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AH Primetime: Android Strives for a Life Without Lag, Only Opposition is Hardware

November 14, 2013 - Written By Andrew Port

As a student in the City of Boston, I encounter plenty of people who aren’t exactly the most tech savvy on the planet. In fact, I’d have to say I’m the only one I know in my school who is interested in phones – much less Android – as much as I am. Those sorts of people who aren’t like me tend to follow two things when buying a phone: What looks nice, and what everyone else has – a.k.a., Apple’s iPhone. And even though Android maintains a strong hold on the Smartphone market, people in the United States seem to think differently. When I address an iPhone user about their device, the conversation usually goes like this: “Yeah, but everyone else has an iPhone. And it just works. What do you use?” And when I proceed to tell them that I use Android, they don’t hesitate in saying: “But Android doesn’t work well. Doesn’t it freeze and get really slow?”

It feels almost defeating (at least, from a morale standpoint) to hear that people still believe Android is what it was almost three years ago, with Gingerbread. It was, for lack of a better way of saying it, just starting to grow up. A lot of the best features of Android were implemented then, but the actual implementation was pretty gruesome. That’s also back in the day when manufacturers kind of just threw together whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. There were some hits, like the Samsung Galaxy S series and so forth, but generally speaking, it was almost remarkable to find someone who shared the same device as you.

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I started with the HTC Thunderbolt right as Gingerbread got rolled out to it. The first 4G LTE phone on Verizon, and oh boy, what a great feeling that was. It had a 4.3inch screen, which was absolutely giant compared to the iPhone 4’s 3.5inch screen, and the kickstand was my absolute favorite thing in the world. But yes, it got laggy, it had a lot of stutter to it, and it generally just got by.

Now, the game is different. We’re going to hash out why.

The Software Side of Things

Android is a pretty intense OS when you think about it. A lot of us don’t really realize that Android Flagships are running software that compares in functionality to a Windows PC: It runs tasks in the background, and allows apps to operate as they need to without the user input, and when you exit an app, the app doesn’t stop, it continues running, as if you simply minimized it on your desktop. Processes get cued in the order that the prompt was received, which allows for multiple things to be done rather efficiently, until it gets bogged down with too many tasks. As Android has evolved, as well as the hardware it runs on, these problems have generally eliminated themselves.

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iOS and the iPhone, on the other hand, work in a very different way. With all the focus on the look – the User Interface – and how everything looks as you’re doing things, the OS will actually stop the processes going on when the user interacts with it. If the user opens an app, for example, the only process the system is concerned with at that moment is opening the app smoothly and gracefully. The problem with this model? Tasks actually take longer to complete as a result, which includes opening apps. One might notice, when opening an iPhone app, it seems nearly instantaneous, but the actual content takes a moment to load. On a phone like Samsung’s Galaxy S4, the app will take a few moments to start, but the content will become instantly available. Small differences like this contribute to the perception of speed, versus lag.

If Not The Software, What Holds Android Back?

Often times, it can be attributed to two things: Skins and Hardware (the former less so than the latter). Skins, such as Touchwiz, HTC Sense, and the like, are all the machinations of device manufacturers, who add their own software on top of Android’s stock build. The purpose of this is mainly twofold: To provide users with more (sometimes helpful, sometimes not) functionality, and to differentiate their products from others’. Unfortunately, in the case of Touchwiz, and even LG’s skin, these additions are poorly optimized, and the look pretty darn awful too. The result is an experience that isn’t as smooth as it could be, with apps and functions that are very often half-baked. A lot of these have gotten better, but largely, it is a trend.

Samsung Touchqiz

More importantly however is the hardware that Android is running on. In today’s day and age of technology, Quad-Core processors with 2GB of RAM and a sizable battery and internal storage are the internals of a fairly powerful flagship phone. A more average device might favor a dual-core processor, and vary between 1GB and 2GB of RAM.

Until very recently (which is hopefully on the way out with the introduction of the Moto G), ‘budget’ android devices – phones and tablets that retail for next to nothing – were where the problem lied. People who see an iPad on display for $400, and then an “Android 4.1 Tablet” (whatever that means) for $199 impulsively jump to the latter, and after a couple of weeks, don’t seem to understand why their device has gotten laggy and stuttery. The same goes for cheaper phones, especially when they run outdated versions of Android.

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Processors with lower frequencies, less RAM, less cores will simply not be able to hold up to the demands of the more advanced versions of Jelly Bean, and the Apps that developers have made for devices running that version of the OS.

With the introduction of Android 4.4, these sorts of issues are supposed to be addressed. However, with the likelihood of old devices even getting these updates, we can only hold our breath until devices start shipping with Android 4.4 aboard. At this point, I am not optimistic that there will be a revolutionary difference.

“You Get What You Pay For”

When it comes down to it, it definitely goes back to the adage that you get what you pay for. When buying Android these days, whether in a tablet, or phone, doing some thoughtful research and understanding the do’s and don’ts when it comes to buying a new device will probably go a long way to getting you a device that you’ll be happy with for a while. Android is no longer the culprit of a poor user experience, and it’s important that OEMs begin taking advantage of what Google has given them – a really wonderful OS that just needs really nice implementation to go along with it.