Using an Android Phone in Apple’s Ecosystem

What happens if I replace one piece of Apple’s puzzle with a Pixel?

Recently, I had to send my iPhone 12 mini back due to a faulty camera; while I’m waiting for a replacement to arrive (or rather, deciding whether or not to even order a replacement), I’ve been using Google’s Pixel 4a 5G.

Now, Apple is well-known for their ecosystem, how excellently their products work in unison. On their own, Apple devices are fantastic, but when you start pairing them together, you get something akin to magic.

And for a good part of 2020, I was contently living entirely in that ecosystem; I had the iPhone, the iPad, the MacBook, the AirPods, the Apple Watch, etc. and so forth. So you can imagine the disruption I experienced when suddenly I had to swap out what is arguably the hub of Apple’s ecosystem- the iPhone- for a lowly Android device.

It was going to be horrible. I was going to go from having all of my devices communicating with each other to having a phone that ignored all of my other gadgets. How was I going to cope?

Pretty well, it turned out. Despite all of Apple’s insistence that their devices work better together, throwing an Android phone into the mix didn’t really cause much of a disruption.

Sure, I couldn’t use my Apple Watch anymore (I could, but only as a watch and fitness tracker- albeit one that wasn’t sending my health data anywhere- and it could still unlock my MacBook). And sure, I couldn’t use Apple’s Photos app to access all of my shots from my phone and I couldn’t use iMessages to respond to messages on my other devices. But I quickly found work arounds for all of that.

For photos, it was easy; I’ve always used Google Photos to back up my pictures, even when I was using an iPhone (Google’s free storage beats paying for iCloud space… I’m bummed that’s ending in June). And though there isn’t a native Google Photos app on the MacBook, there is one on the iPad, and you can access Google Photos in the web browser.

Likewise, Android’s Messages for Web can be accessed in browser, too. And while it may seem, at first, to be a pain to have to sign into a website to read and respond to text messages instead of using the iMessages app, might I remind you that you’ll need internet access either way, so it’s a bit of a wash. And you can still use Messages for Web to send pictures or GIFs or whatever attachments you’d want to send from your computer or iPad.

In fact, Google seems to have an answer for just about everything. You can install Backup and Sync to keep your files synced between your MacBook and Google Drive/Google Photos. You can download Chrome and sync web pages between devices, and even make it your default web browser.

Put simply, I didn’t miss a step by replacing my iPhone 12 mini with the Pixel 4a 5G. For all that Apple talks about how well their devices work together in their ecosystem, it wasn’t too detrimental to swap the core component of that ecosystem for something relatively foreign.

The door, however, doesn’t fully swing both ways. While companies like Google and Microsoft have made their apps and programs and services easily available for macOS and iOS users, Apple hasn’t done the same for users of Windows or Chrome OS or Android. And that, to me, is a real bummer. Of course, Apple doesn’t have any inclination to do this; doing so would only eat into their iPhone sales.

But really, that’s only true if you prefer Apple’s apps. If I preferred to use Pages for writing or Notes for note-taking, it would be to my benefit to use only Apple’s products. If I preferred to keep all my photos in iCloud, it would only make sense to have a smartphone with a camera that instantly uploads to that service. But I don’t. I use Google Docs and Microsoft Word for writing. I use Keep or OneNote for notes. And as mentioned, I use Google Photos for photo storage. In fact, the only app from Apple that I’m intrinsically tied to is Apple Music, and… ok, look, that’s the only one available in Google’s Play Store.

You could argue that there are other apps available on iOS that simply aren’t available on Android. One example that comes to mind- and one that I use almost daily- is Photofox, an app for which I have simply not found an equal for in the Play Store. And maybe for you, that would be a deal-breaker; if it is, you’ll be better off with an iPhone. But for me, the only apps that are exclusive to iOS- like Photofox- I prefer to use on my iPad anyway.

And that brings up another point: I don’t know that this idea of infiltrating Apple’s ecosystem with a non-Apple device would have worked as well if I were swapping a different component. I mean, my Lenovo Duet Chromebook tablet would not communicate to my MacBook like an iPad does. A Wear OS watch wouldn’t work with my iPhone like the Apple Watch would. There are absolutely benefits to pairing certain Apple devices with other Apple devices.

Likewise, this experiment wouldn’t have worked in the opposite direction; there’s simply no way to make an iPhone play ball all that well with a Chromebook or a PC. Sure, you can still use Google Photos for your camera roll, but you’ll never be able to answer your iMessages on your PC (at least, there’s no easy way to do it).

No, I think this works best only if you prefer Apple’s devices but want an Android phone. What I’ve learned here is that the majority of the benefits the iPhone has when paired with other Apple gadgets can be easily replicated using an Android phone instead.

Of course, not all Android phones are made equal to the iPhone. The iPhone is an excellent device (unless you have camera issues), and I wouldn’t recommend replacing it with a $100 Android phone. And for the record I’m not comparing the Pixel 4a 5G to the iPhone 12…yet. That story is definitely coming soon.

But this experience has made me realize that you don’t always have to go “all-in” to get the best experience possible from the devices you own. And as much as Apple likes to advertise the magic of their ecosystem, it is possible to introduce a little Android into the mix without ending the world.

Besides the issue of having to replace my own iPhone due to the aforementioned camera problem, you might wonder why I bothered with the Pixel instead of picking up another iPhone. After all, someone who is knee-deep into Apple’s ecosystem probably doesn’t spend a lot of time looking at other phones.

The main reason I went for the Pixel instead of another iPhone was out of necessity more than anything else. My iPhone had impeccable timing, you see. When the camera stopped working, I was two days away from driving up to stay at a friend’s lake house, and I absolutely needed my camera for this trip; I do a lot of photography (you can visit my website here), and I rely on my phone as my main camera. And frankly, 2020 hadn’t presented me with a lot of options for taking good photos, so this little excursion was going to be big for my camera.

The real problem, however, was that I was only two days from leaving on that trip, yet four days from the first available appointment at the Apple Store. I simply wasn’t prepared to pay almost $800 for another iPhone 12 to use on this trip. Sure, I could have picked up the iPhone SE at $399, which would have been a little cheaper than the Pixel 4a 5G, but it had an inferior camera (read: no ultra-wide angle, and no Night Mode). The Pixel, on the other hand, had a camera equal to, if not better than, the iPhone 12 mini’s, and so the rest is history.

I never kept that Apple appointment; I suppose I could have, and maybe I’d have a new iPhone right now. But in just those two days I fell in absolute love with the Pixel 4a 5G, and more importantly with it’s camera, that I ended up returning the iPhone and am waiting for the refund to hit my bank account before deciding if I’ll order a replacement for it.

But using the Pixel for those few days reminded me that while I do love iOS- the iPad variant is the best tablet OS I’ve ever used- I’ve never been a huge fan of it on my phone. Lately, I’ve found that Android has a lot of small features that just make the phone experience better, like automatic song recognition or call screening. And Google Assistant is just leagues better than Siri.

As I said, I don’t think this impromptu experiment would have worked if I had swapped another one of my Apple gadgets. In fact, I did try to go a couple weeks using just my Lenovo Chromebook Duet as my daily tablet instead of the iPad. And while I found it worked for a lot of the things I used my iPad for, it just didn’t fit in with my Apple ecosystem as well as the iPad did.

For a long time, I’ve thought that if I had Apple products, the iPhone was the obvious choice for my phone needs. And probably, it is. But these last few days with the Pixel 4a 5G, I’ve come to realize that there are a few doors that open into Apple’s walled garden.

I’m glad I had the Pixel 4a 5G at the lake to take this shot.

I am just clever enough to get myself in trouble…

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