People are in love with their phones. Take a look around on the street, on the subway, any public place. People are checking their email, status updates on their social network of choice, texting friends and family, reading the news, sometimes even talking on them.
There is now more Internet traffic from mobile devices than over connected personal computers. Nobody foresaw the explosive growth of cell phones, its impact on our social and professional lives, nor the rapid growth in the processing power of phones, some of which rival desktop or laptop computers.
Android phones cover more than 81 percent of the smart phone market, but they remain largely misunderstood.
Android or iPhone?
More accurately, iOS or Android, because we’re talking about two very different operating systems. Yet as the systems mature, and the latest versions of each have just been released, the difference in the user interface and overall experience is converging, making them far more alike than in the old days, which in phone years is 12 months ago. Which is best for you?
Both types of phone handle the basic chores handily, have easy to use interfaces with very shallow learning curves, and become virtually obsolete in a year, as new iterations of the operating systems are released and the hardware–the CPU, graphics chips, and cameras–increase in power and capabilities exponentially. The major difference is that iPhones cost hundreds more than most Androids.
The major difference between Android and iOS is that Android is an open source, fully functional operating system acquired by Google in 2005, which developed the system for use on touchscreen mobile devices, and was first introduced commercially in 2008 on the HTC Dream phone. It is based on Linux, the free, powerhouse PC operating system and which is actually being adopted by commercial enterprises and foreign governments so that they are not enslaved–sorry–beholden to Microsoft for maintenance and upgrades. Looking back at that first chunky, clunky Android phone we see how astoundingly far we have come in just six years.
Open source means that Google will give away the code for the operating system for free to any phone manufacturer or app developer who asks for it. The manufacturer is free to make any alterations to the code that they see fit, to add features, proprietary apps or graphical interface overlays that change the look and feel of the phone.
Of course this means that the same basic low level code must function on a wide variety of hardware configurations. Many manufacturers also mean there is a wealth of Android based phones to choose from, as opposed to exactly two models of iPhones.
So how do you choose? That’s difficult.
If you go to the major carriers like AT&T or Verizon, they will likely steer you to the latest and greatest, which now is the Samsung Note or Galaxy line. The Note 3 has a massive 5.7 inch screen (earning it the nickname phablet–phone tablet) a screaming fast processor and the weird (to me) feature of monitoring your eye movements on the screen through its front-facing camera and going to sleep if you look away for more than ten seconds. It will cost you $299 with a two year contract with the major carriers.
This is just one example, however. Plenty of lower priced and even free phones, on contract, will easily and handily accomplish your major chores. Most Android phones come with standard Google apps, such as Google Maps with turn by turn voice directions; Google Now, a voice activated personal information app; Google Hangouts, a combination chat and texting app, and video and music apps. It comes stock with the Google Chrome browser, but you are free to add the browser, or browsers, of your choice.
The Google Play store has now surpassed in quantity, if not quality, the number of available apps offered by Apple’s iTunes store–over one million. The store also has a rich selection of movies and television series, as well as a vast music collection. It has a respectable number of books and magazines as well.
Making your choice
Briefly, you should choose a phone with no less than a quad core processor, two gigabytes of RAM, 16 gigabytes of storage for apps and media, and a user interface you feel comfortable with. Also look for front and rear facing cameras, the former for video chatting and the latter for capturing those Kodak moments. This means you should prepare for browsing online the available models meeting these minimum specifications, and going to the store and actually handling the phone and test driving it, if possible. Top of the heap as of this writing, the Motorola Droid Max ($149), Samsung Galaxy Note 3 ($219.99 to $703.99), the HTC One ($99), and the Google Nexus 5 ($149 to $478.48).
It is helpful to read customer reviews. Amazon for instance sells these phones, and their consumer comments page for each has literally hundreds of reviews and impressions of people’s experiences with the phone you might be interested in. Just remember, you don’t need to pay the premium for the latest and greatest, because in two years, after your contract is up and it’s time for a trade in, your top of the line Android phone will be hopelessly outdated. Yes, the technology really does advance that quickly.
And just maybe you don’t need cutting edge features like NFC, Near Field Communication, which allows two phones or Android devices to share files simply by tapping them together. It also can be used to purchase items or services with your smartphone, but the receiving end of this technology is in its infancy in the United States. You can pay for public transportation with your phone in Germany, New Zealand and Turkey. But no need to rush out to buy your tickets to these countries just yet. Google promises widespread adoption of the technology in the United States soon. And you thought your credit card was convenient.
Don’t like the way your home screen looks? Do you want the time and weather, or maybe news headlines, displayed in a scroll across your home page? We have a widget for that. Oh and by the way we have four home screens that you can customize and scroll through, displaying the one that pleases you at the moment. Take that, Apple, with your single home screen filled with app icons.
Widgets are pieces of self contained code that usually link to apps and can be placed on home screens to display the information you want to see at a glance. Some are simple shortcuts to apps you use frequently, others lovely full-page eye candy. Several standard widgets come with stock Android, but manufacturers and independent developers have created hundreds of useful widgets as well as simply nice-to-look-at displays of graphic art.
There is plenty of customization you can implement with your Android phone as-is from the factory, but the open source nature of the system is also something the average user can take advantage of. You can actually, through a process called rooting, gain access to the core operating system, remove it and replace it with either another, usually more up-to-date version of Android or with one of several custom and highly popular ROMs that give your phone new capabilities, such as over clocking, or speeding up, your processor. You can also configure your rooted phone to become a WiFi hotspot for your tablet or laptop, giving your portable devices Internet connectivity wherever you go.
Two caveats: Though rooting your phone is relatively safe and easy, mistakes are possible and you can brick your phone; that is, turn it into an expensive chrome and plastic brick. It also voids your warranty, a significant consideration for an extremely complex miniature computer which has more ways to fail than you can count. This writer has never rooted any of the many Android phones and tablets I’ve owned, nor have I understood the enthusiasm that heavy users and tech writers have expressed for the procedure. Unless you are a hardcore tech fanboy, I’d recommend not fooling with an already highly capable and flexible operating system.
One problem with Android phones is systemic. Upgrades to a newer, or the newest, version of the operating system are spotty at best, and for most phones hopeless. It depends upon your service provider, and the model of phone you own, as to whether you will receive an upgrade. This is understandable when you consider the vast number of models and differing processors, features, Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) customizations and apps that comprise the Android ecosystem. Considering the increased demands that new versions of Android have put on the hardware, reasons for this become clear.
One sure way to guarantee that you will (almost) always receive a system update is to buy a Google Nexus branded device. These include the Google Nexus 7 (reviewed last week) and Nexus 10 tablets, as well as the very reasonably priced Google Nexus 4 and 5 phones. These are available from Google directly through Google Play store, through Amazon.com, and Best Buy stores.
They sell out quickly though so be prepared to pounce when you spot one. One encouraging sign that Google is aware of this problem of un-upgraded phones running a mix of older versions of Android on widely disparate hardware configurations, called fragmentation, and taking steps to eliminate it in the future, is that the latest iteration of Android, Kit Kat 4.42, is designed to run on lower end hardware as well as the high end. It requires as little as half a gigabyte of RAM and runs smoothly on lower performing processors.
This move on Google’s part is not entirely selfless. It is a clear signal that Google is looking to take a significant chunk of the world market, with its operating system capable of running on less powerful and notably cheaper hardware in emerging markets in Asia and India, where cheap feature phones are still the norm.
The Wild West
Another advantage Google holds over Apple is the wild and wooly nature of its Google Play store. It is curated rather loosely, to put it mildly. Unlike iTunes, which does not allow apps with executable code; that is, which create virtual machines within the core operating system, Google Play offers a wide array of such apps. What does this mean for you? Ever get nostalgic for your old Gameboy Advance or N64, to play Mario Kart or any of the Zelda games? You can download emulators, or virtual Nintendos, from Google Play, find a game ROM on the web, and play like it’s 1994.
Also there are free streaming movie apps, notably Movie Tube, that feature first run and recent films in high definition. Where do they come from? Best not to ask. I check a couple of times a day and though there are hundreds of films I don’t want to watch suddenly a gem like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug will appear. That’s still in theaters.
Is it ethical? Dubious. Is it moral? Leave that to your conscience. Is it legal? Apparently it is, since Google has not removed it from its store. And I’ve seen apps that cross that fuzzy line eliminated from the store. Remember, you are streaming, not downloading, these movies, from a Google-blessed app.
Downloading copyrighted content, with so-called torrenting apps, is still illegal and whether it’s film or music you are after the major copyright holders monitor these activities and inform your service provider to get you to cease and desist. Ignoring these warnings can result in loss of internet service, civil monetary penalties, even criminal charges.
But streaming from a Google-blessed source, and Movie Tube is just one of several of these sorts of apps, is certainly legal and you might as well enjoy it while it lasts. Not that its demise is imminent; I’ve been using Movie Tube for years.
In sum I am an Android devotee. For a fraction of the cost of an iPhone you can have all the functionality, greater customization options, and more fun with an Android. As for specific phones, I mentioned above only the current best rated and most in demand. I myself use a ZTE Warp 4G, bought from Boost Mobile for less than a hundred dollars. Last year’s phone, definitely.
Yet it streams video flawlessly, plays most games, is loaded with apps yet rarely stutters. It is solidly built by a relatively unknown Chinese maker and is 4G LTE capable. It has a dual core processor and only one gigabyte of ROM, and eight gigs of RAM. Still, I have hundreds of books on it, both in my Kindle reader app and an Android epub format Android book and comic reader called Moonreader. And I have more than 800 songs on it as well.
Would I love a high end screamer of more recent vintage? Definitely. Do I want to pay the toll? No, my phone does everything I need and more. Do I suffer from iPhone envy? Only very occasionally, a subject we will explore in a future article in depth.
Android is just plain more fun. Shop wisely, read reviews, look for deals, and remember; for the price of one iPhone you can buy two adequate Androids, or one top end with money left over. I was going to say money left over to pay for apps, but the majority of Google apps are free, though they are either heavily freighted with ads or filled with in-app purchases. (So, for instance, you’ve made it to level 53 on Zombie Killer but need a BFG to take out the boss? That will be two dollars real money please, if you wish to continue playing.)
Something for Nothing?
Ad-supported apps are very common, and apt considering Google’s business model is to create a profile for you based on your search inquiries and the content of your email and sell advertising to vendors who can efficiently target those most likely to be interested in their goods and services. You might say advantage Apple, whose apps are ad free. Ads which pop up on Android apps fairly frequently are annoying, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay, in exchange for not paying a price.
Android phones come in many form factors, internals, screen sizes and resolutions. Don’t let the sheer volume of choices deter you. Think of it instead as an opportunity to find just the right fit for you, your budget and what you want to use your phone for.
My personal favorite is the Nexus 5, available from Google and online resellers. As in the case of their tablets, Google sells this phone and the smaller Nexus 4 at near or below cost to lure you into their market and their databases of personal preferences to sell to advertisers. It sells for $399 unlocked, meaning without a contract or carrier, a couple of hundred dollars less than its unlocked, similarly specced competition. You get to choose your provider. But AT&T and T-Mobile underwrite their cost in exchange for a two-year contract, and with rebates and special offers they can be found for as little as the ridiculously low price of $49.
But nothing is free. The contract carriers’ monthly services can cost well over a hundred dollars a month, and come with data caps, or limits on how much over the air data you can consume. Data is consumed not just through downloads, but also by simply browsing the web. You can stretch your monthly data caps by doing these things via WiFi on your home or office wireless network. In future articles we will explore the non-contract, pay by the month plans and how you can save thousands over a two year period in monthly tolls.
Next week: The iPhone, beautiful inside and out, for a price.
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.