One Week With a Galaxy S4

I used to have an iPhone 4S for 2 years and an iPad 3 for a whole year but, last week, I had both stolen and, due some other purchases, I had to get something to replace a phone and a tablet in a single shot. So I decided to go with a Galaxy S4, just because it has a large screen that — supposedly — I could use like a tablet.

Reviewing any Android device is hard. Not because there are things that you will, accidentally or by ignorance, try to do in same old way, but because there isn’t a single Android. The first two days with the S4 were annoying as hell (partly my own fault for trying to do the same old things in the same old way) but after some people mentioning that I should replace my current Android with an “Android Google Edition for S4”, some things improved greatly. So even when we talk about Android, we are not talking only about the “mobile operating system by Google”, but all the range of stuff manufacturers stuff on it. So part of what I’ll call it “didn’t like” may be solved by some other manufacturer or by a third party application.

Also, there are some apps that can change a lot of the base operating system. So, again, part of what I call “didn’t like it” may be solved by someone else and available in the Google Play. Still, there are some things that I may consider really basic stuff that should work properly out of the box and not require something else, not matter how easy it is to install it.

And, in the end, I won’t go “this iOS app vs this Android app” because apps tend to be different anyway in different operating systems and any problem I’d find in them would be probably skewed due the fact that I’m trying to use any Android app as an iOS app, which makes absolutely no sense. So I’ll try my best to focus on the hardware and the base operating system instead of going app through app.

So, without further ado…

Things I’m Ambivalent About

The Earphones

The earphones that come with the S4 are really earphones, not “earbuds”. I really like the earbud design as it sits on your ear without any pressure anywhere. On the other hand, the S4 earphones, due their own design, provide a way better noise cancellation (not full noise cancellation, but still good enough) and, for me, they fit quite nicely.

So a bit down in the comfort zone, but somewhat up in the noise zone.

Just to add up: As the earbuds, the Galaxy earphones also have in-cable “remote” control. The difference is that, while the earbuds (and previous incarnations) use a single button (or surface) for all buttons, the Galaxy ones have two buttons: one for volume up and down and another to play. Personally, I prefer the Apple design simply because I could easily move my thumb to the remote and all controls were at “hand” easily (thumb on control: do I want to play/pause/skip? click straight away; volume up? just move thumb up; volume down? just move thumb down); with the Galaxy, I usually need to either move my thumb up or down ’cause I never really get exactly what I want — sometimes I want to increase the volume but the first thing I touch is the play/pause button and vice-versa. Still, it’s just a matter of getting used to it, so I’m not holding this against Galaxy (or praising it, for any chance).

Screen Space

This is quite weird for someone that was looking for a large screen say that he’s divided about it, but I really don’t know how to feel about it. Sure, there is plenty screen space and it feels less crowded than an iPhone and the fact that it can go from one corner of the device to the other is really amazing.

On the other hand, due the very small margins between the screen and the device edges, more than once I end up “clicking” something I really didn’t want. More than once I opened an ad due the very little space between the end of the screen and the “Back” button; once I even managed to call someone ’cause the telephone app was too close to the edge and I “clicked” the screen with part of the palm of my hand[1][2].

Music Transfer

The process to move a song to an iOS device is not really direct: You need to add the song to your iTunes Library and then sync it with your device[3][4]. So you’re required to firstly add them to a library to be able to have in your device. There is no way to add a song directly to the device[5].

On Android, I was expecting it to show as an USB device and drop the songs. My surprise is that you need a special application to transfer songs from my OS X to my S4[6].

So things appear to be basically the same: You need a special application that will either act as a library sync or something to transfer the files as you need them.

The “Desktop” Metaphor

On iOS, your “desktop” is also your application list: What you see is what you have installed; if you remove an app from your “desktop”, you remove it from your device. On Android, there is a distinction between those two: There is a desktop, in which you can add application launchers and widgets and installed apps; removing an app from the desktop will not remove the app from the device (but removing from the app list will remove from the desktop).

Personal opinion, on the iOS it is easier to realize things like “oh gee, I have too many stuff installed already, I may need to uninstall some stuff to free space”; it also makes it easier to see apps around and remove them when you don’t use them anymore. On Android, with the prominence of the desktop, this kind of stuff could be hard to spot.

On the other hand, because Android splits the launchers and the installed apps in two different “containers”, it’s way easier to not clutter your screen with rows and rows of icons; you can have that application that you eventually use hidden in the “All apps” part of the OS while the most used apps in the desktop (while in the iOS you’d probably end up throwing that less used app in the some very far away workspace).

Also, the Android desktop allows the mix of app launchers and widgets. I see that removing the desktop and using the same iOS idea of “app list = desktop” would really get messy with widgets, as you’d have two things behaving differently to add and remove. Because adding and removing launchers and widgets to the desktop is the same, it completely makes sense having this desktop metaphor[7].

I really like how every single thing an app requires is listed directly in the app page, before you can confirm your purchase/install. I can’t remember anything like that in the iTunes Store — the only way to find out that the application will use your address book for something is when it requests permission to do so. And, even so, the Play Store app page list every single thing the app will try to use, from internet access to changing some configuration option deep down in the system.

On the other hand — and this is totally my own pet peeve with this kind of stuff, and it doesn’t affect only Android, so this point could be kinda moot — if the app is requesting all those permissions, I’d like to be able to tell what I’d allow it to do. Oh sure, this Twitter client can access internet, but in any shape or form it should require to access and change my address book. I should be the one saying “yes, it can read and change” or “actually, this app can only read my address book, not change it” or even “there is no fucking what this app will access my address book”.

I find it a “win” that it lists everything, but a “loss” for going so deep into checking everything the app does and not letting me block it. iOS doesn’t list everything (loss), but the crucial parts are “user-blockable” (partial win, as you can’t only give permissions some stuff, not everything).

Back AND Home Buttons

While iPhones and iPads have a single button, called “Home”, the S4 have 3 buttons: A physical “Home” button, and two virtual buttons, one Menu button and a Back button.

Initially, it’s confusing — at least, coming from iDevices — to understand why you have two buttons that, at first glance, do the same thing. After using it for longer, though, the use of each become clear.

What I Really Enjoyed

The Keyboard

Ok, I admit: The coolest thing on Android is the “swype-like” keyboard: instead of pressing key-by-key to type words, you can just slide through the virtual keyboard and get the word you want. iOS can only do that in a jailbroken OS, so Android wins on this.

Install From a Page

This is something Google really did well. You go to Google Play on any browser, pick an app and select it to install and it will install on your device next time it finds a network.

On iOS, you need to access the Store with a single browser embedded in a single app which, let’s be honest, it’s less optimal when you’re on your work computer and find out that that awesome app finally launched, but you can’t install ’cause you’re not in the blessed OS with the blessed application.

App Stacking

The way Android stacks apps and unstacks them when you press the “Back” button really makes going through apps a breeze: Clicked a link in a Twitter client? No problem, pressing back on the browser will, eventually, lead you back to the Twitter app. On iOS, you need to enable the multigesture feature and use 4 fingers to the left to go back to the previous app, pretty much as you would Alt+Tab on a desktop. But it gets confusing most of the time and the app doesn’t react immeditally[8] when you switch back to it.

Adding Ringtones/Alarm/Notification Sound From Anywhere

There are two ways to add a new sound for your alarm/ringtone/notification sound on iOS: You either have to buy it or add them to iTunes and then sync your device — pretty much what you would do to add a new song to it. On Android, on the other hand, if you hear something interesting, it’s easy to simply replace the current setting to something else. No fuss.

Less Smudge

This is about the hardware now: I believe my S4 is accumulating way less smudge than my iPhone, in the long run. I’d guess that it’s related to the glass type used by each company but I really don’t know this well enough to give any points with certainty. On the other hand, it could simply be my impression — after all, I was using the same iPhone for 2 years and the screen could have some moisture under it.

Still, I have the feeling, in this week that there is something different in the production of the glass of each device that makes the S4 less prone to get finger marks all over the screen.

Side To Side Apps

It’s an app feature, not every app have it, but I’m guessing it’s a feature provided by the operating system and, thus, deserve to be listed here.

While iOS apps have a TabBar with some direct links, Android apps have a similar feature, but you can easily switch between them just sliding your finger towards it. I know, as a fact, that up to iOS 6 this was not in the base system and you had to do it manually (it was possible); due the amount of apps that use it on Android, I can only guess that it’s native and, thus, a good improvement.

Remove Apps From the Store

I tried doing this before my iPhone and iPad were stolen, but I couldn’t simply remove a purchased app from my list of applications. Why one would do that is probably a better question, as all it does is annoy the vendor as they have to keep a line in their database that I purchased some app. But still, it was something I did want to do with my iOS purchases and couldn’t. I can on Android + Play Store.

Per App Auto-Update

Just recently Apple rolled the automatic app update (on iOS7). My Android 4.3 already has this and more: I can select which applications can and which ones can’t be automatically updated.

(It’s a bit hidden in the Play Store instead of your “Installed Apps” list, but still, it’s there.)

Things That Are Annoying So Far

Battery Life

My 2 year old iPhone would last for 2.5 days without charging. My S4, in 20 hours, is all completely drained.

The “Samsung” Android

As I mentioned, my first 2 days of Android were… annoying. I had most of the stuff working in a bad way — remember, “bad way” as in “I was used to other mobile OS” — that cleared as I switched to another distribution of Android — which I think that’s what they should be called, “Android Distributions”.

The base system is the same, yes. The store is the same, yes. But the whole experience is different — pretty much what we have with Linux distributions already.

And, sadly, the whole affair felt so wrong to me. If I could relate this to something else, it would be like installing Windows from a vendor and having a shitload of bloatware installed that instead of helping you, just got in the way.

The whole process of installing a new distribution is also annoying: I had to use an specific app for an specific OS to be able to do convert my phone. Not only that, but I lost all the data I had in my apps, while installing Cydia — or even uninstalling it, for that matter — does not mess with your apps data.

Notifications

This is probably my greatest pet peeve with Android right now: Notifications.

Let me explain how iOS notifications work: First, all application that use notifications have their configuration in a single place, in the main configuration app. You can select how the notification will be displayed, if it will have sound, if it can show the notifications in the lock screen (basically, wake up the device to show you a notification) and even if the application have permission to show any notifications.

Nothing like this exist on Android. So I can’t say that emails can have small notifications without sound and without waking the device and that SMSes should have sound and show in the lock screen, unless the application explicitly allows that in its configuration.

Not only that, but the system apparently doesn’t understand the context in which the application is creating the notification. For example, I tried to buy an app in the Play Store; the card was declined because I had to allow foreign purchases; the bank sent me an SMS telling me that and, if I wanted, I should reply with some random code; I did reply; and then, a few seconds later, I got an SMS back and the notification at the same time. The OS basically gave me a notification for something that was right in front of me. I saw the message before the notification popped up (well, milliseconds before the notification) and I still got a notification.

Apart from that, there is a bug open since 2010 about notification sounds going through the speakers even when you have your earphones on. You have no idea how many looks I got when I set my notification sound to Peter Griffin saying “Oh my God, who the hell cares?” and it just popped up while I was listening to music with my earphones — which got muted while everyone was listening to the notification.

The solution for the above problem, if you try to find one, is to install an app that changes your settings based on events (time of the day, location, earphones in, etc). The solution is to install this app and add a configuration to change the phone profile to mute when earphones are in. But this is not really a solution, all you’re doing is silencing notifications, not making them go on the proper channel.

Also, it seems that, depending on the app that it is in the foreground, there is no way to access the notification to see what happened. On my iPad, I could pull the notification list (and the “quick setup dialog”) inside Pocket Trains; on Android, there is no way to see the notifications — ’cause hey, if I have to wait 2 minutes for the train to reach some station, I could pretty much just clean up my notification list, right? RIGHT?

Music Purchase

This is, pretty much, a #ThirdWorldProblem. Blame Apple all you want, but it was my source of legal music purchases without DRM (yes, DRM free, I’m listening to the songs I bought in the iTunes Store right now on my S4). I still didn’t get a “buy here” on my Android.

(Let me open a discussion here: I think the base for this problem is exactly the problem with the several Android distributions going around. I mean, sure, the number of Android devices surpasses the number of iOS devices, but I don’t think any vendor surpasses the number of devices of Apple[9]. So instead of going as “here, big record company, the Android vendors would like to license our catalog to sell on your devices”, each one is going there with their own numbers — and obviously, they don’t want to share this with anyone else, they want the ones who sell music in some particular country without having to share the chance of making digital sales money on music with other vendors. So it seems the Android ecosystem is more fragmented than what we talk about.)

Contact Mess

On iOS, I had a single contact/make call application; on Android, I have two (the “Phone” app and the “People” app). Not only that, but the list seems inconsistent in both. For example, some long time ago, I synced my iPhone and it stupidly added the Apple HQ phone number to my Gmail address book[10]. Well, I decided to remove it. Thing is, you can’t do that in the Phone app. All you can do in the Phone app are calls. So I went to the People app. Apple phone was not there.

I mean, seriously? How the hell the application that should be managing all my contacts had a contact that I could see as available to call?

I had to go to Gmail to finally remove the number.

Two Email Clients

On my iPad, I had two email accounts: My personal account and my work account. All emails were shown in a “Combined Inbox” folder which would display everything in order. Not only that, but the controls would change from “Move to Folder” to “Archive” when using my Gmail account.

On the S4, I have two email clients: One for Gmail, which tries to mimic the web interface and another client for my work email that looks almost different. And I really can’t understand that: The Gmail client have a toolbar on the top of the screen; the other email client have a toolbar on the bottom. So every time, after reading some email, I have to look for the toolbar to move the mail or archive it.

Not only that, but some behaviours are weird: on iOS, moving or achieving an email, the client will move to the next unread email, no matter if it is more recent or older; on Android, it will always move to the older email, even if it is already read[11].

(Someone mentioned that it was easier to just ignore work emails when in vacation, but I could easily do the same — if I wanted — by simply going to the settings and disabling the account. Not other configuration is lost.)

Also, none of the emails allow me to zoom out the original size. It usually it isn’t a problem, but your infrastructure guys have a template for tell the company when some server will go into maintenance or the no-breaks need to be replaced that never fits any screen, directly (not even my desktop — at least, not properly) and I could zoom out to read it. Now I can’t (but still, this is minor, but it’s annoying to scroll things horizontally back and forth).

No Landscape Desktop

I mentioned the split between desktop and apps list. What I didn’t mention was the fact that are a bunch of different launchers available, so I’m not stuck with this “5 workspaces, no way to add or remove workspaces” launcher.

On the other hand, the default desktop[12] does not support landscape view. Ok, this may sound silly, but it’s weird that you’re in some landscape app (say, a game, which doesn’t have a portrait mode), close it, see your desktop getting sideways, opening your Twitter client, which would just move to the landscape mode flawlessly.

Again, minor, but still…

The Configuration

I’m just putting this here to show some differences — this difference is annoying to me right now but I guess I’ll get used to it soon.

So, on iOS, you usually have a well defined settings window: I’d go to the global settings, look for something and then change it. With iOS7, a lot more applications moved their configurations — which were buried somewhere in their interface — to the general setup. So it was a “single stop configuration” place for almost everything. There was even a change to include more icons, to improve the way you could find the proper configuration place.

On Android… not so much. Sure, the move to a single configuration spot on iOS is recent, but the current configuration tools on most Android apps is poor, to put it blandly. There is very little idea of “drilling down” to proper places, some options are scattered around groups, some drill-down groups don’t even have arrows to indicate they are drill-downs…

And before everyone rages: Let me repeat that my current annoyance with it is just a matter of getting use to it. And some tweaking.

Conclusion

Ok, so you jumped over most of the text and now just want to know if you should change your iOS for an Android. The answer is clear:

I don’t know.

You see, there are some things — the app switching, for example — that Android puts iOS to shame; some others — like notifications — would be better if Android never had it in the first place, as shameful as they are. Mostly, things are the same in the base system and what would decide any change are the apps — and, honestly, Pocket Trains is the same on both, Plume is no Tweetbot[13], Jiffy is gorgeous compared to most time tracking apps on iOS…

“SHOULD. I. CHANGE? ANSWER. THE. FUCKING. QUESTION!”

Ok, you want an answer: Ask me again later. After this week I’ll start to really mess with this thing, installing new desktop managers and themes and all the matter of crap I can find. So far, as you could see, I still have mixed feelings about it but I’m not saying it’s better or worse till I finally get used to it and forget most of the iOS-risms I got over the years.

Footnotes

[1] Talk about “holding it wrong”. ;)

[2] And due the way the screen was locking when detecting something close, I couldn’t stop the call quick enough (but I was lying down on the couch, so I was not in the most probably position to not put something in front of the screen).

[3] … unless you purchased the song directly from the iTunes Store, in which it will “distribute” the song to all your devices automagically.

[4] If you have it enabled, the songs will sync through wireless, if you have your iTunes Library open and your iOS device on in the same net.

[5] Again, unless you purchased directly from iTunes Store. In that case, yes, it will download directly to your device.

[6] From what I read somewhere else, Windows requires special drivers (which it will automatically install) and then you can use the Windows Explorer to transfer things; Linux requires a special library and that applications have support for it (and I’m guessing Rhythmbox have it). In the end, it feels the same.

[7] Splitting apps and desktop also allows changing the desktop manager to something else, but since we are talking about the default ones in the phone, I’ll consider that the default behaviour. Maybe there is a desktop manager that displays everything in a single place, just like iOS, but, again, this is not the default behaviour.

[8] It wasn’t immediate on my iPhone 4S or iPad 3. Maybe it was a “hardware not powerful enough” to handle the switching on iOS 7 and things are smoother on newer devices, but that’s something I may find out only far away in the future.

[9] Yeah yeah yeah, because Apple is the only one selling iOS, while there are tenths of vendors selling Android, I get it. Also get it that no vendor, individually, have more devices than Apple. Are we good on that?

[10] The number is there to show you, new user, how the Contacts/Call works. I just left it there and never bothered to remove the entry. Sorry, no, I don’t know anyone in the Apple HQs.

[11] The whole sad fact about Android is that I could, in theory, just download the source and fix that myself — after all, it’s not a big, complicated thing just check if the next or previous email is unread. But I can’t fix the Gmail client ’cause the source of it is not available anymore (’cause it’s part of the Google package that it’s not part of the AOSP). Sure, on iOS, no matter how good programmer I wish I would, I could never change that myself, even if the change was simpler than that. But when you start looking at both platforms coldly as this… yes, it’s a bad point for Android ’cause the iOS behaviour feels “righter”.

[12] I believe this is the default desktop manager, as it is part of the “Google Edition” of Android. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

[13] Tweetbot is better, if that wasn’t clear. But I bought a premium Plume, as it was the best Twitter client for Android I found in a 5 minute search.

Honeycomb Looks Already Outdated

Recently, there is a lot of talk about the Android version, named “Honeycomb” for tablets. A video was posted with some sneak peek of it.

The problem is that, to me, it looks already outdated. If you compare the look of the final Honeycomb with the pre-alpha of Meego, you’ll have the impression that the first actually came before (again, remember that this is the pre-alpha version and the final version, released last year, it a bit more polished).

The weird thing is that if you compare Android 2.2 running on a smartyphone with Maemo running on the N900, Maemo is the one that looks outdated.

Personally, as a software developer, if Meego keeps the Maemo tradition of not hiding the hardware from the developer, you can expect that Meego will have some crazier things running on it.

On the other hand, since Meego is being directed by Nokia, I kinda expect that the life of Meego will be hell (with my experience with multiple versions of Maemo).