About 6 months ago, Google announced a slew of consumer-grade products geared squarely at Apple and Amazon. At the event, they presented the Home, the Pixel, and Google WiFi and they all caught my eye for different reasons. I’m intrigued by the concept of mesh networking rather than throwing a router in one corner of the house, I’ve also had my eye on the connected home being controlled by voice, and I’ve been waiting for a truly premium heir to the Nexus line of phones to see if it was really worth making the switch (again).  I alluded to this in a recent post about my slow breakup with the Apple ecosystem, but I’ve been slowly making purchasing decisions based on what works best for me and my family, not what works best just with Apple stuff. A few examples of this is Todoist instead of OmniFocus, Spotify instead of Apple Music, Roku Streaming Sticks instead of Apple TV, and so on. At this point I’m heavily invested in Apple hardware (MacBook Pro, iPhone, Apple Watch) but from an ecosystem angle I’m pretty well spread out amongst a number of services. So, what was it like to try out Google’s latest and greatest?

Google Home

I’ve been interested in a connected home setup for some time but wasn’t sold on the Amazon Echo given the price point and lack of integration with the way I listen to music at home – we have a number of Chromecast Audios hooked up to speakers throughout the home as well as Chromecasts on our TVs. When the demo of the Google Home was shown at the 2016 I/O, (although some of the functionality isn’t baked in yet) I was definitely interested if the price was right. When they were announced at $129 each, that was all I needed to know.

I immediately bought 2 Homes – one for our kitchen and one for our bedroom. We use these things constantly for tasks as simple as setting timers and controlling our Nest thermostats but also for things like controlling multi-room audio, getting general trivia and weather from the web, and turning lights on and off. The voice recognition works very well, even when music or TV audio are playing, and it gets my commands right a vast majority of the time. We’ve gotten into the habit of using it pretty frequently when in the kitchen or getting ready for work. It’s really been a joy to use, and the capabilities are improving every week.

That said, it’s got a long way to go before it can truly challenge the Echo on the number of features it has. But for me, I wanted something that looked good in our house and has the potential of being smarter over time with a company like Google backing it. The thing that really sold me was the integration with Chromecasts – instead of buying a Sonos system in our house we saved $2k by just hooking up existing speakers to Chromecasts. I also play a lot of podcasts throughout the house, which I love do to on the weekends. It’s been freeing to have the ability to have smart home products from multiple vendors that all work together. Sometimes it’s not as easy as just logging into your iCloud account, but you have more choices.

A few things I hope make their way into the Home is the ability to queue music better, multi account functionality (so my wife and I could each do Google account specific stuff), the ability to send messages, and a way to have voice feedback set to one level and media set to another. If you’re looking to get into voice controlled assistants or even just want something to play music on, this is a great option at $129.

Google Pixel XL

I also took the plunge on a 128gb Pixel XL. I had 14 days to return it, so I figured I’d give it an honest look to see if the battery life, camera, OS features and build quality made it worth it to switch.

The short answer is that the Google Pixel XL better than my iPhone 6s Plus in nearly every measurable way. Now I know that isn’t the fairest comparison as the 6s Plus was released in September 2015 and the Pixel XL shipped last November but the only real unfair comparison there would be camera quality and performance. That said, I’m floored with how great Android 7.0 is now compared to iOS 10 and how fantastic the camera is on the Pixel.

The longer answer is a bit more complicated.

Build and screen quality of the Pixel were on par with the iPhone – it’s nothing flashy, with similar bezels to the current Apple offerings, but it’s fine. I don’t mind the fingerprint sensor being on the back, but I do think it’s faster for me to have it on the front. It can be annoying to have to unlock with your PIN when your phone is laying flat on the desk for sure, but it’s not the end of the world. The saving grace for this difference is that Android lets you set trusted unlock locations and connections so you aren’t forced to use the fingerprint sensor constantly. Android has a concept of a “Smart Lock” that allows you to set trusted locations, devices, voices and more to allow you to not require a pin or fingerprint if you’re paired to your car’s Bluetooth, or you’re at home.

The actual feel of the hardware is great, to the point where I don’t need a case. Battery life is a tough one – the standby time of the Pixel was fantastic compared to my current phone but was slightly worse on days where I’d be heavily using the screen. I never struggled to get through the day but I was constantly in the 30% range by the end of the day, compared to maybe 40–50% range with my 6s Plus. Fast charging makes up for any issues here though, as a good 20–30 minutes can get you from 30% to 85% easily. Knowing that’s an option removes any possible battery anxiety.

The camera is the best phone camera I’ve ever used, and the ‘smart burst’ functionality of the phone means that you always get a really good shot when dealing with quick moving targets like a kid or two. I already use Google Photos as a backup for my photo library, so getting free ‘for life’ storage for anything shot from the Pixel XL is something Apple should be doing for iPhones.

On the software side, I firmly believe that Android is now better than iOS for my needs. The way notifications work and are grouped, the organization of the home screens, the default keyboard and overall UX make my time on my phone much more pleasurable. Things have evolved to the point where visually I like the look and feel of Android as well from a color, animation and layout perspective. Little things add up, too. Persistent notifications for chat conversations and media playback mean it’s very easy to switch contexts. After using Android for a few weeks, it feels like everything in iOS takes a few extra taps to accomplish. The app ecosystem really isn’t a problem anymore, either. There are a few apps here and there that I’ll miss from iOS (Day One, Reeder, Fantastical and Pennies come to mind) but it’s not a deal breaker like it was for me 3 years ago.

Other than the above mentioned apps above, the biggest things I missed from iOS was a good messaging solution (iMessage is so amazing and I have no idea why Google can’t find a way to merge Allo, Hangouts and SMS into a unified ‘thing’) and iCloud photo sharing (but I could still do this from my computer so no huge loss). The biggest gripes I had with Android and the Pixel mostly related to missing my watch being integrated (time to start shopping for an Android Wear device!), Average battery life under heavy use, having to use Pushbullet to get text notifications on my work computer (which is a great service, just not as nice as a native app like Messages on the Mac), and the location/volume of the one speaker on the bottom. Lift to wake also wasn’t super reliable in my experience, which is amazing on iOS.

Having a phone with a voice assistant that responds well, is more open (creating tasks in Todoist was dead simple), and gives good contextual answers is really a game changer. I found myself using voice for a ton in the past few months because of the Google Home and always disappointed by Siri. Having a seamless system that truly works everywhere is fantastic.

As an aside, not having notifications on my wrists for messages and other important apps was a big negative. Next time I go for an Android device I’ll have to get a smart watch as well.

As the 2 weeks came to a close I started thinking hard about if this phone or any phone is worth the $4–500 I’d have to spend to buy it (after selling my current iPhone to recoup some costs). I think that answer is no, but I am sad to move back to iOS and return the Pixel XL. Other than some battery gripes it’s really better in every way. So, in the short term I’m happy enough with my iPhone 6s Plus and iOS in general to not invest $900 on a new phone with new hardware less than 6 months out. If I were buying a new phone today I’d get the Pixel XL and I can recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone looking for a new phone. I’m going to have an eye on Google I/O, WWDC and the fall hardware announcements from each company with an even sharper eye than ever before. If I were a betting man, when it comes time to replace my current iPhone I’ll be buying the Pixel XL 2 or whatever it’s called unless Apple really wows me with their hardware and software. The things Apple needs to do with iOS 11 and the next iPhone aren’t out of reach, but I’m not super confident they’ll deliver.

At a higher level, it’s fascinating to me how well Google has gotten at walking and chewing gum. I’ve been using more and more of their services and with most of their hardware offerings looking so good, it’s not too hard to imagine a scenario where the only Apple products I own in a year will be my 3 year old MacBook Pro.

Google Home & Pixel XL

About 6 months ago, Google announced a slew of consumer-grade products geared squarely at Apple and Amazon. At the event, they presented the Home, the Pixel, and Google WiFi and they all caught my eye for different reasons. I’m intrigued by the concept of mesh networking rather than throwing a router in one corner of […]

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apple-music-logo

On June 30th at around 10am, the switch was flipped on the iOS 8.4 upgrade that contained the new Apple Music app and about an hour later, Beats 1 went live on the new streaming service. Overall, it’s been a fairly smooth launch from what I gather, and I’ve had a chance to kick the tires on most of the service to report my initial findings. This is by no means a full review, but I thought it might be helpful for people a bit less obsessed than I am with music and especially streaming music services.

What is Apple Music?

Like Rdio, Spotify, Google Music and others, Apple Music is a streaming music service that allows users to pay $9.99 a month for the ability to stream any song, on demand, from the nearly 30 million songs in their catalog. In short, you’re renting the ability to play any song or album, when you want it. On mobile devices, users can download and ‘save’ songs, albums or playlists so that they don’t use up their mobile bandwidth. While Apple Music is pretty run of the mill when it comes to this part of their service, they offer a few components that aren’t Earth shattering on their own, but the little differences add up to make something pretty compelling.

iTunes Match is dead, long live iCloud Music Library

Apple has had this kinda-sorta cloud music solution called iTunes Match for a while now. Basically, you pay $25/year and iTunes will scan your library, matching the tracks that you own with those in the cloud, and will upload tracks you own that may not be in the iTunes Store catalog. Conceptually, it is pretty solid and I’ve used it on and off over the past few years. You can sync playlists between devices and access all your music on any Apple device you own. However, sync wasn’t always reliable or fast. But for the price it was a pretty good value all things considered.

With Apple Music, we now have the iCloud Music Library, which is pretty much the same thing as Match.

Curation & For You

for-you

The thing I loved about Beats Music when I gave it a shot last year was the way they curated playlists based on moods, history or influences and recommended them to you based on what you listened to.

And they were really, really good.

I was amazed by how spot on the albums and playlists were, and it was the one service I used that solved the ‘what should I listen to right now?’ problem. Well, the same feature is in Apple Music – the more music you add to your library or love, the better the suggestions will get over time. This is presented in the ‘For You’ section of Apple Music as a series of cards that let you choose from playlists or albums that they think you might like. Over time, these recommendations get really accurate, and I’m always finding something new to listen to (or rediscovering old albums I haven’t heard in a while).

Beats 1

Apple-Beats-1-logo

You could argue Apple helped kill the radio with iTunes and the iPod but they’re now trying to bring the patient back to life with Beats 1.  Basically, it’s an always-on internet streaming station featuring a few prominent tastemakers / DJs as well as shows featuring popular artists that rotate out every few months.  Folks like Elton John, Q-Tip, Drake, and Josh Homme all have shows once a week amongst others.  It goes along with the other ‘curation’ attempts Apple is making to differentiate itself, and after giving it a go for a few days, I’m way more impressed with it than I thought I’d be.

Connect

This is kind of like a Twitter/Instagram style service that artists can use to connect with fans. You can allow Apple Music to auto-follow artists in your collection so I’ve already seen a few dozen posts from artists and they range from useless to actually really interesting. Trent Reznor posted some old NIN instrumental tracks that were really awesome to hear and I also saw some cool concert photos.

Screenshot 2015-07-02 10.37.50

You can imagine this part of the service will either die on the vine or become something much, much bigger over time. I could see this becoming a way to learn about upcoming shows, selling merchandise and promoting other things artists are doing. Further, I could see Apple getting into the ticketing game if Connect takes off. It’s not too far fetched to imagine a scenario in which an artist you follow due to saving one of their albums alerts you to a concert in your area via Connect, and you then use Apple Pay to purchase tickets. The pass is automatically added to passbook, a calendar entry is made on your phone for the event with directions, and you can share you’re going with one tap on Facebook or Twitter, with a link to the same post you saw embedded. Pretty slick if you’re the concert going type, and most of the ingredients are already in place.

The Good

I had high hopes that Apple would keep smart playlists around and they actually outdid what I was hoping for.

Not only are smart playlists still retained in the form they were prior to Apple Music’s launch, they actually give you the ability to integrate anything that is added to your library from the streaming tracks you are ‘renting’ as well. There is a new value for the iCloud Status meta property – Apple Music. This means songs you own and songs you’re renting can co-mingle in playlists and even smart playlists. Once they’re part of your iCloud Music Library, you are able to work with them just like any other track. This also makes it fairly easy to manage which tracks you have added from Apple Music, and which ones you own:

Screenshot 2015-07-02 10.38.10

For someone like me, this is huge. I like to make playlists based on how often I listen to music or sort by songs I’ve rated highly, etc. Being able to have the music I own and the music from a streaming service comingle like this is perfect.

I wasn’t expecting to say this, but Beats 1 is way better than I thought it would be. I figured it’d be a total gimmick – and it still may fall flat as the novelty wears off – but there’s something about that communal experience of listening to music you know thousands of others are also enjoying at the same time. It wouldn’t be worth a damn if the music wasn’t good, though, and the segments I have listened to so far have been really, really good. Not always the exact type of music I’d dig up myself but I’m enjoying it a lot so far, especially while at work.

I’ll be curious to see how things mature long term with Beats 1 – do they fill out the roster with more and more shows or do they splinter into a few different stations. Either way, consider me very pleasantly surprised that Radio On The Internet is actually kinda compelling.

The Bad

One thing I’ve seen some people talk about is issues with tracks having DRM on them if you are using the Match portion of the service. Definitely worth backing up your library if you’re going to make the jump. Another stupid thing I blame the music industry for is the fact that you can’t stream Beats 1 to multiple speakers from iTunes.

I feel like those issues are, on some level, out of Apple’s hands and I only hold them responsible for poor communication. However, there are some serious UX issues that hopefully can be resolved in time for iTunes 13 and iOS 9, but I’m not holding my breath. The on-boarding process is especially cumbersome, and while I was already used to the way the Beats ‘blob’ thing worked, I kind of hated it already. The software on both platforms is fairly confusing at first to even myself, who I’d consider a veteran of iTunes and Music on the Mac.

A lot of folks are talking about how this is Apple’s chance to rethink things now that the dust of the launch is settling, and I agree 110%. Conceptually, they nailed it, but the user experience can be cumbersome.

For example, did you know you can ‘love’ anything, regardless of it you have it in your library or not? But, once it’s in your library you can both love/not love a track and also rate it 1–5 stars?  I think Apple needs to pick a path and go with it.

It’s also not possible at this time to add songs that aren’t in your library to a playlist.  Let’s say I’m trying to make a playlist of songs for the beach or for the holidays and I want to add some songs I don’t really want cluttering up my Library.  For now, tough luck.  This is a two-step process of adding songs to the library and then adding those songs to a playlist I create.

When I am listening to a radio station, it’s unclear if pressing the ‘love’ button loves the station or the song. It sometimes persists through the entire radio session.

It can be difficult on the desktop to find an artist’s page and just queue up an album of theirs. If I find an album I want to preview before adding to my library, I’m out of luck. I can either press the play button and immediately hear it, or I have to click on the little ‘…’ icon, add the music to my library, go back to ‘My Music’ and then add the album to ‘up next’. Spotify’s UX on this sort of quick discovery is way better, as I’m able to simply right click on anything and ‘add to queue’.

Apple seems to be struggling to make iTunes work for people who want to buy their music and those who just want a pure streaming experience. When I’m looking at an artist in my collection and I click on ‘view more from this artist’, I’m taken to the store. As a streaming customer, I’d expect to be taken to a list of all of the tracks in Apple Music, and maybe a link or section at the bottom of tracks or albums I can purchase. Definitely a difficult problem to solve, but this is a UX challenge I hope Apple sits back and addresses for iTunes 13 and Music for iOS 9.

In short, I think that Apple’s concept of ‘My Music’ is both very powerful and very confusing. The fact that once a track is in your library it’s just like any other song is pretty awesome. It means you could in theory add more info for a track, rate them, add them to smart playlists and more. However, the downside is that it limits adding songs that you don’t have in your library to a playlist, like in most other streaming services (even Beats Music). Most of these issues don’t apply to the iOS versions of the app, but it’s a bummer that iTunes is such a mess (still).

There are also a number of nitpicky bugs that are to be expected from what is essentially a massive scale launch of a 1.0 product. I don’t expect perfection at launch but I do expect they’ll get cleaned up soon.

  • Some of the albums that I have in my collection do not show up as such when I look at a song from a playlist or other medium.
  • On the desktop, that damn ‘disconnected cloud’ icon is the bane of my existence. I usually just have to restart iTunes from time to time to get it to connect reliably. This has been a problem for me sporadically since the Match days, so who knows if it’ll clear up.
  • The Beats 1 station always has the ‘loved’ state. I mean, I do like Beats 1 but not every song…
  • Adding songs to my library from radio stations has been spotty for me. I was out for a walk tonight and heard a few songs I really liked on Beats 1. I pulled out my phone, clicked the ‘add to library’ button, verified that it was added via the checkbox dialog, and put the phone back up. The next day, the tracks weren’t in my library. Bummer.

‘Easy’ fixes

Some of the fixes I really hope that make their way into a future product are as follows:

  • Swiping left and right on a playlist or while listening to an album should skip to the next/previous track
  • Double tapping on the icons at the bottom of the iOS app should jump you to the top of the list that you’re viewing.
  • When you click the ‘back’ button on the Mac, I wish it would take you to the exact spot you were viewing instead of back to the top. Persistent state is way easier to nail nowadays, I know this.
  • When you’re listening to a song on Beats 1, a Radio station or a playlist, I wish you could directly add the song to your playlist & that would also add the song to your library in one action.
  • Make it easier to correct issues with ‘Matched’ music. Google Music nails this, as you can upload your own track to replace one that is incorrect, add your own artwork or edit metadata and it actually makes its way through the system.
  • Make it easier to mass clear downloaded tracks/albums/playlists and make it clearer what’s happening.
  • I should be able to right click on anything and add it to ‘up next’ in a consistent, reliable manner.  Whether it’s an album, a song or a playlist the behavior should always be there an always work.

Overall Impression

Apple could have done a better job explaining the service to users as well as taking this moment to simplify much like they did with Photos and iWork previously. I understand it’s a very fine line to walk but this was their 1.0 moment to really streamline what the service does as well as better explain/articulate things. There has been a lot of confusion about how the Match service works, as well as Home Sharing changes that have surprised people.

I guess I don’t get why they had to launch this summer – they could have taken their time and announced this when they were really ready. I suppose iOS 9 was the marker they wanted to be live by, but they must have decided to deal with whatever growing pains there were going to be.

Most of my complaints are with the fairly poor job that was done thinking about user experience on the Mac and communicating a lot of the differences between Match, Apple Music and Beats Music. From a software perspective, the iPad and iPhone versions are outstanding in most every way.

That said, Apple Music is conceptually the service I’ve been waiting for since I started using Rdio back in 2009. Apple really nailed almost everything I asked for in this blog post, and I anticipate things to get ironed out over the next year. Apple has the best curation/discovery tools, Beats 1 is way more compelling than I thought, they kept their Match service and integrated it, and even allowed Smart Playlists to work with their streaming music. It’s not perfect, but so far I think this is the service I’ve been waiting for.  I’ve already cancelled my Spotify subscription and I can’t really envision a scenario that has me going back.

Once I’ve had a month or two with the service I’ll dig deeper and report back.

Initial Apple Music Impressions

On June 30th at around 10am, the switch was flipped on the iOS 8.4 upgrade that contained the new Apple Music app and about an hour later, Beats 1 went live on the new streaming service. Overall, it’s been a fairly smooth launch from what I gather, and I’ve had a chance to kick the […]

Continue reading →

I suppose we all saw this coming.

After a few months with a Nexus 5 as my primary phone, I’ve switched back to iOS and moved to AT&T. I was able to sell the Nexus 5 on eBay and actually make decent money on the switch back, and while my average monthly phone bill will increase by about 20 dollars, I’ll be getting unlimited texts and calls with a shared 6gb data allowance between my wife and I. I got a 32gb 5s and it feels good to be back ‘home’.

If Ting had supported the newest iPhone, I would have paid full price for the phone and considered staying with them. The service was a great value and coverage was rarely a problem for me in the metro Atlanta area. However, with AT&T altering their family plans and offering fairly generous shared data, the time was right to make the move. The only real knock on Ting is they are a great deal so long as you stay below 2 gigs of data and a fairly small number of texts and calls. I was always paranoid about sitting on work phone calls when I knew it might bump me into another tier.

So why did I ultimately ditch the Nexus 5? Two factors sealed the deal for me, and only one of them is going to get better any time soon in the Android world.

Android is too fiddly

In general, I found myself having to constantly tweak things to work the way I thought it should, and settle for average quality applications. If you’re an iOS user, you’ve come to expect a level of polish and attention to detail that just isn’t as common in 3rd party Android apps. As I said in one of my previous posts, Android definitely is ‘good enough’ to make the switch but I’ve become spoiled by apps on the iPhone and even a few months away wasn’t enough to get me over that. I can see myself considering Android in the future, but right now the lack of polish overall drove me bonkers.

It was really death by a thousand paper cuts. I’d get odd notifications at times I couldn’t figure out or adjust. Some apps would crash every time I used them. I could never find a Twitter client worth using. I could never get into using Wunderlist instead Things or OmniFocus. The battery life was good as long as I used the phone very lightly. And on and on. I felt like I was settling, and with iOS I had a known entity with its own flaws but overall worked way more in line with the way I expected things to work.

The stock Android system is actually quite nice. If you only want it use the stock apps, it’s actually a really impressive offering. For me, it was all about the 3rd party apps, though. I now realize how much I miss some of the key apps I use on my iPhone / iPad. The attention to detail and the focus on great user experiences on iOS really started to become apparent to me while using the Nexus. I kept looking at the phone saying “how are there 5 good versions of this app on iOS and not ONE good one for Android?” It was too much settling for ‘good enough’ – I missed using apps that delight the user (Tweetbot, OmniFocus, Pushpin, Byword, Day One, and more come to mind).

Not only was I missing those key apps, I felt like I had to manage the system too much. There were a lot of times that a rogue process would kill my battery, routinely forcing me to uninstall or troubleshoot. I’m not saying that’s an Android exclusive, but it happened more to me in the past 2+ months than any similar period with iOS. Overall, the Nexus 5 feels like a tiny little computer, which is great for the most part. iPhones, on the other hand, feel like they magically work nearly all of the time. There are limitations to being in Apple’s walled garden but the tradeoff is worth it for me. In general, I didn’t think I’d miss the Apple ecosystem as much as I did. iTunes, iCloud and everything else are a confusing mess at times, by they’re my confusing mess.

I had it in my head that by using the most of the Google ecosystem, that data would make my phone smarter. I really haven’t seen much of a true tangible benefit from buying all the way into the Google ecosystem at all, to be honest. When you add in the fact that it was doing this at the expense of using apps that aren’t as polished as I’m used to, it was hard to justify using Android. What’s interesting is that I think that the best ‘Google Experience’ may very well be an iPhone 5s with Gmail pulling in your email, Google Now alerting you to important events, G+ backing up your photos, using Google Maps for navigation and Chrome for browsing, while having the best built phone out there right now and having access to the great App ecossytem that Apple has. That’s basically what I was doing before switching to the Nexus, and I now realize the iPhone + Google services route is actually the best of both worlds.

I’m sure some of it is nearly 5 years of me learning how to use iOS vs only a few months on Android, but it just never felt right. I found myself fighting the interface and never felt as in control of the system as I ever did when using iOS – nor did I feel like the experience was as seamless as I was used to.

The hardware is average at best

The thing that Android handset makers can improve on but the Nexus 5 is lacking in is overall build quality. The handset, the camera, and things like the ringer and speakers all just feel kind of cheap – which I suppose is to be expected when you’re dealing with a handset that’s half the cost of an unsubsidized iPhone (I had even mentioned that in my previous post – is the iPhone really 2x as good as the Nexus 5 / Android 4.4? No, but it is better). The quality of photos I’ve taken in the past 12 weeks compared to the now 18 month old iPhone 5 were vastly inferior, which is disappointing. I spend so much time using my phone as a camera and I’m really realizing how crucial it is during my son’s early life to have something that I can take great photos with. Apple invests a ton in their cameras and it shows. So that’s one of the major driving factors in my purchase.

Other fit and finish issues:

  • The phone itself had issues with the speaker and required an RMA. To Google’s credit, this was a seamless process.
  • The screen is nice but otherwise the phone feels very cheap and I miss the quality of the iPhone.
  • The bulging camera on the back has annoyed me to no end. I want my phone to sit flush when I set it down on a table, and have no idea why Android device makers can’t figure this out.
  • I missed a lot of calls. The ringer just isn’t very good, nor is the vibrating motor. Never happened with iPhone.
  • GPS stinks on the Nexus 5.
  • I lose data connectivity often. Is this a Ting issue, or a Nexus one?

Conclusion

Android’s greatest strength is it’s “open” nature. This lends itself to never be able to compete on the “details” that Apple does so well, just like Apple’s focus on doing a few things really well make it tough for them to open things up to have the same level of customizability. All that being said, I can absolutely recommend an Nexus 5 to anyone looking for a good, affordable unlocked handset but for me, my investment in the Apple ecosystem was too much to keep me away for long. I’m used to and like the way that Apple does things, even if I am a bit turned off by a lot of the things that Apple did in iOS 7. I look forward to iOS 8, but also to the next generation of Android hardware and software. When my contract is up, I’ll definitely be looking to see who best meets my needs.

Back to the iPhone

I suppose we all saw this coming. After a few months with a Nexus 5 as my primary phone, I’ve switched back to iOS and moved to AT&T. I was able to sell the Nexus 5 on eBay and actually make decent money on the switch back, and while my average monthly phone bill will […]

Continue reading →

image

Last month, I decided to switch from the iPhone 5 / Verizon to the Nexus 5 on Ting . The switching process went pretty well, and I was able to sell my iPhone to pay for the early termination costs. I’m going to try to go for about 6 months with this device and service to see if the tradeoffs are worth it. If you want to know how this story ends, the short version is that I’m happy with the phone 90% of the time, with the core functionality of the phone offering the ability to do a lot of things that aren’t possible on iOS. However, the polish and ‘seamless’ integration that iOS and an iPhone offer do leave me missing it from time to time. On to the bulleted lists!

First, the things I like about the Nexus 5 and Android.

  • Actionable notifications. I hope something like this is coming in iOS 8. Being able to reply to a message, tweet or email from the notification is so awesome. The current iOS implementation of notifications is awful in so many ways – ‘whack a mole’ badges, no way to dismiss singular notifications, and more make it a bad experience. Android has nailed this and made it even better over time.
  • Granular info about battery life and data use – helps track down offenders and changes my behavior. This has resulted in my using much less data and power than I was with my iPhone.
  • Easily share to any app you like via Intents. One of my favorite things about Android.
  • Setting defaults for all sorts of tasks. You can, for instance, set a default action for when you say “Make a note to ….” to put that note in any app you choose. What a concept, eh? Setting a default text client, email, calendar etc is great too.
  • Long press keyboard shortcuts for numbers and punctuation. I can type so much faster than on iOS.
  • Custom keyboards. I’ve installed SwiftKey, which you can optionally plug into your Gmail, Facebook or Twitter accounts to learn your speech patterns and offer predicitive sentence completion as well as the standard auto-correct. I type so much faster and accurately because of this feature as well.
  • Being able to choose from Dropbox when browsing files – composing emails, selecting images etc can use the Dropbox file system, making the phone feel even more like an extension of the desktop.
  • I won’t miss random rebooting of the phone after upgrading to iOS 7, that’s for sure.
  • How you can submit bug reports on app crashes. I feel like they actually make it to developers.
  • Real multitasking – things update when I tell them to, not based on some voodoo that Apple has determined (which is admittedly pretty nice, but it still feels like guesswork). The task switcher is also nicer. By stacking vertically you can see more apps at a time and quickly scroll through open applications.
  • Widgets. Evernote, Wunderlist, Calendar and Gmail. I don’t overdo it but I do use a few widgets and it’s really helpful – I haven’t tried any home screen widgets yet, but I may go that route soon.Being able to arrange my home screen in different ways.
  • The screen is a bit too big for me to reach the top left corner with my thumb (I’m right handed), so I have the ability to arrange the icons in a way that there’s nothing in that corner. Nice to have that flexibility.
  • A user interface that isn’t trying to hard to be cutesy. Buttons look like buttons and text looks like text.
  • Google Now & notifications about travel time, etc. Having an Android device even for a month has made me realize how much Google knows about me – it’s definitely creepy on some level, but so far has also been extremely helpful & convenient to be notified of package delivery dates, appointment travel times, and breaking news based on sites I frequent.
  • The way Google releases most software unbundled from the OS means you get timely updates.
  • Vibrate and silent are two separate modes. Switching between the three modes is simple and gives you more control, as sometimes I don’t even want my phone buzzing.
  • Using an app like Locale or Tasker means you can set ‘conditions’ – things like being on a certain wifi network, at a certain location, or connected to a certain power source – and then do things based on that. I use it to disable a passcode when I’m at home or at my parents house as well as bluetooth state and ringer volume.
  • The concept of system wide accounts. Add dropbox, twitter, etc once and it’s used system wide. Kind of like what Apple is doing with certain partners but greatly expanded.
  • Fine grained control of what apps can sync via wifi or cellular.
  • I love the date picker so much more than the iOS implentation.
  • Persistent notifications for things like audio players so it’s easy to quickly see what track is playing. Similar to Control Center but I like the Android implentation better.
  • Surprisingly, the LED notifications are useful. Less checking to see if you missed a notification.
  • The whole ‘there’s an app for that’ is even more true on the Android side. So many utilities that do little one off tasks or tweak the system. Very *nix-like.
  • Being able to install and manage apps from the web. Anywhere. I do this all the time and it’s really awesome.

Overall, the transition has been pretty easy, but I am missing a few apps:

  • Calendars 5 – still searching for a good calendar app. Still using the default Calendars app for now.
  • Day One. Nothing like it anywhere – I tend to just use the app a lot less and only on my iPad.
  • Tweetbot. I’m using Plume but it’s nowhere as good at Tweetbot, but it works the way I expect it to and isn’t buggy like some of the other apps.

Along the way, I’ve discovered a handful of really neat apps that have made the transition a lot easier.

But it’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows. There are definitely some things that iOS and the iPhone did differently and better in my mind.

  • Visual voice mail. This doesn’t exist on Ting (it’s possible on the Nexus, but is dependent on the network you’re on) so I’ve been transported back to 2006.
  • The ‘security’ of iCloud backups. I knew if anything went wrong with my phone, I could restore to a very recent version of my phone and not miss a beat. Android doesn’t really have anything like that out of the box.
  • Better quality hardware. The vibrating motor on the N5 is substandard and the phone is nice but just not on Apple’s terms. I’m still terrified of breaking that protruding lens. The screen quality was a bit better on the iPhone 5 – not a huge deal, but the color and brightness seemed to be better in iPhone world.
  • The camera is better as of 4.2.2 but it’s still not as good as my 18 month old iPhone 5 was.
  • Predictability and simplicity. Overall, the system may not be able to do some things that I can do on my Nexus, but everything works predictably and consistenly. This is a big deal.
  • iMessages, iMessages, iMessages. I’m trying to settle into something that isn’t as jarring for others – most people just can send texts but it can be problematic for group texts or for people sending Messages from their iPads. Facebook messenger is the best option so far. I miss sending and receiving messages from any device and it just working (although iMessages has its own set of issues).
  • No universal scroll to top. This has proven to drive me bonkers on many occasions. Most apps have a way to do this from within their specific app but there is no system wide way to do this like in iOS.
  • No system-wide undo. Really.
  • Buttery smooth UI. You learn not to care as much but it’s an issue on Android. Some apps scroll brilliantly and others feel like you’re on a 386.
  • Apps seem to crash more in Android than on iOS. Same goes for hung processes – there have been a few days where I’ll notice my phone is warm and some rogue app has been running in the background for 2 hours, killing a quarter of my battery. It’s awesome that you can use Android’s built in battery stats to find the offender, though.
  • The community for Android folks just isn’t the same. No good Android podcasts or blogs. Sounds silly but it is a con. There’s no John Gruber for Android, etc.
  • Same goes for indie developers. The stock Android apps are really quite good, and there are a lot of good indie devs, but the community is really no contest.
  • Notification / privacy settings are all in one place. I liked how easy it was to go down the list and quickly make a decision about which apps have permissions to do what on my phone. On Android, you have to make most of these choices from within the apps themselves, and then only with the preferences they give you.
  • Better quality software. I’ve found lots of great alternative apps but they are all good enough, not great.
  • No swipe down to search spotlight. I didn’t realize how addicted I was to this. You can search for apps from the Google box on Android or say “OK google, open ”, but it’s not as ingrained in my muscle memory yet.
  • Urbanears volume buttons don’t work on Android – the play/pause works fine, however.
  • iOS’ Control Center is actually really nice from an accessibility standpoint. turning on/off bluetooth, Wifi etc is one tap less than it’d take to go through the same means on Android.
  • If my iPhone was muted and I plug in headphones, the audio level changes. It’s a little more complex on the android side.
  • Do Not Disturb mode. I can use an app like Locale and others to replicate similar functionality but the Apple solution was very elegant in that you said “don’t disturb me between these hours” and it took care of the rest, even knowing who your VIP contacts were, and making exceptions for them.
  • I’m still working through photo management. Right now, Google+ and Dropbox both get a copy of my photos pushed to the cloud. Sharing photos with family straight from my phone is no longer as easy, as we all have a shared photo stream that we post to. Sharing photos w/ my family now involves me doing it from my Mac or iPad, copying the files from Dropbox to iPhoto’s shared photo stream. It works, but it’s just not as ‘instant’ (which may or may not be a good thing for my family). But for me, it means I don’t get to see those photos during the day of my son unless they’re sent via Facebook messenger or another medium I use.
  • Safari’s Reader mode. Great for those non-mobile optimized pages.
  • Google Now isn’t as magical at this moment as I hoped it would be. That may change if/when I travel, but right now it’s useful but not as predictive as I’d hoped. Not sure it’s worth the sort of tradeoff you make regarding privacy. The voice search is better than Siri’s offering in speed, accuracy and results presenstation, though.

Ting’s service so far has been pretty solid overall. In my daily use I get solid LTE coverage in most places, degrading to fast-enough 3G when I’m a bit off the beaten path. I have had a few instances already where coverage is bad which has a tendency to nuke the battery as it’s searching for network. I’ll have more on this after I spend more time out and about with the phone.

As I use a tablet more than I do a phone nowadays, the fact that the Nexus 5 is ‘good enough’ is about all I really need. I use my phone a lot less now in general, which I like – I want to focus more on using my phone for a few things – taking photos, getting directions, consuming media and catching up on news when killing time.  I feel like I spend less time just seeing what’s going on now with my Nexus, as the OS and apps feel ‘smarter’ in a lot of ways – bubbling up key information into the notification view in a way that I can take action on it very easily, usually not even having to view the actual app. I think that iOS 7, love it or hate it, focused on UX and aesthetics along with a few nice new features under the hood. Hopefully iOS 8 is focused more on the brains behind the ‘beauty’, as I think there are a lot of places Apple could take cues from Android to make the OS more intuitive and make the ‘virtual assistant’ side of Siri much more useful. By making notification center more useful, adding some sort of inter-app communication, and focusing on the typing experience, Apple would make some massive strides to making up for the gap between it and Android.

I waffle on whether or not I miss the iPhone. Things are certainly simpler and more ‘cohesive’ on iOS, the apps are more polished, and the hardware feels nicer. App discovery is a lot easier too, as it seems like there is an entire community on Twitter and the web focused on surfacing the best apps and games out there, which in turn drives revenue for the developers. Everything feels more polished, integrated, and focused even if it doesn’t do quite as many cool things as Android does.

But really, Android and the Nexus 5 is good enough 90% of the time. I do miss iMessage, a handful of other apps, and how easy Photo Stream is to use, but otherwise more days than not I’m happy with the Nexus 5. I’ve leaned a lot about the joy of off-contract phone use, and will probably get my next phone off contract, wherever it is. Even if you buy a brand new iPhone, you’ll end up saving a good $300-$500 over 2 years. That’s not nothing. What I’ll probably do is wait until the iPhone 6 (or whatever it’s called) is announced and then decide what to do from there. Bottom line – the iPhone and its ecosystem is better than Nexus and the Android ecosystem. But the phone costs nearly half what an iPhone does AND my phone bill is half what I was paying. Is the iPhone, its ecosystem and phone plans TWICE as good as what I’m using? I guess the next few months will answer that question for me.

Over the past few weeks, I have real­ized that I love MobileMe when I’m using my iPhone or my laptop, but I absolutely hate it when I am using these ser­vices via my web browser. 

You see, the MobileMe ser­vice basi­cally offers a hand­ful of things that you can get on the web for free, but they have done a good job of pack­ag­ing them into a Mac/iPhone cen­tric way that just ‘makes sense’. If you change a con­tact on your iPhone, it is nearly instantly reflected on any other com­puter you have. Add or remove a cal­en­dar entry? It’s reflected on any number of machines that you use. Change a book­mark on your laptop? It’ll be changed on your work com­puter, iPhone, and any other com­puter you use next time you use it. This is a really amaz­ing thing that has, over the past six or so months, become some­thing I have taken for granted. 

It goes with­out saying that it’s also a push-​based IMAP mail ser­vice. On top of that, you are able to sync things like saved pass­words, mail set­tings, ftp logins/passwords (thanks to the Panicguys!), and more. All of these fea­tures, along with a 20gb web stor­age space that I gen­er­ally store lots of things on (gen­er­ally doc­u­ments I might need while out and about but aren’t what I’d call ’secure’ either), and $99 for a year isn’t that bad of a deal.

Failure to deliver

While I am at work, I depend on the me.com web­site to allow me to check my email, update con­tact infor­ma­tion, access files from any­where, and I expect to be able to do this reli­ably and quickly. That’s where the prob­lem lies. The web-​based soft­ware is just a mess. Things take dozens of sec­onds to load at times. The UI is not intu­itive – there is no feed­back when you click on some but­tons, but others do have feed­back. There is no rich text editor for com­pos­ing emails. Some­times, when you read an email then return to the mail index, adja­cent emails are now marked as read. Simple things like “keep me logged in for two weeks” does not work reli­ably so I am forced to log in repeat­edly over the course of the day. These may be first world prob­lems, but when you are paying money for some­thing, you expect it to work at least as well as the free com­pe­ti­tion does. 

Hon­estly, I’ve always been strug­gling with iTools, .Mac, MobileMe (what­ever you want to call it). It always sounds so much better than it actu­ally could be, but it’s gen­er­ally just good enough to make you stick around. MobileMe suc­ceeds every­where but the web-​based space. Using MobileMe mail, con­tacts, etc is a pain. They have tried too hard to shoe­horn desk­top metaphors into a web based world and it simply doesn’t work well. I think that Apple has invested way too much into sell­ing the plat­form and using it to push OS X to turn away from this approach and come up with a fast load­ing, easy to use solution.

Switching to free services

With all of that com­plain­ing out of the way, I have con­sid­ered switch­ing from the MobileMe ser­vice to free ser­vices like Gmail (using google apps to check my daniel@danielandrews.com mail), Google Cal­en­dar, Drop­box for file sync between plat­forms, and saving myself $99 a year. Then of course I start think­ing about issues with Gmail’s IMAP (which they have kind of addressed with more advanced IMAP con­trols), the fact that I would no longer be able to sync key­chains, Trans­mit favorites, desk­top wid­gets, or use Omni­Fo­cus the way I cur­rently do (I cur­rently use the iDisk to sync Omni­Fo­cus between my laptop, my iMac, my iPhone and my work computer).

What is the solution?

Again, first world prob­lems to be sure, but I am torn. Is saving $99 and get­ting a better web expe­ri­ence a fair trade in exchange for a slightly worse expe­ri­ence on the desk­top and iPhone? If I aban­don the push ser­vices of MobileMe, I would only be able to sync my book­marks, cal­en­dars and con­tacts when I man­u­ally sync my iPhone to my laptop (which I do not do very reg­u­larly). I spend 8+ hours a day at work using web-​based solu­tions to com­mu­ni­cate with people, and the MobileMe web solu­tion just isn’t cut­ting it. But I also spend a lot of time on my com­put­ers at home and using my iPhone out and about. I’ll prob­a­bly wait and see what Apple has to offer at Mac­world tomor­row and make a deci­sion shortly there­after. I could see fur­ther inte­gra­tion with iLife 09 (assum­ing some­thing like that is announced), fur­ther inte­gra­tion with the iPhone 2.3 or iPhone 3.0 soft­ware, or simply promised improve­ments when Snow Leop­ard comes out this year.

So after all this rant­ing, no solu­tion just yet. Stay tuned to the saga.

Making the switch (again?)

Over the past few weeks, I have real­ized that I love MobileMe when I’m using my iPhone or my laptop, but I absolutely hate it when I am using these ser­vices via my web browser.  You see, the MobileMe ser­vice basi­cally offers a hand­ful of things that you can get on the web for free, but they […]

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Did you guys hear? Apple came out with a phone!

A few weeks ago, I said I wouldn’t be getting an iPhone on the day it came out because I wanted to have some questions about the UI, data speeds, and a few other nagging issues sorted out before I took the plunge. It took me a week and a few trips to the Apple store, but I went ahead and got the 8gig iPhone the Friday after it came out. Overall, I’m very impressed with the device, and it has met all of my expectations save for a few minor issues.

First of all, activation was not a problem for me like it was for some. I got the phone, drove home, plugged it in, and within 5 minutes the phone was activated and ready for use. Once this part of the process was done, it was a matter of getting my ’stuff’ onto the iPhone. This was also easily accomplished from within iTunes. I’m still not so sure how I feel about iTunes being the center of my iPhone/computer interaction, but at the same time, I’d rather use that than another standalone app. My contacts, calendar, music, podcasts, email accounts & photos were all loaded onto the device, and I was good to go. I spend the better part of that weekend playing around with the iPhone UI and the apps.

It really does seem like a lot of thought went into almost every decision that was made about the interface of this device. I think almost anyone can instantly get used to how this device works, and easily navigate it’s applications. I think those iPhone commercials were a great idea, as everyone I have let play around with my iPhone try basically the same actions displayed in the ads (play with coverflow, use google maps, pinch and zoom photos). People instantly know what the iPhone is all about, and that gives them a big advantage over Blackberry and other competing phones in the market.

Some of the things that have jumped out at me over the past 3 weeks of owning this device:

  1. Battery life is great. Even using WiFi and browsing the web, I get the advertised battery life. In a normal day (taking a few calls, sending a handful of text messages, checking a few web sites, listening to music for 5-6 hours at work) I only seem to use about 25% of the battery. Even with heavy use, I haven’t gotten much below half in one day.
  2. The phone is a near perfect size. It feels very solid in your hand, and it really seems well-built. It freaking better be, but still … feels great.
  3. EDGE isn’t great, but it works for basic tasks that I use – email, rss/news, twitter, google maps, things like that. I was on vacation last week with my family and got a chance to really put the data network thru it’s paces while I was on the road, and it got the job done … although it was frustratingly slow every once in a while. Overall, I get somewhere between 125-150kb/s in good areas … and something much, much slower in others.
  4. The Google maps app is outstanding. We had to use it a few times to find some places in Orlando, and while it doesn’t have GPS, the driving directions with it’s ‘turn-by-turn’ feature is good enough … especially in a pinch.
  5. Using the WiFi for internet access is ideal, but I have left it off most of the time unless I’m at home, work, or a friend’s house with WiFi. It seems to affect battery life marginally, but I’m not sure turning it off while driving and such makes a huge difference either way.
  6. The touchpad isn’t perfect, but I’m really fast at it now. You really do get used to trusting the software to auto-complete even the most obscure terms, and 99% of the time, it works wonderfully. I have sent out a few emails I didn’t re-read in a pinch, and it included some interesting wording, but for the most part, it’s been great.
  7. No AIM is a downer, but I’ve just had IMs forwarded to SMS and that does the trick. Also, for now, FlickIM fills the actual AIM issue pretty well. Perfect? No way. But hopefully we’ll see an update eventually from Apple that allows me to chat it up on my phone when killing time or in a pinch.

Now, of course the iPhone isn’t perfect. There are a handful of glaring issues – some that can be fixed with software, some that cannot – that annoy me to differing degrees. The ringer is pretty quiet, and I have missed a few calls already when walking in a public place, and the vibrate function is a bit weak as well. Additionally, while the camera phone quality isn’t bad at all, the interface for the camera app itself is pretty abysmal, and in my opinion, counterintuitive. There is one button for taking pictures, and it works when you RELEASE the button, not when you press it. I can understand the logic, since the camera is on the opposite side of the touch screen. If you’re taking a self portrait or something along those lines, the best way to take photos is to place your finger on the button, turn the camera to where it needs to go, then release the button … but I just find that odd, as every camera ever has used the opposite action. A cool option to add would also be to have, say, a 2 second hold of the home button automatically take a photo. This way, no fumbling around finding buttons, no ambiguity. But I doubt we’ll see anything like that – nor will we see an added button to a 2nd gen iPhone for the camera.

The ‘notes’ application, which ostensibly will be updated to work with Apple’s improved Mail application that’s coming out with Leopard, is god awful right now. There’s no way to synch it with anything, so you can create to-do lists while on the go, which is helpful, but you can’t easily get it onto the computer since there is no cut/paste functionality on the iPhone (yet). If there were cut and paste, you could at least email yourself the list.

Finally, the YouTube application is a great idea, but currently there are almost no worthwhile videos on the ‘quicktime version’ of YouTube. Therefore, other than a few great clips of Family Guy, it’s a complete waste of my time.

Mr. Zeldman wrote an article recently about how the iPhone is the only thing that has ever really ‘forced his hand’ and had him switch over to many of Apple’s default OS X apps. I have made a similar transition, away from Google Reader, Google Calendar, and gMail in favor of NetNewsWire pro + NewsGator (which now syncs items between the online & desktop apps so I can read unread RSS feeds on my iPhone and have the same list at home, work, and online), iCal, and IMAP/Apple mail/Address book. There are certain benefits to making this switch, but it has been a process getting used to new habits, workflow, and ways of storing/using my data.

I’ve used the Apple apps on and off over the years, but generally have sought out the best product for each task, not always the default app. Now, due to how easy it is to get all of that data (not to mention it being the only way right now) into your iPhone if you use all of the Apple apps, Using Mail/Address Book/iCal/iTunes/Aperture is a no-brainer.

Overall, I’m nothing short of floored by the iPhone. It’s rare a ‘convergence device’ works as well as this does – it’s a fine iPod, a great phone, and a very useful PIM / web browser as well. Apple hit this one out of the freaking park. Not only that, I really feel it has changed the way I interact with computers and the web. I actually spend less time online, as in a pre-iPhone world I would sit down to check email, then get sucked into AIM, then start reading RSS feeds, and next thing you know, it’s 2am. No more. I’m more accessible to others, yet I spend far less time actually being in one place waiting for this interaction to take place. I definitely text more now, as well. If/when we see iChat for the phone, it’ll be over.

Simply put, the iPhone is the nicest piece of consumer electronics I have ever used. It meets all of my needs in the personal and professional realm, is fun to use, and the best is yet to come. With software updates on the horizon from Apple, you can only assume this product will improve over time. Is it for everyone? Of course not. But it’s a fine device that has ‘enough’ storage to let you throw your contacts, photos, music, videos and calendars onto an easy to use, great looking phone that’s an absolute pleasure to use.

My site is now ‘iPhone optimized‘ as well: the default zoom level & page width have been adjusted for the viewport attribute.

Convergence.

Did you guys hear? Apple came out with a phone! A few weeks ago, I said I wouldn’t be getting an iPhone on the day it came out because I wanted to have some questions about the UI, data speeds, and a few other nagging issues sorted out before I took the plunge. It took me a […]

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