Thursday, 28 July 2011

If you navigate with Google Maps you have no friends

update: bug is fixed in version 5.9

Google Maps is still a long way behind Nokia Maps, but it might get there eventually. The maps in Google Maps are pretty good, its navigation usually works OK and it's free, and the recently added ability to preload some maps to your phone makes offline navigation possible as long as you don't stray too far from your precalculated route. Public transport navigation is a nice feature too, just like searching for info on points of interest straight from the map.

Too bad that the app is infested with plenty of glitches, freezes, force closes and other nasty little bugs.

The update to Google Maps 5.8 added picture uploads and better bookmarks ("places"), but it came with an unwelcome surprise: all your friends are gone!

When you fire up Google Navigation and tap "contacts" it tells you that you don't have any, even though your address book is filled from cover to cover.

Let's see if your friends and enemies come back in the next version of Google Maps, and which new species of bugs will crawl out of the woodwork.

If your phone runs a version of Google Maps that works the way it should, always make a backup before you update (that's why you rooted your phone and installed Titanium Backup). You never know what nasty surprises the next version will bring, so make sure you have a way to go back.

update: bug is fixed in version 5.9

Google Maps (Android Market)

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Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Is GO Launcher EX trying to kill itself?

GO Launcher EX is one of the best Android launchers out there, but it's trying to become one of the worst.

It started with cluttering the menu with useless shortcuts to spamvertise the app to your friends and buy stuff in the GOStore. Then stability started to suffer. Old versions of GO always worked, recent versions often draw a blank and have to rebuild your home screens when you return from another app.

The latest update (version 2.38) forces its screen indicator on your display. You can choose between the old indicator and a new version with new looks, but the option "no screen indicator" is gone. Autohide after a couple of seconds is the only choice left.
Edit: the option to remove the indicator returned, but it doesn't always work.

But the worst part about the new edition is the folder layout. It displays less icons and hides the missing entries behind a swipe gesture (more clicks to get to your apps!). The new folders try to disguise themselves as a pulldown bars. It wouldn't be so bad if this horrible and counter-intuitive folder layout was optional, but GO Launcher gives us no choice. The crippled layout is the only folder display option in the new version of GO.

GO Launcher EX is plagued by a bad case of featuritis. Once upon a time is was a clean, efficient, lightweight, fast launcher, but its makers threw in so much junk that it has become bloatware.

Time for the GO team to make a light version of their launcher which sticks to its core business, instead of cluttering the app with junk and bloat.

And maybe they remove the "phone home" behaviour of the app? GO Launcher EX tries to go online everytime I boot my phone. Of course I blocked it with DroidWall and LBE Privacy Guard, but why does a launcher need to call its maker all by itself? What data does it send out, and why is there no "off" switch in the settings menu?

If you want a vintage version of GO Launcher EX from the good old days, go here:

old versions of GO Launcher EX: v2.27 (uncluttered menu) and v2.37 (old folder layout)

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Friday, 22 July 2011

Nokia Maps on Android, sort of

Android would be much better if it would run Nokia Maps. It doesn't, but maybe that will change?

If your phone runs Froyo or newer, fire up any Android web browser that supports HTML5 (stock browser, Dolphin, etc.) and go to to get a preview of what Nokia Maps on Android could be like. It also works on iPhones.

If you allow your browser to access your location it will show your position on the map. It can calculate and display routes, together with a rough estimate of how long it will take you to walk or drive from A to B. It also shows public transport lines, and you can search for tourist attractions, bars, restaurants, banks, brothels, etc.

It doesn't do voice navigation (yet?), and you'll need to be online to search for places, calculate routes, and see the map. In its present state you're better off with Google Maps for online navigation or a real (but usually expensive) offline navigation app like Navigon or CoPilot.

But that might change. Maybe we're lucky and the future will bring us a true Android port of one of the few apps that makes me keep my old Nokia as a backup phone. A Symbian emulator might also do the job.

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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Viber: a VoIP app that won't shut up

Viber for Android finished its closed beta testing phase. The open test version has made it to the Android Market.

Free calls and SMSs

Viber is a VoIP app that lets you call and SMS other Viber users for free. No need to sign up, because your phone number is your account name. To make sure others don't abuse your number Viber sends you a verification code by SMS. That SMS never arrived on my phone, but the backup method (giving you the code in a phone call) worked.

Calling and texting works as expected. Sound quality is comparable to VoIP apps like CSipSimple and much better than Skype, Nimbuzz, or fring. It almost makes you forget the horrible purple interface and lack of video calls.

Calls consume 0.25 MB per minute each way. Half a megabyte per minute adds up to 30 MB per hour, so even without an unlimited data plan it can work out cheaper than regular phone calls. When you're not making calls Viber uses very little data, but some bytes trickle in the background to keep the connection alive. And it does stay alive, whether you like it or not.

Won't shut up

The competition knows that you don't want to be available 24/7, and therefore comes with an off switch. Apps like CSipSimple, Skype, Nimbuzz, and fring also let you choose whether you want them to autostart or wait until you launch them yourself.

Not so for Viber. It's set to autostart and won't let you change it. It doesn't let you sign out, quit, exit, or otherwise tell the app to shut up when you want to be unavailable without disabling your mobile internet connection. You can kill it with a task manager or force-stop it from the Android settings, but even then it relaunches itself after a while.

It seems that Viber Media, Inc. thinks its app is so great that nobody would ever want to switch it off. The Android Market comments clearly show that many people disagree. And rightly so: you may want to be available on Wi-Fi but not on 3G. Viber doesn't give you that choice.

When you install Viber it asks for many many many Android permissions. Most of them make sense (all VoIP apps want access to your contacts and permission to go online), but why does Viber want access to my location?

Future of Viber

In its present state Viber is totally free. No fees, no ads, not a single way to make Viber Media, Inc. earn a single penny. That's how Nimbuzz and fring started, and then they introduced ads and paid services on top of the free features. Viber will go the same route. Once its user base is large enough to do business they will add premium services to feed their programmers.

A Viber employee wrote on several blogs and forums:
So why is Viber free?
For now, Viber's focus is on adding platforms, adding features (such as text messages) and improving overall system performance. At the same time, we are working on additional future premium services that will generate revenues. The basic Viber service - Viber to Viber phone calls, and soon text messages, will always be free.

You can only use the VoIP features of Viber to connect to other Viber users, and it only runs on Android and iPhone. The good news is that Viber is working on Blackberry and Symbian versions, and on a PC client too. No word about Windows phones yet, though. Viber would be a lot better if it would use open standards so that it can integrate with other VoIP, SMS, and chat apps. Unfortunately they've chosen the closed Skype business model. Maybe they'll release an api so other apps (like CSipSimple) can connect to Viber? It would be nice to have all my VoIP options together in one app, just like I have all my chat contacts in a single multi network messenger.

The verdict

Viber has potential, but without an off switch it's too intrusive. I've removed Viber from my phone. I'll only put it back if its makers add an exit button and an option to stop it from starting automatically.

Edit: according to a Viber employee on the xda forum:
"Anyway, very soon we will add 2 new improvements:
1. An "Exit" button that will allow user to shut off Viber when they need.
2. We will reduce the frequency of requests to connect to the server from Viber."
No word yet on making autostarting optional, but it seems that Viber is willing to listen to its users. Maybe they'll add a switch to control autostarting too.

Viber Media, Inc.
Viber (Android Market)

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Sunday, 17 July 2011

ES File Explorer phones home if you give it root access

ES File Explorer is one of the best file managers for Android. In addition to managing your local files and folders it has a built-in ftp client (but no ftp server), does bluetooth file transfers, connects to Samba servers, talks with Dropbox (and lets you transfer entire folders, which the official Dropbox app won't do), unpacks zip and rar archives, can put shortcuts to files on your home screens, and... works as a root explorer too.

The root explorer function of ES File Explorer means that you don't need apps like Root Explorer (which is not free) or File Expert (which has an inferior user interface).

The root explorer function of ES File Explorer used to work on a few ROMs only, but a recent update makes it work on all Android phones.

So far, so good. But there's a catch. ES File Explorer used to be a very well-behaved app that only went online when you told it to go online, e.g. when connecting to an ftp server or a Dropbox account. But when you enable root access ES File Explorer goes online everytime it runs, and it doesn't tell you why it goes online, what data it sends out, and how you can switch this suspicious behaviour off.

I'll give the app the benefit of the doubt for now. It probably sends out statistics to tell the developer if the root explorer code works. But maybe it does something else? More info from the developer would be appreciated, and an off switch for non-essential online activity is a must. Especially for an app with root access that can read all your files.

Of course you can stop ES File Explorer from phoning home with DroidWall, but then you miss out on its ftp and Dropbox features. You can also disable root acces for ES File Explorer (it doesn't go online then, unless you connect to a remote file server) and use File Expert when you need root access to play with your system folders.

ES File Explorer (Android Market)
ES File Explorer (EStrongs)
File Expert (Android Market)

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Monday, 11 July 2011

Backup your old apps, because newer is not always better

There's a site called with old versions (duh!) of programs for Windows, Linux, and Mac.

Unfortunately doesn't have old versions of Android apps. Maybe they'll have 'em in the future, but for now the place to get older editions of Android apps is on Android forums of ill repute.

In a perfect world we could simply reload old app versions from the Android Market. Idea for Google: add a "revert to previous version" button to the Market. But the Android world is far from perfect. Apps on the Android Market come in one flavor only: the newest version. Even if the newest version doesn't work for you.

Why be old skool?

There are many good reasons for using an older version instead of the latest edition. The new version of your favorite app is too bloated to run on your underpowered vintage Droid. New versions may ask for more permissions than you want to give them or come with new obnoxious advertising (the APNdroid disaster comes to mind). Or they introduce new bugs that crash your phone. And sometimes good apps are simply removed from the market by its maker or by Google.

Some examples:

Google Maps recently added two experimental features: public transport navigation and map downloading for offline use. Sounds great, but the new version froze, crashed, and sometimes the only way to get my phone running again was to pull out the battery for a rock-hard reboot. Reverting to the previous version means no new features for the time being, but without a backup of the old version I wouldn't have been able to use Google Maps at all until Google irons out the bugs. Later updates came with fresh new bugs, like the mysterious disappearance of your contacts from Google Navigation.

Skype recently added video calling. Great for cyber sex, but useless if your phone doesn't have a second camera on the front. And anyway, video calling gets old real quick. Years ago I played with video calling on my ancient Nokia, but then the novelty wore off and now my front-facing camera is lonely and neglected. Of course I could have kept the new Skype version and ignore the video call options, but it also came with a new dumbed down interface that is a step back from the good old tabbed layout. So for the time being I keep the old version.

GO Launcher EX is a great Android launcher. Unfortunately it suffers from featuritis. New versions add features and clutter of little or no value, and stability suffers. Some older versions of GO Launcher EX outperform some new editions.

And then there's Facebook. In my opinion its mobile website is way better than the app, but the app has one feature that I like: the Facebook phonebook folder. This folder contains all your Facebook friends who're stupid enough to trust Facebook with their phone numbers. It's an easy way to store the numbers of your fellow Facebook friends and enemies without cluttering your stock phone book app. But only if you stick with Facebook 1.5.2, because this useful feature was removed in later versions.

Go to a museum, or make your own

Since there is no reliable repository of older app versions you'll need to take matters in your own hands. Titanium backs up your app settings so you don't need to go through all the configuration screens again when you reinstall. MyBackup, ES File Explorer, Astro and other apps can also back up your APKs. For most features you'll need a rooted phone.

Titanium Backup
ES File Explorer

If you trust forums like iPmart, OPDA, and Noeman, you can download old app versions from their sites. These forums are like a museum of vintage app versions. Just keep in mind that there's also quite a bit of questionable stuff over there. Of course some people might consider that an advantage.

• list of apps, review sites, and app forums on android underground

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Sunday, 10 July 2011

LBE Privacy Guard update leaves your notification bar alone

LBE Privacy Guard helps you tame your apps. Downloaded something that wants to check your whereabouts for no good reason? Just tell LBE to deny access to your location to that app. Now you can use GPS without worrying about half the planet tracing your footsteps.

You can also control which apps can read your SMSs and which apps don't. Same for other private information like your phone number, IMEI, contacts, etc.

LBE Privacy Guard shows a warning when apps try to do something that may violate your privacy or cost you money. It also keeps detailed and well organised logs to let you check what your apps are up to when you turn your head. Permissions that you can control:
- making phone calls;
- sending SMSs;
- reading your SMSs;
- reading your contacts;
- reading your call logs;
- getting your location (by GPS or from networks);
- identify your phone by IMEI, IMSI, phone number, or SIM card ID;
- internet access.
It's up to you whether you grant or deny permissions. LBE can remember your answer so you don't get flooded with security warnings. You can also tell it to ask you again if you're not sure that your answer is the right one. Exceptions: no prompts for internet access and phone identification, only an allow/deny switch in the settings.

The new LBE Privacy Guard version improves blocking of outgoing SMSs for phones running on Gingerbread (Android 2.3). The user interface got cleaned up a bit, and you can now hide the annoying Vodafone-like icon that used to waste space in your notification bar when LBE was running. At first glance that may seem like a tiny cosmetic issue, but just think about how often your notification bar is looking at you (or the other way 'round).

Apps may refuse to run or even crash when they don't get the permissions they expect. It's a good idea to block permissions one by one so you know what's wrong if an app stops working.

LBE Privacy Guard is all about safely running apps that you don't fully trust. If you don't trust LBE, just tell DroidWall to keep it offline. It's a good idea to use LBE together with DroidWall, because internet is either on or off with LBE. DroidWall lets you fine-tune internet access so you can use different permissions for Wi-Fi and mobile data.

LBE Privacy Guard (Android Market)
LBE Privacy Guard (discussion on xda developers)

LBE Privacy guard and DroidWall require root access.
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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Google Maps update adds downloaded maps for offline use, public transport navigation, and new bugs

Offline use of Google Maps used to be limited to a narrow strip around precalculated routes, but Google Maps finally learned that map browsing without a live internet connection is a useful thing. New in Google Maps 5.7: you can now choose map areas to download. Hit menu/more/labs/download map area, long-tap a spot on the map, and the surrounding area is stored on your memory card as a 15x15 mile block with the tapped spot in the middle.

Map limits

Downloaded maps expire after 30 days, after which you'll have to redownload them if you want to keep 'em. A reason for the time bomb may be that the maps are spotted with landmarks like shops and banks and other businesses that advertise on Google. Of course you'll need the latest sponsors on your maps to keep the bean counters at Google happy.

You can't make the downloaded areas bigger, but you can download multiple 15x15 mile blocks. Unfortunately there seems to be a limit of ten blocks, so forget about loading your entire country on your memory card unless you live in Luxemburg or Andorra. But it's better than nothing, and maybe Google will lift the ten block maximum later on. If Google doesn't drop the limit I'm sure some smart hackers will find a way to bypass it.

Maps are stored as vector graphics so they take little storage space. A 15x15 mile area needs about 3 to 7 megabytes. That's a big advantage over competing free offline map apps like Locus which store maps in a bitmap format that eats gigabytes for breakfast:
- Amsterdam plus suburbs with Google Maps: 5 MB.
- Amsterdam with Locus: over a hundred megabytes, and that's without the closest zoom level and no suburbs either.
On the other hand, Locus lets you download maps from more sources than just Google.

Public transport

Google Maps now also does public transport navigation. With only 400 cities covered worldwide it may not available where you live, but it's a promising start. Google calculates routes and transfers, gives a rough estimate of how long your trip will take, and it can vibrate to remind you that you've reached your destination or have to switch to the next train or bus. It needs to see GPS satellites for those reminder vibes, so it won't work in the subway. And don't forget to double-check the suggested routes to make sure that Google doesn't make you take the long way home.

Note that you can browse maps offline, but route calculations still need internet. Google still has some tricks to learn from the fully offline Nokia Maps.


Unfortunately the new update introduces some new bugs and other annoyances.

Google Maps loads the network location process as a background service that won't go away. Kill it and it instantly resurrects like a phoenix, even when you disable network location in the settings menu. Workaround: go to the Maps entry in the Android settings app and tap "force stop." Maybe Google will see the light and make the background service only run when needed in a future update? Yes, I know that previous versions had the same bad manners, so a fix is long overdue. Especially now, because...

...there's a bug that makes my phone run like a snail on tranquilizers or even freeze when I run Google Maps 5.7. The sluggishness persists even after I kill the maps app, so I'll blame the network location background service that refuses to go away (killing it by "force close" makes my phone run smooth again). Processor overload or memory leak? Whatever it is, Google needs to fix this. There are many others who reported the same issue in the Market comments. The bug bites different phones. It makes Google Maps 5.7 totally useless for me, so I had to go back to version 5.6.2.

This bug could bite you too, so don't update Google Maps (or any other app) until you made a backup of a version that works. Apps like Titanium and MyBackup can save the old version for you, so there you have another reason to root your phone if you didn't root it already.

While the coders at Google are busy ironing out the bugs maybe they can also repair the auto-update checkbox in the Android Market? If you allow the market to auto-update Google Maps you can't switch it off anymore (unless you use a third party trick like the market auto updates tool in Titanium). A fix is urgently required because force-feeding updates is totally wrong.

Google Maps (Android Market)

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