Android: feeling at home, moving on

Last December I wrote about the year I’d had with my Android phone (an HTC Hero, branded a T-Mobile G2 Touch — not to be confused with the G2 that is sold in some other countries which is a re-branded HTC Desire Z with a slide-out keyboard). It may only be February but I’m already looking for what I might replace it with this coming December, and I’ve already decided that it has to be another Android phone. Of course, by the time December comes around, the phones and software that are available now may well have become obsolete, but most of the devices have advanced considerably on what I’m used to — the screens are bigger and brighter and the devices are somewhat “streamlined”, with fewer buttons than I’m used to.

The trend towards fewer buttons is one I’m not that keen on; the Samsung Galaxy S, for example, has just three buttons on its front, with the home, phone answer and reject, and search buttons gone. Perhaps you can make the three buttons do more by holding them down, but by that token, you can do more with the six buttons and a pushable scroll-ball on mine. This review notes that Samsung has tried to make the interface more iPhone-like, with rounded icons and so on, but I find that the buttons make my phone easier to use, not harder, and quicker (it’s certainly quicker to press the Home button than to press the Back button several times).

A further concern about moving to another Android phone is the keyboard. I really like the HTC keypad, which enables you to hold down any letter and get a punctuation mark, something you can’t do on the iPhone or on most other brands of Android phone. Some of the newer Androids, have the Swype keyboard, where you can draw shapes on the keypad by tracing from one letter to another, which speeds things up a lot. This week, though, I discovered the SwiftKey keyboard, which offers not only the long-press feature (and presumably doesn’t require an HTC phone), but also a much better word prediction feature, which guesses the next word you might type based on previous form. The other day, when I lost a new WordPress blog entry when I switched applications without saving it, the predictive feature guessed most of the words of an entire paragraph (although that was when it was newly installed). It’s particularly good on guessing short words or finishing off commonly-used phrases. It also has a much better secondary keypad, which offers the numbers arranged in phone fashion with punctuation to the right, with some keys doubling up (sadly, you have to long-press the dollar sign to get a pound sign — in the English (UK) locale, it should be the other way round).

As far as I’ve been able to tell, other Android phones do not have predictive text built in at all, and this feature may drastically cut the time it takes to write an email or blog entry on your phone. The only drawback is that it takes up more screen space than the HTC keyboard, so it’s best used on a phone that has a large screen. (There are several compact Androids now that have quite small screens.) Of course, it would help if apps reduced the size of their title bar (Facebook) or their screen selectors (eBuddy), or you could hide the notification/time line at the top when you really need the screen space (the web browser already does this). When you activate the new keypad, it will warn you that it will know about everything you type, including passwords and credit card details. However, if you are particularly worried about that, you can turn it off and back on any time you like, using the main system settings menu.

The new keyboard, despite it not being free (there’s a trial version, but it stops predicting text after a month although you still keep the keypad), is one thing that makes me feel at home on this device; I had renewed enthusiasm and was really glad I got it. It’s also fast and its long-press feature is less error-prone than HTC’s own (I’ve often had it insert a punctuation mark when I really just wanted the letter). As I’ve said, that’s something that took a while as I was ready to send it back a few weeks after I started using it. There are a few really serious bugs in the phone’s operating system; the call history screen is really poor, and can be very unresponsive when you try to select one of the entries to make a call. I really do think that, in the rush to make a full-featured phone operating system which can run lots of different applications, they forgot to iron out the bugs in the phone bit. That is, after all, what we get a mobile phone for. I lived without a pocket computer for years but still took my mobile phone almost everywhere I went. Having never used any of the newer or non-HTC Droids as a phone, I can’t tell whether that feature has been improved or not.

Another app which raised my enthusiasm was TweetCaster, which as might be guessed from the name, is a Twitter client. There are numerous Twitter clients for Android, often based on clients that are available on the desktop, and I tried just about all of them a few weeks ago, partly because I got sick of the slow screen switching in recent versions of Seesmic and the slow composition in TweetDeck. I did also try Plume, which looks very elegant (but maybe white on dark green and grey is just my taste) and packs the data onto the screen very well, but it had one serious problem: when you restarted it after using another client for a while, particularly if you are getting a flood of tweets about Tunisia and Egypt, it will take ages to load everything that would have appeared in your timeline since the last time you used it (as if I’d been in a coma since mid-January rather than simply getting my tweets some other way), and it ends up crashing. TweetDeck, when I tried using it just now, seemed to have the same problem (it didn’t crash, but I terminated it before it could get to that). Twitter clients shouldn’t do that; they should load a fixed number, and maybe a few more if you’ve not used the app for a while, but not a whole month’s worth.

It may seem petty to let a Twitter client influence how I feel about the phone itself, but it’s the best of all worlds as far as Android Twitter clients is concerned: it’s fast (no slow composition), it’s responsive, it doesn’t crash and it looks great. One problem you might find, though, is that the free version is funded by advertising and their adverts contain a lot of bingo and payday loans. You can get rid of them but they come back the next time you switch screens. (Plume is funded the same way, but their adverts are mostly news stories and charity appeals, and they appear at the top of your timeline and aren’t intrusive.) However, the app is not expensive and I found the small cost to be worth it. I am seriously considering removing all the other Twitter applications from my phone as I can’t see myself going back to them.

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