I (still) can’t make the case for an iPad – not yet, at least. I think it’s a brilliant machine and it’s certainly the best in it’s class, but it remains comfortably outside of “impulse buy” territory.
Still, I was starting to get a hint of tablet envy. I think the seeds were sown when my dad brought home a budget tablet obtained in the Black Friday craze, which I promptly convinced him maybe wasn’t the best idea if he was serious about getting a tablet that actually worked. He agreed, and a couple weeks later committed to a 10″ Acer Iconia – Acer’s bulkier, cheaper, Android-powered iPad alternative.
At the same time, I started scouring the internet for sweet deelz™, thinking that if I was going to join the tablet revolution it would have to be at a price point somewhere more in the territory of a Kindle Fire. Initial reviews of the Fire, unsurprisingly, were (har) lukewarm, and using one in person left me cold (double har) so I let it go. Instead I bought an HTC View at a very deep discount from a site I’ve never heard of. After a couple nerve-wracking days of wondering whether it would actually ship, it did, and arrived in my hands not long after.
The View is essentially the Sprint-branded version of the HTC Flyer, a 7″ tablet sold both through GSM carriers with 3G and at Best Buy with wi-fi only. The Sprint version gets different CDMA radios capable of 3G and 4G (which I didn’t care about) and a black case instead of silver (which I did care about – it looks pretty great). Unlike the Flyer, the View is only available in 32GB form, but all of them were shipped with Android 2.3 (aka “not Honeycomb”).
The View has an aluminum chassis and as such feels solid and mostly well-built. Bits that aren’t aluminum are finished in a nice soft-touch material, and branding is minimal and tasteful. There is a bit of the tumor on the bottom back of the slab and I’m not sure if that’s an ergonomic decision or a functional requirement. My only complaint is that I’m just not a fan of the volume and power buttons – they’re okay but they don’t feel as well-built as the rest.
Devices that run Gingerbread require hardware buttons for Home, Menu, and Back. In a clever move, HTC made these buttons capacitative instead of hardware, and included two sets of them – one for landscape and one for portrait orientation. The buttons are hidden behind the glass screen and only illuminate when their respective orientation is active; it’s very slick.
While it’s not easily mistaken for an Apple device, I’ve been pretty pleased with the overall aesthetics and build quality. If I had to make one complaint, it would be that the wireless seems somewhat weak, to the point where I need to turn wifi off and back on again to get it to find our router.
Software, Part 1 – Gingerbread
Around this same time rumors were flying about an official update to Honeycomb (Android 3.2, the tablet-specific version) being released for the HTC tablets. Initially, though, I was stuck with Gingerbread, originally intended only for the HTC’s smaller brethren. Given its diminutive size and comparatively lower resolution (1024×600), this actually worked pretty well. The status bar at the top of the screen used precious little space and, not unlike iOS, the HTC Sense version of Gingerbread includes a quick launch bar along the bottom of the home screen.
Initially there was a lot of fumbling, and a lot more Droid Sans than I’d ever like to see in one place again, but overall I had little to complain about. I spent a fair amount of time just messing around and getting my bearings, and then seeing what there was in the Android world that I couldn’t do on a comparable Apple device.
There are a couple of interesting things that apply even to a stock, unrooted version of Android. One that stands out to me is the file system, or rather, the fact that there is a tangible file system that you can browse and manipulate (to an extent) just as you’d be able to do on a “normal” computer. I was able to download a .zip file of music, unzip it, and copy it into a music directory, where it then showed up in the music player. Neat.
I also like the direction they’ve taken with the home screen. In addition to your standard selection of app shortcuts, you can also deploy various widgets that allow you to perform simple tasks (checking email, an RSS feed, your calendar, or the weather) without having to go to an app. It’s really a smart idea and a great use of screen real estate.
Android (in stock form!) also allows apps to be sideloaded simply by changing an option in the settings. This means that you can find an .apk file (the standard format for an Android App) on the internet, download it / copy it to your device, and install it without having to ever interact with the Android Market. For nerds (like me) this is a pretty cool thing to be able to do – more on this later.
There are some other fundamental differences, but one of the more practical examples is how – and I’m going to try to effectively regurgitate this explanation – Android allows apps to more easily interact with each other while iOS keeps it’s apps in “silos”. Put more simply, if you install something like a different browser, the OS acknowledges its existence and you’ll be given the option to use it as a default app for a given action. You only see this level of integration in iOS on the built-in apps, because Apple doesn’t give access to that sort of thing to 3rd-party developers.
Overall, there is a lot to like about Android, and I enjoyed my experience with Gingerbread, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t excited to get my hands on Honeycomb.
Software, Part 2 – Honeycomb
The rumors turned out to be true, and not even a week after receiving my View the official Honeycomb update was available. Of course I downloaded it immediately, and prepared to be taken to the next level in tablet awesomeness. At least, that’s what I was hoping would happen. Having played with HC a tiny bit on my dad’s Acer, I was pretty excited to get ahold of it and see what kind of usability improvements HTC would make, and how the experience would be more optimized for a tablet as a whole.
Sadly, the result wasn’t nearly as nice as I had hoped, for a number of reasons. Honeycomb itself isn’t exempt from criticism, and most of this criticism revolves around the status bar. No longer does it live unobtrusively at the top of the screen; now it is a fairly wide black bar at the bottom. Like the status bar of old, it has time and notification information as well as wireless and battery levels; these live on the bottom right corner. On the bottom left corner are new global buttons: Back, Home, and App Switcher. And sometimes Menu, depending on where you are.
If this sounds like it’s redundant, you’re right. Devices with Android 3 or later no longer require physical buttons, as they’re now built in to the OS itself as onscreen UI elements. Fortunately HTC was prepared for this – remember those capacitative buttons I mentioned earlier? Once Honeycomb is installed they essentially cease to be. Even after only a week using Gingerbread I had become extremely reliant on said buttons. Most confusing to me is the complete elimination of the Menu button from the home screen, as I was used to using that to get to some quick and useful tools like the task manager.
The other issue with this is simply the extra screen real estate that this will always require. It’s impractical to try to hide this bar within certain applications because the bar is your only way to get out of the application; there’s no other emergency exit like iOS devices’ Home button. One issue with this is that it simply takes up what seems like a lot of space on a screen with only 600 pixels on a particular side. A bigger issue is that it becomes difficult to have any sort of quick launch docked at the bottom of the home screen because there’s already important global UI there and it ends up a cluttered mess.
In a less cluttered world, I would be using this space to make minor and subjective gripes about the Honeycomb look – while I really like Google’s intent with the Holo interface overall, The icons and font in the status bar seem like they’re still trying to a little to hard to be XTREME.
Weirdly, though, I can’t complain about that because it’s time to talk about HTC Sense. It’s become commonplace in the Android ecosystem for OEM’s to add their own layer of UI over the top the stock operating system. In some cases this is as simple as throwing a couple extra widgets, but with HTC it’s much more widespread and as a result, disastrous.
HTC’s devices all ship with Sense UI layered over the top of the standard software. Aside from the iconic flip clock / weather widget, I’m not sure exactly what Sense does that benefits me. I can tell you they’ve done their best to overlap the standard Holo interface with as many heavy gradients and round corners as they can muster, and replaced the handsome and subtle stock iconography with their own colorful illustrations – they even went so far as to replace the web browser with their own abomination. It’s sad, because the widgets that they include are really functional; they’re just generally unattractive and contradict Google’s own design philosophy – just like the rest of Sense UI.
There’s a lot of talk about fragmentation when Android is brought up, and this extra layer of junk on top of an already complex OS isn’t helping things. It’s especially frustrating when I see that Google, finally, is actually trying to design things, and yet most people won’t be able to experience that design in its intended form. The Sense/Honeycomb experience is truly ridiculous, because there’s this awful layer that you can’t turn off, and yet it also doesn’t cover everything so you’ll frequently see bits of plain Honeycomb showing through, teasing you.
Software, Part 3 – Rooting
During this entire saga I had become fairly addicted to the Flyer/View forum on XDA Developers – it’s been a tremendously useful source of info for all things HTC and Android. So in retrospect it seems that my decision to root was inevitable.
For now I’m running basically the same software as before with some minor differences; once you have root access you’re able to make changes to the core files you otherwise wouldn’t be able to modify. So far my experience with this is limited to replacing the HTC web browser with a stock Honeycomb browser (which also requires removal of some other system files), removing the Sprint-flavored boot animations, and removing the program that nags for wireless (3G/4G) access since I don’t intend to use anything other than wifi.
The beauty of Android is that there’s a pretty vibrant developer community even for less popular devices like the View (especially thanks to a bunch of fire sales in December), and so for now I’m keeping an eye on two different projects that involve basically removing as much of Sense as possible in favor of a more stock experience. In my ideal world, some wonderful genius(es) would figure out how to build a useable version of Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4).
Alternately, I will lose interest and end up buying something else.
For the most part the things you can do in Android and the things you can do in iOS overlap considerably. It’s true that there some genres of apps that simply don’t exist in iOS – things like task managers and custom launchers. I’m happy enough with iOS that I don’t feel distraught by that. However, there is one killer feature that doesn’t exist on iOS: emulators. As it turns out, a seven inch screen is the perfect size for playing backups of some of my favorite Game Boy Advance and Super NES games. Super Metroid comes to mind, perhaps with the Super Zeromission patch that brings some new territory to an old friend.
Some additional recommendations:
- Perfect Viewer, for reading things
- ES File Explorer, for exploring files
- Google Voice, for textual messaging
No Lock, which can turn off your lock screenI guess there is already a setting to turn off the lock screen; I’m not sure if this is party of Android or Sense.
- Sketchbook Express, for drawrings
I bought an Android tablet. It’s pretty good but the software leaves me a little cold in its current iteration and I’d really like to have a more “pure” Google experience. At any rate, it’s a really fun toy to mess around with if you’re into that sort of thing.
What it’s not is any kind of worthy competitor to the iPad if you’re not into that sort of thing. People who don’t find joy in just poking around with technology and hacking things apart are better served by a platform that doesn’t inherently allow for that. There’s a messiness to it that I don’t see in iOS – it’s more wild and uncivilized.
The thing is, even as a self-professed nerd and gadget aficionado, I don’t want that messiness in a device that I have to rely on. As I said before, the HTC is a fun toy and an interesting learning experience, but I need my phone to work consistently and 100% of the time, and I need to know that it won’t simply be forgotten about by the OEM when the next big thing comes out. I like the comfort of knowing that if I buy a new iPhone or iPad I will have the latest and greatest iOS device for a full year before something new comes along and starts receiving the majority of attention, and that’s simply not a guarantee that can be made for any Android device.
I’d rather have a device I rely on be 95% perfect for its whole life (iOS) than 75% with the promise that eventually it could be 100%.