Phone update, mini-review

I’ve had my first Android phone, the Samsung Galaxy S, for a couple of weeks now and have been poking around with it just about every day. I don’t get many calls but I’ve sent and received a bunch of texts. I’ve loaded a bunch of apps and have tried most of the ones I downloaded. I’ve customized it slightly with a couple of apps. I haven’t rooted it (that is, installed a custom operating system, similar to completely re-installing an operating system on a brand new laptop). Well…I haven’t rooted it yet.

So here’s my experiences with it, and I’ll try to compare it to using my previous phone (I would call it a semi-smartphone), the Nokia 5800, and the iPhone 2g I was using purely as an iPod for several months.

First Impression

Well, it looks like an iPhone. What can I say. The AT&T Captivate version doesn’t, it has square corners, and the US has a ton of different versions of this same exact phone – some with 4 softkeys (touch-sensitive buttons) at the bottom, some with the 1 button and 2 softkeys from the Galaxy S, different bezels and shapes and whatnot. One advantage of not having a US-spec phone is that there’s no bloatware and no Orange apps, no proprietary color branding or anything like that on my phone. It’s also not restricted or locked out at all, that I can tell. So definitely bonus points, because that’s a major reason why people ‘root’ or heavily modify their Android phones.

It’s about the same size as the iPhone iterations, and thinner, wider and taller than my old Nokia 5800, but it weighs about the same. It feels good in the hand but I got a case for it anyway just in case I drop it. The only I got is called ‘silicrylic gel’ on eBay, cost a few quid and has a good slightly rubbery texture that will help keep it in my hand or pocket, instead of dropping out of either.

The camera seems pretty good, 5 megapixels versus the 3 megapixels in my last Nokia. I’ve only taken a couple of pictures with it to test integration with other apps like Twitter and the standard Gallery app, and these work well.

I’ve only taken a few calls with the phone and have to get used to it, it’s longer than my last phone so the microphone feels like it’s miles away if you press the phone to your ear. Clarity seemed fine, but this all depends on your network, location and local conditions of course.

Texting on it is great with the Swype keyboard, one of the standard keyboards included on my version. Apparently this isn’t installed as standard with at least the AT&T version, which a friend of mine has in Chicago, and I think Swype itself is a ‘pre-release’ app, meaning that it takes some steps to get it installed, beyond simply searching for it on the Android app store.  I really like that the Android default for texting (at least on this phone) is the ‘speech bubble conversation’ that the iPhone uses, I think it works really well and makes it easy to pick up conversations hours or days later.

Connecting to WiFi is pretty good, although sometimes I’m puzzled by how the phone treats WiFi – I can see it’s turned on in the notification bar (more on that later) but I often don’t see the icon for it on the main screen, and when I’m trying to download something I’ll get a ‘no network’ message. Still trying to figure that one out.

GPS seems to work OK, although there are complaints from many (including me) about being able to get a satellite link, and there are various homebrew methods of changing satellite networks which seem to work for a while, but then you lose the signal again. Luckily I’m not going very many places out of town these days, but Samsung know about the problems and will be releasing a fix soon, along with the anticipated Android 2.2 update.  This could be a problem if you’re depending on the GPS satnav directions, but I haven’t done this much so YMMV.

Another issue people have been seeing is the ‘lag’ there is when moving around different apps, and some people have tried to correct this by installing some very geeky software enhancements which worked, but then caused problems, then it was updated and now I don’t know if it’s been ‘fixed’. For now I’m just living with the laggy times, which doesn’t happen often for me because I tend to use one app for a long time (like a podcasting app or a game or a comic book viewer) and don’t often switch around. I don’t think this is a major issue.

One thing I really really like is the Google account integration with all the Google apps I use, like Mail, Photos, Reader and more. The funny thing about this is I’ve been using Google stuff for years (I started my Gmail account during the whole invite-only beta phase in 2004)  and the week AFTER I get my phone is when the Google-Verizon net neutrality bruhaha kicked up, and now people are rapidly swinging the other way and thinking Google is, in fact, evil. At the moment I’m not worried about it, and I do have my Google Latitude app turned off (it has the ability to track you and tell anyone or just your friends where you are), but mainly to save battery life.

Speaking of battery life, it’s…well, just okay.  It’s supposedly the biggest capacity battery of all the Android phones, but the massive screen takes up loads of the charge, so if you play around with it a lot you’ll just run down the battery very quickly. You can go into your main Settings screen and see what is taking up all the battery life – 90% of it usually is the screen, so I make sure to tap the power button every time I’m done fiddling about with the phone, this turns off the screen but lets the music or whatever keep going. You can also set the brightness lower, but I just let it auto-set depending on the light conditions. On my Nokia I could let it go and go without charging it up every day, but I didn’t watch movies or play any games on it. I put the phone on charge at night, or when I get in, and take if off charge when I leave – it’ll last a whole day at work plus an extra hour or two for the drive or shopping, up to 10-12 hrs, between charges. If you use an ‘app killer’ to shut down apps that you aren’t using, you might save more battery life, but Google themselves say this is unnecessary, so I don’t do this often.

I think that’s about it for the general wrap-up, so I’ll go into the Good and Bad bits.

The Good

(the phone itself)

Just ‘feels good’ in the hand. A good weight and size.

Brilliant screen. Some people claim the dottiness bugs them but they must be looking at it through a damn microscope. I haven’t watched any movies on it yet but it’s a huge, fantastic screen.

Feels good and intuitive to use. The homescreens and swiping and everything feel natural and easy. This is a testament to the iPhone more than anything, but if you’ve so much as glanced at someone using a touchscreen phone you’ll feel right at home with this one. My Nokia 5800, on the other hand, wasn’t that great with the touchscreen, most of the time I used my fingernails to do the tapping and typing.

(the Android system)

Google app integration – this is 60% the reason I got the phone. I’ve been on Gmail, Photos, Checkout, Picasa, Reader and loads of other Google-integrated sites for years and years, and this just makes it easier.

Getting apps – very easy, don’t need to hand over payment details for free apps (like with iTunes), and using the QR codes makes it SO easy to get apps from magazines, books, websites and anything else. I’m already connected with Google Checkout (basically their version of Paypal), so buying the one app I’ve bought so far was extremely easy. Scarily easy, really.

The Bad

GPS needs to be fixed, but that’s coming, so say Samsung

The WiFi thing is annoying, I’m not sure what to make of it, but no one else seems to complain about it so it’s probably just me and my settings.

The 2.2 Android update is coming in September, this should fix several things across all Android phones apparently.

Battery life is just barely in the ‘bad’, but this is easily fixed by having a micro USB cable handy at work, so one can charge their phone if it needs it. I also have a USB cigarette lighter adapter in my car, and a travel plug adapter with USB at home, just in case.  So unless you’re backpacking without a car for a few days you shouldn’t have a real problem with battery life.

The Apps

This is going on long enough, so I’ll have to get into the apps I’ve tried and use later. Suffice it to say that I only use apps I’ve heard from word of mouth, or ‘most recommended’ blog posts online, so if you’re reading various Android blogs or you’ve probably already seen or heard about the apps I’m using. But I’ll go into those at another time.