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Android from an iOS user’s perspective : “The Interface & Usability”

As a photographer, the iPhone 4 has been a useful compact camera on days I didn’t feel like bringing my DSLR out. Sharing photos on Instagram has been second nature to me, anywhere from food to street photography. I will never leave home without my trusty iPhone. More than a handy compact, I rely on the gadget for my news & social networking… more than a mere phone or communications device. This little thing has been with me around Asia & Europe in the last 2 years & I’ve grown rather attached to it. I can leave home without a DSLR, but I could never leave home without my iPhone!

Recently there has been a strew of new devices in the market namely android phones from Samsung & the new Windows 8 mobile phones from Nokia & HTC. I have used android Honeycomb before in the form of the Samsung Tab 10.1 however I found it to be a rather half-baked device with a buggy operating system. Next to my 3rd generation iPad with retina display, the Tab was clunky in terms of operation & the screen was crappy in comparison. There was literally no comparison between the two. Then again they were tablets. To be fair, when ICS was available on the Tab, I installed it & now the Tab performs way better than when it was on Honeycomb.

Back to the mobiles… I was looking at the Samsung Galaxy S3 however after trying the phone I found the interface laggy. Then the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 came along! This thing has a 5.5″ display, a slightly faster quad-core processor & 2GB of RAM. Testing the unit, I found the interface smooth & quite lag free. I’m not entirely clear if this was Jelly Bean at work or the new processor coupled with the 2GB of RAM. Once I can compare this to an S3 with Jelly Bean, I’ll update!

Interface & usability

While I found Jelly Bean to be quite straight forward to use, I have to remind myself that not many users are as tech savvy as I am. Many iOS users would swear that the android OS is “complicated” or “confusing”. While I didn’t find it to be either, I have to admit that you can sometimes get lost in the interface especially when you want to tweak a setting or make changes in the way an app or OS behaves. The thing is, iOS lacks the ability for the user to make some of the change that an android phone will otherwise allow you to. Pro or con? It all depends on the user really. The thing is, if I wanted the learn how to do something fancy on the Note 2, I had to Google it sometimes… something I never really had to do on the iPhone!

The size & the display

Folks… this is a big phone! It’s so big, it’s almost impossible to text with one hand if you don’t have an appropriate keyboard setup for that! Even if you hold the phone with your left hand & text using your right, it’s noticeably slower compared to when I did that on my iPhone. The letters are farther apart so your finger needs to travel further to get stuff typed out. You can actually text with both hands on the phone with your thumbs in portrait mode! On landscape mode, it’s actually strenuous when you have reach for the letters T, Y, G or V!

For it’s size, viewing photos & videos is very nice! YouTube videos are particularly very good… At the beginning, it feels too big but after a while you kind of “grow into it”. Despite the pixel density not being anywhere near an iPhone retina display, it will be difficult to go back to a small 3.5″ display after this. It is however apt for me to mention that because of the many android devices with different resolutions, apps do not fully maximise the screens size & sharpness because of potential scaling of resolution that the app may need to perform. For instance, photos on the Facebook app looks mushy especially when you view in the orientation which matches the photo. A landscape photo looks bad in landscape!… however on the retina display of the iPhone, the photos on the same app is tact sharp & truly spectacular because there aren’t many different screen size resolution that you have to adapt to when one programs apps for iOS. I can see similar limitations on other android apps including my favorite app, Instagram!

The buttons

I was happy there was no mute switch like on the iPhone. I would have been happier if all the buttons on the phone were virtual. After experiencing the home button issue before on the iPhone, I don’t really trust physical buttons to be honest. However the buttons on the Note were quite alright, they don’t move a whole lot when you press them so I reckon there should be little to no worries that they might fail. The one thing I didn’t like was the odd position of the power button. Holding the phone on either hand & pressing the power button, you can’t help but sometimes accidentally press the volume buttons on the other side. To press the power button using your left hand index finger while holding the device with your left hand (how typical right-hander’s would hold a phone), you can’t help but sometimes place your thumb on the volume switch. I still think placing the power button on the top to be more logical.

I do however welcome the menu & back virtual buttons next to the Home key. Having those extra buttons helps with the overall UI of the device & frees up space on the screen for settings or an on-screen back button. App developers are free to use the extra space on the screen for showing other more useful data or having extra functions & features not available if there was only a single home button on the device.

TouchWiz… the Samsung front end touch interface & the overall Jelly Bean experience

To me, switching between the tiled apps interface & any form of front end launcher is not very intuitive. No doubt you are given the ability to customize your “launcher”, in this case, Samsung’s TouchWiz interface… but even after using the device for a while now, I still run into issues when I want to add an app shortcut or widget to TouchWiz or move an app around the apps menu. Typically I always touch & hold an app when I want to move something… that’s a pretty standard gesture. But on the Galaxy Note 2, it switches to the TouchWiz launcher! This bugs the hell out of me!! To move apps around, I have to tap the menu button & select Edit. Not very intuitive I think.

Perhaps it is better to just do away with the underlying app menu & use TouchWiz entirely for the device without limiting it to only the 7 screens that it has now!

Another thing that I find irritating is that the volume & vibrate controls in the OS settings is not universal! I can set the Note 2 to ring but not vibrate, however an app that has the vibrate function turned on will still vibrate. If I switch the phone to mute with vibrate alert on, my game app still plays sounds when I launch it. What is the use of the operating system audio settings if it is not universal! Very disappointing this!

On the flip side, there are things that I really liked about whole UI experience. For starters the notification menu is superb! Being able to control screen brightness, volume, various settings like WI-FI, GPS & mobile data in one pull down menu is excellent! You can even hold the power button & select airplane mode from there!

The forward facing camera also detects if you are still looking at the device, keeping the screen turned on for the user. Want to lie on the bed & view your phone in portrait mode without having it switch to landscape, the phone is smart enough to know that by looking at the orientation of your eyes. Very cool! There is also an entire menu in the settings dedicated to gestures or what you would call, “motions” on the Note 2. Looking at an SMS or a contact? Well bring the phone to your face & it calls the person you were looking at! Nice!

Overall usability

Depending on your point of view, you can pretty much say that an android phone is more customizable than an iPhone however it can be quite daunting to learn all the features & settings. This is where the simplicity of the iPhone excels in. For people who do not wish for complications & do not like to dive into menus & multi-layer levels of settings, get an iPhone. However to say that an android phone like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is NOT usable is not entirely accurate. It certainly takes a while to get use to it but once you do, you have a pretty powerful piece of computing technology in your pocket… if it fits!!