An App Apart?

(I’ve been posting about my experiences with the recently released Nexus S and the associated Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system. Start here if you’re interested in the earlier posts. There are links to all of the Nexus S-related posts at the bottom of that page.)

There’s no secret that the iPhone had a big jump on Android. That lead translated to a bigger app store for the iOS devices, and that is frequently touted in the press as an advantage the iPhone enjoys over its Android competition. Last year, I found that it wasn’t a lack of apps that bothered me about Android, but rather the relative maturity and quality of design of the apps it did have. So, the big question for me is: how have things progressed in the past year? There a lot of apps, and this is a hard question to answer, and it’s going to take more than one post. Let’s start by looking at Google’s first-party apps, which tend to be among the best Android apps, in my opinion.

Google Voice

Google Voice, as I remarked last year, is perhaps a killer app for Android. While there’s now an app for Google Voice on the iPhone, it’s just not the same level of integration as is possible on Android. I’m not going to talk about what the Google Voice service itself does, since you can search about it if you don’t know. I do highly recommend looking into it if you aren’t familiar with it.

The Google Voice app integrates into the dialer on the Nexus S and routes calls to and from Google Voice as transparently as you wish it to. You can specify that it ask you on each call whether to place it with Google Voice or your normal carrier, or (as I do) to simply put all calls through GV. It also provides contact, history and other information from Google Voice into the respective places on the phone. You can also launch the app itself to manage many of the GV service’s settings. This app is one of the main reasons I’m back looking at an Android.

Maps and Navigation

Another of those reasons is Google Maps and Google Maps Navigation. These are separate apps, but they’re so related that it’s difficult to talk about one without referring to the other. Google Maps recently released an update that draws the maps with vectors instead of pre-rendered bitmaps, and the quality of the drawings has improved. There are now 3D options to tilt and rotate the map and even add 3D buildings to the map. In addition to the already strong maps, these are welcome enhancements. Also present are Google Street View, satellite views and real-time traffic overlays. This is a wonderful app, and it’s quite a bit better on Android than on iOS.

Google Maps Navigation is a phone-based replacement for portable navigation devices, like those from TomTom, Magellan or Garmin. You can use voice or keyboard input to give it a destination and it not only maps a route, but also provides turn-by-turn directions with voice commands. Unlike my last encounter with this app, I found it to be fiddly and its robotic voice chatty and annoying. I use a TomTom device, and think it’s generally more pleasant, but it’s also not free. Nor is it being improved as constantly as Google’s offering, so I still think TomTom and company have a tough road ahead of them if they still want to sell standalone devices for this purpose. It’s possible that my experience this year is marred by the lack of a car dock for the Nexus S, which was a big help in keeping the Droid stable and easily accessed in the car. In any case, this is still a great app and a big boon to Android users. A big addition, which I haven’t had cause to test, is the ability to continue navigating even if the phone loses its data connection. Since the app doesn’t install a whole pack of maps, as some nav apps do, it relies on its data connection to keep updating you, but Google has apparently worked around this limitation. It’s a good example of their relatively quick iteration on this app. I’ll try and write more about what I found “fiddly” about GMN in a future post.

Mail, IM and Texting

Gmail is a fine mail app, but it’s still distinct from the other email app, and the distinction isn’t welcome. There’s no unified inbox, an area where iPhone has caught up and surpassed Android, and there are options available in one and not the other. For instance, the ability to notify on only the first new email and not every new email is there in Gmail but not other email. The Calendar app integrates well with Exchange and while the UI is spartan and ugly, it’s functional and relatively easy-to-use. Both apps handle multiple accounts well. Neither offers a batch delete or move operations, which is annoying when you want to prune some less-important messages.

Google Talk is great on Android. It can be set to keep you online, but away (and marked “mobile”), again because of Android’s true multitasking nature. It’s nice to still be reachable via IM but marked in a way that raises the bar most people use when deciding whether or not to IM. Launching the app is fast and marks you as available to your contacts. IMing is as-expected, and well-implemented. It’s a simple, powerful app.

The Messaging app is fine. I prefer its no-nonsense layout to the cartoony, iChat-like look of the iPhone text app.

Social Network Apps

As far as social network apps go, Android’s offerings have matured considerably since last year. The Facebook app, which I liked last year for its nice contacts integration, has caught up and surpassed the iOS version in the past year. The news feed is the main attraction, and it’s pretty much the same as on iPhone. The chat feature is more robust, and can continue to work while the app isn’t frontmost, unlike the iPhone version. It also continues to get status updates in the background so when you first launch it, it already has new data to read without waiting for it to fetch them.

Last year, Twitter didn’t have a first party app and the then-leading third-party app was Twitroid. I found Twitroid to be lacking, and thought this was one spot where Android was far behind the state-of-the-art on the iPhone. Since then, Twitter has released its own app, and it’s similar to the iPhone app, and much better than I found Twitroid last year. I understand that Twitroid has improved in that time, but I didn’t bother to download it.

Foursquare and Gowalla are location-based social services, and their mobile apps are both represented on Android. I didn’t use either service last year, but have taken them up on the iPhone. Foursquare’s app is functionally similar to the iPhone version, and is visually as attractive, but it’s far more buggy. I have some problem with it not being able to locate me or nearby venues, or in some cases any network connection, despite other apps having no trouble with the same. These problems usually resolve themselves pretty quickly, but the quality isn’t on par with the iPhone. Gowalla, too, lags its iPhone cousin. While I didn’t have bugginess in Gowalla, the newest version of that app has many features that seem to be lacking in the Android version, such as Foursquare integration. It’s still a good-looking, functional app.

Miscellaneous Apps

Last time around, I really missed two apps: 1password and OmniFocus. 1password is a password safe, which stores passwords, wallet info (credit card, account information, etc.) and sensitive notes in a secure, encrypted manner. Its absence on Android last year made surfing and using online services painful since that store makes using hard-to-type, impossible-to-remember passwords easy to have. That’s a good thing, and hard to give up. There’s now an Android version of 1password, and while it’s not quite up to the level of its iOS counterpart, it’s a good app and very welcome. It syncs over Dropbox, which is great. Now my passwords are all up-to-date on all of my iDevices, my computers and now Android. Wonderful.

Omnifocus is a GTD app, and it’s still not on Android, nor do I expect it ever will be. This year, though, the iPad came out and I’m not looking to replace that with an Android device. Now that the iPad is with me a lot of the time, my reliance on the iPhone version is greatly diminished.

So What Does All This Add Up To?

So far, this is all good news–there’s much here to recommend these apps. So what are the downsides, especially compared to the iOS equivalents? First, performance among third-party apps is highly variable. For instance, scrolling in most of them is well behind the standard on iOS. Where most iOS apps feel silky smooth when scrolling lists, Android apps frequently feels laggy, jittery or slow. Not all of them, nor all the time. Google’s own apps are mostly immune, although the mail apps don’t feel as smooth as I’d like. But where the main Android interface feels smooth and fast, apps tend to feel much less so. I can’t say this is a big deal most of the time, but it’s a near constant nag reminding me that I’m not using something that’s baked as long as iOS. The inconsistency of the back button and the menu button I mentioned yesterday makes each app feel like it was implemented without a solid set of standard examples, where on the iPhone most apps use a visual and operational language that’s easy to learn and pretty consistent.

Still, these are good apps and the gap has closed considerably with iOS in most cases and there are many things made possible by true multitasking that are just plain cool and I wish they could happen on an iPhone. App notifications and fast app switching are nice (and I sometimes miss the latter on Android; the long-press switching isn’t the same), but they’re no replacement for real multitasking.

I haven’t talked about a couple of areas that are my most-used and most important: web browsing and media playback. I’ll write about those next time.