Chromecast, Nexus 7, and Android 4.3

Today, Google introduced some pretty sweet new hardware and software. I’m most excited about Chromecast and Android 4.3. I’d be way more excited about the new Nexus 7 if I were to be purchasing one, but given that I have the older one already, I probably won’t.

Chromecast is especially nice because it’s a huge upgrade from what the Nexus Q would have been at a fraction of the cost. I think this is a pretty big step forward for connecting different Google services and devices seamlessly. I like that it works from a variety of devices and Netflix as well. It’d be even better if it was an open API that any app could hook into, but I’m doubtful if that’s on the agenda. At $35 though, it’s plenty more than what I would have expected it to do.

It’s pretty incredible how easily Chrome can sync a variety of different settings, apps, extensions, etc between computers. When the very first app and extension to share browser tabs between a computer and mobile device was launched, I thought it was the coolest thing. Now, it’s become second nature to look at the Other Devices tab on the Chrome Android app on my tablet and instantly open up the same page on different devices. What’s particularly interesting to me though is that this Chromecast device runs a version of Chrome OS, not Android. For a long time, people have been saying that Chrome OS and Android are on a crash course since they’re covering a lot of similar form factors and emerging product lines.  I like their relationship here: Chrome OS on the device, interfacing with Android (as well as other OS with Chrome) on the client side.

But I’m still unsure as to whether Chrome OS is the best choice for the software. At the end of the day, it’s just a bit more than a plain Linux kernel but it’s curious that a full-fledged operating system has been stripped down to make an embedded device rather than an operating system specifically designed for mobile devices. I wonder what the rationale for that decision was, but regardless, it gets the job done.

On the Nexus 7 side, this is a tremendous upgrade of hardware for a small price bump. It’s very excellent to see a notification LED on the new Nexus 7, as this is one my most favorite features of my Android phone over my old iPhone. Colored notifications pertaining to different apps (customizable in some ROMs) can efficiently (battery-wise) and quickly convey a lot of information without the expense of a full device wake-up. The camera in the back is also a nice touch since everyone seems to care about that (recall that it was thought that the original N7 had designated space inside for a back camera but was not present) but I don’t much see the appeal of it. I hope the front camera has improved though since that’s more useful for video conferencing. The GPU bump is a very nice one too. It’s curious that they decided to switch away from the Tegra line with this generation but the performance gains make up for it (at least based on initial third-party benchmarks) I think. I much preferred the perforated back of the original N7 to this generation but I like the sideways “NEXUS” branding more just because it’s more distinctive. I’ll have to get a hold of a device before I can judge if physical dimension changes are noticeable to me.

Android 4.3 was the main thing I was looking forward to today and it seems like it has some nice improvements. It’s cool to see that apps can now tap into the notification stream. Thinking about it now, it seems a bit odd that such control was not previously available in an obvious, “correct” way before. My first thought was that it’d certainly improve the current mechanism that CyanogenMod’s Voice+ implementation works, rather than canceling a notification from Google Voice _after_ it has been displayed before doing its magic. But of course, I expect that to change to a more robust mechanism regardless over time anyway. The other nice thing is that ActionBar is now part of the compatibility library! This is a really welcome change but it’s surprising it took this long. I also appreciate the Bluetooth improvement but we’ll have to see if it improves reliability as well since this is a common complaint that I’ve heard. I don’t use it much personally though. I’m also really interested in the improvements to the rendering pipeline in this version. More multi-threaded rendering is certainly welcome and I hope 2D rendering performance will improve on the Galaxy Nexus as well (I have no doubt it’ll help on newer devices). I’m yet to dig more into the SDK changes but I like what I’m seeing so far!

So on the whole, nothing earth-shattering today, but still a few good surprises and positive changes overall according to me. I like these kind of incremental fixes and improvements over a big dump of everything new in one shot at I/O. This feels closer to an actual development cycle and feels more responsive to actual feedback as well. I really should pick up one of those Chromecast devices..