Android 1.5 (Cupcake) firmware

I recently wrote about my experiences with the Google G1 dev phone running the 1.1 Android firmware, and discussed a number of problems.

Last night I obtained the just released 1.5 (cupcake) firmware and performed the upgrade. That all went smoothly, it helped to have done it before and working out the idiosyncrasies of the process. So how does the new firmware measure up?

Initial thoughts and feelings are very good. Picture handling in MMS is hugely improved, although I still had a problem with an old video clip, but I’ll see if it was the oldness that was the problem. The optional on-screen keyboard is very useful and surprisingly easy to use, with predictive words hovering just above it. I enabled the options to automatically rotate the screen upon device reorientation, that is a big improvement in general usability, and means you no longer have to flip out the keyboard just to provoke rotation.

Other improvements include the camera – much better, and video capability, although the microphone doesn’t pick up sound very well on video. The web browser is also much improved and hugely more usable and readable, the auto rotation helps that too.

One very quirky problem, the one screen I’ve found that doesn’t auto rotate on the device orientation is the home page. That rather surprised me. Overall, this is a very significant set of improvements, and I’d suggest any G1 user upgrades as soon as possible.

All of this goes a long way to making the G1 a good day to day phone for me, although I’m still having to limp from one charging source to another, I don’t think I can get through a day of my normal use without charging in the car and at my desk – and yes, I’m frequently trimming back all the features to extend battery life, when I remember.

Update

Here are a few more comments after a little while of using cupcake. Of little problems and whether or not I’ve resolved them.

  • Bluetooth pairing
    After Cupcake, the phone no longer automatically paired with my in car gadgetry. In the end I found that going through the settings and clicking connect explicitly for each device connected it that time, and next time it did so automatically.
  • MMS issues
    There are still some of these, I get some images from some people that are much smaller than I remember getting from the same people with the same phone when I had the N95. It’s not clear if this is because the G1 is just not allowing the same level of zoom, or what else may be to blame, but still rather small. Also, video clips are simply not playing. When I receive one I still get another text from my provider (O2) telling me I can’t receive them. But now there is an icon suggesting they can be played. When you try, you simply get a number of seconds of a blank screen and silence. Suggesting possibly a codec problem, but I can find no mention in the oracle of google as to how to fix it if so, or whether I should expect it to work.
  • Fast switcher apps
    The API that allowed apps to turn off and on some features has been deliberately disabled. Not a huge issue, but it means many apps that helped you turn on and off wifi, for example, no longer work. Unhelpful in a phone that still has profound battery life issues.

Note to self: Why I dislike Windows

I am not a fan of Microsoft Windows, most people who know me appreciate this to be a slight understatement. But I’ve used Microsoft’s products. Like many people I’ve often had no choice. I actually use Microsoft trackballs. It’s quite an irony that the best thing I can say about the world’s largest software company that some of their hardware is good.

There’s a tendency for people to believe I have no basis for this dislike, or that it is just kind of fashionable. But actually, I’ve used lots of operating systems over my time, and I’ve got good, solid reasons to dislike it. Here are just two.

  1. Their software is … crap;
  2. Their conduct in the market place is just disgraceful.

So let’s explore these a little more. The week before last, I was forced to use Windows (I know). So often, when one buys a consumer device (in this case a satnav system), it is will nigh impossible to update or maintain it without it. I had a huge download and install to do, and left it running overnight, safe in the knowledge that in the morning it would all be over and I could revert to Debian, my current OS of choice.

Of course not, I woke up in the middle of the night to find the box (laptop, I mean Vista came installed with no other choice, you don’t think I wanted it did you?) had shut itself down due to inactivity, even when it was plainly on mains, and busy. Wearily I started it all over again, the download manager failed to resume and started from scratch. In the morning I found the laptop at a Debian prompt. Nice, but unexpected. Yes, Windows had helpfully, and without my consent restarted itself half way through the download to install updates. I note people wrestling with these stupid prompts doing presentations all the time. So more hours later I finally download the software, installing it is, quite simple, a nightmare. The task manager shows the box is waiting for consent, but there is no visible window. I have to wrestle with the whole thing for some hours. In a way, it’s a good thing. It reminds me that I actually find this OS not just unethical, but just plain brain dead and ineffective.

But on the topic of ethics, I frequently lecture on these issues and list some of Microsoft’s past misdemeanors. It often comes as a surprise to my students that these are often proven court findings, not just vague soapbox opinions. So for that reason, this report from ECIS, the European Committee for Interoperable Systems, is an excellent document. Well researched and referenced, it makes the long and consistent pattern of disgraceful behaviour in the market place very clear. It’s a very readable report, but for the impatient, this Groklaw summary is very helpful.

On the one hand, these two reasons look very distinct, but on the other, they are actually inextricably linked. Microsoft’s monopoly position, gained through some skill, and much luck, and bolstered by their persistent behaviour issues, is exactly why their products are so crap. Put simply, Microsoft is lazy; it is only in the presence of strong competition that they raise their game. Just look at the changes in Internet Explorer since Mozilla Firefox entered on the scene.

Yeah, for many of you, none of this is any surprise, but sometimes it’s useful to remind myself, and everyone else, that the position I have on Microsoft is based on experience and fact.

HTC Android G1

I obtained an HTC Android G1 dev phone to play with. I’ve been working with it for almost a week now, and so can post my initial thoughts. And they are quite seriously mixed. There are things about this phone that are just unbelievably good, but with some shockingly unbelievable flaws too, enough to possibly render the phone unusable for me to be honest. You’ll probably see as you go on that shocking, and unbelievable are two buzzwords I use a lot in this review. It’s more polite than rearranging this acronym FTW into its more usual order and expanding.

First, some caveats. The phone I received was a dev phone, it had the 1.0 firmware revision, and that might have been the cause of my initial problems. It’s now on 1.1 (and update was irritatingly problematic too). The dev phone comes with the phone, headphones, a US charger, a USB cable, and about two post cards worth of docs. Mostly these discussed set up of APNs. That wasn’t trivial, and O2, my provider were frankly as helpful as a chocolate teapot. It didn’t help that their systems showed, at least with the 1.0 firmware, that the phone was missing key capabilities.

Thanks to Noodles, I got some working access, and initially getting things synced with Google, and wifi was easy. I actually had some problems with bluetooth pairing, but it could have been the other end. I spent a lot of time trying to find the most elegant way or exporting my evolution contacts to Google, and eventually found the magic command line to produce the CSV on Debian Sid your paths may vary.

First of all lets summarise the stunning features of this phone.

  • Big clear screen
    Mostly the interface is crisp and clean and the touch interface is very intuitive and easy to use.
  • QWERTY goodness
    The G1 screen slides out to reveal a full qwerty keyboard that is really easy to type on.
  • Shell goodness
    You can download applications that allow a local shell, and for me much more usefully an SSH client. Coupled with the keyboard and connectivity this is excellent.
  • Calendaring
    This is just superb, intuitive, easy to navigate, cosmetically pleasing, automatic sync.
  • Email
    Almost belongs in grumbles since the built in client does not, under any circumstances, accept self signed certs. But the K9 market app does it all, it seems to be a fork, or more likely set of patches maintained on the original email client.
  • Messaging
    This is really in both lists. The nice way in which the G1 threads correspondence is very helpful, but there are problems. See below.

And now, the reprehensible clangers.

  • Battery
    The battery life on the N95 is shockingly bad, but actually the G1 is on a par with that, you seem to need to constantly trim all the features that consume power to get through a day reasonably (all be it, the battery life is stretching now I think, and less day-to-day fiddling helps).
  • Video Capabilities 1/2
    This is the first 3G device I’ve ever had that didn’t have a forward facing camera for video calls. I know some other smart phones are similar, but the N95 I have does have this capability. A non issue for many, but something to note for some.
  • Video Capabilities 2/2
    Even now, quite a while after release, the G1 is incapable of using its camera for video clips. I find this extraordinary, I think it’s the only phone I’ve ever owned with a camera that can’t do this.
  • Media Messaging
    This is quite frankly, shockingly bad. It’s a complete pain in the ass to configure MMS, and even then it often simply doesn’t work. There are long delays and repeated failures in sending and receiving MMS, and yet other times it does it. I can’t yet work out the pattern. The way in which the phone shows attached images is really appalling, and difficult to manipulate.
    Rather than showing the image when clicked on till you click again, it annoyingly shows it for a number of seconds of its choosing and then goes back. You can’t zoom, rotate, download, or otherwise manipulate the image that doesn’t even fill the screen size available.
    Even more extraordinary is that while the phone can’t take video clips (see above) it also fails to be able to receive them. That’s an unbelievable flaw in a phone this high end. Instead my provider sends me an SMS telling me I’m a third class citizen and invites me to download the file using a browser. When you try to do this you will find you can’t actually save the damn attachment anywhere to bring the market apps (no inbuilt video viewer) to bear on this thing. I just can’t get over this stupidity. I have to wait to get home to a real PC to view these.
  • The contacts section in Google seems to allow no space for birthdays. Since for me that’s a pretty critical aspect of calendaring and I’d like the data hooked to the calendar, that’s annoying.
  • Headphones
    The headphones plug into a mini USB socket on the bottom, but as such they are custom. The N95 has a much better system of having an adapter that provides functionality to tweak music playing with a plain ordinary headphone jack in case you have better headphones.
  • Memory Management
    Another shockingly bad aspect of the phone. It’s onboard memory is quite limited, but so what? I put an 8 Gig micro SD in it. Well, almost nothing can actually be stored on the extra card apart from music and some other files. All applications, text messages, and so on take up the main memory as far as I know.
  • No automatic rotation
    The device certainly appears to have the accelerometers to allow automatic rotation of the screen, but simply, it doesn’t. You have to pop out the keyboard to do so whether you want to or not. Stupid.

Every new phone you acquire seems to have new features you don’t know how you did with out, and problems that irritate you from previous good experiences, but seriously, the MMS problems this phone has, has caused me to have both phones on my person and swapping SIM cards this last week. That’s just ridiculous. It’s quite likely the G1 will end up in a drawer until someone gets their act together and deals with that astonishing flaw. That or I’ll sell it on. It’s a shame, so much else in the phone is excellent, but the problems are often simply inexcusable in a smartphone well into the 21st century.

Update

I was pleased to read that a firmware update is to be released Real Soon Now, that will resolve most of the serious issues on my list, or at least I hope the MMS handling will be improved given what is on the list, otherwise this would be even more braindead.

Oh, and by the way, I know the iPhone shares some of these problems. There’s a reason I don’t have one.