In 3 years of using iOS, upgrading every year from iPhone 4 through 4S to 5, there was one thing that I was increasingly bothered by: the number of steps from me having a thought and actually being able to get it down on an app was too many. Theoretically it’s: ‘wake’ -> ‘swipe’ -> ‘tap Drafts’ -> ‘start writing’, so that’s 3 steps before words can start to be written, but usually I would have Chrome or the Music app open before the iPhone goes to sleep so that when it’s swiped open I would have to press home before being able to choose Drafts. This makes it 4 steps. I got a little obsessive about this, and tried for a while to reduce it to the absolute minimum number of steps, but 4 was the best I could do.
I was (and still am) up-to-eyeballs deep in the Apple ecosystem. I not only had the full Cupertino set of the Mac(Book Pro retina), iPad and iPhone, but also spent phenomenally on all kinds of productivity apps that run the gamut from the .99 cent iOS todo lists to Omnifocus on the Mac, whose price will water the eyes of the ‘I never pay for apps’ brigade. A loyal iPod user since 2004, I consider iTunes to be the only option as far as managing my music goes, and the Music app on the iOS devices to be the equivalent when it comes to music players on the go. I have about 30GB of MP3 files, and they are meticulously tagged and starred on my iTunes, which has made it so simple to move my collection from one iDevice to the next.
And yet I gave all that up to reduce those number of steps. I was rather fixated on enabling myself to bridge the gap between my thoughts and the writing application, and the solution I hit upon was, against all reason and logic, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3. Its stylus, imaginatively named S-Pen, launches a note-taking app called, erm, ‘Action Memo’ automatically when it is drawn from the phone. Upon testing it out at the local (cue Sideshow Bob-style shudder) Samsung Mobile Shop, I was pleased (well, as pleased as I can bring myself to be when handling a Samsung product) to find that no matter what the state of the OS was or which app I happened to be using at the time, a draw of the S-Pen opened Action Memo. It was the one-step process that I was looking for, and decided rather impulsively to make the jump from iPhone 5 to Galaxy Note 3. I had to overcome my deep-seated aversion to all things Samsung¹, and convinced myself that this one thing would be worth the inevitable self-loathing.
Making the transition to a different mobile OS after 3 years wasn’t as difficult as I feared, because – as my memories came flooding back to remind me – my first ever smartphone had in fact been the HTC Desire. I had bought it back in 2010 after becoming fed up waiting for iPhone 4 to be released in Korea. All my research at the time told me that Desire was one of the highest rated Android devices available, yet the 6 months I spent with Froyo was full of frustrations and disappointments that ultimately led me to swear off on Android altogether. The Desire I remember was laggy, buggy, inconsistent and unattractive, while Android’s much-touted customisability didn’t allow you to make the phone better, just different. It got worse when I rooted the device, because then the OCD side of me kicked in and I couldn’t stop flashing all the different custom ROMs. Again, the results were different, but not better. Battery life consistently suffered because of the all the tinkering, and eventually my smartphone became a cause for exhaustion rather than a font of assistance. What made things worse, I suppose, was that I was an iPod touch user from the very early days², and so already knew very well what iOS was like. The silky smooth and speedy animation; stability of the operating system; the fact that the whole experience, mostly excellent, was fixed and unalterable saved you from the illusion that you could somehow make it better. Moving to iPhone meant all of this and none of the trouble of the Froyo/Gingerbread-era Android, and I didn’t look back.
Back to present: upon picking up my Note 3 and playing around with it for a while, I was struck by how much Android has improved in the intervening period. Jelly Bean doesn’t look like a nightmare version of a bad children’s TV show, and with Note 3’s excellent hardware specs the navigation didn’t feel hopelessly sluggish the way that Desire so often did. Many of the apps and widgets, both stock and 3rd party downloaded from the Google Play Store, didn’t look like vomit, with some of them not only looking very attractive but actually improving and expanding the functionality of the phone itself. Apps like Dashclock Widget and Timely weren’t around back in the day and I was truly impressed with how they looked and worked. Having music and todo list widgets on the lockscreen right there when you woke the phone was a treat and facilitated faster productivity actions. And custom keyboards, the secret envy of many iPhone users, were finally a reality for me again and I revelled in using them, particularly the swipe-enabled ones like SwiftKey.
But what also became apparent was how much of Android remained unchanged. The very best apps are the equal of iOS counterparts in design and execution, but they are too few, certainly far fewer than the droves of beautiful apps regularly being released on the App Store. I thought longingly back to the otherworldly brilliance of Fantastical’s parsing animation, how emails would fly to its assigned folder when moved, and the fluid way an iMessage settles into place after being sent. So many of Android apps are merely functional, and don’t make the user feel a certain, small tingle of happiness to use them. Many will scoff, but it genuinely makes a difference to use and rely on things like Scratch or Fantastical everyday, compared to, say, DigiCal or… the as-yet undeveloped Android app that does what Scratch or Drafts does, which hopefully someone out there is making right now. Those little feelings of satisfaction do add up, and end up making a difference upon continued use.
The real difficulty came, however, when I started to chafe against the Samsung-imposed excess that had little to do with Jelly Bean and everything to do with the accursed TouchWiz that is the default launcher on Note 3. Where to start? Almost everything is made slower by TouchWiz. Opening apps, navigating through different pages on homescreen, multitasking – all feels laggier and heavier and slower than what you suspect should be the case. The worst apps in this regard are, predictably enough, Samsung’s own: S-Note, the in-house scrapbook app, actually takes 700 years to open, so whatever idea it was that was incubating in your mind that you want to file away will have become critically endangered by the time the app becomes responsive. Another: because a doublepress of the home button brings up Samsung’s Siri-ripoff voice assistance, the home button is laggy by design, and you have to turn it off in a sub-menu buried deeper than the Mariana Trench.
Then there were things you couldn’t disable or change. Note 3 has something called My Magazine, which is basically Flipboard made dumber and more intrusive by Samsung. You can either tap on the app icon, or bring it up by swiping up from the bottom edge of the screen. This is a device-level embedded feature, meaning it cannot be turned off. Every errant gesture, every misplaced thumb, every mis-assigned app hotspot will bring My Magazine (a name that is not so much ironic as just wrong) in all its gloriously sluggish animation. Primary school science teaches how you will always see the lightning flash first, before hearing the rumble a few seconds later. My Magazine’s launch animation is almost the exact approximation of this phenomenon: when the all-too-easily-triggered gesture is made, you see a white flash at the bottom of the screen, and literally a few seconds later a Kubrickian monolith emerges magisterially from below to fill up the screen. If ideas can become endangered waiting for S-Note to open up, they will go fully extinct with My Magazine. S-Pen, the main reason for my Note 3 purchase, suffered from similar intransigence on Samsung’s part. You can’t assign which app to open upon the stylus draw, which is not good because Action Memo is not remotely the best note-taking app to write on. Its small size and lack of any sort of palm-resting function work against you. Lag once again rears its ugly head, because there’s a noticeable lack of immediacy with the way Action Memo pops up after the pen is taken out. This didn’t seem so bad when I was trying out the Note 3 in the shop, but when the action is repeated on a daily basis, the frustration builds up.
All this wasn’t actually the dealbreaker. The rear casing on my Note 3 would not fully close, and when I went to the service centre and tried out other casing I found that it was the unit itself and not the rear casing that was the problem. Faced with the option of either getting a replacement unit or a refund, all the annoyances and problems came to the fore and I opted for the latter.
This did not spell the abrupt end of Android for me, however. Beneath the heaving mound of TouchWiz nonsense I got glimpses of Android’s convenience and accessibility that I was not likely to get on the iOS anytime soon. Being a todo list addict, I liked that I could wake the phone and immediately be looking at today’s todos, thanks to lockscreen widget support. SwipePad was an incredibly useful app that allowed me to launch from a personalised hotspot not just any app from wherever I happened to be on the phone, but also shortcuts and widgets. Speaking of shortcuts and widgets, the fact that Evernote and Todoist had quick entry widgets meant that in conjunction with SwipePad a one-step writing action was still possible (launch SwipePad from a hotspot, and with the fingertip still touching the screen, drag the pointer to the shortcut in a single motion) without the need for S-Pen. Once in a writing app, custom keyboards like SwiftKey and Swype Keyboard, with their uncannily accurate swipe input, allowed me to write more quickly and accurately than the cramped iPhone keyboard. These were all strengths unique to Android, and common to all Android phones, so I didn’t necessarily have to stick with Note 3. The short and unpleasant experience with Samsung’s finest didn’t all go to waste, then, and I thus made the decision to look for another Android device, preferably one with a less intrusive UI skin.
¹ First impressions tend to last: my first mobile phone and laptop were both Samsung, and the experiences were… let’s just say sub-optimal. This is on top of all the questionable practises, the lack of taste, and the shameless ‘benchmarking’ of industry leaders.
² iPod touch was released in Korea at the end of 2007, 2 years before iPhone was finally introduced in the country.