Last week, I ended up with a Google Ion and a Palm Pre. I also loaded up the 3.0GM on the iPhone 3G. With active service on all of these and a whole bunch of devices on hand, I’ll be writing up some of my opinions in depth here. Instead of spamming multiple posts, I’ll just keep adding to this page (people on feed readers may want to check back in a week).
This isn’t necessarily intended as a full review, although if you’re primary question is whether the G2 or Pre are better than the iPhone, the answer is basically no. Android is very interesting from a developer perspective, and the G2 isn’t horrible, but it has many UI shortcomings that would make me sad if I had to carry it around as my daily device. The Pre on the other hand, is something I’d carry around (and in fact I’ll be switching to it as my primary phone), but in most regards for most people it is not better than iPhone 3.0 (OS features, responsiveness, battery life, applications). Which isn’t to say it’s much worse, but that if I were to give a recommendation, all other things being equal, I’d recommend someone go w/ a 3GS over a Pre. Given that statement, why am I switching? Here are my reasons (they may or may not apply to you):
- In the cities I frequent (SF, LA, NYC), AT&T reception has been getting increasingly worse – a good quarter of my calls drop in SF, especially when I head downtown, and this past LA trip racked up a good 50% call failure rate across West LA, Culver City, Downtown, and Arcadia (this I’m sure is exacerbated when both ends are on iPhones). In comparison, on calls I’ve made this week w/ the G2 (T-Mobile) and Pre (Sprint), I’ve had no dropped calls at the same locations. Also, 3G data just doesn’t work in downtown SF and it seems, anytime there are lots of iPhones in an area. This is a problem that seems to be common enough, but as AT&T seems to not be acknowledging these problems and is unable or unwilling to fix them, and with the introduction of both more desirable and cheaper iPhones, I can only surmise that this will get worse. (somewhat related to that, I’ll also be saving $15/mo on my bill ($360 over 24 months), which is a pleasant bonus.)
- I’ll be dedicating a post to this soon, but my moral outrage at Apple’s App approval process has been pretty palpable – it literally revulses me when I think too hard about it, and it’s managed to burn off a lot of the good will and regard that I feel for Apple over the past few months (not as much as when I had to admin a labful of OS9 Macs <tic> but…) Calling it evil is I think pretty accurate. This behavior is enabled by the fact that the iPhone is currently the only game in town for mobile developers. I think that everyone (including, in the long term, Apple) would benefit if this weren’t the case.
- The Pre surpasses the minimum bar of general usability I have and there are some aspects of the Pre that are noticeably superior to the iPhone. I mentioned a couple things in an earlier post like the quick camera and the unified inbox. Others include the way notifications work, which is non-modal and doesn’t steal focus (NOTE to Android PMs [I address this to the PMs because it's clear there must not be any UI designers with any say whatsoever]) and the thoughtful ways to go into airplane mode (as an option on power-off and in the menu when tapping on the upper right).
- This is a biggie for me, but if you are also into poking around on your phone, the Pre is the most hacker friendly phone I’ve ever seen (yes, much more-so than open phones like the Android or OpenMoko, as you can easily modify the UI directly (since the apps are in JS) instead of having to recompile GTK/Java-based apps or flash hacked firmwares). With an unencrypted and very clean embedded Linux OS w/ a standard layout and easy root access (bonus style points for the use of the Konami code to enable it), I have a feeling we’ll be seeing lots really interesting stuff coming out of the homebrew scene soon. Even better, the initial Palm response to this hacking has been benign, if not outright friendly. This is the right way to build up developer good will. Here’s my sandbox for poking around on that (and for projects that are outside the scope of the Mojo SDK).
The biggest caveat for those considering the Pre right now is the battery-life. For me, it’ll last for about 8-12 hours under very light usage, which is OK, but the bad part is that unlike my iPhone, the Pre sucks battery life at an alarmingly regular rate while idling. Whereas I can leave my iPhone unplugged overnight and maybe see a 1/4-1/3 drop, doing that w/ the Pre will leave you with a dead phone. The battery is still new, so it might get better with conditioning and I’ve heard that there’s an update that might be released soon to help address the battery issues, but as of right now… it’s an issue.
OK, so with that out of the way, here’s where I start nitpicking through things…
Both the G2 and the Pre are smaller (but thicker) than the iPhone. They both feel a bit lighter than the iPhone (the glass screen on the iPhone gives it a lot of that heft), but all three feel pretty good in the hand (it’s tossup between the G2 which is the least wide and fits better in my hand and the Pre which is overall rounder).
The G2 has only one connector a combination mini-USB/custom HTC adapter on the bottom (no 3.5mm headphone jack; there wasn’t an adapter in my box – I assume the retail versions will have one, but it’s still rather ridiculous) and a volume rocker on the side. On the front, there’s a trackball and 6 buttons (home, menu, back, search, call, and end/power). There are two LEDs on each side of the earpiece speaker near the top – they don’t seem to blink for notifications, just when charging or low on battery.
The lack of a hardware ringer switch is one of my pet peeves. In fact, with the G2, there’s actually no way to go into silent or vibrate mode without pulling it out of your pocket and unlocking the phone and then silencing it, as the volume keys are locked and don’t do anything otherwise. Personally, I consider this a pretty big minus, as the ability to easily go into and confirm that you’re in silent mode without pulling your phone out is something that I use all the time (meetings, movies, anywhere you’re around company and trying to be inconspicuous).
When closed, the Pre’s button layout pretty much matches the iPhone’s. The ringer switch is there of course (with a [too weak] vibrate to confirm), and the power button is on the top-left corner, which is convenient for handling calls (one click to dismiss, two to send to voice mail). My big nitpick for the buttons is that while like the iPhone, the two-step wake process involves a button-click and a gesture, in this case, the center-button doesn’t work, just the power button. Now, this may just be muscle memory (and I can to some degree understand why the center button doesn’t wake, as it protrudes as opposed to the iPhone’s better designed recessed center button), but, and this has happened a fair number of times, the power button is almost inaccessible when the slider is open, making waking/unlocking a complete pain in the ass when it’s open. It can be woken also by use of the slider, but…
The slider is another point where I’m not entirely happy with. Because of the Pre’s shape and surface, I’ve found it almost impossible to open single-handed (and sometimes difficult even with two hands). No one I’ve handed the phone to has had an easy time with it (or typically, even figuring out the sliding w/o prompting). I’ve just slapped on some Ghost Armor on, which actually seems to add just enough grip to make this significantly easier. I assume that the Touchstone back, w/ it’s soft-touch back would also make a big difference in that regard.
One thing that I mentioned earlier that I’m incredibly happy with is the Pre’s TRRS support on its 3.5mm jack – that means all your iPhone headsets will work (including the mic and the remote). I’ve noticed that there are sometimes issues with unpausing with the clicker, but as it seems to work flawlessly with the Pandora app, I’m going to chalk it up to Palm’s Music app, which is to put it charitably, a bit flaky.
While the battery-life of my iPhone was a definite step down from my Blackberry, in general use, both my original and my 3G have proved to be solid performers, generally managing to provide a full day (and more importantly, night’s) worth of charge. Under duress (conferences, etc.), the ubiquity of external batteries/standalone chargers has helped ameliorate those problems and the latest generation of case/battery combos are downright sexy. It’s funny to think that a couple years ago, a non-removable battery was a big deal, but now, it just isn’t…
The Pre seems to have been conceived prior to that point. Yes, the battery is removable. But the flip side of having a battery that doesn’t last through the day… I’m not sure that’s quite the selling point they were hoping for. There’s apparently a 1350mAh third party replacement battery (same form factor), which is a start, but I think there will need to be some software tweaking that focuses on some smart and aggressive power management to really fix this problem. (It’s by far the biggest weakness of the Pre I’ve found so far).
The G2 on the other hand has been a pleasant surprise (especially w/ the issues the G1 has had) and seems to have great battery life. Even during the first day with very heavy downloading (installing dozens of apps, poking around into everything) it had no problem making it through the day.
I type a lot on my phones (and have since getting my first Treo 600 and my original Danger Hiptop) and prefer QWERTY keyboards (I’ve switched back and forth between portrait and landscape, and now virtual vs physical). The keyboard on the Pre is pretty good (and laid out properly, w/ the @ and period on either side of the space) – I have no problems typing on it and the accuracy is much better than on the iPhone keyboard. That being said, I’m not sure it’s a huge speed boost and I find myself missing the corrections and the
emoji international keyboards. The Android software keyboard on the G2 is also quite good, however, entering keyboard mode is sometimes awkward. Like the rest of the Android UI, there’s a certain lack of UI polish as things get pushed off (sometimes hidden) off-screen when the keyboard activates, but overall the Android keyboard worked surprisingly well.
Before I got the iPhone, I was as skeptical as anyone about the virtual keyboard, however after using it for a couple years, I’m now rather agnostic about it. What’s clear though is that the virtual keyboard has a huge advantage in flexibility, like the iPhone’s world class internationalization or for the still-as-of-yet largely untapped custom/app/domain-specific keyboard layouts.
OS Look and Feel
In my eyes, webOS is the first competitor to finally step up to the iPhone’s challenge in terms of presenting a well-thought out and genuinely delightful interface. It’s been interesting to watch this play out over the past couple years – not only did Apple catch the mobile manufacturers flat-footed, but we got to watch, Keystone Cops style as the various players tried to catch up, mostly pushing out half-baked, cargo cult touchscreen implementations that seemed to have missed most of the point.
The Pre’s general responsiveness is good – it’s gotten some dings on app-loading time, but it seems no worse (and sometimes much better) than responsiveness on my iPhone. One thing that the iPhone does much better for app-loading however is with affordances – the iPhone has a built in “zoom” that not only gives a 1s mask for the app, but also instantly lets the user know that the user was successful in launching, even if they are subsequently greeted with a blank screen, although the Mobile HIG gives recommendations (and the SDK code samples) for storing an app image snapshot. Android actually does this decently – apps seem to load much faster by default, but there is a swipe animation and a title bar replacement that gives you instant feedback on launching.
Another area where the iPhone still beats both the Pre and G2 is in responsiveness of the “desktop” – its combination of software physics and the physical surface feels just right (it may be an illusion, but 3.0 feels even zippier than 2.x) – very quick and responsive, super-slick, never laggy. The Pre is a close second – there is occasional lag with the launcher and it’s just a hair slower – and the plastic surface is surprisingly good. It really only suffers when you do a head-by-head comparison with the iPhone (so smooth…).
The G2 is (you might be beginning to notice a theme developing from here on out) far behind. The screen is supposed to be capacitive, but is laggier and draggier than the Pre, and doesn’t support multitouch. It doesn’t have any sort of physics at all, which, while boring is actually the least serious of my complaints. My biggest ire is reserved for the wonkiness of the drag/click interactions. The notifications bar (which is non-modal but which steals the focus from what you’re doing when there’s a new notification – STAB STAB STAB) seems to fill up quite quickly, but requires a flick with a certain distance/acceleration to pull down to dismiss (they can only be cleared en-masse). On the bottom, there’s a tab for the (alphabetically ordered only) launcher that reacts similarly, but also can be clicked to expand. This is complicated of course by the fact that if you don’t click exactly, it registers as a drag and you get a useless 2px animated move. Which fresh-from Stanford grad thought that one up? Even worse, this same tab is used elsewhere in the interface (like in the dialer) but doesn’t respond to clicks at all – you’re left to wonder if you accidentally dragged until you realize that in this interface the exact same looking tab is drag-only and doesn’t respond to clicks at all. Thanks!
The most interesting bit of the Android desktop, the three-pane “desktop” unfortunately suffers from the fact that there is currently only one really great widget (the lock2′s Weather Widget) – I mean really, what am I going to do with a Twitter widget that shows the last (yes as in single) tweet from my stream? I ended up (over) filling up the rest of the desktop with icons of the apps I wanted to use in a sensible/findable organization. To add insult to injury, the desktop often slows down (or disappears completely!), even though it’s… pretty useless.
(On the desktop note, it’s unfortunate that the Pre like the iPhone doesn’t allow any way of customizing the lock screen or the “desktop” (which is empty when there are no cards) w/ a Dashboard or Today style screen – this is something that BB and WinMo have had forever, and something that the N97 (and future Android phones) are on the right track with.)
More scorn needs to be heaped on the G2 for it’s accelerometer – instead of having a regular rotation like any normal implementation, it instead darkens and blurs your screen (rendering it illegible) for a good second or two before flipping it. This makes every single accidental flip that much more annoying – if you find yourself forced to use a G2, do yourself a favor and go to Settings -> Display -> Orientation to turn that off. It’s that badly done. The Pre’s accelerometer behavior in contrast is quite impressive – both zippier and less touchy than my iPhone’s.
A note on boot times. The iPhone takes about 1m45s to boot up. The Pre is just a hair worse, about 1m55s. The G2 does better at about 1m05s – 1m15s (the fudge is because the launcher is a bit stuttery as widgets and other things initialize).
While Palm has made a big deal of their “Universal Search” and the idea of “just typing” if you’re stuck, it turns out that iPhone 3.0′s search is actually better – not only slightly quicker and more responsive, but also more comprehensive. Apple’s search indexes notes, calendar items, and emails among other things (none of which webOS does currently). Here’s hoping Palm can follow through with their search framework.
One other thing to note is that there doesn’t appear to be any type of adaptive ranking mechanism for searches on the Pre. That is, no matter how many times you pick the “Flickr” contact when sending emails, it’ll never rise up in the results list right now. This is a major drag and something that the iPhone has done since launch.
One of the things that the Pre blows away the iPhone on is handling multiple accounts. As I mentioned in my earlier article, right now, if there were new mail, we’re talking about 4 clicks to check mail for each account. 2 clicks just to get to the top level to check which account new mail has come into… It’s a right mess. The search in 3.0 is a welcome addition, although it looks like you can either do a global search in the main search interface (click the home button twice) or search within a folder when you’re in the Mail app.
Strangely enough, the Pre handles my GMail accounts (one GMail, four GMail for domains) better than the G2 – Android has a special “GMail” app that can only connect to the single “primary” Google account you hook your Android up to (this connects the Contacts and Calendar as well), but then you’re forced to use a separate “EMail” app for everything else. This is… stupid. It also is kludgy and not very pleasant. Overall, I’m much happier w/ how the Pre handles things. Setup is a little weird (you have to wait for it to fail automatically connecting before you getting a chance to manually change the settings), but after things are humming, it’s generally pleasant (with IMAP IDLE support). There are currently some EAS issues being worked out apparently, but I don’t have to deal w/ Exchange so that doesn’t impact me. One annoyance w/ Palm’s new email notifications is that a clicking through takes you into the message, but backing out takes you to the message’s Inbox, not the unified inbox. It’d be nice to control the default view there, and it seems there might be a better way of navigating (a drop down where the title/header bar is?), but it’s not a bad start.
There’s barely a day that goes by (well, those days I guess when I don’t step out the door) where I haven’t my iPhone’s Map application. If minutes were logged for application usage (that’d be nice, actually), I’d guess that it’d be by far the number one app. As such, I’m rather sensitive to its various foibles (somewhat stingy caching, the extra clicks for routing/re-routing from the current location, lack of reverse chronological listing of searches or the ability to juggle multiple points) and had high expectations for these other phones, especially Android.
Unfortunately, both the Pre and G2 fall short. The Pre’s GMaps are functional, but it seems to be a pure web-app (head to maps.google.com w/ the TeleNav, the same guys that developed the AT&T Navigator now available for the iPhone. The nice thing is that this comes free on the Pre (it’s a $10/mo extra on the iPhone) and it actually works pretty well (including integration w/ the address book). The speaker voice is a bit hard to hear, and it absolutely kills battery life (I couldn’t find a way to pause it or put in in the background while you have a route input), but it’s pretty neat if you drive a lot (the updating ETA is quite nice).
All three are WebKit-based browsers. You wouldn’t expect that much difference, so the big surprise for me was how horrible the Android browser is – it’s pretty much unusable. It doesn’t zoom well at all, so pretty much all layouts go off the screen, and it doesn’t support double-clicking to zoom to a DIV or reformat, so you’re forced to use the fixed zoom buttons (no pinch and spread of course). I was pretty shocked. It’s also the only one of the browsers to not support HTML5 data storage (it has support Gears storage instead – what a pain). The iPhone 3.0 browser is currently the only one of those browsers to support W3C geolocation (which Safari 4 and Firefox 3.5 both support).
The Pre browser has been fine – pretty zippy (slightly faster than 3.0 on the 3G, although that may be network dependent), with only a few rough edges (lack of zoom for field inputs, YouTube embeds don’t link to the YouTube app, and it doesn’t lock dragging, presumably because of the Apple patent). The only real rendering issues I have is with the iPhone version of Google Reader – it seems to occasionally get lost in the page when expanding some of the articles. There’s probably some weird height calculation/scrolling issues going on or something…