Category Archives: Quick Take

Alternative Android browsing: Thinking beyond Chrome

Google’s Android apps are by and large top-notch, although the increasing number of them means that average experience may be getting watered down by duds like Google News and Weather. With so many apps only ported to Android as an afterthought (many, like Instagram, have ported over their bottom-icon heavy look), Google’s specialized design is refreshing. Chrome is no exception. While it doesn’t have Dolphin’s speed or customizations or Firefox’s open source character, Chrome is fine, fast, and full of useful options such as bandwidth conservation (which can sometimes make its rendering of Facebook.com perform better than Facebook’s actual Android app).

You’re waiting for a “but,” so here it is: Mobile Web browsing is stuck in the desktop era. There’s still the URL bar and a bunch of tabs stuck weirdly (and inconveniently) in something that looks like a file cabinet – it doesn’t get much more “legacy” than that. Plus, a mobile Web browser is often somewhere you end up, not somewhere you open with intent. You’re sent to Chrome (or Safari or IE) because you click a link and then wait a few seconds for a blank page to fill out.

There’s something jarring about that process. It really becomes apparent when going through Google Search results, clicking on one, seeing it open in Chrome, then having to go back to Search to go through more that may be interesting. The workaround is to just search directly from Chrome, but the UI is less appealing. Ideally, Google would merge Search and Chrome into one runtime.

Until they do, though, there are some good alternatives to Chrome, both in terms of usability, privacy, and innovative design. I’ve rounded up a few of the best ones here.

If you want something with more pizzaz: Dolphin

Screenshot_2014-08-31-15-28-45

Dolphin for Android. Fast, but traditional.

Dolphin is speedy, with excellent HTML5 performance a fluid UI.  It’s also an ecosystem unto itself, with tons of add-ons and color packs. The look and feel is especially good on tablets and big phones, since it has enough real estate to pull off its desktop-like tab design (if you’re into that). Possible drawbacks include its awkward sharing menus (the best way to share to Pocket is to install a supplementary app) and less support for deep linking (i.e., having links redirect to relevant apps rather than websites) than Chrome. Nice quirks include the ability to create and save drawings that stand in for URLs – you could doodle an ‘F’ to go to Facebook, for example.

If you want something that is private and different: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories

Screenshot_2014-08-31-15-27-07

DuckDuckGo is a search engine, news reader, and Web browser built into one.

DuckDuckGo is known mostly as an anti-NSA search engine that doesn’t track its users. It’s more than that, as its mobile app name suggests. On Android, it can serve as a news reader with customizable feeds drawing up on various subreddits and popular Web publications – it’s way better than the card-heavy Google Play Newsstand. It’s also a browser. URLs can be entered into the search box and they’ll go directly to that page if correct. You could do all your browsing from within the DuckDuckGo for Android app. Plus, there’s the option to use Orbot to connect the app to Tor for privacy.

If you want something futuristic: Link Bubble 

Screenshot_2014-08-30-15-58-37

The “HG” bubble can be tapped to open up Link Bubble, which contains some stories clicked from this Google search.

Screenshot_2014-08-29-10-18-37

The Link Bubble interface, inside the bubble. Drag the bubble to different parts of the screen to perform actions. DuckDuckGo home screen widget is in background.

Link Bubble isn’t a replacement for Chrome per se. It’ll still need Chrome or another browser as a fallback, but it’s really a leap beyond almost every other mobile Web experience for Android. Here’s how it works.

When you click a link anywhere, it’ll load in the background and then appear in a small bubble that is drawn over the screen (it lingers until you dismiss it using the notification tray). So say you’re in Google Search and you tap something. It loads in Link Bubble to the side, but you stay inside Google Search, uninterrupted. You can have many bubbles open at once (they’re basically like tabs). Link Bubble has a unique, fun UI for dragging the bubbles to the upper left to save to Pocket, to the upper right to share, and down to close.

Link Bubble is perfect reaction to the disruptive “click, wait for a blank page to load in a Web browser” behavior that characterizes most mobile linking and browsing. It takes some time to get used to, but it becomes a time saver.

Cut-and-paste and Pitchfork

Yesterday’s theme was Lollapalooza and Vampire Weekend. Today, the pitchforks are out for indie music, at least in Chicago’s Red Eye on the eve of the 2014 Pitchfork Music Festival.

Music criticism has a low bar to entry and is heavily reliant on adjectives (how often have you heard “warm,” “harsh,” “loud,” “ambient” or words in their respective families?), which means that most of it is opinion and little else. Historical knowledge – of the band and its influences, for example – can only go so far in pushing the critique about “I like it/don’t like it.”

The Red Eye writers, given a limited space, gave their duly opinionated but charming takes on their peceived can’t miss and must-miss acts at Pitchfork. It was nice to see slapdowns of The Field, Animal Collective, and especially Neutral Milk Hotel (“snore fest of a band”), artists all entered into the indie pantheon by Pitchfork writers of yesteryear.

IMG_20140718_171310

Simplify PItchfork? Never!

After reading, I got back to my own mass production of keywords, today cutting and pasting from someone’s copy on hybrid cloud and polishing it as I saw fit. Which got me thinking:

  • When I smooth-over someone else’s words, one of the biggest tasks is always removing all the first- and second-person pronouns. No, “I” don’t want “you” to talk to the audience about the need for orchestration and cloud management platforms. Yet, a lot of professional music criticism is written in similar style (“If you were around when Neutral Milk Hotel were a working band…”, went Pitchfork’s review of the band’s Box Set).
  • However, even an opinionated and ungrounded argument – overuse of “I” and “you” is a frequent, but not absolute, sign of such – can be useful. It can bypass the grunt work of getting the audience on your wavelength – so much writing is just about using the right buzzwords and not, say, thinking that “orchestrating” is an acceptable synonym for “coordinating” when writing about IT. “I” and “you” are two such words for music criticism and, apparently, for some in-depth white papers trying to get CEOs to buy into specific tech.
  • Cut-and-paste has been a more common technique than I expected, since many of the clients I work with basically request it, or imply it by asking for a rewrite. It’s not easy to get the lifted text to align with words I created from whole cloth (strained metaphor, yep), but the process is so instructive – it parallels the challenge of writing in general, especially long form writing, of making sensible transitions and creating discernible story arcs.

I’m not going to Pitchfork this year. But I think that

“It’s the kind of sentiment that teenagers who feel assaulted by their surroundings will continue to discover, and its wide-eyed and wounded view of the world goes a long way toward explaining why they keep returning to this songwriter. Despite its vague and decidedly lo-fi profile… [it] also has its share of experimentation.”

could be a useful paragraph to cut, paste, and rewrite for my future music criticism: Ssufficiently generic, but a fleshy body with the bones of promise, all the same.

Google Currents gets inconsequential update

Google Currents, which as an Android snob I still prefer to Flipboard, got one of those dreaded “oh yeah we still have this product lying around” updates from Google, with “bug fixes” listed as the only change (Google Voice got one such update back in April). My hope was that maybe they would fix the RSS reading feature to be a bit more usable.

I actually use Currents a lot more than ever now that Google Reader is gone. I still use the exceptional Android-exclusive RSS client Press to keep up with a few blogs (most of them by Apple bloggers), but I rely on Currents for Android news and rich editions of magazines like The Verge and Slate. Its flippable (heh) widget is also one of its handiest features.

I had wondered what would happen to Currents’ feed-reading/RSS abilities now that Google Reader is not only dead but also wiped clean (the final data purge took place…today). It still seems to work in that characteristic did-it-or-didn’t-it way; e.g., the Daring Fireball feed (which Currents laughably says has “0 subscribers”) is up to date until Friday, and new feeds can be added, although they’re still hard to search for or find. If you really must use Currents to consolidate your magazine and RSS reading, then by all means do so, but a standalone RSS client is probably better at this point.

How to use UCCW

Ultimate Custom Clock Widget (UCCW) is one of the most powerful and versatile Android widgets. It’s free with ads in Google Play, although you can make a $5 in-app purchase to remove them.

Despite its name, UCCW can be configured to support almost any Android app or activity, not just clocks. It has two basic features:

  1. a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor for designing your own UCCW widget.
  2. integration with a wide range of UCCW skins and themes from Google Play.

Most likely, you’re here to find out how to implement someone else’s UCCW skin or theme through the UCCW app (i.e., feature #2). A successful implementation may look like these examples:

UCCW

PlayBar skin for UCCW. Running on Jelly Bean 4.2.2 w/Nova Launcher Prime and PlayCon icon theme.

UCCW Clock

UCCW w/ShadowClock skin. Running on Jellybean 4.2.2 w/Nova Launcher Prime and Lustre icon theme.

Whether you’re setting up the perfect clock widget or just trying to impress others with your fancy home screen, UCCW is worth playing around with. Here’s how to set it up in less than five minutes:

1. Download UCCW from Google Play

UCCW is free to download here. Consider a $5 donation to remove the ads.

UCCW

The default UCCW screen.

2. Search for “UCCW” in Google Play and download a UCCW skin or theme that you like

The search should return a variety of UCCW-compatible skins and themes. They’ll appear in Google Play as apps, but they’re essentially just plugins for UCCW. For example, the PlayBar theme in the first screenshot above requires UCCW.

UCCW Android Skins

A sampling of downloadable UCCW skins.

3. Create a widget anywhere on your screen

Select Widgets -> UCCW in your launcher to get started. After that, select a widget size (unlike widgets associated with apps like Google+, UCCW can be implemented in many default sizes), and then select a skin or theme. Any UCCW skins and themes you download should appear in the UCCW app. You may have to scroll down to see them all:

PlayBar skins

Choosing from among PlayBar skins for UCCW.

4. Create and lock hotspots

Depending on what UCCW skin or theme you use, you may have the option to edit the widget’s hotspots. A hotspot is simply a part of the widget that can be configured to open an Android app when tapped.

For example, the widgets from the very first screenshot in this post all redirect to their titular apps (“Chrome” opens Chrome, and so on). You can edit the hotspot and link it to any app that you want. Afterward, you’ll need to go to the settings menu inside the UCCW app and enable Hotspot Mode so that tapping the widget does what you want it to do instead of sending you back to the UCCW editor.

UCCW Widget

Editing the Chrome widget in the PlayBar skin for UCCW. Note that both color and hotspot are editable.

Adjusting hotspot Chrome

Adjusting the hotspot for the Chrome widget.

Lock widgets Android

Use Hotspot Mode to lock the color/hotspot changes you’ve made to your UCCW widget.

5. Finish Up

Simply tap the screen as per the instructions to add the finished widget.

Touch Here

Touch to finish placing the newly created UCCW widget.

Facebook Widget

Placing a finished Facebook UCCW widget on a home screen.

A Quick Guide to Android Daydreams

Android 4.2+ has daydreams, usually about what life would be like without its useless stock Email client, or its drab News and Weather app, or Google Earth (but never its beloved Movie Studio).

It also has Daydreams, or interactive screen-savers, with actionable content, which are another example of Jelly Bean’s redundancies, alongside wireless charging (cool and only minimally useful) and NFC for Google Wallet and niche power-user apps like NFC Task Launcher. The small sliver of living persons using 4.2+ have access to more uselessly beautiful junk than even an “iPhone only” Instagrammer could shake a real vintage camera at. Here’s what one looks like (the red tint on the screen is due to the Twilight app I’m using):

Google Currents Daydream

Google Currents Daydream

I haven’t used a screensaver for anything since the heyday of Windows 95 and its amazing brick-mazes. So why would I use a Daydream?

To charge wirelessly to be MAXXlike, 

To be MAXXlike, perchance to Daydream..

Well, that’s not a great explanation – Daydreams if anything contribute to lack of battery life (and focus), but they’re pretty and useful for making non-Android users jealous, which after all is the main point of using Android. Basically, if you’re walking past your charging phone, you can maybe use a Daydream to learn a bit about what Google Currents thinks is interesting, or watch Beautiful Widgets’ cheeky weather animations, which now seem set to arrive in iOS 7:

BW Pro

Beautiful Widgets Pro Daydream

Like all the good fancy stuff in Jelly Bean, Daydreams are little toggles, wrapped in Roboto, inside a submenu. You’ll have to go to Setting -> Display -> Daydreams to view your options. Default options include Currents, Clock, and Photo Table. 3rd-party options include Beautiful Widgets Pro, Flipboard, and StumbleUpon. Some Daydreams have settings; I’ve sometimes changed Beautiful Widgets’ weather read-out’s text color to match the hex values on my wallpaper.

Android Daydream Settings

Daydreams Settings

The Currents daydream is perhaps the most esoterically styled sophisticated, which isn’t a surprise given that it’s a Google app. News stories cascade over the screen and can be tapped to open them up in the Currents app.

Like virtually any non-Search/Maps/G+ initiative, I don’t know how long Google will keep around this geeky quirk hidden away in Jelly Bean. Its demise wouldn’t upset Twitter-hounds and news-junkies the way that the Google Reader shutdown did/will, unless their replacement workflow had become scanning the Currents Daydream for infrequently updated news, floating like islands between 500px entries.