Chrome. Beautiful, Brittle

Good news if you’re using an Android phone or tablet. The mobile version of the Chrome browser, about which I have raved before, has finally been officially released. Chrome handles complex modern sites better than anything else available for mobile, a distinct advantage for the Android platform over iPhone. If you have a decently big screen you can enjoy an experience almost indistinguishable from a desktop browser, using real websites instead of over-simple mobile versions or apps. The illusion becomes perfect on the Galaxy Note, as hovering the pen near to the screen triggers “mouseover” events like dropdown menus, just as on a desktop computer – and just as I’d hoped.

All right, it doesn’t have Flash. This is Adobe’s (and ultimately, Apple’s) fault rather than Google’s though, and there should be a plug-in to fix it soon. It still seems to lack any full-screen mode too. But in every other respect it outclasses the competition, from Google’s own default mobile browser to even the likes of Dolphin HD. Naturally it still has that lovely playing-card interface, it’s as neat and simple as any Chrome variant, and it’s fast. Remember, this is coming from someone who vastly prefers Firefox on the desktop, both for its features and for its independence. Firefox for mobile is getting very good, but this leaves it standing.

Really just one thing stops me from telling you to go install Chrome for Android directly without passing Go or collecting two hundred euros. This would be its slight tendency to crash every five f***ing minutes. Seriously, it happened so many times while I was writing this that I’ve given up and am completing it in Jota. I’m enormously disappointed. I was hoping that the final release would fix the instability that plagued the beta. You know what? It’s actually worse.

I still suggest you download this, even try it as your default browser. It is that nice. I just wouldn’t recommend you use it to write anything longer than a Tweet.

Really Google, what the hell?

Beneath The Surface

Microsoft’s Surface initiative is, when you think about it, a sort of conjuring trick. I’d call it sleight of hand but that seems unduly negative. It is an attempt to make something vanish though: a distinction.

What’s on the table before the trick begins? Two tablet computers that could hardly be more different. They are examples of today’s two major “architectures”, rival ideas of how computers should work. One, as we saw before, has an ARM processor and is hardly distinguishable internally from an iPad or an Android tablet. The other has an Intel processor and is in all meaningful respects just an unusually-shaped PC.

Yet the wand is waved and voilà – these two entirely different things are both “Surface”.

Hence the name, perhaps. The two devices are remarkably similar – on the surface. They have the same touch-friendly interface and can run the same “Metro” apps. The major difference is that the Intel one will be able to run conventional Windows software too. Which will, let’s face it, be pretty confusing to the consumer. At some point Microsoft will have to clarify this distinction between the devices. But right now they want to emphasise the similarities, present them as a unified concept. Why?

The most crucial reason is to offer a response to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), the recent trend for allowing people to use their own computers in work. It’s very attractive to cash-strapped companies – why pay for hardware when workers might actually prefer to use their own? The savings may prove illusory though. Getting enterprise-wide computer networks to run well can be hard even when everyone’s using the same operating system on identical hardware. When you have a mix of Windows and iPad and Mac and Android and BlackBerry… It could make the lives of IT staff living hell. People will be carrying off classified documents on the same tablet that their kids play with, a device that doesn’t even ask for a password.¹ Fad or not though, BYOD poses a direct threat to Microsoft’s core market – because the Ds the people generally B are iPads.

So they’ve responded by offering a product that will – they hope – be as simple and likeable to use as an iPad, but can run enterprise software and be managed and secured by systems their clients already have. It might not be the same tablet that the kids use (though it might be too), but it could share the same apps, the same games, the same interface and even the same accessories as that cheaper device.

That is a creative response to the challenge. Will it work? It’s hard to say. A lot has to be right for this to come together. Being competitive with Android tablets will not be enough. The ARM version of Surface has to compare well to the iPad. That’s the reason Microsoft are making their own – to have the same advantages that Apple enjoys; the synergy of software and hardware developed in tandem, the single dominant design to attract an aftermarket of accessories and thus consumer buy-in. Other manufacturers can make Windows tablets that compete with Android; Microsoft will compete with Apple themselves.

I think they might be able to pull that one off. The greater challenge is actually the Intel version. The iPad works because its ARM chip demands far less power than an Intel one, so you can use it for a real working day without worrying about charge. Will an Intel device be frustratingly short on stamina, or have such a huge battery it will dislocate your arm? The danger is that it will fall between two stools, be a poor substitute for a laptop and for a tablet.

But if they can pull it off with some technical trick – if, for example, Surface can drastically reduce its power demands when only running “Metro” apps – then it could be a remarkable product.

  1. One security plus though – research has shown that when people bring their own devices, they’re a lot less likely to leave them in a taxi.

Beneath The Surface

Microsoft’s Surface initiative is, when you think about it, a sort of conjuring trick. I’d call it sleight of hand but that seems unduly negative. It is an attempt to make something vanish though: a distinction.

What’s on the table before the trick begins? Two tablet computers that could hardly be more different. They are examples of today’s two major “architectures”, rival ideas of how computers should work. One, as we saw before, has an ARM processor and is hardly distinguishable internally from an iPad or an Android tablet. The other has an Intel processor and is in all meaningful respects just an unusually-shaped PC.

Yet the wand is waved and voilà – these two entirely different things are both “Surface”.

Hence the name, perhaps. The two devices are remarkably similar – on the surface. They have the same touch-friendly interface and can run the same “Metro” apps. The major difference is that the Intel one will be able to run conventional Windows software too. Which will, let’s face it, be pretty confusing to the consumer. At some point Microsoft will have to clarify this distinction between the devices. But right now they want to emphasise the similarities, present them as a unified concept. Why?

The most crucial reason is to offer a response to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), the recent trend for allowing people to use their own computers in work. It’s very attractive to cash-strapped companies – why pay for hardware when workers might actually prefer to use their own? The savings may prove illusory though. Getting enterprise-wide computer networks to run well can be hard even when everyone’s using the same operating system on identical hardware. When you have a mix of Windows and iPad and Mac and Android and BlackBerry… It could make the lives of IT staff living hell. People will be carrying off classified documents on the same tablet that their kids play with, a device that doesn’t even ask for a password.¹ Fad or not though, BYOD poses a direct threat to Microsoft’s core market – because the Ds the people generally B are iPads.

So they’ve responded by offering a product that will – they hope – be as simple and likeable to use as an iPad, but can run enterprise software and be managed and secured by systems their clients already have. It might not be the same tablet that the kids use (though it might be too), but it could share the same apps, the same games, the same interface and even the same accessories as that cheaper device.

That is a creative response to the challenge. Will it work? It’s hard to say. A lot has to be right for this to come together. Being competitive with Android tablets will not be enough. The ARM version of Surface has to compare well to the iPad. That’s the reason Microsoft are making their own – to have the same advantages that Apple enjoys; the synergy of software and hardware developed in tandem, the single dominant design to attract an aftermarket of accessories and thus consumer buy-in. Other manufacturers can make Windows tablets that compete with Android; Microsoft will compete with Apple themselves.

I think they might be able to pull that one off. The greater challenge is actually the Intel version. The iPad works because its ARM chip demands far less power than an Intel one, so you can use it for a real working day without worrying about charge. Will an Intel device be frustratingly short on stamina, or have such a huge battery it will dislocate your arm? The danger is that it will fall between two stools, be a poor substitute for a laptop and for a tablet.

But if they can pull it off with some technical trick – if, for example, Surface can drastically reduce its power demands when only running “Metro” apps – then it could be a remarkable product.

  1. One security plus though – research has shown that when people bring their own devices, they’re a lot less likely to leave them in a taxi.

Galaxy Note With Ice Cream Sandwich 3

Android 4.0 is of course an OS designed to work equally well on phones and tablets, and one of the chief features of the Note is its huge, tablet-like screen. So let’s have a look at the advantages of holding your phone sideways.

For a start, landscape mode is a great fit for a GPS device that has Google Street View!

This brings a whole new meaning to the term SatNav.

The included calendar app, S Planner, looks particularly fine on its side.

As does the updated Gmail client. Missing from the inbox view are buttons to scroll through mail. After a confounded moment, you realise that this is now done by swiping. Which is nice. The look is cleaner now. Especially when you choose to write a new mail…

How’s that for stripped down?

But making fullest use of gestures is the beta of Chrome for Mobile. It may not be quite stable yet (the main reason this post is late…) but even allowing for that it’s still better than any other mobile browser around. It’s in the “deck of cards” view that gestures really come into their own. You can use two thumbs to leaf through the page previews, a far faster way to find what you want than clicking on tabs.

I’m beginning to wonder if this really is the best mobile browser interface after all – and not the best interface of any browser, ever.

Galaxy Note With Ice Cream Sandwich

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The latest version of Android is at last available for Samsung’s Galaxy Note!

Well, kind of. If you live in certain parts of Germany, and perhaps downwind. No one is sure when carriers will actually make it available in their location.

Tired of waiting I cracked, and installed Ice Cream Sandwich myself. A caveat then: As far as I know the version I am using is precisely the one that Samsung released to carriers in Ireland¹, but there may be more to be done with it before the networks roll it out. Particularly, while it appears to be the latest version of Android (4.0.3) complete with Samsung’s “TouchWiz” top layer, not all of the much-publicised Premium Suite seems to be present.

(The only obvious inclusion in fact is S Note, which seems to be a more capable replacement for the – already very useful – S Memo note-taking and sketching app.)

Anyway, that’s all beside the point. What’s it like!?! The initial impression might be a little disappointing – it hardly seems to have changed at all. But that’s because the front end is still Samsung’s TouchWiz customisation. Look closer and you begin to see quite the opposite – everything has changed. There hardly seems to be a single element of Android that hasn’t been either subtly or radically improved. This really is a new OS. It shows best perhaps in an improved tightness, in a great many more options and details, more fancy transitions. All in all, just a nicer overall experience.

For me of course, what matters most is the pen functions. And the good news is, my hopes are realised. That little dot appears on the screen to show it tracking the pen tip, so you know exactly where your line is going to appear when you draw. As odd as that might sound to those who haven’t tried it, this makes drawing far more spontaneous and intuitive. And the pen seems to have become even more responsive too. As you can see above, it gives you a natural, ink-like line. I can say unequivocally now that this must be the best pocket-sized electronic sketchpad you can acquire.

The wider public I think will be more impressed by something that doesn’t actually come with Ice Cream Sandwich, but requires it: The beta version of the new mobile Chrome browser. On a big screen like the Note’s you can set it to act like a desktop browser, and it can deal with complex, JavaScript-laden sites such as editing WordPress.  Clever pop-up magnifications help you choose small menu items, and it employs a metaphor that stretches back to PalmOS, the lost rival mobile system, and even all the way to the original WAP mobile browser – that of a “deck of cards”. Open tabs can be viewed almost as if they were a poker hand, and unwanted ones can be flicked away. It’s all very cute and fluidly animated, basically making other mobile browsers – even Apple’s – look crude and unfinished. And it’s still in beta.

This alone makes the upgrade something to look forward to. Hang on, it can’t be much longer now! And if you are thinking of buying a Samsung Galaxy Note, be assured that the bits that seemed rough on release are now smooth. The fabulous tablet-phone just got more fabulous.

As well as Vodafone, The Samsung Galaxy Note is now available in Ireland from 3 and O2.

 

  1. For the more technically inclined reader: The ROM I installed came from here; to flash it I used Odin, a simple process that doesn’t even require you to root.  Note that I am NOT recommending you try this yourself. It almost certainly voids your warranty, and there is a non-zero chance that it will irretrievably destroy your phone. 

Android Finds: Keep That Screen On

One thing that bugs me about Android is its eagerness to turn the screen off. Yes of course it’s a good idea for battery saving. But it’s less good for, say, reading. You can set the screen timeout delay for a maximum ten minutes, but sometimes even that’s not enough.

Especially when driving. Not that I read a lot while driving, you understand, but I do like to use the Maps app. Sure, that will keep the screen on when you use the navigation function, but to do that you need to enter a destination. What about when you don’t have a destination?

All right, not everyone is as weird as me. But sometimes I like to just drive around in places I don’t know. For example, today I decided to find how far south I could drive along the shores of Lough Corrib before impassable bog forced me back onto the main road¹. I’ve been wondering for years, but it’s the sort of thing you never find time to do in your adult life – until you get a day so hot that spending it driving around with all your windows open actually seems like the sensible thing to do. So I wanted a moving map, to make sure I was sticking to the shores and/or heading south, and I wanted to be able to read it at a glance, not be always unlocking the screen. But I had no destination to enter.

So I pulled over, searched Google Play, and found Screen On, a simple app from Greek company PinApps that lists all the other ones installed and offers the option of keeping the screen on while any of them is running. Lovely. And it has a couple of other cute features too – it can also keep the screen on while you’re taking a call. That sounds like a good idea, I’m frequently annoyed by the delay between ending a conversation and being able to hang up. I’ve yet to decide how well it works in practice though.

Better still, there’s an option to keep the screen going while charging. This was an available behaviour I opted into on my Nokia N900, because it kept the screen on whenever I was using the phone in bed or in the car. Some caveats though: Screens have finite lives, and I believe this is particularly true of OLEDs. Also, one as big as that of the Galaxy Note draws a formidable amount of power. If you leave it burning overnight, particularly if you have other stuff running too or if you’re not using a charger capable of the recommended 1Amp, you may find it hasn’t finished charging by morning! For these reasons, you should remember to manually switch the screen off by touching the power button.

But a great little app that does exactly what I wanted. The only way I would improve it is by having some contextual logic. I’d like it to keep the screen on, when I’m using a certain app, if the phone is on charge. That way there’d be a lot less risk of my flattening the battery through negligence.

Oh the trip? It was a lovely adventure, exploring a maze of boreens that had a nonchalant attitude towards the task of going somewhere. I saw nearby bits of country that I had no idea existed. At one point I drove a quarter of a mile down a narrow lane that just petered out, and so had to reverse all the way back. How often do you get to do that? But the answer to the actual question is that you can hardly get any further south along this shore of the Corrib than I am right here at home. As is fairly obvious from any map.

Afterwards I went to town – by the main road – and bought a big floppy ladies’ straw sun hat I found in a charity shop for a euro. It was quite clear that too much of the sun has been getting through to my brain.

 

  1. The curraghline. Built directly across a spongy bog and therefore liable to constant subsidence and crinkling, it has been described as “Ireland’s straightest and most uneven stretch of road”.

Good Bad Photography (3)

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Today we are trying out Photoshop Express, Adobe’s free, simple, and – let’s face it – almost entirely pointless image editing app.

It does the basics well. At least you assume it does, being from Adobe. I can’t honestly swear I can tell if one app is adjusting brightness or contrast better than another. The cropping, rotating, and flipping tool is impressively quick and smooth though, so it might be worth the effort of downloading for that.

The touch-propelled interface, where the whole screen is your slider control, is great for easy precision control on the phone. But what’s there to do with it? As far as treats go there’s a positively grudging selection of eight frames and seven filters. Even Instagram makes that look weak, never mind an effects cornucopia like Pixlr-o-matic. Apparently there are additional ones available to the iPhone version – for money – but there’s no readily apparent way to get them here.

It shows every sign therefore of being the deliberately watered-down free sibling of the paid-for Photoshop Touch app. Which alas I cannot use until Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4) finally reaches us. I’ll probably find a use for this on occasion, but it will never be my first resort.
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The Missing Kies

More Non-Fun With Samsung. It is amazing that a company rumoured to be the world’s No.1 phone maker can provide their customers with synchronisation software as enjoyable to use as being punched repeatedly in the face. Samsung Kies is slow, unstable, and just ill-conceived.

I decided to give it a thorough troubleshooting today, by removing anything on the computer that might have even a remote chance of interfering with it. My old Nokia syncing software, the crap that Apple piles on when you install Safari or iTunes – anything that might use Media Transfer Protocol basically – before removing and reinstalling Kies. It was a long shot, but it seemed to do some good. At least it will show thumbnails of photos now. That’s… something.

But I must confess – I discovered eventually that Kies wasn’t really failing to accomplish a basic task as I’d thought. It simply doesn’t do that task. Foolish me. Why would I think that a function with a name like “Sync Photos” would sync photos? My naïveté just appals me sometimes.

You see I wanted it to copy the pictures I’d taken with the phone and save them to the computer. On most parts of planet Earth that would mean creating a folder on your computer that always contains the same photographs as the phone. In, as we call it, sync.

For Samsung’s Kies however, syncing photos means copying them from the computer, to the phone. Because that’s what you want to do, isn’t it? Un-backup your pictures. Samsung it seems are so pleased with their phones that they think we’ll want to put all our photos on them, to show them off to their best advantage.

More seriously, they’re envisaging the phone as your central device, your hub. Things move to the phone, not away. All nice in theory, but complete crap in practice. The reality is that both for the sake of convenience and of  backing-up, you want the same files on both your phone and your computer. Synchronisation, as the name suggests, should be a two-way street.

(The cloud? If you have an Android phone you may have found it automatically uploading your photos to your Google account. The way of the future, right. The problem with the cloud is it’s altogether too nebulous. I’m not at all happy entrusting every picture I take to someone who mysteriously doesn’t even want paying for the service.)

So Kies won’t copy my pictures to the computer as a part of an automated syncing process. I have to do it manually. Which means I have to remember to do it manually. This is not good enough. All I want, ideally, is software that will copy my photographs. As well as synchronise any new contact info and events with my computer’s address book and calendar. Maybe copy over other important data too, like sketches I make on it. In the other direction, possibly copy any newly-downloaded podcasts to the phone so that I can listen to them on the move. And it would be nice if it could do that all automatically when I plugged my phone into the computer to charge. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Nope, not thanks to the Austrian guy who developed MyPhoneExplorer. This is everything that Kies should be but isn’t. On top of that it has some interesting features that Kies doesn’t think to include, like the facility to use your phone from your computer when it’s connected, making and taking calls and even typing texts on your keyboard. Plus it can archive your text messages, or indeed keep any data or application on the phone backed up.

It may take some time to set up – read the very useful help pages – but that’s because it can be made to do precisely what you want. And it’s free, though it does ask you to donate. You should. The amount of heartache it will save you is well worth a few euros. He has made life better.

Update: I should have mentioned that when installing it offers to give you a couple of other freeware programs. You can decline these though, and on principle I recommend that you do.

Works on most Android phones, not just Samsung’s, as well as Symbians from Sony Ericsson.

http://www.fjsoft.at/en/downloads.php

The Galaxy Note In Depth – 1. Form Factor

Not how Google Earth looks on the average phone. Click to appreciate the full-size image

It isn’t yet possible to definitively review the Samsung Galaxy Note. We still await Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which has the potential to make huge differences.

Some of you have phone-buying decisions to make right now though, so I’m going to start at the finish and try to answer questions potential buyers might have. Questions like “Well, should I get this phone then?”

Yes, unequivocally. I can quit early today.

Oh all right, some more detail. Matthew already gave us a thorough run-down of the Note’s hardware and features, so I’ll try to talk more about personal impressions.

So what have you heard about the Note? That it’s big. Huge. Unwieldy even. Some reviewers said it would be difficult to use, even predicted that you would drop it all the time.

They were all wrong. There is nothing impractical about the Note’s size. It feels strange to hold at first, and you will worry you might drop it. But without wanting to tempt fate, a month has gone by sans fumble. Maybe it helps that I bought a case for it, but – though I certainly would recommend getting a case for a piece of glazing like this – I think it’s more just a matter of getting used to it.

You find yourself using it in a more two-handed way than you would a phone of less unusual dimensions – if you have tiny paws like mine at least. Since launch Samsung have actually added the option of a smaller number pad offset to the side to make it more usable with the thumb, but I dial a number so rarely these days I’m perfectly happy to do it with my other hand.

Some reviewers said people would point and laugh at you if you made calls on it in public. That was nonsense too. The public is used to big-screen phones like the Galaxy S II or Droid Razr. The Note is bigger again, sure, but not startlingly. I don’t think I’ve had even a second glance so far. Kind of disappointing really…

So there is very little downside to the the sheer vastness of the Note. The upside is out of all comparison. It’s just… so damn beautiful. (Look at the screenshot of Google Earth above. And remember, that’s been scaled down to fit in here. Click on the image to see the actual pixels.) And yet, also practical. The extra real estate makes everything work that bit better. Browsing, reading, using apps, watching video, entering text on the screen keyboard. The Galaxy Note is an ideal satnav device for example, its big screen allowing you to check out your route at a glance. Plus you can use it in portrait mode, which when you think about it is the way that satnavs really should have been designed in the first place.

Any faults? I don’t think so. Some said the colours were oversaturated, but I find them fine; perhaps Samsung tweaked that. It’s pentile instead of ‘proper’ RGB which means it has a lower effective resolution, but the pixels are so tiny you really can’t tell. It’s small for a tablet, yes. Some tablet-specific apps are going to be impractical, especially when Ice Cream Sandwich allows those written for Honeycomb to run on it. But it’s the biggest tablet you’ll ever get in your pants pocket to bring with you all day.

And yes it’s perfectly comfortable in your pants, despite every other review warning that it is “only for those with bigger pockets” or words to that effect. We learn from this that a lot of technology writers are either (a) surprisingly wary of new things or (b) tiny.

Next time, we’ll get to grips with that pen.

Excellent Gadget Time

I was saying that by turning off the always-on data connection, my Android phone will get through a full day with plenty power to spare. And that’s not jealously husbanding the battery either, but fully indulging what the phone can do. Including 3G data – when I actually want it.

Pretty neat, but what when I want to really rip it? Actually spend a whole day browsing, for example. While simultaneously live-streaming geotagged video. Desire expands to meet the limitations of the battery.

And yet, there is a way to have effectively endless battery life. How? It’s simple. Charge one battery while you use another.

You own a spare battery, right? Oh, you have an iPhone. I’m sorry. I suppose you can charge a spare iPhone.

There are a number of solutions to charging a battery while it’s not in your phone. This though is quite the tiniest I’ve ever seen. I saw some of them – different brand, but identical device – in my local electronics shop on clearance for 60 cents each. What to lose, I thought. A couple of days later I came back and bought all the ones they had left.

It works for many common phone and camera batteries. You adjust its prongs to match the contacts (an LED tells you when they’re right), clip it on, and plug it into any USB socket. It’s really about as no-frills as charging can get, and it weighs a barely-perceptible 11 grammes. Worth carrying just as an emergency backup in case you lose, break or forget your normal charger. It even has key ring!

I’m fortunate in that Samsung provided a collapsible travel charger, so I can fit that, a short USB-to-microUSB cable, the spare battery and one of these chargers all into an old glasses case. Plus headphones and spare stylus pen. That’s all I need to charge the phone or the battery. Now I can travel forever.