Sunday, 2 August 2015

Microsoft Arrow Launcher for Android Beta APK Hands-On Preview: Clean and Simple, but Still Missing Some Vital Features

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Microsoft's new cross-platform mobile strategy continues after the official release of Windows 10 with a new Android launcher called Arrow.
Last week on Tap That App, we took a tour of Cortana for Android, which was leaked a few weeks ago when Microsoft began beta testing its AI assistant for the world's largest mobile operating system. Well, another week, another (leaked) Microsoft beta for Android: Here's everything the Arrow Android launcher features so far, and everything it doesn't.

The Basics

"Basic" is the keyword for Arrow launcher, as Microsoft has obviously tried to find ways of simplifying the sometimes overly-complicated Android ecosystem into just three screens.

The three home pages each have a specific category and function assigned to them, which definitely makes for fast navigation, though many will immediately feel that this takes away a good amount of the rich functionality of Android Lollipop.

Apps

First is the Apps page, which is the second (middle) pane of Arrow launcher. Rather than allow users to pin apps all over the screen, Arrow takes a automatic, contextual approach to organization, putting four of the most "Recent" apps at the very top and filling the rest of the home screen with "Frequent" apps.
This understandably will take a little time for the launcher to tweak, but even considering it was a beta, I was disappointed that none of the Recent or Frequent apps were used recently (or frequently) at launch. Nevertheless, given enough time to get your usage patterns down, the most important apps will always be at the front and center of your Android experience, automatically.
And Microsoft understood there might be some apps users absolutely wanted to pin, so they included a double-sized navigation bar (just swipe up to see the extra slots) to cram in a few choice favorites below the usual Android-looking bottom row. Under that extra row, you'll also find another row with your five most recent contacts for good measure.

(Photo : Robert Schoon)
This swipe-up quick-panel is also where Microsoft hid Arrow's settings button, which was unintuitive and took a while to find. When I did find it, there was little to customize other than the wallpaper, but it did helpfully include a menu link directly to Android's default launcher setting, making it easy to switch back from Arrow to plain Android.

People

Second, there's a People page placed where the Google Now launcher puts its pane -- just one left swipe from home. Similar to the organization of the Apps page, you'll see only your most-used contacts along with the most recent up top.
Tap on the phone icon to immediately connect, or click the contact for other available options like email and texting. You can also access the Phone app from the top right dialer icon, and the hamburger menu next to it opens your Contacts app.

Notes and Reminders

Finally, there's the best idea (but worst-implemented, so far) of Microsoft's Arrow launcher in the third pane, which is one swipe to the right of your home page: "Notes and Reminders."
There you'll have one input field up top and a list of reminders, with or without alarms clearly displayed. Each automatically has a checkbox that also works to dismiss the reminder to "Completed" at the bottom, so you can get that singular satisfaction after you finish a task.
But this section doesn't have a voice-input button, as Google Now has with its "add a reminder" page, which slows down the process of adding tasks to the third page. In addition, Google keyboard's word selection feature was missing while Arrow was running, making adding a correctly-spelled task to your list all the more arduous.

(Photo : Robert Schoon)
But that's probably just a beta bug that will hopefully be squashed.
After testing Cortana for Android, it's interesting to see the Notes and Reminders pane on the Arrow launcher -- especially how basic the feature is. It makes you wonder if there will ever be any interaction between this pane of Arrow and the Cortana app, or if Microsoft's cross-platform enthusiasm ends right at the point where it could actually replace key functions on Android provided by Google Now.
From any of the three Arrow home panes, you can access all of your apps using the traditional Apps button in the middle of the navigation bar down at the bottom. It's nice to see Microsoft keeping this essential part of Android (it's kind of like Android's "Start Button" isn't it?), but Arrow enhances it with vertical organization and an alphabetical quick-scroll on the right-hand side.

Tap That App?

That's a welcome bit of simple organization, and I think the concept of Frequent and Recent apps and contacts will work for many as a way of taming Android. For example, using this launcher would probably help convince a basic iPhone user to switch to Android.
But for those used to widgets (there are none), more custom app-pinning spaces (only five), or most importantly, the Google search bar (fat chance!), Arrow will probably be a nice curiosity that's not worth investing too much time into.
That is, unless Microsoft can manage to glean the data it needs for an instant setup to recent and frequent apps, the way it does with Contacts. In that case, Arrow could find its place even with advanced Android users the go-to "Simple" launcher for day-to-day or on-the-go, especially if inputting notes and reminders gets easier after beta.
Arrow Launcher for Android is currently in closed beta, but you can request an invite through Arrow'sGoogle+ community page.



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