iOS to Android [P1]: Perks outside the walled garden

I had never used Android as my exclusive daily driver, and my last proper Android phone usage on the Mi 4 was in parallel with my iPhone 5s around 6-7 years ago. A lot has changed in this time, and a lot has also remained the same especially when it comes to the customizations possible.

Here’s a quick rundown of the key new features I’ve recently (re)discovered on this side of the fence.

Ad blocking with Blokada

Ad blocking apps are of course nothing new on the iOS side, but are largely limited to browsers & webviews at best. This is where Blokada for Android comes in. It sets up a local VPN on the device and does local DNS filtering a la Pi-hole to block ads across apps. There is going to be a slight performance & battery life penalty, but you get ad blocking on the go. You can sideload the full featured version, or just get the Slim version from the Play store. It’s also available for Android TV, in case you do not want to use Pi-hole.

You can get similar functionality on the iPhone side of things, but need to use cloud services to get similar features which add on subscription costs & connection latency.

SMS Organizer

Custom launchers, dialers & SMS apps have been around from the very beginning on the Android side and have also been one of the biggest attractions of the platform. That said, the way we use SMS has changed a lot and it has become more of a platform to get transaction notifications, esp. for OTPs. This of course means that you have to be really careful in which custom apps you choose as a rogue app could easily siphon off your identity or bank balance.

That said, the SMS Organizer app from Microsoft Garage is a really smart app that makes life much easier and feels like a breath of fresh air after having used the iPhone Messages app for the last several years.

Transaction messages don’t just get a separate tab, but the notifications are also designed to highlight the key portion. Promotional & personal messages get their own tab as well. Then there’s the tab for reminders, finance & offers – each of which intelligently parse the messages and put the key information in a usable or actionable form. So, you can glance your bank, credit card, EPF, PPF & other such accounts including a transaction list (not completely accurate at times due to duplicate messages), get a reminder of your upcoming bills & travel plans and also surface the coupon codes that get sent in umpteen promo messages.

Then there’s the simple but great QoL improvement due to the ability to mark all messages as read and delete old OTP messages after a certain period. It also backs up the messages to Google Drive in case you want to restore later.

I’ve also been using the Microsoft Launcher which neatly integrates with Outlook and makes it easier to glance upcoming work meetings.

Windows integration

Yet another point around a Microsoft feature for Google’s OS. When I had switched to iPhones in 2014, it was from a Lumia 720 and Microsoft was still making Windows Phones at that time. Now, Microsoft seems to have embraced mobile devices & the cloud and their apps have features to further this vision. The Microsoft Phone Companion app on Windows makes it easy to connect to any Android phone, and in my case, the Samsung Galaxy S20FE has the required apps pre-installed.

Microsoft’s Phone Companion app in action along with the Swiggy app running from the mobile on the laptop

While it is not quite the kind of integration between macOS & iOS devices, there are many ways this is more fully featured as you can not just control basic settings like volume but also access your phone’s notifications, messages, photos & apps right from a Windows machine. This makes it quite easy to stay tuned to a single device, unless you are a Mac user, or are using a work laptop where this feature is restricted.

Working on large screens

This is a perk of Samsung devices with DeX support where you can connect to a larger screen like a monitor or TV (USB to HDMI dongle required) or to a PC (wirelessly or through a USB cable), and then get a desktop like experience.

I got a USB-C to HDMI adapter which also has a USB A port & USB C pass through charging, which allows me to connect a key + mouse combo along with the monitor to access the DeX mode. This mainly comes in handy when you need a larger screen to edit audio/video/images taken on the phone, or just want a larger screen to view content.

Also a quick mention of the split screen & hover apps feature on Samsung devices that has been supported since the earliest Galaxy Note devices, and has been available on iPads for a while but not on iPhones.

Automation

iOS devices have made great strides on this front with the Shortcuts app which started off as Workflow before being acquired by Apple. This largely pales when one compares to Android veterans like Tasker & Llama that have been around since the early days. Services like IFTTT & Zapier can also do more on Android than iOS. Then, there are the Shortcuts contemporaries like Google Assistant & Bixby routines which provide an easier interface.

Most of my automations deal with silencing & unsilencing the phone based on different conditions like location & time of the day. This is where the iPhone’s hardware mute switch gets in the way as automations can’t alter its state.

Coming out of blog hibernation & moving to Android

It’s been over 16 years since I started this blog, but I have not posted anything in the last couple of years. So, taking another shot at reactivating it by restarting my linkblog posts through Pocket & IFTTT, and a bit of a tweak to the theme as well.

As for my gadget journey, quite a lot has happened in the last couple of years, starting with iPhone 11 Pro that I got to replace my iPhone 7 Plus. I also added the Homepod & Homepod mini towards the end of 2020 along with the Apple Watch 5, Airpods Pro & iPad mini the same year.

I was getting more & more entrenched into the Apple ecosystem till about a couple of months ago when the iPhone 11 Pro died (no damage – just refused to wake up). I ended up getting a Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G along with the Galaxy Watch 4 for the same cost as a replacement for the 11 Pro. The rock solid reliability of Apple hardware seems to be faltering for me, with the Airpods Pro also developing an issue on the left ear piece. I’ve also had different issues with iOS over the years ranging from failed updates requiring device resets to crashing home screens, so the OS side of things is not overtly different from Android in terms of stability.

That said, it has been quite refreshing to get into the modern Android ecosystem, with my last proper usage being Android 6 on the Mi 4. Quite a few things seem smarter on the Android side thanks to the openness of the platform, despite the flexibility Apple has introduced in the last few years with Shortcuts & the likes. Microsoft has also done quite a bit to enable integration with Windows. The link to Windows feature is quite handy to get notifications on my laptop in addition to being able run Android apps from the phone on the laptop as well. Then there’s the DeX mode on Samsung phones that comes in handy when editing videos or creating content using a monitor + keyboard + mouse combo, and of course the split screen & floating apps on the phone that have been around since the early Galaxy Note days.

The camera on the new phone is about on par with the 11 Pro with the telephoto having a longer focal length which I prefer, but the ultrawide is not as wide. The camera app performance is not as smooth, especially on the shot to shot performance when using the on screen shutter. I did try a few Google Camera ports, and their shot to shot performance is better but image quality is on the iffy side.

Either way, I’m in the Android ecosystem as my daily driver and the performance has been perfectly fine. Plus, the flexibility in using smarter apps for SMS & the likes is a more than worthwhile tradeoff for the camera performance.

Where Apple is aiming the puck

There weren’t too many surprises on the hardware front with the iPhone 7 release with the usual stream of supply chain leaks and rumours over the last few weeks leading up to the launch. The event pretty much reemphasized that the smartphone market, particularly the high end, has pretty much matured and Apple checked off the niggles over the entry level storage. Apple also broke a trend of sorts with the external design not changing considerably over the previous “s” year, another sign of a maturing market.

There was also a lot of clarity in their positioning of the Apple Watch with the focus shifting to health and fitness, while reducing the emphasis on communication (at least for the time being). It is going to be a while before the Apple Watch is able to turn into a standalone device. The new models in tandem with WatchOS 3 do address some of the performance concerns with the first model, but we’re still some time away from an always on display.

Apple also doubled down on their strengths with the focus on platform exclusives, 3D Touch and pushing the envelope on the camera capabilities. They have also increased the feature gap between the regular and Plus model this year with the camera having a tangible difference in addition to the screen and battery size, along with the increased RAM.

There was of course the loss of the headphone jack that many had predicted and the switch to a non clickable home button. The former is something that many of the Android phone makers have tried to preempt, while the latter is something a majority of the non-iPhone owners are used to. As for the A10 chip, it was a validation of ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture that has been in use by the Android market for over 3 years. Big jumps in performance usually come through node shrinks, and with Moore’s law slowing Apple has its task cut out.

Here are a few thoughts on where things seem to be headed based on Apple’s moves this year:

  • They have pretty much set their sights on the pro camera market with the support for wider colour gamuts on the sensor and display. Plus (pun intended) there’s the dual camera lens bringing back a viable telephoto lens to the smartphone market (sort of – 56mm is closer to normal focal length). People who were hurt with Windows Phone and Nokia’s (Lumia 1020) demise have a proper alternative at last.
  • It’ll be a while before the longer focal length on the iPhone attains the quality of the wider one, but this is just the beginning and we can expect iterations to happen pretty quick now that the ball has been set rolling by the most focussed company. Also, you don’t have to look any farther than this comparison of the original iPhone camera to the iPhone 7 to see what can be done in 10 years.
  • Again, on the photography front, with the Plus introducing a second lens, we get closer to the “holy trinity” of prime lenses which typically refers to a wide-normal-telephoto combination of lenses to cover a majority of shooting options. Technically we’ve got the wide and normal lengths covered. Of course, the iPhone is not going to be replacing DSLRs for specialised purposes (birding, low light action) anytime soon, but you know where we’re headed.
  • This dual lens camera also enables the journey towards computer vision thanks to the depth of field perception. What is today a sort of gimmicky feature previously tried by Android phone makers can potentially be the stepping stone towards AR.
  • Those Intel fab rumours that have been around for the last couple of years might finally be coming true next year.
  • The currently gimmicky, but increasingly exhibited feature of 3D Touch is most likely a stepping stone to a future where the display lets you actually feel the textures of items shown. This would take interaction to the new level and iOS 10 has finally opened up the current haptic engine to developers. Just take a look at Apple’s patents to get a feel (yes) of where things are headed. Maybe it’ll arrive as soon as next year when people expect the 10th anniversary iPhone to have an all display front. Accessibility has been one of Apple’s strengths and they also support Braille displays with their iOS devices. This expertise might just help them overall bringing out the really 3D in the touch. As to what kind of stuff is possible, check out Disney Research (guess which companies share board members?).

So, where does this leave me personally? Well, I just replaced my iPhone 5s battery and it should last me another year quite easily given that the performance has all but improved with iOS 10 (I doubt anyone with a 3 year old Android phone can say the same thing). The iPhone 7 Plus camera is really tempting me to give up my DSLR entirely (I really love shooting with my Canon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens which on a cropped body like the 550D gives an 80mm equivalent focal length), it’s just the first iteration and I find the 5.5″ size too big. Apple Pay has also not launched in India either, so I’m not missing any major feature with the 5s barring the screen size and camera (I do use a Mi 4 as well, so the screen size is even less of an issue). Then there’s the next year’s iPhone of course.

Understanding “iPhone is synced with another iTunes Library. Do you want to erase this iPhone and sync with this iTunes Library” Message

That’s a relief, but they really ought to reword it now that we are exclusively on iOS devices:

What it actually does: Erase the iTunes media only, nothing else is erased

For example, if you have a large music library on the iPhone and click on the Erase and Sync button, that music library will instantly vanish, but all of your contacts, photos, apps, customizations, and other media remains untouched on the iPhone. Only the music and iTunes content will disappear. That means the entire large music library will vanish, but nothing else will.

Source: Understanding “iPhone is synced with another iTunes Library. Do you want to erase this iPhone and sync with this iTunes Library” Message

Thoughts on the Sep 2015 Apple event

Looks like Apple is revamping their event calendar and spacing out the events a bit more reasonable with one at the start and one towards the end. It was also a pretty busy event with ton of new launches and quite a few items that were skipped altogether – most notably the Mac OS X update. Of course the gist most of the announcements made in the event were known beforehand, but there were some surprises nonetheless.

The long rumoured iPad Pro finally made its debut and pretty much validated the strategy that Microsoft had pioneered with their Surface Pro series – you need a screen larger than 10″, split screen multitasking and a keyboard to make tablets more productive. And then of course there was the Apple Pencil which was again expected given the need for precision & flexibility when drawing. The 2 biggest takeaways was first, Microsoft demoing Office in the session that pretty much sums up the vastly different approach taken in the Satya Nadella era, and second the near doubling of quoted performance of the iPad Pro over the Air 2. This definitely makes the writing clearer on the wall for Intel, as the iPad Air 2 was nearly half as fast as the Core M processors and this should bring the performance in the same ballpark. In fact, in the last few years, Apple has probably been the biggest factor behind Intel’s innovations given the dearth of competition from AMD.

The fact that there was no other iPad update, unless you count the passing mention of the iPad mini 4, shows the speed at which the tablet market has matured and reached a good enough state. Arguably, the iPad 2 was at a good enough state in terms of hardware power and is still being supported with iOS 9. The iPad Pro is Apple’s attempt to grow the tablet market beyond home users and into the enterprise segment. That will definitely take a good deal of time given that most enterprises are Microsoft strongholds and the cost factor will prevent them from outright replacing PCs. Also, whatever the demos may want you to believe, most enterprise workers do not get to do such fancy stuff with their devices.

Health seems to have become the main usage focus for the Apple Watch given the proportion of time given for fitness and health related aspects. This is also probably one of the scenarios where the performance of the Watch will not be constrained as a first generation hardware. The partnership with Hermes also emphasised the luxury status of the Watch, and unless the pricing changes over the years (unusual for new launches), price will remain one of the major roadblocks to its adoption. The second generation of the Watch is likely to improve the internals significantly, and we are likely to have a white iPhone moment in the future with a round Apple Watch.

Then there was the Apple TV that at last gave us a glimpse of Steve Jobs famous “I finally cracked it” quote. Technology was definitely not one of the factors that had held back the Apple TV from being launched in the last couple of years, as the real battle is with the content providers rather than any of the other apps. In fact, it will probably be a while before people outside the US or some of the typical Apple strongholds will get much in form of regional content on the Apple TV. There was also no mention of HomeKit in the entire session, and this likely means that while the hardware is probably present in the new TV, the ecosystem has some way to go. The Apple TV also affirms the A8s new role as the venerable A5s long term replacement given that the iPod Touch and iPad Mini 4 upgrade to A8.

Last but not the least, the iPhone 6s\6s+ updates were also along expected lines and oddly enough relegated to the end of the show. Force Touch or rather 3D Touch definitely opens up a new dimension of interaction, but the real innovation will be when we have touchscreens that are able to simulate the feel of different surfaces. The camera improvements were also pretty much mandatory given the older 8 MP sensors inability to shoot 4K videos. The unusual part of the new devices was the increase in weight of both models by almost 10% and an almost imperceptible increase in size. Then there were a bunch of touted features that have been seen before in other phones on the Android and Windows side of the fence like moving photos (HTC Zoe) and using the display as a flash (LG).

Overall, the product launches rounded off a very busy year for Apple, but there was a sense of deja vu with many of the showcased features which other companies have previously demonstrated to about 80% of their potential. It is however, the last 20% of spit, polish and sweat that typically separates the Apple experiences from the rest.

Apple Music in India: First impressions

I updated my iPhone 5s and iPad mini to iOS 8.4 this week, and with it came the much anticipated Apple Music. I promptly signed up for the free trial, and have been trying it for the last couple of days. The service seems quite promising, but the Indian catalogue seems to be quite limited at the moment. The iTunes store has a ton of Indian music ranging from Bollywood tracks of different eras to regional ones. However, most of the tracks seem to be missing from the streaming service.

The interesting aspect is that if you try searching for a particular track that’s not currently available for streaming, you are presented with results of the artist likely indicating that it’ll show up eventually. The new Music app on iOS is also a big overhaul and relegates your music collection to the last tab. I’m already a subscriber of iTunes Match and was able to see my uploaded and matched tracks listed there and also in the search results when applicable. In fact artist pages in the Music app also show tracks from your library in a separate tab when available.

The Music app also seems to be a bit unstable at the moment and it has crashed on me quite a few times already while streaming music. There were also times when tracks were listed in the album or search results, but when you try adding them to the Now Playing list, they disappear. Looks like it’ll take some time for the service to stabilise in India.

The only other streaming service that I’ve used at length was Mix Radio thanks to the complimentary subscription that had come with my Lumia 720. That definitely had a very extensive catalogue and I’d augmented my music collection considerably during that 6 month period. I’m sure the other Indian streaming services like gaana, Saavn, Wink etc. have an equally extensive collection. However, Apple is taking on these services head on with their Rs 120/month pricing that’s a fifth of what they’re charging in US. This is of course consistent with their pricing for iTunes Match and the tracks on the iTunes Store. Apps are the only area where there’s price parity between regions it seems.

Either way, it is a good option for the consumer. The value of iTunes Match priced at Rs 1200 per year in India has become a bit questionable though, as the price difference with Apple Music subscription is just Rs 240 per year. I’m yet to check out the difference between the iCloud music library and iTunes Match. If equivalent, then it’ll be pretty clear as to which service to go with for me.

4 Years of Smartphone use

It was a little over 4 years ago that I got my first smartphone, and a little over a month ago since I got my 7th one (I do have 2 connections so it’s not that bad). These 2 phones cost me almost the same, but in terms of specs, they couldn’t be any less similar. Here’s looking back at my many smart life companions:

Samsung Galaxy S LCD (2011)

This was my first smartphone bought in Mar 2011, well after the smartphone revolution had started. It cost me around Rs 19,000 at that time and came with a then decent 8 GB storage and the Samsung staple microSD slot. In terms of overall specs, it was just below the Galaxy S flagship of its time but the performance was pretty reasonable to start with. I loved the fact that I finally had Google Maps in my pocket. My primary usage of the phone was also for internet access as my main voice connection was CDMA based and it was on a dumb phone. The phone began to show signs of trouble around a year later when it used to require a soft reset every other morning to wake up. Plus the OS was also stuck on Android 2.2 FroYo with no immediate update in sight.

HTC One V (2012)

I finally grew frustrated with the recurring freezes and lack of OS update in my Galaxy S and decided to scout around for a replacement. Found the just launched HTC One V whose looks I liked quite a bit, plus it had the then shiny Android 4.0. I bought it without too many second thoughts at Rs 17,000 though the phone was in many ways a downgrade from the Galaxy S with its lack of a front facing camera and no magnetometer meaning trouble navigating maps. Still, I was quite happy with the phone and a few of my friends and family members even bought this model based on my recommendation. Then less than 2 months later, during an office offsite meet, it decided to die on me. It turned out that a lot of people had been facing similar issues with this model. Haven’t considered or recommended a HTC phone since.

Samsung Galaxy S3 (2012)

I bought this phone more out of frustration with my last purchase and decided to buy a phone with no compromises that’ll last me a few years. It had just been launched and so I ended up paying a hefty premium at Rs 39,000. However, the phone was a huge jump in both usage experience and quality over the last ones and I ended up using it for nearly 3 years before it finally bit the dust. It started off on Android 4.0 and went all the way up to 4.3 officially. KitKat was not released officially for it due to its 1 GB RAM, but I flashed it with Cyanogenmod last year for its unofficial KitKat upgrade. It had also begun signs of slow down around the 2 year mark, but the flash gave it some breathing room. It also became my Android gaming platform for my Humble Bundle games, and a mobile mini tablet of sorts.

Samsung Galaxy Pop CDMA (2012)

I finally upgraded my CDMA connection with this device out of barely a dozen choices as I had grown tired of having to maintain a disconnected phonebook on a dumb phone. It cost me around Rs 8,000 which was a significant premium over the equivalent GSM model, and that too for just 256 MB of on board storage. Moreover, my CDMA SIM did not support data and I actually ended up using it as a wifi only smartphone. Though it was stuck on Android 2.2, it wasn’t a bad experience overall considering the fact that I used it almost exclusively for voice calls. Overall, not the best deal but given the limited options in the CDMA space it served its purpose. This was also my first online phone purchase.

Nokia Lumia 720 (2013)

I began having network reception issues with my CDMA connection, and after a few months of bearing it, decided to move over to a GSM connection which obviously meant a new phone. Windows Phone was looking quite promising at that time with 8.0 having been launched a few months back with pretty positive reviews. I was sure that I didn’t want another flagship and so narrowed down to the Lumia 720. It cost me around Rs 17,000 and was one of the best value models of its time. The camera was the best in class and the battery lasted 2 days comfortably. It wasn’t a fast phone, but it had a smoothness that Android lacked. The OS update situation was also quite rosy with the Windows Phone preview updates trickling in without any troubles. I was very happy with the phone until I dropped it at home and shattered the screen. That of course meant a replacement of the phone and not the screen.

Apple iPhone 5s (2014)

I made some nice phone comparison spreadsheets to rationalize the different model features, and the iPhone 5s was definitely not the best value even though it had a price cut due to the imminent iPhone 6 launch. I was looking for an upgrade in the photography department as well. The Lumia 925 and not yet launch 930 were top contenders as the 720 replacement, but the app situation finally won over as I had built up a good collection of iOS apps thanks to my iPod touch and iPads. I ended up getting the 16 GB gold model for around Rs 46,000. Almost a year later, the only gripe I have with it is the limited storage, but the iCloud photo library optimization has managed to keep things going. The photography has definitely been a revelation, and I don’t see the performance of the phone becoming a limiting factor anytime soon.

Xiaomi Mi 4 (2015)

This completes the Android circle for the time being, with the 64 GB model coming in at Rs 22,000 – just a little over 10% more than my first smartphone. It has pretty much all the bells and whistles one can hope from a flagship including an IR blaster and the specs are top of the line as well. It was a long deliberation between this and the OnePlus One, but the size and IR blaster finally won out. So far, I haven’t had any reason to complain, but given that it’s an Android phone I’ll reserve the final verdict for a year down the line as that’s when the slowdown begins. For now, it is definitely an excellent phone and a big upgrade over the Galaxy S3 it replaces. Let’s see whether it matches the 3 years of service as well.

A year with a MacBook Air

I switched to a MacBook Air (2013 model with 256 GB storage) at work from a typical Windows 7 laptop over a year ago (since I manage the app store accounts and iOS needs a Mac) and have had a good while to experience the pros and cons of the system, particularly in a Windows centric enterprise environment. Customary thoughts on the same:

  • In terms of the build quality, weight and size, there are definitely very few Windows laptops that would come close, and none of them are likely to be priced in the typical enterprise purchasing range. And yes, the trackpad is lightyears ahead of a typical Windows laptop.
  • The display though not IPS or retina is definitely much better than the typical Windows laptops.
  • OS X has its advantages and disadvantages versus Windows. I particularly like the multiple desktop feature and Spotlight search.
  • I started off with Mavericks and am currently on Yosemite and do see how OS X has been injected with iOS paradigms. For me that turned out to be an advantage since I started off my Apple computing on iOS devices.
  • Battery life is also pretty good and I can manage a near full day of work without plugging in. However, since I use Chrome as my primary browser due to its cross platform presence, there is definitely a trade off here with it showing up as one of the “apps using significant energy” every now and then.
  • I’ve even used the MacBook for a bunch of video editing in iMovie for some office events and the editing process itself was quite smooth. Exporting the videos was only when I felt the Air’s slower processor.

In the meantime, I’ve been using a Windows 7 laptop at home (reversed situation over many) and while Windows 7 is just as good an OS as OS X, the real difference in usage experience comes from the SSD, trackpad and display. These compromises by Windows laptop OEMS even in laptops priced close to MacBooks really sabotage the Windows usage experience even for . Things have been getting better in the Windows camp, but there still seems to be a long way to go.

A Tale of 3 App Stores

I setup my company’s app store accounts for iOS, Android and Windows last year and have been managing them for over a year now. The journey has been quite interesting, starting from signing up for the accounts to switching to a MacBook Air last April for iOS development. Here are a few observations on the journey so far:

  • The signup process is pretty simple for Android and Windows and the cost is also minimal. Apple on the other hand has a comprehensive process if you opt to setup a company account that allows you to have development team members. Plus they are the costliest of the lot at $99 per year.
  • For all the flak that Android draws for its developmental difficulties, its app store management tools are the best. you can easily setup a decentralized account granting access on a per app basis to different team members. This makes it very convenient and easy to work with multiple development partners in case of an enterprise.
  • Windows Store unfortunately is on the other end of the spectrum with no support for any kind of team members. So, the account manager is left to do all the app listings and package uploads.
  • Apple is somewhere in between, allowing team members, but not providing app level access controls. So, one development partner could potentially look at the others’ work. Plus, the main account P12 certificate needs to be shared if you want to allow anyone other than the account owner to upload apps.
  • Alpha and beta testing is also very simple on Android where you can just upload the package, setup a Google Group to manage the testers and setup the process.
  • Testing for iOS is also fairly easy now that TestFlight is integrated into iTunes Connect. However, if you want to allow external testers then your app needs to go through a review process.
  • Windows Store does not seem to offer any testing support at the moment.
  • On the store management app front, Apple seems to be the only one offering an iTunes Connect app that lets you monitor your account. Nothing equivalent for Android or Windows so far.

Overall, Android or more specifically the Google Play Store seems to be the easiest to manage with a decentralized enterprise account while Windows Store involves a lot of administrative overhead, with iOS closer to the Play Store. Let’s see if the situation improves with Windows 10 over the next one year.