Android Eating Apple

May 15, 2012

Quite frankly I’m not tremendously impressed by Apple products. I think they’re okay, but that’s about it. I don’t think that they’re better or worse than other products, and as such I see them as often overpriced. If you have a different opinion, you’re welcome to it. But there is a place where I am seeing Apple perform above its competitor. Perhaps it’s just a lonely little corner of technology, but it has import to me.

Droid 2 Phone and AR.Drone

I own a Parrot AR.Drone. A quad-copter that was originally controlled by iPhones. Later that was expanded to the iPad and iPod, and, of course, Android phones and tablets. I put off owning the AR.Drone for almost a year after its release because I didn’t want to buy an iPhone or iWhatever to control it. When Shell M. Schrader came out with a version of the controller for Android, I coughed up the $300 and picked up a drone. The software performed spectacularly and I was absolutely thrilled.  A little while later I happened to buy a Toshiba Thrive, and discovered to my disappointment, that it wouldn’t run the AR.Pro software that controlled the drone. The Thrive didn’t support ad hoc wifi connections. But then Parrot came out with an update for the AR.Drone that would permit it to use infrastructure connections. I was thrilled, and immediately set out to update my drone. Sadly, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the update into the aircraft.

Heaving a great sigh, I went to the Apple site and perused their online shelves looking for an inexpensive iPod Touch. Why? Because running the Apple based software, I could easily update my drone. I found an iPod, refurbished, on sale for $250 and I bought it. Literally moments after I downloaded the Free Flight software to it, I updated my drone and to my great delight, was able to use my Toshiba to control the drone. I was a little disturbed by the marginal control I had with the Thrive, but I enjoyed the large screen and so I accepted the foibles of occasional missed commands, and the odd peculiar and unexpected moments of behavior of the drone.

As winter came and I grew much less thrilled to be outdoors in the cold, I also had some relapsing symptoms of my cancer. So I tucked the AR.Drone onto a shelf where it languished through the winter. I recently got it out again in celebration of the summer like weather we’ve been having here in Spokane. Both my Droid 2 phone and my Thrive took a series of updates for Mr. Schrader’s software, as did my iPod. I also used to iPod to do a new firmware update to the drone itself.

And that’s where things went a bit off the track. I found that my Android phone barely controlled the drone. The first time I tapped the takeoff icon on the phone, the drone leaped into the air and flew across my yard at a fast clip, totally ignoring the frantic commands I was giving it. The drone slammed into the wall of my house, fortunately surviving the incident.  I tried doing a flat trim adjust, and had it take off again. This time it hovered about four feet off the ground as it used to, but was very sketchy in following directional commands other than rotational. Trying to fly it ahead, backwards or sideways resulted in most commands to be ignored. I switched over to the Toshiba Thrive and had pretty much the same experience. This took all of the fun out of flying the drone, making its control a matter of angst and worried anticipation.  I switched over to the iPod Touch to control the drone and immediately was rewarded with the wonderful performance I’d gotten the previous summer with any controlling device.

iPod Touch and FreeFlight app

The fact is, only the iPod is worth a damn for controlling the AR.Drone now. Whatever happened in the updates to Shell Schrader’s software, they certainly didn’t do me any favors. I have tried a few different times to use an Android device to control the Parrot quad-copter and each one met with poor control and unexpected and spooky behavior on the part of the drone. At times it will just fly off in some random direction, only responding to the LAND command, and even that is dubious. Sometimes it gets within a few inches of the ground and then takes off again causing me to tap the emergency button to keep it from flying off uncontrollably. Other times it will suddenly zoom high into the air, well above the recommended altitude for flight, and then exhibit crazy behavior. I have narrowly averted numerous crashes. All in all, I’m now afraid to try to control the drone with an Android device.  Loading the software onto borrowed Android phones produces the same bizarre and dangerous behavior. The best thing I can say about the Android version updates is that it appears to be able to do the firmware updates to the drone it was previously incapable of doing.

That doesn’t impress me since it appears to have sacrificed control for the update ability. Of course, I haven’t tried the update abilities, what with having an iPod that works great for control and updates. I’m pretty befuddled. The AR.Pro software was the greatest thing since Swiss cheese when it first came out. I spent a whole summer happily flying my Parrot drone both in and out of doors with it. But now I will only use it outside, and only where I have a LOT of room to correct for the moments of suicidal behavior using the Android software seems to cause. While the iPod doesn’t have the sharpness and quick response that the Android software used to have, it is tremendously better and much more reliable. It makes me sad to report this. But I have noticed that many of the updates being sent out for a variety of apps for my phone, my tablet and my PC have been giant steps backwards, sapping needed utility. I no longer use Firefox because it updated itself right out of usefulness. I am also looking at Thunderbird with one eyebrow up, it’s updates have done me the disservice of invalidating a number of useful add-ons. The worst is ESET Security. I now have to use it externally with my mail software instead of having it a native part of the program. Bad Ju Ju. If I find a mail program with the capabilities I want, I will dump Thunderbird like spoiled milk. I don’t get why so many technology companies are shooting themselves in the foot with their updates. Even WordPress, this software you’re reading from, almost became a casualty of the update screwups.

So I have finally found a place where I can say, unequivocably, that Apple is worth the price and stands well above the competition. The iPod hardware and Parrot’s FreeFlight software are standing head and shoulders above the Android counterpoints. I’m glad I have the iPod because without it, my AR.Drone would be $300 worth of shelf art.