A year ago, Android was an unfinished OS for nerds, bursting with potential. With Android 2.0, it’s evolved into something sleeker, more refined and focused — but still something not quite human.
Over the last year, Android’s evolved more rapidly and appeared in more shapes than any other smartphone OS. Every major update has made Android more capable and advanced, while custom interfaces from companies like HTC and Motorola, mean it’s constantly and continually shifting shapes. When you look at the bucket of bolts everybody started with, some of the oh-so-shiny end results were kind of amazing. Android 2.0 blows all of that away, and lays down a platform for the next year that’s wildly more compelling, even as it retains a lot of the same fundamental weaknesses.
New Skin, Same Awkward Body
Android 2.0 is glossy — not in an Apple “the whole world is shiny and reflective” kind of way, but more like moulded plastic for a collectible action figure. The cartoon whimsy — the classic Google rainbow of bright colours — are gone. The iconography, redrawn for high-res displays packed with tons of pixels, is smoother and sleeker, more subtle, and forces you to ask yourself, “Google designed this?”
While icons and menu bars have been polished to fine gloss, and some things are cleaner and better organised — settings, for instance — overall, the user experience is basically the same: three desktops, which you can pack with icons and widgets; the still brilliant drop-down notification shade, which pools everything Android wants to tell you; and a pop-up tab where all of your apps are at. This is all still fine, mostly, if a bit muddled.
The reason that cluttered interface confusion is mostly fine is that multitasking with Android is addictive, and it’s a better, easier-to-use implementation than any phone but the Pre. The window shade, a simple but powerful concept, is what makes it work. If I’m browsing the internet and get a message, I can pull the shade down, check the message, and go right back to browsing. Or flip over to messaging, reply and get right back to browsing. Android 2.0 excels at this, especially now that everything runs faster.
The long press and menu button conventions are still used nearly everywhere throughout the OS, but almost always inconsistently. If you’re trying to do something in-app and have no idea how, there’s a good chance the action you’re looking for is buried behind the menu button or a long press. But these controls do different things in almost every single app, and even sometimes in the same app, depending on the context.
And while Android 2.0 is capable of multitouch, other than making typing smoother, it’s nowhere to be found, at least not where I want it: the browser and maps. Also, the portrait keyboard is still too tiny.
A Killer Machine, Sorta
Software is inextricably tied to hardware in many respects, and nowhere is that more true than performance. Droid, the first Android 2.0 phone — and the only one we’ve used — is ridiculously capable, with an ARM Cortex A8 TI OMAP3430 processor that’s basically the same as the chips inside of the Palm Pre and iPhone 3GS. Point being, it’s got heavy-duty processor firepower.
So it’s absolutely inexplicable that while it’s overall the fastest version of Android yet — most apps fly open instantly, run zippily and practically zoom from one to another, even with a couple running in the background — very basic user interface elements, like the main pop-up menu on the home screen and sliding over from one desktop to another, often stutter or lag (with no apps running up front, and just a couple of widgets on the desktop). At this point, it’s clear that these performance hiccups are an Android problem, not a hardware deficiency. It’s maddening to hold a badass phone like the Droid and watch it handle menus like a pussy.
Accounts, Contacts, Exchange and Other Serious-Sounding Words
1. Everybody whose name is capitalised in the screenshot is matched up with Facebook — I loathe capital letters, but got over the inconsistency.
2. And the rarely mismatched contacts prove difficult, if not impossible, to completely straighten out.
Quick Contact is what keeps this orgy of personal information from getting too messy when it’s time to get down to business — clicking on a contact’s icon blooms a row of icons, letting you instantly ping them via SMS, phone, email, Facebook or whatever you want.
Also new, sorta, is layers. Basically, every bit of information you wanna see in Maps is now a “layer”. Like if I’ve got Latitude up on the map, and want to see nearby coffee places with satellite view, that’s three layers — Latitude, a search for coffee and satellite view. It can get a little confusing, especially if you’re going from search to search, or Maps to Navigation and then back to Maps — none of it’s conceptually clean or simple, and the interface isn’t always aren’t entirely self-apparent. Also. Pinch. To. Zoom. I want it.
Browse Awesomer, But No (Multi)Touchy
Well, It WOULD Be a Better Camera
Multimedia (or Lack Thereof)
And, there’s not even a built-in video player! (YouTube doesn’t count.) I have a phone with a drop-dead gorgeous screen that I can’t use to play movies without digging up my own video app, even if I could figure out how to get videos onto it. Correction: The video player’s tucked inside of the slow and rather buggy Gallery application, where you also browse photos. And it wouldn’t play videos that worked perfectly on a Zune HD or iPhone. Until I can magically and perfectly sync 12 gigs of music and videos over the air, you can’t get away with not having a media sync desktop application.
Make no mistake, for a phone platform that’s supposed to be ready for consumers now, this is a disaster, like a spaceship that’s about to shoot into the atmosphere with a gaping hole in the side.
Goin’ to the Android Market, Buyin’ Some Apps
A problem that’s currently plaguing the ecosystem, and is hopefully not a foreboding omen of the fragmentation to come, is that many apps weren’t designed for the higher resolution screens that Android 2.0 supports, so their icons and graphics render crap-ugly on Droid, even in the main menu. (Granted, the phenomenon is partly Google’s fault for restricting access to the 2.0 SDK to all but a select group of privileged developers until basically the day Droid was announced.)
The Market itself, while it got a desperately needed facelift with 1.6, still has a ways to go. There’s no way to update all of your applications simultaneously — you have to click through the update process for each one. And finding apps remains a problem. Browsing for apps exclusively on your phone is a tedious experience, especially when there’s so many apps to wade through. Besides more refined browsing and suggestions, there needs to be a way to look through the Market on your desktop. Also, Google’s got this whole cloud thing going, why aren’t my apps tied to my Google account, so if I move to another phone, they’ll all magically repopulate, like my contacts?
Wherefore Art Thou, Android?
I probably sound like I’m more down on Android 2.0 than I actually am. I like it a lot, truthfully. It’s an amazing conduit for Google’s services. If your online life is lock, stock and barrel Google, there really isn’t a better or more powerful smartphone for getting stuff done in that universe. The Gmail app is a perfect distillation of Gmail for a small screen. The Google Talk app, if you have a bunch of friends using GTalk, is fantastic. Google, really, is Android’s greatest strength. Excellent multitasking is a close second.
In time, Android very well could be the internet phone, hands down, in terms of raw capabilities. And while it’s not as easy to use or polished or seamless as the iPhone — or to some extent, Palm’s WebOS — it’s way more usable than most other smartphones, and keeps evolving, way faster than anyone else, continually closing that gap. Android 2.0’s potential feels as enormous as the first version, and if it comes as far, I get kinda tingly thinking about it. It can’t say Android 2.0 is ready for your mum yet, but it’s definitely ready for anybody reading this.