The Android Experiment, Part 3: Speech-to-Text, Calendars, Typing and Sounds

Android figure attacking humans

REIGN OF THE ANDROID: FLICKR, JD HANCOCK

I’ve been using my Android phone for four weeks today, and this is part three in my Android Experiment series. If you missed my introduction or the part 2, you should check them out. This week, I’ll be discussing Speech-to-Text, the Calendar app, typing and sounds.

Speech-to-Text

I mentioned my love-hate relationship with Siri in my initial post and that I seem to use voice recognition more than the average iPhone user. I’m still figuring some things out with Google Now, but I have been extremely impressed with the voice recognition on the Android platform. I have been using speech-to-text for texting via TextFree, searching the web, calling people and setting reminders.

Accuracy and Corrections

I did a lot of correcting when it came to Siri, but Google seems to be much more accurate. My biggest complaint is that when I stop talking, Android doesn’t return me to the keyboard so that I can make corrections and add punctuation. I realize that some people don’t care about correct grammar and punctuation in their text messages, Tweets and Facebook posts, but I’m not one of those people.

Responsiveness

I still have a lot to learn about what Google Now can do, and I plan to write more on Google Now in a later post. For now, I’d like to address the voice recognition aspect. I’m getting used to saying “Ok Google…” at the beginning of my statements, but it does seem to take an unreasonable amount of time before I can give my actual command. Currently, when I say something like “Ok Google, call Rusty Mitchell”, Google Now only hears, “Ok Google…Rusty Mitchell”, and then searches the web for Rusty Mitchell.

“Ok Google, call Rusty Mitchell.” ≠ “Ok, Google Rusty Mitchell.”

This can be somewhat frustrating, and I would love to see Google improve their responsiveness here. However, unlike Apple’s Siri, I have not experienced any situations where Google Now “can’t take any requests right now”, or is completely unresponsive, so I still consider Google’s voice recognition superior.

Calendar

Android Calendar app iconI don’t have an overly busy or complicated calendar, but I do depend on it to track my work and personal life. I’m having a really hard time adjusting to Android’s native Calendar app. The color palette reminds me of a bag of dirty jellybeans and the interface is extremely unintuitive. I consistently try to use the spinner (drop down menu) in the upper left corner to change months instead of views due to the labeling.

Android Calendar month view screenshotMonth View

Similar to iOS 7, in the month view, you can scroll up and down from month-to-month. Unlike iOS, which only presents a gray dot in the month view to represent activity on a particular day, Android presents a robust micro-view of the day in each cell. I like this micro-view in theory, but in practice, it’s a little overwhelming and a bit confusing. I have no idea what some of the color blocks and bars represent. If I want to add an event in this view, I have to choose “New event” from the action menu. Tapping on a day will take me to the agenda view for this day.

Android Calendar week view screenshotWeek View

The week view works okay, but it’s really awful to look at. The event titles have line breaks and are truncated in the middle of words and some titles are missing completely. It’s hard for my eye to see the daily breaks as opposed to just multiple events at the same time on the same day because the divider lines contrast is too low and the padding between blocks is the same whether they appear on the same day or different days. Where I could scroll month-to-month in the month view, I now have to swipe week-to-week in this view. This is how iOS works now as well, but Google’s approach seems to lack consistency between the views. I feel like I should always swipe between time increments or always scroll. In this view, I can still add events from the action menu, but I can also double tap on an empty cell.

Android Calendar day view screenshotDay View

The day view is a single day pulled from the week view, stretched to span the entire device and includes a little extra information about each event. Because it has the entire device width for text, it lacks some of the word break and aesthetic issues that the week view has. The problem with both this view and the week view, is that they seem to default their scroll to 12:00AM. Most of my events don’t begin until sunrise at the earliest, so this makes every day appear empty until I scroll.

Android Calendar agenda view screenshotAgenda View

Until I discovered the agenda view, I had completely written off Android’s Calendar app, but this view is working for me. Like the month view, I can scroll to see future or past dates, and the clearer font differentiation between titles, times and locations and smaller color blocks make this layout feel more designed than the other three views. This might be an area where the Android Calendar has a step up on Apple’s iOS 7 Calendar app for me because Apple has buried what was my primary view in previous versions of the iOS Calendar app under the search icon in iOS 7.

Android has done a good job at including a view that will accommodate most user needs, but I do think that there are some visual design changes that would really help the usability of this app. If you don’t care for iOS’s native Calendar app, there are great alternatives such as Tempo, Fantastical or Sunrise, unfortunately, none of these are available for Android, and I have yet to find a worthy Android alternative.

Typing

Haptic Feedback

Typing on my Android phone has been a pleasure! The haptic feedback—the vibration that accompanies every touchscreen press—is both informative and satisfying. This subtle feedback really helps me feel like I’m actually pressing buttons.

Contextual Functions

The Android keyboard also consistently includes a button in the lower right corner of the keyboard that changes functions based on the situation. For example, if I am filling out a form, it will say “Next” and I can tap it to go to the next form field until I reach the last form field, where it will say “Done” and submit the form for me. This functionality exists in iOS, but many apps don’t take advantage of it. Even Apple’s own iOS apps are less likely to leverage this behavior in iOS 7.

Gesture Typing

I’ve really fallen in love with gesture typing—typing by sliding your finger to the letters in the word rather than pressing them—on Android. I find this to be a much quicker way to type, and it’s kind of fun! I was also surprised to discover that I seem to make less mistakes when gesture typing. Apple did file a patent in June 2007 for “Swipe gestures for touch screen keyboards”, but they have yet to implement anything like this.

Comparing predictive typing on Android and iOSPredictions

Android 4.1, Jellybean introduced improved typing prediction. Android’s prediction is often so good that it knows the next word in my sentence before I type a single letter. I also prefer the presentation and functionality of Android’s predictions to iOS’s. In iOS, predictions display inline and you tap them if you don’t want the prediction and tap space bar if you do. In Android, predictions appear in a bar—that scrolls horizontally when necessary—and you tap or space to select that word, and continue typing to not select. I always had a hard time in iOS because I would see the word I wanted and instinctively tap it, making it go away. Android not only solves that problem for me, but gives me multiple options for the word I want.

Keyboard Shortcuts

The first time my dad tried to type on an Android tablet, he kept typing the number 3 instead of the letter E, and I couldn’t figure out why. Once I figured out that he was holding his finger on the key too long, I found another Android keyboard feature that I would grow to love! Android’s keyboard allows you to access commonly used keys by pressing and holding without switching to the number or punctuation keyboard. I can press and hold the period to access a large array of punctuation, or press and hold any of the top row of letter to type their corresponding numbers (Q=1, W=2, E=3, and so on).

When it comes to typing on a touch-screen device, Android is the clear winner in my book!

Sounds

My first weeks with my Android phone made me feel like I adopted R2-D2. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it did make a lot of noise, and I had a hard time figuring out how to silence it. I prefer to keep my mobile devices silent and rely on the vibrate feature. I didn’t want games, video ads or notifications to make noise. For me, silence is golden, and just when I thought I had my Android phone silenced, it would make a noise, and I would have to silence it all over again.

It turns out that Android has seven different “streams” that all track their own independent sound settings. So I would silence one stream, and then open an app that utilized a different stream, and have to adjust the volume on that. I think there may be a few lingering streams that I have yet to adjust, but it’s getting there. iOS functions similarly, but the “streams” are a bit more intuitive. iOS correctly guesses that I want to hear a YouTube video, an alarm or something from iTunes, even when my phone is switched to silent. Android does make all the same “smart” guesses, and it actually took some research to begin to understand why I couldn’t get my Android phone to act the way that I wanted it to. Having seven unique streams seems like a good practice, but the complexity of it left me confused and annoyed.

If you’re finding my Android experiment interesting and have a question or observation, feel free to let me know on Twitter. In my next post, I’ll examine Play Music, Hangouts, Fast App Switching and widgets.

Read Part 4:
The Android Experiment, Part 4: Music, Hangouts, Multitasking and Widgets