Android is Google’s mobile operating system. Like Apple iOS, its main competitor, Android powers smartphones and tablets with a simplified, app-based user experience. It is also the most-used mobile OS on the planet, largely because it is open source, and Google makes Android available to manufacturers for free. Also, because it is a darn fine OS.
On a phone, Android shines. While it may lack some of the polish of iOS, Android makes up for it with flexibility and openness you won’t get from Apple. It also gets the best Google has to offer, from a seriously full-featured Google Maps to a sweet Gmail implementation.
However, many manufacturers spoil Android by adding bloatware that slows everything down and gets in the way. Avoid custom layers like MOTOBLUR (Motorola), Sense UI (HTC), and TouchWiz (Samsung). They are not improvements. Look for a phone with plain, vanilla Android to get the best user experience.
Manufacturers monkeying with the UI is an annoyance, but the biggest problem you face when buying an Android phone is long-term support. For a variety of reasons, updates come from the phone provider, not from Google. That means that if you want to upgrade most Android phones, you are at the mercy of Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, etc.—and most cell phone providers seem to drop support for a device as soon as a newer one comes along.
Long-term support matters not just because you want the latest and greatest version of the OS, it matters for security updates, bug fixes, and new features. For example, I’m really looking forward to being able to encrypt my files, which is coming in the next big upgrade. But if you buy your Android phone from your cell phone company, any upgrades will come long after the code is released by Google, if the upgrades come at all.
That’s why, if you go with Android, get a Nexus. The Nexus line of phones are sold—and updated—by Google, which means you will always be the first to get updates, and you will get updates until your device becomes truly obsolete. For example, I bought the Nexus One when it came out in January 2010. Well over a year and a half later, I’m running the most-current version of Android for smartphones (2.3.4). In fact, I think the newer Google phone, the Nexus S, may be the only other phone that is actually up-to-date. Most other phones—even much newer phones—are months or years behind.
Yes, a Nexus costs more up front. Over the life of the phone, though, you can save money over a subsidized phone plan.
If you can’t bring yourself to pay for a phone up front, the second-best bet is probably a Motorola phone. Google bought Motorola recently, and while the deal isn’t final, yet, it sounds like Motorola will basically be the mobile hardware arm of Google. The Motorola Droid 3 or the Motorola Droid Bionic (depending on whether you want a physical or touchscreen keyboard) are both top-notch Android phones that run the latest version of plain vanilla Android.
There are other good phones out there, but only a Nexus comes with a clear upgrade roadmap. The Motorola phones are less certain, but it’s likely they’ll be on the premium upgrade path once Google takes over.
On tablets (or slates, if you like), Android is a different story. Google was apparently caught napping by the success of the iPad running Apple’s smartphone operating system, iOS. Now, more than a year later, Android 3.0 (“Honeycomb”) is an impressive tablet OS. Unfortunately, the apps are slow to adapt. While you will love using Gmail and Evernote in Honeycomb, there are few other tablet-optimized apps available. Instead, you will have to put up with phone-sized apps stretched out to the tablet’s proportions, and that fail to take advantage of that form factor.
For example, here is Twitter running on an iPad 2 (left) vs. the Galaxy Tab 10.1 (right):
As you can see, Twitter for iPad takes advantage of the extra room to show previews of websites, videos, pictures, profiles, and more, without leaving the app. In Android, you have a screen full of updates, but you are bounced out of the app to the browser if you want to follow any links. It makes for a fine experience on a phone, but a frustrating one on a tablet.
The OS may have caught up with the competition, but the ecosystem is still in beta.
This is also true—unfortunately—for many of Google’s own apps and web apps. I think this is why we haven’t seen a Nexus tablet, yet. When we do, that will mean Google thinks Android is really ready for prime time on tablets. And not before.
I recently got a chance to spend a few weeks with an Android tablet. As nice as the hardware is, the tablet is sitting in my desk drawer after only a few days. If I want to do anything but check email, I’d rather do it on my iPad.
On phones, Android started slow but caught up fast. When I bought my Nexus One—one of the “second generation” of Android phones—Android still lacked essential apps. Now, I have access to everything I would if I had an iPhone, and many of the apps offer more or better features as developers innovate differently on each platform.
(Games are one area where Android remains decades behind iOS, but since this is a law practice blog, it didn’t seem important to compare games. But seriously, there are some amazing games for iPad, and nothing much for Android.)
You can expect a similar growth curve for tablets. Android will catch up fast once it gets going, but catching that curve probably means waiting a year or more while the ecosystem catches up to the OS. Wait Get an iPad now, and enjoy it for a year—or more—while Android matures. Wait until Google releases a Nexus Slate (or whatever it calls the thing), and get one of those.