Notifications are the one thing that Android has always done better than iOS. Even Android 1.0 from 2008 had status bar notifications, a feature that the iPhone et al did not get until the addition of Notification Center in iOS 5 in late 2011, at which point Apple opted for the familiar pull-down gesture that was already widespread on the seas of Gingerbread and Froyo phones.
iOS 7 has a lot of promise in its revamped approach to notifications, but Jelly Bean raised the bar and has kept Android in the lead on this score at least. Expandable notifications gave a user a window into rich content and enabled an endless array of quick actions. Want to type out a quick text without opening the SMS app? Want to archive an email instantly? Want to view a list of items? There’s an
app notification for that.
In a way, I think that Google’s insane focus on notifications was the first step toward bring Android at least level with iOS in quality. The system notification UI – so neatly grouped in that pull-down menu – provided a common framework from which a user could interact with apps without having to actually enter the apps as much, hence mitigating annoyances like aesthetic gaps between iOS and Android versions or the shittiness of garbage collected languages (read: Java) on mobile and in the hands of devs who don’t do manual collection.
Here are twelve apps and two Chrome extensions that can up the notification game.
What it is: A top-shelf weather app.
Notification perks: 1) persistent, regularly updated temperature figure in the status bar; 2) Dashclock extension; 3) expandable weather notification with customizable icons and forecasts.
What it is: A handy sleep tracker app that catalogs your deep and light sleep percentages and also features an alarm clock.
Notification perks: 1) sleep tracker toggle in notification bar
What it is: A custom notifications app.
Notifications perk: 1) expandable; 2) lists; 3) alerts; 4) photos
What it is: An app that can receive pushed images, files, and/or lists from its accompanying Chrome extension.
Notification perks: 1) Dashclock extension; 2) expandable notification for lists and image previews
What it is: a way to connect your Android notifications with your desktop instance of Chrome or Firefox.
Notification perks: shows all Android notifications in a popup in the lower-right in Chrome or Firefox. I love using this on Chrome OS with its extension.
What it is: A battery conservation and tracking tool.
Notification perks: 1) expandable notification with usage chart/time remaining estimate; 2) Dashclock extension; 3) Daydream; 4) lockscreen widget
What it is: An SMS client and a huge upgrade over stock (and it gets updated all the time)
Notification perks: gee, where to begin: 1) Dashclock extension; 2) multiple widgets; 3) persistent quick text notification in status bar; 4) expandable notifications with read/reply options for new messages; 5) scrollable widget that can be overlaid inside of any app.
What it is: A music streaming service. I assume you’ve heard of it.
Notification perks: 1) expandable notification with forward/backward/play/pause control and add to playlist button
What it is: A podcasting client.
Notification perks: 1) expandable notification with rewind/fast forward (not just forward/back) and play/pause controls
What is: A lockscreen notification center which I’ve written about here.
Notification perks: Out-of-the-box compatibilty with Gmail, SMS, weather, Google Calendar etc. Customizable with numerous extensions.
What it is: A way to bring the Moto X’s distinctive (and somewhat intrusive) notifications to any Android phone
Notification perks: 1) screen wakes with specific information about each notification’s content.
Android 4.2+ has daydreams, usually about what life would be like without its useless stock Email client, or its drab News and Weather app, or Google Earth (but never its beloved Movie Studio).
It also has Daydreams, or interactive screen-savers, with actionable content, which are another example of Jelly Bean’s redundancies, alongside wireless charging (cool and only minimally useful) and NFC for Google Wallet and niche power-user apps like NFC Task Launcher. The small sliver of living persons using 4.2+ have access to more uselessly beautiful junk than even an “iPhone only” Instagrammer could shake a real vintage camera at. Here’s what one looks like (the red tint on the screen is due to the Twilight app I’m using):
I haven’t used a screensaver for anything since the heyday of Windows 95 and its amazing brick-mazes. So why would I use a Daydream?
Well, that’s not a great explanation – Daydreams if anything contribute to lack of battery life (and focus), but they’re pretty and useful for making non-Android users jealous, which after all is the main point of using Android. Basically, if you’re walking past your charging phone, you can maybe use a Daydream to learn a bit about what Google Currents thinks is interesting, or watch Beautiful Widgets’ cheeky weather animations, which now seem set to arrive in iOS 7:
Like all the good fancy stuff in Jelly Bean, Daydreams are little toggles, wrapped in Roboto, inside a submenu. You’ll have to go to Setting -> Display -> Daydreams to view your options. Default options include Currents, Clock, and Photo Table. 3rd-party options include Beautiful Widgets Pro, Flipboard, and StumbleUpon. Some Daydreams have settings; I’ve sometimes changed Beautiful Widgets’ weather read-out’s text color to match the hex values on my wallpaper.
The Currents daydream is perhaps the most
esoterically styled sophisticated, which isn’t a surprise given that it’s a Google app. News stories cascade over the screen and can be tapped to open them up in the Currents app.
Like virtually any non-Search/Maps/G+ initiative, I don’t know how long Google will keep around this geeky quirk hidden away in Jelly Bean. Its demise wouldn’t upset Twitter-hounds and news-junkies the way that the Google Reader shutdown did/will, unless their replacement workflow had become scanning the Currents Daydream for infrequently updated news, floating like islands between 500px entries.
HTC unveiled their new flagship smartphone today. The HTC One (not to be confused with the One X, One V, or One VX – good luck on that) appears to raise the bar yet again for Android phones. With a 1080p display, all-metal encasing, and an entirely re-skinned HTC Sense on top of Android Jelly Bean, the One looks set to battle with Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S4 for dominance of the non-Nexus, highly commoditized Android market.
The One’s industrial design is sleek if uninspired, if such a thing is even possible. With chamfered edges and a preference for metal over glass and/or plastic, the One draws more than a few lessons from the iPhone 5. The Beats Audio branding and new speaker setup give it some cool hardware flair.
But I’m more concerned about how HTC has approached software with the One, more specifically how it has integrated Jelly Bean with its new hardware. If the iPhonesque body weren’t enough of a hint, then the software experience evines that HTC is really trying to create a non-Android Android flagship device. The word “Android” itself wasn’t mentioned, and instead HTC trumpeted the “New Sense,” the fifth version of its Android skin. Particular attention was given to New Sense features like a new hub/live feed called BlinkFeed and a default dock of Gingerbread-esque icons backed up by two capacitive buttons: home and back, with the multitasking key strangely axed.
The tiles in BlinkFeed may recall Windows 8 or Flipboard, but they’re really closest in spirit to the Android 4.2x Google Currents Daydream – a “Daydream” is the screensaver-like feature that is by default activated when you charge your Nexus device without firsts hitting the power button. The Currents Daydream creates a beautiful cascade of stories from your Currents subscriptions, and lets you tap stories as they go by to open them individually in the Currents app. My take is that this feature is cool, but not the type of huge “wow” innovation that market stragglers really need in order to overtake their betters.
But let’s get back to that business about capacitive buttons in particular. The lack of a multitasking key is baffling – if there’s one thing that Android unequivocally does better than iOS or Windows Phone, it’s multitasking. HTC has opted to hide multitasking behind a double-tap of the home button. Meanwhile, Google Now, one of the hallmark features of Jelly Bean, is buried beneath a long-tap of the home button. John Gruber astutely notes that both long-tap-for-voice and double-tap-to-multitask are iPhone hallmarks, and I think that they feed the narrative of HTC trying to make a non-Android Android blockbuster. But I think that they are depriving users of some of the best features of Jelly Bean.
During a Twitter exchange with The Verge’s Chris Ziegler, another person and I agreed that we basically had forsworn most non-Nexus Android devices. But I think it’s not just because we want timely updates (something that HTC has struggled with, as evinced by the HTC Thunderbolt only now getting ICS); it’s because Google has gotten astonishingly good at design, such that the stock Android experience has far outstripped what any OEM can do with their custom skins.
HTC thrived back when Sense filled in the gaping holes in Android 1.x and even 2.x, when it was barely a proper OS and need real character. We may be getting to the point at which Google is so confident in its design chops, and so intent on selling things directly to customers via a long-touch retail experience, that its stock Holo vision of Android becomes more and more distanced from whatever the likes of HTC and Samsung want to do with their flagships. They’ll either have to diverge from Google’s brand to keep their own brands alive, or adopt Google’s Nexus-like take on Android for the sake of unity (the latter doesn’t seem commercially viable at this point, however).
-The ScreenGrab Team
The Nexus 4 supports wireless charging via the Qi standard. But until this week, LG’s official charging orb – a sci-fi worthy trinket that looks like a Palm Touchstone or the better half of the ill-fated Nexus Q – had remained vaporware. No more: for a cool $60 USD, you can win the envy of every techie around you and free your phone from microUSB charging.
The orb’s sleek, futuristic design is a proclamation of Google’s (via LG) growing attention to form as much as function. It’s light, smooth, and yet premium-feeling, not unlike an iPhone 5. But make no mistake, this orb is mainly about style. It must be plugged into a power source via the microUSB cable and travel adapter (US/Canada only) while it charges your Nexus 4 or other Qi-compatible phone (just for reference, I was able to charge a Nokia Lumia 920 using this orb, too).
For either phone, charging via Qi is not necessarily an upgrade over standard cabled charging: it takes longer (about four hours for the Nexus 4, if it’s totally drained) and requires more hardware, too. Mostly, it just looks cool. But it does have one major perk which I can see improving one’s experience with their phone: its doubling as a dock.
The phone can be charged successfully at either horizontal or vertical orientations, but I preferred vertical, which puts the phone at a nice viewing angle for reading, checking email, or other one-handed/-fingered tasks. In this way, the orb became a surprisingly well-integrated part of my workstation, and even when I wasn’t interacting with it, it served as a passive news source, since I had set up Google Currents as the default Daydream (a feature of Android 4.2.x which is akin to a screensaver displayed while your Nexus device charges). The 4.2.2 update also brings a special notification sound reserved only for indicating that wireless charging has begun.
This orb is mostly style, but some substance, too. Its usefulness as a dock underscores the benefits of having a larger-screened phone with plenty of real estate for reading or typing. In that sense, it’s reaffirms everything that’s good about the Nexus 4. Highly recommended to completists, geeks, and productivity nuts, but perhaps just a novelty or unnecessary toy for the casual Android fan.
-The ScreenGrab Team