Four weeks with a Droid (and two weeks with an unlocked Nexus One)

Gadget pile
In response to my first few frustrating hours with a Droid, my friend Gina asked if I'd post my thoughts four weeks on, instead of first impressions which can often be deceiving (but amusing — I encourage others to do it sometime even if half your blog entry ends up bemoaning the difficult packaging to get to the item). Now that I've learned the ins and outs and gotten to kick the tires on Android, the Droid, and a Nexus One, I feel like there is a lot to say about it, especially in comparison to my years on an iPhone and previous to that, a Blackberry.

I'm much less frustrated by Android and the devices it runs on, after tweaking things and getting to know it better. There are a lot of similarities to the iPhone, many places I think it even excels over the iPhone, and quite a few areas that can be improved. In no particular order:

The Good

– Though I didn't like it at first, I've grown to like the desktop metaphor for the Android home screen. Simple shortcuts to just the apps or views of apps that you use the most, it's a great timesaver and once tweaked to my liking, I found I only hit the applications button once every couple days because all the key things are on my desktop.

– The Android 2.1 OS in the Nexus One is brilliant looking and the desktop and apps views are much nicer looking that earlier releases. It's a shame they don't deploy those equally to all Android devices.

– The software keyboard is on par with the iPhone's, though I miss the hidden hold-drag shortcuts (on an iPhone you could hit the 123 button, hold it, and slide over to that one number you needed, when released the keyboard would bounce back to alpha). I love the suggested words showing up above the keypad and I've found it to be a huge timesaver, guessing correctly for what I'm typing over half the time and saving valuable keystrokes.

– The hardware keyboard on the Droid is too small and largely useless to me. The auto-correct and suggested words go away on my Droid when you pop out the slide-out keyboard, even though I type just as many if not more mistakes than the software keyboard. It adds quite a bit of thickness and weight to the Droid, both of which I'd prefer to go without.

– The way Android and Google Chrome on the desktop integrate the search bar and the web address bar into a single UI feature (when every other browser separates them) is pure genius. On my Android phones, I don't even have to recall the full URL of anything, just remember a keyword or two that I know will end up at that site. On the Android, I get location awareness with a phone number, map, and link to driving directions in the Navigation app.

– The Google Navigation app is simply incredible. I bought a TomTom GPS unit for my wife's car a couple years ago and liked it enough to get the TomTom app on my iPhone for driving directions when I travel and rent a car, but I've found the TomTom iPhone app is difficult to input addresses to and has minimal integration with the iPhone's address book (it requires me to confirm every aspect of stored addresses). The Google Navigate app can be launched from addresses found in the Android browser, offers several views of your trip, and it's remarkably easy to enable or disable the voice prompts when driving (every other app and unit buries that several menus deep). It's a pleasure to use and I carry my Droid in my car even though I already have a factory installed navigation system in it.

– Gmail and Google Voice are also killer apps for Android. For people addicted to scanning and archiving items out of their Gmail inbox, the Gmail client is a pleasure. Google Voice is incredible and sorely missed from the iPhone and the stupid iTunes App Store policies that barred it from entry. Google Voice gives you the same sense of freedom and control over your daily interruptions that a DVR attached to a TV does — once you've experienced it you can never go back.

– The Android ecosystem doesn't require a computer at all. At first I found this slightly frustrating as it takes some tweaking to get music on or off the device, or get movies playing back smoothly, but over time I've come to appreciate this and enjoy it. Having to dock my iPhone to a computer (and wait for it to backup and transfer files when I just want to go out the door with a new podcast on it) is a regular hassle and I can tell the Android OS was designed for people that may very well not even own a desktop or laptop computer. The phone itself is almost as powerful as a laptop. I haven't played with podcasting apps much on Android, but I imagine it must be as easy as it is to update apps and download music from Amazon.

– The form factor of the Nexus One is amazing. Super thin and light, with a huge bright screen. Being that I don't have a SIM card in it, its first charge ran for a week with occasional use over wifi. My Droid feels blocky, heavy, chunky, and barely holds a charge for a 24hr day of use. 

– Verizon on the Droid is a much better phone service than AT&T on the iPhone. I know, totally obvious, but the difference is so great that I'm paying for a second cellphone because AT&T has gotten so bad in the last few months. I live outside of Portland, Oregon, and while 3G and phone service works great in my small town of few iPhone users, the moment I go near the city of Portland I get dropped calls galore and 3G data issues. I've taken to calling friends back on the Verizon Droid often enough that having a backup phone on another network is a necessity.

– I missed multi-touch the first time I used Android, but after a day or two I got used to double-tapping to zoom in apps and dragging with one finger to accomplish the same thing. It probably sucks for games to not have multitouch, but it's fine in apps.

– The notifications bar with pull-down alerts is great for finding out a bunch of information coming from a variety of your apps at once. I wish the iPhone had something like that.

– Being able to "return" any app in the Android Market within 24hrs for a full refund is fantastic.

– Having all your apps, desktop wallpapers, etc. saved on the server side somewhere at Google is a pretty amazing thing. After I popped onto the Nexus One for the first time and inputted my Google details, the phone picked up most of my preferences from my Droid phone. This will make switching phones in the future from one Android device to another much smoother.

– It's clear Android is going to be a popular phone operating system available on pretty much every carrier in the US. Overall, I'd say it's about 80-90% of the way to the kind of experience you get with an iPhone with several things I feel it does better than an iPhone.

Areas for improvement

– The iPhone came from the iPod world so it's an incredible media playback device and the Droid and Nexus One feel like multimedia is just an add-on that isn't central to the device. There's no iTunes to sync with Android (I tried doubletwist and it was buggy) so you either have to buy music directly from the Amazon MP3 store (which I actually prefer to the iTunes store for music even on my Mac desktop due to cheaper songs and no DRM) or you have to navigate mounted USB folders in the file system by hand, which is a chore at best. It took a bit of reading forums and blog posts to figure out the correct Handbrake settings to get a movie to playback smoothly on either Android device, and I had to make a directory called "Video" in the right place and download a playback app from the Android Marketplace to even watch it. The Nexus One has a bigger, brighter screen than any iPhone or iPod I've used so you'd think they'd make media more a focus given the great hardware.

– The Android Market for Apps is good but feels like it could be a lot better. There doesn't seem to be nearly as much curation as the iPhone App Store for making you aware of the best of the best (I had to rely on twitter and blog posts to figure out what to try out). The reviews are listed by the last three reviews first, even if they are a frustrated user (iPhone App Store lists highest rated first, right?) so the reviews are choppy (lots of either 1-star I HATE IT or 5-star AMAZING reviews). There is no "Update all apps" single button to push which gets tiresome as your Android device tells you every few days you need to update four apps by clicking over and over and over.

– The iPhone has only one button, Android has four along the bottom. iPhone puts it on developers to code up their own navigation buttons and labels, while Android just gives developers hooks to those four hardware buttons. The problem? There's no consistency and a distinct lack of labeling on Android. On an iPhone, developers have to create "back" buttons and they get to label them as well so you always know where you're going to end up if you push it (like "Inbox" or "back to twitter"). On Android it's a blind button without a label and sometimes when you hit the back button in a web browser you go back a page and sometimes you jump back to an application that launched the web browser. Sometimes the back button lets you go backward in an app and many times you get the haptic buzz telling you THERE IS NO BACK BUTTON and you're stuck on that screen. I've played with an Eris Android phone as well and the big surprise there was the four hardware buttons aren't even in the same order as my other two Android devices. That seems insane to me.

– Google's internal teams sometimes slap existing features into their apps or they change key features of public apps with little warning (like Google Reader suddenly making the Share button public ages ago). Android is a phone, and every phone needs an address book, right? Google decided to slap my Gmail contacts into the phone and call that the same as an address book, which was a surprise to me. My Gmail contacts are mostly people I email often (including tech support questions to my many websites) and the Venn Diagram of people I email a lot and people I call a lot are vastly different things. I didn't have phone numbers stored in my Gmail contacts for longtime friends I would like to call from the device, so essentially the moment I logged into Google I had a phone with hundreds of people I barely know over email that I would never need to call plus I didn't even have phone numbers for the few I did want to call. If I want to morph this into a usable address book, I have to delete a lot of people and add a lot of data to my contacts, but that might affect how Gmail works on my desktop browser. If I delete someone does that mean their new emails to me might show up as unknown spam? I don't know.

– The iPhone has a lot of "hidden" features. Stuff like holding down keys on the virtual keyboard giving you new options, and screenshots by touching two buttons at once, but the amount of what I'd classify as "hidden" features in Android feels much longer. Every button has a separate long-hold state that offers up menus and options you can't find unless you know to click. The web browser doesn't show you how many windows are open like Mobile Safari. I never know how many apps are even open and running aside from the reports in the upper taskbar. I didn't know silent mode could be accessed from holding the top button for a long time. Every day there's a new hidden feature I'm accidentally stumbling upon to the point the phone feels like a linux command line or a wiki with its own cryptic syntax you have to learn slowly to the point of memorizing lots of keystrokes.

– The trackball on the Nexus One is next to useless. It's much faster for me to point and tap something I want on the screen than scroll through every option with a trackball. It's easy to ignore though.

Like I said, overall, I'm happier with the Android OS, and I'm in love with the Nexus One hardware. The moment the Verizon branded Nexus One goes on sale, I'll pick one up and try to unload my blocky Droid. Despite some issues I have with the iTunes App Store, I do love almost everything about the iPhone for its intuitive interface, great gaming, fantastic multimedia playback, and overall utility, but Android is definitely going to give it a run for its money and I look forward to both platforms innovating. At this point, I feel like each platform has enough strengths that I've become the kind of weirdo that carries two phones around, using the best of both worlds depending on usage.

Four hours with a Motorola Droid Phone

Some notes from spending a few hours with my first Droid phone.

  1. The first thing I encountered that drove me crazy was trying to login to my own sites. When I highlighted a text field, it took up the entire viewport in landscape mode, not even showing the label for what I was entering. I had to remember what it was when the label went away, or submit forms to get errors so I could see what the next form label was.
  2. On the Motorola droid, the wake button is on the top, not the home buttons on the front. On the HTC droid, it's not the big white trackball button, but one of the metal buttons on the side marked "end".
  3. No way to just silence text message alerts, had to silence everything ("no sound" not an option for any single noise making feature)
  4. Amazon mp3 store download test — I downloaded whole album, one song had network error, but no way to re-download it as far as I can tell. I bought another album later on while connected to wifi and I think the failed download was redownloaded? I can't tell.
  5. Saved searches are not editable, when you click them, they run automatically as a new search, so misspelled ones stay in your history for ever, no way to pull them up, modify and rerun the search. No way to pull up an old search and add detail when there are too many results, you have to type it all out again.
  6. Onscreen keyboard comes up sometimes in apps, doesn't in others, and I have to resort to the hardware keyboard when that happens
  7. Hardware keyboard keys are too small for my big thumbs, seem smaller than an iPhone's virtual keys.
  8. Icons along the top are cryptic and confusing. Sometimes they turn red with a number, but I have no idea what it corresponds to. tapping them does nothing. I eventually figured out a way to get to a notifications page, but I can't remember.
  9. The hardware/software is different even among things called "Droid". The HTC droid has a lovely theme with a giant clock and weather running based on your location. On the Motorola Droid, I found desktop hacks to try and mimic it, but the apps and themes were clunky and not easily customized. Every basic weather app required I put in my zip code even though the phone has GPS in it.
  10. Way too much technical detail. In the About This Phone section of Settings, you can know the exact kernel version of the phone's OS and build number before you can figure out the phone number of your phone. Was this made for linux system administrators? Also, there are graphs for battery use by application and hardware. Does anyone outside of the Android development team need to know this? When I installed dxTop to try and get weather on my desktop (which didn't work btw), it added two main panels to the home screen, one for pulling up all apps, the other for showing which processes were running on the phone, a sort of virtual command line TOP output. Is that as important as getting to applications, knowing what is using up memory and processing?
  11. The app tab seems like it can infinitely grow, but it is always listed in alphabetic order. You can't put the apps you use most often at the top, I guess you're supposed to put them on your desktop area.
  12. I accidentally added the stupid Corporate Calendar (which is different than the Calendar app that uses Google Cal) to the desktop and I can't for the life of me figure out how to remove it from the desktop.
  13. Is there no mac desktop app for managing media on the device? If I want movies or music on it, do I have to just copy files directly from my file system to a removed SD card and transfer that way? It doesn't seem to mount as a remote disk on my Mac when connected via USB. I have no idea what kinds of video files work on it, and I don't see any where to buy shows/movies in the Market.
  14. The well publicized driving app doesn't have settings for telling it where my home is. That seems like an oversight as every car GPS hardware and software I've used has a big "go home" button this app lacks.
  15. The Youtube app simply lists popular items and has search. I'm signed into Google on the phone, but there's no quick link to my account, my favorites, my videos, etc. I had to search for my own stuff to find it.
  16. The app store title fonts are so large you can't read entire descriptions in portrait mode. On the plus side, if you download a paid app that doesn't work or sucks or wasn't what you were looking for, you can get an instant refund when uninstalling through the Market (but not if you go into Settings and Manage Applications and hit uninstall).
  17. I can't figure out how to remove default apps I will never use, like the Email app (I just use the Gmail app).
  18. I'm generally confused as to what the Back button will do at any one time. The button with lines on it that I think is supposed to be "settings" gives variable results depending on context within apps.

I came at this the same way I came at my iPhone, pulled it out of the box, ran the basic tutorials, and figured it out on my own. I do not consider good hardware and software design to require all users to do Google research on every aspect of a device in order to use it.

If you're a happy android user, feel free to correct me by point number and steps to accomplish what I was trying to do. Also, how in the heck do you take screenshots within it?

UPDATE: I forgot to mention a list of things I think it does better than the iPhone and that I was impressed with:

  1. I like the subtle buzz when pressing the screen. It's a good indicator that a touch was accepted
  2. Refunds for paid apps that didn't work is fantastic. I've probably wasted $50 over the last couple years on iPhone apps I thought would work and be great and were useless.
  3. The iPhone app store is the biggest failure point on the iPhone. I've personally not paid developers to make iPhone apps for my sites fearing the iPhone app produced would not be accepted and I would have spent $5k for nothing. I like that anyone can write Droid apps (but the quality of android apps seen in some casual searches also supports this — I saw more than a few "$search_keyword babes" apps with busty blondes shown)

Flickr’s skinner box

Flickr's most addictive page in their giant game that is photo sharing is easily the Recent Activity page. It used to be a slight drag to have to check comments you left on other photos as well as your own, and soon after they redesigned their iPhone version of flickr, I realized the combined activity page was a much better solution to the problem of how to keep up on what has changed on flickr for you.

I'm happy to see upon checking my activity tonight, the same info on the iPhone recent activity page is now showing up in their website proper. Very cool change.

24 hours with the iPhone: my dream mini computer

After my initial problems, I got a new iPhone from my nearby Apple store and spent several hours using it. My first reaction is that it’s very good, meeting the almost impossible expectations I had for it. Photos are fun and look great, movies are nice and will work great on planes, and the iPod functionality looks good.

The thing that really knocked my socks off was Safari.

I do almost everything in a web app, and even with my blackberry pearl I was stuck with a crippled browser that could only use about half the apps I need. It was a breakthrough over my last device (which was painful for more than 1 or 2 web page views) but I never thought having a full copy of safari on a phone would be so liberating (especially since I only use firefox on my mac).

I have a set of tasks I normally do to keep up on all the workings of metafilter, but I used to only be able to check email and read the front pages of my sites on the pearl. Typically that was the bare minimum and I would wait until I got to a desktop to finish the rest of my work. Last night while catching up on some fluffy TV, I used my iphone for about two hours and it was pretty close to what I do with a laptop. I could check the sites, use all my admin tools. Ajax effects worked throughout and I could finally check my bank balance from my phone (my bank’s site requires javascript and locked out my last 2 phones).

Usually before I go to bed, I have to sweep through half a dozen sites and apps to make sure everything is on the up and up. I learned that I could do everything on the iPhone, and I could do it from anywhere on earth. This is going to be great for airports and other places where I used to feel bored, trapped, and in dire need of internet access.

So in conclusion, the iPhone is nice from start to finish, but Safari is really the thing that turns it from a phone into a mini-laptop. Once I get more used to two-thumb typing, the last limitations that keep it from feeling like a real computer will be gone.

RSS done right (in firefox 2)

I love the way the release candidate 1 of Firefox 2 handles a RSS feed.

I accidentally hit a RSS feed today and was pleasantly surprised by the user experience. There was an informational message at the top explaining it as a feed, along with a RSS subscription preference option and a nicely rendered (not just XML data) feed.

Here’s a short 1.7Mb movie of what that looks like the second time you click on it (the top explanation goes away and you just see the RSS subscription preference).

Craigslist redo redone

(craigslist redo redo, originally uploaded by mathowie)

I’ve been a longtime user of Craigslist. I got my San Francisco Apartment using it, bought a few things, and eventually I met Craig and we’ve talked at conferences together about what it takes to run a community. At the recent SXSW fest, a panel redesigned Craigslist. It’s a definite improvement and it looks fantastic (they redesigned the listing pages as well). Other designers took a crack at a craigslist redo that was closer to the original.

The one thing I really didn’t like about the SXSW Craigslist redo is that the top bar is all wrong. The dark color pushes it back for me, in a banner-blindness sort of way. I didn’t notice it at all for the first minute I looked at the new site. Then I thought about how I use Craigslist, and I’m a big searcher. I either search from the front page, or I dive into the appropriate Sale/Wanted section and search there. I know the tech behind Craigslist is pretty simple and they’re not much of a search/IT company, but I would love it if they surfaced search in such a way.

So I redid it. Here is the full size version. I took a screenshot of the redesign and moved stuff around in Photoshop to my liking. It’s obviously a very Google-like redesign, but then that’s how I use Craigslist. I could picture the Craigslist subpages carrying the search at the top just like a Google result page (just the top 100px or so), so this theme could be continued throughout the site.