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Why I Have Faith in Ice Cream Sandwich Overcoming Android’s Fundamental Lagginess

The Blue Screen of Death still casts a negative halo around Windows despite basically disappearing from PCs a decade ago, after Windows XP arrived. Similarly, I wonder if Android will be unfairly dogged by a reputation for a sluggish user interface for years even if version 4.0 ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ effectively solves this nagging rendering problem.

Before I go on, here’s the backstory for those of you who didn’t see the dueling Google+ blog posts that appeared earlier this week between Android engineer Dianne Hackborn and ex-Android-future-Windows-Phone intern, Andrew Munn on the subject of Android’s laggy rendering compared to iOS, Windows Phone 7, and other modern smartphone OSes

(Also! After I posted this blog, Hackborn responded with a strong rebuttal of Munn’s assertions. See my summary here.)

Now, I had always assumed that sluggishness in Android was symptomatic of quality issues that are the inevitable result of Google’s open ecosystem strategy: 1) until Google’s acquisition of Motorola, its inability to optimize hardware with OS since they are built by different companies (unlike the iPhone or iPad); 2) the lower bar for entry for apps into the Android market that results in more potentially buggy apps.

Then I heard about Ice Cream Sandwich (hereafter known as ICS), and how features such as hardware acceleration (the ability to let the GPU more efficiently do the rendering work) would supposedly smooth out Android’s stuttering UI.

In that context, Hackborn’s post was curious. Rather than confirming that ICS’ hardware acceleration will improve Android’s touchscreen response, she focused on correcting “technical misinformation” and explain that earlier versions of Android, including the version 2.2 Gingerbread installed on most phones today, actually already use some hardware acceleration.

With its latest update, has Android fixed its nagging screen lag problem? Early evidence strongly suggests ‘Yes.’

Being an engineer, it’s not in Hackborn’s DNA to be market-y or even humblebrag. Which is admirable, but it left the uneasy impression that rendering lag would continue to be a huge problem.

That’s exactly what Munn argues. Citing several online sources plus ex-colleagues at Android, the 3rd-year engineering student explains that Android’s lagginess is fundamental to its architecture. Basically, Android was originally designed to be used on regular laptops with a keyboard and a mouse. It doesn’t prioritize real-time tasks like screen rendering with a separate, protected thread. As a result, the UI can’t handle constant input and screen redraws, as fingers on a touchscreen tend to create.

This is the main reason why Android isn’t and can never be as smooth as iOS or Windows Phone 7, which do prioritize real-time rendering, says Munn. Only a fundamental rewrite, the kind that would break hundreds of thousand of existing Android apps, will fix this nagging issue, he warns. Otherwise, “Android UI will never be completely smooth.”

Munn is a great writer, and combined with his ostensible insider knowledge and his no-BS truthtelling stance, he makes a compelling argument.  The fact that neither Hackborn nor anyone else at Google has responded to Munn after two days is also telling.

But let’s put this into perspective:

– Munn worked on Android full-time as a college intern for all of 3 months.

– He admits that he was neither on the Android framework team responsible for UI rendering, nor has he even “read any Android rendering source code.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that Munn probably — hear me out — actually maybe, may in fact, not be the supreme authority on Android rendering that we’d all wish him to be.

Also, here’s the thing. After reading Munn’s post, I decided to see what the real-world evidence, not just the theory, says.

I found all of the reviews I could for the only phone running Ice Cream Sandwich today – that would be the Samsung Galaxy Nexus – to see if the UI was indeed smoother than before. Below are excerpts from reviews that explicitly commented on the UI:

Engadget: “The Galaxy Nexus is definitely one of the fastest Android handsets we’ve  ever played with. Everything feels snappy, everything looks fluid —  Ice Cream Sandwich isn’t just a new version of Google’s mobile OS, it’s  what happens when Android hits the gym and becomes lean and mean.”

Boy Genius Report: “Android 4.0 is fast. Extremely fast. Scrolling  between the five home  screens (please, please let me customize the  number of home screens) was  silky smooth with practically no lag  whatsoever.

GigaOM: “Android 4.0.1 on the Galaxy Nexus feels like it actually borrows more  from Windows Phone 7.5 than iOS, at least in terms of aesthetics, and everything in general seems to work better and smoother.”

The Verge: “As far as phone performance is concerned, however, the Galaxy Nexus  feels blazingly, stupidly fast to me. Touch response is excellent on the  phone — everything reacts quickly to your movements. Homescreen  scrolling was snappy, moving into and out of apps was instantaneous,  swiping through long lists was stutter free, and web browsing (even on  heavy pages like ours) was super speedy. ..It’s obviously a combination of great hardware  and great software, but the Nexus is probably the tightest feeling,  snappiest Android phone I’ve ever used. It’s awesome.”

Gizmodo: ” The user experience is extremely fast and fluid. Scrolling  around webpages is quicker and smoother than any other mobile browser  I’ve used (and with all of its new enhanced features, I would call ICS’  version of Chrome the best mobile browser out there).”

PhoneArena: “Using an Android phone has never looked or felt better…It  just flies no matter if you’re swiping  through homescreen, scrolling  long lists, webpages, or opening and  closing heavy applications. The  occasions where we noticed a slight  slowdown (like when switching to  landscape QWERTY) were so few, that  we’d go as far as to say that the  Samsung Galaxy Nexus is one of the  fastest smartphones out there  today.”

SlashGear: “Although the TI dual-core is capable of 1.2GHz in  the Galaxy Nexus (the chip itself is offered at up to 1.5GHz in other  devices) during our testing it spent less than 5-percent of its time at  that speed. In fact, over 85-percent of the time the CPU was running at  just 350MHz, with the remainder somewhere around the 700-850MHz point.  That aggressive throttling – and the fact that the phone never felt slow – is testament to Ice Cream Sandwich’s frugality and refinement.”

Laptop magazine: “Very fast performance: On our tests, the Galaxy Nexus was super  smooth and responsive. Featuring a 1.2-GHz dual-core processor, the  phone instantly launched the App menu and let us jump between apps (such  as the browser and “Fruit Ninja”) in a second. The Galaxy Nexus also  delivered excellent graphics performance when we played “Riptide GP.” The action never stuttered, and we could make out detailed reflections in the rippling water.” “All that hardware is brought to bear on the centerpiece of this new   phone, the first smartphone shipping with Google’s Android 4.0 “Ice   Cream Sandwich” (ICS) operating system. It represents a giant leap in   usability for this popular operating system. The first thing I  noticed  was its ability to smoothly scroll down long lists, the  complaint I’ve  had against Android-packing phones from the beginning. Finally, you can  scroll up and down a Google+ stream and slide down  lists of emails with  smoother response, although not all apps I tried  enjoy that  butter-smooth scrolling yet.”

That’s nine reviews saying ICS on Nexus is butter-smooth. Meanwhile, I found only 3 reviews that mentioned a hiccup-y UI:

CNET: “Though we were hoping that it would be different, the Galaxy Nexus  still  has that slight laggy effect that we’ve seen on other Android  phones.  Indeed, you’ll notice it here when scrolling through lists. It  is better  than we’ve seen on previous models, so it doesn’t ruin the  touch  interface, but you do notice the difference when switching from  an iOS  or Windows Phone 7 device”

TechCrunch: “Usually the Galaxy Nexus hums along, but I’ve had one or two moments  where where it reminded me of my Nexus One, pausing at odd moments and  apparently ignoring finger taps. This hasn’t happened often — and Google  says at least one of the issues I saw is a known bug that has already  been fixed on devices customers will receive. So we’ll see how it  performs over the coming weeks.”

Time magazine: “For the most part, the Galaxy Nexus’s 1.2-GHz dual-core processor makes  for a fluid experience, but I did encounter some instances when the  phone briefly ignored my taps and swipes–a usability glitch that’s  pretty much unknown in the Apple world.

So, a 3:1 margin in favor of ICS!
To make this as rigorous as possible, I decided to look at reviews of the new Asus eee Transformer Prime, too.
The Transformer Prime is a 10-inch tablet that uses a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor but runs on Android 3.0 Honeycomb.
While the Prime’s screen is much larger than the Nexus, their resolutions are basically the same: (1280×800 for the Prime, 1280×720 for the Nexus).
Both use chipsets based on the Cortex-A9. But the Nexus’s TI OMAP chipset relies on the 3-year-old PowerVR SGX540 graphics chip with 4 cores, while the Asus tablet’s Tegra 3 chipset sports a brand-new, 12-core GPU.
In other words, will the Transformer Prime’s much more powerful rendering engine overcome the handicap of an older, stutter-y version of Android?

The evidence would say no. Six reviews mentioned the laggy UI, one review was neutral, and one said the problem had gone away.

CNET:  “While the Prime’s IPS screen was immediately clear and sharp when   first we powered it on, it was the screen transitions that really   impressed us. The first time we tapped the Apps button, we were treated   to a noticeably higher frame rate transition than on any previous   Android tablet. We hoped this fluidity would carry over to apps  like Marvel Comics, but that was not the case.  Reading a comic through  the app on the iPad 2 is still a considerably  smoother experience, but  this may have something to do with specific  optimizations of the iPad  app. We can’t be sure, however.”
Laptop: “As with every other Android tablet we’ve used, we noticed occasional  moments of slowness in opening a menu or launching an app, but there  were fewer of those moments than on other devices.”
The Verge: “While Nvidia says the general UI and OS should feel faster, I have only  found that to be the case some of the time. While you can see in the  video that swipes across homescreens are swifter, the waiting that  frequently occurs when opening menus or toggling between apps on  Honeycomb tablets isn’t completely gone.
Engadget:  “That said, we were sorry to still see some occasional stutters and   hiccups from time to time, instances where the device would hesitate for   just a half-second or so before responding. There are three  performance  modes that are easily selected between in the pop-up  settings menu, but  even on its highest we couldn’t get it to be a  consistently smooth  operator. They’re the kind of stops and starts  we’ve seen on just about  every Android device to date and it’s a bit of  a shame that even four  whopping cores running at 1.3GHz can’t do away  with them.”
PC Magazine: “You won’t see the blinding speed  when you’re poking around the main UI or  some of Google’s apps, as  they’re occasionally nonresponsive, although  screen transitions are a  bit more fluid than on other Android tablets.”
SlashGear: “What  you’ll find here is that the two tests we’ve  got running here, the  Prime outdoes the original Transformer by quite a  bit, but the iPad 2 still leaves both of the Android tablets [Transformer and Transformer Prime] in the dust.”
PCWorld was neutral:
PCWorld: “Beyond the obvious boost in CPU performance and gaming, the benefits of the quad-core Tegra 3 wasn’t apparent in all activities. Touchscreen swiping was smoother, for example, but in general, navigation, multitasking, and in-app experiences didn’t feel dramatically faster.
Only GigaOm gave a hesitating thumbs up:

GigaOM:   “The ASUS Transformer Prime tablet, powered by Nvidia’s quad-core  Tegra  3 chip, seems to be running silky-smooth in this first look.”

So to recap, Doctor of Science style:

Hypothesis: Even if handicapped by a lack of real-time rendering thread, Android’s screen lag can be reduced to the point that, for all intents and purposes, it matches iOS or Windows Phone 7 in perceived smoothness.

Experiment 1: Does ICS on Galaxy Nexus run smoothly?

  Result: Yes, by an overwhelming 9:3 margin, according to professional reviewers.

Experiment 2: Does the more-powerful hardware of the Asus Transformer Prime overcome the stuttering Honeycomb UI?

Result: No, by an even more overwhelming 6.5:1.5 margin.

Conclusion: Throwing faster processors at Android isn’t what solves its stuttering problem; its improvements in ICS. Improvements that appear to have banished the lag problem, even without having apparently rewritten its rendering engine, as Munn argued must be done.

With more than 85% of Android users on either Froyo or Gingerbread, this would be great news and potentially the end of their most nagging, annoying issue.  Here’s the list of devices and when they’ll be eligible for official installs of ICS.

They include virtually all dualcore devices released by HTC, Acer, Asus, LG, Motorola, Samsung and Sony this year.  I’m eager to see if ICS does indeed improve screen lag on those devices, too.

That would be definitive proof of my theory that even if it’s not the most elegant solution, Google’s engineers are doing enough workarounds to the real-time threading issue so that it won’t matter anymore.


A quick plug: I’ll be covering the Mobility portion of the next Tuesday’s SAP Influencer Summit. Basically, my parent company will trot out top executives to speak to top market analysts about next year’s strategy and roadmap. If you’re interested in what we’re doing in enterprise mobile apps, development and management, follow me on Twitter at @ericylai on Dec. 13 starting 6 am PST or watch the hashtag #SAPsummit.

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  • Hi Eric,

    Great summary of the discussion, although something seems to have gone wrong with your Markup.
    Could you also include the statements made by Chi Ho?

    he argues that a lot of the lagginess issues are actually caused by the poor design of most apps.

    I tend to agree with him based on my user experience. i have the Nexus S and a Galaxy tab and experience very little rendering lag. Only when using some 3rd party apps I really see lag and screen stutter. So it looks like the problem is not Android, but more the open eco-system of Android.

    Of course, if Google manages to solve the issue with ICS by improving hardware acceleration, I’ll be the last to complain. Although just like with HANA, I’ll argue that faster architecture holds the risk of lazy developers.

    Just as I wanted to push submit, I came across a new reply from Diane:
    In here she explains how Android’s graphic rendering really works and counters a lot of statements made by Munn. She however does not excuse for the fact that there is still a lot of lag, but she as well mentions that a lot of lag issues can be solved if the App developers use the proper API’s.

    (Apple forces quality control on all apps, Google does not. Maybe they should start doing that for an “approved app” area on the market? )



    • Thanks for flagging Hackborn’s new post. I summarized it just now. Like you, I’m mixed. She says there IS a way to prioritize UI rendering, but also admits that there is no separate real-time rendering thread just for the UI, as in iOS.

      Still, I’m hopeful that the early empirical evidence will prove out – that ICS as it’s running on the Nexus today will highlight the sort of reduction in screen lag on other Android devices, once they are upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0.