The iPod-Free Life: Android Phone As Media Player
Something interesting happened to me early this year: I started hating my iPod.
It was a second-generation 16GB iPod Touch, running the most recent version of iOS that was available, and it was a heinous pile of garbage. It crashed constantly, the battery life was sub-par, and its infamous soft-metal casing was scratched beyond belief, despite having lived a relatively sheltered, case-protected life.
Plus, I hated carrying around two devices when I didn’t have to. Granted, this attitude is somewhat at odds with my Twitter moniker, but “Captain2Phones” does not equal “Captain1Phone&1PMP.”
Finally, I was -and still am- very bored of iOS in the handheld form factor, and iTunes and I had never really gotten along. It was pretty clear that the iPod and I were heading in different directions with our lives. So when the iPod decayed to the point where even the music player app wouldn’t stay running long enough to play a single album without crashing, I knew it was time to think about returning to a one-device lifestyle.
I’d recently slimmed down in the mobile department as well, trading in my Samsung Focus and HP Veer for an LTE-edition Galaxy Nexus. One of the nice things about the Galaxy Nexus, I was to discover, was its ample onboard storage space of 32GB: double what I’d had to work with on the iPod. When I remembered Android’s increased focus on delivering a rich, beautiful media experience with Ice Cream Sandwich, I decided that the Galaxy Nexus was the ideal testbed for the great experiment.
Making The Jump
As I mentioned before, iTunes isn’t my favorite program for music management, but I opted to stay with it for several reasons. A cloud-based solution wasn’t ideal for me because of the amount of time I spend away from internet connectivity; Boston’s MBTA subway system has yet to feature ubiquitous coverage. So I knew I wanted to stick with locally-stored music on my device, which meant I needed a computer program to manage it. A combination of complacency and grudging acceptance of its awful UI have kept me with iTunes. The up-side: it keeps my finger on the pulse of the common man.
Anyway, iTunes doesn’t play nice with Android phones in its stock configuration, because of that whole competing-ecosystems thing. So I needed to find myself an app that would provide the functionality I’d need to move music to and from my phone.
I settled on TuneSync, though DoubleTwist is another popular option for this purpose. What attracted me most to TuneSync was its ability -rare at the time- to sync a music library over WiFi. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a friend to wires and cables, so I’m always keen to sieze on any chance to eliminate more of their tangled ilk from my daily life. I downloaded the TuneSync client for my Macbook and the app for my Galaxy Nexus; the pair set me back about $6. I set it to transfer my 1900 mp3s, then sat back and waited.
And waited some more.
That was the first lesson I learned about syncing via WiFi: yes, it’s futuristic and convenient and awesome, but it’s also far, far slower. That’s not TuneSync’s fault, by the by; even the native wireless sync introduced with iOS5 is pretty sluggish -nearly ten times slower- compared to the cabled approach. It’s a tradeoff that’s unavoidable. Given my unwillingness to return to the ancient days of wire and cable, I’ve since adapted my lifestyle to make certain I only sync when I don’t have to be anywhere for a while.
Anyway, once that first sync (finally) completed, I found myself with a phone full of music. Stoked to be free of the iPod crutch, I plugged in some headphones and took it around town.
There’s a zen-like simplicity that comes from taking your gadget count down to one. Suddenly, I had one fewer device to sync, to charge, to remember to take with me, and to remember to bring home. For longer trips, the portability was boosted further; I no longer needed to haul around the iPod’s special 30-pin connector just to charge the thing.
I’d also forgotten some of the basic benefits that come with making your phone your media player. Not since ditching the iPhone 3G in the spring of 2009 had I experienced such convenience. Phone calls and messages sounded right in my headphones, instead of going unnoticed in my pocket. If I was wearing suitable headphones, like the Samsung-branded pair that shipped with my Galaxy Nexus, I could answer calls without taking the buds out of my ear. The music would then resume at the end of my call. Life was good.
The user interface also didn’t disappoint. Ice Cream Sandwich’s Holo theme was right at home in a media-focused app, using the space intelligently for a nice balance of functionality and aesthetics. When the audio player was active, Android would put the title of the current track along with play controls in the notification drawer; these worked even when the screen was locked. The player’s stock widget was also handy, offering another consistent point from which to skip or pause tracks, or to jump into the player.
There’s bonus functionality in the form of Google Play support, which offers wireless syncing of music with a Google account, but which has so far seen low adoption rates. Case in point: I’m one of those who hasn’t seen enough value in the offering to make use of it thus far.
The experience wasn’t perfect, of course. Some of these down sides aren’t entirely the fault of Android’s stock music player, but are the result of conflicts with TuneSync, user error, and the fact that my music library is a decade-old mess decidedly in need of some TLC.
The most annoying recurring problem I found in my time using the Android music player concerned notifications. For whatever reason, Android found it impossible to play more than one sound at once, something necessary for a non-jarring notification experience. My old iPhone 3G, for example, cross-faded a notification sound into the music I was listening to, letting me know a message was waiting without disrupting the rhythm of the track. None of the Android sets I’ve used -Evo 4G, Galaxy Nexus, One X- have been able to do the same.
The result was that when texts or IMs came in, they were delivered in the most jarring manner possible: the music would stop, there was a half-second of silence, then the notification sound would play. After another half-second of silence, the music would resume at its original volume.
At least, that’s how it was until a few days ago. Inexplicably, my Galaxy Nexus has started delivering notifications “the right way” for the past few days. No software or firmware update is responsible for this, that I’m aware of. Maybe the Nexus was spooked when I started carrying around the One X, and stepped up its game to avoid the junk drawer; I don’t know. That explanation makes as much sense as any other. It’s a perfect example of how computing devices, designed to be purveyors of precision, can sometimes behave in a chaotic fashion. But in this instance, it’s given me a better experience, so I’ll take it.
There are other quirks. The system assigns a random album cover to all content that doesn’t include album art of its own, meaning that 30% of my music library appears to be from the same CD. Also, the automatically-generated playlists -Last Added, Music, Podcasts, and Purchased- are good, but they’re not as useful as they could be. In particular, “Last Added” doesn’t discriminate between music and podcasts; for some, that may be desirable, but not for me. I don’t like having a string of up-tempo indie rock interrupted by Ira Glass’ This American Life, just because it happened to download itself at a specific time.
Also, the pause functionality is inconsistent; sometimes pausing playback while the device is locked will behave normally, and other times the system takes the pause command as an indication that you’re done listening to music. When Android clears the music player from memory, your audio controls evaporate along with it, meaning you have to re-launch the player to get back to listening.
Finally, that inconsistency also applies to music or podcast audio downloaded directly from a browser: playing that type of content doesn’t open the media player, but a separate player incapable of backgrounding. So the minute you want to do something else, you need to hop out of the “browser-player” and back into the music-player proper. Oh, and your position isn’t saved, so you better be ready to play with the track scrubber.
Yes, there are a bevy of custom music players and other apps I could use to tailor my audio experience specifically to my preferences – that’s the great part about Android, balancing out the negatives of fragmentation. I probably will do that at some point. But I wanted to see what the stock experience was like for the average person – someone who’d rather a phone “just work” out of the box. Your mileage can and will vary, depending on your configuration and whether your Android device employs a skin like TouchWiz or HTC Sense.
Despite all the inconveniences, bugs, and UI quirks, the advantages of carrying my full music collection on my phone are too great to go back. I can deal with creating my own custom playlists, and occasionally thinking “why would they design it that way?” in exchange for the overall convenience of one device, doing it all. Android’s implementation isn’t perfect, but it definitely gets the job done.
Do you keep your music collection on your phone, or are you still a member of the Dual Device Club? Sound off in the comments below.