I’ve been an Apple customer for a very long time. I still am ‘that guy’ who harps on about Mac OS X at every available opportunity. But iOS, the operating system at the heart of every iPhone, is something quite different to that which keeps the Mac ahead of the other desktop operating systems; and that’s why this week I switched to Android.
There are a million and one reasons to stick with iPhone once you’re already hooked into the iCloud ecosystem. Everything, as they say, ‘just works’. On top of that the iPhone 5’s styling is textbook Jonathan Ive; Apple’s British-born design guru who Steve Jobs called his righthand-man.
But while iPhone users have spent the last few years patting themselves on the back for not only having the nicest looking phones on the market, but the first truly smart-phones in the world, Google powered devices have been slowly but surely evolving from ‘me too’ cheap copies of the iPhone, into a whole new class of device; which with the arrival of the HTC One sees the whole Post-PC concept, first begun by Apple, taken into a radically new direction.
Upon the first arrival of the Android OS, it was true to say that most of the devices which ran it only succeeded because of how many iPhone-like functions they mimicked, but at a lower price-point. It’s easy to forget how many of the now commonplace functions of a mobile phone simply didn’t exist before Apple entered the market. But as a consequence of the corner-cutting which earlier Android powered devices had to take to keep costs and lawsuits down to a minimum, many of them merely looked on in awe at the iPhone, despite that on paper many had faster processors, bigger clearer screens, and higher resolution cameras. The weak link was the OS itself, and the image problem it gave devices that simply didn’t have that famous Apple finishing touch. Users who fell for the impressive specs while being given the sales-pitch in the showroom, soon found that after spending real time with their handset, something wasn’t quite right.
Well, I’ve lived with my HTC One for just over four days now, and I can’t begin to explain how impressively it does away with the notion that non-iOS powered smartphones are forever playing catch-up to Apple when it comes to the finer details. Those days, simply put, are well and truly over.
My old iPhone was the original model 4 — the 4S came along about 6 months into my previous contract with Three Mobile here in the UK˙; and if I’d switched-up to the iPhone 5 before the end of the contract it would have cost quite a lot of money. So since the regular iPhone 4 still ran the latest version of iOS — at least, that is, it claimed to — I settled myself with the belief that, once it came time to renew my contract and take out a new device, Apple would have come up with something to keep me happy in the intervening months; it was just a matter of waiting.
But then I started to think about what was really going on. It’s true that the iPhone 4 simply wasn’t powerful enough to run most apps properly. Back in the days when the desktop PC was the main portal through which most people accessed the internet, we were used to the notion of a computer becoming obsolete after 3 or 4 years — such was the pace of development in the sound, graphics and general processing which was happening in the PC space at that time.
But, once the notion of the post-PC device took ahold, the time it took for new devices to become old news increased dramatically. My iPhone 4 was less than 1 year old when it first started to randomly crash and run even very basic apps at a snail’s pace. Even the ubiquitous Apple Apps Store would become so unresponsive, simply by attempting to scroll through the selection of available apps, I began to contemplate an unnerving thought; and the uneasy feeling that Apple had deliberately included some unnecessarily processor hungry bits of code, just to leave users of older handsets feeling inadequate, solidified itself in my mind with the release of Siri; the voice command software which refused to run on the iPhone 4, even though the company who originally produced it had an earlier version running happily on the much slower iPhone 3.
While there’s nothing new about electronics manufacturers purposefully producing devices designed to fail, on the gambit that loyal users will simply upgrade to the latest hardware to run the latest software, the fact that this flies in the face of everything Apple were supposed to be about, leaves those of us who go all the way back to the mid-1990’s with Apple, feeling as if they’ve become the very thing they once stood sharply against, now that they are one of the world’s most profitable companies. “Think different” was never supposed to be an excuse to charge more for less; but that’s precisely the mantra Apple’s iPhone devision seems to have embraced in recent times; for shame.
Current iPhone users, who intend to upgrade to another iPhone within the next few months, should consider the following. Just one hour into using my HTC One, I’d…
• Installed a third party app without jailbreaking the device
• Downloaded a bunch of ringtones and alerts without having to open iTunes, stand on one leg, and whistle Dixie
• Switched the default browser to Chrome
• Re-installed every app which I’d previously used on the iPhone, without having to hand over my credit card details first
• Programmed the HTC One to be a remote control for my TV, Home Theatre System, and a time-shift scheduler for my PVR
• Dragged and dropped the music I want to listen to directly from the desktop without having to take a university degree course in using iTunes
• and — shock horror — I used it to make an actual phone call, and was able to hear everything the person on the other end was saying as well as they could hear me!
Listening to the Beats Audio sound system is a really weird (in a good way) experience. It’s like sitting in front of a decent home HiFi stereo speaker set-up twice the size of the phone itself. The pseudo-surround-sound software really works very well and the stereo spread is lifelike and focused, only starting to distort when you get into the ‘too loud anyway’ volume range.
The 4.7 inch 1080p display is bright and focused. It handles full HD video very easily, with no fragmentation or ripping. Every time I pick up the device, I’m as impressed all over again as the first time I switched it on by how sharp and slick looking the display is.
The case is made from robust materials which make the handset feel substantial. It’s not so thin you’d find yourself checking your pocket when out and about, to make sure you hadn’t dropped it — a common problem with the flyaway light iPhone 5.
The whole thing is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon Quadcore chip, running at 1.7GHz with 2GB of RAM. I’m old enough to remember when these were the sort of specifications desktop PC users drooled over, in anticipation of running the latest shoot-em-up video game. Not that pumping that sort of power into a mobile device necessarily means the software is capable of utilising it. Specs are vanity but software is reality, and many handhelds which boast impressive numbers fall short of delivering the sort of balances system performance which Apple perfected on the Mac and transferred to the iPhone. But, unlike previous Android powered phones, HTC have harnessed the full power of the hardware to compliment beautifully Android’s Open Source heritage — letting loose some genuinely jaw-dropping bells, whistles and impress the hell out of your friends gadgets and gizmos.
The camera, for example, is everything you’d want from a dedicated mid-priced point-and-shoot compact. As a pro-camera, I’ve been using a Canon EOS 300D for the past 10 years, but the HTC One actually performs way better in low-light. The full resolution HD video capture, which the DSLR doesn’t even do, much less at 60 frames per second, is truly staggering; and the neat slow-motion mode, which at first might seem gimmicky, actually adds a level of creativity I can imagine coming in super-useful when shooting sporting events, and other things which might happen quickly, but which the viewer wants to study later in better detail. This all adds up to actually inspiring me to go-back to my hobby of photography after a long time away, after becoming disillusioned with the flat-by-comparison performance of my other dedicated point and shoot, a Canon G10 — which at the time cost me nearly £400, doesn’t support full frame HD video and doesn’t exactly slip into the pocket.
Then there’s the photo software. HTC have made a smart move in concentrating on how the image is processed, rather than simply throwing megapixels at the ubiquitous problem of how much light it’s possible to get into a lens with a small surface area — the HTC One having just a 25mm aperture.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the same scene, one with low-light no-flash, and one with standard settings auto-flash, between the iPhone 4 and the HTC One:
In both cases, getting these photographs out of the two devices wasn’t easy. The HTC One Sync software works as well on the Mac as I suspect it would on Windows, but it wasn’t as Drag-and-Drop simple as it should be. But what you gain in fast loading times, and access to the whole Android file system, is a trade off against the rather clunky way of having to wait for the software to Sync the contents of the phone with the Sync folder on the computer. Having said that, when compared to the way the process is handled by the iPhone — insisting as it does on performing the whole thing via the slow, buggy and downright horrible iPhoto software — there is no comparison. In the time it’s taken me to write this entire paragraph iPhoto is still ‘thinking’ about what to do next, just to grab two photographs. Someone should tell Apple it’s 2013, and iLife as a whole desperately needs a make-over.
To be fair to iOS, there are some things which Android doesn’t do, which the iPhone thinks nothing of. Again, this is a spit and polish, finishing touches ‘thing’, which will no-doubt be fixed over time. For example, if you want to place a shortcut icon in the Dock at the base of the screen, you have to open the Icon View of all your apps, and long-hold, drag and drop, rather than simply being able to do it from the Home Screen. Similarly, there is discrepant behaviour in removing icons from the Dock as opposed to moving them from the regular Home Screen; for example, if you long-hold an icon in the Home Screen, you get two options — one to edit the app’s details, and one to remove it from the Home Screen. But if you do the same from the Dock, the only option is to uninstall the app. Why these three different options can’t be available from no matter where you long-hold the icon you want to move is a mystery to me.
Similarly, you’re limited to having only 5 left to right sweeping Home Screen panels, which soon fill up when you include a few Widgets — and for some again mysterious reason it isn’t possible to change the order of these panels simply by moving them around in the Edit Widgets screen — something made to seem even more unusual by nature of the fact you can actually long-hold on these panes, and move them around, despite that this doesn’t actually do anything to change the order in which they appear on the Home Screen.
One thing which is a vast improvement to the way iOS handles a similar operation is the long-hold Home button function, which on the iPhone launches Siri, and on the HTC One instantly switches to Google Now — Google’s latest way of presenting location aware content on useful ‘cards’, which are populated with relevant information about your interests and local services. This is a feature Google have only recently rolled out, and it seems set to become the main way in which voice-commands and at-a-glance information are accessed via Android powered devices.
While not all of these services are as-yet up and running, the HTC One already handles speech recognition much quicker and more accurately than Siri on the iPhone 5. With two clicks you can be Googling anything at all, without physically typing a single word — and while it lacks the occasionally quirky artificial intelligence of Siri, the speed with which data is transferred and displayed is very impressive, and the actual voice recognition software seems to play a lot better with regional British dialects like my strong Northern accent; whereas Siri sometimes demands that we adopt an American accent to be properly understood.
While it shouldn’t come as a shock that Google knows a lot about search, and processing complex data in an almost magically short timeframe (that is after all the number one reason why Google are who they are) Apple’s Siri is noticeably slower and less accurate in this area — although it is only fair to point out the comparison I’m using here is based upon my experience of Siri on a friend’s iPhone 5, and I didn’t personally use Siri day-to-day on my previous iPhone when for a few weeks last year I ran the Cydia jailbreak.
There are three of four ways to do something in Android and only one of them is useful. The included headphones feel absolutely horrible and sound even worse; and unless they’re plugged in the built-in FM radio doesn’t work at all. TV Tuner software feels unfinished, although the programmable remote control with built-in IR receiver is a really nice idea.
Ridiculously pretty, bright and focused screen with great colour separation. Very nice video and stills camera. Super fast multitasking processor; no waiting for even very intensive tasks. Seamless Google integration, with voice commands way more polished and accurate than Siri for iPhone.