A lot has happened to me in the past month. I had a beautiful baby girl. I started cold brewing coffee. And after micro-slicing my thumb open for the thousandth time on its shattered screen, I swapped the SIM card out my iPhone to a pristine Pixel 2 on loan from Google.
I thought I’d last a few hours–maybe a day–before I chucked the Android phone against the wall. I’ve been on iOS for almost a decade now. Even if Android “Oreo” is supposedly decent, even if Google “gets” design these days, I was sure–just as I know a lot of iPhone users are–that the change would be too much to stomach. Plus, how would I live without animoji?!?
Instead I haven’t looked back, and I’m here to tell you something a couple billion people have already figured out: You don’t need to make your next phone upgrade an iPhone. It’s remarkably simple to switch. And especially if you’ve already handed your digital life to Google, Android probably makes more sense.
So what exactly convinced this skeptic? It was no one thing, but countless little design touches that Google is getting right.
How does Apple tell you that you have a new email or message? A red dot on the app. It’s the color choice of both bullfighters and Defcon 5. It incites urgency. “Come back to work,” Slack warns after 5 p.m. “Have you even seen the latest on Trump?” Facebook beckons. Numbers live in those red dots to list the triple digits of your unanswered inbox. And this is not to mention Apple’s worst sin : All those “out of iCloud storage!” notifications that Apple pushes to your home screen in the hope that you’ll spend money on services that other companies offer for free.
You want to know how Android tells you there’s an update waiting? A pale blue or pink or yellow dot. A digital baby blanket. Developers can choose one that coordinates with their icon badge. These washed-out hues are the least urgent colors that I can imagine, and their psychology sinks in quickly. As I use the Pixel, my stomach doesn’t tighten with the guilt of every waiting message or task. “The easy thing to do would have been to put a badge and numbers on our home screen, but that was part of the direction of not being too distracting that we wanted to take,” says Google product manager Allen Huang when we spoke on the topic last month. “There’s no benefit to distracting the user on the way to accomplishing a task.”
The Pixel 2, along with a few other Android phones, also features the time on your lock screen even when the phone is asleep. The result? In addition to being less compelled to check every notification, I turn on my phone’s screen less often.
Designed For Actual Human Hands
I’ve been using a Pixel 2 XL, which has a six-inch screen and–just like the iPhone X–is too large for normal humans or denim to hold comfortably. Okay. Fine. Bad life decisions. Let’s move on.
The fact of the matter is, the whole world is making too-big phones, and as consumers, those large, dazzling screens are wooing us just as bigger televisions did 20 years ago.
The difference between Apple and Google is that Google has fixed the biggest problems with these screens for most use cases. First, many Android phones feature a fingerprint unlock on the upper rear of the phone, rather than the front bottom. This allows you to cradle the giant Moses tablet in your hand, rather than pinching it at the bottom and praying it doesn’t fall.
On the software side, Android OS features an omnipresent “back” button on the bottom left-hand corner of the interface. Want to go back on a website, or back to your last email? Don’t dislocate a thumb stretching to the top of the screen, learn some strange new gesture, or activate a weird Accessibility Mode that moves everything down. Just hit the button that’s always there. Done.
All Of The Settings
Here’s a weird thing about Android that I never thought I’d like: You can put an app basically anywhere. On your home screen. Beneath your home screen in a little drawer. On a page when you swipe right. Shaped in a cross. Nested. Whatever.
It’s the type of hyper-personalization that, on a device as personal and integral as someone’s phone, we need more of. And it seeps deep into Android’s settings, which are now somehow both more customizable, and more manageable than Apple’s. Seriously. Open the settings on Android, and you’ll find 13 listed items like sound, storage, and accessibility. On Apple, there are 32–almost three times as many–and that’s before you scroll down to the settings Apple has listed for every single individual app. In attempting to surface any feature a person could want, Apple has placed every function onto the same hierarchical level, and left it to the user to sort through this flat pile.
Oh, and one other little thing: Opening the Settings menu itself, you’re greeted by a tip, often highlighting a hidden or non-obvious feature of Android. Call me old, but directions can be great!
A Direct Line To Google
Chances are good that, even if you’re an Apple loyalist, you still use Google search, Gmail, and even Google Photos or Docs on a daily basis. Android removes a step of friction between you and that omniscient cloud. Yes, it can be unsettling. And yes, it’s irresistible.
With two children, I was terrified to lose my Apple photos library (I even backed it up to Google Photos, just in case). But with a Pixel, Google offers unlimited full resolution photo backups that automatically upload without you even thinking about it. That means even on a smaller phone, you’ll never run out of room and be forced to delete photos of your kid to make space for some new app. And here’s the best part: I have no mental burden of discerning what’s stored on my phone and what’s on the cloud. Frankly, this distinction doesn’t even matter because, in 2017, it shouldn’t.
Swipe left on iOS, and you’ll arrive at a screen with Apple News. These are stories curated by your interests that you’ve set yourself with Apple. Swipe left on Android, and you arrive at a feed of stories that Google already knows you’ll be interested in because, let’s admit it, Google knows you better than you know yourself. For me, Google shares updates on Chicago sports teams (which includes lots of White Sox news, but crucially to this Southsider, no Cubs) and stories about veganism (I know, I’m insufferable!).
And of course, there are all sorts of other Googley features, like the Google Assistant, or Google’s password manager, which hops between Chrome and apps without a second thought. But it’s often the little things that are the best surprises. I’m outside a restaurant. I look at my phone. And I see a notification in the top tray–would I like to check out their menu? Let’s admit it–half the apps on my phone know where I am at all times anyway. At least Google is giving me something back for the privacy trade-off.
What’s Worse? Mostly Messaging
After a month, I turned my iPhone 7 back on. I was startled by how fluid it felt. Google’s Material Design is a noble idea, sure, but nobody designs a silky smooth, naked-in-a-pile-of-satin-sheets-and-coated-with-baby-oil interface like Apple. iOS felt more impressive than it had in a very long time. But I didn’t miss it.
What I did and still do miss was iMessage. I miss sending text messages as long as I wanted and knowing they’d go through as a single, unsplit bubble. I miss sending images to my wife and seeing read receipts.
Of course we still share photos from Android to iOS. (Android lets me do so via text, Hangouts, Gmail, or Google Photos, as well as through a pop-up tray that’s learned from my habits and predicts to whom I’ll want to send something through which service.) But there are weird problems that come up when I’m in a thread with iMessengers. Namely, I don’t see the photos that they share–and I don’t even know they’re sharing them.
The other problem is that, earlier this year, Google made the unfortunate decision to remove SMS from its excellent messaging platform Hangouts, forcing us to rely upon the mobile-only messaging platform, Messages. This decision is despised by basically every Android user you’ll find on the internet. And in my daily life, I find myself juggling Hangouts and Messages to talk to people on their computers and phones. I wish that, even if I can never have iMessage on Android, at least I could squeeze these two Google platforms back into one.
But here’s the thing: This messaging snafu is a smaller problem than it sounds. And it’s not nearly big enough to outweigh everything else I like about the Pixel 2–like that when I plug it back in, the Pixel doesn’t just show me a battery icon or say “charging.” Its screen reads “Charging Rapidly”–like “I got you, Mark. I know you need this phone back, and I’m working as fast as I can to make that possible.”
iOS feels like a tribute to California’s mid-aughts design legacy. Android feels like a contemporary product designed for me, for right now.