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Android Review: Smartphone Round Robin 55

by Dieter Bohn Tue, 19 Jan 2010 11:04 pm EST

Stop me if you've heard this before: Smartphone OS available on a variety of carriers in an ever-increasing array of devices, with powerful but difficult-to-manage multitasking, a user interface that can be a little cluttered and confusing yet is highly customizable, integration with the company's own email solution that's second-to-none, and apps that lack polish but get the job done.

Despite what you're thinking, I'm talking about Android and not Windows Mobile here. Both are facing similar issues but have similar appeal, though. Read on for the Smartphone Round Robin review of Android from PreCentral.net!

Android's Muddled Market

Much has been written about the kind of play that Google is making with Android: are they taking on Windows Mobile? Are they trying to turn smartphones into commodities? Will an open source smartphone OS drive costs down across the board? The answers to those questions and more is "probably," but Google's motivation for all for all of the above is as-yet unclear.

Phone manufacturers get lucky by having a mostly-baked OS (more on that below) for free and they've taken advantage of that opportunity by pushing out phones at a dizzying pace. I've completely lost count of how many Android phones are available in the US, but it's quickly approaching at least a dozen in the US and will likely hit twenty across all carriers before 2010 is done. These phones come in a variety of form factors, though my preferred form factor is sorely lacking: there is no front-facing, portrait-style, physical keyboarded-Android phone out there just yet.

I'm perfectly comfortable with a wide array of device choices - in fact I think its one of Android's strengths. I have to admit that for me, it's a lucky happenstance that the Pixi and the Pre are a match for my favorite phone shape and style. For others, the wide keyboard of a landscape slider or the thinness and large screen of a 'slate' is preferable and Android offers those options.

I'm less comfortable with the other result of all this variety: Android is a confusing platform to buy into. With Android you have at least three players involved in every handset: Google, the device manufacturer, and the carrier. That's one more player than RIM, Palm, Nokia, or Apple have to deal with and it's introduced some significant complications. Namely: almost every one of those near-dozen Android phones have a different version of Android loaded on, with different feature sets, different roadmaps for OS updates, and even different 'skins' on top of Android. It makes Windows Mobile look simple by comparison.

I'm not sure how this situation could be resolved - or even if it should be. I can't imagine manufacturers and carriers delaying device releases or turning off features just in the name of standardization. If Google has created new features for Android, it's natural to want to get those features in the hands of consumers ASAP. It's also natural, but unfortunate, for older devices to have to wait for those updates - if they get them at all - as carrier testing takes time and newer devices inevitably take priority over lower devices. Add in that phones with extra software on top of Android (like HTC's Sense or Motorola's Blur) will delay or deny future updates and you start to get a feel for how complicated it all can get.

The answer, I think, is that all three of the players mentioned above simply expect that over time, the average consumer will cease to care about those things. A phone has got what its got - be it featurephone or smartphone - and the average Android purchaser is buying into 'this phone' more than they are the Android ecosystem. I can't say that's a solution I would be comfortable with myself, but then again I've watched webOS and the iPhone get plenty of software updates over time. In fact, I think that the assumption that I can expect core OS updates are a 'feature' that I consider critical to choosing a smartphone - a feature that Android could do a lot better with.

Ironically, I'm going to not review any single piece of Android hardware here. Part of that is because there are too many to choose from and there is no good way to pick a 'touchstone' Android device that I can comfortably say represents the platform. Even the two latest big ones - the Droid and the Nexus One - aren't representative because they have features unavailable on previous handsets and let's face it, likely will only be the state-of-the-art for the platform for 6 months at the most.

Android OS

The Android interface, as I've said before, works as a mix of stuff from other platforms. Here's a brief list of what Android has borrowed:

  • Traditional homescreen with information widgets and icon-launchers. Borrowed (but significantly improved) from Windows Mobile and S60
  • Slide to unlock. Borrowed from iPhone
  • Multiple homescreens arranged horizontally. Borrowed from iPhone
  • Heavily-used Menu key. Borrowed from BlackBerry
  • Heavily-used Back button. Borrowed from BlackBerry with a side of Windows Mobile Standard
  • Hold-Home to bring up list of 6 most-recent apps. Borrowed from BlackBerry (which has since evolved their hold-to-multitask into something better)
  • Non-homescreen app drawer. Borrowed from Windows Mobile and BlackBerry, both of which allow for nested folders.

Compared to what Android creatively mixes and matches from other platforms, the list of new interface elements is rather small, in my opinion, consisting mainly of:

  • The home screen's combination of customizable widgets and icons is quite nice
  • The notification drawer was very cool and still is, but I slightly prefer the implementation on webOS
  • Although it didn't really get 'there' until 2.1, the device-wide search and voice-to-text functionality is very cool. Again, I slightly prefer the implementation on webOS.

Let's get the praise out of the way first. I really enjoy the Android home screen experience - something that webOS fundamentally can't do well. The 'tricks' out there now: active card, putting information in the dashboard, and updating the wallpaper all aren't quite as nice as just hitting the home button and having a screen with my most used apps, today's appointments, weather, and a news update or two.

On the notification front, I am jealous of Android's 'clear all' button, but you can't individually dismiss alerts as you can on webOS. I get a lot of alerts, sure, but not so many that I'd trade away the ability to swipe one or two away in exchange for the clear all button.

Really, though, the story with the Android OS is that you're going to get slightly different features depending on which handset you end up with. Getting something Hero-flavored from HTC? Prepare for a super-charged widget experience, multitouch, and a slightly better keyboard. Going with something more stock like the Droid? You're in store for improved search and the best navigation app on the planet (seriously), but say goodbye to multitouch and a usable software keyboard. Or perhaps you're going for the social-MotoBlur experience? Adios battery life, compadre, I hope those poorly-designed status update widgets and contact integration is worth it.

If somebody can explain why Google and certain manufacturers aren't putting multitouch on certain handsets in the US, you'll be the toast of the blogosphere for a full 24 hours - an eternity.

It should go without saying that the Google experience on Android is flat-out spectacular. I'm a Google-guy and so not a day goes by that I don't wish there were a proper Gmail client on webOS. Once you get out of that Google experience (say, into Exchange) you end up with a different, and in my eyes inferior, email experience.

Speaking of inferior experiences, multitasking on Android needs some serious work. They took a page from Windows Mobile and have attempted to allow the OS to manage what's open in the background on its own, dynamically closing apps you haven't used recently as necessary. I'm going to go ahead and call that a mistake - it never worked very well for Windows Mobile and it doesn't work for Android. I have a Nexus One here - no slouch in terms of specs - and I constantly find myself checking my task manager widget (TasKiller, the paid edition) to see if somethings bogging the system down. Inevitably, there is and often that rogue app is also draining battery life at a rapid pace.

Something else I can't grok with Android phones is that nobody seems to be able to make a software keyboard that is in the same ballpark as the iPhone's keyboard, much less a real, physical keyboard. Google's stock keyboard on 1.6, 2.0, and 2.1 all fall short. HTC's custom version on their Hero devices are slightly better, but still subpar. Ditto the third party keyboard options out there. I don't blame this (entirely) on the lack of multi-touch, but whatever the problem is I'd like to see it fixed.

Apps: there are plenty of them, some are decent enough. The only ones that really shine come from Google, though. Goggles, Skymap, Maps, Gmail, Google Voice, etc. There are plenty that don't have equivalents on webOS (yet), but of those that do, the webOS versions are almost invariably more elegant.


I'm wondering if you, as a reader, had a particular experience reading this section - especially if you've been keeping up on the Smartphone Round Robin reviews. The paragraphs all address separate issues and it's clear they all sort of belong in the same vicinity to each other. However they jump from topic to topic and don't quite hang together quite well, almost as if in writing this I was more concerned with getting the piece out quickly so you could get the information, but not concerned with connecting the dots or improving the overall experience of reading the review. See what I (only semi-intentionally) did there? That's Android in a nutshell: all the features are there, there are bright spots, but putting it all together is an exercise left up to the user. A basic user can pick up the phone and make it work, sure, but there will be a nagging sense of doubt, a sense that the people who put it all together aren't really thinking about their audience enough.

Wrapping up

Many hardcore smartphone nerds pack two phones - the first being their phone of choice and the second to cover needs not met by the first phone. If you hear somebody is carrying two smartphones, the default assumption is that phone #1 is a BlackBerry and phone #2 is an iPhone. Although I have long resisted carrying two phones, for the past month or so I've found myself doing just that - but I've been rocking a webOS device as my main phone (alternately the Pre and Pixi) and my backup has been an Android device. Why the Android phone? Partially because it's a fun device to hack on and partially because I prefer the email experience and partially because I have one foot in Google Voice.

I'm tempted to write the following review of Android from a webOS perspective:

Different hardware, uglier but faster OS, better Gmail. G'nite folks!

...because basically that's what it boils down to. I could be fairly productive using an Android device full time, but what the platform really needs is for Google give it some polish. Time will tell if they are able to overcome their engineering nature and do that - and then actually get that polished OS out to the masses in a consistent way.