On occasion, I get letters suggesting that maybe we’re being too favorable to Apple here on my radio show, The Tech Night Owl LIVE. But I disagree. I have lots of good things to say about the company, of course, but I criticize them often. And, as you’ll see from my feature on a popular Android smartphone, I’m also very interested in seeing how other platforms are faring.
Meantime, on this week’s show, we featured veteran Mac developer Lloyd L. Chambers, who worked on such apps as DiskDoubler in the 1990s, and explains why he finds “core rot” in OS X. Talk about criticizing Apple, and he explains the problems he’s encountered with iTunes, the Finder and general system reliability.
Whether you agree with Lloyd or not, some of his points might serve as a wakeup call. He feels that Apple is so enamored of system eye candy that they’ve forgotten some of the key fundamentals about making a reliable OS that can cater to the needs of not just consumers, but content creators who depend on Macs for their work.
You also heard from outspoken commentator Jim Dalrymple, Editor in Chief of The Loop, who covered the state of Apple, and how Wall Street said Apple was in deep trouble despite the fact that the company had a record quarter for sales and profits.
From Avram Piltch, the Online Editorial Director of Laptop magazine, you discovered the 13 tech terms that are outdated, and I expect some of you disagreed with what he says. Avram also discussed his mixed review of the Microsoft Surface Pro tablet.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Richard Smoley, author of “Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History.” “Nostrodamus…channeling…Atlantis…divination. Most serious people consider such topics nonsense. But look again. Writing with intellectual verve and a deeply critical mind, religious thinker Richard Smoley explores and reconsiders the supernatural in history and today.” Smoley is a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, and was a long-time editor of Gnosis Magazine.
Coming February 17: Gene and Chris once again explore the huge numbers of ongoing paranormal events in Pennsylvania with investigator Stan Gordon, author of such books as “Really Mysterious Pennsylvania: UFOs, Bigfoot & Other Weird Encounters Case-book One.” During this episode, you’ll hear about reports of small spherical UFOs that are sometimes even seen flying in people’s homes.
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt — Now with New Design! We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show, along with a redesigned storefront.
Although I have played with Android powered gear from time to time, and endured those loud, irritating “Droid Does” TV spots for several years, I felt it was high time I spend extended face time with what has become the world’s most popular mobile OS. It stands to reason that it can’t be all bad; otherwise why are so many people using it?
I might have known where this would go, considering that Windows also has a huge customer base, and we all know its flaws. But at the end of the day, Microsoft’s OS also meets the needs of hundreds of millions of people. It powers banks, airline reservation systems, point of sale systems in stores and restaurants, and lots more.
The most significant difference between Android and Windows, however, is that the former is free. Handset makers sign up and can download copies of the appropriate software without paying license fees. Google doesn’t receive a penny from Android, although they do earn money from targeted ads that pollute some of the apps and services on an Android device. But they also have to put up with the decisions of some handset makers, and wireless carriers, to change things to suit their needs, because they have ceded control of the finished product.
This lack of control means that some Verizon Wireless handsets may set Bing as the default search engine orather than Google, the unkindest cut of all. On the Samsung Galaxy S III I’m currently evaluating with the eager cooperation of the manufacturer, the Internet browser app’s home page is configured for Yahoo! And, as you know, Yahoo!’s search engine is nowadays powered by Bing, a plus for Microsoft. It’s also true that Microsoft earns a ton of money by licensing various technologies to Android handset makers.
In the scheme of things, The Galaxy S3 is the largest selling mobile handset outside of the iPhone. Compared to an iPhone 4s (but less so with an iPhone 5), the thing appears positively huge. And no wonder! The display size is 4.8 inches, although Samsung’s display is widescreen, so the case is not much wider than an iPhone. Compared to my workhorse iPhone 4s, it’s somewhat taller, but also thinner. But it still slides comfortably into my pants pocket.
While construction quality is good, it’s also extremely conventional and not so different from other smartphones. The gorilla glass face seems relatively resistant of scratches, and doesn’t smudge from fingerprints near as easily as an iPhone. You can also remove the plastic rear of the case to replace the battery, SIMM card, and add an SD card for extra storage. To some, that flexibility is a huge plus, though I expect prying off the case over and over again might cause some damage.
Due to its size, however, the sort of one-handed operation of which the iPhone 4s and iPhone 5 (with its four-inch display) are capable isn’t possible with an S3. Well, unless you have really large hands. That may explain why, despite rumors to the contrary, Apple probably isn’t inclined to build that alleged iPhone Math, although the success of larger smartphones is undeniable. There’s also the potential fragmentation to the iOS if Apple released a new form factor.
The critics are mostly right about the Samsung’s 1280×720 AMOLED display. It’s beautifully sharp and relatively bright, except in sunlight, where the iPhone’s LCD display fares better. At 306 pixels per inch, it’s technically “Retina,” although you can see the tiny pixels that make up the image if you look real close. Text is razor sharp, very similar, in fact, to Microsoft’s ClearType.
Now some have compared the iOS versus Android wars to Apple and Microsoft, and when you compare the two platforms, you can understand why. As I wrote the other day, if Microsoft hadn’t embraced Metro and tiles with Windows Phone, their mobile OS might just have ended up very similar to Android. So while the iOS is relatively lightweight, smooth and elegant, Android is rough and somewhat bloated with features most of you will never need, but it’s also reasonably competent at most tasks.
Certainly someone experienced at the iOS will be able to navigate through the fineries of Android with most basic skills intact. You will also find loads of slide out menus invoked by the tap and hold function, which mirrors the predilection of Windows for context menus. You’ll also find loads of complicated settings on both a system and app level.
If you are a power user and want to fine tune your handset to the nth degree, you will probably appreciate all the choices Google and Samsung have given you in the S3. There are long settings menus everywhere, even in the Phone app. On the other hand, if you just want to get things done, but need to make just a few changes from the default settings, you may become frustrated real fast.
Consider, for example, my attempts to silence the audible notifications in Gmail. I went through the Android Email app, and was reassured the audible alerts were set to “Silent.” But I still kept hearing a temple bell whenever a Gmail message arrived. However, there is yet another source to check, and that’s the dedicated Gmail mail app where, sure enough, there was yet another audible warning selection that I had failed to consider. I think it’s gone now.
Android’s notification system, although highly praised and a main source of inspiration for the Notification Manager in the iOS, has become cluttered and irritating. The status bar, normally used to show carrier and Wi-Fi signal strength, battery life, the time and the network you’re on, also displays tiny icons representing various email, social networking and messaging apps when notices await. So you end up with a crowded mess reminiscent of those endless system trays in Windows. In passing, the similarity to the message text and style of Windows status messages is also telling. Can you say “Please Wait”?
Swipe down from the status bar, and the Notification window emerges in a ragged window shade fashion to display your various notices. This lack of fluid motion reveals a key problem with Android, and that it’s a resource hungry OS that requires lots of CPU and graphics horsepower to get going reasonably fast. Whereas movements in the iOS are generally fast and smooth, although slower on older iPhones, Android is a mixed bag.
As a flagship phone, the AT&T version of the Galaxy S3 seems powerful enough, with a reported 2GB of RAM and a Qualcomm dual-core processor. Yes, scrolling and swiping may sometimes appear smooth, but far too often the movement is abrupt or ragged, as if the OS and graphics hardware can’t quite settle down. Or perhaps Google’s Android developers need to work harder to make the system run more efficiently and smoothly. This is the sort of thing that Apple figured out long ago. But it’s also true that Android has to support loads of different handsets with various specs, so there have to be compromises, as there are with Windows.
The unit Samsung sent me was loaded with an OS that’s one release behind, Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean. Version 4.2.2, an enhanced version of Jelly Bean, is due this month, but it’s hard to know when or if Samsung and AT&T will roll out that update to existing users. Each has to optimize the code for their needs, and, once they get your money, it’s not that AT&T has any incentive to give you an upgrade — except to the S3’s successor when it arrives later this year.
Worse, hundreds of millions of Android handset owners are still using far older versions of the OS, which means they could be left vulnerable in case of a malware outbreak. Indeed, many Android users order up security software from the Google Play Store to buy an antivirus app, such as Norton Security & Antivirus and avast! Mobile Security. The resemblance to Windows is ever more apparent.
I opted for AntiVirus Free, from AVG because it is, as the name implies, free, and has gotten high ratings and over fifty million downloads. However, as with many Android apps, there are premium features (in this case being able to update the virus database, and activate some antitheft and identity theft features) that can only be unlocked if you pay a license fee. Regardless, being cautious on an Android device is the proper approach to take.
Now as part of this extended evaluation, I decided to attempt to use the Samsung S3 as my primary mobile handset, so I checked the Google Play Store to see if I could duplicate all or most of the iOS apps I use. Fortunately, my tastes are closer to information than games, so I was reasonably successful in finding the ones I wanted.
But don’t expect an Android version of an app to always mirror the iOS version. Android developers have to cater to customers who are using a variety of hardware, with different OS versions, and thus their software may not have the latest and greatest features. The interfaces may also be scattered, and finding features with which you’re familiar on the iOS versions may be difficult. The WordPress blogging app is a key example, where reading a post and actually editing it are accomplished in separate screens, and the process of pushing an update takes you to yet a third screen.
You may also want to replace some of the standard Android apps with third-party alternatives. Take Email. Please! Compared to Apple Mail, it comes across as rough and even somewhat amateurish. I even confirmed a curious bug where, if you check a message you Sent from your Android device on another platform, such as a Mac or a PC, the text in that message is duplicated. Really, but Samsung informs me that they have confirmed the problem, and sent it on to their R&D people to resolve.
After experimenting with several email apps, I settled on InoMail, which is available in both paid and a slightly feature-limited free version known as InoMail Lite. Typical of many Android apps, InoMail also includes a widget, so you can have a unified inbox display your newest messages appear on its own page, with space to add extra app icons. I found this to be a convenient way to keep tabs on incoming messages, which I can access directly from the widget; that step takes you to the app itself. But the best part of InoMail is that the developer, InoGuru, developed an interface that fairly closely mimics the look and feel of Apple Mail. That, itself, is a revelation on the Android platform, and takes this little app above and beyond the often pedestrian feel of many of the offerings in the Play Store.
So far, I have spent several days attempting to configure the S3 as a workable alternative to my iPhone. In large part I succeeded. It paired successfully with the Bluetooth system in my Honda, and the connections and audio quality are quite good. When it comes to performing the tasks I expect of a smartphone, the Samsung clearly gets the job done, but in a way that really isn’t superior to the iOS, although I have to admit that I do enjoy the larger real estate offered by the 4.8-inch display.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I will abandon the iPhone. I remain frustrated by the convoluted way in which the Android Internet browser handles bookmarks, but it’s good to know that there are workable alternatives out there, including a real version of Chrome that syncs with the copy of Chrome on your Mac or PC. A third party app, such as Eltima’s SyncMate, can be used to sync your contacts, calendars, and even your stuff in iPhoto and iTunes.
More to the point, there are features here and there that Apple could emulate and improve upon for future versions of the iOS. Let’s just start with the ability to organize all your apps in alphabetical order, and to set a default app for a specific function. Are you listening Apple?
Update 1: After a little over a day of perfect operation, InoMail became extremely flaky, becoming unable to connect to some of my email accounts. Removing and recreating the accounts didn’t help, and all settings appear to be correct. Indeed, InoMail, as with other Android email clients I’ve tried, will check the settings before activating an account. I’ve written to the developer for troubleshooting advice. Meanwhile, I’ve been able to benchmark downloads exceeding 44 megabits on AT&T’s LTE network in the Phoenix area, but, probably as a consequence, battery life seems somewhat inferior to the iPhone.
Update 2: Inomail’s Face-book page has a report from another user of the Samsung S3, reporting a similar problem with connecting to the email server for two email accounts. I’m concerned, however, that the report dates back to January, but there has been no response, yet, from the developer.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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