I love my new Nexus 5 smart phone. It has a stunning screen, an amazingly fast processor, and I’ve already loaded a great array of wonderful apps onto it.
So why then, when I go to make a phone call, or to check/send an email or text message, do I still find myself reaching for my older iPhone 5?
As ritzy and glitzy as the Nexus 5 is, and as enhanced and flashy as the 4.4 (KitKat) version of Android might be, there are still some selective weaknesses in it, and some cumbersome clumsy approaches that Apple’s iOS finessed many versions ago. Furthermore, the ever-tighter grip of Google is starting to feel slightly restrictive on occasion, although to be fair, iOS is almost as aggressively all-embracing as well.
To give just one example, the Photos app has an option to ‘Back up your camera’ – well, actually, it means to back up your photos, but that’s just the start of the problem.
The thing is that it doesn’t clearly tell you where your photos are backed up to, and neither does it give you any option to change their backup location. Only after wading through help files do you find out they will be backed up in your Google+ account (you knew you had one, right?) and it is anyone’s guess as to if the entire world can see them, or some subset, or who/what/when/where/how.
Okay, so these things can be puzzled out, variously by wading through help files and by going to your Google+ account, but it should be easier. And if you wished to back your photos up to some other photo storing/sharing service, well, it seems there’s no way to do that (at least not available as default, third-party apps might exist that will do it for you independently). As I said, Google tries to lock you into their system.
It also seemed that although the photo sharing was turned on at the phone, the photos weren’t appearing on my Google Plus account. This was after I first found my account and second waded through all the junk it threw at me, including suggestions I should connect with people who died several years ago – would that I could, but alas, I don’t think even Google can allow me to reach out to those sadly departed memories. There seems no way to tell Google Plus that I actually want to minus some of the people it wishes me to contact.
Lastly, while this service/system backs up photos, it doesn’t back up other saved images on the phone, such as screen shots (which is what I’d been trying to access). A lot of wasted time, and no solution at the end of it.
This is not only restrictive, but it is also beyond obtuse. The hyper-intelligent people at Google have little awareness of how to write their user interface for ordinary people like the rest of us. This is a problem that pervades much of Android.
Let’s focus specifically on the most common and most important uses of a smart phone and compare iOS to Android.
Interestingly enough, using your smart phone as a phone is no longer the most common use for most people, but let’s start by looking at that function, nonetheless.
Here’s a screen shot of what you’re presented with when you click on the phone icon on the Nexus 5. How does that strike you for an intuitive presentation?
I find it muddled, cluttered and confusing. Compare that to the clean elegant layout of the iPhone phone screen.
I am showing the dialer screen option for the iPhone, there are also options (choose from the bottom) to see your list of favorites, recent calls, one’s entire contact list (phone book) and to go to voice mail. What could be simpler than that – anything/everything you might want to do, related to phone calling, all on the one screen.
Oh – voicemail. That’s another massive weakness, so much so, it needs its own heading!
One of the loveliest features of iOS is its ‘Visual Voicemail’ – where you see, on the screen, a list of voicemail messages, how long they are, and who they are from. You can also use on-screen controls to play, pause, delete, and so on the messages themselves.
This makes managing voicemail very much easier than having to phone in to a voicemail system and pressing keys on your phone to work your way through messages (if you can remember which key does which, of course) and ending up listening to lengthy messages you don’t want to listen to, and not being sure if you are listening to new or old messages, and so on.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing comparable with Android, unless you integrate your phone number into Google Voice, which adds another level of complication (rather than simplification) to everything.
Visual Voicemail makes voicemail easier. Google Voice makes it harder.
Texting – or, as it is formally called, the Short Message Service (SMS) – is another thing that should be drop-dead simple. Put in a phone number, tap in a message, send it.
With iOS, it is reasonably close to this simple. There is also a very nice extra feature – if you are sending to another iOS phone, somehow, iOS ‘knows’ this and will send the message through data rather than over the phone service, potentially saving you the cost of the message.
But Google rudely thrusts itself between you and SMS. It forces you to use ‘Google Hangouts’ rather than the wireless company’s SMS service. Your first challenge is in understanding this and finding the feature on your phone to send a message – on the iPhone, it is called ‘Messages’ and is on your home screen. On the Nexus 5, you need to appreciate that your SMS equivalent service is unintuitively called Hangouts, and it is not on your home screen, but buried some pages into the long list of all programs elsewhere on the phone.
Furthermore, when you get to it – well, at least in my case – you find that Google is ‘helpfully’ suggesting people who you might like to send a message to. My screen shows a list of six people. The first person on the list is myself, and you’ll be relieved to know that while I sometimes mutter to myself, I’ve not yet progressed to the point of sending myself text messages.
I have no idea who the second person is, the third person is a valid suggestion, the fourth person is someone I’ve had no contact with in maybe four years, and the fifth and sixth people are two more mystery people who I know nothing about.
There’s something slightly weird about Google suggesting I should send texts to these strangers. How/why does it think I know them?
In any event, nowhere does it say ‘send a message’ – instead, it is inviting me to create a new hangout. Is that Googlese for ‘send a text message’? If so, why not say that?
Here’s a screen shot – I’ve obscured the names of the strangers – for all I know, they’re international terrorists and I’d hate to embarrass them or me by showcasing them here!
Compare that to the intuitive simple iOS interface, below. Which is easier to understand?
So, another core functionality, and another example of how Android/Google is making a simple thing needlessly complicated.
Now for a problem that will only affect some of you, but which really cripples my email usage.
There are several different email apps available for Android, and (of course) a built-in Gmail app for use with your Gmail account. Oh yes; you mightn’t have had a Gmail account before, but there’s no way you can turn your Android phone on without a Gmail account, so if you don’t already have one, it will be created for you as part of the phone’s activation. You can connect the phone to other email services as well as Gmail, but you will have a Gmail account whether you want it or not.
The Gmail interface – grouping conversations together – is a bit different to standard email interfaces, although Gmail has become so widespread that its interface is now the ‘new’ standard. I still don’t like it, but that’s a personal preference.
What is more of a problem though is that I do a ‘clever’ thing with my email – I send email via/through Gmail but under my own email ID. When I normally send an email, I am sending it via my firstname.lastname@example.org account, but it generally appears to the recipient as email@example.com and when they reply, the email gets sent back to the firstname.lastname@example.org account (and ultimately ends up in the email@example.com account). Yes, there are valid reasons for doing this!
But there’s no way to do that on the Nexus 5. It is easily done on the iPhone and on my main computers, but is not possible on the Nexus 5.
Sure, this limitation might only affect 1% of email users, but unfortunately, I’m part of that 1%, and I’m really stuck because of it.
Scrolling Through Lists and Long Documents
Here’s another surprisingly big deal.
If you’re like me, your contact list has probably grown to many entries. When you want to go to an entry, iOS gives you a helpful listing of the alphabet on the right hand side; you simply touch the letter you’re looking for to be taken to that part of the list, and when you are scrolling through, you have ten entries visible on the screen simultaneously.
Google doesn’t have that. It has a scroll bar you can drag, but you have to clumsily work your way to more or less where you want to be, and then you have only six entries visible at once on the screen. Yes, you read that correctly. Apple’s small screen clearly shows ten entries at a time; Google’s enormous screen only shows six.
If you’ve been scrolling/reading down through a document and want to get back to the top, iOS offers a shortcut – simply tap at the top of the screen to jump back to the top. But Android doesn’t have anything like that.
Okay, so these are not the most important things to consider when choosing a phone, but it shows the difference between a polished and almost perfected interface (with iOS) and a crude un-thought out interface with Android.
Why is the Android interface so bad? Google surely has a brains-trust of brilliant developers, and the concepts of user-interface design are well-known and a formal field of study. Furthermore, Android has been through many different iterations now and surely is a mature product.
There’s no reason and no excuse for such poor user interface design.
Physical Design Limitations Too
In addition to the software challenges, there are things which are just plain bad design in the physical phone itself. The power button is on the side, and I’m all the time accidentally pressing it. The lightest touch and *click* – the phone has switched itself off. Or if I lay the phone down in the landscape mode, there is again a risk of the power button being activated, because it takes very little pressure to push (if I put the phone down with the other side on the bottom, then there’s every danger of turning off the sound).
Apple has their power button on the top, and requiring a firmer press to activate. I’ve never accidentally switched any of my iPhones off. Apple manages the volume buttons too – they also require firmer presses and there’s a separate button to entirely mute the sound.
This sort of thing is basic design 101 and it is appalling that both Google and LG (the company involved in the phone’s design and manufacture) can’t better optimize their physical phone design.
But wait, there’s more – a further ‘bonus’ lack of thought. With a well thought out iPhone, when you power it off then power it back on again, you’re brought immediately back to where you were before. But when you power off your Nexus 5 and then power it back on again, that doesn’t seem to always happen.
There’s another subtle but significant weakness of the Nexus 5 design. It has a rounded bottom and top, rather than a flat bottom and top. So if you want to stand the phone up (in ‘portrait’ mode) you’re going to have problems balancing the rounded bottom and the phone will fall over again at the slightest opportunity – especially in a car.
This isn’t rocket science, any of it. But Google’s rocket scientists don’t seem to comprehend such simple things, and we suffer from an inferior final product as a result.
So Is Anything Good?
Oh yes, there are plenty of good things on the Nexus 5. It is wonderful to have the Chrome browser, and to have my favorites synch between Chrome on my main computer(s) and on the Nexus 5. Maybe that is possible with Safari on an iPhone as well, but Safari is a clutzy browser and not nearly the equal of Chrome, and I’d never dream of using it on a ‘real’ computer.
Google Maps is much better than Apple Maps.
And, the wonderful screen. Oh, the wonderful screen. So big, so bright, and so clear. To say nothing of so fast and so responsive.
I do indeed really like my Nexus 5 and use it for all sorts of things. Just not for phone calls, texting, and emailing.
So, if you want a device for phone calls and texting (and possibly email too), you really need to think carefully before choosing an Android phone. Maybe the points raised here aren’t relevant to you, but maybe they are.
What to Do – Which to Buy?
The answer to this question seems to perennially end up as being ‘get the next model, next year’. In this case, my hope is that the iPhone 6 will catch up to the Android stable and finally get a decent sized screen with decent resolution, comparable to that on the Nexus 5. The iPhone 6 will appear sometime in the summer/fall period of 2014. If you can wait until then, perhaps you should.
Or maybe the next version of Android might address some of these easily solved current inadequacies.
But until these inadequacies are addressed, you need to decide if they are sufficiently bothersome as to dissuade you from buying the lovely Nexus 5, or if you can live with them.
In truth, I now feel pangs of buyer’s remorse and wish I hadn’t bought the phone; at least you can benefit from my experience and make a more fully informed decision.