For anyone who knows me, it was no surprise when I purchased the iPhone, the iPhone 3G, the iPhone 4, the iPad, and the New iPad on their first day of availability. Once can call me an iOS fanboy, having been there from day one, and having run every single version of the operating system that has ever existed. Despite my love of gadgets, and mobile gadgets in particular, not counting my Logitech Google TV (a curious device if ever there was one), have never owned an Android device. So it may have been surprising to many of my friends when on its first day, I pre-ordered the Nexus 7 tablet. While it may have seemed completely out of the blue, I actually had been considering picking up a Google powered device for some time. But several things held me back. It could not be a phone, since I don’t wish to sign up for yet another contract plan. The few non phone handhelds were mostly cheap afterthoughts. And the tablet lineup was unimpressive to say the least. Furthermore, nearly every device out there ran into the infamous fragmentation problem. They were either skinned beyond recognition (Kindle Fire), or running several releases back of the OS. The Nexus 7 was the first device that had none of these problems, and at $199, a winner finally emerged. After a week of a self imposed iPad ban, I can finally speak about Android from a users prospective.
I would consider this more to be my own thoughts than an objective review. I will compare the device to the iPad constantly, perhaps even unfairly. This is the perspective I have, and was a major component to my experiment in Androidland.
My Home Screen. Ooh…widgets!
I had the same thought as many people upon seeing the Nexus 7 for the first time, “Hey, Apple finally released the iPad mini.” With Steve Jobs famous “sandpaper your finders” in my head, I was very curious to see how the form factor actually would play out in day to day life. It certainly seemed a lot smaller than my iPad. Lighter, although not so much so that I didn’t feel the weight of it (my eInk Kindle, on the other hand, may as well be made of helium). A nice benefit of the smaller size is that it fits in the oversized pockets on my shorts.
For reading, it is a wonderful size. Easy to hold, feels like a book. It’s not heavy, but feels substantial. A big difference from the iPad is the 16×9 aspect ratio. This definitely makes it feel like there is a “right” way to hold it, which basically means in portrait mode (and the operating system heavily reinforces this).
One of the things I find funny about this device is that, despite button hating usually being in Apple’s DNA, this tablet actually has two fewer buttons than the iPad. There is a lock button and a volume rocker on the right side. That’s it. Everything else happens on the touch screen. It took a few days of pressing the top to try to unlock it before I got used to that side button.
The device charges via micro USB, the standard charging and data port for all non fruit names companies in the electronics space. While I appreciate the ubiquity of this connection, I have to admit that I tend to find it annoying. For one thing, the port is so small that it is difficult to insert at times. I often feel like I am going to break it off. Additionally, using at least one charger from a different device, it seemed to react badly, constantly turning itself on in the middle of the night. Yes, I know, it should not be expected to work perfectly with chargers other than it’s own. But then the usefulness of every not iThing using it is lessened.
The downside of the smaller screen becomes apparent the first time you try to type. I felt more oversize phone than shrunken laptop, which is pretty much the opposite of the iPad. As a productivity device, it just feels too small, and I could never get into using it for this purpose. Initially I attempted to write this post entirely on the Nexus, but abandoned that idea before the third paragraph.
The most curious omission here is that of an SD card slot. This is something I hear ALL THE TIME from Android users, that they would never get an Apple device because it is closed up and locked in in terms of storage. And yet, the Nexus 7 has only 8GB of storage (and maxes out at a mere 16GB), that cannot be upgraded in any way. I have to say I regret my choice of going with the 8GB already, as it is half full with practically no media on it. It seems particularly strange given how baked into the operating system SD card support seems to be. Virtually every app I have encountered makes some reference to this feature’s existence, and yet, for me it remains and enigma, even in Androidland.
Overall, it feels good to hold. One big advantage to this form factor as a New Yorker is that it is one hand friendly. When in a crowded subway and standing, I can still use this device, whereas my iPad is just a little too cumbersome. I think what this ultimately proves to me is that there is no magic size that is “perfect”. Different days and different situations call for different things. The device feels good, and feels well made. This is not some cheap, Walgreens no name tablet. Good job Asus.
One of my requirements for trying out an Android device was to try Android, not the Samsung OS, or the HTC OS, but real, stock Android. I had previous experience with Android on phones with demo units, but Jelly Bean would be my official welcome to the Google OS. There are plenty of similarities to iOS, so it did not take long to get my bearings. But the more I used it, the more the differences became apparent.
This has always been the most disappointing aspect of other touch based systems. Apple got it right on day one here, with smooth, responsive controls. Google made a big deal about “Project Butter”, an attempt to make its scrolling and interface responsiveness smoother and more responsive. I can report that they got there, mostly. My biggest issue remains that inertia doesn’t kick in immediately, as it does in iOS. Sometimes It scrolls only as far as I actually move, but other times, the screen continues after I lift my finger. I still have not found the exact speed at which this happens. Also, I really find myself missing the bounce at the end of the page, although I do understand why it is not there (oh patents).
What I do not understand is why sometimes the keyboard just doesn’t appear even though I am in a text field. Yes, one more tap get it there, but why the requirement when clearly I am in a typing mode?
Overall, the good hardware clearly makes a difference here. The system never feels slow or clumsy. Everything keeps up well, and Google and Asus deserve a lot of credit for this.
Built in Apps
Of my many, many email accounts, most of them are Google Apps accounts. This includes my main email. So it was extremely easy to get myself up and running right out of the box. My email and calendar were both there, as were all of my Chrome bookmarks. I find it interesting that I often hear complaints that Apple is pushing iCloud too hard. Android is so very Google based, that I am not sure how one can really use any of it without having a Google account.
One of the first things I checked out on my tablet is one of the aspects I find the most strange. There are two email apps. A Gmail app, and an Email app. Even Apple treats all email equally when it comes to the app they are in. Not here. Gmail is clearly the preferred provider. The Gmail app is more an optimized view of the Gmail website than it is a native app. On the plus side, it supports push email (without the need to go through ActiveSync anyway). On the downside, it does not support a unified inbox. This was a major complaint of iOS prior to iOS 4, and yet I still cannot do it here. Also, Gmail on Android really pushes you toward using the label system rather than the more traditional email folders. This is not surprising, given that this is how Google prefer we file our email anyway. However, the app has no way to move (or rather, label and archive). Even the Gmail website allows this, so it seems odd.
As for the email app, it easily signed into my iCloud account with nothing more than my username and password. I was actually expecting to have to dive into the IMAP settings on this one, so thank Google for making the setup there much simpler.
When we move to Contacts and Calendars though, not so much. Calendars for me are easy, since both my personal and work calendars are Google Calendars, so they were there as soon as I signed in to my accounts. I do maintain an iCloud calendar for sharing with those who use it instead of Google. Getting this calendar in required a trip to the Google Play Store and picking up SmoothSync for Cloud Calendar. This app allowed me to connect to my iCloud calendar and manage it along side my Google Calendars.
Contacts are another story, however. I am not a user of Google Contacts. This is one of the places where iCloud does a vastly superior job. Google Contacts has always felt like an afterthought to me. And it’s integration with both the Mac Address Book (now Contacts) and iOS Contacts has been pretty terrible. So my contacts all reside in iCloud. While there is a companion app to SmoothSync that handles contacts, I wanted something that would integrate with my Google account directly. I used to be a big fan of Spanning Sync for this, but they have recently shuttered due to Apple’s changing of sync behavior in the era of iCloud. Because Google Contacts messes with my contacts in ways they I do not like, I needed something that would be a one way sync. I always add to iCloud, never directly to Google. The answer came in the form of a somewhat obscure Mac App Store app called Contacts Sync for Google Gmail. The app has about as many frills as the name, but it allows for a one way sync to Google from my iCloud address book. This way every time I make a change to iCloud, I fire this up and send the same change to Google. It does not run in the background, but that is okay. I run it periodically, or anytime I make a major change.
The last bit of data syncing proved the most difficult. Bookmarks. I tend to move between Safari and Chrome, using each for different reasons. But I wanted my bookmarks to be available in both. This is where I hit a bit of a wall. My Safari bookmarks sync via iCloud, and my Chrome bookmarks via Google. I can find no reliable way to sync them to each other. Xmarks is the only option I see, and it has major problems with this setup. Basically, Xmarks needs to be the cloud in charge, and introducing it to the other two was a nightmare of duplicates and other strange data issues. Turning off either iCloud or Google sync cuts off the mobile devices. This is one of the places I ended up just living with the manual method.
The first party app that I found the most disappointing was Google Reader. I pretty much live in Google Reader (RSS forever!), and figured this would be one of the stellar features on Android. Was I ever wrong. The Google Reader app was awful. The interface was bad, it lacked any power user features, and was generally buggy. I quickly gave up and ended up going with gReader Pro, which was vastly superior (although, still not up to par with my iOS champion Reeder).
Third Party Apps
After getting the basics set up, I went to the Google Play store to start grabbing the apps I have come to rely upon. My must have apps I found there included Instapaper, Evernote, Kindle, 1Password, and all the obligatory social networking apps. It was nice to see so much there that I rely on, and made the Nexus 7 something I felt comfortable using in place of my iPad. Unfortunately, not everything was there. The big ones for me are OmniFocus, MoneyWiz (or my previous financial manager iBank), or any really good podcast app (my favorite on iOS being Instacast). Were I to consider moving to an Android only life (spoiler alert – I’m not) the lack of these apps would be the biggest barrier.
But for the apps that were there, they worked as expected. A lot of these are reading apps (Instapaper, Kindle, gReader Pro). This is no accident. The Nexus 7 is an almost perfect size to use for reading. This is especially true during rush hour on the subway. Holding an iPad is challenging with one hand. Not so for the Nexus. It has in many ways replaced my Kindle as my reader of choice when one handed operation is required.
Somewhat shockingly, I was able to log into my New York Times account, and my subscription worked in the Android app. This is shocking because my subscription is paid for via iTunes. Unfortunately this did not work for most other subscriptions, but it was nice to see it work for the big one.
I also went a bit overboard and downloaded a whole bunch of live wallpapers, mainly because this concept is so new to me. While there are some really terrible ones in there, I find I do like having a little movement on the screen. It makes it feel a little more active, and makes the iPad feel somewhat stale by comparison.
The Google Play store has a few advantages over the App Store. First of all, I can have multiple credit cards stored for use. Secondly (and please steal this Apple, please) if I decide I don’t like a paid app after I purchase it, all I need to do is uninstall it. If this has been within 15 minutes of the app being initially installed, I don’t get charged. I discovered this accidentally, and have used it to try even more apps that I probably otherwise would have, knowing I have an out that isn’t emailing customer support. Lastly, I do not need to enter a password for free apps (Apple, please steal that one too).
A new ability I don’t have on iOS is to install apps from outside the Google Play Store. I did this only once, but it was really worth it. That was to install the Einstein Emulator. This app is not particularly useful, but it is really REALLY cool. It is a Newton OS emulator, and it works as well as my old Newton MessagePad actually did. I was really excited when I got that one up and running (yes I am a huge nerd).
Beyond those outlined above, there are some definite advantages to Android. The biggest one, at least for me, is the ability of apps to update in the background at regular intervals. I cannot count how many times I have forgotten to open Instapaper at work, only to get down into the subway and have none of the articles I saved that day to read. Not a problem on Android. The app regularly updates, even if it has been days since it was opened. This NEEDS to come to iOS. It is easily my number one complaint about that platform, and now having it operational here makes me want it there all the more. I know that there is an argument of battery life here, and those are not completely unfounded. I was not getting awesome battery life until I toned down the frequency of my background updates. But Apple can easily solve this with a system wide manager of background updates, something Android lacks. I feel it is a missed opportunity.
Another thing I love about Android that is missing from iOS is sharing. Yes, iOS can share, but it is generally restricted to services predetermined by Apple. For example, I cannot simply share an article to Instapaper or Evernote without using a bookmarlet. Android gives third party apps system level sharing capabilities. This means that any app can share to Instapaper or the others, whether or not that particular app was built to do so.
Lastly, the iOS home screen is starting to feel a little dated, especially when I am able to accomplish so many things directly from the home screen of Android. The widgets are extremely useful. I can see my calendar, email, and RSS all without needing to open separate apps. It makes the whole thing feel much more powerful than simply having a grid and nothing else. Yes, like the live wallpaper, it is easy to go overboard here, and I initially did. But once I got it under control, I find that I really miss my widgets when I pick up the iPad.
Missing apps aside, there are some reasons to not fall in love with the Nexus. The smaller size is great for reading, but it is not a productivity device. I can type almost as quickly on my iPad as on a real keyboard. Not here. The other size disadvantage comes in the form of magazines and newspapers. It is great for books, but just feels too small for these. My iPad is perfect as a replacement for magazines.
A deeper issue is one of integration. The integration with my Mac is still so tight, that I feel a little out in the wilderness as soon as I step away. Yes, I was able to load most of my iTunes library to Google Play, but the rest of what iTunes does is mostly missing. I have tried a few media managers that try to replicate this, but despite all its issues, iTunes (and iPhoto) remain the best media managers I have used. And iCloud clearly has potential.
The last disadvantage I feel is not a guarantee, but I have great concerns that the lifespan of the device may be short. Android is notorious for not making its updates available across all devices. Despite the Nexus blessing, only time will tell if the premier google tablet remains premier for long.
More than a month after I received it, I am still using my Nexus 7 every day. To be honest I was not expecting this. I thought it would be an experiment that I would try and then forget. I would know how Android works, and go right back to where I was. While I am still and iOS boy at heart, and still reach for my iPad first in the morning, the Nexus 7 has found a place in my life. I enjoy using it, and take it with me everyday (I am so thankful that the trend has been towards lighter and lighter devices). It is not prefect, iOS is not perfect, but both have their places in this world. If I had to give one up, it would be Android. At the end of the day I still rely on my iPad and that is unlikely to change. But I don’t have to choose. I can, and will, be a two OS man for a while. Who knows, I may even get the next tablet Google blesses as its own.