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Owning an Android Phone - aka Living The Beta Test

After owning an iPhone and two Android phones, I have reached the conclusion that, when we consumers buy an Android device, we are not purchasing a finished product. What we are really doing is paying money to join Google's and Verizon's beta testing program. Do you remember beta tests? Software companies don't do them nearly as often as they used to do them, but basically a beta test is a test of software that is *nearly* finished. Prior to "going beta," software is just tested by the in-house quality assurance team, but public betas are open to end users. It might not be completely stable so there are bugs and it might crash on you, but if you just can't wait to get your hands on the latest and greatest, then you can join a beta test. You get to submit bug reports that go right to the developers and your feedback helps to shape and perfect the next generation of that product, whatever it is. One small point - because the software is not really ready for sale, most companies do not charge money for Beta software. Technically, neither does Google. They provide the Android operating system free of charge to telephone makers and wireless carriers. The snag is that the manufacturers and carriers *do* charge for the phones and the service, and that is my issue.

Today I am using a Motorola Droid Razr mobile phone. Let's start with the positives. I really like the screen. At first it seemed really large compared to my old HTC Incredible Android phone, but now I prefer it. The phone is nice and light, and the battery life seems to be quite a lot better than the Incredible. The sound quality of phone calls made with the Razr seems to me to be better than any cell phone that I have ever owned. The camera quality is good, and the processor seems nice and fast. As a piece of hardware, I really like the phone hardware.

My 2010 Ford F-150's Microsoft Sync software even recognizes the phone. I can sync the phone book with the truck, stream music to the stereo, voice dial, and even have the truck read incoming text messages. This provides cheap entertainment for my son who likes to text me weird things for the truck to try and pronounce. The phone usually syncs when the truck starts, but occasionally it doesn't, or just drops as I am driving along. There is one condition where the Bluetooth will always drop, and you can try this test with your Android phone at home. Turn on your WiFi and connect to your home network. Go outside and start your car and sync with the Bluetooth on the car. Observe that you are connected to both your home WiFi and your car. Drive away. When you get out of range of your home WiFi and the signal drops, observe that your phone also drops the Bluetooth connection with the car. The only fix is to leave your WiFi antenna turned off so you don't forget to turn it off every time you drive your car.

When we talk about the negatives of the Razr, I am afraid that Verizon is letting down this very nice phone. Google released the 4.0.1 version of Android on October 19th, 2011, and as of this writing, they are now up to 4.0.4. Surely my brand new phone would be on the latest operating system - right? No. It is on version 2.3.6. Apple is the soup to nuts maker of the hardware and the operating system on iPhones, so they can push out updates as soon as they are available. Google, however, just provides Verizon with the Android operating system, and then Verizon has to adapt it for the phones that it sells. Supposedly, the Razr is on the list to receive the Android 4.0 update by the end of the second quarter of 2012, but there are only 3 weeks left in the quarter as I write this, and there is no word from Verizon.

So we have a very old copy of Android on this shiny, new phone. What does that mean to us, exactly? For starters, Verizon is now following the model of Dell and other PC manufacturers and pre-loading the Razr phones with lots of bloatware. Bloatware are pre-loaded apps that you did not want or ask for, and in the case of the Razr, can't remove. Why do I have a Verizon navigation app, when Android comes with Google maps? Do I need 2 navigation apps? No. Do I need "MOG," "MOTOACTV," Netflix, NFL Mobile, Slacker Radio, or Verizon Video? No, but I can't uninstall them. All you can do is hide the icon, but they are still sitting there on your phone, taking up space, and occasionally crashing.

Did I mention crashing? This is where we really get the beta test experience. I plug my phone into the charger when I go to bed at night. Sometimes, when I get up in the morning, the phone presents me with a never ending cascade of dialogs telling me that various applications have crashed. As soon as one dialog is dismissed, another is presented. The only remedy is to power off the phone and turn it back on. This initially continued until a number of the bloatware applications were sent automatic updates. My phone then ran perfectly until Verizon sent down some system update that destabilized the phone, again. Much crashing of applications resumed until applications began to receive updates. Now the phone only crashes on a random and unpredictable schedule instead of every morning. This is good and bad. I don't have to reboot every morning, but because I don't reboot every morning, I never know when the phone will stop working. One really special occurrence was when I received a call from the Visa fraud people. They wanted to know if those were really my charges (they were not). The message kept saying that I needed to press 1 to talk to a human, but I couldn't because my phone picked that moment to have a fit, and crash warning dialogs started exploding all over the screen. I had to reboot my phone, and then make 3 phone calls and spend 15 minutes on hold to get back to a human operator - who told me to go into my bank. Nice.

Well, what about that newfangled 4G data network that we hear so much about. I live in Seattle. Tech central, and this is an area that is covered by 4G. Sort of. I see the little icon on the screen, but frequently the phone seems surprised when I try to do something on the Internet. It won't connect and I have to retry, and retry, and retry, or it takes forever to establish an initial connection. Sometimes it will step down to 3G, and other times it just refuses to talk to the data network at all and I have to reboot.

My experience with this Android phone and my last one make me think that these phones are not really ready for the average consumer. If you are ready to live on the bleeding edge and you have the patience and the troubleshooting skills to deal with all of the rough edges, then Android phones can be great. If I was recommending a phone to a non-technical friend or relative, however, it would have to be an iPhone.
My phone did eventually receive the Android 4.0.4 update. Quite a few things changed, and some things didn't. I still can't remove bloatware apps. The phone crashes less, but now when it does crash it tends to give no warning. I think that they have just suppressed the dialog boxes. What I mean by that is that my phone no longer throws up a lot of boxes saying that apps have stopped working, even when the phone has experienced some catastrophic failure and will no longer receive incoming messages. The phone will be sitting quietly, apparently working fine, but phone calls, voice mails, text messages, and emails will have stopped. This doesn't happen often, but when it does happen, you probably won't realize it for a few hours. When you finally catch on that something isn't right and reboot your phone, all of the messages that you missed will start getting delivered all at once. Is this better? I don't think so. Is the important message not coming in, or has my phone died? I can't tell. I am still going to recommend the iPhone to friends and family.


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