Android, Slow Down and Give Consumers a Break

As I mentioned in a recent blog posting, I have a love/hate relationship with my cell phone. It'll soon be coming up to its two-year birthday, which is when I've traditionally moved over to a newer phone without too much guilt. Therefore I've been eyeing the Android phones of several colleagues.

However, I find myself in a quandary: Do I buy now or later?

This is a standard problem when buying cutting-edge technology, of course, but with Android cell phones it's particularly acute.

Android moves astonishingly quickly. A stunning three releases of Android were made last year, and two more this year (probably three by the year-end). No sooner has anybody bought a phone than there's a news story about a cool new feature being added to the next version of Android, such as the recent announcement of near-field communications in Android 2.3.

Android is still very young as operating systems go, and there's clearly a lot that the developers want to achieve. However, it's not being churlish to question whether this rapid release cycle is the best policy for anybody other than the eager developers themselves. End-users aside, third-party developers complain that the frequent releases make creating apps for Android phones a nightmare, and apps are one area where Android intends to compete directly against the iPhone.

Although incremental, each new release of Android has also been substantial. As Wikipedia lists, each release has not only brought functionality improvements but also under-the-hood improvements to make Android faster and more usable.

To be fair, complaints about the release cycle are something the Android people at Google are aware of. In a recent interview, project lead Andy Rubin said he'd like to see just two releases a year, at the beginning and end of each year, to match buying cycles. However, there don't yet seem to be plans to put this in place.

This year has seen the release of phones running all kinds of recent releases of Android, creating a minefield for consumers. Of the five most recent phones reviewed here at PC World, two run the up-to-date 2.2 release of Android, while three run the older 2.1 release. We can't blame phone manufacturers for being behind the times and offering an older version of Android--the time taken to create (and test) a phone means they simply can't swap-in a more recent software release at the last minute.

Some phones can be upgraded to newer versions of Android after purchase, of course, and indeed that's the case with two of the Samsung models mentioned above. However, upgrades are not necessarily on offer from all manufacturers and, even they are, there's no guarantee users will receive them in a reasonable timeframe.

Some phones can be hacked by their users to run the latest release of Android, but that's a specialized area usually requiring Linux knowledge, and it presents the ever-present risk of bricking the phone, turning it into an expensive paperweight.

So what's to be done? My advice is to concentrate almost exclusively on hardware specs when looking for a phone. Just like when buying a PC, the wise consumer buys the fastest hardware he or she can afford. This has the ultimate impact on performance and therefore on overall user experience.

Examining hardware specs runs counter to the marketing cellphone companies put out, which focus on functionality, but scanning the likes of PC World reviews usually reveals the skinny. The wise consumer right now pays attention to the speed of the processor and the quantity of RAM, all balanced--as always--against battery life. Nothing less than 1GHz is worth a second glance when it comes to processor speeds, nor anything less than 512MB of RAM.

The Samsung Galaxy S2 i9200 promises a 2GHz processor and 1GB of RAM, if the rumors are to believed. It's due early next year. All I need do is wait just a little bit longer...

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com.

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