I switched from Android to iPhone a few years ago, and with the recent advances in Android and some of the issues that have crept into iPhone, I wondered whether I should switch back. To help me decide, I got a Google Pixel 2 and used it for a week, with my iPhone turned off and put away. In the end, Android was much better than it used to be, but not good enough to woo me back. Here’s why.
I’m generally a pretty happy Apple user, and after a few years I’ve become able to run almost my entire life from an iPhone and iPad Pro. Especially in the last few months, when I’ve been traveling constantly, I’ve had no real need for my laptop. I’ve used it only a couple of hours. I’ve left it at home and used my iPad for weeks at a time. I love the portability, light weight, tight integration, reliability, and long battery life of the iPad; and with a minimal amount of gear I can do way more (my laptop’s power cord alone weighs more than a battery pack that can recharge my iPad Pro several times!).
But iPhone/iPad aren’t perfect. There are annoyances. Apple’s voice recognition isn’t great, and Siri often doesn’t do what I want. Apple’s walled-garden approach, which refuses to integrate well with non-Apple services like Google and Spotify, leaves something to be desired.
Perhaps most annoyingly, if I am forced to use only iPhone/iPad as I’ve been recently, there are two features/bugs/design flaws with iOS that mean a lot to me:
- Embedded web browsers. Most apps, like Google Inbox and Google Calendar, will open an embedded WebKit browser when you click on a link (as opposed to opening the link in Safari). This is a terrible user experience. Cookies, sessions, etc aren’t shared between Safari and these “internal” browsers. There’s no way to clear the cookies or history from them either. I generally try not to be too negative, but honestly, this sucks. If I could disable them I would in a heartbeat.
- Apple’s “share” mechanism in iOS is also really awful. Each app has its own actions in the “share” menu. In fact, it has two share menus, each with confusing and overlapping actions, many of which are hidden by default and have to be activated; others aren’t available when they should be; others are impossible to disable. For example: what’s the difference between “share to Dropbox” and “copy to Dropbox”; when I have a PDF open in Safari, why can I “Save in Google Drive” but when I click on a PDF link from Google Inbox and get the embedded browser why isn’t that an available option? It’s a mess.
So, after hearing a lot of Android stories about how awesome the voice recognition is, how well it integrates into all the apps and services I use, I decided to give it a try. Remember, I switched from Android to Apple mobile devices after a lot of experience with Android, and found iPhone immensely superior. So I knew the bar was set high.
I decided to buy a Pixel 2 and use it for a week. (There’s a two-week return policy, with a nominal restocking fee). I bought it from Best Buy; I use Verizon. All I had to do was put the SIM card in from my iPhone and it Just Worked.
I mostly use non-Apple apps and services, so migrating wasn’t a big deal. Only a few things I use are Apple-specific: the Reminders app, a couple of apps for Twitter and podcasts that aren’t cross-platform. All I needed to do was shut down my iPhone and start using my Pixel.
What’s Great About Pixel
There’s a lot to love about modern versions of Android, the Pixel hardware, and the combination of the two. A lot of the problems that drove me from Android a few years ago are fixed. In no particular order, here’s what I liked about the Pixel 2 running stock Android.
- The quality of the apps seems vastly improved. This was one of the problems with Android a few years ago: it felt like apps weren’t tested well enough on all the combinations of hardware, screen sizes, and so on. There were so many bugs and design issues. With only a few notable exceptions, I felt like most of the apps I used were just as good quality as on iPhone. Some were better! For example, Evernote’s user interface is a very close match for Google’s “Material Design” principles on Android, whereas on iPhone it feels pretty low quality; it’s not the same design on both platforms, but on iPhone it’s not really following Apple’s design principles and feels badly built.
- Most features I use on iPhone, even the small things, seem to have parallels in Android. For example, iPhone has “night shift” to skew the color temperature towards amber at night, avoiding harsh light late at night. Pixel has an equivalent feature. There’s also an equivalent to nearly every other feature I used, such as “do not disturb mode.”
- Android supports a custom lock screen message, which I regretted losing when I switched to iPhone. I’ve made custom wallpapers with my lock screen message (my contact information and an offer of a reward) on iPhone and iPad. Being able to simply type this into the settings again was nice.
- As compared to my iPhone 6S’s camera, Pixel’s camera is awesome. I noticed a huge difference, especially in high contrast and low light situations, where it took sharp pictures that captured detail in shadows that my eye could see, without washing out the bright spots. There is no comparison to my iPhone’s camera; it is so much better.
- Pixel supports NFC for two-factor-authentication devices, a big step to making strong, secure authentication a lot more convenient. iPhone doesn’t yet support this. I don’t have a device (such as a Yubikey) that supports NFC, but if I had a Pixel, it’s a no-brainer: I’d buy one ASAP.
- Apps generally don’t insist on getting permissions to a bunch of things upon installation. I only recall one app (HipChat) that did; others asked for access to things like contacts, location, and camera when they needed it. This is a big advance from a few years ago, when it felt like every app required access to my contacts, whether it was needed or not. And I knew that a bunch of those apps (I’m looking at you, LinkedIn) were going to do unsavory things with my data. This was honestly one of the biggest reasons I got disgusted with Android and switched to iPhone; it was great to see that it’s been fixed.
- Voice dictation is better. The Pixel recognized words a lot better than my iPhone. That said, iPhone is good enough, sort of, so although Pixel was better, it’s not a must-have.
- Sharing is generally a lot simpler and more sensible on the Android platform. “Sharing” is a general-purpose phrase here; it really means “inter-app communication,” because sharing is the usual way to do things like copy a file from one app to another. It’s a better experience on the Android.
- I was able to set up my default app preferences and get the Pixel to do things like take voice commands to play my music through Spotify while commuting in my car and connected via Bluetooth. This is impossible on iPhone, which only takes voice commands for Apple’s apps.
- There’s really no bloatware. This is a massive improvement from the Verizon Droid phone I used a few years ago, which was crammed with irritating bloatware that couldn’t be uninstalled. (No, I do not want an NFL game app, nor do I want Verizon’s crappy GPS/maps navigation…) The Pixel did have two or three Verizon apps on it, all of which were the expected crap quality, but were easily deleted. No problem. The rest of the apps that came preinstalled were standard Android and/or Google stuff.
What’s Not Good Enough Yet
Despite all the things that impressed me about using the Pixel, some things still weren’t great yet. Keep in mind, I’m not new to Android—a few years ago I was expert at it, although I’m certainly out of date now. Again in no special order, here are some notes I took during the week:
- The initial setup seemed broken. I think the phone was trying to download an OS upgrade. During this process, there were several apps that the Play Store kept notifying me about. These needed to be updated, but attempts to update them were unsuccessful; they just seemed to wait forever. Eventually, the OS upgrade (which was apparently running invisibly in the background) completed, the phone prompted me to restart, and everything got better. But this lingered for hours, and was pretty frustrating meanwhile because the notifications couldn’t be dismissed.
- 1Password exists on Android (whew!) but oddly, works quite differently. I don’t think Android has really given apps like 1Password appropriate ways to integrate into the UI. It works, but not great. For example, when you fill a password in an app, it seems to have no way to know which app, so you have to search for the app whose password you want to use, instead of it being suggested to you.
- Settings are confusing. I get that the Settings app is only system settings, not setting for all apps as iPhone uses. I know that most settings are in the apps themselves. But still, even with this much-reduced amount of stuff to do in the Settings app, it manages to be harder to use and much more confusing. There seem to be a lot more choices, but not the ones I want. For example: I use my Nokia Steel HR watch to get the notifications I care about, so I keep my phone on silent, with vibrations off. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to do that in the Android Settings app, but I concluded it’s not really designed for that. When you set the ringtone volume to silent, vibration is enabled. End of story, as far as I can tell. There are many such examples where individual settings are available, but it’s impossible to choose the combination of settings that I want. In contrast to the iPhone, it’s bizarrely much more complicated and much less flexible. Summary: design is hard, Android is not as well designed, period.
- I added a fingerprint to the fingerprint sensor. On iPhone, I use this for things like unlocking 1Password, authorizing purchases in the app store, and so on. I do not use it for unlocking the phone, for security reasons! But in Android, I don’t think I have that option. It doesn’t seem to allow me to add a fingerprint but not use it to unlock the phone. This is disappointing.
- Just like tens of millions of Android users, I too find the disparate volume settings super annoying. How frustrating to be in the car, for example, and give it a voice command: the bleep-bloop that signals that it’s ready for a voice command, and the corresponding one that signals it’s stopped, were deafening. But then the music that I asked it to play was so quiet I couldn’t hear it. This is just a messy, bad design. It needs to be fixed.
- Notifications and notification settings are a disaster. They’re really, really bad. Android tried to give more flexibility to apps to create a good notification experience, but they didn’t think it through well. They created a monster. Notifications are categorized, so each app can specify types of notifications it wants to send a user. And the user can enable and disable them individually. Sounds good; sounds like it gives the user control. It doesn’t. What it does is encourage bad behavior by app authors. This is a little counter-intuitive, but here’s how it works: in iPhone, an app can send notifications, period, and the user has control over allowing them. If an app sends useless or annoying notifications, they risk the user simply turning notifications off. So there’s an incentive in iPhone not to send spammy notifications. But in Android, notifications can be disabled per-category, so you can annoy your users and you know they’re just going to turn off that category. The default notifications controls, which are accessible from the notifications UI itself, encourage that. As a direct result (IMO), notifications are incredibly spammy on Android. All kinds of apps were sending me irrelevant notifications, trying to simply get me to use the app! To give a sense of this: built-in apps that I have no interest in using were nagging me to use them; Amazon nagged me to check out because I had unpurchased items in my shopping cart; and so on. The worst offender, by far, was Google Maps! It was unbelievable. It has something like 43 categories of notifications! I was getting notifications about amenities of nearby hotels, requests to upload photos, and on and on. It was one of the most obnoxious experiences I could imagine. I went through its settings and tried to shut off ones I thought I wouldn’t want, but they were all vaguely named, and I was afraid I was going to turn off something I would need when I was actually using the app for turn-by-turn navigation while driving! There’s really only one way to describe the notification design on Android: a total disaster. It really boggles the mind. Even after extensive effort I was unable to configure the phone to give me just the notifications I wanted and nothing more. And this, above all, matters a lot to me. I want my phone to tell me what I need to know, and nothing more. I cannot stand, and will not tolerate, a phone that distracts me.
- I was really disappointed at the quality of the Google apps, of all things. You’d think that in their flagship phone, their flagship apps would be flawless. They weren’t. I saw a bunch of really bad bugs on Google Inbox and GMail. I also saw several ways in which these apps are actually lacking features that have been added to their iPhone versions. It looks to me like Google’s strategy is to absolutely dominate the user experience on Apple (where all the premium-quality users are) so they build brand loyalty to Google instead of Apple, despite using Apple hardware. In any case, it’s visibly obvious that Google is investing a lot more in creating an excellent user experience on Apple’s ecosystem than they are on their own hardware and OS platforms. I expected better.
- I was surprised that Google Assistant isn’t as powerful as I thought it would be. I thought I’d be able to do things like give it voice commands to read my email while commuting in my car. But although I tried for a while to figure out how to do that, all I got was apologies that this wasn’t yet possible.
- Some features of the phone, or perhaps the OS, were available but not as good quality as I expected. For example, there’s a setting to enable automatic screen brightness adjustments, depending on ambient lighting. The purpose of this is to make the screen dim in low light and bright in bright light. I use this in iPhone and it’s awesome, but it’s disabled in the Pixel by default. I enabled it, but it didn’t work well. It kept adjusting the brightness in a flickering way: it’d get brighter (a lot brighter) for a second, then flicker dim for ten seconds or so, then brighter again. It wasn’t good enough to use, so I turned it off. That was disappointing.
Not everything is as clearly subjective. There are certainly things I could learn about Android, although I’m not new to it. But, after a week of pretty intensive usage, here are some opinions that I feel pretty comfortable expressing, even though there’s a chance I’m wrong.
- I didn’t find any way to create something as flexible and convenient as iOS’s widget screen. In iOS, if you swipe left from the home screen or lock screen, you get widgets that tell you about the weather, your upcoming calendar events, traffic updates, and so on. I use this a lot, and although it may be possible to build a home screen with these types of things in Android, it doesn’t seem possible to do nearly as nicely (my iOS widget screen scrolls, Android home screens are fixed-size) and it certainly would have been a ton of work. Maybe I’m missing something, but this seems like an area where iOS is much better. There is a “Google App feed” screen when you swipe left, but configuring it is massively confusing, and ultimately after I spent some time on it, I determined that it’s nowhere near as useful as iOS’s widget screen. After I disabled the “news” feed on it (I could not care less about that!), there was very little of value that I could enable.
- A lot of things I do frequently seemed to be much harder to access and activate in the Pixel. For example, I paired my Apple AirPods to the Pixel. They’re a great set of Bluetooth headphones; they’re not just Apple-specific. But turning them on seems to require opening up settings and navigating a few menus deep. I found a variety of other common things to require a few more taps and navigations in the Pixel. Connecting to a WiFi network, for example, was more laborious. Or enabling airplane mode while flying: this required more taps and swipes to find it in the menus from the pulldown quick settings.
- I like to disable visual effects such as motion. These feel slick at first, but often add load and cognitive stress. I can disable them in iPhone; I couldn’t see how to in the Pixel. As a result, I was continually subjected to user interface animations that I find tiring, long after the novelty wore off.
- The overall layout, including the typography design, is less clear. It’s more complicated in ways that I’m not best trained to communicate. The choice of font size, font weights, relative weighting, whitespace, and so on is not just unfamiliar: I’m pretty sure it’s provably harder to read and harder to use. I lack the language to say why, but it’s just unbalanced or something. And yes, I am pretty sure this is not just because I’m used to iPhone. I feel sure that this is an objective fact that could be proven somehow.
- Related to the previous point: Android displays a lot of information that is not necessary. Compared to the iPhone, it’s not as simple, in the sense that more complexity is displayed. For example, there’s a lot more “stuff” in the “status bar” at the top of the screen. It displays many items there whether they’re needed or not. (I don’t care whether my phone is in rotation-lock mode or not. Just don’t show me that.) As a result, all the icons at the top of the screen are not only less useful, but they have to be a lot smaller, so their visual designs are a lot less clear. Everything seems to look like everything else, and it’s difficult to scan your eyes and figure out things like “I’m connected to a cell network with good signal and my battery is not getting low and I’m on WiFi and it’s weak.” This is a specific case of my general complaint: the UI design is about 20% less clear and simple in many ways.
- The screen feels like it’s crimped in and held by a bezel that’s folded ever so slightly over its top. I’m not an expert in how these things are manufactured, but I feel like iPhone is aluminum bonded to glass, whereas Pixel seems to be glass that’s clamped by an aluminum band bent over its edge. It doesn’t feel seamless and one-piece.
Tie-Breakers on Pixel vs iPhone
But there were specific things that would be painful to migrate:
- Shopping lists! I really don’t use Apple’s app ecosystem much, partially because it’s not super great, and partially because I want to be free to migrate easily if I want to someday. (I use Google Photos, Inbox, Evernote, etc). But the one Apple app I use extensively is Reminders. And this is also literally the only app where I use iCloud sharing (which generally works very poorly, which is the reason why). I have a “Grocery” list that I share with my wife, so I can press the Siri button and say “Add milk to the grocery list” and I’m done. And this, this alone, this one thing, would be a royal pain if I used Android and my wife stayed on iPhone. Maybe there’s a solution but it is unlikely to be a Siri-compatible one.
- Twitter clients. I use Tweetbot, which is so good it’s hard to describe. It’s not available on Android. I use it on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I don’t want to give it up. I spent some time researching, and evaluated Fenix, Falcon Pro, and Flamingo. I ended up using Flamingo. But it’s not as good, and it doesn’t integrate cross-device like Tweetbot does. So when I opened up my iPad and checked Twitter there, it didn’t know that I’d read up to position X in my timeline on my phone, because I was using a different app there. I really do not want to use the default Twitter app; it’s terrible in comparison. I’d probably leave Twitter. (Ask me why I don’t have Facebook or LinkedIn installed on my phone).
- Podcasts. The Apple Podcast app is so terrible. I use Overcast, which is so amazing. But although there’s an Overcast Android app, it’s not the same app; it’s just a different app with the same name. I used Pocket Casts. But again, how am I going to keep my subscriptions and played/unplayed in sync across devices? A great sadness descended upon me.
- I use the Seconds timer for my workouts. It’s available on both iOS and Android, although the saved timers don’t seem to sync between them.
- I am not going to get rid of my iPad. It has all but replaced my laptop. This means that I’m going to carry a collection of power supplies, cords, and adapters with me. Thus, I already have micro-USB devices and Apple’s Lightning devices; adding a USB-C device is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s too much. I don’t want that many connectors and adapters.
I will say that I was surprised at how few apps I use on a regular basis were iOS-only. Generally, most of the high-quality apps and services that I use on my iPhone are available on Android, and work very well. Aside from those I just listed, the other notable point is the bugs in Google’s own apps.
Eventually, I decided that although I’d given it an honest effort and found it vastly improved over Android a few years ago, it was neck-and-neck in most areas. Pixel was better in some; iPhone was better in some. Each had their annoyances. All of the annoyances were bearable; none of the advantages was such a delight that I wanted it no matter what else I had to put up with.
And then I had the tie-breakers, such as syncing my grocery list with my wife, and needing to cope with yet more cables and adapters to be ready for USB-C.
So in the end, switching to a Pixel wouldn’t make my life better, and a few things would be worse. So, for now at least, I’m still yours, Apple. But don’t take me for granted: if you don’t open up your walled garden and make some improvements in the areas where Pixel is better, eventually it’ll be worth switching when some of the other annoyances get fixed. I’m going to upgrade my iPhone 6S to an iPhone 8, and that’ll last me another few years; by that time the case to ditch the Apple ecosystem could be very compelling.