Thursday, 25 October 2012

Are Android users obsessed with the weather?

Every tech site, discussion forum, and Lifehacker clone on the web has a bunch of "post your homescreen" threads. Tech blog The Verge started yet another one. All those screenshots tell a lot about the different mobile operating systems.

iPhoners always post the same thing: a grid of apps with a wallpaper behind them and a clock icon that's stuck at a quarter past ten. Except for those that Think Different®, 'cos they got folders too. Makes me think of that Monty Python movie where Brian shouts "you're all individuals" and the crowd replies with "yes we are!"

No Blackberry screenshots, because Blackberry users hide in a corner for fear of being found out as a Blackberry owner. And Windows Phone owners don't bother to reply. They keep quiet, all three of them.

And then there are the Android homescreens. Now that's a different story. No two Android phones look alike, and the homescreens are often a gem of creativity.

But there's one common theme in all those screens. Custom launchers and individual wallpapers aside, there's something that you'll find on virtually every Android homescreen picture ever posted on the web. And I'm not talking about the customary Angry Birds shortcut.

Scroll through the Android homescreen pictures and you can't miss the fact that 99.99999% of them has a big shiny weather widget as the main attraction. Temperatures, wind speeds, pictures of clouds, the forecast for tomorrow and the day after, it's all there. The weather widget usually takes up half the screen or more.


Where I live it rains so much that we pay taxes to keep the water out. Half the country sitting below sea level might also have something to do with this. And it's often freezing cold, especially this time of the year. The ever-present wind that comes in straight from the North Sea doesn't make things any better. It blows the Scottish weather our way. 'Nuff said.

So the last thing I need is a giant homescreen widget that keeps reminding me of what I'd rather forget.

Yes, I know that things are different if you live on a tropical island and you spend all day on the beach drinking coconut rum under a palm tree. A weather widget that shows nothing but "Friday: sunny, 28 ºC, Saturday: blue sky, 31 ºC, Sunday: high tide at noon, 29 ºC" looks really good. And so does a calendar that reads "Monday: Surf Class, Tuesday: Restock the bar on the boat, Wednesday: Waterskiing, Thursday: BBQ at the pool." But in such a place you'd have no need for a weather widget at all.

So what's going on here? Do all meteorologists have an Android phone? Are all Android users meteorologists? Do Androids never go out so they need their phone to tell them if it's winter or summer out there? Or did they just miss the off switch to remove the weather from their clock widget?

I can see the point of a calendar on your central screen. Or a music widget on your main homescreen. Or your email or the number of minutes and texts that you have left this month.

But the weather? On your main screen so you see it everytime you pull out your phone? Each and every time? With an extra copy on your lockscreen so no raindrop flies by undetected?

If you can explain why weather widgets are so popular you'll receive a generous reward. First prize: the raincloud that decided to relieve itself right when I was biking under it. Second prize: a big bag of northwestern wind. Third prize: a pound of sleet. Wait, make that a kilo.

So leave a comment or hit the email link below to fill me in.

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Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Android task killers are evil, that's why I like Bomb That Task and Automatic Task Killer

Task killers are ba-ha-ha-ha-ad!

Mention "task killer" on any Android forum and a million know-it-alls will call you a n00b because even your grandma knows that task killers turn your Android phone into a battery-guzzling crash test dummy of an iPhone.

Because the built-in memory management is sooooo good that you should just let every process run wild, duh!

It's not about memory

Sure, memory management in all but the oldest versions of Android is good. Unless you run Doughnut or Cupcake (Android versions used by the caveman long ago) there's no need to free up RAM. Most apps that show up in your running tasks list are just sitting silently in the background doing nothing, waiting to spring to life when you need them. On Android, empty memory is wasted memory. Not always, but most of the time.

But what if those silent background tasks are not so silent after all? What if they go online behind your back, or suck your battery dry by preventing your phone from entering deep sleep?

Facebook: guilty as charged

The worst "silent" process "doing nothing" on my phone in what's supposed to be the background is Facebook, and that's just one of its many flaws. It came preinstalled on my Motorola, but even if it didn't there'd be no escape for me. If I remove it my girlfriend will kill me, but if I just let Facebook do its thing my phone turns into an insomniac that burns the midnight oil my battery.

When Facebook "sits quietly cached in the background" it keeps phoning home, even with all its notifications switched off and the refresh interval set to never. Of course it does. I wouldn't expect anything else from an app that exists for the sole purpose of tracking every step you take to sell you out to its advertisers.

Facebook quietly burns many megabytes of data in the background, which is really nice if you're travelling and pay for international data roaming. And that's not all. Facebook prevents my phone from entering deep sleep. This more than quadruples standby battery drain. Yes, really. When my phone sits idle it burns 0.5% of battery juice per hour, but when Facebook is "cached in the background doing nothing" it drinks at least 2% every hour. Just think about it: if I leave my phone alone for a day I lose half my battery load just because Facebook sits in the background doing nothing useful. What more reason do you need to take countermeasures?

Of course you're better of kicking the Facebook app out of your phone and use an alternative Facebook client like Friendcaster instead (you'll lose the Facebook phonebook folder from Facebook v1.5.2 and older), but there are other misbehaving apps that are not so easy to replace.

Repeat offenders

Shazam is another reason to use a task killer. When you're done tagging music Shazam doesn't go away, but it keeps waking up to send data back home. What data and why? Shazam won't tell you. But my battery stats tell me that when Shazam sits in the background doing nothing my battery drains as fast as the gas tank of a fully loaded SUV on an uphill dirt track.

Google Maps keeps the network location service active when you don't need it. Of course you can toggle the network location service off whenever you're done with it, but unlike GPS the network location service is resistant to one-tap widgets so you have to dig into the Android settings everytime. To cut a long story short, Google Maps is an excellent candidate for the hit list of your task manager.

And there's more than Facebook and Maps. Goggles, camera apps, anything with periodic polling or push notifications that you can't switch off, there's no shortage of apps that waste your battery because they weren't taught to shut up. Anything that wakes up your phone when you want it to stay asleep drains your battery and should be assasinated. Especially if it goes online when it shouldn't.

Kill your autostarts

As any xda forum geek will tell you, killing apps doesn't make sense if they relaunch over and over again. You stop them, they restart, you kill them again, they resurrect, you shoot 'em with a silver bullet, they get up again, etcetera. You'll see your battery go up in flames if you allow this to happen.

So before you tell your task manager to go on a killing spree, you should tell your phone not to let your bad apps autostart.

ROM Toolbox has a pretty good autostart manager built in. It lets you stop apps from launching when you boot your phone, and throws in a bunch of other autostart triggers. Network change, SD card mounting, widget update, and much more.

Gemini App Manager has even more autostart triggers, and this is what I use to tame Facebook, Google Maps, and over a dozen other apps.

Choose your weapon

Now that you've decided to use a task killer to shoot rogue apps and dealt with the autostart triggers it's time to choose the right task killer. That's not an easy task, because most task killers in the Google Play Store are crap.

Most task killers use the shotgun approach. They kill all running tasks without exception, because this allows them to tell you they've freed up a billion gigabytes of memory. Totally useless, because we all know that freeing up memory makes no sense. Some task killers come with an ignore list that lets you enter a couple of apps that should not be killed, but this approach is the wrong way 'round.

A good task killer doesn't have an ignore list, and it doesn't try to free as much memory as it can. Instead, a good task killer doesn't kill anything unless you explicitly tell it what to kill, and when to kill it.

The built-in task killer that came with my Motorola phone did a good job. It didn't have many options, it simply let me enter a list of apps to be killed two minutes after the display timed out. That was enough for me. But then I switched to CyanogenMod, and Motorolas task manager refused to work there. So I had to dig up a suitable alternative from in between the massive load of crapware that pollutes the Google Play Store.

After testing dozens of useless apps that give task killers a bad name I found two apps worth trying.

Bomb That Task

Bomb That Task kills the apps you choose when your display blacks out, or after a delay that you choose. If Android plays difficult then Bomb That Task uses its root access to do what I want no matter what Android thinks of it. Another nice touch: you can tell it not to kill anything in the middle of a phone call.

Too bad that Bomb That Task didn't kill apps if I set a delay. Even without a delay it often failed to kill Facebook, the app that needs killing more than any other app. The Bomb force-closed a bit too often too.  Maybe it's because Bomb That Task hasn't been updated in ages?

Fortunately I found an alternative that does the job.

Automatic Task Killer by S.Tashibana

Automatic Task Killer by S.Tashibana kills apps right after your screen switches off, or after a delay of your choice. A delay can be useful if you have a very short display timeout. In contrast to Bomb That Task, Automatic Task Killer managed to kill the selected tasks whether I set a delay or not.

Just make sure you DroidWall Automatic Task Killer offline and use PDroid or LBE Privacy Guard to deny GPS access. Wasting battery power to poll your location and to download ads defeats the purpose of an app that's meant to save your battery, so just say no to location-based advertising.

Take-home message

I'd use Bomb That Task if its delay option would work for me and if it wouldn't crash so much. Automatic Task Killer doesn't have these issues. So far I didn't find an app that Automatic Task Killer couldn't kill, so it's my weapon of choice for now. If you know of a better app, feel free to post a comment or hit the contact link on the bottom of this page.

Remember, task killers are only useful to stop apps from going online behind your back or polling your location or otherwise refusing to shut up when they should. Don't try to shoot apps to free up RAM, because this really makes no sense unless you run an ancient version of Android. And don't forget to tweak the autostart triggers of the apps that you kill, or else your task killer will do more harm than good.

Bomb That Task
Automatic Task Killer by S.Tashibana (not to be confused with similar apps of the same name)
• Gemini App Manager and ROM Toolbox

more ways to save your bandwidth and battery:

Make your battery last longer without dumbing down your smartphone
DroidWall keeps nosy apps offline
AdAway because you don't want ads to drain your battery
LBE Privacy Guard to tell apps not to hammer your GPS (among other things)
Use Friendcaster instead of the official Facebook app

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Tuesday, 23 October 2012

New WiFiKill supports ICS and JB but stops after 5 minutes unless you pay

WiFiKill turns your Android phone or tablet into a rogue access point that lets you kill internet access for any device that falls into your trap. You can simply drop packets to keep your target devices offline, or redirect them to any IP address you like. That could be a page that reads "ur fone is haz been pwn3d muahahahaha," but it could also be a fake PayPal login page if you're really evil and you like to spend some time in jail.

You can use WiFiKill to keep your neighbors off your network, to steal Facebook passwords, to kick everyone in your local Starbucks off the internet, or to be the obnoxious spotty teen that puts your entire school offline because all the girls run off with the other guys.

It works on all WiFi networks that your phone or tablet can connect to, whether they're encrypted or not. But before you go on a killing spree, keep in mind that WiFiKill doesn't spoof your MAC address. The local network administrator will ban your device if he has a working brain cell, and WiFiKill can land you in court or out of a job or both.

The old WiFiKill had one tiny little problem. It worked without any problem on Gingerbread, Froyo, and earlier, but on Android 4.x (Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean) you had to switch off your phones WiFi before stopping WiFiKill, otherwise it would make your phone reboot.

Todays update solves this problem. You can now safely kill WiFiKill no matter what flavour of Android you run.

Too bad the update comes at a price. The old WiFiKill would run for as long as you'd like, but the new edition stops working after 5 minutes unless you pay for it. And its developer promised to add even more limitations to the free version later on. The new WiFiKill only works on Android 4+, so if you run an older version you'll need the old version of the app.

WiFiKill is for sale in the Google Play Store for now, but it's a likely candidate for getting booted out of the Google app store. And then you may end up paying for a dead app. The free versions have ads, but they're easy to kill.

Want to protect yourself against WiFiKill? Then Wifi Protector is your friend and your enemies enemy. Bonus tip: WiFiKill auto-checks for updates and this feature doesn't come with an off switch, but if you block WiFiKill with DroidWall it keeps working without auto-updating.

New WiFiKill (free, Android 4+ only, five minute limit)
Old WiFiKill (free, no limits)
WiFiKill on xda

Useful tools to add to WiFiKill:
Wifi Protector

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Monday, 22 October 2012

Can I delete that system app without killing my phone?

Your Android phone or tablet came loaded with bloatware because its manufacturer thought you'd like it, or because the maker of the bloatware paid to get their merchandise included. If you bought your phone "for free" on a contract then your mobile phone operator added even more junk.

All those unwanted apps have some nasty habits. They autostart and won't shut up, they phone home and steal your data and drive up your internet bill. You have many good reasons to get rid of all that crapware.


...all that crapware often has cryptic names that don't tell you what the apps are doing and if your phone breaks if you freeze or uninstall them. So you Google the cryptic app name to see what it does, only to find a bunch of links to forums with "safe to remove" lists that may work for whoever wrote them but not necessarily for you. Who knows what really happens when you remove AdminFeedNotifier or freeze oma1motService.apk?

So here's a list of apps that are either safe to remove or should be left untouched. You're the only one who can decide what your Android phone or tablet needs, and this list helps you make an informed decision before it's too late and you end up with a device that refuses to boot.

Did you know that Google Maps voice navigation needs TtsService.apk? That is geekspeak for your Android nofification bar? That RichTextCommon sucks your battery dry and drives your data bill through the roof? Or that you don't need MediaSync.apk to sync your media?

The Android APK list on android underground aims to tell you what those apps really do, if they're safe to remove, or why you shouldn't touch them if you don't want to reinstall your ROM from scratch.

It's a work in progress that depends on you, so if you spot some errors or have something to add to the list then please hit the contact link on the bottom of the page or leave a comment on this blog post.

The android underground Android system APK list

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Saturday, 20 October 2012

Widgetsoid alive and kicking, could use a finishing touch

Update with growing pains

Ultraversatile widget creator Widgetsoid received a massive update last week. Although the changes are not that spectacular, the app was completely rewritten and the format of the old widgets was no longer compatible with the new app. You had to rebuild all your widgets from scratch.

Widgetsoid can toggle WiFi, GPS, display brightness and just about anything else that can be toggled in Android. You can put shortcuts to apps and settings screens in widgets to make 'em take up less space than they would occupy as normal icons in your homescreen grid.

The update from v3 to v4 added two-storey widgets, among other things. And where the old Widgetsoid required a PhD in rocket science to create a widget, the new version made things a bit easier by simplifying the user interface. So now you only need an MSc degree to make it work.

Too bad the update was bitten by bugs so hard that I had to keep the old version for a while. The new edition made things crash a bit too often to be useful.

But now the bugs are squashed. Maybe not all of them, but the new Widgetsoid is ready for human consumption. The "rounded corners" option for widgets with custom colors still doesn't work, but that's a minor issue that bit all the previous versions too. The next step should be to make the app easier to use, and to stop cluttering the root folder of my microSD card.

Confusingly simple

The number of tabs in the widget building screen went down. A lot. All widget elements are now hidden under a single button called "toggles." Sounds simple, right? Unless you want to add a shortcut instead of a toggle. The shortcuts are counterintuitively hidden under a button called "Application" in the "Add New Toggle" screen.

Putting everything under one button labeled "toggles" is confusingly simple. Splitting the "add toggle" button into a toggle and a shortcut button would make things a lot easier to find.

And then the shortcut menu could use a facelift.

Hidden shortcuts

Adding a shortcut to a settings screen (bluetooth, WiFi, GPS, app manager, whatever) takes a confusing series of steps. First you have to hit "Add New Toggle" to add a shortcut that's not a toggle. Then you have to tap "Application" to add a shortcut that's not an aplication. Which lands you into a long list of apps, with some settings screen shortcuts in between.

But not all settings screens. For example, a shortcut to the Android app settings menu requires more than "simply" hitting "new toggle" and "application." When you're in the screen to add apps you have to hit the tiny little wrench icon on top of your screen to get a list of all possible settings shortcuts. This is so easy to overlook that you're likely to miss a lot of the possible settings shortcuts.

Wouldn't it be a lot easier if all shortcuts to settings were stacked under an entry called "settings" in the shortcut list instead of scattered in between your apps and hidden under an icon?

SD card clutter

The old Widgetsoid would create a single folder on your SD card. The folder was called ".widgetsoid" including the leading dot to hide it from some file managers. The new widgetsoid puts a folder called "Widgetsoid" on your memory card. No leading dot, so it appears in addition to the old folder.

So far, so good. Delete the old folder, stick with the new folder.

Until you add a settings shortcut from the hard-to-find settings list, because then Widgetsoid dumps a file called "dslv_state.txt" on your card. Not inside the Widgetsoid folder, but bang in the root of your memory card. As if things are not cluttered enough already with all those apps dumping files and folders there in a totally unorganised way.

I'd welcome a new Widgetsoid that would keep ALL its files in one single folder, with an option to let me choose the location of said folder so I can move it out of the way. SD/Android/data/Widgetsoid sounds like a good location for me. SD/Android/data/ is where many other apps put their folders so I don't have to scroll past them whenever I fire up a file manager to hunt down a PDF or text file.

Future Widgetsoid

Most bugs are fixed, now the user interface needs a minor overhaul and the SD card clutter should be cleaned up. The new Widgetsoid is a great app, but its present state resembles a beta test version

Widgetsoid v3.4.4 (old version, for if v4.x doesn't work for you)

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Thursday, 18 October 2012

Use text-based Google Now (sort of) on any device, no Android required

Google Now is Googles fresh new virtual assistant. You ask a question, it gives you an answer. It can tell you the weather, whether your flight is on time or not, how many miles to the moon, the half-time score of your favourite football team, if there's a traffic jam on your way home, the nearest sushi place, and much more. Of course it also works as a dictionary, calculator, currency converter, ...

But you need an Android phone or tablet to use Google Now. And not just any Android, but Ice Cream Sandwich or Jelly Bean or newer.

Unless you settle for a lighter version. No matter what device you use, you can get the same answers if you ask your questions to Google Talk chatbot

And when I say any device, I mean any device. As long as it can connect with Google Talk you're in. You could use imo on Android, fring on Symbian, Trillian on your PC, and of course Googles own Google Talk app. It even works with the chat app on your Blackberry or iPad.

You have to type or swype or your questions, though. And the chatbot doesn't talk to you, it only writes to you. This is a bonus in classrooms where you don't want your teachers to find out you're cheating, in public transport where talk on phones is annoying for everyone, in your local techno club where the noise deafens everyone and everything including your phone, etc. And if you want to talk'n'listen anyway, just use your phones text-to-speak feature. You don't get the "I predict what you're gonna ask and tell you before you ask it" part of Google Now either, which is bad if you don't value your privacy and good if you do.

This pseudo-Google Now is nothing new, really. Google launched it a year and a half ago, but nobody really noticed. But now that you heard about it, give it a test spin. Add to your favourite instant messaging app and ask ahead. Want more? Then use Voice Search with Voice Actions or one of its many spinoffs to search your phone and the web and control your phone as well (Siri wasn't that new after all).

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Friday, 12 October 2012

Widgetsoid pimped, broken, fixed

Widgetsoid is the most versatile toggle and shortcut widget builder out there. It can switch wifi and mobile data on and off. And bluetooth and GPS and your ringer volume and USB debugging and a lot more. You can put a bunch of app shortcuts in a Widgetsoid widget too, to fit more apps in the limited space of a homescreen.

You don't need to put 'em on a homescreen, though. You can put your widgets in your notification bar too.

Too bad that Widgetsoid has a pretty steep learning curve. It can do many things, but it takes quite a bit of trial and error before you get the hang of it.

The latest update made things a little easier because the widget configuration screen  is simplified a bit. A little too simplified, because you have to look in a screen called "toggles" to find the button that makes app shortcuts.

Another novelty: two rows in your widgets, so you can put more toggles in your notification bar, or put two rows of icons in a single homescreen widget instead of stacking two widgets on top of each other.

The number of widget sizes went down to three (well, six, because you can turn rows into columns to make vertical widgets), but any decent launcher lets you resize widgets at will so there's not really any size limit.

Update: the full set of widget sizes came back.

Warning: the update from v3 to v4 comes at a price. Your old widgets are not compatible with the new app, so you need to rebuild them all from scratch. Tip: take screenshots of your old widgets before you update the app so you know what goes where when you build your widgets again.

Too bad the update introduced some annoying bugs. Lighting up my flashlight from a Widgetsoid widget takes longer in the new version. It used to flash instantly, now there's a noticeable delay. Shortcuts for bluetooth and app settings don't work anymore for me, hitting the widget now makes the settings app crash. The "rounded corners" option for the widget background doesn't work with a custom background color, but this bug bit the old version too.

Update: the flashlight issue is fixed.
October 20 update: the settings app crash bug is fixed.

According to the Google Play Store comments problems with the new version are quite common. The developer rewrote the app, which effectively turned it into a beta test version. It may work for you, or you may encounter bugs. Some phones and ROMs fare better than others.

I'm gonna keep the old version until the bugs are sqashed. Make sure you have a working backup before you update Widgetsoid, because there's a good chance that you'll want to roll back.

Update: the October 20 edition fixed all the bugs for me, so I'm on version 4 now.

Widgetsoid v3.4.4 (old version, for if v4.x doesn't work for you)

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