Thursday, 20 September 2012

Google Maps for Android syncs with your computer, zooms with one finger

Google Maps for Android learned to ride a bike last month, and today it learned two new tricks.

It syncs your routes and searches between your computer and your phone or tablet. If you search for a place on your PC and then search for it again on your phone, your PC searches appear as suggestions in Google Maps for Android. Of course you have log into the same Google accounts on your computer and your phone for this to work, but it may save you a bit of typing on your tiny little phone screen.

Another new trick is one finger zooming. You can still pinch to zoom, and the zoom buttons are still there, but now there's a third way to zoom in and out. Double-tap the map, keep it down on the second tap, and slide up to zoom in, down to zoom out. This is useful if you're right-handed, because the zoom buttons in the bottom right corner make your thumb bend in an uncomfortable way and pinch-to-zoom doesn't work very well if your other hand is busy doing something else. Maybe the new zoom method is in preparation for a new patent clash with Apple? Whatever the reason, the double-tap-and-slide zoom is a useful addition for single handed navigation. It made me go to the settings to switch off the zoom buttons.

Google Maps needs to learn another trick, though. It should have learned it ages ago.

There are plenty of places where mobile internet is slow, expensive, or doesn't exist at all. For example, on the road between two cities in a foreign country where data roaming costs a fortune. These are often the places where you need your maps more than anywhere else, so it's time for Google to fix its offline capabilities. The downloadable map areas are too few and too small, and offline route calculation is still missing. If OpenStreetMap covers your area, OsmAnd gives you free offline navigation that really works offline.

The Google Maps coders could use a few lessons in ergonomics too. Most people are right-handed, which makes the bottom left part of the screen the easiest place to reach with your thumb. This place is now occupied by a scale bar, something that you never touch. Google Maps for phones would work a lot better if the scale bar would move to the top left of the screen (the hardest part to reach if you're right-handed), and the entire top bar (menu, search, layers, position) should move to the bottom. A switch in the settings to reverse the order of the items would make left-handed Android users happy. Google, go add it to your app. Now that I've published the idea here on this site Apple can't patent it anymore :)

Google Maps in the Google Play Store
OsmAnd for true offline navigation

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Monday, 17 September 2012

Good apps gone bad: GO SMS Pro and Easy Photo Editor

When advertising goes too far

Web browsers used to be plagued by popup ads, until each and every web browser came with a popup blocker out of the box. As the ads got more intrusive, the AdBlock plugin for Firefox and Chrome became more popular. This plugin blocks the annoying ads, but it also kills the small unobtrusive non-moving silent ads that keep webmasters alive.

Android apps used to come with a small ad banner that you could choose to click or ignore. But then the ads got bigger and more intrusive, and companies with questionable business ethics like Airpush and LeadBolt made ad blocking software a must-have.

Are Android app developers making the same mistake as website builders?

Easy Photo Editor snapped

There was a time when every free Android photo editor screwed up your exif tags. It didn't save them at all, or it changed the "date picture taken" tag.

But not anymore. Easy Photo Editor was the first to keep your exif data untouched. It had an ad banner, and that was it.

But then Aviary released an update that kept your exif tags intact. And Easy Photo Editor released an update that added LeadBolt popup ads. Easy Photo Editor still lets you choose your own picture output folder, but that's not enough to put up with the junk from LeadBolt. So I clean up my pictures with Aviary.

GO SMS Pro gone to the dogs

GO SMS Pro has too many customisation options to count, and if you SMS across time zones GO SMS keeps your messages in the right order, which competing SMS apps Handcent, Pansi SMS, and chompSMS fail to do.

But GO SMS Pro got too greedy.

They made money from selling themes. So far so good. But then they started charging for things that were free. In old versions you could backup your SMSs on your microSD card. Later versions insisted on backing up your messages to GOs own cloud storage service, which no one should trust. You can still save your messages to your memory card, but only if you sign up for a GO account and hand over your money.

And that was not enough. When I updated to newer versions I started to receive unsollicited SMSs to advertise paid GO SMS themes.

And that's still not enough. The theme store in GO SMS Pro shows some free themes, but they're not free at all. They come with an in-app payment system. You know that old scam where they say that their app is FREE to download, but once its on your device it demands money? GO SMS Pro has sunken to the same depth. Advertising may be a necessary evil for a "free" app, but deceptive advertising is unnecessarily evil.

Too bad that the competition still mixes up my trans time zone messages. The "sort by order of messages sent/received" checkbox in "Settings/Advanced/Important Tips/Sort type of conversation messages" is why GO SMS Pro stays on my phone for the time being. Yes, they added all sorts of bloat (who needs yet another chat network?), but as long as I can switch the extras off I don't need to revert to the stock SMS app that came with my phone.

GO SMS Pro tries to phone home whenever launch the app or boot my phone, so I keep GO SMS offline with DroidWall.

GO SMS Pro 4.51 (last version with free local backups)
GO SMS Pro 4.50 (last version with free local backups and message filtering)

Before you update your apps, back 'em up first. You never know when you need the old version back, and the Google Play Store won't help you out. If you download old versions outside the app stores of Google, Amazon, or GetJar, it may be a good idea to scan your downloads with an antivirus app.

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Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Dolphin Browser plugs location hole, gestures lose direction, Flash back, splash gone

Where do you surf?

Dolphin Browser is one of the best Android web browsers out there, mainly because of its highly customisable gesture controls and the way it handles tabs.

Unfortunately Dolphin has the nasty habit of pushing out updates with privacy issues. Last year they added a "webzine" feature that sent your entire surfing history to who-knows-where. They fixed it, but only after the web cried out and Dolphins reputation started to smell like rotten fish.

You still need to block traffic to to keep your Android ID and other data out of Dolphins fins.

Where are you?

A couple of days ago a new Dolphin update punched a new hole in the app. After the update Dolphin started to poll your location at every app launch for no good reason. It took while, but eventually they released an update that fixes the location polling issue. Dolphin's more or less clean again, at least for now.

Do these privacy violations mean that Dolphin is a piece of malware made by spammers and scammers? Possibly, but given the speed with which they fixed the issues I think Dolphins programmers are not malicious but merely incompetent.

Where does my swipe point to?

The update that brought the location bug also brought more precise gesture control. Good stuff, but not really. The gesture update came at a price that I'm not willing to pay.

You see, I set up Dolphin to switch tabs with a single horizontal swipe. Drawing a line from left to right brings me one tab to the right, swiping to the left brings me one tab to the left.

But after last update Dolphin decided that a left-to-right swipe is too similar to a right-to-left swipe. The only way I could keep my gesture controls the way I want them was to restore my old Dolphin settings from my Titanium backup, because the new Dolphin no longer accepts a left-to-right swipe if you already set a swipe in the opposite direction. The direction of the swipe movement is no longer enough for Dolphin to tell different gestures apart.

Flash back, splash gone

Android 4.1, a.k.a. Jellybean, no longer supports Flash. Well, not officially. You can sideload Flash to your Jellybean device if you want to keep access to Flash-only sites. The problem is that Dolphin won't run Flash on Jellybean anymore unless you force it to, which requires root access.

If you restore a Titanium backup of your Dolphin settings from an earlier Android version Flash comes back to Dolphin, but only if you had Flash enabled or "on demand" when you made the backup. Of course you can use other backup apps like MyBackup to restore your old Flash-capable settings, but only if you made such a backup before you switched to Jellybean. If you don't have a suitable backup there's an alternative: just delete Dolphins settings file in its system folder and it will run Flash again.

The splash screen that entered Dolphin last update (probably to hide its slower startup) is gone. That's good, because if your app starts so slow that it needs a splash screen you have to fix its load time, not hide it behind a bit of eye candy.

Dolphin Browser (Google Play Store)

Flash in Dolphin on Jelly Bean (xda)

Adobe Flash installer

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Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Hideman VPN bribes you to cheat the Play Store rating system

Some app makers try to inflate their Play Store ratings by offering freebees for rave reviews and fake stars.

Bloat Freezer by Trey Holland even used the mafia status bar spammers of Airpush to blackmail you into giving it five Play Store stars, but Google didn't allow the scam and kicked the app out of its app store.

And now Hideman VPN tries something similar. Nope, they don't blackmail you with Airpush, but they promise some free hours on their virtual private network in exchange for your stars. It's a bit like all those companies that hand out freebees if you "like" them on Facebook, even if you don't like them at all. You get a handout from them, they get free advertising from you.

Needless to say, using bribes to increase your star count makes the Play Store rating system totally useless. You can't trust a high rating if the stars are handed out in exchange for some free stuff. If Google wants to maintain the integrity of its rating system, it should not allow app developers to use such tactics.

If you want to take advantage of the bonus hours without undermining the integrity of the rating system, pocket the free VPN hours and then change your rating back to reflect what you really think about the app. It's a win-win situation: you collect the bonus, the rating system remains somewhat useful.

Hideman VPN

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Friday, 7 September 2012

Fishy browser Dolphin tries to track your location for no reason

History lesson

Dolphin Browser is possibly the best Android web browser out there, mainly because no other Android web browser can match Dolphins custom gesture feature.

But Dolphin doesn't always know how to behave. Last year it was caught sending all the URLs you visited to its own server. Unencrypted! Even when visiting https sites! After lots of bad publicity Dolphin cleaned up its act, but two weeks later the marine mammal started phoning home again. This time it sent your Android ID (a number that stays with your phone forever), a Dolphin client ID, and your carrier and phone specifications to itself. You can stop this, but only if your phone is rooted so you can block all traffic to with an app like AdAway.

Dolphin didn't learn

And today Dolphin received another update that smells fishy.

When you launch the new Dolphin you'll find that it starts up slower than the previous version. The new edition throws a splash screen on your display, probably to hide the slower startup.

And then the real issue kicks in. Because the updated Dolphin asks your phone for your GPS location for no apparent reason. Some websites may ask for your location for a good reason, but Dolphin now tries to find out where you are even if you set a homepage that doesn't want to know your whereabouts.

Disabling location in Dolphins settings doesn't stop it from trying to grab your location. You can use apps like LBE Privacy Guard to stop Dolphin from polling your GPS, but this also stops legit location requests from sites like Nokia Maps.

Update 1: I got a mail from Dolphin in which they explained that  the location request on launch is a mistake. They're gonna kick their developers asses and make 'em fix their error. So Dolphin is not malicious but merely incompetent.
Thank you so much for your information.
We are so sorry for the trouble. We have tested and figured out that our developers changed the code which cause this issue by mistake.
Our senior engineers checked and confirmed that we did not upload your location data to the server. It is just a no-data transmission action.
We will correct this error and update soon. If you found any further issues, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Update 2: Dolphin fixed the loaction leak.

Some good news

Dolphin is still an excellent mobile phone web browser once you stop it from phoning home and snooping on your whereabouts. The update added a few useful things too.

The new Dolphin has a download manager, a file manager, more accurate gestures, and it lets you switch off search suggestions.

The gesture improvement is very welcome. Because of the super customisable gestures and the way Dolphin handles tabs I still use Dolphin, but if a competing browser manages to match its gesture controls I may be tempted to ditch Dolphin.

Flash on Jelly Bean

Android officially stopped supporting Flash since Jelly Bean, and Dolphin on Jelly Bean won't run Flash anymore. Well, not officially, but there's a way to make it work on Jelly Bean anyway.

Restoring a Titanium backup of your Dolphin settings from an earlier Android version revives Flash on Dolphin, but only if you had Flash enabled or "on demand" when you made the backup. Of course you can use MyBackup or any of the other backup apps out there, as long as they're able to backup your app settings in addition to the app itself. Deleting Dolphins settings file in its system folder makes it run Flash too. Both methods require root access. Full details on the xda forum. Of course you need to sideload a copy of Flash too, but you can get it straight from Adobe.

Dolphin Browser (Google Play Store)
Flash in Dolphin on Jelly Bean (xda)
Adobe Flash installer

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