Geekery, Technology

Android 4.0 and the Galaxy Tab 8.9

This post is ridiculously late coming. This tablet found a new home several months ago, but it would drive me crazy if I didn’t finish this write-up. Subsequently, some of the information here is a bit out-of-date, and I try to acknowledge where those points are.

Updating to an Outdated System

When I first opened my Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 back in early 2012, one of the first apps I installed was Temple Run – which promptly crashed. A month later, my tablet updated from Android 3.1 to 3.2, and the crashing problem disappeared. I was grateful for the update but couldn’t help but notice that Android 3.2 had originally been released in July of 2011. That meant my brand new Samsung tablet shipped with a version of Android that was over a year old, and an incremental point update came to it almost a year late. In fact, Android 4.0 was released a few months before I got my shiny tablet. Surely, another update was imminent.

A couple months after Android 4.2 saw its debut at Google I/O, Samsung rolled out the 4.0 update to my Galaxy Tab, and that right there was and still is my biggest sticking point with a large portion of Android manufacturers. System updates should not come months after their release. Yes, there are a small subset of Android devices that guarantee timely updates, but those are the exception, not the rule. By and large, if you go out and buy an Android tablet, chances are that you will:

  1. Be purchasing an outdated version of Android.
  2. Have to wait a long time to take advantage of new releases, if you’ll get them at all.

If you bought a Galaxy Tab in 2011, your device stopped getting Android updates after Android 4.0 which also came out in 2011 (but you got the update in mid-2012). If you bought an iPad in 2011, it will update to iOS 7 when it comes out later this year, on the same day it comes out for all Apple devices. Of course, you can do all sorts of warranty-voiding things to get around the lack of updates on an Android tablet, but you shouldn’t have to. I personally like the idea of rooting a Nook HD+ to install Android 4.3, but a normal tablet user should not have to consider such alternatives to receive timely updates. If there is anything about the Android ecosystem that still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s this.

The Good Stuff

The single biggest and best improvement Android 4.0 brings is the ability to install Google Chrome and set it as your default browser. Almost all of the browser issues I had previously are gone with the introduction of Chrome, and, unlike iOS where Chrome has to exist as a wrapper to Apple’s WebKit, the Android version is true Chrome. Most pages render correctly. HTML5 video works as expected. It even helpfully zooms in on small links and buttons when you tap in their general regions.

On a related note, I love being able to define default apps in Android, and Google provides a very simple method for choosing things like your default browser. You can even replace the default launcher with a third-party alternative, and I found myself preferring GO Launcher HD over TouchWiz. If I was to put together a list of features I’d like Apple to copy from Android (and I might just do that now), the ability to choose your default apps for certain tasks would be right at the top of the list.

I like that Android has an app launcher separate and apart from the home screen. I would keep my Android tablet’s single home screen very clean and minimal, and use the app launcher to access my stuff. Another great feature of the launcher is the ability to hide apps. You might have some apps – like the preloaded browser – that you can’t delete but you never use. Just hide them. This is also nice if you have apps that you might not want your kids to open. Hide them, and bring them back when you want to use them. (Of course, Android 4.3 takes care of this with the creation of user accounts.)

Other nice touches:

  • Android 4.0 adds support for folders.
  • You can now customize the number of home screens on a tablet.
  • Setting a custom wallpaper has gotten easier.
  • Home screen widgets are very nice. I do not like them on a phone, but they fit very well on a larger screen.
  • The windowed mini-apps are great for utilities that don’t need the entire tablet real estate.
  • Sharing on an Android device is far more than robust than on an iOS device since the sharing API is open to all developers.

Quibbles & Bits

Updating to Android 4.0 added no new issues, but many of those I noted in last year’s review are still present.

  • After the 4.0 update, I still couldn’t put common games like Bejeweled and Scrabble on my device without side-loading pirated versions. There is no technical reason for this to be the case outside the tablet being overlooked amidst the highly fragmented Android ecosystem.
  • Apps continue to launch themselves in the background and consume system resources. It appears background apps will simply continue to launch and run until the system is almost out of memory.
  • Managing notifications on an app-by-app basis is a pain.
  • The stock Gallery app loads every image on the system, sometimes creating directories of interface elements for installed apps.
  • The button for activating Samsung’s mini-apps still lives directly below the space bar, interrupting your workflow if you miss the space bar by a millimeter while using the on-screen keyboard.
  • The ubiquitous back button is still unpredictable.
  • Scrolling through documents, webpages, photos, etc. was still periodically jittery. On paper, the device is more powerful than my old iPod touch. There’s no reason it should give the impression of being less responsive.

The Store

The tablet app situation is improving, with Google working hard to motivate their developers to focus on tablets, but Google Play is still a decidedly phone-centric app destination. You can find a category in Google Play that highlights tablet-friendly apps, but, unlike the Apple App Store, searching in Google Play on a tablet does not automatically prioritize tablet-optimized results. Also, I can’t get over how many shameless knockoffs (like this and this) exist and even flourish on Google Play.

While the media offerings on Google Play are not as robust as the iTunes store, the selection is still very good. Google Play Music has a great selection, and the prices are competitive with iTunes and Amazon MP3. The movie and television selection seems similar on the surface, but a disappointingly large number of movies, like The Dark Knight and the Harry Potter films, are available only as rentals, meaning you have to look elsewhere if you want to own your media.

Google Play Books seems to have a collection very comparable to Apple’s iBooks. The prices are good, and Play Books is a very pleasant ebook reader. You can even upload your own EPUBs and PDFs to view on your tablet. Nook still sits atop my list of reader apps, but Google’s app, while the selection may be smaller, is a far more pleasant experience than Amazon’s Kindle app. Google’s bookstore and is easily the strongest component of Google Play.

Wrapping Up

For every feature an Adnroid devices does right, there is a misstep to counter it. Good system specs get paired with poor optimization, creating the illusion of an underpowered device. Good security updates get hampered by staggered and delayed release schedules that compromise user security. Innovative new features (like multi-user accounts) stay constrained to the newest devices and a very small percentage of existing devices. Amazing screens are hampered by a lack of apps designed for them. Every advantage gets an equal and opposite disadvantage.

I parted ways with my Galaxy Tab some time ago, and I can’t say I miss it. That’s not to say I’ll never again own an Android device, but I can’t see the Android ecosystem becoming the center of my digital life in the foreseeable future. Despite Google’s efforts, fragmentation in the Android ecosystem is improving at a barely glacial rate. They’ve put themselves in an uncomfortable position where carriers and manufacturers have more control over the Android user experience than they do. I can’t imagine they’re thrilled about it, but, outside of using some uncharacteristically draconian tactics, there’s little more they can do.

In the end, I’m in the place I was when initially reviewing the Galaxy Tab 8.9 a year ago. If you just want a good, usable tablet, get an iPad or an iPad mini. iOS is not an ideal tablet environment, but the iTunes App Store is a nearly perfect tablet destination. Also, iOS is consistently smooth and responsive on even more modest iPads whereas you need a much more powerful Android tablet to get comparable responsiveness. If you are staunchly anti-Apple, and you want Android to be your alternative, then a Nexus device is my recommendation. You will get more timely updates, and the both the Nexus 10 and Nexus 7 feature good hardware for their price points. I’ll be curious to see where Android will go in the next few years, and I hope it continues to improve and push the overall tablet market in new and innovative directions.

On a related note, if you enjoy ogling screenshots, be sure to check out my Android 4.0 gallery.

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