8 Ways to Make Android Phones Better

In case you hadn't noticed, it's the summer of Android. HTC Evo 4G. Droid Incredible. Garminfone. myTouch 3G Slide. Google and its partners have amassed an army that is taking on the iPhone and winning, with NPD claiming that Android now owns 28 percent market share in the U.S. to Apple's 21 percent. Yesterday Google unveiled the latest version of its OS, 2.2, boasting much improved performance, Flash 10.1 support, and other goodies. We went hands on with a preview, and liked what we saw. However, Android phones still need work. Lots of it. Here are the improvements I'd like to see.

1. Make e-mail more intuitive

Why does Android have separate Gmail and e-mail apps? Combine them, please. Also, I don't like scrolling down to reply to messages. This option should always be visible, whether it’s at the top or bottom of the screen. And as much as I appreciate threaded messaging so you can follow e-mail conversations, Android sometimes doesn't load the latest message first. In the words of SNL's Oscar Rogers, Fix it!

2. Provide carrier billing for apps

Maybe Google is trying to make this happen behind the scenes, but I'm not a fan of having to create a Google account just to download premium apps. I guarantee you that the proportion of paid to free programs would at least triple if you could simply add them to your wireless bill. Yes, I know the iPhone doesn't have carrier billing either, but many more millions of consumers have iTunes accounts. As an alternative, maybe Google could have Amazon integrate its one-click ordering, since plenty of folks have those accounts. Also, please stop showing prices in euros in the Android Market. It's just confusing. Your phone should know where it was activated and display the appropriate currency.

3.  Give me premium movies and TV shows

Speaking of Amazon, now that Kindle eBooks are coming to Android, and you can already download Amazon MP3s, it's time for Google to work with the online retailer to deliver its video-on-demand service, with all the latest movies and TV shows. A subscription option would be nice, but I'll take a la carte streams or downloads. (Heck, why doesn't Google just buy Amazon and make this whole integration thing easier?) Google should also beef up YouTube with premium content, especially since you can get high-quality video on phones such as the Evo 4G. Netflix should be coming soon, but for me it's not soon enough.

4. Bring better games to the Android Market

Last time I checked, webOS had a better selection of 3D games than Android. And there's really no excuse for that, since Palm's platform commands less than 6 percent market share. Where are the quality titles from the likes of EA and Gameloft to take full advantage of these powerful new superphones? Where's my Let's Golf! that I love so much for iPhone? Actually, Gameloft recently announced my fave for Android, as well as a bunch of other titles, including Asphalt 5, Assassin’s Creed: Altair's Chronicles, and Real Football 2010. But you can't get these games through Android Market. Instead you have to go to Gameloft's site and download them (and right now only the Droid is supported). Why?

5. Make a better touch keyboard

To be fair, many Android smart phone makers often take it upon themselves to craft their own keyboards, but perhaps there wouldn't be so much experimentation if Google had one that worked great. I personally prefer hardware keyboards to virtual ones, but I've found that I can type much more accurately and quickly on the iPhone than on any Android device. The good news is that there are a lot of text input alternatives for Android, including Swype (in which you trace a line from letter to letter to create words) and voice typing. Cursor control is yet another issue when you want to correct typos. Since Apple likely has a patent on its nifty hourglass magnification feature, what if Google let you zoom in on text with a pinch gesture?

6. Accelerate OS updates for existing devices

I couldn't think of a bigger buzzkill for early adopters salivating over the Evo 4G we just reviewed than to find out today that Android 2.2 offers a ton of improvements they likely won't be able to enjoy for months. That's been one of the bigger drawbacks to Android overall. A carrier generally needs to approve over-the-air updates before they can be rolled out, and the timetable can be considerably slower for Android phones that have unique user interfaces, such as HTC Sense or Motorola's Motoblur. Just this week Sprint's HTC Hero finally got an update to Android 2.1, which debuted in January. Google and its partners need to figure out a way to narrow this window so existing Android phone owners don't have to wait an eternity to enjoy the latest features.

7. Improve battery life and make battery/case combos happen

I'm not a betting man, but I have a strong hunch that one of the highlight features of the next iPhone will be improved battery life. That's because it will likely be powered by Apple's own A4 processor. And as the iPad proved, when you have control over the hardware and software you can achieve pretty remarkable endurance. I'm not saying Google needs to buy Qualcomm to up Android's runtime, but when 1-GHz processors and 4G connectivity becoming more prominent, Google will have to work harder to make its OS more efficient. People want smart phones that last from the morning well into the evening, and I'm not seeing that right now from the Android camp. In the meantime, Google and its hardware partners need to offer Android phone owners cases that double as extended batteries, although I know this is a challenge when there are so many different designs. Try starting with the biggest sellers, such as the Motorola Droid.

8. Higher resolution screens, please

With a resolution of 800 x 480 now available on many Android handsets, from the Nexus One to the LG Ally, Android is the leader in screen resolution . . . for now. The rumored iPhone 4G is said to have an even higher res display of 960 x 460. The more pixels on the phone, the closer its web surfing experience is to that of a netbook or a small notebook. Since the Motorola Droid was the first to sport an 800 x 480, 3.7-inch screen last fall, we’ve seen displays grow to 4.3 inches while the resolutions have stayed the same. It’s time to make the most of these larger canvases.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.