Tag Archives: review

Why Android still sucks

This is the second post in my November writing challenge series.

I’ve been an Apple convert for a few years now (I started to see the light in 2010-ish), but every 12-18 months, I grab a Google-endorsed device that can run the latest version of Android and put it through its paces.

I do this because I feel obliged to speak without ignorance on the advantages and disadvantages of the major mobile platforms. Also because playing with new tech is fun.

There’s more to it than the UI

When it comes to Android vs. iOS, the differences are much bigger than user experience. Apple’s business model is completely different to Google’s, which impacts on everything about its hardware, software and online services.

Some of the differences are less obvious than others. For example, Google’s efforts to retain and profit from its users’ data are no secret, but most people don’t realise just how much of their personal information is being passively disclosed. Apple, meanwhile, draws most of its profit from hardware sales and actively avoids the disclosure and retention of user particulars.

A more obvious difference is in the area of version fragmentation. Android hardware vendors aren’t obliged to provide timely software updates for their devices–even if they contain critical security patches–and most of them don’t. Meanwhile, iOS updates are made available, to all devices capable of running them, simultaneously. You can guess which of these ecosystems is riddled with unpatched, deprecated operating system software.

But let’s talk about the UI anyway

Assuming we’ve made peace with Android’s underlying constraints, the next question to ask is: how does its user experience stack up?

To find out, I tested Android “Lollipop” (5.1.1) on a Nexus 7 (2013 version). I tried to use it productively for about a week, in place of an equivalent iPad.

I accept that without migrating all of my data to Google’s cloud services, my experience of the platform wasn’t completely immersive, but hopefully you’ll agree that it was immersive enough to make a few meaningful observations.

1. Reading and typing

iOS always set a high bar when it came to the display, entry and editing of text, but with Lollipop, Android has caught up pretty comprehensively. Its new font (Roboto) is crisp and appealing; the default keyboard has an improved layout and responds without the lag of earlier versions; and working with text selections is much less frustrating than it used to be.

It’s not just the keyboard that’s more responsive. Animations are vastly smoother, and scrolling is finally on par with iOS. I can’t overstate the importance of these these improvements–they significantly increase user enjoyment and confidence.

2. App updates

Android’s built-in apps receive updates via Google’s Play Store. This allows core apps to be updated without the overhead of a full operating system update (great!), but it also makes for a volatile experience when the Play Store app itself needs updating (not so great!). After factory resetting my Nexus 7, I had the Play Store app crash, then declare it wasn’t installed, before eventually starting to work again. Unfriendly much?

The Play Store also had trouble resolving dependencies between core apps while they were being upgraded. A bunch of “You must upgrade X before you can upgrade Y” notifications were thrown at me after I hit “Update All”. This sort of thing shouldn’t happen ever, much less immediately after a factory reset (i.e. with no third-party apps in play).

3. Settings, settings, settings

The design of Android’s “Settings” app has improved significantly since previous versions, but I still found it relatively cluttered, with too many superfluous “advanced” options offered too prominently. Your mileage may vary.

Enterprise users will be annoyed to find that proxy auto-discovery remains unavailable in Lollilop. Manually entering a PAC file URL is still necessary. Apple has been all over this for years now. C’mon, Google!

Also, disabling those annoying keyboard tap sounds is not a simple task, because settings for “Sounds” aren’t all in one place. (I eventually found the toggle I was looking for–deep in “Keyboard” settings. Argh.)

Finally: IMAP users still can’t configure the stock email app to use custom mailboxes for Sent messages and Trash. Their names are hard-coded into the app.

4. Notifications

I liked that I could turn off all notifications for a set period of time (unlike “Do Not Disturb” mode on iOS, which needs to be manually switched off). I didn’t like that I could allow “priority” interruptions during this notification blackout–simply because it’s not clear what a “priority” interruption is (“Did I configure this? Do I trust my former self to have configured it properly? Is my presentation going to be interrupted by a Facebook message?”) I also didn’t like that the UI for this feature only appeared when I used the volume rocker. It belongs on the main notification panel.

My verdict

Android as an operating system isn’t bad. Like iOS, it has annoying shortcomings in some areas, but overall, it’s fast, beautiful and easy to use. When it’s not, pop-up tips pick up the slack.

So why do I think it “still sucks”?

It’s the apps.

Or, to be more specific, it’s the tablet apps.

Android has been tablet-friendly for years now, but a large of number of app developers (including Facebook) stubbornly refuse to build tablet versions of their apps. With a few exceptions, most of the apps I tried on the Nexus 7 opened as stretched or magnified phone apps. I could access all of my content, but the apps were so useless I couldn’t do anything with it.

The iOS App Store, meanwhile, is full of high-quality tablet apps.

Also, iOS plays nice with IMAP.

Also, Apple doesn’t hunger and thirst for my metadata.

On the iPad mini’s lack of retina

I’m not saying anything new here. I’m just doing a brain-dump so I can tell people to “go read my tumblr” rather than answer the same question ad infinitum. I’m lazy (efficient?) like that.

I’ve already made a couple of posts about the iPad mini, but more detail about its “low-resolution screen” has been requested.

The iPad mini has the same pixel count as the iPad 2 – i.e. 1024×768 – so given its size, the mini’s DPI is higher than the iPad 2. That said, it’s definitely not retina. You can easily make out individual pixels (if you try hard and/or care about such things).

I don’t have a problem with this. Apple’s anti-aliasing is excellent, so even text-intensive tasks like reading are comfortable on the iPad mini. That said, if you’ve been spoiled by a retina iPad, your mileage may vary.

But was I disappointed that the iPad mini was announced without a retina display? Yes and no. Obviously a “high-resolution screen” would be great, but at what cost? The device would be more expensive, it would need a more powerful graphics processor, it would draw more power, and to get the same battery life, it would be significantly thicker.

In my opinion, Apple have struck the right balance between price, size and battery life with the iPad mini. Hopefully with ever-improving processors and battery technology, a future mini will be retina. Meanwhile, I love my tiny low-res iPad :)

A few thoughts on the iPad mini

The price

In Australia, iPad minis retail $60 cheaper than equivalent iPad 2’s, and $170 cheaper than equivalent iPad 4’s. Given iPad 2’s are more biggerer, and 4’s add retina and significantly more grunt, it’s fair to say that all are priced in Apple’s typical “premium but sane” way.

I was initially disappointed that iPad minis didn’t start at a more accessible price point (I want to put an iPad in the hands of every student at my school without bankrupting anybody), but having used one, I’m glad Apple aren’t selling a cheap device here. It’s solid, beautiful and.. well.. designed. Y’know?

The size

It’s slightly bigger than Google’s Nexus 7, thanks mostly to its 4:3 aspect ratio (which I find much more practical than 16:10, incidentally), but the iPad mini is SO much smaller, lighter and more portable than the already-small-light-and-portable iPad. It’s actually kinda.. cute. Good thing I got the manly red cover.

Users with fat fingers and/or bad eyes won’t love the small screen as much as I do, but as always, it’s what you do with it that counts. This much portability comes at a price, and even with my youngish eyes, skinny fingers and love of all things diminutive, I think it’s safe to say that “comfortable productivity” is the main one.

That’s not to say you can’t use an iPad mini productively. (Let’s not forget that some of us write entire blog posts on our iPhones.) But it’s not as.. comfortable as working on a full-size iPad. For example, you can’t touch-type with all 10 fingers on an iPad mini. You can on an iPad. For some users (especially those looking at iPads as laptop replacements), this sort of thing is a Big Deal, and using a bluetooth keyboard might not be an effective solution.

Smaller isn’t necessarily better – but it might be. Choose carefully.

The specs

I love my iPad 3’s display, so I expected the mini’s non-retina pixellation to grate. It hasn’t so far, but the same isn’t true for other reviewers, so your mileage may vary.

The mini’s processor is also a step down from the iPad 3 (which, in turn, is slower than the iPad 4), but I wouldn’t say it delivers a sluggish experience at all. I’m sure it helps that it’s not driving as many pixels.

[Aside: given how much more powerful the Nexus 7’s squillion-core processor allegedly is, and how Google “declared war” on UI lag in Android Jelly Bean, it’s amusing that iOS is as buttery as ever on the iPad mini. Jelly Bean still isn’t quite there..]

The conclusion

For me, the iPad mini is perfect. My MacBook Air (very portable in its own right) is usually available for extended writing sessions and technical work that can’t be done on an iPad, so I don’t need “comfortable productivity” in this device. It’s big enough to help me get through emails etc. quickly, and is ridiculously portable for campus use.

For others, the iPad mini will be too small to use for Real Work.

Again: choose carefully.

Google Nexus 7: Android’s salvation?

I tried to write this review on my Nexus 7, but impressive as it is, it’s not cut out for content creation like the iPad is.

Not that I’m complaining. You’d have to be slightly crazy to expect a 7-inch tablet to be a comfortable workhorse, and at $250-odd for the Nexus 7, you’d be forgiven for thinking “dedicated backlit book reader”, like I did. Fair warning, though: you might find yourself inexplicably drawn to the other niceties of Google’s new tablet.

I still love my iPad, and I still think iOS is the bomb, but for the first time ever, Android has genuinely impressed me. The Nexus 7’s “Jelly Bean” UI is every bit as smooth and responsive as iOS, the physical device is a delight to hold and use, and the operating system itself finally feels both polished and robust.

These improvements won’t solve Android’s inherent device fragmentation problems, but I think the buzz Google has created by so successfully launching a slick, affordable 7-inch tablet will go a long way towards attracting high-quality tablet apps to their app store. (There are still relatively few tablet-optimised Android apps available, but it’s reassuring that Google Play is making it easier than ever to find them. I’ve been particularly impressed with Evernote, Instapaper and Plume so far.)

Will the Nexus 7 take a sizable bite out of Apple’s enormous tablet market share? It’s too early to say. My hunch is that we’ll see Android grow as iOS developers port their apps for Nexus 7 users, but if Apple reply with a cheap 7-inch iPad before Android tablets gain momentum, the strength of Apple’s app ecosystem will continue to make it tough for Android.

May all of the good products win!

(Also: Google/ASUS should take packaging lessons from Apple. Liberating my Nexus 7 from its box required surgery to the box ;) )