Saturday, April 09, 2011

Android Essential Apps

Having received a new Android phone last week, here are a few apps that I consider to be essential. Now this doesn't focus on those apps that actually shipped with the device. On my Samsung Captivate I would consider the following to be essential (and you can see that some are brain-dead choices: Phone, Browser, Contacts, Messaging, Gallery, Camera, Voice Search, Calendar, Maps, Memo, Navigate, Calculator, Market, Voice Recorder, and Email, in no particular order). 

The following are the things that I've downloaded and subsequently found my self using daily. I'll also list a few apps that I've found to be NON-essential, though I expected them to be essential.

Essential Apps
Gmail. You need a gmail account to use the phone anyway. Get the Gmail app and use it. I've previously described how to set up Gmail for use with your Lotus Notes client. This app allows you to easily use it on the Android device as well. Routing your mail through Gmail means that it doesn't matter where you are, or what device you're using, you see the same mail. You could do this through your browser, but the dedicated app is much better.

AWESync, This doesn't run on the Android device... it runs on the PC or notebook on which Lotus Notes is installed, and synchronizes your Lotus Notes Calendar, Contacts,  and Tasks, as well as a Notebook of your choice, with the Google equivalents. The Notebook gets synchronized with Google Docs. Since the Android phone already syncs the Calendar, Contacts and Tasks with your Google account, this has end result of synchronizing your phone with Lotus Notes without additional conduits.

File Expert. According to Geeksoft, this is "the best Android file managing and sharing app". They're right. An Android device is a computer, not a phone. It does, however, have hardware and software support for some phone functions. When using it as a computer (as you do with any app), you should have some control over the file system. Not only that, but you should be able to use some of the prodigious memory (in my case, 32GB SDRAM) as a flash drive in a pinch. So some form of file manager is needed. File Expert stands out because it doesn't limit your file management to the device. This is an FTP server. Why run one on your Android phone? Simple... it's the easiest way to manage files on the device, bar none. It's pretty cramped on that 4" display. With the FTP server active on the Android, I simply use an FTP client (in my case, FileZilla) on my laptop to wirelessly connect to the device and explore and manage the filesystem using the large, convenient laptop display. Or, I can turn on File Expert's web server and browse the filesystem with Firefox or any other browser. In return, I can browse the shared folders on my laptop from the phone. This is simply excellent.

KeePassDroid. KeyPass is one of my essential apps anywhere. It is an encrypted database that not only keeps all of my passwords safe, but automatically generates secure passwords for me. A major security no-no is to use the same password everywhere. KeePass can generate a new password for every account. It's also great for keeping other sensitive data that's just hard to remember: lock combinations, account numbers, etc.

Dropbox. Having KeePass on the desktop and on the Android device is great, but they need to be synchronized. Dropbox does that by maintaining the files on a remote server. Anything placed in the Dropbox folder on a synchronized device gets copied to the server and distributed to your other devices that are linked to the same Dropbox account. Here it is for your PC, as well.

Tricorder by Moonblink. OK, this sounds frivolous, but it's not. It's a little Swiss army knife disguised as a Trekkie toy. Tricorder utilizes the real-world sensors on your Android device to provide GPS coordinates, compass, level, and WiFi signal analyzer. That's several other applications you don't need to download. It also provides a magnetic flux metrics, an acoustic analyzer, and a solar activity report. These aren't so useful, but they sure are cool.

GasBuddy. If you drive, this is essential. GasBuddy will display the gas prices of the stations that are closest to you, allowing you to always select the cheapest product. Simple.

FuelLog. Once you've set up your car, enter the fuel price, amount purchased, and odometer reading each time you fill up the tank. Fuel log will track your car's fuel mileage.

Google Books. Why is an ebook reader "essential"? That's like asking why air is essential. Reading is for your mind what diet and exercise are for your body. This particular reader stands out because of the way it integrates with your other computers. Buying a book or selecting a free one, places it in your "My Books" collection on Google's servers. When you begin reading on the Android device, it's downloaded to the device... you don't have to remain connected to the network, so the reader is still useful even when you're in Flight Mode, with all the radios turned off. HOWEVER, if you are connected then your current progress in the book is saved as you read. Then, if you continue the book on another device --- say, your laptop -- then you simply continue from where you were on the previous device. There is a huge selection of books, and plenty of them are free. Some other stand-outs in this category of app are the Kindle reader, The Nook reader, Adobe Acrobat and CoolReader. I use them all, but then I'm a voracious reader.

OliveOfficePremium. For most office app needs, simply bookmark in your phone's browser. You can read most office docs, and can create spreadsheets and word processor docs. These are stored in your Google account, so they're accessible from any device without sync. However, OliveOffice Premium goes a step beyond. It not only can access and edit the files in your Google Docs account; it can also access the files in your DropBox. This feature promotes it from also-ran to essential.


YouTube. It's not just for talking cat videos... YouTube is now a respected entertainment and information source. However, I don't consider it essential because even with a 4-inch screen (pretty roomy by phone stanadards), the videos aren't terribly legible. In a pinch it will do, but it's better to use a laptop or netbook for viewing.

Doodler. It's nice to have a little drawing app to quickly jot down a visual idea. I used it quite a lot on my PalmOS device. However, it's not nearly so useful on and Android device, despite the larger screen, because someone, somewhere, decided that a stylus was not a good idea. For the record, that person was wrong. It's essential for artists, for handwriting recognition, and for signature capture. The lack of decent stylus support on the Android (and iPhone) is a serious deficiency.
Google Sky Map. Not essential, but wickedly cool, and really the best tool EVER if you're into stargazing. Just hold the phone up to a section of the sky and Sky Map will identify the stars there. It works by leveraging your GPS, compass, and accelerometers to determine what to display. If you're looking for something in particular, the Search feature displays an arrow to direct you where to turn. If you own a telescope, you'll like this a lot.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Samsung Captivate Android Phone

I've set aside my Nokia phone for a new Samsung Captivate Galaxy S phone from AT&T. Here's a quick overview of the device.
This image is from

General Impressions and Form Factor
I can't resist making some comparisons to the benchmark of smartphones, Apple's iPhone (though I'll keep them casual). On removal from the box I was struck by the quality of the feel. the case is dominated by the 4" glass screen (the display is slightly larger than that of an iPhone). Unlike the glass back of the iPhone 4, the Captivate has a sturdy plastic case that feels more like enameled metal than plastic. The removable back cover is metal with a carbon fiber finish, and looks great up close. Those who are frustrated with the iPhone's lack of a removable battery and SDRAM card will be pleased to hear that the Captivate has both. The SDRAM card is hidden under the back cover. It's easily removed and replaced without disturbing the battery, and yet is well protected by the cover.

There are only two ports on this phone, which makes a lot of sense, considering that one of the ports is a MicroUSB port and the other is for a standard 3.5 mm miniphono headset jack. Lovely; there's no excuse for proprietary ports these days. The MicroUSB port at the top of the device is protected, not by a flappy rubber plug, but by a sliding cover. Nice.  Rounding out the physical controls are the power button, on the upper right; the volume controls, on the left; and four dedicated touchpads just under the SAMSUNG logo. These are, in order: the Context Menu, Home, Back, and Search. These last four are used quite a lot, so it makes sense to put them on physical buttons in predictable locations, and it relieves developers from having to devote screen space to these functions. In addition to the physical port, you can get info into and out of the device on the SDRAM card (up to 32GB); through the WiFi radio (802.11b/g/n); through the Bluetooth 3.0 interface; and of course through the 3G radio. The device also has GPS, an accelerometer, and compass.

Next, I was struck with the performance. Not only is it fast (it's powered by a 1GHz Hummingbird processor), but the 4" AMOLED screen is BRIGHT and highly responsive to touch. The interface is what you should expect from Android 2.2; that is, it's amazing and intuitive. Pinching, swiping, zooming all work exactly as expected.

Migrating Contacts
My biggest frustration in moving devices didn't come from the Captivate. Nokia had updated the desktop software for my 6550 flip-phone, and removed the option to export contacts! Now, this is just petty, and rather than lock a person like me into a device, it encourages me to leave. I ran the backup utility, then used the Open Source NBUExplorer software to export the contacts to individual vCard files. From there I went to the command line, issued a "copy *.vcf names.vcf" to put all of the vCards into a single file. I then went to GMail, imported the names.vcf file and used GMail's contacts list to merge, delete, categorize, and generally clean up my phone contacts. There are software packages that can edit vCards, but they're unnecessary if you've got GMail.

This is where the word "amazing" applies. Going back to the Captivate, I prepared to import the list, only to find that I didn't have to. Since I use GMail, the entire contacts list is active and accessible to the phone. I didn't have to do the import at all. AND, contacts I create on the phone are immediately accessible to GMail and GTalk. Every bit of the frustration I felt towards Nokia was balanced out by the delight I felt toward the Android phone.

GPS Navigation
This weekend I put the phone through a workout. Since it's my twins' birthday weekend, we went for a long drive, and I took the opportunity to try out the GPS navigator. I pulled up the Maps app, clicked the context menu and "Directions", and was greeted with two fields; "My Location" and "End point". "My Location" was self-explanatory, so I clicked in "End point" to type in my destination. I noticed then that there was a microphone icon on the keyboard, so I tapped it and spoke my destination aloud. It correctly interpreted my voice, found the location, and displayed directions. Tapping "Navigate" put it in a mode comparable to a Garmin or other GPS navigator. There were a couple of iffy spots where I lost signal, but it was quickly regained; and I noted that you get much better results if you placed the handset in a spot where it is semi-upright and facing forward. Fortunately my car has such a spot, and everything was golden. The crowning touch was that, upon reaching my destination, the map was replaced by a picture of the building.

On the way home, I decided to try it again with some more general instructions. I said, "Baskin-Robbins, Spartanburg South Carolina", and tapped on one of the two locations I was presented with. VERY nice!

Of course, I've tried some games and apps, and they all work very well. It comes with far more apps than are pictured above, and yes, you CAN get your Angry Birds fix. The apps I'm mainly interested in are eBook readers, of which I recommend Google eBooks and Amazon Kindle for Android. I also found the YouVersion Bible app, the Guided Ways iQuran, and the Sparsh Bhagavad Gita to be very usable. Since most of my existing ebooks are in the .PDB format, I would LOVE to use eReader for Android, but at the moment, I can't. That's because "for your security", AT&T locks out any apps that aren't sourced in the Android Market. As a developer, I can't say I'm in love with that decision. I'll eventually use a work-around, but I don't want to.  So at the moment I encourage AT&T to make this lockout user-configurable and I also encourage to get their software out of perpetual beta and put it in the Android Market. And of course the Captivate does all the Googling and Facebooking and Twittering you can stand. Except for Gmail I'm turning it all off... I've seen people who are slaves to the beeping things on their hips, and it's not pretty.

Battery Life
Another thing I'm not thrilled with is the battery life. It is said that it has a 5 hour battery life when in use, and something like 300 hours on standby. Ugh. There are so many useful apps and features that you'll never see 300 hours. If you're addicted to YouTube or Angry Birds you'll never see 5 hours. Realistically, this phone will live on the charger whenever a power source is available. That's a major disappointment for someone who's used to a Palm device that could go for a week between charges. The good news is that the Captivate replaces my Palm device, my Nokia phone, and my camera. The bad news is that it sucks up as much power as those devices combined. Granted, it's doing more with the power, but gone is gone.There's a power analyzer, so I've learned that the bright AMOLED screen accounts for over 70% of the power use of the device. To maximize the battery life, turn off the screen when not in use. In practice, when I get in the car, it goes on the charger. When I get to my desk it goes on the charger. And dat's da name o' dat tune. 

As a camera, it's also very nice. The Captivate has one 5 megapixel camera (2560 x 1920 pixels) with auto-focus, smile detection, digital zoom, digital zoom, multi-shot, effects, self-timer, panorama, and ISO control. It can capture video at 720p HD (that's 1280 x 720 pixels). In other words, it's got a bunch of junk I'll rarely, if ever, use. The inclusion of self-timer begs a question... If you're going to take a self-shot with the timer, how do you expect to position the phone??? A camera has a screw socket to hold it in a tripod. Not so with this phone. So how to do it? Apparently I'm not the only one who's been pondering this question: here's a thread.

Now, this is the point of the review where I realize that I've completely neglected to review the phone as a phone.  So here it is... it's great. Pressing the Phone button gives you a keypad. Above it there's a Contacts button and a Favorites button, both of which give you access to your contacts. You browse contacts either by swiping the list up and down or by jumping to an index. Slide the contact to the right for a voice call, or slide it to the left for text messaging. And remember the voice recognition...? It works in text messaging, too, and is very good. I used the name of a pub, "Brewmeisters" in a text, and voice recognition got the spelling right, so I'll forgive it for splitting the name into two words.

The sound is simply stellar. The speakerphone is loud and clear, and the microphone is clear. The phone implements software noise cancellation. I'd say it works, as the people I called disbelieved it was a cell phone, much less a cell phone on speaker.

All in all, I'm very happy with it so far. The battery life is a downer, but as it's charged through a fairly standard microUSB port I'm not going to sweat it. The bells and whistles are worth it. In a roomful of iPhones you will not feel the slightest bit ashamed to whip this out.