Monday, 29 August 2011

ArchiDroid unpacks zips, rars, and many other formats

Most built-in file managers can unpack zip files, but you'll need non-stock apps to extract other formats like rar, 7zip, etc.

File manager ES File Explorer unwraps zips and rars, File Expert opens zip, rar, tar, gzip and a few other formats. AndroZip extracts zip, rar, tar, gzip, bzip, and 7zip. All of them can create zips too.

New kid on the block ArchiDroid unpacks zip, rar, tar, gzip, bzip2, and 7zip. It also opens password protected zips and rars. What really makes it stand out is that it knows how to deal with split rar archives. Of course it can make zips, including encrypted zip archives.

ArchiDroid is free, it doesn't have ads, and it doesn't ask for permission to go online.

ArchiDroid (Android Market)

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Sunday, 28 August 2011

Offline dictionaries for Android: user interface of Euro Dictionary got a tiny little bit better, but keep a copy of DictionaryForMIDs

There are plenty of dictionary and translation apps for Android that tap into Google Translate, but if you need a free offline translator there's not much choice.

The Android port of DictionaryForMIDs lets you download many dictionaries (including WordNet and an ancient version of Webster). Too bad that its user interface is a mess.

The user interface of Euro Dictionary is equally bad. Most screen space is unused, with almost every option hidden under the menu button. Not that there are many options, though.

The latest version of Euro Dictionary adds language pair reversal, so you don't have to scroll the language list twice to switch from english-french to french-english. This option is hidden in the menu instead of being available in the main screen. Worse yet, it's not accessible from the start screen, so you'll need to do a dummy translation before you can reverse languages.

The dictionaries of Euro Dictionary are not that good. It only supports 11 languages, the vocabularies are limited, and most four letter words are missing.

On the bright side, Euro Dictionary will speak the words if you tap 'em. The language has to be supported by Android's text to speak engine to make it work, so you may need to download extra languages.

DictionaryForMIDs has better dictionaries and many more languages, but Euro Dictionary supports text to speech. Maybe they'll join forces one day to produce a really good free offline dictionary and translation powerhouse? Until then, don't choose. Just use both of 'em.

Euro Dictionary (Android Market)
DictionaryForMIDs (Android Market)
DictionaryForMIDs (SourceForge)

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Saturday, 27 August 2011

Make your battery last longer without dumbing down your smartphone

Phones get better all the time. Innovation goes real quick, except for one thing: your 22nd century smartphone is powered by a 19th century battery.

You can plug your phone into a wall or USB port whenever you get a chance, but you'll need to have a power source and cable around for that, which defeats the purpose of a mobile pocket-sized device. That's why you need to tell your phone to go easy on your battery.

There are plenty of sites that tell how to increase the battery life of your phone. Most of these sites repeat the same story: switch off everything that makes your smartphone smart and your battery will last all weekend.

But what if you want to stretch your battery without dumbing down your phone too much?

Root and undervolt

Rooting your phone doesn't make any difference to your battery, but it opens up ways to make your phone less hungry for power. A rooted phone can be undervolted, which can increase battery life by hours without any performance loss. SetVSel is an example of an app that can undervolt (and under- or overclock) your phone. There are many similar apps, so there's always one that works for you.

Control your radios with a power widget

Keeping your GPS, data and WiFi radios running all the time is like leaving the lights on when you go out or brushing your teeth with the tap running.

GPS sucks your battery dry quicker than anything else. In theory you can keep it running, because it's only active if an app needs it. In real life there are plenty of apps that abuse your GPS position for no other reason than to spy on you or download ads targeted at your location. Switch GPS off when you don't need it. Network location eats less power, but if you use lots of apps that request network location for no good reason your battery will pay for it.

Mobile data consumes lots of battery power when used, so use WiFi if available. However, an idle WiFi connection uses more battery power than an idle mobile data connection, especially when you're on the move and your phone keeps jumping from one router to the next. If you keep a standby connection to keep Viber or Whatsapp online use this rule of the thumb: WiFi when indoors, mobile data when on the move.

If you live in a place full of free WiFi or if you're roaming abroad and you're not gonna use the overpriced international 3G or 4G connections, switch your phone to 2G mode. It doesn't matter for WiFi. It doesn't make a difference for voice calls either. But switching to 2G-only makes your battery last a lot longer.

In a meeting, classroom, at a concert? If you're not answering your phone, then why let it shake to inform you about calls and texts that you're gonna ignore anyway? Don't put your phone in vibration mode if you have no intention of using it. Use airplane mode instead. Of course switching your phone off during meetings makes it eat even less power, but rebooting your phone takes a lot longer than switching out of airplane mode. Powering off is not worth the trouble if it's only for an hour or two.

Your bluetooth radio uses very little power. Switch it off if you like, but you won't notice any difference.

The problem with toggling GPS, data, WiFi and 3G/4G on and off is that their switches are buried deep down in the settings menu, so most people just keep everything switched on. If you have to dig into there often your smartphone becomes very dumb indeed. That's why you need quick access to the switches so you can flick 'em with a simple single tap.

Many phones come with built-in power bars, but they're ugly and the mobile data toggle is usually missing. You're better off with a switch app from the Android Market. My favorite widget to toggle my radios really quick is Widgetsoid. This app has a rather steep learning curve, but it's worth it because it has more functions and customisation options than any other app. If you want something simple, use Dazzle. If you don't want to have a switcher widget on your home screen, Quick Settings can put it in your notification bar or under a long-tap of your search button.

Unfortunately there's no quick way to toggle network location. You'll still need to go into the Android settings for that.

Use AdAway, AdFree, DroidWall, and LBE Privacy Guard

Less data means less power (in many different ways). A low power app or efficiently coded website can become a data and battery drainer if it pulls in lots of bloated advertisements. AdFree and AdAway block most banner farms, which results in less data and battery consumption.

DroidWall lets you control which apps can go online. You can keep any app offline completely, or limit them to WiFi only. This is a good way to stop "phone home" behaviour, and also improves the efficiency of apps that go online for the sole purpose of downloading unwelcome ad banners.

LBE Privacy Guard can keep apps offline. In addition, it can stop apps from accessing your location. Your phone has plenty of apps that track your whereabouts for no good reason at your expense. New versions of LBE Privacy Guard have the outbound firewall functions of DroidWall built in.

Don't let your widgets suck your battery dry. There's really no reason why your weather widget should update 30 times a day. Most weather apps punish your battery by using your data connection and your GPS. Your Facebook widget doesn't need to pull in status updates every ten minutes unless you're a hopelessly addicted junkie who needs six Facebook shots per hour. Same goes for other apps that autosync data: does your phone really need to check your mail every fifteen minutes? Do your apps really need to check for their monthly update twice a day or should you let the Android Market handle app updates instead?

Turn off the lights

Your screen eats batteries for breakfast. Head to the settings menu and set the timeout for your screen to the minimum you're comfortable with.

By default your phone display is way too bright, especially at night. Using the auto-brightness setting of your phone helps. Reduce the brightness even more when it's dark outside. It's better for your eyes and better for your battery. Switching the lights from the Android settings is so inefficient that you'll be tempted to leave 'em burning at full force, so use a widget instead. Apps like Widgetsoid, Dazzle, and Quick Settings put the light switches of your phone within easy reach. One tap is enough.

AMOLED screens need less power to show dark pixels than light pixels, so a dark theme and wallpaper help you save battery juice. If your phone has a normal LCD screen the color doesn't make a difference.

Use task killers wisely

In Android, empty memory is wasted memory. Apps that are silently cached in RAM don't drain your battery, and when you relaunch them they start up faster. Task killers that shut down apps, only to shut them down again and again after the system has reloaded them hit your battery in a bad way.

That doesn't mean that you should let everything run in the background. Some apps refuse to sleep and keep pulling data and location info when you're no longer using them. Google Maps is among the more famous offenders. It pays to really shut those apps down after use, and to use a startup manager to make sure they don't autostart when you boot your phone. Just make sure that you shut down the right apps instead of blindly clearing your RAM. Killing apps the right way saves power, killing apps the wrong way wastes power.


Your phone can switch to a reduced power state when your battery level gets low. Use that feature! Free apps like JuiceDefender can switch off battery drainers on a schedule (for example, at night when you're asleep). The automated schedules are only useful if you have a somewhat regular and predictable lifestyle, but if that's you then use it to your advantage.

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Sunday, 21 August 2011

Timers4Me adds a stopwatch to its countdown timer

If you're looking for a free countdown timer or a stopwatch app, there's plenty of choice on the Android Market.

If you're looking for a good free timer or stopwatch your choice is limited. Ultimate Stopwatch does both, but its timer is terrible and its stopwatch doesn't cut it if you want to record lap times.

Countdown timers that let you store multiple timers and run 'em together are few and far between. A good timer and stopwatch together in one app? Doesn't exist yet.

But we may get there. Timers4Me is a pretty good countdown timer app, and the latest update adds a stopwatch.

Timers4Me is far from perfect, though. Its timer and the timer preset screen are good, but setting the time is done with a scrollwheel. There's no way to just type a time. The timer alarm won't play longer than one minute, even if you set a ten minute song as alarm tone.

Its stopwatch does the job, but only to 1/10th of a second. I'd like a second digit behind the dot. And although you can run multiple timers, you can only run a single stopwatch.

The interface of Timers4Me could use a bit of polishing too, because white text on a light grey background is not a good idea. And if you send the stopwatch to the background and pull it to the foreground again, it may start running way too fast.

Timers4Me is the best out of all the timer/stopwatch combos on the market. Not because the app is that good, but because it doesn't have serious competition. If the remaining shortcomings of Timers4Me are fixed in future versions it could become a really good app.

Timers4Me (Android Market)
Ultimate Stopwatch (Android Market)

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Thursday, 18 August 2011

YouTube radio player QueueTube update lets you save playlists

If you play a music video in your browser or the Google YouTube app, playback pauses when you send the app to the background. This means you can't use YouTube as an online radio.

Enter QueueTube. This app lets you search and play music from YouTube. It doesn't bother with the video, you get the sound stream only. You also get album art, and if you tap the cover you get the song lyrics too.

You can add songs to a play queue, and the latest update lets you save your playlists so you can have more than one.

QueueTube (Android Market)

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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Google Maps update finds your friends, screams in subway, blares in bus

The latest Google Maps update makes public transport even noisier. Version 5.9 moves the call and navigate buttons on map entries one level closer, but the new feature that really makes itself heard is the ringtone and voice notification option for public transport navigation.

A previous update added routing for trains, subways, trams and buses, and it came with notifications to let you know you've reached your destination or point of transfer. It would only notify you by vibration, but now it can shout "Get Out!" at you.

That's good for those who miss vibrating alerts because their phones are sitting in a bag, but I wonder if your fellow passengers will appreciate yet another source of noise.

On the bright side, the missing contacts bug of the previous version is fixed. All your friends are back now.

Unfortunately the bug that can make Google Maps freeze many phones (even after you exit the app!) is still there. If you're lucky you can get your phone running again by entering "manage applications," going to the maps app, and hitting "force stop." If you can't get there because your phone doesn't respond to anything you can pull the battery out to force a restart. The freezing phone issue appears to be related to the network location service that runs in the background, even if you don't use network location. I guess adding new features is sexier than fixing old bugs.

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 an app like Titanium Backup). New versions may bring new bugs that bite your phone, so make sure you have a way to go back.

Google Maps (Android Market)

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Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Nimbuzz Android update adds push notifications, delivery reports, and integrates with your phone contacts

VoIP and chat app Nimbuzz talks to SIP, GoogleTalk, MSN (Windows Live), Yahoo, AIM, ICQ, Facebook, MySpace, and Hyves. It also has its own VoIP and message service.
Edit: Nimbuzz updated its app, but it didn't get better. There are only four chat networks left now, all the others are gone from Nimbuzz.

The latest update adds push notifications and integrates with the Android contacts app.

The bad news:

When you update Nimbuzz to version 2.08 it forgets your accounts and settings, so you have to enter your Nimbuzz account details again. Nimbuzz 2.08 defaults to NimbuzzOut, so you'll need to set your own VoIP provider back as default if you want to use your own SIP service instead of the (usually way more) expensive NimbuzzOut.

Like in the previous versions, you can only add one account per chat or VoIP service. The loud beeps in the dialer are still there, and there's no off switch. Same for the annoying sound when you pull the slider to end a call.

The good news:

The new Nimbuzz adds push notifications. If Android receives a push notification targeted at Nimbuzz, it will tell you so. This way you can receive messages without leaving Nimbuzz running all the time, which saves battery and data. For push notifications your phone needs to run Froyo (Android 2.2) or newer.

Your Nimbuzz contacts can now integrate with your Android contact app, so you can start Nimbuzz calls and chats straight from your phone book without having to scroll through your app drawer to find the Nimbuzz icon.

Both options are not enabled by default, so you'll have to take a trip to the settings menu. Of course you can ignore the new options if you want to keep Nimbuzz out of your phone book and push notifications are too pushy for you.

Also new: when you message people on Nimbuzz, it will notify you when the message arrives.
Nimbuzz (Android Market)

Nimbuzz turned bad, look for alternatives

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Sunday, 7 August 2011

Newer is not always better: get GO Launcher EX v2.27 (with uncluttered menu) and v2.37 (with old folder layout)

GO Launcher EX is one of the best Android launchers. It's fast, it's got lots of customisation options, you can kill or uninstall apps right from the app drawer, and it's free.

It's also updated very frequently. Usually the updates bring useful new functions, kill old bugs, and improve the program.

But newer is not always better. Sometimes the updates add useless clutter, reduce functionality, or reduce stability of the app.

GO Launcher EX v2.28 introduced a new menu layout. The six menu entries of the old version turned into eight, with even more hidden behind a "more" button. The extra entries pointed to things you could already get by hitting "preferences" in the old menu, and made it a lot easier to spamvertise the app by recommending it to your friends and foes. It also added links to the GOStore, which is useless to most people because all the GO products are easy to find in the Android Market and from the GO preferences screen.

Somewhere in between v2.29 and 2.36 stability started to suffer. My old v2.27 always kept running, no matter what I did. But later versions often lost my icons and widgets, which then needed to get redrawn whenever I returned to my home screen from memory intensive apps like a web browser full of tabs.

GO Launcher EX v2.38 came with a new home screen folder layout. Whether the new folders look better or worse than the old ones is a matter of personal preference. Unfortunately the new folders hold less icons, so you need to do more horizontal scrolling in crowded folders.

If you don't like the new folder layout you may want to install GO Launcher v2.37, which is the last version with the old folders that hold more icons than the new ones. If you want the old uncluttered menu back then version 2.27 is for you.

If you go back to v2.27 there's a small price to pay: grid size is limited to a set of three: 4x4, 4x5, and 5x5. The custom grid sizes were introduced later (you get them in v2.37). The upcoming GO Launcher EX v2.50 will add a new method to add and remove apps to/from home screen folders, but that's such a minor issue that it's not worth the upgrade. Keep in mind that new themes, plugins and add-ons do not always work with old versions of GO Launcher EX.

To cut it short: get v2.37 if you want the old folder layout back, get v2.27 if you want the old folders and the old uncluttered six item menu.

GO Launcher EX in the Android Market (latest version only)
get GO Launcher EX v2.27 and v2.37 at android underground

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Saturday, 6 August 2011

PDF Viewer has colors and speed but lacks text reflow and pinch-to-zoom

Adobe may have invented the PDF format, but does anyone still use Adobe PDF Reader on their computers? With alternative viewers like Foxit Reader and Sumatra it doesn't make sense to use the bloatware from Adobe on a PC.

What about Android? There are plenty of PDF viewers on the Android Market, and now we have another one: PDF Viewer (a.k.a. Android PDF Viewer or APV).

It's not really new, though. It's an updated version of the open source app PDF Viewer by Maciej Pietrzak. The new edition made by Alexander Pruss is faster, displays page numbers, and has some other improvements.

What sets PDF Viewer apart from other PDF apps is its colors. Black on white is not nice for your eyes unless you're out in the sun or in a brightly lit office. PDF Viewer lets you invert the colors of your pdf, or force it to black on yellow, white on black, green on black, and red on black. Of course plain old black on white is also an option. Reversing colors is not only for looks, but it can save a bit of power on AMOLED screens where darker means less battery drain.

PDF Viewer renders one page ahead, so scrolling down is smooth unless you try to jump too many pages at once. You can speed it up a bit more by skipping the images. If you don't like swiping through your files you can scroll through the pages with the volume buttons. PDF Viewer does a pretty good job of zooming pictures, albeit a bit slow.

There are a few major shortcomings, though. Searching for PDFs in the built-in file browser of PDF Viewer is ugly and inefficient. The back button doesn't move you back to the previous folder, but just exits the app (we already have the home button for that). And in contrast to Adobe Reader, PDF Viewer can't find your PDF files by itself so you really have to navigate all the way through your folder structure. On the bright side, the app remembers your position in the file, which can be useful when you read long eBooks.

PDF Viewer doesn't have pinch-to-zoom, so you'll have to use the zoom buttons instead.

Another flaw is lack of text reflow.

At first glance, text reflow is against the idea behind the PDF format. PDFs were meant to look exactly the way the author intended them to look, without giving a damn about what the reader wants to see.

But when the PDF was invented its makers didn't foresee the invention of the smartphone. The format was originally designed for printers and big computer screens, but what works on a large monitor doesn't work on a small phone display. The typical PDF in its original layout requires lots of horizontal scrolling on a phone, unless you zoom out so far that you need a microscope to read the text.

So reflowing text to fit your screen is essential on a tiny phone display. Unfortunately the only free PDF viewer for Android that gets it right is Adobe Reader.

But the speed, preservation of detail when zooming, and color options are a good reason to give PDF Viewer a try. It may get a lot better in future updates. If you think you can make it better, just do what Alex Pruss did: grab the source code, improve it, and post it back for others to build on.

The latest update is not on the Market (yet), but you can grab a copy from Google Code.

PDF Viewer (Google Code)
PDF Viewer by arpruss (xda forum)
PDF Viewer by Maciej (Android Market)

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Monday, 1 August 2011

VoIP app Viber adds off switch, but still thinks you're too stupid to control autostart

Free calls to other Viber users

Viber lets you call and text other Viber users for free. There are plenty of other apps and VoIP services for that, but the sound quality of Viber is comparable to CSipSimple, and much better than Skype, Nimbuzz, or fring.

Warning: if you dial a non-Viber user from the Viber app it gets charged as a normal phone call. You can use LBE Privacy Guard to make sure that Viber can only call through VoIP.

Viber calls eat half a megabyte of data per minute: 0.25 MB each way. That adds up to 30 MB per hour. That may turn out cheaper than an international phone call if you buy the right data roaming package, but usually it's way more expensive. Do the maths before you Viber away on a foreign data network. Or simply stick to WiFi.

Free messages, but it's not SMS

Texting on Viber works, but it lacks smilies. Sometimes messages take ages to arrive. Viber messaging makes noise, and you can't switch the Viber sounds off unless you put your entire phone in silent mode.

Viber does not integrate with standard SMSs, so Viber texts won't appear in the stock SMS program or in any other SMS app. Viber SMSs will be missing from the universal inbox in Androids messaging app too. Same thing the other way 'round: normal SMSs won't appear in Viber either, even though normal phone calls are listed in Vibers call log.

Viber messages are free, but that's the only reason to send Viber texts. If speed matters an instant messenger like MSN, Google Talk, or Skype messaging wins. If cost is not an issue you're better off with plain old SMS.

No need to sign up

Your phone number is your user name, so you don't need to create accounts or add your friends and enemies by hand. If your Viber-using contacts are in your Android address book then Viber knows where they are. They'll automatically know that you're on Viber you too.

There's no way to run two Viber accounts on one phone, so forget about having one Viber identity for business and another one for your friends. I wonder how Viber plays along on phones with dual SIMs?

Too intrusive

The first versions of Viber for Android wouldn't let you switch it off. It would always run and make you available, even if you wanted to take a break from Viber. That's really stupid behaviour with plenty of potential for disaster. Imagine your phone bill after you accidentally pick up an incoming Viber call when roaming abroad because Viber refuses to shut up.

That problem is partially fixed in the latest Viber update. Now you can shut the app down, although it pops up an annoying window to complain about that the next time you launch Viber. Too bad that they left another error unfixed. Even worse is that they left it unfixed on purpose.

The other error: Viber starts up automatically. You can't switch autostart off, so if you switch your phone off at night, after running out of battery, or for any other reason you'll have to manually switch off Viber everytime you boot your phone. This is highly annoying, especially when you're travelling and you want to keep Viber away from your expensive data roaming connection.

And why is autostart mandatory? A Viber representative on the xda forum believes that they'll be flooded with complaints from users who disable autostart and then blame Viber when the app doesn't launch by itself. In plain english: Viber thinks we are too stupid to decide for ourselves whether we want to allow autostart or not.

By adding an off switch Viber shows that it's willing to learn from its mistakes. Maybe they'll learn some more and add the missing autostart toggle later on? Until then you'll either have to accept the autostart behaviour or tame it with one of the autostart managers out there.

Watch your data!

Something else to keep the Viber team busy: the difference between WiFi and mobile data. Viber won't tell them apart, but if your mobile operator bans VoIP from its data network you need a way to tell Viber that it can accept incoming calls on WiFi but not on 3G. The programmers at Viber should have a good look at the settings menu of CSipSimple, which lets you do just that. It's very easy to miss a switch to mobile data if you walk out of WiFi range. VoIP apps like Viber should be aware of that and act accordingly.

Integration with other VoIP apps?

I have Skype, CSipSimple, Vonage, and Viber. CSipSimple works with any VoIP provider that uses the standard SIP setup. Nimbuzz and fring used to have Skype built in as well, but Skype made them remove it. Skype now only works as a stand alone app, and we should never ever forgive them for that. In its present state Viber only works with Vibers own app. I hope Viber will allow other VoIP apps to incorporate its network so we don't end up with a home screen full of VoIP apps to stay connected with all our contacts scattered over different networks. Every instant messaging app that's worth installing supports multiple networks. VoIP apps should do the same.

Viber Media, Inc.
Viber (Android Market)

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