How to buy an Android phone

Recently there was a request for advice on a mailing list I frequent, on how to choose an Android phone from the plethora of offerings out there. Here’s what I had to say on the matter:

1) Because Android is Android, the underlying hardware – and thus the vendor – is a significant differentiator. Pick one with a good track record. My favorite is still HTC, but Samsung and Motorola are turning out good kit as well. Stay out of Motorola’s price basement, though, some of their low-end handsets are best avoided.

2) Staying out of the price basement is in general a good idea. It’s not so much that the low-end phones lack features as that they’re more likely to be afflicted by poor build quality and carrier crapware.

3) Do not buy a phone running an Android variant that has been skinned. If you see “runs MotoBlur” or “runs SenseUI”, avoid. These skins don’t add any value and tend to be flying cover for crapware and promotional tie-ins. Thankfully this is a receding problem and will probably be history by year end.

4) Do give extra consideration to any handset supported by CyanogenMOD. This will guarantee you an upgrade path even if the vendor drags its feet about them.

79 thoughts on “How to buy an Android phone

  1. So far HTC seems to be the most hackable. Motorola has problems with their heavily locked down boot loaders, not to mention that Blur is probably the worst of the custom skins out there. Samsung is a bit more hackable, but if you’re not into custom ROMs, their updates are glacial at best, not to mention their tendency to drop update support for phones in less than a year(Behold II and Moment especially) when something shiny and new comes along. It’s too early to say for LG, but their Optimus One line, despite being at the lower end of the specs spectrum, are solid phones and decently hackable. The default software isn’t too offensive either. I’ve actually got and Optimus V and while it is a slight step down from my old Nexus One, for $150 off contract and $25 a month unlimited text and data with 300 minutes, it’s a hell of a value and not a bad phone to boot.

  2. I would not consider 3 outright during purchase, and would at least give the UI a feel before deciding so. Not all customizations of the UI are horrible.

    From my experience with an SGS, I prefer a lot of Samsung’s TW enhancements in its applications over the AOSP vanilla ones. That’s not to say that AOSP is horrible or anything – just that it should try and port certain good downstream innovations upstream.

  3. The LG Optimus 2X, which is supposed to hit the stores here in April looks interesting. It’s got a dual core processor, and the rest of the specs look good too.
    However, WMC is starting now, so there will be lots of new products announced. I hope some mainstream manufacturer brings out a high spec dual sim smartphone…

  4. A question that has been bothering me; is the upgrade rate from Google to phone, dependent on the carrier, or the handset manufacture?

  5. I’m surprised you’d recommend Motorola at all given their attitude of “If you want to do custom roms, then buy elsewhere, we’ll continue with our strategy that is working thanks”.

  6. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and it seems to me that the user is also a big factor. Specifically, how much of a power user are they?

    For instance, my friend has a Droid 2 and she loves it, but she has no desire for the latest updates and/or enhancements. An upgrade to Gingerbread isn’t even on her radar. Meanwhile, I have a Samsung Vibrant and I’ve been positively squirrelly waiting for the upgrade from 2.1 to Froyo.

    HTC has the best track record for updates as far as I can see, and I would have been better off with an HTC phone or a Google Dev phone. But I think my friend would have been quite happy with my Samsung.

  7. >If you want to do custom roms, then buy elsewhere,

    Spoken like someone who has no idea how much of a pain in the ass it would be to try to support that.

  8. >Staying out of the price basement is in general a good idea.

    Couldn’t agree more.

  9. With all the “smart phones” I do not understand why they have not invented a phone that won’t ring when you get junk calls. I would like it to give the caller a busy signal or a message that the line has been disconnected. (talking home phones mostly). I want the phone to ring ONLY if the people I call regularly call me everyone else gets a busy signal. Such a useful app/ idea but no one has created it. Surely I’m not the only person who resents that damned phone. I didn’t get the thing so everyone in the world could try to sell me shit…

  10. I would love to see an HTC or Samsung Android phone the size of the new HP Veer, but with a horizontal keyboard, or sans keyboard. I think that form factor is a completely unexploited market.

  11. I am ready to ditch the IP4.
    It is very confusing when entering the Android market.
    I do not follow the dessert wars so I have a hard time following the releases.
    Why are the releases not the same across all phones and carriers?
    Do I need to wait for a specific release to get the best “phone”? Will it be released by my carrier?
    So far, everything I have read about droid phones assume that you have one. It’s like trying to join a conversation about a book you haven’t read.
    frustrating

  12. With all the “smart phones” I do not understand why they have not invented a phone that won’t ring when you get junk calls. I would like it to give the caller a busy signal or a message that the line has been disconnected.

    My “stupid” phone supports both custom ringtones and “ringback” tones keyed to the individual who is calling me. (If you are unfamiliar with the terminology, the former is what I hear when they call me, the latter is what the caller hears.)

    Knowing this, most of you can anticipate the hack to implement your plan:

    0) Find a phone that supports user-created ringtones and ringback tones.
    1) Create a ringtone that does not actually make any sound at all.
    2) Create a ringback tone that says the line has been disconnected.
    3) Make these the default tones for all callers
    4) Assign other tones to the Contact Groups defined in your phone (e.g. Personal, Business, and whatever user-defined groups you create).

    Of course, this means that any of your friends who need to call you when their cell phone isn’t getting any bars at all can’t manually dial your number from someone else’s phone and get you to answer. Sucks to be them.

  13. With all the “smart phones” I do not understand why they have not invented a phone that won’t ring when you get junk calls.

    That’s odd. I just checked on my Evo, and there’s no way to assign a ringtone to calls without caller ID. Every feature phone I’ve ever owned has this capability, but not my Evo.

    OTOH, there is an app for that! “Caller Identification App” and several others are available from the Android Market and they’ll screen out calls not in your contacts list.

  14. Why are the releases not the same across all phones and carriers?

    Different phones come out at different times. I recommend that you go to a wireless carrier’s store (Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint) and ask them. If they don’t know, you can always check phones for yourself: just go into Settings -> About Phone -> Software Information.

    Most wireless stores have the phones on display for you to try them out before you buy them.

  15. “OTOH, there is an app for that! “Caller Identification App” and several others are available from the Android Market and they’ll screen out calls not in your contacts list.”

    Sounds like this filters out possibly important calls from new contacts. Unlike a email spam filter which can analyze the “spammi-ness” of an email by analyzing the header and the email content, calls don’t have any data attached to them (other than the caller-id) to block spam calls. Maybe a feature which enables you to blacklist a number in a central repository would help.

  16. Maybe a feature which enables you to blacklist a number in a central repository would help.

    You can do that with your contacts. Just set “Send to Voicemail” for each unwanted caller. Since the contacts links to your Gmail contacts, you could probably write an app that imports known phone spammers from a central repository and marks them all as “Send to voicemail”. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t already an app for that in the Market.

  17. @GoneWithTheWind

    I would like it to give the caller a busy signal or a message that the line has been disconnected. (talking home phones mostly).

    Many voip providers let you do just that. For example, Callcentric has what they call “call treatments.” It allows you to route an incoming call to a different phone, send it to voicemail, send it to one of two error messages (one of which is “number disconnected”), or send it to a busy signals. You can determine this based on the callers phone number, your phone’s status, etc. You can set up as many call filters as you like and order them in any priority you choose.

  18. Mad props to the folks at CyanogenMod. I’m happily running Android 2.2 on an old T-Mobile G1 (HTC Dream) thanks to them. Yes, it runs a bit on the slow side, but it sure beats having to stick with Android 1.6 until my contract runs out next year!

    Mobile today is like desktop computers in the 1990′s, where it only took a matter of months for the new kit you just bought to become completely obsolete.

  19. Number 4 is especially important because part of number 1 is incorrect. You say: “Because Android is Android, the underlying hardware – and thus the vendor – is a significant differentiator.”.

    Work bought a bunch of HTC Droid Incredibles from Verizon for us. I was excited because my previous phone was the HTC Nexus One purchased directly from Google.

    It’s a huge disappointment. HTC did a ton of tweaking to Android. The dialer and weather app suck compared to stock Android. There are several apps that are included that are unremovable. One matches up area codes to cities and displays that when a call comes in. Not a bad app until you realize you can’t uninstall it and it and it constantly asks for you to pay for it. Skype is force-installed too among others.

    About the only good thing in the HTC dialer that doesn’t appear to be in stock Android is the ‘link’ button. It allows you to link contacts from different accounts. If I have ‘Joe Blow’ in my phone book because of an Exchange sync and ‘J Blow’ because of a Facebook sync, I can link the two together and it merges all the information. Other than that, the software experience is *terrible*.

    Thank God I can flash.

    The rest of number 1 is totally correct. The HTC Droid Incredible has the worlds worst camera. If you hit the picture or video button before it’s finished focusing, you can a blurry picture or blurry video. It also has no charging contacts anywhere on the phone–so you can’t use a car dock or desktop dock…unless you like docking you phone, then reaching over (while driving) and fumbling with a USB connector. Weak.

    As soon as Verizon goes 4G, I’m switching back to my Nexus One. So far, no other phone I’ve seen beats it. (I really want to get a good look at the HTC Evo though…looks like it might beat the Nexus One)

  20. Aaron C. de Bruyn:

    Agreed 100%. I got the HTC Hero about a year ago. It was my first Android and I didn’t know what exactly I was getting into. The Sense UI sucks, and the phone was slow as balls until I installed DarchDroid (and later, CM6). Not even upgrading to Android 2.1 produced an appreciable improvement in the experience.

    HTC is a great company — the sort of Taiwanese electronics shop that specializes in cranking out good, cheap hardware that we want to see more of. But their attempts to brand-distinguish with the ridonkulous Sense UI are unwelcome and unwarranted, reminiscent of the garbage that Dell and HP add to Windows computers to distinguish them like Macs. Only Apple can get away with that shit because that’s their bread ‘n’ butter.

    I’m now a proud Samsung Epic 4G owner (though I still keep the Hero around as a dev phone). Sprint still puts NASCAR crap-ola on it, but the skinning is considerably less and the phone is incredibly fast even without the benefit of Android 2.2. I have cracked root on this phone, but I haven’t yet put a custom ROM on it (waiting for CM6.2 with Epic support).

  21. With all the “smart phones” I do not understand why they have not invented a phone that won’t ring when you get junk calls.

    I like Sprint, their data/voice plan is the cheapest around. However, you pay for it in other ways: occasionally, maybe once every few weeks, they will try to call you and upsell you another line or additional services. It’d be cool to have an Android app that filters that out. Of course with stock FW they would probably specifically ban that app.

  22. I’m now a proud Samsung Epic 4G owner (though I still keep the Hero around as a dev phone). Sprint still puts NASCAR crap-ola on it, but the skinning is considerably less and the phone is incredibly fast even without the benefit of Android 2.2.

    Really? I just saw the Samsung Epic 4G yesterday at my local Sprint store, and I was not impressed with the skinning. I thought it was worse than the Sense UI they throw on the Evo.

    Interestingly, the crapware pre-installed on the Evo has decreased since the phone was released in June. My wife’s Evo had the NASCAR crapware on it, but the Evo 4G I just got for work doesn’t have it.

  23. However, you pay for it in other ways: occasionally, maybe once every few weeks, they will try to call you and upsell you another line or additional services.

    You can opt out of that by telling the telemarketing firm that calls you (which is not Sprint) to add you to their do-not-call list. If that fails, call Sprint customer service and complain.

  24. With all the “smart phones” I do not understand why they have not invented a phone that won’t ring when you get junk calls.

    One of my favorite features of webOS (and one of the main reasons I’m sad it doesn’t have a bright long-term future) is that the entire UI is written in HTML+JS. There are patches that customize pretty much everything, and I think I saw one that lets you whitelist incoming calls. (Mine’s used for business, so I use blacklisting.)

  25. GoneWithTheWind Says: > With all the “smart phones” I do not understand why they have not invented a phone that won’t ring when you get junk calls. I would like it to give the caller a busy signal or a message that the line has been disconnected. (talking home phones mostly). I want the phone to ring ONLY if the people I call regularly call me everyone else gets a busy signal.

    Err, Ericsson P990i (ca. 2006) will optionally only ring if the caller is in your address book, or (even more restrictively) if the caller is in your speed dial list.

    I am beginning to wonder if the discussion here is not about `smart phones’ == work phones, but rather `smart phones’ == some sort of consumer entertainment product.

  26. I am thinking of getting my first smartphone, though with prices falling and capabilities increasing I think I will wait until later in 2011. I free admit that I am fairly ignorant in this space, much more so than most of the posters on this blog.

    Unfortunately, at current prices the “price basement” is exactly where I would be shopping. I would be looking for a phone in the $150 – $250 range with no contract and the cheapest plan I could find that included data; either prepaid or low-monthly-fee. I’ve considered the T-Mobile Comet (GSM), Samsung Intercept (Sprint/Virgin Mobile only), and LG GW620 (GSM).

    The Comet seems to cover the basics and comes with unskinned Froyo, though it lacks a keyboard and has a small screen. The Intercept comes with 2.2 and keyboard, and is available for Virgin Mobile, which is the cheapest monthly service. The LG GW620 comes with a keyboard and Android 1.5, but CyanogenMOD has released a 2.2 port. Its screen is resistive, not capacitive. Of these, the GW620 seems to be the most hackable and has an active development community. (However, based on its age and out-of-stock/disappearance from sellers, it may be about to be disco’ed.)

    Any suggestions on a phone in this pricing/feature space? Or wait and watch prices fall and capabilities rise?

    When the $200 Android-based Wifi tablets start becoming available, that will be really tempting too…

  27. Cathy,

    I’ve read that the Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V for $149 is actually quite good for the price, if you want to save fifty bucks. It’s also 2.2. Some say it’s even better than the Samsung Intercept.

    Yours,
    Tom

  28. Interesting discussion. For my needs the HTC EVO shall be sufficiently future-proofed, particularly given that I now have a Motorola i580 which is off-contract with Sprint/Nextel. (My calling plan is grandfathered; Sprint doesn’t offer 200 minute plans any more, and on average I use 80 minutes per month.) Of course it’s Fred Flintstone’s dumb phone, but I always a) go a long way between upgrades and b) buy up to a certain sturdy level of quality. I do my research, and I don’t suffer from buyer’s remorse. By late March I’ll probably be attached to Facebook by the hip, even if it becomes like unto Geocities and FidoNet within the year. All I really need is telephony, Internet access, and a shitty camera for insurance eventualities, savvy? I.e., something that’ll still be chugging along in whatever ecosystem develops.

  29. Cathy: The problem with the price basement is that it will tend to remain the price basement. The electronics inside the crappy phones will improve, the processors faster, more RAM, etc, but the way the crappy phones will save on price between now and a year from now won’t change: Crappy phones will have displays designed to be just barely good enough for most people and touch screens designed for people who don’t really use them and don’t know what they are missing, junky speakers, etc. The best electronics values are almost always at least “low-mid market”.

    Oh, and a phenomenal ability to take what ought to be performant electronics and extract a jumpy, high-latency experience out of them. The ability of the low-market to consistently deliver that level of performance across multiple order-of-magnitude difference in hardware performance over the decades has never ceased to amaze me. Even the crappiest Android of 2012 would blow my first computer away but it’ll still run like the exact same dog of an entry-level machine from that era.

  30. @Jeremy Bowers: “The problem with the price basement is that it will tend to remain the price basement. The electronics inside the crappy phones will improve, the processors faster, more RAM, etc, but the way the crappy phones will save on price between now and a year from now won’t change: Crappy phones will have displays designed to be just barely good enough for most people and touch screens designed for people who don’t really use them and don’t know what they are missing, junky speakers, etc. The best electronics values are almost always at least ‘low-mid market’”.

    My hope is that a year or so from now, $200 – 250 *WILL* be mid-market, with the low end down at $100.

    The issue for me is that I have doubts how much I will actually use the smartphone features. Consequently, I don’t want to spend too much. Once I get a smartphone, if I find myself using it heavily I’ll be willing to pay more for my next phone.

    To give you some idea of how far behind the curve I am, my hubby and I currently use a 5-year old Samsung dumb phone on the Verizon network, and a TracPhone that I keep around as a spare when hubby has the Samsung. I don’t even have texting enabled on these phones, and we use them very few minutes per month.

    In some ways I define the market of potential smartphone customers who haven’t felt the need to get one quite yet, though I’m certainly more geeky than typical. For example, I’d have no qualms about flashing an upgraded OS version on my phone.

    Yes, I’m one of those ultra-frugal types who currently has zero debt, despite having just lived through the greatest debt binge in history. I won’t be offended if you call me cheap. :-)

  31. I agree with your choice of HTC. They are a very progress company who are developing a top range of Android handsets aimed at the mid range and top end of the market.

  32. Re: price basement. My wife and I bought Motorola Droids last April, just as the Droid X (or 2, or some such upgrade) was being announced. As a result, Verizon had dropped the price on the Droid to $100 each, while the new one was going to be at the $200 price point. Since I don’t have the need to have the absolutely latest tech, this is a pretty good route for me – I get something that was high-end a few months ago, for the price of low-end tech.

  33. >I’m surprised you’d recommend Motorola at all given their attitude of “If you want to do custom roms, then buy elsewhere, we’ll continue with our strategy that is working thanks”.

    Last I checked, e-fuse is present in Motorola phones but not actually enabled. The CyanogenMOD people have developed rooting techniques and installation images for several models.

  34. I’m currently living in the Land Down Under where women glow and the telcos suck even more than in the US.

    Where I’m currently living (Alice Springs) you have two “real” choices in cell phone providers–Telstra, who currently owns almost all the infrastructure, and Optus, who have a few towers.

    Now you can *buy* stuff from Virgin Mobile (which is a real joke–you buy them you’re fucked) and one other provider.

    But other than Telstra you’re limited to certain parts of town, or you’re roaming on Telstra towers–and if htat happens your service is seriously degraded. You go “out bush” and it’s even worse.

    Funnily enough my requirements for a phone are 1) work as many places as possible. 2) Have something like a keyboard for sending about 10 txts a month. 3) Have a moderately flexible alarm clock.

    Yeah, seriously. My last phone was a Nokia E71 with a nice alarm clock that got me out of bed and to work on time for a year in Baghdad, and then whenever I needed at home. This is not something to laugh at. I don’t need a “geek dildo” as some call it, but I need a functional alarm clock that doesn’t suck.

    Unfortunately Telstra pre-paid doesn’t have a Nokia E or N series in stock, so I wound up with a Samsung Galaxy 5. So far the alarm clock is as functional as I needed it to be. Since I work in a scif I can’t carry it into the building, and because Telstra makes Verizon look competent and caring, I haven’t managed to refill it yet, so I don’t know how well the phone works.

    However: The touch screen is small (which is really ok with me, takes up less room in the pocket) but it’s capacitive, so it’s responsive and doesn’t require a lot of effort.

    I’m not in love with the interface, but it’s reasonably easy to figure stuff out (caveat–I’m a Unix/Linux/VMware administrator, I figure out shit for a living) and while there’s a lot of Telstra cruft in there, the main features I need–the phone and the alarm clock–seem to work ok.

    The phone is locked to Telstra, but supposedly after about $60 AUD worth of refills they’ll unlock it for free if asked.

    For $199, GST included, that’s not *bad*.

  35. Jeremy Bowers,

    Part of that is an architectural issue with Android. In Android, all UI compositing is done in software; the GPU is never used for UI. With GPU-equipped phones passing into the middle or low ends, that means these phones are slower and burn more battery life than they need to.

    By contrast, the iPhone did GPU compositing since its 2007 release.

  36. Part of that is an architectural issue with Android. In Android, all UI compositing is done in software; the GPU is never used for UI. With GPU-equipped phones passing into the middle or low ends, that means these phones are slower and burn more battery life than they need to.

    [citation needed] I very much doubt that’s the case. Compositing on my Evo is way too fast and smooth to be done in software on the phone. Additionally, I’ve heard otherwise elsewhere.

  37. >Additionally, I’ve heard otherwise elsewhere.

    That link was quite illuminating. I felt pretty sure this this no-hardware-acceleration-on-Android thing couldn’t be true, because it’s too obvious an optimization target on the hardware these phones are using…but it’s nice to hear “The Android compositing engine [...] supporting full 3d hardware acceleration of window compositing and transformation.” from someone who’s clearly been down in there hacking.

  38. Isn’t “supporting” different from “using” though? The rest of that email chain seems to imply that while the support is there (or at least in some places) that the default behavior is not to use it and that better support is “coming soon”. Of course that chain is also 2 years old, so obviously things could have changed in the mean time.

  39. “Android 3.0 offers a new hardware-accelerated OpenGL renderer that gives a performance boost to many common graphics operations for applications running in the Android framework. When the renderer is enabled, most operations in Canvas, Paint, Xfermode, ColorFilter, Shader, and Camera are accelerated. Developers can control how hardware-acceleration is applied at every level, from enabling it globally in an application to enabling it in specific Activities and Views inside the application.”

    http://developer.android.com/sdk/android-3.0-highlights.html

  40. Hm, now this comment is interesting. Can it be that the reason I haven’t seen the overall lagginess some complain of is because the first thing I did was turn off live wallpaper?

    (I replaced it with a favorite astronomical photograph.)

  41. > Can it be that the reason I haven’t seen the overall lagginess some complain of is because the first thing I did was turn off live wallpaper?

    I considered that when checking out phones over the weekend, but I saw no different in performance between the G2 w/ live wallpaper vs. the Evo Shift without. Both were nice and smooth. The Evo also had no live wallpaper but was laggy. Very strange.

  42. I’m wondering if I don’t know what people mean by lagginess.
    Can someone enumerate a simple test that i can perform on my Milestone?

    I do sharp(fast back and forth) movements on my app menu and everything works as i would expect (my finger movements match to scrolling movements).

  43. I have an Evo 4G sitting in front of me right now. I have not ever seen any lagginess whatsoever, with or without the “live” wallpapers. The only thing out of the ordinary I have done to the phone is install an automated task killer to conserve battery life. The phone is not rooted, there is no alternate firmware, nothing. (At least not yet.) I also turn off the radios I am not using at at the time (4G, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS).

    But like I said, I don’t see it. The phone is fast and smooth. It even handles high-quality video on YouTube well.

  44. @Morgan:
    > But like I said, I don’t see it. The phone is fast and smooth.

    I really think the Evo demo I played with had been mishandled in some way; it didn’t make any sense that it was running Froyo same as the others but seemed to perform worse.

    @JonB:
    The test I was using was to find any screen that involved a lot of vertical scrolling, like a large contacts list, a web page, or the applications menu if enough apps are installed. If you do a quick flick, trying to cover as much ground as possible, does it stay at a nice, smooth ~>30FPS, or does it jitter a bit with frame loss?

    I’ve seen it jitter pretty bad on my housemate’s droid, and a little less but still visible on a friend’s Galaxy S. It was noticeable on the Evo I tested, and not at all on the G2/Evo Shift.

  45. >I’ve seen it jitter pretty bad on my housemate’s droid, and a little less but still visible on a friend’s Galaxy S. It was noticeable on the Evo I tested, and not at all on the G2/Evo Shift.

    Oddly, I never see lag or jitter on web pages or video. Only something that might be lag on my apps page. I’m not even sure of that; I may have the interface’s gesture set wrong.

  46. The test I was using was to find any screen that involved a lot of vertical scrolling, like a large contacts list, a web page, or the applications menu if enough apps are installed. If you do a quick flick, trying to cover as much ground as possible, does it stay at a nice, smooth ~>30FPS, or does it jitter a bit with frame loss?

    Ok thats a simple enough test.

    Using the app menu I swipe up (or down) as far as i can. This results in it scrolling to the bottom (or top). In 10 scrolls I saw no loss of frames. The scrolling is smooth and constant.

    *shrug* maybe it’s cos my Milestone was bought without benefit of carrier.

  47. I also turn off the radios I am not using at at the time (4G, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS).

    How do you turn off 4G? Do you use “Use only 2G networks” or do you have an app that actually shuts down the data “radio”? (or did they add another option between 2.1 and whatever it is you’re running…)

  48. @Aaron C. de Bruyn February 13th, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    About the only good thing in the HTC dialer that doesn’t appear to be in stock Android is the ‘link’ button. It allows you to link contacts from different accounts.

    This feature is present in the (stock) Android 2.2 on my Nexus One. While editing a contact in the phone book, you can join it with another contact.

  49. I have a desktop widget that does it, which is installed by default on the Evo. However, you can do the same thing by going into Settings -> Wireless & networks and unchecking 4G. The desktop widget is way easier, though.

  50. The problem I’m having in selecting a device is finding a functional Exchange client.

    The Android stock client is missing fundamental functionality (you can’t move messages to folders? Really?); the aftermarket clients are either missing other core features (K9: no invitation support, etc.) or are complete usability-fail (Touchdown.)

    In an odd twist, it appears that some of the manufacturer replacements for the stock email client are actually better (Motorola’s “email”, HTC’s “work email”) — but they’re too preoccupied telling me about their Facebook integration to clearly lay out a functionality grid for their email client. Combine that with the challenges of evaluating/switching in the US carrier market, and it’s nearly impossible to make a buying decision.

  51. Thanks for all the hard comments, and a hard OP to lead them.

    I suspect I may be buying a new phone myself. A few years ago I got T-Mobil’s Sidekick, and while it was really cool in the day, it’s not improved appreciably, to the point that the ‘Droids have overtaken it. One part of the activation energy I’d need would be confidence that I could pick a worthy successor. I sure hope I can find this thread again when I finally get a round tuitt.

  52. OK. I bought an EVO 4G last night. First order of business was rooting, then making various rom backups and dumping cyanogenmod on it. Lots of tinkering, making of more recovery roms, etc etc. Then, I reflashed to Sense, and now I can report on performance as I see it, with an iPhone4 right next to it.

    No background applications are running, no live wallpaper, no widgets other than the antenna on/off widgets Morgan mentioned. I loaded the browser on both phones, and went to my usual test site, sinfest.net (the first webcomic I started reading, some 11 years ago). I zoomed in, and tested scrolling around.

    The iPhone4 wins out on smoothness by a huge margin. I mean, noticeably so. The iPhone is smooth as silk on scrolling and zooming, where the EVO is slightly choppy. I would guess it’s scrolling and zooming at an inconsistent 18 to 23 FPS, sometimes higher or lower. I’m not sure it’s something I would notice if I weren’t a very-FPS-aware ex-film person and didn’t have an iPhone4 right next to it to compare.

    This is really just browser-related, but the bitmap interpolation when zooming is much cleaner on iPhone, which I assume is due to HW vs. SW rendering.

    I will perform a similar test w/ cyanogen mod at a later time, when I feel like flashing back to it. It doesn’t support the 4G or HDMI yet, and that is only just irksome enough to make me stick with sense for the time being.

    All that said, Android, whether sense or stocker, completely blows iOS out of the water in terms of features and usability, IMO. When I looked at my work iPhone after playing with my new Evo, I suddenly felt very constrained and walled-in just looking at the iOS UI. This is probably not something a regular person would notice or feel, but it’s pretty strong on my psyche.

  53. >All that said, Android, whether sense or stocker, completely blows iOS out of the water in terms of features and usability, IMO.

    I’d like to hear more about this. Can you list feature and usability advantages?

  54. @esr:
    > I’d like to hear more about this. Can you list feature and usability advantages?

    Hm, ok. I’ll cover some givens, and then give my thoughts.

    iOS’s Springboard UI is a multi-page grid of icons that fills left-to-right, top-to-bottom. Icons can be re-arranged within the grid, but not placed arbitrarily, e.g. you cannot have blank squares between icons. An omnipresent dock of icons exists at the bottom of the screen. Icons, representing apps, can be moved around (to and from the dock as well) and/or deleted by first pressing and holding a given icon until the user enters editing mode. Pressing the home button exits editing mode.

    The Springboard displays all available applications to the user, page-by-page. Organization is limited, pre-iOS 4, to placing icons on the dock or placing icons on different pages. iOS 4 introduces a new icon sub-type, essentially a folder, into which more icons can be dragged to and from.

    The single home button, in iOS 4, when pressed ONCE, brings up a “Search iPhone” dialog. When double-pressed, it shifts the UI up and places at the bottom a kind of task-switcher, listing recently-used apps, 4 at a time, on multiple pages sorted left-to-right. The first page to the LEFT is an audio control panel (prev, next, play, pause). Prior to iOS 4, double-pressing home would only bring up an audio-control panel.

    Barring fiddly details about UI when working with folders and such, this is the extent of the base iOS UI. Widgets are right out. All kosher data-transfer tasks with iOS must occur through iTunes.

    How Android is Similar:

    Android presents a grid of icons, which can be organized into multiple pages. Pressing and holding an icon allows the user to move the icon to another grid position. Stocker Android has a three-icon dock at the bottom of the screen, however I did not attempt to add icons to it, so I do not know if it is possible to modify it.

    Folders can be added to the grid, a la iOS 4, with similar functionality.

    How Android is Different:

    Whereas Springboard in iOS lists ALL apps, the ‘desktop’ UI of Android shows only icons placed there from the “All Apps” menu, so that the grid acts more like a very large dock. Icons can be placed arbitrarily in the grid, however unlike Springboard, icons will not auto-sort themselves if you attempt to move one icon over another, so the user must manually juggle icons to get a desired arrangement, an obvious trade-off for the extra flexibility.

    The desktop accepts any number of widgets of varying functionality, though these widgets act as same-class citizens to icons; pressing and holding will allow the user to move or re-size the widget as needed. Icons and widgets cannot overlap.

    Pressing the top of the screen and dragging down will reveal a notifications screen. The screen can be pulled down part-way and held for a quick glance, or pulled down the entire screen to stay ‘on top’.

    The four buttons at the bottom of the device act similarly to the iPhone home button, but notable are the Menu and Back buttons. Menu presents a simple context-sensitive menu for the ‘focused’ application, and Back returns the user to the previous screen in a tree of dialogs. Additional functionality can be added to any of the four buttons, depending on the firmware being run.

    Connecting a USB cable allows the user to mount the internal storage to a connected computer. All data transfers occur in this way; no special software is required, so long as the operating system supports USB storage.

    I think that covers the bases. I may have missed a detail or two, but that is everything major I’ve found in the last 12 hours of dickering with my new toy. I intentionally leave out anything app-specific.

    Now, here’s my thoughts. I have both phones on my desk in front of me. Special consideration should be taken, in that the EVO 4G (Supersonic) has a giant 4.3″ screen, the iPhone 4 does not, and screen size can have a large psychological effect. Anyway, keep in mind there is a potential bias there and in the EVO 4G being my new fun plaything.

    What strikes me most, between the two interfaces, is the icon handling. iOS did a good thing in 2007, and showed everyone how a mobile device UI should be as simple as possible. But, by 2010 with iOS 4, I think it’s starting to heavily, heavily drag. The inflexible grid arrangement is killer, the icon wall gives me claustrophobic jitters, and re-arranging to have multiple pages with fewer icons would cause the overall look to be unbalanced, with too many icons at the tops of the screen. The grid itself is also too packed, adding to the above unease. The dock is still effective, but that was proven good in the early 90s anyway. The iPhone feels utterly utilitarian. When navigating through apps, especially dialog/menu heavy apps, I find my fingers tending too much towards the top of the screen to go back and forth between menus, which my thumbs don’t much care for.

    The single home button worked fine before, but with added functionality it is becoming borderline obtuse and a little too modal.

    The winningest point in Android for me is the home screen flexibility. I can arrange my home view to be only as complex as I need, with icons on the screen where they are most convenient or visually-pleasing to me. The icons are widely-spaced, giving my eyes more breathing room. Moving icons around is not the modal interface it is on iOS, which confused me for several seconds when I was learning iOS two years ago. And hell, I’m a vi user, I like modal interfaces.

    Now, ‘customizability’ may seem a pretty trite thing. But, I was playing around just now with some of HTC Sense’s “scenes,” which are just pre-built home screen arrangements. One of them is ‘Work,’ which when selected made my EVO’s UI have a very Blackberry-ish feel.

    This is where I think there is a huge psychological win in Android that is almost impossible to pick up on when demo’ing at a store. It is not specifically the features themselves, the selection of widgets or apps, but the ability to easily build a user-optimal arrangement. I only fully detected it when I went back to my iPhone and the constrained UI hit me like a concrete wall. I can’t help but wonder if, when people get used to that level of personalized functionality, they look at an iPhone and only see things they CAN’T do, rather than things they CAN.

    And then, once you get that stack of Enlightenment-level chrome and glitz with live wallpapers, widgets, apps and so on, it ends up being a very stunning, and endearingly pleasant and useful experience, made even better by the ease of migrating data (via USB for photos/music/whatever, via Google for contacts and whatnot).

    As for the rest; Android feels very, very polished to me, at this point. Both HTC Sense and stocker, in fact. iOS seems to still have the slight lead on UI responsiveness and smoothness, but everything else about it feels genuinely clunky.

    This only covers some of my thoughts, the ones I can put solid words on. There’s a whole lot more that can be said about the interface buttons too (some good, some less so mostly due to mental paradigm shifts), but I’ve put off work long enough today and should probably actually do my job a little.

  55. All that said, Android, whether sense or stocker, completely blows iOS out of the water in terms of features and usability, IMO. When I looked at my work iPhone after playing with my new Evo, I suddenly felt very constrained and walled-in just looking at the iOS UI. This is probably not something a regular person would notice or feel, but it’s pretty strong on my psyche.

    Probably because you’re a geek. I know I felt straitjacketed by the UI of Finder on Mac OS 9 and earlier. That’s because I’m a geek who had already grown — and learned to make use of — the additional neurons it takes to understand and work with abstract files and directories on abstract storage media, so th However, the old spatial Finder provides to ordinary folks the capability to do the same thing, using the cognitive apparatus for space and location that they already have and as such is essential from an ease-of-use-for-ordinary-folks standpoint.

  56. Oh, for Android, I forgot to add the press-and-hold function on the home screen. If not on a icon, it will bring up a context menu for the home screen, allowing you to add shortcuts, widgets, change the wallpaper, etc.

    Just want to add that for completeness. I could go on about the basic usage paradigms that stay consistent across the main UI, but I’ll spare everyone that diatribe, and it doesn’t really differentiate Android much from iOS anyway.

  57. > Probably because you’re a geek.

    Yes. I thought that was implicit, especially with my ‘regular person’ comment.

    My write-up above actually helped solidify a lot of my gestating thoughts. Makes me think Apple really needs to stop resting on its laurels and get back to innovating the UI again, because iOS as it stands is starting to feel ugly and dated.

  58. >The inflexible grid arrangement is killer, the icon wall gives me claustrophobic jitters

    Interesting. At my Friday night gaming group I actually had a guy I know by sight sit down next to me and start bitching about his iPhone – dunno why, except maybe he saw my G-2 in use. I noticed that the wall of icons looked kind of crowded and oppressive as he was demoing something else – ah, that’s it, he was complaining that a lot of the apps are things he doesn’t want that aren’t removable.

    I guess Apple needs to catch up with Android a bit in quality of user experience, there.

  59. > Probably because you’re a geek. I know I felt straitjacketed by the UI of Finder on Mac OS 9 and earlier.

    I don’t think so. An awful lot of people are used to the highly customizable Windows desktop who are not geeks like me. The notification bar at the top of my Epic is really useful and very intuitive – even though it is not like anything on the Windows desktop. The widgets can be very useful. I love the Samsung one that tells me I’ve left something running (and consuming battery). My wife, who is very tired of new user interfaces to the point that she is becoming techohostile rather than technophiliac or technophobic, likes Windows widgets. She also really likes her Palm Pre, but occasionally misses a call because of interface mistakes.

    Yours,
    Tom

  60. @jsk has NAILED the feeling I have in usability differences between iOs and Android/senseUI. But, I can see how the iOs experience would appeal to some people.

    (Also reminded me about the Scenes in senseUI – that’s a functionality I should take advantage of)

  61. @esr:
    > I guess Apple needs to catch up with Android a bit in quality of user experience, there.

    I’m not sure catching up will do them good, at this point. What they pulled with the original iPhone was something of a coup, a very zen ‘forget everything you know’ deal. And they kept it simple, made it work, and did it so well that Android got a huge overhaul to keep the pace. Now that the students have imprinted the lessons on their spleens, they’re actively pushing and building, whereas Apple just keeps repeating the same mantras. I almost, but not quite, get the feeling that the original iOS release was a fluke. They don’t seem to know what to do with it anymore, spouting bullet-point tech features as ‘innovation’ instead.

    We’ll see what a potential iOS 5 brings to the table this summer perhaps, but it seems like they’re reaching the end of their rope with the current design. Time will tell.

  62. >I almost, but not quite, get the feeling that the original iOS release was a fluke.

    I don’t think so; Apple has a long tradition of doing UI well. What you may be pointing it is that Apple’s house style has reached its sell-by date.

  63. > What you may be pointing it is that Apple’s house style has reached its sell-by date.

    Yes, that’s essentially what I’m driving at, at least for iOS.

  64. The iPhone4 wins out on smoothness by a huge margin. I mean, noticeably so. The iPhone is smooth as silk on scrolling and zooming, where the EVO is slightly choppy. I would guess it’s scrolling and zooming at an inconsistent 18 to 23 FPS, sometimes higher or lower. I’m not sure it’s something I would notice if I weren’t a very-FPS-aware ex-film person and didn’t have an iPhone4 right next to it to compare.

    You’re talking about the occassional “hiccup”? If not too much is going on, my Evo gets somewhere near 30 FPS. Mind you any hiccups are barely perceptible. If that’s what OS X mean by “superior UX” they can keep it. These are are a result not just of garbage collection and other activities, but also understand that Android allows arbitrary multitasking of apps. Even though iOS4 allows multtasking of apps, apps have to be especially written to do multitasking. No such requirement exists on Android.

  65. >If that’s what OS X mean by “superior UX” they can keep it.

    Apple fans counting on these animation hiccups to preserve iOS’s market share from Android encroachment are, I fear, doomed to disappointment. Frame rates on all devices are going to rise as the speed/power product of the CPUs drops. It might well be that Google has made a strategic decision not to micro-optimize for this fioguring that hardware will deliver improvements here faster than software can.

  66. @jsk
    “would guess it’s scrolling and zooming at an inconsistent 18 to 23 FPS, sometimes higher or lower. I’m not sure it’s something I would notice if I weren’t a very-FPS-aware ex-film person and didn’t have an iPhone4 right next to it to compare.”

    I am sure there are videophiles like there are audiophiles. Most people could hardly care less about the limits of 16 bit 44.1 kHz audio quality. And I think the same is true for FPS issues. But if you really want to take this to the test, try out the following “inferior” sub $100 Android Tablet. If you are right, this should end as complete fail in the market. Personally, I think it will be a hit if only half of the review is true..

    Archos 28: A Very Affordable Android Pocket Tablet Computer
    http://www.junauza.com/2011/02/android-pocket-tablet-computer.html

    Posted by jun auza On 2/10/2011
    Some consider the Archos 28 as the first Wi-Fi connected Android device that has a price tag of less than $100. But I disagree (See: Affordable Android-powered iPad-like Tablet Computers). Anyway, this pocket-sized tablet computer and media comes with a 2.8-inch slim touch screen display and a wide range of features such as video and photo applications, high speed processor for fast Internet browsing, 3D games, and thousands of downloadable Android applications in the AppsLib.

  67. @esr
    >Apple fans counting on these animation hiccups to preserve iOS’s market share from Android encroachment
    >are, I fear, doomed to disappointment.

    I don’t think anyone is counting on these so much as using them as the most obvious example of something that is difficult to put into words, especially when they’re subjective (like jsk’s feeling of claustrophobia). It’s easy for me to say that Android feels unpolished and broken when I use it, it’s much harder to describe the specific things that make it that way, especially when (as they often are with these sorts of things) it’s a death by a thousand paper cuts thing more than a single feature.

    Of course this has been the difference between Apple and its competitors for quite some time now. Apple focuses on the little things (sometimes to the absolute detriment of the big things *cough* mobile me *cough* ) where as many (most?) of their competitors focus on the big things and ignore those paper cuts, assuming (often rightly) that people will put up with the pain for the reduced costs. The computer world would be a much crappier place if Linux were the only game in town, just as it would if Apple or Microsoft were.

  68. @Morgan:
    > You’re talking about the occassional “hiccup”?

    No, not really. It really is something that is difficult to describe without referencing frame rates, and is best shown with a side-by-side comparison. If I had a non-phone video camera handy, I could provide examples. I fully expect this differentiator to go away entirely when Android gets ubiquitous hardware rendering; the behavior I notice has all the visual traits of a software renderer.

    I’ll maybe flash over to cyanogenmod tonight and do some more testing there, just as a control.

    > If that’s what OS X mean by “superior UX” they can keep it.

    Haha! If only it were that easy. iOS does have an exceptionally consistent UI model, and it’s good so long as that model works for the user. I think it does pretty well on the whole, but it’s naturally limiting, and as it starts having to compete on features it also starts to trip on its own shoelaces.

  69. Connecting a USB cable allows the user to mount the internal storage to a connected computer. All data transfers occur in this way; no special software is required, so long as the operating system supports USB storage.

    Not such a big advantage. Jay Maynard had some comments on this. iTunes as content management system and one-stop shop revolutionized digital media.

  70. > Not such a big advantage.

    Wasn’t really touting it as an advantage, just listing it as an operational feature; note that it comes before my ‘thoughts’ section. Do I think it’s an advantage, personally? Absolutely.

    Do I also think iTunes has a substantial value add within the Apple model? Sure. But then, I also think it has some insidious hidden costs for the end user when looking over a long timeline.

  71. From myself, above:
    > It doesn’t support the 4G or HDMI yet, and that is only just irksome enough to make
    > me stick with sense for the time being.

    For anyone else thinking about an EVO 4G or who has one, I just read that WiMAX support is planned for CM7 final; they just started putting out release candidates today. Good times!

  72. @esr:

    Frame rates on all devices are going to rise as the speed/power product of the CPUs drops. It might well be that Google has made a strategic decision not to micro-optimize for this figuring that hardware will deliver improvements here faster than software can.

    Yet another area where, with Android, Google is executing the Microsoft MS-DOS/Windows playbook exceptionally well. I think they have it down pat, right down to the “you can ship other OSes on some of your hardware if you want, but you’ll still have to pay us the same royalty rate per unit!”

  73. I have the LG Ally, and it’s slow and buggy, has it’s own LG skin (optional for use, but you can’t uninstall it), and, yes, has promotional bloat (LGSocial app, myspace app?!, CitySuckSomething, and other crap that I constantly kill with a task manager, and which all constantly keeps coming back up…I know. I should just root the darned thing).

    For my part, I’m getting curious about HP’s WebOS phones. Not that I expect any less corporate bloat and promotional adware garbage from another behemoth corporation.

  74. I realize this is an old post, but this needs to be widely known. Eric’s point #5 should be:

    5) Don’t buy it from AT&T.

    People were suspecting and now AT&T has confirmed that they are intentionally crippling upload speeds on Android devices – including the brand new HTC Inspire 4G and Motorola Atrix. They are *not* doing this to iPhone. Words fail me.

    http://www.androidpolice.com/2011/02/18/review-htc-inspire-4g-a-pretty-face-only-gets-you-so-far/
    http://www.androidcentral.com/att-confirms-inspire-4g-does-not-feature-hsupa
    http://emuneee.com/2011/02/is-att-disabling-hsupa-on-its-4g-devices/

    I was all set to buy an Inspire 4G as AT&T is my best option here. But I really, really don’t like the idea of buying knowing I *must* root it to get it to work properly.

  75. Winter: That Archos thing? A “hit”?

    What do you imagine the market for it being? (Especially with its wonderful 320×240 resolution…)

    Hell, I can’t even imagine what Archos thinks the market for it is!

    But then again, the latest numbers I can find for Archos show them losing money consistently, so maybe there’s some correlation there.

    Samsung can make an Android handheld non-phone that can be a hit and compete with the iPod Touch (probably). Archos? Also-rans, always have been, and if this is their attempt to not go bankrupt, it’s time to start shorting them.

  76. People were suspecting and now AT&T has confirmed that they are intentionally crippling upload speeds on Android devices – including the brand new HTC Inspire 4G and Motorola Atrix. They are *not* doing this to iPhone. Words fail me.

    This surprises you why? AT&T has always been about protecting their “precious 3G network”, and the iPhone nearly destroyed it. With viable competition for the urban hipster market, AT&T figures that they’ll lose less money if the nerds go to Verizon and Sprint than if they lose that critical urban hipster demographic.

    For my part, I’m getting curious about HP’s WebOS phones. Not that I expect any less corporate bloat and promotional adware garbage from another behemoth corporation.

    Thus far, the only crapware on the Pre has come from the carriers. And it looks like HP is going to try and end that. Add to that their robust support for homebrew (no rooting required) and it is something that could win pretty big with HP behind it.

  77. I think it would be kind of cool if it were possible to have full Linux distribution capabilities on boot up. And if that environment gave reason for some application ports to the Linux desktop, that would be a great side benefit. Posted with an Android.

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