Earlier today Google released the Android 0.9 SDK r1 Beta, boasting of a pile of API updates and a visual refresh that moves it one solid step closer to actually, you know, showing up on a phone. A long changelog and a few screenshots are great, but we've fired up the SDK's emulator for a guided tour of Android's salient features.
0:02: Main menu is contained in a drawer that slides from the bottom of the screen
0:08: Multiple home screens can be flipped with touch gestures, a la the iPhone
0:20: Icons can be dragged from the main menu to build customised home screens. Dragging to the menu drawer trashes the home screen shortcut
0:38: Dialer screen, followed by the call behaviour. Calls can continue in the background, and all functions that don't require data transfer can work concurrently (This is currently a software regulation, as 3g networks should theoretically allow for simultaneous voice and data usage).
0:53: Ongoing calls and other notifications can be accessed by dragging the taskbar down.
1:20: Browser displays Gizmodo. Rendering is quite good, page navigation is a fairly intuitive rehash of current touch-control schemes. It's not terrible good at guessing column widths during double-tap zooming, but seems very usable. Preview magnification feature is useful for smaller screens or text-heavy pages.
2:22: "Tabbed" browsing feature lays out a grid of pages, with previews
2:45: Google Maps app. As you can see, this is among the more polished apps, and will feel familiar to anyone who has used Google Maps on the desktop or mobile devices.
3:30: Google Maps Street View.
4:00: Home screen include widgets (Google Search, a clock and a picture frame are the only ones for now) that can be dragged around the home screen(s).
4:23: The music apps relies on a panel of icons (a recurring theme in Android)
4:30: Message composition is unremarkable, but there is no sign of an on-screen keyboard at the moment. This could be a customisation catered the the first round of Android phones, at least one of which will have a slide-out keyboard.
5:12: The camera naturally doesn't work in the emulator, but there are currently very few options in its menus.
5:50: Wallpaper switching. This is one of the few areas where Android excels aesthetically. Wallpaper scrolls as home screens are switched, but at a slower rate that the icons. This creates a convincing illusion of depth.
6:11: The home screen can also be modified via the system menu, where you can choose to add applications, widgets and shortcuts, as well as change the wallpaper.
It's hard to pass judgement on Android in the condition it's in. What's there is impressive, but there are so many glaring omissions, at least from a consumer standpoint. There is a fantastic system for managing ongoing calls and system messages (via the pull-down taskbar) but no apps to take advantage of it. Email and IM would suit such a configuration beautifully, but neither is included in this release. And seriously, where is the calendar? The organiser? A video app? Youtube support?
Sure, these things could be left to the developer community, but Google already has messaging, email, video and calendar services, so it's reasonable to expect that they be included by default in Android. Before a public release, Android should at least posses a feature set comparable to your average candy bar phone, courtesy of Google, so that the eager open-source development community can devote their effort to creating new, innovative apps and modifications for the OS.
Objections aside, the progress is promising. In terms of usability, Android is much easier to navigate and customise than virtually all other mobile solutions. With a few more apps, Android will be a clear choice over Windows Mobile, skinned or not. You can download the SDK and play with the emulator yourself, if you want. Just a word of warning, though — explaining to your family or significant other that you're testing an emulated prerelease of an upcoming mobile OS is about as hard as it sounds. [Google Android, Android on Giz]