Google Android 1.5 Review


Google has released Android 1.5, the latest version of its operating system for mobile phones. I’ve installed it on my T-Mobile G1 and have been heavily using it for several days. So far I have few complaints.

Because this is an incremental update, I’m going focus on the new features. If you’re completely unfamiliar with Android, you should start be reading this initial review.

Android with On-Screen KeyboardOn-Screen Keyboard
The most obvious enhancement in Android 1.5 is the addition of an on-screen keyboard. Previously, devices running this OS could only input text with a hardware keyboard.

I feel the same way about this one as I do about all on-screen keyboards: it’s better than nothing. I’m using it on the T-Mobile G1, which doesn’t have a particularly large display. This means when in portrait mode the keys are somewhat close together, so I have to aim carefully or I’ll mis-key. Still, it’s useful in those times when you want to type one handed.

The keys are much larger with the screen in landscape mode, and therefore the whole experience is better. This is good news for users of keyboard-less models like the HTC Magic. On the G1 you’ll want to pop open the hardware keyboard whenever possible.

The on-screen keyboard offers text completion (the hardware one doesn’t) which can be a real time saver as long as you don’t let it distract you too much. I recommend using it with words longer than 5 letters — anything shorter than that you’re better off typing them in manually.

Home Screen Widgets and Links
I’m starting to think of Android’s home screen as one of its greatest strengths because it’s both powerful and simple. And even better, it’s familiar — it works like the desktop on your PC. You can put almost anything you want to on it, and have easy access to it.

With Android 1.5, that now includes some new widgets. The original version included a pair of these: the analog clock and the search box. The new one adds widgets to display your next calendar item, a music player, and a picture frame.

The calendar one is the most important to me. I use my phone as a personal organizer, and one of my major complaints with Android has been that getting a quick status update on my day is harder than necessary. Now I can at least learn about my next meeting without opening my whole calendar.

Third-party developers can create their own home screen widgets. I’ve quickly become fond of a free set from Rounded Labs that let me easily toggle on or off frequently used items, like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

Naturally, you can put application icons on the home screen, but you can put lots of other items there too, like shortcuts to websites. You can also add folders, in which you can put more icons.

Web Browser
The standard Android web browser has updated with latest WebKit engine, and the latest Squirrelfish Javascript engine too. I can see some marginal improvements, but the browser was already fairly good, so the changes aren’t dramatic. I’m not trying to downplay this, as the Android browser is in the top-tier of mobile browsers, and the new version is better yet.

Google has also added the ability to search within a page, and copy and paste text. The latter is somewhat tricky to use, but it’s a nice addition.

At launch, Android had fairly rudimentary support for Bluetooth, but that has now changed. With the latest update, it can handle more than just wireless headsets.

Specifically, it now lets you use stereo headsets. I have a pair from Samsung, and they work beautifully now.

The situation is less rosy for other Bluetooth accessories. For example, I can pair a wireless keyboard with my G1, but that’s as far as it goes — the phone won’t take input from the external device.

Initially, the G1’s camera could only be used to take still images, but video has been added in the new version. This is a nice addition, especially for a consumer-oriented OS like Android Of course, if you really wanted this feature before, you could have installed any of a number of free third-party apps.

Battery Life?
I’ve read some comments from users who claimed that their T-Mobile G1 has better battery life after installing Android 1.5, but I think this is wishful thinking. Google doesn’t promise any improvements in this area, and I don’t notice any.

Naturally, Android 1.5 has a variety of small enhancements. It can be set so that turning the G1 on its side will rotate the screen, for example, even if you don’t open the keyboard. It still only supports landscape mode on its left side, though. 

Other improvements include:

  • The address book now shows pictures to go with your favorite contacts
  • Mapping software finds your GPS location faster.
  • GoogleTalk has been pulled out if the IM application and made a stand-alone app.

What’s Still Missing
Android 1.5 brings in plenty of new features, but not everything I think it should.

I believe this OS should have support for Exchange ActiveSync built into it for a couple of reasons. For one, it would make this device more business friendly, but the main reason is because its top competitors offer this features. If Windows Mobile, the iPhone, and Palm’s webOS support synchronizing with an Exchange Server, then Android needs to as well.

Still, third-party developers are stepping into the breach. I’ve been using the beta of DataViz’s RoadSync to get my work email and I’m quite pleased with it.

The calendar needs to be a bit more robust, too. The area that this is most obvious to me is the weak support for snoozing alarms. Currently, you get one option: push the alarm back 5 minutes. Windows Mobile and Palm OS devices offer far more options, and I use this feature all the time.

The standard web browser is quite good, but it’s weak when it comes to streaming video.

I’d like better support for video all around. As it stands, all video has to be in MP4 format, and meet certain restrictive criteria. As a result, videos that run beautifully on other mobile devices choke my G1.

Support for more Bluetooth accessories should be added — external keyboards at the very least. Many pro-sumers — including me — like to enter large amounts of text on their phone with a full-size keyboard.

Android 1.5 is a welcome improvement over the earlier version, and fills in some of the features that were missing. Kudos to Google for getting a significant upgrade to this operating system out in roughly six months.

If you have a G1, there’s no doubt you should install upgrade this as soon as possible.

That said, I’m looking forward to seeing the improvements that will come in Android 2.0, which is expected this fall. It will reportedly offer much more robust support for multimedia, though I don’t know exactly what that means yet.


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Brian Jones

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