Android Smartphones: Cool, but still nerdy

The Android phones have been in the news of late for their rapid increase in sales. The web is replete with speculation of a replay of the Mac vs PC like battle in the mobile space between the iPhone and Android phones.  Its hard to argue with this comparison because there are great similarities. The iPhone is closely guarded by Apple while the Android platform is more “open” though largely Google centric. As someone who has used the iPod touch and the Android here are my personal experiences/views.

Gmail, Google Apps, Sync-ing etc.

It appears as though life becomes easier on the Android platform if you have a Gmail address. This is understandable given that its ultimately Google’s mobile platform.  It is possible that there is a way around it (i.e., not having a Gmail account), but it is likely to come with its associated baggage. (remember the time when Paypal required a paypal account?) I have a Gmail address but was pretty disappointed to find that the integration with Google Apps was far from smooth.  If you have a Gmail account and a Google Apps account and chose to keep these independent, getting your Google Apps calendar, contacts etc.  on to your phone is a challenge in itself. Certainly do-able as a found out later, but a challenge nevertheless that requires you to draw upon your nerdy instincts!

Dreadful Battery Life

The downside of a high powered Android smartphone phone is that its a an “incredible” battery hog. There are scores of techniques to reduce the battery usage. But the very fact that you as the end user have to “muck” with these is annoying to say the least. It is clearly a reflection of the fact that the platform as whole is still maturing. If you plan to use your phone extensively especially for browsing, email etc. be prepared to charge it a minimum of once a day and possibly more often.

Beware of Data Roaming Charges

This is one feature that is going to really hurt Android users if you travel overseas. So beware! By default, the Android phones connect to the net unless you specifically turn off Internet access.  This means that when you are traveling (outside of the US for instance, assuming that you have a US data plan), you are going to be quickly hit by a hefty bill without your knowledge. The phone does not bother to flag you that you are going to be incurring data roaming charges. To make matters worse the rates are ridiculously high  — something like $20 per MB! (depending on which country you are traveling in). When you hit $100, Verizon sends you a text message. Thank God for small mercies! If you happen to check that text message, good for you, else be prepared for a nasty surprise when your monthly statement arrives.

Android Phones are still very nerdy

After having used the HTC Incredible for a couple of months and the iPod Touch for close to eight months, my personal view is that the Android phone in its present incarnation clearly falls in the nerd camp. If you are not a nerd or don’t even possess the odd nerd streak my recommendation would be to stay away from Android phones for now. The platform on the whole is extremely powerful and there are plenty of really cool features provided you are good at figuring things out for yourself.

Based on my experience with the iPod touch I suspect that iPhones are far more easy to setup, navigate and use (though the upgrade to iOS 4.0 wasn’t exactly smooth). Unfortunately, iPhones imply AT &T service and what good is a user-friendly phone without a reliable service provider?

Final Thoughts

From an end-user perspective the Android platform is still evolving and is far from “idiot proof”. Having said that I really think that its only a matter of time before it improves and becomes relatively easy to use because the overall difference in user experience isn’t as stark as the Mac vs the PC.  In fact, there are a number of likable UI features on the Android phones. Besides, the market dynamics of an open platform (backed by Google) appears to be in its favor.

Bottom line, if you are in the market for a smartphone your choices are between a battery hogging, nerds-delite or a cool, user-friendly phone with an unreliable service (assuming for now that Blackberries are too boring and too corporate).

Unknowingly, I have managed to strike a decent balance. I use my iPod for most things as long as I have access to a wi-fi network. I use my smartphone firstly for making calls (!!) and avail of the data features on an as needed basis when I can’t use my iPod. Its kind of sad because my guarded use of the data facility defeats the purpose of a smartphone. Unfortunately, I can’t risk using my phone for Internet access (and other pursuits) only to see it run out of battery when I need to make/take an important call.

Most international airports around the world offer free wi-fi unlike most airports in the US. Most coffee shops offer wi-fi too. So this balance seems to work for me. The downside is that I am armed with two devices most of the time and I don’t see that changing until AT&T improves its reliability or the Android platform its battery life.