Sunday, 7 April 2013

Serious reading on an Android smartphone

I am still routinely assured, both by colleagues and clients, that "no one reads long-form articles on a phone". My response is always the same: "I do." If I'm feeling frisky, I'll probably mention that I read full-length novels on my phone, too. I am currently reading Moby Dick. Do these people even have smartphones?

Isn't that what they're for?

I have been reading books and feature articles on a small screen since I got my first Android phone three years ago. It always seemed to me to be a killer application. Unlike a paperback, my phone can be slipped into a pocket, so it's always with me. And it doesn't contain just one book or one magazine but an entire library, continuously enriched with fresh material of my own choosing.

Remember when serious reading required a pencil, a highlighter and a separate notebook? The smartphone replaces all of these in a single device. Individual sentences, longer passages or complete articles can easily be bookmarked, copied to a notebook, emailed to a friend or posted on Twitter with a swipe of the finger and a couple of taps.

And here's the real clincher, I can read in the middle of the night without waking up my wife by turning on the light.

I can see clearly now

And improvements in both hardware and software are further reducing the barriers to small-screen reading. The screen of my HTC Desire was considered excellent in 2010 - 3.7 inches AMOLED, 480 x 800 (252 ppi pixel density).

But the Nexus 4's display is even better - 4.7 inches WXGA IPS, 1280 x 768 pixel resolution (320 ppi). Contrast is better, and characters are sharper. In fact, the 'print' seems to me easier to read than that of many books, let alone newspapers.

Do we really need so many browsers?

Quite a lot of my daily reading still takes place in the browser. I now use Chrome for Android (free) and it seems to do an excellent job of formatting most web pages for the Nexus screen. I leave the User Agent on the default Android setting, and am usually able to reach the right level of zoom even on non-responsive desktop sites without any difficulty.

Many modern news and social apps include their own built-in browsers. The Google+ app for Android (free) opens links in the default browser (and on the Nexus Chrome opens very snappily). But my Twitter client, Falcon Pro ($1.49), and my RSS reader, Feedly (free), both use their own built-in browsers, as does BaconReader for Reddit (freemium).

Long-form reading in the built-in browsers of Falcon Pro (left) and Feedly (right).

I suppose the developers of these apps prefer to keep users within their own environments, though most do at least offer the option to open a link in the phone's main browser. But it still seems strange to replicate the same complex functionality three or four times on a single device. Wouldn't it be more efficient to rely on a single browser?

Night and day

I quite often save long-form articles to Pocket (formerly Read It Later, free) in order to - well, read them later. Pocket doesn't use a built-in browser. Instead, it strips out all but the essential components of the web page at the moment you 'pocket' it, in order to optimise the reading experience on whatever device you eventually choose to consume it. That optimisation is far-reaching. Notice in the screenshot below how Pocket dims both the three Android soft buttons at the bottom of the screen and the notification bar at the top, in order to reduce distractions.

A fully optimised reading experience. Pocket (left) and FBReader (right).

FBReader (free), which I finally selected as my e-book reader after trying just about every reader available for Android, performs the same trick. Indeed, it goes further by suppressing the notification bar altogether. If you haven't yet got into e-books, give it a try. Most classic literature (at least in English and French) is available completely free, and even a hefty novel like Moby Dick typically weighs in at only 500kB, so you can afford to keep several masterpieces on your phone.

Feedly, Pocket, and FBReader all offer 'Night' reading options, with white text on a black background. But I find black on white easier on the eye, and simply dim the screen's backlight to the minimum setting when I am reading during the night.

And so to bed

Clients and colleagues will no doubt continue to insist that nobody in their right mind would ever read anything longer than an email message on something as small as a phone.

But I think they've got it the wrong way round. I almost never sit in front of a desktop PC to do any serious reading. I'd rather relax in my favourite armchair, or curl up in bed with a good smartphone.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

From Google Reader to Feedly

On 13 March, Google stunned journalists and bloggers around the world with the announcement that it would 'retire' Google Reader on 1 July. Like 3 million others, I quickly found my way to Feedly as a possible replacement.

A better RSS experience

I had been using Reader itself for more than five years to manage, read and share content from around 100 RSS feeds on the desktop. For at least three years, Reader had been synced to Newsrob on my Android phone. (I described my use of RSS feeds in a previous post.)

I chose to make the switch to Feedly principally because it promised continuity of service after Google Reader is switched off on 1 July. The team behind Feedly is replicating the Reader API, and will transfer users' subscriptions to their own 'Normandy' back-end before Reader is put in the ground. Seamlessly, it says here. In addition, I'm a big fan of cross-platform applications. Although NewsRob synced with Google Reader, Feedly's Android app not only syncs, it also employs the same structure, logic and design values as the desktop app. The resulting familiarity makes Feedly easier to use on both platforms.

Today, with Feedly on work and home PCs and on my Nexus 4, I am getting more value out of my RSS feeds than I have ever done!

The Android version of Feedly. Sharing and bookmarking functions are easy to use.

The desktop version. A Reader-like list view is now also available, but I prefer the more graphical timeline view.

The features I miss

For me, there are just four priorities for future development:
  1. an offline mode for the Android version, so that I can continue to browse my feeds when I'm out of range of a WiFi connection - NewsRob has this, and I miss it
  2. Search functionality that will let me track down older items in my own feeds - this was one of Reader's most powerful features
  3. a way to push a new feed directly to Feedly from the RSS Subscribe button of a web page - ideally, this would be implemented as part of the browser extension (I use the Chrome one), putting a one-click 'subscribe to this page in Feedly' button in the browser bar
  4. a smooth scrolling option on the Android version - at the moment, Feedly breaks the content across separate screen-sized 'pages', which I find distracting
[Update: Chrome users can now install this version of the RSS Subscription extension, which uses Feedly as the default RSS reader. If you already have the old Google extension installed, I suggest you uninstall that first.]

Is Feedly sustainable?

I also worry about sustainability. How do these people make money? The very few ads on the desktop version don't bother me, but I would hate to see any more.

Personally, I would be very happy to pay for Feedly, even if payment was voluntary. Why not $5.00 a year? This seems incredibly good value for the service, would cement the company's relationship with its users and keep it on its toes against the competition, and would help to fund continuing development.

Reader is dead. Long live Feedly!

Next post: Serious reading an an Android smartphone

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Android Jellybean's gesture keyboard

I am now the proud owner of a Nexus 4 smartphone. I'll save the upgrade story for another post and focus here on a comparison between Swype and the built-in gesture-based keyboard of Android 4.2 Jellybean.

No more upgrade blues

Before I got the Nexus 4, I had used Swype for all mobile text input for nearly three years. The most obvious difference - and perhaps the most important - has already been mentioned. Not only was Swype not built-in. It was a memory-hungry add-on which was not even available in the Google Play store, and I always had problems installing upgrades. Having my preferred keyboard as an integrated component of the mobile operating system is a huge step forward.

Word recognition is excellent

The Android 4.2 gesture-typing keyboard doesn't have Swype's extended gestures, such as swiping above the keyboard to capitalise a letter. (Instead, you have to tap the Caps key.) Nor does it have Swype's very useful secondary Select-Copy-Paste keyboard. But it is blazingly fast and seems to do a pretty good job of picking the right word from my approximate gestures.

The Android gesture keyboard - better than Swype in some respects

Handles mulitiple languages better than Swype

All in all, as an experienced Swype user I have found it fairly easy to make the switch to Android Jellybean's built-in gesture keyboard. Some functions - notably, switching between different languages - are handled significantly better than in Swype. There are one or two rough edges, and I expect the keyboard to improve in subsequent versions of the operating system, as Google responds to user feedback. But it is already extremely good. Most important of all, my gesture typing speed is already back up to my previous Swype level... or maybe a little bit faster.

Pro tips

I have not managed to find a complete guide to the Jellybean gesture keyboard's functions anywhere on the web, and I have the feeling that there is more to be discovered, but here is what I have worked out so far:
  • As in Swype, to write a double letter make a little squiggle gesture on the relevant key.
  • To engage Caps Lock, double-tap rapidly on the Caps key.
  • If the keyboard consistently fails to recognise a particular word, let your finger linger on the missed letter. For example, I found that the keyboard regularly interprets 'app' as 'asp'. To correct this, I just have to slow down the gesture as I pass over the letter 'p'.
  • For an extended selection of matching words, swipe up from the suggestions bar and then release the gesture on the correct match.
  • You can add new words to your personal dictionary. The first time you use a word that is not in the built-in dictionary, you'll have to tap out the letters one by one. The word will appear on the left of the suggestion bar. Tap to accept the word and then tap a second time to save it to the personal dictionary.
  • Words can also be added to (or deleted from) the personal dictionary directly. Go to Settings > Language & input > Personal dictionaries and tap the + sign top-right to add the new word. You can even add a shortcut, which is especially useful for words that include non-alphabetic characters such as email addresses and Twitter hashtags. It can also be used for commonly typed phrases such as "Thanks for your message". It seems strange that you cannot access your personal dictionary straight from keyboard setting (see below), but perhaps this will be added in a future upgrade.
  • In normal use, there's no need to enter spaces after each word. They are inserted automatically. But for full predictive text input, add a space and the keyboard will suggest the next word. I am not certain whether this is just a gimmick or whether it could actually be useful. That depends, I suppose, on the extent to which the system is able to learn the user's style from his actual word choices.
  • To correct a mistyped word earlier in your text, double-tap the word to select it and then choose Replace... This brings up a short list of alternative matches or allows you to delete the word altogether if the word you want is not included in the list. (To delete the selected word directly, just hit the Delete key.)
  • A tap-hold on some keys brings up a list of secondary characters - numbers, accented versions of the letter (but annoyingly not the corresponding capital letter). Tap-hold the 'new line' key to jump to the end of the previous or next paragraph.
  • Tap-hold the mic key to access keyboard settings. I regularly write in French as well as in English, and it was easy to add the second dictionary and keyboard layout from the impressive list of input languages. With more than one input language activated, a language selector key appears on the left of the space bar. Tapping this key cycles through the active languages. Multilingualism is something the Jellybean keyboard handles very much better than Swype.
  • By default, the Android gesture keyboard offers a 'Dynamic floating preview' of the suggested word over your gesture. I can see that this might be useful (or reassuring) to someone completely new to gesture-based text entry, but I found it distracting and keep it turned off.
Next post: From Google Reader to Feedly

Sunday, 23 September 2012

App review: EUssentials

App fever has hit Brussels. Suddenly, every department of the European Commission (the EU's  executive) wants a shiny new app with which to impress its political masters. Predictably, this exuberance is now spilling over to Brussels-based PR agencies. One, Cambre Associates, has produced EUssentials, a free iPhone and Android app that promises to put key information about the EU institutions at the fingertips of those wanting to influence or do business with them. Below, I review the new Android version of EUssentials.

On the face of it, EUssentials appears to address a genuine need. Information about the EU is scattered across the three separate websites of the Council, Parliament and Commission. There is no effective universal search, and only parts are adapted for mobile devices. The single public directory (which does have a mobile version) provides the phone number of every Commission official, but omits their email addresses. So does Cambre Associates' app fill this gap? It does provide offline access to basic information about some of the big fish in the Brussels pond, notably Commissioners and senior MEPs. But it could do it a lot better.

Memory hungry

The app does conform to some important Android standards. It demands a whopping 13.74 Mb of internal memory and does not offer the now standard facility to offload much of this to the SD card. It also takes over the full screen, disabling the Android notification bar.

More important for the target users, it is not clear whether data - much of which is of a time-sensitive nature - will be updated dynamically, or if this requires a new version of the app itself to be installed. Cambre has confirmed that they actively maintain the data presented in EUssentials, and that this is updated dynamically each time the app is launched.

Flags of inconvenience

EUssentials presents information under four main headings - Parliament, Presidencies, Commission and Institutions. These labels could be misleading to Brussels newbies (the Parliament and the Commission are institutions), but we'll let that pass.

In the Presidencies section you can find a list of the Member States that will hold the rotating Presidency of the EU up until the first semester of 2020 (Finland). It's reassuring to see that the Lithuanian Presidency (second half of 2013) already has a website, to which the app provides a link, but slightly alarming that the Greek Presidency that follows in 2014 does not. 

While browsing the future Presidencies, try to memorise each country's flag, because in the Commission section the only clue to each Commissioner's nationality is their national flag. There is no indication at all of their political allegiance. 

Be sure to brush up on your knowledge of the EU flags

This section provides the direct line and personal email address of each Commissioner and - perhaps more valuable - those of each member of their Cabinets. But access to the Commissioners' online presence is poorly and inconsistently implemented. In principle, each  profile includes icons for sending mail to the Commissioner, their Europa web page, Wikipedia entry, Twitter account, RSS news feed and personal blog. But the email icon is redundant, since the email address itself is an active mailto: link, while links to Facebook pages are missing completely. The button for Viviane Reding's RSS feed takes one to an obsolete web page (Europe's Information Society Thematic Portal: Error 404). Commissioner Georgieva's blog is delivered as an RSS feed rather than a web page.

Corridors of power

Perhaps the most useful section is Parliament, where we find not only a calendar of parliamentary sessions (to the end of 2013) but also lists of the MEPs that make up the Parliament's powerful committees. The email address of each committee member is given, as well as their Brussels and Strasbourg phone numbers. (Non-EU citizens, don't even ask.) But knowledge of national flags is once again essential if you want to have a chance of guessing what language each MEP speaks. And surely lobbyists would have appreciated having the scheduled meetings of individual committees added to the calendar?

Pressure points

The essentially geographical view of the EU's Institutions is interesting but eccentric. Buildings are listed in alphabetical order of their institutional acronym (ah, dear old BREY), with no indication whether they are occupied by Commission, Parliament, Council or mere Executive agency. The 'View in Google Maps' option is useful.  But the section as a whole might have been more useful if we could have started the search from a list of EU bodies and departments, rather than a list of buildings.

Personally, I will struggle on with my painstakingly assembled collection of bookmarks, RSS feeds and Twitter lists until that bright new dawn when the EU's Europa portal is refashioned as an information tool fit for a functioning federal democracy. But I am not a lobbyist. This app may thrill the hearts of nervous or obsessive stagiaires. I do wonder, though, whether it will really repay the effort that Cambre Associates has certainly put into building it.

Next post: Android Jellybean's gesture keyboard

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

High time for a new Android phone

. . . but not an HTC One S (at least not in Europe).

It's now over two years since I bought my HTC Desire. It hasn't broken or malfunctioned, and I still use it intensively every day. But as my 'essential' apps swell with every automatic update, the phone's limited internal memory is becoming a real constraint too often. (Google Maps now hogs 19.25Mb and still cannot be moved to the SD card!) Processes slow right down or simply stop, and software cannot be updated until I uninstall another app to free up space. And of course my unrooted phone is stuck on Android 2.2 (Froyo) while the operating system has progressed through Honeycomb and Gingerbread to the gorgeous-looking Jellybean.

So I figured the time had come to pass the perfectly serviceable Desire on to another member of the family and choose myself a new Android device.

I do feel some loyalty to HTC, and I like the solid build of their phones, so my first choice was the HTC One S. The black carbonised metal finish sounded cool, the 4.3-inch screen and slim profile were perfect for me, and I liked what I read about the fast 1.5GHz dual core Snapdragon S4 processor. Possible downsides were the pentile AMOLED display, which some reviewers found 'jaggy', and the lack of an SD Card slot to supplement the 16Gb of internal memory, which is shared between internal memory and data storage. But the pros outweighed the cons, and I shopped around for the best price on an unlocked phone.

I found a great price at (I live in Belgium). The €424.99 deal came from a third-party vendor, Expansys, and announced the processor as the 1.5GHz dual core Snapdragon S4 that I wanted. But I had read that HTC was having difficulty sourcing the S4, and that in some European markets the One S was being sold with the older 1.7GHz S3 processor, with inferior performance and battery life and some overheating problems. I had no way of checking if these rumours were true, but I decided that the S3 was not for me. So I emailed Pixmania, asking for confirmation that the model advertised really was fitted with the 1.5GHz S4 processor. Yes, I was assured, it was the 1.5GHz S4, as advertised. Okay then! I placed the order.

Two days later, the package arrived, but the model number on the outside of the phone's packaging worried me. I checked with HTC itself, and quickly got a polite reply: "The code Z560e on the box indicates that you have received the 1.7GHz version of the device. This is an enhanced version of the dual-core Snapdragon processor, running at 1.7GHz to provide a comparable user experience to the 1.5GHz S4 chip. There will be no discernible difference between the user experience supported by the two processors, with both delivering a premium experience." But that was not what I had ordered!

Pixmania referred me to Expansys, who did not respond to my message demanding that they refund the full price and cover the cost of returning the device. But with support from the European Consumer Centre Belgium I insisted, and the phone was finally picked up by a courier today. I trust my credit card will be recredited as soon as the phone arrives back at Expansys, and then I'll be looking around for another new Android phone once more.

Does anyone have any advice? The Samsung Galaxy S III looks great, but Samsung's phones always seem a bit flimsy to me. And of course, I'd really like Jellybean pre-installed.

Next post: App review: EUssentials