Android apps that suck

Screenshot of the Swiftkey keypad on an Android phone, from the Android MarketOf late, I’ve noticed that the Android apps I’ve been using aren’t performing anything like as well as they should be. I got a Samsung Galaxy S phone in May, which I paid up-front for because I couldn’t wait until I was due an upgrade (which is this December) as my old phone, a HTC Hero (branded T-Mobile G2 Touch), was so long-in-the-tooth and its upgraded version of Android was full of bugs. The new phone performed a lot better, but I quickly found that the new breed of apps were buggy, slow and all have obvious missing features, such that none of a group of competitors produces a satisfying product.

I use social media a lot. That mostly means Twitter and Facebook, a bit of Google Plus and Disqus to moderate my blog. (Until recently, I used WordPress’s own comments, but problems at the WordPress site itself were causing constant slow-downs, and I was getting thousands of spam comments a day and, sometimes, no real ones.) I don’t use the MP3 playing functionality of my phone at all, although it’s there. I’ve not used the YouTube app either — I always think “I’ve got a computer for that”, and don’t want to waste the storage space on the phone.

There are two Facebook apps for Android: the official one, which is free, and a third-party one called Friendcaster (formerly known as Flow), which comes in ad-supported and paid-for versions. When I got the Samsung, I discovered and installed Friendcaster, which initially proved to be much faster than the official app and provided much more of the functionality of Facebook than the official app (such as access to old-style groups). However, before very long I realised that parts of my feeds weren’t showing up — in particular, some friends’ posts were not appearing. I am not sure if this had to do with their privacy settings, or with some bug in the app, but it diminished its usefulness somewhat. (While I was writing this, version 4.0 came out, and the problem persists.)

So, I downloaded and installed the official app, and discovered that although it displayed my whole news feed, it was incredibly slow — when it first displayed your news feed, it hung, making it impossible to scroll, and when it finally recognised that your finger was (or had been) on the screen, it activated the link you might have touched rather than scrolling the page. It also crashes quite a lot. Sadly, this has all happened since they changed the app and presented it more like a website; previously, you would click on a news-feed entry, or a comment, and it would present a list of links or options. The old way of doing things is still there when you view Facebook pages (and, strangely, when it opens your News Feed the first time), and it works as well as the old app did.

So, that’s Facebook: two apps, and neither of them both offer the full functionality and work without crashing constantly. There are several clients for Twitter, and some of them offer other services such as Facebook and the moribund Google Buzz also. There are a few features I want in a Twitter client: TwitLonger integration (i.e. your TL posts show as tweets, not as links to TL), URL shortening (which has to be automatic and which has to make way for extra letters rather than shortening a link while still requiring the tweet to accommodate the long version within 140 characters), clearly distinguishing mentions, retweets and my own posts, and working without crashing and hanging. I’ve tried most of the apps that are out there: Seesmic, Tweetdeck, the official app, Twicca, Tweetcaster and Plume. I currently use Plume, but it has its share of annoying bugs or omissions too.

Twitter recently introduced their own URL shortening service, t.co, which means that even if we already use a shortener, it gets converted to t.co on posting. However, for everyone to use one service means that they will inevitably get longer than if people were allowed to use their own. WordPress already offers its own short-link service (wp.me) as do some other social networks (fb.me for Facebook) and news providers (aje.me from Al-Jazeera, bbc.in from the BBC), so why should all of these be converted into t.co? Their links are already longer than those produced by other shortening services, resulting in tweets that appear to be within the 140-character limit being rejected, as the t.co version pushes them beyond the limit.

Tweetcaster and Seesmic did, in the past, integrate Twitlonger, but it seems they were fouled by the t.co imposition, so although they can shorten tweets, the result will appear as a link, not a long tweet. The only clients which presently integrate TL properly are Plume and Ubersocial (formerly Twidroyd). Ubersocial doesn’t clearly differentiate mentions from other tweets (despite having a system of downloadable and user-definable themes, that still isn’t built into it) and Plume has an annoying bug whereby if you use the Back button from certain screens, like another user’s profile, it will take you back to your timeline rather than where it should — back to the screen you were viewing before that one (particularly a “view full conversation” screen). It also does not allow you to view conversation threads if it starts from a retweeted post that appears in your timeline, rather than an actual tweet that someone you follow posted. The information is available to Plume (I know this because Seesmic and other clients can do it).

While writing this, I tested out some iPhones in the Apple Store and, although I could not test out any Facebook or Twitter apps on the demo phones (they have a demo version of the Twitter app, though, but it does not let you use your own account), I could test out the mobile websites. On Android, I’ve found them to be slow and overblown, giving the impression of not having been tested on a real mobile browser, and that their developers conceived them as web-delivered apps rather than as interactive websites (mobile Twitter functions almost identically to the Android Twitter app). I was shocked — they actually operate very smoothly on an iPhone, with none of the lag I find when using them on any Android browser I have tried. Facebook seem to have recently updated their mobile version and (at least on wi-fi; I have not tested it on mobile internet) it works more smoothly than the last version and a bug that often stopped drop-down menus from opening seems to have been resolved. Still, it shows that people who write mobile websites often do not realise that they have to be simplified as far as possible, not just cut down to fit the size of the browser.

I’m not sure I’ll be trading in my Samsung Galaxy for an iPhone any time soon — I had a look at the iPhone 3GS in the Store as well, the only one which is within my price range, and although its operation was smoother than the Samsung’s, the screen is smaller and of drastically inferior quality. Although you can install iOS 5 (the version that comes on the new iPhone 4S) on it, it remains to be seen how far they will permit users to upgrade it. There are things I definitely prefer about Android’s interface: the dedicated Menu and Back buttons, the interchangeable keypads which offer long-press for numbers and punctuation, being able to “draw” rather than press each letter and predictive text, all missing from iPhone (except for the second, and that’s only if you jailbreak). Apple show no sign of entertaining any of these features for iPhone. The Android system also has the advantage of price and openness, of there being competition among manufacturers.

Despite these advantages to Android, there is no doubt that the iPhone has much smoother operation and considerably less lag than the Android, whose users simply get used to it hanging a lot. I saw an article the other day by an Android (Nexus S) owner, who said he loved his phone, trying out an iPhone and finding that the Android “just feels wrong” after using it — he had got used to the lags, to having to stop and then reload a page and so on, and then found that it did not have to be this way. Will the Android developers realise this before their users do?

Image source: Android Market.

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