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

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Be nice, share - content curation on Android

In today's hyper-connected world, sharing information has become a major preoccupation of our working and non-working lives. Using services like Facebook, Twitter and Google+, we can follow the individuals and organisations that interest us in real time. By combining and commenting on the information and ideas that we gather in the course of our online and offline lives, and publishing a digest of this for our own circles of friends, we attract followers with similar interests who in turn link us to valuable new sources of information. Here, I show how I continue to consume and curate social content on the move with an Android phone.

Cuneiform writing. Photo credit: Nic McPhee
For most of human history, speech was the only means we had to share information with one another. The invention of writing multiplied the possibilities - a letter could cross space and time, a notice could be displayed in a public place for many to read, and any piece of text could be copied for wider distribution. Printing vastly reduced the cost of making copies, but access to this technology was limited to a tiny elite. Then came the photocopier, and not long after the personal computer, the office printer and email. Suddenly, ordinary people were able to share information and ideas with large numbers of correspondents anywhere in the world - instantly and at almost no cost.

If email gave us one-to-many sharing, the web gave us one-to-all sharing. Anyone with a website could now make digital content available to anyone with an internet connection. Today, ad-supported personal cloud computing and social media platforms put the power to publish into the hands of almost everyone, together with sophisticated tools to extend and refine our circles of distribution. (We learned the power of targeting selected or self-selected multipliers who could easily relay information to their own circles.) What's more, these extraordinary capabilities are all available using one hand-held device.

In this post I'll describe the way I use my Android phone to collect, store and publish content to Twitter and other social platforms. Wherever possible, I use cross-platform tools - apps and services that enable me to continue my social media life seamlessly between my desktop PCs and my Android phone.

Content collection
To read my RSS feeds, I use Google Reader on the desktop and NewsRob on my Android phone. NewsRob allows for off-line reading of my feeds, and syncs with Google Reader whenever the phone is connected to the internet, ensuring that the lists of unread items are always the same on the desktop and the phoneBoth tools allow me to skim through the titles and snippets of very large numbers of articles. I certainly don’t try to read everything, but I usually clear the backlog once or twice a day, treating immediately or clipping for later treatment everything that catches my eye, and marking the rest as read.

Look, no connection! Reading through my RSS feeds offline with NewsRob.

I also monitor my Twitter stream and lists several times a day and, less frequently, Google+, Reddit and Facebook. Most of the content that I curate comes from these sources, as well as from wider browsing prompted by the articles that I read. (I wrote about web browsing on Android in an earlier post.)

I recently abandoned Tweetdeck for Android in favour of twicca as my preferred mobile Twitter client. Twicca (free on Google Play) has a beautiful interface and a smaller internal memory footprint than Tweetdeck. It also makes extensive use of the Twitter API, enabling you to control all the essential parts of your Twitter account directly from an Android device.
Twicca is a fully-featured Twitter client with a lovely interface and a small footprint in memory.

Whatever I am browsing or reading – a whole article that I may want to share, or just one that contains facts or ideas that I might use later for a tweet or a Google+ post – I clip the page to Read It Later. Read It Later is a simple but powerful cross-platform web clipping manager with a free Android appAnything can be clipped to Read It Later using the Share menu, and can then be accessed at any time either on the phone itself or on the desktop. Whenever it has a data connection, the Android app downloads all clipped pages for offline reading, whether they were clipped on the phone or the desktop.

I use Read It Later to store web content of all kinds for later reading, online or offline.

Now I've squirreled away a horde of interesting items, I can think about how I am going to publish them.

Publish and be damned
I maintain active accounts on Google+, Facebook and Flickr, but I rarely post to these from my phone. All three platforms offer free Android apps, but these are all rather memory-intensive, and I haven't the space for them on my phone. Meanwhile, although their mobile web interfaces are adequate for consuming content, I find them unusable for creating new posts. So most of my content curation activity from the phone is directed at Twitter.

In the context of breaking news or a Twitter conversation, I want to tweet immediately, of course. Twicca offers automated insertion of @ contacts and recent hashtags, as well as link-shortening. Tweeting directly from the phone can sometimes be awkward  - if you realise that you need to check something before sending, for example. The twiccaDraft plug-in lets me save my tweet temporarily, do my fact-checking, and then retrieve and correct the tweet before sending.

Adding a new Twitter post to Buffer.
But most of my curated content goes out as scheduled tweets, using BufferWith Buffer's free Android app installed on my phone, Buffer is added to the Share menu (see later).

Buffer stores all the tweets that I send to it and releases them one at a time to Twitter or Facebook, in publication slots that I have defined. Using Buffer's web interface (not the Android app) you can define any publication schedule you like, including separate schedules for each day of the week, in order to maximise exposure to your followers. Whether on the desktop or the phone, you can go into your Buffer queue at any moment to revise or change the order of unsent tweets, or to edit them.

The Android Share menu
Passing web pages, images and other documents between apps using the share menu soon feels so natural to most Android users that it's easy to forget just how important a feature of the Android operating system it is.

Desktop computing includes no real equivalent of the Android share menu - and nor does the iPhone, as far as I know. On a PC, context menus offer limited options to copy, compress or send a selected file. And browser extensions provide tools for sharing the current web page to various online services (see screenshot).

Browser sharing tools: model for the Android share menu.

But Android's Share menu does something much more powerful than this. From within almost any app, it provides a way to share the selected piece of content (not just a file) not only to online platforms but to a contextually dependent list of services on the web and on the phone itself.

The Android Share menu in native and Andmade versions. A contextual list of web services and apps.

There are many ways to skin a cat. What I've described here is my current curation work flow. But I am always on the look out for improved tools and methods. So don't hesitate to share your own recommendations in the comments.

Next post: High time for a new Android phone

Friday, 9 March 2012

Scarce resources 2 - Battery

Look, I've got very little battery left, so please listen carefully. I need you to

There are few things more frustrating than finding that the powerful Android phone in your hand is suddenly quite useless because it has run out of battery. Batteries are improving, but they are struggling to keep up with the demands of bigger, brighter screens, faster processors, and function-rich apps.

My HTC Desire came with a 1400 mAh Li-Ion battery with a claimed life of 360 hours on standby. I suppose that if you didn't even receive a single call, and if you never turned on the screen, the battery might conceivably hold out for 15 days. But we don't buy smartphones to leave them on standby. We want to use them throughout the day, and not only to make and receive phonecalls, but to send email, read books, listen to music and lead our social media lives. I have learned how to make my battery last all day, and in this post I'll explain how.

You'll find many apps in the Android Market that claim to prolong the life of your phone's battery. But the only sure way to extend battery life is to use less of the functions that consume power. Among the battery-saving apps, the only one that appeals to me at all is Tasker ($/€ 4.49) which automates control of almost anything on your phone in response to signals such as time of day and location. However, I confess that I haven't even tried Tasker.

WiFi and data connections
As I explained in a previous post, I never use the data connection offered by my mobile supplier because I refuse to pay for their data plan. But web browsing and other data transfer is generally held to consume less battery on WiFi than it would on a mobile data connection. If you have a new phone and you don't have a data plan, immediately go from the homescreen menu to Settings > Wireless & networks and make sure that Mobile network is unchecked. (The screenshot below is from the Android 2.2 Froyo settings menu.) If you leave it on, your phone will use the network even if you don't have a data plan, and you'll get a very nasty shock when your next bill arrives.

Turn Mobile network off if you don't have a data plan.
What does eat through the battery is hunting for a WiFi connection, so if you are going to be out of range of a known WiFi connection for any length of time remember to turn WiFi off. I use Free Power Widget (free) to toggle WiFi off and on. In the screenshot below, WiFi is on. I have also installed a very useful little utility app, Wifi Status (free), which flashes up a reminder in the notification bar if WiFi is turned on and the phone is unable to make a WiFi connection.

I use Free Power Widget (top) to toggle WiFi, ringer, screen orientation and screen brightness.

Your phone's display is an obvious draw on power, and one that can be easily controlled. I set the screen timeout to 2 minutes (in Menu > Settings > Display). I've found this to be the shortest delay that does not quickly become irritating. Some apps, such as my e-book reader, FBReader, for example, allow you to override the timeout while you are using the app.

Screen brightness can be also controlled from the Display settings, and it is possible to turn on automatic adjustment. This increases screen brightness in bright ambient light, and reduces it again in shade or darkness to conserve battery. But I find that the automatic adjustment sets the brightness higher than I need, and I use Free Power Widget to toggle between low brightness, high brightness, and automatic. In the screenshot above, it is on automatic, but I generally leave it set to low. If I find myself squinting to see the screen I know where to tap to change the setting. Some apps, like FBReader and the NewsRob RSS reader, have a Night reading mode, which consumes even less power and reduces the risk of irritating your partner when you read in the middle of the night.

GPS and Bluetooth
Keep GPS and Bluetooth turned off at all times, unless you really need them. Apps that require GPS, like Google Maps and My Tracks, turn the GPS on automatically when you run them.

If you follow the advice above, you should normally be able to get through the day on one full charge, provided you don't spend hours watching videos or speaking on the phone. But performance will obviously vary with usage and between devices, and battery life is always a key consideration when choosing a new phone.

A final word of advice - don't forget to put your phone on charge overnight.

Next post: Be nice, share.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Web browsing on Android

How fast did this page load? Did you notice a delay? Slow page loading is just one of the frustrating aspects of the mobile web experience. Mobile browsing is improving - but slowly, and not for everyone...

The most significant factors determining how fast a page loads when you tap on a link on your Android phone are the site's design, the bandwidth of your current internet connection, the processing power of your phone, and the efficiency of your browser app. A basic understanding of these four issues is helpful if you want to optimise your use of the mobile web.

Mobile site design
Mobile website design is still in its infancy. Even when site owners take the trouble to build special mobile versions, their interfaces are often awkward. In other cases, in an effort to 'simplify' a site for mobile use, the content or functionality that you want has been removed from the mobile version altogether. And many sites have still not got round to adapting themselves for mobile users at all. Despite all of this, mobile browsing is expected to overtake desktop browsing early in 2014. Site owners, take note.

Practically, what difference can this make to your browsing experience? If nothing at all has been done to adapt a website for mobile, it will probably load slowly on your phone. And when it does load it will look very, very small, as the browser attempts to display the full width of a site made for a desktop monitor on your phone's tiny screen (below, left). Complex, multi-column designs make it especially difficult to read a site's content. You can double-tap or pinch to zoom in until the text is large enough to read. But then you may need to scroll left and right to read a block of text (below right). Site navigation can also be difficult. Buttons are often too small for touch control, and nested multi-level menus often don't display correctly.

A website that makes no concession to mobile browsing. Kiss goodbye to extra donations, University of Kent.

And if you want to fill in a complex online form - like the one the University of Kent uses to collect spontaneous donations from the public, for example - then forget it. If you're using a mobile, they obviously don't want your money.

At the other extreme are sites with mobile websites that are completely separate from their main sites. I use the Flickr photo-sharing service and, as you can see below, the mobile site has an entirely different look and feel from the main desktop site, with chunky, finger-sized controls and a single scrollable column of images.

My Flickr photostream - desktop version...
...and, on the left, the mobile version. On the right, the desktop version as it it displays in the Android browser.

The problem with Flickr's mobile website, like many made-for-mobile sites, is that the designers think it's necessary to simplify things (as well as reducing the size of photos and videos, to make loading faster). If the mobile version of Flickr has a way to organise my photos in sets and collections as I can on the desktop, I haven't found it yet.

Most sites that have built a mobile version will detect that you are not using a desktop, and deliver you the mobile site automatically. In the screenshot on the left above, you'll see in the browser's address bar that the URL of the mobile site begins This is now a widely used convention for mobile websites. Some sites go further and try to determine your mobile device's operating system, screen size, and browser, and deliver a version specifically optimised for these. Most mobile sites offer a way to override this optimisation and load the main, desktop site. You can often find a link to 'Main website' or 'Desktop version' at the bottom of each page. The screenshot on the right above shows Flickr's main site loaded in my phone's browser. Of course, it's slow, and navigation is awkward (the links are tiny), but at least it's all there.

The browser I use, Dolphin Browser HD - about which I'll say more later - allows you to change the User Agent setting from Android (the default) to Desktop. This fools the sites you visit into delivering their main websites by telling them that you are using a desktop computer. However, as I said at the beginning, mobile browsing is improving. When I started to use an Android phone in early 2010, I found most mobile sites impossibly dumbed-down, and generally set the User Agent to Desktop. Today, many more sites have mobile versions, and the quality of these has greatly improved. For speed and ease of use, I now leave the User Agent set to the default, and load main sites only when I need to.

One of the early myths about mobile web design was that it should cater, above all, for users on expensive, low-bandwidth connections. Mobile users, it was believed, would never be interested in browsing your content, let alone reading more than short snippets of text. They wanted to get in, grab what they needed, and get out as quick as possible.

There probably are still mobile users like this. But my guess is that the vast majority are more like me. I don't have a mobile data plan and I never turn on a mobile data connection. In part, that's because it's so expensive here in Belgium, where I live. But it's also because I don't really need it. I have 10 Mbps WiFi at home, and 100 Mbps WiFi at work, and there is free WiFi in many bars and restaurants here. If you have a decent ADSL internet connection with a WiFi router in your home, then your WiFi connection there is essentially free, since you are paying for it anyway. So for you, like me, data charges are not an issue. We are happy to browse a site's content at our leisure. And we do read long articles (like this one) on our phones. At least, I do.

As far as I can tell, a decent router on a 10 Mbps internet connection is adequate for normal browsing. Some sites - especially those that are not mobile-optimised - are slow to load. But others load almost immediately. And I haven't noticed any particular improvement in performance when I'm connected to the much faster internet at the office. My guess is that the remaining bottlenecks are elsewhere.

Processing power
What can I tell you? Buy a new phone.

Mobile browsers
Short of spending a large sum of money for a new phone, the best thing you can do to improve your mobile browsing experience is almost certainly to install a decent browser.

The standard Android browser, based on the Open Source WebKit, is actually pretty good. The problem is that, because it is built into the operating system, it is only improved as part of updates to Android itself. Which in my case means never. HTC made a big effort to develop an upgrade to Gingerbread for the Desire, but failed. If I want a newer version of the stock browser, I'll have to get a new phone.

In fact, I have used Dolphin Browser HD since it first appeared in May 2010, soon after I bought my phone. Very full-featured at the time - with pinch to zoom, tabbed browsing, full-screen mode, bookmarks, and a host of add-ons offering specialised functions - this free app has continued to evolve with very regular updates via the Android Market. It now offers an extremely slick, reliable and fast browsing experience.

Some of Dolphin HD's functionality: left, tabbed browsing and the add-on toolbar; right, the New tab speed-dial page

Personally, I don't use either gesture or voice control (introduced in the most recent update), but some will no doubt like them. What is amazing, given the memory limitations of my phone, is that all of Dolphin's rich functionality is packed into an app with a memory footprint of less than 2.5 MB (after moving it to the SD card). HTML5 data cannot currently be cached to the SD card, nor is there a setting to clear the cache on exit from Dolphin, so if like me you are seriously short of memory you'll need to clear the HTML5 cache (from Menu > More > Settings > Data storage settings) regularly. But the app itself is not a memory hog.

One drawback of Dolphin is that there is no simple way to sync bookmarks and open tabs with your desktop browser. Continuous browsing, seamless across different devices, remains an unattainable dream, for the moment at least. I did briefly try the Android version of Firefox, which does offer cross-platform synchronisation. But at the time the app required a huge amount of internal memory, and I found it slow and buggy, with fairly frequent crashes. Now, I am waiting to try Chrome Beta for Android, in order to sync with Chrome on my desktop computers. Unfortunately, it's only available for Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and later. In any case, it will have to be very good indeed to make me give up Dolphin.

Next post: Scarce resources 2 - Battery

Friday, 27 January 2012

Text entry

I don't know about you, but for me an Android smartphone is first and foremost a productivity tool. That means I have to be able to write on it - comfortably, accurately and fast. Amazingly, it turns out that I can write almost as quickly on the phone as on a PC. I no longer need a laptop.

When I bought my HTC Desire two years ago, I never thought I would be able to use it for serious writing. Mostly, what I had in mind was content consumption - reading blogs and listening to podcasts. I would write SMS messages, of course. Perhaps the occasional tweet and a brief email message from time to time, but nothing more than that.

My initial experience confirmed this. I found it even harder to type on the standard Android keyboard than I had done on the physical keys of my Nokia feature phone. Landscape orientation made the keyboard bigger, but it was awkward to hold the phone that way, and I still seemed to hit the wrong keys too often. The standard keyboard's auto-correction was fairly good, but not good enough.

The standard Android 2.2 (Froyo) keyboard in landscape orientation. Big, but awkward.
Then I heard Gina Trapani talking about Swype on the podcast This Week in Google. She said that it had doubled her text entry speed. Even watching a video on the Swype website didn't fully convey how natural the Swype keyboard feels in use. But they were offering free registration to the beta programme, and as I've already admitted I'm the penny-pinching type. So I went ahead and installed Swype on my Android phone.

Using the standard Android keyboard (left) and Swype to compose an SMS message to my friend William.
It would be too much to say that I have never looked back. A non-standard and frequently malfunctioning installation process and a number of 'one step forward, two steps back' updates have severely tried my patience with Swype during the past two years. And it still takes up at least 12MB of internal memory, and cannot be moved to the SD card. But overall, the app that I first tried in early 2010 is now even better. What's more, its performance actually improves with use, as it learns from experience how to interpret your gestures and predict your words correctly according to context. As I said above, using Swype I can now write nearly as fast on my phone as I can type on my PC's physical keyboard. That's worth a big chunk of memory and quite a lot of 'early adopter' grief.

Swype offers two secondary keyboards for lesser-used characters, one of which is shown in the left-hand screenshot below. Secondary and accented characters can also be entered or selected by long-pressing or press-holding keys on the main keyboard. In addition, there is a numeric keyboard and an Edit menu (below right). Simple edit functions (Cut, Copy, Paste, Select all) can be performed directly from the main keyboard using simple gestures.

One of Swype's secondary keyboards (left). On the right, the Edit mode.
There's more! Starting from a core package of US English and Spanish, Swype offers a wide selection of downloadable language modules. I have installed UK English and French, and can cycle between these by tapping the language key (circled in red in the screenshot above).

Swype was recently bought by Nuance Communications, whose Dragon Dictation speech recognition software is now built into the app, providing voice-to-text as an alternative method for text input. Voice input is initiated using a special key, circled in green in the screenshot above. I am not sure that I will ever make regular use of this feature, but I have tested it and can report that for me it works significantly better than the standard Google Voice Actions input software that comes as a standard part of Android 2.2. (I have not installed the updated Google Search, which includes an improved version of Voice Actions.) Like Google Voice Actions, Dragon Dictation uses a dedicated central server and therefore requires an open internet connection - no connection, no voice recognition. I have not been able to find any help for Dragon Dictation on the Swype website or forum, but I have tracked down a User Guide for Dragon Naturally Speaking 11 on Nuance's site. This does not seem to be adapted for the version of Dragon in Swype, but gives a good indication of how voice input is supposed to work. (I have asked Swype customer service for documentation, and will pass this on when I hear from them.) In the meantime, I've found that 'Comma', 'Full stop', 'Dash', and 'New line' are correctly interpreted as punctuation and formatting commands.

Of course, Swype is not the only alternative Android keyboard app. I have also heard good things about SwiftKey (€2.99) and SlideIT (€4.50), but have not tried either of them. I'd love to hear how you get text into your phone. What have you tried? What have you hated? And what have you stuck with?

Meanwhile, Swype is still in beta, and you can still register as a beta user for free. Sign up here!

Next post: Web browsing on Android

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Scarce resources 1 - Memory

There are three resources - internal memory, battery-life and cash - which, to varying extents, most smartphone users try to conserve. I am pretty stingy about all three.

When choosing and using mobile apps, there is almost always a trade-off between utility - the additional functionality, time-saving, or simple pleasure that I expect an app to bring me - and the holy trinity of memory, battery and hard-earned cash.

My HTC Desire is now nearly two years old. It's a great smartphone, but it has only 1GB of internal memory, divided more or less evenly between ROM (app storage) and RAM (current processes). That might sound like a lot of memory, but a significant slice of both ROM and RAM is taken up by the Android operating system itself, and by the various components of the HTC Sense overlay. Even when these are not using RAM memory they take up valuable ROM space, since they cannot be uninstalled. The amount of memory actually available for apps installed from the Android Market or elsewhere is therefore a real constraint. I don't monitor the phone's memory usage closely, but I do know that when the Available space in Internal phone storage falls below 20MB (below, left) then loading or switching between apps begins to slow down. Around the same time, I may start to receive 'Low on space' warnings in the notification bar.

Getting a bit low on available memory (left). If you really must, you can 'Force stop' an app (right), but it's better not to.

In fact, one of the Android operating system's great strengths is its efficient management of device memory. You'll find numerous 'task killer' apps in the Android Market which claim to improve speed and battery life by enabling you to close down apps when you are no longer using them. Don't be taken in. First, leaving Android itself to close apps when the memory they are using is needed by another process produces better results. Second, if you ever do need to shut down (or 'Force close') a rogue app, there's a perfectly good way to do this built right into the operating system. From the homescreen menu, choose Settings / Applications, then Manage applications, then choose the target application and tap on Force stop, as in the screenshot on the right, above. (These instructions are valid for Android 2.2, Froyo.) I have almost never had to do this. For anyone used to Windows computing, Android has a near-miraculous ability to recover gracefully from traumas.

So far, I have only talked about 'internal' storage space. The limited amount of this type of memory available on my HTC Desire makes me very careful about the apps I choose to install. Every app on the phone really has to justify the precious space it takes up. And if I am trying to decide between two apps offering similar functions, then I always tend to favour the one with the smaller installed size.

However, my phone also has plenty of 'external' storage space, with a 16GB microSD memory card fitted. This is where I store the music, photos and documents that I want to be accessible even when I don't have an internet connection. Apps use the SD card to store their data. But it is also possible to move large chunks of most apps to the SD card. This reduces their footprint in internal memory, making space for additional apps. Later versions of Android allow you to move apps to the SD card by default when you install them. But if, like me, you are still on Android 2.2 (Froyo) it is well worth going through all your applications and moving those that allow it to the SD card, if have not already done so. From the homescreen menu, choose Settings / Applications, then Manage applications, then choose the target application and tap on Move to SD card, if available. (If the app does not allow it, the button will be greyed out.)

One word of warning before you starting moving apps to the SD card. Homescreen widgets cannot run from the SD card. For this reason, most apps with widgets do not enable the 'Move to SD card' option, but some do. If you move such an app to the SD card you'll almost certainly find that its widget no longer works. If this happens, move the app back to the phone. You will probably then need to reboot the device by powering it down and powering it up again to get the widget to work.

My final memory management tip is to clear out your apps' caches from time to time. Most apps store data of various kinds, and this should not normally be cleared, as it probably includes all your settings. However, many apps also create temporary caches which can grow quite large over time. (The different buttons for clearing data and clearing the cache can be clearly seen on the right-hand screenshot, above.) If you encounter memory shortages, go into Settings / Applications from the homescreen menu, select Manage applications, and press the menu button to sort your apps by size. Go through the ten largest apps one at a time and clear their caches. Browsers in particular rapidly build up large caches. My preferred mobile browser, Dolphin HD, offers options to clear these caches from within its own settings menu - clearing the HTML5 cache may reclaim one or two precious megabytes of space.

To summarise, I recommend three simple strategies for conserving memory on your Android smartphone:
  1. Be highly selective in your choice of apps. Avoid duplication and choose small apps where possible.
  2. Move as many apps as you can to the SD card.
  3. Periodically clear the caches of your most memory-intensive apps.

Next post: Text entry

Sunday, 22 January 2012

But can it make phonecalls?

I have not yet mentioned the most basic of all an Android smartphone's functions. But, yes, these pocket computers can also make and receive phone calls!

In fact, it's their ability to store, manage and retrieve data that makes them so useful as telephones. These days, I carry my entire address book inside my phone. Many smartphones, including my HTC Desire, also make it possible to launch calls by tapping on a phone number found on any web page in the phone's browser. So I not only carry my own address book in the phone, but the entire world's telephone directories!

The numbers I call most often, though, are those of existing contacts. Tapping the Phone button on the homescreen brings up the HTC Sense dialler with the most recently called numbers displayed at the top (below, left). Tap one of these, and the call is launched immediately. Alternatively, use the key pad either to enter the number itself or to filter your contact list by number and by name, using the letters assigned to the number keys. For example, I can find William Wilberforces' number by tapping 9455 (W-I-L-L), 9452 (W-I-L-B) or 1234 (because his phone number includes that sequence). HTC Sense also allows the user to define 'Favorites' which are dialled by long-pressing on one of the number keys. I long-press 1 for my voice mail, 2 for my home number, 3 for my wife's mobile, and so on.

The HTC Sense phone dialler and incoming call handling interfaces

Managing in-coming calls is also greatly facilitated by having all my contacts stored on the phone. When a call arrives, the phone recognises any stored number and displays the person's name and photo (above, right), enabling me to accept the call appropriately, or to decline it, as I wish.

HTC offers a range of standard ringtones, and it is straightforward to change these in Settings / Sound from the homecreen menu or to add new ringtones. A suitable piece of music can be clipped from any track  in the music player and assigned as the general ringtone or as a ringtone for a specific contact.

Clipping a piece of music to set as a ringtone
Personally, I don't assign individual ringtones, but I do use a free app called Group Ringtones to assign a special  ringtone for all the contacts in the Family or Friends groups in my contact list. Once again, this helps me to decide quickly whether - and how - to answer incoming calls.

Of course, there are times when I don't want to take any calls at all (at night or in the cinema, for instance) or when I want to be alerted to incoming calls without being disturbed by a ringtone (in business meetings). I use the Extended Controls widget (0.79) on my phone's homescreen to cycle quickly between Ring on, Ring off, and Vibrate.

I also use two free apps to help me manage the noises that my phone makes. I usually remember to turn off the ringer as I wait for a film to start. But it's a lot harder to remember to turn it back on again when the film is over. Whenever the ringer is turned off, Shush presents a dialogue (below, left) that allows me to specify an amount of time before it automatically turns the ringer back on. Sound Manager (on the right, below) makes it possible to turn the ringer (and other system sounds) up and down according to defined time-based rules. I use it to turn the ring volume right down at 10.00 every evening and back up again at 07.00 in the morning - or slightly later at the weekends.

Shush (left) and Sound Manager (right) help me to keep my phone quiet.

If you do miss a call, the phone displays a prominent notification in the notification bar. 'Pull down' the notification pane to see the time of the missed call and - and if the number is stored in your contacts - the name of the person who called. Simply tap the notification to return the call. A full call history can be reached either from the button at bottom right of the phone dialler, or from the standard HTC Sense People (Contacts) app. This shows the number (and, if known, the name), date and time for every call made, received or missed.

If you have a good WiFi connection, it is possible to make and receive calls at lower cost using internet telephony - sometimes referred to as Voice over IP (VoIP) or Voice over  Broadband (VoBB). I have tried both Nimbuzz and Skype and have made long, problem-free calls on both, but neither is consistently reliable. For the moment, the Skype app (below) is the only one I keep on my phone. Like the desktop version, it will make free calls to other Skype accounts, or low-cast calls to mobile or fixed lines. Integration with the Contact list enables you to retrieve numbers from there without having to re-enter them.

Skype's Android app

There's one more telephony app that is worth mentioning: Google Voice. Unfortunately, like Google Music Google Voice is still only officially available to US residents, despite rumours in September 2011 that it was being tested in Europe ahead of a planned European launch. What it promises is really next-generation telephony - one personal 'virtual' phone number, attached to the user for life, which s/he can configure to ring one or more physical devices depending on the caller, the time, and so on. It transcribes voice messages and send them as email messages, and has a number of other very useful-sounding features. If anyone has reliable news about the European release of Google Voice, please do let me know. And if I hear anything I'll post an update, of course.

HTC Sense's built-in Messages app does a very good job of handling SMS or text messages. The homescreen widget (on the left, below) displays the latest messages received, highlighting any that have not yet been read. Tapping on a particular message opens the app to display your correspondence with the person concerned, and the box to compose a reply (below right). Alternatively, you can simply create a new message. In this case, the app adds a To: field at the top of the screen, allowing you to enter a number or search in your Contacts list.

HTC Sense Messages widget (left) and text dialogue interface. Toby and I seem to text mostly about food.

Whether your are making a phonecall or sending an SMS, if your correspondent is not already in your Contacts list, be sure to add the number together with the person's full name. (My phone helpfully suggests this whenever I enter a new number.) As I explained in a previous post, if you store all these details in Google Contacts, they will be available not only on your current phone but also on any other internet-connected computer or mobile device, immediately and in the future.

Next post: Scarce resources 1 - Memory

Monday, 16 January 2012

Music to your ears

I'll start with a confession. I don't actually listen to much music on my Android phone. My taste in music stretches from small group jazz to classical (with a preference for chamber music), and I don't find it mixes well with a noisy daily bus ride to work. I generally prefer to listen to music at home, through real speakers turned up pretty loud. What I do listen to on my phone is podcasts.

In this post, I'll talk briefly about music apps. I'll explain how to set up enough podcasts on your phone to last you through the week's commuting, ironing and washing up. I'll end with a recommendation for a fantastic set of mobile earphones, and tell a great story about the fantastic customer service I received from their manufacturer, MEElectronics.

My HTC Desire phone came with two different music players pre-installed - HTC's own, which is part of the HTC Sense overlay on Android, and the default Android one. Because they were pre-installed, I cannot uninstall either of them in order to make space for a better music player, though better ones can certainly be found on the Android Market. Since memory (along with battery and cash) is one of the three scarce and precious resources in my Android life, I have never even tried an alternative player. If I did, top of my list would be Winamp, which is free and offers wireless syncing with the associated desktop app, also free.

As it is, I use the default Android music player, which seems quite adequate for my rather basic needs.

The default Android music player and its widget (right, at bottom of screen)

It offers simple shuffle and repeat play modes, views of all the music stored on the phone by artist, album, track and genre, and the ability to create and manage playlists. There is also a homescreen widget, which enables me to play and pause the current track, or jump to the next one, without launching the full app.

I mentioned above that Winamp for Android offers wireless syncing with the desktop application. The default Android music player does not offer this advantage and, as an exception to what I said in my earlier post on syncing, to get music onto the phone I do have to connect it to the computer. The media player I use on my PC, the excellent MediaMonkey, makes it extremely easy to select the tracks or albums I want to copy to the phone and then squirt them down the USB lead. But I'd love to be able to sync my music without a lead.

I know that a lot of people these days don't store music on their phones at all. Instead, they use services like Spotify and Google Music. Spotify is a 'freemium' service offering streaming access to a huge library of music of all kinds via a free desktop application. But to stream Spotify to an Android phone, or to download tracks for offline listening when not connected to the internet, you need to upgrade to the Premium service, currently priced at 9.99/month. (Bizarrely, that's 9.99/month whether you are paying in pounds, dollars or euros.) Google Music works rather differently. It's a free service that enables you - if you live in the United States - to upload your entire existing library of digital music to Google's servers and stream or download it from there, as well as finding and purchasing additional tracks. As I say, Google Music is not available outside the US at the moment. I have not tried either Spotify or Google Music myself.

Okay, on to podcasting. The first thing to say is that analog radio is either non-existent or poor on most mobile phones. My understanding is that no iPhone and very few Android phones are equipped with AM/FM tuners. (Nokia has bucked the trend by continuing to build radio receivers into their phones.) My HTC Desire does include an FM radio, but it is basic to say the least. The reception is just not good enough to tempt me to make any prolonged use of it.

Podacsts are not just a substitute for the radio - in many ways they are even better. By carefully selecting podcasts on subjects that interest you, hosted by people you like and trust, you can create your own personal radio station. And you never need to miss one of your favourite programmes again.

I started listening to podcasts using Google's own free Android app, Google Listen. This syncs with a list of podcast subscriptions maintained in the RSS/news feed reader, Google Reader. Google Listen works fine, but is a fairly limited product, and I recently invested the princely sum of €1.90 in the rather wonderful Pocket Casts.

The Pocket Casts podcast listening app and its widget (right, at bottom of the screen)

Pocket Casts not only does everything that Listen does, but better. It also offers a number of additional functions that I had never missed, but which now seem both obvious and indispensable.

Setting up an initial list of podcasts is simple. I synced directly with my Listen subscriptions in Google Reader. But Pocket Casts also offers an easy way to import a list of your chosen podcasts from most other podcast listening apps in the standard OPML format. The built-in tools for finding new podcasts are excellent, too. Once all of your favourite podcasts are registered, the app will start to download the latest episodes. This initial download may be fairly substantial, so it is best to launch it while the phone is charging. But after that, Pocket Casts downloads new episodes in the background, as soon as they are published. I have the app set up to check for new episodes at 05.00 each morning, download them (provided there is a WiFi connection) and add them to the bottom of the playlist. This all happens automatically, while I sleep.

The playback screen (above left) offers full functionality in an extremely well thought-out interface. At the bottom of the screen, just above the row of main menu icons, are the standard player controls: play/pause, jump to previous and jump to next. The bar at the top of the screen shows the name of the podcast and the title of the episode now playing, and shows the current position within the episode. You can slide the progress indicator left and right to jump backward or forward to a different part of the episode. However, Pocket Casts also offers a way to get to a precise spot in the episode, which is hard to do using the slider. Tapping the left-hand side of the podcast image steps back through the episode by a user-defined number of seconds, while tapping on the right-hand side steps forward. Neat.

Finally, the playback page has its own menu of four icons:

  • Stop offers the option to set a timer that turns off playback after a defined period - useful for insomniacs.
  • Share (the icon with two arrows) allows you to share the podcast, the episode, or a particular point within the episode, via email or Twitter, or by copying the link.
  • Playlist - The third icon gives access to the complete playlist.
  • Description - The right-most icon brings up the short episode description provided by the podcast publisher. I love the fact that Pocket Casts parses these descriptions to make any links they contain clickable. This is especially useful as a convenient way to consult the shownotes that many podcasts publish on their websites, containing playlists, transcripts, and links to the music, news articles, books, apps etc. discussed in the episode. 

The Pocket Casts widget allows you to play and pause from the homescreen. (Rather confusingly, the left and right buttons on the widget do not jump to the previous and next episodes, as the same buttons do in the app itself, but instead step backwards and forwards within the playing episode. This is more useful, but it's strange that the makers did not use different button symbols.) If your headphones are equipped with a microphone with an answer/hang-up switch, then this can be used for play/pause provided that Pocket Casts is already running, so that you don't even need to take your phone out of your pocket.

As promised, I'm going to end by recommending some fantastic headphones from MEElectronics. The model I use is the M9P, which does have a microphone and answer/hang-up switch built into the lead to the right ear-bud. The current price is $24.99 when ordering direct from the MEElectronics website.

I have never been able to wear in-ear headphones before. But after breaking two sets of much more expensive on-ear Sennheiser headphones in less than a year, I thought I would try again. Unlike the painfully hard ear-buds that I remembered, the M9P's speakers are housed in soft plastic cups that fit snugly and comfortably into the ear, and help to eliminate ambient noise. The MP9 comes in a neat pack that includes spare cups of different sizes for folks with different sized ear holes. I find the sound surprisingly good for such tiny things, rich and clear.

At the beginning of this post I promised a good story about MEElectronics' exceptional customer service. Here it is. Just two months after I bought my MP9 headphones they developed a fault which mow and then sent a false instruction to the phone to skip to the next podcast, sometimes repeatedly. Without much optimism, I wrote to MEElectronics, describing the problem. Just six hours later, I received a personal email reply, which I reproduce in full below. The message was friendly and well-written. Instead of doubting my word or putting the blame on the phone or the software as so many 'customer support' services routinely do, MEElectroics accepted my account and they proposed a novel solution which not only served to demonstrate that I truly believed the headphones were faulty, but also saved me the cost, hassle and delay of returning them.

Hi Simon,

Sorry to hear about the problem with your M9P-BK and thanks for contacting us. It sounds like there is a short near the remote unit. We’ll be happy to issue a replacement unit for you but first I have a bit of an unusual request - I’ll need you to sever the cable of your earphones and provide a photo showing that the earphones are unusable. The reason is such: due to the costs associated with international postage, we no longer ask that defective earphones be returned to us for replacement. Providing a photo of the earphones with the cable severed means you don’t have to pay for postage or wait for the earphones to make it all the way back to us. Once received, I will issue you a new M9P. Also, if you could confirm that your mailing address is still the same as on the invoice, that would be very appreciated.

Thanks and sorry about any inconvenience this may cause. Please let me know if you have any further questions or concerns.

Within five minutes of receiving MEElectronics' message, I had performed the operation and used my Android phone to photograph the evidence and email the image below.

MEElectronics headphones destroyed. Luckily, they were very quickly replaced.

Twenty minutes later, I received confirmation that the replacement headphones had been despatched. That was in June, and I am happy to report that the headphones have functioned perfectly throughout the intervening seven months of daily use. Isn't this what customer service should always be like?

Next post: But can it make phonecalls?

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Sync without trace

Syncing my most important data to my Android phone is as easy as breathing. The data is stored in free Google (and other) cloud services which my smartphone, my work computer and my home computer all access automatically. I don't even have to think about it. I could stumble into an internet cafĂ© in any country in the world and retrieve exactly the same data. All of it.

I shudder to recall the pain and distress that data synchronisation used to involve:
  • special Sync software on my PC, which often needed to be updated
  • the annoying ritual of connecting the phone to the PC (and the guilt when I didn't do it)
  • wondering which was correct - the number on my phone or the number on my PC
  • finding that I had booked conflicting appointments because my office diary was not on my phone
  • the agony of having to reenter all my contacts every time I changed phones
If you still have these headaches, or anything like them, I have good news for you. Very good news.
Abolition of slavery - William Wilberforce, the Google of his day
It's a fundamental principle of computer science that any data should be stored and maintained in a single location only. In the old days, that meant defining one computer as the 'master device'. The phone and the laptop were 'slaves'. Their versions of the data was updated from the master. But what happened if new data became available when the master was not present? Things got tricky.

Today, the single location is Google's servers. Whatever computer or smartphone I am using accesses the same data, stored 'in the cloud'. If I make a new diary appointment or change a friend's contact details using my phone, those changes are instantly available on my work computer and my home computer, too.

Of course, I'm too mean to pay the insane mobile data rates demanded by Belgacom, Belgium's equivalent of BT or AT&T, so my phone is only connected to the internet where I can get free WiFi. But with WiFi at home as well as most of my friends' houses and in many restaurants, this has never been a problem. As soon as the phone finds an open WiFi connection, data is synchronised automatically, in the background, in my pocket.
William's contact details on my computer and my phone. Not sure he'll call me, though.
This totally seamless syncing applies to all my most important stuff. My email and contacts are managed in Gmail. My diary and to-do list are handled by Google Calendar. Important documents are accessible, and editable, everywhere via Google Docs. Dropbox provides data storage in the cloud. Evernote offers specific note taking and management tools. All these services are completely free. And if I ever lose my phone, all I have to do is to log in from a new one and - Prest-O, Change-O! - like magic, all my data will be right there.

("But your apps", you may say. "If you lose your phone, your apps will be gone, too." Not so! Incredibly, even my Android apps exist in the cloud. Simply by logging into the Android Market, I can immediately download all my previously installed apps to the new phone.)

Of course, setting up seamless syncing has not been 100% plain sailing. The default Android calendar app is not  up to much, and Google doesn't produce its own to-do list (task management) app at all, so I've had to find the best third-party apps by trial and error. And then there's the problem of syncing my office Outlook calendar to my personal Google Calendar. I've found a way to do that, too.

I'll be helping you to smooth out these rough spots in future posts. But for now my main message is overwhelmingly positive: People of the world, embrace the cloud. You have nothing to lose but your USB leads.

Next post: Music to your ears

Sunday, 8 January 2012

No place like homescreen

An Android phone is a real hand-held computer. My old Nokia feature phone offered basic calendar, task list and contact management tools. By contrast, I use my HTC Desire to read newsfeeds and books, listen to music and podcasts, write and manage emails, navigate to new places, and a lot more. 

When I have a WiFi connection, I have access to the entire web via a mobile browser - the equivalent of Chrome, Firefox or (if you really must) Internet Explorer. But for most tasks I use applications, or 'apps'. Many of these also draw data from the web and store it on the phone's SD card, so that they can continue to work even when there is no connection. In this post I'll give you a quick tour of the homescreen from which I access these apps.

HTC's proprietary Sense user interface for Android offers a seven-panel homescreen. There's a central 'home homescreen', three panels to its left, and three more to its right. It is easy to arrange application icons and widgets in any way that pleases you. Swiping between panels with a finger or thumb feels entirely natural. To launch an app you tap its icon. Some widgets display continuously updated information such as current weather, track now playing, or latest tweets. Others give direct access to the key features of a specific app. Tapping on a widget usually opens the app itself.

I really only use five of the seven available homescreen panels, organising them to give me the quickest possible access to the information and applications I want most often.
The home homescreen panel
On the central or 'home' panel, I have widgets showing forthcoming appointments in my Google calendar (Touch Calendar), my task/to-do list (Astrid), and the weather (standard HTC). At the top of the page is a toolbar (Extended Controls) that allows me to turn on and off WiFi, ringtone and screen auto-orientation, to change screen brightness, and to turn on the LED torch. Finally, at the bottom-right of the screen are icons for the clock and the camera (both standard HTC).
The right-hand panels

The three panels to the right are where I organise my most often-used widgets and icons. On the first (on the left in the image above) you'll see at the top the green Evernote widget. Evernote is an indispensable cross-platform note-taking and document management tool, about which I'll probably say more later. At the bottom is the widget of my podcast app, Pocket Casts. Between the two widgets are the icons of eight essential apps. From left to right and top to bottom, these are:
The second screen on the right also has two widgets - those of the Twitter app, Tweetdeck, and the default Android music player, which I prefer to the standard HTC one. Down the side are the icons for the Android Market app, Dropbox (sign up for Dropbox here) and Google Docs.

The last screen on the right houses less-often used tools. Maybe I'll get to some of them later.
The left-hand panels

To the left of the central panel I store only the widgets of the standard HTC SMS app and a calculator (also HTC). I don't use the left-most panel at all.

There you have it - that's the top layer of my mobile computing environment. In the future, I'll go below the surface to show you how some of these tools work.

Next post: Sync without trace