Mail’s hegemony

In recent times there’s been a lively debate about email in general. The gist of it — it seems — is that email is a venerable communication medium that has to be ‘refreshed’ somehow since we cannot get rid of it. It appears that a lot of nerds are overwhelmed by email management, and since evidently it’s too complicated to review or perfect how one manages email, it’s the medium that has to be ‘adjusted’ to be more convenient. So, new clients have appeared, and new approaches to email have been attempted to ‘optimise the concept’ and to ‘bring email to the 21st century.’

To use the phrase Calling bullshit is perhaps a bit too much, but picture me scoffing at the very least.

Email: deal with it

There’s no way around it: email is messages you receive, messages you write, and replies to messages you receive. When you receive a lot of emails and want to get it over with as soon as possible, you either ignore all non-essential or top-priority messages, or you get someone else to act as a secretary. I don’t believe there’s a software solution to make your email life much easier, unless we’re talking about something that sends pre-packaged answers, which is just horrible, at least for someone like me who values correspondence. You just have to Stop whining and deal with it.

Software-wise, you can mix things up all you like, you can pretend emails are status updates, or to-do items to act upon, GTD projects, etc., and you can come up with clients that emphasise this aspect or the other in the software’s interface, but in the end, again, email means message management, thus there has to be a part of the UI dedicated to show message lists, default and custom email folders, a single-message area inside the main application window, and a Compose Message window/pane/sheet.

And that’s why, while my interest is piqued every time a new email client is introduced, I always return to Mail.app.

My path to Mail

I came to email rather late. I opened my first email account in 1999. At the time, my main machine was a blueberry iMac G3/350 with Mac OS 8.6. My browser of choice was Netscape Communicator 4.x, and its Mail & News module was also what I used for email and Usenet newsgroups. And let me tell you, Netscape handled email and newsgroups quite well, at least for my needs. So well, in fact, that I kept using it as an email and Usenet client for as late as 2002. In late 2001 I had upgraded my iMac from Mac OS 8.6 to Mac OS X 10.1, and started using Mail.app as secondary email client, to get accustomed to it and also because by then I had more than just one email account, and with Netscape Messenger things could get tricky if you had multiple accounts.

Soon I realised that Mail.app’s user interface wasn’t so different from Netscape Messenger’s, so I migrated all email to Mail, and kept using Netscape Messenger for handling Usenet newsgroups until 2004, when I finally switched to a Mac OS X native app, Unison by Panic Inc.

Migrating three years of email messages from Netscape Messenger to Apple’s Mail was less painful than I’d anticipated. And this particular software lock-in began. But I’ve always been okay with that.

Years have passed, the number of email accounts has grown, and my email archive has got bigger and bigger, which means that changing email client at this point would involve a complex migration of tens of thousands of messages split among a dozen accounts. Since all the email accounts I opened before the advent of Gmail didn’t offer much space on the provider’s servers, I’ve been a heavy user of the POP3 protocol over the years, using IMAP only with Apple’s @mac.com accounts and all the accounts I opened in the Gmail era. I still use POP3 for some accounts, and for those my email client of choice is Mailsmith because it handles email backup in a solid way, and because it’s a powerful, versatile, no-nonsense client all around.

Those who know me well, know that I love testing and trying web browsers, and over time I’ve often changed my default browser to experiment with new offerings or projects. But email has always been a more delicate matter for me. I’ve managed to preserve my email archive (15 years’ worth of messages), and ironically the only part missing of such archive is a window of a few months — from late 2004 to early 2005 — which I lost when an attempt to migrate to Mozilla Thunderbird went unexpectedly very wrong and resulted in the corruption of hundreds of messages I was unable to recover.

Sticking with Mail

But the reason I’m sticking with Mail.app on the Mac isn’t just about my resistance to change email client because I’m afraid to lose my precious archives. With a few careful backups, a bit of patience, and a quiet weekend, I could move all my accounts to another application. The truth is that I still haven’t seen a third-party client groundbreaking enough to make me leave Mail.app behind. Using a secondary Gmail IMAP account, I have indeed tried clients such as Postbox, Mailplane, Airmail, Mailbox for Mac, and I was also interested in seeing what kind of client would result from the .Mail project by Tobias van Schneider, but it seems that the project didn’t go anywhere eventually.

For all this talking about ‘revolutionising’ email, I still haven’t encountered a revolutionary client capable of winning me over. But mind you, this isn’t anybody’s fault, either! The fact is, it’s not an easy task — you can make an email client with a nice UI, you can make an email client that follows a certain concept and have its UI rejiggered accordingly but, like I said before, email’s core is always there: messages you receive, messages you send, and, in general, messages to manage.

All the third-party clients I’ve tried are nice applications and admirable efforts, I’m certainly not belittling anybody’s work here, but ultimately they lack enough gravitational pull to convince me to fully switch. Mail.app is a solid client I’ve been using since 2001 and, believe it or not, I never had a serious issue with it; the worst that has happened was to force quit it in those (rare) cases it had become unresponsive — but Mail has never lost any data. At the end of the day, Mail does everything I need: any change at this point would be just for change’s sake.

Sparrow

To be fair, there was a client that almost pulled me away from Mail, back in 2011: Sparrow [Wikipedia entry | Main website]. I tried it since the early beta versions, and I was really liking the path it was taking. It didn’t want to revolutionise email, just be a lightweight, efficient application. Too bad Google poisoned the well by acquiring it in July 2012 and basically stopping any further meaningful development. You can still purchase it — both the Mac and iOS version — and if you’re looking for a nice and lightweight email client on the Mac I’m tempted to still recommend it (on the iPhone, regrettably, its UI has remained like it was under iOS 6, so it’s a nice alternative only if you’re still using an iPhone 3GS or an iPhone 4 that hasn’t been updated to iOS 7). I’ve managed to retain the last version of Sparrow that could run on PowerPC Macs and it’s my default client on my older PowerBooks because it just feels faster and lighter than Mail on those systems.

Mobile

Mobile is a more flexible environment to create useful, original, more efficient alternatives to iOS’s Mail. Mailbox, Dispatch, Triage are the first third-party apps with an interesting approach that come to mind, plus there are decent email apps such as CloudMagic, Evomail+ or Molto, just to name a few. Smartphones and tablets are a different story, and the Multi-touch interface, the portable size of the devices, the different user-interface and user-interaction paradigms, in my opinion, offer more room for improvement or simply for trying more daring approaches to email management (e.g. an email client tailored to the smaller screen of a smartphone can focus on the triaging part of the process, and provide an optimised interface for the task, so that the triaging part becomes truly quicker, thus expediting email management).

For me it’s also easier to try different email clients on my iPhone and iPad because I don’t need to bring my whole email archive with me, nor do I need to handle all my email accounts while I’m out and about. I only monitor three main accounts, they’re all IMAP, so syncing is a breeze in case I’m trying out another email application.

And what about the new Inbox project by Google?

I’m moving away from Gmail, progressively closing and deleting all the accounts I’ve opened over the years. The hardest part is figuring out the services I’ve tied a certain Gmail account to, or if I’ve set up a certain Gmail account to act as a recovery account in case something goes wrong with yet another email account, so that I can change settings accordingly. So, as you can imagine, I’m not interested in Inbox in the least.

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The system’s babysitters?

I was reading this article on Macworld yesterday — Mac users say Yosemite 10.10.1 update did nothing to fix Wi-Fi — and a comment in particular got my attention, by user “BlueToronto”:

Most issues, if not every single one, that people are having with OS X updates & upgrades would be eliminated if you did a clean install. i.e. back up their Mac hard drive, initialize/erase it, re-install from scratch a clean OS X 10.10 from a bootable USB flash drive installer, then copy data back from backup.

DO NOT use Migration Assistant utility, as it brings back corrupt preferences and settings. (Apple includes it to make it easier to restore your data, but it brings with it a slew of issues.)
Hard drives, with age, get corrupt zeroes & ones. You want to eliminate corrupt files by not re-introducing them to your new clean Mac.
Yes, you will have to re-type passwords for wifi networks and email and instant messenger applications, but it’s a small price to pay.

I’ve never experienced any of the issues people complain about in the support forums, with a brand new Mac bought at the Apple Store. Why? Because they have a brand new clean installation on them without previous corruption.
(Now granted, if you buy a brand new Mac, then use Migration Assistant from your old Mac you’re replacing, some issues will still crop up because of corruption from your old Mac.).

Same thing with iOS8.
I had clients complaining that the iOS8 upgrade made their iPhone 5 & 5S virtually unusable.
But once I did a Restore Update (after backing up their iPhones first), wiped out the old data & initialized the iPhone’s flash drive, and installed fresh iOS8, all the issues, including speed issues, went away.

I had clients with mouths wide open in disbelief after seeing their Mac computers and iPhones/iPads working like brand new, nice & fast, no issues!

As someone who has done a lot of freelance tech support in the past, I do understand this point of view and I do agree that it’s possibly the best practice to follow if you want to keep your system tidy and your Mac in working order.

Your Mac is a tool, and like any other tool it works at its best if it’s properly maintained and taken care of. Yet, more and more often lately I’m wondering if perhaps the burden on users’ shoulders isn’t getting a bit too much to bear.

Back up the whole main drive, reformat it, perform a clean install of OS X Yosemite, copy back the data from the backup manually to avoid any issues… These are all sensible steps to follow, but part of me can’t help thinking: It’s 2014 — shouldn’t an operating system be smarter than that? Do we have to proceed like we used to do in previous decades, always babysitting systems and machines — the same systems that are supposed to make our lives easier?

I have approximately 350 GB worth of data on my MacBook Pro’s main drive at the moment. To upgrade to Yosemite following the ‘safe route’ outlined above means losing at least one day. It’s a slow, time-consuming, tedious procedure. Again, I agree it’s the most sensible from a pragmatic standpoint, but I feel this should be more like a last-resort, paranoiac scenario. Instead, especially with all OS X versions following Snow Leopard, this has become the best way to avoid surprises.

I don’t know if this kind of preventive measures before performing a system upgrade are needed now more than ever because Mac OS X has got worse (i.e. in the QA department) or simply more complex (therefore with more underlying bugs), or because the last releases of Mac OS X support many more Mac models and configurations than before; but while I previously felt comfortable upgrading to a newer Mac OS X version without having up-to-date backups or having to worry about possible side-effects, since OS X 10.7 Lion I’ve grown increasingly careful and wary. And I still haven’t upgraded to Yosemite because I’m really worried it could negatively affect the good performance I’m currently experiencing under Mavericks on my mid-2009 MacBook Pro.

What is worrying me with Yosemite more than previous OS X versions is that now, for the first time, a lot of people I know who already do a great job at maintaining their Macs and generally at babysitting their systems have experienced some issues after doing a simple upgrade to Yosemite (no clean install or anything). And the simple upgrade — open the Mac App Store, download Yosemite, and install — should be the way things ‘just work.’

Instead, some well-optimised Macs after Yosemite have been having serious issues with Wi-Fi connectivity, a marked decrease in battery life, a progressive performance worsening of the whole system after a few hours of usage (OS X getting more and more sluggish), random freezes and hangs… Very few people I know have told me their upgrade to Yosemite has been completely hassle-free, and a friend who said everything was alright told me yesterday that the update to OS X 10.10.1 actually screwed up his Mac’s Wi-Fi performance.

Having measures in place and good practice to protect our data is the least we can do today, and not having at least a Time Machine backup is just reckless and inexcusable. But I’m still convinced that one truly innovative thing would be to have more reliable, less finicky, operating systems’ installation processes. Users who have perfectly working Macs should be able to just click ‘update’ and wait for the process to complete without biting their nails in trepidation. But most importantly, users shouldn’t have to approach their computers as system administrators. It shouldn’t be up to the user to prepare the best possible ground for the system to update and work — the system should be smart enough to install properly, or at least to detect conflicts or data corruption during the installation process, alert the user about any problem encountered, and ideally point the user to a possible course of action to remedy the problem.

(I’ve focused on OS X Yosemite a lot in this article, but this applies to all current operating systems out there, whose installation/update procedures and maintenance are probably even more convoluted than OS X’s. I know a few Windows users who were basically forced to either reinstall their current system or upgrade to a newer version of Windows simply because one of Windows’ weakest elements — the Registry — got corrupted in a way that was beyond simple repairs or fixes. And my own recent experience with Android has left the impression that it’s a system that needs constant care and attention on the user’s part to guarantee a decent performance and user experience.)

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iOS 8.1.1 on iPad 2/iPad 3

The latest iOS 8.1.1 promises, among other fixes, to improve performance on older devices, such as the iPhone 4S and the iPad 2. Since we have an iPad 2 and an iPad 3 with iOS 8 in this household, I was eager to install the update and see for myself.

Back in September I wrote my initial impressions of iOS 8 on the iPad 2 and iPad 3, and concluded that, all in all, the experience wasn’t significantly different than iOS 7 on these devices. There was the occasional stutter, and sometimes the transitions in the interface were a bit slow, but nothing that made the update to iOS 8 an intolerable experience.

Things worked well under iOS 8.0 and 8.0.2. What I’ve failed to mention is that the update to iOS 8.1 wasn’t as smooth, and since updating to iOS 8.1 the stuttering and the slowness in transitions and animations were more pronounced. In particular, the transition from waking up the iPad and sliding on the lock screen to access the springboard had lost all its smoothness. At times the iPad seemed unusually stuck for a few seconds on the lock screen even after sliding to unlock, or the sliding was recognised but the lock screen simply budged a little. And entering the springboard was often jerky and the transition played like a video that keeps skipping frames. Same when exiting particularly resource-intensive apps.

I’m happy to report that, after updating both iPads to iOS 8.1.1, everything’s back to normal. Transitions and navigation are smooth once again. Swiping from screen to screen feels even smoother than under iOS 8.0 to 8.0.2. All the issues described in the previous paragraph are gone. Entering and exiting apps offers again a pleasant transition. Waking the iPad, sliding to unlock the lock screen, and entering the springboard — same story. My iPad 3 feels generally better and slightly more responsive. My wife’s iPad 2 feels less sluggish than under iOS 8.1. I’m really happy with this update, and if you own these devices and have experienced these issues, I do recommend you update to iOS 8.1.1 right away.

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Android as seen by a long-time iOS user

The necessary introduction

Before I even begin to share my observations on Android, there is one important premise to consider: my experience is based on hardware that is three years old, and on an Android version that is rather dated by today’s standards: 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s important and fair to emphasise this because later versions of Android have made significant progress with regard to user experience, so I may be complaining about details and issues that have been addressed and/or solved in the meantime. In general, from what I’ve seen, I’d say that with Android your mileage definitely varies, and your experience with this mobile operating system heavily depends on which hardware and OS version you’ll use.

My test unit

Sony Xperia Neo V

My wife recently upgraded to an iPhone 5, and this is the phone she was using before. Since she no longer uses it, I borrowed it and have used it as a secondary phone for the past month and a half or so. It’s a 2011 Sony Xperia Neo V smartphone, and these are its main tech specs:

  • Display: 3.7 inch, capacitive touchscreen, 854×480 pixels, 16 million colours, 265 PPI.
  • Rear Camera: 5 megapixel with auto focus, 16x digital zoom, LED flash. Video resolution: 720p.
  • Front Camera: Video resolution: VGA.
  • CPU: 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon (single-core)
  • RAM: 512 MB
  • Storage: 1 GB of internal storage (320 MB free); supports up to 32 GB of external storage via MicroSD card
  • Wi-Fi: 802.11b/g/n
  • Bluetooth: 2.1 + EDR
  • Cellular: GSM, UMTS, HSPA
  • Ports: Standard 3.5 mm headphone jack, Micro USB, Micro HDMI
  • Sensors: Proximity, Ambient light, Accelerometer

Software-wise, this is what I’ve done:

  • Rooted the phone.
  • Installed a customisation-free version of Ice Cream Sandwich.
  • Performed a small hack to have applications installed on the MicroSD card by default (instead of the phone’s internal memory).
  • Installed the free version of the Nova Launcher to spruce up the phone’s UI a bit.
  • Uninstalled or deactivated a bunch of apps and features that were useless to me (many little apps and services Sony installs by default, Facebook integration, etc.)

First impressions

This article wants to focus on the software, on my experience with Android, so I really haven’t got much to say about the hardware. The Xperia Neo V is a decent-enough phone. It’s made of plastic, but doesn’t feel too cheap when holding it. It doesn’t feel particularly luxurious either, though. The on/off/wake button, positioned on the top of the right side of the phone, is a bit too small and recessed for my tastes, and the Volume Up/Down rocker is too thin. The typical trio of Android buttons — Back, Home, Menu — positioned on the bottom is better, and the buttons, while thin, are clicky enough. As a long-time iPhone user, I’m accustomed to having the rear camera on the top left of the plate, and the central placement of the camera in this Sony smartphone feels awkward and I often placed my fingers on the camera lens involuntarily while holding and handling the phone.

Responsiveness: in general, using the camera app, and scrolling

I guess that a modern Android smartphone is usable enough out of the box. This phone, when new, shipped with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich is the last version you can officially upgrade to. Considering the phone’s responsiveness when I started using it right after my wife passed it to me, I’d say it’s wise not to try to install anything newer. The first impression I had was that the phone had become increasingly sluggish upgrade after upgrade, and that it needed some significant spring cleaning to gain a bit more speed and responsiveness. That’s why I proceeded with the customisations mentioned above.

Such customisations involved quite a bit of time spent visiting blogs and forums. Android is certainly an operating system for tinkerers, and if you’re looking for the best OS customisations for your phone, you’re going to lose yourself in a maze of forum threads, ROM variations, often hastily-written install instructions. (A lot of Android enthusiasts tend to assume you’re familiar with the slang, but if you’ve just entered the Android world and you’ve always used your iOS device without jailbreaking it, you’ll have to get accustomed to the various procedures to apply such modifications and customisations to your Android hardware, and sometimes you’ll stumble on install instructions that feel a bit cryptic.)

At the end of the process, and after a few restarts, the phone was overall in better shape, as I had practically wiped it and reinstalled the OS from scratch (on iOS, it would be like restoring an iPhone to its factory settings, and setting it up as a new phone). The UI was more responsive than before, but not everywhere. The two places where this Android phone keeps being sluggish no matter what I do are scrolling (especially inside apps; menu and interface navigation is okay) and the camera interface. The latter is especially frustrating because it produces an impossibly long shutter lag. The usual shooting experience is as follows: you launch the Camera app, you frame your shot, you tap the on-screen shutter button, there is an awkward pause where you don’t know whether the button tap has been registered, you finally hear the shutter sound. If, during that awkward pause, you moved the phone slightly to check whether the tap was registered or not, your photo will come out blurry. Sometimes I tapped the shutter button twice or three times, then I heard two instances of the shutter sound, thought that the phone had actually taken two or three shots of the same scene, but ended up with only one (bad) photo.

This particular phone has a dedicated hardware button that acts as camera shutter, and gives a comparatively better shooting experience. The problem is that it’s a tiny, mushy button: at first, what you think it’s the fully depressed position (the ‘shoot photo’ position) is actually the half-press position used to focus on the subject. To take the photo, you have to exercise a stronger pressure on the button which, in turn, makes you move the phone a bit, often leading to blurry photos. In short, to take decent photos with this phone, you’ll need to be patient and have very steady hands. Oh, and the hardware camera button works best in landscape mode, of course, since it’s positioned in such a way that it only makes sense when you hold the phone horizontally.

As for scrolling, it’s always been one of the most problematic features in Android. I’m sure modern phones with the latest versions of Android have achieved a certain smoothness when scrolling, but this phone, with Ice Cream Sandwich, performs noticeably worse than my three iPhones — the 3G, 3GS and 4 — which are all older hardware than the Xperia. The annoying bit is that the smoothness in scrolling actually varies from app to app: the built-in browser is jerky, the Gmail app less so, and the Twitter and App.net clients I’ve chosen (Tweedle and Dash, respectively) are definitely better and smoother. But even these different performances may vary according to the background processes going on at any given time, so that the performance is often unpredictable or even degrading the more you use an app.

Things that surprised me positively

Just in case you’re still reading and thinking that this is one of those pieces written by an iOS aficionado with the sole purpose of bashing Android, my experience hasn’t been completely negative.

  • True, the camera software’s responsiveness is disastrous, and scrolling is sometimes jerky, but the overall responsiveness of the system has been, so far, better than I had anticipated. My previous brief experiences with older Android devices and OS versions made me develop a certain degree of prejudice towards Android. I still think iOS’s has an unparalleled level of smoothness and responsiveness, but I honestly thought Android would be much worse, and I stand corrected.
  • I was similarly prejudiced towards Android apps, but in my Play Store explorations I’ve stumbled on a certain amount of polished apps, and those few I have installed (Google apps, the aforementioned Twitter and App.net clients, the Dropbox and Evernote clients, the IMDb app, Spotify, and an app called TV Show Time to keep track of the TV series I follow, are all great apps with clean, elegant interfaces.
  • Speaking of the Play Store app itself, I think it’s actually better designed than iOS’s App Store. Search and navigation are often better, and I also like how the information for a single app is presented in more detail.
  • Say what you want about Roboto, the system font. I’ve found it to be quite readable and functional.
  • Another pleasant detail, but this is also related to the hardware: the notification light. This Xperia smartphone (like many other Android phones) has an indicator light near the on/off/wake button which lights up when charging the phone, but that can also be used by apps as a blinking notification light. I think it’s very useful, firstly because you can receive notifications in a subtler way, and secondly because you don’t have to wake the phone every time to check if you’ve received notifications while you weren’t looking or were otherwise busy.
  • There are certain customisation aspects in Android that I do like, such as placing useful widgets directly on the screen. iOS has got widgets and extensions in the latest iOS 8, but they’re placed on another layer of the UI, a layer you actively pull down every time you want to see a widget or interact with it. On Android, widgets can be permanently visible, and for certain applications and use cases, this makes a lot of sense.

Some aspects of Android I keep finding baffling

The status bar — I don’t know in version 5, but all the Android devices I’ve seen and interacted with so far are plagued by a status bar that gets messy and crowded with icons rather quickly. The problem with Android’s status bar is that it’s used to display both permanent and temporary bits of information. You have the time, the battery indicator, the signal strength indicator, the Wi-Fi icon when connected to Wi-Fi networks. But then you have transient icons that appear on the status bar after a notification and remain there until you pull down the notification sheet and see what it’s all about.

The two issues I have with these transient icons are: 1) Sometimes they’re obscure — at least for someone who’s accustomed to iOS. The other day I saw a small rectangle in the far left of the status bar and had no idea what it represented nor why had it appeared, until I pulled down the notification sheet (it was a warning that the SD card was not mounted). 2) Sometimes they repeat themselves, and that produces unnecessary clutter on the status bar. For example, the other day I woke the phone, and since I had received two mentions on Twitter and two on App.net, there were two Tweedle icons and two Dash icons in the status bar.

An additional, mildly annoying detail is that in my experience, apart from the clock and battery icon, the icons on the status bar don’t have a fixed position. They load on boot in a manner that reminds me of the right side of the Windows taskbar, where the icons of memory resident programs appear from right to left as they load. In both scenarios, icons don’t always appear in the same sequence. I’m accustomed to iOS’s status bar, where icons have a generally fixed position, so I get the information they display with just a quick glance. On Android, I often feel I need to pay more attention to what happens over there in the status bar.

The Back hardware button — It’s both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes an app misbehaves or hangs, and you usually manage to get back one screen thanks to the Back hardware button. Or the app hasn’t the clearest of UIs, you really don’t know how to go back one step, so the Back button comes to the rescue. The problem is that it works inconsistently throughout different apps. One behaviour the Back button should not have, in my opinion, is to let you go so far back as to quit the app. There’s the Home button for that. The Back button should just take you back in the hierarchy of screens or menus inside an app as far back as the main screen/menu/state; that’s it.

The Menu hardware button — Again, it’s very useful and predictable 90% of the time. In my experience exploring the Xperia phone, pressing the Menu button has generally meant invoking a context-aware options menu. The problem is that there are apps where pressing this same button invokes the app’s main menu. It’s not a big deal, functionally: you wanted a menu, you get a menu. But it’s not consistent from a GUI standpoint. Most of the times the invoked menu slides up from the bottom of the screen, and it has the graphical appearance of a system menu, but there are instances where, as I said, the menu you get is just the app’s main menu, the same you would obtain by swiping right or tapping the Hamburger icon.

The handling of background processes — I don’t know if this has got better with newer Android versions, but on this phone and with Ice Cream Sandwich, this has been possibly the single most infuriating thing of my whole Android experience. It all seems quite random and I haven’t been able to reproduce the issue but, long story short, sometimes one or more processes go rogue, keep the system occupied in the background, and the result is the fastest battery drain I’ve ever seen. I’m talking from full charge to 28% in less than an hour. This despite setting up Gmail to check for email manually, having turned the GPS off, having turned off account syncing, having turned on the Don’t Keep Activities and Show all ANRs options in the Developer options menu and having limited the number of allowed background processes.

Sometimes this excess activity that results in battery drain appears to have something to do with the Internet connection, because as soon as I enter Airplane Mode, the draining stops. Other times it happens anyway: last week I charged the phone overnight, checked it was charged 100% in the morning, then picked it up a few hours later and the phone wouldn’t wake from stop: the battery had drained completely and the phone had shut down. Checking in Settings > Battery usually reveals abnormal resource usage by “Android OS” and “Phone idle” processes. I searched the Web and, again, lost myself in a maze of forum threads; I’ve tried the occasional trick, but nothing really seems to be a definitive fix. I’m sure it can be fixed, but I’ve lost patience and just use the device for brief periods, keep an eye on battery drain, and put it on Airplane Mode or recharge it as needed. Needless to say, I couldn’t rely on this phone to be my primary phone unless I brought the charger along as well everywhere I go. And I’m a tech-savvy user — imagine what would happen to a regular person who doesn’t even know where to look.

Multiple default apps that basically do the same things — On this Xperia phone, I have three default apps to see photos: “3D Album,” “Gallery,” and “Xperia Gallery.” I have a “Clock” app and an “Alarms” app that appear to be just two different shortcuts to enter the same app. Then there are two camera apps, “Camera” and “3D Camera”. Then two “Calendar” apps (same name, slightly different icons). Then an “Email” and a “Gmail” app. I’m sure there were more, but I must have deleted them.

The whole internal memory / MicroSD card storage division and storage handling — Again, I don’t know how current Android phones handle this, but on this Sony Xperia Neo V this division drives me nuts. The phone comes with an internal memory storage of 1 GB, and the operating system takes at least 2/3 of it, leaving you with roughly 300 MB free. In theory, this is all the free space you have at your disposal to install new apps. With a MicroSD card inserted, you can of course move certain apps from the internal memory to the card (not all of them indiscriminately, though), but even when you move the largest apps to the MicroSD card, the internal storage appears to be used anyway by the active apps as a sort of swap space. Despite the two hacks I performed to avoid this bottleneck in storage handling — rooting the phone allows me to move more stuff from the internal memory to the MicroSD card, and setting up the MicroSD card as default destination lets me download large apps from the Play Store and install them on the card directly — I am presently stuck with only 47 MB free of internal memory, and I can’t install the 6 pending app updates because I get the “There is not enough memory on this device” error — and I have 4.6 GB free on the MicroSD card!

The irony is that from what I’ve seen in my experience using this device, Android apps tend to be a bit smaller in size than iOS apps on average, and the Android OS takes up less space than iOS. Yet, this bizarre way of handling internal/external storage severely limits the amount of apps I can install — or simply update — despite having plenty of unused space. (On my iPhone I can’t expand the internal storage with a MicroSD card, but at least the 16 GB I have are handled uniformly and can be used to install apps, store photos, music, etc. all in the same place.) When I asked my wife how she handled this situation when she used the phone, she told me that she had basically given up installing new apps, that whenever she found an app she wanted to install, she had to delete another to make some room for it. I hope Android has got better at handling storage in newer versions because as an iOS user, all this really seems insane to me.

The experience overall — final observations

I have talked at length about what I don’t like or find problematic. The experience wasn’t a complete disaster, however. Despite the issues, and despite the fact that I used a relatively old device with a relatively old Android version, I found the Android OS to be better than I expected. I was eager to test drive an Android phone because I was worried I was getting too prejudiced in my criticism against Android, so I wanted to experience it more extensively and thoroughly than just playing around for ten minutes with a handset borrowed from a friend. There are many things to like about Android, and its design and UI are definitely getting better version after version. If my iPhone stopped working and I had to resort to a cheaper Android phone for a while, I guess I could switch without too much hassle.

But it must be a current phone, with the latest Android version, certainly not this Xperia with Ice Cream Sandwich. The root of pretty much everything negative about my experience with this specific Android hardware and setup has been this: I’ve often had the feeling I wasn’t dealing with an intuitive, standalone, homogeneous device, but rather with a computer crammed into a smaller interface, having typical ‘computer problems’ to attend to or to watch out for. Remember Windows Mobile 6? That was a complete disaster because even the UI looked like a shrunk Windows computer and you had to delicately tap microscopic targets and menus and options with a toothpick-sized stylus. Android’s UI is much, much better on the outside, but still, the troubleshooting part in particular reminds me all too well of the kind of computer problems I had to deal with when I was doing tech support as a freelancer.

In other words, a smartphone owner shouldn’t worry about stuck or misbehaving background processes that eat up resources, slow down the whole phone’s interface, and drain the battery in a couple of hours. A smartphone owner shouldn’t spend time seeking hacks to make the phone store apps on the MicroSD card by default. A smartphone owner shouldn’t even spend time searching the Web for the shortcut to capture a screenshot. A smartphone owner shouldn’t worry about constantly moving apps from the internal storage to the MicroSD card to save space, space that’ll run out very soon anyway. All these are issues for geeks, tinkerers and power users, not regular people who use their smartphone to do basic tasks and trust their smartphone to perform such tasks with minimal to no fuss.

iOS is far from perfect, but it’s still pretty much ahead on this front. Again, as I said at the beginning, my impressions are based on the specific experience with dated hardware and software. If you’d like me to try more modern Android hardware and software, feel free to send it to me, and I’ll gladly write a review.

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Message listing: Unison 2.2 vs Unison 1.8.1

I have been a long-time user of Panic’s Unison application for reading Usenet newsgroups. As of two days ago, Panic has discontinued Unison, but in the greatest way possible given the circumstances: by releasing a new version, 2.2, and making the application free.

I’ve remained on version 1.8.1 for quite a while, not because I didn’t like version 2, but simply because I must have changed Unison’s settings a while back — or perhaps the preferences file got corrupted, I can’t remember — and I went on using the application blissfully unaware of further updates.

So, when the news of Unison’s discontinuation hit the tech sphere, I visited Panic’s blog and realised Unison has got to version 2.2, and that it’s now free, so why not download it and take advantage of the new and improved software? That I did. And I like the UI improvements overall, but there’s one annoying detail that has driven me to go back to version 1.8.1 — the message list font and size aren’t customisable anymore.

Here’s Unison 1.8.1 with my current settings (Message list font is Bell Centennial at 18pt):

Unison 181 ui

 

And here’s Unison 2.2:

Unison 22 ui

 

In version 2.x the message list font and size are fixed to what appears to be Lucida Grande at 11pt. Which makes reading quite uncomfortable for me. When taking a look at message lists in Usenet newsgroups, I think it’s important to be able to skim through the various subjects and threads without effort. Newsgroups messages aren’t personal email — you don’t have to read everything, so you tend to skim often. Unison 2.x default (and fixed) message list font settings err too much on the small side, at least for my eyes. You may not like my font choice in Unison 1.8.1, but you can’t deny it makes the message list much easier to read.

It’s of course too late for a feature request to correct this issue, but I wanted to bring this up because it’s something I’ve noticed in other applications, too — I’m referring to the removal of a certain degree of customisation as applications get updated. Sometimes the freedom given to the user to customise an application’s interface is enormous, to the point that you may spend an incredible amount of time just setting up different fonts for different parts of the interface (think NetNewsWire, for example). Sometimes you get the feeling that many of the customisation options aren’t all that necessary. But in Unison’s case, I feel that taking away the ability to set the font and the font size of the message list was not a wise decision with regard to usability.

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