writing about tech

Tag: android (page 2 of 5)

PushBullet is the missing element of stock Android

Although I’ve yet to experience it personally, I am a huge fan of Apple’s concept of Continuity – the core idea being that, while you’re using a computer, your phone becomes a glorified router for text messages and phone calls.

As an Android phone user, I am hoping Google will answer with a similar cross-platform solution – but while I wait, a third-party has stepped in to fill the gap with an app called PushBullet. Many of you probably already know what PushBullet is, but if you don’t: the short version is that it started as an Android app (and Chrome extension) that allowed you to send data between your devices. However, over the last year or so, it has evolved to become quite a bit more.  My two most common uses are:

  • Notification mirroring between Android and Chrome. Any device running Chrome can view and, as of two days ago, interact with your phone or tablet’s notifications. Want to dismiss a notification? Done. Want to archive or delete an e-mail? Done. Any of Android’s built-in notification actions show up as options in the notification pop up.
  • Screenshot 2014-12-18 10.05.43

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Send and receive text messages from your computer. I personally use a combination of MightyText and PushBullet for this, as PushBullet doesn’t yet support MMS messaging, but it’s enough for basic messaging needs. You can quick-reply directly from a notification or send a new message from inside the extension.

Screenshot 2014-12-18 10.07.09 Screenshot 2014-12-18 10.07.19 Screenshot 2014-12-18 10.13.42

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is also plenty more PushBullet does that I personally haven’t used, such as Universal Copy/Paste, Notification syncing between Android devices, and sending files between your computer and your Android device.

PushBullet’s existence really highlights the key difference between iOS and Android: iOS is rigid, so if you want this sort of functionality, it has to be baked in by Apple, the trade-off being that when it does come, it’s (usually) done very well. Android, on the other hand, gives third-party apps enough flexibility to fill in some of those functionality holes. An app like PushBullet or MightyText just can’t exist properly on iOS, at least not without jailbreaking – the APIs just aren’t there.

This is, perhaps, why I lean towards using a more open, flexible device as my global “router” – there continue to be areas where Android isn’t as polished as iOS, but even today, Android can just do more.  It’s unfortunate that third-parties sometimes have to fill in the functionality gap, but the very fact that developers can is just as important to me, if not more so. In a world where my smartphone is less of a phone and more of a glorified mobile data router that I can leverage on any number of other devices, I find the functionality of that router is more important than how fluid the UI is.

As nice as that flexibility is, this is the sort of incredibly convenient functionality that Android – like iOS – should really just have built-in at this point. A logical step would be to expand the new multitasking view in Android 5.0 to include activities on all your devices, not just the one you’re currently using it.  At this point, though, I’d settle for Google to simply purchase PushBullet and implement the same functionality at a native-level. I shouldn’t have to download an app or install a Chrome extension; it should just work between any instance of Chrome and Android that I’m logged in on. That’s the dream, at least.

Misplace your FitBit? There’s (literally) an app for that

This morning, after my stationary bike workout, I misplaced my FitBit One. I knew it was either in my office (where the bike is) or my room, but I wasn’t sure which, and it’s small enough that it could’ve easily fallen in a corner somewhere. Unfortunately, there’s no “find my FitBit” feature on my phone – but it was still connecting to my phone via Bluetooth.

That’s when I got the idea to download an app that would show me Bluetooth signal strength – in my case BlueScan for Android, but there are certainly others for both iOS and Android. By looking at the signal strength, I was able to quickly determine which room it was in (the office) and where it was (on the floor next to my bike).

Signal strength low = not in the bedroom

Signal strength low = not in the bedroom

Signal strength high = probably in the office

Signal strength high = probably in the office

 

I figured this was a neat trick worth sharing, especially as more and more of us are carrying small, easy-to-misplace Bluetooth devices, whether it’s a fitness tracker, smartwatch, or headphones.

Why I’m actually kind-of happy the Nexus 6 isn’t amazing

So, unfortunately, it sounds like the Nexus 6 is kind-of a bust. It’s not a terrible phone, but it has little reason to exist unless you desperately want stock Android on a phablet.  Which I thought I did, back when I played with the iPhone 6 Plus, but there just don’t seem to be enough benefits yet to justify the upgrade.

Here’s the funny thing, though – now that I’m back on my HTC One for the foreseeable future, and probably won’t get a Nexus 6, I’m actually super-excited to see what phones we get next year.  For the first time in a awhile, I’m content and willing to wait until the right phone comes along, rather than just jumping onto something for the sake of newness.

Returning to the original HTC One, a year and a half later

Introduction

Last weekend, my Nexus 5 suffered a tragic screen-related accident.  It still works, but I’m too OCD to use a phone with a broken screen unless I absolutely have to.  Unfortunately, I bought the phone secondhand from a friend of mine, and it was purchased directly from T-Mobile, so I’m not eligible for Google’s unofficial one-broke-screen-replacement policy.  And yes, I did call to try anyway – the nice Google representative forwarded me to the LG representative, who confirmed that, alas, LG’s warranty did not cover a broken screen.

Fortunately, since I’m a hoarder when it comes to tech devices, I still have my “old” HTC One, originally purchased back in April of 2013, and my daily driver until I got the Nexus 5 back in May of this year.  I figured, at the very least, I could use the HTC One until I fixed the Nexus 5 – or used the broken phone as an excuse to upgrade to the Nexus 6.  Now, I’m not sure I want a Nexus 6…or any other phone, for that matter.

Why not just fix the Nexus 5?

I could, but the replacement part is anywhere for $50-80, but the time investment to actually fix it – and that’s assuming the replacement part works as expected.  Repair services in my area are unreasonably expensive, especially given the price of a new Nexus 5.  Also, after using the HTC One for a few days…I honestly just don’t want to.

But isn’t the HTC One ooooold?

Technically, sure.  But day-to-day?  It sure doesn’t feel like it.  It’s running Android 4.4.3, and Sense 6 – HTC’s custom skin – is in some ways just as good, if not better, than stock Android 4.4.3.  I think I still prefer Android 5.0, but as I’ve said, Android 5.0 actually takes a great deal from Sense.  It’s clean and functional enough that swapping the Sense launcher for the Google Now Launcher has scratched most of my stock Android itch – and like the Nexus 5, it supports voice commands with the screen off, as long as it’s plugged in.  It honestly feels just as fast as my Nexus 5 ever did, with the exception of a few dropped frames during certain animations.  Bottom-line: people who say Android is slow are full of shit.  Bad Android phones may be slow, but when you get the right phone on the right software, it soars.  Everything I originally said about the HTC One still stands today, and if anything, the experience is better than it ways back then.

Full disclosure: I am running a custom ROM, something 99% of users will never do.  Specifically, I am running Maximus HD, which I installed a few months ago as a side-project.  Since the HTC One was no longer my daily driver, I felt comfortable messing with it ways that I’d be reluctant to do to before.  That said, I haven’t done any performance tweaks beyond installing the ROM – I am not underclocking or overlocking anything, I’m simply running stock HTC software without AT&T’s horrible bloat.

If the HTC One is so great, why did you even buy a Nexus 5?

There are two answers to this, both equally accurate.  The short answer is that I am easily distracted and like shiny new things.  The more complicated answer is that I wanted an unlocked device, free of any carrier interference with regards to software and update delivery.  I didn’t want any of their unwanted crap on my phone, and ideally I didn’t want to be at all financially tied to a carrier, though obviously I’d still have to finish the two-year contract I renewed when I purchased the HTC One.

In my attempts to escape carrier bloatware with my original Android phone, the HTC One X, I experimented extensively with custom ROMs, and during that time I grew tired of the whole process.  After months of jumping from ROM to ROM, in search of the perfect experience, I just wanted a phone that worked great out of the box – which the HTC One  did provide, albeit at the cost of carrier bloatware and delayed updates.

It turns out I never really needed the Nexus 5, though – I just needed to grow some cojones, dive back into the world of custom ROMs, and free the HTC One from its prison.

So are you ever going back to the Nexus 5?

Honestly?  I don’t really think so, no.  Even if both devices were fully functional, and knowing the One’s flawed, I’d be tempted to stay on the One. There’s just something about it – like my old iPhone 4, it feels like an iconic, timeless device.  I still prefer its design to this year’s HTC One, and I’ll take an optically stabilized camera over a weird depth-based dual-camera gimmick any day of the week.  It really can’t be overstated how great this device still feels in the hand; something I’d forgotten in my months with the understated, nice-in-the-hand-but-kind-of-boring Nexus 5. Build quality and materials is something some people will never care about, but to me, it makes all the difference in the world – it just took using another device for me to realize how important to me it was.

It’s not just the materials and the build quality that makes me prefer the HTC One, though – it’s the little things in the hardware and software that I’ve redicovered.  The lower-in-megapixel-but-infinitely-faster camera.  The wide-angle, better-quality front-facing camera.  The fantastic HTC camera software.  Those still-best-in-class front-facing speakers.  The (in my experience) more reliable Bluetooth connectivity.  The higher-quality, higher pixel density display without any hint of backlight leaking. The fact it has 64 GB of storage, as opposed to the 16 GB of my Nexus 5. The little features of Sense, like the customizable Quick Settings.  The superior lockscreen, complete with shortcuts to my most-used apps and e-mail/text notifications.  HTC’s newfound drive to bring Android updates to flagship phones as quickly as possible.

Special mention should go to the IR blaster, which – combined with the casting ability of various media apps, as well as the Playstation app – allows me to control basically every aspect of my media center with my phone.  None of these alone would be a good reason to prefer the HTC One, but everything together – the complete package – is hard to resist.

I do really miss wireless charging, though, and the ability to use the AirDock in my car.  The side-mounted sleep/wake button was a bit more sane, too.

Should I buy an HTC One?

I feel like you could do a lot worse than to buy a used $200 HTC One, but I’m still not sure I could actively recommend it, if only because, at more than a year and a  half old, it seems likely that Android 5.0 is the last major update it will get.

So what’s next?

I honestly don’t know.  As I alluded to earlier, I originally thought I’d stick with the HTC One until I settled on a new phone, specifically the Nexus 6, but now I’m beginning to question that.  Don’t get me wrong, I will be tempted, and I will certainly walk into an AT&T store to try the Nexus 6, but now I’m leaning towards what I probably should’ve done in the first place – riding out the HTC One as long as it will take me, or at least until something strikes me the same way it did when I first held it a year and a half ago.

Maybe it will be the Nexus 6, or the next HTC flagship, or perhaps something else entirely.  As I said, I am distracted by shiny and new things, and it’s very possible the HTC One is still just “shiny and new” since I haven’t used it for so long.

What does seem likely is that I will no longer shy from messing with my phone, at least if that’s what it takes to tear out the carrier software and ensure more timely updates.  In some ways, after spending just a couple of days with the HTC One I’ve come full-circle to what I originally said about the HTC One X: you can always change a phone’s software, but you can never change a phone’s hardware.

Deprecated Post: 29 Days with the HTC One

My Nexus 5 recently had a freak accident, resulting in a functional unit but a broken screen.  Rather than use a broken smartphone screen (which has always driven my OCD crazy), I decided to bring my old HTC One out of retirement.  I’ll cover my experiences returning to the HTC One in a post later this week (spoiler: it’s a fucking great phone), but for now, I just wanted to revive my original review of the device from a year and a half ago.

The following was originally posted on The Verge’s forums on May 18th, 2013.

INTRODUCTION

A little over a year ago, I migrated from iOS to Android, via the HTC One X. Some time after that, I further reminisced about my experiences with Android, with the tl;dr being:

  1. Tinkering is fun, but at the end of the day, a smartphone is like an appliance – I just want it to work.
  2. Along those lines, I advised my future self to “Just get a Nexus, stupid.”

Well, I never was particularly good at taking my own advice, so here I am to discuss my personal experiences with the HTC One. Here’s thing thing: I didn’t even necessarily want to want a new phone. I’ve never been a “get a new phone every year” kind of guy – I like my phones to last a couple of years, at least. It helps the next phone feel all the better when I finally do upgrade. So, why did I upgrade? Well, this post will explain that, but it boils down to a few key things:

  1. My One X, as much as I loved it, had been frustrating me. I was tired of tinkering with it, and choosing between the camera features I loved and the pure performance of something like Cyanogenmod.
  2. The One won me over, once I realized how well it fits my life.

This isn’t a review, strictly speaking – there are enough reviews out there already…some of them pretty amazing, and other ones pretty terrible. Instead, I want to discuss why I chose the HTC One as the best fit my life, and why you may – or may not – want to do so.

Since this is a long post, I’ll give the tl;dr up-front –

  1. The HTC One gives me the stability, performance, and design excellence I’ve come to expect from an iOS device, but with the added benefits of Android.
  2. The camera isn’t the best in a phone by a long-shot, but it happens to be the best camera for my needs.
  3. The screen and the speakers are just insanely, ridiculously, disgustingly good.

If you still want to stick around for the rest of the ride – let’s get started.

THAT DESIGN

I don’t know what I can add to the discussion about the design of the HTC One that hasn’t been repeated a thousand-fold, but a commenter on Lifehacker gave what I think is the single best description of the look and feel:

It’s like a Retina MacBook Pro gave birth to a smartphone.

This covers both the positive and the negative – the screen, build, design, materials, and performance of both devices are best-in-class. However, if you’re more interested in a device that’s easy to repair, or has a replaceable battery, or expandable storage – best to close this window and move on, since I don’t think you’ll find all that much to like here.

Of course, I was not always a believer. When the leaks first showed up, I said brilliant things like:

I hope this is fake. Home button on the right? No multitasking button? Weird-ass bottom speaker?

This is making my One X roll in its grave and my One X isn’t even dead yet.

Now, I stand by some of this. I believe the home button being on the right and the lack of a multitasking button are still poor choices, but they are poor choices I’ve learned to do deal with, and don’t really bother me in my day-to-day use. I adapted to the new location of the home button within a matter of minutes. Of course, I was terribly, terribly wrong about the speakers…but we’ll get to that later. Overall, I thought the phone looked ridiculous, even after it was announced:

Dear HTC:

You are made of stupid.

Love,

Someone who wants you to succeed but doesn’t understand why you are made of so much stupid

So, yeah, I’m not too proud to admit that I was, in retrospect, mostly wrong. I still think the button layout is poor, and the power/volume keys are a bit too flush for my liking, but honestly, those are the only issues I have with the design. I have owned an iPhone 3G, iPhone 4, and an HTC One X before this…and the One blows them all out of the water when it comes to design and in-hand feel. When I hold the One in one hand, and the One X in the other, the One X feels like a plastic prototype for the One…which, I suppose, is kind-of true.

And here’s the punchline, at least for me:

Design. Matters.

If I’m going to carry, use, and look at something on a daily basis, and I have a choice between a well-designed product, and a par-for-the-course designed product, I will take the well-designed product every time. It’s part of why I used an iPhone for so long, it’s part of why I own a MacBook Air, and it’s part of why I have an iPad Mini.

Now, obviously, I would not buy a product for design alone – but I’d be lying if it wasn’t a major factor in my decisions. If I’m paying a premium for something, I want it to feel like I paid a premium – but perhaps more importantly, I want it to look like someone set down and really thought about the design. As a customer, lazy design actually kind-of offends me – it says to me “We didn’t bother to put much thought into this, because millions of you people are just going to buy it anyway.”

For those who would argue that you’re just going to slap a case on it anyway – I don’t buy thin-and-light smartphones that feel great in the hand, just to shove them in some case that will make them thicker, heavier, and feel worse. I won’t dive too deep into that debate, though, because I think Michael Fisher at PocketNow covered it far better than I ever could.

I totally understand and respect the mentality of those who prefer function and ignore form entirely. There’s a solid case to be made for that approach, and I’m not going to tell those people they’re wrong, because they aren’t. Neither side is wrong – people just have different preferences. Speaking of which…

LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT CAMERA

Some people hate it, some people love it. It’s rare that a smartphone camera is so divisive, and I understand both perspectives. Let me just start by saying this:

I think the camera on the Galaxy S4 is better.

Overall, in good lighting, it takes noticeably better pictures. It’s not that the One is bad; it’s that the S4 is really, really good. Having said that…

I think the camera on the HTC One is better for what I want out of a smartphone camera.

In fact, the camera was a large part of why I did want the phone. My goal for a smartphone camera is to capture a moment, regardless of the circumstances (lighting conditions, motion of the subject, etc.) and quickly share those moments with my friends. In that regard, I think the One’s camera presents some unique advantages in the smartphone world, even if the image quality is not always the best.

Most notably:

  1. Ridiculously fast shutter speed, allowing me to capture pictures that are literally impossible on other cameras.
  2. Reliable pictures in almost any lighting scenario. Daylight pictures aren’t the best – far from it, as they even tend to be overexposed – but the payoff of that means that I can quickly take a picture in medium-to-low lighting and be confident I’ll have a usable image. Perhaps even more importantly, the increased shutter speed I mentioned above means that, unlike most other smartphone cameras, you don’t haveto put the camera in Night Mode to get a usable low-light shot. Even cameras that automatically adjust for night mode like the iPhone 5 and the Lumia 920 do so by keeping the shutter open for longer, thus gathering more light – which is great, unless your subject is in motion. Then you’re basically screwed.
  3. For me, the lower file size of the lower megapixel image is actually a boon. I’m never going to print a smartphone picture – if I want a printable image, I’ll get a big-boy camera – so for my uses, smaller file sizes are ideal. They upload to social networking sites faster, they sync with DropBox quicker, and they take up much less space on my cloud storage drives.
  4. ZOE and Burst Mode are awesome. ZOE is like Burst Mode on steroids, but if I want my old school “hold down the shutter button and get a ton of pictures”, it’s still there.
  5. The wider-angle lens of the camera allows me to capture more of a scene from the same distance away, when compared to other smartphone cameras.

As a real-world example: last night, in a dimly-lit restaurant, my friends wanted to take a picture of a white sign to send to someone. Unfortunately, when flash was used, the text on the white sign became illegible. Fortunately, with Night Mode, I was able to take a clean looking picture with perfectly legible text. While this may not be a common use-case, I think it helps illustrate the adaptability of the camera, which is what makes is so appealing and valuable to me.

Here are some sample images:
My dog in-motion running up stairs (captured with ZOE): 2013-04-30_2018

Fountain, frozen in motion:

Fountain_medium

Palo Verde tree in my back yard at dusk.

2013-05-14_2019

Night Mode photo of my back yard at 10 PM with very, very little ambient light. This was definitely one of those moments where the camera saw way more light than I did.

2013-05-17_2021

Anyway, that’s enough about the camera. Some love it, some hate it – I’m in the former category, and hopefully I’ve explained why.

THOSE SPEAKERS

I find it hard to add something new to the dialog about those amazing front-facing stereo speakers. Yes, they’re front-facing, and yes, they’re amazing – and I found them way more useful than I ever thought I would. I love having a device that’s always with me and capable of producing decent enough sound that I can play music basically anywhere without having to worry about headphones. I’m just not a fan of headphones, if I can avoid it – especially when I’m moving around a room or around the house. I even find myself lowering the volume of the phone to about half-way when I’m close to it, and I can’t think of any other mobile device where that’s been the case.

Beyond that, though, they’re also amazing for being able to share media. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve wanted to show someone a video or play them a song, but the speakers on my phone weren’t able to overpower the ambient noise. That’s no longer a problem anymore. Again, for me, my phone is largely a social experience – so anything that enhances that social experience is a huge boon.

This actually is one area where my One X was getting really frustrating. The volume of both the earpiece and the speaker were inexcusably low, to the point where making phone calls was a miserable experience, and playing any kind of media was essentially impossible. So for me, the speaker upgrade with the One wasn’t just a nice-to-have – it was a necessity. Call quality on the One is the best I’ve ever heard on a mobile phone, and the speaker phone is right up there is well. I took one of those obnoxious phone surveys today on speaker phone, and the voice was crystal clear.

EVERYTHING ELSE

As I mentioned before, I spent more hours than I want to think about tweaking and customizing my One X. In the end, I always found it came down to two choices:

  1. Enjoy the awesome Sense camera software, at the expense of device performance thanks to Sense.
  2. Run an AOSP ROM, at the expense of the Sense camera software, battery life, and general device stability.

I even reached the point where I had two device backups so that I could swap between a Sense ROM and an AOSP ROM, depending on what I needed out of my device that day. In retrospect, it was kind of absurd.

If I was to be completely honest, there were definitely times where I found myself missing the rock-solid stability of iOS. It’s not that I didn’t have fun with the ROMing and the tweaking – I did – but at the end of the day, my phone is something that I need to just work – and the One X wasn’t giving me that anymore. Unfortunately, I’d also grown quite fond of the benefits of Android, and was reluctant to give that up.

Fortunately, the One made my decision much easier. While I regretted having to buy a new phone after only a year, I felt that the One was a device I could use for at least two years without concern – and so far, that appears to be the case. It is as stable and reliable as my iOS devices, while providing me the additional power and flexibility that comes with Android. I would also argue it’s nearly as smooth and lag-free as the iPhone 5’s I’ve used, with the exception of some poorly-optimized (and, unfortunately, high-profile) apps like Facebook and Chrome.

Unlike with my One X, I decided to run completely bone-stock for awhile, so that I could form a truly honest opinion of the phone. So far, I haven’t regretted this decision at all – I haven’t even rooted the phone yet, or installed a custom launcher. I just haven’t felt the need.

Don’t get me wrong, I love stock Android as much as the next geek, and I still kind-of wish HTC would make elements of Sense removable, but even as a stock lover, I have to say…Sense 5 isn’t bad. I might even go so far as to call it good, and I’m not the only one.

I even prefer a few things about Sense to AOSP – most notably the camera and the e-mail apps It also has some nice widgets, though nothing I couldn’t live without. I’ve actually come to kind-of like Blinkfeed when I have a few minutes to kill, but again, it’s nothing I couldn’t live without.

Occasionally, it even feels more cohesive than AOSP – for example, you can swipe left and right through e-mails in the e-mail app, the same way you can in the Gmail app. The last time I tried the AOSP Android mail client, it still didn’t support that, which was mildly infuriating.

Finally, Sense 5 is at least polite enough to try and compliment the Holo theme of AOSP – TouchWiz and Sense 4, on the other hand, look and feel like someone glued Gingerbread to Jellybean.

I just realized I haven’t really mentioned battery life, and I guess that’s because I don’t actually think about it much with this device. It’s better than my One X, and probably about on-bar with my iPhone 4, if not a little better. It lasts me through a day of my normal usage, though like any phone, I’ll top it off in the afternoon if I’m planning to go out that night. I also tend to carry an Anker Astro3 if I planning a long day/night of heavy usage.

Speaking of things I forgot to mention – I have been using the IR blaster feature a surprising amount. It may not be a full-fledged universal remote, but I can turn on my TV and audio system, change the volume, and change input sources, which is pretty much everything I need. Combined with a Roku app, I can control everything I need from my phone, which is kinda awesome.

THE FUTURE

I’m not going to pretend that HTC and AT&T have a great, or even a good, history of keeping their phones up to date. However, for once, that actually doesn’t bother me. Android 4.1 and 4.2 are already really, really good, and now that Google has shown they can make substantial updates to Android without a major version change (as I sort-of predicted would happen), I’m fairly confident I’ll be satisfied for the next two years.

The phone and the software are already pretty great, so even if it never got an update going forward, I’d live – and this might be the first phone I’ve ever felt that way about. When I was using an iPhone and later the One X, I always felt like something was missing – things I tried to compensate for by jailbreaking, rooting, and eventually ROMing. The One has finally given me what I feel is a no-compromise experience smartphone experience.

And, for me, that’s priceless.

Google Fit is now available!

When I wrote about my experiences with the Moto 360 and RunKeeper, one of the major downsides is that the data collected by the watch was stuck in the watch itself and unavailable on the phone.

Today, that’s changed with the official release of Google Fit.  Stay tuned in the coming days for more on how well the Moto 360 cooperates with Google Fit.  Thus far, I’ve found that it didn’t bring in the hour-long run I did this morning, so I’m essentially starting from scratch, which is unfortunate, but hopefully it’s just a one-time hiccup.

More to come soon!

Why I use an Android phone, but still recommend the iPhone

A poster on The Verge’s forums asks:

So what am I missing? Where is the greatness in iOS?

Honestly, most “normal” people don’t need the power and flexibility that Android offers – they just need a reliable phone that calls and texts and runs apps and takes pretty pictures, and for that, the iPhone is pretty great. There’s also a lot to be said for the quality of Apple products – why bother to decide between half a dozen Android phones, each with their own limitations, when you can just buy Apple’s phone and call it a day? Sure, iOS isn’t necessarily as powerful or flexible as Android, but it’s also powerful enough that it be used for productivity, as long as you’re willing to mold your workflow to work the way Apple wants it to.

This was actually a topic of discussion on the Vergecast today, and the Verge folks said that the reasons to use an iPhone basically boiled down to:

  1. iMessage (including, in iOS8, SMS through Continuity)
  2. AirPlay
  3. Camera performance

It’s hard to argue with any of these, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on iMessage. Android fans like myself can and will go on and on about the power and flexibility of Android, but most normal people never really see that power and flexibility. What they do see is that they can iMessage their friends and send texts from their computer with very little effort, and that’s huge.  This is what people mean when they talk about iOS’ ecosystem.

Can I send texts from my computer with third-party apps? Sure – but most Android users don’t, either because they don’t know about the apps that enable it, or they know but don’t care enough to go through the effort of making it work. There’s a huge value to be placed on making the barrier to entry as non-existent as possible.

Android 5.0 (Lollipop) Early Impressions

A couple of days ago, I finally gave in and flashed the latest Developer Preview of Android 5.0 to my Nexus 5, as I’d read that it was pretty stable and close to final release, and I’m not a terribly patient person.  So far, I haven’t regretted it – it’s pretty bug-free for a product that’s still technically a “preview”.  Here are some bullet-point-based impressions thus far, though keep in mind some of this could change with the official release in November.

  • The overall UI feels even more consistent than KitKat, though some of that is hampered by the fact that even some official Google apps still haven’t been updated based on the Material Design guidelines.  While this will almost certainly happen sooner rather than later, it doesn’t change the fact that Google has no control over when third-party developers update their apps, assuming they ever do.
  • The UI animations are, unsurprisingly, pretty fantastic.  However, they also seem to impact performance slightly.  There’s often a noticeable pause when I it the Home or Multitask button that simply wasn’t there under KitKat, and I think this may be due to the fact that the OS is delaying the actual action so that the animation can play smoothly.  However, this could also simply be because it’s preview software.  I’ve also noticed some animations, like changing homescreens, can occasionally hitch – but again, preview software.  One of my favorite new animations is that opening Google Now from inside another app displays an overlay on top of that app:

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  • A nice side effect of UI-wide animation changes are that certain interactions (tapping notifications, app controls, widgets like DashClock) inherit some Material Design styles without the developer having to do anything. It certainly goes a long way towards the overall goal of UI consistency.
  • I wasn’t sold on the new task switcher until I used it, but it’s growing on me.  It’s fun to use, and perhaps more importantly, it persists between reboots and goes back way, way further in your execution history.  There’s stuff currently in my task switcher that I opened early yesterday.

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  • Some of the issues I’ve had with Bluetooth media controls seem to be resolved, though occasionally I’ll still hit play/pause or track forward/back on my Bluetooth headset and the phone will take awhile to respond.  It’s a shame that Android still lags behind iOS when it comes to media playback integration at the OS-level.
  • It won’t connect to my work WiFi – both my co-worker and I are having this problem.  Again, could be because it’s a preview build.  It works fine with every other WiFi network I’ve tried.
  • Because I have an Android Wear watch, and had a Pebble before that, I generally keep my phone on “Silent”.  Though this mode still exists in Android 5.0, it functions differently and took me a bit to figure out. Rather than going from Vibrate to Silent, you go from Vibrate to Priority Notification mode.  At first, I thought this was like the Do Not Disturb mode available on other phones, but it’s a bit different.  Despite the name change, this performs more-or-less the same way Silent mode does in previous versions of Android, with the exception that certain apps are still allowed to vibrate when notifications come in. In theory, if you disable all exceptions, it’ll perform identical to how Silent Mode used to.

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  • Speaking of Android Wear, media controls do not currently appear on my watch.  I assume this will be fixed prior to the official 5.0 release on November 3rd.  Unfortunately, until then, I can no longer feel like a wizard by pausing my TV or changing party music from my wrist.
  • Smart Lock, “borrowed” from Motorola’s “Trusted Device” concept, is great, especially if you have a Bluetooth device that’s always with you, like a watch or headphones.  It works exactly as advertised – if any of your trusted devices are connected, you can bypass your lock screen security.  There were apps that handled this before, but they weren’t as elegant, and only worked with PIN locks – not pattern locks or face locks.  In addition, whenever you connect a new Bluetooth device, it asks you if you want to add it as a trusted device – very cool.

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  • The notification changes in Android 5.0 solidify Android’s place as King of Mobile Notifications, as least for my needs.  The lock screen notifications, borrowed from iOS, perform perfectly, and it’s great to be able to interact with notifications directly from the lockscreen.  Media controls now appear as the media control notification, rather than a dedicated screen, which I think works better, especially with the unfortunate removal of lockscreen widgets. 2014-10-22 20.30.50-1That said, the presence of notifications on the lockscreen means that my main lockscreen widget – DashClock – isn’t really necessary.  It still makes a great homescreen widget, though.  I also prefer the drag-down-twice to reveal notification toggles, as compared to the previous method of tapping a small touch target, especially since the second drag down can be done from notification.  I’m also grateful to finally have a Torch/Flashlight toggle, though it’s still a shame that you can’t tweak the list of toggles.  Finally, tapping the toggle actually turns it on and off, as expected, rather than acting as a shortcut to that setting area.  The setting area is now reached by tapping the name of the toggle.

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Overall, I’m pretty happy with this update to the Android experience.  It actually feels a bit like stock Android married to some concepts from HTC Sense – it’s almost the best of both worlds.  A great example of this is in the new lockscreen, where you unlock the phone with a slide-up gesture rather than the classic lock ring we’ve seen since (I believe) Android 4.0.

The big question mark will be developer support – the stock Google apps that have been updated look fantastic, but it’s up to third-party developers to take the ball across the finish line and really make Material Design a thing beyond just the stock Google experience.  I’m thrilled to see Google bringing their diverse product line under a single design banner,  and while it’s an important part of the equation, it’s far from the only part.

Given the history of third-party developers on Android, I’m sadly not all that optimistic we’ll ever see a big Material Design push, especially from stubborn players like Facebook and Twitter, but hopefully the smaller apps I use on a daily basis – Wunderlist, MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, and Pocketcasts, for example – will join the party sooner rather than later. Thanks largely to the differentiation between Android OEMs and the staggering of OS updates, you’re never going to open your phone and see two dozen updated apps from prominent developers, the way you often do for a few days after major iOS releases.  It’s a shame, but it’s also the reality of Android.

Regardless of these hiccups, I’m more excited about the future of Android that I ever have been in the past, and it’s going to be interesting to see how Material Design evolves over the next couple of years as app developers and OEMs find ways to incorporate it into their own software.

Google just murdered the Nexus line for me

The Nexus 6 was announced today, and it’s almost everything I want in a phone.  It’s got a huge screen (something I’m still not sure about, but want to try using), a huge battery, a camera with OIS, wireless charging, and stock Android directly from Google.  Shut up and take m–wait, how much do you want for it?  $650 off-contract?  Google, why?

To be fair, all major US carriers are carrying the Nexus 6, at a subsidized price, so it could actually end up being the best selling Nexus…but not for people like me.  This goes against my core reasons for loving the Nexus line, which is freedom from carriers at a reasonable cost. Now, I can either cough up $650, or buy it subsidized through a carrier – something I never wanted to do ever again. I suppose it’d be tolerable to do so, but if – and only if – the carriers have absolutely no control over the software or the release of software updates.

Either way, I’m suddenly way more interested to see what OnePlus brings out next year. Hell, at this point, even the Z3 Compact is $100 cheaper unlocked and off-contract than the Nexus 6.  For now, it seems my Nexus 5 is in no danger of being replaced anytime soon.

Goodbye Any.Do, Hello Wunderlist

I’ve been a happy user of Any.Do for a couple of years now – I use it every day in an attempt to at least pretend my life is somewhat organized.  One of my favorite aspects of it is that I can tie into the “note to self” command in Google Now and generate to-do items that way. In fact, it’s quickly become the most common way I add items to it.

Last week, The Verge did a “This Is My Next” on to-do apps and came to the conclusion that Wunderlist was the best.  I tried Wunderlist years ago during my initial search, but wasn’t impressed, and eventually ended up settling on Any.Do.

So why was I looking at switching in the first place?  Well, primarily because Any.Do doesn’t support “note to self” functionality on Android Wear.  This may sound trivial, but considering how much I’m using voice commands recently, I find it’s a pretty glaring omission.  Even worse, it appears as though Any.Do has no interest in adding Android Wear support any time soon:

A little bit of research (read: Google searches) quickly revealed that Wunderlist did support Android Wear, and as a bonus, even had a native OS X app. After using it as my only to-to do app for the last week, I’m definitely matching the switch.  Not only does it have the Android Wear support I wanted, but Wunderlist’s style of list organization seems to better match the way I want things organized – Any.Do’s choices of “Today”, “Tomorrow”, “Upcoming” and “Someday” weren’t quite cutting it, especially when I knew I wanted to do something later in the week on a specific day. As a bonus, its DashClock extension is a bit better, as it shows my total count for the day as well as multiple items, rather than just the single item of the Any.Do extension:

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Really, though, my choice comes down almost entirely to the Android Wear support. Many ideas often come to me only when I’m biking or running, and if I don’t immediately write them down in some way, they’re forgotten.  With Wunderlist, a quick “note to self” voice command ensures that the idea is safely tucked away in Wunderlist’s Inbox, ready to be assigned a due date and specific sub-list if needed.

Ideally, in the future, Wunderlist will have a full-fledged Android Wear app similar to the Google Keep app I use as a hands-free shopping list:

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For now, though, I’m thrilled that the functionality I’ve been looking for since I picked up the Moto 360 is available – it’s just a bonus that Wunderlist’s style of organization seems to better match my own than Any.Do’s did.

I still think Any.Do is a great service, and I’d still recommend it – but it’s no longer my first choice.  This just goes to show how there’s multiple “great services” in almost every mobile app category, and that even the smallest feature can be a differentiator for some people.

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