The Nameless Horror

Lengthy: Software, Editing, Gadgets

I am, while I try to finish the rest of it, rereading and editing a partially-finished book. On my phone. Not because I’m an outrageous techie geek or an idiot, but because it’s the best available option, though it shouldn’t be, if Android were everything it’s supposed to bloody be.

There are four options available to me:

  • I can print it out, Old Skool, and go at it with a red pen. Good for reading in the front room or at the table, lousy for doing it in the shitter, and impossible for doing it in those 5 minute bursts waiting for Aidan to come out of school.

  • I can edit by working with text or scrawling red on a PDF on my computer. It’s a laptop, so it’s fine for the front room and the shitter, but no good in the playground (which isn’t, I insist, a bad time to to do it).

  • I can edit by scrawling red on a PDF on my tablet. I have an EeePad Transformer (minus the keyboard dock, so it doesn’t really transform). Android 3.0. This is doable in all environments. A bit ooh-fancypants for the playground, but certainly easy to cart around.

  • I can edit on my phone by scrawling red on a PDF on that. It has a small screen, but it’s the most portable option.

The tablet should be the ideal of these - it’s partly why I got it - but the reality is that it’s a fucking slog, and the fault isn’t one of hardware (not directly), but software.

Let’s digress for a long time to explain myself. I’m not an Apple fanboy. Or a fanboy of anything else come to that. This here computer is a MacBook Pro a couple of years old, but that was bought for practical reasons - there’s no desk space in Future Wife’s house so that meant ditching the desktop for something that was (a) grunty enough to run L4D2, the latest Football Manager, and edit a 400-page document, and (b) could give me ~6+ hours of battery life (theoretical, expecting 4-5 practical) if I needed it to so I could work out and about, because if you’re going to have something portable you might as well make use of it as such. The only devices to meet both criteria were Apple’s, who are pretty much the kings of battery life-for-power.

(The desktop I was ditching was, because I’m OMGterriblyfuckinggeeky, running 4 OSes - Win7, OS X Hackintosh-style (barely any different to original flavour as I happened to strike lucky with the hardware that was in the machine), and two flavours of Linux - on different partitions. If I had to pick an OS I have a soft spot for, it’s actually Linux.)

Around the same time, I got an Android phone. A lousy, free-with-shitty-contract one (an HTC Tattoo, in fact), but an Android one nonetheless. I had to root it and flash a CyanogenMod ROM to get it to v2.3 (Gingerbread) because HTC had dropped support for it basically the moment it was released, and while in theory Android is open source and free to all, you’re as much at the mercy of your manufacturer (or your modder) as you are with a closed system (more so if you don’t like your manufacturer’s shitty UI overlay or shovelware). I ditched that in November, taking advantage of a one-off bit of spare cash, to get an iPhone, which I’m now editing on.

"You’re too techy; you’ll get annoyed with it," I was informed by a friend at the time. But while iOS has its quirks, like not getting to see the file system, I’ve not missed its predecessor (even allowing for that being a budget device) in the slightest.

(It came down to a choice between that and the equivalent Androids, but aside from the dropping risk, the Apple won out easily on a practical level. I’m on a Mac, and you can’t sync iTunes to Android, while 3rd party apps are either bugged (DoubleTwist) or quirky and annoying; given this was also going to replace my MP3 needs as well, this was important. I need to be able to type one-handed while pushing a pram, and the bigger the screen, the harder that gets. I thought I’d miss Swype, but I’ve been genuinely impressed by the iPhone’s keyboard and autocorrect systems. And it has inbuilt text replacement so I don’t need to type out my email address constantly in web forms, just “eml”. Win. And iOS 4 and 5 fixed most of the glaring omissions - air sync etc. - of before.)

Android has some theoretical advantages on the larger form factor. Its on-screen keyboard is a huge pile better than iOS if you’re a writer - it has speech marks and apostrophes and things of that ilk right there, and a load of alternative keyboards if you don’t like it. Its more desktop-like home screen experience makes better use of the real estate than the silly spread of icons. And, while Honeycomb was a horrible rush-job pushed out the door to make sure the Motorola Xoom launched on time, I love the Tron looks of the thing.

But it also has its annoyances. While the Market’s website remains a thing of great beauty, the updated version of the onboard app for it, released when Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0, fact-fans) came out in late October last year (IIRC) on the Galaxy Nexus S, turned the mobile version from a perfect mirror of this loveliness into a total atrocity. The worst version of the Market there has, to my knowledge, ever been, and it’s up against some stinkers. It’s a mess. I can’t describe just in how many ways it is, but it’s awful. It’s easier to browse the website and send stuff to the tablet from the Android device itself than it is to use the application. And then there’s the issue updates.

Asus, who are a good manufacturer, have been promising its Transformers will get the update to the new (and in theory much less slapdash) OS version since December, and dates continue to slip with nary a whiff of the thing. (Their end-of-year-release Transformer Prime shipped with it installed, so it’s not like they don’t have it knocking around to work on.) Bearing in mind that Android is still buggy - the default browser crashes whenever you so much as sneeze some days - and security upgrades are going to be increasingly important in the mobile sphere, updates are important.

There’s a tendency, though, with the greater churn-out of Android products, for manufacturers to drop support for older products very fast (I mentioned that the Tattoo was pre-dropped on release officially because its tiddly processor couldn’t support 2.0’s demands, a lie writ large given its better performance under 2.3 than under stock 1.6; Samsung recently announced that the 18-month old Galaxy S won’t be getting 4.0, etc. and so forth) to concentrate on their endless array of new ones.

Compare to Apple, and whatever you think of their software/hardware/working conditions, they’re much better at support. Whenever a new version of iOS is released, everyone gets it, even on the 3GS which I seem to recall is over 3 years old now. (They have dropped support for the older original iPhone and the 3G, true.) No waiting around.

But the reason I’m now editing on my phone and playing Angry Birds on the tablet (Angry Birds, it has to be said, is a lot better on a bigger screen) is, however, the software.

There are a dozen PDF annotation apps for iOS, and the couple that I’ve tried (I’m using Neu.Annotate) work as you’d want: tap the “draw” icon and any scribble you make on the screen will apply to the PDF. Drag the scrollbar or tap the hand icon to go back to moving the page. You can’t handwrite clearly because no one can unless they have a magically pointy finger, but underlining, crossing out etc. is pretty easy.

There are two decent ones on Android: EZPDFReader and RepliGo Reader. Both are on the Eee. And in both cases, they’re a fucking pain. Tap on ‘draw’ icon. Choose ‘freehand’. Draw. Now tap on ‘save’ to apply your drawing. Or ‘undo’ to delete what you’ve done because you cocked it. And you have to repeat this edit-by-edit because those drawings become an upper layer covering the page in a rectangle big enough to contain them all. So if you try to do a whole page’s edits at once, not only will undoing delete the lot, if you miss something you won’t be able to add to it. You’ll just select your edits layer and have the option of moving or erasing it.

They are, and have been for a long time, the best available applications for editing PDFs on Android. Editing the 100-ish pages of ALL YOU LEAVE BEHIND was a teeth-gritting nightmare. (And not just while in the shitter, fnar fnar.)

There are two, the Market tells me, ones which behave more like their iOS counterparts, but they are hardware-locked to the Galaxy Note (to be fair, that’s what the Note’s supposed to specialise in). If you don’t have a device equipped with that stylus, you can’t use them.

Balls to that.

Android’s been around long enough that there should be more in its arsenal. It has, on tablet at least, the better keyboard and a slick UI. It has a good web market countered by the shittiness of its own application. But so much of what’s on it is either in dire need of competition, abandonware, or, thanks to the lack of overall gatekeeping, plain unremitting shit or weirdly horrible (count how many “sex games” are in the top 100 on its charts). iOS has some of the same issues, but nowhere near as badly, and the development scene looks pretty sound.

Linux, its root ancestor, can be fiddly and beardy but thrives on great little tools and a strong developer community (though, let’s be fair, so does the Mac) and can do some wonderful things given the right love and attention. I don’t know that its mobile children, ham-fistedly shoved out the door by manufacturers like honking prats out of a fucking clown car, ever will on current evidence.