Tag Archive | "android"

Chrome for Android Ups the HTML5 Ante; Now Scores Highest of Any Mobile Browser

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Chrome Beta for Android phones and tablets was launched just last week by Google. Unfortunately, it’s restricted to Android 4.0 and beyond, which means in all likelihood, only about 1% of you currently have access to it. Although the default Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich browser is Chrome-like in many ways, the Chrome Beta brings the Chrome aesthetic to the Android platform along with an emphasis on synchronization and a big boost to web-standards compatibility.

In addition to syncing your bookmarks from desktop to mobile and back, Chrome for Android also lets you open tabs on your phone or tablet that are currently open on your computer. Unfortunately, this isn’t a two way street (you can’t access tabs currently on your phone/tablet from the desktop browser). You can also command pages to open on your phone using the Chrome to Mobile Beta extension, although this feature has always been possible with the older Chrome to Phone extension which only requires Android 2.2+ to use.

With Chrome for Android, your familiar omnibox comes with you as well. If you frequently visit a site through Chrome on your desktop, your omnibox will pick up on those queues on your mobile as well, helping you get to the site you want more quickly. There’s also incognito browsing on Chrome for Android, but this feature is present in the default browser as well, so it won’t be anything new if you’re already on Android 4.0+.

Chrome for Android actually makes perhaps its biggest stride in a mostly invisible, but utterly important area: web compatibility. Just the other week I published a story showing which mobile browser had the best compatibility with the still-evolving  HTML5 standard. At the time, RIM’s in-development browser was at the top of the list with a score of 329 from HTML5test.com, while the highest scoring currently-released browser was mobile Firefox (available for multiple versions of Android) with a score of 313. Although Chrome for desktop has long led or been consistently among the top most compatible HTML5 browsers, the default browser on Android was actually far behind the curve with a score of only 256 for the Android 4.0 ICS version of the browser, and just 182 for the Android 2.2/2.3 version of the browser which the vast majority of smartphones are running.

With the release of Chrome for Android, Google has make a significant improvement to HTML5 compatibility over the default browser, improving by 87 points over the Android 4.0 ICS browser and a whopping 161 points over the Android 2.2/2.3 version. At 343 points, Chrome for Android now stands as the #1 most compatible HTML5 browser. This isn’t quite as high a score as the desktop counterpart, which currently scores 373 in the test, but it’s a good sign of things to come.

Chrome for Android uses the same rendering engine as the default Android browser as far as I can tell, so you likely won’t see any major performance gains (although I am noting a ~200ms improvement in Sundspider between the default browser and Chrome). However, the user interface is more interactive and offers many improvements over the default browser (especially if you’re using the pre-ICS browser). Another new feature is a link preview box which automatically pops up when Chrome is unsure which link you’ve clicked (where there are many links close together). You’ll see a little box pop up which magnifies the links and makes them easier to click. This is handy, but half the time I can’t even get it to come up on purpose which makes me question how well they are able to detect when it will be needed.

I’ve got the Galaxy Nexus on hand and I’ve been trying Chrome for Android since it came out. While I’ve got issues with a few user-interface inconsistencies and a stalling omnibox (hopefully to be fixed post-beta), it’s undeniable that Chrome for Android can provides a much richer and more ‘hands-on’ experience thanks to a rethought UI.

I don’t have a tablet running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich handy so I haven’t been able to get a feel for Chrome for Android in that form. Fortunately, our pal Ritchie from Ritchie’s Room has the Asus Transformer Prime (now upgraded to Android 4.0 ICS) and put together a great video showing what the experience is like (his written thoughts on the browser are here):

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79x67bjZGtA

As you can see, it looks very much like Chrome on the desktop. This is a great thing because it really extends the Chrome browser experience across multiple platforms; not just in terms of synced bookmarks, but also in look and feel. Imagine how close to a desktop experience you’d get if you were running Chrome for Android on a tablet hooked up for use as a desktop computer!

One thing I wish Chrome for Android would do is sync your ‘Most Viewed’ sites that are shown when you open a new tab. At the moment, the ‘Most Viewed’ section exists on Chrome for Android, but it only considers sites that you’ve viewed on your phone, not those on the desktop as well. This may be intentional (as one might browse differently when on desktop or mobile), but it also might be attributable to the ‘Beta’ tag currently adorning this initial release of Chrome for Android. Also not currently functioning in the browser is Flash. Again, this might be a beta thing, or perhaps Google is putting the final nail in the coffin.

It’s unclear if Google intends to eventually turn Chrome into the default browser for Android, but I think you’ll agree with me in saying that it would make a lot of sense. The boring default browser has long lacked any thoughtful tab management or much of a user interface; Chrome for Android feels like a big (overdue) step in the right direction. It would be odd if Google maintained two separate mobile browsers for Android, but it isn’t outside the realm of possibility — it likely depends upon the organization and cooperation of the Android team and the Chrome team within Google.

If Google treats the Chrome Beta like most products they’ve ever labeled with ‘beta’, be prepared to see that beta tag for years to come!

Using the Galaxy Nexus as a Desktop Computer [video]

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As a long time UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC) user, having a single device that could function as a mobile companion and a desktop computer has been a long time dream. For years I used Sony’s excellent UX180 UMPC to facilitate this sort of usage, but cramming a full desktop OS into a handheld package was not a solution that could work for the mainstream. Trying to scale from big to small proved to be difficult for battery life and control schemes. In the end the UMPC never reached out of the niche category. The dream, however, has lived on.

Could Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich be the OS that not only bridges the gap between smartphone and tablet, but also extends to the desktop?

It seems that scaling from small to large may be a better approach for the computer-as-a-desktop paradigm, as is evident from this video demonstrating such usage with a Galaxy Nexus hooked up to a large monitor, wireless keyboard and trackpad:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_–zcmqIyRI

If the demonstration above isn’t a compelling look at where the future of mobile computing could lead, I don’t know what is!

Seeing this really reawakens that dream of having a single device that can scale gracefully across multiple use-cases. Chippy calls this sort of multiple-scenario functionality ‘High Dynamic Range Computing‘ (HDRC); among other challenges, he warns that the industry may resist supporting HDRC because they want us to continue to purchase multiple devices instead of just one.

The author of the video makes a great point — this is already a pretty good experience, but it’s rarely even touted as a feature of the platform (maybe that’s some of the resistance coming into play).

We’ve seen similar multi-scenario computing with Android devices before. The Motorola Atrix has an optional ‘lapdock’ which gives the user a large screen and full keyboard, and even a full build of Linux Firefox to use. Alternatively, the Atrix could be hooked up to a dock with HDMI output for use with a full monitor. Though less broad in scope, Asus is leading the way with the ‘smartbooks’ form-factor by offering detachable keyboards to their line of Transformer tablets.

If Google started to push this sort of usage, they could give all Android users HDRC functionality which would provide a productive environment when the device is hooked up to the right peripherals. It seems like all of the core functionality is already built into Android. Google could get an important upper-hand on Apple with this strategy as Apple would likely shy away from this sort of power-user feature.

What’s your take on HDRC with Android devices? Is this something you’d like to see further developed, or would you rather keep your productivity and your smartphone consumption separate?

Report: Smartphone Screens Growing over Time, 5″ Screens the Norm by End of 2013

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I’ve been following a disturbing trend over the last few years as the Android platform (and now WP7 as well) matures. Smartphone screen sizes just keep growing and growing, and they don’t seem to want to stop. I have a number of issues with smartphones that have overly-large screens. It pains me to see that, while Android is known for giving users many choices, it’s nearly impossible to get a reasonably-sized flagship phone. For me, for a smartphone to be a ‘smartphone’ at all, and not a tablet, it has to be easily usable with one hand. Of course then the definition of smartphone/tablet will change from person to person, because our hands are not all the same size, however, there is certainly a finite limit for everyone where a phone will become too big to be comfortably used with one hand.

I’m currently testing the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. So far it’s been a rather wonderful phone, and I recently wrote this on Google Plus:

I’ve been using the iPhone for 3 generations. Right now I’m testing a Galaxy Nexus. If they made the same exact phone in a size that’s actually comfortable for one-hand use, I might call myself an Android convert. Curse you 4″+ screens and the awful fad that you are!

For me, the 4.65″ screen on the Galaxy Nexus is just too big. I constantly have to shuffle the phone around in my hand because Android places the two most frequently used aspects of the interface (the menu buttons and the notification drawer) at opposite ends of the phone. The size of the phone and the required shuffling means that I’ve got a poor grip on it, and I’ve been rather worried about dropping it during use. Again, those with larger hands will not have the same issue at 4.65″, but at some point they will run into the same problem.

Android Handset Screen Size Over Time

To show the trends of Android smartphone screen sizes over time, I compiled screen size and release date data from 155 smartphones from five major manufacturers (Motorola, Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG). I’d like to thank PDADB.net for their comprehensive release date info. (click to enlarge graphs)

   

 

As you can see, since the introduction of the 3.2″ HTC Dream / G1, screen sizes have consistently increased. Today we’re seeing 4″, 4.5″, 4.7″, 5″, and even 5.3″ smartphones! A simple projection (seen on the main chart) suggests that before 2013 is out, many handsets will have 5″ screens, while the flagship phones of that time may have even larger screens (if this trend continues) of 5.5″ or perhaps 6″.

With a slope of 0.0016, LG is increasing its Android smartphone screen sizes the most rapidly of these five manufactures. Despite pioneering some of the largest phones on the market at certain points in the timeline, Motorola is actually showing the slowest rate of increase in Android smartphone screen size with a slope of 0.0009, but of course this isn’t very far off from the leader!

Why is This Happening?

A good question to ask is what’s prompting the growth in screen size. It seems natural for manufacturers to have experimented with screen sizes as the platform grew legs. Different screen sizes are a point of differentiation for an Android phone manufacturer — a way to stand out in a sea of similar options. Bigger screens were also an easy way for companies to try to beat out the iPhone on features, even if the ‘bigger is better’ argument doesn’t hold much water in this case. Now it seems to have turned into a snowball effect whereby manufacturers are trying to one-up each other to have the biggest screen in town (all the while, Apple has stuck with 3.5″ since the introduction of their handsets). You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard the phrase “biggest and baddest” when marketers are referring to a new Android phone. They use this phrase as though bigger is always better, but I must say — when it comes to comfortable one-handed smartphone use — it is not.

Where Does It Stop?

My question is this: where do we draw the line? As I mentioned, despite variations in hand sizes, everyone reaches a limit of comfortable one-hand usability at some point. I don’t have the raw data to back it up, but I believe that Android smartphone screen sizes are rapidly surpassing the maximum size for comfortable one-handed use by the average Android customer. None of this is to say there aren’t advantages to having a larger screen (particularly when it comes to media viewing), but given that people much more frequently use their smartphones for apps rather than media viewing, the argument for surpassing a users one-handed comfort zone to provide a better media experience is a poor one.

It’s not so much that screen-sizes are increasing (the chart clearly shows that other sizes are still available), but the bothersome fact is that it’s near-impossible to get a flagship phone unless you’re willing to buy one of the massive phones on the market. If you want a phone that comes in a size that’s comfortable for one-handed use, you have to be willing to settle as a second-class Android citizen — the only options available to you will likely have slower processors, less RAM (and may be based on an older platform) than the newest and biggest flagship phone currently on the market.

 

Which Mobile Browser Has the Best HTML5 Support?

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No matter how fast your tablet or smartphone is, without proper web-standards support, you may run into roadblocks while trying to do various online tasks. It’s hard to pin down one single instance where lack of standards support is going to hurt you, but for me what it really comes down to is confidence in one’s browser. By this I mean: when I leave the house and have only my smartphone with me, I might need to do something through the browser that I’ve never done before (and thus don’t know whether or not it will work correctly); I should have confidence that my phone will be able to handle it.

I’ll give you one example: several years ago I was standing in a long line to buy lift tickets at a ski resort. Only after we’d been standing in line did we come to know that you could get a discount if you pre-purchased the tickets online. Smartphone-in-hand, we went to the resort’s website and pre-purchased lift tickets for the group while waiting in line. Had my smartphone not had sufficient browser standards support, it’s very likely that I wouldn’t have been able to properly interact with the resort’s website — whether it be a drop down list, radio button, or form-entry mechanics, which just might not have worked quite right, preventing me from completing the task at hand. Having the confidence that you’ll be able to do nearly anything through the browser of your smartphone/tablet that you could do from your desktop is an important factor in anyone who is serious about mobile productivity. And while my example above obviously wasn’t a very big deal; imagine yourself in a business situation where some vital task needs to be accomplished in a pinch, and you’ve got only your smartphone with you. Screw it up and miss the deadline and you’ve lost the big account — only because you weren’t able to do what you thought you could through your mobile browser.

HTML5 represents the latest version of standardized web language. A browser that fully supports HTML5 and a website written properly with HTML5 means that there should be perfect parity between the functionality of the website and the ability of the browser to interpret that website — and allow you to do pretty much anything from your smartphone/tablet that you could do from your desktop browser. With this in mind, you may be interested, as I am, in seeing which mobile browsers have the best HTML5 support to date. Be sure to note that HTML5 is still under development, so ‘full compatibility’ is a moving goal post at this point, and scores are being improved with every browser/OS update. Before you look at the results, why don’t you guess which platform/browser will have the best HTML5 support. Go on, guess!

HTML5 Test Mobile Browser Scores

I mostly kept the most modern version of each operating system’s browser on the chart, except I kept Android 2.2/2.3 and 3.0/3.1/3.2 because the vast majority of Android smartphones are still running 2.2/2.3 while most Android tablets are running 3.0/3.1/3.2.

Unlike what I would have expected, even as of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the default Android browser is not leading the pack of HTML5 compatible browsers. Actually, currently in the lead is the second version of RIM’s tablet OS which scores an impressive 329. Of course, this is still in development and even when it’s released, it won’t be running on all that many devices (burn! sorry, RIM). In that case, the real winner at the moment is actually Firefox Mobile 9, which sort of puts Android in the lead by a loophole (their platform allows such apps to exist!). Firefox Mobile 9 scores 313 which is doubly good because it can run on any Android device with 2.0 or beyond. After Firefox Mobile 9 is Safari on iOS 5 which trails not far behind with a score of 305.

So what does one take away from this? Well, if you’re on Android (even if you’re using the very latest version), it might be in your best interest to have a copy of Firefox installed for those times when you absolutely need a website to work. It’s fortunate for Android that Firefox is stepping up the game with HTML5 compatibility as the current most popular Android installs have relatively weak compatibility, and even the very latest build isn’t in the top 5.

And Then There’s Internet Explorer…

Oh, Internet Explorer. What a reputation you’ve earned for yourself. I’m so glad the world is no longer oppressed by your reign of terror; now we’ve got excellent alternatives like Chrome, Firefox, and others. It seems like Microsoft is doomed to have an inferior browser — even their new mobile offering, Windows Mobile 7, can’t escape the curse.

Though I still cringe when I see the IE icon on the Windows Phone 7 start screen, the browser actually works pretty well. It’s unobtrusive and quite responsive. When it comes to compatibility however, it doesn’t impress. When I first tested Windows Mobile 7, Internet Explorer scored a paltry 17 on the HTML5 test! The most modern mobile incarnation of Internet Explorer, found with WP 7.5 (Mango), still finds itself at the very bottom of the charts, scoring only 141 points.

The saddest part about this is that Windows Phone needs browser compatibility more than any of the others. Why? Because the platform is having a hard time attracting triple-A app developers. For users, this means that they may need to fall back to web-apps to make use of their favorite services. Without good compatibility support in the browser, web-apps aren’t guaranteed to work, even if they were designed to be multi-platform. The whole point of HTML5 as a standardized language is that being able to build one website that is fully functional, regardless of which device or browser is being used, is advantageous to both web developers and users. Because WP7 is one of the less adopted mobile platforms currently on the market, it’s unlikely that web developers are going to have custom-made web-apps created to function with the proprietary nature of IE on WP7. Instead, they’re going to make a web-standards compatible site that can work across multiple devices (especially considering that the most widespread platforms [Android and iOS] are among those with the best browser compatibility).

With Medfield and Android, Intel Prove They’re Ready to Play

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Intel_Smartphone_Reference_Design_front_575pxWhen I tested an Intel Menlow-based MID in July 2008 and saw the PC architecture streaming music into a browser-player running at 2.8W I knew Intel were on the right track. Two years later with their next-gen architecture, Moorestown, they tackled the standby power drain and managed to get it into a phone. I had exclusive hands-on and although the device was hot and eventually deemed uncompetitive, it was clear to see where this was heading. This week at CES I put my hand on the back of an Intel Medfield-based smartphone and felt nothing. No heat! On the front, I saw a quick user experience and when I tested Sunspider I saw an impressive result of 1290ms, with Android 2.x.

Over at AnandTech, meanwhile, Anand has been discussing more details about the performance and energy consumption figures.  Not only are we seeing good performance but Intel are telling us that the efficiency is in the leading class too.  The most impressive figure on the article? 1W browsing. That’s with screen-on and 3G-on. 1 WATT! Intel are now able to control a ‘PC’ to the point where everything turns off except the parts required. That doesn’t mean that Intel will be competitive in all areas though. Like Ultrabooks, the platform is likely to have a high ‘dynamic range’ and probably a higher system thermal design characteristic but if the work that Intel have done on Android is solid, that may not be a problem.

What a shame though that Meego wasn’t around to benefit from Medfield. I’m sure there are Meego devices in the Intel labs working just fine and I’m sure that Tizen is likely to re-surface too (My bet – Samsung + Intel + Tizen make an announcement at MWC) but it would have been nice to see Intel’s Meego work result in a product. I wonder how Nokia are feeling at this point? With the N9 having been a success and the figures on Medfield/Android looking good, Intel may get sweet revenge!

P1010989 (800x600)What Intel need now are product partners and platform advantages. Being competitive isn’t going to be enough to make the best product in the market so this is where 1080p hardware encoding, hardware-based image processing, Wireless-Display, McAfee and other technologies come into play. Intel Insider (for securely streaming first-run movies) and integrated radios, hardware encryption and of course, Intel’s silicon process advantage. if you consider how far Intel have come in the last 4 years, look at their technology portfolio and think about what’s going to happen in the next two years there should be no doubt that Intel will be playing, and possibly leading in the years to come.

I won’t discount Cortex A15 and similar ARM architectures and we must not forget that ARMv8 is going to be feeding in after a few years but Intel’s position with Medfield now enables it to go and court some of its biggest customers for phones, tablets, set-top boxes and more and that partner ecosystem could be the real advantage for Intel.

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