Android is a bit of a camel, if you go by the saying that a camel is a horse designed by committee. Depending on what version you have, and phones and tablets are running a dozen different versions by now, your experience is going to be slightly different than another user. That lack of a cohesive look and feel (as third party companies apply their own skins) has sent some users running back to iPhone/iPad, where the lack of customization third party choice is actually a plus — it's simple and it works.
But Google is nothing if not persistent, and this week released Android 4.0, code-named Ice Cream Sandwich — a unified operating system that takes on many of the operating system's shortcomings and tried to address many of the issues that consumers have had with their platform.
Reviews of Ice Cream Sandwich have been generally positive, though it's still not perfect. One of the biggest complaints is that the operating system will continue to be overlaid with skins native to Sony, HTC, Samsung and other manufacturers — a big drawback for a platform that is trying to rival Apple's all-in, unified experience.
Otherwise the user interface is improved with better managing of app icons, folders, widgets and other devices. You're still free to turn your screens into ugly mishmashes (a drawback of customization for people with too little time to organize), but the mishmashes are better looking and more organized.
The notification bar — one of the biggest improvements to iOS 5 — has also been upgraded, as has the lock/security feature. Android now has facial recognition, which means no clumsy typing in of numbers or tracing of patterns is required to unlock your phone.
It's not perfect — it won't recognize you every time, and if it's dark you might end up punching in a PIN after all, but this is something that should get better over time.
Some other features I thought were interesting include:
• Canned text message replies to texts and phone calls that make it easy to maintain contact with people so you can do those urgent things first.
• Unified contacts or "People" that make it easier to organize your addresses and phone numbers.
• Better voice recognition for composing emails and texts, which should be helpful when Android finally comes around to delivering a credible alternative to the popular Siri on the iPhone 4S.
• Google Wallet integration that lets you use your phone to make purchases wirelessly, no credit cards or bankcards required. It's not available on all phones and devices yet, but the functionality is there.
• Beam lets users share Apps, URLs, videos, contacts, directions, etc. instantly with other Android devices.
• Onboard data monitoring that lets you track your own data usage so you don't exceed your wireless plan. You can get your phone or tablet to warn you when you're near the end of your bandwith.
• While Flash Mobile has been dead since Adobe pulled the plug, there will be an update that will allow Ice Cream Sandwich users to access Flash websites. It's just not available at launch.
• USB storage options for devices that offer it, or have expandable memory.
• WiFi Direct allows you to call another phone through a wireless system without using the 3G cellular network.
• Hardware acceleration has been available on other Android devices, but now it's a universal option.
The sum of all the parts is bigger than a mere update, and should give the Android platform a boost and a badly needed reboot heading into 2012 — and they're going to need it with new competition from Microsoft and iPhone 5 / iPad 3 on the way.
Xbox television coming your way
While Canadians generally get the short end of the digital stick when it comes to content — no Hulu, no Amazon VOD, no Pandora, etc., etc. — there are still a lot of reasons why this week's update to the Xbox is big news for Canada. While Canadians will get a fraction as many channels as Americans, the list isn't bad — Netflix, Disney XD, Crackle (Sony pictures), MSN, Real Sports, Rogers on Demand Online, TMZ, UFC, VEVO and YouTube. Netflix is already available and is the only "station" available at launch, but the others should follow by the end of December.
As a cable box, the Xbox has already proven itself. Telus Optik TV subscribers can even use their Xbox in place of a converter box. And if you have a Kinect camera/microphone attached, you can control the Xbox's media centre with voice commands.
The only drawback is that you'll need to fork over $60 per year for a Xbox Live Gold Membership, but if you doing any online gaming then you're probably already a member.