Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Ditching Symbian for Android: the good and the bad

Time to move out

My old Nokia was falling apart, and so was the company that made it. I could have bought a new Symbian phone, but why keep an operating system that's been stabbed in the back by its owner? Not much chance of getting new apps on a platform that's about to go extinct, and who knows how long existing Symbian apps will get updates?

So it was time to say goodbye to Nokia and move on. I got a Motorola Defy mainly for its compact size, light weight, and tough build. And it happened to run on Android, which has more ways to customise into something you want to use than Blackberry, Windows, or iPhone.

But it's not all sunshine. Android is better than Symbian in some ways, but worse in others.

Maps and location

Android has Google Maps, but so does Symbian. What Android does not have is free offline navigation. There are third party options like Navigon and Navit, but they are no match for Nokia's Ovi Maps. Android would be so much better if someone would port Nokia Maps to it!
Update: Google Maps now has free offline navigation, sort of. You still need to be online for route calculation.

When a location-aware app finds out that GPS is switched off it bluntly tells you so without offering to switch it on for you. Google could learn something from Symbian.

Why do location and security share an entry in the settings app? Wouldn't security & privacy make more sense?

There are plenty of widgets to toggle GPS, but there's no simple switch to toggle network location on and off. Entering the settings and tapping away Google's warning about tracking your movements behind your back is such a clumsy method that you'd be tempted to keep network location switched on forever. Which is exactly what Big Brother Google wants you to do.


Syncing contacts with Gmail sounds good, but in real life it doesn't work that well. Notes and URLs are often lost when you sync back and forth to Google, and double first names are split to first and middle name. A first name like "KLM Ticket Office" is split into first, second, and last name. A name like "Al's Pizza (open 'till midnight)" returns completely messed up.

It takes way too many taps to edit a contact, and I can't select multiple contacts unless I ditch the stock app for an alternative like AContact or Go Contacts.

I can't import/export contacts from vcf files without 3rd party apps (the excuse for a file manager called QuickOffice doesn't count as a usable stock app), and then there's always some data missing. Managing contacts is such an essential feature of a phone that it should work right from the beginning.
Edit: Since Froyo my phone can import and export vcf files. Too bad birthdays and anniversaries are not exported. If I export my contacts and reimport them, everyone's born on the first of January, 1970.

Motorola added an annoyance of their own. Why can't I disable "linked profiles" on my Motorola Defy unless I root my phone and freeze "contacts unconnected" with an app like Titanium? Why did Google let Motorola get away with this?


Why do the built-in calendar and all the apps and widgets that tap into it won't let me set a time for an event reminder? In the current setup it's impossible to link an appointment at 9.00 to a reminder at 7.45. Setting a time rather than a number-of-hours-offset also makes it a lot easire to schedule a reminder between meetings without having to calculate the number of hours and minutes yourself. It's so much easier in the Symbian calendar.

Why can't I set a reminder for an all-day event (such as a birthday) on the day itself?

Why do I need apps like Calendar Snooze to repair the flawed reminder alarms of the stock app?

The built-in calendar only comes with appointments, not with tasks, reminders, and birthdays.

Who wouldn't want to have Symbian's calendar app on Android, with full cloud syncing?


The built-in music player won't let me sort by genre or composer. It won't let me browse my music folders either. Worse yet, it often chokes on ID3 tags and lists songs as "artist unknown," even though the artist tag is present and every non-Android media player is able to read it. The artist tag bug also bites all other media players that tap into Android's media database.


The behaviour of the search button is totally unpredictable. Sometimes it searches within an app, sometimes it launches a Google web search. Why can't we configure the search button to always search local data? Better yet, let us replace the function of the search button by a "keyboard on/off" switch. Any app has a search option in its menu, so having a dedicated key for it is not necessary at all. I prefer a dedicated keyboard button over tapping and holding the menu key.
Edit: new phones don't have a search key anymore (very new phones don't have any buttons left under the screen at all), but since Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) there's a Google search bar on each and every homescreen. The only way to get rid of this is by using an alternative launcher or flashing a custom ROM.


Combining messages in conversation threads is not always a good idea, especially when you want to group a set of related messages from different senders. Why can't we use message folders in addition to the threaded view unless we hunt the market for an SMS app replacement?

Delivery reports for SMS are bogus. Android only reports delivery to the network, whereas every non-Android phone reports delivery to the recipients phone. Each and every SMS app on the market suffers from this design flaw, because each and every SMS app for Android is just a bit of chrome on top of the same Android messaging engine.
Edit: this bug is finally fixed!


The keyboard should have a little "close" button on top to get it out of the way. Having to long-press the menu key to close the keyboard gets annoying real quick, and the back button is too unpredictable: sometimes it closes the keyboard, sometimes it closes something else.

There's no button to toggle the keyboard on and off (long-click on menu doesn't count), yet there is a useless search button.

Annoying sounds

I don't want to hear a beep when I switch my phone off, remove a USB cable, unplug the charger, or press the volume rocker. The camera shutter sound annoys everybody, especially in lecture halls and museums. And zooming with the volume rocker sounds a beep for each and every zoom level. One picture, six beeps... Why can't I switch these annoying sounds off without rooting my phone or installing stealth camera software?

Recordings and screenshots

No call recording? You must be joking! And why sabotage third party apps that try to give us two way recording?

Having to root a phone just to take screenshots? Even the anal retentive folks over at Apple didn't go that far!
Edit: finally fixed in Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).

File transfer

Why does file transfer over bluetooth require apps like Bluetooth File Transfer? Can't the built-in file browser take care of that? It comes native in Symbian.

Why can't I transfer files over a WiFi with an ad-hoc connection so that I don't have to use a router? My phone came with wireless tethering out of the box, so it has a built-in wireless router. There's a workaround for this problem, but you have to root your phone to make it work.

Call log

Why does the call log not tell me how many minutes/messages I used in a specific time range (e.g. number of minutes last month)? Symbian does it. Android shouldn't need DroidStats. A phone doesn't need to come with everything straight out of the box, but it should have all the features directly related to its core business: calling and texting.

Going online

WiFi is indicated on the notification bar, but it takes a lot of clicks to find out to which network you are connected. With rogue access points trying to steal your data it is essential to know which network your phone is using without having to dig to the bottom of the settings menu. The info could easily be displayed in the notification pulldown menu.

What about a simple way to switch data off? This can spare you some unpleasant surprises when roaming abroad and every byte costs a fortune. APNdroid is a workaround for something that should have worked straight out of the box.

When an app needs to go online and there's no active internet connection, it bluntly tells you so and you'll have to launch a connection yourself. Why can't browsers and other apps display a screen that offers to switch WiFi or 3G on for you the way Symbian does?

A lock screen or two

When you wake up your phone there are two obstacles between you and your home screen: the "slide to unlock screen" and the "enter pin or unlock pattern" screen.

You can disable them, but then your phone is open to anyone who can find the power button. So you'll probably want a lock.

Up to Eclair (Android 2.1) you could have the slider screen, the pin/pattern screen, or both. I never used the slider screen, because the pin code screen doubles as a bouncer to keep unwanted visitors out and to prevent accidental taps and in-pocket phone calls.

But then I upgraded to Froyo (Android 2.2). Since then, I can only have my pin code screen together with the slider. If I remove the slider screen my pin code lock goes away too. It's either all or nothing, and this annoyance persists in Gingerbread (Android 2.3). Maybe Ice Cream Sandwich will give me my sliderless pin code screen back? Really, one lock screen to open a phone is enough. Two is overkill.

Good news

Seems like I can only complain. Not so. Many things in Android work better than in Symbian.

Android comes with superior customisation options including third party user interfaces (launchers) and any widget you can think of, in any size you like.

Third party app availability is as good as for the iPhone. Raw numbers are meaningless, who cares about a hundred thousand apps that let your phone make farting sounds?

On second thought, the Android Market is even better than the app store from Apple. Google doesn't censor its Market in the same anal retentive way that Steve Jobs Tim Cook censors his app store. And if I don't like the merchandise on the built-in market I can shop in competing markets without having to root or hack or jailbreak. Android doesn't restrict my options in the way that Apple, Microsoft, and Symbian try to do.

Of course I rooted my phone anyway. More good news: rooting Android is a lot easier than jailbreaking your iPhone or hacking your way into Symbian or Windows Phone.

Android updates are frequent. Motorola is notoriously slow with firmware updates, but who cares if you can simply download custom ROMs like CyanogenMod from independent developers?

Also highly appreciated: the possibility to replace each and every stock app with an alternative default program. If you don't like the built in browser, messaging app, or contacts list, you can just tell your phone to use another app as default and you'll never have to look at the stock app again.

Custom keyboards! If Swype didn't exist I'd never have bought a phone without a physical keypad.

The verdict

Android has lots of potential, and I'm definitely not going back to Symbian. But there's plenty left to fix: Android is a work in progress that often gives me the idea that I'm paying to be a beta tester.

tweet this reddit digg this StumbleUpon digg this digg this