Ten Days with Android & the Samsung Galaxy S III



I’ve been an iPhone user since the first day it was possible to be one in Singapore. I love the platform, but I’ve been intrigued for awhile now by the larger-screened Android devices that I see every day on public transport here. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these enjoy greater acceptance and penetration in Asia than elsewhere in the world. The comments thread that begins here on an Asymco post are quite enlightening, for further reading on the Korean market.

The short version of those insights, from memory: the Korean market is heavily dominated by Samsung, which predominantly makes Android devices. Koreans (and other metropolitan dwellers in areas of low urban crime must fall into this category — e.g. Singapore, Tokyo) spend a lot of time commuting on public transport. Large screen phones are more suitable for information consumption than tablets in such situations, where one stands in a crowd and holds a handrail; in some cases a single session may last 1-2 hours. An interesting phrase in one of the comments called Koreans “diligent information sponges”. It’s hard not to imagine a face glued to a large 4.8″ screen, hoovering up the day’s news and social media updates on the way to work. Games and movies are also better — I see many a Chinese drama series being watched on large phone screens whenever I take the subway. My theory is that personal security concerns may deter commuters in some cities from being fully immersed in such devices. I’d love to hear more opinions on this.

More so than for users who drive or walk or have shorter commutes, where typical smartphone sessions throughout a day are counted in minutes and not hours, the impracticalities of a large screen are tolerated here. Women I’ve spoken to say they wouldn’t mind at all if the next iPhone had a screen that was as big as or nearly as big as the Samsung Galaxy S III (4.8″). They ‘can’t put the iPhone 4S in their pockets anyway’. The Galaxy Note seems impractically big, even to me, but I see many women here on a daily basis who appear to enjoy using it. The difficulty of one-handed operation does not seem to be a deal-breaker for the Singaporean/Korean/Asian user.

So having managed to resist the urge to buy an unlocked, off-contract Galaxy S II a year ago at full price, just for research, I recently found myself fixated on the idea of getting the new Galaxy S III at a subsidized price as my contract comes to an end. Note that my first reaction to the phone was amusement, followed by dismissal. Their launch presentation was absurd, and had more than a couple of WTF moments (for example, one of the presenters slipping and using the word ‘bizarre’ to describe it). But within two weeks, I’d convinced myself I should get one. I don’t know how this always happens to me. I figured with 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, Android was finally ready for prime time.

It’s been 10 days. Here’s what I’ve experienced.

Almost immediately, I noticed that battery life wasn’t what it’s been promised to be. Android gives you plenty of ways to break down the battery meter (and plenty of ways to have a nervous breakdown watching stats). You can see exactly what percentage of power consumption is going to the screen, the cellular radios, applications, and so on. I discovered that my phone wasn’t going to sleep when the screen was turned off. It was actively trying to do something, but I didn’t know what. So I shelled out 4 bucks and bought BetterBatteryStats, which promises to identify what those behind-the-scenes “wakelocks” are. If you’re thinking that this is already sounding like more trouble than you want from your phone, out of the box, you’ll know how I felt coming from the iPhone.

It turns out that it was a problem with Google Backup, a feature similar to how the iPhone will back itself up to iCloud over Wi-Fi each day when you plug it in to charge; except this phone was trying to do it all the time, apparently even over 3G. I turned the feature off, and things seemed to get a little better. The next big battery drain problem came from a background process associated with switching networks to find a good signal in areas of low coverage, except this was happening everywhere. My “Cell Standby” usage was at 30%, when Android users on other phones see numbers closer to 5-10%. Because I’ve encountered this complaint consistently from other Galaxy S III owners on forums, it could be a design or software fault.

I then spent another day reading up about a feature called Fast Dormancy, which may or may not have been the problem, depending on whether or not my phone provider has optimized their network for it — all of the above a moot point, I eventually found, because Samsung disabled the secret menu option in Android that would have allowed me to turn it off like some American users found was improving their battery life. Oh yes, I spent a few hours messing around with these secret menus too. Remember typing in stuff like *#*#49090** into feature phone dialers, pre-iPhone? That’s still around.

There also also many apps you can get for optimizing your battery life. Some seem to be nothing more than placebo task killers; others are more intelligent and can disconnect the mobile data network in intervals to save battery life. Unlike iOS, where push notifications are delivered via a single Apple-managed connection that’s probably kinder to battery life, many Android apps have to run in the background and do periodic checks. New tweets and emails, for example, can only be set to come in at 15, 30, 60 minute intervals, depending on the app.

The built-in keyboard has pretty bad word prediction. You can install third-party keyboards. I’ve tried like four. They all have their own flaws. Don’t like the way the homescreen works? You can install third-party launchers. I’ve tried like four. You can guess they all have flaws. Android defenders point to this ability as a key strength. I’ll admit I had a little fun. I used to waste a lot of time on my PCs futzing around and hacking solutions to problems. But it’s far from optimal for most users. Speaking of touch controls, capacitive buttons are as bad as I’ve heard they are. The “Back” button area is extremely easy to nudge when holding the phone in landscape position, such as when you’re watching a film or playing a game. Even in portrait orientation, if you hold the phone tight, it’s easy for the fleshy bit of the palm under your thumb to creep over the edge and trigger it, exiting you from your current screen.

Charging: The phone charges via a standard Micro USB cable, but when connected to a USB power source such as a computer, it charges very slowly. I’m talking upwards of 10 hours for a full charge. Online research suggests that for some reason, it only takes in a fraction of the power being delivered to it, if it detects that data could also come down this cable. There are instructions to DIY mod your cable so that it charges as quickly over USB as via an AC adapter. This was just too much for me, so I spent even more of my valuable time tracking down a cable that does the same job out of the box. It’s the McKal MM83A Supercharger cable. You’re welcome.

After having gone through the things I have in 10 days, where the state and maintenance of my phone has been constantly on my mind, I think the drawbacks outweigh the large and beautiful screen on this phone (quality-wise, it’s not better than the iPhone’s Retina display). I haven’t even mentioned the lack of really solid Twitter applications on this thing, or how Path’s Android app is so inferior to the iPhone version, or how scrolling is still nowhere as fluid or as natural from a physics standpoint as it is on the iPhone, THROUGHOUT the iPhone experience. I believe scrolling can be quite different on Android, from app to app, but I’m not entirely sure at this moment.

But when I hold my iPhone now, it feels wrong. It feels more like a little camera than a phone (the camera on the iPhone is tons better, as is the selection of photo apps on iOS — I have yet to find a credible, well-designed photography app on Android. There is nothing in the league of Hipstamatic, Camera+, VSCO Cam, Infinicam, Noir, TiltShift Generator, and many others I have happily paid for on iOS. The best ones are the ones that are also available on iOS: Pixlr-o-matic, Instagram, AfterFocus). The screen feels cramped, and it’s a little heavier and thicker than I’d like. I miss having the glanceability of Twitter/Facebook widgets on my homescreen alongside app shortcut icons (something that Windows Phone 7 gets a lot of praise for too). But other aspects of the iPhone user experience are beyond comparison. I don’t want to mess with battery settings and tweaks. I don’t want the ‘freedom’ to spend hours scouring the web for ways to make my phone better. I want a phone made by a solid company that I trust, optimized to the best of their ability in a combination of software and hardware design, so that I cannot possibly believe that I could do better myself. Because that frees me to do everything else. But I also want that phone to have a larger screen.

Essentially, I’ve been paying to relearn a lesson I already did back in 2007 with the first iPhone. I’ll keep using it for now and see what else I can learn about Android (it’s beneficial for my work, anyway), but I’m crossing my fingers that whatever iPhone comes next will give me every reason to sell this off, and restore my sanity. When someone asks me if they should buy an iPhone or an Android phone, my new answer is “If an Android phone is right for you, you’d already know it.” It’s the right choice for those people, but not most, not the way it is now.



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