Hands on the Android

This review is about Android, the operating system, and not about any particular handset. I remember the first time I got my hands on the Android when @elusivejackal picked up a development unit late last year. I played with it for about 30 minutes and left with the feeling that it was a really solid operating system. Rogers, Canada’s only GSM provider, launched both the HTC Magic and HTC Dream a few weeks ago and I finally bit the bullet to pick up an Android device for myself.

Playing with the Android, Google seems to be taking a hybrid approach and picking up the best and worst of what has been done on the iPhone and Windows Mobile platforms to date. The Android’s native home screen looks like the iPhone. It breaks it up into 3 panels and you can add more apps by swiping up the menu screen from the bottom and adding them to any of the home panels. An additional thing you can do is to add widgets to the home panel which is useful. The panels are finger friendly where you can swipe up (to see all the apps you have installed), down (sees all the system notifications), left and right (to move between panels).

As soon as you turn on the phone, it asks you for your Google credentials which makes sense. It is a Google Phone after all. By default, the phone will synchronize with Gmail, Calendar, Google Talk and Contacts. It will also activate your Latitude if you choose to do so when you run Google Maps on the Android. However, you have to re-enter your Google credentials for any third-party apps you use on the Android. I would have hoped that it would ask me for confirmation if I wanted to re-use my Google credentials. Hopefully this will change as I think that tight integration with Google is one of the most attractive features with the Android.

Android, like the iPhone, has its own centralized application repository which they call Marketplace. You can do keyword searches to narrow down the application list. Once you click on the app, you get to see all the reviews, see other apps the developer has published for the Android and even email the application developer directly. One thing which I do like about the Android is that it gives you the ability to install apps even outside of the Marketplace. You have to check it off in the phone settings and be able to find an app to install. A prime example of such use is Brightkite. One thing I didn’t like about the Marketplace is that it didn’t alert you when an app was updated. The application developer has to build the capability into the app or you have to stumble upon an update by searching for it in the marketplace.

The performance on the GPS is phenomenally fast and accurate. One of the things that I like about it is how the GPS is abstracted that multiple apps can access the information without causing a conflict. For instance, I can publish my location on BrightKite while Google Maps is running.bWindows Mobile actually attempts to do this but unfortunately most developers bypass the generic GPS driver which provides the same abstraction layer concept because of performance issues.

Once you get out of the “pretty” and look at the guts of the Android, as a developer, you can quickly see how much of it is Java and Linux. When I was setting up the Dream for my mum, I deleted something I shouldn’t have causing the phone to crash a lot. The only way I could recover from it was to hard reset the phone. The best way to uninstall anything really would be to go through the marketplace. The nice thing however is that it is really easy to install apps even though they aren’t necessarily in the marketplace.

Overall, the Android shows a lot of promise but still lacks the polish of Windows Mobile. If Android can capture the heart and minds of the developer community, it will turn out to be a very solid product. Already HTC has developed a new UI with the Sense and it looks promising.