Should you consider an Android handset as your next business phone?

Smart phones are an integral part of the modern business person’s repertoire. Having a phone that can simply make calls and send text messages is a luxury of the past. If we don’t have instant access to our corporate emails, contacts and calendar, there’s a feeling of disconnect.
With that in mind I felt it was time to step outside the comfort of my iPhone 4 and give one of the opposition a test. I got my hands on one of Samsung’s new wonder phone, the Galaxy S II (SGSII), which is running one of the latest versions of Google’s Android mobile operating system (v2.3.3) and gave it a thorough road test.

First for those that don’t understand the difference between Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS –

Apple’s iOS is the operating system software that all current Apple iPhone, iPad and iPod type devices run. iOS is a bit like Microsoft Windows 7, or Apple OS X. It’s the core operating system that drives the phone. It’s responsible for the way things look and feel.

In 2005, El Goog (Google) purchased Android Inc. Android is one of the competitors to Apple’s iOS and Google has been working hard to make the operating system one of the major players in the mobile space.

The major difference between Google and Apple in this respect is that Google doesn’t make phones. They rely on other manufacturers to build the handsets that their mobile operating system will run on. As a result of this there are a huge variety of Android based handsets to choose from – from the iPhone style touch screen handset, to BlackBerry like ‘candy bar’ styled handsets and even a mixture of both with full touch screens and slide out QWERTY keyboards.

The Samsung Galaxy S II is an impressive piece of kit, modelled very much like the iPhone but with a large 4.3″ AMOLED display. As a result of this extra screen size, it is larger than the iPhone 4 (with it’s 3.5″ display) – however it is much lighter, which quickly makes you forget that it’s a bigger unit. In fact since using the SGSII for the past 3 weeks, I now find the iPhone 4 a little small when I pick it up.

The most important part of a phone is obviously how well it can make calls and in the past 3 weeks I am happy to say the SGSII does this very well, with excellent call quality and very few drop outs (except in mobile blackspots). What I did not like about the SGSII were the earphones included with it. They are horrendous. They are some horrible cheap pair and don’t sit comfortably in my ears at all. I haven’t yet been able to find an alternative, but thankfully my car has bluetooth so I’ve been able to avoid needing to use them.

Although SMS’ing these days is almost redundant with email enabled handsets, SMS’s are often a quick way to get someone’s attention. I personally turn off any email notification sounds as I would never get to sleep at night if I didn’t, but I do have an SMS notification sound. As far as SMS’ing is concerned, the SGSII (and therein Android) is almost identical in function to the iPhone in this regard. It does the job. Tick.

The next thing for me is how well it integrates with my work email. Insane uses Microsoft Exchange 2010, although I also have a few other emails using Google Apps for Business. Android separates Exchange and Google based emails into two separate buttons. This actually makes sense, as the little icon that tells me how many emails I have now tells me how many I have only for Exchange, whereas it used to combine all my email accounts and this often meant the number being displayed on my iPhone did not represent the number of emails I may have that relate to Insane.

As a co-incidence of this splitting of Exchange from Google, the support for Microsoft Exchange based email seems better. I can flag emails for review from the list of emails. I can search our company address list and not have to blindly remember an internal address and hope I got it right. Also, emails in my Google Apps accounts work with more features that are uniquely Google.

Linking to my company emails is one thing, but like the rest of us, I want access to all the contacts I have in Outlook and my calendar. I’ve always felt that the contacts and calendar on my iPhone were missing some of the details that I had entered into Outlook. I don’t get that feeling with Android. Everything I need seems to be there as well as additional information relating to when I contacted each person and what (if any) social networks they belong to.

In the three weeks that I have been using the SGSII I have not once felt that any of these things (aside from the earphone issue) annoyed me. I was able to access all the information I need for work very quickly and without any major hassle (something I have never found when trying to navigate a BlackBerry device).

This brings us to the question of this article, is an Android based handset ready to be your next business phone? With everything that I’ve said you may be surprised that I’m going to say “No“.

When I first turned the phone on I was greeted by a plethora of applications which had been installed by Samsung and Optus (bloatware), most of them I would never use. I also found that the battery life drained very quickly. And finally, the most important aspect of using a touch screen based smart phone, the default keyboard was just too simple.

From what I’ve read, the installation of bloatware is very common on Android handsets, especially if like me you got your handset through a telco. Everyone wants you tied to their ecosystem so that you will use and consume more of their services.

Likewise, I discovered that the reason for the shortened battery life had nothing to do with whether I had the GPS, wireless, bluetooth or any of the usual candidates turned on. It was a result of some of the social networking integration that existed in my phone. I don’t know if this is a problem for all Android handsets or just the SGSII, but when I managed to remove these applications it nearly doubled the battery life of the phone!

The hurdle of the keyboard input was very easy to fix and this was the turning point for my appreciation of the Android operating system. It is very easy to replace most core applications with something that is more to your choosing by simply going to the Android Marketplace (equivalent of the iTunes App Store), installing an alternative and repeating whatever function you want to customise. I tried out a few trial keyboard layouts and ended up purchasing Smart Keyboard PRO, which I’d go as far as to say does a better job than my iPhone keyboard, with a much more advanced and easy to use auto-correct system.

Sadly, the first two issues are not as easy to fix. To get around the bloatware and battery drain I had to gain “root” (administrator) access to the phone’s file system. This is a fairly painless experience, however for the average user this could quite easily result in a bricked device – being an inanimate object that no longer functions.

If you are the type of person who likes to customise everything to the nth degree and you’re patient enough to read through some mostly well written instructions, then you may well fall in love with Android and the Samsung Galaxy S II is definitely a suitable candidate for your adoration.

Technically the phone is an advanced piece of kit. The lightening fast dual core 1.2Ghz processor, backed with 1GB of memory is double that of the iPhone 4. The super bright 4.3″ AMOLED display is beautifully clear and easy to see in all lighting conditions. Unfortunately despite it’s 4.3″ size, the SGSII only puts out 800×400 pixels, which does make a noticable difference when you compare it with the iPhone 4’s 3.5″ display and it’s awe inspiring 960×640 resolution. But the phone more than makes up for itself with an 8 mega-pixel rear facing camera capable of shooting 1080p video, 16GB of internal storage and the capability of taking a 32GB microSD card for a total of 48GB of internal storage.

One aspect of my Android experience which I have loved the most is the fact that I am not tied to iTunes. I have never found iTunes to be a particularly good media player and being tied to it to manage the media on my iDevice’s has always frustrated me, especially when I can’t easily manage the same iDevice from multiple computers. With the SGSII I’ve been able to use Winamp, which is one of my all time favourite media players and I can use any computer without any hassle!

At the end of the day Android is definitely a competitor for the space that the iPhone currently dominates. Of course Apple have a few tricks up their sleeve with the upcoming release of iOS v5 and the iPhone 5. With a wide variety of handsets to choose from, Android could be a good fit for those wanting something other than an iPhone. It is certainly a more preferable option to a BlackBerry!

When I first got my iPhone 3GS (and then the iPhone 4), there was an almost warm, familiar feeling when I first used the device. I didn’t need to jump through hoops to get it to work the way I expected it to. Of course being a nerd, I have grown bored with the limit to how far I can customise the phone (without jailbreaking it) and for this exact reason there is a certain attraction to the SGSII.

If the manufacturers and telco’s can tone down the bloatware and customisation then I feel some unnecessary frustration with Android handsets will be avoided. Further, when Samsung resolve the battery update (which will no doubt come in a firmware update), the SGSII will be a great phone. If however you’re the sort of person who might share my initial frustrations, you may be best to stick with your current iPhone or wait for the iPhone 5.

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