Android, maemo, Thoughts

Maemo: n900 to Android: HTC Desire Z

I had toyed with the idea for a while, and even written a post some time ago suggesting that my next phone would like be an Android one. A couple of weeks ago my n900 decided to stop booting at all, and I had to send it away for repair. While it was away I borrowed a G1 from a friend, and got to spend a week with it. Well Android made such a good impression that I wound up buying the new HTC Desire Z before my n900 returned from being repaired.

I just re-read the post I had written after 1 week of owning the n900, and I am reminded of what a great impression I had of it at that point. I had previously used an e71 as just a feature phone, and an n810 for my mobile computing/browsing, etc. The n900 really sold me on smartphones, and the idea of a one stop device where previously I'd had two. It was a compromise of screen size, but the benefit of built-in, always-on data connection and only having to carry and charge one device won me over.

Compared to my previous experience of phone and tablet, the n900 felt fast and capable; I was very happy. Interesting then that clearly the weight of time really slowed things down. Recently I'd been increasingly frustrated by receiving phone calls. Something I mentioned in my previous post anticipating a future move to Android. Receiving a call, particularly when you have left some things running, could be a painful, slow experience: waiting for the screen to redraw itself enough to react to answering the call.

The openness of Maemo is its great appeal, but I also feel its great downfall. No architecture or structure for apps to follow in order to be 'good citizens' on the phone, no mechanism for developers to get feedback on installed instances, errors occurrences, etc. The openness of Maemo had great potential, but one year on and I don't feel like it gained the kind of commercial support required to realise that potential. When I first started Witter, my own Twitter client, it was in response to not liking the only other option at that time. And I intended it as a programming exercise: a little fun. I never envisaged that one year on there would still be no serious professional app to replace it. There are now a couple of additional options, and I'm not knocking them, but they are fundamentally much like mine: a few guys having some fun and doing the best they can around their real lives, not a company creating a product.

And so to Android.

I'm conscious that after one week my n900 still felt snappy and amazing. So the only truly fair test is to see what I think of Android, and the Desire Z in a few months. But after a week with a g1, and now a week with my own Desire Z, I love Android, and I love my new phone.

The keyboard on the Desire Z is very nice, nicer than the N900 as it is a little larger, and the spaces between the keys make things a little more comfortable. Plus the on-screen keyboard is very usable in Android. I still like to have the physical option, but the ability to do some limited entry on-screen is good, and its ability to smooth out my mistypings into the words I meant makes it something I use in more circumstances than I thought. The n900 never got a portrait-mode keyboard, and in landscape there was no point, just open the real keyboard.

It's probably unfair to compare the speed of the Desire Z to the n900, both because 'fresh' versus several months in is unfair. Also, of course, the Desire Z is a brand new phone, with a faster processor and the latest tech; the n900 is now 1 year old. Interestingly though, I really liked the experience I got on the g1 which was older than the n900.

Android feels very polished, the phone capability (so far) has been fast and apparently unfazed by what I may have tried running. The integration with Google is cool since I do use Google stuff. That said I have a Google apps account, not a gmail account. This subtlety trips up a few things, Google seem to frequently bring out sexy new services that don't work with their apps accounts. But generally all the integration I loved from the n900 is so much better/fuller in Android: Calendar, mail, contacts, and also the built in linking of Google, Facebook, and Twitter contacts. These things could be done on the n900, but not so easily or natively.

The camera, a feature I was very impressed by on my n900, has all of the features I loved there and more. The camera app is faster, picture taking is quicker, and there are a bunch of interesting options and effects that can be applied. The camera software on the Desire Z does face detection which is cool, but I particularly like the depth of field effect. The images seem better to me, though it is still only 5MP. One thing I have noticed is that it is hard to use the physical camera button without moving the camera and causing a blurred shot. However, tapping the on screen button is fine.

As a piece of hardware, the location of the ports makes much more sense than on the n900. The mini USB is on the bottom if held landscape, i.e. it suits a landscape docking station, which is something I will most likely buy. The headphone jack is on the top in portrait mode. On the n900 the USB socket was on the top in portrait, and the headphone socket was on the bottom: this didn't really suit any dock, and didn't make much sense as a layout.

The Desire Z being an HTC phone they have the 'sense UI' on top of stock Android. So far I really like it. I love the big clock/weather app that is so distinctive of the Sense UI. Generally, I like all of the HTC specific bits and bobs. I guess my only complaint is that there are some duplications which aren't obvious, for example,  HTC's peep Twitter client and the official Twitter client both came installed. HTC have some nice locations stuff, with off-line maps for GPS that sit along side Google maps. It wasn't immediately clear that there were different things here with different map sources, but I'm getting used to it. HTC's navigation stuff appears to have 'premium navigation', which indicates I would need to pay for something after 30 days. I'm not yet sure whether that means all navigation in their off-line maps, or just some elements of it. Given that Google navigation exists, and the only trade off is the need for a data connection, I'm not sure what price point would convince me to pay for HTC's 'premium'.

I know I'm trading really open and flexible, for 'mainstream' and less open. Android is open to a point, but if I wanted to install a new OS on the phone I'd have to do some dodgy things. Also if I wanted a command line to handle files at a lower level, rather than be restricted in what formats I can use, then I would have to jump through some hoops. However the only reason I was interested in installing a new OS on the n900 was because Maemo was so lacking in the mainstream conveniences. Basically I used the openness to install Android on the n900. A great project with real potential, but at the end of the day the draw was Android, not a phone capable of multi-boot.

I will be starting my new job soon, and there I will return to the world of Windows after several years running Ubuntu on my work laptop. I suspect I will find some things very frustrating, but I consider this move an experiment in going mainstream for a while;yo  see how the other half live. Maybe I'll try buying DRM'd Kindle books, or Audible audio books. I'll pay for apps and see if I get a better product than the many (very good) open source applications around. Maybe I'll be driven mad by the closed nature (I'm pretty certain Windows will bug me) but I can't say that everything has been sunshine and roses in the world of completely open. I've spent a lot of my time learning how to do things, work around issues, hack this and that. I've spent a *huge* amount of time writing Witter, to very mixed response. Many have been grateful and happy, but a number have been decidedly ungrateful and I have often wondered why I bothered giving it away at all, I could have just kept it to myself.

I may end up developing for Android, but only if there aren’t already apps that do what I want.

This is the first non-Nokia phone I've ever owned. Back in the feature phone days, there was just no competition. Now, for smart phones, my experience with Android and HTC makes me think I won't be going back to Nokia any time soon.