Customised Galaxies

Screenshot_2013-08-23-02-52-42
With Sweet ROM the Note’s home screens will work in landscape mode.

Tired of Vodafone Ireland still trailing behind the curve, I decided to upgrade the Galaxy Note myself. Again. A year ago I installed Ice Cream Sandwich. Now we finally have Jelly Bean.

Only, not quite. This time I’ve eschewed not just Vodafone’s particular mix of Android, but Samsung’s too. Up until now I’ve stayed with the stock firmware so that I would be reviewing the standard user experience. This time I decided to go the whole hog and “root” the phone – which basically means giving myself administrator privileges so that I can change whatever I like. Obviously that involves some risk, but it makes your device a lot more interesting. Particularly it means you no longer have to stick to official builds, but can try out customised versions of Android.

A word of warning first though. Certain models of the Note, and several other Samsung Galaxy phones, are vulnerable to a problem known as “BrickBug”. Due to a design fault, if the memory chip it contains is erased in the wrong way it can never be written to again. Thus the device is rendered absolutely unusable and – short of an expensive mainboard replacement – irreparable. Which is depressing. So proceed with caution!

It can be worked around safely, but I won’t attempt to give comprehensive instructions here. Go straight to the horse’s mouth – the invaluable XDA-Developers forum. Actually it’s well worth looking around there before you do anything with an Android phone.

Indeed it was here that I came across the version of Android I chose to use: Sweet ROM. This is one guy’s personal mix that he released to the public, but I think he got the balance pretty right. And unlike many custom versions of Android it’s designed specifically for the Note and so retains all its pen abilities. Here’s the (almost) complete feature list provided by the author – which you can skip if you hate jargon:

CHANGELOG

  • LT9 Firmware
  • Kernel Philz XXLT9 v5.08.5 (thanks Phil3759)
  • Modem LT3
  • Deodexed & Zipaligned
  • Full Root
  • SuperSU (thanks Chainfire) & busybox
  • 24 Toggles including working 2G/3G toggle controlled in Settings (Silver 3D theme thanks Dr.Ketan)
  • Full Airview in Gallery, Video, Lockscreen Notifications, Email & Message. Partial in Snote & Splanner
  • Multi Window Add All Apps S4 white theme
  • SG4 Weather Widget
  • Samsung Camera Shutter Sound on off hack
  • MMS Hack – No SMS in call Log, 200 recipients & No SMS to MMS Auto Convert
  • TW Launcher rotate 270 degrees
  • Call record and no ascending ringtone & 2G/3G hack
  • Ink Effect Added to Settings/Lockscreen
  • Smart Rotation & Smart Stay
  • LockScreen Shortcuts, News Ticker & Weather all working
  • 4 Way Power Menu
  • Enabled extra widgets Negative Colors etc
  • Added Nova Launcher
  • added Flash Player
  • S4 Wallpapers (modded SecWallpaperChooser.apk)
  • Resized Popup Browser with call up app (thanks vijai2011 & kam333)
  • Transparent Status Bar with White S4 style icons & circle percentage battery
  • Added Internet Speed Meter Lite
  • Sub Symbols in stock keyboard
  • Build prop tweaks for battery & performance
  • All Mods & Hacks done myself (unless mentioned) using LT9 firmware
  • and more I can’t remember

To translate: it’s a lot of thoughtful tweaks done by an experienced user. And lovably, it cuts out most of the pre-installed (and irremovable) apps that phones come burdened with. Only real essentials are there; the rest you can choose whether to install.

It’s a great mix and I’m enjoying using it – it’s like my phone came back from a holiday to the feature. Now I have root though it’s almost trivial to switch to other customised versions, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be trying some more.

What I Did In School Today

FirstDay - Copy

Seriously, we did this in class. OK, a lecture. It brought me back to a very different, though in some ways surprisingly similar, but mostly different school I went to many years ago.

I drew a house there too, maybe on my very first day. It’s certainly one of the first things I remember. I distinctly recall having trouble making the place I finished drawing the roof be the same as the place I started. Triangles are the hardest basic shape.

I recall my contempt for the children who drew their square windows in the very corners of their square house. Imagine that! Had they no powers of observation? Obviously the windows should be a little bit in from the corners. I mean, otherwise you’d see the edges of  the side walls through the glass. Sheesh.

The biggest difference is that I drew that house with a pencil. Today in school we drew houses with the Java programming language. It’s harder, drawing your house with the Java programming language. For example, at the age of four I didn’t spend a weekend staring at my pencil and paper going “How the **** is this supposed to work?”

So you’re seeing here the first thing I ever made in Java. I really do feel a little like a small child in school again. At the end of the class I printed it out and gave it to the teacher.

Galaxy Note 2 – Not Bigger, Just Better

On the left, the current Galaxy Note. At right, the coming Note 2

As you know, I love Samsung’s Galaxy Note with a fervour that borders on the erotic. This is the greatest portable device ever invented. A notebook and a phone and a Web browser – what more do you need to do anything? And all in a package small enough to bring everywhere.

So Samsung’s problem now is, how do they sell me another one? I could hang onto this phone for years if they don’t offer a significant step forward. And rumours of dramatic new features have raged over the last few weeks, though I for one am glad that most didn’t turn out to be true. For example, that the Note 2 would have a flexible screen. An interesting concept, possible very convenient to carry, but how are you supposed to write and draw on a bendy surface?

The real Note 2 improves on the original in more predictable ways: Higher processor spec (quad core instead of dual, 1.6 instead of 1.4 GHz) and more RAM (2 GB, up from half that). One rumour to come true is that they went straight to Jelly Bean, the latest iteration of Android, rather than launching with the more established Ice Cream Sandwich. This is to be welcomed, as it brings a lot of smoothness and interface detail improvements.

And to go with this, there’s a significantly larger battery – 31,000 mAh instead of 25,000. We don’t know yet if it will meaningfully extend usage or if the more powerful processor will eat that all up, but I think there’s grounds for hope.

Bluetooth is upped to version 4, though I’ve no idea what real advantage that confers aside from keeping up with the iPhone. The screen will be covered with Gorilla Glass 2. Not the “indestructible” glass of some rumours nor the flexible screen, but its reduced thickness will improve the pen experience. There will also be NFC, the contact-communication technology that will allow you to exchange contacts and files, and (one day) make purchases, simply by touching your phone to things.

As for that form factor – is it “even bigger” than the original, as many have said? It’s debatable. The screen is larger diagonally, at 5.5 instead of 5.3 inches, but that is offset by a narrowing of the aspect ratio – from an unusual 16:10 to the widescreen-standard 16:9. This has been achieved simply by trimming 80 pixels from its width, so the only thing that stops the screen actually being smaller than the original is that the pixels themselves are larger now.

And therefore, their density slightly lower – which seems an odd decision in these days of retina screens, but the Note has plenty resolution to spare and it seems a sensible way to get more area without introducing weird pixel dimensions. The upshot is that the new Note is slightly narrower than the original, but noticeably longer. This may make it a little easier to hold in the hand, while giving it proportions that look more like the phones we’re used to.

So far, so comme ci, comme ça. All-round improvements, but nothing that completely sells me on it. I mean I’ll probably buy one eventually, but I’m not excited.

Until, that is, we come to the pen…

The new S Pen is a little longer, a little thicker. These things are good. But it’s now sensitive to 1,024 levels of pressure, as opposed to the original’s 256. This sensitivity means the pen responds in a more natural way, creating an even more realistic brush stroke. I already think the S Pen is a surprisingly good art tool, but this puts it on a par with Wacom’s most sensitive professional graphics tablets.

Further, Samsung have had the good idea of giving it a slightly rubbery tip instead of the normal hard plastic. This is to reproduce the natural resistance of a pen nib on paper even when you’re drawing on smooth glass (a problem I solved on my original Note with a matte anti-glare screen protector).

And there’s more… Remember how I was overjoyed that since Ice Cream Sandwich, the Note can detect the pen hovering above the screen? Samsung have really run with the possibilities now and introduced various behaviours that occur in hover mode. Using the pen, what’s more, will turn on palm rejection, allowing you to rest your hand on the screen while writing without driving the capacitive sensor nuts.

Any disappointments? Well the camera will still only be 8 Mpx. Not that the current Note’s is bad at all, but one of those rumours promised hugely increased resolution. (This turned out to be confusion with the new Galaxy Camera.) It is however said to be better and faster; we will see. And I was hoping for a more significant size increase, seeing as the giant Note went down far better than anyone expected. OK, maybe that was never going to happen. The larger it got, the more pockets it wouldn’t fit into. But as Samsung now have a 10″ tablet capable of making phone calls (you can even use this quite brilliant Bluetooth pen), maybe they’ll eventually do a 7″ one too. Yep, I’d carry it as a phone. I don’t care.

But meanwhile, I’m sold on this. While everything else may be just sensible – even conservative – technical progress, that improved pen is something I am dying to use. I will buy a Galaxy Note 2. That is, if I can afford it before the Note 3 comes out.

Apple Loses Its Cool

The iMac G4 was the first major case redesign ...
Now that was cool

Happy Car Crash

Sorry things have been so quiet. I was a little more hurt in the accident than I realised. Showering the next day I noticed I could no longer reach my left shoulder. The rare post-collision arm shrinkage syndrome, apparently. Or my right shoulder was bruised and had stiffened up. From the seatbelt, I assume.

Fine today though. In fact there’s other good news; I had better insurance than I thought. It isn’t obvious from the policy document, but I was covered for a hire car to go car-shopping in. Funny how you really need a car to buy a car; makes you wonder how the first one ever got sold. And thanks to the old car’s low mileage we got more than we expected, so replacing it won’t be a serious problem. All’s well then, and other than the fact that I might easily have died it wasn’t a bad experience. As Nietzsche said, that which does not kill me lets me live longer.

This line is often quite badly translated.

There’s more good news too, but I think I’ll hold that in until I have the details all nailed down. It’s big, so I don’t want to dilute it with maybes and looks-likes. Let’s go instead to the regular news agenda.

So, Apple Versus Samsung Eh?

Something over nothing really. Well, a billion dollars. Almost nothing. As I’ve said before, it’s a slightly spiteful lawsuit on Apple’s part. They managed to get a US sales ban on some Samsung phones for looking like iPhones. But these laws against aesthetic imitation were written to outlaw counterfeit goods, which the Samsungs clearly were not.

This is a relatively small skirmish in Apple’s rearguard action against the rise of Android. A billion-dollar fine might seem exorbitant, but I suspect that the Koreans probably think it was money well spent. Making devices like the iPhone was just a stage in the process of showing they could make ones better than it. Now they’re the biggest phone company in the world, while Apple must settle for being merely the biggest company in the world.

There are no real losers here.

That though will be very much not the case if Apple win some more of their suits against Google and other smartphone makers over things like the pinch-to-zoom gesture. If Apple were allowed to prevent others from using such basic tropes it could devastate competition in the smartphone market, leaving consumers a choice between the iWay or the highway.

Yesterday at the IFA electronics expo in Berlin Samsung announced a slew of innovative products at least one and probably two of which I will buy, when I can afford them. Apple haven’t announced a product I was determined to own since the second-generation iMac. And I still can’t afford that. If the world’s most valuable corporation uses lawyers to stop me having things I want, I’ll…

I’ll be very annoyed.

Apple Loses Its Cool

The iMac G4 was the first major case redesign ...
Now that was cool

Happy Car Crash

Sorry things have been so quiet. I was a little more hurt in the accident than I realised. Showering the next day I noticed I could no longer reach my left shoulder. The rare post-collision arm shrinkage syndrome, apparently. Or my right shoulder was bruised and had stiffened up. From the seatbelt, I assume.

Fine today though. In fact there’s other good news; I had better insurance than I thought. It isn’t obvious from the policy document, but I was covered for a hire car to go car-shopping in. Funny how you really need a car to buy a car; makes you wonder how the first one ever got sold. And thanks to the old car’s low mileage we got more than we expected, so replacing it won’t be a serious problem. All’s well then, and other than the fact that I might easily have died it wasn’t a bad experience. As Nietzsche said, that which does not kill me lets me live longer.

This line is often quite badly translated.

There’s more good news too, but I think I’ll hold that in until I have the details all nailed down. It’s big, so I don’t want to dilute it with maybes and looks-likes. Let’s go instead to the regular news agenda.

So, Apple Versus Samsung Eh?

Something over nothing really. Well, a billion dollars. Almost nothing. As I’ve said before, it’s a slightly spiteful lawsuit on Apple’s part. They managed to get a US sales ban on some Samsung phones for looking like iPhones. But these laws against aesthetic imitation were written to outlaw counterfeit goods, which the Samsungs clearly were not.

This is a relatively small skirmish in Apple’s rearguard action against the rise of Android. A billion-dollar fine might seem exorbitant, but I suspect that the Koreans probably think it was money well spent. Making devices like the iPhone was just a stage in the process of showing they could make ones better than it. Now they’re the biggest phone company in the world, while Apple must settle for being merely the biggest company in the world.

There are no real losers here.

That though will be very much not the case if Apple win some more of their suits against Google and other smartphone makers over things like the pinch-to-zoom gesture. If Apple were allowed to prevent others from using such basic tropes it could devastate competition in the smartphone market, leaving consumers a choice between the iWay or the highway.

Yesterday at the IFA electronics expo in Berlin Samsung announced a slew of innovative products at least one and probably two of which I will buy, when I can afford them. Apple haven’t announced a product I was determined to own since the second-generation iMac. And I still can’t afford that. If the world’s most valuable corporation uses lawyers to stop me having things I want, I’ll…

I’ll be very annoyed.

Browser Wars: Firefox Fights Back

Have you heard of Aurora? This is basically Future Firefox, an experimental version of the great independent browser from Mozilla. Not a beta, because it’s not a test version of a coming product; more a testbed for ideas that might be included soon.

So you can’t say every feature it displays will end up in Firefox. Some though I’m pretty certain will – at least when it comes to the Android version. Particularly the way Aurora now responds to hover events, so things like dropdown menus work when you pass a mouse pointer over them.

What should I care, you may ask, when my phone doesn’t have a mouse pointer? Actually it probably could… A lot of Androids will let you plug in a mouse (and indeed a keyboard, external drive, or other peripherals) if you use a USB host adapter, and there are Bluetooth mice too. More importantly though, it helps Android adapt to a greater variety of hardware: tablets with and without pens, laptops, even desktop devices. I have no doubt that in a couple of years Android will be seen as a serious alternative to Windows for a lot of work situations.

Another good thing about this desktop-like ability in a browser is that it helps close a gap threatening to open between the desktop and mobile Web. Sure, mobile sites have their uses, especially on smaller screens. But they will nearly always be simplified versions offering less control, and it would be hugely frustrating if your browser wasn’t capable of switching to the full version when needed.

And certainly, no one should ever be forced into using an app just because their phone can’t handle a website.

My new default browser then? Nope. Aurora is in no way intended for primetime. It has some really weird bugs, a predictable consequence of throwing in new features to see what happens, and quickly becomes frustrating to use. But proper Firefox for mobile is pretty good. It has perhaps the most attractive look of any Android browser, and it’s been very stable. Certainly try this. Or if you want to be a bit brave, there’s a good beta version that has some of the more stable of the new features.

Aurora also test-runs a “reader mode”, for when you don’t care about the fancy bits of a website

But if I praise Mozilla here, it’s with faint damns. The reason I’m so certain this feature will make it into Firefox for Android is that every single major rival has it already. The standard Android browser, Chrome for Android, Dolphin HD, even Opera Mobile.

All of them have their own foibles and bugs too; desktop-class browsing on a phone is obviously no walkover. Opera I regard as too eccentric to be really usable now. Try to upload an image with it, for example, and it will use its own non-graphical file explorer instead of Android’s image gallery. How many of your photographs do you know by name? Dolphin is a browser designed exclusively for mobile devices and there is a lot to recommend it, but it feels more orientated to smaller screens. The Android native browser gets better all the time, and now features a full screen mode and a thumb-friendly menu system, but can seem a little flaky.

The leader still though is Google’s Chrome for Android. I’ve raved about it before, so I’ll restrict myself to happily reporting that its chief weakness – a regrettable tendency to crash if you look at it sideways – does seem to have been fixed in Android 4.0.4.

It’s maybe not surprising that Google’s product is doing well. It’s got Google’s money behind it after all, and Google’s ambition. But Mozilla have their own ambition now, and though it’s been taking them far too long, they do look to be on their way to producing a serious mobile contender.

Writing On An All-Screen Phone

What’s the best way to enter text on an all-screen phone? Some would say there is no good way, that nothing remotely compares to physical keys and screens are no good for anything much longer than a Tweet. I don’t agree, but it has to be admitted that on-screen keyboards like the default ones on iPhone and Android are no pleasure to use. Simply put, you’re never going to touch-type on keys you can’t feel, and the addition of “haptic feedback” – the fancy name for a buzzer that goes off when a key is pressed – does little to help. The old T9 predictive texting was faster.

Prediction can be used here too of course; a system like autocorrect on the iPhone helps – just not much. (And it can go famously wrong.) It’s very much a band-aid for a flawed approach. Far faster, because they play to a screen’s strengths, are systems that work by drawing a line through letters instead of tapping each one, like Swype.

So effective is it unfortunately that Swype has some exclusive deals with phone makers, meaning it comes pre-installed on certain better Androids but is unobtainable for the rest (though you can get a beta version). It’s not yet available for iPhone either, though curiously it is for Symbian.

But why write with one finger? Typing with both thumbs is much quicker, especially if you have a big screen. And there are some nice keyboards designed especially for it, split in the middle to be more literally under your thumb. Again though the lack of feel slows things down. Logically a good combination should be a thumboard and prediction – Swiftkey is probably the most famous example – but I’ve yet to find one that I really enjoy using.

So what about handwriting recognition? Writing with a pen is never as fast as typing of course, but that’s comparing it to real keys. The great thing about a pen (or stylus) for a screen is that it doesn’t require tactile feedback. So it’s a perfect fit? In theory, I think so.

In practise, not always. Decent recognition of cursive handwriting was only achieved on desktop computers a few years ago, so it’s a lot to expect from a phone. Users of Samsung Galaxy phones will probably have tried the inbuilt handwriting recognition – and given up again sharply. It’s tedious to use, thanks to low accuracy and an overcomplicated interface. There are other apps in the marketplace of course, but some of them are pretty expensive.

And then there’s 7notes with Mazec. Let’s face it, the name could’ve been more informative. A lot of people will overlook this because it’s presented as a note-taking app, and there are countless note-taking apps on Google Play and iTunes. 7notes doesn’t even seem a particularly good one – though it has the unusual ability to store handwritten notes and convert them to type later. Its ‘secret’ however is the Mazec text entry system. This installs like a keyboard and so can be used to write with any app, not just 7notes. Only it takes pen strokes instead of key presses.

Perfect it’s not – could handwriting recognition ever be? – but it can convert scrawl to type with impressive speed and accuracy, comparing well to the pen input in Windows. Obviously it’s ideal for use with a stylus, (and to any other owners of the Galaxy Note out there I say simply: Get this now), but it works very well with a finger.

And it’s cheap. Despite its Japanese-language sibling costing an astonishing (for an app) €9.70, the English version is only 99c for Android and Kindle Fire, and free for the iPhone and iPad. Best cost-to-usage ratio I’ve ever found in an app. It’s my default ‘keyboard’ now.

I just wrote this with it.