Launchers, Phones, and Books, oh my!

Well, I’m back to using ADW as my tablet’s launcher.  Tons more room per screen and enough options to keep me happy.  I found that even the Android 4 stock launcher has a few issues that drive me nuts.  The biggest of which is when you go into the app drawer where all of your apps and widgets are.  Most of the time when I open it, it will be showing my widgets, but the tab for my Apps will be selected.  So I can’t just click on Apps to go to apps.  If I do, nothing happens.  I have to switch to widgets, then back to apps, then it starts working right again.  This happens often enough to be very irritating.  The only major problem I have besides that–again, is what I’ve always complained about with it–the wasted screen space.  So there, that’s done for awhile.  I’m very content with ADW, it just keeps getting better and better.

Which brings me to my next topic.  I got a new phone recently.  Of course, another Android.  A Motorola Electrify with Android 2.3 (Gingerbread).  I never realized the dramatic difference that happened between Android 2.2 (Froyo) and Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) for phones.  It sure makes a huge difference, especially with memory management.  And my main excuse to root my phone is now gone–screenshots.  Yes, 2.3 includes the ability (though hidden and apparently different on every carrier’s Android) to take screenshots!  On mine I was directed to a little app in the marked called “Screen Grabber” and was instructed to install it, then go to its settings and turn off the “require root” option.  After doing this, it takes screenshots with ease on my phone.  No more need to root!  My only other complaint (that I always had on my HTC Desire) is eliminated now as well–space for apps.  My new phone came with 16GB of internal memory, which is split with half for apps, half for media.  But since the “Apps2SD” lets you optionally move a good portion of most apps to your “SD Card”–which is what the “media” half of the 16GB is considered–I can install dozens of apps and use next to nothing from my app memory.  I now have every app I normally use installed and working, and still have a ton of space left.  The phone even uses the same Tegra 2 processor as my Motorola Xoom, so I can install and play any of my favorite “THD” games on it!  As a comparison, my HTC Desire had 348MB of memory for my apps (and a 32GB SDHC card for media), and after a full wipe of the phone, and the re-installation of all of the updates just for it’s pre-installed apps, I was left with about 135MB of memory, even when using Apps2SD to move everything possible to the SD card.  I could install most of the apps I normally use, but not all of them, before I started getting the “WARNING – memory is low” message.  At this point, I could still install a few more apps, but it’s very dangerous to go lower.  I usually ended up with crashing problems and the phone spontaneously rebooting once in awhile when it crashed.  Not good.  So space is no longer an issue, at least with this phone, and this should be a lesson for everyone out there who has had a bad experience with an Android device–if you bought cheap, it just might be that memory space issues are your main problem.

I also just started reading a new book.  Looking for something to grab my interest after finishing Ready Player One, I stumbled onto “One Second After” by William Forstchen.  It’s about EMP–Electromagnetic Pulse, which is apparently a very real and dangerous possibility.  It’s a novel, meant to explain the dangers of EMP and what could possibly happen if our country were attacked using a weapon like this.  It’s not my usual cup of tea, but just the publisher’s summary was enough to grab me and make me want to read it cover to cover.  Take a look:

In a small North Carolina town, one man struggles to save his family after America loses a war that will send it back to the Dark Ages.

Already cited on the floor of Congress and discussed in the corridors of the Pentagon as a book all Americans should read, One Second After is the story of a war scenario that could become all too terrifyingly real. Based upon a real weapon – the Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) – which may already be in the hands of our enemies, it is a truly realistic look at the awesome power of a weapon that can destroy the entire United States, literally within one second.

This book, set in a typical American town, is a dire warning of what might be our future and our end.

That was it.  It’s now on my phone and I’m reading it to and from work.  It’s very very scary, and as you read it you start to wonder how you and your family would fare in the same situation.  Food for thought.  A LOT of food for thought.  If you want to know more, here’s a link to the Audiobook, and here’s a link to the author’s website.

First Impressions of Android 4

Android 4 Screenshot (using ADW Launcher EX)Android 4, also known as “Ice Cream Sandwich” or “ICS”, has been out for a few months in the Android community, first as just a “raw” version from Android, and most recently as the newest OS for Android phones and tablets.  The Motorola Xoom (the tablet I have) was supposed to be one of the first tablets to receive ICS, and it’s being pushed out over the air this week to them.  Kevin got his yesterday, and I got mine this morning.

If they could have been just a few weeks quicker, this would have made a great Christmas present for all Xoom owners!  So far I’m really enjoying all of the new features and enhancements.  The only thing I can complain about (and I have the same issue with ALL Android versions to date) is the way they design their launcher home screens.  They really don’t give you much room for widgets and icons, leaving huge chunks of screen real estate on the left and right sides and between objects, just so you can click the edges to flip home screens and to make everything very clear and separated.  It’s not like it’s an impossible task.  They could at least throw in options to change your grid size & border sizes, and make the defaults what it has now.  That way, geeks like me could always dig in there and tweak things the way we like.  I’m sure there are plenty of Android fans out there in addition to me, who went “the Android way” primarily for the freedom it provides in many ways–from the ability to install apps from anywhere, not just the official Market–to the ability to add all the widgets and icons you want all over your home screens, so why wouldn’t they just throw in all of the options under the hood?  Maybe they’re leaving it open for the developers to build upon… which is exactly where I went to get the launcher I always dreamed of.  Read on.

That’s all I can complain about with ICS though, it’s home screen layout.  And that’s nothing really, because there are plenty of alternative home screen launchers available to give me what I crave.  I settled on ADW Launcher Ex a while back, and I haven’t found a better launcher since.  Particularly for Honeycomb (Android 3) and now ICS.  ADW has been frequently updated and enhanced to work with these versions, and it shows.  This isn’t a review for ADW though, so let me get back to ICS.

ICS is the first version of Android to have built-in screenshot capability!  POWER-VOL-DOWN on the Xoom will snap a screenshot.

All of the built-in apps have been enhanced a great deal: The camera and video recorder both have many new features, including the ability to take great 1-click panorama photos, add live facial special effects to videos, and much more.

A new font called “Roboto” makes the entire interface look much slicker, sharper and clearer, as well many apps which use the system’s default font.

A basic photo editor is now built into Gallery (called “Photo Studio”), so you can do basic editing, color correction and even perform a lot of photo effects without even installing an editing app.

The browser is much better, faster, smoother, and includes more zoom & pan features as well as the new ability to save web pages for offline viewing.

You can create folders by simply dragging one app onto another one. (Nice feature for Android to finally have, but it’s been in ADW for a long time, so it’s nothing new to me)

It has improved spell-checking and keyboard functionality, as well as new options for typing what you speak.  I haven’t tried the speaking features yet though, so I can’t comment on them yet.

You can now resize most widgets whatever way you want, which is awesome, but again, ADW has done this for some time, so it’s nothing new to me.

You can now go directly to the camera from the lock screen, and if you’re playing music, the lock screen also shows the music player options and the album art for the music currently playing.

To sum it up, I think this is an awesome upgrade from Android 3, so if you have the option on your device I wouldn’t hesitate to install it.  This is also Google’s first “unifying” OS–designed for both Android Tablets and Android Phones, so you can expect to hear about it more and more in the future.  You sure can’t beat the price, that’s for sure!

Alternate Android Launcher

One big advantage Android devices have over Apple is their ability not only to to allow the user to completely customize their  home screens using widgets and icons, but to change the entire “launcher” app itself!  This is the interface delivering the experience which connects the user to their device and apps.  Yesterday, one of Google’s 10-cent paid app sale items was ADW Launcher EX.  I have owned this app for quite some time, and I’ve used it often, but kept running into a “deal-breaking” snag causing me to revert back to the stock Honeycomb Launcher on my Xoom.  So, even though I had already purchased it some time ago for full price, I clicked on it anyway.  Turns out, to my delight, it’s been updated quite a bit!  So once again I switched to it.  The changes are nice, and many of them target Honeycomb devices, and devices with faster speeds and large screens, so it’s a lot better than it used to be.

The main “deal breaker” I hit last time was still there, however:  I would layout one home page with all of the icons and widgets just the way I like them, then save all my settings in ADW’s settings page, then I would reboot.  Every time it came back up, every single widget would be missing, with the message “problem loading widget” in its place.  They would never load, so if I wanted that layout back I’d have to re-create my home page every time I rebooted.  Simply unacceptable.  But, since ADW has come so far, this time I took it a step further and googled the issue.  After a few minutes I found the answer in a Xoom forum.  Turns out that either Android itself or specifically the Xoom have problems when you place widgets on multiple launchers.  Not multiple home pages on the SAME launcher, but on multiple launchers.  My default home screen on both the stock launcher and on ADW were nearly identical, so I went back to the stock launcher and deleted all of my widgets on my home screens.  Then, once more, I re-built my default home screen in ADW.  After a reboot, voila!  My widgets reloaded perfectly!

With this now working, I am once again giving ADW a chance to be my launcher of choice.  So far so good.  It still has its quirks, just as all launchers do (including the stock launcher), but all the additional features and functions in it make it much more desirable and fun to use than the stock launcher, so I’m going with it.  I love having so many options!  I’ll never go back to the “KISS” method Apple uses.  Ever.

ADW is still just 10 cents this morning–if you don’t have it yet, you can’t go wrong, give it a shot.  Just remember to delete all of your widgets from your current launcher’s home screens before you start using it.

Galaxy Tab – Been there, done that, returned it

I “rented” a 7” Galaxy Tab for a couple weeks recently.  As most people probably already know, it’s a small Android-based tablet.  After all was said and done, I was kinda disappointed.  After testing it with everything I could throw at it, I realized that it wasn’t up to the job.  Sure, it had a ton more memory than my phone does, and that kept me from running out of space (until I tried to stop using the “App2SD” option and move every app back to the main memory—then it fill up quick and the errors began coming), but that wasn’t the main issue.  The main problem, I came to realize, is that it’s just plain slow.  It probably has a faster processor than my phone, and that’s what I expected, except it’s just barely enough to get by, it seems.  With a larger display, of course it’s going to take more processor to run just as smoothly as a small device like a smartphone, but that’s what it runs like—a scaled-up smartphone.  It was still pretty sluggish when you wanted to move between apps or homescreens quickly, and if you try to multitask, forget it.

One saving grace was a launcher I found while testing it—GO Launcher EX.  This thing is awesome, and completely blows away HTC Sense, ADW, and even Launcher Pro.  It’s fast and smooth, has almost all of the features of both those other launchers plus a ton more, including the ability to create as many or as few homescreens as you want!  There doesn’t seem to be a limit to it, except what your actual phone itself can handle.  On top of that, it’s FREE, while Launcher Pro and ADW both cost a few dollars.  Why I hadn’t found this one sooner is beyond me, but it did make playing with the Galaxy Tab very fun indeed.  I also discovered that GO Launcher is also the only Launcher for Android that scales well for tablets.  The modified launcher that comes with the Tab is nice, and it’s better than ADW or Launcher Pro, but it’s nowhere near as nice as GO Launcher.  In the end, I realized I can use GO Launcher on my phone too, so I now have it on there as well, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to either of the other two launchers or the stock HTC Sense.

But back to the Tab.  Asphalt 5 and 6 were the best-running games I played on the Tab, and they worked pretty good, actually.  For some reason though, some of the “basic” games (Angry Birds for example) would freeze up from time to time, with no hope of ever coming back.  It would completely freeze and nothing would respond, none of the buttons, nothing on the touchscreen.  On these occasions I have to hold the power button in until the power turned off, then restart it.  Starting the Tab from a power-off was also pretty frustrating.  After about 30 seconds it would appear to be ready, but many icons (those installed to SD) would still be missing and I guess it was still loading things in the background.  I could go into the app drawer and see only a few preinstalled apps, then site there another several minutes as the drawer populated with the missing apps one-by-one. Loading anything prior to this completion just bogged it down even more and slowed everything to a crawl.  It was best to wait about 5 minutes before using the Tab after a powerup.  Not something I looked forward to doing every time I needed to restart it.

The Tab has a single smartphone-like processor and runs Android 2.2.  They say 2.2 wasn’t designed to run on a large-screen device though, and I can see that now.  Since returning the Tab, I’ve been looking at Android 3 devices and watching a lot of review videos and there’s quite a difference.  Android 3 was designed specifically for tablets, and it shows.  All of these Android 3 tablets run on a dual-core 1GHz nvidia processor, and it seems to work wonders.  Most reviews says it’s definitely an iPad 2 contender.  This alone says a lot.

After much more thought about it, I realized the 7” Tab probably wouldn’t be getting an upgrade any time soon either.  It’s big brother—the Galaxy Tab 10.1—is already using Android 3 and the nvidia Tegra chip, and is supposedly a pretty nice tablet, so this, most likely IS the upgrade you’d get when you move off of the 7” Tab.  Don’t get me wrong, I was liking the 7” size—it makes the device much more portable that a 10”, I’m sure.  It’s like carrying a small notebook around with you (though it would be nicer if it even fit into a pocket somewhere, but it’s just a tiny bit too large for that).  So, for a couple weeks there I was saying “size doesn’t matter”, and “it’s the perfect tablet”.  Size-wise I still think it’s pretty nice, but size isn’t everything .  If it performed great I would still have it.

I was given a 30-day unconditional “trial” period when I got it.  I could return it for a full refund within the 30 days and only pay for the data usage if I wanted to, otherwise it would have cost me $299 up-front with a $100 rebate after 3 months on a 2-year contract.  The contract requires a data plan to be added to the device.  The first 3 months must be at the top data plan, which is about $55/month for 5GB, but after that you can change to a $15/month plan that gives you 200MB of data.  That was what I planned to do if I had kept the device, so in the end it would have costed me the least over the 2-year plan.  That ends up costing a total of $679 over 2 years, which is quite a bit for an Android 2.2 tablet actually.

So I decided instead to do my research as thoroughly and possibly attack the tablet market later on when I have enough money to purchase one up-front and plan-free.  A wi-fi only tablet would be fine, since I can tether it to my phone anyway.  I’d still be able to have internet on it any time I needed to.  Right now I’m heavily comparing these 4 models: Morotola Xoom, Galaxy Tab 10.1, Asus Eee Transformer, and the Toshiba Thrive.  I’m looking at all of these in their 32GB configuration.  So far, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 has no ports on it—a big negative for me, and it also costs $599, the same price as a 32GB iPad 2, another bad point.  The Toshiba Thrive is almost as bad at $579, but has a better front camera (5 MP) compared to the Tab 10.1’s 3MP camera.  The Thrive also adds a USB jack but nothing more.  The Xoom and The Asus, on the other hand, offer some interesting options.  The Xoom is Google’s official development device, for one thing.  This means when they release anything for tablets, it’ll work first on the Xoom.  This, in turn, means Google fully supports the device and trusts Motorola.  It also has HDMI, USB and microSD slots, and is only $499!  Last, but not least, is the Asus Eee Transformer.  It’s called the transformer because there’s an optional $149 keyboard you can get, and when you attach the tablet to the keyboard, it basically transforms it into a notebook!  It looks and acts just like a notebook, complete with a touchpad in front of the keyboard, along with all the ports like the Xoom, and additional extra ports on the keyboard half.  So NOW I guess I’m only seriously looking at the Xoom and the Transformer.

Well, I guess I’ve waited too long to publish this article.  Now it’s Sunday, August 7th, 2011, and I’ve done some more research since the above paragraph.  When I get right down to it, we’re talking $499 for a bottom-line decent Android (or even iPad 2) tablet.  A bottom-line laptop is pretty much exactly the same price, but gives you a ton more processing power, dual or QUAD core, 3 or 4x the RAM, and 10x or more storage space, and a much larger display.  The negatives, compared to a tablet, are that it’s heavier, the battery doesn’t last anywhere near as long, and it’s not touch-screen controllable.  Neither a tablet nor a laptop would have cellular connectivity (unless you go with a contract), but I don’t have a problem with that — both can tether to my phone.  What to do?  I’m not sure right now, so I’m staying tablet- and laptopless for now, as I save up.  By the time I’m ready (probably early next year after the holidays, at this point) I’m sure the entire landscape will have changed dramatically and I’ll have to start researching all over again.

Launcher Pro Plus

My Launcher Pro Plus Home Screen
My Launcher Pro Plus Home Screen

Here’s an app review for the Android.  It’s actually an interface aka “Launcher” for Android, so it’s not really an app I guess.  It’s LauncherPro Plus, by Federico Carnales.  The version I’m currently using for this review is 0.8.2.  LauncherPro is based on the standard Android Launcher interface, which is included with all Android phones, though most of them also include an alternate interface designed by the phone manufacturer or cellular carrier you have.  My phone is the HTC Desire from US Cellular, so it came with the HTC Sense launcher preinstalled and set as the default launcher.  The original Launcher app is always in there, but rarely is it set as the default when you get a new phone.

Anyway,  Launcher Pro is based on the original interface, and Launcher Pro Plus goes even further by adding a lot of nice features on top of that, basically creating a third level of enhancements.  Many of these enhancements are “HTC Sense-like” too, so if you like some elements of HTC Sense, but long for something better, this might just be the interface for you.  Basically, LauncherPro is like Launcher on steroids.  There are a ton of options behind the interface, including the ability to increase the number of home screens to 7, rearrange your screens easily, “pin” any screen as the default “home” screen, change scrolling speeds, customize your doc icons, etc. etc., most of which are available in the free LauncherPro version.  What “Plus” adds, however, are several features I really like, and am really addicted to now.

The vertical-scrolling app tray
The vertical-scrolling app tray

These include all of the fancy HTC-only widgets that were previously only available on phones with the HTC Sense interface.  Federico has basically copied the interface

and functionality of Sense’s widgets, enhanced them even more, and put them in “Plus”!  In addition to these, you also get many custom doc icons–several with the ability to display “counts” on them–which are round red balls with numbers in them.  These numbers alert you to the number of new G-mails you have, text messages, and/or missed calls you’ve received.  So at a glance you instantly know what’s waiting to be checked.

As do most other launchers, it also offers full support for themes–of which there are plenty to choose from in the Market–and the ability to backup all of your screens and settings at any time.  In addition, there are also some experimental and memory-intensive options which can further enhance (or degrade) your experience, depending on the model, memory and processor speed of your particular phone.  It’s great that these are all optional too, so you can choose exactly how you want your own phone to work.

Widget options
Widget options

Overall I’d have to say that I haven’t had any real issues with Launcher Pro Plus since installing it, and it hasn’t crashed for me at all.  Its speed is great, it’s very vast, and never lags unexpectedly.  It can slow down a bit when I’m doing a lot of multitasking ofmultiple apps, but that’s to be expected.  It certainly performs tons better than ADW Launcher, which I previously purchased and used before I found Launch Pro Plus.  ADW had some nice features as well, but it crashed frequently and was pretty sluggish most of the time, so I eventually gave up on it.  I really like Launcher Pro Plus, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to HTC Sense.