Michael Zucchi

 B.E. (Comp. Sys. Eng.)

  also known as zed
  & handle of notzed


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Sunday, 15 April 2012, 10:11

The Android

Well I've become a member of the 'exclusive' club of owners of android tablets, although I only got one for work.

The story so far ...

I finally got hold of the ipad the project manager had assigned to the project, and to cut a long story short: I missed a meeting because I was on leave, bad decisions were made that I didn't have enough background to question, things need to be decided. Getting a mac/learning objective C is really out of the question (for political, personal, and time reasons), so the only other option is android.

Even though I don't really see the point of them I just went out and got one from a local retailer because we don't have the time to muck around and I realised I needed to get more familiar with one. I grabbed a keyboard-less asus transformer prime - there just weren't that many options available and I didn't see the point in saving a couple hundred $ for the sake of an unknown (I wont state the price because we get totally shafted on electronics like this in Australia, but suffice to say it wasn't much more than a single day's net pay, so who cares really).

The prime

So the device itself seems fairly solidly put together, quite thin (thinnest apparently), a bit heavier than i'd like, and I can feel the smooth aluminium back easily slipping from ones hand: but a slick hardware package. The edges do have a slightly harsh finish, but it's not going to cut your hand either.

But the charger and connecting cable is probably the cheapest bit of electronics i've ever seen. Real trash that feels like it'll fall out or break at any time.

I don't like the power button - it's hard to know if you've pressed it, and I find I have to use a finger-nail to make sure, and it waits just that few 100ms too long to activate: where you're starting to doubt you've pressed it at all. Being on the bottom of a curving surface also just makes it hard to get to when you're holding it from the front.

So as I said it's a bit heavier than i'd like - it makes it a bit awkward to hold. Although one can certainly hold it in one hand in the air, it would give you a sore wrist.

The Market

Or google-play or wtf it's called this week. Pretty underwhelmed so far. Ok it's great saying you have 100K 'apps', but if they're mostly shit and the good ones impossible to find amongst all the chaff then what's the point. Most of the free ones seem to be advertising supported (advertising on software you're using? wtf? just not something i'm used to outside of a browser - and i barely see that anymore). Which means you have to sell your soul to download them: access to identity, access to your exact location, access to phone owner and state, etc etc. Another big class of applications are tons of 'my first android app' experiments which should be hidden away in a 'beta corner' or something and not clutter the general application lists.

It's like the bad old days of early 90s shareware all over again: hobbyist programmers thinking they can make a buck writing shit software full of utterly foetid secret-sauce. A few do, but the rest are wasting their own and everyone else's time. Having got used to Free Software I kind of forgot about all that although it's still around in the windows/mac worlds. Free software is quite different: the better stuff is driven by professional programmers solving problems usually orthogonal to their main job, and then sharing the maintenance burden and reducing the cost to everyone by publishing it freely.

I've only downloaded (and removed half of them) less than a dozen 'apps', but already i've had plenty of crashes doing simple things.

I'm sure as I find the gems (which I don't really want to have to spend the time doing) my opinion will lift, depending on the SNR (it could just as easily decline). e.g. I eventually found a free DLNA frontend that at least is written by a professional outfit (proprietary alas), before I realised it has one bundled (although that only plays the os supported formats). Pity mythtv is being cranky and it didn't work too well.

They might also be outside of the store - e.g. mupdf is by far and away way better than the pdf viewers bundled - who both take ages to render a page, and also render in 3 stages of blurriness (which is very very unpleasant to read), although that also seems to do the blurry thing when you pan around. And it doesn't ask for ANY permissions.

So, I will probably just have to write my own stuff again ...


Video playback in the bundled player is pretty decent: but it has very limited format support. The other (free) players range from crap to awful, and even though most are obviously based on ffmpeg none of the authors seem to understand the license. I spent a bit of time trying to get internet radio working (my isp mirrors a large number of stations with no bandwidth charges) until after I succeeded I realised I would never listen to music this way - I have a beagleboard plugged into my hi-fi receiver and don't need to wear headphones to listen to whatever crap music I want at whatever volume I want in my own house! Might be handy to write a remote control for it though, although 'ssh' works pretty good so far.


Well it's snappy and flashy. The 'home screen' just seems pointless, but then again an alphabetically sorted list of all applications (with cut-down text) isn't much chop either. I'd rather Amiga's Workbench (with a few tweaks).

The Browser

The android browser is ok enough, but without being able to block adds pages are filled with animated stuff which distracts annoyingly and quickly drains the battery. The only option is to disable javascript but that is a web killer.

Firefox is a bit poor. Once rendered it's kind of ok, but otherwise it's slow and clunky to use. Why they waste a good chunk of screen down the side when you're in landscape mode is anyone's guess. Still needs work. I'd hate to see it on a 'lesser' tablet.

Even on this machine, using a browser is pretty damn clunky anyway. My browsing often consists of running searches, and typing on that on-screen keyboard just sucks. It might be ok if you're coming from a two-finger typing background but i've been using a keyboard for over 20 years and could touch-type over 15 years ago - it will never catch up. Reading long articles just doesn't feel that comfortable for some reason: I really wish we could override the bright white backgrounds, and it's a bit annoying having to drag/zoom every page to fit the readable area or to find navigation links.

And not being able to hide the animated advertising whilst trying to read an article on the net is pretty much a deal-breaker for me. I would rather use a laptop (even with it plugged in - required as the battery is long dead).

I tried the voice search a couple of times, but my accent throws it out. And try saying 'waikerie' and getting anything remotely close. The closest I got in a google maps search was some utterly unknown spot in the middle of New South Wales when I tried 'waikerie south australia'.

Flash actually works quite well - ABC's iview can only be accessed via flash, and it runs better than the flash on the ps3 and is a hell of a lot easier to use (joysticks suck as a mouse). On the other hand, it's nothing compared to the youtube app.

Coder's crouch

I've already got enough of a hunch-back from looking down at laptop screens for half of the day. And now one has to go another 60 degrees all the way down to flat? Either that or get a sore arm from holding the screen up at an acceptable angle.

For watching passive content it's a bit of a hassle as you need to hold it upright somehow, and for interacting you either need to lean over it or use two hands sometimes awkwardly.

I'm already thinking of making a stand for it ...

The rest

Given all the popular press I seem to see about them, I was actually surprised the lack of options in all the retailers (I just went to the city) - almost all had ithingys but most only had 1-2 models of 1-2 makes of tablet. They all had many more laptops. Which suggests to me that these things aren't really selling that well.

And what the fuck is this crap that ASUS thinks they can get away with people giving up their rights to a warranty on hardware just because you get a root login? What next - if we charge you $50 less you lose your warranty? Somehow I don't think either would mesh with the statutory warranty required from the retailer. I'm afraid I didn't research this as closely as I should have, but what can you do eh? I have the tool downloaded but I haven't used it, although eventually it will be running linux in some form or another.

So anyway in conclusion: all the arguments I had for myself against tablets still hold, and i'm not sure exactly what problem they're solving. Perhaps if you're sitting in a meeting looking down at agenda notes they are an effective paper replacement. But for reading a web page or a book - not terribly great. For watching video (when you have a 46" tv?) ok, but you have to prop it up somehow. For games? I have a ps3 and a touch screen is a pretty shitful interface compared to a controller (and for that matter, I haven't played any games there in months). Tilt isn't much better.

And modern casual games are an embarrassment to our civilisation. Games are for learning useful life skills. Things like chess are about strategy. Learning to click a coloured box for a virtual reward is not learning, it's a mental deficiency.

I think the smaller devices will have a better future. They have much more portability and the screen is big enough to be useful. And they are (or eventually will be) real pocket computers, not just small tvs.

So I guess now I have one, and i'll quite likely be coding on it for work (if not in the next few weeks, eventually), I guess I will do some free software on it too ... ahh more projects to distract me.

Tagged android, java, philosophy, rants.
A week of the android sdk | Worn out dealing with crap
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