In a recent blog post about the (over)price of smartphones, Larry Dignan said, "I'm not going to spend $249 or more for a phone that has an operating system that will continue to run apps in the background no matter what (Android)...."
This is one of the dirtiest secrets that Android advocates, myself included, don't want to admit. We all know that the freedom of Android development is a big potential liability, making it more prone to malware and other malicious software. Android reviews also suggest that devices seems to struggle with lagging, that they aren't as "smooth" as iOS. And while most Android pundits are willing to admit these faults, they generally don't think they're that big of an issue, especially considering the benefits and liberties you gain from choosing Android OS over the competition.
I've even been a staunch defender of Honeycomb. I'm pretty fond of it. I think it's robust, rich, and far more powerful and flexible than iOS — but it got a bad rap early on because of the half-baked release of the Motorola Xoom. For whatever reason, the public is very unforgiving.
I'm writing this post on my ASUS Transformer (TF101) in bed, which is something I couldn't imagine attempting on my iPad or Lenovo S10 netbook. The iPad isn't good for this type of content creation, and the spinning fan dissipating the heat of my down comforter on the S10 Atom processor would be impractical. I'd need to have the device propped on something smooth, like a tray, and well ventilated. A Honeycomb tablet bridges the gap between the content creating capabilities of a netbook and a lightweight, power-sipping, and low heat-generating device.
But I've just spent an entire paragraph talking about what is right with Android devices, while still avoiding confronting the truth about the thing that's most persistently wrong. The problem has always been, and remains, that Android device power management sucks. There's really no other way to describe it.
In a world defined by how the iPad handles power management, Android devices have failed to provide meaningful power management for multiple generations of the Android OS. It seems like the manufacturers and Google are both to blame for this. ASUS has a well-documented hardware problem with excessive battery drain. I had to send my TF101 keyboard dock back to ASUS for repair for this issue. Once repaired, the battery life (on standby) was instantly much better — at least, temporarily. Every once in a while, my TF101 will still start sucking through the battery life on my tablet like Lindsey Lohan celebrating release from rehab.
I'm pretty sure I know what the problem is. I've seen the same thing with my Droid 1 and 2. Some app is busy in the background and just refuses to go to sleep or to allow the machine to sleep. Generally speaking, Android users know the drill to address this issue. You start by disabling everything when you put your device to sleep. You manually shut down all radios, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. Then you start looking at task-killers and forcing apps that seem too active to close.Frequently, Android users go on a hunt through the Android Market, installing things like App Killers/Task Killers, battery widgets, "CPU Spy" and "Where's My Droid Power" to try and narrow down the list of culprits. These apps generally indicate one thing — something is consuming battery life far too quickly — but they also generally fail to pinpoint with any certainty what process, task, or app is the guilty party.
So, the next thing the Android user often does is start uninstalling apps that might be the culprit, starting with the apps that often need to be killed with a task manager so that the device will go to sleep when put into standby mode. It's also true that side-loaded apps can cause problems, because they're not "market available" for one reason or another.
Ultimately, it seems like the only people who don't run into problems with Android battery drain are almost invariably those who don't really load apps onto their devices. If you frequently experiment with new apps, you'll eventually stumble across one that simply doesn't play well. I'm not sure why it's such an unspoken secret, but it's something that Google must address.
iOS doesn't have this problem, because iOS is in charge, and Apple makes sure that apps behave before they go to market. We will never have that seamless of an experience with Android without giving up many of the freedoms that we so dearly love and that made us chose it over iOS in the first place. But we can certainly have an easily accessible mode that says, "Really - put this device to SLEEP and ignore any other app that tries to wake it." I suppose an exception can be made for calls and other push or pull notifications.
Admittedly, certain kinds of push or pull notification roles in iOS are notorious for depleting battery life and are frequently disabled as well. It just seems to me that you should be able to tell Android, at the OS level, to ignore any other activity — short of an incoming call — and have the device really do just that. Stop, freeze or pause all background tasks, and force the device into DEEP sleep with a single, one-button widget.
What Android needs is a gatekeeper that has carte blanche to break the ability of every third-party app to keep the device out of deep sleep, and it should be an official part of the Google Android build — otherwise, it won't be able to truly compete with Apple's amazing standby times with iOS. This is a significant part of what currently dampens enthusiasm for Android devices. I think it's definitely one of the things consumers are subconsciously aware of that make them draw a distinction between the "polished" environment of iOS devices and the "unfinished" environment of Android.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.