10 Days with Android – First Impressions

I just switched from an iPhone to an Android phone.  Specifically, I was using an iPhone 3G running version 4.2 of the iOS.  The new phone is an Epic 4G running Android 2.1 (Eclair).  Performance is night and day.  I thought I’d share some observations and workarounds that I’ve come across.
My iPhone 3G was so slow that it was almost unusable.  Sometimes, I couldn’t even answer phone calls — repeated swipes on the screen would not pick up the call.  Apps like the calendar and the contacts would take 10+ seconds to open up.  Not very convenient.  The phone was perfectly usable when I got it, but I got greedy and kept updating the OS.   Was cut-and-paste *really* worth it?  Not at all.  Apple gives you no way to downgrade, either.

So I decided that I’d make the switch.  I’d been curious about the Android platform for a while, and truth be told, I’ve missed having a keyboard ever since I switched from Blackberry to iPhone.  I never really liked the on-screen keyboard of the iPhone.  The Epic brought Android, great performance, a pretty damn good keyboard, and a brilliant screen to the table.

I love the display, and I really like the keyboard.  I almost never use the on-screen keyboard on the Epic.  That said, Samsung made some really questionable decisions about the keys.  Common symbols like “/”, “@”, and “:” require function presses, while “,” and SMILEY FACE get dedicated keys.  But that’s a fairly minor point — there aren’t a lot of keys on the keyboard that you could do without.  The top row of numbers really differentiates this keyboard, and I think it makes a big difference.  The arrow keys are also great.  Selecting text with a touchscreen sucks; the arrow keys make correction much easier.

I like the overall UI experience on Android.  I like the way you organize your home screen separate from your application list.  I had lots of apps on the iPhone that didn’t need or deserve space on my home screens, but with the iPhone, you have no choice but to find a spot for every app.  It’s nice to just pull out a few favorites and put them where you want them, either on one of the 7 home screens, or in folders.

Widgets and Live Wallpaper are cool, but I haven’t really found a good use for them yet.  I understand the live wallpaper eats battery, so I’m staying away from them (and they are a bit distracting, anyway).    Widgets eat up too much space onscreen.  But I *do* like the google widget that was on my home screen by default.  I’ve left that there.  Combined with the physical keyboard, I can crank out some very fast searches.

I read a lot about task killers.  Lots of online posters say that a task killer is critical.  I’m not sure that’s the case.  In fact, there are some posters that say that task killers can make your device run worse.  The built-in task manager seems to work just fine for me — just hold down the Home key.

If there’s one thing I’ll say about Android, it’s that the rapid-fire release cycle of Android makes it really hard to find useful tips online.  You never know what version an article is referring to.

I love my SSH client — ConnectBot.  I was able to get my SSH RSA key onto the device by copying it to the SD card (I put the card into a card reader on my MacBook).  I put the key right in the root directory.  ConnectBot won’t see it unless you make it a hidden file by prepending the filename with a “.”.  You could name it “.id_rsa”, for example.   In ConnectBot, hit the menu key, select “Manage Pubkeys”, hit the menu key again, and click “Import”.  Select your hidden key file.  You should see the key show up with a lock icon next to it.  When you want to use it, just tap it to unlock it.  Once you’ve unlocked it, you should be able to open an ssh session without a password.  Nice!

As a former iPhone user, I used the clock/timer/stopwatch app a lot.  Android has the alarm clock piece down pat.  But the timer and stopwatch pieces are missing.  Lucky for us, there’s “Stopwatch & Timer”, a free app from Jupiter Apps (http://jupiterapps.com/).   Very clean interface (with some bonus features not found in the iPhone timer), and it’s not encumbered by annoying ads, like so many free apps in the Android Market.

Another thing I wanted from the phone is more aggressive notification when I miss an SMS or a phone call.  I use the phone while on call, so one litle beep doesn’t cut it.  For this, I use “Missed Reminder” by Denis Solonenko.  It’s free, highly customizable, and once you set your preferences, you don’t have to worry about it.  Thanks, Denis!

I’m big on using RSS on the mobile device.  I looked everywhere for a simple free RSS reader that would just take some feed URLs and provide a nice browsing/reading interface (preferably without ads — can you tell I’m annoyed by ads on the mobile device).  I couldn’t find anything quite like what I was looking for.  Everything wanted to sync with Google Reader.  I finally gave in and set up a Google Reader account and I use the Google Reader app.  It’s not too bad.  It does a lot more than what I’m used to, but I suppose that’s a good thing.

I was very pleased to find that I didn’t have to give up my WiFi remote for my Apple TV.  There are actually Android apps for controlling Apple TV!  There are a number of apps that use DACP to control applications like iTunes and the AppleTV.  I decided on an open-source project called TunesRemote+ (http://code.google.com/p/tunesremote-plus/).  It doesn’t integrate quite as tightly with AppleTV (you can’t create a Genius playlist, for example), but it does a few things better than the Remote app on the iphone: it’s faster to connect (at least on my hardware), and it lets you play a Playlist Folder, playing a mix of all the playlists in the folder.  You can’t do that with the iPhone Remote app, nor can you do it onscreen on Apple TV (although you can in iTunes on your computer).  Anyway, TunesRemote+ is a good start, and seeing as it’s open source, I have high hopes for its future.

Battery life:  I can definitely get 24 hours out of the phone, which is about what I would expect from any smart phone.  I’ve been charging my iPhone daily for 2 1/2 years, so I’m used to it.  A few pointers:

  • manage your radio usage;  when I first started using the Epic, I was overwhelmed by all the radio management tips out there.  But after a few days, you start to get the hang of it.
    • 4G seems to take a lot of power, so I only use it in short bursts; if I’m out somewhere and need to look something up quickly, I’ll flip it on for a few minutes.
    • I leave WiFi on all the time, but I’m in range of a preferred network (either home or work) 90% of the time.  If I were out and saw that my battery was a little low, I’d probably disable the WiFi.
    • GPS is a huge hog.  I never really had to explicitly manage GPS on the iPhone, but you have to watch it on the Android; it can really chew up your battery life.
  • be reasonable with your screen brightness.  Let the device manage it for you
  • don’t update your e-mail any more than you really need to.  I use a 10-minute update.  I think if you select “push”, you’ll pay dearly in battery life.

Games:  I’ve barely scratched the surface looking for games.  I’m very picky, avoiding the games that are ad-supported, and I’m cheap, so I rarely spend money on apps.  That limits the field dramatically on Android.  So far, the only strong recommendations I can make are
  • Lexic – a boggle clone
  • Scrambled Net – a “pipes” style game
  • Frozen Bubble – a bust-a-move type game
All in all, I’m very happy with the new phone.  It’s incredibly responsive and richly featured.  I’m definitely looking forward to the Froyo update.  In a future installment, I’ll cover some things that I don’t like so much.

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