In my previous entry, I mentioned Link Bubble, a nifty Android app made by Chris Lacy, the creator of the Tweet Lanes Twitter/App.net client. Like DuckDuckGo (a merged search engine-browser-news aggregator), Link Bubble is on the bleeding-edge of mobile browsers. It doesn’t just try to compress a desktop experience for a small screen a lay Chrome, Safari, or Dolphin (all good browsers, but ones that are of a piece with almost every browser of the past 20 years). It realizes that the mobile Web is a destination rather than an immersive app – how many times have you ended up in Chrome et al because you clicked on someone’s link and had to wait for the page to load?
Link Bubble is an overlay – it is, sure enough, a “bubble” that is drawn over whatever screen you’re currently on. It looks like this:
Here’s how to use it:
1. Download Link Bubble from the Play Store. You’ll probably want to get the Link Bubble Pro upgrade, too, since it unlocks most of the features worth using (multiple bubbles, colors, etc.)
2. Click a link in any app (Hangouts, Google Search, email, whatever) and then, when prompted with the intent dialog, select Link Bubble and select “Always” so that it becomes your default browser. You may have to go through this process for several apps, depending on where you click most of your links. The clicked link loads in the background and shows up with a favicon to the side, in the overlaid bubble. The “HG” in the screenshot above is for Hardcore Gamer, for example. Since it’s done in the background, you don’t leave the app you’re currently in – convenient! Especially for Google searches where there’s more than one link you want to click. Here’s what it looks like when you tap on the bubble to go into the actual browser:
3. After it’s the default, open the Link Bubble settings (find it in your app drawer and click it) and set things up:
You’ll need to pick a fallback browser (probably Chrome unless you’ve downloaded something else) to handle any links that Link Bubble can’t handle. You’ll also want to pick the default behaviors for the upper-right and upper-left bubbles. It’s easier if I show a screenshot:
These extra bubbles (upper-left, upper-right, bottom_ show up when you tap and drag one of the bubbles (circles) at the top of the browser. You can customize it to your wish, but the default is Pocket (if installed) in the upper-left, share in the upper-right, and close tab at the bottom.
4. If you ever need to hide the bubble because it’s in your way, or simply want to close everything in one fell swoop, you can do so from the notifications tray (Link Bubble creates a persistent notification):
Touch it once to hide the bubble; you’ll be able to get it back the next time you click a link. Expand the notification with a downward slide to close everything.
Android is huge. This year alone, it will outsell all Windows, OS X, and iOS devices combined, although many of these sales won’t come with Jellybean installed or even with the prospect of it ever being installed. And the Android user base is nearly as fragmented as the OS itself. Its wide reach has brought together a strange group of folks from all points along the tech-savviness spectrum.
While messing around with the classic Androidify, I came up with these four umbrella groups that I think capture most of the total Android user base. Some of these groups overlaps (The Hardcore Hacker and The Holo Purist, for example) while others are obviously mutually exclusive.
The Hardcore Hacker
Raison d’être: To take advantage of Android’s flexibility via custom ROMs, rooting, and power-user apps.
Quintessential apps: XDA-Developers, Titanium Backup PRO Key, Tasker, Paranoid Android Preferences, ROM Manager (Premium), various custom keyboards
Device of choice: anything that can run their latest creation
Modding an Android device is enormously popular, especially in the US. Developers in particular can take advantage of Android’s less locked-down structure to make it look like nearly anything. Rooting can also get rid of unwanted bloatware and allow for more nuanced battery management.
The Holo Purist
Raison d’être: to show off how pretty and elitist Android can be; to show off that Android users actually care about design.
Devices of choice: Nexus 4, Nexus 7, Nexus 10, “Nexus Experience” phones (maybe)
Google has created a nice aesthetic with Holo, its recommendations for 4.0+ app design. A Holo Purist would lean heavily on Google’s own apps at the expense of third part alternatives, but she would also seek out non-Google apps that followed the same guidelines, too. I consider myself part of this category.
The Accidental Android User
Raison d’être: to use a phone that is more affordable than the iPhone
Quintessential apps: Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Candy Crush Saga, Snapchat, Pandora
Devices of choice: HTC Evo 4G, Samsung Galaxy S2 (or S3), Amazon Kindle Fire
The Accidental Android user may not regard their phone as anything more than a phone. They likely use Android because of cost or carrier encouragement or (in rare cases) extreme anti-Apple bias. Their apps are likely to be hugely popular apps that aren’t differentiated much between platforms or which are popular alternatives to SMS and niche Google Services.
The Overzealous Reviewer
Raison d’être: to announce that she isn’t using an iPhone/iPad and that this new Android device might just be “the best smartphone, period” after running it thru a real-world use case like looped video streaming on maximum brightness with Twitter running in the background.
Quintessential apps: The Verge, Evernote, Twitter, Rdio, Spotify, Netflix
Devices of choice: HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4
This category is an outgrowth of the huge media “Apple is doomed” meme, in which some of the most technically powerful Android phones are analyzed in terms of irrelevant specifications like gHz or video playback endurance (the latter doesn’t even matter much unless you install a third party player) rather than user experience. The S4’s Geekbench score vis-a-vis the iPhone 5 is a good example. Also, one need not be a professional reviewer to fit into this category.
Smartphone OSes have evolved to the point that they deliver experiences more akin to traditional computer OSes (OS X, Windows) than to anything that once ran on mobile phones (I’m thinking almost anything pre-iPhone, but especially BlackBerry and Symbian). iOS 7’s huge leap ahead into a paradigm dominated by high GPU requirements and by first-party options for audio/video calls (FaceTime, which now supports audio), messages (iMessage), and bulk file transfer (AirDrop) severs many of its ties with the carrier-dominated devices of years past. iOS once used obvious textures to invite input from users more used to hard-button carrier decks with plane-jane software, and so its revitalization as a more translucent, slightly flatter OS encapsulates its maturity.
Android was never as plush and textured as iOS, perhaps because it had originally been designed for BlackBerry-like phones with hardware keys and then proceeded thru a series of hurried changes that culminated with the apparent maturity of Jellybean. But there are still many vestiges of old-school “this is a phone, not a smartphone” thinking in its design. Here are five that really could use a facelift
Visual Voicemail by Default
Google hasn’t done much with Google Voice, which it purchased from GrandCentral over four years ago. It isn’t a system app and it performs poorly as an SMS solution, too. Android has no default support for visual voicemail, so Voice and various paid solutions like YouMail. Perhaps this issue shall be fixed once Google folds Voice into Hangouts. This voicemail setup may be a carrier issue, though, and as such hard to implement except on stock devices.
Keyboard and Dictionary Improvements
The Google Keyboard is decent, but its accuracy and comfort still don’t match third-party alternatives like Swype. One of its most annoying features is its save-to-dictionary function, as seen here:
Am I supposed to tap the word that the arrow is pointing to, or the text to the right of the arrow? Basic usability improvements here could make the default keyboard friendlier and easier to use.
Quick Text/Rich Notifications for SMS
Gmail supports rich expandable notifications that permit immediate replies or archiving. By contrast, the SMS app is barebones, with none of that. I can understand the design decision, perhaps: Google wants users to use Hangouts or Talk over the carrier-dependent SMS. But with Google wanting to get into every niche, why shouldn’t it try to cop some features from the excellent Sliding Messaging Pro (seen in above shot), which permits a persistent Quick Text notification/widget and an expandable reply/read/delete notification.
A better Camera app
The Android camera app, with its inscrutable radial menu and logos, has “this is a cameraphone, not a camera” written all over it. It’s 2013; every smartphone is a cameraphone by definition. Hiding all of the options in deference to a “clean” radial menu only makes things more complex, not more simple. They should also just fold the stock Gallery app’s filters/editing features into the Camera. Currently, they’re buried deep in the Gallery app. The apparent Android 4.3 redesign is small step forward, but it still seem part of the same backward mindset as its predecessor.
A Native Podcast App
The iPhone’s stock Podcasts app is no great shakes, but Android doesn’t even have one. For the niche geeky audience that Nexus/stock devices cater to, a stock podcasting client seems like a no-brainer.
Vine has been available for Android for a couple of weeks, and my verdict is that it just does not provide a good experience at this time. Sadly, Vine’s shortcomings are not only indicative of the age-old, ongoing quality gap between apps with versions on both iOS and Android, but it explains them, too. Its simultaneous failures of design and massive popularity are a good microcosm for Android itself and its characteristics. To wit, Vine for Android:
- has no limit on caching and as such can occupy 100s of MB of on-device storage
- doesn’t have a push notification system: it notifies you via rich Jelly Bean notification that your video is being uploaded (good), but is mum if someone likes or comments on your post (bad).
- is full of spam and fakes (I guess this is to be expected; even Instagram is overrun by follower-mills and spammers now)
- doesn’t yet support front-facing camera or tags.
- feels gummy and unresponsive when navigating to some users’ profiles, to the extent that it won’t even show their posts sometimes.
Many of these issues, like front-facing camera support, are likely to be addressed in updates. However, the overall sloppiness of the design makes Vine’s arrival on Android a pyrrhic victory of sorts. Yes, we got a hot app, but its developers treat us as if we don’t respect quality or good design. They treat Android users this way because for now a unified, huge, design-conscious Android audience sadly doesn’t really exist.
The best Android apps, other than the ones Google makes, are often either exclusive to the platform, like Falcon Pro, Eye in Sky, or Friday, or they exploit something unique about Android, like UCCW, Dashclock, or other widgets, or they capitalize upon some odd platform disparity between iOS and Android, like Pocket Casts, which takes advantage of less competition on Android and lack of a Google-made podcasting client. Whether they achieved success via exclusivity, astute platform exploitation, luck, or all of the above, Android’s best apps (a category that includes all of the apps listed above, sans Vine) are often targeted at such a niche audience that they aren’t so much “Android apps” as “Nexus/power-user apps.” They often require at least ICS or even Jelly Bean to even run, but more importantly, they require a user who cares about Android and who didn’t just pick up her/his device because AT&T said so or because it was so cheap.
Accordingly, it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about “Android” as a monolithic platform. Many Android users are on an older OS version or don’t even know that they’re running Android: their phone is just a phone that can do email and Facebook and maybe a few other things. Android’s fragmentation certainly exists, but it’s fragmentation of intent more so that fragmentation of OS version, the latter of which I think is just a product of the former, since not enough users care enough (or need) to seek the latest version of Android. Android isn’t “good” yet (if by “good” we mean “characterized by predominantly active, non-incidental, Android-first users) because of this disparity.
A year and a half ago, someone told me that Android was “the new Mac,” that is, that it was a trendy alternative to iOS, which had become so widespread that it could be regarded as the OS for normals. This struck me as an odd statement at the time: how could Android, with its huge user numbers, possibly be compared to the Mac back when it struggled to keep up with the PC? Isn’t Android the PC equivalent in the smartphone wars, the equivalent of a commoditized beige box? Well, no, depending on what specific “Android” demographic you’re talking about, and she did seem to be talking about the niche Nexus user demographic.
First of all, the best Android hardware and the latest Android software both have an elegance and sophistication – likely driven by Google’s own design chops – that Windows has never had. But more to the point: the number of users who actually know that they are “Android users” and not “Droid users” (i.e., users who only have a superficial connection to the brand via Verizon’s massively successful 2009 campaign) or “Samsung users” or “phone-that-emails-and-Facebooks users,” is almost certainly small. There have been roughly 3 million Nexus 4s sold all-time, next to nothing compared to even the Galaxy S4’s haul for May alone: and that’s considered a blockbuster by “stock Android” standards!
Nexus users like me comprise a hugely active and outspoken (especially on Google+) part of what the world sees as the “Android community.” We are just the tip of the iceberg, and interpreting their power-user, anti-Apple, customization-crazy intents as the modus operandi for the hundreds of millions of incidental and accidental Android users is misguided. Like the unseen part of an iceberg, those users elevate the power-users to greater visibility, since the media cares about Android seemingly because: 1) it’s not iOS; 2) it’s popular. Those users are perhaps like 1990s PC users, but the ones on the tip, the Nexus types, are perhaps more like Mac users: outnumbered (by their very different “Android” brethren and, if one grants this differentiation of populations within “Android,” then by iOS users, too) and outspoken.
So the Nexus users will complain about Vine’s shortcomings, while everyone else on Android – the incidental customers or users on older versions – won’t care and will download and use it anyway. The latter group is the reason why Vine for Android even exists (you don’t see Vine for Windows Phone, do you?) but also the reason why its design isn’t on par with the iOS design. “Android” doesn’t have just one addressable demographic, since its different user groups may as well be using (and being conscious of) different platforms altogether, and because of this, we get the only-on-Android odd scenario of a massively popular app that, given the chance to do so much, does only the bare minimum and gets away with it, despite protests from the minority.
Ultimate Custom Clock Widget (UCCW) is one of the most powerful and versatile Android widgets. It’s free with ads in Google Play, although you can make a $5 in-app purchase to remove them.
Despite its name, UCCW can be configured to support almost any Android app or activity, not just clocks. It has two basic features:
- a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor for designing your own UCCW widget.
- integration with a wide range of UCCW skins and themes from Google Play.
Most likely, you’re here to find out how to implement someone else’s UCCW skin or theme through the UCCW app (i.e., feature #2). A successful implementation may look like these examples:
Whether you’re setting up the perfect clock widget or just trying to impress others with your fancy home screen, UCCW is worth playing around with. Here’s how to set it up in less than five minutes:
1. Download UCCW from Google Play
UCCW is free to download here. Consider a $5 donation to remove the ads.
2. Search for “UCCW” in Google Play and download a UCCW skin or theme that you like
The search should return a variety of UCCW-compatible skins and themes. They’ll appear in Google Play as apps, but they’re essentially just plugins for UCCW. For example, the PlayBar theme in the first screenshot above requires UCCW.
3. Create a widget anywhere on your screen
Select Widgets -> UCCW in your launcher to get started. After that, select a widget size (unlike widgets associated with apps like Google+, UCCW can be implemented in many default sizes), and then select a skin or theme. Any UCCW skins and themes you download should appear in the UCCW app. You may have to scroll down to see them all:
4. Create and lock hotspots
Depending on what UCCW skin or theme you use, you may have the option to edit the widget’s hotspots. A hotspot is simply a part of the widget that can be configured to open an Android app when tapped.
For example, the widgets from the very first screenshot in this post all redirect to their titular apps (“Chrome” opens Chrome, and so on). You can edit the hotspot and link it to any app that you want. Afterward, you’ll need to go to the settings menu inside the UCCW app and enable Hotspot Mode so that tapping the widget does what you want it to do instead of sending you back to the UCCW editor.
5. Finish Up
Simply tap the screen as per the instructions to add the finished widget.