Friday, 30 September 2011

Ad blocker shootout: AdAway vs. AdFree

Ads and the hosts file

Android is a product from Google that you, the customer, get for free. Right? Wrong! YOU are the product, and Android is the market where Google sells you to its advertisers. Same goes for the "free" apps on the Android Market that sell your data, screen space, and privacy to their advertisers.

You can block most ads from any program on your PC by adding the ad servers to your Windows hosts file. By doing so, requests for ads are sent to a server without any ads: your own computer is the server, and it won't send ads to itself.

The same trick works on Android too. It has a hosts file just like Windows, and if you add the URLs of the banner farms you can redirect them to an empty box of ads instead of to their own ad-infested server. The Android hosts file sits in your internal phone memory in /system/etc/hosts. The hosts file is a plain text file without an extension.

When you block an advertiser in your hosts file all its ads are blocked. They won't appear in any web browser, they won't appear in any app, they won't even appear on this website. They won't set tracking cookies either, so you can use your apps and surf the web without a bunch of advertisers spying on you.

Blocking ads by manually tweaking your hosts file is a tedious job. But there's no need to do it by hand, because (cliché alert) there's an app for that.

Apps against ads

AdFree is as famous on Android as AdBlock is for Firefox. It's a very simple app that downloads the addresses of a large number of advertising servers, and writes 'em to your hosts file together with a pointer to the IP address This is the loopback address of your own phone, so any request for ads is effectively thrown away.

AdAway uses the same trick, but it combines three servers (,, out of the box. You don't have to use all three. Even better: AdAway lets you add your own hosts file sources. You can add your own addresses to a blacklist in case the default lists don't include them. It also has a whitelist, just in case you want to let some ads pass through to support the developer of your favourite app, or because you run an app that breaks if it can't connect to its sponsor. If you want to tweak things even more, you can redirect URLs to any server of your choice.

AdFree is closed source, AdAway is open source. Both require root access to edit your hosts file. When I switched from Symbian to Android I used AdFree, but I moved to AdAway because it can do a lot more.

For obvious reasons both apps don't display ads ;)

AdAway (alternative download links, no longer in Play Store)
AdAway (Google code)
AdFree (alternative download links, no longer in Play Store)
AdFree (BigTinCan)

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Thursday, 29 September 2011

Skype adds ads, landscape, more video

New: video in landscape mode, ads

Skype 2.5 for Android is out. The update adds video calling for more phones. You're no longer stuck to videos in portrait mode, because now it does video in landscape orientation too. But before you rush out to grab the latest edition you better make a backup of your old copy. Skype is the living evidence that newer is not always better.

The ability to tilt your video comes at a price, because Skype has added advertisements. The ads show up if you're in the USA, UK, and Germany. Other countries will get them later. You won't see the ads if you have Skype credit or any other paid service active, so keeping a balance of a few pennies may be worth it, even if you only use the free features of Skype.

Old: tabs, silence, passwords

Even without the ads, you might want to keep an old version if you don't care about video calling. The last version with tabs is Since then, switching between contacts, chats, and calls requires a trip back to the main screen. The annoying startup and signoff sounds can't be switched off in the new versions, and the dial pad beeps won't go away either. It also forgets your password when you sign out. The old versions remembered it. Could the low rating on the Android Market have anything to do with the terrible user interface? With a quarter million ratings, an average of just three stars and a half for an app like Skype means something must be wrong.

If you really need video calling (it gets old real quick) use a recent version of Skype. If you're only in it for the calls and chats, use an old version. Tip: you can also chat on Skype with multi-network instant messenger imo.

Skype (Android Market)
Skype (Google)

Skype competitors:


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Monday, 26 September 2011

Superbug in Superuser 3.0


If you've rooted your phone, you'll have Superuser installed on it.

Superuser is an app that grants Android apps root permissions. Rooted phones can't live without it, because you need a way to control which apps can have root privileges and which apps cannot. Without such a gatekeeper any app would have root access on a rooted phone, which would create more security problems than Microsoft and Adobe combined.

Today the Android Market sports a brand new edition of Superuser, version 3.0. If you update to the latest version you may run into supertrouble. Fat chance that the updated Superuser won't launch at all, or it will force close when you try to open it. Possible reasons: your old copy of Superuser was signed with the wrong key, or it can't write data to your system partition.


If you're lucky you can repair Superuser by going to the Android application settings menu (settings/applications/manage applications) and clear all Superuser data. You'll need to set root permissions for your apps again when you clear the Superuser data, but you'll probably have to do that anyway because the update is likely to ignore your old settings.

But sometimes even clearing the data doesn't help. If that happens you should give SU Update Fixer a shot. This is a sort of bugspray made by the developer of Superuser. It's meant to fix glitches when you update from a third party Superuser version (from custom ROMs and apps to root your phone) to the official Android Market version.

If that doesn't work you should revert to your old Superuser version. Of course you'll need a backup copy for that, so make sure to back up your old Superuser app with Titanium, MyBackup, your file manager, or whatever method you use to create backup copies of your apps. You'll probably need the apk installer file to reinstall your old version of Superuser, because without a working version running your backup and restore app is not gonna get the root permission that it needs to do its job.

Antivirus apps like AVG will probably flash a false positive at you. The solution is simple: just ignore the false alarm.

Superuser at
SU Update Fixer at
Superuser (Android Market)
SU Update Fixer (Android Market)

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Sunday, 25 September 2011

Market scam: avoid Camera Pro by Mobile Whiz LLD

Free market: pros and cons

Unlike the Apple app store, the Android Market is a free market. Anyone can publish anything without prior censorship.

This freedom is good, but it comes at a price. A free market is more vulnerable to abuse than a closed shop in a gated community. Remember all those apps that ask money for free maps from OpenStreetMap? Or the apps that slap ads on books with expired copyrights, and then receive a daily update as if the writer wrote a final chapter after being dead and buried? You've probably seen that endless stream of vibrator apps too. Same app under a dozen different names, and they get a daily fake update to spam their way to the top of the "just in" section of the market.

Market failure

Another app that abuses the liberties of the free Android Market is Camera Pro by Mobile Whiz LLD.

The offer looks too good to be true. Camera Pro promises thousands of filters and lenses for your phone camera, says it's incredibly fast, and more.

It also claims raving reviews in its market description: "Coolest camera app around! 5 stars! What more could you ask for?"

These reviews are totally fake. Camera Pro put these endorsements on their market page before anyone bothered to leave a real comment. Not that the comments section is of any help, because those comments faked by the developer too.

I saw this app on the market a couple of days ago. I tried it, found that it was not an app but just a frontend for a web site, and it didn't even work. So I left a one star rating and a matching comment. I was the first one to comment, and the first to hand out a star. I had to give it that one lone star because the Android Market won't let you award zero stars, and if you don't give stars you're not allowed to leave a comment.

The next day I saw this app again in the "just in" section of the market. To my surprise my rating and comment were gone, and so were all the other comments that told the truth about the app. Instead, there were three wildly enthousiastic comments and three five star ratings. A low and equal number of ratings and comments usually means that the developer downloaded his own app a few times to write fake comments and cheat the rating system.

When the app got downloaded by others the ratings went downhill and the comments started to reflect the true nature of the app: crapware, and possibly malicious too.

And then it reappeared as if it was brand new. When I looked it has one comment. It's positive beyond reality, so I suspect foul play by the app coder. It had two ratings: a 5* rating from its maker and a 1* rating from a real user.

You can't erase negative comments and low star ratings from an existing app. But you can pull your listing off the market, and then upload the same crap again as if it was a new app. Added three times, twice removed. The same old version of Camera Pro will probably be pulled out and reuploaded tomorrow. And then again and again. How long can Mobile Whiz LLD get away with this before Google kills their market account?

September 26, 2011 update: Indeed, Camera Pro reappeared. Mobile Whiz LLC pulled the "remove and reupload" trick yet again to censor out the real ratings and comments, which tell a truth that the fake ratings try to hide.

Circumventing the rating and comment system is not the only reason why you should stay away from this app. Another reason is that the app doesn't work as advertised. I doubt that it works at all. And there's more:

Malware alert

When you install Camera Pro it demands a long list of permissions. Dangerous permissions. Permissions that can be abused to grab every email address out of your address book and sell 'em to the spambots.

Camera Pro is a photo editing app. But it also wants the flawed "phone state and identity" permission (which means it can read your phone number and IMEI), all your contact data, and access to your SMSs and MMSs. Needless to say, it asks for full internet access too, so it can grab all your private info and send it to who-knows-where.

Wait, that's not all. It wants permission to start all by itself at boot too. Even if you don't launch the app it can do so by itself for no obvious reason. Why would a photo editor need to start automatically when you switch on your phone? Can't it wait until you have a picture to edit?

For all practical purposes Camera Pro should be labeled "malware" until the developer learns about business ethics. My advice: stay away from this app!

September 29, 2011 update: Camera Pro by Mobile Whiz LLC is gone from the Android Market.

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Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Why your app says "no" when you try to move it to your SD card

Hey hey, you you, get off of my card!

Browse the market and you'll find bazillions of comments along the lines of: "Crapware! Dis app sux donkey ass. F*kking piece of shyt wont instal on SD."

Needless to say, the commenter usually blames the app developer for doing the right thing.

Because not all apps can run from your SD card, and even for those that can there are often good reasons why they shouldn't.

In a perfect Android world no app would run from your memory card, because you'd have so much internal memory on your phone that there'd be no need to send apps away. SD cards are more likely to be bitten by data corruption. If they're not mounted, your phone won't see them so the apps on them won't run. Memory cards are much slower than your internal memory. There are plenty of reasons why you should only install apps on your SD card if you're really out space on your internal phone memory. Moving apps to SD is a measure of last resort, and you'll need to think carefully about which apps you can dump on your card and which apps you shouldn't.

To card or not to card

Apps on your memory card are stored in a folder called .android_secure. If you open this folder in a file manager on your phone it appears empty, but if you browse your memory card from a computer you'll see what's inside. Dictionary app Euro Dictionary stores stuff in that folder, and so does language tutor busuu. Apps that require large external libraries tend to store 'em on your memory card by default because they have good reasons for that.

And then there are apps which have no business on your SD card, because that would simply break them.

Any app with widgets needs to live on your internal phone memory. Put 'em on your SD card and your widgets won't work properly, because whenever your SD card is unmounted your phone won't see what's on it.

Anything that needs to autostart before other apps doesn't belong on your SD card either. You'd want a security app like LBE Privacy Guard to start before anything else does, wouldn't you. And DroidWall would be even more leaky on boot if it would sit on SD. Anything you move out of internal memory starts after everything else does.

Launchers? Try to move 'em to SD and see what happens. VoIP apps? Put 'em on SD and nobody can reach you when you're copying music from your PC. Alarm clocks and calendars? If your SD card is talking to your computer instead of your phone you'll oversleep and miss your flight. Keyboard apps have no business on your external card either.

And yet people punish developers by spitting negative comments and one star ratings at apps that they can't push to their cards because that would break 'em. Maybe developers should use their market descriptions to explain why their apps won't sit on SD to educate the ignorant?

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Monday, 19 September 2011

Countdown timer Timers4Me improves stopwatch, adds alarm clock

Sign of the times

Need a good free countdown timer/stopwatch combination for your Android phone? Go get Timers4Me. It stores multiple timers and you can run 'em together. Minor issue number 1: you have to set the timers with annoying scrollwheels. Issue number two: alarms only sound for one minute or the length of your chosen alarm tone (tip: use a very long mp3). Even so, it's lightyears ahead of the other free timer apps floating around on the Android Market.


Ultimate Stopwatch used to be the best free stopwatch, but then Timers4Me added a stopwatch of its own. The first attempt wasn't a very good one, so I kept Ultimate Stopwatch next to Timers4Me.

But Timers4Me doesn't waste time. The latest updates improved the stopwatch (now it measures to 1/100th of a second instead of a just a tenth). I uninstalled Ultimate Stopwatch because it's not so ultimate anymore.

Alarm clock

New in Timers4Me: an alarm clock! Not a very good clock, because it only screams for one minute or a single alarm tone duration (a flaw it shares with the countdown timer). A clock that wants to wake me up on an early monday morning after a long weekend of sex & drugs & rock & roll needs to work a lot harder. That's why Alarms Solo is still my alarm clock of choice.

On the bright side, the new alarm clock in Timers4Me doesn't bother you with a scrollwheel like its countdown timer does. It simply lets you punch in the time with your numeric keypad. Transplant that mode of entry to the countdown timer tab and we have a winner. For those who really want to keep the scrollwheel, a simple toggle in the settings menu to choose your favourite input method would do the job.

Times ahead

If Timers4Me upgrades its snooze options and adds alarm tone looping it may boot another competitor off my phone.

Who knows what's next? Maybe Timers4Me will integrate the functions of ClockSync and TM World Clock to build the ultimate app for all times?

Timers4Me (Android Market)

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Friday, 16 September 2011

Screenshot ER adds a toggle widget, but has some shake and data bugs to fix

A toggle widget

The two best apps to take screenshots on a rooted Android phone are ShootMe and Screenshot ER.

On second thought, the best app to take screenshots is ShootMe.

Both apps do more or less the same, but Screenshot ER took a step forward by adding a toggle widget: tap it to activate the app, shoot your screen, tap the widget again to switch the screenshot service off. That's a really cool new feature.



Screenshot ER Lite only takes screenshots of my home screens when in shake mode. When I'm in an app I can shake my phone until the battery drops out, but Screenshot ER won't take any pictures. It takes pics from the notification bar toggle, but there's an 8 second delay for that in the lite version, and you'll end up with the Screenshot ER notification icon on every screenshot.

The previous version shot my apps by shaking just fine. Maybe the bug only bites my phone (Motorola Defy running Froyo), maybe it bites yours too. Give it a shot (and a shake) to see if it works on your phone.

Data leak?

False alarm: for every screenshot I take, Screenshot ER appears to download 1.6 MB (yes, megabytes!) worth of data. Even when I block it with DroidWall. There's no point trying to keep it offline with LBE Privacy Guard either, because then it won't work at all.

Screenshot ER doesn't need all that data to take screenshots. If you switch off your WiFi and mobile data connection it shoots your screen too. Interestingly, even with all your data connections switched off apps like TrafficStats and LBE will still report the 1.6 MB per shot. Obviously the data usage is a false positive, but it's alarming anyway.

The mystery data is probably because Screenshot ER works around the limitations of Android by acting as an internal server: your phone "downloads" the screenshot from itself. An uncompressed image of a 480x852 screen would be about 1.6 MB.

Concerns about erroneous data reporting can be lifted by a better explanation in the market description and in the app itself, but because shake-to-shoot doesn't work in app screens I'll keep using ShootMe a bit longer. ShootMe shoots app windows by shaking, which Screenshot ER won't do for me. Maybe it will after the next update?

ShootMe (android underground)
Screenshot ER Lite (Android Market)

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Monday, 12 September 2011

The problem of chat and VoIP fragmentation: Whatsapp, Viber, Skype, PingChat, Kik Messenger, LiveProfile, KakaoTalk, GO Chat, etc. should open up

The good ol' days

A long time ago you needed separate programs for all instant messaging networks. One app for MSN, another app for Google Talk, a separate program for ICQ, another for AIM, and Skype chat only worked with the software from Skype.

Then came the multi-network clients. Trillian, GAIM, and Pidgin for PC. Nimbuzz, fring, Palringo, and many more for Symbian. Android and iOS got their fair share of multi-network IM apps too. They even got unified inboxes that brought your emails and SMSs together.

VoIP was always unified, because almost every VoIP operator uses the SIP standard. Except for Skype, but Nimbuzz and fring took care of that.

And then things fell apart

Somehow, someone turned back the clock. First, Skype got pulled from Nimbuzz and fring. Apparently because of a dispute over video calling, but normal calls and messages over Skype were yanked out too. Until Skype opens up again I suggest you don't pay a single penny for SkypeOut (use one of the many other VoIP services instead).

Fortunately Skype chat still works in imo, so you only need one instant messenger on your Android phone.

Or do you?

When AOL bought ICQ, they tried to axe their service from 3rd party clients in order to force-feed you their own app. Then came Blackberry Messenger. A great way to avoid the ridiculous SMS rates (the most expensive 140 bytes in the universe), but it only works on Blackberries. WhatsApp copied the ping app from Blackberry and brought it to Android and iPhone. And so did PingChat. And Kik Messenger and LiveProfile and Viber and KakaoTalk and GO Chat and many more. The app stores are full of single-network chat apps and they breed like rabbits.

The problem? All the new kids on the block use proprietary protocols that only work in their own apps. With so many networks your friends will be scattered all over the place. And with your friends scattered over MSN, WhatsApp, Skype, Kik, Viber, etcetera you'll need to fill an entire homescreen with apps that all do the same thing.

Some of these apps (like Viber) autostart without an option to switch it off. Others (WhatsApp) autostart and don't even have an exit button. They keep you available all the time, even when you want to take a break from messaging without shutting down your entire internet connection. They also upload your entire contacts list to their servers, even the contacts that you don't want to share. And if you want to stay connected, these apps and their background services take a large bite out of your RAM. Some even keep their processes alive if you sign out, if they let you sign out at all.

There is no multi-network program that connects the new IM/SMS hybrids into a single app. We're heading back to the dark ages of 1995 where every messenger required its own app.

Pick up the pieces

Urgently needed: one app to bind them all. Trillian, Nimbuzz, imo etc. did a great job unifying the old chat networks. The time has come to include the new messengers, and to force Skype back in line. This requires a bit of work from the multi-network app programmers, but that's not a big deal. They're more than willing to add networks to their apps. What holds them back is the lack of cooperation from Skype, WhatsApp, Viber et al. If the new networks stop being so anal retentive and publish some public APIs we'd have updated multi-network clients in a minute. At the very least the new networks shouldn't sabotage attempts to reverse engineer their protocols so that others can throw their networks into the mix.

WhatsApp, Viber, PingChat, Skype, Kik, KakaoTalk, GO Chat, LiveProfile: open up!

Bonus tip and abuse alert

If you uninstall WhatsApp, your phone number stays in their system. Your friends will keep trying to message you, WhatsApp keeps telling them you're still a WhatsApp user even when you're not anymore.

There is a way to remove your phone number from WhatsApp, but WhatsApp decided to hide the method in a dark corner of their small print.

To rescue your phone number from the claws of WhatsApp, you'll need to send them an email.

Subject: Remove
Message: +12345678910
(The subject should read "Remove" and the message should be your full phone number in international format).

They promise to remove your phone number from their systems in about a day, but some people had to wait for weeks before WhatsApp finally forgot them. When I tried it took them 10 days. Apparently someone over at WhatsApp HQ has to delete all those phone numbers by hand.

When they finally send you a mail back to inform you that your number will be deleted they don't verify that you really asked for your own number to be removed. There's nothing that can stop you from zapping other peoples numbers out of the WhatsApp system.

Update: you can now unlink your phone number from within the Whatsapp app.

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Sunday, 11 September 2011

Screenshooter shootout: Screenshot ER vs. ShootMe

For some reason Android doesn't come with a built-in screenshot app. All the screenshots on this site were made with ShootMe. Now that Screenshot ER released another update it's time to compare the two apps.

Get your guns out

When you open ShootMe, it makes you accept its software license. That would be OK if it only happened on first launch, but ShootMe makes you agree to its small print everytime you launch the app. After you accept, it starts the shooting service. You can tap away the program interface after that, or go to the settings menu to make it disappear automatically when the service has started.

Screenshot ER takes you straight to the settings screen upon launch. Here you can switch the shooting service on, or activate one of its other shooting modes.

The repeating license screen of ShootMe is annoying, but when configured right it is the only thing you need to click to activate the program and go straight back to your home screen. Screenshot ER requires two clicks (one to start the service, another to get back to your home screen) so ShootMe wins, but only by a noselength.

Pull the trigger

There are four ways to shoot your screen with ShootMe. The default method is by shaking your phone. A nice touch is shooting in continuous mode (screencast) to make little movies of your screen. You can also grab shots by shouting at your phone or putting your finger on the light sensor, but these are gimmicks without much practical use.

ShootMe can notify you that it's done shooting by making a shutter noise, showing a notification on your screen, doing both, or none.

Screenshot ER can snap on shake, or from a notification icon, or straight from the settings menu. Unfortunately the free version comes with a minimum delay of eight seconds, which makes the shake option the only viable way to shoot your screen.

Screenshot ER has three methods to tell you it's done shooting: shutter sound, notification on your screen, or showing a preview of your screenshot.

Winner: ShootMe, by a big margin because it can make movies.

Save your image

ShootMe and Screenshot ER let you choose between PNG and JPG. ShootMe lets you pick from three image quality/file size settings, Screenshot ER only has one flavour.

All your screenshots end up in a folder called ShootMe (in the root folder of your SD card) when you use that app, and there's no way to change the destination folder. Screenshot ER lets you set your own folder name and location.

More image quality settings vs. choosing your own folder, tough choice. Winner: undecided.

Loose bullets

Screenshot ER demands full internet permission. If you don't trust your screenshot app with unrestricted internet access, just block it with an app like DroidWall or LBE Privacy Guard. Screenshot ER doesn't need to go online to shoot pictures. ShootMe doesn't ask for any internet permissions.

The developer of ShootMe pulled it off the Android Market because he got fed up with market comments from idiots with the social skills of a Vogon, but you can grab a copy from the link below. You can comment on this blog post too ;)

Both apps require root access. This is a limitation of Android itself, so you can't blame the apps for it.

There's something missing from both apps: a way to activate them without opening the app interface. Both apps would be a lot better if they'd come with a widget that lets you toggle shooting mode on and off with a single tap on your home screen widget.

Update: Screenshot ER added a toggle widget. However, there are some bugs crawling around.
Keeping Screenshot ER offline requires a trip to DroidWall or LBE, but installing ShootMe takes a trip to the android underground download page. Winner: undecided.

Final shots

Both apps are good, but I'll keep using ShootMe. The custom screenshot folder of Screenshot ER is nice, but the extra click to activate the app and send it to the background is not. Having to tap in the overcrowded settings menu just to toggle shooting on and off is a bit too much. Switching ShootMe on and off is faster, and it shoots movies too!

Screenshot ER Lite

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Saturday, 10 September 2011

Android keyboard TouchPal free for the time being

Don't like the stock keyboard that comes with Android? No problem. There are plenty of other keyboards to choose from.

A bit of SlideIT, Swype, and SwiftKey

What do you get if you crossbreed SlideIT with SwiftKey? The new keyboard on the block is called by the cheesy name TouchPal. It's been around as a private beta test version for a while, but now everybody can grab a copy from the Android Market. There are many good reasons why you should, and only a few why you shouldn't.

TouchPal is like Swype, but with a couple of extras. The Swype gestures in TouchPal are called Curve. On top of its Swype-like input, TouchPal comes with a bunch of predictive text and auto-correct options and it can auto-complete unfinished words. Sometimes it's a bit too much, though. TouchPal insists on auto-capitalising the first word in a line even when you don't want it to. Worse, it inserts spacing between words even if auto-spacing is switched off. If you try to type TouchPal turns it into www. google. com, with spaces!

If you don't like Curve you can turn it off. You can also switch to an old skool T9 keypad.

Languages, dictionaries, spelling

You can download dictionaries in most western european languages (and thai, chinese, russian, and indonesian too), but eastern europeans and most asians are left out. And it only has american english, not british. Maybe TouchPal will add more languages over time. You can add your own words to a custom dictionary to fill in the gaps.

A nice touch is that you can use multiple languages together, so if you're bi- or trilingual you don't need to switch languages in the settings all the time.

Bells and whistles

More good stuff: there's a "close" button in the top right corner so you can hide the keyboard with a single tap. That beats long-tapping the menu key or hitting the highly unpredictable back button. The virtual cursor keys are great as well. They make it very easy to put the cursor in exactly the right place, no matter how fat your fingers are.

You get quick access to the screens with numbers, special characters, and smilies. There's also an option to put alternative symbols on the normal letter buttons, which you can then insert by either long-tapping or a downward swipe. Unfortunately TouchPad only displays the extra characters on the bottom row in Curve (Swype) mode. The other keys have numbers and special symbols as well (just long-tap and see what happens), but the TouchPal keyboard fails to show them. According to the developers that's because downward swipes on the top two rows conflict with Curve. Maybe they should look a bit harder for a solution. While they're at it, they should add a page with letters like å, ß, ç, á, è, ñ, ø, š, ô, ü, etc.

Permissions and pricing

TouchPal asks for access to your contacts so it can add the names in your address book to its dictionary. It also wants full internet access, something that keyboard apps should never ask for. Apps like TouchPal can read everything you type, including passwords and credit card numbers. Better keep TouchPal offline with DroidWall or LBE Privacy Guard. Don't worry, blocking internet access does not break TouchPal. You can still download additional languages, because TouchPal launches the Market app for that.

TouchPal is available for free on the Android Market until the 31st of October, 2011. After the freebie period TouchPal will probably become a paid app, and judging from the price of the Windows Mobile version it won't be cheap. The free version never expires, so grab a free copy while you can.

TouchPal (Android Market)
TouchPal (

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Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Firefox for Android still a million miles behind the competition

Firefox is one of the best web browsers for desktops and notebooks, but the mobile version of Firefox is a work in progress. And it still needs a lot of progress, because in its present form it's no match for Dolphin or Skyfire. The latest update didn't change that.

First impressions last forever. Upon installing the latest version of Firefox I loaded a website (guess which one?) and was greeted by a popup that said "Sorry! Something went wrong while displaying a web page."

Second attempt worked, somewhat. The site loaded, but Firefox has a problem with text. On most sites the fonts are way too small, and pinching the screen to zoom doesn't help either.

Landscape view didn't look any better. For some reason Firefox decided to leave the right and bottom parts of my screen unused, and font rendering was terrible again.

So I opened some new tabs to see if other sites would look better. Firefox handles tabs better than the stock browser, but not as well as Dolphin. Firefox hides tabs in a side panel without an option to move 'em to the top of the main screen. Accessing your tabs in Firefox works better than in Skyfire, Opera, and the stock browser, but it's not as simple and intuitive as Dolphin. As for the sites I opened, text rendering was a mess for all pages I tried.

So what good things does Firefox for Android bring? It has a lot of add-ons, including AdBlock. The option to send a page to a PDF file is a nice touch too. You'd almost forgive Firefox its lack of Flash support.

But there are other ways to block ads in Android browsers. AdAway keeps ads out of all your browsers and other apps. It even blocks the ads from this site ;) You don't need Firefox to send web pages to PDF either, because Dolphin can do it too with the right add-on. And there's always UrlToPDF which works regardless of which browser you use.

So for now there's really no reason to use Firefox on a phone. You're better off with Dolphin or Skyfire. And if bandwidth is tight then the server side compression of Opera Mini is your friend.

Firefox (Android Market)
Opera Mini (Android Market)

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Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Dolphin Browser HD improves gestures and syncs bookmarks, but keeps the old tab popup

Dolphin Browser HD is not the fastest web browser for Android, but it's the most versatile browser on any mobile operating system. Its tab layout is better than the tabs in Opera or the native Android browser. The sidebars with bookmarks and plugins are a nice touch, and if it's all too much for you there is a mini version with most of the fat trimmed off.

What's new?

New in the latest version: bookmark syncing. It requires an add-on, so it only works in Dolphin HD, not in Dolphin Mini. And you'll need to set up an account at Dolphin. Wouldn't it be easier if you could just sync bookmarks through Gmail?

Also new: the gestures got more accurate. My gesture to get to the top of the page looks like ^, my gesture to go back to the previous page looks like <. The old Dolphin often mixed them up, just like it did for my "next" gesture (>) and my "bottom of page" swipe (v). But not anymore. The latest update really made things more precise, so now I'm no longer sent to the top when I want to go back to the last page. If you use gestures that look like "O" and "Q" you should notice the difference too.

Old & annoying

There are two old annoyances that Dolphin did not fix.

The first is the "new tab" dialog.

When you long-tap a link you can select "open in new tab." This launches a popup that lets you choose between opening the link in a foreground or background tab. I'd rather have this choice straight in the main menu instead of in a popup. But what really annoys me is that the popup comes with a "remember my decision" checkbox that's checked by default.

Having the box checked by default really makes no sense. Remembering the decision is a one time event, so it's no big deal checking the box once. Not remembering your choice is something that you'll need to tell Dolphin over and over again. For obvious reasons the box should be unchecked by default.

Worse yet, if you accidentally open a new tab without removing the checkmark you're screwed. You can't undo it in the settings menu. The only way to get the old behaviour back is by going into the settings and restoring all Dolphin settings, which includes gestures, bookmarks, etc. All because you want your choice between foreground and background tabs back.

Update: the new tab popup issue has been fixed.

The desktop version of Firefox has a menu editor add-on. The makers of Dolphin should have a good look at this.

The second annoyance is the exit dialog. You can switch it off, but that only works if you exit Dolphin from the button in the menu. If you try to get back to your home screen with a tap on your phone's back button the exit dialog still pops up.

Update: the latest version of Dolphin HD lets you kill the exit dialog.

The verdict

The flaws of Dolphin are only minor. So minor that I keep Dolphin as my default browser because the shortcomings of the stock browser, Opera, Skyfire, Maxthon, xScope, Firefox, Miren etc. are much worse. Still, it would be nice if the makers of Dolphin can sort things out in the next update.

Dolphin Browser (Android Market)
Dolphin Mini (Android Market)
Dolphin Bookmark Sync

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Saturday, 3 September 2011

Wi-Fi Ruler keeps your phone away from bad networks

There are plenty of Android WiFi managers that tell your phone which networks to use, but what about an app that tells your phone which networks to ignore?

Rogue access points, public networks that look open but send you to a payment page, or the routers of your neighbours that spill their waves into your house, there are plenty of WiFi networks out there that you want your phone to stay away from.

Enter Wi-Fi Ruler. Its interface is barren, its icon is ugly, but it does a good job at keeping your phone out of unwanted networks. You can feed it a list of networks that it should never touch. Of course you can also tell it which networks it should connect to whenever possible, and its network priority slider lets you fine tune things even more.

The latest update does a better job at finding out if you switch WiFi on or off outside Wi-Fi Ruler, like when you toggle WiFi from a widget or with a scheduling app.

Wi-Fi Ruler still has some issues to deal with. Sometimes when you try to set rules for a network it remembered it refuses to do so. It won't let you export your rules to share with other devices either, although you can work around this by sending Titanium backups to your other Android gadgets.

Tip for users of DroidWall, LBE Privacy Guard, etc.: Wi-Fi Ruler does not need permission to go online. If you firewall the app it will keep working.

Wi-Fi Ruler (Android Market)

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Thursday, 1 September 2011

Chat app imo cleaned up its act

Update: imo is dead!

The market

There are plenty of instant messaging apps for Android, and there's something wrong with all of them. They either suck your battery dry, don't chat with Skype, or they won't let you use multiple accounts on the same network. And even if they get these things right, they show obtrusive ads that even AdFree can't block. Or they ask for money. I know programmers need to eat too, but instant messengers are like web browsers: nobody pays for them.

What makes imo good

Instant messenger imo is one of the few chat apps that works with Skype. Of course it also talks to the usual suspects: Google Talk, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Facebook, AIM, etc. Better yet, you can use as many accounts as you like. Want to sign in with your Google Talk account for work and use your separate Google Talk account for your friends at the same time? Most IM clients will refuse, but imo knows your need for split personalities and lets you log into all of them.

An old imo problem used to be that it would launch itself out of nowhere and sign you back in after you logged out, but so far the latest update keeps quiet when I tell it to shut up. And now it does group chats too! Did I mention its interface got polished up a bit?

To do list

Not that imo is perfect. Its smilies are an ugly shade of green. They're case sensitive too: :-P works, but :-p does not. Neither do :P and :p. Not everybody uses imo, so it should learn to handle the slightly different smiley formats used by different apps and networks. Those with amoled screens might want a black background instead of a white one. The biggest annoyance: whenever you scroll through a chat, imo pops up the question whether you want to enable "chat history" or not. Your only options are "yes" or "not now." They really should add another choice: "no, and don't ask me again."

But in the grand scheme of things those are minor flaws. The shortcomings of the competition are much, much worse. For now, imo is the best Android chat app out there. Yes, even better than Nimbuzz. Although push notifications would be a nice addition to a future version. Maybe one day it will add WhatsApp to its list of supported networks too?

imo (Android Market)

Update: imo is dead!

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