On Call: Android's biggest flaw

There's a lot to like about Android, but its OS updates and features should be more uniform across devices.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
3 min read

In just a few months the Google Android operating system has come a long way. We've seen a steady flow of new handsets and new updates, the Android Market has grown, and the OS took center stage at CES 2010.

Since last September, I've welcomed these developments. I like Android and the ideas of openness and customer choice that it represents. So, as the OS matures and enriches the cell phone world, I'm hardly going to object. I will continue to point out flaws in individual Android handsets--that's what I'm paid to do and it does not mean that I'm an iPhone fanboy--but I'll also give credit where it's due.

Just take, for example, the Nexus One. In the week I've spent with the handset, I've grown to admire it quite a bit. It's exceedingly fast, the display is gorgeous, and it brings new features to the Android family. Yet, even with all that goodness, currently the handset lacks a few important features (check our review for a full list). And it's those missing features that illustrate Android's biggest flaw.

So far, I've reviewed six Android handsets, and each one has been a completely different experience. On the design front, that's to be expected--that is partially the whole point of Android--and though I don't always agree, I'm fine with manufacturers adding their own interface layers like MotoBlur or HTC Sense.

On the features side, however, the lack of uniformity is rather troubling. Each handset has its feature strengths, but I have yet to find an Android phone that combines all of those strengths into one device. Just consider this list of Android devices from the past five months. Next to each phone I've listed the important features it offers. If I didn't include a feature next to a handset, you can assume that it doesn't offer that capability.

Nexus One: You'll find camera editing options and a flash, home screen interface tweaks, double-tap zoom, and enhanced voice control features. Debuted with Android 2.1.

Motorola Droid: Has Outlook calendar syncing, camera editing options, and double-tap zoom. It debuted with Android 2.0, which brings a handful of other improvements like a unified e-mail in-box and search for text messages.

Motorola Cliq: Syncs with your Outlook calendar and has a combined calendar for both personal and work appointments; includes camera editing options. Debuted with Android 1.5.

HTC Droid Eris and Hero: Offer camera editing options, Flash Lite support for the Web browser, pinch-and-zoom multitouch, Outlook calendar syncing, and a combined calendar. Debuted with Android 1.5.

Samsung Behold II: Has Outlook calendar syncing, a camera flash and editing options, and an improved media player. Debuted with Android 1.5

Samsung Moment: Brings Outlook calendar syncing, a camera flash, and a combined calendar. Debuted with Android 1.5.

As you can see, there's not a feature from the above list that's found on all devices. If I want pinch and zoom I have a choice, if I want Outlook calendar syncing I have a choice, but if I want both, I don't have a choice. That reality may change soon, but for now I can't have it all. And I want it all, which is an Android device that gives me everything.

The list also highlights a second flaw with OS updates. At present, Google doesn't mandate when carriers issue an update so you wind up with a wildly disparate range of OS versions, from 1.5 to 2.1. Though I understand that the lack of such mandates reflects Android's spirit, customers shouldn't have to wait months to get an OS update when their friend got it yesterday. I urge manufacturers and carriers to make a more concerted effort to push these updates quickly.

Android isn't perfect; I'd like a better media player, there's no native file manager, hands-free dialing options are limited, and you can store apps only on the integrated memory. But even these drawbacks, which I'm sure will change over time, are overshadowed by a feature landscape that's all over the map. Hopefully, we will see more cohesion as time goes on. There's so much to like about Android already; this can only make it better.