Tag Archives: android

Samsung Galaxy Tab – Yes, It’s Awesome

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
After some time enjoying my Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, I have to say it is an awesome device. I absolutely love the direction Google is taking Android with Honeycomb and the various user interface changes. Having spent the last year or so using Android phones, the changes did take a little adjustment but once you understand the paradigm it works. It would be a lie if I said I was not enjoying the Tab a lot.

Now here’s the thing I am still hung up on – as awesome as the Tab is, and as much as I enjoy playing around with it, I fail to see where a tablet is a must have device. There is nothing that jumps out at me that says “THIS is why you need a tablet” and no real killer app that is a unique enough of an experience on the tablet to make me give up my laptop.

Honeycomb Home Screen

So far it has found a niche for me as a luxury, fun device. I use it to check email when lounging on the couch and surf the web occasionally. I read my Nook or Kindle books when my reader is not charged and play a few games on it as well. Pretty much anything I was already doing on my phone, but now on a bigger screen. That’s not to say it is bad – far from it. It’s just that everything I do on my tablet I can do on my phone, just without the awesome screen.

The difference for me between a tablet and a phone is that I personally consider a phone a must-have device. If you are out on the town what will you check to see show times or find directions? The phone. You sure ain’t going to carry around a 10-inch tablet without people thinking you are a bit odd.

Tablet Gmail Interface

I’d really like to use the Tab for more productive endeavors, but other than email and web I am still chained to the Macbook Pro for any serious work.

There are a couple of apps on the Tab though that do stand out above the rest in my opinion. – Gmail and TweetCaster HD (currently in beta). Both of these apps are optimized for the tablet screen and make excellent use of the the new user interface fragments introduced in the Android 3.0 software development kit.

Gmail on the Tab is an example of an excellent user experience. I’d even go as far to say it is a better Gmail experience than on the web or any other device. The layout, the flow of the interface, the simple design. It just works and is really well thought out.

TweetCaster HD Interface

TweetCaster HD has become my favorite Twitter app on the Tab. This of course is very subjective. You could ask five people with tablets which app is their favorite and you might get five different answers. But for me, TweetCaster HD is what I use on the Tab. The interface is very simple, it loads tweets quickly, and for any tweets that contain links it has a little preview box so you can get an idea if it is worth clicking through or not. A close second would be TweetComb which uses a different approach to the interface using multiple columns for tweets, mentions, lists etc. I used it for a bit but found I preferred TweetCaster HD.

Grave Defense HD

One area I find the Tab shines is games. Not sure I’d personally ever want to play a hardcore arcade game on it due to the controls being weird, but for puzzle and strategy games it is great.

Plants vs Zombies (via Amazon’s app store) and Angry Birds have both eaten a lot of time and battery.

The game I been enjoying the hell out of the last few days is Grave Defense HD. It is your typical tower defense style game, with awesome graphics and sound, and a fun story. Some of the levels are pretty damn tough even on a low difficulty setting so it is addictive.

So do people need a tablet? Not really. Should they get one? If they have the means, then sure why not. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is awesome and it really raises the bar for Android tablets in the big battle with Apple which up until now have been getting smacked around pretty bad by the iPad and iPad 2.

Consider this a big escalation of the tablet wars. When it comes to hardware, the newest Android tablets are on par or exceed Apple’s offerings. But Apple has a huge leg up with not just quantity of tablet-specific apps, but the quality. Some of their iPad apps are polished to desktop-quality and unfortunately most Android apps are not there yet. It’s all about the apps. Give it time though.

What a great time to be a consumer and have so many great choices!

Cheers,
–Jon

Android App Goodness: doubleTwist’s AirSync

doubeTwist Library
The main music library screen in doubleTwist

Over the last 7-8 months I have become a pretty hardcore Android fan. From the statistics I am most definitely not the only one. Not many platforms can claim 3,130% growth in a year!

I absolutely love the OS, the open nature of the platform, and the plethora of apps that have been coming out for it in recent months. As the platform has matured and gained market share (and along with it development resources and investment dollars) the quality and usefulness of applications has really improved as well.

AirSync Options Screen
AirSync Options Screen

One of my new favorite apps is doubleTwist. doubleTwist is a free media player for Android that I’d rank as one of the better ones. There is also a desktop version I use on my Mac that is basically an iTunes replacement that is currently free, though if you like it you can donate to the developers.

An optional but VERY cool addon app that they sell for Android called AirSync expands the functionality of doubleTwist to allow wireless syncing over wifi. It is currently on the Android market for $4.99 and is a real gem. I absolutely recommend it as it is really useful and at $4.99 it is hard to beat the value. Never hurts to support an excellent developer who does great work either :)

Installing the client on my Mac was painless and I have it set to use the same location as iTunes for the library. So if I buy a song on iTunes or on Amazon it is available to either application seamlessly.

Once I installed the doubleTwist player and AirSync on my HTC G2, the first thing it does is gives me a passcode. This passcode is entered into the doubleTwist application on my Mac to pair up them up so that they may sync over my WiFi network.

doubleTwist Passcode Pairing

So far, so good. All very easy. Next I created a simple test playlist, AirSync Test. For my test I selected only the AirSync Test playlist, and pressed sync and boom. Over a fast WiFi connection it synced my four test songs in a couple of seconds. The playlist and songs were now identical on both my Android phone and my Mac laptop.

You can also set this to be automatic as well so that anytime your computer is running doubleTwist and your phone connects to the same WiFi subnet they will check in with each other and will sync up automatically. Unless you have a lot of space on your device you will probably want to specify specific playlists for it to sync otherwise by default it will try to sync it ALL.

doubleTwist Playlist

One thing to note – while doubleTwist can play files encoded in both MP3 and Apple’s AAC, it won’t play the .m4p files from iTunes, only the .m4a files. The .m4p file extension is for songs still protected with Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management and can only be played within iTunes or Apple approved devices such as the iPod or iPhone. Thankfully, all music purchased on iTunes since March 2009 no longer has this restriction giving us the ability to play our music on other devices such as our Android phones.

doubleTwist Sync

I have been getting a lot of use out of this lately syncing tunes onto my phone for the car. Many new cars these days like my 2011 Honda Civic EXL come with a USB connector for use with media players.

At this point I simply connect the G2 to the cable on my phone, click the “turn on USB storage” button when prompted, then click the Aux button on the car’s stereo. Now I can play songs through the car’s stereo directly from my Android phone, navigate tracks, set volume etc via the steering wheel controls.

Playlist on Android

The only thing I have not quite figured out when using my Android phone with the car stereo is making track names show up on the display like they do when I use the iPod with the car. I am not sure if it is an issue with how files are set up on the phone’s USB storage or if it is something proprietary it happens to do with the iPod.

This is one of those projects I plan to research when I get some free time.

Cheers,
–Jon

My Tracks

Since having converted to the Cult of Android in May, I have been on the lookout for great, useful apps that enhance my experiences in some way. I am not one for installing any odd shit on my phone. Hell I think I still have less than 20 apps installed outside of the stock apps my phone came with.

One app that I had never heard of until a friend mentioned it is Google’s own My Tracks. In a word, this app is awesome.
My Tracks on Android - Map

I should also mention, My Tracks is also available for iPhone but I have not used it on that platform yet so my focus here is on the Android version.

In a nutshell, the app can record your movement, or “tracks” using GPS and then allows you to share the map on Google Maps for others to see (or not.)

When you record your track, you can set markers for landmarks or points of interest along the way. So for example, say you take a hike in the woods and find something really cool like an old abandoned car, you can tag that spot with a marker and give it a description and it will be easier for others to find.

This functionality has made it a useful app for geocaching and some folks are even using it to track locations of shipwrecks.

Google My Tracks on Android - Stats View

Another use for this application is for fitness – runners, walkers, bikers etc.

While not explicitly designed for runners like Nike+, using Google’s My Tracks app does not require any special sensors or special shoes since it relies on a GPS signal to plot it’s data. And it is hard to beat the price as My Tracks is free.

The screenshot to the left shows a stats view from a track I recorded walking around Plainsboro Preserve. It shows distance traveled, time, pace etc all interesting. It also shows elevation statistics such as high, low, gain etc. Unfortunately though from researching that aspect it seems that GPS accuracy is less than ideal.

I have been using the app quite a bit just walking/jogging to see how my pace is compared to a previous time. I can keep multiple track recordings on my Android phone to compare information and determine if I am making any improvement in my pace and with some basic math figure out an estimate of calories burned if I wanted to.

My Tracks Android App - Share Track Screen

A cool feature I mentioned briefly above is the ability to share the track you recorded. Say you went for an off-the-trail hike in the woods, found some nice sights and wanted your friends to be able to re-trace your path? Well you can have the app send the track via email to your friends, or share it to Google’s own Google Maps service and from there set the map to public or private. Sadly no option to save it to any third-party sites such as Facebook or Twitter, though I suppose there might be a reason for that.

Here is an uploaded track I recorded on Google Maps.

On the map you will notice I set some markers such as “Maggie’s Trail” – every time you set a marker on the mobile My Tracks app it also stores metadata on the cell phone signal quality, carrier, tower etc. Most likely not too interesting to you unless you are a pretty hardcore geek (which some of us are lol.)

Google Map created by My Tracks Android App

There are probably other uses I will figure out over time, but as it is now this is quite a useful and fun app.

Definitely worth a download from the Android Market .

–Jon

Foursquare for what?

Foursquare's home page
Foursquare's home page

I consider myself adventurous when it comes to new interactive services and usually always try out the next “new” thing if anything just to satisfy my curiosity. It is always an interesting journey to see what ideas take off and which ones flounder into obscurity.

My most recent experiment is the location-based social networking service Foursquare. While not bleeding-edge brand new (it launched sometime in Spring 2009) it has really gained some momentum lately and some friends of mine started using it so I figured what the hell and signed up to give it a spin.

An added bonus was when I discovered they had an Android app. As a recent convert to the world of Android this past May when I bought my HTC Droid Incredible I figured this would be a nice experiment to see how well they implemented this service on both web and handheld.

In a nutshell, Foursquare allows you to post, or “check-in” at a location to say you visited, see who else has visited, and who has visited that venue the most (the “mayor”) as well as leave tips or shouts about a venue, ie “Try the Triumph burger it is for the win!”

Visiting a location frequently or visiting a certain number of different venues unlocks profile badges. One badge for example is called Local and is awarded for checking into the same venue three times in one week.

Foursquare profile page
Foursquare profile page

These badges you earn are visible on your Foursquare profile as seen in my screenshot on the left so everyone can see where you have visited or what things you have done. In some cases they even have special badges for an event such as the World Cup or NBA Finals.
 
The idea is that you can add your friends and see where they are checking in and maybe meet up with them (go go stalker service? lol) or find new things to visit you might not have know about or thought of. In some cases you might get a badge for visiting a featured location like a specific restaurant or historical location.
 
That is basically what it is in it’s current incarnation. I can see a lot of potential revenue-generating angles for them to add to the service over time and with that huge batch of Series B capital they just closed on I am expecting/hoping to see some big enhancements and changes in the coming months.

Right now it is sink or swim for them. When they were little no one heard of them. Now that they are pushing 2 million users they are on the radar of all the big guys – Google, Facebook, Microsoft etc.

Now getting back to the basics of Foursquare – as it stands right now other than it being yet another social network to have to keep tabs on, I have not found a real benefit or value to using it at this time.

It is a simple question that I have not found an answer for yet – for what reason should I use Foursquare?

I have been browsing profiles on Foursquare to see who is doing what and I have come to the conclusion that many people fit into two camps. People like myself giving it a try out of curiosity and people who are egotistical nerd super-achievers who are mayors of like a dozen locations and have many hundreds of check-ins and badges.

Right now though it seems the balance of value is on Foursquare’s side. They get all this absolutely delicious location-specific data from their users that marketers would be delighted to buy access to. They have people willingly going to venues and saying I was here at this time.

I am not really into badge collecting. I am not one for wanting people to be right on my tracks so I don’t turn on stuff on my phone that lets most people know where I am at any given time. And I don’t see the point of checking in to places I visit right now.

None of this is to say the service is awful or bad or that it has no potential – quite the contrary. I think a location-based service such as Foursquare has huge potential but right now it seems they are missing the mark.

The bread & butter of their service will be the mobile apps. For the most part their web site is not even really needed other than as a desktop portal.

With that in mind let’s check out the Android app. (Note that they also make apps for iPhone, Blackberry and Palm as well.)

Foursquare's Android App - Friend Screen

When you launch the app, the first screen you get shown is the “friend screen” – I understand why they did this but as you can see in my screenshot this screen is nearly useless. Out of the few friends I have added, only Jeff has his app/phone set to show his current location.

I would have either made the screen more user-specific – ie you see only recent friend check-ins nearby or even better (at least in my opinion) I would have made the default screen a “places near my location” type of deal. As they add more features to the service they could even make the main entry view more of a portal such as showing a restaurant near you that is having a special a special on wings for every run the Yankees score tonight or the museum nearby is offering half-off today. Or even the local library promoting a reading event.

Foursquare's Android App - Places Screen

There is a lot of room to enhance the places view as well.

For example, in this screenshot from my phone on the left imagine how much more useful it would be if it had star ratings right on this screen. Not just one either – like one from users, maybe one from Zagats, AAA or some other relevant service.

So a scenario would be I am in city visiting for work or whatever, I’d pull out my phone, fire up the app, give the GPS a moment to lock in my location and pull on the list and say “oh look a 5-star burger joint is only 100 meters up the road.” Or say I am out at 3 am with some friends and I want to find a place that is actually open, give me a preference to filter places to show places to eat that are within 1000 meters and open at this very moment.
 
Hell they could even cross-market or partner with someone like Urbanspoon or Yelp to get some venue-specific data if needed.

Foursquare's Android App - Venue Screen

The venue screen to the left is a prime example of an under-utilized screen. Not only could they have the ratings I mentioned earlier there, they could/should feature relevant data such as phone number, hours, etc. There is another tab called Tips that has user-submitted blurbs but most venues have very few if any.

One of the downsides to allowing people to add venues is that there is a lot of shady data. One pizza place near me exists in the database three times – because three people added it with differently spelled names.

Superusers (the most active users) can supposedly edit the venues now but as I am not a superuser I am unable to see how this works or if I can merge multiple listings into one.

Another issue is people adding their own house. In the suburbs it is not as bad but in a city like NYC with some tall vertical residences you end up with stacks of peoples’ homes mixed in with the legit listings. I don’t know Omar or David nor do I care to know they live at XYZ and I doubt I will be checking in there.

I understand why they allowed people to add venues, but it seems to me they lost some of their control in doing so.

Foursquare's Android App - Venue Map Screen
I found the maps for venues to not always be accurate either which I am guessing has a lot to do with random users adding said venues. If you go to add a venue and your GPS is off by a 50 meters or so the map rendering itself won’t be correct.

Fortunately most venues I have checked into are in their proper place, but I have found a few that are not and as far as I can see there is no way through the app to report a venue as being inappropriate, closed, or erroneous in some way.

Even a simple button to click and report it so that they could at least follow up somehow or just remove a venue if it turns out it does not belong and help them maintain better data integrity. Nothing can be more terrible for a service like this than invalid or irrelevant data. People are impatient and if they encounter it often enough they might say hell with it and not use Foursquare.

Foursquare's Android App - Venue Check-In Screen

This final screenshot here shows the actual venue check-in screen.

This is where you see how they tie in with other social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter.

Some folks may choose to broadcast this info out to their accounts and friends. Others won’t. All comes down to one’s own personal privacy preferences.

Location-aware services are still in their infancy and we are rapidly learning about how they can open up a whole other can of worms for privacy and safety.

For example, earlier this year a site named Please Rob Me threw together a page to show when people were not at home based on their updates to Foursquare and other social networking services.

Anytime you share info about yourself or friends on the web you are compromising your privacy some. It is up to each and every one of us where we the line is for too much sharing.

A service such as Foursquare is not exactly without privacy issues itself either.

So what’s the verdict? It is a decent concept and implementation but it is rough around the edges.

For me it is that the service does not offer me enough of a benefit to use it at this time. As the disclaimer goes though, your mileage may vary and judging by some of the profiles I have seen there are no doubt some very active, content users.

I think we will see a lot coming out of the Foursquare folks in the coming months. Their service shows a lot of promise. For now I am keeping my account on there but probably won’t be actively checking in to anything.

Hopefully they will give me something cool to write about in the near future.

Cheers,
–Jon