|Android Backstory And Overview|
Google's Android mobile operating system originally launched back in 2008 with the introduction of the industry's first "Google-phone," the T-Mobile G1. The G1 was built by HTC, and at the time, it was fairly cutting edge. It wasn't the most exciting piece of hardware the world had ever seen, but it offered consumers with a very real alternative to the iPhone OS.
Up until that point, Apple basically held the entire smartphone world in their hands. BlackBerry loyalists stuck with their push-enabled handsets, but Windows Mobile users were leaving in droves. Very few options existed in the mobile OS space, opening up a perfect opportunity for Google to do what Google tends to do best: exploit market opportunities, and turn entire sectors on their head.
At the beginning, Android wasn't incredibly advanced. Sure, it supported multi-tasking natively, and the introduction of on-screen "widgets" was something that certainly got the attention of many users who were used to the app universe that Apple had created. Furthermore, the Android App Market was bare compared to Apple's flourishing App Store, and no one really knew how many carriers and phone manufacturers would end up supporting the platform.
Android took an open-source approach, one very different than the closed-natured iPhone OS (now iOS). Over the past 18 months, Android has evolved rapidly, leaving its origins in the dust and racing ahead to catch up, and even pass, Apple in some respects. In fact, the earliest Android handsets can't even be upgraded to Android 2.1 due to hardware limitations; it's clear that Google has no plans of slowing down, and if you want to keep up with the rapid pace at which this OS is growing, you'll need to pony up for the new hardware to support it.
It's an approach that has caused quite a polarizing effect. Some people suggest that the "fragmentation" is bad for the industry as a whole, while others suggest that leaving the past behind in order to form a more functional and innovative future is a great move. Microsoft tried for too long to support its aging Windows Mobile user-base with backwards compatibility, and they ended up missing an entire cycle of smartphone buyers before finally introducing Window Phone 7 (which still won't be available for purchase until this Fall).
A lot can happen in 18 months, particularly with an open source project with a name like Google behind it. Android has become one of the most innovative mobile operating systems available, with many aspects eclipsing iOS from Apple. Android 2.1 is an extremely refined OS, with multiple home screens, full multi-touch support, the world's best smartphone turn-by-turn navigation system (Google Maps Navigation) and the ability to "sideload" applications and music. That last bit means that users can simply drag apps, music and other media from their computer onto the microSD card loaded in their Android phone and then manage it from within the handset itself; no iTunes or other software required.
But even Android 2.1 has shown signs of age, and Google knew that in order to keep up with the competition, they had to reveal a killer upgrade that would keep people coming back. Earlier in the year, several reports revealed that Android was actually growing at a faster clip than iPhone OS, and the App Market soared past 50,000 apps to boot. That's still far less than the 200,000+ in Apple's App Store, but most all of the vital apps are now available in both stores, greatly leveling the playing field.
Android 2.2 was introduced at Google's own I/O conference in San Francisco this past May, promising to add a number of much-wanted changes and even a few things that iOS does not support. We've recently acquired the final gold build of Android 2.2, or "Froyo," on our in-house Nexus One, and we'll be detailing every last change and performance tweak in the pages ahead. Join us as we take a deep dive into the world of Android 2.2, Google's latest and greatest mobile OS version.
|What's New In Android 2.2?|
Android 2.2 is a very meaningful release for Google. It's being released right around the same time as Apple's newest iOS build, iOS 4. This means that consumers at large will be looking at both software builds in order to evaluate the pros and cons, and Google knows it. They've done an excellent job beefing up this point release; it's not often that a simple "dot/point release" is this important, but going from 2.1 to 2.2 brings a lot of tweaks, changes and outright new additions to Android. Let's dive in.
First and foremost, the bottom panel of Android 2.2 is gaining two incredibly useful soft buttons. Before, there was just a simple multi-screen button at the bottom of Android 2.1 which brought up your entire grid of installed applications. Now, that button is flanked on the left by a Phone shortcut (brings up the dial pad for making calls) and on the right by a Browser icon (which opens up a Web browser). HTC provided similar shortcuts already to those with Sense-enabled Android phones, but users of "stock" Android (namely Nexus One owners) will be glad to see these two soft buttons added. It was kind of silly to require users to hunt for their Phone app at all; this is a mobile phone, after all!
Outside of that, most of the cosmetics are the same. The fonts are the same, the icons are the same and the backgrounds are the same. You'll find a small design tweak here and there, but mostly things are the same as what you would find in 2.1. That's not a bad thing; Google has a good thing going with design, and there's hardly a reason to reinvent the wheel when something's working out well.
The most noticeable change in 2.2 compared to 2.1 is the overall speed of everything that you do within the mobile OS. Yes, everything. Google has placed a heavy emphasis on making Android 2.2 run lighter and faster, taking better advantage of the hardware already available on the market. In other words, there's no need to buy a smartphone with a faster CPU in order to see performance increases in Android; 2.2 comes with a Dalvik VM Just-in-Time (JIT) Compiler, which results is 2x-5x faster performance over 2.1. Even in graphically intense apps, you'll see stronger frame rates and smoother gameplay. We tested out a number of our more intense applications, and we definitely noticed increased performance compared to our old 2.1 build. Things simply felt more nimble and less burdened. It's a tweak that will probably not get the credit it deserves being that it's mostly behind the scenes, but 2.2 brings a definite increase in speed--one's that much, much appreciated.
Another subtle, albeit excellent, change in Android 2.2 is a new push service that allows select applications to receive instructions via a Web browser. This allows users to do things like search for directions on their home PC before heading out, and then clicking a single button in a browser task bar to have those exact instructions sent to the phone. This is far easier than jotting down an address and attempting to re-enter it manually within Google Maps once you've left the house. We suspect that integration with Google Maps is just the beginning for this feature. Imagine being able to call a friend and have them push directions to their house directly to you, or being able to push airline tickets, concert tickets, etc. to your phone's display before heading out.
Android 2.2 is also bringing about a number of Settings options that will make everyone's life a little bit easier. There's now a setting for backing up your applications and restoring that information upon re-installation. Potentially more interesting is the native ability to store applications on an SD/microSD card. This is a huge, huge change. One of the main gripes against Android was that users could only install applications onto the free storage that was built into one's phone. No SD card loading was allowed, so if your Android handset only had 100MB of internal storage space left open, you couldn't have more than 100MB of apps installed at a time. If you wanted more, you had to delete some of what you had already installed. Apple's iPhone has at least 8GB of internal storage, and you can fill all of that with apps if you so choose.
With this new "Move To SD" feature, users can manage applications and move them to and from the external storage card with a single click. Of note, applications will have to support this feature, so not every single app will be able to be stored externally. Developers can choose to only allow internal installations if they feel that the latency issue of fetching content on an external SD card will provide exceptionally poor app performance. We doubt too many devs will enforce this, though. This new rule also means that you can have several SD cards with different batches of apps; one card for work apps, another for personal. It's like carrying multiple phone profiles by carrying multiple cards.
Another major, major addition to the framework of Android 2.2 is the addition of Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot. This feature does exactly what you think it does: it enables your Android phone to turn into a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, exactly like Verizon's Palm Pre Plus and many other phones can do today. Basically, with this enabled, your phone connects to a data network and then broadcasts that signal out via Wi-Fi. A handful of devices can then connect to your phone in order to connect to the Internet via AT&T or T-Mobile (based on what SIM you have inserted). Very few mobile operating systems ship with a native ability to tether at all (2.2 adds USB tethering), let alone tether via mobile hotspot. For travelers, this is a huge addition that's impossible to overlook or take lightly.
Within the App Market, two changes are being made. They are changes that should have been made a good while ago, but we'll say that late is still better than never here. In Android 2.1, the only way to update an app is to do so manually, and you have to update every single app manually. In 2.2, the option to Automatically Update when a new update is pushed out has been added, as well as an Update All option that will bring every app in your phone up to date rather than forcing you to press "update" for every last app. A big time saver, that's for sure. Users will also now be able to catalog and send "freeze reports" to developers in order to let them know exactly what went wrong and what the circumstances were if and when an app crashes. This should help devs troubleshoot their apps and push out more stable releases in a shorter amount of time.
Okay, this one's big: Flash 10.1. Yes, this is the first Android version with native support for Adobe's Flash within the browser, which means that you can finally surf to Flash-enabled Websites without any errors popping up. This is something that Apple's iOS will probably never support, at least not for the foreseeable future. Performance is obviously dependent on what phone you have (and the hardware within), but at least support is here. Once phone hardware evolves another generation or two, most Flash-enabled Websites should play back without a hitch.
There are a few minor graphical changes within a few frequently used apps; Gmail labels are now easier to sort, Google Calendar now has an easier-to-navigate user interface, the screen lock can be set to PIN versus code swipe, the car dock user interface has been tweaked to better suit car input, the camera has more streamlined controls and the voice recognition settings allow for users to select their nationality in order to better recognize accents. All in all, we're looking at a hefty stack of changes for a "mere" point release, and that Flash 10.1 addition will loom large for generations to come. The iPhone 4 can't load Flash websites due to Apple's restrictions, but Android 2.2 will let even the Nexus One do just that. We won't comment on how the fanboy wars will go in this particular discussion...
|Performance And Usability|
Google promised a lot of speed increases with Android 2.2, and we won't beat around the bush: Froyo is the fastest Android build, ever. Hands down. There's simply no debating it. Our in-house Nexus One actually felt faster from the moment Android 2.2 booted up for the first time. Mind you, we didn't tweak anything on the inside hardware-wise. Android 2.2 simply makes more of what's already there thanks to code that runs things more efficiently. Even flipping from home pane to home pane felt faster, as did opening applications and switching from app to app.
Google promised an improvement in the Web browser speed as well, and we definitely felt it. Pages rendered faster, tabs opened faster, and we even managed to load a Flash website or three. With all of the debate raging between Adobe and Apple, seeing a Flash site load on Android's browser was somewhat of a treat. And while some of the video-heavy sites we visited did have some lag issues, the standard Flash-based sites that weren't loaded down with video embed codes managed to load fine. Did they take a bit longer than standard, non-Flash sites? Of course, but they didn't take too terribly long. And they looked nearly perfect.
Why Apple refuses to allow the iPad and iPhone 4 to render Flash sites remains a mystery. If a Nexus One can do so with relative ease, we're confident that those two Apple devices have the horsepower to do it as well. Either way, this is a major win for Google and a serious setback for Apple. There are thousands upon thousands of Flash sites on the web, and while HTML5 may eventually replace it in many instances, Google will have a huge leg up on Apple until that day comes.
And then there's the small icon changes on the home screen. New Phone and Web Browser soft buttons have been added along the bottom on the left and right sides of the application grid button. We really like this addition. HTC's Sense user interface has added this to Android 2.1, but Google is finally following suit on their own in Froyo. This seems like a subtle change, but it's great for usability. We'd guess that most everyone had the phone app icon and the browser app icon taking up two grid spaces on their primary home pane, and now that these two have been added beneath, you can now stuff two other app icons on your home pane, without losing any functionality.
What about that new Tethering option? Put simply, it works great. USB Tethering is supported on Windows and Linux platforms, but not on Mac OS X just yet. We wish it worked on Macs as well, but it's not the end of the world. Why? Because there's a new Portable Wi-Fi HotSpot option, which allows users to create a mobile hotspot with a simple, single button click. The feature does just what it advertises: it connects to your 3G network (AT&T, in our test case) and then projects that data connection out via Wi-Fi. This feature is included on Verizon's Palm Pre Plus and HTC's EVO 4G, but the difference here is that there's no extra charge.
You still need to be careful when using this to not go over 5GB or so per month, otherwise you may get an unfriendly call from your carrier, but it's great to have as a free option in a pinch. It worked perfectly in our testing, and we had 3 Wi-Fi devices connected at one time without any issues whatsoever. The hotspot was started up in a matter of moments, and it didn't cause the phone to freeze up or lag at all. This obviously has a negative impact on the phone's battery life; leaving the hotspot on constantly will kill the battery in around 2-3 hours, but if you have it plugged into a computer or outlet, you can obviously keep it alive for longer.
We also liked that we could schedule our app updates to "Update All." That's a massive time saver, and it greatly improves usability. As you'd expect, it worked like a charm and ran perfectly in the background downloading and updating while we plowed through our e-mail backlog in Gmail.
We ran our Android 2.2-equipped Nexus One through three well-known Android benchmarks and saw nice gains compared to the same phone running Android 2.1. Click the images below to see detailed results, but if you're looking for the short version, here goes: Linpack, which measures MFLOPS, showed a 37.078 on Android 2.2, while Android 2.1 displayed a 7.033. BenchmarkPi, which measures calculations of the irrational number, scored 1353 on Android 2.2; it took over twice as long on Android 2.1 at 2987 (Lower is better). Benchmark, which runs tests on the CPU, Memory, Filesystem and Graphics have their detailed scores below.
If you have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for things to unfold, trying to decide between one of the many great Android phones out there, the Apple iPhone 4, one of Palm's WebOS-based devices or a BlackBerry, there's really no need to wait any longer. iOS 4 has just hit the market, BlackBerry OS 6 won't be out for a few months, and Windows Phone 7 remains an unknown. But Android 2.2 is available now (at least on the Nexus One), and it's a winner through and through.
We touched on iOS 4 in large parts of our iPhone 4 review, but we can safely say that Android 2.2 offers just as much, if not more, for your money. Multi-tasking in Froyo has become even smoother and better integrated, and unlike iOS 4--which doesn't allow some background processes to continue while other apps are in the foreground, and requires app developers to revise their apps just to support multi-tasking--it's native within Google's OS. Things "just work" in the background, and even with 10+ applications loaded or processing in the background, we were never able to slow our Nexus One. Android 2.2 handles multi-tasking very well, and we were very pleased at the speed increases when running multiple apps in Android 2.2, as compared to 2.1.
The new UI tweaks (adding a Phone and Web Browser soft icon beside the application grid) make the OS a lot more usable, and the full list of changes all work to better the user experience. The improvement in Browser speed is certainly notable, and while we previously said that Mobile Safari offered the best mobile browsing experience in the business, the performance increases and addition of Flash support in Android 2.2 have forced us to change our minds. The new Android browser is super quick, powerful and able to handle Flash videos and Web sites. How can you beat that? In the mobile realm, you simply can't at this moment in time.
The biggest problem with Android 2.2 is that it's not available everywhere just yet. As of now, Google is only officially pushing Froyo to Nexus One phones on T-Mobile and AT&T. Being that it's the one and only Google-phone, that makes sense. But the update will be pushed to the EVO 4G, DROID, DROID Incredible, DROID X, and most of the other "high-end" (think 800MHz or above) Android phones in short order. But if you've been holding out on buying a new smartphone, the early availability of Android updates is reason alone to opt for a Nexus One over something else, if you can do without the large screens and faster processors of other, more expensive devices. You can reasonably expect the next point release of Android (and even Android 3.0) to reach the Nexus One weeks, if not months, before any other carrier's Android-based phones.
Outside of the fact that we wish it were available on more phones right now, we really can't find much of anything to complain about. All of the changes in the free Android 2.2 were positive ones, and none of them added any noticeable issues to the system. In fact, our in-house Nexus One felt faster in every respect post-update. Android has taken a huge leap with 2.2, and we would argue that it has once again leapfrogged many of the features in iOS 4. Portable Wi-Fi Hostpot and Flash support in the browser are two huge reasons to choose Android over iOS 4, and while both mobile systems are robust, we'd give the edge right now to Android 2.2. If you aren't locked into Apple's App Store universe yet and enjoy tweaking your mobile in an almost completely open system, Andriod is where it's at.