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

A series of Android figures

ANDROID LINEUP: FLICKR, ROB BULMAHN

Number of weeks spent with my Android phone: 15. This is longer than I ever intended the experiment to go on, but I still have a few more items that I want to address before writing a final summary. If you haven’t been keeping up, you should start by reading my introduction. If you’ve missed one of the other parts in the series, here are the links to part 2, part 3 and part 4. And now for the final four: Google Now, default apps, photo management/sharing and the Android app launcher.

Google Now

When Siri was released, I immediately took advantage of what it had to offer. Having a digital personal assistant was supremely satisfying. Now I could command calls, request reminders, make lists and find information. In my introduction to the Android experiment, I expressed that the iOS 7 problem with Siri was one of the reasons I decided to make the switch to Android, so I was really excited to see what Google had to offer.

Google Now screenshot

Accessing Google Now

On my HTC First, I have to wake up my phone (if it is not currently active), open the Google Now application and either press the microphone or say, “Okay Google…” to initiate a command. Siri takes less steps to activate. With Siri, I only needed to press and hold the home button from any state and speak my command. To be fair, my Android phone does allow me to press and hold the home button to open Google Now when it’s awake, and newer devices allow you to say, “Okay, Google…” from any state.

Non-Voice Commands

One of the things I’m especially fond of with Google Now is that not only is voice recognition excellent, but you can also key in your request if you prefer. When it comes to Siri, you must speak your command. If Siri doesn’t understand you, you either keep repeating yourself until it understands, or give up and complete the task yourself. I’m terrible at typing on my phone, so I don’t do this often, but have appreciated having the option.

Capabilities

Google Now and Siri have very similar capabilities. I recommend you watch CNET’s ultimate dual for an excellent comparison. Both can find and present data such as the weather, sports scores, nearby locations, translations and unit conversions. And both can also complete tasks such as sending text messages, setting alarms and reminders, searching the internet, scheduling events and opening applications. CNET’s initial conclusion was that,

“Siri and Google Now both have their own strengths. For finding information quickly and efficiently, Google Now easily beats Siri. But, for productivity and getting things done, Siri is a winner.”

The updated rematch concluded that,

“In many ways, Siri still has a leg up on productivity. But if you compare it to the entire package that Google Now offers, Google Now is much more convenient.”

I would agree that Siri is faster and better at completing tasks, but I prefer the presentation and overall package of Google Now.

Android Reminders screenshot

Reminders

I want to make a special note about reminders. Google Now stores reminders in the Google Now app. In order to view or edit them, you must scroll to the bottom of the Google Now card view and tap on the icon. The presentation of this isn’t my favorite and you are not given the satisfaction of being able to check off reminders when they are no longer necessary. If I weren’t such a forgetful person (and no, my keys were not in the freezer; Google Now misunderstood me), this would be a very minor complaint.

Cards

Another thing that is really great about Google Now is Cards. With Cards, Google Now anticipates your requests. When you open the app, you’re presented with things such as how long your commute will be if you leave right now, what events you have coming up, when you should leave to arrive at those events on time, weather forecasts, tracking data for packages enroute and information based on recent Google searches. Personally, the package tracking was extremely helpful for monitoring all the Christmas presents that I ordered from Amazon, and Google Now is able to pull this information automatically from my email inbox. I have thoroughly enjoyed having this one-stop location for a lot of really useful information.

Default Apps

Complete Action Using dialog screenshotOne Android feature that I really enjoy is being able to select third-party apps as the default application for particular tasks. For example, when I ask Google Now for directions, I’m prompted to complete the action using Chrome, Waze or Google Maps “Always” or “Just Once”. Being able to use any appropriate app to complete a task, instead of being locked into the system apps like iOS, is extremely convenient. For example, I use Waze almost exclusively for navigation. Google’s openness is refreshing. I would love to see Apple open iOS up to this sort of customization.

There do however appear to be some issues left to iron out with Default Apps. I have selected “Waze Always” multiple times to navigate, but I still get prompted to choose a default navigation app. Likewise, when I try to call someone, even though I’ve selected “Phone Always” every time, I still regularly get asked to select a default. Regardless, I think I’d rather have the occasional annoyance with the feature than not have it at all.

Photo Management/Sharing

Android has two apps for managing photos on your device: Gallery and Photos.

Android Gallery app icon

Gallery

Gallery is very similar to the Photos app on iOS in that it presents albums and then allows you to view a thumbnail grid. Gallery also creates and organizes photos into more galleries than Photos does. (I especially like the “Screenshot” album since I always seem to have a massive number of screenshots—’tis the nature of developing and QAing apps—littering my Camera Roll.) Also, unlike the iOS Photos app, Gallery allows you to change the organization view from Albums to Locations, Times, People or Tags. At the first screen and within the Camera Album, Gallery gives you a shortcut to the camera app. I’ve always wished that iOS would include a shortcut like this.

Android Photos app iconPhotos

The Photos app is more closely tied to Google+, so if you’re an active Google+ user, there are a lot of additional features such as search, folder organization and Highlights—which is like a visual history of your life. Currently, my phone automatically backs up all of my photos to Google+, so I can access them on my computer or then choose to share them with my Circles later. It has been significantly easier to get photos from my phone to my computer using this functionality than it was on my iPhone.

Android app launcher

Android Launcher screenshotOn iOS, every app that you install appears on what Apple calls your Springboard. You have the ability to organize these apps into multiple pages of folders and loose icons, with up to four apps in the persistent dock at the bottom of the screen.

Android Apps Drawer screenshot

Android has a very similar presentation for their launcher. Apps can be grouped into round folders across multiple pages with a customizable dock at the bottom. But that is where the similarities end. The Android launcher is also a place for widgets to live and doesn’t have to contain every one of your apps. All of your apps and widgets exist alphabetically in the app drawer. I have liked this because I download quite a few apps—oftentimes because I read an article about them, or just to see what other folks are doing—and often feel overwhelmed by having all of them cluttered together. I use Spotlight to combat this on my iPhone, but I like Android’s approach of allowing me to organize my most-used apps and leave the rest in the app drawer better. Sometimes I still miss having Spotlight search, but I do like having more control over what apps are most easily accessible.

Despite some of the negatives that I’ve previously mentioned with my Android experience, I have really enjoyed using Google Now, having the ability to choose my default apps, managing and sharing my photos and organizing my apps on the Android launcher. In a few weeks, I will write a final summary on my overall impressions and personal opinion of the Android platform, as well as a final determination as to whether Android or iOS is the mobile platform for me. Feel free to contact me via Twitter or email if you have any questions about my experiment.

Read Part 6:
The Android Experiment, Part 6: The Conclusion