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 […]

Continue reading →
Google I/O has come and gone, so now it’s time for Apple to have their annual developer conference.  I feel like most of the areas for innovation isn’t at the OS level anymore, it’s with services and apps as part of the OS. Unfortunately for Apple that isn’t really their strong suit. With that in mind, here are the things I think Apple might do this year to catch up in areas that they are lagging (and a few things that just bug me about my favorite OSes).

iOS 10

  • Hide stock apps. This may also introduce an opportunity to make default apps as they’d need to account for scenarios that tried to open Mail but it was hidden.
  • Siri API to allow users to perform custom actions via voice
  • Smart grouping of events in photos app
  • Roll out transit for more cities (Ahem, Atlanta)
  • Better 3rd party keyboard support. Currently it can randomly stop working or revert to the default.
  • Add a swipe-style keyboard
  • 3D Touch to clear all notifications from the pull down notification center
  • Allow me to close all Safari tabs easily (3d touch?)
  • Granular cell data use, much like battery section. Let me see daily / weekly data use per app & overall
  • Better “now playing” integration on home screen & in mission control. Allow 3rd parties to add actions like iTunes currently has. I’d love to be able to add a song to my library with one tap, or star a podcast in overcast.
  • A ‘Car mode’ similar to what Google announced at I/O – optionally allowing me to launch a CarPlay type UI when driving to minimize distractions and ease in tasks like navigation, calls and texts.
  • Proactive, travel history, workout & health data should be able to be backed up to iCloud or your computer separately so you don’t lose that information when moving to a new iPhone.

Mac OS X 12

  • Add Siri to OS X.
  • Siri API to allow users to perform custom actions via voice
  • Photos app should sync faces & do a better job of guessing who a person is.
  • Photos app should auto create albums like Google Photos does
  • Brand new iTunes / Apple Music split. Let me do all the things iTunes currently does in iTunes and split Apple music into a new place for my cloud needs.
  • More progress on dark mode
  • iCloud sync status in the menu bar

watchOS 3

  • Simplify the interface – swipe down for notifications and swipe up to view recently opened apps.
  • Get rid of honeycomb app launcher and make something more usable.
  • Allow users to set what the contacts button does (launch app, change watch face, etc). I’d love to have the button open up runkeeper or OmniFocus.
  • 3rd party watch faces
  • Location-based watch faces. I’d love to have a work and home face that automatically changes when I enter a geofenced area.
  • Speed. No idea if it’s even possible but the fact that the apps are so slow is a killer
  • Make Siri faster. I currently don’t even bother because it’s so slow. And seemingly has gotten worse over time (although I think it’s actually that my 6s Plus is that much better)
  • Wrist flick sensitivity settings. Id be willing to sacrifice some battery life to have my watch be a little more sensitive to my wrist movements.
  • Auto detect when I’m running
  • Make it easier for devs (Spotify, Overcast) to put audio on the device. I’d love to be able to listen to either of those apps without my phone.

Misc software

  • Apple News: make tab bar persistent at bottom to more easily get home
  • Apple Music: all of this.
  • Contacts app is super sluggish as of the most recent OS. Hope they clear that up.
 

WWDC 2016 Wishlist

Google I/O has come and gone, so now it’s time for Apple to have their annual developer conference.  I feel like most of the areas for innovation isn’t at the OS level anymore, it’s with services and apps as part of the OS. Unfortunately for Apple that isn’t really their strong suit. With that in […]

Continue reading →

From Jeremy Keith:

It’s funny, but I take almost the opposite view that Nilay puts forth in his original article. Instead of thinking “Oh, why won’t these awful browsers improve to be better at delivering our websites?”, I tend to think “Oh, why won’t these awful websites improve to be better at taking advantage of our browsers?” After all, it doesn’t seem like that long ago that web browsers on mobile really were awful; incapable of rendering the “real” web, instead only able to deal with WAP.

I’m a little late to the party with this article, but I’m glad to see such pushback against Nilay Patel’s ridiculous article about mobile web browsers being responsible for bad performance.  While there are always performance and UX/UI gains to me made in Safari and Chrome, I think anyone with even a basic understanding of how web browser performance works knows that throwing 200+ http requests at any browser is not exactly how the web was designed to work. 

Vox Media appears to have a talented group of engineers who understand they’re up against, but this is an arms race (publishers v. end users) that’s not going to end well for any of us if things continue down the path we are on. By adding more and more intrusive tracking, larger imagery and gimmicky article formats that don’t focus on good user experience but rather increasing time in site. It’s as if our friends at the Verge have decided they’re going to go all-in on user hostile behavior and even try to pin it on the browser vendors. 

I used to think Patel was a good writer. He’s a smart guy but I feel like he’s been corrupted in the search for the almighty page view. Maybe that’s giving him more credit than he deserves, but I find myself thinking “here we go again” when I see his name in the byline. 

Everything That’s Wrong With the Web

From Jeremy Keith: It’s funny, but I take almost the opposite view that Nilay puts forth in his original article. Instead of thinking “Oh, why won’t these awful browsers improve to be better at delivering our websites?”, I tend to think “Oh, why won’t these awful websites improve to be better at taking advantage of […]

Continue reading →

Spotify and Apple Music Side By Side

Nice little comparison of a lot of the main screens in both apps.


First Ting bill.  Not bad.

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.