I am not an early adopter when it comes to technology that I want to rely on every day, so I came to Android only recently. After reading a lot of positive reviews, I bought a T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy SII. I’ve been using it for two months, now, so here’s my thoughts on it:
Many of the reviews said that the Galaxy SII was better in many respects than the current iPhone, and on paper I could see those claims arguably looked valid. It has a larger screen, for one — and it’s a very high quality screen, too. I like that I can remove the battery if I want to, the fact that it has an SD slot so I can expand the memory without having to pay Apple premium for the capacity. I understand why Apple made the design choices they did with the battery, the sacrifice in field replaceable battery for greater battery capacity to phone size makes a little more sense to me than the SD slot decision, which feels like pure greed.
And anyway, unless I want to switch carriers — which, thanks to the prevalent business model in the USA, is a rather expensive and therefore unattractive proposition — I can’t own an iPhone unless I want to hack it to work on T-Mobile, and I was reluctant to do so because of my experience with my last unlocked phone, a Nokia E75.
That phone was a nice enough handset — small, durable, held up for more than two years, fit well in the hand, decent battery life, had OK web browsing and wifi capability, though poor compared to a true smartphone, but for some reason T-Mobile never supported its MMS capabilities adequately, and through my carrier, it could only send/receive 5-7kb postage stamp sized images, which was annoying considering it had a 5MP camera and normally T-Mobile’s size limit for MMS is 300kb. I’d seen a hacked iPhone on T-Mobile in person and it seemed like a number of the features were not well supported, so this time I wanted to go with an officially supported handset.
I didn’t really want to give up the E75, but after a particularly unfortunate drop onto a hardwood floor, the bezel broke, leaving the edge of the keyboard unsupported so it would flop around and let pocket crud accumulate under its membrane. And the battery wasn’t holding a charge like it used to, and the screen had gotten to where it was pretty scratched up. I was sick of the ever-widening gap in browsing capability with my E75, and have been wanting to try my hand at mobile app development for a while, so Android seemed like the next phone for me.
I did my research, and all reviews said that the Galaxy SII was by far the best handset available currently in the market. It didn’t have a physical keyboard, which concerned me, because I’m a heavy texter and I like the feel of a physical keyboard, even if it’s micro sized. But what sold me was some special pricing and offers that T-Mobile was running, which allowed me to get the phone at a $50 rebate, plus $100 in trade-in value for my old Shadow handset. That put the Galaxy SII at a price I was comfortable with, so I bought it.
By the way, T-Mobile, if you’re reading this, your handling of the trade-in program is awful. I sent my handset in to you a week after I bought my phone, on May 6, and a month later (June 4) I got an email from you saying that time was running out and I’d better ship it to you soon or I would lose out on the trade-in. I wrote back to say that I’d sent the phone in three weeks ago, and it should be there by now, and I was alarmed that you hadn’t received it. I did get a response to this, but all it said was that your receiving process takes a very long time, and that phones are only entered into your system after they get processed.
That is just unacceptably stupid and wrong. The very first thing you should do in your process is confirm receipt of the package! I very strongly suspect that I will never see that $100, and if I don’t, you can forget about me sticking with T-mobile for my next phone. It’s 7/6 and I still haven’t received any confirmation that my trade-in was received and processed.
[Update 7/10: After writing to them again when I wrote this review, I got a response today, four days later. They tell me my rebate is scheduled to be sent out at the end of this month, so I guess that means that they did receive the trade-in from me; however, it also means that they never did bother to notify me of this. At least it’s not lost.]
[Update 8/20: Finally received my $100 gift card for my trade in. Only took about three months!]
My initial impression of the phone was that I liked it a lot, but it would take a little getting used to the lack of physical keyboard. In the store, they let me play with their demo model long enough to get confident that Swype input really was feasible and could work. I expected some foibles with it, and I knew I wouldn’t care for the lack of tactile feedback, which necessitated looking at the screen more as I typed, but I could accept that as a trade off given the many advantages of the new phone.
The screen was beautiful, web browsing was fast and pages rendered much better than with the Opera Mobile I was running on my E75 (its default browser was lamentably out of date, whatever it was.) Installing apps was very easy, and I found a few fun ones and a few useful ones that I liked. I spent a few days playing around with configuring this and that, learning how to connect the phone to my laptop so I could back up my contacts and get photos and stuff off.
I guess I must be a heavy user of the phone, because my battery will only last about 8-10 hours on a charge. This is barely adequate to get through a work day, and forces me to umbilical to a wall outlet whenever possible to top off my charge, and forces me to carry around a charger, which is just one more thing I don’t really want to have to carry with me. It’s alright when I’m sitting at a desk for work all day, or if I’m driving around I can use a car charger, but if I’m walking around all day, it’s a cause of anxiety. There are aftermarket super-batteries that you can get, and they’re not too expensive, but they are bulky, adding a bulge to the rear of the phone, which is incompatible with any protective armor cases you can currently buy for the phone. Since the SII has been out for a while, it seems unlikely that this will change, which is unfortunate.
Android, I appreciate that you can change settings when battery is below a certain threshold, to prolong life. That’s really great. But would it be too much trouble to restore the old settings while I’m charging, or at least when the charge level goes back about that threshold? It really sucks to have to reconfigure manually every damn day when I shouldn’t have to.
Swype: It’s garage. It’s guache. It’s gator. Ah, fuck it. G-A-R-B-A-G-E.
If you want to turn your life into a commercial of arrows, buy a smartphone without a physical keyboard and try Swype. It’s garbage. Using it produces a comedy of errors. Quite possibly a tragedy of errors, as well.
Swype is absolute dogshit. I say that, playing off of the business idiom “eat your own dogfood.” I find it really hard to believe that Swype’s developers are using Swype on a day-to-day basis. My friend Max said to me, he says, “MAYBE YOU JUST SUCK AT SWYPE, HOLMES.”
It is not possible for someone to suck this much at something for so long and not get better. Ergo, Swype is at fault.
After I typed in my first web or email address, I forget which, Swype decided it had “learned” new grammar rules and that it should not ever put a space after a period, which it formerly had done any time I finished a sentence. Swype, you need to learn when a sentence ends vs. when a dot is used in a url or email address, or as a decimal in a number.
I really hate to give the impression that I’m unprofessional by using swear words, but I thought about it a lot and I truly cannot give an honest review of this product without them. I’m sorry, it’s that bad.
Swype’s accuracy is so hit or miss, it’s like you’re permanently drunk whenever you try to type with it. DamnYouAutoCorrect.com is funny, and a lot of the time feels contrived — but in real life it’s a disaster. Sometimes you sound like a dadaist on LSD, other times you sound like a grammar-challenged moron, and at the worst of times it makes you say things you didn’t mean, but with the limited context the recipient has no idea. This fucks up communication so badly, I’m actually scared to use it for anything important at this point. Swype makes me really, really angry on a regular basis.
I thought, OK I just need to proof read before I send, right? Well, it’s not so easy. First, to accurately swype, your eyes have to really follow your finger. You naturally want to continue swyping out words until you’re done with whatever you’re writing, but if you do that, your eyes aren’t watching Swype’s output, which at its default accuracy/speed setting is wrong about 1-in-3 words, sometimes more. Even at the “best” accuracy setting, it’s about 2-in-10, which is not nearly better enough. Like OCR, swype recognition of words is not useful unless it is accurate over 99% of the time, and it’s far short of that. Backing up and proofreading a lot of text, and then changing every third word, is much slower than simply hunt and pecking the input.
So the only way for me to effectively swype is to verify after each and every word. Your eyes feel like you’re watching a tennis match as they bounce from the screen keyboard to the output box. It really slows your wpm down. It’s truly a step backward if they can’t fix this. I found that it did get better if I set the accuracy to maximum, but it still gets words wrong frequently enough that I really have to watch what it’s saying for me regardless. If you’re not a wordsmith, you may not care, but for me it’s a major problem.
It’s not faster than hunt and peck if you have to meticulously scan every single god damn word that it guesses you meant to enter just to make sure that it’s right. It completely destroys the appearance that you are intelligent and in command of language. Every time I see something I’ve typed with it, I’m embarrassed, because it’s NOT what I typed. If you enjoy Mad Libs, you’ll probably like Swype a lot, but if you value your command of language and feel that the impression you give others through texting is important, you’ll hate it. Perhaps swypographical errors are to be expected in SMS messages, and are temporary and have a tiny audience, so don’t matter. Except when you’re trying to be cool, or smooth, or persuasive, or say something heartfelt over SMS, and it completely ruins the moment. It’s another thing when you try to use the screen keyboard to enter text on a web site, like facebook, and it utterly botches your input and turns you into a blathering moron.
I used to look down on people who couldn’t use language, but now thanks to Swype I feel like we’re all in the same boat. It’s worse than the battery life issue, which just produces anxiety that I won’t be able to use the phone when I need it. Swype makes me absolutely angry. It’s a solid concept, but the execution needs improvement. There are replacement soft keyboards, but I haven’t tried any yet. Most of them cost between $2.99-9.99, and for a $500 phone, it better come with a @%#$@) keyboard input that @#$@#ing works.
I’d be very happy if they made a version of this handset that is twice as thick, but has a physical, slide-out QWERTY keyboard.
I’m not a huge App user yet, but I love how easy it is to install new apps. I haven’t bought any yet, but I’ve downloaded a dozen or so that sounded useful.
Reviewing specific apps is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but I will single out the official Facebook app for a WTF award for not having Share links on the mobile app. It’s nicer to use the FB app than visit facebook in a web browser, but not being able to Share things is really a strange user experience design decision and I can’t understand why they only show the Like link.
I’m a little disappointed that I can’t remove some of the bundled apps that I don’t want and will never use.
Netflix is a nice service and all, but I’ll never use it on my phone, and I don’t have a Netflix account, at all. If the phone came with a “light” or “free” version, I might use it and end up getting into it enough that I’d pay for the service, but out of the box it was only interested in me if I was a paid subscriber, or if T-Mobile bundled a subscription with the phone. Maybe just a limited 1-2 movies/month introductory deal, included with your plan. As it is, it’s about 20mb of storage on my phone that I’ll never get back. I generally have better things to do than watch video on a tiny phone screen, but it could possibly come in handy once or twice.
The only other major complaint I’ve had about the phone in the first week of ownership was the royal clusterfuck it made of my contacts. When I got the phone, the salesman asked me if I already had a gmail account that I’d like to use with the phone. I’ve had a gmail account since 2004 or so, and have been using it as my primary non-professional email address for much of that time, so I said sure.
I kindof wish I hadn’t, though, because Android really fubared my contacts. I had a mess of my old phone’s imported contacts, my gmail contacts (including anyone who I’d ever emailed for any reason in the last 8 years), and my google+ circles. Worse, these weren’t well integrated. I had three and four entries for some people. There is a merge feature in the Contacts app, but it sucks. I ended up clearing out about 90% of my contacts, but I believe as a result my autocomplete when filling To: field in gmail’s web UI will no longer remember a large number of the addresses it used to.
The reality is, the people I interact with via my cell phone are not the same as the people who I email. In some cases, sure, there’s overlap. Certainly, when I’m accessing my email account through my cell phone, I want full access to my email contacts. And some people I have a phone number for, I also have an email address for. But there are a lot of people who I email, or know very casually on google+, who I don’t necessarily ever want to IM/SMS/call. I like having my identity compartmentalized, and being relatively anonymous in certain circles. Android really doesn’t account for this in its design of the user experience for contacts, at all. It didn’t ask me (maybe it did ask the sales guy who set it up for me) if I wanted all these contacts to be jumbled together into one writhing mass of humanity, and there wasn’t any way to undo it after the fact. It was pretty horrible. I ended up using Wondershare MobileGo to manage my contacts, which was still pretty tedious and awful, but did the job, insofar as it helped me to mass delete and consolidate dozens of contacts. It still took over four hours to go through everyone and clear everything up, and that’s really not acceptable.
I’m pretty sure that I’m not unique in how I deal with my contacts, so I think Android really drops the ball here. I have a few suggestions for improving the user experience:
- Allow users to filter contacts by source. Here’s all your Contacts from your old phone. Here’s all your gmail Contacts. Here’s your google+ contacts.
- Better Merge feature. Mass select N contacts, and then click Merge. Not select merge, then select any two contacts.
- When there’s conflicts, such as multiple phone numbers and email, keep them by default, ask which one is primary, and ask if any are outdated. I had a few contacts resurrect from my old phone’s trash, apparently, and I don’t even know if I have their current contact info now, because who memorizes everyone’s phone number? A great solution here would be to have some kind of service that automatically looks up each bit of contact info and attempts to verify that they’re still good. I imagine this would be very difficult for email addresses, but would potentially be do-able for phone numbers and mailing addresses.
- Use gmail’s metrics for how much you’ve written to a given contact in your gmail contacts, and auto-filter out contacts whom you’ve contacted below a given threshold. If I have ever emailed some address one time in my entire life, and it was more than a year ago, chances are good I don’t need them in my phone’s Contacts.
One thing I did appreciate was that it included every new word it found in my Contacts into the autocorrect dictionary. So now when guessing wrong at what I’m swyping, I can pull up street and city names, and the odd last name or first name of some person I’ve communicated with at some point in the last decade. This is actually useful when I intend to type those words, as well. It’s a feature.
SMS/MMS, IM, Talk. Also, Twitter. All these apps on my phone just to send short text messages to people. Why so many apps that do almost exactly the same thing? I really would like a single solution, which can seamlessly handle all protocols.
Also, and this is truly beyond bad, I have had a lot of inconsistent reliability issues with sending SMS. I never really know if someone got an SMS that I send from this phone. I never had this problem before I upgraded to this handset. I’m not sure what factors are at play, either. I SMS a short list of people on a regular basis, but I have consistently had problems with sending to one particular contact. It seems to deliver my outbound messages reliably only when I send as a new message; if I reply to the existing thread of messages, it is very likely to fail to deliver the message — although it appears on my end that it sent successfully. I’m not sure how high the failure rate is, but it must be at least 50%, perhaps even 75% or 90% when replying to them. My workaround is to always initiate a new message. It shows up in the same threaded conversation anyway, but somehow if I simply reply, it doesn’t work, but if I start a new SMS, and address it to this contact, it will go through. It’s a ridiculous problem and absolutely should not be tolerated. So far, T-Mobile has been unable to figure out the cause and provide a fix for it. I don’t know if it affects other contacts, either. If I send some message to someone, and they never get it, chances are they’ll never notice that they never got a message that they never knew about, and thus won’t bring it up, so I’ll never know. Not knowing is awful. It could be ruining a lot of friendships, and killing potential relationships that never develop because they thought I’d stay in touch, and I thought that if they really wanted me to stay in touch with them, they’d reply back to my message… that they never got.
[Update 7/11/12: Several people recommended the swiftkey3 app as a replacement. I tried it out and it does seem to be more accurate, although it works by tapping only. I did like the swyping motion, my issue with Swype was its accuracy problems and poor prediction. Swiftkey3 is a $3.99 app, and while I do resent having to spend money to get a soft keyboard that actually works, I’m glad it actually works. My accuracy with Swiftkey is somewhere in the high 90’s, and its guessing capabilities are amazing — both in correcting off-target key taps, and to suggest what my next word is most likely to be. It gets my recommendation if you’re looking for a better touchscreen text input.]
I didn’t have too many issues with the Mail app, which integrates pretty well with my gmail account. Read messages are marked read whether I read them in gmail in a web browser, in the mail app on the phone, or in Thunderbird on my PC. And that’s how it should be. If I delete something, though, I have to delete it everywhere. I guess this is a safer approach to take, but triple-redundant deleting can be annoying. I feel like there should be an option to mark the message deleted, update the server, and then the next time the other clients talk to the server, it passes along the info that this message is now marked as deleted also.
The only problem I have had with the Mail app started happening to me just this week. A few times, now, I’ve launched it, watched it update itself, and then mark every damn message in my Inbox Unread. It’s annoying not to know what message threads you’re up to date on and which contain new messages that you should probably read. So far it’s only happened a couple times, and I’m not sure what causes it, but if it happens a lot, I’ll be looking for a new app to read gmail with.
[Update 7/12/12: I’ve observed this problem happening repeatedly since it started happening. It doesn’t happen all the time, and when it does happen it seems to be temporary. I don’t have to go through and re-read everything to mark them read again — usually exiting the app and re-launching it will correct the read message marking. It’s still an annoying defect, but not as severe as I had first feared.]
Maps and GPS
I didn’t expect that I would use these functions as much as I do, but they are nice to have at times. I prefer not to use a GPS; I have a good sense of direction and I have developed it over the years by not relying on external tools for navigation. I prefer to keep my bearings, the lay of the land, and driving directions in my head as much as possible, and as a result I usually only need to write down driving directions once, and then after that I can reliably drive that route from memory, very likely.
But when driving someplace I’ve never been to before, it does come in handy. Where I used to write down directions, and worry that I’ll run into a detour or wrong information, or miss a turn, I now have greater confidence that the GPS will redirect me if something unexpected happens.
Unfortunately, it drains the battery faster than just about anything. I don’t know if this is because the GPS transmitter uses a lot of power, or because it tends to leave the display turned on (normally the battery usage statistics say that the display alone can account for 60-65% of the battery consumption all by itself). But when driving, I just plug it in to the car charger, and it about barely holds even on charge — I drove to Columbus, OH, from Cleveland, OH with it and gained 1-2% of charge in a 2.5hr drive. I doubt that I would have had any battery left if I hadn’t been charging it the whole time. Whoa.
The Galaxy SII does have one of the nicer cameras I’ve used in a cell phone. It takes good pictures, at moderate distances. I like the on-screen controls. I love the capability to share via any service I can think of, right from the phone. That’s really the best thing about the camera — the social integration.
I’m not too crazy about using it for self-portaits. The wide angle lens makes my nose look big and bloated, and I’m way less handsome that way. That’s my only complaint with it. If I had 2-3x longer arms, I could take better pictures of myself at the distances it’s intended to be used, and just zoom in.
I want to say I like my phone a lot. The Galaxy SII is an impressive gadget. It does a lot of cool things. Most of the time, I think to myself, “I have a really good phone.”
But now that I’ve objectively reflected on all the glitches and problems I have had with it in the first two months of ownership, I’m aware that I’ve been living with a lot of cognitive dissonance. The problems that I’ve had with it are significant, important problems — the most severe type of problems are the social consequences of having a phone that mangles your wordsmithing and fails to even deliver messages reliably.
It’s a cool phone when it isn’t pissing me off. But it pisses me off most of the time when I’m using it. It’s very useful for web browsing, and I use it for that about half of the time. That’s when I really like it. When I’m trying to use it to communicate with someone, though, which is it’s primary purpose, I feel like it’s ruining my life. Not exaggerating in the slightest. The silent delivery failures have harmed relationships that I have with friends and make people think I don’t care about them or that I’m ignoring them, and this makes them feel very hurt, and I have no idea that it’s going on unless I see the friend in person and they bring it up. The swypo errors make me look like a complete idiot on a frequent basis.
The battery life is another major issue, and a lot of reviews seem to gloss over this. Sure, you install a battery minder app that will automatically shut down stuff that you’re not using in order to conserve juice, but they really didn’t serve the market well by providing an 1800mah battery. If you have a phone like this, you want to use the hell out of it, all day long. 1800 milliamp hours gives you a full day’s worth of charge and then some only if you don’t use it. If you do use it, you can get by for half the day, and then spend the next few hours hoping it doesn’t die and you miss an important call or message, or need to look up some bit of crucial information and can’t. And if you don’t use it, what’s the point?
All phone makers, now hear this: We can deal with the extra weight. Give us 3x battery life and bulkier phones with a real keyboard. At least make it an option. And make armored cases that fit the extended battery covers, please!
A lot of the reviews that I’ve read have been over the top positive, saying it’s the best phone there is, period, including iPhone. I haven’t tried an iPhone still, but I’d be really surprised if the user experience of an iPhone isn’t 10x more polished. I have no idea, but I sure hope so.
I don’t want to hate Android, or this phone, or T-Mobile, but I do have a lot of issues with all three of them at this point. There is a lot here to impress, and a lot of potential, but fitting it all together and smoothing the rough edges and polishing it, well that has a long, long way to go yet.
I really can’t believe that I spent this much money on something that I use every day, and am having this poor an experience with it. There’s a lot of potential in this platform, and even in this handset, and so many of the problems seem like they’d be relatively easy to fix.