Week One With the Droid-Let’s See How It “Does”

I have recently expanded my overly connected tech collection, and added a Motorola Droid to my nightmarish tech utility belt (an iPod or two, the work phone, occasionally a Leatherman and flashlight, and now, the Droid).  I’ve been playing with the idea of getting myself a personal cell phone ever since my work phone dropped one too many calls from my wife, decided not to inform me of a few important personal VMs and, well, generally sucked too much for me to want to deal with it any more than necessary.

“You have failed me for the last time, Admiral”.

I promise that will be the last Star Wars reference in this post.

Fair and Balanced

Now, before I get into my impressions so far, here’s a little background as to where I’m coming from.  With devices like this, there are three basic areas to comment on.  First you have the technical features, such as processor speed, screen resolution, etc.  Second, there is the anecdotal experience; how is the connectivity in the reviewer’s area, what kind of speeds are they experiencing, how responsive does the device feel, etc.  Finally, there are the purely subjective aspects of the device, such as the GUI, the workflows and the architectural philosophy.  Everybody is going to react differently to these things, and have opinions on how they think a certain function or aspect of the GUI should behave.  Some of this is going to be based on standard methodologies and conventions, while others will be formed by personal experiences and biases.

Since you obviously have a browser open right now, and there is nothing to stop you from opening a new tab and doing some searches, I will not get into the well documented technical details.  Also, having only been using the phone for a week, I do not have a solid enough experience yet to give you any truly meaningful anecdotal stories about connectivity or speed.  So, I will focus here on that last bit; the subjective details.

I am not a “cell phone guy”.  While I avidly study technology , work with its development daily in my day job, and have a vastly above average collection of gadgets and gizmos, I am not a serial collector of cell phones.  I have had a second generation iPod Touch since they were released, and I absolutely love the device.  The design is good, the GUI is intuitive, the apps selection is vast, and it is very stable and reliable.  My personal use of a smartphone would probably breakdown to:

60%-web and connectivity

30%-apps and PDA functions

10%-actually making phone calls

Apple has done a great job not only with design, but in developing an ecosystem.  While I do not always agree with the specific details and methods, I do support their philosophy of tightly controlling their system and the apps that are developed for it.  This limits some options to be sure, but ensures a higher level of reliability, consistency and quality.

Android, meanwhile, goes in a completely different direction.  It’s the wild west out there, and sometimes that means you can stake a brilliant plot of land to make your own, and sometimes you get shot by a drunk cowboy.  The utter freedom that Android provides is both its blessing and its curse.  More on that later.

I would have held out for an iPhone, but circumstances simply ruled that out as an option (*cough-AT&T-cough*).  My wife has used a Droid for the past few months, so I’ve had the opportunity to play with and research that, it seemed like a great alternative, so that’s the way I went.  In my experience so far, what I have found are some things that I like much better than the iPhone, some that are a wash, and a couple of utterly stunning omissions or failures on Android/Google’s part.  I’ll explore each of these areas in more detail in future posts, but here are a couple of key aspects in each area.  So, with no further ado, here we go…

Love it, Love it, Love it

GUI Customization

When I talk with people about software, and how our customers design projects for end users, I always preach that one of the most important thing they create is a GUI that is designed for the user-not for the designer.  You can have the greatest functionality, features for days and every bell and whistle under the sun, but if the GUI is awkward or uncomfortable for the user, they will never be able to take advantage of these things.  Everybody’s workflow is a bit different, depending on what their personal preferences are and what exactly they are trying to do.

Android allows an almost complete customization of the interface.  While the core of the apps and the system remains largely unchanged by the average user, how they work with that core is free to be modified and tweaked to their liking.

Widgets

This is a key part of the customization aspect.  I make moderate use of widgets on my desktops and laptops, but on a mobile device, they really shine.  It’s great to be able to get a quick glance at the weather or other mundane details of life without diving into an app to get there. As an aside, it will be very interesting to see if Apple embraces widgets for the iPad, as this could quickly become a key part of the user experience.  I admit, I was skeptical at first, but even after a few days, I’m sold on the value of the widget.

OK, that’s…different

Notifications

This seems to be a divisive one.  On the Droid, notifications are listed in the notification bar at the top, and to get to them, you must pull down the notification “drawer” to see and access them, at least in the stock home theme.  You do not, for example, have an “unread e-mail” indication on your mailbox icon, as you do on the iPhone.  Personally, I find this awkward, and requiring more steps than it should.  However, this does provide a persistent list of all system notifications in a single place, which is a handy thing.  There are ways to modify this behavior, and this is not necessarily worse, just a different way of doing things.

Multitasking

This is DEFINITELY a divisive one, and you’ve all heard this angst-ridden aria before, so feel free to sing along (since we’re not in the same room, you can feel free to choose your own melody):

iPhone Haters: “It doesn’t multitask!  What if I want to do something at the same time that I’m doing something else!?!”

iPhone Lovers: “But multitasking drains the battery, slows performance and allows processes to run in the background, which could be a potential security risk.”

OK, personally, I tend to come down on the side of the iPhone on this one, for the reasons mentioned above (not to mention that the iPhone does have a level of multitasking), but I’m game, and I’m happy to be proven wrong in situations like this.

Apparently, the iPhone supporters are not alone in these opinions either, as judged by the proliferation of third-party task killers available in the Android Market (Android does not include a task manager).  When you are in an app and hit the Home button, the app continues to run in the background, you do not actually “close” it.

The alternate home screen I’m using now includes a task manager, but I have yet to use it.  So far, I have yet to experience either the wondrous benefit of multitasking, nor the horrible side effects.  However, this is an aspect I’m going to be monitoring closely as I use the device.

WTF?!?

Syncing

It’s Google.  It’s all about the cloud.  I get it.  I will push the horrifying echos of the T-Mobile Sidekick debacle out of my mind, accept that I must use DoubleTwist for my media, or pay $50 for The Missing Sync for Android.  I will be content with the fact that since I already use a lot of Google services for e-mail and contacts, my life is probably a lot easier than other Droid owners who do not (and are forced to create a Gmail account when they get the phone).

But here’s what I don’t get-bookmarks.

I use Xmarks to synchronize my massive collection of meticulously organized bookmarks across multiple computers, multiple browsers, multiple operating systems, my iPod and the cloud.  I cannot conveniently get these onto my Droid.  I could enter them BY HAND into my Google account (since there is no obvious way to import them) or continue using a third-party app that promised full syncing-and did successfully move all of my bookmarks onto the phone, albeit while stripping the entire folder structure and creating an unorganized, unusable mess.

What I wound up doing was creating a shortcut on my home screen to my Xmarks cloud page, where I can access all of my bookmarks in their properly organized, constantly updated goodness.  But I can add any from the phone.

The fact that I can use this workaround is a plus for Android, the fact that I have to is a big minus.

Seriously, if there are other Android users out there who can point me in the direction of a better way to deal with this, please let me know in the comments.  This seems like such an utter face-palm on Google’s part, I just have to believe I’m missing something (although days of searches online for the answer have turned up nothing).

Android Market

Apple created the app explosion, and has led the way in content delivery.  Personally, I’m not terribly impressed by the 100,000 app number, as this say nothing about the quality of things that I might actually use.  The only thing this tells me is that there are a lot of options, but if the signal to noise ratio is lousy, it also means I have to work harder to find what I want.

Fortunately Apple has taken steps lately to improve this process.  The management and listing of the apps has improved, they have rolled out web previews, allowing a user to view the app page online without having to load iTunes.  There are still improvements to be made, but it is continual progress and I can generally find what I want and need with a minimum of hassle.

When viewing the respective stores through the respective devices, they are relatively on par with each other, as far as navigation, searching, etc.  But, I personally prefer to search for my apps online on my laptop, so I can make comparisons, read reviews and do deeper searches for problems with a given app or alternatives.  And that’s where it falls apart.

Here’s a challenge for you.  Take a spin over to the Android Market.  Search for an app that will let you open and edit MS Office documents.

Oooh, sorry, there is no search box.  Let me say that again-the online Android Market-a sited owned, operated and maintained by Google-has no search function.

Well, then surely I must be able to get into Category listings and filter through the options.  My friend, I’m afraid that’s strike two-there are no category listings.

OK, well, I know through an alternate source, that I’m probably looking for Documents To Go, one of the most highly regarded and popular mobile Office suite.  Surely that’s going to be listed in the Most Popular Paid listings!

Strike three, and YOU…ARE…OUT OF HERE!

Now, all is not completely lost.  A wonderful gentleman has ported the Android Marketplace from the phone to an online website called Cyrket, with categories, search and all of the features of the Marketplace from the phone app.  A valiant and much appreciated effort, but it is lacking the slickness of the Apple App Store, and is frankly, kind of a sad statement about what Google-THE web company- has created for their users and ecosystem.

So, where do we go from here?

I’m optimistic about the device, the OS and its evolution over time.  There is a huge amount of potential here, and some absolutely great features.  Rough edges and downright bizarre faults or omissions aside, Android has genuinely inspired a devoted fan base and is creating some great technology.  If nothing else, even if you’re an iPhone user, this is great for everybody-it creates competition and offers alternatives.  That, in the end forces everybody to raise their game and redouble their efforts to create the next big thing.  No clearer evidence of that exists than Microsoft’s recent demo of Windows mobile 7-a package that may never actually see daylight, but shows that somebody is clearly paying attention.

Now, please excuse me, I’m off to play with some apps and tweak my GUI!




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~ by ewetzell on February 21, 2010.

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