It's not quite as polished as Apple's iOS, but Android is starting to build up a feature advantage. It's also not clear which devices will get the update - and when.
While much of the excitement around Android in recent weeks has been the final roll-out of Android 2.1 to the HTC Hero, Google has already released the next version of its OS to its Nexus One smartphone. Dubbed Froyo, Android 2.2 might only be a point release, but in terms of features it dramatically improves the operating system.
Although its currently only available for Google’s Nexus One, the good news is that Android 2.2 should be making its way on to the vast majority of Android 2.1 devices in the near future including the HTC Desire and HTC Legend. Sadly, it looks like Android 2.1 will be the limit of the HTC Hero.
For those lucky enough to be able to get Android 2.2, you’ve got a few treats in store and a couple of important tweaks. One of the best tweaks is that there’s a permanent link to the phone application on the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. This toolbar is persistent across all home screens, so you’ve always got a quick way to make a phone call. There’s also a new browser button here, so getting online is quick.
If you use Microsoft Exchange, you’ll be happy with the Active Sync improvements, as Froyo is the first version of Android to support the Global Address List (GAL) and calendar appointments. The GAL integration is particularly neat: start typing an email address and the phone automatically looks up addresses as you type in your contacts book and on the Exchange Server.
Your calendar appointments are automatically downloaded and combined with appointments from other calendars, such as Gmail. However, they’re only synchronised with their source and creating a new appointment requires you to choose which account it belongs to.
There’s been a lot of talk with how Apple doesn’t support Flash and Google should be quick to capitalise on the fact that Android 2.2 does. All you have to do is install the official Adobe Flash app from the Market and you can access the internet in its full glory. It’s important to note that this is full Flash, not the limited Flash Lite that shipped with the HTC Hero: you’ll be able to view all flash content.
Importantly, this means that you can access websites, such as iPlayer, from your Android phone and view all of the content. Video played smoothly on our Nexus One when we played a few BBC shows. It makes Android the ultimate handheld device for viewing the internet.
It also means that you’ll be able to play Flash games on your handset, dramatically increasing the number and variety of games available on Android. Unlike the iPhone’s proprietary platform, it means that developers can write their games once and distribute them to any platform that supports Flash.
Perhaps the most exciting new feature is the Portable hotspot, which turns your handset into a MiFi-like device, letting you share your 3G connection with any wireless device, such as a laptop. It’s easy to configure: you just turn it on in the Tethering & portable hotspot section of the Wireless & network settings menu. However, it’s a little annoying that the default configuration is for open security, rather than generating a random WPA2 PSK password. Your first job should be to set this manually, otherwise anyone will be able to use your 3G connection.
Once it’s configured you can connect to your phone as if it were any other wireless router, getting simple mobile broadband on the move. It’s a lot cheaper than buying a real MiFi device and better than having to install software on your PC for a wireless dongle.
There are a few things that you have to consider, though. For starters, doing this disconnects your phone’s wireless connection, so you’ll need to remember to disable the Portable hotspot when you want to use WiFi on your phone again. Secondly, it can eat up battery life, although can partially negate this if you have a laptop by charging your phone’s battery via a USB port. Finally, you need to make sure that your phone contract allows tethering, otherwise you could be in breach of your contract’s terms and conditions.
There are a few other nice touches too. We like that you can now update all applications in the Market using the Update All button, rather than having to do each one manually. The Application Manager has also been tweaked, so you can now view Running apps, those installed on an SD card, downloaded models and All.
In fairness Android probably isn’t quite as smooth to use as iOS, but it’s getting pretty close. Features like the Portable hotspot are incredible to have, while full Flash support dramatically improves the experience of browsing the web. It’s features like this that mean that Android’s an incredibly strong competitor to the iPhone and a better choice in some regards. The only disappointment is that there’s currently no timeline for all Android devices to get 2.2, so it could be an annoying wait.