Living With An Android (1)

Enhancing Your Battery Life

It's the button that was missing

As phones have got bigger, brighter and more sophisticated, so their battery lives seem to have reverted to the stone age. Any decent one will of course still have sufficient to make and receive calls all day, but will it leave enough to also do the things you actually bought a smartphone for? A couple of hours browsing in the afternoon, maybe some handheld GPS navigation around town, and suddenly it’s looking like you may not make it home to your charger in time.

What’s to be done? Well Android does present a lot of power-saving options, but it’s not at all clear to the user just how much these will save or what functionality they sacrifice.

OK, some are no-brainers. You will extend battery life very significantly if you don’t turn on Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS until you need to connect to a network, link your phone to some other device, or find out where you are, respectively. (And remember to turn them off again after!) It’s worth mentioning too though that Wi-Fi needs less power than a 3G connection, so use it to go online when you have the choice. Of course, that will also save you data charges.

That huge vivid screen drinks power like a power alkie falling off the power wagon. If you’re not trying to impress anyone with its shininess just now, set the brightness as low as you find usable. (Settings > Display > Brightness; Your phone’s automatic brightness setting, which allows it to adjust to the ambient light, may be the best compromise.) While you’re here in Display Settings, you can adjust the screen timeout – the length of time it stays lit after you stop touching it – to be as short as you can tolerate.

Those are the biggies; after that it’s all fiddling with minor adjustments that might or might not make a noticeable difference. What would be really nice to find is some hidden setting that dramatically improves battery life, a sort of magic button if you will. Not too much to ask, is it?

Well no it’s not. There is one simple thing you can do, and it will save you buttloads of electricity¹. You can turn off Packet Data.

Packet data is what’s more loosely referred to as “3G” – Internet over the mobile network. Your Android phone, by default, keeps a data connection going all the time. This means you can constantly receive things like emails, calls over Skype and other VoIP systems, MMS messages, and fresh new adverts for your ad-supported apps. Nice stuff – well mostly – but not exactly necessary. Especially not when you consider that the time you’re spending online without really meaning to is deducted directly from the time you can be online when you want. Simply maintaining that data connection is eating your power, even when nothing is being transferred.

One problem: Android is kinda designed around the always-on data connection, they don’t really mean you to turn it on and off easily. So the option is a little buried, under Settings > Wireless and network > Mobile networks. There you check and uncheck “Use packet data” depending on whether you want mobile Internet access right now. Four clicks down – pretty irritating for something you might want to change several times in one day.

But fear not – there is of course an app for that. Or to be more precise, a widget – a simple button you can stick on your home screen to turn packet data on and off handily. There are a great number to choose from on the Android Market Google Play in fact; some though are ugly-looking, some have ads, some other features that you may or may not want. One I found that seems to work just fine, looks nice and is both free and ad-free is called Data Switch. I can’t promise this one will work flawlessly for you (try restarting your phone if it doesn’t seem to at first), but it seems to work perfectly on the Galaxy Note.

While the Note’s battery is very reasonable by smartphone standards, this could make all the difference between worrying if it will last, and being relaxed about it. So if you really want to Skype me, call me first to let me know OK?

  1. Electricity used to be sold from large barrels called butts, each equal to two hogsheads or seven rundlets.  

Tiny Wireless Device

No Bigger Than Your Thumb

Well we finally got the iBook done. Possibly due to its habit of regularly becoming misconnected, the AirPort (WiFi) card had well and truly failed. You could tell this because if you plugged it back in and switched on, the computer wouldn’t boot or even beep. Its fan would just start spinning at maximum speed, and the card would become too hot to touch.

Generally, not a good sign.

Buying a new internal card from Apple would have been expensive, time-consuming, or both, so we went looking for a USB WiFi adapter instead. I was surprised – the shops were full of very reasonably-priced stuff from Netgear, Belkin and Cisco, absolutely none of which seemed to be compatible with Macs. You’d think it would be worth the small cost of developing drivers. Sure, all Macs come with WiFi built in now, but so does virtually every PC laptop.

We found a nice one eventually though, from a maker called Edimax. It was a bit more expensive than the others, but it’s cute as a button. The same size as the smallest Bluetooth adapter, yet it seemed to have no problem receiving a signal throughout the house.

Any catch? Well yeah… The drivers come on a CD. But to save on packaging – laudable as that is – it’s one of those mini CDs, maybe half the diameter of the proper thing. Not a size you see much since the demise of the CD single, which was the same day as they came out. These work perfectly in most CD drives of course, but Macs have slot-loaders. So basically you slide that little disc on in there, and… you start figuring how the hell you’re going to get it out again.

Except possibly by sheer luck once in a while, a mini CD is not going to play in a slot-loading drive. But no matter, you can download the drivers instead. Just connect to the Wi… Oh right.

Where there’s a will; I happened to have a 3G modem with me, though I suppose we could’ve dug up an Ethernet cable too. After that it was relatively simple. Except that the download link required you to enter an email address despite clearly saying it was optional – a double irritation this time. Otherwise though, it seems a lovely little product. And not only does it come with drivers for most versions of OS X and Windows, it even has them for Linux. One to remember.

Once More Into The Mac

So Many Screws. So Many, Many Screws

Not for the first, not for the second, but for the third time, Niceol’s damn Mac has thrown its Airport card. I am now convinced that this¹ is the worst piece of shit that Apple ever made. Oh, it’s a fine design in some ways. More anonymous than the wild G3 generation, but more refined and cool – indeed the motif seems to be a 1960s fridge. But the attention to detail makes it all the more strange that there’s a huge flaw right at its heart – and getting into the heart means performing dangerous heart surgery.

Don't Try This At Home

Well never again. Not if a wooden splint and a load of impact adhesive have anything to do with it. That WiFi card is staying put.

It’s that grey rectangular thing on the left side there. The white stripe at the front of it is the wood I put in. To be honest, it’s a match – well, a section cut from a kitchen match, much chunkier than the usual kind. It turned out to be the precise thickness to fit between the card and a convenient ledge in the chassis above it. Held both by glue and the original clamp, it should keep this end of the card – the end with the connector that continually worked loose – pressed firmly against the motherboard for ever and ever.

Again.

  1. iBook G4 12″ 1.33GHz Model M9846LL/A, if you need to know.

Mac Fixin’ Again

Circuit City

Some laptops are a lot easier to fix than others. My Toughbook can basically be maintained with a bicycle spanner. At the opposite end, I once had such a hard time taking apart an Acer that I didn’t bother to put it back together again.

Apple’s are in the middle, though some are better than others. The last couple of MacBooks are far better than past models – they actually let you take your own hard drive out, without needing power tools! The Intel iBooks are fairly OK, except that all the connectors inside seem to snake into one bizarre nexus. The iBook G3 on the other hand, though actually my favourite from the outside (it’s the weird curvy one from about 2000), has about 650 screws – no two of which are the same.

But the iBook G4 (1.33GHz) is my poorly-designed nemesis. It’s notorious because the Wi-Fi card has a tendency to come loose, crashing the thing. I fixed one almost exactly a year ago, for my musician friend Niceol. And guess what? It came loose again. As I said at the time:

To help prevent the Wi-Fi card working loose again I needed something to pad out the clamp holding it, make the grip tighter. So I found a nice pale grey piece of card, cut neatly rounded corners, got a pen and wrote “iPad”.

Because Apple design is all about attention to detail.

Seems my design was underpowered. So I replaced the soft card with a thicker piece of plastic. On which, naturally, I scrawled “iPad 2”.

Sketch From The Journey Homeward

The MidlandsTravelling through the darkness of the midlands. There could be anything outside those windows. Anything but people. Might as well be in a submarine.

It’s a bus though. I am in favour of trains but you don’t get the low fares at weekends, and since they built motorway all the way to Galway it’s as fast as the train and almost as comfortable. Certainly quieter – this Volvo purrs like a contented fridge. Aside from legroom, the main reason to prefer the train is that it has power outlets. I am actually fine for power – two spare batteries after this one – but in this portable age charging equals comfort, discharging discomfort. Courtesy power outlets should really be everywhere. First pub I went to in Dublin had locks on their sockets. And they charged €4.50 for a coffee, which begins to border on crime. Opposite that National Leprechaun Museum, they were clearly tourist trappers.

What the bus does supply for free on the other hand is Wi-Fi, so I might as well use that instead of my own 3G. Good opportunity to download the new OpenOffice suite… And yet, I still resent the log-in procedure. They want to know my name, my e-mail address, and my impressions of the the service – before I can use it! I was bluntly honest about the last there, but apparently my address is now whynot@lsoaskmydicksi.ze.

Seems to work as well as any other.

It’s a shame because it makes what is a genuinely useful service suddenly feel like a trap. Will they give my details to marketeers? Perhaps it’s all in the terms and conditions, but dammit I’m on a bus, I don’t want to have to read a long document and consult a lawyer. Couldn’t the free Wi-Fi just be, you know, free? It’s not like non-customers are going to be stealing it after all. Not unless they run alongside.

Some days I Even Like Microsoft

Why the hell is insomnia the opposite of sleeping in?

Sorry, I am wrecked because in the last three days I’ve repaired three different laptops. The thing is, they each took more than a day to fix. Not a lot of sleep was had, is basically what I’m saying here. If you’re reading this it means I did by some miracle manage to get up on Wednesday morning. If you’re not reading this, come and wake me quick.

There They Are, Fixed

Of the three, by far the most tricky was a friend’s Mac – an iBook G4 1.33GHz, for those of you who care. Apple are rightly famed for design simplicity, but that applies to the outside only. They seem deliberately hard to repair. Probably so that you’ll have to take it to Apple’s specialists, who are trained to raise their eyebrows and explain to you how much better off you’d be with a new one. Take the hard drive; this is a disk that spends most of its time spinning at several thousand revs a minute, and so is the part of a computer most likely to fail. Usually therefore it’s fairly easy to take out. Even a crappy laptop from the likes of say Compaq has only about six screws to undo. On a Thinkpad it can be just one, and with a Toughbook you simply open a latch. This iBook?

You have to take the entire feckin’ thing apart.

But it wasn’t the hard drive this time. In another sure sign that Jonathan Ive leaves the insides to his secretary, the little circuit board for Airport (Apple’s cute name for Wi-Fi) is mounted in such a way that it can – and given enough time, will – work its way lose. That doesn’t just mean you lose your wireless sometimes, it means that you have a short circuit. So at unpredictable intervals, the computer crashes¹. It took me two days just to work out what was going on here.

The Wi-Fi card on Mac laptops is often just under the keyboard like the RAM. On this particular one however it’s buried right in the heart – just alongside that hard drive. If you want to repair it, you basically have to reduce the machine to its constituent minerals. Which is no fun. I’m an artist, I do have a reasonably delicate touch, but inside this iBook I felt like a gorilla doing the Japanese tea ceremony. It’s finicky and delicate, featuring the lovely innovation of sockets that attach to the circuit board far more weakly than they do to the plugs that go into them. So it is not merely probable but nearly inevitable that in the process of trying to unplug a tiny cable you’ll pull the socket clean off. To repair this, you have to do a soldering job right on the motherboard, on components barely big enough to see.

I actually used a needle for a soldering iron. It took longer to fix this than it did to repair the original problem.

To help prevent the Wi-Fi card working loose again I needed something to pad out the clamp holding it, make the grip tighter. So I found a nice pale grey piece of card, cut neatly rounded corners, got a pen and wrote “iPad”.

Because Apple design is all about attention to detail.

  1. Oh I’m sorry, Macs don’t crash. They have a “kernel panic”, which sounds more like a reaction you might have to peanuts.