I have been an Apple-centric user for the last thirteen or so years, having been swayed back in high school by the excellent build quality of aluminum PowerBooks and the utility of OS X. Since then, I’ve primarily (though not exclusively) purchased and used Apple products, including MacBook Pros, iMacs, and most applicable here, iPhones. It’s always been a good experience, and while I try to avoid any fanboyism, I am a proponent of the platform.
However, after spending so long in one ecosystem, you begin to wonder just what the other side is like. I would have friends with Androids and would occasionally try to help them accomplish something. I would fumble through it but usually achieve what I wanted, but lacked familiarity. I have even written cross-platform apps intended to be used on Android, all without ever having spent much time on the platform. I decided that, as someone who frequently writes mobile applications for a living, I should probably invest some time to be able to speak from a position of experience. And so with that, I began looking for an alternative to my iPhone 6.
- Project Fi
- Nexus 5X and Android
- Project Fi, Round 2 – Customer Experience
- Switching back to iPhone
- Conclusions and tl;dr Summary
Being a Verizon customer, and getting a little tired of paying premium rates, I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to try out Google’s Project Fi. I had a standing invite, and Google had just launched a promo for $150 off the Nexus 5X, which is the phone functionally nearest my iPhone 6 (I didn’t want to go too big on screen size with the 6P), so I signed up and ordered service and a black 32Gb Nexus 5X.
Google has the UX and onboarding experience of Project Fi down pat. Signing up was superbly simple, including porting my existing number, and I didn’t have to step into any stores, call any sales department or get worried about any random fees being tacked on (upgrade fees, seriously!?). Great experience.
Project Fi is also great because of the on-phone management app. You can see how much data you’ve used, make adjustments to your plan, and even pause or cancel service with a couple taps right from the app. All providers should have this. The per-megabyte pricing is also very understandable, and quite fair in my opinion.
Nexus 5X and Android
All in all, I was impressed with this phone. It only cost $250 and had a big, bright screen, and weighs less than my smaller iPhone. Its back is a soft matte plastic that actually has grip, which is one of my biggest gripes about the current generation of iPhones—they’re like a bar of soap and impossible to keep a decent grip on. The fingerprint sensor is probably my favorite feature on the 5X. It is lightning fast, and the placement (on the back where your index finger naturally lays) is fantastic. You just rest your finger on top of the sensor and the screen immediately wakes up and unlocks. No more pressing a physical button, leaving your finger there for a second, and then proceeding. It makes usage of the phone instantaneous.
The phone, however, isn’t perfect. The sound from the speaker is a little tinny and rattles. The wall charger made an audible buzzing sound (more on the charger later), and the battery life leaves something to be desired. I actually ran the phone dead several different days when using it, something I’ve yet to do with my iPhones. If battery life was one of the big improvements in Android 6/Marshmallow, I don’t want to know what it was like previously. Also, the camera is s-l-o-w. Delays after tapping the shutter button are often at least half a second, meaning many missed shots. Otherwise, the camera quality is good.
One other area where I was disappointed with the 5X was with its ambient light sensor and consequently the screen brightness adjustments. Using the phone at night was usually a blinding experience until I could manage to turn the screen brightness all the way down, whereas an iPhone typically picks up on the darker environment and dims the screen before you interact with it. Moving to brighter light often took the 5X longer to pick up on as well, and the shift between brightness levels was often stairstepped, resulting in an experience where I could obviously tell the phone was adjusting to 25%, 30%, 35% brightness instead of 25%, 26%, 27%…35% brightness. It’s the little touches.
Still though, pretty good hardware and a great price. Pixel density of the screen was just as good as an iPhone, it wasn’t oversaturated like I’ve seen other Androids, and it felt great to hold, even though I like smaller phones.
Unboxing and First Run Experience
The box that the phone and Project Fi SIM card came in was nice, but it was interesting to note that it was just the phone hardware and a SIM card, no welcome letter, instructions, etc. Not a big deal, but it’s not something you’d want to send your grandmother. The Nexus packaging was good (takes cues from Apple packaging in a way), but the single instructional material in the box was crazy (see image). Instructions appear to go counterclockwise around the page, and while it makes sense, I still get visual overload looking at it!
After popping out the SIM card from its holder and inserting it into the phone (haven’t had to do that in about nine years), I turned the phone on for the first time. It took a bit but it recognized the SIM and started getting itself ready. The phone then prompted me to install the 6.0.1 Android update–that’s fine, always nice to have the latest and greatest. It downloaded the update and rebooted itself. Good to go, right?
Not so fast! The phone then said it would be installing the January update packs. Okay, proceed. Download, install, reboot. Okay, now go. Nope! February updates. Wait, what? And yes, there was also a March and April update pack as well. C’mon Google, bundle the updates! It was nearly two hours from when I first turned the phone on to when it actually got to the first usable screen because it had to install five updates before it ever even got to asking me who I was! Yikes, not a friendly first run experience.
I’m a big fan of Material Design. While Apple decided to shun skeumorphism by reverting to a 100% flat design aesthetic, and in the process losing usability and familiarity, Material Design strikes the right balance between simplicity and communicating function via depth and motion. Material Design lends itself well as a design language to many different kinds of apps, which makes it easier for both the developers and users of those apps. The bold colors are beautiful, and the font weights and sizes are easy on the eyes.
Also, animations are super well thought out in Material Design. Apps that have taken to heart the principle of Material Motion (how things are animated in Material Design), provide a level of information during navigation that sets a new bar. Besides looking nice, animating between scenes by maintaining or transforming common elements is great, and allows a user to keep context when they perform an action. For example, clicking on a photo from a grid of items keeps that photo on screen as it maximizes it, but then also grows its container box to include the textual details of the photo as well.
Contrasting this approach with iOS navigation design, which is often horizontally linear (tapping an item will slide a new view in from the right to show details), Motion and Material Design encourages expanding and growing paradigms to accomplish the same actions. This isn’t to say that every iOS app follows a master-detail slide approach, or every recent Android app applies the Motion concepts, but in general I think a developer would have an easier time incorporating the useful effects of Material Motion into an app as a navigational aide than would an iOS dev.
Perhaps one of the biggest perceived differences for me between iOS and Android was the speed of animations. I’m still looking for hard numbers on this, but just from side by side experience I can say that, due to the speed of animations on Android, many things simply feel much faster on that platform. Even if you opt for “reduced motion” on iOS and just have simple fades, things still feel slower, and I know I’m not the only one who complains about this. One of the biggest differences is seen when switching between apps. Two factors affect speed here:
- iOS requires a physical double tap on on the home button, and adds a slight artificial delay to make sure you aren’t doing a third tap. Android requires just a single tap on the dedicated multitasking soft key button on screen.
- Recent apps on Android are displayed nearly instantaneously, whereas iOS churns a bit before showing recent apps. Also, flicking between apps on iOS is anchored to move between just one or two apps per swipe, whereas Android is a continuous flow of recent apps on swiping.
Despite an iPhone 6 having a processor with fewer cores and a slower clockspeed (Apple A8) compared to the Nexus 5X’s Snapdragon 808, the A8 still outperforms the 808 in both CPU and GPU benchmarks. And yet that performance doesn’t come across simply because the animations all end up feeling slower on iOS. It’s unfortunate that Apple doesn’t let us tweak animation speeds on iOS, but the platform is also bounded by having a single physical button for accomplishing what three soft buttons are doing on Android. Until that changes, I’ll prefer the snappiness of my 5X/Android 6 to an iPhone.
Android as a Platform
Feature parity pretty much exists between Android and iOS right now, which is great, with Android even starting to blaze the trail with new and interesting features that Apple is going to have to catch up on (for example, better notifications).
Having a swipe keyboard on all the time as a default keyboard is awesome. I don’t think that I am actually faster when swiping than when tapping things out, but in one-handed scenarios swiping blows tapping out of the water as far as usability. On iOS I often end up using third-party keyboards, even including the recent GBoard, and like it. But third-party keyboards on iOS are always just buggy enough to get frustrating, especially when a keyboard refuses to show up on screen, requiring you to force quit an app just type a message.
One huge, glaring difference that I had nearly forgotten about until I started using the platform is that Google is, at its very core, and advertising company. I use ad blockers and other helpful products in other computing scenarios, but upon switching to Android I saw ads ALL OVER THE PLACE! Seriously, there were even ads for various Google products on my first run. The app store is full of ads, there would be occasional push notifications from Google about ads for some in-house service to try, and heaven help you browsing the web on Android.
That last point was by far the most frustrating. You forget just how many ads there are on the web until you browse it without a blocker, and mobile is the worst because of constrained screen space, and evidently very poor coding and content delivery setups. It felt like every other page I visited had an ad taking up half the screen placed every couple of paragraphs. And these ads were often slow to load, meaning I would be reading text, only to have my screen position jump as an ad all of the sudden finishes loading and displaying, making me lose my position.
“Okay,” I thought to myself, “Android is the open platform, so surely I just have to download an ad blocking app that works with Chrome, right?” iOS has several options. Not so fast! Unless you’re rooting the phone, you’re out of luck. There are no extensions in Chrome Mobile, and best as I could tell, the next best option was to use a third-party browser with the functionality built in. But doing so negates half the reason of using Chrome and Android—tight integration with service and my desktop Chrome experience. Ads on Android were a huge turn-off.
Other small points: searching the Play Store is worlds better than searching/using the Apple App Store (though discovery still sucks on both). I liked the soft buttons more than I thought I would, especially the back button (which did exactly what I thought it would do… about 80% of the time). I still feel like there are too many ways to accomplish a task on Android due to its open nature, which hurts usability and familiarity a bit. There are a couple bugs, like the microphone ceasing to respond sometimes when using Google Now, requiring a restart. Speaking of Google Now, it’s pretty nice. It requires you to unlock the phone for almost anything, more so than Siri, but the superfast fingerprint sensor makes that okay. Virtually any app I needed on Android was available, so there isn’t the “I can’t get that on Android” problem anymore.
All in all, I’m pretty happy with Android. Besides the ads, which were infuriating, the rest of the platform is solid and there were many areas that I preferred it to iOS. As historically an Apple fan, I would say that Android is leading the way as far as mobile innovation goes right now. Cupertino, start your photocopiers.
Project Fi, Round 2
What follows is a highly subjective and mixed experience. One evening I plugged in my phone to charge it up, and went to use it about an hour later. As I grabbed the charging cable to disconnect it, I pretty much burned my fingers as they met with melting plastic, and I now have a charging cable that has been deformed like putty and now has my fingerprint embedded in it. The wall charger, cable, and the base of my phone were all extremely hot and melting. The casing around the charging port on the phone had started to bubble; the game was up. The charger had previously worked fine, and everything was original manufacturer gear.
The next day I called Project Fi, which, to their credit, never has any hold times, and got a very friendly associate. I explained the situation and they said they’d be happy to immediately ship me out a replacement, which would be overnighted. Great! There must have been a communication breakdown, however, because an hour later I got an email which stated that I had to actually go in and order the new phone myself (evidently the rep didn’t/couldn’t do this themselves), and the email gave directions for ordering a refurbished Nexus 6P instead of a new Nexus 5X. Odd, I thought, but after calling back (phone call #2) to confirm that I had to do this, I went ahead and did so. Because of a mistake on my end, I originally ordered it to the wrong address, couldn’t fix it online, but another call (phone call #3) to Project Fi allowed me to cancel the order, receive a new order email, and order a replacement again, this time to my correct address. My fault, but a little cumbersome to correct.
“Overnight” really means two business days I guess, because that’s how long it took to actually get the replacement. I tepidly used the phone and charger in the meantime due to necessity, but was worried about it each time in the interim. I opened the new box (which had zero documentation or papering whatsoever), only to find a very obviously refurbished phone attached to cardboard, and a tiny little USB C to traditional USB cord, and no wall charger. I was pretty bummed. Even in spite of the bubbling and melting, my original phone still looked in better physical shape than the refurb replacement, and why wasn’t the main culprit, the wall charger, replaced at all?
Phone call #4 to Project Fi confirmed that yes, even though this incident occurred within the first 30 days of owning the phone, they ship out refurbs in nearly all cases, and they just seem to have forgotten about the charger. The rep was helpful, and said that I could go on to the Play Store and order a replacement charger and they’d reimburse me, but it was still disappointing. He said that the first rep should have made this clear to me (didn’t happen). To be frank, this really marred my Android experience. Apple would have just given me a new phone, no questions asked, because of the timeframe of the incident. Even though this phone was ordered through Project Fi, there was still a level of abdication of responsibility that was unfortunate.
Nevertheless, still needing to use the phone and not want to burn my hot little hands again, I ordered a new charger (not original to the phone, since they don’t sell it), paid for it, and, not knowing what kind of shipping they would pay for, opted for 3-5 day shipping. Phone call #5 to Project Fi was me explaining the situation again and asking for a refund of $51.22, the cost of the charger and shipping. Oddly enough, the rep said, “I like round numbers, I’m going to reimburse you $52.00.” Ooookay, sure… $0.78 for the trouble, right? 😉 That almost covers the paper, ink, and packaging materials I had to produce to print out my own RMA and shipping labels to send the damaged hardware back in.
Switching back to iPhone
To Project Fi’s credit, however, managing your own account is awesomely simple. When it finally came time for me to switch back to my iPhone, I moved on to T-Mobile from Verizon, and didn’t need to make a single call or speak a single time with any “customer retention” department, thank heavens. In fact, you just open up the Project Fi app, tap the “Cancel Account” button, answer a couple of quick questions and then get your account number and PIN to port your number to a new provider. The app assures you that you will continue having service until your number porting is complete, and this was indeed the case. Great experience with Project Fi as a cell provider (network was never an issue by the way).
So why did I switch back? In a word: integration. Because I use other Apple products (MacBooks, Apple TV, etc.), there is a large, tangible benefit from using various products all tightly tied with each other. Being able to have Messages integrated into both my phone and OS X, for example, is a huge efficiency gain for me, for example. And while I did find and use Pushbullet to kind of achieve the same functionality with Android, it just wasn’t quite the same. I could go out and buy a Chromecast and send things to my TV, but I already have an Apple TV and AirPlay works great. Another situational reason is that literally every other member of mine and my wife’s family use iPhones, which means awesome group messaging. Find My Friends is also something that my wife and I use frequently to help each other plan and coordinate, and we lost that on Android.
Fit and finish still feels slightly superior in the Apple ecosystem, but that is leveling off. Apple is executing better, but Android is innovating more. Apple is still more the consumer-focused company, while Google is still the ad sales company, and that shows through. Android offers more flexibility, but Apple offers better integration. And in my advanced age (almost three decades old now!) my crotchety old self is happier having everything neatly tied up with a bow for me, than needing to research, customize, and tweak every little thing. It still “just works” better in Apple-land.
Were I starting fresh and didn’t have the personal pre-existing situational conditions I mentioned above, which platform would I choose? The great answer that I’ve come to is that either choice would result in a great user experience. Prior to a couple of years ago the clear winner was probably Apple, but Android has certainly caught up in many regards and is even leading in some now. And despite the unfortunate sob story I related about melting phones, I’m actually still very impressed with Project Fi and the Android platform.
Developers, in particular, should be open to experiencing both platforms and learning from each. For example, even if not adapting the look and feel of Material UI, designers and developers would do themselves a big favor by reviewing the Material Design and Motion documentation, as it currently does a much better job of laying out mobile design principles than Apple’s HIG. Traditionally iOS-focused developers should also look to Android’s recent innovations in areas like interactive notifications which, to a certain extent, are available on iOS right now, and think how such features could be implemented in their own apps. Familiarity allows for cross-pollination of ideas, and an understanding of different approaches.
And now, summary points as bullets:
- Project Fi
- Great pricing, great transparency, great self-service management. All other carriers take note!
- Support: good interaction, poor execution
- Android Hardware (specific to Nexus 5X)
- Snappy performance and very good build quality led to a great hardware experience
- Little things like the placement of the fingerprint sensor and its speed were big wins
- Still playing catchup in areas like battery life, high quality components, and not melting
- Android as a Platform
- Material Design is a fantastic mobile experience. From better usability thanks to appropriate usage of depth to faster perceived performance courtesy of great and quick animations, it was a pleasure to use
- App selection is entirely on par with iOS ecosystem and customization is great
- User friendliness lacking in some areas like no rolled-up updates and presenting a very technical interface (I still do not want to have to deal with a filesystem on my mobile device)
- Using a platform produced by an ad company results in ads all over the place, degrading the experience
- I switched back to iPhone because of the convenience and usability it offers, but general consumers would probably be well-served by either platform these days
- Developers should be very familiar with both platforms in order to create the best experiences for their customers and move the field forward
Thoughts, questions, or comments? Tried the switch yourself? Would love to hear what other people’s experiences have been in this regard.