Alright, the second dispatch from the Android Challenge! Backstory here:
- More about the Challenge: gdgt.com/discuss/an-iphone-user-five-years-later-i...
- Update one (days 1 - 3): gdgt.com/discuss/the-android-challenge-update-one-...
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.
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?