What it’s really like to switch to the Nexus S Android phone from an iPhone

My just-out-of-warranty iPhone 3GS has been acting a little wonky for a couple of months now but last week it started randomly turning itself off and then it wasn’t charging anymore. Given that I’ve been trying to wait out my AT&T contract and switch to a Verizon iPhone sometime next year, the choice of Apple/AT&T sanctioned replacement or repair options were unappealing. So I decided to buy an unlocked Samsung Nexus S, aka the Google phone. Though it’s made to work on T-Mobile’s network, it also works with AT&T, albeit without access to the faster 3G broadband speed. Popped my SIM card out of the iPhone and into the Nexus, hit the “on” switch, logged in with my Google account and there I was — one of the few, the proud, the iPhone/Android switchers.

There have been plenty of reviews of the hardware and software (the Nexus S is the first phone with the “Gingerbread” 2.3 upgrade of Android), so I’m going to concentrate on the switching experience for any slightly dissatisfied iPhone users out there. I’ll start by describing a few of the cooler features on the main home screen that appears every time you turn on the phone. The home screen is far more customizable than the iPhone’s opening screen. Here’s what mine looks like after about 48 hours of tweaking:

The first big difference I noticed was the notification system in Android 2.3 which is light years better than what’s available on the iPhone. All notices appear as tiny icons across the top, left side of the screen (#1 above). But simply drag your finger down and a page of all the notices unscrolls before your eyes. The notices are only moderately detailed but tap on one and you’re taken straight to the related app — read an email, check a Facebook comment, an SMS text message or whatever. Or just ignore the icons and let them pile up. Contrast this with the iPhone’s in-your-face pop-up boxes that have to be dealt with immediately and one at a time.

The second major difference is the broader range of items than can live on the home screen (or any of the side screens). Instead of just holding apps, in Android the home screen can contain widgets, shortcuts, contacts and even mini-macros. Above, the #2 is pointing to the contact for my lovely wife. If you tap the icon, a little menu pops up offering to start a call, text message or email to her. Very handy! The #3 is pointing to a widget for Google Voice showing messages and texts in my in box. I can scroll through and read the first few words of each message (Google Voice transcribes all my voicemails) without leaving the home screen. Click on a message to jump to the full app. At #4, I’ve inserted a shortcut to a music playlist. On an iPhone, I’d have to tap the iPod icon, tap playlists, scroll to my fave and select it. Here, I just hit the shortcut and it starts playing.

The big Google search box at #5 is more than just a typical web search field. Besides earching for things on the web or on the phone, you can start typing something you want to do (“Send email to Oren”). And you don’t even have to type. Hit the microphone icon and Google’s amazing voice recognition software kicks in. You can ask for directions home, dictate an email or call up some music to start playing. Truly amazing.

What’s not to like? I have certainly come to appreciate the iPhone’s simplicity of buttons, or should I say button. The Nexus S has no physical, permanent buttons on its face. But it has four unchangeable virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen as soon as you turn it on, seen in #6 above, which are back, menu, search and home. The problem is that the availability of four buttons has quickly become a crutch for app writers, even Google’s own. Instead of thinking of the most elegant, obvious and simple on-screen controls for an app, too often developers stuff a bunch of options onto the buttons. Further, because every app writer can interpret the uses of the buttons as they see fit, there’s an annoying lack of consistency from app to app.The same problem seems to have proliferated into the Nexus S’s settings app which has way, way too many settings buried in a multitude of categories and sub-categories. Luckily, there are some great control widgets you can place on the home screen or a side screen to get easy and fast access to key settings like turning wifi on and off.

I’ll do a separate post on Android apps I’ve discovered so far versus the iOS apps I was using on my iPhone, but one key discovery recommended by Oren, my brother-in-law and Android pioneer, was the doubleTwist program, which acts as a command center and syncing platform on your computer much like iTunes. I am bummed that some absolute basics like LinkedIn and Instapaper don’t have native Android apps yet. Angry Birds and Paper Toss are there, though — go time wasters!

There’s a robust debate going about the breadth and quality of Android apps versus iOS apps (for example, John Gruber’s pro-iPhone and Fred Wilson’s pro-Android) and I’ll need a lot more time to develop my views. I’m also discovering that getting legal commercial video content on Android is a huge pain and millions of eons behind what you can buy or rent on iTunes.

Overall, though, I’m quite happy with the switch so far. But I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the Nexus S and I’m sure there are some great and not-so-great experiences ahead. Stay tuned.