I want to like Gboard

Posted on 2017-03-13 08:29 +0000 in Tech • Tagged with Google, Android • 3 min read

I want to like Gboard. On paper it looks really rather good. It's a keyboard from Google, it ties in with your account, it syncs things, it has clever searching for emoji and gifs and the like... what's not to like?

Problem is, I've been a user of SwiftKey since around 2011 (I think it was). I'm very used to how SwiftKey works and it also contains a lot of handy things. I like that it has smart completion, that it learns how I type a bit skewed and that it takes this into account, that I can turn off the fancy swipe typing and instead make use of handy gestures like swipe-left to delete a word. I like some of the themes a lot.

Into the mix comes my iPad, which I use on occasion. The standard Apple keyboard is horrible and, sadly, I find SwiftKey on iOS just as frustrating. It seems to lack enough key features there (especially the word deletion gesture, as far as I can tell) that it's also a bit annoying. My dream of a consistent typing experience across all devices just wasn't happening -- until I found Gboard on iOS.

That felt almost right. And from what I could tell it worked almost exactly the same on iOS and Android. So it felt like a good time to try and force myself to use Gboard on my Google Pixel and Nexus 7.

Sadly, though, I'm just not getting on with it. It's okay. It's not bad. It's just... not good. I'm finding that it lacks enough useful things that it's a frustrating experience. Little things like: when I enter Google Search, there's no word completion in the keyboard (SwiftKey has that); the word deletion gesture (swipe left from the backspace key) seems very hit-and-miss; the most obvious completion for a word sometimes appears in the middle slot but, other times, in the left slot. And so on.

Nothing huge. Nothing that's a show-stopper. But a handful of a little things that make me miss the comfortable home that is SwiftKey.

Don't get me wrong, it does have some very handy and cleaver features too. The searching for emoji -- including showing them up as word completions -- is rather clever. The gif-search thing is all kinds of fun too (mostly used to annoy the hell out of my son on twitter).

None of those quite make up for the bits I miss from SwiftKey though.

All that said, I've being making a point of pushing on with Gboard, thinking that most of my issues might just be because I'm too used to my "old home". Mostly this was working well, until I noticed something this morning. While reading the description for Gboard I noticed this handy thing in the "Pro Tips" section:

Sync your learned words across devices to improve suggestions (enable in Gboard Settings→ Dictionary → Sync learned words).

Useful! I'd assumed that this was the case anyway -- it's Google after all -- but it's good to know I can ensure it's turned on. So I went to turn it on. This is what I found:

Gboard WTF

What the hell Google? Sure, I do have a Gsuite account on my phone -- as in various apps have access to a Gsuite account (Gmail, Drive, etc...) -- but it's not the primary account on my phone and it's not the account I'd really want to be doing the dictionary sync with anyway. If I've got dictionary sync I want it tied to the keyboard no matter the app I'm in, and no matter the account I'm using in that app. I want the keyboard to be tied to a specific account when it comes to sync (just like SwiftKey does it).

This, I think, is a show-stopper for me.

I can overlook the other niggles, I can learn to cope with it not being quite so perfect in some situations; but the blanket inability to do something as simple as cloud-sync the predictions and learn from how I type -- things that are, these days, central to what Google's about -- it's frankly stupid.

I guess I'm going to have to keep Gboard as a backup keyboard for those times when I need to find the perfect gif.

Google WTF

Google Now Achievements?

Posted on 2017-03-12 12:16 +0000 in Tech • Tagged with Google • 1 min read

Over the past couple or so weeks I've been having some issues with Google Now. It first seemed to start on my Nexus 7, then appeared on my Nexus 6. More recently, even as of today, I've seen it on my Google Pixel. The problem is that, in the Google Now launcher (or on the Pixel, in the Pixel launcher), the Google Now page (that you swipe to the left for) sits empty for ages. All I see is the little animated waiting circle and nothing else. Once or twice I've had the Google app die and restart or, more often than not, after quite some time it finally loads up.

The latter happened a little earlier and I noticed something I'd not seen before:

Blank Google Now

What's with that "Achievements" menu option? You'll notice that the whole of the menu is blank -- no profile picture or anything and none of the menu options seemed to work.

Eventually, after I'd left it for a while, it ended up working.

Google Now finally working

And, once this happened, no "Achievements" option.

Presumably this is some back-end server issue, I'm being served up something I'm not supposed to be seeing and it's confusing the client app. Okay, I don't know that's the case, but it has that sort of feel.

So now I need to go looking for what this Achievements thing is all about.

Using Google, obviously.

Hello Google Pixel

Posted on 2017-03-08 12:22 +0000 in Tech • Tagged with Google, Android, Phone • 3 min read

For the past two years I've, mostly, being happily using a Google Nexus 6 as my phone. In the past six months or so I've started to notice that it hasn't been quite as good as it was. The main problem, for me, was that the camera was starting to play out. The issues were the ones that I've seen reported elsewhere: use of the camera would quickly make the phone laggy, very slow response times on pressing the shutter, occasional failure to save an image, etc. This was generally frustrating and, even more so, because I'd got back into photoblogging.

Meanwhile... I've been lusting over the Google Pixel ever since it was originally shown off. I was some way off my phone contract renewal and the price of a new Pixel was something I just couldn't justify. Last week though an offer cropped up that meant I could renew early and get a Pixel (including a free Daydream headset thrown in).

Fast forward to Monday just gone and...

My new Pixel

So far I'm liking it rather a lot. It is odd that it's smaller in my hand than the Nexus 6 was (the XL wasn't an available option and I was also starting to think it was time to drop down in size a little again) but I'm also finding it a little easier to work with; it's also nice that it fits in trouser pockets as well as jacket pockets.

It feels very fast (although every Android phone and tablet I've ever had have felt fast to start with) and smooth to use. I especially like the default feedback vibration -- it's a lot smoother yet also more reassuring than any I've felt before.

The Google Assistant is proving to be very handy. I'm sort of used to it anyway thanks to having owned an Android Wear watch for a couple of years but having it on the phone like this seems like a natural next step.

Another thing I'm getting very used to very quickly, and really liking a lot, is fingerprint recognition. I didn't think I needed it but now I'm wondering how I ever managed without it. Combined with the notification pull-down gesture that the recognition area supports it seems like a perfect way to open the get going with a phone.

There's a couple of niggles with it, of course. The main one for me is the lack of wireless charging. That was something I really liked about the Nexus 6: I could be sat at my desk and have the phone sat on top of a charging pad, staying topped up. No such handy setup with the Pixel. The other thing is the lack of water resistance. To be fair: it's not something I've ever really felt I needed with other phones and I'm not in the habit of sticking them under water; but knowing that it doesn't matter too much if it gets exposed to rain would be nice.

Other than that... there's not much else to say right now. It works and works well, the move from the N6 to it was pretty smooth and the Pixel has fallen perfectly into my normal routine.

Until next alarm is back

Posted on 2015-12-17 11:32 +0000 in Tech • Tagged with Android, Google, Marshmallow • 1 min read

Now and again Google seem to actually listen. While they do generally have a bad habit of removing things from things and saying it's for everyone's good (because options are bad and they can't maintain them, apparently) it seems they can do the odd turnaround now and again.

One thing they removed from Android recently was the "until next alarm"" option when putting a device in "do not disturb" mode.

Seems they've added that back in 6.0.1:

Google sees sense

It's a small thing, but it makes so much more sense and makes things so much easier (even if it's a trivial thing).

Nice one Google. More of this please.

I miss "Until next alarm"

Posted on 2015-11-12 14:20 +0000 in Tech • Tagged with Android, Google, Marshmallow • 2 min read

I actually can't remember when the change was now, it was either Android 5.0 or one of the 5.x point releases, but I can recall the frustration of Google having changed how you make an Android device silent, or not. The idea seemed clever enough but it was a real pain to switch to and use. Previously there'd simply been this neat system of setting he volume to either be some non-off value, vibrate or totally silent. I even had a neat little widget on the home screen of my phone to allow me to toggle between these 3 states.

It was simple, and worked well.

The new system though.... ugh. It was confusing and so much more long-winded to work with.

At some point though they added one big redeeming feature: "Until next alarm". When I got into bed I could tell my tablet to go totally silent until my alarm went off in the morning, and then it would all work as normal. That was an utterly brilliant idea.

So it made sense that if they changed anything about this in Marshmallow they'd keep that in and make it even more awesome, right? Right?!?


Well fuck!

Why? Just..... why?!? I actually prefer how the new one works. They've more or less solved the problem of how it was more faff to deal with, they've solved the problem of having to cock about with the volume rocker to get at the settings and then set the settings. I like all that.

But taking "Until next alarm" away? That's just nuts.

Sometimes I really get the impression that the Android developers are like the Chrome OS developers: they're having a ton of fun improving and onward developing the system but they have little connection to how people actually use this stuff.

Voice search failing on Nexus 6

Posted on 2015-11-11 16:07 +0000 in Tech • Tagged with Google, Android, Nexus • 1 min read

It's been quite a while since I used voiced search on my Nexus 6. Ever since I got the Moto 360 I've not really had a need to say "OK Google" to my phone because I could simply say it to my wrist. Today though, because I wanted to quickly look something up and my phone was to hand, I spoke to it and got this:

Voice search fail


I've been here before. I had exactly this sort of problem with my Xperia Z at one point. The problem appeared to go away eventually (actually, it sort of came and went a few times over a matter of weeks, if I recall correctly), although I never really got to the bottom of the cause.

I've tried rebooting the phone and that hasn't helped at all. While it's more of a vague annoyance than anything else (like I say above, my Android Wear device is my goto tool for talking to Google these days) it does frustrate a little when fairly expensive tools don't "just work".

Unknown promo

Posted on 2015-09-04 08:53 +0100 in Tech • Tagged with Google, Google Drive • 1 min read

Ahh, Google, knower of all things that can be known about me, tracker of all things that can be tracked about me, controller of my phone and even my watch, able to use Now to suggest stuff I need to know even before I need to know it.

Tell me again what promo that 10GB was from...

Unknown Promo

Wear timer issue fixed, sort of

Posted on 2015-06-26 12:02 +0100 in Tech • Tagged with Google, Android, Wear, Android Wear, Watch, Moto360 • 2 min read

Following on from yesterday's problem with the Android Wear timer I think I now have a solution. It came up while chatting with Mike McLoughlin about the issue.

I got to thinking that this problem felt like one that I've seen a number of times before with Google stuff. One thing that's rather common (in many cases for very obvious reasons -- you can't cover the whole world in one go) with Google is how they struggle to get languages and localisation right. This felt like it was a similar issue. Mike had reported that his watch appeared to be unaffected by the issue (I'm guessing he's on the latest version of Wear -- the conversation headed off in a different direction before that became necessary) so I checked what his language was on his phone. Turns out he was the same as me: British English.

So much for that idea.

But then he suggested switching to US English and back again.

Happy enough to apply a very Microsoft "turn it off and on again" approach to a Google device (really, all big tech companies really are the same and really do suffer the same issues) I switched to en-US on the phone and tried setting a timer in voice on the watch.

It worked!

So then I switched back to en-GB on the phone and...

I appear to have timers working again

...it still worked!

I've tried setting timers in voice on the watch a few times since and it's yet to fail.

It would appear, as odd as it is, that this is the fix. Well, a fix.

Did Google just break Wear timers?

Posted on 2015-06-25 22:27 +0100 in Tech • Tagged with Google, Android, Wear, Android Wear, Watch, Moto360 • 2 min read

I didn't pay too much attention to it when it happened but it looks like Android Wear, on the phone side, got an update in the last 24 hours. Only this evening did I notice that this seems to have broken something I heavily use on my watch: timers.

I find the timer facility on Wear especially useful when I'm cooking, either to ensure that different parts of the cooking process come together at a sensible time, or when I put something on and need to go off and do something else (perhaps come back to the office while and get on with some work as something bakes, etc).

To be clear, the timer app is still there and, if I select to start a timer "by hand" on the watch, it works as it always has done. Also, if I say "OK Google, set a timer for five minutes" it still does the voice recognition thing:

Google still understands the request

It's what happens next that's the problem. Before it would have started a countdown timer. As well as vibrating the watch when the timer runs down the timer app also has the very useful feature of showing the countdown on the watch face. This means you can glance every so often and see how long is left to go.

Instead, as of today (well, this evening when I made dinner was when I first noticed it), it starts an on-watch alarm app instead! This is utterly useless. Sure, it does still vibrate the watch when the alarm time arrives, and the alarm time is the right offset from when the timer was requested, but it lacks the on-face countdown.

It's an alarm.

It's not a timer!

Looking in the Wear app it would appear that the correct application is assigned to the correct action:

Google still understands the request

As such, I'm at a loss on how to fix this. I can't find anything on the watch itself that could be done to change this, and I've tried restarting the watch on the off chance that something went a bit odd.

It turns out too that I'm not alone. I found a thread on reddit where others have the same problem.

What really bugs me about this is that this is very Google. I've run into this sort of thing so many times before, be it on Android, ChromeOS or in their apps in general. They'll change (or screw up) something that's very simple and straightforward and in common use, something that should show up in testing pretty easily. Surely there has to be some way of pushing out an update without screwing up the apps that are assigned to actions?

As much as I really like what Google offer, as much as I value their services and global platform over the other choices, this sort of thing frustrates the hell out of me.

A mild Chrome annoyance

Posted on 2015-06-18 16:49 +0100 in Tech • Tagged with Google, Chrome, Mac, Windows • 2 min read

For a long time now Chrome has been my web browser of choice. It has, to some degree, become my "other emacs" (ignoring for a moment that my use of GNU emacs has sort of lapsed the last few years). By that I mean that it's a portable environment that serves me well on many operating systems and, for one of my machines, actually is the operating system. I really appreciate how Chrome's sync lets me feel right at home no matter which machine I'm on.

But I've run into one small issue that's kind of annoying.

In some situations I find it pleasing, and I find it makes sense, that some web "apps" open in a window of their own rather than in a Chrome tab. On Windows and on ChromeOS this is simple enough, all I need to do is find the "app" in the Chrome app launcher, pull up the content menu, and tell it to open as a window.

Chrome app context menu on Windows 7

Nice and simple1.

Now, the Mac, so well known for doing everything every other OS does but doing it better and being easier to use.... you'd expect it's at least the same there, right?


Chrome app context menu on OS X

There's no option at all to open as a window!

So, on the Mac, while I'd love to be able to open Gmail as a window/app in its own right, I'm totally out of luck, it seems. I've no idea whose "fault" this is. It's not clear to me if this is a Chrome/Google decision or if it's about how things have to work on a Mac. Thing is, I find it hard to believe that it's the latter given that Google Keep runs in its own window on the Mac and I can happily pin it to the dock.

  1. It's that simple on ChromeOS too. In case you're wondering why I didn't also illustrate that, it's because you can't take a screenshot on ChromeOS while you've got a context menu open. O_o