Zeke Weeks

Web {Developer, Strategist, Native}

Tag Archives: review

High-end Android Phones Serve Everyone But the User

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Yesterday, I headed to my local Verizon Wireless store to try out the Galaxy Nexus, the latest designed-by-Google phone from Samsung. While I was there, I also tested the current top-of-the-line LTE phones from HTC (the Rezound) and Motorola (the DROID RAZR). I’ve written my impressions of each below, but in testing all three, I noticed something telling about the overall current state of high-end Android phones.

Despite the fact that the Android operating system is by far the best fit for my needs, I can’t say I’d recommend any of the current high-end Android phones over an iPhone. Even the best Android phones seem to be unbalanced attempts to serve the various agendas of the OS vendor (Google), the designer/manufacturer, and the wireless carrier. It feels like these organizations are too focused on their own priorities to harmoniously collaborate in the design of a product which is great for the user. Google seems happy to focus on doing the bare minimum to get their Nexus “proof-of-concept” phones shipped, and leave innovative hardware design to other folks (who install crappy software.)

This disconcerted effort of unaligned agendas recreates the market conditions which allowed Apple to disrupt the smartphone market in 2007 by refusing to cede any control of the customer experience or business relationship to another company. Apple’s integration of software and hardware, coupled with their power to keep carriers subservient, allows them to focus on their own goals, a large part of which is the user’s experience. They also support their old devices better and longer.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying the iPhone is better than Android. Everyone has different priorities in picking the best fit for their smartphone. I am saying that on average, the iPhone is usually the best match for someone who wants equally good software, hardware, and customer support. But doesn’t mean much in reality, as buyer’s desires are as diverse as the selection of phones available to them. Personally, I care a whole lot less about build quality than I do about software stability, reliability, and geek-friendliness, so I’d probably still buy a phone with “pure Google” software if it were installed on a hardened turd with an LTE antenna.

Overall, I think the reinvented smartphone industry is now quite mature, and every device out there basically does the same thing. There are so many choices out there, but I’d really like to see more folks than just Apple focusing on delivering excellent products and service to the end user. I feel like HTC is almost doing that with its Android phones, but needs to release fewer devices and support them better, and that Google needs to give manufacturers better access to prerelease builds so non-Nexus phones don’t lag the rest of the industry by 6-12 months.

Galaxy Nexus (designed by Google in collaboration with Samsung)

Pro:

  • It’s a “pure Google” device. This means it’s the first to get updates, and Google controls them. This means it will probably be more stable, secure, and up-to-date than any other Android phone (until Google releases another one.)
  • The camera’s shutter and between-shot delay is FAST. So fast that what I thought was a delay for focusing was actually the picture being taken.
  • The Galaxy Nexus recreates the Nexus S’s beautiful “blank black” face, and improves upon it by moving menu buttons onto the screen in a dynamic fashion.

Con:

  • The quality of materials and industrial design is nowhere near competitive with phones even half its price. Google says it’s got a metal frame inside which many phones lack, but the plastic is cheaper feeling than everything sold for $199 since the iPhone 3G/3GS. I don’t know what happened here, since Samsung did a pretty great job with the previous Nexus S.
  • The speaker really sucks, which is a shame since the screen could be really great for multimedia.
  • Matters of my own personal preference: I don’t like the headphone jack’s location on the bottom, the not-quite-gigantic 4.65″ screen (though nice for typing), or the exposed dock connection pins.
  • For some reason, the AMOLED screen is worse than the one Samsung uses on its own Galaxy S II phones, and its PenTile layout reduces the effective pixels-per-inch relative to the competition. At this price point, I don’t understand the cost cutting. (The screen still looked pretty darn good, but the bar is set high.)

HTC Rezound:

Pro:

  • As always for HTC, this phone has excellent industrial design. Despite my dislike of phone screens above 4 inches, the fit in my hand was nice, the soft touch of the back casing eliminates any “slippery” feeling, and overall it felt solid.
  • This phone has an LCD display, unlike the Nexus and RAZR’s AMOLED variants. I thought this display was by far the best in the group.
  • HTC’s Sense UI is “love-it-or-hate-it,” but I’ve always fallen in the “love it” category. Sense 3.5 is smooth and takes awesome advantage of the high-specced hardware. I particularly liked how functional and usable HTC’s camera UI is in Sense 3.5.

Con:

  • This phone adds “Beats by Dre” branding to the already packed company of Sense, HTC, Verizon, and Google. Other reviews say the first-party music app uses audio “enhancement” which doesn’t extend to the rest of the OS.
  • The phone is great right now, but its software is already old. HTC releases quality software updates, but it takes them 6-9 months after Google’s release to prepare them.
  • This phone’s bootloader is locked (by Verizon’s choice), making it much harder to install custom Android distributions like Cyanogenmod, which have been instrumental to me in compensating for HTC’s slowness to update their operating systems. Since I want Ice Cream Sandwich, this is a potential deal breaker for me.
  • HTC pretty much doesn’t update Sense features after a phone’s release. They’re a selling point, not a supported and modernized part.

Motorola DROID RAZR

Pro

  • Design and build quality. I didn’t expect this (I returned two original Droids which couldn’t stand the test of basic wear and tear), but I was quite impressed by the fit and finish on this thing. The expensive Kevlar backing is kind of a confusing touch, but it’s good for RF transparency.
  • The super AMOLED display looked great and fared quite well in bright sunlight.

Con

  • Verizon is quite clearly using its DROID brand to aggressively assert its own campaigns. I had really weird stuff going on, like Verizon logos in the camera app with a “You don’t have geolocation turned on, go turn it on, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want that!” nag.
  • Motorola’s custom UI isn’t intrusive, but it is butt-ugly. I have no clue what these folks are thinking, and Verizon’s locked bootloader makes installation of a vanilla Android less attractive. Hopefully Google’s acquisition of Motorola will stop this.

So what am I gonna do?

I don’t know. These phones all feel like they’ve been designed as the best solution to one of the companies’ goals, instead of the best fit for me. The Galaxy Nexus realizes Google’s vision for Android 4.0, but fails to make an attractive consumer product. The HTC phone is excellent for right now, but will feel really outdated in just a year. The DROID product line just feels like Verizon’s attempt to bake in as many upsells and in-house branding spots as possible. I really wish I could take the HTC Rezound, but get the support of a “pure Google” phone. (That was the excellent Nexus One of two generations ago, before Google switched to Samsung as a launch partner.)

Who knows, I might decide once again that “It’s the software, stupid!” and just buy the Galaxy Nexus. At this point, it feels like I’d be happiest either doing that or going back to the iPhone.

New York Times for iPad: Legitimate heir to the Newspaper?

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Article view in the app
NYTimes 2.0 for iPad

From paper to pixels: The Times and other media have yet to find an economically sustainable replacement for their paper-based products.

The Internet has shaken up the status quo for many incumbent economic leaders – and newspapers have seen this effect more so than any other industry. Since the Web hit the American household in the 1990s, print media has been experimenting with strategies for digital distribution and revenue streams, with few conclusive results after well over a decade. The Web has moved the audience’s attention from monolithic news outlets controlled by publishers in favor of social links (Facebook and Twitter) and aggregators (The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and Drudge Report.)

This year’s announcement of the iPad seemed to change the publishing industry’s outlook on doing business over the Web. Instead of the hyperlinked, non-linear, short-attention-span, copy/paste-friendly nature of a desktop Web browser, the iPad offers a publishing platform similar to their paper product – with an iPad app, the publisher has verticalized control of available content, its layout, navigation experience, and – most importantly – revenue generation methods.

On October 15, the Times released “NYTimes for iPad,” (iTunes Link) labeling it “free until early 2011.” In testing it, I’ve decided it’s an excellent application in its own right, and could potentially be a great sign for the future of print journalism, but it could be yet another business fumble if the company doesn’t execute the proper balance between advertising, consumer pricing and usability.

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HTC Droid Incredible thoughts, 3 weeks in

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I’ve had my HTC Incredible for 3 weeks now. I don’t have the time to write a whole review, but here are the things that stand out to me after having gotten to know the device:

  • HTC Sense UI is nothing short of amazing. It’s elegant and easy to use, yet quite powerful and well integrated into the OS. I feel like I wanted an Android phone despite its more complex UI, but totally lucked out with Sense. It really is an experience of its own. It can work well uncustomized out of the box, be extended with tons of useful widgets, or even have entire “scenes” of saved layouts to switch functional contexts as the user does. (Weekend scene with no work stuff? Travel scene with useful widgets for being on the go? Yes, please!) Really, this phone is so much more than a generic OEM device running Android. A great overview of Sense UI on the older HTC Hero is here, if you can tolerate the marketing-speak.
    • (I do wish Sense were integrated a little better with Gmail and Google Voice; I only get Sense UI for non-Google SMS and email.)
  • The battery life, in a word, is atrocious. A second/extended battery is pretty much mandatory for long periods away from the charging cable.
  • There are still some rough edges: the soft menu buttons’ LEDs seem to flash randomly, and I’ve had some hard crash reboots as I did with the Motorola Droid.
  • The integrated camera is good, and has a *ton* of good settings onboard, and good autofocus, tap-to-focus, and the optical trackball makes a good shutter button. I find myself using this camera a lot more than my old phones because it’s enjoyable to use. (The color balance is too blue, though, and its 2 LED flashes aren’t adjustable and make me look like some kind of pale ghost.)
  • While the device feels solid in construction, it is still plastic. I feel like since 2008, consumers’ increased cost sensitivity kind of killed the kind of uncompromising design ethic that yielded the 2007 aluminum iPhone. I’m eagerly awaiting a good case for the Incredible from OtterBox as a compromise for the plastic housing.

So there’s the stuff that still matters to me after 3 weeks. Overall, I am extremely happy with the Incredible, even though it keeps me tethered to a charging cable for much of the day.

WordPress 3.0 Beta 1 Screenshots, Impressions

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WordPress 3.0 gets a slightly tweaked administrative UI - but more work on this component will be made before the final 3.0 release.

The highly-anticipated WordPress 3.0 its first beta release. While the amazing core team of my favorite open source web app still have a long ways to go, I just couldn’t resist taking the beta for a spin on my test server. Below are my own first impressions of the new stuff- if you don’t care about my opinion, check out the beta announcement. Most of what I have to write about here is from the perspective of a site administrator who wants to properly manage their website content for their publishing needs, so please forgive me as I grossly overlook a lot of the more technical backend changes in 3.0.

WordPress 2.0 came out in February 2005. Several of the “point releases” since then have been major revisions, but none that the WordPress team has determined worthy of an increment in the major version number. When complete, WordPress 3.0 will accomplish a few major things that will take it into this new decade:

  • A new default theme
  • The merging of WordPress with the separate WordPress MU project, a complex customization of WordPress designed for sites hosting many users’ blogs at once (WordPress.com is a WordPress MU hosted blog service.)
  • Custom post types and menu editor

New default theme: “Twenty Ten”

WordPress 3.0 will finally feature a new, customizable default theme.

WordPress has included a default theme based on Kubrick since 2005. To this day, Kubrick is a quite good starting point for a normal blog theme, and plenty of people more concerned with their blog’s content than presentation have opted to keep the default theme. WordPress has evolved to support a lot more than blogs over the years, though, and site managers have had to work hard to get the site to present their information in just the way they want it. While custom themes make this a nonissue for anyone with enough resources to implement one, the new default theme in WordPress makes the app much more flexible out of the box for customization of unique websites.

“Twenty Ten” is widgetized to the brim, allowing WordPress widgets to be created and moved with drag-and-drop ease. Widgets are great because it empowers even nontechnical content producers to control a large amount of their site’s visual presentation. Like Kubrick, Twenty Ten also has a simple way to upload a custom header image.

The new theme also uses the HTML5 <!DOCTYPE html> doctype declaration, which will have all new WordPress installations using the new doctype unless they then implement a custom theme.

Menu editor

WordPress currently contains little out-of-box control over site navigation features, leaving publishers to either hardcode their site navigation into custom themes, or use third-party navigation plugins or theme features. The 3.0 version will bring a menu editor into the core application:

The editor allows publishers to easily create multiple navigation menus with a mixture of internal WordPress pages, category listings, and external web links. This feature is still undergoing heavy redesigns, and includes warnings of more improvements and UI changes to come. Once finished, custom WordPress themes will need to add support for this new feature. Old themes will work fine without it, but won’t enjoy the added functionality.

Custom post types

WordPress currently segregates all content into two classes: “Posts” for blog-like content usually presented in chronological order, and “pages” for more static content. While WordPress started as a blogging web app, it developed more and more momentum as a legitimate Content Management System (CMS) for sites much more complex and customized than the traditional blog hierarchy and layout. Sites wishing to present a lot of different kinds of pages have trouble adapting WordPress to their needs, often going to other CMS products better suited to complex page taxonomies.

WordPress publishers, groan no more! The custom post types feature will allow custom post types instead of the default “post” and “page” types. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any of this new functionality in the administrative UI – I assume that the feature must have yet to be added to the GUI. (Or that I am an idiot who just overlooked it.) Regardless, web developer Konstantin has a great preview of the current custom post functionality, which must be implemented at the PHP code level.

Other neat stuff

  • I noticed a few new lines in wp-config.php‘s unique keys section for salted hashes. If you think a “salted hash” is something you’d eat for breakfast, just trust me that it’s a good thing for security with your WordPress database. I don’t know if previous WordPress versions didn’t salt their password hashes, or if this is just refactoring of existing functionality.
  • The “Export” feature can now filter exported posts by date, author, category, content type, or restricted status.
  • My current site theme, a rather complicated one, didn’t break at all with WordPress 3 – it just didn’t support some of the new features that require hooks into the theme files.
  • Initial setup now asks for a custom admin password. Previously, there was a counterintuitive automatic generation of  a password followed by prompts to change it.

What’s missing / making me gripe

  • Most of the administrative interface is unchanged. While it has become very usable overall, and I have trained plenty of nontechnical content managers to use it with ease, it still has some sections that need revision.
  • As I mentioned before, custom post types must be implemented at the PHP level – meaning only skilled developers can do so.
  • I would like to see an overhaul and extension of WordPress’s really nice media library features.
  • Integrating custom forms and JavaScript is a real pain in WordPress, usually requiring the use of external plugins or tricky hacks.

Conclusion

WordPress has already been my favorite content publishing platform for a long time, and in the last few years it has become a legitimate and powerful CMS. Recent updates from the team have brought some awesome enhancements and new features, and WordPress 3.0 looks like it’s going to do even more of this than I’ve come to expect. I think that the custom posts and menu editor alone will propel WordPress to even higher popularity and usage on all kinds of websites.

An iPhone user’s week with the DROID

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Last week I switched from my trusty original (non-3G) iPhone to Verizon for the much-heralded Motorola DROID. I’ve been seeing Google’s Android OS maturing over the last year and a half, and now I’m convinced that within the next couple of years, Android devices are going to be a huge deal. Right now we’re seeing pretty much all of the American wireless carriers release many next-generation Android devices with different form factors and fitting different price ranges – instead of the iPhone’s “one size fits all” approach, Android is taking the same route as Windows Mobile, getting packed onto many devices from different manufacturers with a bunch of different specs in hopes that each device will better appeal to a diverse customer base.

The HTC Hero hit Europe last July and it seemed like the perfect device for me – save for its sluggish speed. Then comes the Droid on Verizon, which had a big feature list that stood out to me. When I found out that my state employee discounts make the Droid cheaper than my old iPhone plan, I decided to give it a try. Verizon has an extended return period during the holidays, so I have until the middle of January to figure out if Android OS and the Droid are for me, or if my iPhone and I are in for a longer-term relationship than I had planned.

(This isn’t a full-on review of the Droid – Engadget has an excellent one – but this is more about my personal experiences with the Droid from the perspective of a 2+ year iPhone user.)

The short of it is that the Droid has an amazing list of awesome features, but it lacks the iPhone’s incredibly polished user experience and attention to every detail. That tradeoff will mean different things to different kinds of users; I’m a nerd who has to deal with complicated systems on a regular basis, but I have a feeling that people just looking for a phone that complements their lifestyle with minimal fuss will still fare better with an iPhone or BlackBerry experience.

A few things I absolutely love about the Droid:

  • Its 858×480 3.7″ screen is AMAZING. I love the iPhone screen, but I was surprised by the difference that the Droid’s insanely high PPI (pixels per inch) count makes. It’s most obvious when viewing websites, where much more content is clearly visible without the need to zoom in. In the dark, I did notice that the iPhone has a better viewing angle, and the ambient light sensor on the Droid is a lot quicker to change the screen brightness, so if shadows pass over your phone, it might decide to freak out on you.
  • Multitasking apps is a huge deal. Any app can continually run in the background – so all day, I get notifications from Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and Instant Messaging. Also, switching between apps currently running goes much quicker than the iPhone, which can be susceptible to lots of time waiting for things to load if you’re trying to, say, copy and paste segments between the browser and a notetaking program. I’m also glad that Android automatically manages your running processes; the multitasking Windows Mobile leaves everything running unless you open the task manager and quit processes, which most people don’t think to do, so their phones just get slow and lose tons of battery life.
  • Having a 5 megapixel camera with autofocus, LED “flash” and a physical shutter button is a godsend. Photo quality is still pretty miserable, but the experience is better than my older iPhone. (The 3GS has 3.2MP and autofocus as well.)
  • The LED message indicator flashes for notifications- something most phones have, but the iPhone doesn’t.
  • The mix of metal and rubberized plastic casing on the phone: this thing is durable, a weight that feels good in the hand, but still manages to keep an unpretentious look that wouldn’t look weird in a boardroom.
  • If you use Google services a lot – Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Google Voice- you can’t find a more seamless experience than Android.
  • Android 2.0 has amazing contact sync between Google, Exchange, and Facebook contacts. I didn’t have to enter a single phone number because my contacts just synced right away, and my contacts automatically get their latest Facebook profile picture and phone number.
  • The notification panel can be pulled down within any application – so I can see new e-mail subjects, tweets, and messages without having to stop using my current app.
  • It seems more stable than iPhone OS under heavy use- my iPhone pretty commonly crashes programs when it runs out of memory, especially when loading large webpages.
  • Not only is Google less of a control freak about application distribution, but the OS itself is much more customizable and extensible by third party apps. I didn’t like the lock screen or the music player app, but I was able to find great replacements in the Android Marketplace – something I couldn’t do with the iPhone.
  • Being on Verizon means not having to worry about reception just about anywhere in the United States. I’m no CDMA fan, but AT&T’s reception is truly frustrating.

I’m having a hard time deciding about text entry. I’m a very fast typist on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, and have learned how to trust its autocorrection dictionary and even type in Spanish. The Droid has both a physical keyboard and landscape/portrait virtual keyboards. The physical keyboard isn’t great by any measure, but I do enjoy using it while doing lots of messaging because I have the full screen showing the conversation. I don’t like Android’s landscape virtual keyboard, because it often maximizes the selected text entry field, taking away all of my UI view whenever I want to view text. The portrait mode keyboard is quite good, however. I am still adjusting to the (barely) different layout and sensitivity from that of the iPhone, so I’m not as fast yet, and the autocorrection is an adjustment too. Right now, I’d say that Android 2.0’s virtual keyboards are about 90% as good as the iPhone’s, so I’d be happy with a non-QWERTY Android phone too.

Despite all of these good things, the last week using the Droid has made me realize just how much attention of detail went into iPhone OS, and how I took some seemingly small features for granted. Here are just some of the annoying things I’ve run into:

  • The first-party music app is dismal, and doesn’t have podcast support. That said, there are third party apps that work better.
  • Notification ringtones for SMS and e-mail abruptly interrupt any playing music – the iPhone fades music before and after playing a ringtone.
  • The notification area is buggy and regularly shows notifications that I’ve already cleared out once a new one comes in.
  • When I receive an SMS message, the screen does not turn on to show me the message like the iPhone does. Instead, I have to turn the phone on, unlock the screen, and pull down the notifications area before I can see any message text.
  • The proximity sensor isn’t good enough- I frequently am on the phone only to find my cheek mashing the virtual keypad on an active screen.
  • The text messaging app gives unknown callers the image of the last known caller – so I get text messages from Verizon Wireless that have my mom’s image. It’s very awkward to think that my mom is telling me I can pay my bill online!
  • Android’s App Marketplace is quickly growing to become a huge one like Apple’s – but it’s not there yet. It has 12,000 apps to Apple’s 100,000, and there are admittedly a lot of lower-quality applications because there is little to no approval process. I am confident that this will be a very different story in a couple of years, but I still find myself sneaking back to my deactivated iPhone to use its better Twitter, Facebook, and Evernote apps.
  • Many Droid users, including me, are reporting that the battery door falls off very easily. I keep it in my front pocket and the friction from pulling it out is often enough to slide it off. I cut a business card to size and put that inside, and that cleared up the issue.
  • Despite the dedicated GPU and snappy CPU, some UI actions are still quite sluggish, and it looks like its graphics capabilities are nowhere near that of the iPhone. My guess is that Android’s Java base is to blame, since this powerful hardware is hampered by running a virtual machine and executing code at runtime. This platform is naturally going to give it performance penalties compared to OSes that allow precompiled binaries.

So overall, I’m on the fence about Android OS and the Droid. I have a very optimistic outlook for Android OS, and the Droid finally presents a very, very good Android device. Most of my gripes are related to software, which I suspect will be addressed sooner rather than later. I don’t see any Android device as an “iPhone killer” because I think both platforms have a very strong future ahead of them.

The question I have to ask myself, as do others, is about what they need out of their smartphone. Carrier differences aside, Android offers way more customization and features for power users and Google users. The iPhone experience is much more streamlined and polished; it’s straightforward and complements your lifestyle rather than trying to be the center of it. Right now, the iPhone has a much larger app store and much, much better games.

Am I going to switch back to my iPhone or not? I don’t know yet. It’s going to take a few more weeks to decide. The Droid tempts me with many things I couldn’t do with my iPhone, but I’m not sure if it’s worth leaving the amazing iPod app and ease of use behind.

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