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Saturday, 22 February 2014

Android - if I'm honest, it's a bit disappointing ... 10 reasons

[Short link to this article if you need it - - or retweet me]

Another old article - drafted nearly a year ago now but it's time to post it! There is a separate companion article about problems with the device, but this one is about the OS.

DISCLAIMER 1: This is written from a perspective of someone who's bought their first Android device.
DISCLAIMER 2: I bought the tablet because I don't have a laptop, so some of these are issues in using it as an alternative to a laptop to highlight the limitations of doing so.

Now that I've got both of those things out of the way, I'll continue. I bought a Nexus10 because I not longer have a laptop in the house. I figured the stuff I'd do on a laptop would be more practically served by a tablet. For me the disadvantage of any sensibly priced laptop on the market has always been the screen resolution - it's all very well saying you have a 15" screen, but why do  they headlines never list the screen resolution? It's a shame it's taken Apple's "retina" marketing machine to move things forward though. So 2560x1600 for £319? I'll have some of that please ... And I've got an external keyboard for more comfortably writing blog entries and the like. The Surface would have been tempting at the same price point and resolution, but it wasn't good enough in the first generation when I was looking.

So what's the problem? Honestly, there are several. And I'm surprised at quite how many. I'll point out that none of these are related to the specific device (I'll save those for elsewhere) but are just about Android (initially 4.2.x, now 4.4) generally from the perspective of someone using it in lieu of a laptop.

Let's get started:
  1. When you first power it on (or after a factory reset) it won't do anything until it's connected to wifi and registered itself.  If the wifi authentication requires you to type a username/password over an HTTPS connection it will fail (without a useful error) because - as far as I can tell - the clock is set to well before the SSL certificate was valid. So you're stuck until you find a wifi with another auth method.
  2. Partially related to the first point, my second attempt was to connect through the AdHoc wifi network access point provided by my Nokia N9. Except that Android can't connect to AdHoc wifi networks, so that failed. And means I can't use the tablet on the network out and about as I was planning to without pulling some tricks. (Pre-4.4, this Android app lets you tether over BlueTooth although it doesn't work with all apps e.g. web browsers...)
  3. The task switcher bears very little relevance to anything in terms of what's actually live and running. It might as well be a "recently started apps" list. In many cases it's really inconvenient as you lose status because an app restarts when you go back to it, and that effect is even obvious in the standard applications like web browser windows.
  4. A controversial one - lack of flash support in the browser. Now you can find it manually and bolt it on by allowing unapproved software (although only with Firefox/Dolphin) that's miles from ideal. I know there are reasons again Flash but as per this thread and again in this thread (which I posted after discovering they've removed APIs in Android 4.4 that Flash requires - here's an unofficial fixed version).  But I don't buy those reasons and I think the devices are worse off for not having it. It was a differentiating factor Android had and was useful for compatibility reasons. Deprecate it if you like, but I like having it there - and in my experience the UX is often better than a poorly-rewritten-for-many-OSs mobile app. But as I said in that first thread, I'm not entirely convinced the reasons for removing it weren't just political or pressure from media providers ... Music streaming services are an example where you're charged more on "mobile OSs", and bypassing that using the desktop flash version makes it harder to justify. It forces an alternate experience on mobile devices when it's not always necessary.
  5. Related to the previous point on flash and desktop/mobile differences, if I'm using YouTube I'm subject to the limitations put on "mobile" devices i.e. some videos are not playable. Which I believe is the same restriction that stops all YouTube videos playing via set-top boxes/BluRay players etc. When I bought a Sony BluRay player I liked the fact it had YouTube support - but the limitations soon had me building a "real" PVR to attach to the TV instead. On Android you can get the message "The content owner has not made this available on mobile devices". The Puffin browser's Flash support lets me get around that (EDIT: As does Dolphin with the Flash plugin if you set it to identify with a Desktop User-Agent instead of Android) but it's ridiculous that I have to do it. 
  6. Again on multimedia - video streaming apps such as BBC iPlayer, 4OD etc, don't seem to continue to play when in the background. I don't expect to see the video when it's in the background, but the audio could easily continue. That's the experience I'd get on a laptop, why not on a tablet? Maybe I'm switching away to tweet during a broadcast, or while adverts are on (I have no problems with adverts and don't use AdBlock). I just don't want to have everything pause by default as though I can only handle one thing at a time (Sadly the same is true if you bolt on Flash into an Android browser - it will pause when not in the foreground).
  7. The facebook app looks suspiciously similar to - I wish they'd make a bit more effort with the app since there doesn't seem to be such a huge advantage of it other than integrating it into the Gallery's "Share" options and the like. And despite what Zuckerberg might claim, HTML5 is quick enough for the purpose. Just ask Sencha.
  8. UMS (USB Mass Storage) has been removed in favour of MTP/PTP for the built-in storage.  The reason for this is that there is no longer a separate FAT block device that can be exported. Fine if you're on Windows which supports MTP. Less fine if on Linux which doesn't always have support for it (out of the box before anyone suggests otherwise!). The reasons are technically sound but a use case I have is being able to put music/video on my device and plug it into my car, or someone's SmartTV, and play it back. And I can't with my Android device. HDMI playback is all well (if a bit of a battery drain) but I'd like to be able to control the playback from my TV remote control. Wouldn't be so bad if the Nexus10 had a memory card slot (which would be exported over UMS) but it doesn't.
  9. I never realise quite how bad this issue was until I started using Android but I'm now sick of the "Do you want to download our app" popups when I go to half the friggin' web sites on the internet. It's horrible. People install AdBlock and the like to get rid of intrusive nonsense but this is far worse. NO I BLOODY DON'T WANT YOUR APP - it's not that hard to just put a banner at the top advertising your app, but please don't intrude on my use of your site.
  10. Device-locked applications. I'm particularly looking at you SkyGo and itvPlayer. Is it really that hard to open up to all Android devices (possibly non-rooted if you must)? And even when they do work, some services lock out the external HDMI port when streaming (4OD explicitly displays a separate message on the external screen) This really doesn't feel like a laptop replacement.

So there you have it. A list of ten things that I really don't like about Android given my use case. About half I knew about before, and pretty much all weren't true of my pure Linux (as opposed to the "Yes I'm Linux but abstracted away by Dalvik" thing that calls itself Android) Nokia #N900. For me, the customer experience isn't quite what I'd hoped for given my use case. I wonder how the Surface or Playbook would do on all of these points?
Don't get me wrong, I don't think Android is inherently bad. It's just that for the use case of a desktop replacement, it is quite some way from perfect, and I feel some of the restrictions are in place for commercial reasons "because we are big market leaders and we can" as opposed to because they're right for the users.

(Don't forget to also read the article in my customer service blog about my experience with the Nexus10 and Google's support)

[EDIT 25/02/2014: Copied from a comment I made on G+ tonight:
I've just tried to stream the #NME awards at - it managed to fire up at first but wouldn't go full screen (about 300pixels wide on a 2560x1600 screen is pointless). It now won't restart at all now in chrome. Fired up first time on my Linux laptop via #flash (with a 720p stream). Can't verify flash on #Android tablet because it's 4.4 #usabilityFail Maybe I'm being unfair in expecting it to work on my big brand tablet ... Oh wait a minute ... 

[EDIT 15/10/2014: The other thing that isn't on this list os selective app permissions. Android flirted with it in 4.3 but removed it. Probably my #1 thing on the Android wish list, since since I think a lot of concerns about bleeding permissions and the facebook messenger non-scandal could be avoided if they implemented it]