(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.)
One of the things I do most frequently on my phone is read things from the web. I do this in a variety of ways, but the most common are: read links from friends, which I get from Twitter or Facebook; read things I’ve saved to read later, usually via (the most-excellent) Instapaper; read items coming from subscriptions to RSS or Atom feeds (I use Reeder on the iPhone). I’ve already mentioned the Facebook and Twitter apps, so I’ll skip re-treading that ground. Let’s start with the basics.
The web browser on Android is an interesting beast. It isn’t called “Google Chrome” or anything else, really; it’s simply listed as “Browser”. It’s a WebKit-based browser, if that means something to you. WebKit is the rendering engine behind many browsers, including Apple’s Safari, both on the desktop and iOS devices, as well as Google Chrome. The browser seems to render pages well, in my opinion. “Well” as in the pages look as I’d expect. In the two weeks I’ve been using the phone, the sites I visit render quickly and legibly.
In comparison to Safari on the iPhone, though, I still feel like Browser is behind. The main thing that bothers me is something I’ve frequently heard and felt about Android in general: there’s something that just feels less refined about it. Of course, that means I start to pay attention to when I get that feeling and figure out what I did that made me feel that way.
First up is zooming. On a device the size of the Nexus S, zooming is inevitable; there’s just not enough room on such a small screen to take in a web page designed for a desktop experience. There are a couple of ways to zoom in Browser, double tapping tapping and pinching. Tapping, which I usually start with, involves tapping the item you want to zoom in on. It might be an image or column, for instance. Browser then animates a magnification, as though you are either physically getting closer to a real page or the page is getting bigger behind the view port of the phone.
One thing that I noticed is that columns of text sometimes reflow in Browser as it zooms. For example, imagine a web page with three columns of content. Double-tapping on one column zooms you in to focus on that column. As the perspective changes, the column seems to change width and the text wraps differently, which I find jarring. Similarly, the animation of the perspective switch isn’t very smooth, which leads to a less satisfying feeling.
On the iPhone, double-tapping has a similar zooming effect, but it almost always seems better in both of these regards. Text doesn’t reflow as the perspective changes, although the text does get blurry and sharpen once the animation is complete; Browser keeps the text sharp at all times in the process. I prefer the iOS method of keeping the animation smooth to the detriment of the text’s sharpness (until it stops moving, anyway). I should note that the iPhone 4 does this even more quickly than does my 3GS and the effect is even better on that device.
Pinch-to-zoom is another way to zoom in, and is particularly useful if you want to get closer, but not fill the screen with a particular element. It’s also unfortunately necessary because of another zooming bug. Frequently, I’ve tapped to zoom in to a column of text, only to have it zoom a little too far. Too far in that some of the content is flowing off the right edge of the screen. A quick pinch to zoom out brings it back, but it’s annoying to have to do that at all. Anyway, pinching has a similar chunky feel to zooming if you do it quickly enough, or also scroll as you pinch to enlarge. Pinching was something that wasn’t possible at all when I had the Droid last year; multitouch had not yet been enabled in the apps on that phone, so just having it is a step forward.
Scrolling in Browser feels a little detached compared to my 3GS. Flicking the screen causes a scroll that has a feeling of velocity that seems less satisfying in Browser than on Safari. Like zooming, it’s about the tricks that the iPhone is playing to keep the feeling smooth. First, if the iPhone can’t keep up with a scroll (particularly on a long page), it’ll instead scroll a checkerboard pattern, but maintain the “velocity” that it would scroll the page at if it could. Android’s Browser seems to instead drop frames from the animation, making it feel chunkier. Overall, Browser is less satisfying. With this effect, and the zooming effect mentioned above for that matter, Safari seems to keep up better than Browser before it relies on these tricks. Safari also has a nice “bounce” effect if you reach a page boundary and it was scrolling with momentum. The screen seems to bounce back from
The iPhone has a nice metaphor for pages, which would be represented as tabs on a desktop browser like Safari or Chrome, where it shows you a small version of a page and you can swipe left and right to get to others you have loaded. Browser simply has a list. It’s functional, but much less satisfying.
Google Reader has an Android app, and I’ve been using it as a replacement for Reeder on the iPhone. Reeder is itself a front-end to the Google Reader service, and I find it to be better than a the first-party Reader app for Android. Google Reader is functional and performs well, but the small UI things Reeder does, like letting you flick a story to the right to go back to the list of stories, is nice. Also, Reeder comes with several things to do with links you read, and I constantly use it to send things to Instapaper. Google Reader only uses its service’s own “share” function, which posts it to Google Buzz, among other things. You can also “star” an item to read it later, but I like sending it to Instapaper. There are other, minor quibbles, but I’ll just say I like Reeder better and leave it there.
In general, browsing on Android has gotten better since I last tried it, but it hasn’t yet caught up to the iPhone. That’s a shame, because I spend a lot of my time on the phone looking at web pages, so it’s a big deal to me. In fact, I bet I spend more time in the browser on my phone than I do talking on a phone call. Next up, music and audio.