I started typing this post on 9/12/10. I finally decided it’s time to post it. Looking back, I guess I should have posted it as I wrote it, and just posted updates after that, so it was always current. Oh well. Anyway, here goes:
I’ve done a lot of research on smartphones recently, on a quest for getting my first one. Yeah, I know, a geek without a smartphone?!? What took me so long?? Well, money, of course, is the first consideration. It costs more money, both monthly and upfront, for a smartphone, so there’s that. Then there’s the Operating System. Do I want Apple (iPhone), Android (all providers other than apple), or something else? I quickly narrowed my choices down to iPhone or Android. Both are excellent operating systems, and Android is available on many different phones and carriers. And besides, since I’m now a card-carrying member of Appleholics Anonymous, one of their 12 steps is to own, and loyally use daily, a non-Apple device. So here I go.
My choices of phones were quickly narrowed down to one phone after I checked with my current cellular provider. It turns out I’m only a few months into a 2-year contract, and there’s a hefty “early termination” fee if I leave my contract. They’re willing to work with me though, if I want to re-up my contract for 2 more years and get a smartphone. Thay have two Android phones to choose from, the best being the HTC Desire. I reviewed the specs and they looked pretty nice, with a few exceptions. The primary reason I leaned toward Android over an iPod at first, was the openness of the system and the fact that the new Android version (2.2 Frozen Yogurt–aka FroYo) offered wifi tethering and the ability to install apps on a MicroSD card. I was excited about these two options. Wifi tethering would cure another problem we keep having. We get to a remote location–either Kevin and I, Sandy and I, or all three of us–then discover that there’s no wifi available, so we can’t check in anywhere, check our mail, or play a round of Words With Friends, so what to do except twiddle our thumbs??? But Android version 2.1, which my provider’s HTC Desire comes with, doesn’t have those features yet. So I called my provider. My first call to them resulted in them agreeing to make an exception to renew my contract and allow me to upgrade my phone again. They couldn’t tell me much about the Android version, so I explained what I had read. They still didn’t know what, if any, upgrade options were possible on the Desire.
I thought about it a bit and decided to stop in at one of their stores in town the next day. I played around with the phone for a few minutes to get a feel for it and look at the menus and features. I asked the salesperson about Android 2.1 and asked if I could upgrade to 2.2. She wasn’t sure so she checked with her manager. He said “no no no, you can’t upgrade it, you have to use the operating system it comes with.” Now, I’m not sure if he misunderstood what I was asking, but I didn’t appreciate the way he said this. I told her I wasn’t going to upgrade at all if this was the case, and I left the store.
Further research on the Internet that evening didn’t help much. A few postings by other users mentioned that the upgrade to 2.2 for my carrier hasn’t been released, but was expected in the near future, though no definite date was quoted and no source of this information was provided. My carrier has nothing posted on their website, even in their FAQs about Android. So today, very frustrated and torn as to whether I should take the plunge or not, I called my carrier’s tech support again. I explained the situation and asked if there was anyone there who could provided some technical information on Android for this specific carrier. I was placed on hold for about 20 minutes and then a support tech picked up. He seemed very knowledgeable about Android and the HTC Desire, but said basically the same thing I was told before–the Android 2.2 upgrade hasn’t been approved yet for this carrier, and he’s not sure if the wifi tethering feature will be supported or not. I explained that someone else–the lady I talked to before him–said that wifi tethering is definitely not supported by them and they are not responsible for any additional charges resulting from attempting to use this feature. He couldn’t elaborate, only repeated that they wouldn’t know more until the release is actually approved by the carrier. I explained that wifi tethering is a pretty big tipping point for me upgrading to this phone, and he explained that the phone has a ton of excellent features even as it is now, without the wifi tethering, and it does have USB tethering right now, but if wifi tethering is that much of a factor for me, he suggests I hold off until I can get more information on the upgrade after it is approved for this phone. I thanked him for his time and help and let him go. It was nice to finally talk to someone who understands what I’m looking for, even though he couldn’t really provide any additional information for me.
So here I sit, wondering what my provider is going to do regarding the Android 2.2 upgrade on this phone. It’s Sunday September 12, 2010. It should be very interesting to see what happens. I’ll complete this post when I either know more or have a smartphone in my hands.
9/25/10 – I now own an Android phone. I went with the HTC Desire. It’s not the best Android phone out there (Jay has that–the HTC Evo 4G), but it’s pretty close. I’ve had it about a week, and I’m quite impressed. I think I’ll stick with it. And I’ll keep my iPod too. Just like the XBox 360 and the PS3, it’s fun to be able to play on “both sides of the fence”. I get to learn all of the differences of each platform, all the advantages and disadvantages of them, and maybe I can even help someone in cyberspace keep better informed. So here’s my impressions so far:
1. The touch screen is far more sensitive than the iPod Touch. Just holding the phone tightly seems to be able to heat up a few screen edge areas (where my flesh is just above it) enough to trigger a selection sometimes. It’s not a problem now that I know I’m doing it and I can back off a little, but it was pretty confusing at first.
2. It’s Android 2.1, which isn’t so bad, but I’ll be upgrading to 2.2 as soon as it’s available from my carrier. The ability to install apps to the SD Card is extremely critical. This phone came with so many pre-installed (and good) apps that the internal memory was nearly full before I installed anything myself! I have to juggle apps now, uninstalling those I’m not currently using, just to install what I want to use. I have tons of space left on my SD Card, so this makes little sense. Android 2.2 should solve this problem completely. And wifi tethering is just that much more of a bonus coming with 2.2
3. AT&T (not my carrier) disables the ability to download apps from outside the Android Market on all of its Android phones. This is disappointing, because one of the main Android benefits is it’s “openness”. It’s an open source operating system, and everyone is free to develop for it and publish software for it, either in the Android Market store or outside, via their own website or others. Locking it to just the Market, however, seems like a pretty big restriction, pushing it close to the Apple model. I think one big reason a lot of people go with Android is to get away from that model, even if it’s just to be different, and even if you don’t necessarily download apps from outside the Market, it’s the principal of the thing. I would think this would discourage a lot of potential AT&T customers and drive them away from the AT&T cellular service. Then again, already having the entire exclusive iPhone market (for the moment), I guess if any company was going to take this risk it would be AT&T.
4. Android has TRUE multitasking. Not the fake “application in suspended-state” multitasking that the iPod and iPhone have, this is the real thing. You can start something in an app (like Slacker’s station caching) that takes awhile to process, then just move on to another app and the processing still continues in the background. In fact, the top “notification bar” displays an icon for that app, just so remind you that it’s still running. Yes, it does slow down your other tasks, but that’s real multitasking.
5. Ringtones are unbelievable. And free. There’s no need to pay for a ringtone ever again, thanks to abundant apps that let you record any sound and use it as your ringtone, and other free apps that let you download millions (literally) of ringtones that others have already made. I could spend years just trying to listen to all of them one by one. Search for anything that interests you and you instantly find hundreds of ringtones to choose from.
6. Live Wallpapers. Android wallpapers can move. I must admit, I’ve never been a fan of animated wallpapers since Microsoft added Live Video Wallpaper to Windows and offered it as part of the “Ultimate” version of their operating system. It slowed down the PC tremendously on many occasions and could often render it unusable, performing so slow. I never use it any more. But on Android it doesn’t seem to slow anything down. Perhaps it’s just done right from the ground up this time…? You can get Live Wallpaper in just about any flavor, just like ringtones, and there are many included on the phone.
7. GPS Rules! – Having only had the iPod Touch and not an iPhone before, GPS on a phone is new to me. So far, it’s been a very fun, eye-opening experience. For one thing, I think Google has really done some amazing things. For one thing, Google Navigator (totally free) is the best navigation app I’ve seen so far, and I’ve tried several of them already, including the exclusive Navigator Plus (included with the HTC Desire) others. You can type or speak your destination and it instantly locates it (very accurate!) and starts navigating. Google speaks your directions (even much more clearly than all the others), maps flow very smoothly as you travel, and you even get a streetview of your destination as you arrive. Another must-have app–for me, anyway–is My Tracks. It’s another Google app that actually RECORDS your journey on Google Maps and lets you save and share those maps as well as provide you with detailed trip information, including distance, time, max speed, etc.. Amazing stuff.
8. Camera. Ah, the things you can do with a camera in your phone! Taking pictures and videos is just the beginning. Try Google Goggles. Take a picture of ANYTHING and Goggles goes out to the web and finds it. If it can’t find it, it will display images very similar to yours. It reacognizes any logos, text, products, etc., in the photo very nicely. I have heard that it has the capability to also recognize people, but this functionality has been disabled due to privacy concerns.
9. More Camera. There are an abundance of applications that allow you to scan barcodes out there. Most of them do a great job of identifying the product scanned, but the awesome ones will even show you the cheapest place to buy it! This is great for shopping! I’ll have to go with Sandy sometime. Another neat camera feature is face recognition. As an example of a good use for this, Photofunia is a great free app that lets you choose from hundreds of fake “cutouts”, for example a very muscular bodybuilder, a magazine cover with an executive on it, etc., then take a photo of someone, and it detects the person’s face in the photo and places it into the cutout image as best it can. The results are often very amusing and sometimes convincing! It does a nice job with it, especially considering its price!
10. Widgets. The Android has widgets. These are tiny applications that are presented in small areas of your screen that always stay open and running, just like Windows Gadgets. For example, Weather, music and photo widgets are very popular. All are available in various sizes and styles, and dozens of widgets are included with the HTC Desire. These can eat up screen space though, space otherwise used for your application icons. The HTC Desire has 7 screens though, so you have plenty of space, considering how many (or few) apps you can have on your screens.
11. All Apps. Even with 7 virtual screens–scrollable much like the iPod and iPhone–the Android still has an “All Apps” screen that displays every application installed on the phone, sorted A-to-Z. This is great, and makes it easy to find any application, even if you’ve forgotten it’s name. You also have the ability to search, as the iPod and iPhone can, by name, and it searches your phone instantly as well as optionally searching Google automatically. You can also search by voice whenever you want, with a “microphone” key right on the keyboard. You can even call someone, compose & send an e-mail, listen to music, etc. etc. etc… all with this same search function.
12. Lastly, Google Skymap is simply amazing. Using GPS, it provides a live skymap of the exact stars in the area of the sky it is pointed at. You can see all of the constellations, planets, and even the horizon, right there in front of you. This is quite fascinating, and certainly a must-have for any astronomy buffs. Totally free, of course. I’m pretty sure any app with nearly the same capabilities in the Apple Store will cost your a few dollars or more.
13. Ok, I lied. THIS is the last point. One final app to brag about. Tasker. This is a really cool app, and it’s a tinkerer’s (aka geek’s) dream. It’s used to perform tasks on your phone, triggers by events. The tasks and the events that can trigger them number in the hundreds. You can automate just about every function of the phone you can think of. For example, you can make a task as simple as opening an application automatically at 7:00am, or a task as complicated as automatically switching off your GPS, Wifi, Cell data, and muting your phone when you get to work. Actually they can get quite a bit more complicated that than even, but you get the idea. It’s amazing, to say the least, and it really has the potential to turn your “Smart” phone into a “Super” phone. As an example of a practical application of it, I recently discovered an embarrassing side-effect of using an Android with my iPod speaker dock at work. When I disconnect the headphone cable connected to the aux jack on the dock after I power off the dock, my playing music blasts loudly through the phone’s speaker for a few seconds as I panic to turn down the volume and/or pause the music, whichever I can get to quicker. Tasker to the rescue! After this happened a few times I realized Tasker can fix this. So I created a task to detect when the headphones are unplugged and, at that point turn the volume down and close the music application. It works perfectly.