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Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

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By Jonathan Corbet
November 20, 2012
The kind folks at Google decided that your editor was in need of a present for the holidays; soon thereafter, a box containing a Nexus 7 tablet showed up on the doorstep. One might think that the resulting joy might be somewhat mitigated by the fact that your editor has been in possession of an N7 tablet since last July, and one might be right. But the truth of the matter is that the gift was well timed, and not just because it's nice to be able to install ill-advised software distributions on a tablet without depriving oneself of a useful device.

It was not that long ago that a leading-edge tablet device was a fairly big deal. Family members would ask where the tablet was; the house clearly wouldn't contain more than one of them. What followed, inevitably, was an argument over who got to use the household tablet. But tablets are quickly becoming both more powerful and less expensive — a pattern that a few of us have seen in this industry before. We are quickly heading toward a world where tablet devices litter the house like notepads, cheap pens, or the teenager's dirty socks. Tablets are not really special anymore.

They are, however, increasingly useful. Your editor recently purchased a stereo component that locates his music on the network (served by Samba), plays said music through the sound system with a fidelity far exceeding that available from portable music players, and relies on an application running on a handy Android (or iOS) device for its user interface. Every handset and tablet in the house, suddenly, is part of the music system; this has led to a rediscovery of your editor's music collection — a development not universally welcomed by your editor's offspring. Other household devices, thermostats for example, are following the same path. There is no need to attach big control surfaces to household gadgets; those surfaces already exist on kitchen counters and in the residents' pockets.

So the addition of a tablet into a household already containing a few of them is not an unwelcome event; it nicely replaces the one that will eventually be found underneath the couch.

What's new in Android 4.2

About the time this tablet showed up, the Android 4.2 release came out as an over-the-air update. Some of the features to be found there would seem to have been developed with the ubiquitous tablet very much in mind. At the top of the list, arguably, is the new multiuser support. A new "users" settings screen allows the addition of new users to the device; each user gets their own settings, apps, lock screen, etc. Switching between users is just a matter of selecting one from the lock screen.

Android users are still not as strongly isolated as on a classic Linux system. Apps are shared between them so that, for example, if one user accepts an app update that adds permissions, it takes effect for everybody. The initial user has a sort of mild superuser access; no other users can add or delete users, for example, and the "factory reset" option is only available to the initial account. There doesn't seem to be a way to parcel out privileges to other accounts. The feature works well enough for a common use case: a tablet that floats around the house and is used by multiple family members. Perhaps someday the face unlock feature will recognize the user of the tablet and automatically switch to the correct account.

A feature that is not yet present is the ability to clone one tablet onto another. As we head toward the day when new tablets will arrive as prizes in cereal boxes, we will lose our patience with the quaint process of configuring the new tablet to work like the others do. Google has made significant progress in this area; a lot of useful stuff just appears on a new tablet once the connection to the Google account has been made. But there is still work to do; the process of setting up the K9 mail client is particularly tiresome, for example. And, naturally, storing even more information on the Google mothership is not without its concerns. Wouldn't it be nice to just put the new tablet next to an existing one and say "be like that other one"? The transfer could be effected with no central data storage at all, and life would be much easier.

Much of the infrastructure for this kind of feature appears to already be in place. The near-field communications (NFC) mechanism can be used to "beam" photos, videos, and more between two devices just by touching them together. The "wireless display" feature can be used to transmit screen contents to a nearby television. It should not be hard to do a full backup/restore to another device. Someday. Meanwhile, the "beaming" feature is handy to move photos around without going through the tiresome process of sending them through email.

Another significant new feature is the "swipe" gesture typing facility, whereby one spells words by dragging a finger across the keyboard from one letter to the next. Gesture typing has been available via add-on apps for a while, but now it's a part of the Android core. Using it feels a little silly at the outset; it is like a return to finger painting in elementary-school art class. For added fun, it will attempt to guess which word is coming next, allowing the typing process to be skipped entirely — as long as the guesses turn out to be accurate. In your editor's experience, gesture typing is no faster than tap-typing; if anything, it is a little slower. But the resulting text does seem to be less error-prone; whoever wrote the code doing the gesture recognition did a good job.

One interesting change is that the notification bar at the top has been split into two. The downward-swipe gesture on the left side gives the usual list of notifications — though many of them have been enhanced with actions selectable directly from the notification. On the right side, instead, one gets various settings options. The new scheme takes a while to get used to; it also seems like it takes a more determined effort to get the selected screen to actually stay down rather than teasing the user and popping right back up.

Various other new features exist. The "photo sphere camera" is evidently an extension of the panorama feature found in earlier releases; alas, it refuses to work on the N7's (poor) front-facing camera, so your editor was unable to test it out. The camera also now evidently has high dynamic range (HDR) processing functionality. On the Nexus 10 tablet, the "Renderscript" mechanism can use the GPU for computational tasks; no other device has the requisite hardware support at the moment. There is a screen magnification feature that can be used to zoom any screen regardless of whether the running app was written with that in mind. And so on.

One other change in the 4.2 release is the replacement of the BlueZ-based Bluetooth stack with a totally new stack (called "Bluedroid") from Broadcom. This stack, according to the release notes, "provides improved compatibility and reliability." A message on the android-platform list gives some additional reasons for the change, including the ability to run Bluetooth processes in a separate process, elimination of the D-Bus dependency, and more. The licensing of the new "Bluedroid" stack has raised some questions of its own that have not been clarified as of this writing.

Bluetooth stack questions aside, the obvious conclusion is that the Android platform continues to advance quickly. Each release improves the experience, adds features, and generally cements Android's position as the Linux-based platform for mobile devices. Your editor would still like to see an alternative platform, preferably one that is closer to traditional Linux, but that seems increasingly unlikely as the spread of Android continues unabated and unchallenged. The good news is that Android continues to be (mostly) free software and it continues to improve. This stage of the evolution of the computing industry could easily have taken a highly proprietary turn; thanks to Android, the worst of that has been avoided.

(Thanks to Karim Yaghmour for pointers to the Bluedroid discussion).


(Log in to post comments)

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 20, 2012 17:38 UTC (Tue) by juliank (subscriber, #45896) [Link]

It's a bit slower on the Nexus 7 though. Turning the display off now has a slower animation; and getting to the list of recently used applications is also slower, now that the current app is minimised first.

It's unfortunate that they replaced bluez with a new stack (that does not even have the licensing sorted out) as that drives Android even further away from Desktop Linux, and probably makes it harder to add new Bluetooth profiles on a rooted phone (My plan was to root Android and write an app to emulate a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse, but that seems less possible now).

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 20, 2012 20:56 UTC (Tue) by xkahn (subscriber, #1575) [Link]

It's a bit slower on the Nexus 7 though. Turning the display off now has a slower animation; and getting to the list of recently used applications is also slower, now that the current app is minimised first.

I had this problem around the time I updated my Nexus 7 tablet as well. A quick web search showed that the trouble may be lack of free storage space. Apparently the 16GB model needs to have 3GB free in order to operate correctly.

Freeing the required space by uninstalling productivity apps ... err... games. Made the tablet responsive again.

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 22, 2012 8:47 UTC (Thu) by justincormack (subscriber, #70439) [Link]

The licensing is sorted out, it is Apache. It is the licensing of the git history that is the problem, as that is not. Just delete the proprietary history and you are good to go.

multiple users

Posted Nov 20, 2012 21:32 UTC (Tue) by tialaramex (subscriber, #21167) [Link]

An old friend asked to see my Nexus 7 at the weekend, they observed that ordinarily you either have to hover over the shoulder of someone who is playing with your new toy, or accept that everything on there (email, photographs, notes, contacts) is open for them to look at, even if they don't specifically intend to snoop. I had created a guest account and so they just got a rather bare desktop, it's not as easy to appreciate some of the device's features this way but it does avoid some potential for embarrassment or, in the case of devices used for business, data security breach.

Obviously the main purpose of this functionality will be for the larger tablets like the Nexus 10 that are likely to be shared by two or more people in a household. Most people aren't going to buy their five-year-old a high-end tablet, but they appreciate that the games and other activities are attractive and a child that age is capable of taking responsibility for treating the device with respect when borrowing it. Being able to give them an environment that retains the games, the camera and so on but lacks Mum's work email and a paused horror movie she was watching last night makes good sense. At least until powerful multi-core tablets really are given away in cereal boxes.

However there doesn't seem to be an easy way to share applications. If I have Program A, and I create a new user, Barry, there doesn't seem to be an easy way to let Barry use Program A, it's necessary for Barry to re-install it. So that's potentially a little annoying. But perhaps I missed some trick to doing this.

multiple users

Posted Nov 26, 2012 23:18 UTC (Mon) by liam (subscriber, #84133) [Link]

Each user has to install their own apps. However, if one user has app A installed, and the second user wants to install app A they will end up sharing the executable.

multiple users

Posted Nov 29, 2012 12:16 UTC (Thu) by alex (subscriber, #1355) [Link]

"Obviously the main purpose of this functionality will be for the larger tablets like the Nexus 10 that are likely to be shared by two or more people in a household. Most people aren't going to buy their five-year-old a high-end tablet, but they appreciate that the games and other activities are attractive and a child that age is capable of taking responsibility for treating the device with respect when borrowing it."

*smiles* something for my 1 year old daughter to introduce her to computing devices was my rather paper thin justification for getting the Nexus 7 in the first place. Although there are various toddler friendly apps that attempt to lock out the home screen they don't work too well. Before hand I'd have to break into her fun when she got to gmail or facebook and started entering random stuff. Now she has her own account she can be a bit freer top explore.

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 20, 2012 22:32 UTC (Tue) by frhart (guest, #26508) [Link]

General consensus seems to be that this release feels a bit rushed. They forgot to include the month December in the people app, Bluetooth seems less reliable and an app like sixaxis (for connecting a controller over Bluetooth to the Nexus) can't connect anymore. The auto brightness function is erratic at best. But the new keyboard is indeed a good improvement. I am curious though, what our editor's new stereo component is.

The toy

Posted Nov 20, 2012 22:43 UTC (Tue) by corbet (editor, #1) [Link]

It's a Sonos "Connect" box. The sad thing is that it can only be a board with a decent DAC and Linux; it should have been possible to build this system for a lot less money and maybe get something better. It's on the longer-term project list; in the meantime I get to listen to my music outside of my office.

The toy

Posted Nov 20, 2012 23:06 UTC (Tue) by smurf (subscriber, #17840) [Link]

Since I need neither synchronous output from multiple speakers nor any kind of Web streaming, my audio system consists of a heap of music on the home server, a couple of old Debian-ized NSLU2 bricks I've had lying around with MPD as clients, and a small script that builds the MPD database from MusicBrainz metadata. Total cost 1/8th of a Sonos Connect.
Free Android apps to control the thing exist, so …

The toy

Posted Nov 21, 2012 14:26 UTC (Wed) by imitev (guest, #60045) [Link]

[offtopic]

If you want (very) good sound quality then you need a good DAC, and these are not cheap, although they're not as expensive as they used to be. But if you listen to low/medium bitrate compressed music, then yes, any cheap "plug" computer with an integrated soundcard would do. IMO an old netbook/nettop with a decent USB DAC/soundcard is the way to go if you don't want to buy specialized hw.

On a side note I've always preferred Logitech Squeeze * products over Sonos, but I guess I should have gone the Sonos way: Logitech EOL'ed their product range a few weeks ago :(

Use the DAC on a receiver

Posted Nov 29, 2012 23:05 UTC (Thu) by Pc5Y9sbv (guest, #41328) [Link]

Now that even SOHO routers have a USB host port, you could probably just run an audio server on a $100 router with a $50 USB digital audio adapter and have as good a sound as is possible with your receiver's built-in DAC.

I've been running the same little USB to TOSlink adapter for about ten years, feeding input to various receivers I've used along the way. In my case, MythTV supports pass-through Dolby Digital and DTS surround from HDTV recordings or DVDs, which is likewise decoded by the DAC on the home theater.

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 20, 2012 22:57 UTC (Tue) by aryonoco (guest, #55563) [Link]

I would highly encourage the kind folks at Google to send our beloved editor a Nexus 4 and a Nexus 10 as well, just to read his whimsical notes on Android and musings on the state of the computer industry.

As for the keyboard, I have found gesture typing to be much more useful on the mobile handset. It definitely helps with one-handed typing (well it actually makes one handed typing possible). On a tablet, or when I have two hands available even on the phone, tap-typing still feels faster, but I really appreciate the added attention to one-handed operation of the phone in many different areas in Android 4.2, an area that Android has been sorely lacking compared to MeeGo Harmattan and WebOS.

As for cloning a device onto another one, can I just point our editor to an application called Titanium Backup. It is a very reliable and effective way of backing up user-installed apps (with all their data) and restoring them on another device. However to use NFC and Wifi-direct to do this... I think you have just given a few people a nice challenge to work on!

NFC unsuited to "duplicating" your tablet

Posted Nov 20, 2012 23:51 UTC (Tue) by tialaramex (subscriber, #21167) [Link]

A naive "duplicate" feature would operate by copying the entirety of tablet A onto tablet B. Certainly the worst case is /very close/ to this even if we're quite clever about it and copy only the user's data and preferences.

The largest Nexus devices are currently 32GB I believe. On a GigE link, with a fast enough TCP/IP implementation (neither of which is available on any tablet today) that's maybe six minutes of data under ideal circumstances.

At a (slightly) more realistic 50Mbit high speed local WiFi it will take more than two hours. At that point you're definitely asking the user to plug everything into the mains, and find something else to do while they wait.

But our esteemed editor suggests NFC. I suspect he has not tried doing very much with NFC, because the target usable bandwidth is less than a megabit. Copying one tablet's contents onto another can be expected to take as much as a fortnight, and of course any real user would long before that grow tired of the "Please wait..." message and give up.

NFC unsuited to "duplicating" your tablet

Posted Nov 21, 2012 0:08 UTC (Wed) by corbet (editor, #1) [Link]

Wifi is clearly better for the data transfer, but NFC is a good device discovery and "user is present and wants this" verification mechanism.

NFC unsuited to "duplicating" your tablet

Posted Nov 21, 2012 1:49 UTC (Wed) by ewan (subscriber, #5533) [Link]

AIUI the way the 'Android beam' feature works is to use the NFC to negotiate a device-to-device Bluetooth connection which then does the actual data transfer. The NFC step is essentially for authentication - on the basis that it's just so short range that you must have deliberately brought the devices close together to do the transfer.

NFC unsuited to "duplicating" your tablet

Posted Nov 21, 2012 12:02 UTC (Wed) by paulj (subscriber, #341) [Link]

The 'adb' tool already provides image backup/restore functionality. You need to unlock your Nexus first of course.

NFC unsuited to "duplicating" your tablet

Posted Nov 21, 2012 14:25 UTC (Wed) by smurf (subscriber, #17840) [Link]

Image backup+restore probably won't work when the new tablet isn't exactly the same model as the old one. Besides, this idea should work without the help of a 3rd device.
IMHO using NFC (or display+scan a QR code) to setup a data channel should be rather trivial. Then blast the actual data across with WiFi. The heavy lifting (i.e. extract and restore state) can be done with Titanium Backup which you should use anyway.

Any takers?

NFC unsuited to "duplicating" your tablet

Posted Nov 21, 2012 17:24 UTC (Wed) by paulj (subscriber, #341) [Link]

True, though you can backup your apps separately from the system at least. So it at least a partial solution.

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 21, 2012 6:23 UTC (Wed) by neilbrown (subscriber, #359) [Link]

> Your editor would still like to see an alternative platform, preferably one that is closer to traditional Linux,

I'm wandering what "closer to traditional Linux" really means in the context of a tablet.

- Does it mean the X11 windowing system?
- Does it mean that all processes run as the one uid?
- Does it mean that I can get a root terminal easily?
- Does it mean I can get a terminal window where 'ls' and 'cat' work as expected?

My guess is "all of those and probably more", but which are most important, and why?

Get me Bash

Posted Nov 21, 2012 8:43 UTC (Wed) by man_ls (guest, #15091) [Link]

I don't know for our editor, but for me "closer to Linux" would be "including GNU userland tools" and "allowing me to do things from the console". Your fourth point more or less. Right now the shell is almost unusable.

Get me Bash

Posted Nov 21, 2012 9:25 UTC (Wed) by nhippi (subscriber, #34640) [Link]

Well adding a debian or other generic linux chroot for command line apps is quite trivial.

I also have hard time seeing value in having "something closer to linux". There is pretty much no touch-screen friendly apps for linux desktop.

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 21, 2012 15:08 UTC (Wed) by Jonno (subscriber, #49613) [Link]

> I'm wandering what "closer to traditional Linux" really means in the context of a tablet.

For the low-level user-space, give me glibc, coreutils and bash in a decent terminal app and I'm satisfied. Systemd, dbus and (dpkg or rpm) would be a big bonus, but is by no means required.

The uid scheme and windowing system (Surfaceflinger, Wayland, X11, etc) is irrelevant to me, as long as both Qt and GTK+ works on it, and you can launch programs from the terminal inheriting it's environment.

I'd also want an official way of gaining a root prompt, but to me that is not about "being closer to traditional Linux" but about device ownership (if it's my computer, I should be able to do what I want with it).

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 22, 2012 20:41 UTC (Thu) by mastro (guest, #72665) [Link]

Many traditional command line tools are available from Google Play.

The official way to gain root (for Nexus devices, some other manufacturers ship modified Android versions that may make this harder) is documented in the official Android documentation: http://source.android.com/source/building-devices.html (unlock the bootloader using fastboot and install sudo from Google Play).

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 21, 2012 18:05 UTC (Wed) by robert_s (subscriber, #42402) [Link]

Real package management?

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 21, 2012 19:24 UTC (Wed) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

no, package management varies drastically from distro to distro, what Android has is within the range of what 'traditional' linux distros support.

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 22, 2012 9:47 UTC (Thu) by robert_s (subscriber, #42402) [Link]

What all linux package managers generally have in common is they can manage the whole system. Not just a select group of end-user applications. Once you're on android 4.2 you're pretty much stuck on android 4.2 save for some strange update process that frankly you're lucky to get from your vendor/carrier.

As a user of debian systems that have been seamlessly updated through several releases this seems like the stone age to me.

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 22, 2012 9:54 UTC (Thu) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

it may be the stone age, but it's still within the array of linux distro management. apt has had upgrades between versions forever, rpm gained it recently, many other distros still require full installs to go to a new version

Recently?

Posted Nov 22, 2012 14:34 UTC (Thu) by niner (subscriber, #26151) [Link]

I've upgrade S.u.S.E installations since my first version which was 5.2. That was in 1998. This was coincidentally also the year when APT was released. So rpm based distros allowed updates "forever" as well. Most probably even with a definition of "forever" that is longer than the one for APT.

Recently?

Posted Nov 22, 2012 23:20 UTC (Thu) by anselm (subscriber, #2796) [Link]

Debian allowed upgrades from one version to the next even before APT came out. I have a Debian installation on one computer that I made around 1995 or so and have only upgraded since (with an occasional »cp -a« to a new machine). This includes upgrades from a.out to ELF and from libc5 to libc6.

On the other hand, doing SUSE upgrades was touch-and-go. For example, the first SUSE I had was 7.3, and going from there to 8.x was practically impossible. At the time even the SUSE people we had to deal with recommended doing a full reinstall instead, which went faster and broke less stuff.

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 23, 2012 14:31 UTC (Fri) by tialaramex (subscriber, #21167) [Link]

The devices we're talking about in this thread have all been Google Nexus products, not things locked down by a mobile telephone manufacturer or service provider. As a result the upgrades come at a fairly steady rate from Google.

I bought a Nexus 7 a while ago when I realised I would be without any of my computers for several days it has seen occasional use ever since. A while ago I heard about Android 4.2, and within a week of that a dialog popped up. Did I want to upgrade now, or would I prefer to do so in my own time? I was busy, so I picked later, and some hours later I remembered the offer, checked the relevant Settings page and updated.

One reboot later I was running Android 4.2. It was seamless, all my settings were left alone, everything was as I had left it, but now I had new features. One of the 3rd party apps I had broke due to some infelicity or other, it got an update later that week which fixed the incompatibility with 4.2, I would say that it was very like upgrading Fedora, except much faster and less scary.

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 22, 2012 4:25 UTC (Thu) by zenaan (subscriber, #3778) [Link]

Hi Jon, knowing your traditionally dry humour, I read the following:

"But tablets are quickly becoming both more powerful and less expensive — a pattern that a few of us have seen in this industry before."

as:
"But tablets are quickly becoming both more powerful and less expensive — a pattern that few of us have seen in this industry before."

Please, I hope your standards of dry-ness have not dropped. Let's keep the chuckles coming :)

Kind regards

Few of us

Posted Nov 22, 2012 8:48 UTC (Thu) by man_ls (guest, #15091) [Link]

I also did the same sarcastic reading at first; for some reason the sentence as is didn't parse well. But then I noticed it was just an understatement, which worked well. Our editor's dry humor would have read:
But tablets are quickly becoming both more powerful and less expensive — a pattern that none of us have seen in this industry before.
Emphasis mine. They are all variations on the same theme, which should be followed by a "bazinga!" for maximum comedy effect.

Now that the joke has been utterly ruined for everyone, keep them coming!

Android 4.2, tablets, and related thoughts

Posted Nov 22, 2012 18:36 UTC (Thu) by vonbrand (guest, #4458) [Link]

Reads fine to me. Our esteemed editor is certainly in the group of the very select few who have seen this phenomenon first hand ;-)

PengPod

Posted Nov 29, 2012 15:52 UTC (Thu) by Kaejox (guest, #85586) [Link]

Flexible and power user friendly tablets are coming called PengPod.
It can dual boot between Android and "generic Linux" running almost any distro. It supports for example Plasma Active and Xfce.
They are running crowdfunding campaign (ends Dec 2) and need to reach $49,000 goal.
http://www.pengpod.com/
http://www.indiegogo.com/pengpod


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