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How sweet it often isn't: Upgrading to Android something-point-something

I started my smartphone life on Android because there is a tiny part of me that will always be a tinkerer. I like to mess around with the insides of the mechanical, figure out how something works so that I can make it work for me. It could be that I chose Android because it was cheaper than what everyone else was getting. I still hold that I chose it because there was something else that pulled me towards that little green robot.


I could mess around with Android. Customize, tailor it to my needs instead of what was given. As I grew into a journalist with an enthusiasm for technology, I delved into a then-niche market of Android phones. But let me stop beating around the bush: I didn’t want an iPhone because the people I saw using iPhones weren’t like me.

They didn’t tinker, they didn’t yearn for something more within what they had. They were...content. It was uninspiring to me. I’ve come to learn about their side of things and see that they don’t live a charmed life. Rather, it’s my own want of tinkering that puts me through the paces.

And the pace was rapid. My first Android phone was bought in the summer of 2010. It was an HTC Desire running Android 2.1, codename Eclair. The delightful names of Android’s operating systems had me walking around using desserts declaratively. “I want Froyo,” I’d say, talking about the then-latest version of Android: 2.2. In Canada, I’d learn, we get everything later than our neighbours to the south.

But Canada wasn’t why I had a phone with an older operating system. The fault was Google’s and the rapid pace of their development. Their strategy was to keep making a “stock” version of the OS, let the manufacturers build the device, then let the cell phone carriers decide what to sell. Each moved at their own pace, with Google outpacing the bunch. On top of that, the software was a game of broken cell phone: Stock Android turned into skinned Android--manufacturer-added tweaks made to distinguish different Android phones under the guise of improving the basics. That turned turned into Android with bloatware on it--carrier-added tweaks that were half-baked services pre-loaded on the phone, again, under the guise of improving the customer experience.

The HTC Desire was a great looking device with a skin called Sense 2.1. In all honesty, it was incredibly usable and to this day, there are features that I want from Sense in stock Android. One of them was the awesome dialer and the other was a widget that would compose a message to a specific contact with one-touch. If you want to know partly why my fiancée and I are best friends, it’s because that button made it oh-so-easy to email her about anything and everything. But Eclair was still lacking simply because it wasn’t Froyo.

Ah, Froyo. The introduction of features like Wi-Fi hotspot and tethering. Features I didn’t even use that often, but still coveted. Isn’t that always the case? Sure, there were speed improvements, but Eclair was perfectly serviceable and Sense was harmless. It wasn’t enough for the tinkerer.

I had to make the decision about whether I would take full control of my phone, sacrificing the warranty--”rooting,” in the common tongue--to get what I wanted. But I’m of the belief that we nerds have to choose our specialties--we can’t be everything. For as Indian as I am, I’m not actually the best at technical tasks. I understand machines, but I didn’t know how to root a phone. I still don’t, to a degree (more on that later).

So I hesitated, because rendering the phone useless was a real concern--the vernacular of which is known as “bricking” the device.  I would constantly check forums to see when HTC and Telus (my service provider) would get their asses in gear to get me my Froyo. When it finally came, months after other devices had it, I was as happy as can be.

Until 2.3, Gingerbread, was announced.

My love of Android was starting to wane. You have to understand that I still loved Android’s capabilities at that point. The ability to tweak the look of my device, the wonderful tools to enhance my growing use of Google services (predominantly Gmail) and the way third-party applications worked with the other parts of the operating system--I loved all of that unbridled functionality. In fact, some of those features still exist today and keep Android as a viable competitor to iOS.

But I was getting tired of being left behind. The pace of development was shrinking to a matter of months before the next new smartphone was on the market, offering something newer. I was hitting walls that other Android and iOS users weren’t.

On top of that, Canada started being a problem because we have three-year contracts here. Give me a moment to say that this is a money grab, plain and simple. The big carriers (Bell, Rogers and Telus) charge us for 3 year contracts the same subsidized rate for phones being sold around the world on 2 year contracts. That’s like saying you have to wear this ball and chain around your ankle for longer because balls and chains aren’t easy to get for you and those other countries have more people wearing balls and chains and we want to make as much money in the ball and chain business.

Being weighed down also allowed the hardware to develop as fast as the software. Even if I did “root” my device to put a newer operating system (or a customized version, built by a passionate community), my phone would soon be unable to handle some of the fancier features. Phones were coming out with processors that were twice as fast, cameras that could take incredible pictures and screens that had higher resolutions. That is to say, you can put satellite navigation into a 1993 Toyota Corolla, but it still doesn’t mean it’s going to make it over the mountain in one piece. That might be an unfair analogy--I loved my ‘93 Corolla, that thing took us everywhere.

This drove in me a need for change. I knew I had to upgrade my phone and the decision wouldn’t be made for the present, but for the future. By the time 2012 rolled around, I had watched Android grow from 2.1 to now 4.0 (skipping some numbers along the way). Meanwhile, I’ll point out that the iPhone 3GS (the only viable non-Android option in my price range when I bought my Desire) was still holding strong and being supported by Apple.

That I had to think about the future of my phone made me realize how important these devices had become. It was like picking a kid’s junior high school--would my next little Android get the care and attention it needed over the next three years? If my Android fell behind the other Androids, would it be left behind? Could I now afford something more expensive than the publicly-subsidized Android options, bypassing their limitations?

My Android education, thankfully, was a little clearer than in 2010. By now, Google had proven that its Nexus program was worth it. The Nexus program was a Google-built device to go along with their pace of software development--committment to at least one phone running an unskinned and unsullied version of Android.

I chose the Galaxy Nexus. Made by Samsung on the outside and Google on the inside, it was a lovely device that bested my Desire in a myriad ways. On top of that, Nexus devices would get updates as quick as Google would release them--no longer having to wait for a manufacturer or a carrier to get their act together. Until Android something-point-something.

By now, we were on Android 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich. Compared to the previous iterations and even the competition, it really was a treat. Finally, I thought, a mature operating system that had a great design and functionality. A user interface that felt friendly, but still had a bit of depth for the tinkerer in everyone. Customizable, but clean.

Just like Android, I, too, had matured. I no longer wanted a device that was the fastest or the thinnest or the most feature-rich. I wanted a device for the situation I was in. It needed to last three years without failing me. It needed to upgrade for at least a couple of those years to not be unsupported. And it needed to constantly do what smartphones are supposed to do: make my life easier.

It’s been ten months with the Galaxy Nexus and things aren’t perfect, but they’re far better than they would have been on any other Android phone. I took the plunge and rooted my device with the help of a friend more capable than myself. However, I learned what things I could do to become self-sufficient after that process.

We rooted my phone and, to use the appropriate term, “flashed” a newer version of Android onto the device. Google, for these Nexus devices, provides that stock Android version freely in the hopes that developers will find and create apps for it. In ten months, I’ve done this twice. The first version was Android 4.1, Jelly Bean.

The improvements between Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean were night and day as far as performance was concerned. It felt very much like the move to Froyo from Eclair and gave me the same amount of joy. Still, I need to point out the dejection I felt that my device still didn’t get its updates right away from Google. I was under the impression that the the legitimate version of Jelly Bean would come to my phone through a system update, but it never did.

And soon, the tinkerer, yet again, grew anxious of what was within his grasp. So he took it.

The second version I flashed onto my phone upgraded it to Android 4.2 Jelly Bean (yes, the naming convention did not change between 4.1 and 4.2). I had to look up several times how to do this and failed until I got it right. That was part of the fun. Nothing broke, everything worked and that success after defeat feeling was ten times more powerful than buying a new, awesome phone.

With this upgrade came a few simple features that have existed in some form or another across a range of Android devices, but never in one place. It’s still a wonderfully adult design, something I grow weary of looking for in iOS year after year.

As I had matured from the raving Android fanboy of 2010 to the balanced journalist of 2012 (occasionally in the field of technology), I began to use all devices to learn what made a good ecosystem and what didn’t. I love my iPad for the inventive applications, the dedicated support and the feeling of never being left behind. People say Apple iterates their products, making the buyer feel like they have an old piece of crap in six months. But do you know how easy it is to upgrade an iOS device? Just say yes a couple of times and boom, you have iOS 4, 5, 6 and eventually 7. Android still faces the problem of the fractured relationship between Google, the manufacturers and the carriers.

I will, however, always remain an Android phone user. The level of efficiency I’ve reached with my Galaxy Nexus is perfect for all the enjoyment and productivity I need. But that comes with the caveat of being a tinkerer, a chaser of the dragon called tailored perfection. I’ll need a new phone eventually, but until then, I’ll keep chasing Android something-point-something. The paces I put myself through are worth it for who I am now. But as I keep analyzing and changing who I am, I can only hope that these electronic shadows can keep pace. 

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