Sunday, January 20, 2013

Some thoughts on Android 4.2...

I'm just now getting around to using Android 4.2. I find a lot of times initial releases of new Android versions are plagued with bugs or my third party programs haven't caught up with the new version yet. So typically I wait a little while till things stabilize a bit. Now that I am on 4.2, I figured I'd ramble off a few thoughts here and there about the new additions to the OS.

First off, "Daydreams". Let's be realistic here: it's a fancy name for a screensaver. Of course there's nothing wrong with screensavers, but on a phone or even a tablet in which the screen is typically turned off most of the time, a screensaver seems a bit pointless. Still, it's a nice feature. You have choices between a shifting color effect, a clock, and two types of picture displays (my rooted ROM also includes the Jelly Bean easter egg as a choice as well). All of the choices have variable options.

Secondly, notification toggles. Rooted users and those with certain skins already have had these for a while, but this is the first time it comes to stock Android. Overall the implementation is good. The tiles are nice and large give you a good selection of options (my custom ROM gives an even larger selection). I think this is likely the most useful and important of the additions to the OS.

Next, lockscreen widgets. I'll admit, the way they choose to do this threw me for a bit of a loop. Instead of just doing it like you would on a normal homescreen, they choose to basically have you create panels for each individual widget. On the right, you have your camera from the lockscreen option and the widget are on the main lockscreen and any to the left. One thing that irked me was the fact that you have to pull down on the widget or else the unlock controls are in the way. Otherwise, it's a good addition. However, the choices of widgets are limited to certain basic functions and Google apps (my ROM allows for any widgets).

Now, onto keyboard enhancements and photosphere. The biggest thing for the keyboard is a Swype-like style addition. For those who don't have Swype or use it, it allows you to draw lines over the letters to create the word instead of manually punching it in. It's a pretty good implementation, but it has a few drawbacks. Mainly the keyboard isn't very adaptive and requires you to move slowly in order to be assured you inputted the correct word. It also forces you to manually add new words in settings section with the languages as opposed to on the fly like Swype does. Overall, it's a pretty good first effort.

Photosphere is completely gimmicky. Basically, it's like a sphere version of panorama mode. However, the cool effect is that after you take the photo you can push a button in corner of the screen and pan and scroll around the photo you just took . In effect, you create a virtual appearance to it. Problem is it requires 4.2 to take advantage of this feature so sharing with someone on earlier versions is pointless. Secondly, I just can't find that much use for it.

Finally, there are a few misc. additions like support for wireless displays, multiple user accounts (only tablets or custom phone ROMs can access this), SELinux (which apparently existed for 10 years, but Google just now decides security is important), a new clock app, and a few other things not worth mentioning.

Overall, I think 4.2 is mostly fluff. There aren't any groundbreaking features or performance enhancements. Most of the things added I already had in one form or another such as Swype or notification toggles on earlier custom builds of Android. Basically, this is closer to Gingerbread than it is Froyo. Most aesthetic rather than functional.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Nexus program is in danger of becoming a failure...

I find it amazing how fast technology advances. About 10 or so years ago, I bought my first computer. It was  top of the line hardware with a 1 GHz processor. Nowadays, we have more powerful processors in our phones.

Just five years ago, Android was introduced to the world. While Apple was burning up the scene with the iPhone, Android quietly appeared in beta form in November of 2007. It would be another year before it hit the public commercially with the HTC Dream or G1 as it was better known.

For the first two years, Android couldn't gain much traction. My first Android phone was a Samsung Behold II in late 2009. It was abysmal. The software was pitiful, the hardware was pretty average for that day, and the battery never lasted more than 10 hours thanks to the earlier version of Android. These weren't good times. In fact, I nearly abandoned the operating system early on because of the bad experience I had with that phone.

In early 2010, Google decided to release their own phone to show other manufacturers how Android phones should be. Their first phone was the Nexus One. It was far more powerful than any other phone on the market. In fact, it remained the most powerful phone on the market until the release of the Galaxy S series in June 2010.

The Nexus One and by extension all later Nexus phones, were intended as models for the pure Android experience. Most manufacturers put custom skins on their versions of Android to differentiate themselves from everyone else. Nexus phones have the stock appearance that Google designs for each version. In fact, each version of Android are developed for the specific Nexus phone that comes with it.

As well as a pure experience, Nexus phones were designed for developers. They have unlock-able bootloaders and they run on any GSM network on the planet. Each Nexus phone tends to advance hardware, adding new ideas to what can be done with the platform. So let's look what they have done with it.

The Nexus One, while the most advanced hardware of the time, had a hardware glitch in the touchscreen that prevented more than two points of interaction. In comparison, most phones today have at least five points of interaction. The Nexus One also suffered from customer service issues as Google didn't really offer any additional support.

The Nexus S came next about 10 months later. Its guts were the same as the Galaxy S, but with an added NFC chip. The Nexus S was sold through a partnership with Best Buy as well as online as before. Unfortunately, the NFC prevented the phone from recording 720p video because they had to replace the original camera of the Galaxy S with a different one. Even worse was the lack of takeoff of NFC. While the technology is popular overseas, it never developed into much here.

My current phone, the Galaxy Nexus, launched a year later to almost immediate disaster. Google partnered this time with Verizon to release a timed exclusive on the their network. Given the fact that Verizon runs on a CDMA network (and LTE by the time of the release), it violated the unspoken spirit of the Nexus phones being globally tuned. The GSM version did release a little later, but without a store partnership as before. The big push here wasn't so much tech (though the phone was the first with a 720p screen) but Google Wallet. Google had planned to make paying with your phone the next big thing. Google Wallet never gained much traction on the Nexus S or Galaxy Nexus largely due to all the other major carriers besides Sprint supporting ISIS instead.

So here we are, at the Nexus 4. It is truly an amazing phone. Once again, the Nexus is sporting top of the line hardware at a phenomenal price ($300-$350). If you can get a hold of it that is. Right now, there's a bit of finger pointing between the manufacturer LG and Google. Supplies are incredibly limited and what's out there are going for outrageous prices on eBay. T-Mobile partnered with Google to release the phone on their sites, but even they have no stock.

It's really sad to see the Nexus program go this way. While they have had some success, mostly with the Nexus 7 tablet, Google really needs someone to work with them to market the Nexus phones properly. The Nexus phones are the answer to many different things. They are an answer to carrier subsidies, offering high-powered low cost phones that are unlocked. This is the sort of thing that works in Europe and Asia. They are also demoing the newest versions of Android and Google could be pitting these phones directly against Apple's iPhone. Before they could have been looked as niche, but with four different phones, two tablets, and a failed media center device, it's obvious that Google wants to develop the Nexus brand into something great. It's just that they keep screwing up. It saddens me so because Google is on the right path, but keep taking the wrong execution.

Hopefully, LG and Google sort out this supply issue. I've owned every single Nexus phone and have plans on buying some of the tablets as well, but I refuse to pay eBay prices as high as $600 when they should be available for almost half of that. Google needs to get things in gear or I'll likely have to pass on this Nexus phone and that's a shame.