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05 January 2011

android 2.2 review

If you consider where Android was when it started versus how far it's advanced in 18 months with Android 2.2, you might get brain freeze.

Android 2.2—aka Froyo—is the most usable, polished iteration of Android yet. But more importantly, it's the first release that makes Android truly compelling for a broad consumer audience. Froyo's updates aren't that radical, but serious under-the-hood improvements and refinements throughout make it tangibly more pleasing to use.

Need for Speed

Without getting overly technical, Android executes its apps in a layer above its core Linux OS in a virtual machine called Dalvik. One of the major under-the-hood changes in 2.2 is a just-in-time compiler for Dalvik, which—here come the chocolate sprinkles—results in a 2x–5x performance boost for CPU-heavy code. That means faster apps—faster everything. (Google demoed it last week with the game Replica Island, which kept a higher framerate while doing more stuff in 2.2 compared to its performance on Android 2.1)
In everyday use, the new compiler combined with Android's efficient memory management means that pretty much everything you do, in both the general OS as well as apps, feels more responsive. The speed increase itself isn't staggering in and of itself, but the subconscious effects of a smoother, less draggy experience are real. The slowdowns and stutters I've come to just expect from Android (even with beefier processors) are mostly gone. And after a year-and-a-half of dealing with them, it's kind of remarkable to no longer rage at Android's persistent lagging.

According to Google, this speed boost incongruously comes with slightly better battery life. But any power improvements haven't been dramatic enough for us to notice during tests on the Nexus One.

The other place you'll subtly notice things are faster is web browsing. Again, Google's promising 2x faster JavaScript rendering speeds thanks to the new V8 engine, and this is actually a pretty solid estimate.

compared a Nexus One with 2.1 to one running 2.2 (both on Wi-Fi). Here's what I saw on a handful of sites, some with Flash set to "on demand" (that's essentially "off"); some with with Flash turned on completely. Plus we threw the Flash-less iPad in for comparison. As you can see, the boosts are non-trivial—extra speed that adds up to a far happier browsing experience.
The biggest feature in the browser is that it now supports Adobe Flash, an optional download from the Android Market. That might be more blessing than curse. If you leave Flash turned on, the purpose it will most often serve is to render Flash ads. Fortunately, you have the option to make plugins for the Android browser available "on demand," so it works more like ClicktoFlash—you click when you want a piece of Flash to render. The version of Flash available now is "pre-beta" so it doesn't have common desktop features like hardware acceleration for h.264 video. It's also not exactly perfect at rendering stuff, as you can see comparing this Flash-based infographic on the phone versus desktop, which limits its utility, as least given the way I browse on a phone. (I'm not a Farmville player, and Hulu blocks Android 2.2.)
It's the Little Things

The speed boost in 2.2 is fantastic, but what makes Froyo a truly great update is that it tightens bolts all across the entire platform. Android has evolved into a real product, on a totally different level than its first year.

One of Android's major shortcomings has been its interface, which has varied from wildly inconsistent to simply confusing. The UI is largely the same—it's still more complex and less elegant than either the iPhone or Palm's webOS—but it's striking how much nicer it feels thanks to even a few tweaks.
• The messages app—for SMS and MMS—and Google Talk now share a mostly unified interface with the Gmail app: black-text-on-purpleish background, moving away from the incongruous white-text-on-black.

• Inside of Gmail, you can now quickly switch between accounts by tapping the name of the account in the top right hand corner.

• When you plug the phone into your computer and turn on USB storage, a fancy Android graphic now tells you what's up, with clear instructions about mounting and unmounting your phone.

• The camera app's controls are markedly improved, putting all of the settings like white balance and flash mode right up front, rather than sticking them behind a finicky slider that didn't work half the time.

• Usefully and enjoyable—and with maybe just a little poking at Apple—galleries now have a pinch-to-peek gesture, so that you can see what photos are inside of a gallery before you open it.

Perhaps my favorite tweaks are on the home screen.

• Since smartphones have been shedding buttons like promise rings on prom night, a new center widget on the home screen puts the dialer, app menu and browser permanently at your fingertips.

• Pressing and holding the central apps button brings up thumbnail previews of every screen on your desktop. Update: Originally, these preview tabs popped up only when you pressed and held the left/right desktop buttons—which I never used, since I always swiped from one desktop to another.
Lingering Issues

Android's still not all the way there. There are still too many buried features, hidden by menu button, and general complexities, like a separate email app for non-Gmail accounts, remain. Selecting text, while now possible in the Gmail app, is confusing. And the white-on-black interface for the dialer and contacts seems even more out of place now that messages and Gtalk use a lighter UI.

The interface could always stand to be sleeker and more graceful. It's so strange, in a way, that Android has the most impressive voice controls and speech-to-text of any phone out there, but basic things like copy-and-paste can feel as slippery as brain surgery on a snail. The problem extends to the Android Market. Sure, one day we might be pushing apps to the phone from our desktop, but app discoverability, particularly on the phone itself, is a long way from optimal.

But you can see where things are going. And it feels more unified and complete than it ever has, which is a good thing. (Except the touch keyboard. It still feels like you're typing with two fingers glued together, and Andy Rubin didn't offer us much hope on that front.)

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