Two Months With ICS on a Droid 3

I was pretty excited when Ice Cream Sandwich was announced last year. So much that I actually considered getting a Galaxy Nexus phone just to develop for it and make sure that I was on the bleeding edge. I’m really excited about Android phones in general, and ICS looked like a big upgrade from the previous Gingerbread phone version. Eventually I had decided that I would let my phone get an official update or a ROM for ICS and I would use the cash I would have spent for an Android tablet.

So I was pretty stoked when I found out last year that hashcode had released an Alpha of the upgrade for the Droid 3. There was a lot of stuff missing and not working quite well, but I decided to take the plunge and check it out. Not the least of my concern was assuaged by the fact that the excellent safestrap by the same coder lets you essentially dual-boot your phone between the stock ROM and the new one.

There were a lot of things wrong with the ROM at first. Lots of apps didn’t run at all, including Google Talk, which I relied on pretty heavily before I upgraded. I realized that I don’t usually talk that much to people with it, and I have backup whenever I am near a computer in the form of my constantly-open GMail window. The OS itself was really fast, and didn’t even seem to have many of the problems of previous CyanogenMod imports that I had tried on phones, which have always had a hit to my battery. The new launcher would crash a lot, basically whenever something strange happened, and it didn’t have support from all of the applications that I ran before.

The good stuff first (well, almost first), because I have basically been running this new ROM without any breaks for the last 90 days that I have had it on the phone. The advantages have been outweighing the disadvantages. The most obvious ones are that the native apps are a lot more efficient and easier to deal with because of some of the new UI paradigms that they have been pushing lately. The “up” navigation direction is specifically something that I have been wanting in some apps for a while now. Back is great, and it shouldn’t go away, because there are definite great uses for it (I’ve wished for it a lot on the iPad when I am navigating around), but sometimes I land in an app and I want to go “up”. The new menu style is something which I appreciate as well, because it looks a lot more like a menu, as well as working better than the previous menu style which only could accommodate basically six buttons, and when you ended up with more than that you would have to sacrifice one of them for a “more” which basically was a neutered version of the new ICS menu paradigm. The action bar is also pretty great.

The new GMail is definitely the best email client I have ever used on a phone, and the upgraded regular email (which I use connected to an Exchange account, hey, there’s a use for two email apps!) has similar improvements which find me replying quickly to an email more often than I would before. Talk (now that it works in the newest Alpha), works a lot better with the swiping side to side than it did before. Messaging works well still as expected, and the Maps application is improved even more on ICS somehow than it was on Gingerbread, which I didn’t think was possible.

I should talk a little about the Roboto Font, since it got some previous attention for being anything from a Helvetica Knockoff to a frankenfont (make up your mind, peoples). If you haven’t seen it on a phone, I think you should hold off your judgement. The difference when you are reading on a tiny screen is palpable, especially compared to the old Droid font family. I had previously switched to it on my (rooted) Gingerbread phone, and it was like night and day. I think it probably has too many problems at larger point sizes for the larger screen (I would never use it on my 260 square inch normal workspace), but it reads great on a phone, and I have seen it on a tablet where it looks pretty great too.

Of course, there are some problems though. I’ve already mentioned the app crashing problem, but I expect that from any Alpha or Beta ROM which I am on. The bleeding edge also comes with a huge downgrade: the Droid 3 ICS ROM doesn’t have a working Camera right now. This is a serious downgrade for a phone, so much that I seriously considered never trying the ROM. Hashcode is working on it though, and in fact doing something like a compatibility layer for other ROM developers to get it working, because apparently the tiling manager is significantly different in ICS than it was in previous versions. For now, any app which tries to access the camera just force closes, which I have come to expect. For the first 55 days or so of trying the ROM it also meant that I couldn’t use GTalk because of it, which I worked around, but there is a working one now which has just disabled it’s access to the camera. There are also issues with saving things to the SDCard, partly because Google changed where they put the card in the Nexus, and it also doesn’t always work right away when I am plugging it in to download some media. Also some growing pains caused the ‘B’ key on the hardware keyboard not to work for a while, but that hs also been fixed.

All in all, if you can stand not having access to the camera on your Droid 3 and are a bit adventurous, I would recommend trying it out. You can always go right back to your old system, because safestrap keeps it around. I have avoided it mostly though, only going back to it in order to load new versions of the ICS as it gets upgrades. It’s enough of an upgrade that I have actually told my wife (who has the same phone) that when she sees me take a picture on my phone, that she should make me upgrade her phone. Once the camera works reliably, it will be the best phone I’ve used.