I'm a Robot Now

Samsung Galaxy S4

I've been an Apple user for a long time. My first Apple device was, as I suspect was most people's my age, an iPod. From there I moved to iPhones, then a Macbook and Mac Mini, and an iPad. I've owned, sometimes briefly, an iPod Mini, 2 iPod Classics, an iPod Touch, every version of the iPhone through the iPhone 5, and an iPad 1 through 3. I like iOS devices. Generally, they do just work, with a minimum of setup and a minimum of technical know-how required; and if you do get deep into the settings and do some research to get the technical know-how to start tweaking things, they can do some even cooler stuff than they do out-of-the-box. They're solid hardware, it's solid software, there's a fantastic ecosystem supporting them.

Somewhere along the line, though, Apple's lost the magic with these devices. (By which I mean the iPhone, since the entire line is based around that flagship.) When the iPhone was first released, it had basically no competition in that area of the market. Blackberries were still around, but they weren't fun, and really only suited for business. There were Windows phones, but as with most of Microsoft's attempts to make hardware, they were kind of garbage. The iPhone represented a cool new option: we heard you like tech, so we put a computer and iPod into your phone so you can Google things while you listen to podcasts and play games and maybe call someone if you really want to use it as a phone, too. It was, to repeat a Jobsian phrase, a magical device.

Now, 7 years and 8 models later, it seems to me that the iPhone has stagnated. It's still a solid device, but it's lost its edge. While Samsung, Motorola, and HTC are trying for huge, impressive (if often useless in real life) innovations, Apple has fallen into a rut of minor improvements with each release, breaking things by trying to make them better (the changeover from podcasts being in the iPod/Music app to being in the Podcasts app, which is a crashy mess), and refusing to change things that ought to be changed (setting default programs, for instance). Again, this isn't to say that the iPhone is a bad device, because it's not, and it's probably the safest bet, especially if you're not a technically-inclined person, or just not interested in doing a bunch of tweaking to get an optimal experience.

While on vacation in Chicago in April, I cracked my iPhone 5 screen something fierce. (Cases, people, you need them.) I was going to live with it, but it just got worse and worse, to the point where it needed replaced. Apple doesn't cover cracked screens with their warranty; so getting it fixed (and not voiding the warranty by doing so) would be $200, or the price of a new phone. New phone it is.

I've been completely against switching away from iPhone because I'm so invested in the ecosystem, through apps and Apple-provided services. However, while thinking about whether I wanted the spanking new iPhone 5s or maybe finally try something else, a thought occured: everything I do on an iPhone can be replicated on almost any smartphone now. Apple has iTunes Match, Android has Google Music; I use a third party app (Pocket Casts) for podcasts, and the same one is available for Android; I use Chrome instead of Safari; I use Evernote instead of Notes; I use Dropbox, Google Drive, and Google+ instead of iCloud for everything but contacts. Switching software ain't no thing in this brave new world of cloud-based apps.

That makes it a question of hardware. As impressive as the guts of the iPhone 5s are, it basically puts it on par with a Galaxy S4 or HTC One for performance in most of the ways that you're going to notice. But the iPhone's camera isn't great, the screen's not great, the battery's not great.

I am now the owner of a Samsung Galaxy S4.

Right off the bat, when it comes to getting started with the device, iPhone blows it out of the water. I've had to do so much tweaking and editing of preferences and such, it's ridiculous. My other big complaint is entirely self-inflicted: muscle memory. I've been using the iPhone on-screen keyboard for 7 years; and almost all iOS apps are laid out the same, as far as where the back or menu buttons are and so forth. So because the S4 is wider, and the keyboard is consequently wider, I keep typing things wrong, and clicking the wrong button or tapping where no button exists. That said, now that I've got it more or less how I want it, and have downloaded and organized my essential apps, I've found it to be a decent experience so far.

Cons:

  • Bloatware: holy cow is there a lot of crap I don't want/need pre-loaded on this thing, and it can't be removed. Of the 16gb, just under 10 is left usable after Verizon and Samsung got there hands on it.
  • No visual voicemail: I've had the iPhone so long that I forgot how convenient visual voicemail is. You can add it, but they charge for it.
  • Google Play Store: complain all you want about Apple's closed system, but it's rare that an app gets into the App Store that doesn't work. And, unless you're using a super-old (relatively speaking) device, you're pretty much guaranteed it's going to work on your device. Further, Apple does a far, far better job of curating apps, which reduces the dreck you have to wade through to find what you've actually searched for.
  • Notifications: in general, iOS notifications are more informative than the default Android notifications. There's probably an app for that, though.

Pros:

  • Better battery life: on my iPhone 5, less than a year old, the battery was lasting about 6-7 hours under normal use (web, Twitter, texting, podcasts/music); the S4, under the same usage, is lasting about 10 hours.
  • Better screen: setting aside the question of size, the S4 screen just looks great. It's a really clear, sharp display with fantastic color saturation. A truly hi-def (for a phone) image.
  • Screen size: this isn't a make or break feature for me; in fact, the device being bigger could be a drawback, if you don't have largish hands. But getting more info on the screen is really nice.
  • Back and Menu buttons: not something I thought about until having them, these are really handy, and make navigating apps/the phone a more streamlined experience.
  • Customization: again, not a make or break feature for me. But being able to change what program automatically opens when I click a link or send an email, etc., is cool, as is changing the screen layout and so forth.
  • Widgets: I love widgets now. Never really thought about them before, but the ones I'm using (weather, Flipboard for news, calendar, Battery Life Reborn) are really handy.
  • App folders: not having to scroll to see all of the apps in a grouping is really convenient. It is slightly more annoying to create the groups (have to drag the icon up to "Create folder," then start stacking, instead of just stacking).
  • Google Now: it is widely acknowledged that Siri is verging on useless; Google Now is the opposite of that (and there's an iOS app, if you're into that kind of thing)

Also, I've found some cool apps (that may or may not be available on iOS:

  • Duolingo: this free app teaches you languages (Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Portguese; or English from any of those) through little mini-games. I've started the Spanish course, and so far it seems like it'll work if you stick with it.
  • MoboPlayer: it's basically VLC for your Android, plays any kind of video format. Handy for...well, you know why.
  • Cracked Lite: this is the Android version of their iOS Cracked Reader. It's the same content, but the app here is way more streamlined and functional. (And free.)

I think this doohicky's going to be alright. We'll see how things look in the longterm; and if it turns out that I just flatout prefer iPhone, there's always the iPhone 6.