Android Introduction

What follows is, what I hope, a nice easy introduction for anyone interested in Android. Not necessarily how to use it, that I will reserve for future posts, but more on how you can begin to shop for an Android device.

Although many people are use to looking at certain hardware specs to decide if they want a phone (“how many megapixels is the camera?”, “how fast is the processor?”) my advice to you when shopping for an Android phone is don’t let hardware dictate your purchase. Using the phone is far more important, and thus the interface needs to be something you are happy with since you may be stuck using it for 2 years.


These are what I recommend paying attention to, and what I will cover today: the Skin, the Android Version and the Data Plan.

edit (4/23/3010): I should add one last thing when looking for a new Android phone, which is how much space the phone has for installing apps, I’ve added a new section at the bottom to discuss this

Other hardware importants include: the screen (should be high quality, easy to read) and if it matters to you, a hardware keyboard. I would argue processor actually does not matter too much as of yet, so don’t feel like you need to get the fastest. I will explain why at the very end.

Disclaimer, what I use

I own, operate and love my Android device: Google’s Nexus One on the AT&T network. This phone was purchased not locked to any service, as opposed to the T-Mobile version which was available for $200 with a 2-yr contract.

As an aside, this is a great example of what having a large user base like AT&T does can mean: less choice for consumers. AT&T felt comfortable with their iPhone exclusivity and therefore never bothered to expand their Android lineup aside from some crappy phones. T-Mobile, always the underdog, experimented with the Sidekick way back when, the Google G1, the Nexus One and continues to do so with the G2, Nexus S and arguably has a wide array of phones (except of course the elusive iPhone). Apple itself has characteristics of a monopoly and chooses to only do business with AT&T and Verizon, the companies with the two largest wireless customer base.

Android Skins

Anyway because I use a Nexus One my phone has the “true” Android experience, with no skin sitting atop the Android software. What is a “skin”? It is the extra user interface elements (always) and sometimes extra features that a manufacturer codes into their phone’s Android software installation.

For example, if you look at the layout below, you are the box in green and the stuff that matters to you is sitting in the Google cloud (your e-mail, your calendar, etc.). You can access that information from your computer or from your phone, but the data never is actually on the phone or on the browser, it always sits on Google’s servers (which is really what I mean when I say “cloud”).

skins

Although HTC’s software, Sense, makes some very pretty modifications to Android (and Motoblur and TouchWiz less so), they are an alteration of what Google created. This is why when Google announces a new version of Android, say the newest phone version Gingerbread (2.3), your Evo 4G (or Motorola Droid) does not automatically get an update: each company wants to maintain their skin on the phone but if they just updated the underlying Android software it could break the skin’s ability to function properly. Thus they hold off any updates and either roll it out much later (after they have supposedly extensively tested the update) or they decide it’s not worth the trouble and never offer the update to the user.

So there is an advantage to having any of Google’s flagship device (the things in gray) since they are running the “true” Android experience and when Google updates Android these phones are the first to get it. Oh and also, these Nexus phones are not pre-installed with any crapware from AT&T (or Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile). HTC, Motorola and Samsung will gladly install any crapware the carriers want them to so they get more money from each handset sale.

Google is not a hardware company, meaning they don’t make their own phones. This is why for their flagship Nexus phones they pick a different hardware vendor with each iteration. HTC was picked to manufacture the Nexus One, and Samsung was picked for the Nexus S. The third Nexus device may be made by Motorola or LG, we will have to wait and see.

Getting a Nexus device is difficult. Currently T-Mobile is the only cellular company with a Nexus device. Sprint will be getting the Nexus S 4G soon, but notice how these are the two smallest operators in the country. Verizon and AT&T have no interest in a Nexus device since they cannot load it up with their crapware. So you will most likely need to purchase an HTC, Samsung or Motorola phone that will be running it’s own skin over it. Make sure to use each and see what you like best. I will not be reviewing the skins here because I simply don’t have enough experience with any of the skins.

If you’re on T-Mobile or Sprint, I highly recommend getting a Nexus S device for future upgradeability ease and to avoid having unnecessary skins on your phone.

So Many Versions…

By the way Android has gone from 1.5 to 1.6, 2.0/2.1, 2.2 and then finally 2.3. Google used codenames for each version, they went alphabetically and they only used dessert names. And so…

Android version Code Name
1.5 Cupcake
1.6 Donut
2.0/2.1 Éclair
2.2 Froyo
2.3 Gingerbread

There is also a 3.0 that’s meant for tablets, called Honeycomb. In the future Google hopes to unite the code for tablets/phones and this Code Name is “Ice Cream Sandwich.”

As of this posting most decent phones are shipping with 2.2 (Froyo). You should not purchase a phone that is running any version prior to Froyo. Froyo offered significant updates over Éclair. Of course if you find a phone running 2.3 (Gingerbread) and you really like it, you should go for that one.

the Data Plan

For Android, this really matters. In a future post I can explain why a little better, but suffice it to say your Android phone is really just an interface for the web. Android interfaces with servers for updates all the time. Thus Android phones are much more data hungry than an iPhone, and this is partially why they also run through a battery faster than an iPhone (on average). The nice thing is you can control how much data your phone grabs and thus extend the battery life, again I will save that for a later post.

Let me also clarify one thing: WiFi uses less power than your cellular data connection (3G, and definitely “4G”). Therefore not only will using WiFi drop your cellular data usage but it can significantly extend your battery life. Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe Apple, check out the tech specs page of the iPhone 4 and you’ll see they claim a 6 hr battery life for Internet Use on 3G but 10 hours on WiFi.

Hopefully at home and work you will have access to WiFi. I am on AT&T and have been grandfathered into the Unlimited data plan. Now though, AT&T offers 2 tiers: 200MB/month ($15/month) or 2GB/month ($25/month). If you go over 200MB AT&T will give you an additional 200Mb (for, I think, $10).

However I think it can be tough to stay within the 200MB limit if you fully utilize all the neat syncing capabilities that Android offers. Which is why I said it would be nice if you have WiFi at home and at work.

So whichever carrier you’re on, if you don’t have an unlimited option I would first check and see if there is an accurate way to track how much data you use (AT&T has an Android app that lets you see how much data you’ve used, as well as minutes, texts, etc.) and if they do, sign up for the higher data plan and see how much data you use. You can always downgrade later if you don’t need that higher tier plan.

why the processor isn’t as important right now

Ask any tech nerd and he/she is going to try and steer you to a dual core phone. Yes that’s right, our phones are now going to have two processor cores inside. For some perspective, the NASA Space Shuttles computers’ are equivalent to an IBM 5150, which was barely 5 Mhz and was expandable to 256kb of RAM memory.

I would argue that if you really like some other phone that isn’t dual core, don’t worry about dual core. Android, as it is now and will be for the next 2 years, will continue running fine on single core processors. Sure you might wait just a little longer to open an application than your dual core brethren, but it will not be that significant. I am talking about the basic applications like Gmail, Calendar, Text Messaging, Browser, etc.

If you really need this phone to record high-def videos and play crazy video games, then yes you will benefit from having a dual core phone.

sorry for the long post

I think that’s enough for now. Please feel free to leave any comments to correct any mistakes I have or to post questions. I will try to answer them to the best of my ability.

In the future I hope to have a post with a brief walk through of the Android OS, it’s included software, and why Android is far better than iOS as a multi-tasking, fully connected device.

I am also working on a “must have apps” post for Android in which I will list my favorite applications for my phone.

edit (4/23/2010)

Storage

This is very important and I can’t believe I forgot to mention it when I first wrote this. I will try to make sure my next posts are a bit more planned. What I have above is more a stream of thought.

Unlike iPhones which sell as 8GB/16GB/32GB models, the Android ecosystem has a large variety of storage space depending on what tier phone you purchase. On an iPhone, if you have 16GB you can use all that space to install apps, if you wish. However just because an Android phone is has 16GB of storage, like the Nexus S for example, does not mean all 16GB are available for installing apps.

I will use the Nexus One first, as an example. The Nexus One has a slot for a microSD card, 512MB of RAM and 512MB of storage, but of the 512MB of storage only 190MB is available for applications (apps). This is fairly limited considering an the iOS platform you have pretty much all of the disk available for you to install apps.

Starting with Froyo though, Android has allowed developers to “enable” a function that would install an app to the SD card. Great right? I dropped in a 16GB card and so my storage is 16GB + 190MB? Not really. Some apps will not install onto the SD card, or you will not want to install them on the SD card:

  • Core apps like GMail, Google Maps, etc., are never going to be allowed to sit on an SD card but they use up space. Especially maps, which started at 6MB when I bought my phone and with so many updates to the application it has increased to almost twice its size at almost 11MB. Other apps like Facebook and Twitter also do not support SD installation, partially because they’re considered core apps and partially because of widget functionality (see 3rd bullet point).
  • Some apps that are not core apps simply do not support installation to the SD card. I have not checked in a while but Google Earth is almost 20MB, Adobe Reader is also fairly big, and neither apps supported installation to the SD card.
  • Some apps support SD card installation but you will not want to move them to the SD card for enhanced functionality. What do I mean? I have an app called “TV Favorites” which, if you like to watch TV, is REALLY useful. It allows you to track when new episodes are going to air, and the app has a widget that can sit on the desktop so you don’t need to launch it each time. Just looking at your desktop you can see what TV shows are going to air next. However an app installed on an SD card cannot have a widget on the desktop.

Even when you do install an app to the SD card, it doesn’t completely remove itself from internal storage. For example if I install Angry Birds, it may be 9MB on internal storage. When I click the “move to SD” option, about 8.5MB might move off to the SD card but 0.5MB (500KB) will be left on the internal storage partition.

Newer phones are not necessarily immune to this. The Nexus S has 16GB of storage, no microSD option. That 16GB is divided as 1GB internal storage, 15GB “USB” storage (so like an SD card). Of that 1GB about 970MB is available for installing apps. This is FAR better than the cramped 190MB I’m working with on my Nexus One, but nothing in comparison to what iOS users get. So on a Nexus S, an Angry Birds installed to “SD” would have 500KB on the 970MB internal storage, and 8.5MB on the “USB” 15GB.

I imagine having a separate storage for apps offers unique advantages in terms of security. Also requiring core apps to stay on internal storage ensures usability does not suffer because of a slow or malfunctioning SD card. Still this is definitely a weakness if you were hoping to have an obscene amount of apps on your phone.

Personally I discovered this forces me to reevaluate whether I really need an app or not. Though I will say I look forward to upgrading (in the far future) and not having this absurd 190MB limit. By the way, if you’ve paid for an app you can always re-install it later and not have to pay again as the purchase is linked to your Google Account.

So how do you check how much “internal storage” a phone has? You can use Wikipedia, which has that info for the phone under “Storage” in the box on the right. Or if you actually have the phone in your hand you can go to SETTINGS > STORAGE and look at the bottom to see how much Internal Storage space you have left. Or at least on Gingerbread 2.3 you can go to SETTINGS > APPLICATIONS > STORAGE USE at look at the bottom (on Gingerbread 2.3).

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3 thoughts on “Android Introduction

  1. Hardware and os libraries might matter, after all. If you want to use Netflix, anyway. Can you write a bit about what phones will support Netflix and which won’t? And also, why?

    • You’re absolutely right Jason, and I will try and address that in a future post. I am trying to avoid getting too technical because my aim is to inform the average user so I’m not sure how much I will discuss libraries. Also I believe my own knowledge and experience, or lack thereof, would handicap my ability to write intelligently on this topic.

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