Basti's Scratchpad on the Internet
27 Dec 2020

A review of iOS, from an Android user's perspective

My Pixel 2 phone received its final software update the other day, and its battery took the occasion to really show its age. So it was time for a new phone. Which is not a decision to make lightly, considering that I spend multiple hours per day using it. And this time, I was inclined to give the iPhone another go, mostly because of Google's gross lack of human decency in the last few years. So, after years of using various Android devices, I bought a used, red, iPhone SE (2020). I made this choice with some trepidations, as my last experience with iOS was an iPad 3 from 2012. These are my experiences.

As a seasoned Android user, my first impressions of iOS were a bit of a mess. There are things that swipe up from the bottom, swipe down from the top, to the left of the home screens, to the right of the home screens, and at various permutations of pressing/holding the home button. Everything animates, takes a long time, and moves the viewport around. Particularly annoying is the placement of the back button in the top left corner, i.e. the most-inconvenient place on the entire screen for the arguably most-important gesture of the entire UI1. A close second are the context menus that slide out from a long-pressed item, with the menu thus in a different position on the screen every time you long press anything. These things may be less flashy on Android, but are seriously simpler.

I also immediately missed Android's customizeable home screen, with freely-positionable app icons and a plethora of useful widgets. iOS is very restrictive in this regard, and seemingly for no good reason. Why is the list of all apps (right-of-homescreen) sorted arbitrarily into nonsensical folders instead of a plain list? Why are app widgets allowed, but only on that weird left-of-the-home-screen screen? Why can't I have a currently-playing widget for my podcast player, a weather radar, or my groceries list? Apparently, iOS 14 has a brand new API that does now allow Android-like widgets in iOS, but at the moment they were only available for Apple's own (useless) apps.

My second big stumbling block was the iOS on-screen keyboard. At first glance, I thought it a terribly clunky thing. Actions as simple as inserting a comma require multiple taps, and positioning the cursor seemed almost comically difficult. But then I discovered that the "123" button in the bottom left can be swiped instead of tapped, which makes commas and periods and hyphens available to a quick swipe. That is seriously cool, if slightly hampered by my accidentally activating Control Center instead of swiping from "123" a bit too often. And precise cursor positioning is hidden behind a long-press of the spacebar. Very cool indeed. With these gestures, the iOS on-screen keyboard is actually not bad at all.

Autocorrect seems capable as well, and multi-language aware (hear that, Android?). And, mind-blowingly, a triple-swipe on the content area engages undo and redo in the current text area. Albeit a nigh-undiscoverable gesture, this is miles better than Androids undo/redo system (there isn't one). Actually, Android text fields do support undo and redo if you press Ctrl-Z on the keyboard, it's just that no on-screen keyboard has a Ctrl key. This is my number one grievance with Android at the moment (although there are workarounds).

As a summary to the keyboard situation, I came to respect the iOS keyboard. I still miss a German "ß" key, more control about the autocorrect system, and a more modern design. But it works reasonably well. Better than Android's stock keyboard for sure.

My second big hurdle with iOS was the camera. Just like my Pixel's camera, the iPhone takes perfectly acceptible photos. But everything else is just plain worse than on Android. It starts with the way you get access to the camera, either by swiping right on the lock screen, or by tapping the camera app on the home screen. On Android, you double-click the lock button to start the camera, then hit the volume button to take a photo. Not only is this significantly faster, it also requires no ungloved finger, and no look onto the screen. And it doesn't make that abominable shutter sound, either, that the iPhone requires (unless the entire phone is silenced or you take video).

When I take a picture with my phone, it is because I don't have a dedicated camera at hand. Considering the number of cameras I own, this is most likely to happen when I need a camera fast. Thus the speed from pants to picture is extremely important to me, and this is a clear victory for Android. And additionally, Pixel phones have supported stacked RAWs since the original Pixel2, and offer quite a comprehensive image editing suite right in the stock camera app. And I prefer the Pixel's relatively neutral rendering over the iPhone's oversharpened, over-denoised, waxy images. But that might be just me.

At this point, I had more or less given up on iOS, and bought a Pixel 4a, which is probably Android's closest competitor to the iPhone SE.

Beyond the camera, there were a number of annoyances with iOS that I found hard to get used to. Like the fingerprint reader on the SE being very unreliable for me (50% miss rate), and awkwardly requiring a distinct push to activate the home button, where the Pixel's is quicker and in a more convenient location. The home button is in fact not a button, but an immovable touch pad that fakes a button-like behavior with a little rumble effect when pressed uncomfortably hard. Pressing a hard surface really hard did not get comfortable to me, especially not when invoking the multi-tasking switcher with a double-press. And it's awkwardly placed at the very bottom of the device, where my thumb does not rest with any kind of force in normal usage. Another real problem is the lack of third-party browsers3, which just leaves you in the cold should a website not work in Safari, or should you dislike Safari's rendering or its very limited ad-blockers. I was particularly annoyed by Safari's context menu for links, which slowly slides out from the link's location, often extending far outside of the screen. Thus opening links in new tabs is just awkwardly slow and annoying in Safari, where Android's more utilitarian menu gets the job done much quicker. Although a phone with a bigger screen might mitigate this problem somewhat.

On the topic of animations in general, one of my favorite features in Android is the animation speed setting in the Developer settings. If you want to feel like you got a new, faster phone, just set the animation speed to 0.5x, and marvel at the newfound snappiness of everything.

Apps in general feel annoyingly restrictive on iOS. Where is a true Firefox, with addons? Where is a Youtube player that can play a YouTube video in the background while the screen is locked, or block ads (NewPipe is the bee's knees!). Or a file synchronization tool that can actually synchronize useful data outside of its own sandox? In fact, my original hopes for iOS were driven by my memory of the fabled higher quality apps available only on the App Store. Looking at some of my old favorites on the SE however, I was forced to take off those rose-tinted glasses. These apps might have been radical back in the day, but the world has moved on. I don't see a pervasive difference in app quality between iOS and Android any longer. Of course iOS apps do still cost a more money on average, and often can't be test-driven without paying. That two-hour free return policy on the Play Store is seriously genius.

Additionally, there were a number of odd problems with the iPhone SE that I found hard to make sense of. For example, apps were very frequently getting booted out of memory. So much so in fact, that often my RSS feeds would not refresh in the background, and podcasts would not download. Even though the iPhone SE sure does have a lot less memory than the Pixel 4a, I hadn't expected this to be an actual problem4. And the iPhone would frequently misunderstand a vertical swipe for a horizontal one, or initiate an edge swipe when my finger was still clearly on the screen; My bluetooth headphones sounded noticeably worse, with a strange clipping artifact that should not be there; Significantly worse cell reception and voice quality; Low contrast and tiny text on lock screen notifications; And only barely adequate battery life. And let's not even talk about the stupid Lightning cable, the (comparatively) laggy and tiny TFT screen, the lack of a podcast client I like, and my horrible experiences during the setup process.

So, in summary, the iPhone SE was not for me. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice enough phone, and probably enough of a smartphone for most people. But there were a number of issues with both its hardware and its software, where I found Android and the Pixel 4a plainly more productive. Which is surprising, as my mind still had iOS pegged as the premium alternative, that I would totally buy if I wasn't too cheap for it. But in actual use I was annoyed at its preference of form over function, with many a distracting animation and a number of glaring ergonomic mistakes. Well, another lesson learned. The only truly significant advantage of iOS remains its vastly superior software support story: The SE will probably receive software updates until 2025 or 2027, where the best-in-class Pixel 4a will definitely expire in 2023.

Footnotes:

1

in some places, a right swipe can be used instead of the back button. But the behavior is too inconsistent to be useful

2

what Apple calls "ProRAW", and only makes available in the iPhone 12. iOS does support ordinary RAW, but only in third-party camera apps, and anyway non-stacked RAW files are rather useless from a tiny phone sensor

3

there are different browsers, but they are all required to use Safari's web renderer.

4

I hear this might have been a bug in iOs 14.3? What this says about the software quality of iOS in general is even more troubling, however.

Tags: computers ui
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