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Tag Archives: social network

How to Improve your Android Experience (Without Rooting)

If you have a new Android phone or tablet, or even if you have an older Android device that you’re looking to get more out of, then you can upgrade your experience in only a few minutes using a collection of free and paid apps. Fortunately, you won’t have to root your phone or risk damaging its software in anyway along the way.

Most of the apps and services described below require at least Android 4.0. Some of them have free versions, but I’ve linked to the paid version when possible, since I want to support these developers and to promote ad-free software.

1. Install a custom launcher

Nova Launcher

Nova Launcher in action.

What’s a custom launcher? In plain English, it’s the service that is triggered whenever you hit the home button on your phone or open up your all apps drawer. Facebook Home is the most famous custom launcher for Android, but it isn’t good, because it does the opposite of what a good launcher should do: enhance the value of your entire suite of apps and services.

Nova Launcher (Prime) is one of my favorite custom launchers. Here’s what it lets you do:

  • Change how your app icons look: see the entry below on icon packs.
  • Hide icons for unused system apps (without disabling them): you won’t have to skim over “Navigation” or “News and Weather” anymore.
  • Control your home screens with custom gestures: for example, double tap to bring up Nova Settings, pinch-out to show multitasking bar, or pinch-in to see all homescreens, for example.
  • Add unread counts to certain app icons: Android doesn’t support these numbered badges by default.
  • Scroll more quickly thru screens: Nova and other launchers allow for rapid, silky smooth animations and screen transitions.
Settings Android

Nova Settings menu, from which you can hide specific apps or customize your gestures, folders, desktop, and dock.

2. Buy an icon pack or use LINE Deco

Icon Pack Android

The Lustre icon pack for Android, running on Nova Launcher Prime.

Icon packs can beautify your Android experience by giving all of your app icons a unified aesthetic (e.g., make them all blue, or make them all square and flat). They only work if you are running a custom launcher. In many cases, the icon pack will radically change how an app’s icon look and how you think about it: Snapchat may become like a Pac-Man ghost, for example:

Icon Pack Android

SMPL Blue icon pack running on Nova Launcher Prime. Note the Snapchat icon the second from left in the dock.

My favorites include: SMPL Blue, Stark, Vintage, and Lustre. LINE Deco is also a great option since it’s free and has a ton of constantly updated with community contributions:

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

A home screen made with LINE Deco

3. Replace the stock Android keyboard

Swype Keyboard for Android

Swype + Dragon in action.

Android’s keyboard took a quantum leap forward with gesture typing in Jelly Bean, but it’s no match for some of the 3rd-party alternatives available (and said alternatives are essential if you’re running a version of Android that doesn’t support gesture typing out of the box).

My favorite is Swype, which is much more accurate, features a good dictation system (called Dragon), lots of custom gestures, and uses an account system to backup your custom dictionaries. It will literally save you minutes each day by cutting down on stupid autocorrect mistakes or miscues from the stock keyboard.

SwiftKey is another popular alternative. Also, if you don’t have Google Keyboard, it’s free to download.

4. Install Dashclock Widget

Dashclock Widget Android

A sample Dashclock Widget running on Android 4.2.2. Extensions for Eye in Sky Weather, Battery Widget Reborn, inQuotes, and Logika Word of the Day have been added.

Dashclock Widget is a must-have for Android 4.2+. It gives you a rich set of information (unread Gmail/SMS, missed calls, weather) right on your lockscreen, plus it’s highly customizable via slew of 3rd-party extensions.

5. Install DuckDuckGo Search and Stories

Screenshot_2014-08-31-15-27-07

The DuckDuckGo search bar and story feed.

DuckDuckGo is an alternative search engine, but it’s not a second-rate Google clone. It gives the same results to every person (no filter bubble), plus it’s the best generic news reader I’ve ever used on Android. It draws upon various subreddits and leading publications (NYT, WSJ, Re/code, Vox) to provide a fast, unique overview of the day’s news. Plus, it’s compatible with Orbot for secure prowling via a Tor proxy.

6. Install Battery Widget Reborn

Battery Widget Reborn Android

Data from Battery Widget Reborn.

Battery Widget Reborn is an efficient way to keep tabs on your battery level, usage, and history. It has a persistent, expandable notification that can give you estimated battery life remaining (or time until the phone is fully charged) and that can also put the phone into “night mode,” disabling all mobile data, background sync, wifi, and bluetooth for as long as you wish. You can also set up automatic “night mode” periods, such as from 12-8am.

7. Tweak your input settings for better battery life

Battery saving Android

Two of the settings (circled) that can disabled for better battery life.

You can save a ton of battery life on Android by simply tweaking some settings like haptic feedback, lock/unlock sounds, and 2g/3g network usage. I’ve written a more comprehensive entry about battery life here.

8. Install MX Player Pro

MX Player Pro video player Android

MX Player Pro’s default screen.

Android isn’t good at video playback. Luckily, MX Player Pro solves that problem by giving you a clean, hardware-accelerated player with lots of simple gestures.

9. Use top-shelf alternatives to official/stock social network apps

Flipster Pro for Facebook

Flipster Pro for Facebook showing a sample NewsFeed.

The official Facebook app is a battery-drainer and remarkably unstable, too. Twitter has been getting better, but I still prefer a 3rd-party client. Many of these clients, whether they are for Twitter or another network, often have better design and are more battery-efficient (in the case of Facebook and Twitter clients, they refresh less often). Here are some good clients to use:

10. Maximize your widgets

BW Pro / Beautiful Widgets

Beautiful Widgets Pro screensaver/Daydream, with windshield wiper animation to indicate rain.

Many apps have widgets that can display useful information and act as your launcher icon for that app (so that you don’t have to stick its icon in your dock or on your homescreen. There are a lot of good widgets, as well as some good standalone widgets apps like the peerless Beautiful Widgets Pro, which I used to display the current date and weather.

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5 Reasons to Be Skeptical of Facebook Home

FB Android

Facebook Home (for Android)

Facebook has its own phone now. It’s a midrange HTC phone called the HTC First, which can be bought for $99 on a 2-year AT&T contract in the U.S. (EE and Orange are supported in Europe). It runs a lightly customized version of Android (not even a fork) called Facebook Home. For a few other compatible non-First phones, Facebook Home can be downloaded as an app from the Google Play Store. Facebook Home provides deeper social notifications, such as full-screen (ad-choked) notifications on your lock screen and home screen, and these notifications come from people rather than from apps, apparently.

As with most things Facebook-related, I regard this as a ton of hype from a company that is essentially a one hit wonder. Here’s why I remain skeptical of Facebook Home.

1. “People First” is a Losing Strategy

Facebook Home is, to use the company’s own language, all about people and not apps. If that sounds familiar, it should. Microsoft has been using the same language to talk about WIndows Phone for some time now. What’s worse, this tagline doesn’t even make sense: are the apps you use on Android or iOS somehow not about “people”? The portrait of the stock iOS/Android user that one gets from FB and MS is of someone who indulges lots of discrete, antisocial apps like PDF readers, music players, podcasting clients, and note-takers, and that somehow this must be stopped by putting “people” back at the forefront.

But this portrait is bullshit. It ignores every trend that’s happened on iOS and Android over the past five years. Just look at iOS alone. For an OS that’s not about “people,” it was the perfect proving ground for Instagram (an app so popular that FB had to desperately buy it for ~$1B), Flipboard, Albumatic, and Vine. Cross-platform (read: iOS + Android above others) apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp, and other SMS-replacements have also sprung up without any need to embrace the FB/MS “people first” ethos. As Michael Gartenberg has noted, resorting to this type of language indicates that one is actually very much involved in a heated battle over apps. It’s always about apps, in other words, and the only people who talk about “people” instead are the ones who are losing the app race. If people were all that mattered, a simple dumbphone with a contacts list would be enough.

2. Facebook Still Doesn’t Get Mobile

FB has the same problem as MS, namely that it wasn’t born mobile (to use Qualcomm’s icky catchphrase) and is having to adjust accordingly. The “app” concept – that high-quality, mostly self-contained programs that do a narrow range of things well – was so revolutionary because it finally addressed the silent majority of users who never multitask and just want their software to do well-defined tasks in relative isolation from each other, while preserving OS stability and device battery life. This is why iOS is so successful and appealing to multiple demographics. From the demos at today’s presentation, Facebook Home has all of the charm of a PC-era trojan that hijacks your device. Facebook is already a huge battery drainer on Android, and now that it has deeper access to your device, as well as the ability to run ads in your cover feed, it’s going to do everything it can to erase the optimized experience that iOS and top-tier Android have been working toward for years. Of course, many people won’t care.

3. It’s Confusing

Most people don’t know what a launcher is. This won’t be a problem for users who buy the HTC First, but for people who download the Home app (odd how a service “not about apps” is itself an app only salable via Google’s Play Store), it’ll be interesting to see how well an app that takes over your entire Android experience fares. Custom launchers (Nova, Apex, Go) are usually the province of power users who know Android in and out, but for the casual FB user, it’ll likely be hard to get back to the stock Android launcher once they go through with the Home setup. This specter of a potentially broken, overly complicated software experience relates back to point #2.

4. Who Will Buy The Hardware?

The HTC First is $99 with a 2-year contract with AT&T. For the same price, you could get a Galaxy S3 on any of the four major American carriers, or an iPhone 4S with Facebook integration into iOS, ad-free. Which would you choose? Granted, I have a low opinion of the savvy of many Facebook users and as such may underestimate how many of them may want to walk into AT&T and buy “the Facebook phone.”

5. Facebook is an iPhone-centric Company

Zuckerberg himself uses an iPhone, and the rest of the company seems to have given much more mindshare to the simple iOS experience, without going out its way to exploit the peculiarities of Android (widgets, larger screen sizes, etc.)

-The ScreenGrab Team

Twitter’s TweetDeck Tweaks a Validation for Chrome and Chrome OS

Quick entry, since the last one is a bit longer.

Twitter has announced that it will abandon the iPhone, Android, and Adobe AIR versions of TweetDeck, a powerhouse Twitter client that it acquired two years ago. It’ll also cease Facebook integration, which I find unsurprising given Facebook’s gradual decline. It’ll maintain the native Mac and PC apps, but it really wants to use its versions for Web and/or Chrome.

The focus on Chrome is interesting. TweetDeck for Chrome has gotten access to some features (like notifications) more quickly than other versions, and its sleek, almost Holo-esque column layout is seemingly made for Chrome’s aesthetic.  On Chrome OS, TweetDeck is indispensable: it maintains its beautiful Web aesthetic while also running in its own application window, a trait reserved almost exclusively for the Chrome OS Files app, which manages your downloads and Google Drive storage. Other than possibly Falcon Pro for Android, it’s the best Twitter experience I’ve had on any platform.

For Twitter power users and Chrome OS fans, there’s something validating about TweetDeck migrating to a largely Web-based existence. For one, it validates Chrome OS’s approach to software, that is, that software can serve most people’s needs by simply running from within a well-designed browser. But Twitter’s move here also demonstrates the subtle divide between mobile and desktop OSes – Twitter’s statement said:

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a steady trend towards people using TweetDeck on their computers and Twitter on their mobile devices,”

meaning that native remains the way to go for mobile while Web is good enough for desktops. Chrome OS’s subtle blend of a Web Tweetdeck app that runs as in its own window as a pseudo native app really is a perfect distillation of how Chrome OS nimbly straddles the mobile/desktop OS boundary.

In any event, Twitter seems to be emphasizing that it is a platform and not an “app.” It’s been a rough go lately for 3rd-party Twitter apps, thanks to the new API rules that limit those apps to only 100,000 user tokens per version and now this scaling back of TweetDeck. The migration away from app-centric computing bodes well for Chrome OS, although I doubt that the native Twitter apps for iOS/Android are going away anytime soon.

-The ScreenGrab Team