Monthly Archives: July 2012

Android Jelly Bean and a Re-review of the Nexus S

The Nexus S is a rather unassuming smartphone at a time where the flashier Samsung Galaxy line grab headlines and eyeballs (in India, Samsung controls the market and iPhones are less common). In fact, it doesn’t even stand out among Nokia’s low end Symbian phones. And that turns out to be a very good thing on the crowded trains, where no self respecting pickpocket would go after a Nexus S when the whole Galaxy beckons.

Calling the Nexus S plasticky is unlikely to get it riled up–unlike phones that try to appear more premium by dressing up in silvery paint and kevlar armour and textured surfaces, the Nexus S is all glossy shiny cheap feeling plastic. However, that makes it more resistant to dents and minor falls, and the gently curved screen means you don’t risk scratches by putting it upside down.

It is the second device to be updated to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. When I first picked up the Nexus S for just $269 (this is way before the $349 Galaxy Nexus), I was somewhat disappointed with the vanilla Android 2.3 interface, which was a clear step down from the Samsung Touchwiz skin I has been using on the Galaxy S2. But the real reason I bought it was the upcoming update to 4.0, which came in soon enough, and made it feel like a new phone. The latest update reinforces my view that the Nexus phones are the only Android phones anyone should buy. The timely software updates are way more important than any clever or flashy hardware feature. So while the HTC One X, with the best screen of any smartphone, is rather tempting, the Galaxy Nexus is the only phone I would consider upgrading to. On almost any other phone the user experience would feel like a step down, despite the ageing outdated hardware in the Nexus S.

The 4.1 upgrade promises a smoother buttery UI experience. Before trying it, I had wondered if it was a misplaced priority, as Android 4.0 had made the phone much more responsive than with 2.3, and any further improvement would seem superficial. The only time the Nexus S lags is when there are too many open apps and it seems to be running out of memory to the point that it needs a couple of seconds to redraw icons on the home screen. But this is with around 15-20 ‘open’ apps on the task switching screen, and closing a few apps quickly fixes things. Well the answer is that things are butter-ier, and it is kind of cool to play around to see just how smooth the animations are even on hardware that is at least three years out of date. The improvement isn’t just superficial though, it is harder but not impossible to make the phone feel bogged down by opening many apps. The Nexus S is simply miles ahead of any comparably specced and priced smartphone in terms of user experience, and even gives more expensive multi core phones a run for their money. In fact, if the Nexus S was still available at a price similar to what the iPhone 3GS still sells for, it would be the best choice for anyone who doesn’t want to pay for a Galaxy Nexus.

Unlike Siri, which is arbitrarily restricted to the iPhone 4S, Google’s biggest innovation in 4.1 JB called Google Now runs just fine on the Nexus S. Google Now tries to learn your habits and give you information you need without even asking for it. I haven’t had a chance to test it out much, but the three cards it showed initially giving information about my location, the weather, and public transport services were pretty much spot on (which is a lot more impressive in India). Google voice search is integrated with search and Google Now, and works pretty well unless you try to pretend it’s Siri. Voice recognition is impressively accurate, and so are the answers to simple queries like ‘where can I get pizza’ and ‘where’s the closest train station’. However, it doesn’t interpret natural language like Siri does, in fact, it doesn’t even try. For example, ‘what’s on my calendar today’ just takes you to a Google search. Basically, Google Now isn’t Siri and isn’t trying to be Siri. How useful it will turn out to be isn’t clear yet, but it does look promising. If you do want a Siri like assistant on Android, you can try Dragon Go!, Friday, or Evi.

Jelly Bean represents a landmark for Android because it completes the transition from functional to captivating and enjoyable. Android has always been powerful and customizable. Now, it is intuitive, smooth, and full of little tricks that delight you. Notifications are richer and show even more information and it is often unnecessary to open the underlying app because the notification shows you all the information you need. The task switching system remains a pleasure to use. Widgets and icons are now that much easier to position and resize on your home screen. The keyboard now predicts words you may want to type next. The share and send features are seamless. If you use GMail and other Google services, Android is remarkably cohesive and seamlessly integrated. JB also comes with an improved face unlock function, but like with ICS, face unlock is missing on the Nexus S, possibly because the front camera isn’t good enough. In any case, with the amount of personal information that is on my phone I wouldn’t dare use it without a pin or password.

It’s hard not to get lured into sharing more data with Google and be tempted into using Google services. I was long past the point of no return already with my contacts and files and images all backed up to Google. Google Now was enough to tempt me into sharing location data as well. It does worry me somewhat, but at least Google hasn’t been devious and underhanded with personal data over the last eight years I have used Google services. And frankly, it’s too late to go back, once they had all my emails there isn’t much left to hide.

A significant advantage of Android is that apps aren’t restricted in what they can do, as long as you agree to the permissions. So Android has always had alternate browsers and still does, if you aren’t happy with Chrome, or the default browser. In iOS, alternate browsers are restricted to being wrapper interfaces for Safari, and can never be as fast as Safari. You can’t make a personal assistant to rival Siri. Alternate keyboards aren’t supported, whereas Android lets you play with Swype and Swiftkey and others. This creates a learning curve for new users, but most smartphone users are becoming more aware of things like software updates and alternate browsers. After all, most Windows users now choose to install non Microsoft browsers, and installing another browser on a phone is simpler, if anything. This openness has worked in Android’s favour, and will fcontinue to do so.

The downsides are well known Android issues that are unlikely to go away any time soon. Android fragmentation affects you even if you stick to Google’s Nexus line of devices. While you get updates right away, the Nexus devices comprise a minuscule percentage of the Android install base, making them a low priority. For example, the Jell Bean update broke the Time magazine app on my phone. Now if the iOS Time app stopped working on iOS 6, it would be fixed in a hurry. However Android 4.1 will be limited to less than 1% of Android devices for quite a while, which makes it much less likely that a developer will be rushing to  make sure their apps work well in Android 4.1. Note that this does not apply so much to Android 4.0, which may only appear on around 10% of Android devices, but those comprise users who have bought high end phones and are more likely to pay for apps and browse more and view ads, a demographic few developers will want to ignore. But equally, developers can’t ignore the hundreds of millions of devices on Android 2.2/2.3, which means apps will continue to have to be compatible with those versions. Thus, several Android apps continue to lack the polish of their iOS counterparts. The Nexus S is a lot less smooth within several third party apps than it is in Google apps or the main interface.

The battle between Android and iOS is at a vicious stalemate, with Apple attempting to get leading Android devices banned or severely crippled. The best thing for us consumers would be for them to keep competing in the market and continue to push each other.