(By Jay McGregor)
“Android’s strong community of developers and tech enthusiasts really drive the platform. The open-source nature of Android allows them too, and, as a result, everyone benefits. There’s a large rooting (gaining administrator-level access to a smartphone in order to customise the software) community, from which genuine alternative Android platforms like CyanogenMod, a variant of which (CyanogenMod 11s) was shipped with the popular OnePlus One smartphone.“
The deluge of new Android devices has finally passed. Now, which one to buy?
If you’re not a day-one buyer, there’s a good chance you’re up to your neck in smartphones and wondering which one to back. Aside from the frankly terrifying choice of devices available, there’s also an arguably more important choice in operating system.
Apple’s iOS? Google’s Android? Or Microsoft’s soon to be released Windows 10 Mobile? As part of a three-part series, this buying guide will summarise the best attributes of each OS and some of their pitfalls. Today, I’m looking at Android.
With Android, it’s a numbers game. Plain and simple. You want choice in devices, Android gives you that. Sure, it’s a bit of a minefield and you might come across some brands that you’ve never heard off, or incredibly convincing fakes that run a fully working version of Android (no counterfeiter has managed to successfully load a dodgy version of iOS on to a device yet).
But the choice still exists. And within the top vendors, there are some excellent devices. HTC, Sony, Samsung, Xiaomi, LG, OnePlus, Moto, Huawei and others make up the best of Android’s manufacturers. There’s an entire market here of competitors trying to outdo each other, that’s before they even take on the likes of Apple or Microsoft.
Windows users also have some choice of vendor, with companies like HTC loading Windows 8 on to its 2013 flagship: the One M8. Although, the choice is nowhere near as vast as the Android options.
Android provides a ready-made, open-source and affordable platform for manufacturers who need an OS for their devices – hence why there are so many different devices on the market. This is why companies like OnePlus can enter the market with a high-end smartphone, but for super cheap, and be so disruptive and successful in a short space of time.
For you, the customer, that means you’ll always have plenty of choice whilst staying within the same ecosystem. It also means you get some awesome freebies like Sony’s PS4 remote-play feature on the Xperia series.
User interface offshoots
Multiple devices also means multiple versions of Android that manufacturers decide to slap on to their handsets – often done to differentiate their device from the competition. There are some genuinely attractive skins available today, including Sony and LG’s respective flasgship ranges. Samsung and HTC have made huge strides in revamping their skins to something far more useable. With the latter offering some excellent services like Blinkfeed and Sense Home, which automatically changes the apps on your homescreen depending on your location.
The wealth of manufacturers and vendors using Android to power their devices means lots of competition and innovation, which leads to ever more distinct offshoots designed to keep people using that particular brand.
Android leads the pack in terms of the sheer number of apps available. But the gap isn’t as wide as it once was. Android has 1.5 million apps available for download, whereas iOS has 1.4million – with Windows lagging behind on 340,000 (figures accurate as of May 2015).
Both platforms have good exclusives, whether its Instagram Hyperlapse on iOS or WhatsApp Web on Android.
It’s not just about numbers, however. iOS tends to get newer apps first, whereas Google Play has an abundance of third-party apps for every activity you could imagine – this is thanks to a strong Android community that’s deeply enthusiastic about modding….
Community and customisation
Android’s strong community of developers and tech enthusiasts really drive the platform. The open-source nature of Android allows them too, and, as a result, everyone benefits. There’s a large rooting (gaining administrator-level access to a smartphone in order to customise the software) community, from which genuine alternative Android platforms like CyanogenMod, a variant of which (CyanogenMod 11s) was shipped with the popular OnePlus One smartphone.
Make no mistake, this is in-depth stuff. But if you decide to start tinkering with your Android smartphone, then the help, information and tools are all freely available. Why would you want to root your handset? Popular reasons typically include installing an alternative version of Android, removing bloatware pre-installed by the carrier/manufacturer or over-clocking the hardware to get more performance out of the device.
Google Now and Zeroth
Google Now is Android’s personal assistant, designed to automate tasks and respond to questions – just like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana. But what sets Google Now apart is what it calls ‘cards’. These are unprompted nuggets of information that are relevant to your life and presented to you at necessary moments. For example, if you have an event in your diary, a card will pop-up telling you it’s coming up, how to get there and how long it will take.
This is the true power of Google’s personal assistant, integration with other Google services (and now third-party apps) to give you information when it’s relevant. One of my favourite automated processes is receiving an e-ticket for a plane, Google automatically creating an entry in my diary and, on departure day, having all relevant flight information (including delays and traffic to airport) pushed to me.
Another exciting entry into the personal assistant arena is Qualcomm’s ‘Zeroth’ project that will come with its Snapdragon 820 processor later this year. Most Android flagship devices use a Qualcomm processor and will use the latest 820 in their 2016 devices.
In short, Zeroth acts as an ‘active’ personal assistant. For example, it will recognise the best manual settings when taking a picture and tweak them accordingly. It can also recognise objects and faces, so it will tag your pictures appropriately and index them. If you search for ‘pictures of me at the beach’ in your gallery, Zeroth will know what you and the beach look like, so it will find those images.
Android does have its undeniable drawbacks. In particular, the extremely slow and stuttered roll-outs. Google’s Nexus range usually is the first to receive – or launch with – the new OS, but even then users have complained about the update not arriving. Because manufacturers have to incorporate the update into their own UI, which adds a further delay, some have complained about waiting months before they receive the update. This becomes a much bigger issue when an update is needed to fix bugs – as was the case with Lollipop 5.1 – and users have to wait months to iron-out frustrating problems.
Whilst manufacturer rebrands are generally well thought-out endeavours, the same can’t be said for carrier rebrands. Sony, HTC, LG have huge design budgets with large R&D outfits – not so with carriers. The result is carrier-related bloatware and icon changes that reflect the carrier’s image.
Jay McGregor is a journalist who writes for The Guardian, Forbes, TechRadar and is a correspondent for BBC’s James Hazel show. Follow on Twitter @_jaymcgregor,Instagram @that.review.show