Nov 212013
 
Yes, the new Nexus 5 looks lovely.  But when actually using the phone, some ugly inadequacies become troublesome.

Yes, the new Nexus 5 looks lovely. But when actually using the phone, some ugly inadequacies become troublesome.

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.

Phone Calls

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?

phonescreenc

I find it muddled, cluttered and confusing.  Compare that to the clean elegant layout of the iPhone phone screen.

iphonescreen1c

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!

Voicemail

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

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!

androidsmsb

Compare that to the intuitive simple iOS interface, below.  Which is easier to understand?

iossms1c

So, another core functionality, and another example of how Android/Google is making a simple thing needlessly complicated.

Email

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 david.thetravelinsider@gmail.com account, but it generally appears to the recipient as david@thetravelinsider.info and when they reply, the email gets sent back to the david@thetravelinsider.info account (and ultimately ends up in the david.thetravelinsider.info@gmail.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.

  9 Responses to “The Reality of the Nexus 5 : More Disappointing than Good”

  1. For e-mails there is an Android app called K9 that can do what you need.

    Mauricio

  2. Hi, Mauricio

    Maybe I’m just being inept; quite likely so. I tried K9 and can’t see how to get it to show an alternate email ID. Are you sure this is possible? Do you do it yourself? If so, how?

  3. Really useful. Just saved me from purchasing one for my wife who would drive me nuts. Not nearly as good as all the 6 month hype leading up to its release implied. Geeks just think different from people.

  4. Regarding scrolling through the Contacts list on the Nexus 5, if you drag the right side scroll bar it will bring up alphabetic tabs. You can speed scroll through these tabs; going from “A” to “Z” takes less than a second. So while it’s not identical to the press-to-choose method of letter selection, it works just as fast. In fact, I think it works better because it doesn’t require the same precision.

  5. unless my new contacts have a gmail account for some reason I cannot save telephone number contacts. Any help please ? ( i have put it in the drawer and use my old iphone 4 now .

  6. All the things you complain of are simply unfamiliarity with Android. Android does all you admire on iOS and then some. It is not as simple, but that is because it is far better. And it is only unintuitive if your intuition is preprogrammed to expect Apple. I moved from an iphone to Android 2 years ago and have to say I found everything to be “ahhh, that’s better, that’s the way it should be”. Visual voicemail and tap to return to the top of the screen are the only things I’ve missed. Everything else, and I mean everything else, works better on Android.

    • Hi

      Thanks for your comments, and I have to notice that after saying all the things I complain about are simply unfamiliarity with Android’ you then almost immediately contradict yourself by pointing out the uniqueness of visual voicemail, found only on iOS, and also lament the lack of a tap to jump to the top of a screen feature, too.

      As for all the, ummm, other things, perhaps you can tell me then how to manage my email the way I wish, so it will allow me to send under a different ID to the email account I’m actually using.

      Until that time, I stand by my comments, and appreciate you underscoring two of the unique features that only iOS has and Android does not.

    • I don’t want to dwell on this more than I should, but there’s an underlying issue here that I think needs to be aired.

      In my (rarely humble) opinion, people who say ‘oh yes, it is a perfectly intuitive interface, but you just don’t understand it’ completely fail to understand what “intuitive” means.

      An intuitive interface needs no apologies or explanations, and ordinary people understand it immediately and easily. To tell a person of average intelligence and experience with phones (such as, ahem, I hope I may at least be, myself) that the problem with their misunderstandings is not the phone but the person is completely invalid.

      ps : Still waiting for your reply about the inadequacies of all Android email systems…..

  7. Understand that intuitive is partially based on your frame of reference. I have an iPhone 5 for work and a nexus 5 for home. I find myself constantly fighting the iPhone to get it to do what I want but my first smartphone was an Android.

    Some of the things you complain about are silly…
    I’ve never had a problem leaning it in portrait mode, never had the power button issue, when I reboot my phone I generally want it to REALLY reboot, someone else mentioned the letter scrolling (in fact, Google replaced the approach iPhone uses with this feature in KitKat), the noted GMail account that is created for you can also be disabled, I agree with you on hangouts but there are a number of other SMS apps, you were unfair on the phone layout because if you push the “button” with 9 squares, you get the same number pad as apple, Android is missing the two features the other poster mentioned and I feel Google takes over your device MUCH less than Apple. You can disconnect everything from google by using non-google apps and uninstalling the google apps, the same isn’t really true of iPhone. On your email issue, it only affects 2% of the population.

    Now, the thing you fail to mention about missing iOS features:
    1. The menu structure is confusing and makes it hard to figure out how to navigate through an app. I have this problem most often in email.
    2. Many times the reason for this is there is NO F___ing BACK BUTTON!!!!!! Seriously?!?!?!?! Talk about lack of intuitive design.
    3. The iOS Notifications suck and are completely uncentralized. With Android I have one place to go for voicemail, email, SMS, missed calls, Facebook messages, whatsApp messages and updates. iOS makes me scroll through all of my screens to find them, which leads me to my next weakness
    4. Why are all of my apps put on my desktop? with Android, I only have my most used apps on the desktop and I can dig into a menu to find ALL of them. And if I want all my icons on the desktop, I can even organize them into folders. With iOS I am highly encouraged if not forced to keep all my icons on a cluttered desktop.
    5. Talk about locking you into an ecosystem, when I plug my Nexus into a computer, i can read every file on it and pull down all my files as if it were a USB stick. With iOS, I’m lucky I can get my pictures. Everything else is locked away and only accessible if I sync with iTunes then hack the iTunes filesystem.
    6. Google Now kicks Siri’s ass.
    That being said, there are to things that piss me off about android – The aformentioned recent/frequent call screen. It seems to get better with time, but the Jelly Bean version was better. Silencing should also be much easier/more intuitive.

Leave a Reply