GEL-ing with the Google Experience Launcher on a Galaxy S II

Out with the old… The old TouchWiz launcher from my Galaxy SII.

Out with the old… The old TouchWiz launcher from my Galaxy S II.

I’ve been excited to try out a new home screen, or launcher, for my Samsung Galaxy S II (Epic 3G Touch).

Since April, I’ve been using the default TouchWiz launcher that came with the S II. However, I’ve recently been intrigued to try the new launcher from Google — apparently called the Google Experience Launcher or Google Home.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like I was going to be able to try it out — the new launcher was part of the latest version of Android dubbed KitKat — and Samsung wasn’t planning to publish an update to my now two-year-old phone. Even if it did, there was no guarantee it would be made available on the Sprint network.

I was pleased to discover via Android Police that the tools available to enable the new launcher would work on my phone — or any phone or tablet running Android 4.1+. I needed the latest version of Google Search and the Launcher app (provided on the Android Police website). After a quick install, I was off to the races. I thankfully didn’t need to root my device or sideload from another device because they seem like too much of a hassle.

In with the new with the Google Experience Launcher, a.k.a. Google Home. A screenshot of the new launcher on my Galaxy SII.

… and in with the new with the Google Experience Launcher, a.k.a. Google Home. A screenshot of the new launcher on my Galaxy S II.

At first, the differences in the home screens are pretty subtle. It appears to run very smoothly on my S II and seems very responsive in most actions. There’s one exception — the screen seemed to jarringly jump around when dragging icons from the list of applications to create new shortcuts on the home screens.

On a positive note, it’s a bit fun that the wallpaper seems to stretch across multiple pages. The swan and the Palace of Fine Arts subtly shift as you swipe from page to page.

One of the biggest changes is that the Google search bar is now on _every_ page of the home interface (in TouchWiz, the Google bar was a widget that the user could choose to put on their phone).

Although the search bar is always there, Google did a nice job of tweaking icon sizes and layout to maximize space and it turned out I could have more apps or widgets on my primary home screen (the old widget took up four icon positions in a row).

This ever-present search bar probably won’t endear itself to those critical of Google’s increasing intrusion into people’s lives (and privacy). It’s important to note the new launcher is apparently an extension of the Google Search app, as reported by Ars Technica. Basically, the app _is_ the new home screen for phones that choose to use it.

I understand the reservations about Google blatantly taking over a user’s home screen compared with it lurking in the background. Thankfully, one can still switch between launchers, although I’ve temporarily settled on Google’s as the default for now.

Touching the Google search bar merely opens an expanded and simple search page. This is different than Google Now or the old Search app interface. I feel it would be more convenient to switch into Google Now, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for now.

Speaking of Google Now, it’s now accessible by swiping all the way from left to right.

I think one of the most useful changes is the ability to launch a voice search from the home screen by saying “OK Google.” Apparently, the new Moto X (and Droids) can do this while the screen is off, but it’s still useful.

Other things I noted is that not all widgets seem to work with this new Google home. The notification tags also weren’t showing up. My old Accuweather widget wasn’t available and I couldn’t view the widgets from the Yahoo! Weather app. I hope that this will be fixed (or is perhaps a shortcoming of how the app works on my phone).

Perhaps another sign of this launcher’s roots in the Google Search app is that the settings menu goes to the app’s settings and not the phone’s. I was used to the settings menu accessing the phone’s configuration and this more limited functionality was a bit of let down. I created a shortcut, but it’s not quite the same.

Also, the icons and text seem a tad too small for my eyes, but they don’t seem that much smaller compared with TouchWiz. It may be due to the apparently tighter layout because it looks more like a solid wall of icons unless I use a widget to break up the space (I have six more apps on my primary screen under Google Home than TouchWiz).

The differences between this and TouchWiz seem to be pretty subtle, but it’s nice to try something new. That is something that isn’t easily accomplished on iOS, where you’re generally stuck with whatever Apple gives you. Still, we’re talking about different, yet incredibly similar ways to display rows of icons and some widgets on a smartphone. I’m pretty happy with all three offerings.

Ultimately,  I’m happy I can give the Google Experience Launcher a shot. I can spruce up my old phone although I can’t have the full KitKat experience (at least until I can get the Nexus 5).

My phone thinks I live at a bar and other digital foibles

Google Now on my new smartphone initially thought I lived at the Madison Bear Garden.

Google Now on my new smartphone initially thought I lived at the Madison Bear Garden.

Following my last post, I’ve made the switch from Sprint to Ting and got a refurbished Samsung Galaxy SII (Epic 4G Touch). It led to a little bit of drama when the first one I received was a dud, but more on that later.

One of the joys of getting a new-ish smartphone is trying out the new bells and whistles, including updating the phone’s Android operating system to a more recent version. That upgrade allowed me to test the updated Google Search app and came away only modestly impressed — the app’s Google Now feature aims to display cards of information based on your searches, location, preferences, etc.

It’s Google Now’s virtual anticipation that recently caught me off guard. I was about to leave work last week when I checked into the app. Anticipating that I would like to know how long it would take for me to drive home, the app displayed the approximate travel time to my “home” — Madison Bear Garden.

I was a little curious at first why Google would think I live at a bar. I could think of a couple of possibilities. I used the app at the bar one evening to look up some trivial items that came up during a discussion. Because I made that search at night when many people are at home, it’s possible the app guessed my home on my evening location — at the bar.

Thankfully it asked to confirm if the location was my home and I could correct it.

These types of tech gaffes point out how digital companies try to sort out relevant information from the bushels of data we submit everyday. While it may be wise to be cautious about such data mining, these shortcomings sometimes underscore the old programming principle of GIGO — Garbage In, Garbage Out. The difference is that sometimes the computer gets garbage out of what we would consider to be relevant information.

Here are some other recent tech peeves I’ve observed:

  • At the consumer budgeting site, the service says I’ve been spending a lot of money lately at Chico’s — a clothing store I’ve never purchased from and don’t recall ever being inside. Apparently the site skims recent purchases and tries to determine where they should go.
    In this case, it sees a purchase from “Chico CA” and assigns it to Chico’s. The site currently applies this to all Chico purchases. There is no option to change it other than manually editing every entry … which defeats the purpose of having the site easily display how a user’s money is being spent.
  • Facebook tries its best to guess certain information about its users, often to hilarious effect. At various times, the map on my Timeline said I was born in Chico and identified one of parents. That’s all fine if it were true — at the time I said Chico was my hometown, but that’s not necessarily where I was born. Also, my parent isn’t necessarily my biological one so that doesn’t make sense either.
    Another time, Facebook finally correctly identified the town I was born, but then indicated I was born at the city’s airport. Boy, that would be a fun story for my parents to tell me — again, if that ever happened.
  • The photos feature on Google+ uses technology to try to identify people’s faces (Facebook has a similar tool). Sometimes that tech fails in a cruel way:
Google+ doesn't believe there's a face in this image.

Google+ doesn’t believe there’s a face in this image.

Although some of these goofs can be annoying or time consuming to fix, I’m generally content to let these inaccuracies stand if they’re not causing any harm. I’m leery at providing too much information online. These errors can stand as reminders of what these companies are trying to do and how far they have to go to accomplish their goals.