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Android thoughts

The rather anticlimactic conclusion to my mobile phone dilemma in June was the G1. I didn’t like it at the time and still don’t; however, the writing was on the wall for the hiptop, finally drained of life by Microsoft, and it was the only viable choice for smartphone-with-keyboard at the time. (Have you tried typing on a Palm Pre?)

Since I started using the G1, it’s received one minor OS update (1.5→1.6) and a few truly useful apps (Google Voice and Google Maps Navigation). The phone is still slow and unwieldy, with such poor battery life that I must carry multiple batteries and sometimes a charger around with me.

Today Google introduced their new phone, the Nexus One, running Android 2.1. It’s not bad, but I doubt I’ll be buying one.

The Nexus One fixes the biggest problems with the G1: speed, storage, battery life and the lack of a real headphone jack. It adds a decent design and beautiful screen. For me, however, it also removes a major reason to use Android over the iPhone: a physical keyboard with a decent layout. I’m able to work around the awful Android Gmail app by using Mutt in a SSH client; I couldn’t do that on the Nexus One. (Soft keyboards are fine for typing text, not so much for interacting with a Unix system.)

The largest remaining problem with Android is the navigational UI. It:

  1. hides most options behind the context-sensitive Menu button
  2. fails to adequately expose hierarchy and the behavior of the Back button
  3. fails to adequately expose multiple running applications (“activities”)

The first two aren’t issues with the iPhone UI, and the last has been adequately addressed by webOS’s card model. It still surprises me, for a company whose Web applications are known for speed and efficiency, that the Android UI came out so badly.

Applications that try to innovate with UI on Android, of which the two that stick out most in my mind are the otherwise-terrific Locale and the Android 2.1 Gallery, tend to confuse more than they help. For example, Gallery uses a double-tap on the Menu button for multiple selection, then arbitrarily checks the bottom center photo to start. If you uncheck the photo as (not surprisingly) you may not want to do anything with it, Gallery exits multiple selection mode; instead, you have to check another photo before unchecking the bottom center one. In Gallery, the presence of a single selection is necessary to maintain multiple-selection mode; the iPhone’s ubiquitous “Edit” toggle button doesn’t have this problem.

So after six months, my situation is much the same: wait for a future Android device or a future iPhone. I doubt Palm is going to produce a device with the capabilities I want any time soon. Palm’s application ecosystem is much smaller than even Android, so it’s right out.

(I have a much longer Android post in preparation…if the above doesn’t make sense in places, let me know so I can clarify.)

4 comments on “Android thoughts”

  1. 5 January 2010 | 2:40 PM

    Interesting point — I had never thought about using a software keyboard to drive a UNIX box via SSH. I agree that the experience probably isn’t very good, because the software keyboard isn’t optimized for that.

    A few questions:
    Have you tried the Palm Pixi? Supposedly the keyboard is better than on the Pre (I can’t confirm as I haven’t touched one yet).
    What about the DROID? Supposedly they hardware keyboard isn’t very good, but maybe it’s possible to get used to it.
    I thought I had read somewhere that there are alternative software keyboards available on the Android Market (Better Keyboard appears to be one such application). Do any of these work better with SSH?

  2. 5 January 2010 | 2:42 PM

    Off-topic — I tried to make my comment use a numbered list. I wrote the HTML markup into my comment, and it looked fine in the live preview. However, after hitting submit, the HTML was stripped. Any way to make the live preview more accurate with what will actually be displayed when the comment goes live?

    Other than this one issue, the live preview stuff is pretty cool.

  3. 5 January 2010 | 2:57 PM

    Well, the main thing is that a software keyboard relies on a dictionary for error correction. The Android software keyboard is quite good, even automatically “learning” things like your username; you can also long-tap on any word that appears in the suggestion area to add it to the dictionary. Typing things like “c=IN«tab»«return»” doesn’t work quite as well.

    I have not tried the Pixi or Droid keyboards…I’m not sure if I could give up the sensible layout on the G1 (which is very similar to the hiptop layout I used for years before it).

    A thin Bluetooth keyboard plus an iPhone may obviate all of the above; it’s not like I need a keyboard all the time. Minus a sufficiently small keyboard, this is an option now on jailbroken iPhones.

  4. 5 January 2010 | 3:01 PM

    Yeah, “upgrade WordPress” was relatively far down on my to-do list for this vacation unfortunately, and I doubt it’ll actually happen. Sorry about the HTML stripping.

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