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ryan

The Android Challenge: update two (days 4 - 7)


Alright, the second dispatch from the Android Challenge! Backstory here:Google Now
I'm really glad I'm testing on Jelly Bean and not Ice Cream Sandwich, because Google Now might just be my favorite thing about Android. Maybe even one of my favorite things on any mobile platform. I want this for iOS. Badly. But there's a problem: Google Now can be a little creepy. But only if you let yourself think about it.

Here's the deal. Some time in the first few days I used Chrome to search for the score of a Giants vs. Reds game. Then, all of a sudden I was starting to receive Giants and Reds scores in Google Now. My initial reaction: What? Wow, that's pretty powerful -- it just *knew* that I wanted Giants scores!

Then the realization followed: Google looked at my search, interpreted it, and built an interest profile for me based on this search -- without asking me. Without notifying me. See? Kind of creepy.

Then again, it's not like one can pretend Google didn't already have the data. It knew who was searching for the Giants vs. Red scores. The only thing that changed was that it used my search (which we normally think of as being something that is filed away by Google) in a very active, meaningful way without asking. After the initial surprise, I came to the conclusion that it's actually pretty awesome how Google Now was able to make those things happen behind the scenes, saving me the time of making me configure my Now profile to view Giants scores.

Still, I'm having some cognitive dissonance here. Now I have to wonder what other things from my searches will Google pluck out and make assumptions that I care about (and attempt to deliver me ongoing data on). It feels weird. But I have liked the results -- like when I searched for my dentist's phone number and Google Now automatically gave me directions and traffic to his office -- so I guess when it's all said and done that's all there is to it, right?

If / when I switch back to iOS, I am definitely going to miss Google Now.

The amazing, yet awful back button
Android's back button is one of the strangest, best, most irritating, most wonderful mobile interface devices I've used. I know it's not like the back button is new to Android, it's been there since day one. But Android has evolved quite a bit, and I'm not sure the back button has evolved in step.

I'm ambivalent. I've heard the back button chided for its inconsistency -- and it is very inconsistent. But it's also extremely versatile.

As you may know, back button is intended to be present at all times in Android, either via a hard button, or in newer devices by way of a dedicated row of system chrome. In theory, the back button takes you back one step in whatever you were doing. This is a simple, powerful concept.

Unlike in iOS, which only has a single, standard way to get you to the home screen, Android's back button means that whether you're in your browser, in Twitter, in Gmail, or just about anywhere else, you always know how to trace your steps back. It works very well. Except when it doesn't, which is more often than not.

The back button causes a lot of uncertainty. Depending on the app you're using, the back button behaves differently, often not how you'd anticipate. I think most people expect the back button to undo whatever state or mode change they just made. What happens more often than not is that the back button doesn't take you back, it just drops you out of the app altogether.

For example, in the Android Twitter app, if you're browsing your main timeline and tap a tweet, the back button will take you back to the main timeline. But if you're in your main timeline, tap into the Connect tab, the back button won't take you back to main timeline, it actually brings you back to the home screen. What? Contrast this with the Android Instagram app, for example, where the back button actually does take you back to the main timeline from an alternate tab.

Even Google's own apps don't make use of the back button consistently. In Google's Calendar app, using the back button from an appointment will take you back to your day view, but if you switching from day view to week view the back button will drop you out of the app. The same is also true in the Gmail app, where backing out of an email takes you to your inbox, but hitting back after changing inboxes drops you out of the app.

The back button should always take you back one step. Always. Otherwise, what's the point? This kind of an inconsistent core user device introduces an ambient, underlying anxiety to the experience of using Android: I need to back up, but where exactly am I going to wind up this time?

Still, there is one thing about the back button that I love -- the thing that makes me ambivalent about it, instead of just totally down on it. That's when the back button is smart enough to pivot between apps.

Say I'm in Twitter and I click a link, which is opened in Chrome. I follow a few links from there, and then when I'm done with that chain, I hit back, back, back -- until I'm eventually dropped out of Chrome and back into Twitter, where I started. I love this. This is where the back button shines. (I tried following content between more than two apps, but I found that back just skips whatever apps were the middle of the chain, and goes straight back to the first app. That's kind of a bummer, but is probably uncommon.)

Is back's ability to bounce between apps enough to outweigh the constant mild irritation of its unpredictability? I don't know. Probably not, since I haven't often found myself moving between apps.

Still, what can I say? When the back button works well, it's a beautiful thing. The problem is, good or not, it's inconsistent -- which is actually a pretty good metaphor for Android itself.

Text input
On day one, the first thing all the Android people at gdgt HQ told me to do was go put Swiftkey on my device. Now, to test Android in the best conditions I've been running Jelly Bean on the Galaxy Nexus, and as you may have heard, Jelly Bean's new stock keyboard supposedly does a much better job at predictive input. Specifically, I've heard it's supposed to rival Swiftkey.

I tried both, and it's official: I'm terrible at typing on Android. Or Android is terrible at figuring out what I'm trying to type. However you want to slice it, I haven't been stoked.

Let's start with the stock Jelly Bean keyboard. It is not bad, but its detection of erroneous word delimiters just isn't there. I don't know about you, but for as long as I've been using on-screen keyboard, no matter how hard I try, for some reason my thumbs have a pretty hard time hitting the space button with solid regularity. On smaller devices, for example, I wind up typing a lot of words with Ns in place of spaces,"sonyou'llnsee thingsnlikenthis". While I have no doubt that things have improved for Android's new stock keyboard, Jelly Bean still did a far worse job than the iPhone of detecting my terrible touchscreen typing and helping prevent me from looking like an idiot.

Unfortunately, Swiftkey didn't do me much better. Although I'm writing this dispatch for days 4 - 7, my experience has been pretty consistent over the course of a couple of weeks. While Swiftkey did a better job at picking up on my apparent inability to consistently hit the space bar, I found its word suggestions were often highly inaccurate. And don't get me started to the URL layout of Swiftkey, with is insane placement of a large ".com" button directly adjacent to the space bar.

I was really looking forward to typing on Android -- I frequently complain about my stubby thumbs, and I was hoping a significantly wider screen would make my life a little easier. As it turns out, easier to hit virtual keyboard targets aren't enough without a really well designed auto-correction system. To my complete surprise, I was actually able to type faster and more accurately on the iPhone -- which I previously thought has always had a pretty awful keyboard. Looks like I was wrong.

All that said, I make no claims that I'm some great, accurate touchscreen typist. In fact, if I had my way there would be a Pre-like iPhone with a slide-out physical keyboard. So what do I know?

Obviously, everyone's mileage varies, and I have continued to hear that Swiftkey is the king of Android keyboard. As with everything tech: use what works for you!

Coming soon in the third and final Android Challenge dispatch!
  • Reflections on the app ecosystem and its greatest potential challenges.
  • Editing text (or attempting to, anyway)
  • Getting fast on Android
  • The 64k question: will I switch back?
Update three (week 2+) is up! Read it here: gdgt.com­/discuss­/the­-android­-challenge­-update­-thre...

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43 replies
mrmarkus

When are you going to post the third part of your Android Challenge? I want to read it.
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sbono13

Ryan, did you make a final verdict? i noticed you are back on the iPhone while on your vacation...
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desertfox

Seconded! What are your final conclusions?
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unclejesse

Ryan - I commend you for going 'all in' on this Android challenge. I just finally got an iPhone 4 unlocked and was testing it out, but I don't think I could commit like you have.

If you end up back on iPhone, it won't be for lack of trying!
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simieski

Can I just say thanks again for such an excellent piece? This is exactly what I need to know considering I am contemplating a switch from iOS to Android if the iPhone5 isn't ground breaking. Really looking forward to the final installment.
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stalky14

One thing that should be mentioned here is that at least on Android you can change out your keyboard if it doesn't suit you.
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unclejesse

Has anyone done a copy of iOS's keyboard, for Android converts?
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radikal

Does no sound like you like it so far, guess this is why we have a big choice on phones :)
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crasher35

Here, here! That is why competition is great ^_^
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crasher35

I have to agree with you on the back button, it really should be a system button rather than a per application button that always takes you back to the previous screen. That would be the most efficient use, especially since there is already a home button, so there is no reason for back to take you home.

About the keyboard, though, the strength of Android keyboards is choice, because what works for most doesn't work for all. You need to find what works best for you. By your description, it sounds like you may like SlideIT. Maybe you should give that a shot .
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unclejesse

Ryan,
You should definitely give Swype a shot during your test too.
I find it far faster than any touch keyboard.
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Dignan17

"I wind up typing a lot of words with Ns in place of spaces"

Haha, I'll agree with you there, except my nemesis is the "b" button. Replace "n" in your example with "b" and that seems to be everything I type.

Oddly, on a few occasions I've noticed that I hit the b key instead of the space key, but when I finish typing the second word and hit space, Android will replace the b with a space for me. Sadly, it does not do this regularly enough.

I think I'm with you on this one. I've never been good at typing with on-screen keyboards...
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kernco

The back button would be a lot less annoying if they'd just disable its ability to return you to the home screen. If you're in a state where that's what would happen, it should just not do anything. There's a home button right next to the back button, so if I wanted to return to the home screen, that's what I would press. If I press the back button, I think it's safe to assume I never want the result to be the home screen.
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dh

I'm personally a Swype Beta convert. I absolutely hate typing on a touchscreen, but since Swype, I haven't looked back. Also being able to text with one hand and often without looking at the phone is a BIG plus.
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deitiphobia

I had a go at the iPhone 4 for two weeks after being an avid Android user for 2 years. I gotta say that I hated the iPhone keyboard. I also hated it on my iPad. It seemed to never allow me to type my email and password very easily which appparently I do often enough that it was absolutely frustrating. I also found that Android does a better job at text autocorrect. I use Smart Keyboard and find it to be the best keyboard for android with minimal problems.

I also find the back key on Android to be amazing. It usually works just as I would want it to and expect it to with the rare exception. The menu button as we'll is so useful and I found that iOS apps are unbelievably inconsistent in how one backs up or accesses the menu settings.

Once you get used to something for so long, its just hard to make a switch no matter how competent the product is. I gladly ditched my iPhone and iPad and returned to Android phone and tablet. My android tablet didn't have as many cool Apps, but it just worked. Ironic huh. And after getting used to the Android notifications, far superior Gmail, the ability to share anything from anywhere to any remotely corresponding app, the excellent turn by turn navigation, and the incredibly easy way that Google restores all of your contacts and emails with just one simlple login (I like flashing roms so this is a lifesaver compared to the pain of iOS jailbreaking), I simply found that Android was a much better fit to my lifestyle and use case.
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manveru

For a better typing experience in Android, you should give Swype a try. After using this for a while I can't stand any other Android keyboards (or the iPhone keyboard, which I had previously thought to be the best). Swype is way more accurate if you have trouble typing with Android keyboards. www.swype.com/
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Avi

IMO, Apple's virtual keyboard is still the best (although the Galaxy Note's keys are so large that it's kind of in a different category). Microsoft is a close second. Android Jelly Bean is now roughly equal to the best third party options like Swiftkey. Given how many vendors have promised me that their keyboard is revolutionary - and don't live up to expectations - I'm extremely skeptical when RIM says a key reason to wait for OS 10 is their amazing new virtual keyboard. Typing on glass is apparently a really hard problem to solve, and Apple and Microsoft have invested in a lot of IP here.
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Vance

As for you switching back: look, the guy who preferred the Rio Karma to the iPod back in the day MUST prefer Android to iOS now. :0)
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chiggerfruit

So that's why I bought a Rio Cali all those years ago...
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chiggerfruit

Like the others say, give the keyboards more time to learn. If you want an immediate improvement though, then go pick up Swype. It's not my keyboard of choice, but if I can teach an eighty year old priest how to do it with ease, you could definitely get pretty quick with it.
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ryoungz

Ryan don't you have years of iOS learning your typing patterns? It takes more than a week or two for Swiftkey to optimize for your typing style. I'm pretty confident after a monh you would be very satisfied.
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ryan

No, not really. As far as I know, iOS doesn't learn typing patterns, only individual words.
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wyldtek

You are 100% correct about the back button. The most powerful, yet inconsistent part of Android. I love it more than I hate it, but I've probably just gotten used to how annoying it can be. When it works as expected its great though.

I've been a Swiftkey user since they launched on Android. But I hate the newest version (3). I preferred Swiftkey X.

Through 4 Android phones and 3 tablets, I've never used the awful stock keyboard. Since I dislike the lastest version of Swiftkey, I decided to give the Jelly Bean version a try. It's not perfect but its vastly superior to the older versions. I've been using it since I/O and I think I'm going to stick with it for now. But I don't need it as much anymore because the new Voice Typing engine is OUTSTANDING.
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rbrome

I agree completely about the back button.

My parents recently upgraded to iPhones. They found absolutely everything wonderfully intuitive EXCEPT for the lack of a back button. They kept asking me "how do I go back?" And four times out of five, it was after they had clicked a link in an email. It had taken them from the email app to the browser app, of course. But they couldn't grasp the concept that they'd been thrown into a different app and therefore there was no "back" button. The process to get back to email was terribly un-intuitive. The problem is exacerbated by HTML email, which is essentially a web page. When you go from one (email) web page to another web page by clicking a link, you expect an obvious way to go "back". iOS completely fails here, whereas Android nails it.

On the keyboard, though, I've actually enjoyed the Android keyboard since ICS. Previous incarnations were awful, but the stock Android 4.x keyboard works great for me.
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Dignan17

This is the exact scenario that comes to mind every time I think of the lack of a back button. I know that on the iPhone you can double-tap the home button, then tap your email app to get back, but that's three presses instead of one...
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chiggerfruit

I'm still in college and I get confused about iOS's lack of a back button. I get pretty embarrassed when my friends give me their iPhones to use or fix because I get so disoriented and I'm supposed to be the tech dude. Whoops.
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stalky14

I have an iPod Touch in addition to an Android phone and it's always jarring having to deal with this when I use it.
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Vance

1. No, you don't want it on iOS because you are NOT switching back. :0)
2. You are right about the keyboard, can't live without it, but every few days it gives me a WTF moment.
3. Swiftkey: did you train it with your sms, gmail and twitter? That and letting it learn from your daily use for a week or so makes a HUGE difference.
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NeuroMan42

Agreed, once I linked Swiftkey to everything, I rarely type... most of the time I just pick the entire word that I need.
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Vance

Exactly, I would say about 60-70% of my next words are predicted, the rest are there within a letter or two. I am slowly losing my ability to touch-type because I never have to anymore.
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DustoMan

I really miss typing with SwiftKey when I use my other mobile devices. It's something I'm really looking forward to installing on my Nexus 7 when it gets here. Especially when I use the Kindle Fire keyboard. That thing is terrible. Just today I had one of those "woah" moments when Swiftkey picked up on a word based on a Facebook conversation I was having with a sibling. It's truly the best keyboard period.
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sciwiz

Isn't Google Now opt-in?
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NeuroMan42

Swiftkey was the first app that I purchased and is a must-have for me... banana hands!
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cass

Regarding the back button inconsistency, I've learned how it works, which has been consistent across that apps that I've used, and I haven't had any issues with it. I actually think I prefer it the way it is rather than what you expected to happen as explained in your post.

For those who haven't used Android, there's parent level of the apps, so with Twitter it would be the Home, Connect, Discover, and Me tabs. Moving between any of those tabs you'll still on the parent level, so hitting back brings you to the home screen as you mentioned. But clicking into a tweet then to a link, brings you down another two levels. Once you navigate away from the parent level, it starts the trail of screens you can go back to with the back button.
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ryan

That's not how it works though -- at least not from app to app. What you're calling the parent level of an app is not always what you'll go back to. See: Twitter vs. Instagram example in the post.

I suppose you could make the (specious) argument that back wasn't implemented correctly in Instagram (which I'd disagree with), but that only reinforces my point: there should be no interpreting the back button. As a piece of system-level UI, it should do the same thing 100% of the time. The fact that it doesn't is a real and important usability issue.
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EdwardC

I don't think it's a specious argument - you've decided that a browser-style temporal back button is the one, true answer, some other people (like me) almost always prefer an up button and can't stand the Instagram implementation. Temporal back is especially annoying in the case you mention where you want to go all the way back to the app that launched your current app.

Back on the keyboard thing, I've not tried SwiftKey, but Swype has never given me a reason to try any other keyboard (once I turned off the "Auto-correction" option under "Word suggestion").
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vlukyniuk

I also would suggest Swype keyboard. Since it's in beta you have to aquire it out of the Play store I believe. Everytime I end up on a device that does not have swype I feel like I'm missing a large part of myself. :P
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Dignan17

Your Twitter and Instagram examples actually seem to support Cass's explanation. Your Twitter example was that you tapped on a tweet, hit the back button, and got back to the main timeline. That's because you were getting into the app a little more by going into that tweet. But going between tabs was at the parent level of the app, just like in your Instagram example.

I agree that there is inconsistency, but I disagree that it's "more often than not." Most of the time I use the back button (which I still maintain is a much better way to do things) it does what I expect it to do. But that's one of the things that comes from using the platform for an extended period of time and not just a trial period, IMO.
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chiggerfruit

No regular user will ever read this, and I don't know if you'll want to read it as well, seeing as you want to represent the typical android user, (i.e. not like us power users who take the time to read up on 10+ blogs and forums or develop anything), but here is Google's official take on navigation with the experience pretty centered on the back button:
developer.android.com­/design­/patterns­/navigation.h...
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Scottish

You're right, Ryan, it should be enforced at the system level and be consistent, but I think that the implementation that cass described is the intended standard.
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Vance

Ah, that makes perfect sense. All this time I never figured out how it was working.
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Scottish

Yes, good explanation Cass. I think most Android apps pretty consistently implement this model. I think Instagram and others of its ilk are the exceptions, not the rule.
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jonursenbach

This is how I've learned it, but trying to explain that has always been hard. You put it greatly though.
1 like dislike
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