The Ballad of an Android Fan…

The Ballad of an Android Fan...

I’ve talked before about my Motorola Droid. We’ve had a love/hate relationship over the last 18 months or so, but all good things must come to an end. Ours has a specific end date, as I am up for a new phone on August 12th. Unfortunately, none of the Android offerings on Verizon have me terribly excited, and in fact, I’m questioning whether an Android phone is my next step.

It started when I headed to Verizon Wireless’s site to check out their phone selection. The Thunderbolt, Charge, and Revolution are all 4G LTE, which is intriguing and a good future-proofing plan since I intend to buy on-contract. Unfortunately, the Revolution got booted from my list right away, since it uses Bing Maps and Search over Google. Not because I have anything against Bing, but it seems wrong to buy an Android phone and not have full Google integration. There are several reasons why I’m hesitant to pull the trigger on the Thunderbolt or Charge, but the biggest is that both are still on Android 2.2 (Froyo), MONTHS after Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) has been released. I understand it takes time, but this is a phone that I could potentially be using for the next 18 months. It seems like it’s a roll of the dice to determine how many software upgrades it may see over time.

And I’ve been an Android fan for long enough to know the answer to why these updates are going so sloooooowly. It’s the dreaded f-word: FRAGMENTATION! Nothing is uniform, every manufacturer feels the urge to slather the interface in custom skins, and then the next thing you know it’s 6 months from announcement to rollout of a software update. Worst of all, the only way to get a non-Blurred/Sense UI’d/etc phone is to buy from the Nexus series. Otherwise, you’re out of luck, hope you like bloatware and widgets! My Droid has had a lot of issues over the last year and a half, but it came with very little excess as far as apps, and no weird Moto skin, just pure Android. Apparently, that experience is now an endangered species. And I am not alone; Michael has a great breakdown on fragmentation past, present, and future in Android, and it is a must-read for anyone looking to understand Android’s Achilles heel.

I also have some concerns about the staying power of any Android phone for the long haul. Granted, my Droid may be a bit of an anomaly, but it was at one point the flagship Android device for Verizon. Fast forward less than two years, and not only is the Droid 1 barely hanging on, but it hasn’t seen a major OS update in almost a year AND the line is already on its third revision. Obviously, this is the nature of smartphones, but if I’m going to buy a phone on a two-year contract I want to know that the phone will still be functional down the line. Unfortunately, it seems like the general rule of thumb is to expect (maybe) one software upgrade over the life of the phone, and if it’s a lower end phone you may not even see that. Sadly, “likelihood to still be supported in 6 months” is not on a spec sheet, so it requires a bit more research into what’s under the hood on a given phone to figure out if there are any red flags that could prevent future updates. And as Mike pointed out, this uncertainty has no clear rule of thumb. His Droid Pro came out in the right window of time and supports Gingerbread, but it most likely will never receive an official update.

As much as I love Android, all those choices are a mixed bag, since it really leaves you at the mercy of a trifecta of forces; Google, the manufacturer, and the carrier all need to line up at exactly the full moon, but only if it falls on a Thursday at midnight, to approve any jumps in software versions. Plus, once you receive said update, it doesn’t mean you’re in the clear; apps like Netflix and Hulu+ are refined and restricted further, making it even tougher to determine what your phone can do.

So that’s my mini rant. I recognize that I could do some hackery and remove the skins, and there are no doubt third-party ROMs for Android 2.3, etc. However, my cell phone is my primary phone. I don’t have a home line, so I am far more reluctant to risk playing around with the phone. It’s one thing to play with my NOOKcolor; I use it as a tablet, and if I mess up and it takes a day or two to figure out how to fix it, that’s a lot more desirable than “Oops, I bricked my only way to make a phone call. D’oh!” And I recognize the nature of smartphones is that something newer and shinier is always in the pipeline. I don’t care if my phone is the newest and best, but I do expect it to remain somewhat current for at least a year or two. Not to bring the iPhone into it, but the 3GS is over two years old, the iPhone 4 is over a year old, and both are supported by Apple with consistent updates. Meanwhile, Android is plugging away with updates and features, but not all phones get all features, and some phones could get updates but don’t…you should not need a matrix to figure out your phone’s current and future abilities!

All this leaves me with quite the dilemma. What do I do for my next phone? Do I suck it up and stick with Android, which I generally like, but feel there’s been a lot of compromise, or do I head for greener pastures? I’ve narrowed it down to a few choices, listed below. Remember, I’m stuck with Verizon because we’re on a family plan. No guarantees I’m going to follow anyone’s votes, but let me know in the comments which you would choose!

1) Suck it up buttercup and buy a Thunderbolt. If it makes your pants sag, just buy a belt, and if HTC is too slow with the rollouts that’s what XDA is for.

2) Hang on for another month and wait for the Samsung Galaxy S 2.

3) Skip buying on contract, and hit up eBay. Android’s too fragmented to lock in for a 2-year contract.

4) Wait for the new iPhone…the grass is always greener on the Apple side…give in…

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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?

8 Comments on "The Ballad of an Android Fan…"

  1. Jamie Poster | July 22, 2011 at 4:02 pm |

    Carly — I understand where you are coming from in a huge way. If you add serious hardware problems to what you’re talking about in terms of the state of Android phones on Verizon (and in general), you have my story. Over the course of 10 months I had FOUR Droid Xs, all with different hardware problems. With the last one, and the fact that Gingerbread seemed to get buggier as time went by, I asked Verizon for an early upgrade. They said, and this is a direct quote, “we’ll do that for you but you can have anything BUT an iphone.” Jerks! I don’t remember ATT ever saying something bizarre like that.

    So, sick of Android problems I said “forget it” and went straight to eBay. Got my iPhone 4 (yes, I know there’s a new one coming…I’m sure I’ll be envious of everybody…) just two days ago and I’m — regrettably — much happier. 🙂 I say “regrettably” because I always felt a kind of moral superiority about using an android phone. Open source is more righteous, man! But, I’m glad that I sold out cuz it feels good to have a phone that works and the idea of taking one of their other lame choices (what do you want? bad battery life or bad battery life? your choice!) was just unthinkable.

    Good luck deciding. I submit a vote for #3 or #4. 🙂

  2. I have a Thunderbolt on Verizon, and I would advise against getting this phone.

    I have used a number of Android devices in the past, and one of my chief complaints about the OS is the fact that I see VERY erratic battery usage. In the case of the Thunderbolt, sometimes I pick up the phone and it is cool to the touch, and as such I note that the battery level is quite good for the time it has been off-charger. Other times, I’ll pick up the phone and not only is it not cool, it is almost hot to the touch. Consequently, I note a significant battery drain which is not corrected by using a task-killer program. A soft reset only fixes the battery drain about half the time. A battery pull generally does the trick, but the Thunderbolt battery cover is freakishly difficult to get off.

    This also begs the question of why a battery pull should even be necessary. I also have an iPhone 4 and I will go a MONTH without having to perform a reset. When I complained about the Android issues I was having to a Verizon store rep, he said that I should really be performing a battery pull every day and that it is not good to leave the phone on without a reset/pull for too long. WHAT?!?!?!?!

    Doing a reset of a computer or other computing device every day is so 1990. Heck, even my Windows 7 computers at home only get reset when they automatically download an update that requires a reboot. I think that in this day adage, it is silly to expect end-users to do that sort of thing every day.

    Back to the question you presented:

    I think your 2 viable options are to wait until September (hopefully) for the new iPhone to be released or the wait for the Motorola Droid Bionic to be released. I hate my Thunderbolt phone enough that that is what I am planning on doing. I’ll even have to do it off contract, but I am going to just suck it up and do it. That’s how much I dislike the Thunderbolt. However, I will say that since my local market went 4G LTE live, I am loving the LTE speed!

  3. Wow! I find it fascinating that it’s 3 of us, with different phones but similar complaints. Granted, this is the internet, and for every satisfied person proclaiming their device love there are 10 more complaining, since the unhappy customers are bound to be far more vocal. However, it doesn’t bode well, and validates my concerns about Android as my next phone. Gomotron, your experience is almost word-for-word like my coworker’s. He’s had a Thunderbolt for a few months and is not pleased. I want Android to succeed, but it needs a firmer hand at Google to make it happen.

    You know what’s worse…if you replace “windows mobile 5.0/6.0” or even “Palm OS”, you’ve got the same issues, circa 2006ish. The more things change…

    And for what it’s worth, my current plan is to get the next iPhone. Jaime, you and I can form the “Android traitors anonymous” club.

  4. Joel McLaughlin | July 22, 2011 at 6:46 pm |

    Buying an iPhone isn’t a good idea for the moment either with the current rumors. So what would I pick?

    Any HTC Android phone. I would consider the Thunderbolt mainly because Cyanogenmod 7 supports it, plus official gingerbread is probably going to drop any day but then I know your pain.

    My Droid 2 has only ever received one OTA update and the gingerbread update has been rumored since May. The only reason that it is late is probably because of the botched Droid X update. Many friends have said that they did not do a good job with the update and it’s VERIZON to blame for slowing them down mostly. Motorola has probably fixed the issues, but because the first 2.3 update for the Droid X was botched they are gun shy.

    I don’t think it’s “fragmentation” causing the issue anymore. I think it’s primarily the stupid skinz (Blur, Touchwiz and Sense) and carrier bloatware. Because it is open, they feel the need to modify it as they wish. Android is a carrier and manufacturer dream because they can put what they want on it and not have to worry as much about the core os. All of these things slow updates.

    Android was hardly the first for this. I remember Pocket PC devices that were horribly hobbled by old PocketPC 2002 and we were told by manufacturers that our device didn’t support it when the next device that had the new stuff had nearly the same hardware.

    Until these are treated like a computers they are, we will be stuck.

  5. Joel McLaughlin | July 22, 2011 at 9:41 pm |

    One more note with the Thunderbolt….it was among the next 15 phones that Netflix now works on as of this week. 🙂

  6. Joel,

    I would tend to agree with you that it is really a problem with the UI Skinning and bloatware that is added to the stock Android OS that seems to be the root cause of many if not most of the issues that we are seeing.

    I have a stock Motorola Xoom running Honeycomb and it has really been rock solid. I would say that I have been as happy with that device as I was with my iPad, although the iPad 2 has upped the ante. Once I get the 4G LTE modem upgrade for the Xoom, I think it will once again be neck and neck with the iPad 2 (each has their own strengths and weaknesses).

  7. Christopher Gavula | July 23, 2011 at 11:39 pm |

    You have quite a dilemma on your hands! I am a fan of the iPhone, but I also know it isn’t nearly as open as Android and that has been it’s strength and its weakness. I don’t think there’s anything about current rumors that would scare me away from an iPhone 4 or 5. You’ve been an Android fan for a while now so that kind of jump may be a challenge. I will say however, my iPhones have all been pretty rock solid, despite being on the AT&T network! I don’t have the lock ups and erratic behaviors my friends on Android have, but I also agree that it is likely skinning that is causing the problems, so I’d probably avoid anything that wasn’t a vanilla Android device. I’m not a big fan of using tweaked or modded OSes from XDA either because the carrier can always claim they won’t support you.

    WHatever you choose I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it work for you! Me -I’m looking forward to continue to use my iPhone 4 and I’m looking forward the upcoming iPhone 5. The Apple ecosystem has worked very well and reliably for me and that stability and reliability has outweighed any desire for more moldable platform or a more open platform. Good luck!

  8. I am nearly the same boat as you – my Eris can be upgraded on August 18th.

    First of all, I rooted the Eris in May 2010, after it was clear that the official 2.1 update was severely buggy, and I have not even considered going stock. Right now I am running a very stable CM7 Gingerbread custom ROM, and the phone works better than stock, so I’m satisfied for now.

    I am going to do this:

    – see if and what Apple releases in the fall. I have met too many people who have shattered the backs of the iPhone 4, so I will not buy an iPhone with a glass panel back (unless Apple makes them gorilla glass or something.) I’m fine with moving to iOS5, now that Apple has what looks to be a capable notification system.

    – if Apple releases nothing, or it’s just an iPhone 4 with a faster CPU, I will see what Verizon has out for Android phones in September and go with one of those. Right now I have no reason to go with LTEm as it is not in my area yet, and I am worried a bit about the battery usage of the Thunderbolt. Of all of the phones out now on Verizon, I would probably go with the Incredible 2.

    I do have an “ace in the hole” – my wife’s and son’s phones on our family plan will also be upgrade-eligible, and neither has any reason right now to upgrade their phone (my son’s was recently replaced at full-price when his old phone stopped working, and my wife is happy with her current phone.) So, if Apple does release a less fragile phone next year, I can always use one of those upgrades if I am unhappy with the Android phone I bought this summer. However, that’s looking way too far ahead.

    Anyway, I am hoping that Apple will release an aluminum-backed phone this fall.

    I do like Android, but I have the same concerns that you have about the terrible long-term support of the handsets in the 20 months since Verizon released the Droid and the Eris.

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