Tag Archives: Android

Sunrise: Finally, a good Android calendar app

Android, for all of its strengths, has some glaring weaknesses. Good games often come to the platform second, if at all. App selection and individual app features (grumble Starbucks) still lag iOS.

One of the most annoying gaps in the Android app catalog has been the lack of an alternative to Google Calendar (the Android app, not the overall service). Google Calendar is utilitarian like many or the company’s other official apps. When I compiled my list of alternatives to Google’s android apps, I struggled with calendar apps.

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Sunrise

Sunrise is a welcome surprise. The iOS app is now available on Android and Web, providing a beautiful experience that integrates with Google Calendar and iCloud. It’s also possible to connect other accounts (Facebook, Twitter).

The developers went the extra mile and built a nice (transparent!) widget with detailed iconography and information for upcoming events. This is an iOS app reinvented to speak the language of Android, while retaining its signature impeccable design.

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The Sunrise widget

Scrolling is smooth and there after plenty of visual cues so you always know where you are in terms of days. They only gripes so far are the sometimes buggy sign in/integration features (esp. G+ and Twitter) and the confusing sun icon in the upper left, which seems actionable but isn’t.

Sunrise is free in Google Play.

Easy Hacks for Getting More out of Android

Android is not the most user- or beginner-friendly OS. Yet, it runs on literally billions of devices, so it’s worth becoming at least minimally competent in it. Below I’ve provided 10 basic tips for streamlining your Android experience to the point that it resembles something more polished. Note that I came up with and/or tested most of these techniques on an LG Nexus 5 and Nexus 4, one running stock Android KitKat and the other Jelly Bean.

Change how much memory Chrome can use

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Chrome can be allotted more memory.

As a rule, mobile browsers are not great mobile apps. They cannot match native apps for speed or user experience, and the gap between the two has even led to the fear that the Web is dying. But sometimes you need one, maybe to handle a link someone sent you, for instance.

Chrome isn’t as fast as third-party alternatives such as Dolphin, but that can be remedied. Type this into the URL bar:

chrome://flags/#max-tiles-for-interest-area 

Then, select 512. You’re in for some smooth scrolling and page rendering. Not however that the system will become much more aggressive about how it manages and kills apps so that it can free up resources for Chrome.

Open content in native apps rather than Chrome

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Opening John Gruber’s App.net feed in Robin rather than Chrome (back when App.net wasn’t dead).

Remember what I just said about native apps? The best ones are much better than any (slow) mobile Web app.

One of the great perks of Android is being able to pick what app opens certain types of content. So when you click a link to Wikipedia, for example, you may be given the option to open it in the Wikipedia app for Android (if installed) rather than Chrome or your default browser. Your mileage may vary, but the following apps are excellent for viewing links that would otherwise direct you to a tiny Web view:

  • Wikipedia
  • Tumblr (use the “Open in Tumblr” button at the top of the page)
  • IMDb
  • Reddit is Fun Golden Platinum (for reddit links)
  • YouTube
  • Instagram
  • Pocket Casts (really wonky/nerdy podcasting client: mainly for podcast RSS links)
  • Twitter

Toggle Bluetooth and other radios from the lockscreen

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The Bluetooth extension can be tapped to toggle Bluetooth.

DashClock Widget is one of your best friends. It provides shortcuts to unread texts, emails, weather data and more from your lockscreen.

If you’re on KitKat, you’ll need to go to Settings -> Security -> Enable Widgets to make sure it can run. After that, you can install tons of extra extensions. One of my favorites is the DashClock Custom Extension, which can do just about anything, including toggle Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Just tap from the lockscreen, and the setting is changed.

Change icons without installing a launcher

Screenshot (03:14PM, Apr 13, 2014)

These icons were made with LINE Deco and are running on the stock Google Now launcher.

Tired of all those low-res icons that look like they were just ported straight from iOS? That’s an easy fix – just install LINE Deco. t. Basically, it lets you pick any of thousands of different icons you want to stand in for your apps, and it doesn’t require you to change your launcher or buy an icon pack.

Enable data compression and bandwidth management in compatible apps

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Some apps offer options for data compression.

Do you need to watch how much mobile data you’re using? Some apps have settings that can help you out. In Chrome, go to Settings -> Bandwidth Management, where you can adjust when Chrome preloads webpages and toggle its handy Reduce Data Usage feature. Other apps can also compress HTTP requests. Above is an example from the Hacker News 2 client.

Tap and hold Shift and drag over a letter for capitalization

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It’s not that hard to type capitals using the Shift and drag method.

This trick is usually found by accident. If you press and hold on the Shift key on the default Google Keyboard, and then drag your finger from there to a key, you can get a capital letter without having to go through the weird multiple taps on Shift needed to enable caps lock.

Customize Google Now with…a magic wand?

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Inside the Magic Wand screen on Google Now.

Google Now has a weird interface. What I mean is: there’s a magic wand at the bottom of the screen. What does it do? If you click it, it lets you customize your Google Now settings, adding new card and removing ones that were based on some errant search you did long ago and aren’t helpful anymore.

Set up automatic device sleep times

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Battery Widget Reborn can be configured with automatic sleep times.

An easy way to save lots of battery is to turn off Wi-Fi and mobile data at night. Apps such as Battery Widget Reborn can configured to put your device into Night Mode at hours of your choosing, meaning that use almost no battery while you’re sleeping (plus you don’t get annoying notifications out of nowhere at midnight).

Link UCCW to specific apps

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This UCCW predictably links to the Facebook app.

Ultimate Custom Clock Widget can do almost anything. I wrote a short guide to it last year. One of the best features is the ability to link certain hotspots – areas on the graphical widget – to apps of your choosing. So you could click the battery meter of a UCCW and be taken straight to Battery Widget Reborn, or click the unread mail count and enter straight into Email/Gmail.

Hide built-in app icons you don’t like/use

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Launchers such as Nova Launcher Prime can hide unwanted icons from view.

If you’re bothered by the icons for seldom used apps such as Google+ or News and Weather, you can get rid of them. Install a launcher such as Nova Launcher Prime and then navigate through the settings to manage the app drawer. Many launchers have an option for hiding any app that you specify from the icon grid.

What would it take for Google to decline?

A recent thread in /r/AskReddit posed a similar question. The comments were revelatory, with plenty of resigned jokes about the heat death of the universe, antitrust proceedings, and the (unlikely) rise of Bing being the only ways for Mountain View’s best to be bested:

  • “The first and most obvious way to cause a decline might be from some sort of anti-monopoly judgement being levied on them causing say for example the search engine portion of google, to be split from the part of google that manages android and chrome.” – /u/icantrecallaccnt
  • “The heat death of the universe. Though they’ll probably buy some quirky startup that’s figured out how to reverse entropy and remain in business forever.” – /u/SoresuMakashi
  • ‘The Big Bing’ – /u/tenillusions
  • “If Chinese mega-sites and portals decide to really take expansion outside of their borders seriously. Baidu, Tencent et al are well on their way.” – /u/Tuxedo_Superman

Granted, there were some thoughtful responses that probed Google’s complacence and ongoing alienation of its important demographics (advertisers, developers – note: not end-users). But I think the issue isn’t so much that Google has gotten fat and happy and turned into Microsoft 2.0 (riding Search, Maps and Gmail the same way Ballmer et al rode Windows XP and Office). Rather, the issue is that Google is desperate.

Odd word choice? Not really – Wired picked up on it recently, too, with the keen observation that the middling Google+ has left Google clinging to ever-declining per-click costs while trying to find something – anything – to help it keep pace with rivals such as Facebook, that, despite having nowhere near Google’s profits, have arguably staked out a better slice of smartphone attention spans. I have often made fun of Facebook for being essentially a channeling of some of the best talents in computer science toward the end of designing hamburger buttons and click-by-accident advertising, but I admit that its new mobile strategy – discrete offerings for messaging, news, etc. – amplifies the threats to Google’s Web-centric business model that have always resided in walled-garden apps.

Still, you’d be hard pressed to find  much appetite in the mainstream technology media for examining Google’s weaknesses. In contrast, Apple – the world’s most profitable company – is often construed as facing near-constant extinction if it doesn’t, say, release a smart watch in the next two months. The inimitable Horace Dediu succinctly broke down the double standard in his post, “Invulnerable” –

“I suspect the absence of scrutiny comes from Google being seen as an analogy of the Internet itself. We don’t question the survival of the Internet so we don’t question the survival of Google — its backbone, its index, and its pervasive ads which, somehow, keep the lights on. We believe Google is infrastructure. We don’t dwell on whether electric grids are vulnerable, or supplies of fuel, or the weather.”

I would go a step further and say that Google is like a church or a cathedral. That is, it is frequently visited, assumed to be a mainstay of the cultural fabric regardless of external economic conditions and – most importantly – it collects little to no money from any of the end users who interact with it. Sure, parishioners may make a slight donation to the local church, but the real funding comes from other sources; likewise, Joe Surfer doesn’t directly pay Google for anything, with the possible exception of a buck or two for extra Google Drive space or Google Play Music All Access. Hence, the actual business of Google is abstracted from consumers, who end up spending little or no time contemplating how or why it could go belly up – it’s not like they can point to reduced foot traffic or ridiculous clearance sales as harbingers of decline.

The signs are there, though:

-Let’s start with Android. Android was a defensive land grab to stop Microsoft and then Apple from shutting Google out of mobile. It has succeeded in terms of worldwide adoption, but it confers on Google nowhere near the profits that iOS has on Apple. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, but it’s symbolic of how Android was never designed from the ground up as a sustainable business but as a vehicle for legacy Google services (there hasn’t been a really great new Google service since Maps in 2005).

As such, Google is always tinkering with Android to make it less like an open source project and more like its own Google service. Peter Bright’s article on forking Android understandably struck a nerve with Google, which is awkwardly trying to maintain Android’s chief competitive advantage (no licensing fees, tons of customization possibilities for OEMs and carriers) while bringing it further under Mountain View’s umbrella.

-One of the best revelations of the ongoing Samsung-Apple legal battle is that Samsung really would like to move on from Android. Samsung isn’t a great leader, but the fact that it would even consider something as nascent as Tizen to take the place of Android on its smartphones lines is telling.

-Google Glass reeks of desperation. Jay Yarow of Business Insider insisted that Google botched Glass’ launch, ensuring that it would never take its apparently rightful place as the successor to the iPad as the next big thing in consumer tech. It’s a computer for the face, with no obvious use case as yet, a crazy price tag, and understandable cultural stigma. Tech media were wrong to puff it up as the Next Big Thing, but consider also the absurdity of this situation: Google is trying to sell a terrible HUD in order to get out ahead of the competition, like Apple did to much better effect with the iPod and then the iPhone.

-It’s not just Glass, either. The Nest acqusition, the Boston Dynamics aquisition, and the obsession with “sci-fi” projects at GoogleX. – Google could be looked at as “shooting for the moon.” Or, it could be viewed instead as desperately trying to find any revenue stream alternative to mobile ads, which just don’t work like desktop ones do and, moreover, are subject to intense competition from social networks and messaging platforms.

-The sci-fi thing merits more attention. Forever ago, I wrote this about Google Glass and its ilk:

By “the future,” commentators usually mean “a reality corresponding to some writer or creative artist’s widely disseminated vision,” which shows the odd poverty of their own imagination as well as the degree to which they often underestimate the power of creative artists/humanities types to drive technological evolution. But can human ingenuity really aspire to nothing more than the realization of a particular flight of fancy? Should we congratulate ourselves for bringing to life the technology from a reality that doesn’t exist?

Trying to actualize the fantasies of sci-fi is not forward-looking; it is, by definition, backward-looking, with respect to someone’s text or vision about what was possible in the past. If someone created a real Death Star today, it would be impressive – as a testament to madness. Why would someone exert such enormous, concerted effort at recreating a technology conceived for recreational purposes in the 1970s, by individuals who had no idea that smartphones, MP3s, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and on on would be invented?

To analyze sci-fi is often to analyze what it doesn’t conceive of. I watched Gattaca recently, a 1997 movie with a setting in the far future. What was in this high-tech future? Big, hulking desktop PCs and keyboards. Sci-fi is the product of constrained imagination (“the future is hard to predict” – Captain Obvious), but imitating it is even more self-defeating. For this reason, I am immensely pessimistic about the prospects of any of Google’s top-secret projects being a breakthrough that would expand its business or appeal in meaningful ways. Sci-fi is a small porthole on the future.

-Google’s customers are advertisers and other businesses, not individuals. It reaches the latter by its presence on platforms that belong to the former – think its default search engine deals for Firefox and Safari. There’s not any real competition on those fronts for now  – Bing is good but has lithe mindshare, and Yahoo is still locked into its deal with Microsoft. But Marissa Mayer is driven to displace Google on iOS, and Apple and Yahoo have a good relationship (Yahoo provides the data for Weather on iOS, for example). As MG Siegler has pointed out, it seems implausible that Apple would go on subsidizing Google, enabling it to make so much money off of iOS, money that it can channel into Android.

-Once one gets into the “Google isn’t invulnerable” mindset, it’s easy to see everything as a weakness, sometimes without good reason. But think about its efforts to bring Chrome OS apps to mobile devices. Such a tack seems defensive – a way to halt the decline of the Web and keep matters squarely in the realm of JS, HTML and CSS. I’ve often argued that Chrome OS is more of a breakthrough than Android (it has the potential to disrupt both the business model of Windows PCs and the essential appeal of tablets), but it looks like it could turn into just a moat for Google’s existing (and, to be fair, highly profitable, at least for now) Web businesses.

-Google+ has become the DNA of Google services. Its profile system is a way of indexing Internet users. It has succeeded in helping Google collect more nuanced data, even if it hasn’t exactly done much to blunt the impact of Twitter, Facebook, and others. But now that Vic Gundotra is leaving, Google+ looks weirdly quaint – like nothing more than Gundotra’s messy senior project for getting hired by another firm. There are already rumors that the Google+ team will be split up and sent to other projects (in the same way that the Google Reader team was once chopped up to work on Google’s initial forays into social).

Look, Google isn’t going to turn into AOL or Yahoo. But it should be increasingly apparent that Google is not synonymous with the Internet at large, and is not guaranteed to constantly occupy so much mind share.

How to remake your Android home screen with LINE Deco

Last year, I wrote a popular post about improving your day-to-day experience on Android devices by using launchers, icon packs, battery managers, and other utilities. With so much fragmentation (on both hardware and software), Android can be a tough beast to tame, but using a classic combo such as Nova Launcher + Stark is a good way to essentially get a blank slate so that you can tweak appearance and functionality to your own desire.

Still, it’s a bit of work. Not all users are going to feel comfortable (or be able to) leave behind the stock Android or Google Now launcher for something else. Plus, icon packs can quickly become annoying – they vary widely in the number and type of icons they support, or you might find one that has a great G+ icon but for some crazy reason doesn’t have an icon for Evernote, for example.

Leading icon pack makers, most notably Kovdev, have feature request backlogs that could literally take years to implement, and as such have implemented a premium system under which users can pay a fee to have a particular icon(s) added soon. The great Out There space simulator is one app that I noticed getting the fast-track treatment in Kovdev’s packs. But who is going to pay $5-$10 for an icon?

LINE to the Rescue
LINE is nominally a communications app that includes VoIP calling, OTT messaging, and videoconferencing. Many probably know it as an app that is full of a dizzying array of stickers, revenues from which fuel LINE’s ad-free business model. It’s much more sophisticated that WhatsApp, Viber, or Tango, all three of which have been the subject of blockbuster acquisitions and/or financing this year. It’s heady days for messaging apps.

LINE, though, is an entire platform: just look at its range of services. The LINE Camera app is feature-packed photo editor that taps into the same premium upgrade system as its main messaging. LINE Deco is a custom Android experience in one package – wallpapers and icons included.

Here’s a home screen I made using a combination of different LINE Deco icon packs (many of which are free) and wallpapers:

Line Deco

A home screen remade with LINE Deco

All of these icons are running on the default Google Now launcher on a Nexus 5. LINE Deco has pulled off the feat of making Android customization simultaneously more advanced and much easier to use  (not easy to do) – no extra launchers or standalone icon pack-apps are required, yet users can choose from a huge variety of differently shaped and colored artwork (I went mostly with a hand drawn theme).

Before Facebook began its quest to separate services into multiple apps (Paper, Messenger, Poke) and in the midst of Google’s efforts to do something similar (making core Android functionalities such as the keyboard and Google+ backup photos into their own apps), LINE figured out that an overarching social experience can be distributed across a bunch of interconnected silos. Chatting, calling, customizing your home screen, taking photos – it’s all part of one experience that can be targeted with related apps.

That’s why I said that LINE was a platform. If WhatsApp can be found for $19 billion, it’s hard to fathom what price LINE could command were it actually for sale. It’s letting us make our devices more personalized, while keeping us within its increasingly rich ecosystem. I’m all for this mobile future supported by icon pack and sticker sales rather than tons of ads.

Out There

Out There

Out There

An honest Android game is hard to find. Most are “free,” except with in-app purchases. It’s like buying an apple “for free” at a supermarket and then paying $0.85 to eat it – what’s “free” about that? Free-to-play, free-to-eat, whatever – the mobile gaming world is full of cutthroat pirates obsessed with the word candy and unconcerned with your experience. Every now and then you get lucky with something like Plants vs. Zombies 2, only to see its makers experiment with pay-to-win lawn mowers.

What a weird feeling it is then when you find a game that doesn’t have any IAP – especially when it so easily could have implemented them to squeeze for you $50 here or there. The cross-platform Out There is at once a throwback to a different type of gaming business model and one hopes a foreshadowing of what’s possible for high-quality mobile games. It only costs $3.99, and despite its labeling in Google Play, there aren’t any IAP.

Out There

Out There is beautifully illustrated

Out There is exquisitely made. The graphics resemble a comic book, with lushly colored sci-fi landscapes. The soundtrack is creepy and beautiful, or basically what you would expect for a deep-space survival adventure. It’s the 22nd century and your character has awoken from cryogenic slumber (having fared better than Ted Williams, apparently) and has to make his way from one galaxy to the next.

Right from the start, Out There has that feeling of there being a long quest ahead, which I don’t always get from mobile games that seem not to look beyond what you’re going to do 5 minutes from now when you run out of rubies/coins/donuts. There’s a dot way across the galaxy and you’ve got to get there, overcoming all sorts of hazards and misfortune along the way.

Out There ship

The ship interface in Out There

Your ship has several main resources – hull strength, fuel, and oxygen. Each one of these depletes as you travel from star system to star system. See what I mean about there being a golden opportunity for IAP here? But Out Here splendidly doesn’t take it. Instead, you can only acquire each element (H/He for fuel; O for oxygen; and Fe for hull and equipment repair) by harvesting them from stars and planets. How novel.

There’s a lot of risk/reward calculus in Out There. For example, you can drill into a planet’s surface to get iron and other metals, but doing so uses some fuel and carries the risk of breaking your drill, in which case you’ll have to use iron (what you were likely trying to acquire in the first place) to repair it. Your cargo hold is limited, with only a few slots and a cap of 20 units on each of the essential elements. It’s possible to dismantle equipment to make room and harvest elements, but doing so could leave you missing a module you’ll wish you had later on.

Out There light speed

Traveling at the speed of light in Out There.

Traveling through the lonely cosmos of Out There is dangerous. In other words, prepare for a lot of game over’s. You might spin off course and take a bunch of hull damage, or your light speed warp between worlds may fail, leaving you short 20+ fuel and no further along in your quest. The game also has a choose-your-own-adventure element to it, in which you pick one branch on a path and never really know if a choice will net you a nice resource bonus or end your game prematurely.

Out There is exceedingly difficult and unpredictable, and you’ll need a lot of luck to get through it safely. But this isn’t Candy Crush luck – you won’t make it all the way to your destination without putting in some dedicated planning.

Out There galaxy

The Out There galaxy is huge

It reminds me of all the hours I logged as a kid playing Space Quest V: The Next Mutation, another tough trek (heh) that owed a lot to classic sci-fi and burnished its loopy puzzles with gorgeous artwork. Out There isn’t an adventure game per se, but its long-form, challenging characteristics make it feel like an adventurer gamer’s take on Faster Than Light or Mass Effect.