My favourite Android apps (III)

twitter-androidI just realized that last Fall I forgot to write my annual list of favourite apps. I’m still happy with Android, although I look forward to try UbuntuOS and FirefoxOS in the near future. Meanwhile my list of installed apps hasn’t changed much, even though I had to change my terminal in early 2012 because of the international broadband differences (my Motorola Milestone from Spain didn’t work with my Canadian provider, so I got a good deal on a Samsung Galaxy Ace). If my list of installed apps hasn’t changed much it’s obvious that my list of favourite apps is also pretty much the same. Granted, my current phone is not a high-end device, but I haven’t heard about any app that I was really missing about except for the fact that I can’t run Firefox for Android.

One last thing before the actual list: I am still avoiding to pay for any app, since I can always find a free one to do pretty much the same. The only exception that I have had to make is Whatsapp, since my free first year of use is over and I couldn’t give it up, as I explain below.

1- Twitter. Within the year and a half since my last apps review, Twitter for Android has grown up a lot and it is now my default Twitter app. It’s clean, intuitive and easy; and its integration with Android is perfect (meaning that you get notifications when things actually just happened, which doesn’t happen with Hootsuite). It could still be better with better access to Twitter Lists and private messages, and with a URL shortener with stats.

2- Foursquare. After Twitter and the phone-related apps, Foursquare is still the app that I use the most. I still get excited about getting a new mayorship or badge, even though it means sharing my location with hundreds of people who don’t care about it. Moreover, since I am in North America I have enjoyed several perks such as free breakfast at hotels or free tours at beer breweries, so I am a total addict.

3- Whatsapp. Last time I put Skype on this list, but I have since discovered that Whatsapp is more convenient. Skype has become more of a “Skype date” tool for me, for which I prefer the laptop; while Whatsapp is now the best way to keep in touch with my friends in Spain. It allows a very spontaneous and constant conversation while still being able to share videos and pictures. Also, the Groups feature is what is keeping us together now that we are all spread around the globe.

4- MapFactor Navigator. It has taken me years (literally) but I have finally found a free GPS+Navigator app that works without data connection. Navigator is not as fast or as good-looking as Google Maps, but it’s definitely the best option to travel to a different country (GMaps would cost you a billion in roaming) or to use locally when you discover how ridiculously expensive mobile rates are in Canada. Plus MapFactor Navigator uses OpenStreetMaps, and I am a big fun of open-source projects. It also has a paid version that uses Tom Tom maps.

5- Hootsuite. Although it’s starting to drive me nuts, I still think Hootsuite for Android is the king of apps when it comes to manage several social media profiles in different platforms from your phone. Plus the addition of the “AutoSchedule” function makes my life (and my clients’ lifes) way easier when I have some free time to read a bunch of articles and then I want to share some of them without saturating my feeds. disclaimer: I have been using Hootsuite in my laptop for personal and professional purposes for a while, and the fact that it’s all synchronized makes it harder to change.

6- Photoshop Express. Considering how expensive Adobe software normally is I still can’t believe this is free, but what really surprises me is that not that many Android users know about it. I really like how easy it makes it to improve a picture as if you actually had Photoshop in your phone. The only complain I have is that they haven’t change it at all in almost three years, and it could use some more funky filters and frames.

7- Zite. This has quickly become one of my favourites, as I find it great to find new contents outside of my own bubble (the people I decided to follow on social media, the blogs and media I keep on Google Reader, the alerts in Google and Topsy that I created…). While Reddit does pretty much the same I believe the success of Zite resides on its very clean layout, as it looks just like the app from a magazine. I only wish it would work in Spanish too.

8- Cyanogen. Although it’s not an app, I think CyanogenMod deserves some recognition here. When I first got my new phone it came with a Samsung-baked Android rom that really disappointed me. I expected much more from the only company able to kick Apple’s ass in the mobile market these days, so it only took me a few weeks to decide to give up and change to Cyanogen.

The 5 big questions about Ubuntu for Android

android-hero
That’s how your PC might look like next year.

In 2010, thanks to my position at Ejecutivos magazine, I was given the opportunity to interview Cyril Zimmerman, the founder and CEO of Hi-media, one of the brands leading the online advertisement market in Europe. It was a great interview, but there was an idea that really impressed me back then, and it has taken me two years to hear about it again. A year before that interview, Bernardo Hernandez had said that mobile phones were going to be our closest computers, and when I asked Cyril about that he replied to me the following:

I agree, but I don’t think it’s going to be call “mobile phone” or “computer”. If we take the iPad, for example, it’s not a mobile phone but you can actually bring it anywhere and make calls thanks to services like Skype. I believe that we will talk about a different gadget with which we will be able to do everything. It could be something similar to smart-phones, but that when you get home or to the office you can just plug in a big screen and a comfortable keyboard and use it as your desktop computer. It’s really hard to know what’s going to happen.

Yet he actually knew what was going to happen. Canonical presented that exact same concept during past Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and it should be in the streets by the end of 2012: Ubuntu for Android. As Canonical writes it down on their website, users get the Android they know on the move, but when they connect their phone to a monitor, mouse and keyboard, it becomes a PC running a full version of Ubuntu. All contacts and messages are synchronized in both, and you can still use your phone while is docked to the monitor.

But even though I love the concept, I’m not sure how Canonical and the manufacturers that might embrace the idea are going to deal with the five biggest questions about this gadget:

  1. Storage. Now-a-days’ computers normally have at least 250Gb of storage memory, but you can easily have up to 1Tb. Smart-phones, on the other hand, only offer up to 32Gb, which is the maximum capability of SD cards. Therefore the device it’s going to need a way to increase the storage room, either with an external hard drive (which kind of defeats the purpose of the mobile device) or with cloud services. The second option seems more probable to me, although it will have a cost: Ubuntu1 itself only offers up to 5Gb for free (similar to other competitors), which is clearly not enough to replace your computer’s hard drive.. plus it would generate a lot of data traffic that will increase your phone’s bill (and make you totally dependent on the connection, but that seems unavoidable).
  2. Battery life. My quite simple Samsung Galaxy Ace, just running Android 2.3, needs to be charged at least every other day, but if I use Internet apps or if I use it to play music it doesn’t even last one full day. I can only imagine how fast the batteries are going to drain if the device has to run two operating systems at the same time, plus all the connections (signal, 4G, bluetooth…). If the dock is going to be charging the phone whenever it’s plugged so you don’t have to worry about it, that might mess up the batteries memory really fast, making them useless more sooner than later.
  3. Size. As far as my hardware knowledge goes, stuff like RAM memory, Graphic cards and storage memory occupy physical space. If it would be possible to make a whole fully functional computer in the dimensions of a mobile phone, leaving enough room for the phone’s hardware itself, I think manufacturers TACHA Apple would have done it already. So even though the idea is great, I think it’s important to keep mobile phones in a handy size, and I already find the latest Samsung Galaxy S a bit too big for a phone.
  4. Compatibility. In the long term, the ideal would be that every place users might go to (office, home, hotels, friend’s house…) has a dock for this kind of phone/computer device, so you can really work everywhere. But is an HTC phone going to work with a Samsung dock and monitor? As a user I want to believe that yes, but manufacturers would most probably want to sell the whole package (phone+dock+monitor), the same way they don’t even have compatible chargers yet (even though the EU said they should).
  5. Prize. As Adidas slogan reads, impossible is nothing…. you just have to pay for it. I think that, even it would be running two open and free operative systems, this device would be crazy expensive. Is what it takes to make such a powerful gadget with a really long lasting battery in tiny dimensions, plus the cost of developing the new monitors, docks and all the hardware. I think that’s why Canonical seems to be focusing to market it to enterprises rather than to final users. And actually makes sense: since companies are already getting one phone and one computer per worker, this solution might be cheaper.

So I actually have wanted a gadget like this since my interview with Cyril Zimmerman. I’m also a fan of both Android and Ubuntu, and I believe average users could perfectly live and work without ever paying for software or OS licenses. But I would like to see first how Canonical and its partners deal with the issues listed above… specially the prize one, since I don’t think I’ll be able to afford something like that any time soon!

Manufacturers’ Android versions suck

CyanogenMod
CyanogenMod, probable a better Android than what your phone came with.

I hate manufacturers versions of operative systems. I hated it back when I had Windows, and any new computer would come with a lot of pre-installed crappy and useless software instead of coming with a brand new and clean install. But it’s even worse when it comes to smartphones running Android, or at least that is my personal experience with Samsung and Motorola.

My first Android phone was a Motorola Milestone (the European version of Motorola Droid). It was a high-end device and came with Android 2.1, which was pretty cool at the moment. But a few months later Android Froyo was out there and I was stuck with the older version. I waited for a good year until Motorola finally released the official Froyo update for my phone, and it was just horrible: the whole phone was terrible slow, the interface design was already out of date and it didn’t seem to bring any improvement, so I searched the Internet for alternatives and found CyanogenMod. A few days later, and after a long time of being a good boy, I rooted the Milestone and installed CyanogenMod 7.1.

It was a pain to get it working. At some point I thought I had no phone anymore, and when I finally found my way (three days later) through it I had lost all my SMS and contacts. Thankfully I still had my old SIM card and most of my contacts where there safe and sound. But it was so worthy: CM7 was already based on Android 2.3 (one version ahead of what Mororola was offering me), but everything worked smoothly and fast, so the phone should have been able to run even faster with Froyo, so shame on Motorola’s developers. Plus I now had total control over my phone instead of the limitations of the manufacturer, which is something I really enjoy.

When I moved to Canada a few months ago I had to change my phone, since the Milestone wouldn’t work with my network of choice (or so I was told, and I wasn’t able to make it work). So I bought a new phone taking advantage of the offers from the company, ending up with a Samsung Galaxy Ace running Android 2.3. Except for the weight of the device, I missed my old Milestone. At first I thought it was mainly because of the physical keyboard, but then I realized there was other thing: I really didn’t like the operative system. It wasn’t slow or anything, but it had some really annoying features like the worst messaging app ever or a very limited desktop. Plus since it wasn’t rooted I couldn’t install some apps and change things to make it better, or just delete useless crappy apps like the “Samsung Market”. So I looked again for my beloved CyanogenMod.

This time I found that I could install CyanogenMod 9 (based on Android4 already!!) thanks to the Galaxy ICS Project. I went again through a painful process during which my phone was literally done for a few hours, until I managed to get the Recovery System updated and then I was able to install the ROM. It was cool (Android4 is by itself really cool), but this was a beta version and many things didn’t work well, plus it seemed to me that Ice Cream Sandwich was too much for this not-so-amazing phone, so I changed it for CM7.2. And I’m delighted: the whole phone is superfast, the interface is cool and full of customizable options, I have total control over everything on my device and I would say the battery lasts longer. I have even noticed that it was Samsung’s on-screen poorly designed keyboard what made me misspell so many words, not that my thumbs where fatter or I was stupider.

I think this gaves a really bad image to the manufacturers. In Motorola’s case, they weren’t able to keep their OS up to date, and after a year working on it their release wasn’t even decent. In Samsung’s case, and considering that CyanogenMod 7 is based on Android 2.3 (same version the phone had when I first got it), it shows that the open community is able to develop a much better OS than one of the biggest companies in the market, making it faster, cleaner and in terms of privacy and control much better for the final user.

So if you have an Android phone and really want to enjoy the experience of it, get rid of your manufacturers ROM and its limitations and look for something open and better. CyanogenMod works for me and the devices I have had, but you might find some other interesting ROMs out there that can rock your phone.

My favorite free Android apps (second edition)

foursquare-checkin

Around a year ago I published a short list with my favorite free Android apps. Itśs a nice list, but a little outdated: specially in the past few months I have become a heavy user of some powerful free apps that I want to share, so here it is the updated list of my favorite free Android apps.

1- Foursquare. Since I have decided to get a cell-phone plan with lots of Internet I love this “game” even more than before. I love to check-in everywhere, I use it to tell everyone where am I when I’m traveling and I use it to find nice restaurants around my location. From the other side, I believe Foursquare is a great marketing tool, specially in terms of engagement with customers.

2- Skype. Still the best VoIP service available (and hopefully Microsoft doesn’t get on the way…). A must if you have a long distance relationship and you don’t want to waste all your time waiting in front of the computer for a call of your beloved.

3- Whatsapp. This app is probably in the top 3 apps of every single smart-phone user. It mixes the best of texting with the best of Internet chats, allowing you to talk with one person, create group conversations, share multimedia files… just the perfect communication tool, since you only pay for the Internet use and that is most probably covered with your plan already.

4- Google Reader.I only discover Google Reader’s real strength a few weeks ago (shame on me), but it’s the Android app what made me fall in love with it. It literally puts in your hand the access to all the media of the world in a fast, categorized and customized way, and from the same app you can share it however you want through the apps installed in your phone. I think this is the best example of the importance of RSS and syndicated content for any web.

5- Hootsuite. A year ago I used to use (and love) Seesmic to manage my Twitter accounts. I still think it’s a great tool, but Hootsuite allows me to add several Facebook accounts instead of just one, and I can also manage my LinkedIn account from the same app. It also works better on my Android than the Tweetdeck app, which anyways I already dislike for its interface.

6- Extensive Notes. I may regret to say this later, but I’m not a fan of Evernote. Quoting what I said a year ago, I use my notes application as a modern version of my handy old-fashioned notebook, and it really bothers me when I have to create accounts, log-in or wait until it synchronizes with the computer or “the cloud”. Extensive Notes is really powerful even in its free version, although I recognize the way it organizes folders and notes is a bit too complex.

7- Google Maps + Navigation.I don’t understand why Nokia is the only cell-phone manufacturer that offers a free and trustable off-line GPS navigator app, but at least Android users have this alternative. It doesn’t seem to use lots of Internet and it can help you to get anywhere.