Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Google+ wants you, even if you don't want Google+
Tried to rate an app or leave a comment on an Android app in the Google Play Store lately? Then you must have seen the popup telling you that Play Store feedback now requires a Google+ account, and that your real name and your picture will be posted right next to your comment.
Don't want a Google+ account? Too bad, but that means you can no longer leave any feedback on any app on the Google Play Store.
You may be tempted to create a fake Google+ account for Play Store feedback, but Google won't have it. If the Googlebot detects a fantasy name, it threatens to kill your account.
Honesty requires anonymity
Want to give your honest opinion about apps like Sexy Hot Live Wallpaper, RememberYourPills, Angry Birds, GayDateDroid, or the self-help app of Alcoholics Anonymous? Still want to do so if your real name is forcibly stuck to it, out in the open for anyone to read? And your picture too?
Psychologists and market researchers know that honest opinions require anonymity. That's why surveys always tell you in clear big letters that your name or any personal info will NOT be linked to your feedback. There's a reason why you can vote for a new government without telling anyone who you voted for.
What if you have a job in the US Army and you'd like to share your honest opinion about one of the many Wikileaks apps?
By requiring a Google+ account to leave Play Store feedback Google is asking for a flood of fake Google+ accounts. By posting the names and pictures of minors next to their Angry Birds ratings Google will break the laws of many countries. And by removing anonymity, the Play Store ratings will be even more unreliable than they already are. If your Play Store comments can be linked back to your name by anyone on the planet, many people will no longer voice dissenting views off the beaten track. Instead, they'll give socially acceptable, politically correct, middle of the road opinions. Or they keep their mouths and keyboards shut and you won't see their opinions at all.
What was Google thinking? Were they thinking at all? Google should do the right thing and drop their Google+ requirement. Linking your Google+ account to your Play Store ratings should be optional, not mandatory. Isn't the whole idea about Android that the choice is yours, not theirs?
Really, Google, there are better ways to increase your Google+ user base to try pass Facebook. There's no need to abuse Android for that. If Google doesn't pull the Google+ requirement from the Play Store then Anonymous should have a party on the servers of Google+.
Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Skype for your Android phone or tablet isn't as good as it used to be since they yanked out the tabs. Too bad Skype updates fix security issues (old Skype versions are not safe at all), so keeping ancient versions is comes at a price.
The last update adds MSN accounts. In case you missed it, Microsoft p3wns Skype and they're crossbreeding it with their own old chat network. And the sound of your Skype calls improved a little. It's still no match for standard SIP or Viber, but it got a tiny little bit closer.
Got an Android tablet? The new Skype only works in landscape mode, which can be very annoying, especially on the smaller 7" tablets.
Something that should have changed but didn't: Skype still makes noise when it shouldn't. Skype shouts at you when you start it up, it screams at you when you shut it down, and its dialpad tones are so loud that they caused a riot at my local cemetery. Microsoft, please let me switch off those annoying dialpad sounds so the dead in the graveyard can sleep. There's really no need to send out deafening beeps everytime I push a button. Now that Skype ate MSN it's even more about text chat than it was already. Now fix your app and let people send out texts without waking up the neighborhood.
Skype v22.214.171.1243 still has tabs, and it doesn't make noise unless you ask it to.
• Skype (Google Play)
• Skype 126.96.36.1993 (on i-Pmart, a site with a dark side, beware of the dog)
p.s. I'm still waiting for a multi-network VoIP app that unites Skype, Viber, SIP, Vonage, Google Voice etc. in a single interface.
Thursday, 15 November 2012
The maker of Android firewall DroidWall sold it to antivirus maker avast. DroidWall didn't get developed any further, and when Android 4.x (Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean) spread around trouble started.
But because the source code for DroidWall was out in the open, others jumped in to keep DroidWall alive.
Android Firewall by jtschohl is one of the DroidWall forks. It looks just like the old app, but it works on ICS and Jelly Bean too.
AFWall+ is even better. It lets you split online permissions into permission to go online by WiFi, normal data, and roaming data, so you don't need avast for that. When I wrote on this site that AFWall+ would be even better with a "clear log file" button right inside the log itself, its maker said he'd build it into his app and the next day it was there.
It also fixes the old DroidWall problem of leaking data in the seconds between Android starting and the firewall waking up, so no more leaky boots. Well, most of the time. If your phone freezes and you have to reboot it by pulling the battery, the next boot still leaks. But after a normal shutdown (including auto-shutdown when your battery is empty) the next boot is waterproof.
Tiny little AFWall+ problem: updates share the version number of the old versions. On my phone versions 1.03, 1.04, and 1.05 were labeled by Titanium as version 103, which makes it difficult to keep backups of different versions of the app. And you're gonna need those backups, because the app is still in an experimental state and updates can introduce new bugs. On the bright side, bug fixes are very speedy.
So which firewall is the right one for your phone?
If you're on ICS or newer, there's no point in keeping the old DroidWall. If you run an older version of Android, DroidWall is still not the best choice because it leaks on boot.
Android Firewall by jtschohl works on Android 4.x too, but AFWall+ is a better choice. AFWall+ reduced the leaky boots issue, and its separate settings for data roaming are really useful when you're traveling and you don't want your wallet emptied by data hungry autostarting apps.
If you're gonna test all these firewalls yourself, remember to switch off your old firewall when you activate a new one. Running two firewalls at the same time is not a good idea.
• AFWall+ on xda
• AFWall+ (Google Play Store)
• Android Firewall by jtschohl
firewalls built into other security apps:
• LBE Privacy Guard
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
Update: imo is dead!
One app to rule them all...
Multi-network instant messenger imo is one of my favourite weapons against chat network fragmentation. Instead of running a bunch of apps that only talk to one network each, imo lets me squeeze most of 'em into a single app. Only WhatsApp and Viber play difficult.
And then imo released an extreme makeover of their app. It looks completely different from the previous version. According to the description on its Google Play Store page the new imo has a "beautiful new streamlined design."
They're wrong. The new design is neither streamlined nor beautiful. They managed to do just about everything wrong that they could do wrong.
First thing you see when you launch an app is its icon. The new imo icon is a big white rectangle with rounded corners (Apple, go sue 'em!) which looks horrible on most homescreen backgrounds, except for the 0.000001% who wallpapered their homescreens to look like a field of snow.
When you get into the app you'll notice that the mostly white user interface is even whiter than it used to be. A bright white background works for paper and eBook readers, but it's a really bad idea for apps that run on backlit displays (read: most Android phones and tablets). If your Android gadget has an AMOLED screen things get even worse, because all those bright white pixels suck your battery dry.
This is where imo could have improved their design. A simple button in the settings to switch between a light and a dark theme would do the job. After all, Android is all about customising everything until it works and looks they way you want it. If I wanted one-size-fits-all designs I would have bought that other phone. You know, the one with a patent on rounded rectangles.
Tabs and taps
The old imo had a very simple and effective tab design. A tab for your contacts, a tab for your chats, and another tab for your accounts. It worked so well that you'd even forgive them for ignoring the menu button and the action bar overflow menu.
The new imo lost the tab with your chats. Your open chats now sit on top of your contacts, making the long list even longer. It also makes the contacts you're talking with appear twice in the list, which makes the clutter even worse. Swiping through your open chat windows? That's something of the past.
The accounts tab is something of the past too. It turned into a window that you can get into by swiping to a new tab that's full of things that would fit better under a menu button or overflow menu. Signing in and out of your accounts now takes an extra tap compared to the old version.
The old imo had the annoying habit of putting all your Facebook contacts in their own contact group. Taking them out and moving them around was pointless, because next time you logged into imo they automatically reappeared in the Facebook group.
That problem got fixed with a sledgehammer. The new imo won't let you group your contacts into lists at all. That's not just a cosmetic issue, it gets in the way of functionality too. If you enable Facebook chat in imo your contacts tab gets cluttered with hundreds of Facebook friends that you never chat with, which makes it hard to find the contacts that really matter. There used to be a time when Motorola and others would add a "helpful" option to auto-insert your Facebook friends into your Android phone book. One look at the giant monster killer list of contacts was enough for most people to switch that option off.
To make up for the long list, imo added a cure that's worse than the disease. There's a contact search bar on the bottom of the tab that pops up whenever you scroll around. Most of the time it just gets in the way, it's useless clutter on phones with a search button, and for phones without real buttons the search option would be more at home in the action bar.
Next new "feature:" your contacts lost their head. Avatars on chat networks, forums, social networks, and the contact list of your phone are sqare pictures. For some reason imo decided to make all those square pictures round by cutting the corners with a guillotine. If your friends faces are not exactly in the middle of the image imo bluntly chops off their heads.
Good old imo came with two very useful switches. One button to switch autostart on or off, because not everyone wants all their chat apps to launch automatically when they boot their phone. The other button was to let you choose whether imo should automatically sign you into your accounts upon app launch, or wait for you to tap a button to sign in.
The new imo automatically starts on boot, and there's no off switch. The only way to stop it from autostarting is by taming imo with an autostart manager.
You can't let imo auto-sign you into your accounts either. Now you always have to flick the switch yourself, each and everytime you fire up the app.
Taking your startup choices away is a really bad decision. Why does imo need to copy the bad habits of WhatsApp and Viber?
The new fresh imo may be very white, but it's not green at all. The battery consumption went up since the update, which is something that an app meant to run for hours on end should avoid at all costs.
Finally, imo inherited an annoyance introduced in a previous update. Its status bar icon is always grey, no matter if imo is online or not. Why not offer a choice of green when connected, red when incommunicado, orange when connected to some of your networks but not all?
Why keep imo?
With so many "improvements" that don't improve anything, you may be tempted to look for another chat app. According to the Google Play Store comments you're not alone. The new dumbed down user interface annoys lots of people. Not because it's new, but because it kills function.
Unfortunately it's really hard to escape from imo. There are two reasons for that. First, imo lets you sign into multiple accounts on the same chat network, which most instant messenger apps won't let you do. Second, imo has Skype chat, which was yanked out of competing apps like Nimbuzz and fring.
So I keep imo on my phone. Not the crippled new version 3.0.0, but the much better v2.7.5 that I backed up before updating. I'm gonna keep the old version until imo cleans up the mess.
Update: imo is dead!
Saturday, 10 November 2012
Task killers are not always useless
Task killers are useless on Android phones and tablets, right? Because Android is so good at managing memory that you should just leave inactive apps sit quietly in the background. You're battery doesn't care about what's cached in RAM.
Except that not all apps keep quiet in the background. Apps like Shazam and Google Maps keep going online when you're not using them, even though you thought that they were doing nothing except being cached for future use.
And then there's Facebook. That's the most famous misbehaving battery killing app out there.
Facebook, the app that never sleeps
Want to see what Facebook does behind your back? Use Facebook for a while, then leave the app. Now do something else, go to work, fall asleep, whatever, but don't touch the Facebook icon on your homescreen. Of course you don't have any Facebook widgets running, you switched off Facebook notifications, you don't let anything sync by itself, etc. It doesn't matter. Even if you switch all its background activity off, Facebook stays awake and goes online to phone home for no good reason at all. Facebook empties your wallet if you're travelling abroad and pay a fortune for data roaming.
And there's more bad news. When Facebook sits in the background "doing nothing" it prevents your phone from entering deep sleep. And by not letting your phone sleep, your battery burns more fuel than a space shuttle.
Kill Facebook before it kills your battery
Check out the screenshots. When my phone is in deep sleep it eats about 0.5% of battery juice per hour. This is with WiFi on so WhatsApp and Viber can listen to incoming C2DMs (cloud to device messages). But to keep the burn rate down to half of a percent I have to make absolutely sure that Facebook is gone out of memory and stays out of memory.
Because when Facebook is "cached in the background doing nothing" the battery consumption goes up four times (!) to 2% per hour. That's the difference between over a week of standby time (no Facebook) or just a day or two.
If you really must use the Facebook app but you don't want your battery to burn electrons like an SUV going uphill on a gravel path, make sure that Facebook stops after you're done with it.
You can kill it with the stock Android app manager, but this is a tedious job. Killing Facebook requires automation. Facebook is the living evidence that sometimes task killers make sense.
Of course there's no point killing Facebook if it keeps relaunching itself. Plug the charger into your phone and Facebook will start up by itself. It stays launched when you unplug the power cable. Connect your phone to a computer by USB cable? Same thing. Any connectivity change (WiFi on, WiFi off, WiFi-to-data or vice versa) makes Facebook autorun. Use an app like Gemini App Manager to switch all Facebooks autostart triggers off.
But there's a better way. Just remove the official Facebook app from your phone. It doesn't just eat data and drink battery juice in its sleep, it's a terrible app for many other reasons too.
Facebook alternatives (no, not Google+)
You can Facebook in your web browser. Or you can use Friendcaster, an alternative Facebook client that's way better than Facebooks own poor excuse for an app. It's a lot faster than Facebooks own app. And there's more: Friendcaster can handle multiple Facebook accounts. That's really useful on a shared Android tablet, or if you have a personal Facebook account and another one for your business, or if you have multiple personalities.
Friendcaster has a truckload of autostart triggers of its own (switch 'em off if you like), but if you uncheck "alert for Facebook notifications" in its settings menu then Friendcaster won't go online behind your back. Better yet, Friendcaster won't keep your phone awake all the time like the official Facebook app does. Look at your battery stats to see the difference.
Friday, 9 November 2012
Just about every Android app in the Google Play Store asks for full internet permission, but not all of them need it from a user point of view (if you're the developer of the app you probably have a different opinion). Many apps work perfectly offline, and only want to go online to load ad banners, track your movements, steal your address book, or worse.
The good news is that Android has a couple of firewall apps to keep those apps offline.
The most famous Android firewall is DroidWall. You can blacklist apps to keep 'em offline, or whitelist apps so only they can go online and the rest can't. You can keep your apps away from WiFi, mobile data, or both. It's one of the first apps to install after you root your phone or tablet. Unfortunately DroidWall hasn't been updated in ages, and it probably stays that way.
There are some alternatives for DroidWall. LBE Privacy Guard has a firewall built in, but DroidWall does it better. Antivirus app avast has a firewall built in too, and it gives you even more choice because you can choose to keep apps away from all mobile data networks, or only when roaming. Too bad that avast doesn't log your apps attempts to go online the way DroidWall does.
But now there's a new firewall that combines DroidWall and avast. AFWall+ is meant to continue where DroidWall stopped. It looks a lot like DroidWall, because it's built on the same code. But AFWall adds a few goodies that DroidWall doesn't have.
The best reason to replace DroidWall is that AFWall+ splits mobile data access in roaming and non-roaming, just like avast does. It can notify you when you install new apps, so you don't forget to blacklist or whitelist them. And AFWall+ lets you switch off app icons to speed up loading. This is a major improvement over DroidWall, which can be very slow if it has a lot of icons to fetch and show.
DroidWall used to block the wrong apps after restoring them from a backup because their identification numbers change. AFWall+ is smarter: it keeps track of the package names of your apps instead, so it blocks the right apps after you remove and restore them, like when you install a new ROM.
There are a few minor issues. The menu is pretty bare, because most options sit in a Ice Cream Sandwich/Jelly Bean-like overflow menu on what Google calls the action bar. I'm not a fan of that overflow menu button. It sits on the top right of the screen, which is harder to reach than the menu button on the bottom left. Of course it's different if you're left-handed, and if your shiny new Android device doesn't have an old skool menu button the overflow menu is the only way in.
Another minor thing: you can't clear the log from the log screen itself. You have to leave the log, get back into the overflow menu, and then hit the "clear log" button.
AFWall+ is still young, and updates come frequently. Sometimes they introduce new bugs. For example, one update caused the app to crash when you tried to see the log or the blocking rules. But the developer of the app fixes things quickly: it took just a day to fix the crash bug. I'd still make a backup off AFWall+ before you install any update, just to be on the safe side.
Update: it's in the Play Store now.
Keep in mind that running two firewalls is like wearing two condoms. It causes a lot of friction and it doesn't make things any safer. So if you replace DroidWall with AFWall+, make sure to switch off your old firewall.
• AFWall+ on xda
• AFWall+ (Google Play Store)
• LBE Privacy Guard (permissions manager and firewall)
• avast! (antivirus, anti theft, find my phone, firewall)
Before you start thinking that a firewall blocks all unwanted connections, keep in mind that there are a few seconds in between booting Android and your firewall waking up. Any app that launches before your firewall has a few seconds to go online until your firewall gets out of bed. Except AFWall+, which doesn't leak when your phone boots.
Update: AFWall+ fixed the leaky boots. I rebooted my phone a few times to check if anything managed to sneak through, but all apps blocked by AFWall+ were blocked right from the start. The only time I saw data leaking through AFWall+ was when my phone froze and I had to reboot it by pulling the battery. But after a normal shutdown (either by pushing the power button or after an empty battery triggers automatic shutdown) AFWall+ is waterproof.
Thursday, 8 November 2012
Alternative Grooveshark and last.fm app roundup: Dood's Music Streamer, TinyShark, BlueStream, GrooveMobile, KLastFM, CoboltFM
Playing your music across the border
Last.fm radio stations and Grooveshark on demand streaming are cool additions to the mp3s on your memory card, but unfortunately music streaming services often come with geographic restrictions that ignore the basics of the world wide web.
For example, Grooveshark doesn't like germans. If you have a german IP address it won't sing for you. And Grooveshark and Google have a rather difficult relationship. The official Grooveshark app gets kicked out of the Google Play Store on a regular basis. It made a few comebacks, but it hasn't been around in the Play Store for a while now. Maybe it comes back, maybe it won't.
Last.fm isn't very global either. The germans, english, and americans can listen to last.fm radio stations for free, but only on a desktop or notebook computer. If you want to listen on your phone or tablet you have to pay for a subscription. Yes, you read that right. If your computer is smaller than a netbook and runs Android instead of Windows your music comes at a higher price. Outside the three lucky countries everyone has to pay for last.fm.
But even if you pay that doesn't mean you can listen where you want to listen. Outside Germany, USA, and the UK you can't listen to any last.fm music on your phone or tablet. Not even if you buy a thousand paid subscriptions.
But hey, you've got an Android gadget, and Android gadget users don't take no for an answer. With the right apps you can break through the borders and listen to
Update 1: CoboltFM and KLastFM are dead. Last.fm changed things for the worse and pulled the plug on free streaming for almost everyone. Believe it or not, most of the planet can't stream anymore even if they pay. Last.fm refugees can still stream custom radio stations from Grooveshark with Dood's Music Streamer.
Update 2: Liquid Bear still plays last.fm radio on Android.
Bluestream is the worst Grooveshark player from the pack. There are long gaps between songs, because Bluestream doesn't prebuffer. Searching for music or hitting the play button often pops up a connection error that only goes away after you try again a couple of times. The user interface is downright horrible. Tabs for the different parts of the app are in a very thin strip on the bottom of your screen, and you can't reorder tracks in the play queue. It doesn't scrobble to last.fm either. On the bright side, it's still available in the Google Play Store.
GrooveMobile has been around on Windows Mobile for a long time, but its Android counterpart is still in its infancy.
TinyShark has been around a bit longer. Long enough to get kicked out of the Google Play Store. Its user interface sucks, it doesn't precache music so there are gaps between songs, and it won't play Grooveshark radio stations either. On the bright side, it can scrobble your tracks to last.fm
Dood's Music Streamer is the best Android Grooveshark app. Too bad its ad banners are strategically placed to attract accidental clicks, but that's what ad blockers are for. It buffers the next track for almost gapless playback, it plays Grooveshark radio stations, its playlist is well organized, it has a very functional widget, and it can scrobble your songs to last.fm too. It's not in the Google Play Store anymore, but there's a world wide web out there...
• Bluestream (Google Play Store)
• Dood's Music Streamer