The Android Switch

A little over two months ago, I switched to using an iPhone as my daily driver, having used various Android devices for the past half decade. I’m just about to switch back for a variety of reasons I’ll detail here.

I switched initially to get a deeper understanding for iOS, one that can only be had by committing fully. Given where things are going in UI design, it’s only prudent I know the platforms. If there is one single overwhelming conclusion I took away from this experiment, it’s this: you’re lucky to have either! It really is a remarkable time to be into gadgets — we carry little supercomputers in our pockets that are designed in a such a userfriendly way that more people than ever before can use them. The platform really doesn’t matter much anymore: smartphones are marvels of modern science that democratize technology in an unprecedented way. We are spoiled to live in an age where we can literally ask our phones questions and have answers presented based on the sum of human knowledge. For that reason I find it very hard, perhaps even petty, to criticise one platform over the other.

However, I also have an aversion to the words “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Nothing is ever perfect, and critical discourse is how we improve things. Neither iOS nor Android are perfect, but I’m still going back to the latter. Some of my reasons for doing so are bound to be due to muscle memory from using Android for a long time. Other reasons many will no doubt directly disagree with. Still, maybe some of the reasons I’m about to list are issues that are worth addressing in future versions of iOS.

Thank goodness you’re free to choose which platform you invest in.

Reasons I Prefer Android

1. The limitation of system apps seems arbitrary

Due to system limitations I can’t flip a switch and have all links open in Chrome, they open in Safari. No matter the reasons Apple had to restrict this back in the day, today it just seems weird and arbitrary. Some apps like Instagram seem get around this using weird URL schemes, but that seems to fall apart and open the app store half the time, despite me having the app installed. YouTube videos consistently open the webapp, despite the native app being installed, and when a video finally does play, it opens the baked in system player in a fullscreen view, which makes cool interactive videos like Honda: The Other Side impossible.

It’s certainly Apples right to gate things here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they revisit this decision in a future release. As it stands, I can’t see the user benefit of this limitation.

2. No back button, just a swipe gesture

Android has a global back button, which has carried the brunt of many rightous jokes. Indeed the pattern for how the back button works is unpredictable in some situations, but the thing is: most of the time it works just like you’d expect. On iOS, there is no global back button — apps have to implement this themselves, and they usually put it in the top left corner. I used an iPhone 5c, so that area is reachable, but not in a convenient way (and even less so I would guess on the 6 and 6+), so I was quick to embrace the mostly system-wide back gesture, which is an edge-swipe from the left.

But there are two problems with this back-gesture. First of all, it conflicts with horizontal swipes across the system. Countless times in Safari I found myself invoking the back gesture when I just wanted to pan or swipe. But secondly, it’s not a consistent gesture — it isn’t systemwide (and arguably it would be foolish to lock down such a valuable gesture systemwide). Most of all, though, I found myself missing the back button when flipping between apps; double-tapping the home button to bring up multitasking and then picking the app you want to go back to is finnicky and slow.

3. Passwords in the app store

Note to the reader, please try not to chant “fingerprint scanner, fingerprint scanner” while you read the following paragraph. I address it at the end, don’t worry.

I hate passwords so much. The problem is that until we find better solutions, we have to use them. And if you’re any kind of sensible, you’ll be using a password manager like 1Password populated with 30+ length passwords that you can’t remember. So when I visit the App Store to install Crossy Road or Desert Golfing, it is crazy-making to have to type in my giant password again and again, even for free apps. On Android there’s a “don’t ask for my password again” checkbox which is just so delightful. Why can’t the App Store have that? It would mean I didn’t have to exit the App Store, open 1Password, type in my master password, copy the App Store password, double-tap the home button, switch back to the App Store, tap “Get” and then pasting in the password. I now have my App Store password in the clipboard, and I have to copy some other text to clear it.

The fingerprint scanner does, no argument, make the App Store use-case a non-issue. But I don’t understand why I can’t make an adult informed decision to disable the App Store password for new app installs, at the very least free app installs. I have a long lockscreen pin, isn’t that enough? The fact that I can set a system setting to not ask for my lockscreen password for 4 hours after it’s typed in once tells me that Apple understand the problem, but just decided not to build the option in the App Store.

4. Notifications in the toolbar and tray

Notifications on Android are completely amazing. They were already good in version 2.0 of Android where I jumped on, and they’ve only improved since then. Particularly over the 4.0-4.3 period, where they became actionable and swipable to dismiss. So I was, as you can imagine, very happy to see the notification shade pattern adopted in iOS 7. Unfortunately it’s not the savior I hoped it would be. Modal alerts are still irritating, though thankfully you can turn all but the “low battery” modal alerts off. App badges stress me out, thankfully I can turn those off as well. But disabling those two only really makes sense if combined with a proper place for notifications to pile up. The notification shade should be that place. Unfortunately I find it to be quite a mess.

Dismissing notifications is one problem. There’s a teeny tiny X button you can tap, then tap again to dismiss all notifications from an app. I suppose the little hit area would be easy to tap if you file down your fingers or use a stylus, but the rest of the system emits a distinct vibe that those things are frowned upon.

What bugs me the most is the fact that there is zero indication that there are pending notifications in the notification drawer. Where on Android you’ll see notification icons pile up on the left, there’s no space in the iOS systembar to do that. It’s all spent on… actually, let’s talk about what it’s spent on. What’s up with that dot-based signalbar, is it really that important I know how much signal I have? Seems like you could reduce that almost to a boolean true or false. I wouldn’t be surprised if those dots were designed in such a way as to create optical balance between the left and the right side of the screen:

systembar

Android on the other hand reduces the permanent fixtures of the systembar to the bare minimum: Wi-Fi, Signal, Battery and Time. The entire left side is free to show notification icons in:

android-systembar

The benefit to reducing UI in this way, is that I can turn on the phone and at a glance see both whether there are notifications or not, and indeed which apps sent them. In this case, Apple could learn from Android. They wouldn’t even have to steal, there are plenty of ways to improve iOS notifications without doing an abject copy of the Android implementation. Here’s one idea:

notificationshade

 

Basically swipe a notification to the left and release to dismiss it. You could even add more notification contextual actions in this way, basically adopting the modern email client pattern.

5. The widget drawer is a junk drawer

One pattern I like in iOS, is that you rarely see hamburger menus. In fact, Apple has been a staunch advocate of developers adopting other UI patterns such as tab-bars. I dig this a lot because while the hamburger menu can serve a purpose, more often than not it becomes a junk drawer and a catalyst for bad app navigation. It’s much harder to make an app without a hamburger menu, because it forces developers to decide which sections of their apps are important enough to deserve top tier tab-bar placement, and which sections have to be pruned, merged or submerged or just simplified.

And so it boggles my that when Apple finally decided to implement widgets in their system, they bury it as a tab in the notification shade. It feels like such an afterthought when it just sits there, out of sight and out of mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if 9 out of 10 iOS users still have the default stocks widget there, showing the latest from DOW J, AAPL, SBUX, NKE and YHOO.

There are plenty other directions they could’ve gone. One idea is to recycle the leftmost homescreen and have all the widgets there —  you know, the page that used to hold system search? Or if you must always have access to widgets from any app without going to the homescreen, then put the tabbar in the swipe-up control center shade instead. At least with widgets there, you could add swipe to dismiss to the notifications, without worrying about tabs switching.

6. Keyboards

I was so excited to finally get custom keyboards in iOS8. I remember tweeting about it:

Alas I would turn out to be completely and utterly wrong in my prediction. It was impossible for me to know, however, how bad their implementation would end up being. While installing SwiftKey is straightforward, in my use I found the keyboard revert back to the stock Apple keyboard seemingly at random. Often when going directly to Messages from the lock screen, the keyboard would just hide, requireing me to swipe it away from the recent apps view and then opening it fresh. In short, custom keyboards in their current implementation make for a rather miserable experience. I also found the SwiftKey sliding mechanism to be much worse at grokking my intent than it is on Android. Such a pity, as custom keyboards is one of the seriously cool things about Android.

7. Overloading the home button

Like I said at the beginning of this post, my reasons for liking the way Android does things are highly personal. I expect the physical vs. on-screen buttons argument to be a particularly divisive example of this.

It’s not that I hate the physical home-button: from a usability perspective it’s hard to beat. My problem with it is that carries the weight of multiple actions, some of them quite useful, and the sheer amount of features buried here makes it feel fiddly and unpredictable. One click is mostly obvious: it takes you to the homescreen. Or to the last folder you had open. Click again to go to the homescreen if it takes you to a folder, but don’t click too fast because you might invoke the multitasker. Which is two taps in rapid succession. Three taps invokes accessability features, and longpress is for Siri.

I can live with the fiddlyness of counting clicks and accidentally over-clicking, but the fact that the extra features are completely undiscoverable to anyone but powerusers is just a damn shame.

Reasons to prefer iOS

Despite the nuisances I found the iPhone to be a wonderful device. The hardware is just delicious, the battery was okay, and the size was just delightful (the 4-4.7” range I find, is perfect). Anyone who has one should count themselves lucky. In some areas Android could really take a page or two from Apple. Here’s what I specifically loved about using the iPhone.

1. The camera

Even on the iPhone 5C I used, the camera is just consistently good. Sure, we’re talking an older smartphone camera, it’s never going to be DSLR quality. But even then, compared the Android phones I’ve used, the iOS camera is just faster, more consistent, and in general just takes better shots with less color noise and artifacts. And it focuses fast.

Here’s one shot I took:

Frost Leaf

The 5C is not a low-end device by any stretch of the imagination, but I have seen pictures from newer Android phones that still take worse shots than the above. That tells me a lot of magic happens behind the scenes, in software. Which is just another reason why Google has a lot to learn here. Thankfully it seems like in Android 5.0, developers can finally fully access the camera hardware in a fully surfaced and new API, so things might be moving on that front.

Until that happens though, the camera alone will be reason enough for many people — a good reason — to pick the iPhone over anything else.

2. The mute switch

It’s not always super predictable what the mute switch does, especially when you combine it with the somewhat weird iOS “Silent Mode” settings. I also found myself often forgetting to reset the switch. But making it a physical switch you can blindly reach into your pocket to flip is a stroke of genius.

3. The accessability settings

Android is getting there with regards to accessability settings. But in this category iOS just shines like a bright star. The amount of options to improve accessability systemwide is astounding, and it’s something for Apple to be proud of.

Also this trick is really cool.

4. The app selection

I was not impressed by the App Store itself and how it presents apps to me. I’m also not impressed by the distinction between “tablet apps” and “phone apps”, or even “universal apps” for that matter: in my mind there should be one type of apps, and they should behave like websites and be responsive. Thankfully, that’s where iOS apps are going.

What is true, though, is that iOS just in general has more good apps than any other platform. This is probably not an edge Apple will be able to keep forever. But they probably will for a long time.

5. The behavior of fullscreen apps

Some apps on iOS take up the full size of the screen and hides the topmost systembar. Usually this is done by apps that are intended to be immersive, such as games and video players. Now let’s say you’re in Netflix and want to see your notifications, you swipe down from the top and see a little handle. Now you swipe on the handle to pull down the shade. The same for the swipe-up control center, you have to swipe twice, and the second time you have to hit the little handle.

It’s a little hard to hit that handle — you have to actually want to do it, and what a blessing that is. Seriously.

Compare and contrast with Android, which also has fullscreen mode, called “immersive”. But on Android, swiping up from the bottom unhides the system navigation bar as well, which holds the fairly critical back, home and multitask system buttons. Not only that, but an up-swipe on any of these system buttons brings up Google Now, which completely takes you out of the app you were in. The problem is that it’s way way too easy to invoke these systembars.

I have a toddler, she loves to draw. You can imagine what happens if she’s in a fullscreen drawing app and “paints” near the edge of the screen. First she’ll unhide the navigation bar, then she’ll either invoke Google Now or start multitasking. “Daad, it’s broken again”, she’ll cry. “Yes my baby girl, yes it is very broken”, I’ll respond. This wouldn’t happen anywhere near as often on an iPad, where only the most passionate of Jackson Pollock sessions might have her tap the home button.

It’s the double-edged sword of having on-screen system buttons vs. a physical tactile system button. While I prefer the former, it truly comes with pros and cons. On one hand the onscreen buttons help enable insanely slim bezels which allow the mammoth Nexus 6 to be smaller in height than the 6+. On the other hand, it’s hard to lock these in a meaningful way without directly impacting usability.

It bears mentioning that I recently received Android 5.0 (Lollipop), which comes with a “Screen Pinning” feature. You enable in Settings, and now every app present in the multitask switcher has a little “pin” icon. Tapping it disables system the buttons (and even the Google Now swipe up gesture): tapping either will just pop up a tiny toast explaining how to exit this pinned mode (you do that by holding the back and the multitask buttons for a few seconds). Hallelujah. It’s a a vast improvement over how things have been for years. It’s the “toddler mode” I’ve been yearning for. But even then, it’s not as slick and intuitive as the iOS implementation.

Summary

I think we’ve reached a point where it’s borderline foolish to argue one platform is better than the other. We’re all adults here and as grown-ups we can hopefully agree that the little supercomputers we carry around in our pockets have reached a threshold of amazing. As amazing as they are, what’s exciting to me is to speculate how they’re going to be even better in the future, given iteration and polish.

I listed some little things here I’d personally like to see improved in my two favorite platforms, and I look forward to seeing if and how they are addressed in future updates.

In the meantime what we’re left with is personal preference, taste, and perhaps a bias towards whatever ecosystem you’re invested in. In my case, I prefer the free reign of customization that Android has to offer, even over the superior camera software that iOS has. I also like rainy days, and the flawed diamond that is the movie Time Cop. What are you into, and how could that be improved?

5 thoughts on “The Android Switch”

  1. I would argue two more key points in Apple’s favor and one in Android’s favor.

    iOS bonus points
    The fingerprint scanner makes opening your phone effortless and natural. Using it for installing apps, etc., is nice, but nothing compared to tapping a button and your phone is on. No additional swipes. It’s unbelievably nice.

    There is almost no jank. On every Android phone I’ve ever used, there’s been jank and display quirks all over the place. Whether it’s low frame rate or icons not showing up for a second, it’s super noticeable.

    Android bonus point
    There are no notification icons on apps. That little red dot with a number is infuriating and after awhile, I become blind to it. After I switched back to my iPhone (after my Android met it’s unfortunate end), I couldn’t help but notice the dozens of little red dots. I immediately (and painstakingly manually) turned them all off.

    I’m hoping to resume my Android test, but from a little over a month, using the jank-free iPhone with the phenomenal camera was a joy. (I do strongly miss Android’s notifications.)

    And like you suspect, my iOS widget drawer is stock, because I could care less about widgets. They’ve never been particularly useful to me.

    1. Joen A. says:

      I can’t disagree with any of that.

      I don’t mind any jank I encounter in Android — especially since it was drastically reduced in Jelly Bean — but I did notice how iOS goes to remarkable lengths to remove jank to the point that some times I’d see a perfect screen smoothly animate in, only to realize I couldn’t interact with it because it was still loading. Certainly preferrable, and impressive feat of engineering. Speaking of feats, the phone has very good screen-off battery! It seems to just sip and be able to stay there forever. Screen on battery was about the same.

  2. Robert says:

    You can actually swipe notifications in iOS to dismiss just a single one. Not very discoverable though.

    1. Joen A. says:

      Yep, but unlike on Android, swiping only reveals contextual actions such as the tiny dismiss button, which still requires a precise tap using tiny baby fingers. What I would want, is for a swipe to simply dismiss it with no further action. I.e. drag left, release to dismiss. Drag right, release to “reply”.

  3. Alexander says:

    Also, the next time you need a “Toddler mode” on iOS, why not check out your favorite Settings section and look for “Guided Access”, which lets you disable every single hardware and/or software button or screen areas etc. with fine-grained control. 🙂

Comments are closed.