iOS to Android P2: The Watch migration

Being deeply entrenched in the Apple ecosystem definitely has its advantages as the devices typically work well together, be it the iPhone to Apple Watch or with the HomePod & iPads. Getting out is another matter, of course. When I ditched my dead iPhone 11 Pro & switched to the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE last year, I also got an iPhone SE as a backup phone which continued to pair with my Apple Watch. This setup was ok from the fitness tracking point of view, but for me, notifications on the wrist is the USP of smartwatches.

Design & Features

So, after a month of trying to avoid another gadget purchase, I opted to get the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 which is one of the few models with Wear OS 3. While it did have pretty much all a sensors & hardware features as my Apple Watch Series 5 like always on display, sleep tracking, ECG etc. (plus a few more like blood pressure monitoring, SpO2 & body composition analyzer), the ECG & BP sensors are not active in India yet. Haptics are much better on the Apple Watch through. However, you get pretty much similar hardware, but at half the price.

The display on the Galaxy Watch is round, which does take some getting used to when swiping around, but feels more natural to me as majority of my old school watches were round. The controls are somewhat different with 2 buttons on the side, and a touch bezel which can be used for quick scrolling similar to the Apple Watch’s crown. The Classic version of the Galaxy Watch does have a hardware dial instead of the touch bezel, but the price & weight go up significantly.

On the strap front, the Galaxy Watch uses standard 22 mm bands, so the costs are significantly lower. My preference is for the Milanese loop bands & magnetic leather bands for formal occasions, & velcro ones for regular home use. The Apple Watch has a bunch of 3rd party options, but those are 2-3x costlier than the standard watch varieties (Apple’s own straps can cost as much as other smartwatches themselves). Also, while the mechanism for securing & removing bands on Apple watches is quite novel & convenient, 3rd party options can be a bit finicky and don’t work as smooth.

Apps & Notifications

Notifications themselves are quite decently managed, though you do need to use the touch bezel to scroll through them quickly when they pile up in the notification centre. You also get a good number of options to act on the notifications unlike on the Apple Watch. However, you may need to scroll quite a bit to get to them as the notifications can take up a good deal of vertical space along with the response options.

Complications & watch faces are also handled very differently with complication support varying from face to face. Wear OS also supports full screen widgets which feel more like complications.

There’s also a bunch of standalone apps & phone app counterparts (sometimes broken into multiple apps), similar to the Apple Watch. There’s also a browser if you want. That said, the app situation is probably better on the Apple side, but it’s pretty much stagnated at this point with some of the initial developers like Uber even discontinuing support for the Watch apps.

Health & Fitness tracking

While the watches may have parity in terms of hardware sensors, the biggest difference comes in the way fitness data is handled between the watches. Apple has the Health app as a central hub which can share necessary sensor data with multiple other apps. On the Galaxy Watch, and possibly on Wear OS/Android, there is no such standardised central hub due to which most of the data beyond basic step counts is locked within Samsung’s health app, or whichever app (say Google Fit) you use to get the reading, be it getting a heart rate reading, logging your weight or recording a workout. In fact, some of the advanced sensor features do not seem to be supported on other apps.

The situation will of course be similar on other platforms which may not even have support for 3rd party apps. For me, this is a reasonable tradeoff and I am using Samsung’s Health app to track the vitals for the time being.

Closing

You can also answer calls on the Galaxy watch in a pinch just like on the Apple Watch, and support is limited to phone calls as well. The speaker is also fairly loud which is good enough unless you are in a noisy environment. Battery life has been typically better on My Galaxy Watch than on the Apple Watch as I can also comfortably wear it to sleep and charge it towards the end of the next day.

I am getting a very similar experience to the Apple Watch with my Galaxy Watch, and it serves my primary need of notifications on the wrist with few tradeoffs, but also a bunch of new features at half the price of the Apple Watch. Ultimately, I have been able to replace my iPhone 11 Pro & Apple Watch Series 5 combo at the a slightly lower cost than it would have taken me to get a 11 Pro replacement.

Sooryavanshi

Watched the movie a few weeks back with my family and what I took offense with is with the opening scene where not only is Sooryavanshi’s father using a colour monitor in 1993 in India, but it seems to be running Windows 9x (likely Windows XP with the silver theme going by the 3D taskbar look and green start button).

Digital India in 1993

As for the rest of the movie, it is typical Rohit Shetty affair, so expectations were set accordingly.

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.

Getting rid of ads with Pi-hole

I’ve been using Pi-hole running on a Raspberry Pi 3B+ for the past 2 1/2 years, and it has really spoilt me to the extent that I have forgotten what ads on web pages and mobile apps look like (the limited travel in the last couple of years has also helped). It’s pretty effective in getting rid of the pop-up mobile ads and the in page banner ads on all devices connected to the wifi.

The setup process is quite simple if you have your own router or at least change the DNS server on the home router:

  • First off, get hold of a Raspberry Pi (even the model Zero is powerful enough for the Pi-hole), and the necessary peripherals like a case, SD card, charger & LAN cable. There are many readymade kits with the OS preinstalled sold online including Amazon, which saves a good deal of time.
  • Initial setup is easier with a monitor & keyboard + mouse attached to the Pi. Once this is done you can connect it to your router using a LAN cable and access it through a Telnet client/mobile app like Putty on any of your devices in the home network.
  • Next, you need to install Pi-hole on the Pi (you can do it during the setup itself), and configure the router to use the Pi as your DNS server. If you are stuck without admin access to your router, then you may need to configure each device to use the Pi separately.
  • You can also install mobile apps to manage the Raspberry & Pi-hole quite easily through your phone. There are multiple apps available for both Android & iOS.

Once everything is setup, you should have an ad free experience on your devices (not all ads can be blocked of course). I’ve found about 10-15% of the queries on my home network getting blocked, and this includes devices like Android & iPhones, iPads, Android TV, Amazon Echo, Homepods & Windows laptops of course.

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.

Down the memory lane with Digit

My tryst with the modern PCs started in the mid 90s when the internet was almost non existent in India. At the time, software and games were not easy to come by and magazines like Chip which have away trial versions and freeware in CDs along with their copies were quite sought after. Chip later became Digit in India but the freebies continued.

Digit magazine July 2019

It was with this thought that I attended the Digit Squad Tech Day in Mumbai today and it was fun to see all the colourful assembled desktops, consoles and mobile phones placed around the venue and fellow Digit Squad members participating enthusiastically in the different contests. Felt quite nostalgic to soak in the geeky environment.

Didn’t sit around idle of course and instead captured a few videos of the front camera fall detection in action for the smartphones on display. You can catch the video here.

OnePlus and Oppo seem to be catching on quite soon and they flash a dialog on screen while Samsung seems to be partially retracting their module. The Redmi K20 pro is similar in terms of responsiveness to Oppo and OnePlus but it closes the camera app instead of showing any alert. The Asus Zenfone 6z provides an interesting experience where you can see the arc on screen as the module rotates to its resting position.

And here are a few more shots from the event

Amazon Echo Plus in India – first impressions


Got my first smart speaker, the Amazon Echo Plus yesterday and it seems to be nicely Indianised. It seems to be using the Raveena voice based on Indian English or a variant thereof from Amazon Polly (AWS’s text to speech service). The Alexa app itself is also pleasantly adapted for India with the appropriate command suggestions and services available.

Some of the India specific commands to try

I had pre-ordered the device and it was delivered within a day of the dispatch. The setup process was quite smooth and once done, I promptly went about installing a bunch of skills ranging from the utilitarian to the time pass ones.
As a music player, the sound quality is decent but nothing spectacular as many reviewers have noted. As for the music catalog, it seems to be using Saavn exclusively though it does Amazon music as one of the options in the app. Saavn itself has a decent catalog and Alexa has again been Indianised sufficiently to understand some Hindi song names. I  tried “Play the song ek main aur ek turn” and it actually started playing the song from Saavn though it did pronounce “main” the English way.

Alexa understands Hindi!

The flash briefing skill is quite handy to get a quick bulletin of your areas of interest once you have set it up with your desired sources. It can also give you cricket score updates without any skill installation as I tried out during today’s India – New Zealand match.


I installed the Uber and Ola skills to check the overall utility factor. While Alexa seems to be able to book an Uber including picking up your location, the payment mode defaults to cash which is a dealbreaker for me. Then there’s the Zomato skill I installed and tested. It seems to know your last 3-4 orders and you can reorder as well but didn’t go beyond browsing for the moment.

The alarms and timers work pretty well too and I conveniently set a sleep timer to stop playing the music while going to bed.

Then of course there’s the whole reason why I got the plus instead of the regular model which is the smart home hub built into the device. A solo Philips hue bulb is what I ordered next and setup today. It was again a pretty simple process with the Echo detecting the bulb in a few seconds. Controlling the bulb by voice is also quite easy right from switching it on and off to changing the colour and brightness. The app however has just the on/off switch and brightness control at the moment and as many reviewers have noted, the functionality of the smart devices using just the Echo Plus is considerably limited when compared to using the devices with their respective hubs. This is definitely one area of improvement and given the kind of coverage you see for smart homes on the Amazon Alexa pages, it should improve sooner rather than later.


Apart from all this you can also use the Echo as a Bluetooth speaker and pairing it with my iPhone was quite simple. That said, all the sounds from the phone start getting carried over to the speaker and this interrupts any song or speech playing on it directly. Due to this, I ended up keeping the phone disconnected unless I wanted to play something from my phone.

One thing I couldn’t find is the voice profiles option that lets Alexa identify the person speaking and customising the responses accordingly. Possibly a feature not yet rolled out to the Indian market as it seems to depend on the Amazon app that didn’t seem to have this option in my case.

A smart speaker is a family device but my wife is not very enthused by the idea while my 4 year old daughter would like to play with Alexa but hasn’t yet gotten out of her initial shyness phase to begin talking freely to her. It didn’t help that Alexa couldn’t answer many of her queries and also the fact that she was trying to get Alexa to identify the colours of the crayons she was holding in front of the device – a perfect case for Google Lens and Assistant.

This is of course just what I’ve been able to check out in the first 24 hours with the Echo Plus and I’m sure there’s lots more already available and also coming in the near future.

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.

When smart people get important things really wrong

Technology is but one of the tools to potentially solve a problem:

What’s hard is synthesis – learning to use technology as part of well-designed sociotechnical solutions. These solutions sometimes require profound advances in technology. But they virtually always require people to build complex, multifunctional teams that work with and learn from the people the technology is supposed to benefit.

Source: The worst thing I read this year, and what it taught me… or Can we design sociotechnical systems that don’t suck? | … My heart’s in Accra