On the road with Nexus
My regular life has me working from home, using a heterogeneous set of mobile platforms. Recently though, I’ve been travelling, which coincided with starting to use the Nexus 4, in complement to my Nexus 7. This is my story of going from familiar surroundings and being platform agnostic to living on the road and having Nexus devices being my front-line tech.
Choosing apps and transitioning from Windows Phone to Android
Prior to the Nexus 4, I had not used Android as my phone for quite a while. My main use of Android was with the Nexus 7, where I found Android’s widgets and the extra real-estate of the 7″ screen made much more sense. At the risk of raising the ire of the Android Authority readers, I had been using Windows Phone 8 as my phone operating system (on a Lumia 920). Without making the case for Live Tiles here, I’ll just say that it took me awhile to figure out how to best configure the discrete phone homescreens for my needs. I’m glad to say that six weeks later, I’ve fine tuned things to something that makes sense to me.
It was that building of homescreens that I found the hardest part of the transition to using Android as a phone again. As for apps, it will come as no surprise to hear that for every app Windows Phone has, there are several alternatives on Android. The hardest substitute to find was an office suite, an area in which Windows Phone has a natural advantage. Having spent a good deal of money on several office suites for Android I decided, somewhat ironically, that the free of charge Kingsoft Office was the best all-round office app for both phone and tablet. With that out of the way, adapting a largely Microsoft dominated workflow to Android was easy given that it has OneNote and SkyDrive clients.
When living in an unfamiliar city, the smartphone is a great aid to finding your way around. As someone who spends his working life talking about mobile devices, I felt obliged to pit the Lumia’s Nokia Maps against Google Maps Navigation for walking directions (I don’t drive). While Google Maps was able to route me through the footpaths of nearby municipal areas, Nokia Maps’ walking directions were limited to roadways. Also, while Nokia Maps has a good set of local search results for most areas, it’s no substitute for being able to overlay a Google search onto a map. This was demonstrated when searching for local branches of well known UK stores, rather than the prescribed tourist attractions and places to eat. On the other hand though, the user interface for all of the Google Maps products need some work. It’s not always obvious where to find options and the presentation of results are somewhat basic.
One way in which both navigation packages fell down was with a niche of public transit navigation. While both Nokia’s and Google’s offerings could suggest bus routes, neither were aware of the tram system in the city I was visiting.
Another phone function that is particularly important to me is the camera. I think most Android watchers would agree with me that the Nexus 4 camera is acceptable but definitely average, this meant that the Lumia 920 was often kept at hand for camera duty. I also found that the Jelly Bean camera application was continually losing focus lock and starting to hunt for a focal spot all over again, which made it difficult to quickly take an in-focus photo.
An area in which Android did surpass the imaging capabilities of Windows Phone was with Photo Spheres. Microsoft has its own implementation of these Street View like wrap around images, known as PhotoSynth. However, I found the results to be much less impressive with distinct distortions and visible joins between images, whereas Android’s Photo Spheres, if taken carefully, produce much smoother and convincing results.
Dealing with limited connectivity
While travelling in the UK, I had unlimited mobile data but the signal coverage was often poor. To save going over the restrictive bandwidth cap of the place I was staying, I made use of mobile data via the Nexus 4 as much as possible. While using the (WiFi only) Nexus 7 as a substitute laptop, it was a cinch to set up the phone as a WiFi hotspot. Furthermore, SMS communication could also be handled on the tablet thanks to the “Tablet Talk” app, which allows the phone to synchronise with the tablet and send real time notifications of messages – most importantly it allows you to reply to messages on the tablet without having to get up and fetch your phone!
Things got more complicated when I wanted to get online with my Windows 8 laptop via the Nexus 4. Setting up a WiFi hotspot should have just worked, but there were frequent issues where the laptop reported a “Limited” connection, meaning while they were connected, I couldn’t get online. Fortunately, Android has a trick that Windows Phone is still lacking, that is USB tethering. I find this to be a much better way of getting online via a phone as relaying data between two different radio systems is a power hungry activity, and so it’s good for the phone to leech some power from the laptop it’s serving.
The data counter that was included from Ice Cream Sandwich made it far easier to keep a track of my usage. While I was on an allegedly unlimited package, it was still reassuring to keep track just in case I was dinged with a fair usage penalty.
The next leg of my journey took me to Nova Scotia, Canada. There, mobile data is prohibitively expensive, and so any smartphone is suddenly restricted to only working at its full potential while in range of a WiFi hotspot. This means staying at home or stopping off at somewhere like Tim Horton’s or Starbucks. Otherwise, my shiny new Nexus 4 felt somewhat hobbled when out and about.
Google Now is changing how phones might work
As I was using a Nexus 4, I thought I ought to adopt Google Now as much as I could, even going so far as to place its widget on my primary homescreen. Prior to going off on my travels, I bemoaned Google Now for only providing information about weather and stock prices. Many Android users will readily point out that Google Now will give you navigation tips for getting from home to work and back – that’s great but I typically work at home and so never benefited from that.
However, once I started moving around, I began to see these transit hints popping up and even though they weren’t relevant to me, I saw how they could be useful. While visiting a friend in London, he showed me how that even though he had not informed Google Now as to where he worked, it had eventually learnt his work location based on where he was going and spending his time. Moreover, it even started to suggest that he wasn’t taking the most optimal route and suggested better routes. Given his local knowledge of the London transport system, I am not sure Google knew best in this case, but still it was impressive to see what Google Now was doing on its own initiative.
Another transport feature Google Now occasionally displayed to me was showing me how far I had walked around while exploring the areas I’ve been living in. However, it has only shown the pedometer card once, and I would like to know how to see it again!
Things got more interesting as I approached railway stations and airports. Not only did Google Now display a card of photos taken nearby, but it also started to show departure times. However, the departure times were always for buses leaving the station, not the trains or planes that were coming and going.
I can see how bus times for getting connecting transport could be useful, but I’d have much rather have seen a card appear showing a departure board so I could see whether the train or plane I’d just arrived for was on time or not. While in London, Google Now did exactly that when approaching tube stations. It fetched data directly from the Transport for London web service and let me know when subsequent underground services were due.
On the other hand, Google Now excelled in the case of handling flight information. I’d booked a flight from London to Halifax (NS) with Air Canada. Google detected that email, and the night before my flight, the Google Now widget started showing me a card to reassure me that my flight was on time. I loved this, but the night before seemed a little premature to let me know one way or another.
I’m writing this feature from Nova Scotia, but Google Now knows that the UK is my home country. As such, the widget always shows me up to date exchange rates. In the Google Now app, it constantly shows me the exchange rate, nearby attractions and the time at home. The latter is great for working out what friends and family are doing and whether it’s too late at night to phone home.
Google Now is clearly in an early state, I don’t feel that it has reached its potential, for me at least. However, there is nothing else out there that offers useful information before you even think about needing it. While the iPhone has a great virtual assistant in Siri, Google Now is working to give you what you want before you realise you need it.
The story so far
So far, the Nexus devices have been excellent companions for travelling. The Nexus 7, when combined with the nifty little Bluetooth keyboard we’ve seen before, is a great substitute for my laptop in many cases and has the advantage of fitting into my coat pocket.
As for the Nexus 4, this is obviously the reference model for Jelly Bean, and does a great job of embodying all the new features. The downsides of the Nexus 4 are that it has a non-replaceable battery (forcing me to carry a portable charger) and it’s fragile without the bumper case (I have two).
The other downside to the Nexus 4 is its average camera. Especially when travelling you want to capture precious memories and sights. I’m loathed to entrust the Nexus 4 to be the device I use to photograph the things around me. I have been using it to a limited amount, but the twitchy focusing of the Android camera app simply makes it a chore. It’s for this reason that the Lumia 920 is sticking around in my tech bag.