Android and the F-word

No, I’m not referring to the obscenity, although I may as well be, as far as some die-hard Android fans are concerned. The word I’m referring to is “fragmentation” — the buzzword at the crux of many criticisms leveled against the Android OS. In my view, not only do these criticisms misuse this term, but they underestimate the values of flexibility and personalization as well.

At a basic level, fragmentation refers to a larger object being broken into smaller pieces, or fragments. That word, “fragment,” indicates an incomplete object that can’t function on its own. If a glass vase breaks into hundreds of pieces, for instance, those pieces can be called fragments because those pieces, individually, are worthless. Another, more tech-related example would be a standard hard drive. Data on the platters are stored in clusters/fragments. Individually, those clusters do not provide anything useful to the user. Only when all of the fragments of that one file are put together does the user get something that makes sense. Again, the fragments refer to pieces of data that are useless in the fragmented state. In the Android context, these fragments are supposedly the skins that manufacturers are putting on top of the Android foundation to customize it and add their own twists – a process critics allege compromises the user’s experience and renders the customized operating system unrecognizable. However, these so-called fragments continue to function on their own. They’re neither broken like the shards from a vase, nor are they incomplete like the bits of data on a hard drive. So why is it that the term “fragmentation,” a word that implies brokenness, is used to describe Android? I’d say that a narrow view of the topic has a lot to do with it.

Are some of the skins problematic? Yep.

Do the skins complicate OS-wide updates? Definitely.

But is all of this Android’s fault? Nope.

If a DJ takes a good song and makes a bad remix of it, that doesn’t make the original song bad. It’s the DJ’s rendition that’s bad, so why should the original song be held accountable? Well, that’s exactly what’s happened to Google’s Android, which is unjustly bad-mouthed for the flaws and issues caused by OEMs that decided to put their own spin on the underlying operating system. Just like the DJ’s take on the song should be evaluated separately from the original, so too should the re-skinned versions of Android be judged separately from their Google origins.

Not only is Google not to blame for manufacturers’ ham fists, but it ought to be applauded for the so-called fragmentation, for offering choices and enabling customization. Android’s chameleon character can cater to the needs of so many more people, but it’s much more than that. A short while ago, Jerry Hildenbrand over at Android Central said it best in a great article that likened Android to Linux. Specifically, Hildenbrand drew parallels between Android’s malleable platform and Linux, whose open architecture gave rise to the many operating systems that use the Linux Kernel. Check it out if you can. It’s well worth the read.

The point to take away from Hildenbrand’s article is that, at the base level, both Linux and Android offer a platform on which anyone with the necessary skill can build – or improve. And the spinoffs should be evaluated on their individual merits. Take, for example, two popular but greatly different interpretations of Linux: Red Hat and Ubuntu. While Red Hat is generally more popular for servers and enterprise settings, Ubuntu is more popular for home computers. Each calls Linux “Dad,” but they cater to completely different audiences. A home user would find Red Hat confusing and irrelevant, and an IT professional in charge of a corporate network would no doubt consider many of Ubuntu’s features to be superfluous, detrimental to performance, even. And those unflattering opinions would likely shake out in any reviews, but it would be wrong to use them as ammo against Linux.

Of course, Android’s a slightly different case because unlike Linux, which acts as a kernel, Android is a self-contained operating system. But just as Red Hat and Ubuntu build on the Linux kernel and go in different directions, so too do Android skins like Samsung’s TouchWiz and Motorola’s MotoBlur (a name that Motorola is now trying to do away with). Each of those acts as an individual OS and interface. Each of them caters to different people. Each of those comes with its own issues, complexities and benefits — characteristics that are specific to each one of them separately. Android is simply a platform that allows customization and encourages variety.

So, no, Android isn’t broken, and it’s not fragmented, strictly speaking. It’s a healthy ecosystem sustained by the diversity of its potential permutations — one that needs to be evaluated and critiqued from a broader, more open-minded perspective.

Is console gaming on its way out?

Yesterday IGN reported that the next-generation Xbox will debut in October or early November of 2013 with six times the processing power of the current system. While that sounds lovely, I’m stuck on the question of appetite: Will consumers line up for an expensive console in an era of extreme mobility? My colleagues and I have gone back and forth on this on our weekly podcast, and I can’t shake the idea that console gaming will fizzle as mobile devices like the iPhone, iPad, and Galaxy Nexus become more powerful and more capable.

Lest you think I’m anti-console gaming, I was crazy about the stuff not too long ago. I’m probably dating myself, but I loved going to arcades, and I spent countless hours in front of my Nintendo, Sega, Xbox, and Playstation. But as devices like the iPhone and iPad emerged and enabled me to get my gaming fix on the go, I found myself straying from consoles more and more. And I suspect I’m not alone here. In fact, anecdotal evidence supports my suspiscion: Friends with young children — once console gaming’s core audience — tell me their kids play games on iPod Touchs or iPads, not Wiis or Playstations .

That said, Microsoft’s Xbox has something over the competition, something I can’t deny or write off — it’s the best console out there, and it claims that top spot for an ironic reason: It’s not just a gaming machine. It’s a multi-purpose entertainment hub. In addition to rendering the latest games, it plays Netflix, HBO GO, Hulu, and a variety of other media. It also has Kinect, which opens the door to all sorts of interactive possibilities.

Still, I think immobility is the limiting factor — not to mention pricier titles. And a recent decline in retail game sales bears that out. Last week, marketing research firm NDP released a report that pegged the downturn at 8 percent in 2011. In December alone, game sales were down roughly 21 percent. Yasir, our resident gaming nut, was quick to point out that existing consoles are in their retirement phase, so it’s only natural that sales of their software and accessories would slowly dry up. I don’t dispute that, but I think the price of admission, for the consoles and their games, is just as responsible for making gamers think twice.

But I don’t think consoles will suddenly disappear from the gaming landscape, either. They’ll linger for years because, dwindling or not, they have a passionate fanbase that appreciates the graphics and controls that mobile devices haven’t yet mastered. But just as arcades took a back seat to consoles decades ago, and desktops have taken a back seat to laptops, I strongly suspect consoles will increasingly play second fiddle to mobile devices like iPhones and iPads.

Photo Credit: Great Beyond

An iPhone user’s take on the Galaxy Nexus

Android users, the wait’s over: The hotly anticipated Samsung Galaxy Nexus has finally made its way to retailers across the world, and we’ve got the skinny. But before I get started, I need to make a confession: This is the first Android phone I’ve lived with for more than 24 hours. (And I do mean lived with; during my nearly two week-long test drive, the Nexus was my go-to — an all-in approach that allowed me to fully appreciate the device). For the past four years, I’ve dialed out from an iPhone, and while the honeymoon’s far from over, I felt the need to give Android’s most capable entry to date a serious try. This review will detail that experience, including my thoughts and impressions of the Nexus’s hardware and software, which I’ll frequently compare to the iPhone, arguably the industry’s high-water mark and, quite honestly, my reference point.

Hardware

When I took the Galaxy Nexus out of the box, the first thing I noticed was how large the phone was. That’s not to say it’s a brick — the phone’s thin. As thin as my iPhone 4. But in my hands the Nexus felt much larger than the iPhone I’m used to. In fact, I think anyone this side of Shaq would come away with the same impression of the Nexus’s massive 5.33-by-2.67” footprint. Compared to an iPhone 4/4S, which checks in at 4.5 inches by 2.31 inches, the Nexus is about 37 percent bigger.

The phone’s exterior is a gunmetal-tinged plastic, and it’s significantly lighter than I thought it would be. The Nexus’s rounded edges also made it a pleasure to hold. But if you’ve ever used an iPhone 4 or 4S, you’ve likely noticed the exceptional build quality — a feeling one doesn’t get from the cheaper-feeling (it’s light weight works against it here, I think) Nexus. Google says the internal frame of the phone is metal, but you wouldn’t know it, especially after I had to literally peel the back off to put in the battery.

There are only two physical buttons on the device: a sleep/wake button and the volume rocker button. All other external buttons have been removed, including the “home” and “back” buttons. The buttons that were on previous Nexus phones, not to mention nearly every other Android device, are now integrated into the operating system. This goes a long way toward explaining the finger-friendly 4.65-inch display. Perhaps Google figured more screen real estate would suffice where buttons came up short. In addition, there are two ports on the bottom of the phone: a micro-USB port and a 3.5 mm headphone jack.

The phone’s face also hosts a small, LED notification light beneath the screen (where you might be used to a “home” button on an iPhone) that pulses various colors depending on the notification you’ve received. In my use, I saw three different colors when using different apps. Whatsapp produced a green light, Twitter a blue light, and new text messages, emails, and app updates triggered a white light.

Overall, I’d say the Nexus’s physical hardware is merely okay. The plastic feel of the phone is a real turn-off for me, especially after my time with an iPhone 4. I also feel that a smartphone should be more portable than what Samsung has built. That’s not to say I wouldn’t appreciate a larger screen on my iPhone, but in my opinion, 4.65 inches is a bit excessive. The LED notification light is a nice touch and one I came to appreciate, but other than that, the hardware failed to impress.

Specs / Display

Internally, the Nexus packs some serious hardware. It sports a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of ram, and your choice of 16GB or 32GB of internal storage. There’s the usual Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, and it’s also equipped with a variety of sensors and chips, including an NFC chip, gyroscope, accelerometer, barometer, ambient light sensor, and a compass.

There are two cameras on the device. The rear camera is a 5-megapixel continuous auto-focus that’s capable of 1080P video recording. In the front you’ll find a weaker, 1.3-megapixel camera, which which is better suited for video chatting and self-portraits..

The Nexus’s speaker was a disappointment. In fact, when I tried using the built in Google Navigation app while going out for a drive, I had to turn off the radio completely in order to hear the directions. And even then it was difficult to hear over road noise. Using headphones was a much better experience, but I don’t see myself doing that while driving (it’s also illegal in many states). Hopefully a software update can address the phone’s whisper-quiet volume — otherwise I can see this being a real issue for people looking to use the Nexus as a turn-by-turn GPS.

One of the highlights of the Galaxy Nexus is its large Super AMOLED display. At 4.65 inches and 1280×720, the Galaxy Nexus comes in at 315 PPI – just short of Apple’s 326 PPI on the iPhone 4/4S. The blacks, as is usually the case with AMOLED displays, are much blacker on the Galaxy, and while I’m a big fan, it wasn’t enough to make up for the display’s weaker points. The colors appeared over-saturated and the screen itself had some apparent irregularities. Every app or website I opened was marred by a faint crisscross pattern (similar to Apple’s linen texture) that overlaid whatever was displayed. Colors also seemed inconsistent and very patchy when looking at a solid background. For a while I thought maybe it was just me, but onlookers agreed. Unfortunately I couldn’t replicate the patchiness in a screenshot, but it’s there. Perhaps this is because Samsung opted for a Super AMOLED Pentile display and not a Super AMOLED plus Pentile display. Or maybe it’s just a software issue.

side angle 2 An iPhone users take on the Galaxy Nexus

Screen brightness was good, and I could read text and look at images without any issues.

Taking those issues into consideration, the Nexus’s display gets another “okay” rating in my book. Don’t get me wrong, it’s decent and is hardly a deal-breaker, but the color saturation and clarity pale in comparison to the iPhone’s Retina display.

Software

The meat of the Nexus, and arguably the bit we’ve all been waiting for, is Android 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). The new interface is evocative of Tron in its futuristic look, with accents of blue on a dark-gray theme.

Setting up the device is incredibly easy, especially for those with a Google account. If you count yourself among that millions-strong group, you’ll be ready to go in minutes. And don’t worry about getting your new phone up to speed: Your email, contacts, pictures, and anything else of yours that’s saved on Google’s servers are beamed to your device with one simple login. Clearly, approachability is a priority for Google.

Once you’re all logged in, you can begin navigating through the device, which is an interesting experience, to say the least. If you’re coming from an iOS device, as I was, the first thing you’ll notice is that ICS is a little more complex than iOS. There seem to be more “roads” to get to your destination compared to iOS. For example, when I pulled down the notification bar, there’s a shortcut at the very top to get to the phone settings. And if swiped to the very left home page, there’s a widget that allowed me to instantly adjust my brightness, toggle bluetooth, sync my accounts, turn wifi on/off, and disable location-tracking with a single tap. Very handy.

I also love the unlock screen. Swiping from center to right unlocks the phone and brings you to the standard home page. You can also swipe from center to left, and this takes you directly to the camera app. iOS has a camera shortcut, too, accessed by double tapping the home button while the device is asleep, but I found the ICS approach to be much easier and faster.

screenshot home An iPhone users take on the Galaxy Nexus

Folders are also nice and clean in ICS. In straight-forward, iOS fashion, you can easily create a folder by dragging apps over one another. And opening a file within those folders is as simple as tapping the relevant folder, waiting for the menu popup, and then selecting the specific app you’d like to launch.

Widgets are another well-executed feature. You can go into the widgets browser and simply tap and hold any widget and place it wherever you’d like on any of the home screens. My main home screen, for instance, had a weather widget that I could check at a glance. iOS offers a weather widget in their notifications drop-down, but you don’t have the option to add additional widgets like Twitter. I’d like to see Apple step up their game and implement widgets in the next version of iOS, because after using them in ICS, they’re tough to give up.

Speaking of notifications, I think this is an area where ICS clearly takes the lead over its Cupertino competition. The notifications bar, for example, is translucent and allows you to keep track of what’s going on in the background. And notifications can be dismissed from the notification drop down with a simple, convenient swipe – something that can’t be done in iOS. You can also dismiss all notifications with just a single tap on the X in the upper right-hand corner. In iOS, on the other hand, you have to tap an X in the upper right-hand corner and then confirm the action by tapping “clear” –- a two-step process. I can understand Apple’s double-checking philosophy here, but I appreciated ICS’s single-step take.

Lest I gush too much, there’s something that really bugged me about the Nexus’s software: The screen rotation is downright laggy, noticeably slower than even an iPhone 4. In my testing, rotations from portrait to landscape and vice versa took almost two seconds. The same task took less than a second on my iPhone 4. At times, the Nexus was so slow to respond that I thought the phone didn’t register the rotation, only to have it finally rotate once I’d given up and gone back to the original configuration.

Multitasking

ICS’s ability to multitask isn’t revolutionary, nor is it show-stopper, but it’s damn convenient. I found myself leaning on it quite a bit, and I appreciated it all the while. It’s reminiscent of HP’s webOS cards view, but with a little Google twist. To bring up multitasking in ICS, there’s a dedicated, on-screen button in the lower right-hand corner of the display. When you tap on that button, a vertical list of thumbnail screenshots appears and shows you the last four apps you’ve used. To the left of the thumbnails are the corresponding app icons, as well as the names of the applications. You can also scroll up to see any other apps you’ve used. To dismiss an app, you simply swipe to the right. Nice. In fact, the more I used ICS, the more I appreciated the emphasis on swipes over taps. That might sound ridiculous to some, but tapping requires precision and is pain in certain situations, whereas swiping tends to be a less-involved, more-forgiving gesture.

multi tasking An iPhone users take on the Galaxy Nexus

Keyboard/Text Selection

The keyboard in ICS is good, with a layout that’s very similar to iOS’s. In my use, I found it to be just as accurate, too. Voice-to-text input worked very well and was impressively quick, and I was able to send texts and emails without any issues.

Text selection and copy/paste functions, however, are not well executed. To select text, you press and hold your finger on the relevant text until a highlighter tool appears, as you would with iOS. Only, there’s no pop-up menu here. Instead, there are four on-screen buttons, and one is labeled “Select All.” The rest have no labels, meaning I frequently had to guess which was which. To make matters even worse, the locations of those four mystery buttons vary from app to app. In the browser they’re at the top of the screen, and in the email app they’re at the bottom. Very inconsistent.

Factory Apps

As an Apple user who’s always had to settle for watered-down Google apps, I was really looking forward to using those core apps on an Android device. Surely Gmail, Maps, and Voice would be better on Android, I thought.

Email

Wrong. The Gmail app was frustrating, thanks to those unlabeled menus. And the icons Google picked to represent certain tasks like composing an email aren’t nearly as obvious as they are in iOS. In iOS, for example, the “compose” button is marked by a readily identifiable pen. In Android, however, that same button is represented by an envelope with a plus sign next to it. And many other functions got the same head-scratching treatment, like “mark as read,” and “archive.”

Voice

Google Voice was a breath of fresh air. It was clean and simple, and voice calls went through without any hiccups. I was also able to text back and forth, and it worked great. Google Voice is available for the iPhone, but the overall experience is better on the Nexus, where it feels more integrated.

Calendars

I have mixed feelings about Google Calendar. I liked the pinch-to-zoom feature that allows you to see more or less of your day, and I appreciated the ability to swipe to the right to move to the next week (again, swiping vs tapping). But navigating through the calendar app proved to be a lot more work on Android than on iOS. Why? You guessed it, unlabelled menus. All things considered, the experience isn’t as intuitive as it is in iOS, but once you familiarize yourself, it’s pretty straight forward.

Browser

The browser in Ice Cream Sandwich is decent, if a little weird. Like, it’s odd that Android doesn’t have the ubiqutous white text field up top for inputting web addresses. That space is simply black, all the way across the top. Once you’ve realized that you can type an address up there, it isn’t a big deal, but it was confusing at first. Scrolling worked well, and so did pinch-to-zoom, but neither were as silky smooth as I’m used to in iOS. Things like page refresh weren’t as obvious, though, and I had to hunt for them in those frustrating menus.

Battery Life

For the record, I didn’t use an LTE Galaxy Nexus. The phone I tested was a 3G-only and, I’d imagine, much easier on the battery. With that said, the 3G Nexus fared very well in my testing. I checked email, browsed the web, watched videos, made calls, played games, and chatted with friends — all without searching for an outlet. I woke up, unplugged my phone, went about my day, and felt comfortable that my phone would have battery remaining in the evening. In my tests (using automatic brightness), I went an average of about 15 hours before having to recharge the phone. That’s definitely better than what I’m getting out of my iPhone 4.

Camera

The Galaxy Nexus’s main camera clocks in at 5 megapixels and boasts tap-to-focus, which is also found on the iPhone. To see how the Nexus’s camera stacked up against the iPhone’s, I took a variety of pictures at the local beach, paying particular attention to color reproduction..

One of the first things I noticed was that there was no shutter UI. When you take pictures on an iPhone, for example, there’s a built-in iris effect that lets you know you’ve just taken a picture. The Nexus, however, has no such feature, and the screen barely flickers between snaps. In fact, it’s so subtle that in many cases I didn’t know I’d taken a picture without looking at the thumbnails in my gallery. That being said, the camera is fast and was never a limiting factor.

The camera’s software largely falls in line with the rest of ICS’s label-less UI design. Functions like zooming, video camera mode, panorama mode, and switching between the front and rear cameras are obvious enough, but the more advanced controls like white balance and exposure are hidden behind, well, less-than-obvious icons. As someone who loves photography, I appreciated the advanced settings, but wished they’d paid more attention to the camera’s interface.

But enough about the software. At the end of the day, it’s all about image quality, right? Well, after taking loads of images, I found that to be similarly lackluster. Not horrible, but not impressive, either. And compared to my outdated iPhone 4, the Nexus was noticeably worse at night or in low-light conditions. The photos also seemed over-saturated in certain shots, and there were instances where images weren’t as sharp as I expected them to be.

beach sidebyside 2 An iPhone users take on the Galaxy Nexus

galaxy iphone4 compare dark An iPhone users take on the Galaxy Nexus

To me, this really illustrates the companies’ different priorities. While Apple seems to be taking photography very seriously, Google doesn’t appear to be as concerned. Perhaps Google’s focus will shift down the road, but for now, this isn’t a camera I’d ditch my iPhone for.

Ecosystem and Apps

The Android ecosystem relies heavily on your Google investment. That is to say, the more you use Google, the better off you are with Android. But the second you jump ship to alternative services, your Android experience suffers. Take email, for instance. If you aren’t using Gmail, ICS’s mail app isn’t very good. iOS’s mail app, on the other hand, isn’t as finicky and will deliver the same experience regardless of which email provider you’re using.

And though Android’s adding apps at a dizzying pace that will no doubt rival iOS’s library in the near future, apps available for both operating systems, like Twitter, Path and WhatsApp, performed markedly better on iOS, in my experience.

Overall

When I first got the Galaxy Nexus, I could hardly contain my excitement. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on what’s been billed the best-ever Android device. And, truth be told, I looked forward to getting away from iOS, if only for a week. But that enthusiasm quickly faded. The more I used the Nexus and explored Ice Cream Sandwich, the less I understood the hype. Neither are great. Not for me, anyway. And the open architecture, while initially appealing, was overshadowed by the operating system’s inconsistency. I’d much rather a phone that’s thoroughly polished, consistent, and *gasp* fun.

Ice Cream Sandwich isn’t without its good points, but they’re hard to remember amid a clunky experience. I just can’t understand how a phone with this much power can have such jittery scrolling behavior, and why at times the phone took its precious time accomplishing even the most basic of tasks, like rotating from portrait to landscape.

After living with the Nexus and ICS for nearly two weeks, I’m starting to realize why it’s called Android – because it feels robotic. It lacks the soul and aesthetic beauty that iOS has in spades. If those things don’t matter to you, if you look at a phone like a tool and nothing more, then you’ll probably love the Nexus. But if you love iOS — its fluidity, its ecosystem, its apps, its build quality, and its all-around attention to detail — then stick with your iPhone.