Short of buying the Nexus line it’s almost impossible to escape from the manufacturers’ onerous skins on Android, but after a year of thoroughly enjoying LTE speed on iPhone 5, I wasn’t ready to drop down and settle for 3G on Nexus 4. Also, it came out in Korea over 6 months after the original announcement, which didn’t bode well for the (at the time) heavily rumoured Nexus 5¹. With such few options, then, I opted for LG’s G2, liking its restrained and rather primal design, as well as its lack of front-facing hardware/capacitive buttons. And so it was that I got myself a shiny new black G2 and just tore into it, trying to get it to work and look the way I wanted it to. All the lessons learnt from Note 3 were applied: Q-Voice, LG’s ripoff of Samsung’s ripoff of Siri, was duly disabled, as did a host of other ‘services’ that didn’t serve me the slightest. LG’s UI skin, which didn’t appear to have a name (thankfully), looked shoddier than TouchWiz but was considerably more nimble, and the phone benefitted from having fewer built-in functions that you can’t do anything about. I was initially horrified to find that LG had also embedded an unremovable ‘swipe up from the bottom of the screen’ feature, but thankfully it just brought up shortcuts to Google search and (Sideshow Bob groan) Q-Memo which were mercifully harder to trigger. There were annoyances here and there, but overall the initial impression was that there was less aggravation with G2, and importantly the fact that it had customisable soft keys for back, home and menu meant that I didn’t accidentally hit them as I so often did on Samsung’s capacitive buttons.
I once again tried to focus on Android itself. Things have come a long way since Froyo, and despite manufacturers’ best/worst efforts the austere good looks of Jelly Bean came through in daily use. As far as the look and feel of the UI are concerned, particularly compared to iOS, Android as experienced on G2 was in a bit of a no-man’s land: manufacturers keep trying to obscure its original form with inferior skins; the Nexus as well as Google Edition devices lack the marketing support and mindshare enjoyed by the Galaxy phones; and putting 3rd party launchers (the best of which cost money) to hide the manufacturer skins that hide Jelly Bean uses up additional memory and creates stability issues. Also, there was no getting around the fact that the all-important apps, both in how they look and how they work, are distinctly underwhelming in the Android ecosystem in comparison to iOS. There was always a lot of joy and a sense of discovery in downloading new apps for my iPhone, seeing the exquisitely designed icons, the intuitive animation, the beautiful font and typography, and the uncanny way that one app could connect to another in a particularly elegant manner. I could write something down on Drafts, send it to Things, and see one app’s animation follow another’s without missing a beat. I’ve already mentioned the parsing in Fantastical, but really you can’t talk about it enough, because it’s one of those things that just seems magical and beyond technological comprehension. These apps made you want to use them, formed attachments with you, and gave you a feeling that boundaries were being pushed in mobile software. I don’t want to say that there are no good-looking apps on Android, because clearly there are. Simplenote’s design is just as good here, Timely is a terrific looking alarm app, and Google’s own apps are uniformly excellent in looks and function. But whereas well-designed apps are almost a given on iOS, on Android it’s a rare enough phenomenon that it has a Tumblr page devoted to highlighting them (it’s also worth noting that most of the apps there are not Android exclusives – many indeed were developed first for iOS).
It’s telling that some of the highest-rated, most consistently recommended Android apps are things like Auto Memory Manager, Advanced Task Killer and Clean Master, i.e. apps that allow you to do things that the phone / OS should be doing for you, and whose kind are nonexistent for good reasons on the iPhone. Using Android, managing your device memory becomes second nature, not because it’s in any way enjoyable but because the phone is liable to become slow and sluggish if you’re not diligent about shutting down apps that always run on the background.
So why stick with Android? Three things: widgets, shortcuts and custom keyboard. These are the things that only Android can offer, and what truly differentiate the platform from the competitors. During iPhone ownership I had long pined for the ability to check the likes of the schedule and todos at a glance on the homescreen, but only Apple’s Calendar and (rather teasingly) Clock apps let you do that without having to tap into individual apps. On Android, of course, it’s anybody’s game, but the quality of some of the widgets on offer is at times pretty spectacular. One that I use often and have come to rely on is the bus arrival time widget by Daum Maps, which shows how many minutes are left until a given bus arrives. It takes a single 1×1 slot, and all you have to do is just tap it once and it will refresh itself before showing you how many minutes are left until a particular bus arrives. Simple, intuitive, attractive and glanceable – everything you want from a smart device. Todoist, a (sadly) subscription-based productivity app and acting as a replacement of sorts for Things on iOS, has a widget that replicates many of the in-app functions, such as marking tasks complete or snoozing them. It does not require you to enter into the app, and so does not rob you of either time or the overall visibility of the rest of the homescreen. Shortcuts, meanwhile, are best experienced either with the notification panel or the aforementioned SwipePad app. Many productivity apps allow you to establish a shortcut on the notification panel, so that when it’s brought down you can input tasks and agendas straightaway, without looking for the app, and then looking for the ‘+’ sign. Same with SwipePad: once assigned to a pad a single gesture has you writing the agenda without obliging you to think about what and where to press. Finally, SwiftKey with its swipe-based keyboard writing is a godsend: no more pecking at individual keys, just very intuitive and fairly rough gestures from one letter to the next will allow you to write even long and complex words, with an accuracy that can at times be eye-opening.
While I was bedding myself in with these features and getting more acclimatised with Android, OEM-based vexation once again started to bedevil my experience. G2 suffers from horrifically loud white noise when listening to MP3 files, so bad that it actively discouraged me from plugging my headphones in (and apparently this is not an isolated problem). It also had trouble receiving SMS and MMS messages while connected to wifi, a bizarre issue made worse by the fact that when moving out of wifi range, the phone would sometimes need a couple of seconds to connect to data, after which messages would suddenly arrive in droves. Auto-brightness changes like stop-motion animation (as in, the brightness changes almost by stages rather than in smooth motion like iPhone) which is surprisingly and intensely irritating. The power and volume buttons on the back are a double-edged sword: when held or in pocket they’re easy to hit, but when the G2 is face up on the table and I’m listening to music there’s no way to change volume without having to lift up the device. Worse, LG’s genius software team decided to release a new firmware (11d) for Korea Telecom’s G2 that were to prove disastrous, making the device run hot when idle and reducing the battery life to pitiful levels. After trying in various ways to alleviate the problem – killing apps and services, getting rid of widgets, even factory resetting a couple of times – I found that you could downgrade the firmware back to 11c with the help of LG’s device management software on the PC side, but even after this there was little improvement. Strangely, after a few days I noticed that the 11d firmware (which should have been shown on the update option now that I was a version behind) appeared to have suddenly been withdrawn; after another week, LG released the 11e firmware that resolved the issue. I was right in the middle of this debacle, and suffice to say it was an experience not best appreciated, not least the factory resets. To make matters worse, I suffered a second hardware fault in a row (after the Note 3 casing issue): my G2 suddenly would not let me charge it, either from the wall or via the USB. I had to take it to the service centre, and was informed by the technician that the motherboard had to be replaced. Coming so soon after purchase, the replacement was free, but coming so soon after purchase, the problem seemed less forgivable.
My mood was thoroughly darkened, but then something I wasn’t expecting happened: Google’s announcement of Nexus 5 on 1st November included Korea as one of the 1st countries to get the device on the Play Store. Despite the rumours and leaks, I hadn’t really been giving it much thought due to the ungodly amount of time it took its predecessor to arrive here. I just assumed that Nexus 5 would be released in Korea sometime next year, so my interest level exploded upon hearing the news. Plus, in a very short space of time I had become deeply fed up and disillusioned with the Android OEMs. Anecdotal, I know, but in over three years as an iPhone user I experienced a grand total of zero hardware problems, so to find myself having to make repeated trips to service centres for repairs as soon as I switched over to Android was pretty galling. Seeing the Nexus 5 nestling snugly beside its younger sibling on the Play Store, I was putting in my credit card details before I knew what I was doing.
So, after a month of costly wanderings and thousands of words of rambling here, I arrived at the endgame for Android: I received my Nexus 5 a few days after the order, and the pure, unadulterated Android experience is more or less as advertised: extremely fast and uncluttered (the notification panel is completely devoid of sliders and options), with tons of available memory and, well, just really very screamingly fast. So fast (especially in ART rather than Dalvik), it almost seems as if it can’t wait for the animation to finish, and just launches head-first into apps. The multi-tasking button brings up the previous apps immediately upon press (something that Note 3 and G2 struggle to achieve), lockscreen widgets just fly by when swiped, and the battery life is surprisingly decent. Volume and power buttons are in logical places (although the latter is placed a little too high). No distractions, no frills, just the screen and a very fast UI experience.
Freed from the OEM shenanigans I could approach Android in a much clearer light, and see both its strengths and weaknesses unfettered by manufacturer skins or memory-draining, unremovable non-Google functions. Put another way, if there was something I didn’t like, I could no longer blame Samsung or LG. Also, this was the end of the line, more or less: if Nexus 5 failed me in any way, there was no more Android phone to try, short of importing a Sony Z1 or HTC One at the risk of more upfront cost as well as greater difficulty in receiving customer support. Whatever happened, this would be my last chance to make Android stick.
In Part 3: Comparing Nexus 5 to G2, and thoughts on Android and iOS
¹ This was back in October 2013.