Thursday, 9 August 2012

Quick Review: Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich on 2011 Sony Xperia devices

After a wait of nearly half a year since the initial announcement that all Sony Xperia smartphones released in 2011 would be upgraded to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the promised upgrade has finally arrived on my Xperia Mini Pro after being rolled out to the Xperia Arc S, Neo V, Ray, Arc, Neo and Pro and being cancelled for the poor Xperia Play. Given that many Xperia users, myself included, have been eagerly looking forward to this upgrade, I decided to do a quick review of Sony’s remix of Android 4.0 as it exists on my little Android phone.

Quick Review: Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich on 2011 Sony Xperia devices

Sony Mobile has done better than most in upgrading existing devices to Android 4.0I’m certainly no newcomer to Android 4.0 or indeed the Android world itself; I’ve actually been running the very latest version of pure vanilla Android on my Xperia for several months now through a little custom ROM project called CyanogenMod. Going the custom ROM route in order to have the very latest Android experience as Google intended isn’t without its downsides; you definitely lose a degree of stability, certain features such as HD video recording and mobile hotspot simply do not work, you’ll have to set aside time to regularly flash newer versions of the custom ROM in order to enjoy the latest bug fixes and I’ve experienced issues like poorer battery life running a custom ROM on my device as opposed to running a manufacturer-supplied ROM. In fact, even the process of flashing a custom ROM isn’t something that a layperson can understand. That’s why I don’t consider custom ROMs a real solution to the issue of Android software upgrades, rubbish custom skins and poor out-of-the-box experiences. It is important that Android hardware makers push official platform upgrades for devices, and Sony Mobile has done better than most in this regard.

I haven’t noticed any substantial lag or slowdown, but the bloatware is a huge downerDespite Sony Mobile’s attempts to manage user expectations by making the Android 4.0 upgrade optional and providing prominent warnings that users might see decreased performance after the upgrade, I actually haven’t noticed any substantial lag or slowdown on my Xperia Mini Pro, and navigating through the user interface and in and out of apps feels just as speedy as it was on Android 2.3 and vanilla Android 4.0. Where the device really feels limited, however, is internal storage. My Xperia Mini Pro has a total of 420MB of internal storage; on CyanogenMod, I could make use of the entire chunk of it. On Sony Mobile’s official build of Android 4.0, only 280MB remains accessible to the user. I don’t understand why Sony Mobile insists on continuing the tradition of loading bloatware on these Xperias knowing full well that they are already rather lacking in internal storage.  I took another look, and most of the bloatware can indeed be disabled, but PlayNow is definitely sticking around. It’s thoroughly disappointing.

You’ll probably wonder whether the upgrade actually completed successfully or notUpgrading a device to Android 4.0 is one thing; being able to push a high-quality upgrade that allows users to fully enjoy what the new version of Android brings to the table is another. However, when you first boot up your newly-upgraded Xperia device for the first time, you’ll probably wonder whether the upgrade actually completed successfully or not. Sony Mobile has swapped out the old Sony Ericsson bootscreen, of course, with one that just says ‘Sony’ and then ‘Xperia’, but you’re then confronted with the exact same launcher that existed on Sony Mobile’s build of Android 2.3, complete with old Gingerbread-style menus and dialogs along with the old Timescape widgets that all look so dated today. However, much of the iconography has been replaced; most of the built-in apps gain new, cleaner-looking icons, the status icons up in the notification bar are new and so are the icons that appear in various menus and dialogs in the user interface. I don’t really mind the new iconset (of course, I’d have preferred that Sony Mobile leave the icons as they are in vanilla Android 4.0, but we’ve got to deal with what we’ve got here) but I’d have liked a little more consistency because, as usual, some icons have been neglected entirely and left as they are.

It’s worth noting that certain UI elements such as the lockscreen clock and unlock slider, as well as the buttons, radio buttons and checkboxes have been brought over from Sony’s new UXP NXT custom UI that we’ve seen on the 2012 Xperia devices. The settings app has been skinned to look the same as how it did on Android 2.3 as much as possible, complete with prominent separators between menu items. It’s very disappointing to see that Sony Mobile has entirely forgotten about user interface consistency in this upgrade. I wish Sony Mobile could have just embraced Holo UIIt’s already bad enough for a device manufacturer to take Android 4.0′s beautiful, understated and minimalist Holo UI and completely piss on it with a custom UI. It’s even worse to mash various elements from 2 very different-looking custom UIs and then dump that mess on top of Android 4.0. I’d have loved to see UXP NXT, or at least a stripped-down version of it, come to the 2011 Xperia devices via the Android 4.0 upgrade. Even if that isn’t possible, even a wholesale transplant of Timescape UI would be a bit more palatable than the mashup we’ve got because we’d at least get to keep some extent of UI consistency. What we’ve ended up with just makes me wish Sony Mobile simply put out a completely vanilla build of Android 4.0 for these devices and called it a day, because the worst is yet to come.

Sony Mobile ripping out core Android 4.0 apps depresses meWe all know that Android 4.0 brings a new level of UI consistency and polish to the Android platform, and this is especially apparent with core apps such as the messaging and contacts apps that no longer look like they were built in an afternoon. But if you were hoping that Sony Mobile would leave these alone, you’ll be sorely disappointed. They couldn’t bring themselves to leave the core apps as they were; it was far too challenging. So what they’ve done is to transplant apps from Android 2.3. I’m not even kidding. The gorgeous, functional Android 4.0 Calendar app has been given the boot in favour of Sony Mobile’s calendar app that they shipped with their build of Android 2.3. Ditto for the Messaging app. And the Clock, Calculator, FM Radio and Music Player. The Phone and People apps in Android 4.0 have also been dumped and replaced with the integrated contacts and dialer app from UXP NXT. The Android 2.3 Gallery app has also been retained and rebranded as ‘Xperia Gallery’ just for the sake of it – the Android 4.0 Gallery app is still present and unmodified. Even the old virtual keyboard has been retained when it would be trivial to include the much-improved virtual keyboard from UXP NXT. It’s downright depressing. There isn’t a single valid reason that I can think of that would explain why this had to be done.

On a brighter note, I do like how we finally have direct camera access and music controls on the lockscreen, a feature that I’ve found nearly indispensable on my iPhone. I also appreciate all the areas where Android 4.0 is allowed to shine through – the Gmail, Maps and Browser apps are fantastic, and being able to swipe away individual notifications is really nice. The multitasking menu is smooth and responsive, and Sony Mobile has brought over the Camera app from UXP NXT that’s really fast and can shoot macro photos without making the user switch to a dedicated macro mode.
It’s fair to say that I expected a lot more from this upgrade. I just don’t understand why a reasonable person would conclude that it makes perfect sense to deliver a major software upgrade to a smartphone that dumps so much of what’s new in favour of the old. I’ve been waiting for so long for Sony Mobile to finally get around to releasing this, but now that I’ve got it, I’m not sure I want it anymore.

Perhaps this underscores how I feel about Android now. As a tech blogger, I still cover the platform and stay up to date with its development because of its dominance and relevance in the smartphone space. As a user, I still use an Android phone day to day because it’s what I’ve got at the moment and because I need to write about Android. But instead of loving the platform or heck, even enjoying it, I merely tolerate it. I merely put up with it. This is yet another disappointment then. I’ll deal with it.

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