Android vs iPhone: Exchanging one set of handcuffs for another

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Google Play Store Top Paid Android Apps - October 13, 2013. Tweaking apps dominate.

I’ve been using a Samsung Galaxy S4 on Verizon for about 3 months. Before getting the S4 phone, I’d been using whatever the latest iPhone has been, all the way through the iPhone 5, exclusively since the introduction of the first iPhone. Although I enjoyed my iPhones, some of the limits imposed by Apple bothered me.

Based on things I’d read online and the reports I’ve gotten from Android-using friends, Android sounded like it might offer me the freedom I wanted that I wasn’t getting from iOS. Also the nerd in me wanted to see how the other half lives.

My Android experience has been a positive one overall, but soon I’ve recently switched back to iOS again to get a new set of impressions with iOS 7 and an iPhone 5s. I don’t know if I’ll stay on iOS forever or switch back to Android at some point, but either way I think I will want features from both sides in some utopian device and that will be impossible to get.

Today I wanted to share my impressions on my Android experience. Overall, I’ve liked it much better than I imagined but the experience has not been without some frustration. The limits that I felt Apple was putting on the iPhone were matched (and in some ways exceeded) by limits Samsung and Verizon imposed on my Android phone. If you’re into tinkering though, you might enjoy the challenge.

Getting up to speed with an Android device

If you’re new to Android, Paul Stamatiou’s fantastic post, Android is better is the place to start. Reading it was a great introduction to Android from a former iOS user. It left me with a lot of ideas about getting the most out of Android.

Paul mentions many things to check out. The ones I ended up using regularly were Nova Launcher Light Flow, BitTorrent Sync, and JuiceDefender.

Android high hopes vs. Carrier restrictions

Paul’s article paints a very rosy picture that I need to point out. There is an important difference between Paul’s Samsung Galaxy S4 and the one I ended up buying. Paul’s phone is the Google Edition Samsung Galaxy S4 on AT&T and mine is the Samsung Galaxy S4 on Verizon. The hardware on these 2 devices are seemingly identical, but Google Edition phones are not the same as the ones you’ll find at the major carriers. This distinction is a very important.

My current carrier, Verizon Wireless, does not offer a Google Edition of any Android phone from what I’ve read so I went with the S4 they offered. I live in New York City and have had good coverage with Verizon Wireless and didn’t plan on changing carriers at this time.

I’ve been told recently that T-mobile service has made some strides in the NYC area. Unfortunately after checking their coverage map, there is no T-mobile service at all in some places I visit regularly which means they’re not an option for me.

Your phone or Verizon’s phone?

So what’s the difference between the Google Edition and a regular Android phone? I can only tell you about my experience with a regular Android phone. My impression is that a Google Edition phone is not as limited as a regular Android phone. The limitations on the Verizon Android phone turned out to be major downsides of the Galaxy S4.

Verizon preinstalled a number of apps, known as bloatware or crapware. The bloatware apps included a NFL streaming app, Verizon add-on service apps that included extra fees, a number of Samsung store apps, some Amazon apps, at least one adware extension, Trip Advisor, Flipboard, a set of marketing bookmarks installed in Chrome and more.

I realize these pre-installed apps are marketing deals Verizon has cut with these companies, like when a cheap PC comes prepackaged with an AOL icon on your desktop the first time you start a new computer. Verizon makes money by forcing their customers to have these apps preinstalled on their new devices. It’s business. They do it because they can.

When I saw these apps on my new S4, I immediately thought I would uninstall most of them to get the most out of the limited storage available on the phone. To my surprise, because the phone is locked by Verizon, these preinstalled apps can not be uninstalled. You don’t want this memory eating NFL app? Too bad, Verizon isn’t going to let you uninstall it. That app will live forever on your phone eating up your limited storage capacity. You do have the option of “hiding” apps you don’t want, but the operating system warns you that doing so might make your phone not function. Hiding apps does not give you back the memory that they are eating up though. The icon is just not present anymore.

What about those marketing bookmarks in Chrome? Would you like to delete them? Nope. Those are locked too. You’re going to live with those as long as you have your phone.

Fixing what Verizon and Samsung broke

If you can get past the preinstalled software, there are some fantastic aspects of Android. The 2 killer features in my opinion are the ability to install alternate keyboards and the ability to set the default applications you’d like to handle actions on your phone.

When it comes to the keyboard, I tried both Swype Keyboard and the SwiftKey Keyboard. I ended up using the Swype Keyboard, but both are absolutely must have applications. Once I got the feel for using Swype, I couldn’t go back to the default Samsung keyboard that required touching each letter individually. Swype is the thing I want most in iOS.

The setting of default applications may sound like a small feature, but I assure you it’s not. Imagine being able to set the Google Maps app on your iOS device as the application to receive mapping requests instead of the Apple Maps application. That’s a common request on iOS, but you are prevented setting your default mapping application by Apple. On Android, this is completely up to the user. It’s easy to overlook how powerful this ability is when you first start using Android so I’ll try to explain.

When I said the ability to install additional keyboards was a great feature, this ability is actually just a result of the ability to set your own default applications on your phone. The keyboard is an application just like a game is an application. Once you understand that the keyboard is its own application, you can start to understand that everything is an application that can be customized.

When I first started using the Galaxy S4, I was disappointed in how the SMS client displayed. It dawned on my though that SMS messages coming into the phone were set up to be received by an application that Samsung had designed but that since it was just an application, I could try other SMS apps as well. Honestly, this surprised me as an iOS user since the Messages app seems like a part of the operating system in iOS. On Android, it’s just like any other app. You can install an alternate SMS app. I tried several and ended up using chomp SMS along with the chomp SMS emoji add-on.

The root of the problem

As I filled up my phone with what I felt were the apps that gave me the best Android experience, I saw the available space on the internal storage of my phone quickly diminishing. I really wanted to reclaim the space that the crapware was eating up.

The only way to get rid of the Verizon and Samsung crapware though was to ‘root’ my phone. I’m a geek and I felt the process of doing this is not for the weak of heart. There are many tutorials to get you through the process, but they are complicated by the fact that every carrier and every phone and every Android version creates a different set of problems to overcome. One set of instructions may be obsolete for your exact set of circumstances which might lead to a bricked phone. Going into the rooting process, I basically had to resign myself to possibly bricking my phone and “eating” the cost of it.

Eventually, I did get my phone rooted. I then had “permission” to uninstall the apps I didn’t want anymore. I also could then use use Titanium Backup which lets you backup and restore files on your phone.

Tweak ’til you drop.

One of the things I find interesting in re-reading this post is that most of the apps that I listed as key apps for me on Android, Swype Keyboard, chomp SMS, Nova Launcher, Light Flow, and JuiceDefender, are “tweaking” apps. They’re apps that helped me do the customizations on Android. This brings to mind something I read in Startups Apparently Do Not Care That Android Is Better regarding the availability of “must have” apps on Android.

The constant tweaking and customizing is fun, but at some point, it becomes just another way to pass the time while waiting for the latest and greatest new application to make its way to Android.

Does that mean hacking the interface all Android is good for? No, but the customization process did end up taking a good deal of my time. I focused so much of my time making my Galaxy S4 the phone I wish it had been that it became the thing I used my phone for the most. I actually had fun bending the device to my will, but the non-Google Play version of the Samsung Galaxy S4 was not a phone I would recommend over an iPhone to a non-technical person.

The other apps

During most of my 3-month time with the Galaxy S4, the non-tweaking apps I used the most were Audible, Pocket Casts and Google Play Music. When it comes to games, I played Candy Crush Saga and not much else. (I don’t play many games on my iPhone either. Gaming tends to be on my iPad.)

Wrap up

As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m back on iOS for the time being. If I buy another Android device, I would steer away from any of the devices that are locked down like the one I got from Verizon. A Google Play Edition device would be the way I’d use Android in the future.

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