Quick thoughts on the MIUI Android rom

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A new rom has been developed by the chinese. It’s called “Miui” and it’s Android based. Be careful, unless you like 80ies power-ballads, you may want to turn down the volume:

Since I’ve been very harsh to HTC Sense and Android skins in general, I’ve been politely asked my thoughts on this one. And while I’m still preparing a larger rant on the skin situation, I’d like to give a few quick notes on what I think about this particular flavor.

– I love that it’s possible. I love that because of Android being open source, such an OS image can be put together.

– I like the lock screen, insofar as you can open the phone, messages or the device in general by swiping three different icons. I’m less thrilled that the direction to swipe/unlock is vertical. Which doesn’t work so well for HTC Sense.

– The homescreen / launcher seems as uninventive as every other homescreen out there (save for Windows Phone 7 which looks to bring something new to the table), but it’s a formula that works reasonably well. There’s a customizable dock for those shortcuts you use all the time, and there’s the rest of the screen for littering with various apps you use.

– In the spirit of Samsung TouchWiz (ugh), every icon gets an iOS-like rounded-corner box. Which does bring a grid-like look to the apps, but feels dated. Also, since the icons weren’t designed to be shown in such boxes (unlike iOS icons), I doubt the viability of this framing of all icons.

– Android has numerous ways to quickly toggle GPS, Bluetooth, Wifi and other “quick settings”, and it’s an interesting approach for MIUI to place these in the notification drawer. But like task-killers, some of these features really shouldn’t be “quick toggles”, but rather completely automatic and built in such a way that they don’t kill your battery. Like Android 2.2 killed task killers, I’m hoping future Android releases will better manage these settings for me.

– The ability to quickly rearrange the sequence of homescreens is nice, if one likes the way Android homescreens work. I’m not convinced. On the one hand, I love the completely sandbox-esque feel of being able to tweak every homescreen and their widget and app layouts. On the other hand, I like iOS completely automatic and fascist homescreen regime wherein the leftmost homescreen is the search screen, and homescreens are simply added to the right when you need them. In the case of iOS, however, the otherwise brilliantly unified “there are no app shortcuts” metaphor lends itself to what I like to call the “stocks-app homescreen syndrome”, which refers to right-most iOS homescreen which is usually the debris garden for unwanted yet un-uninstallable apps.

– The app/widget trash can that has gotten prime real estate right at the top of the screen is rather silly. Sure it makes it easy when you need to move apps from one homescreen to the other, but in the ongoing crusade against the filesystem, the trash can will be first against the wall. And so it’s a UI metaphor that we should start to shy away from, no matter the kooky and fun way we decide to use it. The trash can is broken goods.

– In the folders vs. stacks fight that goes on, I’m actually in the stacks side of the arena, even if I think the stacks implementation of “max. 12 apps per stack” on iOS is dumb. This MIUI implementation of having folders that just look like stacks but behave like folders, is unimpressive.

– Most central in my argument against skins is that there are some aspects that are fair game, and some that you just don’t mess with. With HTC Sense, it’s primarily the bundled apps. Overall, I think it’ll be the same with MIUI, whose contact list is so stupid. How stupid is it? It’s so stupid, it copied Apples patently stupid interface mechanism where if you swipe right on a contact, it reveals a delete button (see the video, 3 minutes in exactly). Which, if it isn’t clear, is such a vicious example of mystery meat navigation that only bad bicyclists can get my blood to boil more.

– So you don’t mess with core apps is my mantra. Browser, calendar, mail, contacts, phone … those are off limits. Do not touch. What’s left in MIUI? Well there’s the lock screen, the homescreen (with custom icons and widgets), the app drawer and the notification drawer. Did you know that all those aspects of the Android interface, can be replaced by Android apps? In fact, MIUI could’ve been simply an Android app instead of a fullblown rom.

Did I mention I love open source? My friendly criticism aside, I love that MIUI exists. I may even try it, and I will no doubt like it more than HTC Sense. But it all boils down to the fact that we’re still dealing with a phone, which needs to be stable, easy to update with security patches. And the core experience — phone, browser, contacts, email — needs to be razor sharp. With that in mind, I think it’s a real pity that MIUI isn’t just an Android Market app that replaced my homescreen, lock screen, app drawer and notification bar. After all, that’s not only entirely possible, but it’s likely I’d pay for it. I could say the same for HTC Sense.