Chapter 30 – Android On The Cheap

If the previous chapter gave you the impression that my embrace of Android was immediate and unquestioning, it wasn’t. In time (and with root access) I came to realize the power of this new mobile platform, but for the first six months or so it was a love-hate kind of thing.

My biggest beef was text entry — email and SMS, it seemed, still had their place in this brave new world of mobile computing. The best input solution I could find for my Nexus was an app called Swype, developed by the same brilliant mind behind T9 for number pad phones. And Swype was every bit as clever; the user entered words by flicking their thumb across an on-screen virtual qwerty keypad. The longer the word the more accurate Swype was. More common words were a different story, though; “is” and “if” were often confused, along with “on” and “of”, and just about everything else with less than five letters in it.

It was a frustrating compromise for someone used to physical qwerty — at this point I was even missing the number pad on my N86! So when my new carrier, Mobilicity, released the cheap and cheerful Motorola Spice I got one almost immediately. In fact, at one point I had two.

Here, for less than $200 CAD, was a handset that seemed to have it all: Android, a physical qwerty keypad, even the same vertical sliding design as my N86. An unexpected bonus was the trackpad on the back of the phone — very handy for scrolling through web pages without your thumb getting in the way. The only problem, aside from the dreary lo-res fixed-focus camera, was that the MotoSpice was slow. It was to be expected, I guess, that a smartphone selling for less than half the price of the Nexus One would have a processor just over half as fast.

In practice it wasn’t so bad. I discovered that Android scaled quite well to low-powered devices. One key thing was to be patient while processes (apps) were launched. With less available speed and memory the Spice had to figure out how to allocate its meagre resources when something new was added to the mix. That was the slow part, at least for me; once an app was up and running I found the speed to be quite acceptable.

Also key was liberating the Spice from Motorola’s bloatware, and this could only be accomplished through rooting. The Spice was actually the first Android device I ever rooted — sorry to have misled you but yes, I rooted my MotoSpice long before going near the bootloader on my Nexus One. But where the Nexus got a proper unlock, root and custom recovery the hard way my Spice was rooted using a simple tool that did the hard work for me. Once root was obtained it was a simple matter of removing the Android package “Spicy.apk” and I was good to go. I also installed an app that enabled WiFi tethering; that was another feature that the MotoSpice was missing out of the box.

In retrospect I think the Spice was ultimately a transition device between my tactile N86 and my (almost) all-touch Nexus One, even though I got the Nexus first. I used the MotoSpice as my primary phone for a good six months — from December, 2010 to May, 2011. It came with me on a WOM World-sponsored visit to the famous South By Southwest conference and did quite well there; the Spice was never sold in the USA so the other bloggers on that trip had never seen one. It didn’t fare so well on its second conference run, though. At Podcasters Across Borders in May it became quite apparent that my Spice couldn’t keep pace with the iPhones that surrounded it — plus I dropped it in the elevator of my hotel, leaving a noticeable ding that was pretty much a kiss of death.

But the memory of my MotoSpice lives on. I gave mine away to a friend in need, but was fortunate enough to score a dummy model from my local unlocker. Had the Spice as much processing power as higher-end phones I’d probably still be using it today.