By tia

2010-09-28 21:45:36 8 Comments

I'm designing an android app which will need to do the following steps:

  1. user pushes a button or otherwise indicates to "sync data".
  2. sync process will use REST web services to move data to and from the server.
  3. the data will be stored locally in a sqlite database.
  4. the sync process should provide status updates/messages to the UI
  5. the user should not be allowed to wander off to other parts of the application and do more work during the sync process.

The first time the sync process runs, it may take 10-20 minutes. After the initial sync, less data will be transferred and stored and I expect the process to take 1-2 minutes or less.

I've been doing a lot of reading about android's AsyncTask and various examples of using a Service ... But I don't fully understand the design considerations and trade-offs of choosing one design over the other. I currently have my demo project stubbed out using an AsyncTask. After watching (most of) Developing Android REST client applications: I'm left confused the design patterns described here feel overly complex, perhaps because I just "don't get it" yet.

I come from a java, spring, web and desktop application background. Thinking and designing in terms of a handheld device is quite new to me. (What happens when the screen layout is changed? What happens when the phone rings while I'm running a sync?) Taking 2 steps back, if the initial sync IS going to be such a long running process, is there a better way for me to think about the problem->solution, the user experience, the user expectations of an application running on a phone?

Would love to hear from some more experienced android developers out there who have already wrestled with these questions.


@Vit Khudenko 2010-11-14 11:57:22

In my opinion this is the most tricky/hard part of a mainstream/average Android development. For instance on BlackBerry this is IN TIMES easier.

Definitely you need to use a Service.

AsyncTask does not suit, because it is tightly "bound" to your Activity via a Context handle (otherwise you would not be able to update UI of the Activity from your AsyncTask). However an Activity can be killed by OS once the Activity went in background. An example reason of going to background can be an incoming call - user switches to Phone application so your Activity becomes invisible. In this case (depending on the current RAM state) OS may decide to kill one of the background (invisible to the user) activities.

Some devs workaround this by arranging a static stuff for having a long-running actions inside of. Some recommend to use Application instance. This is because static stuff and Application exist while the whole app process exists. However those are incorrect workarounds. Processes in Android are also may be killed when OS decides it is time to. Android OS have its own considerations about what it can kill and in what order. All processes are devided to 5 levels of "killability". Here is the doc where those levels are specified. It is interesting to read there:

Because a process running a service is ranked higher than one with background activities, an activity that initiates a long-running operation might do well to start a service for that operation, rather than simply spawn a thread — particularly if the operation will likely outlast the activity. Examples of this are playing music in the background and uploading a picture taken by the camera to a web site. Using a service guarantees that the operation will have at least "service process" priority, regardless of what happens to the activity.

Your Activity where users initiate a long-running action should show a ProgressDialog to make sure user does not do anything else while the action is running. The guide is here.

Also, you'd most likely want to use the NotificationManager for notifying the user about your long-running action completion (or failure) if your Activity is currently invisible. Here is the NotificationManager info to start from.

@Vit Khudenko 2010-11-14 11:59:25

Just forgot to say IntentService is a really nice choice.

@Snicolas 2012-05-21 21:58:40

Never the less, it is worth mensionning that communication from activity-to-service is a bit tricky. The separation of UI and network features is quite deep and requires some coding effort as values will have to be passed through serialization, or parcelisation, or via AIDL.…

@AXSM 2013-03-21 16:05:53

Hi,@Arhimed i have a question in the same way? here is, could you give me an advice. thanks.

@riza 2014-07-12 06:50:38

Hi @Arhimed, dunno if its good or bad, I use EventBus when in need of activity-service communications

@Vit Khudenko 2014-07-12 14:10:29

@riza i see some good programmers around me use EventBus, so it's fully Ok. I'm a bit conservative, so I use LocalBroadcastManager. :)

@G. Blake Meike 2014-09-13 22:43:38

What a great answer!

@Joe Plante 2014-09-13 22:39:09

I tend to prefer the IntentService + BroadcastReceiver combo because they give you a really strong degree of control

You definitely have to make sure the UI is running if you are updating something on the screen. ASyncTask crashes were at once reported to be one of the top causes of Android crashes. This can be avoided by keeping some sort of "activityIsAlive" variable and skipping or delaying a UI update if the activity is dead.

The IntentService + BroadcastReceiver combo is a little more resistant to the crash because most tutorials tell you to shut off the BroadcastReceiver onPause or onStop. If you do not do this, again you'll have to turn off the UI update. There's a runOnUiThread command somewhere that will help you do UI updates.

The IntentService + BroadcastReceiver combo is also more extensible. You can create functions and extend BroadcastReceiver to make a more elegant REST processing solution. However, it does require more plumbing vs an ASyncTask

If you do delay the UI update, you may be able to rig it on OnWindowFocusChangedListener. When that function receives true, it means that the UI is alive.

tldr; Make sure the Activity and/or Fragment is alive before updating the UI if you are running something in the background

2015 Edit: check out Loaders as well. A little harder to grasp because there's a lot going on behind the scenes

@raj 2013-02-25 23:05:52

The choice is mainly dependent on the app design. Since both AsyncTask and IntentService stands their ground, what you may want from the app(user experience) is more important and then choose either or both. Some scenarios are mentioned below (mostly what I experienced while developing apps)

  • Assume apps that have feeds pages - where more than one api calls are made to make the page presentable ( /getFriends, /getDates, /getPictures etc.) you can warp all such api calls to a single AsyncTask with executor which is multithreaded and the sequence of execution doesn't matter. In contrast to IntentService which runs all calls in sequence in a single worker thread. For a high end device with multi-core the call from AsyncTask is more effective. And if you start the AsyncTask on UI thread then updating IU is a piece of cakes(read less boiler plate code). And even if an user leaves the page, with intelligent use of not holding on to the context the app doesn't crash.

  • Assuming you are trying to write an app which doesn't need the user to be on view/activity/fragment and the total execution time to show something is not mission critical (assume sync service or user notification/alarm) then IntentService is a better choice. (no hassle to start Asynctask on UI thread so that you don't need to write a Handler to force changes on UI etc. etc. and less boiler plate code)

From my experience - write small app for both and compare the pros and cons to get a better idea. (p.s I'd suggest take a look at the iosched app from google to get a better idea - they use both Asynctask and IntentService)

@Kai Wang 2016-02-01 22:33:26

Great answer. Asynctask is easy, multitask. IntentService is hard, single task. Asynctask has its strong point, and should be used for certain implementation.

@chubbsondubs 2010-09-28 23:01:17

With AsyncTask if the user goes to another Activity you can't transfer that object to the other Activity so it dies. There are tricks you can play when say the user rotates the screen or something like that, but that doesn't extend to general purpose destruction. AsyncTask can randomly die.

Google Sync is run as a Service in the background because syncing can take a while to complete. You might need to follow their path and create your own sync service that you can communicate with. Here is some thoughts how to accomplish that:

You can definitely communicate between Service and Activity, but it's tricky to do it right.

@Fuzzical Logic 2010-11-09 14:16:26

There are multiple considerations that you must weigh in order to best decide how to approach your situation. It sounds like you need a good comparison between the two approaches... So here is a list of similarities, and differences and additional considerations that must be taken into account when working on a handheld device.

A Service is a part of your Application that has no UI. It may be called by a UI(Activity) to be started, or may be started by any other component of your Application. When developing, you have the freedom to place it on a different thread, or even run it in a different Task or Process. This allows you to ultimately separate it from your UI. Additionally, you may start the Service to run independently (startService) or bind your activity to it (bindService) depending upon your needs. By using custom Handlers, you can set callbacks to update the UI with your progress. A Service does not necessarily end if a User changes Activities, but may be ended at ANY time by the OS.

A AsyncTask is always instantiated from the UI thread. It only allows specific callbacks, but simplifies the process of multi-threading for the purposes of relatively short transactions (as compared to dedicated separate threaded services) that are inherently tied to actions performed by an Activity. Whenever a User changes Activities, the AsyncTask is put on "pause" and may even die because there is no UI thread for your Activity any longer.

The thing that I would be most concerned about is if the app is going to take 10-20 minutes the first time, I would ASSUME that the User will either change tasks temporarily or set the phone down until it completes (which can cause all of the same complications if the phone sleeps). Given this consideration, a threaded service bound to your activity may be your best choice. To protect your UI, I would make a Progress Dialog for your Activity that receives your progress callbacks. This limits user input in YOUR app and allows your service to continue the way that it needs to. Then override the Activity onResume to check the status of your Service and if it is running. Then you can reset the Dialog immediately.

Given that this is my preferred method, I would also take into account that the OS may kill the App at any time anyway. So make sure to have some way to detect an incomplete or partial sync. Then you may resume automatically when your Activity or Service restarts.

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