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Tag Archives: nexus

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

Screenshot_2014-05-16-21-05-01

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

Screenshot_2013-07-07-15-11-32

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

Screenshot (09-31PM, May 16, 2014)

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

Screenshot_2013-04-21-12-24-00

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.

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Vine for Android: Not Good Enough

Android version of Vine

Vine for Android: a puzzling design decision to some of us

Vine has been available for Android for a couple of weeks, and my verdict is that it just does not provide a good experience at this time. Sadly, Vine’s shortcomings are not only indicative of the age-old, ongoing quality gap between apps with versions on both iOS and Android, but it explains them, too. Its simultaneous failures of design and massive popularity are a good microcosm for Android itself and its characteristics. To wit, Vine for Android:

  • has no limit on caching and as such can occupy 100s of MB of on-device storage
  • doesn’t have a push notification system: it notifies you via rich Jelly Bean notification that your video is being uploaded (good), but is mum if someone likes or comments on your post (bad).
  • is full of spam and fakes (I guess this is to be expected; even Instagram is overrun by follower-mills and spammers now)
  • doesn’t yet support front-facing camera or tags.
  • feels gummy and unresponsive when navigating to some users’ profiles, to the extent that it won’t even show their posts sometimes.

Many of these issues, like front-facing camera support, are likely to be addressed in updates. However, the overall sloppiness of the design makes Vine’s arrival on Android a pyrrhic victory of sorts. Yes, we got a hot app, but its developers treat us as if we don’t respect quality or good design. They treat Android users this way because for now a unified, huge, design-conscious Android audience sadly doesn’t really exist.

The best Android apps, other than the ones Google makes, are often either exclusive to the platform, like Falcon Pro, Eye in Sky, or Friday, or they exploit something unique about Android, like UCCW, Dashclock, or other widgets, or they capitalize upon some odd platform disparity between iOS and Android, like Pocket Casts, which takes advantage of less competition on Android and lack of a Google-made podcasting client. Whether they achieved success via exclusivity, astute platform exploitation, luck, or all of the above, Android’s best apps (a category that includes all of the apps listed above, sans Vine) are often targeted at such a niche audience that they aren’t so much “Android apps” as “Nexus/power-user apps.” They often require at least ICS or even Jelly Bean to even run, but more importantly, they require a user who cares about Android and who didn’t just pick up her/his device because AT&T said so or because it was so cheap.

Accordingly, it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about “Android” as a monolithic platform. Many Android users are on an older OS version or don’t even know that they’re running Android: their phone is just a phone that can do email and Facebook and maybe a few other things. Android’s fragmentation certainly exists, but it’s fragmentation of intent more so that fragmentation of OS version, the latter of which I think is just a product of the former, since not enough users care enough (or need) to seek the latest version of Android. Android isn’t “good” yet (if by “good” we mean “characterized by predominantly active, non-incidental, Android-first users) because of this disparity.

A year and a half ago, someone told me that Android was “the new Mac,” that is, that it was a trendy alternative to iOS, which had become so widespread that it could be regarded as the OS for normals. This struck me as an odd statement at the time: how could Android, with its huge user numbers, possibly be compared to the Mac back when it struggled to keep up with the PC? Isn’t Android the PC equivalent in the smartphone wars, the equivalent of a commoditized beige box? Well, no, depending on what specific “Android” demographic you’re talking about, and she did seem to be talking about the niche Nexus user demographic.

First of all, the best Android hardware and the latest Android software both have an elegance and sophistication – likely driven by Google’s own design chops – that Windows has never had. But more to the point: the number of users who actually know that they are “Android users” and not “Droid users” (i.e., users who only have a superficial connection to the brand via Verizon’s massively successful 2009 campaign) or “Samsung users” or “phone-that-emails-and-Facebooks users,” is almost certainly small. There have been roughly 3 million Nexus 4s sold all-time, next to nothing compared to even the Galaxy S4’s haul for May alone: and that’s considered a blockbuster by “stock Android” standards!

Nexus users like me comprise a hugely active and outspoken (especially on Google+) part of what the world sees as the “Android community.” We are just the tip of the iceberg, and interpreting their power-user, anti-Apple, customization-crazy intents as the modus operandi for the hundreds of millions of incidental and accidental Android users is misguided. Like the unseen part of an iceberg, those users elevate the power-users to greater visibility, since the media cares about Android seemingly because: 1) it’s not iOS; 2) it’s popular. Those users are perhaps like 1990s PC users, but the ones on the tip, the Nexus types, are perhaps more like Mac users: outnumbered (by their very different “Android” brethren and, if one grants this differentiation of populations within “Android,” then by iOS users, too) and outspoken.

So the Nexus users will complain about Vine’s shortcomings, while everyone else on Android – the incidental customers or users on older versions – won’t care and will download and use it anyway. The latter group is the reason why Vine for Android even exists (you don’t see Vine for Windows Phone, do you?) but also the reason why its design isn’t on par with the iOS design. “Android” doesn’t have just one addressable demographic, since its different user groups may as well be using (and being conscious of) different platforms altogether, and because of this, we get the only-on-Android odd scenario of a massively popular app that, given the chance to do so much, does only the bare minimum and gets away with it, despite protests from the minority.

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.

Dashclock Widget for Android (4.2+): 13 of the Best Extensions

Dashclock

A sample Dashclock Widget, with extensions for Eye in Sky Weather, Battery Widget Reborn, Logika Word of the Day, and inQuotes.

Dashclock Widget is a revelation. It has become so integrated into my daily workflow on my Nexus 4 that I forget that it isn’t an Android system app and that it is in fact a 3rd-party solution (albeit one developed by a former Googler, Roman Nurik). When an app reaches this level, at which it no longer requires any effort or second thought to use, then I know that its functionality and design have resonated not just with me but likely with thousands of other users, too. If you need a quick primer about Dashclock, I’ve written one here.

The best thing about Dashclock, however, is that it is an ecosystem unto itself, a mini OS that governs your Android 4.2+ lockscreen (seriously, Google should acquire this app). Many Android developers have now created extensions for Dashclock and diversified and enriched its functionality. Out of the “box,” Dashclock supports Gmail, SMS, missed calls, weather (from the stock Android weather app), Google Calendar, and Alarm/Clock. 3rd-party extensions typically add support for other apps (like Google Voice) or display their own curated sets of data (like quotes). Some topshelf Android apps have Dashclock support baked-in, meaning that you only have to add their extension in the Dashclock settings menu.

Here’s a roundup of 13 of my favorite Dashclock extensions (why 13? Because I’m feeling unlucky today, that’s why).

AnyDash Pro

As its name suggests, AnyDash Pro lets you add an extension for any currently installed Android app. Simply pick an app, and then pick an icon to go with it. You’ll have to grant AnyDash Pro the appropriate Accessibility permissions so that it can monitor your notifications. My favorite apps to pair with AnyDash Pro are Snapchat, stock Email client, Words With Friends, and Google Voice.

Battery Widget Reborn

This app is an all-star. It gives long-term charts and history about your battery usage and life, with nice charts and relevant statistics (e.g., “battery usually lasts [time]”). It can also put your phone into “Night Mode” (with mobile data, wifi, Bluetooth, and background sync all disabled) automatically during assigned time periods. Its Dashclock extension shows the predicted amount of battery life left, or, if the device is charging, how long you’ll have to wait until it’s fully charged.

Dashclock Custom Extension

As its name suggests, this extension lets you add an action, icon, and title/text of any kind to your Dashclock. Want to launch Chrome or toggle Bluetooth? You can do it with a simple tap.

Dashclock Facebook Extension

I’m not much of a Facebook user, but this extension is useful if you are: it shows counts
and extended text for global notifications as well as Facebook messages.

Dashclock inQuotes Extension

This is a simple extension that provides a thoughtful or inspirational (or sometimes depressing) quote from a famous person. You can customize the content areas you want the quotes to pertain to (tech, love, etc.), as well as the refresh frequency.

Dashclock Keep Extension

Do you like Google Keep? Me too! It’s the best way to get a stock Android experience while taking notes, making lists, and saving images. This handy extension gives you immediate access to Keep, and better yet, it lets you configure what action you trigger when you tap its Dashclock icon: you can browse notes, or go directly to creating a new note or new list.

Dashclock SMS Extension

Dashclock can already display an SMS extension by default, but this 3rd-party extension
does a little more: it shows the actual unread count for your SMS/MMS, rather than the number of unread conversations. So if you have five new SMS from one person, it’ll show
that, rather than “1 Unread Conversation,” which wouldn’t give you a sense of how many
messages that person had really sent.

Dashclock Word of the Day

I used to use Dictionary.com’s app for a daily word of the day, but I eventually discarded
it due to the ugliness of its widget. This provides a much better solution: the word and its definition are shown in Dashclock, and can be clicked to take you to the Merriam-Webster page.

Eye in Sky Weather (Pro)

Eye in Sky is the greatest of all Android weather apps – it has a killer widget, lots of cool icon packs, and a persistent notification with hip language (“refreshingly cool,” e.g.) and a graphical preview of the rest of the day’s weather. It also supports Dashclock, with an icon to show the current condition, as well as read-out about the condition and temperature. There’s no reason not to ditch the stock weather extension for Eye in Sky’s version. And please, support the developer by upgrading to the Pro license (it removes the annoying in-notification adds, too).

Press

Press is snazzy RSS client that simplifies your reading experience and taps into Feedly Cloud, Feed Wrangler, and Feedbin, so that you’ll not need to fret Google Reader’s imminent demise.

PushBullet

This is a great app in its own right that lets you access links and files that you’ve pushed to your Android device using either the PushBullet website or the handy Chrome extension. Its Dashclock extension previews the content of the most recent push and shows you an applicable push count.

Robin

Robin is an amazing client for App.net (ADN), with some of the smoothness scrolling I’ve ever seen on an Android app and a rich set of features. Its Dashclock extension lets you preview any notifications.

Sound Search for DashClock

This nifty extension lets you perform a search on the current song playing and it lets you utilize Shazam, Sound Search for Google Play, or SoundHound.

BONUS!

Dashclock Stardate

If you’re a Star Trek nerd (like I am), this extension is a lot of fun. You can see the current Stardate, plus you can configure it according to whichever series/timeline you prefer (I use The Original Series). It clicks-thru to Google Calendar, too.

The Trek Episode Guide app is also a great resource if you’re a Trekkie.

Should Google Make its Own Hardware?

Android and Me has a post up about the need for Google to build its own Nexus hardware. The argument goes: since the company’s complete control over the Chromebook Pixel, Nexus Q, and Google Glass resulted in outstanding products, the company should just go all-in on hardware.

I don’t think I agree. Of the three products cited, I would only really be proud of the Pixel, which, while expensive, has top-class features and could spearhead more disruption for the Windows PC market in particular. But body-wise, it’s still something that couldn’t have existed without the MacBook Pro as an antecedent, and its touchscreen, like the touchscreen in any Win8 ultrabook, suffers from odd performance but more broadly from a “what’s this good for?” syndrome, whereby touch is applied to ancient desktop metaphors rather than to touch-first/touch-only ones. The Nexus Q didn’t even make it to sale. And Google Glass? Well, I think it’s mostly hype, driven by a tech press that has yet to realize that categorical disruptions like the iPhone and the iPad and even the Android OS itself are the exception rather than the rule, and are usually organic and unpredictable rather than forced like Glass is. And then there’s the myriad privacy issues that Glass will only exacerbate.

Google’s current slew of Nexus hardware – the 4, 7, and 10 – are OEM products that are by and large fantastic. Perhaps they’re not ground-shaking innovations (although the Nexus 4 is arguably the first Android phone whose full experience is on par with the iPhone’s), but they’re beautiful and functional. So where does this desire for Google-branded Nexus hardware come from?

As much as it pains me to say it: Apple envy. But Google cannot easily be like Apple (this is not a normative statement, but a simple descriptive one). Apple makes its money in transparent, conventional ways: it sells products to end-users. For all of the bluster about Apple representing everything that’s closed and proprietary, Apple is straightforward when it comes to sales numbers, because that’s what Apple does: sell items to anyone would will buy them. Google, on the other hand, makes money in ways that most people on the street probably don’t understand, such as taking money from advertisers and promoters. Whereas Apple users have almost always directly paid Apple for their devices and services, someone could go about using most Google services without ever paying Google anything and instead paying hidden fees in the terms of opening themselves up to advertisers and data collection

Why does this difference matter? It means that, as currently constituted, hardware and integrated user experiences are not central to Google’s DNA, because Google doesn’t care that much about the end-user. The end-user is not Google’s customer; the advertiser is. This could change, sure. But I doubt it will change that soon, given that Google has gone all-in on making top-shelf iOS apps in order to monetize (via ads and data collection) what it must realize is the much more monetizable iOS user base. Google just wants its services (Maps, Gmail, YouTube, etc.) to be used by as many people on as many platforms as possible. Accordingly, it doesn’t have any existential drive or need to create a completely vertically integrated experience like Apple has done. Even when it has tried, such as with the Chromebook Pixel, the result is still a low-selling niche device whose capabilities likely won’t please the same broad range of persons who are sated by any iOS/OS X device.

The weak assumed sales numbers for the Nexus 10 in particular reinforce all of these points. Google is more than happy to use Chrome, or Maps, or Gmail to create trojan horses on other platforms so that it can keep its ad money flowing in, so why does it have to focus on device manufacturing, design, and sale? If it wanted to make real block-blusters that pushed the envelope for design and innovation, it would have to change its fundamental corporate DNA, and I just don’t see that happening for a while yet, if ever.

The tone-deafness of Glass and Sergey Brin’s justification for it are exhibit one in how far Google has to go on the hardware front. Or, just look at Microsoft: it, too, is struggling to get into the hardware business, because the Microsoft of late is a company that makes money not so much from selling to end-users as to businesses and OEMs. Since Apple cares almost exclusively about end-users, it still occupies a position in hardware that both Microsoft and Google will struggle to duplicate.

-The ScreenGrab Team