Some time ago I mentioned that I’ve moved from exclusively using iOS to (horrors) getting an Android phone. Here’s how it happened.
About 9 months ago I started work at a new place. The decision was made after a variety of events which I concluded were a lot of confirmations (big and small) from God that this was the right move for me at the right time. Moving to a large corporation seemed like the right choice for me at the time. One minor caveat highlighted to me during the interview was that this being a controlled working environment it would not be possible to use a camera enabled smart phone during working hours. Would that pose a problem to me?
No problem I replied, I’d done that before when I lost my iPhone back in 2010 and spent months with a dumbphone, if I set my mind to it I could do it again. I thought that getting used to my new working environment was only a matter of changing my habits.
This proved to be a bit more difficult than I thought for a number of reasons that I’ll go into below.
The Dumb Option
The phone that I settled on as my daily phone was a Nokia 109 which comes without a camera. It’s a very basic ‘dumbphone’ with the exception that on it’s glorious 1.8″ screen (65k colours!) I was still able to surf the net, albeit a dumbed down barely readable version. Nokia claims that their servers scrub out the unnecessary data so that you save on your data plan. Woots!
What amazed me about this phone (besides the $89 off the shelf price) was the battery life. It boasts an amazing 790 hour standby time which equates to just over 30 days! Having survived with an iPhone for almost 6 years now it’s been my daily ritual of having to charge my phone. I get stressed if I leave the house with only a 50% charge. The tiny Nokia on the other hand, chugs along just fine at 10% charge so much so that I hardly remembered having to charge it.
The other thing that stands out (experience-wise) when using a dumb phone is how quickly you can take down the number of an acquaintance and make phone calls because the number pad is always present. I suppose blackberry users probably feel the same way about their keyboards but this simple fact made me realise how bad a ‘phone’ the iPhone really is. I can recall countless incidences where I ask someone for their number and have to apologise continuously as i unlock my phone, find my phone app and wait as it opens up before I can input their number. It’s a slow and cumbersome process in comparison to just being able to input the number immediately.
So the plan was this: I would go to work toting my Nokia on weekdays and on weekends I would swap my sim card back to my iPhone 4.
This worked for about 6 months until a few problems became evident.
First off I had huge problems inputting my contacts into the Nokia. Over the years I’d built up quite a large collection of contacts on my iPhone, synced via iCloud they were readily accessible on all other Apple devices. But it was literally impossible to transfer them to my walled-off dumbphone. What followed were several hours of inputting names and phone numbers manually. The same problem occurs whenever I record someone’s contact on my Nokia and then have to transfer it — again manually — over to my iPhone. Nokia does offer a contacts sync service but it only seems to work between other dumbphones. Seriously though, one is enough.
Secondly, messages I’d receive on my Nokia would never be able to be accessible on my iPhone once I switched SIM cards. This caused massive continuity problems especially when I had to follow up on something on the weekend. My gripes with the messages ran deeper as I found it quite tedious to type messages again on a number pad (like in the old days) when I’d grown so used to using a small keyboard instead. Maybe I’ve gone soft but having to press physical buttons multiple times per message actually can be quite a strain. Who knew that typing on a glass surface could become so second nature? Furthermore I dearly missed the whole readability and appearance of the Messages app on the iPhone, Apple really DID a good job of making that entire experience more pleasant.
Finally there was the loss of access to applications (apps).
The two apps I missed the most, on which I was most reliant without realising it, were Maps and Simplenote. Losing access to both created huge voids that could not be filled easily as I struggled to find my way around and could not retrieve important data. Others that I missed like Calendars and Todo apps I managed to find analog workarounds (read: a pocket sized notebook) that fulfilled the same function. Apps like Instapaper and Reeder I missed for the articles but could do without as I’ve become more committed to reading books. One surprise was how isolated I felt without access to Whatsapp. It seems that people don’t send regular SMS anymore.
Even amid all these setbacks what finally prompted me to seriously consider abandoning this setup was the increasing compromises forced by my work arrangements, of which I won’t go into.
Seeking The Alternatives
Even on my first day at work one of my colleagues (who happened to be an old friend) remarked that it wouldn’t be long before I swapped my Nokia for a non-camera smartphone. Turns out there were various models of smartphones that were sold by the telcos with their cameras removed to permit use in controlled environments. One Singapore made option comes built without a camera at all! However all of them run the Android OS.
As a die-hard Apple fan I found it almost impossible to consider using an Android phone. I had harbored a lot of deep seated (and mostly unfounded) assumptions about Android and why I would never use it. Which is why I stubbornly resolved to stick to my chosen path for far longer than I should have. A lot of Android users find iPhone users dogmatic and self-righteous, upon reflection I don’t think they’re wrong in thinking that.
Around January 2014, in the face of daily friction and compromises I started to cave and began researching my options in earnest. I finally settled on the LG Optimus F5 after receiving some good feedback from colleagues. So finally in March 2014 I took the plunge and activated my first Android phone.
This won’t be a typical review in that I didn’t have many options to consider. Furthermore the LG Optimus F5 is already an outdated model that LG doesn’t appear to be supporting anymore(?) and so I’m stuck with version 4.1.2 of the OS and will never be able to upgrade to future versions. Even so I’ve been impressed thus far by the responsiveness and look of the UI. Clearly Google has been working quite hard on their software and is slowly catching up on iOS.
(One disclaimer: LG has tweaked some parts of the software UI in order to customise the appearance and I must admit I don’t like what they’ve done. I much prefer the appearance of pure android and think the F5 looks worse as a result of such tinkering. I now understand why Google has been locking down the look and feel of their OS in order to unify their branding and experience. You can see the fruits in dedicated Google apps like Maps, Gmail, Chrome etc which look good and are well designed and stable.)
Physically the phone sits well in my hand and the 4.3″ display is a much more comfortable screen to read on compared to the iPhone 4’s 3.5″ screen. Overall I like how the phone looks and feels. It’s close to an iPhone and that’s ok with me.
Within minutes of turning it on I was able to set up the phone and import my contacts and calendars from iCloud using Smoothsync for cloud contacts and cloud calendars. The messages app my phone came with was infinitely better than the one from my Nokia but it didn’t look so hot. I replaced it with Hello SMS which looks great, is very well supported and best of all, free!
Most proponents of Android espouse how easy it is to customise the OS. Like the aforementioned Hello SMS app, you’re able to select a different primary app for things like sms, surfing, email, keyboard etc. Different themes and lock screens can be installed as well to give you phone a different look. I have to admit that it is really nifty to be able to find the best sms or email app and think this is something Apple should seriously consider. But when it came to customising the look I found that after the initial novelty wore off it didn’t add any real value to the use of my phone. Sometimes themes I installed caused my phone to hang or not function properly and had to be deleted.
The other unique feature of Android is the ability to create widgets on your home screens. I haven’t really gotten into this but I can see the value that they add especially when you want to quickly access a particular feature in an app (like quickly creating a note in Evernote or a todo item in Todoist).
The best thing about my experience with the F5 has been that I don’t have to keep switching phones all the time when I get home or over the weekend. I wanted to eliminate that layer of complexity in my life and the resulting simplicity is well worth the price of trying out a new OS.
Apps Apps Apps
I’m rather picky about the way that my apps look and found the native apps for calendar, messaging, email and internet provided by LG mediocre to say the least. I’ve replaced them with Sol Calendar, Hello SMS, Cloud Magic and Google Chrome respectively.
Thankfully Simplenote and Instapaper are both available as native Android apps making the transition seamless. I’ve also described my search for a multi-platform To-do app in my blog post here (Reminder: It’s Todoist). Other multi-platform apps I’ve started using again are Wunderlist and Evernote1. All of the apps in this paragraph are also available online via beautiful web-apps which makes input really simple when I’m in the office and at my laptop.
After some searching I also came across Press which is the best looking RSS reader on the the Google Play Store which isn’t as good as Reeder but pretty darn good. And for Podcasts I use Pocket Casts by Shifty Jelly which is also available on iOS. I highly recommend both as they’re not only well designed but very easy to use.
Some Small Gripes
It’s been 4 months since I’ve been using the F5 and so far other than the lack of a camera (which cannot be helped) I don’t really have a lot of complaints.
To clarify I was previously using an iPhone 4 before I switched to the F5 and so it’s probably a bit of an upgrade in terms of OS speed. However there are moments when the scrolling speed does seem not quite as smooth and when I tap on the screen there’s just that little bit of delay before something happens. Nothing major but enough to make me wonder if perhaps the system’s hung.
My biggest gripe has been the poor battery life which is nothing to do with Android but LG. As a comparison I charged up both my iPhone 4 and F5 to 100% and unplugged them before I slept. When I woke the next morning the iPhone’s battery had dropped to 96% whereas the F5 had dropped to 70%. That’s a 30% reduction whilst idling! I can normally get one day’s use out of my iPhone but the F5 struggles to do that. If I don’t charge the F5 at least once midday it’s usually dead by 8pm at night. And by dead I don’t mean hovering at 3% but literally switched off. Turning off both mobile data and wifi at night has helped preserve my battery but that means people messaging me via Telegram or Whatsapp won’t get a response till the next morning.
It’s not all bad though.
What I’ve enjoyed most from Android is how interconnected all the apps are. Almost any data from one app can be shared to the other apps via the share button. This reduction in barriers makes it easy to create notes, todos, link data etc. and a makes a strong selling point for Android v.s. iOS. I don’t really use this feature a lot (I don’t use my phone for a lot of work) but I see that it opens huge opportunities for linking various apps together. Apple is doing something similar with iOS 8 but Android was doing this first.
Most apps on the Google Play store are pretty good and surprisingly cheap (or free!) and with some quick searches it’s possible to find really well designed and easy to use alternatives to existing apps. The other upside is that actively developed apps are constantly being updated, which is amazing compared to the relatively snails pace of updates from iOS. Developers can quickly patch up bugs and fire out an update without having to go through a lengthy app review process which is a good thing for users, granted that these are trustworthy apps.
The LG Optima F5 is the best phone for me and my line of work but it’s definitely not the best smartphone out there. As to my time with Android I have been pleasantly surprised by the experience and consider it to be on par with iOS in many ways. I admit i’m impressed. It’s actually quite refreshing to take a walk in a different neighbourhood for a change.
However technology doesn’t stand still. Apple is going to roll out iOS 8 by this year which continues to bridge the gap between the two OSs. Furthermore Apple continues to add value to their platform by linking iOS to OS X which is a feature I look forward to when I install OS X Yosemite when it comes out soon. The F5 is a good product for the moment but it’s not going to make me fall out of love with Apple. Also I’m ever mindful that Google has a vested interest in obtaining my data to target ads at me. Knowing that will always cloud any experience I have with Android.
1. Evernote also serves as my replacement for Day One on my iPhone.↩