Google’s Adroid mobile operating system is in a bit of a tough spot here in The Netherlands. The first phones running it were released exclusively on T-Mobile, who at the same time were offering the iPhone. Besides the fact that the G1 (HTC Dream) and G2 (HTC Magic) weren’t very appealing by comparison, T-Mobile seemed to not market them much. And then there’s the fact that Nokia had a firm grip on the smartphone market in Europe. I too have been using an E71. But not anymore. My HTC Desire arrived last friday, and I’ve spent some time with Android. What I was wondering most was how it would compare to the iPhone OS.
I’ve had an iPod Touch for almost a year now, and my wife has a 3GS. I love the simplicity of the OS, and can see how this is an ideal way to get smartphone capabilities into the hands of novice users. Symbian, while very versatile and configurable, has really dropped the ball in the UI department, and has only recently been made finger-friendly. I was hoping for Android to cover some of the middle ground, and I think it does.
Android adds flexibility but sacrifices simplicity
The Desire runs Android 2.1 with HTC’s Sense layer on top of it. The screen layout is almost identical to Apple’s OS, with some basic functions at the bottom, and a grid where you can place app icons that makes up the rest of the screen. Like on the iPhone you can swipe sideways to get from one screen to the next. There are two main differences.
First, not all the apps you have installed are on the grid. You have to place them there, or choose to leave them in the fold-out menu that has all the apps. Basically, you control whether you want an app to be front and center or not. But what really makes Android’s UI more flexible is that you can not just place apps on the grid. You can also place widgets, shortcuts and folders.
Widgets are extensions of installed apps that can display content or offer functionality. For instance, there are widgets that show your next appointment, or the number of unread tweets. Like on the iPhone, you control the layout of the screen, and can drag icons and widgets into an arrangement that suits you. By default, the first home screen focuses on phone functions like messages and contacts. If you want to, you can easily remove those elements and opt to create a screen that’s all about Twitter, or you can fill it with apps to mimic iPhone OS.
The drawback to this approach of course is that it adds some complexity. On the iPhone, an icon is added to your home screen when you install an app. Using Android, you’d need to put the icon there through a two step menu. Trivial for anyone used to working with computers, but there’s no denying the extra steps.
Android phones are required to have a couple of hardware buttons, and while Apple has repeatedly shown that a single button can be enough, I love this requirement. Having a physical back button for instance eliminates the need for a menu bar in many apps, and in doing so allows then to make better use of screen real estate. ANother thing I noticed is that there are separate volume controles for ‘media’ and phone functions. This makes so much sense, and I don’t think the iPhone has this?
Apple’s App Store has a mindboggling number of apps, and there’s nothing that can rival it in terms of choice and volume. If you’re moving from an iPhone OS device to Android, you’ll inevitably have to do without a few apps for which there’s no alternative. But the Adroid Market is growing rapidly, and I’m sure it will become the dominant mobile OS sometime in the next few years. Perhaps in part as a refuge for disgruntled iPhone developers, but mainly because there’s now a wide selection of phones available from many manufacturers, and at many price points.
As for the Desire, it’s a very impressive phone with a stunning screen. I may do a review later, but there are many out there already that seem to agree that this is the reigning champion of Android phones. If you’re looking to dive into this OS, I’d recommend looking at it.