25 February 2009

Android Layout Tricks #2: Reusing layouts

Android comes with a wide variety of widgets, small visual construction blocks you can glue together to present the users with complex and useful interfaces. However applications often need higher level visual components. A component can be seen as a complex widget made of several simple stock widgets. You could for instance reuse a panel containing a progress bar and a cancel button, a panel containing two buttons (positive and negative actions), a panel with an icon, a title and a description, etc. Creating new components can be done easily by writing a custom View but it can be done even more easily using only XML.

In Android XML layout files, each tag is mapped to an actual class instance (the class is always a subclass of View.) The UI toolkit lets you also use three special tags that are not mapped to a View instance: <requestFocus />, <merge /> and <include />. The latter, <include />, can be used to create pure XML visual components. (Note: I will present the <merge /> tag in the next installment of Android Layout Tricks.)

The <include /> does exactly what its name suggests; it includes another XML layout. Using this tag is straightforward as shown in the following example, taken straight from the source code of the Home application that currently ships with Android:

<com.android.launcher.Workspace
    android:id="@+id/workspace"
    android:layout_width="fill_parent"
    android:layout_height="fill_parent"

    launcher:defaultScreen="1">

    <include android:id="@+id/cell1" layout="@layout/workspace_screen" />
    <include android:id="@+id/cell2" layout="@layout/workspace_screen" />
    <include android:id="@+id/cell3" layout="@layout/workspace_screen" />

</com.android.launcher.Workspace>

In the <include /> only the layout attribute is required. This attribute, without the android namespace prefix, is a reference to the layout file you wish to include. In this example, the same layout is included three times in a row. This tag also lets you override a few attributes of the included layout. The above example shows that you can use android:id to specify the id of the root view of the included layout; it will also override the id of the included layout if one is defined. Similarly, you can override all the layout parameters. This means that any android:layout_* attribute can be used with the <include /> tag. Here is an example:

<include android:layout_width="fill_parent" layout="@layout/image_holder" />
<include android:layout_width="256dip" layout="@layout/image_holder" />

This tag is particularly useful when you need to customize only part of your UI depending on the device's configuration. For instance, the main layout of your activity can be placed in the layout/ directory and can include another layout which exists in two flavors, in layout-land/ and layout-port/. This allows you to share most of the UI in portrait and landscape.

Like I mentioned earlier, my next post will explain the <merge />, which can be particularly powerful when combined with <include />.

24 February 2009

Android Layout Tricks #1

The Android UI toolkit offers several layout managers that are rather easy to use and, most of the time, you only need the basic features of these layout managers to implement a user interface. Sticking to the basic features is unfortunately not the most efficient way to create user interfaces. A common example is the abuse of LinearLayout, which leads to a proliferation of views in the view hierarchy. Every view, or worse every layout manager, you add to your application comes at a cost: initialization, layout and drawing become slower. The layout pass can be especially expensive when you nest several LinearLayout that use the weight parameter, which requires the child to be measured twice.

Let's consider a very simple and common example of a layout: a list item with an icon on the left, a title at the top and an optional description underneath the title. Here is what such an item looks like:

Simple list item

To clearly understand how the views, one ImageView and two TexView, are positioned with respect to each other, here is the wireframe of the layout as captured by HierarchyViewer:

Wireframe of the simple list item

Implementing this layout is straightforward with LinearLayout. The item itself is a horizontal LinearLayout with an ImageView and a vertical LinearLayout, which contains the two TextViews. The source code of this layout is the following:

<LinearLayout xmlns:android="http://schemas.android.com/apk/res/android"
    android:layout_width="fill_parent"
    android:layout_height="?android:attr/listPreferredItemHeight"
    
    android:padding="6dip">
    
    <ImageView
        android:id="@+id/icon"
        
        android:layout_width="wrap_content"
        android:layout_height="fill_parent"
        android:layout_marginRight="6dip"
        
        android:src="@drawable/icon" />

    <LinearLayout
        android:orientation="vertical"
    
        android:layout_width="0dip"
        android:layout_weight="1"
        android:layout_height="fill_parent">

        <TextView
            android:layout_width="fill_parent"
            android:layout_height="0dip"
            android:layout_weight="1"
                    
            android:gravity="center_vertical"
            android:text="My Application" />
            
        <TextView  
            android:layout_width="fill_parent"
            android:layout_height="0dip"
            android:layout_weight="1" 
            
            android:singleLine="true"
            android:ellipsize="marquee"
            android:text="Simple application that shows how to use RelativeLayout" />
            
    </LinearLayout>

</LinearLayout>

This layout works but can be wasteful if you instantiate it for every list item of a ListView. The same layout can be rewritten using a single RelativeLayout, thus saving one view, and even better one level in view hierarchy, per list item. The implementation of the layout with a RelativeLayout remains simple:

<RelativeLayout xmlns:android="http://schemas.android.com/apk/res/android"
    android:layout_width="fill_parent"
    android:layout_height="?android:attr/listPreferredItemHeight"
    
    android:padding="6dip">
    
    <ImageView
        android:id="@+id/icon"
        
        android:layout_width="wrap_content"
        android:layout_height="fill_parent"
        
        android:layout_alignParentTop="true"
        android:layout_alignParentBottom="true"
        android:layout_marginRight="6dip"
        
        android:src="@drawable/icon" />

    <TextView  
        android:id="@+id/secondLine"

        android:layout_width="fill_parent"
        android:layout_height="26dip" 
        
        android:layout_toRightOf="@id/icon"
        android:layout_alignParentBottom="true"
        android:layout_alignParentRight="true"
        
        android:singleLine="true"
        android:ellipsize="marquee"
        android:text="Simple application that shows how to use RelativeLayout" />

    <TextView
        android:layout_width="fill_parent"
        android:layout_height="wrap_content"
        
        android:layout_toRightOf="@id/icon"
        android:layout_alignParentRight="true"
        android:layout_alignParentTop="true"
        android:layout_above="@id/secondLine"
        android:layout_alignWithParentIfMissing="true"
                
        android:gravity="center_vertical"
        android:text="My Application" />

</RelativeLayout>

This new implementation behaves exactly the same way as the previous implementation, except in one case. The list item we want to display has two lines of text: the title and an optional description. When a description is not available for a given list item, the application would simply set the visibility of the second TextView to GONE. This works perfectly with the LinearLayout implementation but not with the RelativeLayout version:

RelativeLayout and description GONE
RelativeLayout and description GONE

In a RelativeLayout, views are aligned either with their parent, the RelativeLayout itself, or other views. For instance, we declared that the description is aligned with the bottom of the RelativeLayout and that the title is positioned above the description and anchored to the parent's top. With the description GONE, RelativeLayout doesn't know where to position the title's bottom edge. To solve this problem, you can use a very special layout parameter called alignWithParentIfMissing.

This boolean parameter simply tells RelativeLayout to use its own edges as anchors when a constraint target is missing. For instance, if you position a view to the right of a GONE view and set alignWithParentIfMissing to true, RelativeLayout will instead anchor the view to its left edge. In our case, using alignWithParentIfMissing will cause RelativeLayout to align the title's bottom with its own bottom. The result is the following:

RelativeLayout, description GONE and alignWithParentIfMissing
RelativeLayout, description GONE and alignWithParentIfMissing

The behavior of our layout is now perfect, even when the description is GONE. Even better, the hierarchy is simpler and because we are not using LinearLayout's weights it's also more efficient. The difference between the two implementations becomes obvious when comparing the view hierarchies in HierarchyViewer:

LinearLayout vs RelativeLayout

Again, the difference will be much more important when you use such a layout for every item in a ListView for instance. Hopefully this simple example showed you that getting to know your layouts is the best way to learn how to optimize your UI.

20 February 2009

Android Market update: priced applications for US users

Last Friday, we enabled developers to upload priced apps and saw a flurry of activity in the days that followed. Today, it is my pleasure to let you know that we have begun the phased rollout of priced applications to T-Mobile G1 users in the US. Once the service is enabled on their devices, T-Mobile G1 users will be able to see the priced apps immediately without the need to reboot. For more details on this update to Android Market, please see last week's blogpost.

19 February 2009

Faster screen orientation change

Android is a mobile operating system meant to be run on a wide array of devices, with very different hardware configurations. Some devices, like the T-Mobile G1, can change their hardware configuration at runtime. For instance, when you open the keyboard, the screen change from the portrait orientation to the landscape orientation. To make Android applications development easier, the OS automatically handles configuration changes and restart the current activity with the new configuration. This is the default behavior that lets you declare resources like layouts and drawables based on the orientation, screen size, locale, etc. If you are not familiar with the way Android handles resources, I highly suggest you to read the official documentation on resources.

While this behavior is really powerful, since your application adapts automatically to the device's configuration at runtime, it is sometimes confusing for new Android developers who wonder why their activity is destroyed and recreated. Facing this "issue," some developers choose to handle configuration changes themselves which is, in my opinion, a short-term solution that will complicate their life when other devices come out or when the application becomes more complex. The automatic resource handling is a very efficient and easy way to adapt your application's user interface to various devices and devices configurations. It sometimes comes at a price though.

When your application displays a lot of data, or data that is expensive to fetch, the automatic destruction/creation of the activities can be lead to a painful user experience. Take the example of Photostream, a simple Flickr browsing application I wrote for the release of Android 1.0. After you launch the application and choose a Flickr account, the application downloads a set of 6 photos (on a T-Mobile G1) from the Flickr servers and displays them on screen. To improve the user experience, I also use slightly different layouts and drawables in portrait and landscape, and this is what the result looks like:

Photostream lets Android take care of the configuration change when the screen is rotated. However, can you imagine how painful it would be for the user to see all the images being downloaded again? The obvious solution to this problem is to temporarily cache the images. They could be cached on the SD card (if there's one), in the Application object, in a static field, etc. None of these techniques is adapted to the current situation: why should we bother caching the images when the screen is not rotated? Fortunately for us, Android offers a great API exactly for that purpose.

The Activity class has a special method called onRetainNonConfigurationInstance(). This method can be used to pass an arbitrary object your future self and Android is smart enough to call this method only when needed. In the case of Photostream, I used this method to pass the downloaded images to the future activity on orientation change. The implementation can be summarized like so:

@Override
public Object onRetainNonConfigurationInstance() {
    final LoadedPhoto[] list = new LoadedPhoto[numberOfPhotos];
    keepPhotos(list);
    return list;
}

In the new activity, in onCreate(), all you have to do to get your object back is to call getLastNonConfigurationInstance(). In Photostream, this method is invoked and if the returned value is not null, the grid is loaded with the list of photos from the previous activity:

private void loadPhotos() {
    final Object data = getLastNonConfigurationInstance();
    
    // The activity is starting for the first time, load the photos from Flickr
    if (data == null) {
        mTask = new GetPhotoListTask().execute(mCurrentPage);
    } else {
        // The activity was destroyed/created automatically, populate the grid
        // of photos with the images loaded by the previous activity
        final LoadedPhoto[] photos = (LoadedPhoto[]) data;
        for (LoadedPhoto photo : photos) {
            addPhoto(photo);
        }
    }
}

Be very careful with the object you pass through onRetainNonConfigurationChange() though. If the object you pass is for some reason tied to the Activity/Context, you will leak all the views and resources of the activity. This means you should never pass a View, a Drawable, an Adapter, etc. Photostream for instance extracts the bitmaps from the drawables and pass the bitmaps only, not the drawables. Finally, remember that onRetainNonConfigurationChange() should be used only to retain data that is expensive to load. Otherwise, keep it simple and let Android do everything.

13 February 2009

Android Market update: support for priced applications

I'm pleased to announce that Android Market is now accepting priced applications from US and UK developers. Developers from these countries can go to the publisher website at http://market.android.com/publish to upload their application(s) along with end user pricing for the apps. Initially, priced applications will be available to end users in the US starting mid next week. We will add end user support for additional countries in the coming months.

We will also enable developers in Germany, Austria, Netherlands, France, and Spain to offer priced applications later this quarter. By the end of Q1 2009, we will announce support for developers in additional countries. Developers can find more information about priced applications in Android Market at http://market.android.com/support/

Google Checkout will serve as the payment and billing mechanism for Android Market. Developers who do not already have a Google Checkout merchant account can easily sign up for one via the publisher website.

Also, Android Market for free applications will become available to users in Australia starting February 15th Pacific Time and in Singapore in the coming weeks. Developers can now make their applications available in these countries via the publisher website at http://market.android.com/publish.

We look forward to seeing more great applications on Android Market.

12 February 2009

Track memory allocations

Despite the impressive hardware of the first Android phones (T-Mobile G1 and ADP1) writing efficient mobile applications is not always straightforward. Android applications rely on automatic memory management handled by Dalvik's garbage collector which can sometimes cause performance issues if you are not careful with memory allocations.

In a performance sensitive code path, like the layout or drawing method of a view or the logic code of a game, any allocation comes at a price. After too many allocations, the garbage collector will kick in and stop your application to let it free some memory. Most of the time, garbage collections happen fast enough for you not to notice. However, if a collection happens while you are scrolling through a list of items or while you are trying to defeat a foe in a game, you may suddenly see a drop in performance/responsiveness of the application. It's not unusual for a garbage collection to take 100 to 200 ms. For comparison, a smooth animation needs to draw each frame in 16 to 33 ms. If the animation is suddenly interrupted for 10 frames, you can be certain that your users will notice.

Most of the time, garbage collection occurs because of tons of small, short-lived objects and some garbage collectors, like generational garbage collectors, can optimize the collection of these objects so that the application does not get interrupted too often. The Android garbage collector is unfortunately not able to perform such optimizations and the creation of short-lived objects in performance critical code paths is thus very costly for your application.

To help you avoid frequent garbage collections, the Android SDK ships with a very useful tool called allocation tracker. This tool is part of DDMS, which you must have already used for debugging purposes. To start using the allocation tracker, you must first launch the standalone version of DDMS, which can be found in the tools/ directory of the SDK. The version of DDMS included in the Eclipse plugin does not offer you ability to use the allocation tracker yet.

Once DDMS is running, simply select your application process and then click the Allocation Tracker tab. In the new view, click Start Tracking and then use your application to make it execute the code paths you want to analyze. When you are ready, click Get Allocations. A list of allocated objects will be shown in the first table. By clicking on a line you can see, in the second table, the stack trace that led to the allocation. Not only you will know what type of object was allocated, but also in which thread, in which class, in which file and at which line. The following screenshot shows the allocations performed by Shelves while scrolling a ListView.

Even though it is not necessary, or sometimes not possible, to remove all allocations for your performance critical code paths. the allocation tracker will help you identify important issues in your code. For instance, a common mistake I have seen in many applications is to create a new Paint object on every draw. Moving the paint into an instance field is a simple fix that helps performance a lot. I highly encourage you to peruse the Android source code to see how we reduce allocations in performance critical code paths. You will also thus discover the APIs Android provide to help you reuse objects.

Note: this article was originally posted on my personal blog.

11 February 2009

Apps that work together

Android applications can easily be linked together using intents. One example of this involves Shazam, MySpace, and the Amazon MP3 Store. Once Shazam has identified a song, you can also search for the artist's official MySpace profile page or buy the song via via the Amazon MP3 app. Here, the three developers behind these apps talk about how they accomplished this:

To hear more about how the MySpace app for Android was built and lessons learned, watch Matt Kanninen:

Tomasz Zawada of Shazam also talks about his opinions on the Android platform and has some tips for developers building Android apps:

These and the other Android app developer videos can be found here.

09 February 2009

Android 1.1 SDK, release 1 Now Available

Hello, developers! As you may have heard by now, users around the world have started to receive updates to their Android devices that provide new features and functionality. You may also have noticed that the new update reports as "Android 1.1". Applications written with the 1.0_r1 and 1.0_r2 SDKs will continue to work just fine on Android 1.1. But if you want to take advantage of the new APIs in 1.1, you'll need an updated SDK.

That's why I'm pleased to let you know that the Android 1.1 SDK, release 1 is now available. As you'll quickly see from the release notes, the actual API changes are quite minor, but useful. This new SDK has all the new APIs, as well as a new emulator image to let you test your applications. If you have a retail device running Android, contact your operator for the update schedule. An updated v1.1 system image for the Android Developer Phone 1 will be coming soon.

In addition to the new APIs, the emulator also contains improved ability to test localizations to the German language. Localizations for other languages will be added in future SDK releases.

You can download the updated SDK using the links above. Happy coding!