Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Google Translate goes offline

Speak unconnected

When do you really need to translate something from one language to another? When you're in a foreign country where nobody speaks a language you understand and vice versa. This often means you're in a place where international data roaming charges are even more scandalous than politics, so you definitely need a translation app that works when all data connections are off.

That meant that Google Translate was out of the question, because every word had to pass Google HQ before being sent back to you in another language.

But not anymore, because now Google Translate works offline.

To make it work you need to download the languages you want to use offline. At over 200 MB apiece you'll want to do that when you're still in a place with fast free WiFi. But once the language files sit on your memory card you can translate words and phrases without paying a fortune for that measly single bar of wireless signal out in the jungle.

Some offline things still off

Offline translation works for words and short phrases, but as text gets longer the translations become increasingly inaccurate. Online translation taps into a bigger database, but it also suffers from the Babelfish effect. I wouldn't use Google Translate for an eBook, neither online nor offline.

If you got the right text-to-speak languages installed, Google Translate can do the talking for you offline. If you let your phone or tablet play online it will speak non-installed languages too, and the voices sound more natural. Tiny little oversight: Google Translate speaks brazilian portuguese, but it won't talk in the original european style.

Not everything works offline (yet). Voice input and handwriting recognition only work online. You also need a live internet connection when you want to translate text on pictures, just like with Google Goggles. So if you want to translate the menu, look for a restaurant with free WiFi.

Speak no evil, hear no evil Speak evil, hear evil

Sometimes a single word says more than a thousand pictures, and if you really need to tell the truth to that taxi driver that took you back the long way Google can help you out. Google Translate doesn't censor the expletives that make Mrs. Cook blush, so I guess the app store from Apple gets a Disneyfied version of the app.

Translating your dirty words can be a bit off, though. The worlds most popular four-letter word in the screenshot above got translated correctly in portuguese, but Google translated the spanish version a bit too freely. If you've seen the movie Rec you know that the literal translation would have done the job just fine.

Talk together

The update to Google Translate is a big improvement, but it's not enough to replace all the other translators on your Android. I keep two other dictionary apps on my phone.

QuickDic only translates single words, and its speech output doesn't work on my phone. I keep it because it has Wiktionary and explains the meaning of words in addition to translating them. And it has lots of languages that are missing in Google Translate, like basque, bengali, kurdish, and zulu.

Euro Dictionary has a very limited vocabulary, but it translates the important words of thirteen european languages offline without need to download hundreds of megabytes of language packs.

Google Translate
QuickDic and Euro Dictionary

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Sunday, 17 March 2013

Android Facebook apps: Friendcaster, Seesmic, Fast, Atrium, Stream, Flipster, Tinfoil, FBM, Connector, facebook web

Facebook without Facebook

The official Android Facebook app invites vitriolic Play Store comments due to its abominable performance. Facebook eats RAM like Wimpy eats burgers, it sucks your battery dry like a vampire with bulimia, you need voodoo to stop it from autostarting, and if you cross the border its massive background traffic will force you to take a second mortgage on your house to pay your data roaming bill.

Google must have been smoking something really good and heavy when they decided to give Facebook a "top developer" label in their app store. The official Facebook app proves that Android task killers serve a purpose after all.

Enough about the official Facebook app now. There are plenty of ways to Facebook without it, and just about each and every alternative Android Facebook app beats the piece of crap from Mark Zuckerberg hands down.

Friendcaster and Seesmic

Friendcaster is the most feature-rich Facebook app out there. Like all alternative Facebook clients, Friendcaster is faster than the official app. If you head to the settings and switch off "alert for Facebook notifications" Friendcaster stays offline until you explicitly tell it to go online. And unlike the official app, Friendcaster can handle multiple Facebook accounts.

Seesmic combines Facebook and Twitter in one app, and lets you post to both networks in one shot.

Both Friendcaster and Seesmic show all Facebook posts, even if you told Facebook not to show everything. If you have a million Facebook friends this makes things unmanagable. If you're overwhelmed by the number of posts you better move on to one of the other Facebook alternatives, because they filter your Facebook feed just like the official Facebook app does.

Fast for Facebook, Atrium, Stream, and Flipster

Fast for Facebook is designed to limit data traffic and go easy on your battery. It won't push any Facebook updates by itself unless you choose to install its push notifications plugin.

Atrium has an excessive amount of annoying ads, and there's no ad-free version. Maybe the ads pay more than Atrium can make from selling their app? Of course you can simply use an ad blocker like AdAway so you never have to look at those annoying ads. Or just forget about Atrium, because its user interface isn't that good. For example, to refresh your Facebook feed in Atrium you have to take a trip to the menu. Atrium could really use a pull-to-refresh option or refresh button.

Stream is a lean Facebook app that tries to ruin the experience with very annoying ads, so get the full version or use an ad blocker.

Flipster is a light-weight Facebook app that's not ready for human consumption. It doesn't show posts that don't have pictures in them, and if you want to post something or send a message you'll often find that you can't. Maybe Flipster will evolve into a usable Facebook client, but for now you better stick with one of the other apps.

Wrappers for the Facebook mobile website

Why use a Facebook app if you can just use their website? One reason for using an app is to get push notifications, another reason is to manage your privacy settings. But if you want to do those things from the mobile website, there's an app for that. In fact, there's more than one.

FBM, Tinfoil, and Connector are wrappers around the mobile Facebook website that add extra features. They show everything you'd see on the Facebook website, including things you'd rather not see such as sponsored content. You can switch push notifications off (the official Facebook app won't let you do that), or you can switch 'em on (which the mobile website won't do). And these apps let you manage your facebook privacy settings and other controls, which you can't do with the full-blown Facebook apps. The exception is facebook web, which is a bare bones Facebook browser without any options or push notifications.

All these website wrappers lack a scroll thumb for quick navigation through your Facebook feed, but Tinfoil has a "jump to top" button in its menu. If the mobile version is too limited for you, Tinfoil can display the full Facebook site too.

A more serious problem that bites all Facebook site wrappers is that they have difficulties posting pictures to albums. And when I tried Connector it popped up lots of errors about not being able to create a secure connection.


Imo is not a Facebook app, but a multi-network instant messenger that connects to Facebook chat and other chat networks. Facebook chatting in imo works better than in any other Facebook app.

Choose your weapon

If you don't mind the lack of filtering, use Friendcaster (my current favourite) or Seesmic. If you want to keep your Facebook feed filtered, use Atrium if you have an ad blocker or Fast if you don't want to block ads or buy the ad-free version.

Don't want a full Facebook app? Then get Tinfoil or FBM.

There are more Facebook apps out there, but I stayed away from apps that haven't been updated in ages. I didn't touch Scope and Hootsuite because they require their own app-specific account in addition to your Facebook login.

Full Facebook apps:

Friendcaster (very good Facebook app, no filtering)
Seesmic (Facebook and Twitter app, no filtering)
Fast (good Facebook app with filtering)
Atrium (with obnoxious ads)
Stream (with annoying ads)
Flipster (not ready for use yet)
Facebook (official app, sucks big time)

Wrappers around the mobile Facebook site:

facebook web (bugs!)

Chat app:

imo (use an old version, because the new interface didn't improve things)

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Friday, 15 March 2013

Google boots ad blockers from Play Store: is it because of Adblock Plus?

Google finds an excuse to block ad blockers

Google lives from advertising, so for obvious reasons they're not happy with apps that block ads. But Google also tries to maintain an image of neutrality, and keeping ad blocking apps out of its Play Store doesn't go well with maintaining that image.

That used to be no problem, because the popular ad blockers AdFree and AdAway require root access to write their blocklists to the hosts file in the Android system folders. Because ad blocking required a rooted phone or tablet, over 95% of all Android devices didn't block any ads.

But then Adblock Plus entered the scene. This app is not as good as AdFree and AdAway, but is has one feature that poses a major threat to Googles business model: Adblock Plus doesn't need root.

Adblock Plus made ad blocking accessible to the masses, so Google had to think of something to keep the pennies flowing in.

And Google found something. Their small print for Play Store publishers says something about not interfering with the functions of third party services:

"You agree that you will not engage in any activity with the Market, including the development or distribution of Products, that interferes with, disrupts, damages, or accesses in an unauthorized manner the devices, servers, networks, or other properties or services of any third party including, but not limited to, Android users, Google or any mobile network operator."

It looks like Google sees banner farms as third party services that deserve free reign on your Android phone or tablet, so they kicked the three most popular ad blocking apps out of their app store.

Of course all the tech sites on the web screamed bloody murder. By removing ad blockers from the Play Store Google did an excellent job at advertising their existence. I'm sure that more people are blocking Googles advertisements now.

Who needs Google to block ads?

Google didn't kick out all ad blockers yet. ROM Toolbox has a built-in ad blocker, and as I write this it's still alive and kicking in the Google Play Store. But its maker said he'll have to pull the ad block feature out. Not that it really matters, because there's no shortage of good ad blockers. They may be gone from the Play Store, but you can easily get 'em elsewhere.

AdAway is my favourite ad blocker. Gone from the Play Store, but ready for grabs on (oh, the irony!) And if you want to get it the easy way and be notified of updates, just download it from open source Android app store F-Droid.

AdFree is a good ad killer too. The AdFree site still links to the dead Google Play Store page, but I guess that will be fixed soon. For now you can download AdFree from (yes, really)

Adblock Plus is the Android flavour of the famous Firefox and Chrome plugin. You can grab it directly from their own site. It's not as good as AdAway or AdFree, but Adblock Plus doesn't require root access so it works for everyone.

Lucky Patcher can strip the code that adds Google ads out of your apps. It doesn't remove ads from other banner farms, and it doesn't clean out ads from websites, but it lets you yank the ads from the biggest ad pusher out of your apps without altering your hosts file (AdAway and AdFree) or running a local proxy server (AdBlock Plus) on your Android device.

Note: because Android requires that apps are signed, switching from a Play Store version to an F-Droid or sideloaded version of your ad blocker can pop up signature erro messages. If that happens, you need to uninstall the Play Store version before you can install another version of the same app with a different signature. If you don't want to lose your settings and custom block lists, back up the app settings with a backup app like Titanium (the free version will do), and restore the settings (only the settings, not the app) after you've switched to the non-Play Store version.

Block those ads!

Whether ad blockers are a gift from heaven or the root of all that's evil is topic of a never-ending debate. My take: websites and app developers have the right to try to show ads on your screen, but you have no obligation to let those ads in unless you explicitly agreed to. Most apps in the Play Store don't tell you that they have ads or where they come from, and adware is usually accompanied by screenshots that don't show any ads, so you don't have to allow their ads into your Android. Come to think of it, most apps in the Google Play Store don't come with any terms of use at all, so feel free to use 'em any way you like and block whatever you want to block.

Does blocking ads kill free apps and sites? Probably not. The vast majority of app developers don't make any money from their ads. But even if ad blocking kills free stuff that's not the end of the world. It just means that the market has spoken and advertising is no longer a viable way to monetize apps and websites. And if that business model reaches the end of its life then those that depend on it will have to think of a new business model. Of course advertisers can keep their business model alive by making their ads smaller, less flashy, and reducing the frequency with which they appear in apps and websites. The more-is-better approach to advertising is the reason why all those ad blockers were invented in the first place.

Do you see any ads on this site? If you don't, your ad blocker is doing its job. Congrats!

AdAway review on android underground
AdAway on
AdAway on F-Droid

AdFree at
AdFree from Google Docs (direct app download link)

Adblock Plus

Lucky Patcher

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Saturday, 9 March 2013

Android PDF readers with text reflow: Foxit Mobile beats qPDF and Adobe

Most PDFs were made for printers and big monitors. They often have multiple columns, which looks good on paper but not on small screens. And you usually need to do a lot of horizontal scrolling if you want to keep the letters big enough to read.

Most mobile web browsers rearrange website content to fit your screen. If you want to read PDFs on your phone, you need a PDF reader that can reflow the text to break the lines into chunks that fit a narrow display.

Adobe Reader

Adobe makes bloated clunky apps for Windows, but they made the first free Android PDF reader with text reflow. And their Android app is surprisingly lean and efficient. It behaves quite well too: Adobe Reader for Android won't go online unless you use a feature that really requires internet access.

When you switch on text reflow you can't always increase the size of reflowed text. Even worse, Adobe Reader wraps the text around the pictures (if any), but pictures may end up at unexpected places. If you read scientific papers in Adobe Reader with text reflow switched on, figure legends often appear far away from their figures, which made me look for alternative apps.

Adobe Reader

qPDF Reader

Large files load really slow in qPDF, but once they're loaded all parts of the document display really fast. There's a scroll thumb for quick scrolling through long texts, and you can make bookmarks to find your way back in PDFs with many pages. qPDF doesn't ask for internet access, but as a result PDFs with DRM usually don't work.

When you switch on text reflow qPDF won't show any pictures, and you often get weird formatting. This is why I don't use qPDF.

qPDF Viewer

Foxit Mobile PDF Lite

Foxit opens PDFs really fast if they don't have big complex images in them. It can open PDFs from Dropbox and, and Foxit doesn't seem to use its internet permissions for anything else. I couldn't catch it going online when I opened locally stored files.

You can rotate your documents without rotating your phone by pushing a button. You need this button if you want to rotate your text, because rotating your phone won't rotate the screen even if you want it to.

Foxit can remember your position in a file, which is especially useful for large documents. And it has a thumbnail view to quickly navigate to the page you like. It's got bookmarks too, but they only appear when you swipe from the far left to the right. If you missed that part in the quick start guide you'll never find your bookmarks. A bookmark button in the menu would make things a lot easier.

When you scroll through a PDF it may take a while before the content appears, especially in text reflow view. Pinch-to-zoom only works in single page and continuous view mode. You can't zoom in and out by pinching in text reflow view. On the bright side,  the zoom buttons work really well.

Foxit shows images inline in text reflow view at the right places (figures and figure legends stay together), which is the reason it's my default PDF viewer on my Android now. It's my default PDF reader on Windows too.

Foxit Mobile PDF

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Thursday, 7 March 2013

AFWall+ firewalls better, adds toggle widget

Need to keep some of your apps offline? AFWall+ is the best firewall for Android since DroidWall isn't updated anymore. It splits internet permissions into three types that you can allow or deny at will: WiFi, mobile data, and mobile data roaming. And unlike other firewalls, AFWall+ can notify you when it detects new apps so you don't forget to set firewall rules for them.

The latest AFWall+ update kills some bugs and fixes a data leak when you boot your phone (as long as you shut down properly before starting it again).

New features: VPN rules to allow blocked apps to go online when you're on a secure connection, option to can set AFWall+ as device administrator so malicious apps can't uninstall it, and a widget to toggle your firewall rules on and off.

You need a rooted phone to run AFWall+. Don't let that scare you away, because a rooted phone is more secure than an unrooted phone if you know what you're doing. And remember: if you have other apps with built-in firewall options (like LBE Privacy Guard or avast), make sure you have only one firewall active at the same time. If you run multiple firewalls together they'll fight over who gets to write the iptables.

AFWall+ (Google Play Store)
AFWall+ on xda

other stand-alone firewalls:

Android Firewall by jtschohl

security apps with built-in firewalls:

LBE Privacy Guard

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Saturday, 2 March 2013

Book Catalogue makes goodreads easier to reach, prevents accidental edits

Book Catalogue is a very good app to keep track of your books. It syncs with goodreads and LibraryThing, and keeps everything locally stored on your phone too. Book Catalogue is a better goodreads app than goodreads own Android app.

It had one major flaw, though. To sync with goodreads you had to dig deep into the menus and scroll through a screen called "admin."

But not anymore. Book Catalogue moved the goodreads sync options straight into the first menu that you see when you hit the menu button (or overflow menu on buttonless phones and tablets). That overflow menu on the action bar is another new thing in Book Catalogue, so now it's finally ready for the Android 4.x age.

What else is new? Book Catalogue now opens your books in a "view only" screen to avoid accidental edits. Of course you can still edit your book details, but you have to push an edit button first.

Book Catalogue

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Friday, 1 March 2013

New Skyfire drops Flash video, old Skyfire keeps it

Flash is old, eats batteries for breakfast, and has almost as many bugs as Windows. But there are plenty of websites out there that don't work without it, so the old Flash is gonna be with us for some time to come.

Web browser Skyfire has watered-down Flash support. The only Flash it delivers is Flash video. You know, those video files in ".flv" format. Skyfire is useful for a few other video sites that other browsers won't touch.

But Skyfire made a very stupid decision. The new Skyfire drops Flash video support. Since the video capabilities are the only reason to use the app (it's not a very good web browser), Skyfire is useless since version 5.

But if you ever had version 4 running on your Android you get to keep video support. And because v5 is a totally new app, you can run the old and new Skyfire together if you want to.

If you never had version 4 installed, don't bother installing it now. The old Skyfire will only do Flash video for users who had the app before the switch to the Flashless version 5.

old Skyfire v4.0 (with Flash video, but not for new users)
new Skyfire (no Flash)

how to force Flash on your Android phone or tablet

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