Modern bugs: a review of the Google iOS apps
Like most tech-obsessed iOS users, I've recently spent a considerable amount of time digging into Google's latest apps, and while I'm mostly pleased, I've encountered some glaring usability quirks that smudge the shine on their recently beautified interfaces.
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad these apps are here. They're interesting to fiddle with, and often come in handy. However, their overall intended purpose is rather murky, which casts a light gray shadow over the experience. Are the apps just elaborate tools to help Google gather data on me? Is Larry Page hellbent on taking over my Apple devices from within? Are the apps just unusual artifacts from a hard-to-pin-down company?
Regardless of their mission in life, I decided to turn the tables and gather some data on them. I kept a log of my experiences using the fruits of the Kennedy Project, and I brought them in for Show n' Tell right here at The Verge forums.
Gmail App for iPhone
When an app is created with the intention of replacing something we already use daily, it's kind of like a remix attempt of a good song. If the remix isn't better than the original, you'll only hear it a couple of times, and then forget about it completely. If the remix is better than the original (which should be the goal of every remix artist), then the new version of the song replaces the original.
If the Gmail app for iPhone was a remix, it wouldn't make it into my record collection. The tempo is far too slow. Every time I opened the app, I counted up to at least nine Mississippi before anything happened. I need to see my mail, not marvel at an animated folding circle.
Lastly, I find that most of the type in the Gmail app for iPhone is too small and slight to read, and there is no way to enlarge it. I already wrote a forum post about this issue, so I'll shut up.
Google Maps for iPhone
In stark contrast to Google Now, the premier feature in Jelly Bean, which tries to learn your habits and intelligently anticipate your needs, the latest Google Maps app for iOS seems suffer from a textbook case of amnesia: when I need it to remember something, it greets me like a total stranger.
Here's an example: I wanted to drive to a destination a few miles away and I needed directions, so I made the app create a list of driving instructions. I glanced at the first few steps, jumped into my car and drove away. A few minutes later at a red light , I woke up my iPhone, and instead of taking me to the list of instructions I had pulled up, the app had somehow refreshed itself and now displayed a bird's eye view of my current location. My previous search and list of instructions were gone. The only option I had was to type the address in again and tap around for a new list of directions, however, the light turned green, and I was screwed.
I'm not entirely sure if this was a bug, or an instance of me not understanding how to properly use the app. So it's one of three possibilities:
1) The app is broken
2) The app is unintuitive
3) The user is an idiot
I encountered this bug several times, however, I can't recreate it on command. I use an iPhone 4 running 5.1.1, so perhaps this behavior is the result of an incompatibility with my two year old phone and my intentionally ancient operating system. I didn't upgrade to iOS 6 because I didn't want to lose the original Maps app. If an incompatibility is indeed the problem, this will be the very first issue of this nature that I've ever encountered on iOS.
Oh, and apparently this app features turn-by-turn directions, however, I have yet to figure out where this feature lives.
Chrome for iPhone and iPad
Chrome is my browser of choice on OS X, however, as much as I like it, I'm still a bit baffled by a few things. I don't think I'll ever get used to the way that files download on the desktop version, and I find the overall branding of Chrome a tad bit confusing.
My confusion mostly stems from the the advent of Chromebooks, where Chrome is presented as an operating system, rather than a browser. Microsoft did us a favor when they gave Explorer its own name, Google, on the other hand, not so much.
The Chrome app for iPhone hasn't been compelling enough to keep me from using Safari as my default phone browser. I don't find it terribly intuitive, and like the Gmail app for iPhone, Chrome has been a bit slow. It just seems like it reloads pages too often. I easily grow tired of watching that blue progress line animate its way across the screen. I find the vertical stacking of tabs a bit odd too.
I've been a lot happier with the Chrome app for iPad. My wife always leaves several tabs open in Safari, because she still hasn't fully grasped the concept of bookmarks. So I've been using the Chrome app as my personal iPad browser. It's snappy, easy-to-use, and the voice search works well. Speaking of voice search, that's the perfect segue into...
Google Search App for iPad
The Google Search app for iPad is interesting, however, using it can quickly become confusing, because it seems like it wants to be a browser, when it's really just a multi-function search utility. You search for things and browser tabs appear. You start clicking on links and surfing around, but when your instincts tell you to type in a URL, you hit a wall. Sorry dude. Not in this app.
The voice input capabilities of Google Search have received a lot of praise, and it does work pretty well. However, similar to Auto Correct, it seems to misinterpret words nearly as often as it gets them right. That said, the Goggles function is hands down amazing.
Gmail for iPad
After hearing Nilay profess his love of the Gmail app for iPad on The Vergecast, I decided to give it a whirl. This is the app that I've adopted most recently, so I have the least amount of experience with it. However, so far I think it's pretty nice, and it stands a good chance at taking over as my default mail app for the tablet. The ease of switching between mail accounts is great, and scribbling and sending notes is a welcome novelty.
I'm aware that this post is mostly about bugs in the new Google iOS apps, so I feel the need to reiterate: I am a fan of these apps. They're great fun, and really useful. Google did a nice job making them look pretty. If they're meant to sway me away from iOS and into the robotic arms of Android, who knows, maybe it'll work someday. Let's close with the song that inspired the title of this post, play us out, David: