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