had a single email client that handled Google Mail, IMAP and Exchange all in one. It had issues (most notably some oddness with the SwiftKey keyboard, which was required due to the default Keyboard on the phone suffering a stuck backspace soft-key), but overall it was actually a fairly functional email client.

On Android 4.4, I’ve ended up with two email clients. Email and Gmail. Double the effort to access mail with an upgrade. What’s more, as I discovered this morning, the default email client for non-Gmail accounts seems to be somewhat limited … since when does anyone design an email client that doesn’t include a “mark as unread” function?

Apparently for Android 4.4 … that’s when.

The results

While I haven’t tried tethering yet (I’ll get to it soon enough), the Nexus 5 is the best non-iPhone I’ve used thus far. And it would want to be, being an examplar of Google’s latest operating system. That being said, it remains a studied exercise in compromises, and while I’ve gained substantial flexibility in moving to a non-telco locked handset, I feel I’ve lost some pretty basic functionality, too.

More than anything it’s proven to me just how fractured and devil-may-care the entire Android experience is compared to something as consistent as iOS.

I’m also unconvinced that after 3 phones I’ve managed to entirely replace the functionality I had on the iPhone 4 which was previously fulfilling the work-phone function. The Nexus 5 brings me as close to it as I’ve achieved, but given that simplistic failure of being unable to mark read messages in Exchange as unread, it’s still a let down by comparison.

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* By 2 failed delivery attempts, I mean twice the driver decided he’d run out of time and didn’t bother to make any delivery attempt to my house at all, despite it being relatively close to the CBD of Melbourne.

** Well, assuming Apple’s activation servers can be reached. Apple really needs to work better at all that “enterprise” stuff.

*** To hook a phone up to the work Exchange servers, I have to agree to the phone being wipeable by the Exchange administrator. I don’t want my personal phone being wipeable remotely by work. Nothing against my employer, I just don’t want that to be able to happen.

2 thoughts on “Great Experiment: Have a break, have a Kit Kat

  1. John

    “*** To hook a phone up to the work Exchange servers, I have to agree to the phone being wipeable by the Exchange administrator. I don’t want my personal phone being wipeable remotely by work. Nothing against my employer, I just don’t want that to be able to happen.”

    This is a feature of the ActiveSync protocol and has nothing to due with android.

    If you configure an exchange account on your iOS device then it can be remote wiped as well.

    1. preston Post author

      Yes, I’m fully aware of that. That’s why I choose to carry two phones, which was the point of my comment. That way my personal phone doesn’t get wiped even if my work phone needs to be – regardless of what operating system either is running.

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