Further Android Adventures (Goodbye iOS ?)

So the Nexus 7 was an experiment, and one that for the most part was a success but one that left my iPhone relegated to being used for iMessage and music (and the odd call, once a month or so). Given that the 3GS is a bit long in the tooth, and needs a new case, screen and battery just to last the year I decided it was time to risk a jump further into Android and pick a Phablet that would let me just have the one device to carry around.

The Samsung Galaxy Note II was the device I settled on, and so after a wait for SIM cutting I have now turned off my iPhone and gone Android entirely. Whilst the move from the iPad to the Nexus 7 was relatively painless, this has been the same and also almost the exact opposite – which is confusing…

The tablet part of the phablet experience is excellent, and the Exynos CPU in the Note II is either far, far better than the Tegra 3, or the software has been lovingly optimised to make the best of the platform.

The Phone part of the phablet is the most fantastically horrid experience I’ve had on any Smartphone, and this is from someone who has had a Windows 6 mobile upgraded with custom ROMs: the litany of broken UI and downright opaque behaviour shows how immature the Android platform is when compared to iOS. Apple may have made a total PR disaster from the Maps switch last year, but that’s peanuts compared to complex and unhelpful Contacts app the Note II ships with.

Yes, yes: I know I can download another 27 Contact programs as that’s “What’s great about Android”, except that it’s not what is great when we’re dealing with core functionality that is overly complex and inconsistent. The base phone experience should be slick, possibly spartan, and leave room fro a healthy eco-system providing those specialist tweaks and twiddle the manufacturer shouldn’t have to waste time programming for the 0.8% of the userbase that wants those extras.

Instead, we get multiple front-ends called Phone and Contacts that are actually the same program if you click on tabs inside (eh ?), and then allow you to have multiple sources for Contact info (Work address servers, Google Mail, Google+, Linkedin, Skype, etc.) which you can Join together, until you want to combine more than 5 and then you simply can’t. This is without trying to work out how Google mail and Google+ are suddenly different sources on a Google OS device, and how to get the name in the main list to show right entry (hint: pick the entry with the name you want to see, then Join other entries to that account as the order of name selection is vitally important).

Sending SMS is relegated to a hideously un-designed program that appears to send part written texts when a call comes in (ok, that could have been clumsiness on my part getting used to the phone). The default Mail app has the properly genius Peak and Off-peak entries per-account so you can prevent work email from auto-intruding out of hours, but then a fixed colour scheme that makes it hard to see new email, and a list font size that’s fixed whilst the email font size can be altered, but if images are present in an email it will never show the full page, but instead half-zoom just so that you have to pinch out at every viewing.

Admittedly that is mainly Samsung-isms: the plain email client on the Nexus 7 didn’t have the peak hours, but worked brilliantly at viewing email (it was poor elsewhere, but all email clients suck).

So this is a Phablet, with a gloriously large and easy to view screen, and to the designers credit they have large and easily viewable icons so that it’s not an exercise in visual ability to use the device, but unfortunately that’s where they stopped. There is no way to tame the ‘large print’ UI and stupidly huge and clunky notification icons that make the top bar of my phone look like some random modern art installation. The lock screen dominates to such an extent that the music player can’t even show a full album art image, just in case I feel like typing my PIN code in with my nose. No, I’m not trying to be elitist about relatively good eyesight: what I’m bemoaning is the illusion of choice offered by Android: the things that matter are fixed, and instead I can have multiple variations of things that are pointless in the hopes I’ll expend my effort customising the ringtone for each and every contact I have, instead of offering a nice, simple and usable overall UI scaling factor.

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