Friday, 26 April 2013

AirDroid gets more cloudy

Want wireless control over your Android? AirDroid is the easiest way to hook your computer to your phone or tablet over WiFi. You can pingpong files back and forth, backup your apps, play with your contacts and messages, browse your pictures, play your movies and music, and much more.

Among other things, AirDroid has a task killer to nuke misbehaving apps, which is also a quick way into your app settings.

The latest update adds a bunch of cloud features.

The new AirDroid does C2DM (cloud to device messaging), which lets you kick AirDroid awake through the web browser on your computer without even touching your phone. You can do so over your own WiFi network, but you can also do it over AirDroids servers. This can save the day if you forget your phone or tablet at home and you urgently need to grab a contact, message, or file from it while on the go.

It's also an easy way to turn an old phone or tablet into a file server.

Now that AirDroid can kick your Android out of bed from the cloud its maker grabbed the opportunity to add some anti-theft features. You can locate your device and wipe it from a distance, just like with all anti-theft apps. And you can make AirDroid snap pictures to catch the thief. Its remote camera option has other uses too. For example, it's an easy way to keep an eye on the baby room. Too bad you can't control AirDroid by SMS (yet), because this would make its remote control options even more accessible.

I wonder what's next. If AirDroid can make your phone talk with a web browser, it can also make it talk with AirDroid on other phones. This opens up lots of possibilities. For example, messaging and VoIP could hitch a ride on AirDroids new cloud connections. Or AirDroid could double as a P2P network. Let's see what the next update brings.

AirDroid (Google Play)

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Saturday, 20 April 2013

Stop Google, Facebook, and other Big Brothers from tracking everything you do on your Android gadget

Big Brother is watching you. For real.

Your supermarket doesn't need to know that you watch online porn, your bank doesn't need to know who you vote for, and your health insurance doesn't need to know what you smoked during that stag party in Amsterdam last weekend. So why should Google know what you see on, and why should Facebook know what you read on android underground? And how can you stop them from following you around wherever you go?

Let's assume you avoided Google and found this site through Yahoo or Bing instead. And then you clicked through to the xda forums (a great Android forum, make sure you have a look). God doesn't have a clue what you did, but Google knows where you were and how you got there. There are two reasons why Google knows more than God: Google exists and Google has cookies.

And that's why your screen fills up with ads for Android stuff.

Even if you don't use Gmail and tell your browser to block "third party cookies," Google still tracks you. They don't need cookies for that. They just send out tiny invisible images ("web beacons" in Googlespeak). When those things hit your computer Google knows your IP address, among other things. And you probably watch a YouTube clip or two. That's Google too. This blog is hosted on blogspot, bought by Google ten years ago. And both xda and android underground have ads from Google. So does eBay. And a hundred million other sites. If you block Google's ads they still stalk you with Google Analytics, which is used by countless sites to generate visitor stats.

Facebook knows when you visit sites like xda, because their "Like" button is served straight from Facebooks own servers. I can't stop Google from seeing you here (because this blog is hosted on their servers), but Facebook and Twitter don't see you on my site unless you click the "share" and "tweet" buttons yourself. Same goes for Digg and Reddit. Their buttons down below don't come from their own servers, so if you don't click digg or reddit they'll never know you were here.

But just about every site you visit has Google ads, Google Analytics, a +1 button, and buttons to like and share and digg and tweet. Most sites load 'em straight from the source, which makes it pretty hard to stop the big brothers from watching you. Even tinfoil hats won't help. But you can still keep a lot of your web history private. Not only on your computer, but on your Android phone or tablet too.

Why not let the advertisers play and have it their way? Allowing advertisers to build a detailed profile of you may sound innocent, and you get free apps and websites in return, right? But does your crystal ball rule out scenarios like the one painted by DuckDuckGo?

The big internet phone book and its little brother

AdBlock can keep most ads out of Firefox and Chrome, but what about your other web browsers? And your email, feed reader, games, and apps?

Enter the hosts file. This text file counts the days in the dungeons of your Windows system folder, and you can tell it to keep uninvited visitors out of your computer.

How does this work? Whenever your computer stumbles upon URLs like or it has to look up an IP address. Think of the URL as the name, and the IP address as its phone number. Your computer asks a DNS server to match the name to the IP address. Those DNS servers are really big phonebooks for websites and all other internet content. When the DNS server hands over the IP address, your computer dials it to pull in the ads, cookies, Tweet buttons, and whatnot...

...unless the domain name is written in your hosts file. Then your computer skips the DNS lookup and calls the IP address from your own little phonebook instead.

And guess what? Windows isn't the only operating system with a hosts file. Your Android gadget has one too. And you can use it to stop Facebook and Google from tracking every step you take.

Your hosts file as a bouncer

If your hosts file has an IP address for a website, your Windows computer dials the IP from your hosts file and waits for the other end to pick up.

But you can make sure the other end never picks up. Just make sure that any unwanted domain name is tied to a fake phone number and you're done. That's how the hosts file keeps the unwanted out, and that's how you can stop Facebook and Google Analytics and Twitter from following you around.

For example, my Windows hosts file has a lot of entries like this one:
This tiny little line tells my computers, phones, and tablets to ask Google for their annoying Adsense banners by calling Guess what? That's not Google's IP address! It's the"loopback" address of my own computer, and it's the loopback address of your computer too. And your Android phone, and your Android tablet.

When your device asks for ads or tracking cookies it never gets them, because you're smart enough not to run a webserver full of Google ads on your own hardware. You're not hosting any Facebook Like buttons either. So your computer just answers with "nothing to see here, keep moving" and that's exactly what your web browser, app, or game does. No ad banner, no share button, just some empty space. Smart web browsers won't even show the empty space, they just display the useful content as if the ad was never there.

Your Windows hosts file sits in "C:\windows\system32\drivers\etc\hosts" if you've installed Windows on drive letter C. The hosts file doesn't have an extension, so Windows won't know what to do if you doubleclick it. But make a shortcut to %windir%\notepad.exe %windir%\system32\drivers\etc\hosts and your hosts file opens in your text editor whenever you click it. Copy/paste one of the many blocklists that are floating around on the web into your hosts file and most bannerfarms will no longer pollute your computer with their ads. Their tracking cookies won't make it to your computer either.

Your Android hosts file lives in /system/etc/hosts (sometimes in /data/data/hosts). If you have root access you can open it in text editors like Jota and fill it with all the sites you want to keep away. But there's no need to fight with your hosts file in a text editor. There's an app for that.

Lock out Facebook

Many "Like" buttons are pulled in straight from If you block that domain you'll lock yourself out of your own Facebook account, right?


If you block most "Like" buttons will stay away from you, but you can still go to to post pictures of your cat and read what your friends are drinking. Those three letters make a world of difference as far as your hosts file is concerned. Don't forget to block,, and too.

You don't need to feel sorry for those hungry employees at Facebook HQ. When you visit you'll still see their ads over there, so they'll get something out of your visit. Not as much as they would like, but you don't need to maximise their profits. They can still make money when you visit their site without following you around all over the web. If you don't have a Facebook account they won't even know that you exist. And that's how it should be, because why should Facebook collect your private data if you don't use their services?

Lock out Google

Taming the unwanted bits of Google is a bit harder, because they attack from many different hangouts.

If you don't want to see Google ads on sites other than or Gmail, start by feeding this list into your hosts file:
Restart your browser, reload this site, and see android underground without Google ads. No problem, you're still welcome here. I don't make this site for the money (and those ads don't pay much anyway). Surf a few other sites and notice they have way less advertising than before. The line is the most important of the blacklist, because it houses almost all Google ad banners that pop up in your web browser.

Want an ad-free YouTube?
Ads in your Android apps? Sure, their developers need to pay the rent too, but there are other ways to make money. They could sell a version of their app with more features than its free cousin, or throw in a PayPal donate button. If you're a small developer without millions of downloads a donate link probably pays more than the ad banners. To keep AdMob (the mobile version of Adsense) out of your Android:
By keeping AdMob banners out of your apps they can't beam your location to the mothership. Whoever thought it was a good idea to poll your GPS location to tell advertisers exactly where you are deserves a weekend in the scorpion pit.

Websites may have good reasons to know a little bit about their audience, but why should they tell Google about your visit? If you don't want Google looking over your shoulder when you read your online newspaper, smile at your hosts file and ask it to block:
Almost done now. If you don't use Google+, why have +1 buttons on your screen? Those nosy buttons tell Google what you do online, so:
Now most "+1" buttons will be gone. Those that survive are hosted outside Google, so they won't tell where you've been as long as you don't click 'em.

Of course Google still records your visits to Google Search, YouTube, and Blogspot. And Gmail will still display its ads in your web browser. Fair enough. If you use their mail service they deserve something in return. But there's no reason why Google should connect your email with your visits to all the non-Google sites on the web. Gmail and YouTube may be worth a finger, but not your entire hand.

There's an app for that

You can keep a lot of junk away without editing your hosts file. AdBlock Plus can keep most ads out of Firefox and Chrome, even if your phone is not rooted. This makes websites look a lot better, and stops many advertisers from poisoning your phone with tracking cookies or worse.

But if you want to reap the full benefits of Android you should root your phone or tablet. There's a reason you didn't buy an iPhone or one of those Windows thingies with tiles, right?

Rooted your phone but still afraid of the hosts file? Get a firewall. Firewalled apps can't download ads. Did I already tell you that ads that don't load don't send your location or your phone number out to the marketers?

AFWall+ is my favourite Android firewall, but the firewall built into avast is also very good. I told AFWall+ to keep all my apps away from the web by default, except those apps that really need internet to work. Apps that break without internet go on my whitelist, apps that work offline stay offline.

But what about apps that can only do their job online and return with a boatload of stowaway ads? Music streaming without internet just doesn't work, a web browser that can't pass your firewall is as dead as an electronic paperweight. If you firewall everything offline your smartphone won't be smart anymore.

Time to call my favourite hosts file assistant: AdAway. It can feed blocklists from many different places to your hosts file with just a tap on your screen. This keeps most ads out of your phone. Not only from websites, but from your apps too. Good for you, because psychologists agree that too much advertising causes stress and anxiety. Those banner ads are the digital equivalent of LDL, the bad version of cholesterol. Some ads even infect your phone with really bad malware! Need any more reason to block 'em? Ads and LDL should only be consumed in very limited quantities to keep you and your Android healthy.

AdAway can do more than download prefab blocklists. You can build your own, which is a good way to stop popular apps like Dolphin from leaking information that should stay aboard your phone.

If you believe that ad blockers kill all free apps and make the internet go up in smoke, just build a catflap for advertisers that don't chase you like a stalker. Should one of AdAways blacklists block an advertiser that you like, you can easily put it on the whitelist. It's up to you to block the bad banners with bad manners (that's most of 'em) and only let in ads that behave well and don't trace all your online footsteps. Your Android, your choice.

AdBlock Plus

DuckDuckGo Doomsday Scenario

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Friday, 19 April 2013

"Free" phone calls: what's in it for Facebook?

Talk freely

There are plenty of Android apps to phone for free. Google Voice, Skype, fring, Viber, TextMe, Vonage, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

All those free apps have one thing in common. They need money to feed their hungry programmers.

Many VoIP apps use their free "VoIP-only" service as a method to advertise their paid offers to call landlines and cell phones. SkypeOut is the leader of the pack, Vonage and fring are among the followers. Apps like Skype and fring display ads to generate income. TextMe has taken mobile advertising a step further: you can earn "free" minutes if you watch advertorials or download "free" apps full of in-app purchasing options of the Farmville farm cash flavour. Viber doesn't seem to have any way to monetise their app yet, but sooner or later they're gonna sell Skype-like services or break their promise to stay free of ads.

And now Facebook enters the VoIP market. They've been testing it in some countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, and the UK, and they just added USA to the list of places where you can sell your soul over the phone call your Facebook friends for free. It won't be long until Facebook calls go global.

Free, sure. But how do you pay them back? Mark Zuckerberg needs to pay the rent, you know?

What's on your mind?

Facebook is gonna slap ads on your calls for sure, one way or another. And given Facebooks privacy track record, there may be a very dark side to their "free" calls. Because if you don't pay for the product, then you are the product. And Facebook doesn't give you away for free. They want to sell you on the market for as much money as legally possible.

Advertising is the currency in this transaction. And just like there are cheap pesos and expensive Bitcoins, not all ads are created equally. That's why Facebook doesn't want to show you just any random ad. They want to show you targeted ads based on what they believe to be your interests, no matter if you'd rather keep those interests to yourself. Because the more of your personal data goes into the ad, the higher the payout.

To sell you to the highest bidder for the highest price, Facebook needs to know what's on your mind. That's why Facebooks status update textbox literally reads "What's on your mind?" But do you really write everything that's on your mind in there?

When you go out to movies, restaurants, and concerts you let the entire world know what a great time you had. And maybe you annoy all your Facebook friends with all those viral video ads you click on. Or worse. Being born and raised in a country with an atheist majority, I've unfriended quite a few people because they kept posting about how great their god is each and every day. Political propaganda, birthdays, weddings, babies, deaths in the family, it all goes on Facebook. You may even be guilty of clicking the "Share on Facebook" button right here on android underground. And let's not even get started on all those pictures of your cat.

Yes, Facebook has turned the world into ancient Egypt. We worship cats and write on walls about it.

What you don't tell Uncle Facebook

Frequent poster and lurker alike, there is some stuff we'll never share on Facebook. Some things are just not meant for all to see. Are your debts so bad that your car got repossessed? Did the ATM eat your credit card because you defaulted on your payments yet again? Got diagnosed with depression or a sexually transmitted disease? Are you about to divorce?

Your credit score is worth a lot. And some advertisers will pay big money if you can tell them who suffers from embarrassing diseases. Trouble with your employer? About to divorce? Lawyers like to know so they can offer you their legal services, and everybody knows those sharks have business ethics on par with Haliburton and Berlusconi's media empire. No matter what secrets you may have, they're a business opportunity for someone out there.

Facebook wants to know. Everything. They just need a way to make you tell it all to them.

We have ways to make you talk

There's Facebook Chat to talk in private, but not many people use it because MSN and WhatsApp have most of the market. Google mines your Gmail to pick ads, but Facebook didn't manage to copy that trick. Sure, every Facebook member has a free Facebook email address, but most people don't even know they have one. And for obvious reasons websites about collection agencies, gonorrhea, or drug addiction don't have Facebooks "Like" button on them.

Enter Plan B. or is it Plan C or D already?

By letting you call your friends for free through Facebooks servers, they have a chance to listen in on things that you would never write on your Facebook wall. Just think of the advertising opportunities!

Calling your doctor because the wild night with the girl that looked better with every beer left you with a burning itch "down there?" Asking your parents for money because the supermarket refused your credit card? Talking with your sister about your upcoming divorce? If you do it through Facebook they can send it all through their speech recognition software and extract some extremely valuable keywords from your extremely private phone calls. If their programmers are really smart (and they are!), their code could even read your mood from the way you talk. Drunk when you're calling your ex? Facebook will know.

So if you call through Facebook Messenger and you suddenly see ads for legal counsel, Alcoholic Anonymous, payday loans, and cheap Zoloft in neutral packaging, there's no need to wonder how Facebook knows. You told your friends, therefore you told Facebook. "Like" it or not.

Why waterboard people if there are much more effective ways to make 'em talk? A free VoIP app can be a goldmine if you're good at data mining. Remember the old saying that your grandma taught you? "There's no such thing as a free lunch unless you are the lunch."

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Thursday, 11 April 2013

ES File Explorer looks better, needs finishing touch

Ugly duck gets a facelift

The best file manager for Android? ES File Explorer! The best-looking file manager for Android? Definitely not ES File Explorer! It's a prime example of an app that favors function over form.

And it has functions aplenty. It browses the files and folders on your memory card and the internal memory of your phone or tablet. If you rooted your device, ES File Explorer lets you play with every file and folder in the bowels of your operating system. Add integration with all the popular cloud storage providers, an FTP client and an FTP server, access to Samba shares, a bluetooth file manager, and that's just the file management part of the app.

But the app was ugly! But that's gonna change, because its maker is busy giving the app a makeover. There are plenty of rough edges left and the paint is still wet, but if you want a preview you can take a sneak peak in the Google Play Store before the new ES File Explorer goes official.

Clutter to the menu

The first improvement shows right when you launch the app. It used to be a slow starter, but now it launches much faster.

The main screen is a lot less cluttered than before. This comes at a price, though, because what's cleaned out of the main screen now sits in the menu. And the menu doesn't make things easy to reach, because everything is buried in submenus and some entries have rather counterintuitive names.


The old tabs are gone, but not really. There used to be five predefined tabs (local files, ftp, bluetooth, Samba, cloud storage), but now ES File Explorer has windows.

No, not the windows that the Evil Empire ditched for tiles, but a set of up to eight tabs with the content of your choice. You can have a window for the files on your SD card, another for internal memory, a third window for Dropbox, another for Google Drive, one more for your favourite FTP server, whatever you want. This is incredibly useful if you want to move files from one cloud storage account to another, or if you need to copy stuff from SD to internal memory without tapping all the way through your folder structure and back again.

Too bad those windows are hard to identify. They're labeled with tiny little icons so you don't know what's inside until you open them. A Dropbox windows and a Skydrive window have the same icon and there's no text in the tab bar to help you out. The only tab with a name next to the icon is for the currently open window, which is the very window that doesn't really need a name because its contents already stare in your face.

ES File Explorer lets you decide which set of windows it should open at launch (good), but you can't choose which one is selected by default (bad). The app always launches into the leftmost window and you can't reorder them. Maybe that will happen soon, because drag'n'drop sorting should be easy to add.

Making new windows requires a trip to the menu. It would be nice if you could just long-tap a folder, cloud account, or FTP server, and select "create new window" so you don't need to make a top level window and then tap all the way down to where you want to go.

View to forget

Another oversight is the way ES File Explorer remembers your display settings, or rather how easy it forgets them. If I set the view to "small details," then exit the app from one of the "managers" in the tools submenu (more on that later), it switches to "large icons" all by itself. This is probably because the view is not stored per window. Instead, changing the view applies to all windows, but you only notice how everything changes when you relaunch the app.

OK, one more user interface issue. You can toggle the toolbars out of sight by pinch-to-zoom, but you can no longer hide the Android status bar. I wonder if "full screen" will make a comeback someday?

Root browser

ES File Explorer comes with a root browser, but it's not easy to find. Tapping the button labeled "root explorer" doesn't open "/" (the root folder). Instead, it pulls you into a menu full of options, many of them unrelated to exploring the root of your file system. The option that really gets you into the root browser is somewhere near the bottom of the list.

When I finally tapped into the root browser I caught it going online for no apparent reason. When you browse local folders and you have auto-update switched off, ES File Explorer has no business online, but for some reason it generates network traffic anyway. The old version of the app does the same thing. Maybe the developer of the app should explain what's going on here.

Cloud, FTP, hotspot

ES File Explorer talks with eight different cloud storage services, which is more than any other file manager. And you can store multiple accounts per service, so nothing can stop you from pingponging files between your sixteen different Dropbox accounts.

There's an FTP client as well. And an FTP server, but this is confusingly called "remote manager" instead of simply "FTP server."

More weird names: the built-in WiFi hotspot is called "net manager." But crazy name or not, the big news here is of course that tethering now comes built into your file manager. But...

...if you have WiFi switched on, start the hotspot, and then close it, you're left with WiFi switched off. ES File Explorer doesn't return your phone to its pre-tethering WiFi state.

And the hotspot doesn't work without a mobile data connection. You might say "duh!, how else are you gonna tie mobile data to WiFi?" but there's a good reason for running a hotspot without mobile data, or even without a SIM card. Run a hotspot and launch the FTP server and you could share files over your ad hoc network, but only if ES File Explorer learns to play hotspot without data.

Want a shortcut to the hotspot feature? Can't have it. Not yet, anyway. ES File Explorer can put a direct shortcut to its built-in FTP server on your homescreen, but if you want to switch the hotspot on you have to launch the file manager and tap all through the menu to the entry called "net manager."

Unshared download manager

More connectivity: ES File Manager now comes with a download manager. You can paste URLs into it, but for some inexplicable reason it doesn't appear in Androids share menu. That's too bad, because otherwise you could send links straight from your web browser to the download manager. Give Advanced Download Manager a try. It can be summoned straight from the share menu. Maybe ES File Explorer can replace it one day?

The verdict

This story may look like a long list of complaints. That's not because ES File Explorer is a bad app, but because this is a test version with plenty of room for improvement before it replaces the old app. The official release is planned for the 20th of April, so it's reasonable to expect that most issues will be painted over by then. Even with the rough edges of the current beta version it's clear that the new ES File Explorer is a big improvement over the previous version.

ES File Explorer public test version (may disappear when testing's done)
ES File Explorer (finished product)

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Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Gemini App Manager won't defrost what it froze, tame your apps with App Quarantine, SystemCleanup, Autostarts, or ROM Toolbox

Gemini has an evil twin

Gemini App Manager can do many things. Its main attraction is its autostart manager. Unlike many other apps that only let you stop apps from launching at boot, Gemini lets you kill all autostart triggers. Gemini also used to let you freeze bloatware for free, something that apps like Titanium only do if you pay.

But then Gemini had trouble with its advertiser. Since then, Gemini is free of ads (good), but the app is crippled now (bad).

Instead of switching to a new advertiser (plenty to choose from), the maker of Gemini decided to remove features from the free version to persuade people to get the paid version instead. The free version of the new updated Gemini doesn't have "expert mode" anymore. For most practical purposes, this means that you have to tap the screen one more time to get into things like autostart settings. Not a big deal.

But the free version doesn't freeze apps anymore. And it won't defrost them either.

And that's where many Gemini users got in trouble. Imagine: you use an app like Gemini to freeze all those built-in apps that you don't want to use, expecting that you can "unfreeze" them when needed. And then you update Gemini, only to find out that all those apps you froze for free will stay frozen forever, unless you pay the maker of the app that froze 'em. For obvious reasons many Gemini users were not amused, and the app got its fair share of 1* ratings in the Google Play Store. Some cried bait and switch, others screamed ransomware.

Break the ice

Suppose you froze some apps, updated Gemini, and found that you can't defrost your apps anymore. And you forgot to backup the old version of Gemini, so you can't restore the version that worked. Now what?

You could uninstall your frozen apps, then reinstall to get 'em working again. But that doesn't always work. If you froze the bloatware from your carrier or phone manufacturer then the uninstall/reinstall route is closed for you.

Buy the paid version of Gemini to free your frozen apps? Why should you reward an app that let you down so badly? And anyway, you get more bang for the euro if you buy the full version of Titanium instead.

Or you could look for other apps that can freeze and defrost for free. And when you're busy grabbing freebees from the Play Store you might as well get a new free autostart manager too. There are plenty of apps to choose from.

Apps to tame your apps

App Quarantine can freeze your apps. And defrost them, even if they were frozen with another app. And it does it all for free. SystemCleanup freezes and defrosts for free too. It has an autostart manager built in, but many autorun triggers are missing so you're better off using Autostarts or ROM Toolbox for that.

Autostarts is a paid download from the Google Play Store, but since it's an open source app released under the GPL Autostarts is 100% free in F-Droid.

Gemini is not the only app that got ruined by an update. So always back up your apps before updating, because for some inexplicable reason the Play Store doesn't have a rollback feature.

App Quarantine (freeze and defrost for free, no ads whatsoever)
SystemCleanup (can kill and freeze unwanted apps)
Autostarts (F-Droid)
ROM Toolbox (autostart manager and much, much, much more)
AutoStart Manager (the autorun manager from ROM Toolbox as a stand-alone app)

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