This is a guest post by Ben Duchac. You can find his work here.
The other day I bought the newest, fanciest flagship Android phone for my mother and it was an unmitigated disaster. She has an iPhone now, which she loves, and when I read that 30-40 percent of Android devices are being returned, I honestly wasn’t surprised.
With a user experience as bad as I saw on a brand new Android device, I’m considering an iOS device for my next phone, and I’m a big Android fanboy and proud PC owner. Of course, that 40 percent number is very hard to verify and I’d guess that it’s a bit of an exaggeration – but still, something is rotten in Android town.
So my mom needed a new phone and she was game for an Android – she had been envying my HTC Incredible for about a year and was tired of her aging feature phone. She’s pretty tech savvy –uses Gmail, has a Tumblr, does most of her emailing on an iPad– so after some discussion we decided that Android was the way to go. The integrated Google search, Gmail, gChat, and much richer maps functionality seemed to trump the UI functionality and app selection of the iPhone 4 for her needs. A trip to the Verizon store later, we came home with a Samsung Charge. The giant screen was brilliant. The 4G was blisteringly fast. The camera had more megapixels than was reasonable. The phone was an absolute nightmare to use.
From the second we turned it on, the user experience was astonishingly bad. Want to activate your phone? Take the battery out, write down a series of minuscule numbers that you find on the phone and on the SIM card, then enter them into Verizon’s barely-functional site. Once you’ve got it hooked up, navigate the opaque first time setup, if it doesn’t crash while you’re entering your information (it did – twice). Once you’re done with the setup, enjoy the apps that Verizon and Samsung think you should use: a terrible golf game, a Samsung branded Twitter client, Verizon’s half-baked navigation app.
Seeing the basically useless state of the phone on initial boot, I told my mother that I’d take the phone for an hour or so and give it back to her “cleaned up.” I deleted apps. I configured notifications. I set up accounts. None of it was easy, and every step of the way I ran into really bizarre problems. The elegant Google widgets that come with stock Android were stripped out of the phone. The camera app, besides looking like it had been designed in 1995, just wouldn’t rotate when I turned the phone on its side. Apps that worked on my Droid Incredible crashed as soon as I opened them on the Charge. After about an hour of poking and prodding the battery had dropped from 95% to 50%. Completely frustrated, I turned to the internet, where confused users were posting questions with titles like “Should my battery last more than 6 hours?” and “I think my phone is broken…”
The ever-helpful internet didn’t have much to offer. “I’ve been really loving this phone ever since I rooted it and installed a customized and stripped down ROM,” one user wrote – “It gets rid of all the VZW crap and makes the phone work like it was intended to.”
I’m sorry what? To make the phone work right I have to possibly void the warranty or brick the phone and load a customized operating system? I refuse. I loaded my mom’s phone with the same apps that I had used with success and told her to let me know if she had any problems. I told her that if the battery seemed to be running low she could turn off the mobile network and use Wi-Fi as much as possible. The broken camera meant that all MMS messages had to be sent in the horizontal position (preposterous) and since the Tumblr app didn’t work on her phone she had to use a third-party app to send posts. We replaced the hideous Samsung messaging app with something moderately better, and did what we could to mitigate the embarrassing robots-glass-metal-explosions aesthetic that Verizon has decided will sell smartphones.
Long story short, nothing helped. The phone would spontaneously get scorching hot, discharging its battery from full to a quarter in a couple hours. Basic system functions, like adding contacts or sending images were often nonfunctional or required complex workarounds. I spent many more hours with task managers, with replacements to almost every app that came with the phone – and nothing helped. Many times I wanted to throw the phone out the window – beautiful screen and all.
A friend of mine has a Nexus S and it is a pleasure to use. The UI is elegant and functional. The battery lasts for days. In short, it is everything that the Charge wasn’t. I’d love to see Google somehow mandate the stock Android experience on all phones, or somehow rigorously test all new phones before they could be launched. Why not standardize and mandate one or two excellent cameras, and then open source the drivers? Why not certify and approve a few of the best components and then place some sort of “premium Android experience” certification label on phones that pass tests and use components approved by Google? Right now it’s a crapshoot out there when you want a new Android phone, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
I love my phone and use it all the time. For my next phone I’m hoping to get another Android, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable buying any of the phones in Verizon stores. People keep saying that if users don’t want branded Android experiences that they will vote with their wallets, but for most users, there isn’t a pure Android experience available for wallet-voting. I’m going to hold on to my trusty Incredible for now, but I worry about the future.
And my mom? She got an iPhone and she loves it. It just works.