Coming at the end of a week dominated by Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional hearings and an ongoing Facebook privacy probe, this news might seem of lesser importance, but it goes to the same issue that has drawn lawmakers’ scrutiny to Facebook: the matter of trust. Facebook is the least-trusted big US tech company, and Android might just be the operating system equivalent of it: used by 2 billion people around the world, tolerated more than loved, and susceptible to major lapses in user privacy and security.
The gap between Android and its nemesis, Apple’s iOS, has always boiled down to trust. Unlike Google, Apple doesn’t make its money by tracking the behavior of its users, and unlike the vast and varied Android ecosystem, there are only ever a couple of iPhone models, each of which is updated with regularity and over a long period of time. Owning an iPhone, you can be confident that you’re among Apple’s priority users (even if Apple faces its own cohort of critics accusing it of planned obsolescence), whereas with an Android device, as evidenced today, you can’t even be sure that the security bulletins and updates you’re getting are truthful.
Facebook has been collecting call records and SMS data from Android devices for years. Several Twitter users have reported finding months or years of call history data in their downloadable Facebook data file. A number of Facebook users have been spooked by the recent Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, prompting them to download all the data that Facebook stores on their account. The results have been alarming for some.
While the recent prompts make it clear, Ars Technica points out the troubling aspect that Facebook has been doing this for years, during a time when Android permissions were a lot less strict. Google changed Android permissions to make them more clear and granular, but developers could bypass this and continue accessing call and SMS data until Google deprecated the old Android API in October. It’s not yet clear if these prompts have been in place in the past.
The same call record and SMS data collection has not yet been discovered on iOS devices. While Apple does allow some specialist apps to access this data in limited ways like blocking spam calls or texts, these apps have to be specifically enabled through a process that’s similar to enabling third-party keyboards. The majority of iOS apps cannot access call history or SMS messages, and Facebook’s iOS app is not able to capture this data on an iPhone.
This is compounded by the fact that there are still a lot of phones out there running older versions of Android with its less strict app permissions. I think Android has a lot of things going for it, but it’s still a bit of a mess when it comes to privacy and security. And Facebook has surpassed creepy.
Gizmodo has a nice overview of most of the basic difference between Android and iOS devices that still matter. It’s a good read if, like me, you’re finding yourself torn between the benefits and drawbacks of each platform.
Android and iOS might have borrowed enough features from each other over the years to make the superficial differences not so great any more (iOS even has widgets these days), but dig a little deeper and you’ve got three main ways that Apple’s mobile platform differs from Google’s. This is what you need to know about them, and why your pick of smartphone OS still matters.
One of the big differences in choosing a mobile device platform rather than a desktop or laptop system is that the mobile choice is a far smaller commitment. With the ability to upgrade your device after a couple years, it’s not as daunting a prospect to jump from iOS to Android (or vice versa) as it is Mac to Windows.
While I have a long history of owning (and loving) Apple products, it’s not to the exclusion of all other types of products. I love gadgets in general, and I occasionally try out products outside Apple’s ecosystem. Long ago, I owned a Samsung tablet, and I can’t say it was my favorite device. However, Android has come a long way since then. The ecosystem has grown. Google has smoothed out many of the rough edges, and the Nexus program has brought the promise of an Android experience untainted by the drawbacks of manufacturer customizations.
On top of this, I’ve been following various Android-centric blogs and had come to the conclusion that maybe it was time to give the operating system another shot. When our local Best Buy had a flash sale on Nexus tablets, I jumped at one, bringing home a 32 GB Nexus 9 and Nexus 9 Cover. Since we’re just a day away from another Nexus event, I thought it was a good time to finally write down some of my thoughts on transitioning to the wide world of Android.
The Nexus 9 was criticized for feeling cheap when it first came out. The back of the device was strangely flimsy; it had bleeding light at the edges of the display; and it had problematic buttons. I remember holding a Nexus 9 when our local Best Buy first put them on display and immediately wanting to put it down because of how the back flexed inward as soon as I held it — like it would snap under much pressure. I’m happy to say my unit had none of these hardware issues. The buttons felt good. The display seemed just fine, and the back felt perfectly sturdy.
The display was beautiful with crisp resolution and eye-popping color. The device looked and felt nice in a way that most Android tablets simply don’t. The Nexus 9 truly feels like an iPad competitor when you pick it up and start using it. There are no weird textures. (I’m looking at you, Samsung.) The aspect ration matches the iPad. It’s all clean lines and a solid build. It’s a device that lets you use it, and it gets out of your way — which is exactly what I think a tablet should be.
On the downside, the first-party cover was a mess. Where an iPad’s cover snaps firmly to the side of the device and a Galaxy Tab cover wraps solidly around to the back of the device, the Nexus 9 Cover attaches only to one side of the device at a time. When it is affixed to the back, things are OK, but it easily slides around when covering the screen. In this case, the cover actually made it harder to keep a firm grip on the tablet when carrying it, defeating the point of having a cover at all. Needless to say, my Nexus 9 Cover got returned very quickly.
From a specifications standpoint, things look very impressive. The 8.9″ display packs a 2048×1536 resolution. The processor is a 64-bit NVIDIA Tegra running at 2.3GHz, and the device packs 2GB of RAM. (It also has an OK camera for those who take photos with tablets.) These specs should have run laps around my wife’s iPad mini 2. Unfortunately, benchmarks and reality are two different things. Where the device scores well in the number game, it seemed to be held back by software that steadfastly refused to take good advantage of the hardware. In fact, it always felt like the Nexus was working really hard to run any third-party apps.
This hard running also showed up in the device’s battery life. Where my wife’s iPad would last her a good day or so on a charge, I found the Nexus needed charging every few hours. And it took forever to charge. Moreover, I found I had to be careful what I did while I was charging, for I found that some of my installed games would continue to deplete the battery while the device was plugged in. I followed Google’s advice to resolve this problem, and it helped a little; but battery life and charging time remained a sticking point.
Before moving on to the Android operating system, there is one feature on the Nexus 9 that I loved, and that was double-tapping the screen to wake it. Having no home button like an Apple or Samsung device, the Nexus needed a quick and accessible way of waking it from sleep. Hence, double-tap. It needs to be on all touch devices ever. I understand it’s pretty standard in the world of Android now, and I would love to see Apple copy this feature. (Whether it’s a Nexus or not, I still reflexively double-tap on device screens to wake them from time to time.)
Let me get this out of the way right now. I love Material Design. It’s bold. It’s engaging. It’s a little tacky. (Honestly, some of the textures and shadows in some of those wallpapers are downright garish. We’re talking early days of OS X gaudy.) But, most of all, it’s fun in a way modern operating systems avoid. Mac OS X El Capitan is beautiful, but it takes itself very seriously. iOS 9 is gorgeous in many places, but it’s more concerned with style than fun. Windows 10 is stark and eye-catching in its own way but modern Android looks good and is plain fun to use with its bright colors and playful (yet meaningful) animations.
An operating system has to be more than its looks, however, and Android delivers a pretty compelling package overall. Lollipop is the fifth iteration of the Android operating system, and it feels a far more mature OS than the last time I hopped into these waters. As always, there are some things I truly appreciate about Android over iOS, and I’m still hoping Apple will copy some of Android’s best features.
Google Now is great, though I have to admit that it was a little creepy just how much it knew about me in a very short period of time. It’s also nice that Google Now is just a swipe away at all times.
Being able to customize default apps for tasks like email and web browsing is the best. Also, when you install an alternate browser on Android (like Firefox or Opera), you actually get its rendering engine as well. All browsers on iOS are required to use WebKit.
I very much like the app drawer. I don’t like icons on my desktop, and I keep my phone’s home screen clean as well. Android’s app drawer make clutter-free living very easy.
Google’s News app is really quite nice. In truth, pretty much all of the stock apps are great, and they all conveniently tie into Google’s services. In particular, the Gallery app seems to be more discerning than it used to be, no longer displaying images in application directories.
There’s really nothing I dislike about Android as an operating system. I have no gripes about the stock apps and Google services. I love Google Play, and I would definitely say search results and discoverability are better than the App Store. My only real gripe with the stock software is web browsing in Chrome. Despite the high resolution screen, some sites will still display the mobile version of their content, and there are other times when the browser’s default zoom level is off. On top of that, scrolling was still choppy, and the browser needed to reload tabs an surprising number of times. Of the default apps, Chrome seemed the least polished, and I found myself using Firefox as my default browser after a couple of days.
As far as widgets go, I found them cool for about two days, and then I scaled things back to having a big clock on my home screen, and that was it. Perhaps all my time on iOS has just taken away the allure of widgets, but I don’t think so. I remember installing utilities like Konfabulator (later to be called Yahoo! Widgets) when desktop widgets were all the rage and feeling much the same about them. Neither do I ever use Mac OS X Dashboard widgets, and I don’t mourn their inevitable passing. It might be that I just don’t like widgets.
Finally, unlike Android 3.5 and 4.0, Android Lollipop fared very well in portrait mode. On my previous device, things looked good in landscape but got awkward in portrait. It seemed landscape was the default and portrait was an afterthought. Google has since figured out that portrait is the most ergonomic way to hold a tablet, and they’ve tweaked home screen and widget layouts accordingly. Now portrait mode feels like the natural way to use an Android tablet, and my hands are very grateful to Google for this small but important change.
Timely Updates, Or Not
A large problem comes in the form of software updates. This was originally a big selling point of the Nexus 9 for me. When I had a Samsung tablet, its update from Android 3.5 to 4.0 came terribly late, and it looked like it would never get updated past 4.0. In general, Android devices show the same version fragmentation that Windows machines have had for years — except this time, instead of users being slow to adopt a new operating system, it’s manufacturers and carriers slowing things down. At the time I write this, Android 6.0 Marshmallow is in Developer Preview and Lollipop has been out for about a year. Still, Android’s Developer Dashboard shows Android 4.x accounting for some 60% of devices.
By buying into the Nexus program, I was anticipating timely updates. After all, there were no third-party skins or apps to update. There was no proprietary carrier software loaded onto the device. This is pure and unmolested Android, so I had high hopes. Android 5.1 had been released just prior to my purchasing the Nexus 9. A month later, the updates still hadn’t landed. I saw it come out for the Nexus 6, the Nexus 5, even the discontinued Nexus 7, but not the Nexus 9. (I think the Nexus 9 finally did get updated in May.) This happens with no other operating system that I know of. Apple updates Mac OS X or iOS, and it’s immediately available on all compatible devices. Microsoft updates Windows, and the story is the same. If you have a Linux distribution, you could be seeing weekly system updates, but not Android. Google works hard on Android, but the device you are holding may never see their latest and greatest features (or security updates.)
This issue has reached the point that Google has separated updates to Google Play Services from core system updates. That way they can bypass manufacturers and carriers, who act a gatekeepers for system updates, and get some new features to users who may be unwillingly stuck on older versions of Android. What this can’t account for are system level changes, and that’s where a good number of security fixes have to happen. It’s only a matter of time before this creates a large-scale security issue that will be difficult to control. Google might fix security problems quickly, but manufacturers and carriers ultimately control who gets those updates. Even Nexus devices are only promised 18 months of updates, a relatively small period of support when you look at the wide array of Apple devices that get iOS 9.
You know what’s coming. Back in the bad old days of being a Mac user, the lack of software selection was almost a badge of honor. “Sure,” we would say, “there may be fewer applications for the Mac, but they are better applications.” To some extent, that was even true. To this day, independent developers create wonderful software for Mac OS X and OS X only. Applications like Transmit, Affinity Designer, Pixelmator, Acorn, Fantastical, OpenEmu, and more are not only exclusive to the Macintosh, but they are more highly-polished and pleasant to use than Windows alternatives. I was hoping that would be the case with Android. It was not.
Over half of the apps I use frequently on my iPhone were unavailable on Google Play. Sure I could find knock-offs and a few competent alternatives, but the quality independent developers were just not as prevalent on Google Play as they are on the App Store. Furthermore, the category of quality children’s software is sorely lacking on Google Play. Some of Originator’s offerings show up, but developers like Montessorium and Tinybop are entirely absent.This is a big deal to me as a father. If I’m going to spend any screen time with my daughter on the tablet, it’s not going to be with some mass-market piece of Disney or Dreamworks marketing. We’re going to spend time with quality apps, and those are almost exclusively on the App Store.
Beyond educational apps, I also noted a dearth of content creation apps on Google Play. Paper, Pixelmator, a number of Adobe apps — all absent on Google Play with a meager selection of alternatives. Even Microsoft’s apps had very limited Android compatibility while I had my Nexus. Often, tablets get a bad knock for being simply content consumption devices, and it seems this is reflected in the selection of creative apps for Android. If you want your tablet to be a medium for creative outlet, you might want to look elsewhere.
None of this is to say there aren’t some excellent Android-exclusive apps. Here are just a few:
Flynx is a delightful app that opens links you find in the background (instead of instantly hijacking your screen) and presents the content in a lovely reader view.
Unclouded is a wonderful tool for managing all of your cloud-based storage in one place.
Dash Clock is a lovely home screen widget that displays things like the local weather, your next alarm, your upcoming appointments, and unread Gmail conversations.
ES File Explorer is a great file management app. I still wish I could access the iOS file system directly, even if it was limited access.
Markers is a nice, simple and pressure-sensitive drawing app.
Firefox is available on Google Play. Even if it were on iOS, it would just be a WebKit wrapper. This is the real deal.
You might notice that some of those apps I listed are obviously designed for phones and phones alone. This is another challenge with Android tablets. You’ll find yourself with a large number of apps incompatible with your device or that are simply stretched-out phone apps. The situation is better than when I had my Samsung, but the App Store still has a superior selection of apps optimized for tablets.
However, these selections come down to perspective. If you use a lot of apps by bigger players like Rovio, Dropbox, and Evernote, you’re not going to see the discrepancy that I see. If all you want is Hulu, Netflix, or HBO Now, you’ll be golden. Or, if you live and breathe by Google’s services, Android is the way to go. The selection of apps is good enough for most — much like the quality of Windows software is good enough — that many people will be just fine and will never notice the differences between Google Play and the App Store. (Also, if you like reading comics on your tablet, Android is the place to be thanks to a more lenient in-app purchase policy than Apple.)
Miscellany and Wrapping Up
Before I wrap up, I have to give a particular shout-out to Amazon for having the worst-possible video experience on the device. Mind you, I was looking forward to Amazon Video on an Android device. Unlike iOS, Google doesn’t charge 30% of in-app purchases, so I anticipated that purchasing and viewing Amazon Video content would be quick and painless. (And let’s be honest. Amazon Video is the only service that comes close to iTunes when it comes to Doctor Who episode selection. This is more important to me than is rational or healthy.) My hopes were quickly and frustratingly dashed.
First, Amazon Video isn’t on Google Play. You have to download the Amazon Appstore first. Before you can do this, you have to disable a security setting that prevents apps from outside Google Play from running. Let that sink in: you have to voluntarily make your Android device less secure to watch Transparent on it. After you do that, you can install the Amazon Appstore, from which you can install Amazon Video, from which you can buy nothing. You still have to make purchases from your browser or from the standalone Amazon app. What’s stranger is that Amazon Video seems to be the only Amazon service that requires this convoluted of a process. I don’t know about you, but that all seems too much of a hassle for the privilege of buying a TV season from Amazon. I don’t know if such a move is supposed to make a Kindle Fire look more appealing, but all Amazon accomplished was driving me toward other video solutions (none of which reached Doctor Who parity with iTunes).
That experience was an outlier, however. Most of the rest of my time with the Nexus 9 was pleasant enough, no matter how much I wanted to find a writing app as elegant as Pages or a painting app as delightful as Paper. Oh, there was also that time I forgot what my lock pattern was and had to reset the device, but I can’t talk about that without blushing and shuffling my feet awkwardly.
Things I loved:
Home screen customizations
Changing default applications
Purchasing comics and graphic novels
Portrait mode improvements
Think I didn’t Love:
Battery life and charge time
Software updates (or lack thereof)
Lack of good accessory selection
Lack of application parity with iOS
Scaled-up phone apps
That pervasive sense of being stalked by Google
The problem with returning the Nexus 9 Cover and seeking a replacement highlighted another issue. Where there are whole industries built around making cases for Apple and Samsung devices, it was nearly impossible to find a Nexus 9 case in a store. I eventually bought one on Amazon. It was nicely inexpensive and was terribly cheap-looking and flimsy in person. I didn’t bother trying to track down a third case. I’d rather have no case than a lousy one.
The title contains spoilers, for it tells you that I didn’t end up keeping the device either. The Nexus lasted much longer than it’s cover, but I traded in my Nexus for an iPad Air after a month. It was a good choice. I can’t remember what the exact tipping point was, but I just couldn’t justify having dropped that much money on a device I didn’t love. (Even on sale, the device was still a decent investment.) And, while I found my Nexus to be an interesting device, I did not love it. Owning it just made me wish for an iPad instead.
Any device — laptop, phone, tablet, watch — is more than a collection of specifications. I’ve been saying this since the days of Mac versus PC debates. You might have perfectly good reasons for choosing one device and platform over another, but a spreadsheet should never be the whole reason. Yes, the Nexus 9 has good specifications and a nice list of capabilities, but for my purposes, it was still an inferior overall tablet experience to a similarly-priced iPad Air. If you are committed to the Android ecosystem, take a look at the Nexus family. While it wasn’t for me, I still think it’s one of the nicer Android tablets available.