My Dinner with Android

Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 22:06

I wanted to give Android OS a go, so I picked up a Nexus 7 tablet recently. Reviews seemed mostly good, it appears to be one of the best Android tablets available and can run the latest OS updates etc. I use iPhone and iPad quite a bit and was interested in seeing how the Android experience would compare and I wanted to try out a smaller tablet size than the iPad. I'm also pretty invested in Google's app offerings, using gmail, calendar, docs/drive, etc. frequently, so I figured it would be a natural extension of those services.

Here's a quick review of my observations after about a month with it.

The Good:

  • Nice size and weight for reading. Easier to hold in one hand than iPad (not Mini).
  • Price and value for money. I paid $269 for 32GB version.
  • Most of the main apps that I use regularly on iPad have Android versions or there's an equivalent. 
  • I did find a few Android-only apps apps that are nice, especially a couple of wifi analyzers that helped me optimize my home wifi networks.
  • Multiple users/profiles. This is handy. Our iPad at home is used by everyone and it has hundreds of apps installed and not organized in any manner at all. I generally just search for the app I want to launch and never worry about what screen it's on.
  • Facial recognition unlock. It works and it's fun, probably isn't very secure. It would be a lot more useful with multiple users, if you didn't have to first select the user from an icon on the screen and then unlock. XBox Kinect can recognize a user and sign them in automatically.
  • The notifications and settings pull downs are really handy. I like having those. It's a pain having to navigate to or search for Settings on iOS to check or change things.
  • The task switcher. Not sure if that's the actual name, but quick switching between recent apps is handy. I know iOS does this too with some fancy gestures, but there's something about the (semi) dedicated soft button for this that I like.
  • Chrome's link disconfoozleator and declutzifier. If you ham-handedly touch on more than one link at a time in Chrome, it pops up a magnified view of the possible choices for you to select the correct one. Excellent feature that saves waiting for a page to load only to realize it's the wrong one and you have to go back and try again. Full of Win.

The OK stuff:

  • Initial setup. Once connected to wifi, it did a decent job setting itself up from my Google account. The frustrating part is that when you first turn it on, you need to enter that info right away (and be connected online) before you can move past the first welcome screens. So with no connection out of the box you have a large paperweight. Seems odd for a device that doesn't have 3G.
  • Customizable home screens and widgets. I guess. Widgets, etc are fun if you bought your tablet so you can spend half your time creating and re-organizing your app icons and screens. Doesn't do much for me, but I get why it's cool.
  • Google Now. Again, I can see the potential here, but after a month of using it, all it ever did for me was tell me the weather and remind me of a couple appointments. Nothing exciting and nothing my phone doesn't already do.

The Bad:

  • Scrolling and animations are not very smooth. For a new device with decent HW specs, it sure feels klunky and over-worked. Page scrolling in Chrome or any of the reading apps I tried is jerky and the page movements have no "weight" to them. Feels very unpolished, like a hacky first try. 
  • The "back" button/icon behavior is inconsistent. It works great much of the time and moves you back up the "stack" of activities that you performed to get to a particular screen, switching apps etc to do so. But it is also used to "back up" along various screens within some apps and will not switch back to a previous app once you're on the main page of an app. So it feels like kind of a gamble whether pressing it will do what you expect or want.
  • Google Drive doesn't have an option to sync all docs or folders of docs to the device. You can "favorite" specific files for sync to the tablet, but not entire folders. Again, seems like a massive oversight for a wifi-only device that can be expected to be offline periodically.
  • No easy on-device search. As mentioned above, I mostly launch apps on iOS by just using the on-device search to find what I want; it's faster than navigating most of the time. Unless I missed something, it's not obvious at all how to do so on the Nexus 7 and it's a multi-step search process.
  • Front camera only. I assume it's OK quality, I never used it. I would much rather have a rear camera for grabbing the odd snapshot. For me that's a much more frequent use case than webcam / chat / skype.
  • Google play music doesn't work in Canada. Boo.
  • No 5GHz wifi. Again, for wifi only, that's an annoying omission.
  • More than a bit funky with gesture and tap recognition. I'd almost go so far as to call it "flaky". It's not unusable, but it seems to have trouble recognizing gestures and taps and you have to repeat them too often. Or, especially in the case of swipe gestures to move pages, you have to use exaggerated movements to get the action you want. A smaller gesture will start the action, like a page turn, but won't complete it. Makes holding it in one hand and swiping pages with just a thumb gesture awkward. That seems like a very common scenario, I'd expect that to work better.
  • Power and volume buttons on the side is hard to use when it's flat on a table. They are tucked in under the curve of the tablet and really hard to reach. Especially annoying for the power button because you can't just turn it on / wake it up and quickly check something on the home screen without picking it up. The iPhone/iPad front-mounted Home button is clearly superior here.
  • Using auto-brightness causes it to flicker. The Nexus 7 is really finicky about adjusting the brightness when set to auto. It's like it's sampling ambient light and adjusting way too often (sometimes making changes every 5-10 seconds or so) and sometimes just flickering brighter/dimmer like it can't make up its mind.
  • Netflix playback flickers a lot. I think it's happening when the app switches from one bitrate stream to another as network conditions change. It seems like it flickers black for a frame or two. Not a killer, but annoying.
  • Copy-paste is broken. This is really the big one for me. I found the text navigation and editing controls completely unusable. I'm sure there some magic hack app thingy that I can download from a sketchy website somewhere that will fix it, but the built in controls are a steaming pile of poop. I came to dread the idea of responding to an email on it for fear I make a typo that will take 30 min to try and correct. Deal-breaker for me. 

Pure Opinion:

  • I don't like current app design aesthetic. The excessively "flat" look of most apps, system dialogs, etc really don't do it for me. It's really difficult to tell what's a clickable/changeable thing and what isn't and whether a particular button will toggle a setting or open a new "page" or something else. It's not a huge usability issue, it's just bland and inconsistent and moderately annoying (again, has that unpolished, early attempt feel to it). I see some newer iOS apps are adopting this styling as well and it's probably to make cross-platform app development easier which I can understand, but to me it makes most apps look like wire-frame demos created by and for programmers with no visual design skills.

Bottom Line:
The Nexus 7 is a decent deal for the money and pretty workable for a lot of people. Size is handy for a reader, but too small for writing email, especially with the atrocious editing controls. The clunky and jerky scrolling and animations make it feel unpolished and that combined with some of the mystery navigation give an overall impression of it being not quite fully baked. For someone looking for a smaller tablet and on a budget, I definitely recommend checking it out, it's a good buy and quite possibly "good enough". I'm glad to have had the experience of trying the smaller tablet, but in the end it's not for me. I'd just as soon carry a full sized iPad. Pay more, get more. Nothing new about that. I gave the N7 to my daughter who also has an Android phone and is a bit more bought into that ecosystem and she's thrilled with it.

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