I am a designer and front-end developer. I spend my time fussing with pixels in Photoshop Sketch or pretending I know how to use vim. I live in the cheerful Bay Area and love coffee. ☕

March 26, 2014

Test Driving the Nexus 5

Seeing as how I am a mobile-first designer, and spend a good deal of time designing for Android, I thought I should sooner than later become as intimately familiar with Android’s OS and app ecosystem as I am with iOS’. I put this task off for a while, mainly due to the fact that I wasn’t in love with most of the Android hardware. With the release of the Nexus 5, however, I felt the time was right and took the plunge. My impressions follow.

###Hardware### While I am slightly baffled why Google’s premiere Android device is developed by LG (and not Motorola Mobility), the hardware is initially quite solid. The casing material has a rubbery texture to it, feels good in your hand, doesn’t smudge easily (which is awesome), and at least gives me the impression that it would be harder to accidentally drop. The build quality appears to be quite good, which was always my main complaint coming from Apple hardware – the Android device’s just felt cheap.

Some complaints: I like how the iPhone 5 has the headphone jack on the bottom of the device, as this is more natural when sitting in your pocket. The camera seems like it could get scratched easily as it protrudes from the device. Strangely there is a big, ugly bar code across the back of the device, which I’m unable to peel off and is already starting to show wear.

The size feels about right. I am used to the iPhone 5’s form factor, and often find myself flipping the phone up or down slightly with one hand to hit certain points of the screen. It feels a bit big in my pocket. That said, looking back at my iPhone feels, well, small.

All in all, a solid feeling device which looks quite sleek. A definite step up from the previous generation of Android devices.

###Operating System (KitKat)###

I was eager to check out KitKat, Google’s latest Android OS, and was generally impressed.

First, the general design cohesion and aesthetics of the OS stand out in stark contrast to Android OS versions past. The official iconography is consistent and well designed. The stock wallpapers are fresh and vibrant. The widgets and organization of the top-level OS is much improved.

The speed and snappiness of the OS is, finally, at a place that is both a joy to play with and use. Previous iterations of the OS were laggy, stuttery, or downright unusable. The OS now feels like it has finally been given the hardware it required – it’s quick, lag-free, and without any noticeable jitters.

I love Google Now and its deep integration into the OS. This is one area where Google has Apple beat easily. Siri is, in my opinion, a nice frill, but just that. The time it takes to open up Siri and speak a command is in my opinion too great – I can’t easily see a quick list of things I might be interested in right then. Google Now allows me to quickly swipe and immediately view a few pieces of useful information. The depth of Google Now is quite shallow at the moment, sure, but the vision is there and I can see where they are going with it.

I really enjoy Android’s notification system, and feel it is another area where Apple is lagging. Android’s notifications are more than just a simple alert – they often allow for deep interaction with the app from which they originate. You can archive a message, see a photo preview, accept a calendar invite all from a notification, which is great. Obviously Apple is going in this direction too, but Google’s implementation and deep ties into the OS are much better at the moment.

A few issues as well: the lack of momentum in Android’s animation system, frankly, sucks. Some apps try to emulate momentum, but it always feels off and kills the effect. iOS still is leagues better than Android for animating elements naturally, which matters to me quite a bit. The OS is slightly buggy still – I have had multiple instances of things timing out or apps hanging. The camera also has crapped out on me a few times (stopped responding) and I had to hard-reset the phone to regain access.

###Apps###

Unfortunately for Android, apps are where Apple still dominates, and this is the category which would likely make me switch back to iOS if not improved.

Firstly, the Android stock apps are actually rather well designed. I am coming around pretty quick on Android’s UX paradigms, and in many instances am beginning to prefer it. The stock apps take advantage of the UX patterns now set in stone, and many to great effect. The Gmail app, which has shades of the Mailbox app with its swiping actions, is quick and easy to use, albeit a bit cluttered. Calendar is functional and snappy. Chrome is still the best mobile browser out there, and is essentially equivalent of it’s iOS counterpart. The camera is decent, but is clearly inferior to the iPhone 5’s. All of the stock apps feel snappy, to-the-point, and fairly no-frills, but that also makes them quick and easy to use.

It is the third-party apps which bite Android in the ass, and often times hard. Of all the third party apps I have used, nearly every one of them is either simply worse or much, much worse than their iOS counterpart. Many don’t adhere to the now quite-good Android UX patterns. Many are still ‘ports’ of an iOS app. A quick hit list:

  • Path: the app attempts to sit somewhere in the middle of Android UX patterns and iOS and it largely works. One of the better 3rd party apps out there. Well designed, yet the iOS app is still clearly superior with it’s snappy animations and visual delights.
  • Twitter: Pretty consistent with the Android UX patterns, yet has relics of iOS design embedded in it (namely the tab bar). Overall well designed, yet still (this is a common theme) worse than the iOS version namely in the area of animation and flair.
  • Rdio: Kind of stinks. I absolutely adore the iOS implementation of the Rdio app – I think it is gorgeous, consistent, and extremely well designed. The Android version attempts to mimic the iOS app as close as possible, but the result is a glitchy, jittery app which is clearly trying to do more than the OS wants it to.
  • Hipchat: Is okay. Always disconnects, but adheres closely to the Android UX system which is nice. However both the iOS and Android versions of Hipchat are fairly poor, especially for the amount of people who use the app.

Second-tier third-party apps is where Android faces its biggest challenge. A lot of apps that I use regularly on iOS which might not be million+ downloads are frankly unusable here. Often they are apps from non-tech companies which clearly are left to wallow in the Play store in order to appease the Android audience. Apps like Politico, for instance, which I used often on iOS, is completely outdated on Android. The art assets are low quality, the app is a complete clone of an iOS app, and is uncomfortable slow. If Google can convince its second-tier apps to hold themselves to a higher bar of quality on Android, I believe the OS would be much better for it.

###Will I stick with it?###

I am going to continue to use the Nexus 5 for the next few months and see if my perceptions change. I love a lot of things about the phone, and I admire Google’s vision for the platform and their design language. However, at the end of the day I use third party apps on my phone as often as stock apps, so if the experience there suffers, the OS suffers.

Agree or disagree with anything I said? Let me know on Twitter! Would love to hear other designer’s thoughts!

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