Archives For Android

I love my Nexus 5, but I’m keeping my Moto X as my primary phone for now.  And I’m simply amazed at Samsung’s marketing genius… 

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Over the holidays, I had a chance to spend a fair bit of time with my new Nexus 5 and some Samsung S3s and S4s that belong to friends.  And of course, I still use my Moto X as my primary device (for some definition of primary device that involves having a cellular network enabled on it).  I had a chance to use various applications on all three of these devices and to debug some things I helped build as well.

After this round of experiments, I have a few salient observations:

  • The Nexus 5 is simply blazing.  It is the smoothest Android device I’ve ever laid hands on, no doubt – in fact, if you ignored a couple of minor things, it might even be the best device I’ve ever used, period (yes, yes, including that ‘i’ device!).
  • The Moto X is reasonably fast – not quite the same as the Nexus 5 – but, its contextual features still rock! Unlock near a trusted Bluetooth (while driving, for e.g.) and the active display notifications are still amazingly useful!
  • Samsung knows exactly what sells phones.

Perhaps that’s not a fair summary? Maybe. But, let’s take a closer look at what this all means.

Let’s first set some things straight.  What I did in no way constitutes an actual A/B test and should not be construed as such.  There are many such tests out there done by professional bloggers and testers – so, if you want the real nitty gritty of it, go read some of those.  What I did do, however, was a reasonable comparison of end user (plus some developer level) observations on these devices in as similar conditions as feasible (without going through Faraday cages and such!). These devices had fairly a similar number of apps downloaded on them, similar number running, similar settings enabled, on the same WiFi conditions and such.  The Nexus 5 and Moto X were on KitKat, while the Samsung devices were on JB.  Now, on to some key factors.

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Shown under mediocre network conditions, the Nexus 5 is > 3X better.. Even in great network conditions, it is consistently 1.5-2X better!

  • Responsiveness: The Nexus 5 blazes. The touch interface is a pleasure!  The Moto X is reasonable (unless you have a Nexus 5 next to you, you will likely not realize that it is not as fast as it should be!).  The Samsung – well, depends. A random S4 is reasonably good (read, comparable to the Moto X), while another random S4 is noticeably slow. When you go to the S3 – let’s not even go there, since the responsiveness (or lack thereof) will make you want to upgrade your phone immediately!
  • Speed: Even though related to responsiveness, specifically talking about WiFi speeds, the Nexus 5 blows everything out of the water.  We are talking about 2-3X higher download speeds and about 1.5-2X higher upload speeds, under exact same network conditions (measured to the same server while connected to the same access point, tested over multiple time periods).  Now, my Moto X starts looking like a last gen device :(! How much of this is Qualcomm vs Broadcom performance issues?  I can’t be certain, since the Nexus 5 and the S4 have Broadcom WiFi in them and have vastly different speeds.
  • Display: Give it to Samsung here – as any other Samsung high end phones, the S4 display is spectacular.  The Nexus 5 is fairly comparable – some say the Moto X has a better display, but I’d have to disagree with that.
  • Camera: The Nexus 5 pictures are good – really good HDR+ imagery, no doubt.  But, throw them all in low light conditions and you wish you had an iPhone!
  • Developer Issues: As a developer, the Samsung devices seem to be a nightmare. From not handling PNGs to having crashes at the kernel level, it is exhausting to deal with these devices. The Nexus 5 and the Moto X shine here – but I have to say that from an app developer’s perspective, testing on these devices is never going to be enough, as things may always break down on a Samsung device somewhere and that’s just the kind of thing that will need attention…

So, what did I dislike most about each of these devices?

  • Nexus 5: Nothing significant, but I thought the face unlock was lame. It takes as long as typing a PIN (and longer when it fails and you have to type the PIN anyway).  But, more than anything, I wish it had the little contextual enhancements that the Moto X has!
  • Moto X: The camera – every time I take a picture, I wish it were better! The speed can be better (now that I’ve used the Nexus 5, I can see the difference) – otherwise, it performs acceptably.
  • Samsung S4: Almost everything. The unintuitive UI (have you experienced the ‘Remove’ option on the Samsung UI when you try to remove an app?), the terrible memory management, the innumerable inconsistent code paths that seem to cause crashes where other devices do fine, the Samsung bloatware that cannot be removed… you get it.

Clearly, I’m not buying a Samsung device.  But then, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is the most popular Android phone on the market. One thing that became quite clear to me is this – Samsung knows what it takes to sell a device.  Vibrant displays, top of the line processor speeds, cameras with big numbers of Megapixels and overall feature-packed software puts them at the top of the charts.  A truly amazing performance? Well, who cares really! The marketing prowess is surely something to be admired.

For me personally, the Moto X still does it.  I’ll continue to use the Nexus 5 quite a bit over WiFi – but to switch out of Verizon and actually make it my primary device, it’s gonna take a bit more!

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In 2007, Apple created a revolution in computing with the iPhone.  It marked the beginning of a journey for smartphones as the single most important device in people’s lives.  Something so personal and so indispensable that will go on to become one that we’d carry 24×7.  In 2013, Apple is truly acknowledging that they are becoming followers and not trend setters.

WWDC 2013 (TechCrunch highlights here) left me unimpressed.  Minus a couple of odd security features, iOS7 mostly appears to be catching up with the explosive innovation that has happened in Android over the last couple of years.  Let’s run down some of this:

From Skeuomorphic To Flat

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This has been rumored so much, I’m almost tired of it already!  Maybe it’s just me – but, I don’t quite get the hype about this transformation.  Not to belittle the design changes – as always, the design is pleasing and fantastic.  But, a choice between skeuomorphic and flat seems rather a matter of taste.  Some claim flatter is more modern, I personally think the real world feel of OS X and iOS icons were brilliant – but, really the appeal of this flat iOS7 is all about change, I believe.  Today’s fast changing world seems to get bored with UI designs quite easily – for that, the iOS7 redesign brings a beautiful alternative.  But, I fail to see all the fuss over this change!

Everything Else

I really feel I can put everything else in one bucket for sake of this discussion.  Easy access controls, a bezel swipe to go back, (intelligent) multi-tasking, a better notification center – these are all about catch up (it’s about time!).

Sure, iTunes Radio can be a big deal – but, it’s a me-too game as well.

In short, I see nothing innovative from Apple this time around.  Nothing at all. In fact, I’d go so far to say that they have a long way to go to catch up – for example, where is the predictive gesture keyboard iOS so badly needs?  I use several Apple products and am constantly amazed by the performance of these products.  I absolutely love the smoothness of iOS animations and overall performance.  But, Apple has just not given me a reason to feel the urge to switch.

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Unfortunately for Apple, this is evidence that they’ve gone from trendsetting to following.  This also shows that a hungry and innovating ecosystem cannot be beaten by innovation from a single player.  I wrote about how Google I/O demonstrated an innovating ecosystem.  I think iOS7 just made it clear that Android is leaps and bounds ahead in packing intelligence into these devices.  All these years, Apple could afford to lag in functionality as their products more than compensated for that in usability and design.  But, the rest of the world has caught up to that and more.  Usability and design is paramount everywhere now – everybody gets that they need to focus on design or they will perish.

So, with Apple stripped of the design advantage, it is really time to evaluate how to foster innovation through the ecosystem rather than trying to go at it alone, not to mention without the vision of Jobs to guide them!

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There are many times in the last year that I’ve looked at a problem and told myself – if anyone can do it, it is us (Google).  It certainly feels good working for a company that you can say that about.  I don’t write too often about my employer – my blog is mostly about my personal thoughts on technology, with occasional other topics.  But, today, I’m making an exception.

Working for Google leaves me being amazed at the scale, pace and breadth of innovation that happens here.  I was proud of my previous employer, no doubt – especially when I started there, I felt I was surrounded by some of the smartest minds in applied R&D as there can be (and that is still true).  But, what I see coming out of Google is absolutely mind boggling for the size we are as a company.

Collectively, the announcements around Google Wallet, Google+, Hangouts, the Knowledge Graph and a bunch of other things are demonstrating innovation at an unparalleled pace.  And while a good amount of this is coming from Google, it is also setting up for an innovating ecosystem to thrive.

While some of these improvements are small, taken independently, the collective advancements are inspiring.  Clearly, hardware and software have different life cycles and it would be unfair to compare the pace of advancements in the two areas – but, with the likes of Samsung and HTC producing stunning devices and Android providing a thriving platform for innovation, I see that the future of mobile is evolving more rapidly than ever before!

Of course, like anything else, it is not a company without its own problems and growing pains.  I’m going to refrain from discussing those here.  Instead, for today, I’m just going to leave it at calling out the amazing stuff that we have all just seen talked about at I/O!

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I’m not new to iOS itself – I was an early iPad user, just like many millions of people.  But, I’ve always had an Android phone.  Eventually, primarily due to getting used to SwiftKey on Android, I could no longer really use the iPad and so, gave it to my mom.  Of course, it is still an amazing device – but, I type too much to be content with the iOS keyboard!

But, lately, I’ve been itching to really understand the iOS vs Android experience and figured that I need to do it on the smaller screen.  After debating if I really need another phone, I decided to compromise and just get the iPod Touch instead.  WiFi connectivity is all that I need and it seemed to suffice for what I was looking to do with it.

It’s been a few days and I’ve been doing several side-by-side tests of the ‘i’ device and my ‘A’ device, which happens to be the Galaxy Nexus.  I don’t particularly want to write about everything – there are numerous iOS-vs-Android studies out there that go to excruciating detail about each platform and I don’t need to repeat that.  However, I did want to write about a few things near and dear to the user experience aspects I consider important.

Some apps that I did side-by-side tests on both the devices are Flipboard, Pinterest, Google+, GMail, Etsy, Pulse, Facebook, Instagram and Chrome.

First about what iOS gets right.  When you use the device, you realize that everything in it on the hardware and software front has been designed towards a common goal – a slick user experience.  The radios, the processors, the graphics, the memory and how the operating system interacts with each one of these components – it has all been polished and optimized for that single goal of enhanced user experience.  This results in amazingly smooth animations, a flawless touch interface and a generally pleasurable experience.

Granted that it is not strictly an apples-to-apples comparison, but I have to say that in every single one of those apps, the iOS experience was better, evaluated on smoothness of scrolling, animations and speed.  With WiFi state already active on both devices, a side-by-side test of Flipboard showed it loading and updating its content in <5s on the iOS and sometimes as much as 30s under the exact same WiFi at exactly the same time on the Android device.  In fact, I could never get the Android Flipboard loads to happen in <15s in several tries, while the iOS was consistently <5s.  The Facebook experience, putting aside the fact that the design elements still need work, was far smoother than my typical Android experience – on Android, the experience is extremely stuttery, photos take forever to load and it is overall, just frustrating!  I found those elements were far smoother on the iOS – no stutter on scroll, loads quickly and the back stack operations are consistent. Most other apps had similar experiences – sadly, I thought that the G+ app on the iOS was smoother than that on Android!  Pinterest is the one that comes closest on both platforms.  It has no stutter on either platform and the load times are not so dramatically different – the Android side is still a few seconds slower – but it is not a factor of 4x different.  It is more like 3-4s on iOS vs 6-7s on Android.

I want to be clear that several disclaimers are applicable for this A/B testing I did.  My Galaxy Nexus has a cellular radio, for one and has a lot more going on than my iPod Touch has.  Further, my Android is constantly running a brand new beta version of the OS and several beta apps.  But, on the flip side, the iPod has an 800MHz processor, while the Nexus has a dual core 1.2GHz processor!

To talk about a few more things, the battery management on the iOS is done very well – even with heavy use, I couldn’t manage to drain the battery all that much.  The battery on my Nexus is abysmal and I have to charge it multiple times a day.  Although the cellular modem does drain a lot more, the iPod has a much smaller battery to its credit!

The sharpness of the display, the beautiful photos and the sleek aluminum frame are among the other things I really like about the iOS side.  My Nexus, despite the fact that it has the same number of megapixels (5MP) as the iPod, takes rather inferior pictures.

Okay, now, before you write me off in the converted-to-ios-camp, let me talk about a few things I actually did not like about iOS.  I can’t stop talking about the keyboard.  In this world of predictive, gesture keyboards that I can use to type almost as fast as I can on a real keyboard, the iOS keyboard is excruciating!  I’ve written about this before and I won’t say any more – but, it is a deal breaker.  I would have to imagine that Apple is doing something about it very soon.

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Next, there is one thing that Android got right – and it is the software architecture around intents.  It is powerful and really allows applications to seamlessly share data.  I often found myself in a corner when I wanted to share something from an app to someone over GMail or for that matter any other app.  I am not a native iOS mail client user and hence, the share to email option in iOS is useless to me!  The other options are equally useless – I was sometimes able to copy text and paste it in another app, but come on, that is painful!  After a few times of trying to share an image from my gallery directly, I finally got the hang of having to go to GMail and clicking on attachments instead – but, that is not a good experience.

Of course, it never ceases to annoy me how content on YouTube (or other places) that is available on Android is just not available on the iOS.  I have not figured out if this has to do with the different video/audio codec needs or something else, but, the exact same searches on YouTube will produce different results on iOS vs Android.  And the latter is always richer, just to be clear!

There are a couple of other minor things – such as the lack of a back button on the phone and the apps losing state when I come back to the home screen and go back to them.  But, I think this is just about getting used to one style vs another.

It is really hard to say conclusively why so many apps (almost all of them) fare so much better on the iOS.  It may be because they are investing more on iOS than they are on Android – clearly, the extent of the gaps in the performance of the same apps is demonstrative of that.  Pinterest, for one, has obviously narrowed the performance gap on the two platforms quite a bit.  But, unfortunately, if it requires more effort to make that happen, that itself is a problem too!  Aside from this aspect, I believe it also has something to do with the fundamental integrated hardware/software optimizations that Apple has done, the ease of programming using the iOS APIs and the simplicity-vs-options tradeoff that the platform has made, leaning more towards the simplicity part of it!

In a nutshell, the one thing that bugs me the most about iOS has more to do with Apple’s business decisions – such as not allowing third party keyboards or other content. The software architecture constraints that lead to sharing state across apps far more challenging is also a problem.  These are definitely deal breaking issues for me that I will not be switching over to an iPhone any time soon!  But, I definitely have to admit that integrated hardware/software approach that Apple takes comes with a distinct advantage when it comes to user experience.  I long for the day when my Android will have as smooth an experience as the iOS – but, it is admittedly a lot harder to accomplish in an open and split ecosystem.  Such is the tradeoff that naturally comes with accelerating innovation from the ecosystem at large.  And I’d rather stay on that side – Android is definitely getting better and better at the experience and the gap is not that wide to regret it.

And as Android becomes more and more dominant, developers will take the efforts to create good experiences on it.  I’m sticking to my Android – although I may dump my Nexus for the HTC One at some point!

I like my Android device the way it is.  I did try out Facebook Home to get a feel for it, but I won’t be going back to it anytime soon!  You can read my full review on Quora here.  In brief, it introduces a delay in all the important things I’d use my phone for.  If you need to make an emergency call, forget it – you can like and comment on Facebook news feeds while your phone is locked, but getting to the dialer for an emergency call will take a few steps! A number of the normal Facebook frustrations on the mobile are now available on all our apps!

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All in all, I uninstalled after giving it a good shot and trying out various operations.  I’m all for a contextual future – but, my contextual envelope happens to be beyond Facebook!

ImageI blogged on Quora about how I don’t expect to be dazzled by the Facebook phone!  I won’t get it to it all here again, but, the essence of it is that Facebook just hasn’t demonstrated that it gets mobile.  But, one thing the upcoming Facebook Phone is doing is endorsing Android as the platform of choice.  “iOS first” is fast becoming a mantra of the past.  The shift is not only in the developer community, but also among the users that are starting to discover the benefits of cool customizations!

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I reset my iPad to factory settings, wiping all of my content from it and set it up for my mom this past weekend.  This has been coming for some time now, but I finally came to terms with it – I had no use for the iPad any more!  The truth is that I haven’t used it in a while – months now, really.  When I first bought the iPad, I was thrilled.  I used it a lot – the key role it played for me was that of an electronic note taker.  I transitioned from having notebooks and pieces of paper I couldn’t find or decipher to having electronic copies of all the notes of any significance.  Other apps and uses of the iPad were secondary.  The portability and ease of notetaking alone were worth it for me.

And then I found predictive keyboards on Android, such as Swiftkey.  As the algorithms trained on more of my data, I got to a point that I could type very well and fast on my Android phone.  That is when the I really stopped ‘needing’ the iPad.  As of now, I can type better on my phone than I can on my iPad.  Typing on the iPad even annoys me.  Apple’s keyboards are not as predictive yet and the auto-corrections are also somewhat lame.  And given the restrictions that exist on iOS ecosystem, there aren’t third party predictive keyboards that can be used.  It is a reminder of how not all of the innovation can come from a single company – not even Apple!

Granted, the bigger screen is useful for watching videos and makes for a better working environment.  However, between my Macbook Air and my smartphone, I have it covered.  When I am really working for an extended period of time, I’d much rather have my laptop anyway.  And, with what the Macbook Air weighs, anywhere I can take my iPad, I can take my Air too – so, it is really about all the other hours of the day when I need ultra light portable devices.  For those hours, I find the iPads too big – I want something that fits in my pocket and allows me to be handsfree when I need to be!

The iPad seemingly served a need when I found typing on the phone to be a pain.  But not now.  The more time I spend with my phone, the more I customize it.  My apps know me better.  Pulse on my phone is actually more relevant to me than Pulse on my iPad.  I know I can use the crazy concept of “identity” and actually log in to Pulse (gasp!) to have more or less the same experience across all my devices – but, I hate that!  When my devices can figure out who I am based on all the things I do anyway, I’m in.  Until then, I will customize the device I use the most.  For the videos I watch and all the content I consume, the tradeoff of the form factor is worth it.

Convenience wins, until there is something I do a lot that is painful to do.  As of now, I do a lot on my Android phone and I love it!  I will wait for the day when the world around us become peripherals to create bigger displays dynamically as I need them.  As much as I feel sad parting with my iPad, the time has come – it’s yours, mom!