I noticed this immediately when I first turned on the Sprint-powered HTC One and Galaxy S4. When you run an iPhone for the first time, you’ve go through just a handful of steps to get up and running: choose a language, add a Wi-Fi network, and log in to your Apple account. The same is true of the Google editions of the One and S4—just a few prompts and you’re good to go. But not the carrier versions. I had to sit through more than half a dozen screens. I was pushed to sign in to several social-networking accounts. I had to create accounts with HTC or Samsung’s own services. Then, when I thought I was at last ready to start using my phone, another prompt came on the screen to let me know that Sprint was installing some software of its own. After another five minutes, my phone was finally ready to use—but when I browsed through the menus, there was a whole bunch of software that I didn’t need, including apps for Yahoo, Amazon, the NBA, a Sprint app for watching TV, and a White Pages app. Why these apps specifically? Not because Sprint believes that you’ll find them really helpful, but instead because it received a promotional fee. Congratulations on your new phone—now look at all the ads.
You might not consider these preloaded apps such a big deal. We’re all used to getting crapware on new PCs; this is the same story, just on phones, and it’s not such a big hassle to delete everything you don’t need. But you shouldn’t have to delete stuff just to get your phone looking like you want it. Plus, I suspect that many users probably don’t even know how to delete these apps, so they just sit there, clogging up the home screen.
The worst thing about Android phones isn’t the crapware, though. It’s the “skins”—the modifications that phone companies make to Android’s most basic features, including the dialing app, contacts, email, the calendar, the notification system, and the layout of the home screen. If you get the Play edition of these phones, you’ll see Google’s version of each of these apps, and you’ll come away impressed by Google’s tasteful, restrained, utilitarian design sense. But if, like most people, you get your phone for $199 from a carrier, you’ll find everything in it is a frightful mess.
Google’s dialing app, for instance, uses a minimalist palette and big, readable, sans-serif numbers. Samsung’s is a garish shock of mismatched colors, lines, and shadows. It’s not just hideous but less functional. In the contacts pane, Google’s dialer smartly displays people’s names and numbers; you can dial just by touching the number. In Samsung’s dialer, you’ve got to tap a contact’s name, which brings up a new screen, which you’ve got to tap again to make a phone call. Meanwhile, if you click on a number in the call log, Samsung’s dialer doesn’t do the obvious thing and dial the number—instead it shows you another screen, and to dial the number you’ve to press the green phone icon, which isn’t immediately obvious.
There are lots of annoying nuisances like this one, in which Samsung or HTC took Google’s easy-to-use design and monkeyed with it for no good reason. Together, all these little bugs add up to a frustrating experience. In most cases, you can fix the problem; you can replace Samsung or HTC’s apps with Google’s version, you can remove the unnecessary stuff from your home screen, you can opt-out of flashy but terrible gimmicky features (like the totally useless “eye tracking” system in the Galaxy S4). But doing so is too much of a hassle for people who just want a phone that works right out of the box. If that’s what you want, you’ve got two choices. You can pay full price for a Play edition Android device (I’d choose the HTC One over the Galaxy S4, because it’s much more attractive, physically). Or you can buy an iPhone.
Because I’m eligible for an upgrade with my carrier, I’d rather not pay full price for a Play edition Android. So, New Year’s resolution be damned, I’m sticking with Apple.