It’s been a month or so since I bailed on the iPhone and went all in on Google’s flagship Nexus 4. I’ve been keeping mental notes on the transition, and thought it might be useful to others if I sketched out a few observations here. Also, I imagine some of you will have good input for me as I learn to navigate the Android OS – like any new environment it has its share of ticks, tips and tricks that, if you don’t know them, are rather hard to crack. Once learned, however, they are extremely useful.
For example, I didn’t know going in that the standard keyboard has a “swipe” feature, which lets you quickly drag your finger across the keys as algorithms figure out what words you are trying to make. It works so well I haven’t bothered to download the alternative keyboards readily available in Google’s (vastly improved) Play store. In fact, overall the text input system of the Nexus is so much better than the iPhone, it makes me wonder what’s wrong with Apple – until, of course, I start to think more broadly about the two companies, and it becomes far clearer. Apple’s ecosystem is the product of a careful manicured, top-down design approach. Google’s is more messily bottoms up. For years, Apple’s devices have been far superior to Android. But the collective intelligence of Google’s approach is starting to lap the fabled Cupertino icon.
Which brings me back to the Nexus’ text input. Just as I was starting to use the “swipe” functionality, I noticed the little microphone icon next to the space bar. It’s the same icon that I’d been using in the Google Search app on my iPhone, which worked startlingly well. I’ve found that the Nexus 4’s voice input is close to magic – it’s become a cocktail party parlor trick, in fact. It runs circles around Apple’s Siri – as countless head to head comparisons with friends who have an iPhone 5s has proven. It makes texting and answering short emails almost fun. It’s changed how I think about communicating, for the better.
Why is it so good? Because Google is, at its heart, a big data processing and learning machine. Its roots as a search company means it looks for signals inside unimaginably large datasets, and refines its results over and over until it starts to get things right. That’s what it’s done with its voice recognition engine, and it’s paid off handsomely in a software win inside Android. And I believe increasingly, it’s going to be that software+cloud processsing+iteration+UI loop that will mean Google wins over Apple this year (one of my predictions from last week as you may recall).
Other notes about the phone: It’s slick, literally. It’s covered in Gorilla glass that gives it a great feel, but it will drop out of your hands if you are not careful. The Nexus 4 is still in limited release, and when I got mine, protective cases were backlogged. Not anymore. But in the past month I did manage to crack the back glass, obscuring the otherwise excellent camera lens. It was not easy to figure out how to replace the cracked glass (an entire ecosystem has already developed around Apple’s similar problem, our family has probably cracked half a dozen iPhones in the past few years). I ended up getting a new phone from a colleague at Google – not service I expect your average consumer is going to get, I will admit. I expect one of Google’s major challenges this year will be customer service. It’s not obvious, from the evidence, if Google is really going to lean into being a hardware servicing company.
Once you do get a new phone, the magic of Google’s cloud approach shines through. When you fire up a new device, nearly everything you had already installed on your previous phone just automagically shows up again – because it’s all stored on Google’s servers. All I had to do was reset my mail accounts and re-enter my passwords for my favorite apps, and I was good to go.
From what I have heard from those who use Apple’s iCloud services, it’s not that easy over in iOS land. I don’t have experience with iCloud, because I don’t like Apple’s approach (it seems hell bent on figuring out ways to lock you in and start charging you), but my wife is an iPhone user who has had nothing but pain moving from one iPhone to the next using the service. Google’s approach is free, easy, and it’s covered under a far more liberal data philosophy (I’ve written about that in The Nexus 7 and The Cloud Commit Conundrum: Google Wins).The key to it all working is to have a single Gmail account, it seems, which I have now. Google has definitely falled down on this point in the past – I still have phantom Gmail accounts lurking out there that are not connected to anything, but seemed important to create for some reason or other in the past. Connecting all your points of contact with Google – Calendar, Docs, Picasa, Google+, etc. – is still sort of confusing. I’m uncertain, for example, how to get the right pictures onto my phone, as Google seems to automatically favor Google+ galleries, but I am uncomfortable uploading pictures there as I don’t know how they might be seen by others.
Centering my Google life around one Gmail address means I have to check that Gmail at least a few times a day to see if anything important has changed. I use my own email under the battellemedia.com domain, and also have an email with FM. I’d like to see them all in one place, but that requires I perform some unnatural acts of IT (reconfiguring for POP from IMAP, for example. I know it’s possible, but I don’t want to deal with the work.)
Thanks in part to the torture of working with the calendar and contact applications native to Macintosh and iOS, I’ve recently migrated to Google Calendar and contacts. I cannot report that these are perfect solutions, but as I start to depend on them exclusively, I am learning their quirks, and finding they work fine. I’m still figuring out the contacts piece. I have more than 10,000 contacts and they are a mess. I am uncertain how best to clean them up – in particular, where to put the energy. Right now I am still connecting my old Outlook system to Apple contacts on the Mac via Plaxo, and then updating Google contacts via the Apple contacts. Google maintains a copy of the mess in its cloud, but I’ve not tried to clean that copy up, because I fear it will just be repopulated with bad data from Apple or Plaxo. In short, I am still treading water in this department. Any and all suggestions gladly taken. I wish someone would fix this once and for all.
Now, a phone is supposed to in fact be a phone, and in that department the Nexus 4 is fine. It’s not better or worse, just fine. It has some hitches in the OS, but nothing worth writing home about. It does run hot, but it also runs very, very fast. I remember testing a Galaxy 2 that was really slow feeling. This phone is far superior.It’s also way faster than my iPhone 4, but that’s to be expected, it’s a newer model.
I have a lot more to learn about the Nexus and its Android environment. I don’t like endlessly futzing with my phone, so I haven’t really tricked it out yet. I have all the apps I used on my iPhone installed, and they all work fine. One irritation: One app that I paid for on the iPhone (a GPS tracker for rides and runs) does not acknowledge the paid relationship for its Android version, forcing me to pay again for the new platform. That’s just wrong, IMHO, but it’s not the fault of Android or Google.
The Nexus 4 is a “pure” Google phone – it’s made by LG, but it’s unlocked (I just popped in my AT&T sim from my old iPhone) and the software is all Google driven. It’s in limited production – I understand it’s been in and out of stock in Google’s store. Right now, it’s sold out. That’s a problem, or perhaps, that’s Google’s plan. Either way, it can’t yet be seen as a direct competitor to Apple – it’s not available at scale. But given my experience anyway, I think it should be soon. I dig the device and don’t miss the iPhone at all. So far, so good.