Tom Insam

Happy thoughts about Android

After my previous ranting about Android on the G1, I feel I should write something optimistic about it. I’ve need using it on and off for a bit now, though I haven’t (yet) managed to switch to it full-time, as it doesn’t have an Instapaper client and I’ve become rather attached to Instapaper recently. I’m musing just sitting down and writing one at this point. Nevertheless:

I didn’t initially care about the ability to run background applications, though lots of people were very enthusiastic about it, but this turns out to be billing the feature badly. ‘Background’ isn’t really the point. Perhaps ‘still there’ is a better way of putting it. It’s not that apps can perform actions in the background that is useful, instead it’s that they haven’t had to quit just because I’m doing something else.

For instance, the Activity metaphor is one thing I’m very fond of. It’s a stack, with activities being dropped on the top when you choose something to do. If my twitter client wants to open a web page, it just drops the system web browser activity on the top of the stack, with that page in it. If I navigate around, the hardware ‘back’ button will go back in the browser history to the first page, then it’ll pop the browser off the stack and go back to the still-running twitter client. This is awesome - you don’t have to embed an entire web browser into every single app that might want to open a web page without quitting. And of course the web browser example is just a minor one - apps can call other interesting apps - I could hypothetically open my twitter client’s ‘compose’ activity directly from a blogging application to twitter about it, then pop it off and return to my blogging app, which was still running. More practically, I can open locations in the Google Maps application without losing my place.

Secondly, having my most common apps already open all the time eventually makes the G1 feel almost faster than the iPhone. I still feel enormously constrained by the speed of the device, especially with respect to the keyboard. It’s slow, and there’s no getting round this fact. But switching contexts feels lots faster than on the iPhone sometimes, as it’s a matter of ‘hold home, tap the app I want, and I’m there’, compared to the slick zooming-to-home-screen animation of the iphone, followed by lengthy app startup every time. Sometimes the iPhone animations start feeling like intentional delays put in to distract you from the fact that it’s not ready to show you the thing you’re zooming to yet. Just sayin'.

Finally, we have Spotify. This is where background apps running properly in the background actually matter in the traditional sense. I can listen to my music and do something else at the same time. The iPhone version of the app is lovely, as I said, but also totally useless, as I quite like using my iPhone to read things, check mail, other internetty things, and I also like to listen to music while doing this.

Finding some nice software has helped the Android experience a little.

  • newsrob - the closest thing to Byline, my favourite offline Google Reader app I've found so far. Doesn't know about starred items, though. And given that I've mostly switched to Instapaper for my offline reading, I'm drifting away from it.
  • twitdroid - twitter client. I have little to say about this other than it's the one that sucks the least. Damning with faint praise, really. It is getting better, though. It's still being worked on, and this is a big deal.
  • k9 - an ugly, but damn effective email client. It'll check more than one IMAP folder, for instance, which I love, because I do a lot of server-side filtering.

Annoyingly, as I have (access to) a G1 dev phone, I can't pay money for software. In fact, I can't even see software on the Marketplace if it costs money (or is otherwise marked as 'copy protected'). This means that there's a stack of supposedly-useful stuff I can't try. Most Android users I've talked to strongly recommend Better Keyboard as an alternative to the built-in keyboard, but that's not an option for me. A pity.

So, I'm aware that I presented a review of 'Android running on the G1' as a list of problems with Android. As I said in one of the comments later,

What I'm actually doing is comparing the 2 pieces of hardware I actually have sitting in front of me and that I can put a SIM card into. I know the Hero is better than this. I know there are things in the pipeline that will probably blow the iPhone away, when they actually arrive. But none of them are here, so I can't play with them.

There are comments elsewhere complaining that I'm holding the shortcomings of the G1 hardware responsible for Android's speed or unfriendliness. This is, of course, true. And I don't consider it relevant. It's a single thing to me. I know how it works, and where I could draw pretty arbitrary lines between 'hardware' and 'software', but I really don't think that it matters.

This is still the case - I've been unable to see a Hero running anything other than a looped demo video, though I have managed to grope the hardware and I like it. I've very tempted. But my SIM card is still in the iPhone.