What you should know about Android

Sure, you’ve heard of Android — as in Android phones, which are multiplying like rabbits and taking the smartphone world by storm, giving even the mighty iPhone a run for its money. But are you still a little shaky on the Android basics? Do you turn into a wallflower when the subject comes up during cocktail parties? Read on.

1. What is Android, anyway?

At the most basic level, Android is an operating system for touchscreen smartphones — it’s the software engine that drives all the menus, windows, home screens and internal operations of any Android-powered smartphone, the same way that iOS powers the iPhone and the BlackBerry OS runs BlackBerry handsets.

Android was developed by Google and first announced in 2007, with the very first Android-based phone — the T-Mobile G1 — arriving in fall 2008. (Nope, not that long ago.)

2. What’s so special about Android?

Unlike the proprietary iPhone operating system (now known as “iOS,”), which is under the complete control of Apple — and the same goes for Research in Motion’s BlackBerry OS or Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform — Google released Android as an open-source OS under the auspices of the Open Handset Alliance, leaving phone manufacturers (relatively) free to tweak Android as they see fit for a given handset.

That’s one thing that’s special about Android. Another thing is that it just happens to be a really good OS, the first one in the post-iPhone wireless era to really give Apple a run for its money. Android may not be as sleek or polished as iOS (that’s my humble opinion, at least), but it’s fast and powerful, with an intuitive user interface that’s packed with options and flexibility. It’s also being constantly improved courtesy of the big brains at Google, making the Android experience sleeker by the day.

3. Are Android phones called “Droids”?

Not necessarily. “Droid” is a brand name used by Verizon Wireless for its Android-based phones — the Droid X, the Droid Eris, the Droid Incredible and so on. The HTC Evo 4G on Sprint is not a “Droid,” per se, but it’s still an Android smartphone.

4. Why would I (potentially) choose an Android phone over an iPhone?

Well, for a variety of reasons — although I should point out that I’m actually a fan of both operating systems. (Sorry to disappoint the smartphone flame warriors out there.)

One reason to go the Google way is that Android phones boast tight integration with Google services like Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Contacts and Google Voice — perfect for anyone who uses Google for all their e-mails, contacts and events. Indeed, one of the coolest things about Android phones is that the first time you fire one up, you enter your Google user name and password, and voila: All your Google messages, contacts and other info start syncing into your new handset automatically, no desktop syncing needed.

Android is also far more open when it comes to applications. Whereas Apple takes a “walled garden” approach to its App Store, Google won’t restrict you from installing apps that aren’t featured in its official Android Marketplace. iPhone users, on the other hand, must “jailbreak” their phones if they want to install apps that weren’t approved by Apple for inclusion in the App Store.

Last but not least, because Android is open to all manufacturers, a wide variety of Android phones are available to choose from — big and small, souped-up and pared-down, some with slide-out keyboards (good luck convincing Steve Jobs to put a slide-out QWERTY on the iPhone) and some that are all-touchscreen, all the time. Indeed, in the past few months, a new Android phone has debuted practically every week, while we only get a single new iPhone each year.

5. What are the downsides of Android?

Well, if you ask me, the Android OS isn’t quite as forgiving to wireless beginners as the iPhone is. Setting up your e-mail, contacts and calendar on Android is a breeze (if you’re all about Gmail, that is), but when it comes to, say, your music and videos, you’re on your own with Android, which lacks an official media syncing client for the desktop. With the iPhone, you do all your syncing on easy-to-use iTunes, which also lets you manage your e-mail accounts, contacts, apps and photos. Then again, you can only use iTunes for syncing the iPhone, while Android users have a variety of third-party options.

That’s just one example, but in general, Android gives you more options and choices about how you manage your phone and your mobile content — great for experienced and advanced users, but potentially intimidating for newbies.

On the other hand, while beginners might appreciate the (usually) smooth, user-friendly experience that Apple has devised for the iPhone, advanced users may (and often do) get frustrated by Apple’s tight control over what they can and can’t do on the iPhone. It’s a trade-off, plain and simple, and your choice of platform depends on what’s right for you.

6. What’s up with all these different versions of Android, like “Donut,” “Cupcake” and “Froyo”?

Just as Apple does with iOS, Google continually updates Android with cool new features, leading to one “point” upgrade after another.

The most recent version of Android is 2.2, code-named “Froyo” (for frozen yogurt, yum), adds features such as native USB tethering (for sharing your Android phone’s data connection with a laptop via a USB cable), mobile hotspot functionality (which turns your phone into a portable Wi-FI hotspot that works with nearby Wi-Fi devices) and — perhaps most important — support for Flash, meaning that Flash-powered videos and modules that (notoriously) don’t work on the iPhone will work on the Android Web browser.

Before 2.2 Froyo, we had version 2.1, which added “live” animated wallpaper, new home screen icons and widgets (tiny apps for the home screen), speech-to-text functionality (for e-mail and text messages, for example), full-on multitouch (for pinch-to-zoom gestures), and an updated photo gallery that hooks into your Picasa Web albums. Android 1.6 “Donut” (someone at Google must have a sweet tooth) added various speed improvements, support for more screen resolutions, and faster camera and camcorder applications. The first major update to Android was 1.5 “Cupcake,” which (among other goodies) finally added a native video recorder.

7. So if the current version of Android is 2.2, why are people still complaining about Android phones stuck with version 2.1, or even 1.6?

Ah, well, here’s where we find one of the downsides of Google allowing so much diversity in terms of available Android handsets. Don’t get me wrong: Variety is a beautiful thing, especially when it comes to phones. But it also means that each new version of Android must be certified to work on a specific handset — a long and sometimes drawn-out process that can leave users of a particular Android smartphone waiting weeks or even months to get the latest and greatest features. Indeed, manufactures and carriers may decide that it’s not worth the effort to upgrade their older phones to the latest Android version, leaving users high and dry.

On the other hand, only a handful of iPhones exist, which makes it far easier for Apple to roll out a new version of iOS to everyone, all at once — or at least it used to be easy. Because of the hardware demands of iOS 4, we’ve already seen the original iPhone from 2007 get left behind, while users of the second-generation iPhone 3G have complained bitterly that the new iOS has slowed their handsets to a crawl. So it goes.

8. How many apps are available for Android?

About 70,000 or so, growing by the day — still just a fraction of the 225,000-plus apps in the Apple App Store, but the official Android Marketplace has quite the head of steam, not to mention plenty of goodwill from the developer community given that Google doesn’t give apps the star-chamber treatment.

9. So, how should I go about picking an Android phone?

No question about it: The breadth and variety of Android phones now on the market can be downright bewildering. The easiest way to narrow your choices is pretty obvious: What features and form-factors are you looking for? Do you want a phone with a real QWERTY keypad, or would you prefer one with only an on-screen keypad? Looking for a big screen (like the 4.3-inchers on the Evo 4G or the Droid X) or something that’s an easier fit in your pocket (like, say, the Droid Incredible)? Will you primarily be sending e-mail and text messages (in which case a smaller screen with a QWERTY would work), or are you interested in watching movies and other videos (big display)? Finally, who’s your carrier — or who would you like to be your carrier?

Nope, it’s not rocket science.

Once you’ve zeroed in on a phone, find out which version of Android it’s running on. Is it the latest and greatest? (For now, only the Motorola Droid 2 is shipping with Android 2.2, although a 2.2 update for the HTC Evo 4G has finally arrived.) If not, ask when — and whether — an update is on the way.

10. What are the hottest new Android phones out right now?

Well, earlier this summer we got the HTC Evo 4G, which supports Sprint’s budding, next-generation WiMax data network and boasts a 4.3-inch display — the same size as the screen on the Motorola Droid X, another eye-popper of a phone, except it’s on Verizon instead of Sprint. Samsung is in the midst of releasing a series of what it calls its Galaxy S-class Android phones: They’re thin and light, they all have high-contrast 4-inch “Super AMOLED” screens, and they’re available (or will be soon) on all four of the big U.S. carriers. If you’re looking for an Android phone with a slide-out QWERTY, consider the new Motorola Droid 2 on Verizon or the upcoming Samsung Epic 4G for Sprint. There’s also the older, cheaper ($99 with contract) Samsung Moment (Sprint).

Got more Android questions? Fire away; I’m happy to help.

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