Some time ago I realized that my 2010 iPhone 4 is no longer usable, at least not in any pleasant manner. While initially I thought iOS 7 is to blame, I quickly discovered that the OS itself wasn’t the problem, but the bigger memory footprint of many apps that wanted to take advantage of what iOS 7 offered was.1 Daily use of a 4-year-old iPhone became too frustrating, so I started considering options. Also, the screen was cracked and I’ve no idea how, where or when I cracked it.
First, of course, was the 5s, Apple’s latest and greatest. It is, according to some, the best smartphone you can buy today, and from what I saw in the stores, it’s a remarkable piece of engineering indeed. Still, the basic, 16GB 5s costs 5790 NOK here in Norway, so I figured perhaps it’d be wise to consider other options.2 There was the 5c, which is basically iPhone 5’s hardware for 4490 NOK, and there was the 4s for a ridiculous 3290 NOK, both of which I dismissed as too expensive as well. So then there was Android.
The Internet says one should buy Nexus. It’s pure Android, straight from Google, it’s fast and it’s relatively cheap (2689 NOK – cheaper than the iPhone 4s!), but it’s also quite big. I held it in my hand and it felt uncomfortably large (what’s with all these huge smartphones?). So then the next great thing was, the Internet said, Moto G and Moto E, Google’s cheap phones. Both models run close-to-stock Android, and both are kept up-to-date with latest version of the OS.3
At first I was tempted by Moto E. Since an Android phone was supposed to be just an experiment, I could simply buy the cheapest option. But then again Moto G was not significantly more expensive, and reviews claimed it had superior display and camera, so I went for the updated G, with 8 GB of internal memory (microSD expandable) and 4G antenna. Here are my impressions of the handset and Android.
First and foremost, this is an unbelievably cheap phone. Its build quality isn’t exactly a match for my old iPhone 4 (not to mention the 5s), but it’s still a well built and pretty good looking (if not unassuming) phone. The contrast in speed of operation between my old iPhone and Moto G is, expectedly, staggering. Even though Moto G is no benchmark winner compared to other Android handsets, it still works remarkably quickly. There’s very little noticeable lag when launching apps, switching between them or even browsing with multiple tabs open in Chrome. And here comes the best part: I payed £139.95 for Moto G.
I honestly think this is the very best ace Google has up its sleeve. Competing with Apple on the high-end is difficult, and will always be tricky, regardless of how brilliant the phone is. But if they’re able to make a “low-end” phone that good, sell it for less than half the price of a 2011 iPhone 4s and still make money on it – well, that’s just impossible to beat. So yes, it’s great value. Let’s talk about the software now.
The last time I played with Android was when I tried my friend’s HTC Desire. This was 2010, and there was no question Android was inferior to iOS. HTC Desire was sluggish and ugly compared to iPhone 4. Well, four years later the gap between the two is no longer that visible, or perhaps gone. Android 4.4 that the Moto G is running is much more polished and much better. I can see how it may be more appealing to some people than iOS. It allows more freedom of choice when it comes to, e.g., setting default apps4 or choosing 3rd party keyboards. It has widgets, which I’m not a huge fan of, but I agree it’s cool to have live weather updates on the home screen. And finally, Google Play store app selection isn’t as bad as I thought. Sure, there’s no Day One (which I miss a lot), but at least there’s Threes (hell, there’s even Instapaper!). But it’s not perfect.
It seems to me Android only makes sense when you’re heavily invested in the Google ecosystem. Google account isn’t technically necessary to use the device, but in reality you’ll be reminded at every step that you should use it. I wasn’t so big on Google apps for various reasons (which is perhaps a story for another post), and I quickly realized that in order to have more fun using Moto G I’d better give GMail and Google Calendar another shot. It’s nothing wrong for Google to make you want to use their services if they design the OS, in principle, but it’s slightly paradoxical that it’s Apple’s iOS that plays better with open standards such as IMAP, CalDav and CardDav out of the box. Again, this is not to say that you can’t use these on Android, it’s just that the experience is much better on iOS. And of course you can do anything using 3rd party apps, but this brings me to another problem.
Android stock apps suck. With the exception of Chrome and GMail perhaps, everything else that comes with Android 4.4 is pretty bad. iPhone users like to complain about Mail.app, but its quality is really great compared to Android’s default Mail application. Same goes for everything else – contacts, photo management, camera or hangouts. iOS doesn’t allow you to change defaults, but the defaults it provides are of decent quality. So yeah, you can use 3rd party apps, but this causes another problem which Karolina pointed out: clutter. Suddenly there are many different things serving the same function.5 And when you bring the widgets on it can get real crazy, but I guess this depends on a user.
Finally there’s the issue of interface design guidelines. It would appear that while Android’s appearance improved greatly, the user experience is still inconsistent between apps. Stock apps are consistent of course, and many 3rd party apps are as well (Mailbox!), but soo many are not. Take Any.Do for example. While in principle a great app, it just looks odd on the screen of my phone. It looks like it’s been designed for a different OS. Same goes for many other apps as well, which makes the poor quality of default apps an even bigger flaw.
But at the end of the day GMail, Chrome, Snapchat, Evernote and Play Music work just fine, and that’s mostly what I need from a smartphone. There are also parts of Android that work better than iOS, like Google Play Music. Uploading all my music files to Google servers for free and syncing them with my phone without a computer? Yes, please! And even though I have lots of iOS habits that make me want to buy a 5s even though it’s oh-so-pricey, after a couple more months with Moto G I might consider buying another Android headset. And if Google sticks to the tradition of keeping the prices of Nexus phones low, my next phone might easily be the Nexus 6 (or whatever it’s called).
Bottom line is, for the price of Moto G you can have a half of a 3 year old iPhone, a crappy old out-of-date Android phone, or a low-end Nokia Lumia with an OS that has the smallest app selection on the market. And then it’s a no-brainer.
- Evernote, which is an app I use on a daily basis, became as beautiful as unusable. Sometimes it’d take a minute to open or save a note. ↩
- I’m moving out from Norway soon, so I can’t get a new iPhone with a 2-year contract. Also, I’m not saying the 5s isn’t worth the money. ↩
- Or so Google claims; let’s see if it’s still true when the sale of Motorola Mobility to Lenovo gets through. ↩
- To readers unfamiliar with iOS: while it allows 3rd party browsers and email clients, it doesn’t allow to set them as default handlers (this might change with iOS 8 I guess). ↩
- Actually, this is a problem even with the “stock” 4.4 that Moto G’s running. When I want to open a photograph from en email attachment, it asks me which app to use: “Photos” or “Gallery”. How would I know? Why do I have to know? Why are there two apps that serve exactly the same purpose installed by default? There’s your poor design right there. ↩