Most people I know would peg me as a bit of an “Apple fanboy” and I’ll be the first to admit, for the most part I really do like Apple products. I love the design of the hardware, software and their simplicity in flow and usability while still being able to accomplish all my needs.
Prior to the iPhone I had a problem. A “mobile phone addiction”. It was like a drug and for more than 10 years, I found myself upgrading every 6-12 months to get the latest and greatest phone on the market. That was until the iPhone 3G launched in Australia.
Being a phone junkie and already well equipped with the Mac/ iPod combination, I lusted over the iPhone ever since Steve Jobs unveiled it back in 2007. It was sexy and different, and totally blew away my Windows Mobile something or other I had at the time. I have been a proud iPhone owner of the iPhone 3G, 3Gs and 4, upgrading contracts for every revision.
Even with the satisfaction of my iPhone, Android based smartphones had also entered the market and the inner geek in me was intrigued. The first offerings though had no pinch-to-zoom, no real enticing application market and very limited availability of handsets in Australia which tended to stay my hand from my wallet. It wasn’t until Telstra and HTC released the Desire with 2.1 (Éclair) that I felt the platform appeared mature enough to be a contender for my hard earned cash when next I upgraded my mobile phone. With the Desire’s launch, a number of friends started to move away from either their iPhone 3G or from their other feature phones. While tempted, I chose to hold out for the iPhone 4.
Lately more and more people have joined the chorus of those hyping the Android platform. This, along with the work we are doing at iBrothers, aggravated the tech itch. The talk of “open”, “rebellion” and the choice of multiple manufactures started to get the better of me. At this stage, I was already using the iPhone 4 and I couldn’t really afford to take the punt on a second smartphone, but like an addict I couldn’t help myself and (on a budget of course) I managed to pull some strings and I chose the HTC Wildfire. The cheapest Android device and the time but meeting all the requirements for a full Android experience, it was even one of the first Android devices to ship with “Flash” preinstalled. The Wildfire was the little brother of the HTC Desire, just with slower CPU, less memory and smaller display.
With Wildfire in hand I removed my SIM from the iPhone and turned it off for the weekend. It was a good time too as I was off on a long weekend holiday with the family – the perfect time to fully immerse myself in the experience considering how much I rely on my iPhone for a multitude of tasks (facebook, twitter, photos, email, web browsing …). Being away meant I couldn’t just jump back if it got too tough.
At the start it was fantastic! It took me back to the thrill I used to experience 4 years ago. A new phone to discover and manipulate, kill time and experience to add to my mental filing system. I had a lot of fun playing with, and exploring it.
HTC sense which is a user interface (UI) that sits on top of Android, was interesting. Swiping left and right between the different customised widgets was a really nice touch, in fact the widget experience overall is one thing I find somewhat better than the iPhone. I also was impressed with the social networking integration to my contacts. Google also provide turn by turn navigation for free which is quite nice so long as your data plan is reasonable (the maps are not installed and are pulled over your 3G connection). Overall I found the experience reasonably pleasant until I starting looking a little deeper.
The first issue I had with Android was, after you moved away from using the HTC sense UI, the flow of Android’s native UI. The menus didn’t really work too well and the 4-button system just didn’t feel right. I initially put this down to being used to the iPhone, but even that couldn’t be completely honest. I’ve never been one to have a difficult time with something new and have always been able to adapt very quickly.
The second issue was the Android market. It was clunky to navigate. It didn’t (and still doesn’t) have as many apps as Apple’s Appstore and the quality of apps wasn’t up to a standard I was used to. Even when you found an app that was available for both the iPhone and Android, the Android version was never of the same quality. There was one plus side to the market, there were a whole lot of apps available for FREE. Unfortunately these were plagued with Google adsense ads.
Now speaking of Google, if your online life revolves around Google, eg. Gmail, then an Android phone integrates that extremely well for email, contacts and calendars. If you’re not into Google services in a big way, then it’s not as easy. If you own a Mac, it’s even harder to setup and sync your Android device as you are really at the mercy of the handset manufacturer’s willingness to provide tools for the Mac. There are third party utilities around but it is somewhat annoying to have to spend money on what should be available for free. As a MobileMe user (yes I know) and a Mac user I was a little annoyed with the process and lack of Mac support from HTC. Mail was ok, just set it up as IMAP, my contacts I had to get the Mac to sync with Gmail via Contacts.app and then sign into my Gmail account on the phone to get working, as for calendars, it proved too difficult so a threw in the towel.
Having played with the Android out of the box and Telstra branded experience, the next logical thing to do of course was to “root” the Wildfire. This is the process in which you gain superuser access on your device to allow you to install/ run any application you like that requires looked down OS functionality. This is of course how most of my friends and peers tried to sell me on Android. I too wanted to taste “open” and to be “a rebel”.
It should be noted that until this point, I hadn’t actually found a need to “root” the device. There was nothing I wanted to run that I couldn’t obtain through the Android market. Of course the prospect of removing all the Telstra “bloat-ware” (all the branding and installed apps Telstra put on the device) was appealing and generally speaking, an issue you never get on an iPhone.
After much forum jumping, I found it to be relatively easy to “root” with the help of an application called Unrevoked. Installed on your PC or Mac, follow the on-screen instructions and your done. You can now install custom ROMs and say goodbye to most of the branding and “bloat-ware”.
Even so, I was still left with two issues. The first being that the device was running an older version of Android that my carrier, Telstra, hadn’t updated. This meant that I didn’t have access to the latest version of Android and all the goodness it promised, like the inclusion of “a personal hotspot” which allows me to share my 3G data connection with my laptop. An awesome feature iPhones didn’t have at the time (the iPhone 4 now provides this feature). Secondly, the phone still displayed a Telstra wallpaper on first boot. A niggle, sure but a big one from a geek who may or may not suffer from a minor case of OCD.
I resolved both these issues by eventually locating some random FTP server which held an official ROM for the latest Android version for my phone. Creating a “gold card” (a special SD card which when inserted into your device allows you to flash RUU files with a different network lock to your own device) I was able to install a generic version of the OS (still a HTC version though, not a “pure Google” version) and remove the last of Telstra’s presence once and for all.
It should be said that none of these steps is easy for an average user and doubt will never be an option for “Joe Bloggs” to attempt themselves.
All installed, up to date (and free from oppression), I find out Google has released the next version of Android … apparently not for my phone though, which has now become “end of life”, at least for OS updates. It isn’t even an old phone!
“Ok” I think to myself. I can always “root” the device and hope someone will go to the effort and make a custom ROM based on the latest version. I understand this will be a buggy, bumpy ride but hey, my new phone can still get some of the latest OS love. Can’t it?
I re-run the easy application again Unrevoked. It fails. I try again and it’s the same result only to find out the latest update HTC decided to lock down the device and prevent it from being “rooted” and only now discover they did to a number of devices and nothing can be done. Looks like my “open” handset is now permanently closed. Even so, I still fire my Wildfire up for a day, once a week to see what’s been updated and how Android is progressing. For instance, Amazon have released cloud player for Andriod, a service that streams music. This I thought would be fantastic, however, the service isn’t available in Australia.
While I know some will say that my overall experience has been somewhat attributed to my choice in device, (the Wildfire is not a Desire in terms of CPU, RAM or screen resolution) and I accept this is partly true, I feel though that it has been more then adequate for me to see what Android as a mobile phone OS and ecosystem has to offer at this stage. Furthermore, the Wildfire, as far as Telstra is concerned was a “current handset”. What I find hardest to swallow is the whole call of Andriod’s “Open” vs Apple’s “closed” ecosystem. I am sure there are handsets out there that run Android and get (and will get) all the love the Google lavishes on them in terms of updates, but once you start factoring in vendors supporting their products and releasing updates as well as the branding an garbage the carriers place on their phones, the process isn’t as “open” as you would be led to believe.
Would I recommend Android? Sure if you needed a smartphone on price point that the iPhone doesn’t offer or you are heavily integrated with Google services, but not because its “open” or better. Unless you’re a geek, I feel the iPhone is still the safer bet for ease of use, quantity of applications, and security. Would I recommend the HTC Wildfire? If you are really on a budget, want a pre-paid device and are happy with a phone that is apparently end of life, then I would most definitely. What I really love about the Wildfire is the size and weight of the device and while feeling a tad “cheap” in its construction compared to the iPhone, it doesn’t feel fragile like the iPhone and I’d be happy give the Wildfire the title of “best throw in your pocket smartphone”.
So there you have it, my first and considerably deep look at the Android platform. It’s defiantly given me a better understanding of Android when it comes to recommending the platform for specific user’s needs. While this article may read as somewhat of a negative experience, it wasn’t at all. I had a lot of fun playing with Android and there are some advantages to what is being offered over iOS but not enough currently for even this geek. To be totally honest if or when the time comes that I feel the Android platform gives me a better experience then iOS, I would be more then happy to run Android as my smartphone of choice. Presently and as far as I can see, Android’s willingness to let the handset manufacturers and the Telcos loose on the devices provides a very compelling counterpoint to the claim that it is an “Open” mobile operating system and in it’s current state, offers little over what Apple is providing at the same high end price point.