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

Android Garden at Google's Mountain View campus

ANDROID GARDEN: FLICKR, DAN H

It’s been almost 11 weeks using an Android device as my primary phone. By now, you are probably familiar with my experiment. If not, read my introduction. I’ve gotten some great feedback on part 2 and part 3 as well, and even downloaded Cal by any.do thanks to feedback that I received via Twitter. In this post, I want to touch on Google’s Play Music app, Google Hangouts, Fast App Switching/multitasking and widgets.

Play Music

Google Play Music app iconI have not personally used the Play Music app, so I can’t give you a first-hand review. When I first set up my phone, I looked in to porting my library from iTunes over to Play Music, but it appeared to require more effort than it would be worth, since my primary use of iTunes is for listening to audio books through my Audible account. Since Audible recently released an Android app, I chose to use it instead of importing my books in to Play Music. As for music, I primarily use Pandora for my music-listening enjoyment, and they have a fantastic Android application.

Rusty’s Observations

Our Design Director, Rusty Mitchell, has been experimenting with Android some as well and does listen to music on his phone and has a need for the Play Music app. He has a library of over ten thousand songs that are methodically organized. Overall, he feels that Play Music is a nice app once you get your music imported, but he did experience some issues. Here are some of his observations:

Importing songs was initially unintuitive and difficult.  iTunes had made music import painless for him for years, so it was a  bit of a shock to see how slow and archaic the experience of using Android File Transfer for Mac was to move music from a Mac to an Android device. This process was significantly easier when he decided to import his music to Google’s cloud service using their Music Manager. Their standard plan is completely free and allows up to 20,000 songs, but he did run into problems balancing which songs to keep locally on the device, since his device couldn’t store all of his music locally and his limited data plan doesn’t allow him to stream his music freely while on the go.

None of his imported music included artwork. He had previously used iTunes to handle all of his music. To save drive space, iTunes doesn’t store album artwork in each music file. Instead, they set a reference to the album art that is accessed locally. Because of this set-up, Google was not able to import his album art with his music. This may not seem like a big issue, but the Play Music user interface places this album art front and center, not having it left a large visual gap.

The latest version of the Music app places a lot of emphasis on artist images. These image slots in the app only appear to be populated if the music is purchased through the Google Play Music store. He couldn’t find any way to import these images otherwise. These empty spaces, for both the album art and artist images, really bothered him and he wishes that Android would hide them when they are unpopulated. It is worth noting that most of the issues both for album art and artist images were resolved when importing through Google’s Music Manager, though some albums did end up with the wrong artwork.

Google Hangouts

Google Hangouts app iconGoogle Hangouts is comparable to Messages on iOS. It allows you to do Google “Hangouts” (voice and/or video), gTalk (instant messaging) or SMS from a single app. Android automatically logs you in to gTalk for all Google accounts that you have set up on the phone (for me that’s my personal, work and church accounts). I’ve found this to be great for my personal account. My mom and sister, who do not have smart phones but do have computers and Google accounts can now instant message me even when I’m away from my computer. It has allowed me to talk to my sister more (who, like me, doesn’t have text messaging). It has taken some getting used to for my mother, who will still IM me in the evening and ask me why I’m on my computer so late.

On the other hand, having my work account always connected is not so convenient. We use IM to communicate in the office, and sometimes, even with clients. When I leave the office, I log out of IM. Unfortunately, I could not figure out how to sign out of individual accounts on my phone until a co-worker showed me. I am now permanently signed out of work Hangouts on my Android device because I find it too inconvenient to log in and out on my phone.

Fast App Switching/Multitasking

Android Fast App Switch screenshots The native Android OS was released with multitasking in 2008, when iPhone users were still dreaming of such a feature. With this in mind, it makes sense that Android would be the leader when it comes to this feature. Apple seems to have borrowed a lot of ideas from Google when designing iOS 7 because they now feature a screenshot of the app, and swiping to close out applications. Android phones present this in a vertically stacked list and crop their screenshots to squares, while iOS7 presents theirs in a horizontal scroller and shows the entire screenshot.

User Experience

I prefer Android’s fast-app-switcher to Apple’s because I can see more apps at one time, and I don’t have to swipe as far to dismiss them. I’ve found that I only need to see the top of the screen to remember what I was doing or why I had the app open as well.

Phone Calls

When it comes to multitasking during a phone call, I’ve had a hard time adjusting to Android. If I am on a call on my iPhone and switch to another app, there is an ever-present, pulsing, green bar at the top of my screen (right under the clock). I can tap this bar, select phone from the fast-app-switcher or tap the phone icon on my home screen to return to my call in progress.

On Android, if I want to return to my call in progress, I must choose the call from the notifications tray. If I choose it from the fast-app-switcher, it will return me to wherever I was in the app. If I go to any of the tabs (keypad, recents or contacts), it allows me to dial in another participant to the call. I can not get to the call from here. If I select the phone icon from the launcher, I am presented with three options: “Use touch tone keypad”, “Return to call in progress” and “Add call”. From here, I can return to the call in progress, but it does require an extra step.

Android Phone app screenshots

The Crash

My biggest complaint with Android multitasking is that many of my apps crash when I try to reopen them from the fast-app-switcher. Unfortunately, this is a more common occurrence than it should be.

I prefer the fast-app-switcher on Android to that on iOS, but would like to see Android streamline their “return to call” process.

Widgets

My first exposure to widgets was in 2005 when Apple released OS 10.4 (Tiger) for Mac. I loved them! At the time, my boyfriend was living in Germany, so I set up a clock for his time zone as well as my own. I loved the quickly accessible calculator, relied on stickies—and cleaned all physical ones off my desk—and adored the weather widget. When I studied abroad a few years later, I relied heavily upon the translator and unit convertor.

Android widgets screenshotWith the release of iOS, some of these became stand-alone apps, but Google had a different idea for integrating widgets into their mobile OS. I’ve been using the settings widget—it has shortcuts for wifi, bluetooth and brightness—and it’s really nice to have quick access to these things. iOS 7 has now put some of these items in the control center for quick access, but was lacking quick access to these functions in older versions. I’ve also had the Google Now widget on my launcher, and I love that I can quickly see my next event, the weather for the next few days, any packages in shipment and the time to work or home when appropriate.

In my next post, I’ll review Google Now, default apps, photo management/sharing and the Android app launcher.

Read Part 5:
The Android Experiment, Part 5: Google Now, Default Apps, Photos and the Android App Launcher