My Android "Marshmallow" review

posted by Jeff | Sunday, November 8, 2015, 8:44 AM | comments: 0

I jumped on the smartphone train when it really became a legitimate thing, with the first iPhone in 2007. I followed up with the iPhone 3GS. I switched to Windows Phone in late 2010 in part because the phones were free, since I worked at Microsoft. I would end up sticking with that operating system, through its different versions, for five years over two phones. The Nokia Lumia 920 was a great phone that I used for three years, and the camera ability in particular was fantastic. The OS evolved a bit slowly in terms of features we all take for granted, but I was able to overlook that because the design tenants around continuous flow of information (no paging or breaks, live tiles, panoramas, etc.) and a far more centralized means for managing the way apps interact with the phone.

During that time, I still kept in touch with iOS, obviously, because we've had iPads. It has added a lot of incremental minor things, but the thing that disappoints is that they haven't deviated from the "dumb grid" app launcher design. If there is anything I've admired about good software design, it's the ability to get to productivity sooner. iOS doesn't do that beyond active notifications, which I liken to constant distraction.

Android didn't really start to take off until 2010, and the really hot hardware probably didn't come until a few years after that. Still, I messed with it now and then as part of various jobs, and it mostly seemed like a poor attempt at a "me too" to iOS. Couple that with fragmentation among manufacturers and carriers (because the OS is open source, and it can be customized as desired), dreadful energy management and some minor amount of compatibility, and I just wasn't interested.

Google has been putting out its own devices, commissioned to various manufacturers, since the start, and they at least solve the fragmentation problem. And with this year's Nexus 5X and 6P, they finally have really outstanding cameras, too. The new OS version, "Marshmallow," makes great strides in energy management. In other words, the 5X was a pretty solid choice. At more than $200 less than an iPhone for similar hardware, it seemed like a no-brainer for a guy with a 3-year-old phone and fear that Windows Phone will continue to whither. I won't get into the phone itself, as it has been well-reviewed. It's very nice, very thin, solid battery life, crazy fast charging, and the camera is strikingly good.

The TL;DR version of this is that in terms of the OS, I feel like I'm trading a better app ecosystem for a less refined operating system. It's probably a good trade, but if Redmond could get some serious app parity (or start running Android apps), I'd go back.

While I'm critical of the iOS grid-o-useless-icons, Android added widgets fairly early in its history. These are essentially little pieces of UI that you can embed within the icon grids. They do the kinds of things you would expect, like display calendar data or weather. They kind of work, but there are some issues that make them feel more tacked on as an afterthought. The OS really looks at them and app icons as two different things, and they appear disjointed, without standard sizes. Many don't have obvious functionality, like message or notification counts (like the red badges in iOS, or whatever the developer wants in Windows live tiles). That, and the paged groups of icons are an inferior paradigm compared to inertial scrolling on Windows that doesn't have those breaks. I suppose since the icons don't tell you anything, maybe that matters less.

The overall settings around the OS are fairly easy to find, fortunately, and the instrumentation in particular has come a very long way since the last time I played with Android. I remember friends complaining about how a rogue app could zap the battery, and they wouldn't know which one. The battery app now makes that easy to figure out. The data app is also great for diagnosing obscene data consumption, and it even lets you set the data collection period to match your billing period. Other than Google services obnoxiously uploading stuff when not on WiFi (I was able to restrict it), I've not had any real data or battery issues. I did notice that it's not great about limiting what I call "data banging," which is what happens when you have weak connectivity and everything is desperately trying to phone home, but that issue isn't unique to this platform, and it's definitely not good for battery life.

My biggest frustration is that the OS lacks a lot of native features that are there on other platforms. It doesn't do visual voicemail. It doesn't read my texts when I'm on Bluetooth. There are apps in some cases to handle this (AT&T makes the voicemail, and it looks like Cortana will handle the text reading), but it feels like it should just be there.

Then there are other weird things, like a total lack of centralized notification management. You can centrally decide which apps can't notify or can break through quiet hours, but deciding how they appear (sounds, vibration, visual) is left entirely to each app, and some don't let you get that specific at all.

Another native thing... the camera app takes entirely too long to start. I already hate the compromise of not having a hardware camera button that lets you half-press to focus, but having the app take so long to appear, often as much as four seconds, isn't cool. Then it saves more than one picture sometimes. I thought this was only when you had the HDR setting on, but it happens regardless, but only on the first shot.

Putting the quirks of the operating system aside for a moment, the big win is of course that the app ecosystem is much better than what I had for Windows. Mind you, I'm not a big app user, and I never have been. Still, there are two that I really like having: Amazon Music and the Walt Disney World app. The few others I use also exist on Windows, but they're far less robust, specifically Facebook. While I'm not a heavy user beyond curiosity, Twitter and Instagram are better too. The mail client is actually superior here, because as it's intended to use Gmail, it has proper buttons for archiving and for deleting. While I'm not crazy about the calendar app, it does at least allow you to see all shared calendars because, again, it's made by Google. Oh, it's nice to use the official Tesla app instead of the unofficial Windows port as well.

One nice thing that Microsoft has done is get its software all over Android. That means that I was able to install OneDrive and not miss a beat as far as backing up photos to where they already were. Heck, it will even allow you to do it over cellular, which wasn't possible on Windows. That's nice since it would seem to me that immediate backup is exactly what you want when shooting memories, not waiting until you're back home on WiFi (or lose your phone in the interim). The OneNote app is every bit as simple and good as it is on other platforms, so we're able to share our grocery list and other notes between us. Word, PowerPoint and Excel are there too. Also in beta is Cortana, which honestly has been one of my favorite things about Windows Phone. It solves the text reading problem allegedly, though I haven't had a chance to receive a text in the car yet since installing it. (I turned off the Google Now stuff, because after two weeks, the only thing it would tell me is the commute time home... as soon as I got to work.)

Chrome really shines as a browser. It's so fast, especially compared to Safari on iThings, and also to MSFT Edge (which admittedly is on my 3-year-old previous phone). Stuff renders as expected, and Javascript performance is surprisingly good.

At the end of the day, I feel like I've had to trade a really excellent, well thought out core experience for better apps. While Microsoft is making it easier to port iOS and Android apps to Windows, it doesn't mean that developers will do it. On the other hand, if they actually ship the "Astoria" feature that makes Android apps run on Windows phones, that would be killer. I'd go back in a heartbeat. For now, it's kind of a limbo where I'm happy enough with the Nexus 5X despite its flaws. The trade-off will be something to keep thinking about.


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