Android 2.2 – aka Froyo – is the most usable, polished iteration of Android yet. But more importantly, it’s the first release that makes Android truly compelling for a broad consumer audience. Froyo’s updates aren’t that radical, but serious under-the-hood improvements and refinements throughout make it tangibly more pleasing to use.
Need for Speed
Without getting overly technical, Android executes its apps in a layer above its core Linux OS in a virtual machine called Dalvik. One of the major under-the-hood changes in 2.2 is a just-in-time compiler for Dalvik, which – here’s come the chocolate sprinkles – results in a 2x-5x performance boost for CPU-heavy code. That means faster apps – faster everything. (Google demoed it last week with the game Replica Island, which kept a higher framerate while doing more stuff in 2.2 compared to its performance on Android 2.1)
According to Google, this speed boost incongruously comes with slightly better battery life. But any power improvements haven’t been dramatic enough for us to notice during tests on the Nexus One.
It’s the Little Things
The speed boost in 2.2 is fantastic, but what makes Froyo a truly great update is that it tightens bolts all across the entire platform. Android has evolved into a real product, on a totally different level than its first year.
One of Android’s major shortcomings has been its interface, which has varied from wildly inconsistent to simply confusing. The UI is largely the same – it’s still more complex and less elegant than either the iPhone or Palm’s webOS – but it’s striking how much nicer it feels thanks to even a few of tweaks.
• The messages app – for SMS and MMS – and Google Talk now share a mostly unified interface with the Gmail app: black-text-on-purpleish background, moving away from the incongruous white-text-on-black.
• Inside of Gmail, you can now quickly switch between accounts by tapping the name of the account in the top right hand corner.
• When you plug the phone into your computer and turn on USB storage, a fancy Android graphic now tells you what’s up, with clear instructions about mounting and unmounting your phone.
• The camera app’s controls are markedly improved, putting all of the settings like white balance and flash mode right up front, rather than sticking them behind a finicky slider that didn’t work half the time.
• Usefully and enjoyable – and with maybe just a little poking at Apple – galleries now have a pinch-to-peek gesture, so that you can see what photos are inside of a gallery before you open it.
Perhaps my favourite tweaks are on the home screen.
• Pressing and holding the central apps button brings up thumbnail previews of every screen on your desktop.
• Since smartphones have been shedding buttons like promise rings on prom night, a new centre widget on the home screen puts the dialler, app menu and browser permanently at your fingertips.
Android’s still not all the way there. There are still too many buried features, hidden by menu button and general complexities, like a separate email app for non-Gmail accounts, remain. Selecting text, while now possible in the Gmail app, is confusing. And the white-on-black interface for the dialler and contacts seems even more out of place now that messages and Gtalk use a lighter UI.
The interface could always stand to be sleeker and more graceful. It’s so strange, in a way, that Android has the most impressive voice controls and speech-to-text of any phone out there, but basic things like copy-and-paste can feel as slippery as brain surgery on a snail. The problem extends to the Android Market. Sure, one day we might be pushing apps to the phone from our desktop, but app discoverability, particularly on the phone itself, is a long way from optimal.
But you can see where things are going. And it feels more unified and complete than it ever has, which is a good thing. (Except the touch keyboard. It still feels like you’re typing with two fingers glued together, and Andy Rubin didn’t offer us much hope on that front.)
The App Scene
Android now has a built-in, legit task manager, and while it’s a little too deep in the settings, you can kill unruly apps that gobble memory. (Thankfully, I haven’t had to do so in 2.2). You can move apps to the SD card, which is a big deal since you were previously limited to however many apps would fit within the puny internal storage in the phone. (This appears to be something developers have to allow, since only a couple of apps gave me the option to do so.)
And, while I haven’t tested this (since I’m using the same phone and I don’t think any apps support the API yet), apps can back up your data, so when you move to a new phone, all of your inner-app data will show up with the fresh install.
While it’s not too much use to anyone on AT&T in NY or SF, perhaps the biggest new feature is the portable hotspot, which works as perfectly as you’d hope. Check the box, and you’re sharing your 3G connection over Wi-Fi with any device you want. Security is limited to WPA2, unfortunately, making integration with older devices difficult. It also works while charging, so why even bother with tethering?
The official Twitter app is built-in, much like Facebook has been since Android 2.0, and it is deeply integrated with your contacts. The setup is automagical, though if it screws up the pairing – say if somebody’s Twitter handle gets assigned to the wrong person – good luck fixing it. Still, the effect is charming, especially if a contact is as deeply tied into Google as you are, since every avenue by which you could possibly want to contact them is at your fingertips. (On the flip side, Google’s contact management within Gmail is still pretty horrendous.)
Accounts are improved in a few ways. For me, the most important is that now you can see calendars from every Google account on the phone, whereas before only calendars from one primary account synced. But serious corporate users get some of the love too, since Exchange calendars work now as well. I didn’t test any of the Exchange administrator features, like remote wipe, but I’ll say being able to set a real alphanumeric passcode for the screenlock instead of a grease-trail-reside gesture sounds much, much improved.
Google’s Good Stuff… That’s Not In Froyo
Some of the most impressive stuff that Google showed off last week is still a ways off – features that we know are coming but won’t make it into Froyo.
The current built-in music app is as clunky and ugly as ever, and managing music on the phone is not nearly as easy as it should be. But Google’s Simply Media-powered streaming demo, which was demonstrated streaming an entire library from a home computer to a phone, wouldn’t just fix the sync issue, it would leapfrog what everybody else currently offers. (Though the unlimited streaming Zune Pass for Kin would be a close second.)
Also, none of the apps are currently using the upcoming cloud-to-device messaging service – like push notifications on the iPhone, but super-powered, so you could send links and even begin app downloads on your phone from, say, your desktop browser.
Android 2.2 is the first version of Android that feels totally complete – it performs like it should and it has most of the features it should. It’s not quite at the point my mother could use it without a precarious learning curve, but you can see how it’s going to get better. It’s safe to say that with Froyo, Android has become something that most people really can use – and love.
Considering again where Android was six, 12 and 18 months ago, I can believe the promises Google has made: that Android will blow your mind in another six months. The future of Android has never looked brighter.