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Archives for : June2013

Android

It’s no secret that I’ve been a fan of Nokia and their smartphones since they were released.  I’ve had Nokia phones since January 1996 and a smartphone since the N-Gage was released.  When Nokia saw that the developers stopped coding for S60 Symbian they had a decision to make.  Despite contradicting rumours they opted for Windows Mobile instead of Android.  They made the decision to take my business elsewhere so much easier.

The options available were Android, Blackberry or iPhones.
iPhones were ruled out as they only allowed apps to be installed via iTunes.   I’d used iTunes before and unless you used a Mac it operated in the same manner as a virus.  The rigidity of Apple soon put me off.  I’m grateful.
Blackberries operated much the same as Symbian with good options, more businesslike and the push technology was appealing but I was concerned they may be heading the same way as Symbian.
Android were becoming more popular which to my mind meant that the developers would be there to stay.  I’d heard nothing but good things about Android, they offered custom ROMs, full touch screen phones and most importantly were open sourced so people would undoubtedly be releasing their own apps and ROMs.

Following advice from a good friend I opted for the HTC Desire, a decision which resulted in much ranting at the phone as it ran out of memory within an hour of being fully charged.  My previous phones, X6, N96 etc. had given me the option to install apps directly on to the internal storage.  Not part of the app but all of it and I nearly gave up on Android there and then.  Thankfully I upgraded early to the Samsung Galaxy S2 and I haven’t looked back.

I now use an S2, S3 and a Nexus 7 tablet.  I’ve been using Android for a few years now.  I thought I’d offer some tips if you’re just starting out or want to try out some recommended apps.

Rooting
There are hundreds of sites that explain what this is and how to do it.  To save you searching for them, it just means that you get full access to the system files on the phone.  If you use Windows on your PC you may know about Users and Administrators.  Rooting removes a restriction to upgrade you to an Administrator by removing the block in the phone which prevents you from accessing essential system files.  It can be risky, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing as you can turn your phone in to a paperweight.  If you want to use all of the apps available to you though, you’ll need to root it.

Essential
First of all, get yourself a decent virus killer.  Even if you never need it, it’s a good idea to have one.  These days virus killers don’t just kill viruses.  If you’ve rooted your phone (see above) then you can get access to firewalls, block annoying calls/texts and even change the permissions of apps.

Avast: Avast is a virus killer on steroids.  Assuming you’ve rooted your phone (or had someone do it for you) you can access all of its features.  Virus Scanner, Anti-Theft, Privacy Advisor, Application Management, Shield Control, SMS & Call Filter, Firewall, Network Meter.  Without wanting to go in to all of its features, you can block annoying calls and texts, stop apps from accessing WiFi and 3G, and most importantly install an app from Avast that will let you track down your phone if it gets lost or stolen.
[This app is free]

Android Assistant: This is a Swiss Army Knife of apps.  It monitors your phone, advising you of free memory, battery life, phone and SD card space, running processes and has several tools.  You can control volume, tweak settings to extend battery life, clean cache (temporary files), clean the system, file manager, batch installer/uninstaller, edit apps that start when the phone does (this will extend battery life and speed up your phone), see battery usage, system info, move apps to the SD card, backup and restore apps, and see which permissions your installed apps have requested.
[This app is ad supported but there is an advert free version for around £1.20]

Team Battery Bar: It’s one of those apps that’s so simple but so useful.  It simply colours the top of your screen with a line indicating your remaining battery life.  Irrespective of what you’re doing, watching a video, playing games, it is always there.  If you have some time to kill but don’t want to drain all of your battery, this little app will keep you right.  It’s fully customisable with different colours available and you can edit the percentages at which it changes colour.  E.g. Red 0-33%, Yellow 34-66%, Green 67-100%.
[This app is free but the pro version is only around 60p]

WiFi Manager: Unless you use hidden WiFi networks you don’t really need this app but it’s useful to have.  If you do use hidden networks then it’s essential.  As you might expect it finds WiFi networks around you, saving the ones you have access to and marking them as favourites.  If the network is hidden your phone or tablet may not always recognise it, WiFi Manager finds it and connects.  It also has useful widgets showing you if you’re connected, which network you’re connected to, signal strength and IP address.
[This app is free]

SMS Backup+: If you’ve ever had an ex that stalks you, texts you with obscene messages or work for a company which audits you then you’ll want to keep a record of each text that comes in.  SMS Backup+ does just that.  It creates a label in your Gmail inbox called SMS and backs up all of your texts.  It can be set to automatically back them up at regular intervals and/or each time a new text is received.  Although I’ve never needed it, there’s a restore function as well.  Useful if you’ve just upgraded your phone.
[This app is free]

Dropbox: Most people have heard of Dropbox.  If you haven’t, or don’t know what it is, it’s an app that lets you synchronise files between your phone, tablet and PC.  You don’t need more than one device, you can just use it to back up files or photos from your phone but it comes in to its own when you have it installed on two or more devices.  You get 2GB free and can expand that by referring friends, uploading photos or by buying space.  If you want to sign up, click here.
[This app is free]

App Cache Cleaner: Cache, temporary files created by apps.  This small app can be set to clean your temporary files, cache, every so often or you can do it manually if you wish.  It frees up storage on the phone.  If you have an entry level phone this app is essential.  If you have a high end phone it’s still useful.
[This app is free but ad supported]

Fast Reboot: Simulates a reboot.  If you have a crashed app, need more memory (RAM) or want that ‘just booted up’ speed then install Fast Reboot.  It won’t shut down your phone or pull your battery for a full shut down but you won’t always need to.
[This app is free]

No Signal Alert: If you live in a poor signal area or you don’t want to miss that vital call, download No Signal Alert.  It’s a simple app that notifies you when your signal disappears.  You can customise it with different ringtones but I’d recommend a short one as once the signal gets choppy it can go off several times in a minute.
[This app is free. The pro version is around £1.50]

Tiny Call Confirm: If you’ve ever called someone by mistake or had a phone bill showing calls you’ve not made there’s a good chance you could have benefited from this app.  It simply puts an ‘are you sure?’ type option on the screen before it dials out.  Especially useful if your screen has turned on in your pocket.  There’s a pro version with more features but this meets my needs.
[This app is free.  The pro version is £2]

Recommended
Tasker: I cannot recommend this app highly enough.  It’s not free but it is definitely value for money.  It’s an app that does things for you.  Just about anything you can do with the phone, it can do for you.  It’s an automation tool.  You can have the phone read texts when you’re driving, reply to the sender that you’re on the move and will respond properly later, all based on travelling more than 10mph.  Perhaps unlock the phone when you get home, locking it again when you’re away from your router, photograph someone using the phone when they get the code wrong and uploading the photo to Dropbox.  Perhaps you want to have the phone silence itself when you have a meeting?  Synchronise files when you’re at work/home? All of this done for you without having to pick up the phone.
With the available plugins (AutoRemote, AutoNotification, SMS Backup+, etc.) this app becomes more and more invaluable the more you look in to it.
[This app is £3 but is worth every penny]

Google Sky Map: Whether you’re an amateur astronomer or just curious about the night sky, Google Sky Maps is a good start.  Stars, planets, constellations are all visible and will move on your screen as you move the phone about.  It also has a search facility to quickly show you where Jupiter (for example) has got to.
[This app is free]

Barcode Scanner: I debated whether this should be classified as essential or just recommended for a little while, it’s certainly one of the apps that I’ll install on phones or tablets.  It isn’t just for scanning in barcodes in shops to see if you’re getting the best deal.  I have my router’s WiFi code on the wall in the form of a QR code (those square barcodes that nobody understands).  It saves guests typing in the code, it’s regularly changed and is convenient to generate the QR code.  Of course with bus stop adverts, leaflets etc. now using QR codes it pays to have an app that will decode them and regular barcodes on your phone.
[This app is free]

Titanium Backup: If you want to back up apps and your data then get this app.  You will need a rooted phone but it’s worth it if you’re changing ROMs (putting on a new version of Android) or if you’re upgrading and don’t want to look up every app yourself.  The Pro version is around £4.50 but it soon pays for itself as it doesn’t prompt you to install each app and comes with more functionality.  You can upload your backups to Dropbox, Box or Google Drive automatically or manually and the ‘quick backup/install’ option is available.
[This app is free but it’s worth paying for the Pro version]

Cloud Print: Ever needed to print directly from your phone/tablet?  Cloud Print understands your frustration.  If you have a cloud ready printer you can install this and be printing in a few minutes.  If your printer isn’t cloud ready, don’t worry.  If you have Chrome installed on your PC you can go to the advanced settings in Chrome, sign in to Cloud Print and off you go.  You’ll need to ensure the PC is running to print if your printer isn’t cloud ready.
[This app is free]

ES File Explorer: There are a number of file explorers in the Play Store but this is the one I use the most.  It lets you access your Dropbox, Drive, SkyDrive, Box etc, your LAN (shared folders on your home network), FTP server, as well as your device.  There are so many functions to ES it wouldn’t be practical to list them here but it’s worth having a good play with it.
[This app is free]

Glympse: I love this app.  Put simply, it’s one of those apps that makes you think “this developer has given this some thought”.  Glympse lets you share your location without the world being able to see it.  You can share via text message or email, automatically shut down when you reach your destination or after a preset time (or both), and it will send the person/people you’ve selected a link to view where you are.  It also allows you to link to your calendar so if you’re due to be in a meeting but you’re stuck in traffic you don’t have to set up everything, just pull the information from your calendar.  We’ve used it when the weather has turned nasty – flooding, fog etc. and it gives us a little peace of mind.
[This app is free]

Worthy Mentions
Bus Scout: Every now and then an app comes along that you look at and think “This person knows what they’re doing”.  Bus Scout is such an app.  It’s simple to use, just tap on a bus stop for information about which services use that stop.  Delve further to get bus timetables.  Of course, if you’re using Arriva buses then the timetables are simply a work of fiction but Bus Scout is useful if you’re not in familiar territory.  The developer has recently added a feedback function for if your bus company retires a service or starts a new one.
[This app is free]

Pushover: A useful app for notifying you of events.  If you’ve not used IFTTT then you should take a look – IF This Then That.  In short, you can have customised notifications pushed to your phone based on your criteria.  For example, if I get an email with attachments, I want them automatically downloaded to my Dropbox; if the weather changes I want to be notified on my phone; if a new version of Android is released then let me know; if my download has finished, notify my phone; if someone bids on my eBay listing, notify my phone.  You get the idea.  Pushover saves you time and effort.  It’s not cheap but it can be very useful.
[This app is around £3.20]

GPS HUD: GPS Heads Up Display.  GPS HUD shows you your speed, date and time, address, weather and economy indicator.  If you have a cycle mount you can see how fast you’re travelling.  Settings allow the display to be flipped so you can place the phone on a car’s dashboard.  In this mode your windscreen will reflect the phone’s screen so you can see your speed etc. without taking your eyes off the road.
[This app is free but is ad supported.  The pro version is about 60p.]

Barclone: If you have more loyalty cards than you can count on one hand or your pocket/handbag is bulging with cards then you may want to take a look at Barclone.  It stores your loyalty card barcode and can show it on the screen when required.  It doesn’t just take a photograph, it will generate the barcode so you’re not getting pixelated versions when you try to zoom in.  Just load the app, select your loyalty card and choose the phone’s orientation (landscape will result in a much larger barcode).
[This app is free but ad supported.  The pro version is about £1]

Catch: Catch is what Evernote tries to be, but it works.  It boasts an automatically synced shared spaces so you can share notes with your partner, your kids or your colleagues.  You can also share individual notes across other installed apps.  They’re available on any browser via their web site and it has a Catch Sketch plug-in for Samsung devices.
[This app is free]

Wake On LAN: If your computer’s network adapter (WiFi / ethernet) supports Wake On LAN you can put it in sleep mode, save power and use this app to wake it.  It’s especially useful if you’re at work.  Simply connect to the WiFi and run the app.  Your computer will be powered up by the time you get to your desk.
[This app is free]

I hope this collection is useful.  If you know of any apps that you think should be on this list, please let me know.

NFC

What is NFC?
NFC stands for Near Field Communication.  It’s a variant of RFID (the same technology that’s used for door access in offices and in Oyster cards).  It’s how contactless payment works.

 

That doesn’t help me, what is it?
It’s a means of transmitting information.  Because of how it works, the information transmitted is small, usually up to 4KB.  A microchip and a coil of wire is placed inside a ‘tag’.  A reader (or reader/writer) reads the information on the tag and performs actions based on the information received.  For example, Samsung have fitted NFC readers in the back of mobile phones.  The phone is placed near enough to the tag to read it.  If the tag contains a web address, the phone will automatically go to that web site.  If it contains WiFi settings, those settings are entered in to the phone and it will connect to the router without having to put in the WiFi code.

An example of an NFC Tag

This NFC Tag will allow you access to my WiFi.

 

How does it work?
Data is beamed via an electromagnetic (EM) field.
We all know that electricity will power an electric motor.  You put voltage in, you get movement out.  But, if you put movement in to a motor you’ll get voltage out.
By swapping the motor for a coil of metal (copper in this instance), you put voltage in, you get an EM field out.  Flip that around and if you put an EM field in you get voltage out.
The NFC reader puts voltage in through the copper coil to generate en EM field.  If you place it near a tag it turns the EM field in to a tiny voltage, powers up the microchip in the tag then transmits it using its copper coil as an aerial back to the reader.  The reader picks up the tag’s information and acts on it.  The tag doesn’t necessarily need a battery because it only needs to power up when there’s a reader there and it gets its power from the reader.

 

What can it do for me?
Pretty much anything you want it to.  Tags can be programmed by your phone/tablet (you’ll need NFC to do it of course) to turn on/off WiFi, sync, GPS, 3G, adjust the volume, run Tasker profiles etc.  If you have a contactless card from your bank, or have certain apps installed (Google Wallet, Orange Quick Tap) you can pay for goods or services by tapping your card or phone/tablet instead of using Chip & Pin*.
I have an NFC tag on my keyring, the tag contains an address, it will navigate you there, load Google Street View so you know what the area looks like and text me that the keys have been found.  I have another tag on my wrist, it contains my name, NHS number and Medical Records Number so if a hospital scans it, they know who I am and what medication I’m taking.  A tag by my bedside will turn off WiFi, auto sync, GPS, Bluetooth, change the volume, and dim the screen.  When I tap it again it turns up the volume, brightens the screen, turns on WiFi etc.

 

Which apps can I use?
There are a few apps on the market.  I tend to use NFC Task Launcher (now called Trigger) as it ties in nicely with Tasker, thus extending what the tag can do. I’d recommend getting a few tags and having a play.

 

Where can I get tags from?
Take a look online.  I got mine from rapidnfc.com – a reliable supplier with excellent customer service.

 

I still don’t understand how it works
Magic.  It works by magic. 😉

 

*Rumours say NFC will become so popular that it will replace, either in part or in full, Chip & PIN in around five years.

Father’s Day

For Father’s Day this year I got a Bluetooth keyboard for my Nexus 7. It arrived late but the thought was there.  It’s taking a little getting used to as the keys are a little small for my fingers (I keep hitting two or more keys at once) but it’s still nice to be able to type on instead of using Swype.Keyboard