The Android lag fix that really wasn't
How to win friends with stuttering Android phones and alienate the development community
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Google’s announcement of Android 4.1, or “Jelly Bean,” was a remarkable moment at the Google I/O conference in June 2012. Not in the usual sense—”Hey, new Android! I’ll be seeing that in 8 months, or maybe when my contract is up!” It was remarkable because, in describing their “Project Butter” efforts to smooth out the frame rate and speed of many interactions, Google was, in essence, admitting that until then, Android could have had better performance. Google even offered high-frame-rate video proof.
Android, being an open-source project (for the most part, anyways), allows anyone to peek and poke around at the core code that runs the system. If you’ve got the mind and patience for it, you can see exactly how Google’s engineers believe their system should interact with the hardware, how it should conserve or spend resources, and how it displays things. If you have a fix in mind that might improve things, you can submit a patch and see if it makes the cut, after a review.
Or you can post your fix to the very vibrant xda-developers forum, where it might just catch fire. Especially if you provide a file that can be installed on rooted phones. And particularly if your fix is something that seems like something Android developers might have overlooked, like a pool of random numbers that sometimes runs out and slows down the system as it re-populates itself. Furthermore, if your post hits Reddit, and then Lifehacker, and quite a few of the Android blogs and forums. Seeder, the app/fix in question, did all those things, and it’s quite an interesting example of the wonders and frustrations of open source development for the masses.
[The xda-developers blog wrote what amounts to a retraction of Seeder]9http://www.xda-developers.com/android/entropy-seed-generator-not-all-its-hacked-up-to-be/). The developer wrote an update longer than his original post about the would-be fix, stating that, while he can’t vouch that it works for everyone, or even works the way he thinks it does, he has seen some improvement, on some devices. Google’s top Android developers had already dismissed the not-enough-numbers idea as a non-issue. At best, the app might work for some devices, but possibly because it constantly keeps the system "awake," trading more battery life for performance. It all reads like Chapter 24 of If It Sounds Too Good to Be True: A Manual for Modern Device Owners.
But the truly frustrating thing to Seeder, and apps and fixes like it, is the tiny nugget of truth that your big and small computers can, at their deep down cores, get thrown off and slowed down. Take a Windows or Mac computer that’s been running for a few years. Write down every single app and utility installed on it. Back up all its files. Wipe the hard drive clean, re-install the operating system from scratch, then put all the same apps and data files on it. Is it running faster? Almost always, it is running faster.
The same goes for Android, and often more so. Needing to take some standard screenshots, I wiped my Galaxy Nexus completely clean last night—user files, system, SD card, the whole deal. I installed a clean version of the open-source build of Android 4.2.1, then got to work setting up my Google account, installing my must-have apps, tweaking settings my way, and so on. The results? A phone that feels so much faster, responsive, and (the best I can put it) less confused. Its battery life, too, seems notably improved, being closer to 70 percent charged by the end of the work day instead of 40 percent. It’s not like there are pipes in Android that get clogged, or an engine that needs oil, but it can feel like it sometimes.
“Sometimes,” “Maybe,” and “On certain devices” are the little grains of sand that keep Android from seeming buttery smooth, at least across the huge area it is spread over right now.