Not-so-smartphones

Smartphones have taken over our lives. I would struggle without mine: it plays a part in just about everything I do, helping me with organisation, communication, music, exercise, navigation and even metronome duties! (Worries over smartphone addiction may be the subject of a future blog post, who knows?) As a self-proclaimed geek as well, I always agonise over what phone to get when the last one loses the fight.

My last phone was a Samsung Galaxy S2, an Android phone which on the whole I was very happy with; one morning a few months ago, though, it upped and died. Amazon were brilliant as ever, and gave me a full refund. However, I was left with the question as to what to replace it with. The S3 was about to come out soon, but I needed something quickly. After soliciting views from friends, and deliberating for a while, I decided to have a change and try an iPhone 4S. Now I have had it a little while, I wanted to describe the dilemma I find myself in.

The good things about my iPhone

The iPhone has a lot going for it. Physically, it is well made and feels solid, if a little fragile (in common with most other things made of glass). It has a good screen, lots of apps and generally … just works. WIth its iPod heritage and strong music playback, it is particularly good with Spotify, and the GPS gets a lock quickly for tracking runs and bike rides. The keyboard, for me, is superlative, and the camera does a fine job too. Battery life, while not great, isn’t noticably worse than any other smartphone. It even makes phone calls, too! And I could continue with other little touches that make the phone pleasant to use. So – what is it that bothers me?

The not-so-good bits

There are things that I completely took for granted on my previous Android phones that I still REALLY miss. A few examples, just to get the ball rolling:

  1. I often want to mute the phone for a short while – overnight, perhaps, or for a couple of hours at the cinema. On my old phone, the Shush! app did a marvellous job in this area: I would dial in how long to shut up, and it would spring back to life afterwards. Muting the iPhone requires a physical switch, which I have to remember to turn back off afterwards – which I keep forgetting, much to the frustration of my wife!
  2. I could set up simple one-touch shortcuts for things I do regularly, like turn off wifi (eg in a coffee shop when I don’t want to have to sign in to the network) or change brightness. Also, it was easy to schedule some to happen automatically (like dimming the screen at night). Now, I have to navigate through to the settings screens, which always takes a bit longer, and has to be done manually
  3. One word: SATNAV. The day I bought my first Android phone was also the day I stopped using my Tom Tom. Google Navigation was, largely, excellent: on my iPhone it is non-existent, nothing, nada, now’t. I bought an app to replace what I was used to, but after nearly causing a divorce on one particularly badly-routed journey, I lost faith with it.
  4. The web browser on my Android phones generally did a rather better job of flowing text to make things readable, whereas the iPhone seems a bit less flexible in this regard, even if “prettier”
  5. I do occasionally miss having a physical “back” button: most applications are pretty consistent about the top-left of the screen doing this, but not all, and sometimes you can get “stuck”
  6. As a geek, I do miss the flexibility I had to do technical things beyond the scope and interest of normal users (terminal emulator, anyone?)

Finally, and more generally, I can’t forget Apple’s one-time marketing tag line “think different”. As someone with a tendency to be more on the fringe than moving with the pack, it bothers me slightly to find myself as a sheep in such a very large fold! Monoculture troubles me.

I really appreciate the design goal of ruthless simplification applied to the iPhone, which is the other end of the spectrum from Android which tends to be to allow all sorts of flexibility wherever possible. In general, iPhone apps take away options that aren’t really necessary, whereas Android ones tend to allow flexibility wherever it might be possible – a hopeless generalisation, I know, but the impression I have gained. However, it doesn’t feel very “smart” to me to deny opportunities I still miss from Android.

Conclusion

I live in hope that the next version of iOS might fix at least some of these problems, which may make me change my mind. Right now, though, I’m feeling like my next phone, whenever that may be, is more likely to be Android than Apple. The truth is that both platforms are very good, but in my heart I miss my trusty old ‘droid.

Does anyone have any ideas that might make me happier with my iPhone? Or is your experience the same? Any comments, thoughts and suggestions would be very welcome!

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