My Next Phone: Which Operating System?

The operating system is one of the most important considerations when choosing a smartphone, because it’s the interface that you’ll interact with every day you use your device.

The two biggest platforms are Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The two other major operating systems, though slightly inferior, are Windows Mobile (recently renamed from Windows Phone) and Blackberry OS. Indeed, there are many more available, but a lot of these are variations of Android – including Linux mobile, CyanogenMod (a custom ROM for a rooted Android device), and Fire, a stripped down version of Android which runs on, amongst others, Amazon Fire tablets.

Blackberry OS was all the rage back in the day before the iPhone existed. But it never really evolved and missed the presence of big app launches, whereas iOS, Android and Windows Mobile have all grown and developed – the former two quite a bit more than Windows Mobile.

Windows Phone/Mobile: My Experience with Microsoft’s Portable OS

Windows Mobile benefits from running on Microsoft’s ecosystem and so a WM device can be a great companion to a laptop or desktop PC running Windows 10 thanks to the Continuum feature.

However, the app store is rather lacklustre, with only a selection of Xbox titles and the biggest mobile games, from publishers such as EA, ever making it onto the Windows Store.

My Nokia Lumia 820 ran on Windows Phone 8 (later 8.1 thanks to a system update) and was great for basic smartphone tasks, but near the end of my contract I realised there wasn’t enough to keep me on the platform.

A lot of Microsoft’s Office suite was now available for Android and iOS, such as Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote; and, apart from a good camera experience and great looking devices such as the Lumia 830, there wasn’t a great deal of unique features to keep me attached to Windows Phone.

As Snapchat never had an official app on Windows Phone, I had been using a third-party client by Rudy Huyn called 6snap. It was a good app, too – much better than the iOS variant in that it allowed me to add photos from my camera roll that I had captured in an Internet ‘not-spot.’ But Snapchat updated their API in the latter half of 2014, and all third party clients were shut down – including Huyn’s 6snap – to improve user privacy. I was locked out of my account and wasn’t able to unlock it until I used the official Snapchat app.

Although I don’t use Snapchat as much today, back then this was a deal breaker. Things weren’t much better for other apps. Facebook’s official Windows Phone app had been developed by Microsoft and wasn’t as feature rich as on iOS or Android. Although Instagram had an official app, I used to use Huyn’s client called 6tag, which was way better than the official port.

When I made the move over to Android in January 2015, Instagram’s official app for Windows Mobile, Instagram Beta, still did not support video recording or viewing. It was also still in Beta a whole year after I had left the platform.

I switched to Android, and to be honest, I haven’t looked back on that decision. Maybe one day, I’ll go back, but only if app support is guaranteed.

However, after 2 years with Android, I feel it could be time for another change. I don’t want to leave Android, because I love the OS. But I’d be a fool not to consider iOS.

Android versus iOS: Ecosystems

Both benefit from having their own ecosystems, but this can prove disadvantageous when trying to switch from one platform to another.

Although Google offers a lot of its apps and services on iOS, like Gmail and Drive, this cannot be said for Apple, whose only apps on the Play Store are the iTunes Music app (for playing and streaming music from iTunes) and Move to iOS.

As such, it has often been said that switching from Apple to Android is the hardest, as a lot of users get locked into the Apple ecosystem with services like iMessage. This difficultly will remain until iMessage is made available from the Play Store.

However, the main differences between iOS and Android are how you use your phone and interact with its User Interface. iOS is set up for the people who want to get things done with little to no fiddling. The app icons appear in a long list spread across several pages, with only a limited amount of customization available. And that’s okay, but the whole point of Android is customisation – every app lives in the App Drawer, with the Home screens dedicated to being your own space. They can be as cluttered or clutter-free as you want.

Phone Geeks vs Phone Civilians

Jayce from Android Authority once illustrated the difference between the two mobile OS’s as a case of phone geeks versus phone civilians. He likened the situation to opening a letter: a knife geek will use a specific knife with a custom blade, special features, possible an interchangeable blade and comes with a unique trade name, but a knife civilian will just use a pair of scissors because the scissors do the same job, sometimes in a better way, and don’t require any special features.

Believe it or not, this model translates over to phones in the Android versus iOS debate. Phone Civilians don’t care how they get something done, as long as it gets done in the quickest time without much fiddling or setting up. Phone Geeks, on the other hand, like to fiddle. They like customisation. They like to set things up to their liking. They don’t mind that it takes longer to set things up initially because, in the long term, things will be easier.

Why access an app to send an email when you can send one right from your home screen without having to open the app? Why access the calendar app or the phone app when you can add appointments and dial contacts from the home screen?

Sure, Apple will argue you can do this with 3D Touch, but I don’t want to perform any special gestures to get the job done. I want the facility there in front of me. Yes, it will take longer to set this up, but it will save time and energy in the long run.

Generally, Phone Civilians use iOS as its simpler and easier. Phone Geeks use Android because it’s not as restrictive and allows for customisation. However, this isn’t exclusive, and you’ll often find that both Geeks and Civilians use both platforms for different reasons.

If that argument doesn’t really make any sense, how about this: imagine buying a writing desk from a furniture store to put in your house. Your plan is to use that desk how you please, by placing your own pens, books, computer and notepads on the desk. But, the store delivers the desk with its own laptop, branded pens and notepads attached. The only level of customisation available is how you can arrange them on the desk. You can’t remove them or replace them with alternatives, all you can do is accept they’re there and get used to them.

Why I love Android over iOS and Windows Mobile

That’s how I’d feel about using an iPhone. Whereas, using an Android phone has allowed me to be free. It allows me to use it how I want, just like I do with my laptop.

On my laptop, I can set up and use have custom icons made from photos I’ve taken – by converting JPEG images to ICO icon files. As well as setting a custom wallpaper, I have the freedom to arrange the layout and size of the desktop icons. Android offers me that same freedom, and to have a workspace that’s convenient to me. iOS pales in comparison, and back on my iPod Touch felt restrictive and suppressed. Even now, even with a fresh look, it still feels the same. 3D Touch may be useful for some, but for me it’s nothing more than a carbon copy of Huawei’s Force Touch feature and a cheap gimmick that I’d never use. Sure, Nova Launcher Prime and Action Launcher 3 have Quick Actions, which is a similar feature, but I’ve not really used the feature enough to say I’d miss it if it weren’t there.

In terms of customizing the home screens on iOS, yes you can move the icons around, but they were all there unless you hid them away into folders. And that always looked too messy to me.

I suppose this, and the fact that I didn’t like the futuristic neon TRON look and feel of Android Jelly Bean, was why I chose Windows Phone-now-Mobile for my first smartphone, as I thought it would offer a mobile version of the desktop experience I’d come to know and love.

Sadly, Windows Phone never gave me that same level of freedom as on a desktop, switching icons for big slabs called Live Tiles that were supposedly just as useful as widgets on Android.

I never really liked the Live Tiles. They were just big slabs that flipped over every now and then. They were customizable only in that you could change the size and arrangement of the Tiles. You could change the colour, but it was a standard setting for all tiles rather than being able to have multi-coloured tiles. That felt restrictive. My creative mind felt suppressed.

Widgets, which is what Live Tiles failed to be, are more useful and easier to access on Android as you can add them to your Home screen. Information is available without searching for it, and it could be anything: SMS texts, emails, weather reports, health reports, news headlines, tweets, and many more.

Widgets on iOS were hidden away within the Notifications drop down menu, which didn’t seem that useful to me – on Android, I can have my diary or calendar on my home screen alongside a weather report and a scrollable list of news headlines. On iOS, I still have to go searching for these things. I have to do more to get the same result.

The only argument against Android is that it takes longer to set it up. But this is the part I enjoy the most. I can set up my phone the way I want to use it.

I suppose the only argument against the freedom of Android is that it does take a bit longer to [fully] set up an Android device than an iPhone. But this is the part I enjoy the most. I can set up my phone the way I want, not the way Apple or Samsung want me to use it. I can change the default keyboard app if I don’t like the colour or autocorrect algorithm. I can change the default app for the phone dialer, messaging, emails, Internet browsing… the list goes on.

Default Apps

On Apple, you can’t change the default apps. Yes, you can download alternatives, but you can’t outright disable, uninstall or replace the default app. You can install Chrome and Firefox as alternatives to Safari, but Safari will remain the default app for opening links from your emails. To some extent, I’m okay with this. But then there’s the whole Apple Maps debacle – the app Apple have pushed onto its users as a replacement for the much better Google Maps. If I got an iPhone, I’d have to out to with an inferior app as the default option, and with the amount of money I’ll be spending on the device, I’m not sure I’m happy with that.

Apps from Unknown Sources

With Android, you can also install apps from outside sources, and also those apps not downloadable from the Play Store, without rooting your device. You can’t do this on iOS without Jailbreaking your iPhone (which is the equivalent of rooting as on Android).

On Android, I can also change the default icons with a custom launcher or icons pack, versus only being able to change app arrangement and wallpapers on the iOS home screen.

Android Devices are like USB Drives

Android phones work like USB devices: internal storage works on a plug-and-play or drag-and-drop basis, with no specialist software needed. Windows Phones are much the same, but iPhones, on the other hand, require iTunes to really get things transferred. Music, photos and videos are all synchronised to an iPhone through iTunes. There’s no way of dragging and dropping files onto the phone like with a USB drive. This is kind of a disappointment, as I have never had a great experience with iTunes in the past.

iPhones also don’t benefit from expandable storage, and there’s no easy way of transferring content from one phone to another. For me, this is a deal breaker. I love having all my music and media on a Micro SD card that I can take out of one device and put in another – no lengthy media transfer required. I’ve heard that file management on the device has improved somewhat, but getting media onto the phone is still a tedious process, and it’s all to do with how media is tired on the device.

When you sync music or video from a computer to an iPhone, what happens is that iTunes flashes an image of the files onto the phone. In the olden days, I remember getting so wound up and uptight over the fact that half my music collection would get wiped from my iPod because it’s no longer there on my computer.

This meant I had to have my entire music collection permanently stored on my PC, otherwise it would be removed from my iPod the next time I plugged it in.

This mass removal would also happen every time the computer crashed – even if I’d loaded all the music back on the computer where it was last time. So if anything went wrong with the computer, I often had to put up with it because of my iPod. I couldn’t refresh it with a factory reset, because this would effectively do a factory reset of my iPod too.

To my knowledge, iPhones and iPods still work the same way. And, WiFi syncing never worked for me, and wasn’t all that useful seeing how the iPod had to be plugged in while syncing. So it’s not wireless then, is it?

If I could one day use an iPhone like a USB Drive, with simple drag and drop without removing half of my music from my phone, I might be tempted to switch over to an iPhone. I wouldn’t rule out an iPod Touch or second hand iPhone as a secondary device, but in their current forms, not as my daily driver.

New Android Features, and Android 7 Nougat

Aside from this, there’s also the new features of Android Nougat to think about. Although split screen is already available on some devices running Android 6, such as the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, multi-window support is a much-touted feature of the new Android OS. It’s a feature I’m begging for in a mobile device, one that will bring my phone up to speed with my laptop. It will further blur the lines between desktop and mobile.

Having had my S7 now for a month, I’m already seeing the benefits of split screen on my phone. I’m planning a lads holiday with my mates for 2017, and on multiple occasions I’ve been able to chat to them on Facebook while checking hotel prices and flight times.

I’ve also used split screen when typing up a blog post, this one for instance, while checking my facts with a quick search on Google. It’s a useful feature,one that truly bring the desktop experience to your smartphone. It’s another step in the right direction and takes the ‘smart‘ in smartphone to a whole new level and meaning.

Android vs iOS: Apps Crash Rate

Although this is not a huge issue for me, app crashing is another thing that can hamper the smartphone experience.

According to this article by Android Authority, apps crash more on iPhones than on Android devices. Statistically, it works out at a crash rate of 62% on iOS versus 47% on Android.

While I’ll accept the occasional app crash, I do recall a time when my iPod Touch downright refused to run an app. I’d open an app, and no sooner had it loaded that it would crash and force close. Obviously this wasn’t that important if the app in question was a game, but this happened quite a lot more than it should have done, even with system apps like iBooks and the App Store.

On Android, the only time I’ve ever experienced app crashing is when I’ve got too many apps open at the same time, or I’ve found a bug or glitch (which is later patched up in an update).

Still, a 47% crash rate for Android is pretty startling, and I have to wonder why it’s such a high figure.

iOS vs Android: Which One?

There are many more talking points to consider than what I’ve talked about in this blog post, but generally stapling I think the decision has already been made.

Although iOS is the first for new apps and app updates, times are changing and tides turning. There are still a few apps that I wish were available on Android that are iOS-only at the moment, including Neon Drive and Darkroom, but I love Android.

I’m used to Android being about me. I love Android’s sense of freedom. I love its unlimited customisation. I also love how you interact with your device.

It’s not just one Home Button like on an iPhone – an Android device can have a physical dedicated Home Button, Back button and Recent Apps button. Or, if lacking physical buttons, Android devices benefit from a fully customisable Navigation bar that can be arranged in any order you please.

Android is so me. In the words of an old Microsoft advert where people said they were a PC… I’m not just an Android user. I am Android.

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My Next Phone: Part 21 – Phones I’m Considering

I was going to publish this blog a while ago, but since IFA and various product launches through the winter, I decided to hold back in case I was missing out on a great device.

After a lot of thought and consideration, here is a list of the devices which I’m considering:

  • HTC One A9S
  • HTC Desire 10 Pro/Lifestyle
  • Huawei P9
  • Huawei Nova
  • Huawei P9 Lite
  • iPhone 6S
  • iPhone SE
  • iPhones 4S/5/5S (see: Older Phones/Workarounds blog)
  • LG G5
  • LG G Flex 2
  • LG Nexus 5X
  • Medion Life X5020
  • Samsung Galaxy S7
  • Sony Xperia X
  • Sony Xperia X Compact
  • Sony Xperia XA
  • Sony Xperia XZ
  • Sony Xperia Z5
  • Sony Xperia Z5 Compact
  • Sony Xperia Z5 Premium
  • Wileyfox Swift
  • ZTE Blade v7 Lite

The phones highlighted in Bold font are ones that fit into my budget, but I’m considering the others as well, just in case of any price reduction or special offers that may come my way. Also, I realise there are many other phones available, but these are the ones I’m considering. I think I’ll be going back to Carphone Warehouse, as a lot of the monthly contract deals they offer are so far cheaper than going straight to the network. The Huawei P9, for instance – I went into my local EE store a couple of weeks ago, and the best deal they could offer me was 2GB of data at £35.99 pcm, whereas C.W. were offering the same contract, on EE, for £5 a month less.

Plus, C.W. often do deals with a free gift to go with the phone, such as a tablet or a games console, so this can set them apart from the competition, even though this isn’t the deciding factor. Although, the ‘free’ gift EE offered me along with the P9 was a Mobile WiFi ‘MiFi’ Hotspot box, costing an extra £10 a month, and which I later found out wasn’t free with a hidden upfront cost of £19.99.

However, that hasn’t stopped me from exploring further negotiations with EE, and I guess I’ll make a decision nearer the time.

My Next Phone: Security – Fingerprint Sensors

The Lock Screen

We all do it: we secure our device with a pattern, PIN or password that we use to unlock the device. It’s one of the most simple security measures to use and set up on a mobile device.

But for the people who just can’t be bothered to enter a password every time you receive a text message (i.e. myself), there’s a new way of doing things: fingerprints.

Fingerprint sensors aren’t a new technology, and they’ve been on Apple’s iPhones and Samsung’s Galaxy devices for a couple of years. But the feature is now steadily creeping onto more and more devices, including budget smartphones below the £/$150 mark.

Devices such as the LG G5 and Huawei P9, phones I’m considering for their unique cameras, both have fingerprint sensors on the back of the phone, as opposed to the iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S7 which have a Home Button and fingerprint Sensor combination on the bottom bezel at the front of the device.

A fingerprint sensor can not only be used to unlock the device, but also as a secure method of authorising a payment or purchase. Fingerprint technology is therefore being implemented into mobile payment systems such as Apple Pay, Android Pay and Samsung Pay, and fingerprints can also be used on Android, in the place of a password, when buying digital items and apps from the Play Store.

Fingerprint Sensors: Are They Safe?

Even if a fingerprint is supposed to be more secure than a password, what’s to stop anyone from hacking the data of my fingerprint and being able to use it in future.

Maybe I’m being too paranoid, and maybe I’ve seen too many shows and films like 24 and Mission Impossible, but I don’t feel safe putting in another entry of personal information into my phone.

Also, what’s to stop someone from figuring out a way to bypass this security measure and unlock my device?

Fingerprint Variants

Naturally, I had to do a bit of reading on this. As Android Authority notes in this article published 13 December, there are three types of fingerprint sensors: optical, capacitive, and ultrasonic.

Optical Fingerprint Sensors

Optical sensors work like cameras, and take a digital photograph of your fingerprint. They then use an algorithm to detect “unique ridges and patterns” on your fingertips. Apparently the sensors have more diodes per inch than a regular camera, which helps to capture details and counteract the limitations of a finite resolution. As you’re covering the sensor with your finger, LED flashes come into action to capture the details in the dark.

AA highlights the lack of security with Optical sensors, as they take a 2D image and are easy to fool with prosthetics, as the main reason they’re being phased out, with the bulky technology a secondary reason as this creates a problem for slim phone designs.

Capacitive Fingerprint Sensors 

Capacitive sensors are more common in today’s smartphones, and use tiny capacitor circuits to collect data about a fingerprint.

From Android Authority:

As capacitors can store electrical charge, connecting them up to conductive plates on the surface of the scanner allows them to be used to track the details of a fingerprint. The charge stored in the capacitor will be changed slightly when a finger’s ridge is placed over the conductive plates, while an air gap will leave the charge at the capacitor relatively unchanged. An op-amp integrator circuit is used to track these changes, which can then be recorded by an analogue-to-digital converter.

The TL;DR of that is that it captures your fingerprint in parts. Your phone may ask you to move your finger around the sensor so that it can record different features. The captured digital data can then be compared and used to detect features of your finger in the future.

It’s not as easy to fool a capacitive scanner as it is an optical sensor, making it more secure, but it’s not immune from software or hardware hacking.

Also from Android Authority:

Creating a large enough array of these capacitors, typically hundreds if not thousands in a single scanner, allows for a highly detailed image of the ridges and valleys of a fingerprint to be created from nothing more than electrical signals. Just like the optical scanner, more capacitors results in a higher resolution scanner, increasing the level of security, up to a certain point.

As capacitive sensors are costly, earlier versions opted to cut the number of capacitors needed by using something called a ‘swipe scanner,’ which would “collect data from a smaller number of capacitor components by quickly refreshing the results as a finger is pulled over the sensor.”

As many consumers complained at the time, this method was very finicky and often required several attempts to scan the result correctly. Fortunately, these days, the simple press and hold design is far more common.

Ultrasonic Fingerprint Sensors

This is the newest form of fingerprint sensor technology to enter the mobile phone space, and incorporates an ultrasonic transmitter and receiver into the design. A pulse is sent out by the transmitter, and while some of the pulse is absorbed by your finger, some of it bounces back to the receiver from the ridges and pores of your finger.

Instead of implementing a microphone to listen for signals, a sensor to “detect the mechanical stress is used to calculate the intensity of the returning ultrasonic pulse at different points on the scanner.”

The aforementioned Android Authority article notes explains that, as ultrasonic sensors capture three dimensional images of your fingerprint, they are more secure than optical or capacitive sensors put together:

Scanning for longer periods of time allows for additional depth data to be captured, resulting in a highly detailed 3D reproduction of the scanned fingerprint. The 3D nature of this capture technique makes it an even more secure alternative to capacitive scanners.

The article also mentions that there is more technology at play than simply the fingerprint Sensor, such as the supporting infrastructure of software and hardware, such as a dedicated IC, various algorithms and cryptography, and also notes how a sensor will capture small parts of information (minutae) at a time:

Typically these algorithms look for where ridges and lines end, or where a ridge splits in two. Collectively, these and other distinctive features are called minutiae. If a scanned fingerprint matches several of these minutiae then it will be considered a match. Rather than comparing the whole fingerprint each time, comparing minutiae reduces the amount of processing power required to identify each fingerprint, helps avoid errors if the scanned fingerprint is smudged, and also allows the finger to placed off-centre or be identified with only a partial print.

The article also details what kind of security is used to keep this information secure, and area which I’m particularly interested in:

ARM processors can keep this information securely on the physical chip using its Trusted Execution Environment (TEE) based TrustZone technology.

[…]

Qualcomm’s take on this is built into its Secure MSM architecture while Apple talks this up as the “Secure Enclave”, but it is all based on the same principle of keeping this secure data on a separate part of the processor that cannot be accessed by apps operating in the regular operating system environment.

This is interesting as I didn’t realise the types of fingerprint sensors and different technologies varied so greatly, and the quotes above and below reassure me a little bit when it comes to the data associated with my fingerprint, how it is stored on my phone, and how it is used by companies and banks:

The FIDO (Fast IDentity Online) Alliance has developed strong cryptographic protocols that use these protected hardware zones to enable password-less authentication handshakes between hardware and services. So you can log into a website or online shop using your fingerprint without your unique data ever having to leave your smartphone. This is accomplished by passing digital keys rather than biometric data to servers.

Reading all of this has reassured me that my fingerprints are in good hands, but I’m still weary of the technology. After all, the Galaxy S7 is the first phone I’ve the had with a fingerprint sensor, and idea of using a fingerprint rather than a swipe to unlock my device, or a password to pay for music from the Play Store, is still so new to me.