July 7, 2011
About half a year ago Mozilla bought me a Nexus S. It is a close cousin to the Samsung Galaxy S marketed by Google. The difference is a slightly different shell, the lack of a card reader, and a plain vanilla Android 2.3 “Gingerbread”, as opposed to Samsung’s own hacked up version of Android 2.2 “Froyo” (I think). But I don’t really want to review this phone so much as the experience, which is a lot due to the operating system, Android. I haven’t used Android versions that were customized by manufacturers much, but they all disappointed in one way or another.
That’s not to say Gingerbread doesn’t have problems. Visual feedback and haptics aren’t as refined as on iOS, particularly when scrolling. It can be quite slow and drain the battery. The built-in browser is even more useless as Mobile Safari. The App Store application is a UX clusterfuck. I could go on…
So it’s not perfect. But I have to say, I prefer it to iOS, mostly for one reason: the back button. It makes going from, say, email app to the browser to the Twitter app and back a piece of cake. It’s incredibly predictable and is exactly what I want: follow a link in an email or a tweet and get back to where I was when I’m done.
It still surprises me that iOS doesn’t really have a solution for this at all. Apple poorly retrofit multitasking into the UI and the solution they came up with is throw back to 1990s: the double click. Instead of having multiple apps work together like on Android, iOS apps are silos. The Twitter client, News Reader, etc. all contain a little web browser. I want a real browser, not a lobotomized web view!
Android apps, on the other hand, have many hooks that allow them to work together, not just the back button. My favourite one is the Share feature. Apps can register themselves as share providers and other apps can share things through them. It’s so brilliant, I wish the web would work this way. (And indeed here at Mozilla we are working on making it so.)
You also get a real choice of web browsers. This doesn’t sound very important, until you actually try to open more than one web page at a time with built-in browser. Help is at hand with a variety of web browsers that have UIs geared towards power users, such as Dolphin HD and others. But unlike on iOS, these are not restricted to using the built-in WebKit, which is getting on a bit in Android.
Indeed, they’re not restricted to using WebKit at all, which means you can use other, possibly more modern browser engines like Mozilla or Opera. I’m biased for sure, but it’s probably safe to say that the most modern Andorid browser these days is Firefox Mobile. Its startup time could be a bit shorter and it can be a bit of a memory hog (help is on its way.) The browsing performance itself is pretty fast, though.
But the real game changer is Sync. You’re probably laughing even harder now since I work on Sync, so I’m outrageously biased. But up until I got the Nexus S, I had only ever used it between desktop computers. Hand on heart, it changed my mobile web experience by multiple orders of magnitude. Having access to all my browsing history, passwords, and bookmarks from my other computers means I can use the web on my mobile device exactly like on my desktop. I just can’t tell you how of a difference this makes.
Anyway, back to Android itself. The choice of web browsers is just an example of the way the device feels to me as a power user. The smell of choice is unmistakable. I can install my favourite web browser. I can tether whenever I want to how many devices I want. I realize not many people may care about this. I do and others might too.
Lastly, another positive surprise was the keyboard. I thought the iOS one was already pretty good, but Android’s keyboard (at least the stock one in Gingerbread on the Nexus S) is even better. As you type, it already comes up with suggestions. Most of the time you don’t even have to finish typing a word, it will already be in the list of suggestions and you can save yourself a lot of tapping. On iOS, on the other hand, you have to tap on the suggestion to dismiss it. It still confuses the heck out of me, even though I know how it works.
The upshot: I really like Android, so much in fact that I want an Android tablet. I’m just not sure they’re there yet. Maybe I should try out the new Galax Tab II. But that might mean I’d have to put up with a badly hacked up version of Android at which point an iPad might be the better choice.