Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Comparing Apples and Android-anges

A friendly letter to Steve Jobs
"ATTN: Steve Jobs.  Suck it!  Your pal, A. Droid   Sent from an Android device"

The competition between smartphone manufacturers is a particular interest.  With smartphone functionality approaching that of a personal home computer at a fraction of the size, it's no surprise that smartphone sales have outpaced PC sales for the first time late last year (of course, there are other factors, such as the replacement rate and upfront costs of a computer vs. a smartphone). Smartphones have also become a lot like home computers in that consumers have largely been "encouraged" to pick a side. And, much like the Windows/Mac rivalry, Android/iPhone also have their respective cult followings.

Flashback, 2009. I was in the market for a new laptop computer and I had a certain amount of money I was willing to spend. I asked for recommendations on my Facebook wall and was greeted with, "Get a Macbook if you don't want a virus-ridden piece of junk." While I've been a Windows PC user for over 20 years, I don't completely disagree with this very common perception from Mac users. Microsoft constantly updates Windows as security exploits are discovered, and indeed, the vast majority of viruses and malware are written specifically for Windows systems. However, those with that perception also conveniently ignore the fact that Mac OS makes up less than 10% of the total market share, whereas the last three versions of Windows make up a total of over 85%.  If you're the type of person that would want to cause the most damage, you'd go for the biggest target.

But as for "better"? I generally argue that there is no such thing as a "better" system, rather a "more suitable" system. I use a Mac at work and a PC at home and I get good use out of both. My Windows 7 PC takes care of my everyday stuff like games, browsing, and Adobe Creative Suite reasonably well (I'm still running CS2), while I've become accustomed to doing graphic design realted stuff with my work Mac. And contrary to what the Mac pundits say, programs DO crash on a Mac, arguably just as often as PC. I do not notice an appreciable improvement in performance or stability when going from PC to Mac, so for my money, I'm still pretty content with my PC, at least for my usage patterns. If I choose to go into serious video editing, I could probably consider a Mac (Final Cut Pro is a lot better than Adobe Premiere, or at least the versions I've used). But given that Adobe CS is available on Mac AND Windows, I'll stick with Windows for now.

Back on topic. I tried to keep fanboyism at bay when choosing a new phone, as my choice largely boiled down to iPhone, Android, or Blackberry. All three platforms have a lot going for them - Blackberry has wide adoption for business use and has their own dedicated messaging network, Apple for their large marketplace of applications, Android for wide variety of hardware. Nokia was briefly a consideration, mostly due to the fact that the last four phones I owned were Nokia, although given their reduced presence in the North American market and lack of decent products, brand loyalty suddenly ceased to be an issue.

Between the various phone types, I ended up with the HTC Desire Z (the phone that's pictured above, which the Android mascot is using to send a little "friendly" gesture to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs).  Among my many reasons for picking this phone in general...
  • Key features missing from iPhone 4: physical keyboard, expandable memory, replaceable battery.  The last one is important, because you don't have the option of swapping out the battery in a pinch.  If it dies, it dies.
  • Key features missing from Blackberry: comfortable physical keyboard. 
  • Virtually unlimited customizeability
  • The fact that just about everyone else has an iPhone, which is a little bit funny to me considering that the stereotype of Apple users is that they are trying to be individuals.  By all getting the same phone. 
  • Price.  Buying an iPhone with a similar configuration will be $150+ more.  And that's if I can actually get one.
After getting my phone unlocked for my network (originally purchased under Bell, unlocked for Fido) and working out all the kinks, so far I'm pretty satisfied with my phone, but also realize that there are some drawbacks to being on the Android system.

While Android is open source, it essentially ceases to be that after phone manufacturers get their hands on it.  Phone manufacturers and carriers put on a customized version of the user interface, which heavily contributes to the fragmentation issue. Because the phone is running a customized version of Android, getting an update to the next version of the operating system has to go through the phone manufacturer first, THEN your carrier.  With the multiple versions of the UI across different manufacturers and models, you can expect to wait a really long time for your upgrades, if at all.  HTC supposedly has the best track record for upgrading their phones (average wait to upgrade phones running Android 2.1 to 2.2 was 2 months), the latest version of Android (2.3) won't be officially available until the Summer.

This is akin to one of the issues faced by PC users when it comes to software compatibility, which is something touted by reasons to switch to Mac.  With the infinite possible hardware configurations of Windows-based PCs, there will be a chance that your setup will not be 100% compatible with the latest game or the productivity suite.  This doesn't happen on Macs, at least not as often.

Overall, I am pretty happy with my phone, although my biggest gripes are to do with Bell than with Android or HTC, which has prompted me to consider rooting the phone (similar to jailbreaking an iPhone), although not for the purpose of installing unauthorized apps, but for getting rid of the preinstalled apps that I will never use.  Unlike a Windows PC that comes preinstalled with demos and programs that you can get rid of at your leisure, the applications that come preinstalled on a smartphone require a bit of tinkering that will end up voiding the warranty. After a while, though, I kind of just ignore the apps I don't use anyway.

And about battery life, it will always depend on your usage patterns.  I know of people who can go for several days without recharging a Blackberry even with heavy use, whereas I can usually get max two days out of my phone (less if I'm playing a lot of Angry Birds, as the display accounts for most of the battery consumption).  While Android has gotten flack for high battery drain, iPhone users can experience the same.

In the end, don't believe the hype.  Pick the phone that suits YOUR needs, not just because everyone else has one.

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