A Honeycomb of Discontent

So, inspired by my birthday gift of an iPad to Brittany, I decided to make the jump and buy a tablet. I wanted to go out on a limb and own a device that wasn’t iOS based. I’ve been looking at a number of Android tablets for a long while, and many of them seemed ridiculously flimsy, or too small (I really wanted a 10.1 inch), or just plain slow, so I decided to wait.

When Lenovo released the Thinkpad Tablet, I was interested immediately. I’ve always had a soft spot for Thinkpads, even now that I use a Mac as my primary machine (though, funnily enough, I don’t run OS X on it anymore). The Thinkpad I used at the FSF was old, but it was a constant companion and took regular beatings that would have broken a lesser, mortal laptop.

So, I splurged a bit (hey, it was my birthday) and bought one, setting aside the warning bells in my head (new release, new device, yadda). I purchased a 32gb version, with a digitizing pen (a feature that really interested me) for about $569.

I was pleased opening the box: the thing felt solid, and is obviously a Thinkpad device through and through. It has a nice heft, isn’t too heavy (at least to me) and, all in all, feels solid. The Gorilla glass is obviously a very welcome feature. Although clunkier than an iPad, it also feels more substantial, and solid.

That’s about where the fun ended.

I powered on the tablet, and was duly impressed with the nifty swirly Lenovo bootup screen. Whoa! I can use this for, like, business! And stuff!

I was greeted by the tablet setup wizard. It wanted me to add some Google accounts. Okay, fine. I enter my username and password, password incorrect. Huh, well, guess I’m getting used to the tablet keyboard.

I try four more times before I realize that the fact that I have a mild form of two-factor sign on (e.g. Google texts you a verification key to login from a new device). So, I can’t use this on the Android for some unknown reason. You know – I can’t use Google’s authentication system on my Google Android device.

Okay, whatever.

I turn it off and proceed, add my GMail account that I never use for email (it simply forwards) and move on.

Next, I add my personal email account. I receive an error message: It can’t send mail, so it thinks the account is invalid. I can’t skip by this. It returns the message my mail server is returning, which I am mildly surprised by: it says it’s sending an invalid HELO string. I go look in my mailserver logs, and it’s sending an IP address not in brackets (4.1.3 of RFC 2821 says this is the proper form of an address literal). After googling about this issue for a few minutes, I decide to simply be happy that Android no longer just sends “localhost” as a HELO, and tweak my Exim config a bit to eliminate the problem.

By this point, I am mildly annoyed.

After I do this, it finally works. Now, I notice that there is both a GMail and an EMail app. I’m immediately put off by this, but I shrug it off, because…..Wow, man! Widgets! And all kinds of cool stuff! And I can drag it all around and move it where ever I want! Then, I start to notice: I need to tell apps I want to “sync” my email to display correctly on a widget. Huh? The Lenovo app in particular needs to be told about my email accounts…..again. What?

I decide to try out the Lenovo app store. I attempt to install something, and I am confronted with yet another error, and this is where I begin to get pissed. Lenovo’s signing certificate isn’t included in the device keychain, so, sensibly, it won’t install apps…..from Lenovo’s own store. On a Lenovo tablet. Okay, fine – I go into the settings and choose to allow software to be installed from “unknown sources”. This makes me annoyed, but I do it anyways so I can USE THE APP STORE THAT THE MANUFACTURER OF THE DEVICE SET UP TO BE USED WITH THE DEVICE THEY SOLD ME.

Next, I decide I need Fruit Ninja THD (which is the Fruit Ninja you may know and love, only optimized for Tegra tablet devices). For some reason, for *this* app only, I can’t pay with American Express, and apparently the price is in AUD. What? At first, I think this is an error; I try some other paid apps. Nope, I can select Amex just fine, so it’s just this. What is going on?

Okay, fine, maybe one of these Mastercards is valid (I rarely use anything but Amex online, for a number of reasons). I decide to just try one. I choose an invalid one, and Google tries to charge the card, which is promptly declined. The best part about this is that Android now thinks the application is installed, even though it isn’t, and now it shows up in My Apps in the App Store.

Wow. Really?

About four days later, I receive an email from Google saying the charge will be finally declined, since I haven’t updated the payment information.

Often times, apps won’t install by pressing “install”. The tablet will just sit there, as if nothing happened – or install it, and then do nothing. I have to fix this by going to the list of installed applications and MANUALLY CLICKING INSTALL ON THE APPS THAT AREN’T ACTUALLY INSTALLED, ONE AFTER THE OTHER.

Really? This is the best you can do, Google? I’m suddenly depressed.

It gets better, though. As someone who is used to the Apple app store, the Android store is a pale shade in comparison. In fact, calling it an app store is somewhat farfetched – it’s really just a list of bullshit. The Android app store is filled with apps with nonsensical titles, shitty descriptions, and (mostly) no screenshots. In addition, there are tons of apps that need you to root the device in order to install them – which I don’t care about, but must be really damn confusing for a newbie. What surprises me even more is that this isn’t just homebrew stuff – it’s things like Cisco’s VPN client (although I recently installed a new version of AnyConnect which works on Honeycomb out of the box and is pretty awesome, inasmuch as it lets me……connect to a Cisco VPN from the tablet, which I could have done natively already on iOS).

The Android store is simply a goddamn mess, with tons of shitty, outright broken, or half working apps. In addition, the only way I’ve found to see if an app is compatible with Honeycomb is to try installing it. So far, there are two ways to identify if an app is compatible with Honeycomb: one, I get a message at the very end of installation saying “Not compatible with your device” – or, two – I might be lucky enough to get the even more user friendly experience of “I will flash an error message so fast that you would have to be Superman to read it and then say nothing and return you to the application details page as if nothing happened”. Go about your business, citizen!

To say I am disappointed….would be an understatement. Honeycomb is simply filled with these annoyances. One of the biggest annoyances I have is Flash. Android fanboys and Apple haters tout this all the time, about OMFG ANDROID HAS FLASH UNLIKE THAT WALLED GARDEN OF DROOLING TURTLENECK-WEARING LOSERS WHO HAVE LOTS OF DISPOSABLE INCOME!!!1111

My conclusion after using Flash on a Honeycomb 3.1 device – Tegra 1GHz with 1GB of RAM – is that anyone who touts Flash as a benefit to Android…..has not used Flash on Android.

Flash immediately makes my life hell. I try to go to The Economist – which has an Android app that doesn’t work with Honeycomb (AWESUM) – and the tablet literally locks up for several seconds before it displays the Flash ads on the sidebar. So, hey…just like OS X, then.

I find a way to disable this – there’s an invaluable setting in Chrome where you can set plugins to only load on demand. This is awesome – you just get a little icon where plugin content would normally load, so you can choose to load it or not. The really idiotic part of this is that clicking any of the plugins enables it across the page – so you can’t just click the Flash part you want. You get all the plugins. This means you can click on something you care about, and get screwed over by the rest of the Flash shit on the page.

Cool story, bro.

Flash literally made the tablet unusable, and that bothered me deeply. HBO GO, which has, again, an Android application that doesn’t work on Honeycomb, doesn’t work – it’s a stuttering, crashy piece of shit. I give up and watch an episode of John Adams on Brittany’s iPad, which looks great, and makes me forget I’m not watching a TV. This same experience with the Lenovo tablet literally made me want to smash it.

Sigh.

For anybody else, the Android effort would be worth a solid C+ or B-, especially for a new company that was just releasing this as a product. I can see where they are going, and I like it. For Google, this effort is, simply, a shocking disaster, barely worth a passing grade of D-. I’m shocked that this is a Google product. I’m shocked by the amount of bugs, I’m shocked by the number of times the device has simply froze or rebooted without warning, and I’m shocked by the amount of staggeringly bad UI/UX decisions that are littered throughout Android.

I realize that some of the blame lies on Lenovo, but the lion’s share here is with Honeycomb itself, and Google.

The bottom line? I can’t take Android seriously. I really tried. I tried hard. But the Lenovo tablet is a business device with a toy operating system installed on it. It doesn’t feel like a serious piece of machinery I would use for business. I was reminded of this when the tablet locked up during a meeting, when I was trying to use the pen to take notes (which, by the way, is a REALLY bright spot on the Lenovo experience – it’s awesome, and I mean it – I hope more devices have the N-Trig digitizing pen setup, because, quite frankly, it is one of the few pleasures of using the tablet). I don’t really think of the iPad as a SUPER BUSINESS DEVICE FOR THE BUSINESS OF BUSINESS either, but….the Lenovo tablet, at times, struggles to simply be a useful device.

It isn’t all bad, for sure. There are many cool things: the customization of the home screen, the widgets, the Honeycomb email applications (which are very well done and a pleasure to use). The onscreen keyboard is, although weird at first, very nice, but lacking any kind of useful autocorrection. In addition, when it chooses to be, the tablet is very responsive. The display is large, bright, and very crisp. Last but not least, the portable document editing provided by Documents to Go is pretty neat, and so is the ability to print from pretty much any printer.

As far as non-native apps go, there are a few gems here, as well. TweetComb, frankly, is an awesome app which is tablet optimized – I was expecting this from TweetDeck, which, in fact, turned out to be absolute shit on Honeycomb – a total joke, much to my dismay. Wyse’s RDP/VNC app, as well, is great – totally superior to anything I’ve seen elsewhere (even the free version, as I wasn’t willing to shell out $14.95 for it). And the Cisco AnyConnect, although mirroring a built-in functionality of iOS, is also nice.

And, you know, truthfully – being able to put in an SD card, or connect a USB keyboard or mouse, or a USB flash drive – well, that rules, to put it simply. Good stuff.

I knew that it would be a bumpy ride, as Honeycomb is new, but….damn. I’m disappointed in Lenovo, and Google, for shipping something like this. I can only hope that Honeycomb will incrementally improve, and that Ice Cream Sandwich will really fix a lot of the mess that seems to have been created by Honeycomb’s existence in the first place.

But you know what sucks? I really wanted to love this device. I really wanted to love Android….and yet I’m still thinking of buying an iPad. My greatest frustration is that all of the touted bonuses of Android – Flash, real task management, etc – are also some of its strongest, most thorough weaknesses. In addition, what I consider to be the strongest benefit of Android – the four freedoms of Free Software, even if somewhat dulled given that Android isn’t completely free – is totally absent from Honeycomb.

Double sigh.

Oh yeah – and the last time I tried to charge it to 100%, it took over 24 hours. What the fuck, guys.

Well…At least I can use Remembeer.

3 Replies to “A Honeycomb of Discontent”

  1. Some of this is user error, some of this is because you bought one of the worst Android devices ever released (and paid about $150 too much for it), and some of this is because Lenovo should stick to what they’re good at, which is not this platform.

    For starters, the two-factor auth page:
    Some applications that work outside a browser aren’t yet compatible with 2-step verification and cannot ask for verification codes, for example:
    Android devices
    Google Voice mobile application on iPhone
    Chrome Sync
    Mail clients such as Microsoft Outlook
    Chat clients such as Google Talk or AIM

    Unintuitive perhaps, but it’s right there on the management page. There’s a GMail app separate from the email app because of Exchange.

    Did you do much comparison shopping on devices? I have an Acer Iconia A500, my girlfriend has an Asus Transformer, both Tegra devices with almost identical hardware to the Lenovo tablet. Flash performs flawlessly. The last couple of updates to the Google Market app show some great featured Honeycomb apps, as well as a much improved overall layout.

    You’ve had an experience pretty far outside the norm, and an understandably frustrating one. You’re making some thoroughly unfounded blanket statements, though. Very little of the trouble you had has anything to do with Android or Honeycomb, and a lot to do with Lenovo’s terrible implementation.

  2. Thanks for the comments.

    First, about the two-factor auth: I set this up on my Google account months ago. I’m sorry I didn’t remember the disclaimer months later about Android devices. However, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to expect the setup app (which is the first user experience with the device) to explain what is going on – or at least *suggest* what the issue might be.

    Also, the idea that the app store is somehow better on other devices seems crazy to me. If I have to update the Android release to update the market app, that is beyond silly. I completely concede that a great deal of this might be because of Lenovo….but, somehow, I doubt Lenovo’s actually seriously customized the underlying Android environment, rather than just (as it seems) setting up some auto-installing APKs when the device first boots, and adding some drivers to the baseband. Is there really that much customization of the actual underlying Android environment that’s occurring?

    Regardless, like I said, I concede that my experience may have not been optimal. But I don’t think my complaints about certain UI/UX experiences on the tablet are only valid for the Lenovo tablet; they’re indicative of the Android approach to these design elements. I also think blaming Lenovo for the entirety of the issues is a copout.

  3. When playing music while the screen is off, when the song ends and the next one starts, there’s a huge delay when there’s nothing played. Do you have that problem too?

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