John Floren

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Posted 2015/8/18

Where have all the cycles gone?

It’s almost a cliche today that computers and smartphones continue to get more powerful but the software always manages to eliminate that advantage.

I can’t really tell what the Android GMail app does in 2015 that it couldn’t do in 2011, but by God it sure runs like crap on my 2 year old phone. In the last 5 years, we’ve seen the design style go from 3D, shaded UI elements to flat elements in solid primary colors, but this hasn’t seemed to help performance.

Part of it may be that the UI elements have simplified, but we’ve gone transition mad. An app can’t just draw the screen, it has to fade in. When you open a menu, it has to slide down the screen, bounce a little, and then steady itself instead of just appearing. It’s cute at first, but in the end it’s a bunch of cycles and actual, noticeable wall-clock time to do something totally extraneous.

On recent Android phones, when your battery gets low you can put the phone into “battery saver mode”. It dims the screen and presumably down-clocks the processor, but it also does something more interesting. When you’re in battery saver mode, all transitions and animations are disabled. Menus open instantly instead of dropping down; closing a browser tab just closes it, instead of showing the tab shrink and fly away. It’s actually quite responsive and it made my old phone feel much more usable. I’ve even gone in on my new phone (a OnePlus One, which has its own host of software problems) and turned off animations in the developer menu.

I want my cycles back. I’m going to find who took my cycles, and I’m going to ask them how long it should take to draw a bunch of colored boxes and text on a screen. Then comes the flogging in the town square.