Lately, a couple of friends have gotten themselves Android phones and have asked me for a couple of tips on which apps to start off with. I’m coming up on about one full year of fiddling around with Android now, and have been through and tossed dozens and dozens of apps (as usual). I’ve got a list of my votes for cream of the crop below, but first, a layout tip. Set your homescreens up in a useful, ergonomic fashion. Some flavors of Android give you a default set of widgets on several homescreens and I can’t help but think that plenty of people just “get used to” the layout they’re given and decide it’s not worth the trouble of tinkering. Trust me, it is. Widgets are extremely useful and a very powerful part of the Android system, and with a little arrangement you can actually cut out several fingertaps because you’ll have arranged your desktop in such a way that your info is instantly available when you look at your phone. You’ll only need to do this once, maybe twice until you’re comfortable. I haven’t changed my desktop layout in maybe three months now. It just works really well for me. Time, date, weather and quick call icons plus some essential apps on the main page, calendar info to the right and Twitter, Barnacle, my to-do list and a couple of news apps on the left. Even my wife’s layout is more complex than that, but like I said, mine works for me.
Now, on to the apps!
Jorte: Strange name, but it’s an awesome free calendar application. It can synchronize with a Google calendar or an exchange/corporate one, and even syncs with Google Tasks. The real power of the app comes in its almost frighteningly huge number of widgets. There are daily, weekly, monthly and task view widgets available in every size from 1×1 through 4×4 allowing you complete freedom to design one of your homescreens with the productivity view that suits you best. Install Jorte, hook it into your calendar and decide which one (or two) of its widgets you like the best. I use the 4×3 month-view and a 4×2 task view (yes, I have 4×5 icons available on my homescreen, more on that in a sec). If you don’t use the widget(s), the app itself is still a fantastic replacement calendar tool.
LauncherPro: Android gives you a standard “home” application – the system that controls the number of desktops you have, number of icons on the desktop etc. LauncherPro is a “home screen replacement” which extends the capabilities of your homescreen environment, giving you the ability to have more icons on each screen, a great scrollable “dock” at the bottom, more homescreens (up to seven, if that floats your boat) and everyone raves about how smooth it is visually. It’s free, but you can pay for additional features.
World Forecast Clock: This is a nice widget app that shows you the time, date and weather for a particular city. Being Australian, I have two of these widgets – one showing the current time/date in Brisbane AUST and the other showing details for my current city of residence in Arizona USA.
K9 Mail: This is a “killer app” for Android. Nobody should be without it. It’s an email application, with a huge amount of features. Forget about using the built-in apps, this one runs rings around them. Can save email/attachments on your card etc. And it’s completely free.
AndExplorer: Once you get well and truly stuck into Android you’ll want to start nosing around your directories on your SD card. This is a nice, small and free file browser. I like it because there’s a nice big button at the top that you can click to jump straight to the root dir of your SD card. And because it’s free.
BeyondPod: If you like reading news on your device, immerse yourself in the world of RSS with BeyondPod. Can sync with Google Reader and update feeds on a schedule. I set mine to update all feeds once every 8 hours, ie 3 times a day. Then the phone is jam packed with fresh news from Engadget, Gizmodo etc for me to read when I’m eating lunch or when I’m (cough) waiting in traffic (cough). Free, but you can pay for additional functionality.
NoteEverything: This is a fantastic app for writing notes – text notes, picture notes, and checklists. I use it as an electronic shopping list. It’s comprehensive, straightforward and just one of those apps that you can’t do without.
Facebook: Blah blah blah, not much to be said about this one, eh? Unfortunately it doesn’t support multiple accounts. Oh, what’s that? You use your real name on there and why would ever want to do anything else? Shame on you. *8-) Android’s FB app isn’t as good as the iPhone one, apparently because only one dude was in charge of writing it and Google “poached” him (pissing off the Zuck in the process) but development has started on it again so it should catch up in terms of features soon.
Multicon: I would have recommended More Icons Widget at one stage, but this one’s free and does just as much. It’s an absolutely essential addition to your homescreen. Basically it takes the form of a widget, but within the widget you can create smaller “icons”, effectively allowing you to have a huge amount of icons on your desktop instead of being constrained to 4×4 (or indeed 4×5 with LauncherPro). Icons can be shortcuts too, so I’m using this to have a sort of “dialer bar” with icons allowing me to quickly text, email and call my wife. YMMV, of course. You can create as many of these icon-containing widgets as you like.
Timeriffic: This is another awesome idea. Basically this app controls settings on your phone based on time of day. Like their description says, you can have the program “unmute audio @ 7am; turn off vibrate and audio at 10pm for sweet dreams.” I have this set up to decrease my phone volume at 9am (work) so I don’t annoy my coworkers, increase it again at 6pm, drop the brightness to lowest at 11pm and mute the phone, and reset stuff (including unmute) at 6:44am before my alarm goes off at 6:45am. All completely automatic. For more functionality (but not free), check out apps like Settings Profiles (hey, they have a lite version now, I never knew!) and the big daddy app of this genre, the ever-popular Locale. Ten bucks for the latter is a little steep though.
Android OS Monitor: No self-respecting geek should be without this (or a similar) app. It’s a task monitor like you get on Windows. Provides an animated tray icon showing you how much CPU power is being used, run the app from the windowshade area and you can see a list of all apps, their cpu %usage and more. Has other stuff like network interface info, established TCP/IP connections and some other tech data. Free.
Meebo: I’m not a big IM’er (I use it for work but not really anytime outside of that) but if you are, check out Meebo. The app can either hook you into Yahoo, AIM, ICQ, MSN, Google Talk etc, or else it can link you to your account on the meebo.com website. On their site, create an account and then add in all your other IM accounts, and you can then log into multiple IM systems from one central “middleman” concept. Handy, unless you’re paranoid and think that Johnny Meebo might steal your shizzle. In which case, please sell your Android phone since Johnny Google is far worse..
FBReader: There are two great ebook readers on Android. The most popular is Aldiko which has a fantastic interface and some awesome features, pretty much rivalling the iPhone’s flagship ebook reader app Stanza. But I prefer FBReader. It just loads faster and takes me straight into a book if I’m in the middle of one, rather than jumping to the bookshelf mode and forcing me to reopen the book I’m reading. Both are free; ebooks are typically not (unless you get stuff from Project Gutenberg). A hint –> get the awesome but sluggish Calibre prog for Windows if you’re considering hardcore ebook reading. By which I mean “you intend to read a lot of ebooks in the future”.
Gentle Alarm: My favourite alarm clock app. Set an alarm (like your favourite MP3 – I myself have Visa Röster’s Human Race Subtune 4 as my wake-up alarm of choice) to play a minimum volume, and a duration that should pass before the gradually-increasing volume hits maximum. After the trial, the app can fire your alarm on every day except Wednesday to convince you to buy it. Pfft. I just use my iPod alarm on Wednesdays. *8-) This prog also has a unique “pre-alarm” feature, where it does a tiny beep about 30 mins before the main alarm fires, to kind of gently “nudge you up” from delta to alpha sleep in preparation for wakey wakey time.
Universal Androot: Android OS’s typically come “locked down” by the provider/manufacturer. Meaning that there are certain system-level things that you are not permitted from doing. You need to hack the system and gain “superuser” rights before a new world of functionality opens up for you. Most people don’t need this. If you’re a nerd who just got Android, you need it. Unless you’re a Mac nerd, in which case you’re not a nerd at all and you don’t need it. But I digress. The method of gaining superuser permission on Android is commonly known as “rooting your phone”, a term which may make some Aussies chuckle. *8-) Once rooted you can run programs like Barnacle (a program which shares your phone’s internet via adhoc wifi) and Titanium Backup, which backs up your entire phone to the SD card but for some arcane reason needs root access to do it.
Handcent SMS or ChompSMS: Both of these free apps replace the default text messaging app, and both of them have immense amounts of customizability. They’re really neck-and-neck in terms of which one you’d want to use, but my preference leans toward Handcent – purely because Chomp forces you to use the “bubble conversation” visual style made famous on the iPhone, and I prefer text that isn’t encapsulated in gay crystalline speech bubbles. YMMV.
Supacount: Just a simple countdown app, but you can have multiple timers running simultaneously if you so choose.
And now for the last-but-not-leasts:
Yelp is great for finding local food reviews and “checking in” to restaurants during a visit. Touiteur is the best Twitter client on Android, and has a great widget too (although TweetCaster is really close behind). Better Cut allows you to create shortcuts on your desktop but select your own names for them rather than being stuck with the default app name. Dolphin HD is probably the most popular browser replacement on Android. CacheMate is for rooted phones only and allows you to clean out caches and junk to restore free space periodically. Quick Settings is a great control panel program for fiddling just about every setting on Android. Got To Do is a task/to-do app, which allows you to sync with the hugely popular Toodledo website (you don’t have a free Toodledo account> – GO GET ONE NOW!) and gives you a task list widget to help keep you organized. WidgetLocker allows you to put widgets on your lock screen so, for example, you can see your calendar or to-do list while your phone is still locked (== awesome). Voice Recorder allows you to record your voice – duh! SpringPad is a free note-taking app that syncs your info with the website – have a look at the website and create a free account to see everything it can do before you decide if you’d like the app.
And finally, if you have the cash, you might like to invest in the mighty Tasker. At $6.30, it’s not cheap, but it does everything. Don’t believe me? Check out the tour of the app’s capabilities on its website. After viewing the tour, I guarantee you’ll be pleased you invested in an Android phone.
The End. Comments welcomed. Seacrest out – phew!
Boy, it’s been a while. Thank god for Twitter – at least it allowed me to jot down some quick day-to-day notes instead of forcing me to settle down and write a huge, long-winded paragraph about something mundane (like I ever do that). However, I’ve decided to bust WLW out after months of absence due to the following news: I bought an iPod Touch 4G!
This may surprise some and outright flabbergast others, but if you fall into either of these two categories you never really “listened” to anything I’ve said over the years. I’m not anti-Apple, anti-iPod or anything like that. I’ve always liked all sorts of technologies and greatly enjoy playing the good points off the bad for each particular program, platform, device, whatever. What pissed me off most about iPhones after the “flocking” started was, put simply, uneducated decisionmaking. I asked iPhone owners who I actually respected technically what the deal is with them months and months ago, and this is what led to my disillusionment post back in July last year. Since that post, Android arrived and fulfilled pretty much everything I needed in a smartphone. But as predicted, now that everyone else has caught up to (and in several cases, far exceeded) where the iPhone was – at least in terms of the touchscreen display and app store/market concept – Apple has been forced to get off their arses and furiously gallop with the rest of the OS and device manufacturers. Single-tasking isn’t good enough. 320×480 displays were around back in 2002. Cameras on PDAs were around at approximately the same time.
I bought my wife an iPod Touch several months ago. I knew that most of the stuff it did would be stuff she liked, and most of the stuff it couldn’t do wasn’t stuff she would care about. In fact, she now has a DroidX and absolutely loves it – and the old iPod has been filled with toddler games. My kid now enjoys stuff like Angry Birds, Luxor etc when we need to keep him occupied. Fast forward a bit to when the iPhone 4G was released in June of this year. Finally, they’ve updated the resolution on the system – they forged to the front of the pack with a 960×640 display which impressed even me. Still, here in the US, AT&T is classified as one of the worst carriers in the country, and having an exclusive deal with Apple for the iPhone has been a dealbreaker for many, even above the shortcomings of the device itself. Then, on Sept 1st, Steve Jobs announced that the improvements to the hardware and OS in the iPhone 4G would be brought to the iPod Touch product range. And that’s when I decided to buy one.
Make no mistake, I would never choose an iPhone in its current incarnation for a smartphone – I’m still extremely happy with my Droid – but the Touch is a different story. For a screen that still remained more or less the same physical size as the previous Touch, 960×640 is an astronomically high resolution. The single-tasking concept is still there, but with the faster processor this actually works in its favour. Now, with a phone that I run my life off of, I WANT background apps running at all times to give me reminders, tell me the weather, show me my battery usage etc. All that is mandatory. But with a “fiddle device” like the Touch, I prefer that other stuff not be running. Because I plan to just fiddle with it – play games and the like. I won’t be using it for reminders, I won’t be using it for any sort of office productivity – my Droid does all that far, far better. I don’t even think I care much for Apple’s push notification stuff, and I sure as hell will be jailbreaking it as soon as the exploit is available for IOS v4.1 (any day now, apparently) because at a very base level I resent something that I own being sectioned off from me doing whatever I like with it or to it. And yes, jailbreaking is explicitly exempted from the provisions of the DMCA. According to Wikipedia, anyway.
For those who have been under a rock for the last few months, here’s some brief specs on the iPod Touch 4G: 8/32/64Gb models available. Front-facing AND rear-facing camera – about time. Built-in microphone – about time. Slimmer – in fact, at 7mm thick, I would say it’s actually a little TOO slim – very prone to slipping and sliding around in your hand – I’d have appreciated a grippier back, but I’ll get a case for it soon. And that high-resolution display; they say that the pixels are so small that you can’t even see them anymore, and after a lot of squinting I’d have to agree. The visuals are sensational. Came bundled with headphones, but they all do these days. HD video recording – 720p – isn’t anywhere near as good as my Kodak ZI8 but see, that’s why I actually own a Kodak ZI8. The camera allows you to tap on the screen to focus in that particular area and gamma up or down as necessary – a nice touch, if you’ll pardon the pun. Photo quality is blah, but then one can’t really expect too much from a pinhole camera in a device thinner than a typical pocket notepad or ballpoint pen.
So now I want to talk about the lie that is Apple’s “multitasking”. With the new OS versions, you can double-press on the button at the front to bring up a pop-up dock of the most recently used applications. This allows you to switch to one app from another, without having to go back to the homescreen first. The net effect, my friends, still remains the same. Apple are doing this in a very similar way to Palm OS’s “multitasking” in that almost all apps will simply freeze their current state – usually “remembering” the screen you were on in that app – and then go away and not continue to run when you start a new app. This has a very few exceptions, such as Pandora being able to continue to play music in the background, but it’s not multitasking. In fact, all it does is clutter things up – imagine I use twenty apps, then double-press the home button. All I see are the last twenty apps I used. I can slide left and right to select any of them, but what’s the point? I could hop back to the homescreen and select another app just as quick, sometimes even quicker. I don’t care, because as mentioned the Touch is just something to futz with in my spare time. But I still maintain that nobody in their right mind should ever consider their primary PDA/phone to be a device to that is patently incapable of doing something while something else is running – triggering a backup, showing you a to-do reminder, etc. Android is still streets ahead in practicality. Apple just temporarily leapfrogged Android devices with the screen resolution. I promise, it’ll be a temporary lead – like all tech innovations these days.
Since Android has allowed developers to access such a vast amount of system internal workings, I think devs have started to get a sort of “unix” complex about programming. A HUGE percentage of apps now on Android concentrate on multitasking, background services and allowing you explicit control over the guts of the thing – battery usage on a per-app, per-time-period basis with graphs and pie charts and the like, the phenomenal Tasker program which allows automated control to an extent that blows my mind, and more widgets and readouts than you’ll ever need in your life. But when you go looking for games on Android, you get what? Connect 4, Solitaire, brick breaker and a couple of other things that a first year compsci student could program blindfolded AND drunk. Admittedly, there’s maybe ten or less actual quality games out at time of writing. But development is slow, and the very feature that makes Android so cool – MULTITASKING – works against the concept of something which has typically needed exclusive usage of all your device’s resources. Bonsai Blast on my Droid, for example, is jerky as hell. And yet there are hundreds of very high quality games on the Apple platforms – PLUS the OS by default gives you everything it has for the foreground app. You know, what Android really needs is a “system exclusive” mode that forces every single third-party background app to freeze while the foreground app runs so that you can get 100% juice on-demand. I hereby copyright that idea *8-) It’s obviously still early days with Android app development now, but I’ve started to get a little tired of waiting for the creative breadth of apps that Apple has to make their way across. Where’s Luxor? Where’s SIDPlayer? Now I don’t have to wait (shrug). And maybe I’d have had to wait a long time..
I’ll leave you with the funniest YouTube video I’ve seen in a long time (thanks Rob J!)
I’m really going to have to concentrate on making this post reasonably-sized. If I do this, the post will probably be only book-length. If I don’t, I’ll run out of hosting gigabytes before I’m even half done.
You may recall my previous post about cellphones and how disillusioned I have been about what’s on offer. If you didn’t read that post, go ahead and do so now as it’ll give you some background into where I was at mentally as I took the dive into Android. I already explained my technical pedigree in the previous post so you should assume that what you read next is not just fanboy drivel but legit observations made by someone with absolutely no predisposed loyalty to any particular brand. If I had any kind of soft spot for Palm, it’s gone now that I’ve seen the Centro. And my faithful Sony Clie is like a ragged teddy bear missing one button eye. Stuck with me through the years, but it’s time now to mature and move on (dabs at teardrop with kleenex).
I had planned to make this a “first weekend with the Droid” post, which began in my mind as a rebuttal to the post made on the appropriately-named blog by Matt Haughey, “A Whole Lotta Nothing”, where he writes completely biased pro-Apple crap about the Droid versus the iPhone. Of course, he’s entitled to his opinion; it’s just a shame that his opinion will wind up inflaming the passions of so many other people with iPhone Stockholm Syndrome. I also initially did not want this to be a shoot-out between the Apple and the Google OSes. But that’s what it has inevitably turned into. Unfortunately my weekend report now has to be a week in review because last week was real busy for me and didn’t afford me a chance to blog.
So, in no particular order, I herewith roll onward with my observations about my new Motorola Droid after one week of solid futzing (and when I mention iPhone below, it’s only because it’s faster to type than iPod Touch).
I was initially skeptical about the Google OS. Someone at work already had the T-Mobile G1
and was extolling the virtues of Google Android to me in the lunchroom one day. But I’d freshly come back from my cellphone disillusionment post and was in no mood to seriously consider anything written by “big brother” in the smartphone arena. How wrong I was. It only took me about fifteen minutes of playing around with a Droid at the local Verizon store before I knew I desperately wanted one and that it looked like it would allow me to check off possibly all
of my smartphone wishlist items.
Look and feel: This thing looks insane. I’m talking graphically; the resolution is an unbelievable 480×854; compared to the Blackberry Tour (480×340), the Palm Centro (320×320) and the iPhone (320×480). Externally, it’s kinda bland – just a piano-black rectangle without anything particularly sleek about it, but that suits me just fine. The screen resolution make the device’s GUI look so phenomenally crisp and detailed that I almost can’t stop looking at it, regardless of what’s actually being displayed. Then again I have been known to have shiny-ball A.D.D. syndrome, often staring at the graphical display of programs defragmenting my hard drives in slack-jawed, brainless delight, so take this observation bearing that in mind. *8-}
Operating system architecture: Perfect. As perfect as you could hope for. Firstly: multiple applications running at the same time – a no-contest win over the iPhone. Point #10 on Haughey’s blog post claims that the OS provides “way too much technical detail” and that he believes that Android’s capability of showing which application is using the most battery power is something that only an app developer would need. In reality, every single proper techie that I showed this feature to dropped their jaw in amazement. Being able to figure out what apps are battery hogs so you can make decisions as to which to can and which to keep based on usefulness versus resource drain? OMG. Count me in. And it looks like it’s Unix under the sheets – another plus.
Boosts the user experience tenfold, if not a hundredfold. In addition to simply having icons on the desktop, you are allowed to install various “widgets”. These are floating information windows, some 1×1 icon sized, others taking up larger amounts of screen real estate, which can update in realtime with widgets
that display everything from the current weather conditions in Zanzibar through to RSS feeds, your Outlook email and calendar, and much much more. There are some widgets that come by default with the Droid, others with various capabilities can be downloaded for free or a nominal sum from the Android Market. Each widget links to some sort of background service or process and therefore can be made braindead if you kill the wrong subsystem using a task manager – care has to be taken if you’re “going there” or you might wind up with widgets that are frozen and don’t update because you sliced their throats in your taskmgr app. But just the joy of being allowed to do this is pants-wetting stuff.
One of the things that I came to appreciate about the iPhone/iPod Touch was the much-touted App Store. This is an online interface for downloading of free or paid applications which enables instant installing and use. Android has the same thing. Each store has categories with "top paid” and “top free” apps in each category. The iPhone’s app store inches ahead in design while actually IN the store, as far as I’m concerned, but where it falls down is directly after you choose to install an app. At this point the app store quits out and you see your program icon appear greyed out, and a little bar inching across the screen as it downloads before it lights up and is available for use. At this point you are free to reenter the app store and select another app. Tedious if you want to install multiple apps – you’re far better off using the iTunes desktop application for this (IMO one of the clunkiest user interfaces of all time). With Android, you remain in the Market app while programs are downloading, and can download multiple apps and watch nice progress bars download in serial from the notification area (that can be dragged down from the top of the screen at any time). Something else that made me rapidly clap in glee is one single option in the system settings. You can either check or uncheck an option to “Allow install of non-Market applications”. Market apps are safe, but if you don’t want to ride your bike with a safety helmet, you’re allowed to make that choice and download rabid freaky non-sanctioned apps from anywhere. Like Truman
leaving his artificial reality through a door in the side of the world. Again, pants-wetting stuff. And WHAT I WANT.
App range and quality: The iPhone is streets ahead in the sheer volume of apps available at time of writing, but it’s still early days yet for Android. About 100k apps for iPhone, about 20k for Android. The difference is that Android apps can be designed to run in both the foreground and background, pushing and polling data if applicable on a schedule you choose. You can immediately assume that something you run (like an RSS feed reader) will simply drop into the background when you return to the desktop and run something else. My delight at using a real task manager app was and still is boundless. Various taskmgr programs out there can allow you to “endtask” one or multiple apps to reclaim system resources if needed, and have ignore lists (“don’t ever kill this particular app when you’re asked to end all apps”) and often widgets that you can install on the desktop for a single-click method of ending all background apps. One taskmgr I found even periodically polls the system for apps that aren’t “in use” but that are wasting system resources, and auto-kills them. I haven’t even found that sort of thing on Windows! Windows Mobile has a similar OS, but my experience with the HTC Titan (Verizon XV6800) running WinMo 6.1 was horrible. The apps were large and clunky and the OS appeared to have the rights to simply terminate apps without prejudice whenever you started to run out of resources, which was ALL. THE. TIME. With the Droid, I’ve comfortably run ten or more apps at a time (god knows how many background services that wound up being) and not even come close to running out of mem. I have a widget right now telling me I’m using 70Mb out of 261Mb resources. Despite it being early enough in my fiddling that I’m not exactly sure what that translates to (memory usage versus app space usage), that still reads pretty reassuring to me – especially considering how many apps I’ve already downloaded and am running in the background.
There appears to be an inherent limitation in Android’s available space for apps. Whereas you are allowed to use ALL of the iPhone’s system resources (8Gb, 32Gb or whatever) to store whatever you like – music, pictures OR apps – the Android is limited to built-in system memory for apps. You get a 16Gb SD card in the box with the Motorola Droid, which I thought was fantastic, but the reality is that only app DATA (you know, like downloaded podcasts, ebooks etc) can be stored on the SD card. The app itself has to exist in internal memory.
More information here
. This makes Android very similar to the Palm, but I’m betting that pretty soon Android developers will solve this problem the same way it was solved on Palm – launcher (replacement desktop) apps on the Palm allowed you to “install” apps on the external storage card, and when you click on those apps, the launcher plays a little trick and copies the app into internal memory first before running them. That might be slow and unwieldy on the Android system given the number of files that comprise apps (apps are written in Java, after all) but it might be a possibility. This really translates to a default ~256Mb of RAM for apps which IMO is a fundamental limitation – in the future, it may become a more serious issue to me than it is right now.
Customizability: God, it’s just amazing what you can do with Android. There are various desktop replacement systems, such as Open Home and Panda Home, which extend the default capabilities of the desktop environment with zero hacking required. Out of the box, the Droid has three virtual screens which can contain up to 16 icons, or widgets of varying size that fill up your 4×4 grid. There is a notification “drawer” at the top of the screen, similar to just about every other smartphone, which shows you the time, battery life and various notification icons, but you can slide this downward to show more detail. There is also an “app drawer” that you can slide UPward from the bottom of the screen, containing every single app that you have, arranged alphabetically. A ‘”longpress” on an icon allows you to drag it – either out of the app drawer and onto the virtual screen of your choice, or else from your screen to a trashcan icon at the bottom. This latter move doesn’t uninstall the app, it just removes the icon from the desktop – exactly the same effect as selecting an icon on the Windows desktop and pressing DEL. Your background can be changed at any time – there are built-in backdrops, or you can use a photo that you’ve loaded into the phone (or taken with the phone), or you can use the free Backgrounds app to allow you instant access to a crapload of internet-delivered backgrounds representing various categories. I’m not a bling-hound, but what I like doing is chopping and changing my operating environment to work better or smarter – so even the concept of being able to remove ALL customizations and have a solid black or blue desktop with plain white Arial icon text is just as appealing to me, as making the entire phone look like a rainbow threw up on it might be to someone else.
Processing power: Looks like it has loads of it. The Droid has the same CPU and GPU as the iPhone 3GS. Apparently the iPhone’s CPU is clocked at 600Mhz while the Droid’s is at 550Mhz. The OS slides and fades and other graphical delights are very similar to the iPhone’s – I noticed that they were a tiny bit jerkier at times, but that’s understandable when you consider the resolution difference – 320×480 versus 480×854. Higher resolution = more GPU power required. The implication here is that the GPU might be a little underpowered, but only for graphical motion bling. I didn’t buy this guy to play games, essentially, but then again I haven’t yet downloaded any high-motion games to try so far so maybe my fear is legit, maybe not. I’ll find out eventually. With what I’ve seen – scrolling through lists of contacts etc – it performs great, and PDFs look wonderful on it. If it can replace our iPod Touch with toddler games, so much the better! Giraffe’s Matching Zoo on Android would make my kid’s day.
User interface/keyboard: The screen is exactly the same capacitive touch sensing system as on the iPhone. I was skeptical about this (you can’t use it with a stylus or while wearing gloves, etc) until I saw just how easy and intuitive it was to use for my toddler to use the iPod Touch. Touching, flicking, wiping and pinching your fingers on the screen is a very natural user experience and I’m liking it a lot. Default apps on the Droid don’t seem to be as enhanced in a graphical sense as the iPhone – the Gallery picture viewer doesn’t let you flick pictures left and right – but I’m hoping third-party apps will give you these features.
Fantastic. The default browser is good, but I installed something called Dolphin which gives you more capabilities, including pinching to zoom in and out of webpages, along with double-tapping to “lock onto” and reformat a page paragraph so it fits neatly on your screen for reading. Beats the iPhone’s Safari hands down, but there still aren’t Flash capabilities available. Apparently Flash
will be available early next year for all mobile platforms. Bring it on, Adobe. We’re waiting.
Camera and camcorder:
5 megapixel camera, autofocus, twin-LED flash capability. Camcorder records at 720×480, 24fps. Other features in there, like macro mode, white balance etc. Pics look great – very detailed, although the white balance inside turned pics a little too yellowish for me. Nothing that Photoshop can’t fix, of course. 16Gb SD card to store it all on. At time of writing, the largest SD card you can get is 32Gb, but Toshiba have a 64Gb card in the works
Voice recognition: I’ve always thought this entire concept was a crock of bollocks, until I actually put it into practice. The Droid comes with a “Car Home” application which purports to allow you to speak into the device, then acts based on what you asked (like looking something up on Google etc). Last week I activated the voice recognition and said, in my Australian accent, “Navigate to Uncle Sam’s restaurant, 83rd Avenue, Peoria, Arizona”. Not only did the word-for-word text of what I said appear seconds later on the screen, but it then went into Google Maps mode, activated the built-in navigation system, located me on GPS, then plotted a course to the restaurant and began using it’s own synthesized voice to tell me which way to travel and turn. Jesus christ in a birchbark canoe. I was flabbergasted.
This is the stuff I’m really about – stuff that makes your computing life a little easier. Even though for me it’s mainly a novelty, I (like the rest of the world) am blown away by Shazam
. Imagine there’s some music playing and you want to know who sings it. You just activate this app and hold your phone up to the playing music. It samples the music for a few seconds, then compares it to its evidently incredibly extensive music database. A few more seconds and you have the name of the tune and artist on your screen. What the?! This ALSO dropped jaws of people that I showed the feature to. Other apps of note include App Organizer (an easier, more intuitive way of arranging/categorizing applications on your desktop), AndExplorer
(a file explorer that allows you to examine your internal as well as external storage), BeyondPod
, one of the best RSS/podcast aggregators I’ve ever used on any platform and Aldiko
, an ebook-reader that blows the iPhone’s Stanza out of the water. I haven’t even scratched the surface, I’m sure – there are thousands of other apps out there and I’ve been having quite some difficulty trying to juggle my home chores, professional responsibilities and other entertainment ventures (== XBOX360 and telly) with frantic website browsing trying to pinpoint the best Android apps in order to save installing and uninstalling seventeen thousand apps myself. Just not enough hours in the day! I wish I was retired. Like today. Like right now. Retired.
So I can play games and futz with this blasted thing all day long. Nnrgh! (stares at phone in trembling hand) I recently bought a copy of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” book and god
I hope it helps me in the new year.
USB mounting: Works great. Plug the Droid into your PC via USB, and you can then use the notification area to instantly mount your SD card as a removable device. Copy all the music and photos you want, disconnect and there they are – for ANY app to use. Impossible with the iPhone, in particular that latter bit.
GPS Navigation: Far as I know, this is the first Verizon phone where the GPS capabilities have been left intact. Verizon usually cripple built-in GPS with their phones, so that they can gouge you $15 extra per month for their crapburger VZ Navigator service. The GPS on the Droid is great – gets a location fix in seconds when outside and the Google Maps application looks extremely nice, especially when animating as you drive in navigation mode. It just made my Tom Tom GPS completely and utterly redundant. Craigslist, here it comes.
Google synchronization: Being a Google-created OS, it interfaces seamlessly with everything on Google – Mail, Calendar, etc. You can set up multiple accounts and sync all their data in the background in a fully-integrated way. Jack into Facebook, Google and your corporate mail system and you can aggregate ALL your contacts and have them available for phone calls and email across the entire device. Sensational in the extreme. But scary. Just what are you handing over to Google when you do this?
” is an Outlook synchronizer – email, contacts (including GAL), calendar and tasks – it’s not free, but what I’ve seen of it could convince me to buy it for work. “Astrid
” is a free task manager that even enables you to sync with http://www.rememberthemilk.com
– probably the most-loved online task management system around. Craploads of other stuff out there – and I hold out hope that Pocket Informant
will become available for Android in the near future. We live in Salesforce.com at work – they have a mobile interface for smartphones (not available for Android just yet) – but the Droid’s web browser is so good that it actually negates the need for a separate mobile app. You can browse SFDC on your Droid almost as well as on a desktop.
Rooting: I don’t know enough to go into too much detail about this one (I haven’t felt the need to do it yet, but I’m sure I will at some stage), but essentially it is possible to “root” the phone. In British and Australian slang this sounds a little off-colour, I know, but in technospeak it means that you can hack into the operating system and become “root user”, allowing you to delve into functionality and areas that regular users are locked out of. Tempting, but an apple (ha ha, pardon the pun) that I’ll possibly take a bite out of a little later on, when I run out of beginner challenges.
Sigh. I knew it! This post turned into a freakin book. I have to stop now – the wife’s probably already pissed at me for not helping her with the Christmas baking, but I had my own bun in the oven and finally it’s baked and cooling on the windowsill now. I feel much better. Android is the bee’s knees of smartphone OS’s. And since it’s an OS, it can be run on multiple phones from multiple providers – whereas the iPhone is only Apple. And, here we go – iPhone’s OS SUCKS by comparison. My ask.metafilter.com response to a question from a user asking whether they should get the Droid or the iPhone might be fun reading at this point. But as for this review, it’s officially over. I’m off to
download some more apps help the wife clean up the house. I hope this article served as a more realistic counterpoint to Haughey’s waste of time blog post. Seacrest out.
I’ll post a full “An Afternoon with the Motorola Droid” soon. Got one yesterday. Thoroughly impressed with it – finally there’s something out there that has rekindled my enthusiasm for smartphones.
Man. This post has been brewing upstairs for a while. Mainly the drive for me to sit down and write on this topic is my profound feeling of disappointment at the state of today’s PDA and cellphone technology, while a secondary reason is my slow but sure realisation that people newly exposed to what’s on offer from the cellphone providers consider the options to be dazzlingly cutting-edge and useful beyond their wildest dreams when they don’t have more than a rudimentary idea of what we had years ago and how minor the real, practical advances have been since then. To me it seems that for every step forward that is taken, at least half a step backwards occurs. We just can’t seem to get something fantastic built without an equal but opposite penalty, features we once delighted in but now have to give up or accept half-baked replacements for in order to take delivery of each breakthrough.
Australia has had cellphones for years. I got my first one in 1994. Within a couple of years they were saying that 1 in 4 people in the country had a cellphone. Access was very cheap and you couldn’t go anywhere without someone with a new cellphone cycling through the usual 20 Nokia built-in ringtones and showing off to their friends. From the single-beep ringers there was a neat no-penalty progression to polyphonic sounds and quite a while later we had MP3s. And clocks and calendars and journals and multiple-language interfaces.. In 1998 I bought what I still consider to be the greatest phone ever – dated by today’s standards but without peer in the day – the Nokia 6110. I could text on that phone faster than my Palm Centro (with built-in keyboard) today, faster than my XV6800 (with built-in keyboard), faster than anything else I’ve ever owned. The battery lasted for at least a week or more, with the screen ON – more than any other phone I’ve had before or since. It was loud and had brilliant sound quality for me and those listening to me. There was none of this clamshell rubbish that everyone is addicted to back then. I carried the 6110 on a belt-clip in a leather case. I could answer the phone and be talking within a second from the time my hand reached it. I dropped it on concrete more times than I care to remember. It lasted years, and it literally gave its life to save me injury – I turned at the bottom of my stairs and was going to walk upstairs but accidentally bumped the cellphone on the sharp corner of my bannister – busting the screen but saving me a bruise on my hip. I was VERY sad to lose it. I still have its rotting carcass in the Rubbermaid container I call my dead cellphone graveyard.
Palm Pilots made their appearance in the late 90’s and they were (justifiably so) a runaway success. The Palm V was so incredibly popular that every store carried dozens if not hundreds of accessories for them. Their operating system was then, and still is to this very day, the fastest and most ingenious system available for PDAs. Palm software is many times smaller than comparable packages for Windows Mobile or Apple iPhone, so much so that apps greater than 200k are considered to be “bloated”. Palm’s OS consists of the concept of “alarms” – which ties into a sort of timing thread which continually ticks away in the background using minimal resources. This timing thread allows Palm apps to simulate background operation even when they are not strictly “running”. An alarm clock program where an alarm is set at 7am creates a system alarm “event” at that time, asking the OS to “trigger it”. You could look at it as the alarm clock app asking to be woken up at 7am so that it can then wake YOU up. Other programs use this event hook in other ways – everything from a daily sync of RSS feeds to, I dunno, whatever your program needs your PDA to do, either on a schedule or else as a one-off action. Early Palms came with 8Mb of RAM. That’s right – not gig, MEG. Later Palms had 16Mb. That’s probably not enough to hold more than a couple of Apple apps, let alone Windows Mobile, but you can store dozens and dozens of multifunction apps on a Palm with 8Mb.
In late 2000 (I’m not sure of the exact date because it was a long time ago, but I know for a fact that I had this thing for several months when I was in Omaha in 2001 during 9/11) I got a Sony Clie NR70. The English version was brand new on the streets of Hong Kong when my workmate Brett picked me up one on a business trip and brought it back to Oz. New iPhone/iPod Touch users will probably be shocked to learn that it has a 320×480 display – exactly the same resolution as today’s iPhone. And it has a non-capacitive touch-screen too, like all Palms. 16Mb of RAM, enough to run maybe a hundred or more applications, plus support for Sony’s popular MemoryStick external storage. MemorySticks were nowhere near as large storage-wise or cheap price-wise as the later-released CompactFlash cards, but a 128Mb external expansion bolted onto an OS as efficient as Palm’s basically translates to an obscene amount of storage space. Thousands of users worldwide were upset to hear that in 2005 Sony were discontinuing the Clie range, since in plenty of peoples’ opinions they were the best Palm-based PDAs on the market. They also pioneered the clamshell design – something needed for this sort of device since you never needed to quickly flip it open to answer the phone and would often be carrying it in a briefcase or backpack requiring its screen to have some sort of protection.
You may have noticed that I used present-tense a lot in the previous paragraph. This is because I STILL OWN and use my Sony Clie NR70. Despite the device being over 8 years old the battery still holds a full charge, the device STILL lasts at least four hours with the screen and backlight on (all Palm Pilots also support no-backlight operation which means you can read the screens in daylight, in full colour, with a huge increase in operational duration), the screen still responds to touch perfectly fine, the keyboard works 100%, I still have my original stylus, it still works with my 128Mb memory stick (purchased a few months after I got the device), and I could count the number of times this thing has spontaneously crashed on the fingers of one hand – plus it’s crashed ZERO times in the last six years at least. Ready to gasp? Even minus the memory stick, the device can still hold more standard-sized apps than an Apple iPhone, you can operate it both with fingertip, stylus or built-in keyboard (fingertip operation is the only option on the iPhone), and it’s made of lightweight metal so when you clamshell it closed you can drop it and not shatter the screen to smithereens (unless you drop it from a height of greater than one storey onto concrete, I’d imagine). Now, I’ve owned four cellphones since arriving in the US – a Motorola V-200, an LG Chocolate, a Verizon XV6800 and I currently have a Verizon Palm Centro (I regressed to a Palm-based OS because it’s still the only way for a serious mobile technology enthusiast to cover all bases app-wise). But until earlier this year, my Sony Clie was my ebook reader of choice and still to this very day it is my daily alarm clock. The Clie has woken me up over the years in several countries and several time zones and is still the only thing I would ever use if I was on a business trip. PalmFiction (don’t worry about the Russian on the linked site, the software is incredibly efficient and configurable, probably more so because a Russkie developed it) is the world’s greatest ebook reader. And yes, it IS better than Stanza – trust me, my wife has an iPod Touch so I’m not just mouthing off here). WorldMate remains my favourite multifunction app and is what I’ve used as an alarm clock all these years. And you know, I only switched from the Clie to the Centro for ebook reading because they both are Palm devices and run the same program – the Clie STILL has a larger and nicer-looking screen!
Now, iPhone and iPod Touch users, strap yourselves in for some facts which may surprise you. Remember that the Clie is coming up on being a decade old, OK? It has the same resolution as your device. Later models have wifi and bluetooth. It has a built-in keyboard – yours doesn’t. You can use a Clie with gloves or a simple plastic stylus (or anything for that matter, a matchstick, a paperclip, whatever) – you can’t do this on an iPhone. You can skin your entire OS with a free app, everything from the buttons to the dragbars – without “illegally” jailbreaking your iPhone you cannot do this. You can inject “hacks” into the operating system which operate like TSRs in DOS – allowing extended functionality such as blanket changes to the fonts for ALL programs, the ability to do something like swipe the screen with your stylus in a particular way to run any program or perform any action from within any app – your iPhone can’t do that. You can overclock or underclock your Palm to save battery life or speed up app execution, either globally or on a per-app basis. As I mentioned before, you can turn off the backlight completely at which point you can then read an ebook for probably about 12 hours straight. You can use any app you like to completely replace the built-in calendar, clock, task, to-do, journal or whatever apps – and they will WORK in the BACKGROUND! The Clie NX70V was able to record video back in 2002. Until Apple’s recent OS 3 upgrade, you couldn’t even do THAT on your iPhone. Until the recent upgrade, you couldn’t even copy and paste simple text between applications. Does it shock you to know that the iPhone, without being “illegally” jailbroken, only allows background reminders to be triggered from the built-in Calendar or Mail app? That you need to be continually running a reminder program in the foreground in order for it to alert you of reminders because the minute you run any other app or go back to the Springboard you won’t get notifications anymore? Did you understand what “single-threaded” functionality means at any point in time during your research, before you purchased your device? Did you know about all the other historical facts I just brought to your attention before you committed? If you are in the US, did you know that AT&T have the iPhone exclusively and by buying one you’ve just signed up with one of the country’s crappier providers in terms of coverage? OMG you guys. Palm has email programs, browsers, miscellaneous apps up the wazoo – they had thousands of apps in the public’s hands years before the idea of the iPhone was even dreamt of.
What’s better about the iPhone? It’s slimmer, I’ll give it that. It has accelerated graphic display which allows its user interface to look prettier than other devices, when in motion (other PDAs look just as good static, or when playing movies, and I myself would rather just have an app close instantly rather than waste system resources and a quarter second of time zooming open or shut, or sliding left or right). Apps are coded for fingers so you don’t need a stylus (it also means that unless you’re of Asian or Indian descent and thus have small hands, you can’t really write more than a couple of words on the screen without scrolling and generally getting pissed off). And the iPhone one-ups the older Clies by having NVRAM. Yes, my old Clie still needs to be continually charged – if you ever let the battery run out completely, everything disappears and needs to be reloaded. But that’s ok because the MemoryStick is non-volatile and I have all 16Mb of my Clie’s content backed up onto it. Plus it’s only happened once in 8 years *8-) But back to what’s better about the iPhone.. umm.. not much more that I can think of right now. It’s user interface is simplistic – so simple a 2-year-old could use it. I know this because my 2-year-old uses my wife’s iPod Touch with that coloring book application which I think is awesome. In fact he now sits on my lap and tries to use his fingertip on my wife’s LCD desktop screen. That’s the honey that’s attracted everyone to the device, really. It’s so simple to use. By cutting down what the OS does and what you as a user are allowed to do (even though you never really knew how restricted you were until you read this article) it simplifies and standardizes the experience. How do you close an app? Just hit that button at the bottom of the screen (actually, you can do that on the Palms so we’re still equal on this point). You also have a centralized “app store” which means you always know where you can go to get applications, rather than running wildly about on the net hunting down programs written by myriads of authors across the globe – and who the heck knows what unknown things they might do to your beloved PDA. Apple makes you comfortable by “certifying” every app available for an iPhone. They remove angst and worry. You can let the Cupertino overlords rule everything you run and govern everything you do. At this point, please feel free to briefly pause reading the article so you can go out and buy Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta”. Then read it.
Back? Hopefully you got the point I was trying to make. Let’s continue. The purpose of this article isn’t to bash iPhone. It has its merits – there aren’t too many things out there with such a global appeal. Apple’s marketing folk have well and truly figured out what makes the average Joe’s mind tick. They care about regular consumers, not power techies. Regular consumers primarily want something that looks good. Performance takes second place in priorities. I had a heated argument with my wife years ago about buying a single CCD camcorder that was smaller, or one with 3 CCDs that was slightly larger and would have taken far better video. She won. And in some ways she was right – the larger a portable device, the less motivation you have to take it around with you (which is why the Amazon Kindle sucks so badly). The iPhone looks slicker than most other devices, although IMO the HTC Touch Diamond II is at least as good looking. The interface is simple to pick up, and Apple did pioneer the concept of “pinching” graphics to zoom in and out of webpages, photos etc. Your grandparents would learn to use it in a couple of seconds – that’s a massively good thing (if, unlike me, you feel that your grandparents deserve anything more than the most basic cellphone out there due to the likelihood that they’re far more likely to drop the iPhone). There are just too many “buts” – I now circle back to the point I made way back at the beginning of this article when I repeat that there have been feature penalties associated with almost all the innovations in the iPhone. Jailbreaking the system will show you the true lack of power that the device has – when you start asking it to both eat and drink at the same time, the device starts to slowly choke to death. The OS becomes slow and instable as hell. Quick topic switch to my Palm Centro. I thought it was fantastic at first, but within the first couple of weeks I saw that the new NVFS has introduced some instabilities – I’m still trying to work out what happened and in fact still IS happening but the OS crashes every so often – from a few days to a couple of weeks. The caching system is abysmal – the system has some sort of cache and when it fills up the OS just dies, so now I have to run programs which free up cache periodically (takes at least ten seconds to do this). The damn thing doesn’t have a paperclip-operated warm reset switch, so if the OS freezes you have to take the BATTERY out. Now I can’t even use my full-body plastic case for it! Rebooting takes FOREVER on it – it’s a tiny PDA device so why do I need to wait over thirty seconds for it to reboot? Why does the reboot process have to “notify” every single application that a reboot has taken place? I don’t know exactly where Palm broke their magnificent OS – somewhere between the upgrade to NVFS or maybe the process of becoming a cellphone OS instead of just a standalone PDA concept? Bitterly disappointed. But my Centro is smaller than an iPhone, has a 320×320 display, runs apps faster, and has a built-in keyboard. And you can replace the battery. I forgot that one from my list above – you can’t replace iPhone batteries yourself so you need to send devices in for service when the battery dies.
Switch to my XV6800: it was horrible. Windows Mobile is sluggish and requires far more system resources to operate each app. The XV6800 just doesn’t have enough resources so I very quickly started noticing the other dealbreaker aspect of the OS – it forcibly closes background applications at random without notifying the user whenever you start a new app that doesn’t have enough resources available to it. Are you kidding me? Text entry was also slow – I don’t know if it was just my unique device but even something as straightforward as entering phone digits while dialling had sometimes a several second delay between recognition of each keypress. Boot time was astronomical – over a full minute! The entire thing was bulky too, and ActiveSync worked maybe 75% of the time when I plugged in my device – other times I had to completely end the ActiveSync task and restart it before it would re-recognize that the device was plugged in. You would not believe how depressed I became when I fled back to a Palm-based OS after my bad experience with Windows Mobile, hoping to snuggle back up in its technological warmth, only to find out that it was not only crapified in the Centro, but Palm quit making the OS recently in favour of their new WebOS platform.
Jury’s still out on Palm’s new WebOS. I haven’t heard that it’s as spectacular as people first thought – still a little too small, not enough resources for a comfortable user experience. Google’s Android could be a player but at the time of writing it’s only available on the hideously clunky G1 from T-Mobile. HTC’s Windows Mobile devices have lacked punch, and even with videos I’ve seen of people demonstrating UI operation on the new WM devices, you can still see them touch or click twice or more before the OS recognizes the press or screen swipe. Look at most demo videos closely and you’ll see people showing you this real-world glitchery: tap, oops, tap.. tap again.. now it works. tap. works. slide finger.. didn’t work.. slide finger again, now it works. Know what I mean? That happens on the iPhone too. Happens to me all the time when trying to slide the progress meter in the video player. Sometimes the program just does not respond the first time to your finger press or tap. Either the OS is daydreaming or your finger isn’t producing enough capacitive electricity to register. Whatever. I don’t care – I just want it to WORK!!
I’m still waiting for the next big penalty-free breakthrough. It isn’t here yet. I will not sacrifice open-world development and a decent multiple-app environment (not to mention giving up Verizon with the US’s best cell coverage) to kneel before Apple’s governing of what I can and cannot have access to on my phone. I won’t sacrifice speed and system resources to run a clunkburger OS like Windows Mobile. Google Android isn’t really “out there” yet, the only US-based implementation is horrible. Palm’s WebOS is on a cellphone only available on Sprint at the moment. MAYBE the Palm Pre is what we’re all looking for, maybe not. My gut tells me it isn’t. I’ve actually given up hoping. We use the wife’s iPod Touch to entertain the toddler with movies and colouring, usually so we can get a couple of moments of peace at a restaurant. We both use our cellphones for work and email – both of them work to an acceptable level. But as a tech junkie I freaking hate what everyone is stuck with these days. iPhone users just don’t get it. Your iPhones could have been ten times better than they actually are. Apple cut corners with them – they’re corners I see but 95% of everyone else either don’t see or don’t care about. My Clie remains my alarm clock, I’ll still be using my Centro for work, MAYBE there’s a Blackberry around the corner that’ll do what I need (unlikely but we’ll see what the Tour is like – it’s release date on Verizon is today), but nothing covers all bases so far in any way that completely delights or excites me. And I keep asking: why? I also keep asking why so many of the so-called techies I know are getting iPhones. My theory is that they’re all moving into mental retirement. They just want something that works. They don’t care about what’s under the hood anymore. They’re all getting old mentally. They’re checking out. Pretty soon they’ll be middle aged and shortly after that they’ll be spending more time on their knees in their flowerbeds at 5am tending their daises instead of busting bytes on their computers. It’s just freaking tragic, but to each their own.
||I was in my local OfficeMax today and saw something that I thought was cool enough to come home and blog about. Many people I’ve helped set PCs up for have said that they’d like to back up their important stuff (duh), mostly their digital photos though. There are several things that us techs can do, such as setting them up with USB drives and scheduled backups with all manner of programs. Some bright spark at Memorex has come up with a super simple alternative. Basically, you can buy a pack of writable DVDs, but they all have a small program on them to start with. The program is a backup tool which automatically searches for all the photos on your computer and then allows you to save them to the very same DVD! You don’t need to install any additional software or really do anything except put one of these backup DVDs in your drive and allow your PC’s autorun system to kick in the program. If it runs out of space then it automatically prompts you for the next DVD. That’s a pretty damn cool idea if, purely by way of random example, your dad lives 7,507 miles away from you and only has dialup and is asking you to help him backup his digital pics. A bonus is that the included software also recognizes and backs up 50 types of video files as well. Gets my grandparent-friendly award of the week.