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”.

Androids And Sunshine

image

Again an incredible day. Not hot exactly, maybe about 18C. The sort of temperatures you can wear as little as you like in, yet walk around all day without breaking a sweat. Comfortable weather. Relaxed weather. Sexy weather. I sat by the canal and contemplated my navel. Then I contemplated my friend’s navel. Hers was best.

But back to Android. I’ve had more than a week to get used to the world’s leading smartphone OS. How am I feeling?

Still a little irritated, to be honest. But that’s not really Android’s fault. I’m asking a lot of it – in essence, I want this phone in my pocket to do almost everything I carry a PC around for now. The major exception would be complex Photoshop work for finished drawings, that really would be overambitious, but I hope to be able to do most of my spontaneous sketching, as well as all the online stuff of course. And some serious text editing, such as this.

As I was saying earlier, I was spoiled for mobile blogging with the Nokia N900. By its excellent desktop-like browser, but also its hardware keyboard. I am getting to like using Swype though, the text entry method where you trace from letter to letter on the keyboard. It is very good, but there are one or two things Android really, really misses badly.

Like Ctrl+z.

To my shock and astonishment, there its no universal command in Android for “undo”. And undo is something I use a lot. A lot lot. On every keyboard I’ve owned, the Z is always first to wear off. So its absence is deeply disorientating. And painful. I was writing this column yesterday, and accidentally hit the “select all” option. How to undo that? I try the Android “back” key, as conceptually back is a little like undo.

Only – and this is a mistake I’ve made many times in my first week – instead of hitting the back button in the bottom right corner, I hit the return key on the keyboard, immediately above it. Which overwrites everything with a new blank line.

So I… Wait, I… There isn’t anything I can do. Two wrong key presses, and I’ve consigned an hour’s work to oblivion. Crap.

That ain’t good enough, Android. As there is no undo feature in the OS, entering text into a Web page becomes extremely hazardous. (A browser has no undo feature, as it assumes one exists in the OS…) Of course an individual app can have the facility, but guess what? The WordPress one doesn’t.

So until Google fix this shit I need a new approach. I found two. The first was a custom keyboard that also has undo functions. That means doing without Swype unfortunately, but it may be the solution for some special purposes. Or if you don’t happen to like Swype anyway. The one I’ve tried is called Programmer Keyboard, a lovably OTT solution that gives you a full 101-key desktop board on your phone!

And it also gives me the other thing I really miss from Android – arrow keys. Oh but you can select things with your finger! Yeah, or the letter next to the one you want, and then the one the other side of it, and then the line below… Gimme arrow keys.

A better approach though is to avoid composing the text in the page or app altogether, by using a proper text editor. The one I’m trying – and liking – is called Jota. (Pronounced “iota” rather than “jotter” apparently; I have no idea where the developer is from.) This has all the essential editing tools, for both writers and coders, even in its free version – and that includes multi-level undo.

Oh, and you can put arrow keys on its toolbar too. People, we have a winner.

What Phone Was Right For Me?

Tricky lighting led to overexposure and noise in the dark areas – soon corrected by The GIMP

All the time I’ve been writing articles under the heading “What Phone Is Right For You?“, I have never confessed to what I actually use myself. Do I favour the Apple or the Blackberry, Windows or Androids?

None of the above. There was a reason I didn’t bring my own choice into it – the phone that’s right for me probably isn’t right for you. Or most anyone, it seems. Don’t get me wrong, it is an extraordinary piece of kit. But it sold in the hundreds of thousands at best, rather than the millions a hit mobile device needs.

Which is a shame, because it could have been the future.

That device is the Nokia N900 – less a phone really than a tiny PC with phone capabilities. Of course that can be said loosely of any smartphone, but it’s true of the N900 in spades. On this one you can have an actual desktop, and edit office-standard documents in powerful applications. Not bad for something you can carry around in your pocket.

Nokia achieved this with the help of the Open Source Software community – people who create free programs because they believe information technology should be free. Or just for the hell of it. OSS has brought us many great things, famously the Firefox browser of course, but also the free alternative to Windows and Mac OS called Linux.

The N900’s “Maemo” operating system is, like Ubuntu, based on the respected Debian¹ variant of Linux, so installing full-scale desktop applications is relatively straightforward. One great example: The GIMP², an Open Source alternative to Photoshop with all the image-editing power you could want. Thanks to this I was able to take, correct and upload the image above entirely on the phone.

And the usefulness only begins there. By hooking up a mouse and keyboard and using the TV-out as a monitor, I can have a desktop PC in any hotel room. Or indeed I can use the phone itself as a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard to control a PC from bed – which came in darn useful when I was ill – or control TVs and so on with its infra-red output. It’s versatility is matchless. Furthermore it excels as a media player, with powerful stereo speakers and a screen that wasn’t surpassed until the iPhone 4 came out.

English: Nokia N900 communicator/internet tabl...
The N900 with its keyboard open

Its greatest strength though has to be its browser. Nokia had been making specialised “Internet tablets”, portable Web browsing devices, as a semi-experimental sideline since 2005. The N900 just took that and added phone call abilities. Its browser therefore is proper Firefox, just with a finger-friendly interface, and brooks no ‘mobile view’ nonsense. It displays Web pages exactly as they’d appear on a desktop. With Flash, of course.

And though the phone aspect is a late addition, its integration is exemplary. Skype is just there – you can make and receive VoIP calls just as easily as ordinary ones. Similarly, IM services like Facebook and Google Chat integrate seamlessly with the phone’s text messaging. Contacts on different social networks can be merged into a single address book entry too. That’s just the way it should be.

So, what the hell went wrong? If this was such a paragon of smartphone virtue, why did no one buy it? Hopefully I’ll have the strength to face that sorry tale tomorrow.

  1. Poignant little story – Debian was named for its creator, Ian, and his girlfriend Deb – before they broke up. He’s going to have a hard time forgetting her now.
  2. The GIMP stands for The GNU2 Image Manipulation Package.
  3. GNU stands for GNU Is Not UNIX3. Recursive acronyms are kind of an OSS in-joke.
  4. Surprisingly, UNIX doesn’t stand for anything.