On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

Summary: I've been using Google's latest Android operating system on my Motorola XOOM for almost two weeks, and it's far from the cookies and cream one might imagine.

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For the last two weeks, I've exclusively been using Google's Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" for all of my tablet computing needs.

As I explained in my last piece on January 4, I had already installed and tested various pre-release community versions for my Motorola XOOM.

The XOOM, unlike other 10.1" Honeycomb tablets is a Google Experience device, is popular with Android tablet developers because it is a stable piece of hardware, and thus has been one of the very first tablet devices to receive the latest Android software.

The version I eventually settled on and used for most of the last two weeks was one put together by the talented folks at Team EOS, formerly known as "Tiamat" which has produced various customized "rooted" ROMs and overclocked kernels for the XOOM in the past, as well as early support for the tablet's MicroSD card even before Motorola itself provided it in an update months later.

It has only been in the last two days that I have been able to obtain and install the semi-official Motorola XOOM Android 4.0.3 ROM, build IML77. I say semi-official because it is considered to be a "soak build" that the company is currently seeding to a pilot group of testers.

However, it is almost certainly going to be very close to the finalized software that most XOOM owners will receive as an Over the Air (OTA) update very shortly.

[UPDATE 1/18/2012: IML77 has just been confirmed to be the official Motorola Ice Cream Sandwich release software for XOOM, not just a soak build]

That being said, my experience with the Team EOS and Motorola IML77 builds have been extremely similar. I have used the same group of applications with both, and have experienced similar behavior and issues with the OS, so the likelyhood of there being ROM-specific issues affecting my general observations is quite small.

Before I get accused of being an Android hater, let me make one thing perfectly clear, and that is I like Android a lot. I use an Android phone (a Verizon Galaxy Nexus) and I've been an Android user for the past two years. I'm also quite educated in the systems architecture of the OS itself.

So whatever comments that follow in this piece, please keep that in mind before pulling out the flame thrower.

I've been bringing the XOOM with Ice Cream Sandwich on the road with me for two weeks, back and forth to Chicago. I've used it extensively while tethering via Wi-Fi to 4G and also connected to fast broadband in my hotels and in my home, so I have a good sampling as to how it performs. Overall, I'm not happy with it.

Now, there are certain aspects of Ice Cream Sandwich which certainly feel more responsive than its predecessor, Honeycomb 3.2. I've said so previously. Generally speaking, the UI is snappier.

However, it doesn't have the benefit of a year's worth of bugfixes and thus there are times when the software is actually less stable than Honeycomb. A lot of apps have unusually long startup times and render slowly or freeze up on the screen, even if you force the GPU to render 2D operations in the "Developer Options" menu.

And then there's the dreaded "This App is not responding" dialog which gives you the option to wait or force close the app. But sometimes you're not so lucky and you need to shut down the OS and re-start to get a stable environment again.

I have a whole bunch of personal issues with the way the UI is designed and is implemented on Android tablets that I've documented previously which could very will hurt the platform's market acceptance, but those could be boiled down to overall aesthetic issues, not actual functional problems. This is not to say that aesthetic issues and UI design isn't important, but app compatibility and performance issues rank much higher on my list of peeves.

And yes, I still hate the way Android's multitasking is implemented.

Having researched the multitasking changes in Ice Cream Sandwich a bit further, I now realize that the "Recent tasks" button is in fact a task switcher that can in fact stop tasks, but it's not a particularly useful one because even though it is supposed to "nice kill" the processes when you stop them, it doesn't stop services from re-spawning and it won't necessarily kill badly-behaving applications, like say, Facebook, which has to be one of the most awfully written pieces of garbage since iTunes.

So you have to end up using the real task killer in the Settings menu anyway.

It also doesn't distinguish between tasks you "recently started" and tasks that are actually still running either. And it won't stop services and apps from re-spawning themselves when you don't want them to, and there's no way to control apps which re-spawn services on a global operating system level and on a granular basis, just like iOS has with push notifications which you can turn on and off on an app by app basis.

That sort of thing is left up to the Android app developer, which may or may not put in a setting to turn off things such as polling of the network, et cetera.

I'm also aware of the "unused memory is wasted memory" argument and that Android releases resources on its own and also caches processes and apps so they start up faster.

Well guess what. If the memory isn't there when a demanding application needs it, and the task killer, automatic or not is unable to stop an errant process, you're screwed. Sorry folks, but if kill an app using a task manager or switcher, I really want to know that it is actually gone. And I suspect so do a majority of end-users that don't work with things like Linux every day.

Enough with the multitasking arguments that I'm never going to win with the fandroids. Let's get back to apps.

The apps that seem to run slowly, have long startup times and freeze up in Ice Cream Sandwich are graphics intensive programs that are are built in Dalvik, aka Java bytecode. The worst offenders I have seen have been Netflix's main movie browsing UI, the Pulse newsreader, Weatherbug HD and yes, Facebook.

It's difficult to tell exactly if there is a pattern to which sort of apps are the most problematic because unlike Apple, which periodically makes their developers re-certify on new OS releases or face exclusion from their App Store, Google doesn't blacklist apps on the Android Market that were built to older Android APIs which might not run correctly.

And the Android Market doesn't classify apps by what level of APIs they use, so you can't selectively choose the newest or most updated stuff. Or even filter out older apps accordingly.

But I suspect that anything that was not built to take advantage of Honeycomb's APIs to specifically run as a tablet app is going to have issues.

Google has improved screen rendering issues by allowing apps that were designed for smartphones (such as FaceBook) to either stretch to fill the screen or rasterize in their native resolution, a la iPhone apps on the iPad. But it's not a totally foolproof process as on Apple's iOS.

For the most part when I found an app that was designed to take advantage of Honeycomb (3.0, 3.1, 3.2) and was pure Dalvik, such as IMDB or Flixter, it ran well, although still not as responsive as their iOS counterparts. But the vast majority of the apps which exist on the Android Market or Amazon's own Appstore are written against APIs for 1.5, 1.6, 2.0, 2.1, 2.2 and 2.3.

Google's own ICS 4.0.3 apps such as GMail, YouTube, G+, Google Books and the Browser all run well, but that's to be expected, since the company knows its OS and APIs better than anyone else and can optimize accordingly.

3rd-party Applications built in the Native Development Kit (NDK) which are written in native C++ fare far better. But the majority of these apps are games, and the basic architecture of the NDK hasn't changed substantially since Honeycomb, so you expect stuff that runs effectively on the metal to still run pretty well.

Aye, and there's the rub. NDK apps which run in C++ run great. Optimized Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich Dalvik (Java) apps run better than they did previously, but not as fast as native C++.

Of course, I've been running all my Ice Cream Sandwich tablet tests on a XOOM, which is an NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core design. Already, the Tegra 3 quad-core tablets with faster GPUs such as the Asus Transformer Prime are starting to ship, but there are a few Tegra 2's that just started shipping as well.

So does that mean in order to get optimal Android 4.0 performance, one should get a newer quad-core tablet and lower their expectations on existing models receiving the update?

That's a bit of a nasty flavor of ice cream to swallow, considering that Apple has managed to exact extremely fluid performance out of even the first-generation iPad on iOS 5, using all native C++ and Objective-C based applications, which has a measly single core processor and 256MB of RAM, nevermind the iPad 2 with dual-core A5, which only has half the RAM of last year's Honeycomb tablets but compensates with a more powerful GPU and more efficient apps.

I think we have to manage our expectations about Android overall. Because it uses Dalvik as its primary application engine, we have to realize that it is less efficient than an OS that runs only native C++ or Objective-C applications. So that means it needs to use more RAM, and also more CPU horsepower to give you an equivalent experience with ambitious tablet apps.

And that also means that the trend for the Bill of Materials (BOM) on full-size Android tablets in order to keep pace with the iPad is going to tend to be higher than Apple's no matter what, even if they keep pushing up the specs to keep pace on only a pure performance level.

Nevermind stuffing these tablets full of worthless stuff like high-res cameras and HDMI ports and expansion memory slots that nobody really uses just for the sake of competitive feature creep.

And I don't even want to get into Apple's supply chain advantages which Google's OEM partners are going to have a very difficult time catching up with.

So I've used Android 4.0 for two weeks on a tablet. Is it better than Honeycomb? Yes. But it's not without its own share of problems. It's going to take some time for apps to catch up to it, and you might want to consider using hardware that is actually up to the task of providing an optimal experience with the new OS.

Have you used Android 4.0 on a tablet yet? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Laptops, Android, Google, Hardware, Mobility, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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261 comments
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  • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

    You hate every distinguishing feature of Android but u love it as a whole.. how this is possible.. ??
    linuxforhumanbeing
    • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

      @linuxforhumanbeing
      I think that it's a mixture of having a much better smartphone experience and being really keen on the idea of Android.
      brendan@...
      • His mistake is using a XOOM.

        Try using an Asus Prime. See the difference.<br><br>ICS is better than Honeycomb. In the same way Donut was better than Cupcake. It was not until Eclair that the difference stood out.<br><br>Google should step up development to reach the Eclair state on Tablets. It would definitely help with adoption. My only complaint with ICS are very minor.<br><br>A) Consistency of the Menu.. it should always be in the upper corner.<br>B) Browser needs some serious work to compete with IOs. GET rid of the lag. Display page before images get rendered. With the Browser make the interface the priority over internet connection.<br>C) Notification should never be close to the keyboard. the lower left corner just gets in the way. Notifications should always be on top.<br><br>Beyond that, it works great!
        Uralbas
      • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

        @brendan@... Right, Android is really only for smartphones, period.
        thorntondw
      • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

        @brendan@...
        Don't forget that the real purpose of Android is to improve and expand Google's profiles on their users. Google does not really care about the user experience. They just want to spy on more users. They will try to improve Android only so far as required to fulfil their primary goal.
        jorjitop
    • gee driving around on a 32 bit, 2ghz device is slow

      @linuxforhumanbeing go figgure.
      sparkle farkle
    • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

      @linuxforhumanbeing Obviously the price to hate Apple is very high!
      thorntondw
    • Android phones set expectations that Android tablets have yet to meet.

      @linuxforhumanbeing Android is a much better experience on a smart phone than a tablet. I think this is why there are so many long-time Android fans who don't like Android on tablets. By the time Android on tablets matures enough to be solid, Windows on tablets will have eaten its lunch.

      Eventually it's going to be Microsoft and Apple on tablets with Android/Linux running a very distant third, nibbling at a sub 1% share, just like in the desktop market. The reasons are OS fragmentation plus too many variations, just like Linux on desktops. Decades of Linux floundering below 1% share have proven that the mass market doesn't like that approach. Even Amazon reworked the UI before they would put Android on their Fire. In my mind, the Fire is the only reason Android will hold onto any significant market share once Windows hits tablets.
      BillDem
      • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

        @BillDem
        You may well be right about the eventual distribution of market share, though my experience with a Win7/Win8 Preview tablet (HP Slate500) would argue otherwise about the Win tablet eating anyone's lunch. More like "losing my lunch".
        Quote:
        "Even Amazon reworked the UI before they would put Android on their Fire. In my mind, the Fire is the only reason Android will hold onto any significant market share once Windows hits tablets."

        As for Amazon's Fire, it's Android in name only. Ditto B&N Tablet. If you can't get to the Market with hundreds of thousands of apps and can only put them where Amazon and B&N let you it's way too locked down. Might as well buy an iPad.

        I have a Honeycomb tablet and love it. I'm in no hurry to "upgrade" to ICS and the latest is generally not the greatest. If I never downloaded another app, got another system upgrade, etc. I could be very happy using this device for several years!

        kb
        bunkport
      • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

        @BillDem
        Have you seen the comments of Fire owners in the Market? That thing is only an eReader optimized to serve up Amazon optimized content. Every single app on the Market I look at and read reviews on always has a Fire owner complaining that the app won't run or runs like crap / crashes out. If the Fire is Androids hope staying afloat, they might as well lay it right next to the sunk cruise liner. An Iconia or transfomer is going to give you your best feel for what a well speced-out Android tablet can do.
        dankasnitzel
      • Dream on ..

        @BillDem ... little dreamer
        radleym
      • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

        Hammer, nail, HIT! When will Android stop trying to be the OS that only thinks about being liked, and grow up and become a real OS? Sure Apple is a "walled garden" but people forget security is a real plus. We all have locks on our doors because when we get back home from where we've been we want our shit to still be where we left it. If some too cool to be near me programmer wants an open system have them build one....windows will get fat because Android for some reason thinks if it doesn't cater to us who spend time critiquing OS's and bitching about them when we ourselves aren't forced to buy any OS, android thinks they won't sell.....ever hear of HP's tablet, we consume this stuff because this is what we do. I love the competition in the tablet and phone market, Android needs to give us all the middle finger and start putting programmers on the payroll to put out quality apps cause we all know " If they build it we will spend."@BillDem
        grissom3310
      • Microsoft Has a Long Way to Go

        @BillDem <br>Android could either solidify or see further problems. It's very difficult to say which way it will go. One of Android's basic strengths in grabbing attention from phone manufacturers and carriers, that it is released under a very permissive license, is also a potential weakness, since it opens the way for various manufacturers to create potentially incompatible versions. Also, Google is not seeing many upstream patches like would be seen in a more collaborative project with a copyleft type license.<br><br>There's very little reason to believe that Windows 8 will be an instant hit on tablets. Windows has never been big on tablets in the past, and Metro is not a big success on phones, so anything more than a wait and see attitude about Windows 8 on tablets is rather overly optimistic. At any rate, Android has some time to mature.<br><br>Linux (that is, the classic Linux based operating system) is not fragmented and never has been. Anyone who says it is either doesn't know Linux, doesn't know what fragmentation means, or is trying to mislead someone. Unix from the 90's became fragmented. Android is in danger of something similar because it has a similar license (BSD for Unix and the Apache license for Android). It's still possible that Google could prevent much of any real fragmentation. Apache never fragmented, so it's possible to have a permissive license and fragmentation not take place. Copyleft licenses like the GPL encourage unification and discourage fragmentation.<br><br>Incidentally, Linux desktop share has gone up steadily over the years. It started both small and at a slow rate of increase. As it has gotten more popular, the rate at which it has grown has also gotten faster. It's still not very high, but of course it doesn't have to be terribly high to be a significant number of people (even 1% is a significant number of people, though at this point it's a little closer to 2% than 1%).<br><br>Mind you, I'm not saying that Linux is going to take over the desktop. I don't know if it will ever reach a solid 5% share. I'm just clarifying that Linux desktop share floundering at around the same point for a long time is not and never has been an accurate characterization. That may happen in the future, but so far it's only grown. It's about double the share that it was 5 years ago, and more than double the number of people using it.
        CFWhitman
      • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

        @BillDem the problem with windows tablets has been and will be the price tag.
        techkraut
    • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

      @linuxforhumanbeing I thought it was a well thought out article and has plenty of facts and technology to support his point. And he is a huge linux/android fan. Must a big bitter reality pill I guess.
      ItsTheBottomLine
      • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

        @ItsTheBottomLine He's never written an android artice that didn't end up saying how bad android is, despite claiming to like it. (Why does he like it if it's so bad?). His experience seems to differ from others (including mine).
        He's never made a serious comment about iOS without saying how nice it is.
        He needs to stay away from Android and stick with iOS.
        radleym
      • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

        Who are you Dr. Phil's love child?@ItsTheBottomLine
        grissom3310
      • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

        @ItsTheBottomLine Excuse me, but this whole article is quite joke technologically and in fact, I do not see a single fact! plenty of technlogy facts you say? huge android fan you say? do you see this in the expression "CPU horsepower" ??!?! comparing c++, obective c and java apps, without probably any idea of the awful GC on objective c or its weird socket behaviour. but of course my friend, THE big deal is how you do your applications. Its good that the OS is providing openness and great development environment. For ICS I can tell for a fact (already tried quite abit of devices and roms) that its smoother than ever and proven battery saver, on a Nexus S with normal calls, apps and internet usage lasts 10 days (the same device with 2.3.6 stayed for 5-6 only).
        However it is fact that Android is far more open that iOS for example, which has good and bad outcomes and the bad ones are that you have to be more careful what you put in the box yourself. if you still didn't reach that age get an iPad, itll serve all your needs.

        In my engineering opinion(driven by 15 years of experience on mobile devices) this iThing is a fashion, Android is a need.
        andwisenet
      • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

        @ andwisenet

        The very reasons you outline, make the Apple iOS devices successful: the USER needs not study the OS internals and specifics as to predict when it might crash, if some GC is not performing properly, how to plan on resources etc. The <b>user</b> wants the application to just work. This is the experience iOS provides. This is the experience that Android <b>does not</b>.

        It is funny, how many people claim that Apple devices are toys, while it is exactly the opposite. The Android devices are toys for technology wannabees. The Tamagotchi of the 21 century.

        I spend all my work time and lots of my personal time hacking on computers (in the non-criminal variant of that term). I can build pretty much any system I desire, write any application I desire and fix any OS out around here. Yet, when it comes to <b>using</b> a device, I prefer the Apple way. I do not have time to waste babysitting something I depend on. It's that simple.

        It is not important what potential Android or WebOS or Windows 8 or iOS has. The important thing is what it delivers today. Human life is too short, to wait for the bright future.
        danbi
    • RE: On Tablets, Android 4.0 is an Ice Cream Headache

      @linuxforhumanbeing
      Its a way to pretend you don't hate android but gives you an out to bash it.
      rengek