Monday, October 08, 2012

An Android user looks at iOS: Part 1: Shopping

This quarter, I plan to learn about non-Android mobile devices. I work on Android applications, and wanted to broaden my understanding of the mobile ecosystem. I start out with iOS, the wildly popular mobile platform from Apple.

Disclaimer: I work at Google, I am an Android programmer and a long-time Linux user.  This is all personal opinion, free of any incentives.  I try to be as objective as possible, but bias leaks into every analysis. Having said that, if you are looking for validation for your fanaticism, this article will be disappointing.

This guide was written in October 2012. The mobile world moves fast, this will be obsolete in a few months. Also, most of this information is specific to the US.

Step 1: Shopping

Unlike the Android world, there are few iOS devices. My options were:
  1. iPad: Apple's tablet comes in two choices: the old (iPad2) and the new (iPad3). These devices can be purchased with WiFi alone. The iPad2 (released March 2011) costs $400 and the iPad3 (released March 2012) costs $500. They come with 1/2 G of RAM and 1G of RAM. Applications need to be written to support the higher resolution of the iPad.  At $400, the iPad2 is a good choice. It is overpriced for its specifications, but I am sure the tablet applications add a lot of value. I currently own a Nexus 7, and the 7 inch form factor works a lot better for me than the bigger form factor of a Xoom. Since the iPad screen is 9.7 inches diagonal, I suspected it would be too big while I was parenting at home, and to carry everywhere.
  2. iPhone: Apple's iconic smartphone comes in three choices: the iPhone4, iPhone 4S, and iPhone5. The iPhone 4 was released in June 2010, the iPhone4S was released in October 2011, and the iPhone5 was released in September 2012.  I am out of my cell-phone contract, and cannot commit to another two years of contract. That only leaves unlocked iPhones. The unlocked iPhone4 is $450 and the unlocked iPhone4s is $540. This is astronomical for devices that are two years old and a year old respectively.
  3. iPod Touch: This is a touchscreen device which is close to the iPhone in capability but it lacks both a GSM chip (for voice and data networks) and a GPS chip (for global positioning). The iPod Touch 4th generation (iPod touch 4g for short) starts at $200 for 16Gb, and the latest iPod touch 5th generation (iPod touch 5g) starts at $300 for 32Gb of capacity. Both devices are small and light, and the 4g is slightly shorter than the 5g. The iPod Touch 4g was released in September 2010, and the 5g was released in September 2012.  The margins on these devices must be insanely high: the cheapest iPod touch 4g costs $200 which is the same as the Nexus 7. The Nexus 7 has 1G of RAM, a 7 inch screen, and many components that the iPod Touch lacks (GPS, NFC, ...)

Those are all the options you get: three device types and two generations per device.  New Apple devices sell for roughly the same cost everywhere, so to buy cheaper, you must buy used. All iOS devices contain non-replaceable batteries and online forums suggested that used iOS devices might have terrible battery life. Also, some devices have aluminium casing, which results in ungainly scratches if poorly handled.  Rather than risk a poor experience with a used device, I decided to buy a new device directly from Apple.

After much consideration, I settled on an iPod touch 16GB. It allows me to use a device similar to the iPhone without extending my cell-phone contract.  As a bonus, at $200, I would have realistic expectations from it.

There is an Apple store in my neighborhood, but online reviews were disappointing. Online is a lot more convenient anyway, so I headed to I can wait a few days for shipping.

The purchase at the Apple Store was effortless: there was nothing to configure. You are given a stupidly large button to choose the color (white/black) and then another stupidly large button to select the capacity (16Gb/32Gb). The lack of choices is great for most customers: you choose between two or three options at every stage. In the end, portability and the need to avoid extending my contract made the choice very easy. I love the clean interface of the Apple store. There is very little information presented: too little for engineers but everything is geared towards facilitating the purchase. Terminology is kept to a minimum.

Apple doesn't provide any guidance about their inventory. This is a departure from Amazon, which tells you exactly how many devices they have in stock. In addition, Amazon gives you accurate shipping estimates: "If you buy in the next four hours, you can be guaranteed to receive it by Tuesday". By comparison, Apple says that shipping time is 5-7 days once they have inventory, and they won't tell you if they have any inventory. US customers now expect free shipping for most expensive electronics, following Amazon's exceptional service. In the light of that, it is comical how Apple makes a big deal about free shipping.

Shortly after the order, I received an email with the order confirmation and yet another with the tracking number. So far the experience has been pretty good.

(Image courtesy: Protocol Snow)