Edit: since I wrote this post I changed my surftab ventos 8 for a Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 in order to check if the user’s experience improved. As it turns out, even though the Galaxy Tab is years ahead of my previous tablet, the same points I showcase here are still valid for me.
The 31st of July was my saint’s day, and I was given an android tablet. I had been thinking lately about broadening my programming skills. Currently, I am focused on iOS/OS X and Web a Services development, but I would like to learn to code in Android to be able to work as a full mobile developer someday. After all, I have a strong background in Java, and my first serious projects back in the 00’s where written in that language.
So as a first step, I decided to familiarize myself with my new tablet and explore the android experience as a newcomer user. These are some of my (subjective) thoughts about it. My tablet is a cheap 100€ SurfTab Ventos, so I am aware that I cannot compare it with my 500€ retina 4th generation iPad, it would be unfair. This means I won’t be complaining about how sloppy the tablet is or about the quality of the screen, but as this tablet is sold as a legitimate android tablet (and used for market share claims), I will compare the experience it provides with the experience provided by my good old iPad.
Apart from some casual play with a device at a mall, I have had no previous exposure to an android tablet, so please excuse me if some of my observations seem naive or obvious to you.
Rocking like it’s 1998!
I ditched Windows for good by the end of the 90s and embraced Linux. It was a great time. I was young, I was at the university, and used to spend many Saturday nights hacking and compiling kernels instead of going to pubs. I learned a lot of C/C++ and had a lot of fun, but eventually became tired of compiling my kernel each time I bought a new printer or having to fix half of my system in order to have a stable desktop after a disastrous gnome update. A few years later I discovered Mac OS X and everything made sense to me: suddenly I had a good OS with a beautiful, intuitive interface, easy to use and yet flexible enough to allow me to hack and have fun with.
One of the main claims of android fans is how iOS is a closed system compared with android, but as Richard Stallman has pointed out, Android is not open source at all, so no true links can be made with GNU/Linux. The first thing that annoyed me of my new tablet is that I cannot update the system or install a newer version of android. It is supposed to stay in 4.1 unless I root it and install a custom ROM.
Now this is where things start getting interesting and I get flashbacks of all that kernel parties overnight. So in order to update my tablet I must do a complicated process that will void the device’s warranty, and implies installing custom software from an unverified source (that could even include malware). Of course I could look at the source code and blablabla (yeah, how many people you know actually do that?). This fact alone explains why it is so hard for android developers to cope with all the different OS versions, and why it prevents android users of having the best, latest experience possible.
Big brother is watching you
After a few minutes playing with the android tablet, you realize that everything in the device is centered upon google. Of course with iOS devices, you need an iTunes account and all that, but Apple is not the biggest advertisement company in the world. Call me paranoid (paranoid android? ;), but I don’t want all my information to be controlled by google: my messages, everywhere I go, my appointments, what I look for and visit on the internet… I don’t want all my information, everything I do with my tablet, being used by google to profile me and serve me ads.
Last call for App coherence
One of the biggest assets of iOS is the coherence of the user interface, specially with the system apps. Apple provides strict guidelines that help make the user’s experience instantly familiar and coherent among apps, and adhere to them stringently in the standard apps.
However, one of the first things that called my attention in android was how inconsistent were the basic apps installed in the system, from general structure to controls, bars, tabs, colors, and icons.
Not only the basic apps are inconsistent, but there are many apps that (apparently) do the same thing. I have two browsers (one called “browser” and another called chrome), several clones of Apple’s iBooks, three different apps for Google Maps (latitude, local, maps…?), and so on. This battlefield of apps fighting for the same file types reaches the absurd situation of asking you which application you would like to use for opening an image, the “gallery” app or an app called “ES Image browser”. Now, I could choose “always use…”, but can’t I just use a standard, default android App for something as simple as visualizing an image?
Opening the file system app and seeing lots of hidden files and directories (something like “.eCtcQjbu1dgnvtFnvnr6yepTp…”) also gave me the chills. Do users really need to get access to that information? Why?
Apart from that and the fact that several basic apps don’t rotate (like the email app) I do really miss the iOS gestures. I think it’s nice to have the three android buttons (back, home and tasks), but for me they are no substitute.
I don’t know why, but the tablet is loaded with lots of crappy apps that I cannot uninstall, some of them in foreign languages like german, and many of them including ads. Now, I don’t know if most people find this normal or acceptable, but let me say that again: the tablet is plagued with advert-filled apps I cannot uninstall, only disable. That is not something I would include in a quality product.
A new world to explore
Now, call me an apple fanboy, but in my opinion there is a huge gap regarding quality and user experience in both operating systems. However, limitations aside, Android is a whole new world with lots of possibilities for development and interaction with iOS Apps, so I plan on explore android further and start developing in the platform, probably enlisting someone else with programming experience to Digital Leaves.