Tested: Google's 2011 Android Market App Refresh

By Ryan Whitwam

The Market gets a whole lot prettier.

It was just in late 2010 when Google gave the Android Market app a complete redesign. Now here we are again with another revamp of Google’s app portal. There were some hints and half-glanced screenshots of the new Market app back at Google I/O in May, but now we have the full story. Over the next few weeks, Android phones running version 2.2 Froyo and higher will be getting a silent update with the new Market app.

One day soon, you’ll open the Market, and everything will be different. Different how? We got our hands on the update, and have been testing it furiously. Let’s take a look together.

Apps and Games

The last refresh of the Market was not a radical departure from the old-old version. Other than some polish, the only substantive change in the 2010 update was more logical landscape layouts. In the 2011 update, the entire look and feel of the app has been altered. The overall color scheme has more of a Gingerbread vibe now. There are a lot of dark grey and green accents around the interface now.

An interesting twist, is that the Market will apparently always open to a unified landing page that has links to the apps, books, and movies sections, as well as Editor’s Choice content. We’re seeing a fair mix of items here. The main links to the product categories are along the left. Each sub-section of the Market has large square-ish images, giving the app a strong resemblance to Windows Phone 7.

In each category of items, you have a column-based interface that you can slide from side to side, revealing lists of content. Swiping to the right brings you to the other columns including top paid, top free, top grossing, new apps, and trending. The motion is very smooth, even when caching images. In fact, all the load times in the Market seem faster. Strangely, the columns don’t loop. So when you reach the end, you have to swipe all the way back to the start. Swipe to the left from the featured screen to bring up the categories in each section.

When you tap on an item, you’ll see Google has totally changed the experience. Now screen shots are at the top of the page, and you can scroll through them like a carousel. The change log will be just beneath. The description and reviews are down below that. In the upper right corner by the search button is a new Share button, which we are very happy to see. This shares a deep link for the app to any of your sharing-capable apps.

We also really like that the app name and install/purchase button hover at the top of the screen as you scroll. In landscape, this bar will go off the screen to save space. Tapping the buy or install button will bring up the permissions, requiring you to tap Accept. Then you get back to the app listing and the floating bar will expand and process the install.

The My Apps list is (thankfully) much snappier with long lists of apps. There is no more long-press menu here. You will have to open the app page to update or uninstall. The update all button is now just ‘Update’ with a number next to it. There is no such thing as a forced manual update. Even apps that change their permissions seem to be eligible for batch updates.

If something goes awry while you’re pulling a lot of updates, there is now a Stop button at the top of your My Apps list that will stop any running updates. One last tidbit about the My Apps area, it is now separated into Updates, Installed, and Not Installed (in that order), and they are finally in alphabetical order. The apps in each section of the list have a population count to let you know how much money you’ve wasted.

With books and movies for some

The other big change in the Android Market for phones is the inclusion of book purchasing and movie rentals. The movie rental service ties in with the Google YouTube rentals. When you go to the My Movies link, it will pull up the Videos app, which you will be prompted to install if you don’t have it. If you try the My Movies link before you have Videos installed, you get booted out to YouTube where you will get an error. Oops.

The only visual difference between the movies area and apps is the use of red for the accents instead of green. Trailers are halfway down the individual page for each title. These will play directly in the YouTube app.

When we rented a movie in the Market, it drops down the floating title bar like for apps, but we are forced to choose a payment method each time. It will retain our saved card, but we still have to make the extra tap each time. You have 30 days to start watching your film, and 24 hours to finish it once you’ve started. There are a few road blocks to make sure you don’t accidentally start it before the time is right.

Video quality is good. We have no complaints in that area other than the expected artifacting in dark areas. We love the ability to Pin the video to your device for offline watching. For a full length movie, you're looking at about 300-400MB of space. This functionality is in the menu under Manage Offline. All your playback history is synced to the web-based Android Market and your YouTube account. However, the actual timecode will only be retained on the phone. The web player won't remember if you stop playback in the middle of a file and come back to it.

Here's a serious issue we have with movie rentals, though. If you have Pinned a movie to your phone for offline viewing, you can't watch it on a desktop. The embedded YouTube player will inform you that the video is unavailable when it is available offline (even if you haven't played it). You can unpin the movie to go back to watching on the desktop. But really, it's ridiculous that the licensing is so strict. We would like to be able to cache the movie before we actually need it. Oh, and rooted devices are still out.

As for books, it is much the same story as movies, except blue instead of red. This service will tie in directly with the Google Books app. Free books will just have an Open button, paid ones will have both Free Sample and Buy buttons.

Unfortunately, you can only buy books an rent films in the US right now. Google has reiterated it’s commitment to bring that ability to international shores, but not even our Canadian friends have the option yet.

The verdict

Overall, the new Market seems a little faster and feels more native. With the last update, it always felt like a web asset dropped in an app window. The 2011 update isn’t buttery smooth in all places, but it’s a definite step up. The improved My Apps list seems like it could save a lot of time, despite the removal of long-press options.

As for stability, it’s maybe just a bit behind the old Market. We got two force closes in the the space of about two hours of heavy Market use. That’s too much for the long haul, but we expect Google to push out updates over time like they did with the last Market version.

The general look and feel of this app appeals to us. It makes excellent use of space, and the color scheme feels more integrated into the Gingerbread aesthetic. The lists from the desktop Market are well integrated, although the lack of looped scrolling is a bit awkward. We’re also worried these additional columns won’t be immediately apparent to novice users.

The movie rentals are slick and well integrated, provided you have the Video app. The quality is good and Pinning is a life saver, even with the wonky licensing restrictions. If only the selection were better.

If you take your apps seriously, this update is probably going to make you happy. Google will be getting the new Market out to everyone in a few weeks, but if you cannot wait, the initial version that is being pushed out can be snagged from XDA here. Keep in mind, the Market could be incremented before the rollout is done if bugs are found. Have you tested the new Market? Let us know what you think of it.