Why I dumped my 4G Android for an iPhone

Unreliabilty, anemic backup process plague Android phones

Android is the king of the smartphone world, with better sales than Apple's iPhone, and many good reasons for its success.I'm a big fan of Android. When it works properly, it opens possibilities that aren't available to iPhone users because Google allows installation of third-party applications not available in the Android Market. But I've run through two Android phones, which proved to be less reliable than any Windows computer I've owned, and I finally made the switch I was hoping to avoid: I bought an iPhone.

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I am not urging Android users to switch. Most Android phones probably work just fine. If your phone still works, that's great. Keep using it. But I'll explain why I ultimately dumped Android for Apple's iOS. I started out with the Motorola Droid early in 2010. I loved it. For a few months. It started failing, and failing some more: The keyboard wouldn't work, maps wouldn't work, the home screen would go blank, it was slow, and sometimes I couldn't even make phone calls without powering the phone off and on a couple of times.I chalked most of these problems up to the poor hardware. The phone had only 256MB of RAM and each new application slowed it down. To keep the phone going for more than a year, I performed at least two factory resets and got one replacement phone.Finally, I'd had enough and was ready to get an Android phone with some real horsepower. I bought a 4G LG Revolution from Verizon. It was everything I wanted - for two weeks. The large screen, powerful processor and memory kept it running smoothly and I put hours into customizing the phone with an alternate home screen launcher and a lock screen replacement tool to provide easier access to my favorite apps.Then, in the middle of a business trip, I turned the phone off and it wouldn't turn back on. More specifically, it would turn back on but go to a completely blank screen. After a call to Verizon, I discovered my only option was a factory reset and that was the final straw: I swapped it for an iPhone. I'm even getting a refund because it's cheaper than the Revolution. I'd long avoided the iPhone for a few reasons: I don't like the small screen and the inability to replace the battery, the notification system is anemic, I'm not crazy about putting all my technology chips in with Apple (since I also own a Mac and iPad), and I hate the restrictions on installing third-party applications.

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One of the biggest benefits I got from Android was nearly-free USB tethering. For a $15 fee, I purchased PDAnet, which let me share the phone's wireless Internet connection with a laptop without paying additional monthly fees. You can't install PDAnet on an iPhone unless you jailbreak it, just one reason why I believed owning an Android phone was nearly as good as owning a jailbroken iPhone.But after three factory resets, and two phone switches, perhaps the biggest advantage of the iPhone became clear: the backup and restore process. Each time you reset an Android phone or buy a new one, you have to re-download all your applications from the Market (while hoping they're still available), set up your home screens and icons again, type in all your passwords, etc. etc.Google and the carriers will tell you all your applications will be there in the Market in a convenient list, but in the five times I had to start over this was only true once. In the other four cases, the Market gave me a list of the all the applications I had purchased, but not the free ones I had downloaded.There are some ways to deal with this. The best one I found was an app that simply provides a list of all your applications and download links to make the process of re-acquiring applications simpler. Some non-Google tools promise to back up your Android applications, usually for a fee. And alternate home screen launchers allow you to back up your settings, which I assume would put your home screens back in order. (Users of rooted phones have more options than owners of non-rooted phones.)At the very least, Google does back up your contacts online. But the Apple backup process - which I was already familiar with due to owning an iPod Touch and iPad - is far superior.Next: Why I switched.

Through iTunes, users of iOS devices can transfer downloaded applications to their hard drives and back up their settings. By settings, I mean everything: call histories, home screen and app icon placement, recent Google searches, currently open Web pages, even your Angry Birds saved games. If your phone fails and you do a factory reset, or you swap an old iPhone for a new one, Apple restores your phone so it is indistinguishable from where you left off.Although I enjoy customizing Android phones, five times starting over in a little more than a year was too much. I received my iPhone from Verizon a couple of days ago, and even though I've never owned an iPhone before I restored it from an old backup of my three-year-old iPod Touch, so I wasn't starting from scratch. And if my new phone fails, I can restore it without spending hours on customization, something I couldn't say with Android.

Before making the switch, I vented some of my frustrations on Twitter and Facebook. One Facebook friend said "Don't do it man. That OS [meaning Apple's] is for beginners." A buddy of mine who is a fellow Motorola Droid veteran half-jokingly said "I just died a little inside." And a Twitter friend suggested I try out Windows Phone 7 - and pointed me toward a third-party backup process that might "theoretically" work.

I like fiddling around with technology, but for something I need every day I'm no longer interested in products that might "theoretically" work, and if a product working the way it is supposed to work means it is for beginners, that's fine too. So far, the iPhone is working well. It seems more limited than an Android, and the small form factor makes it feel like a toy rather than a smartphone, but the battery life so far is on par with the Motorola Droid and much better than the LG Revolution, even though I had purchased the expanded battery pack for the LG device. And while I like 4G speed, reliability is more important.I don't expect Apple to surpass Android in sales, but I think Google would be well served in creating a backup process to rival the one in iTunes. I might even switch back to Android in the future if Google takes care of this.But there are some other issues for Google to worry about regarding Android. Even though Android phones have logged more sales than iPhones, usage tracker Net Applications reports that iPhones and iPod Touches account for 1.46% of all Web browsing, compared to 0.76% for  all Android devices. Even without the iPad factored in, iOS has nearly twice as much share in this measure than Android. Does that mean iPhone users are using their devices for more useful stuff than Android users? I have a hard time believing that's true, but some other anecdotal evidence makes it plausible. A Slashdot story from today calls Android app quality "pathetically low" and says the Android Market and OS are plagued with technical problems that make it difficult for some users to download applications.Nielsen found that even though Android leads in U.S. market share and data usage, iPhone users download apps more often. One theory is that fragmentation, with Android running on many different devices from different manufacturers pushing out different versions of the operating system, has some developers leery of building apps for Android. That excuse can't be used forever, though. After all, Microsoft's Windows thumped the Mac by letting its OS run on just about any computer. More generally, Google has a customer service problem that's not specific to Android. While Apple provides robust support and easy device replacements in case of problems, Google offers only limited support with few technical issues considered serious enough to warrant a phone call. Device problems should be handled by the carrier and manufacturer, but Android Market problems have to be solved through emailing Google or asking for help on support forums. Google has a runaway success on its hands with Android. My decision to dump Android certainly won't be noticed in any quarterly earnings call, but I think Google would do well to reward its loyal users by fixing a few of these nagging problems. Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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