Archive for the ‘Putting Galaxy 2 rights’ Category

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A Fling with A Pocket Cast and Back to the Dogg

December 3, 2011

Vista busy cursor I have not looked back since ditching ACast in favour of DoggCatcher as my Android podcast app of choice. ACast had been reliable to a fault in fetching new podcasts quietly on cue in the background and at first I was not convinced DoggCatcher was quite as dependable.  But it soon settled down to a seamless podcast capturing service and I stopped worrying about it.

There was though one infuriating bug, affecting playback via stereo bluetooth. I nearly always listen to podcasts over A2DP, whether in the street with my bluetooth headset or in the car. I have my Android phone set up so that the forward/back buttons skip ahead 60 seconds or rewind 30 seconds respectively, very handy for fast forwarding past adverts and occasional uninteresting content. The skipping/rewinding always worked flawlessly if I was using the DoggCatcher interface on the Android handset itself, but not so if using the physical buttons on the bluetooth headset or in the car (my Lexus has the audio controls on the steering wheel). The skip forward in particular was very laggy, either failing to work at all or doing so after a long delay. Worse than that, a second attempt to skip forward had the infuriating tendency to jump directly to the start of the next podcast on the playlist, meanwhile deleting the one I had been listening to.

This became so irritating that I tried a newer podcast app, Pocket Casts. I have to say that I initially liked Pocket Casts a lot. I liked the colour scheme and the modern, slick look of the interface. I loved the fact that the response to forward/rewind button clicks over bluetooth was instant and never abandoned a podcast in mid-stream. Against that, it was very fussy about podcast downloads. The feed update cycle was lightning fast, because it happens on the vendor’s server, but if no wifi was available the downloads themselves would be flagged as failed.  That is fair enough to the extent I had specified download over wifi only, but I expect the podcast app to complete the downloads automatically once I am back in a wifi zone. Pocket Casts requires you to restart such downloads manually. And the force closes on playback started to get out of hand.

In the end I went back to DoggCatcher and was just careful with skipping forward when on bluetooth. That is, until I contacted the DoggCatcher developer and pointed out the problem, citing Pocket Casts as an app which gets that bit of functionality right, even if other problems let it down.  To his credit, the developer has taken note and addressed the problem.  As of the latest version, numbered 1.2.2919, the bluetooth bug has gone away. DoggCatcher now reigns supreme.


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ACastaway Catches a Dogg

August 18, 2011

Vista busy cursor Immediately after buying my first Android phone last September, a Samsung Galaxy S, my first priority was to find a podcast app. That’s what I use my phone for – listening to podcasts, audiobooks and, yes, occasionally phone calls.  There is a “native” podcast app called Google Listen but I didn’t know about it until later so went hunting in the Android Market.

The number one Android podcast app appears to be DoggCatcher, but it wasn’t free to try so I picked on another reasonably popular choice, ACast, just to get started.  ACast is ad supported and therefore free. It worked fine so I stuck with it. After a while I paid for the companion “unlock key” app that switches off the ads.

ACast served me well for months but ultimately it all went a bit wrong and had to go.  It is all to do with variable listening speed and it may have been my own intervention that helped set ACast on a downward path. I tend to listen to podcasts at 1.5 x the normal speed, just to get through them all in the available time.  If you have an iPhone there is a native option to vary the playback speed, but there is no built-in equivalent in Android.  I got by for a while using the web-based Podshifter service which creates new RSS feeds delivering sped-up versions of all your favourite podcasts, but Podshifter has its own downsides including, at times, a long wait for the Podshifter servers to process the podcasts you are waiting to listen to.  

I asked the ACast developer if he would consider adding a variable speed playback feature.  Somewhat to my surprise he did just that, bless him. Maybe he was getting a lot of requests along those lines.  Variable speed playback was added as an “experimental” feature.  At first it was prone to jitters but he kept releasing updates and it became quite stable.  But other bugs began to creep in. ACast developed some annoying habits. If you tried to advance to next podcast it would sometimes go to the end of the current podcast but not advance the “now playing” cursor.  Worse than that, it became prone, when coming to the end of one podcast and starting the next, to grind to an inexplicable stop.  Often it would run out of memory and crash, needing an app restart before being able to resume playback.  

These niggles were getting worse.  I was deleting every other app I thought might be starving ACast of memory space.  The developer seemed to disappear.  No more updates or attempts to fix the problems.  Maybe he wasn’t making enough out of it and gave the whole thing up as a bad job. Who knows? In the end with regret I cast away ACast and went with the crowd, purchasing DoggCatcher.

The latter now also supports variable speed playback but requires you to purchase the separate Presto app at extra cost. Still, I was out of options and the costs are hardly prohibitive.  I now wish I had bought DoggCatcher on day one.  It is the top podcast app for a reason.

It is simpler to use than ACast.  It took a while to get used to the different UI paradigm but I’ve got it working the way I want it.  It doesn’t seem quite as robust as Acast when it comes to waking up every X hours (or whatever interval you set) and checking for and downloading new podcasts. ACast was rock solid in that regard at least and DoggCatcher occasionally seems to be playing catch-up. But the sound quality with speeded up podcasts is far superior.  I had not appreciated how much the ACast variable speed feature was impairing the sound quality until I switched to DC.  Presto does a far better job – hardly any change in quality, just faster, and no jitters or jumps. And DC does not get stuck on one podcast or stop unexpectedly.  It is less memory hungry – no crashes.

But the most amazing thing is the reduced battery consumption!  Before I upgraded to Gingerbread (Android 2.3) around a month or so ago there was no chance of getting through the day without a battery boost on the mains or via USB cable from my PC.  The upgrade from Froyo to Gingerbread made a quite noticeable difference – I could get through the day without charging maybe 2 days out of every 5. Since ditching ACast in favour of DC my phone nearly always lasts the day, often quite comfortably.  And I am not using it any less.  The only conclusion I can draw is that ACast is an absolute battery hog.


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Putting the Galaxy to rights #10 – Silent Night Tasker Profile

June 16, 2011

Vista busy cursor A while back I wrote a post about the Tasker profile I use to ensure notification sounds on my Samsung Galaxy S are automatically muted at night, from midnight to 8am.

The same profile would work on any Android phone. For the record this is the Tasker “script”:

Profile: "Silent Night
Context:  
 Time: From 00:00 Till 08:00 
Tasks:
 Enter: "Mute Notifications" 
  A1: Notification Volume [ Level:0 Display:Off Sound:Off ] 
  A2: Notify Cancel [ Title: Warn Not Exist:Off ] 
  A3: Variable Set [ Name:%SNIGHT To:ON Do Maths:Off 
      Append:Off ]
  A4: Variable Set [ Name:%VOLMODE To:L Do Maths:Off 
      Append:Off ]
  A5: Silent Mode [ To:OFF ] 
 Exit: "Reinstate Notifications" 
  A1: Notification Volume [ Level:5 Display:Off 
      Sound:Off ] 
  A2: Variable Set [ Name:%SNIGHT To:OFF Do Maths:Off 
      Append:Off ]

The two “Variable Set” instructions are not necessary to make the profile work. They just set the user defined Tasker variable %SNIGHT to “On” or “Off” as applicable so other Tasker profiles or tasks can modify their behaviour, where relevant, depending on whether the Silent Night profile is active. I could just have had those other profiles/tasks refer to the time, but that would have involved more work and, more importantly, not taken account of any manual disabling of Silent Night. Enter tasks A2, A4 and A5 are again not essential. I use them to cancel out the effects of other Tasker actions which I use.

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Putting the Galaxy to rights #9 – The Benefits of a Mobile Meltdown

May 24, 2011

Vista busy cursor Normally a complete breakdown in the functioning of a phone would be thought of as a bad thing.  In my case at least it had a very positive result. My Samsung Galaxy S Android phone is now running far better than when it was new.

Right from when I bought it last September, the Galaxy S tended to be fairly sluggish.  Certainly not as snappy and responsive as my wife’s iPhone 4.  This may have been the so called “lag” problem which led to various “lag fix” solutions promoted on various websites, none of which I felt comfortable about trying.

I also put performance issues down to the fact that I tend to work my phone very hard – I have it playing back podcasts and audiobooks for hours during the day. For some reason, prolonged audio playback seemed to cause steady deterioration in performance.  The apps I use (ACast and the Audible app) tended to be very CPU and RAM hungry, and sometimes the phone would completely jam up, needing a reboot.  It was not uncommon to have to reboot the phone two or three times a day. That did not seem right.

There was another annoyance which caused even more reboots. This was the “stuck notifications pull-down” problem. With Android, if you see notification icons in the status bar at the top, you can look at the detailed notifications by touching the bar and dragging down, revealing the notifications screen.  Ever since the Froyo update, a bug appeared such that occasionally, seemingly at random, the notification screen would “stick”, i.e. refuse to open when dragged.  Only a reboot would fix it.

A few weeks ago there was a system update, from 2.2 to 2.2.1. I approached it with trepidation, much as I had before with the Froyo 2.2 upgrade, because of the risk of losing data.  I backed up everything I could think of, including use of MyBackup Pro from Rerware to back up phone logs, text messages and all sorts of other data up to the cloud. In the event, the update to 2.2.1 ran without a hitch and no data was lost.  It was just a matter of setting up all my app icons – I had made a list of the icons I had placed on the various desktops.

And the result of the update was a very noticeable improvement in performance. Version 2.2.1 is supposed to include an official version of the “lag fix” or at least something to make the phone run more snappily. The Quadrant Standard benchmark also showed a significant improvement.

All was wonderful … until the aforementioned meltdown.  I had just set off on a long journey in the car, driving home to Manchester from London, and was looking forward to 2 or 3 hours of my audiobook. The book was playing when my wife tried to call (she has a special ringtone) but I could not get the phone to complete the connection.  Possibly reception was bad.  I tried to return the call using Vlingo voice dialling but could not get it to recognise my voice command with all the surrounding traffic noise. Repeated attempts to use Vlingo seemed to squeeze the phone’s resources to breaking point. Every time I tried to restart the audiobook the playback deteriorated, becoming more halting or cylon-like.  Sometimes it recovers with time.  On this occasion the phone just gave up and died.  Total lock-up.

I was on the motorway approach at the time so kept on driving and later pulled into a service station so I could at least call my wife.  The battery was very low and I rang to warn her. But the phone had had to be rebooted and now was not booting cleanly. I was getting warning dialog after warning dialog about background apps failing to start up.  Many apps could not be launched at all.  I could make calls but no chance of any podcasts or audiobooks.  I completed my long journey in silence or listening to the least awful dross I could find on the radio.

Back home it was obvious the phone had suffered a terminal meltdown.  No way would it recover from the messed up state it was in. My guess is that, when stressed by my attempts to run Vlingo voice commands alternating with audiobook playback, some key configuration data had been overwritten or corrupted. There was only one way out and that was to try a factory reset. On the plus side, I had all the backups and other preparation from my upgrade to Froyo 2.2.1, so took the plunge.

It worked. The phone was returned to a stable state and I was able to get all my data back from the cloud and other locations.  Only my old Kik conversations were lost.  And the phone was flying!  It had never performed better.  No lag of any kind.  No stuck notification screen.  No gradual deterioration in performance over the course of the day.  Battery lasting far better.  And no more reboots!

I did have to reinstall my apps of course.  Part way through that process I obtained a Quadrant benchmark of 1260 which is pretty amazing for a Samsung Galaxy S.  I did notice that the benchmark was reducing as I added apps incrementally. So I left out some of the apps I had been using before, such as Watchdog and NetSentry, which I no longer felt I needed and which had been sapping phone resources continuously in the background.

The Quadrant benchmark came down to around 1050 with all the apps I felt I really needed, but that is still very good and the phone continues to be a revelation.  Frustrating lag and slow-downs have been banished, and the phone mostly gets through the day now without needing a middle of the day battery boost.

 

 

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Putting the Galaxy to rights #8 – Tasker for a Silent Night

April 27, 2011

Vista busy cursor It was only by chance that I came across the single most powerful and useful app available for Android, namely Tasker by Lee Wilmot.  I was Googling for information about the to-do list app Taskos but the search results were littered with articles about Tasker.  No doubt Google thought Taskos was a typo.

Tasker allows you to automate your phone in a far more sophisticated, powerful and flexible way than you might have thought remotely feasible. You automate your phone’s behaviour by creating profiles.  Each profile has one or more contexts and actions, the “when” and “what” respectively of the customised behaviour. The context could be based on time or date (e.g. do something at 8am every morning), location (do something when phone comes within a given distance of a geographical location), or an event such as an incoming text message or the user waving the phone about in a particular way, etc.  The actions cover everything from changing screen brightness to reading an SMS message out loud using the phone’s speech synthesiser.

My first very simple use of Tasker was to improve on my existing solution for muting audible email, text and other notifications at night. I had been using Advanced Mode Scheduler (AMS) to mute notification sounds between midnight and eight in the morning but this had drawbacks.  AMS does not let you schedule changes to a single phone setting – you are forced to choose settings for everything and they are all applied at the scheduled times. This meant that any manual changes I might have made (e.g. turning wifi on or off) would be overridden every time the AMS scheduler was activated.

Tasker is a far more precise instrument. I created a profile called Silent Night. It has a single context defined as the time period from midnight to 8am every day.  It has two actions.  The first sets the notification sounds volume to zero and is triggered on commencement of the context, i.e. at midnight.  The second action restores the notification volume and is triggered at the termination of the context, that is at 8am. No other settings are affected.

That simple profile barely scratches the surface of what Tasker can do.  I have now created four further profiles, to be the subject of future posts. 

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Putting the Galaxy to rights #7 – Neutralising Nocturnal Notifications

December 29, 2010

Vista busy cursor Some of the early reviewers of the Samsung Galaxy S must have been apple fanboys or simply wanted Android to fail. The litany of complaints and criticisms often boiled down to little more than determined nit-picking.  In any event, there has been no adverse effect on the fortunes of the device, which has survived to establish itself as a resounding global success story for Samsung.

One of the more unusual complaints trumpeted by reviewers turns out to be a fair one, although there is a simple solution. The issue relates to the process of charging the device on, say, a mains charger.

It is this. When the battery reaches full charge, the user is alerted by a dialog box and notification tone. And where is the problem with that, you might ask? Well, it’s down to typical usage patterns. People are out and about during the day, rapidly using up the battery on their phones, and usually plug them in to charge overnight. Most often they will have their phone charging in their bedroom so they can use it as a wake-up alarm, for emergency calls or just have it handy to play Angry Birds before going to sleep. The problem being that the aforementioned sleep is then likely to be disturbed at 3 or 4 in the morning by the phone playing its battery full charge notification sound!

Yes, it happened to me on the first night. Not only did I get the phone in one ear, disturbing my sleep, my wife also woke up so I got it in the other ear too. Not one to be repeated.

There is no simple setting which just turns off the full-charge alert on its own. You can set all notification sounds to silent but that also disables audible alerts on receipt of emails, text messages, notice of calendar events and so forth. I don’t want to be bothered by email alerts at night but I certainly want them during the day. A possible workaround would be to turn notification sounds off manually at night, and on again in the morning, but its is a crude solution and relies on my remembering to do it, and having the time to worry about it. There had to be a more elegant fix.

I found an app in the Android Market called Advanced Mode Scheduler by Webcipe. It allows you to change your phone’s settings at specified times of the day, so I set it up to switch off all notification sounds at midnight and on again at 8am, all automatically under scheduler control. It even supports separate settings for different days of the week so I have been able to recreate my much-loved separate ringtones for each day of the week, and with far less effort than to achieve the same result with Windows Mobile.

There is only one mild annoyance about the scheduler app.  Each scheduled event sets ALL the settings en bloc, even ones you don’t want to interfere with.  So, for example, all my scheduled events have to specify wifi “on” or “wifi” off.  I don’t have a setting for “leave wifi in whatever state it is at the time”. So there are times when I might have deliberately turned wifi off only to have the scheduler turn it back on for me, just because it happened to be time to turn audible notifications on or off.

And one final thought. Did neither Samsung nor Google think about the battery charge notification disturbing users at night? Why did they set the device up that way? Apparently, you are not supposed to leave the phone on the charger once the battery is at full charge.  It is in some way not “good” for it.  Well, since nocturnal notifications have been neutralised, the phone has often been left plugged in for hours after full charge and I have never noticed any issue.

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Putting the Galaxy to rights #6 – Today Screen Android-style

December 20, 2010

Vista busy cursor Windows Mobile is on its way out and few will mourn it, but to be fair it was not all bad. It was designed as a business tool and pretty well thought out from that perspective. One handy feature is the “Today Screen”. This is the WM “home page” which can be configured to display your next few appointments, recent call log, recent SMS messages, etc to get you oriented quickly.  WM phones do not have an automatic lock screen (although you can manually put them in lock mode), so your appointments are right there when you hit the “on” key to wake the phone from stand-by mode.

Android (and for that matter the iPhone) work differently. You always get a lock screen when you wake your phone up from stand-by, have to do a touch-swipe to get past that, then to access your appointments you need to open your calendar app. I wasn’t so worried about texts and the call log, because those are well enough handled by notifications, but on moving to Android I missed not having my upcoming appointments automatically on view.

Calendar widgets do help. I use the Gemini II Calendar which keeps my next three appointments on display via a widget on home screen #1. But it is still hidden by the confounded lock screen so they are not immediately “glanceable” (to use the Windows Phone 7 jargon).

I looked at apps that could put useful information such as appointments directly on the lock screen itself, for example Executive Assistant from Appventive. This does actually work but seemed to affect the overall performance of my phone to the point I ended up uninstalling it. There is a similar app called Flyscreen but I didn’t even bother to try it, having been put off the idea.

But Executive Assistant did get me thinking. I noticed it had the ability to override the use of a swipe action to dismiss the lock screen. For example, you could set it so that hitting the back key would do the same job. I looked for other apps that could override the standard lock screen functionality and found No Lock. The No Lock app lets you put a widget on your home screen that enables one touch disabling or re-enabling of the lock screen.  It makes locking an easy manual operation, much like with WM.

With the lock screen disabled, on hitting the home key from stand-by you go straight to whichever home screen you last had opened. Two presses of the home key are guaranteed to get you to screen #1, where appointments are displayed. In effect, I have recreated the features I liked in the WM Today Screen. That is, from stand-by usually one key press (occasionally two) gets me to a screen where my appointments are on display. And as a by-product, I get the option to activate a lock screen manually with one touch.

In practice, I rarely need to lock my screen. The idea of the lock screen is to stop my phone being activated by accident in my pocket, but the home button is recessed and the other physical buttons too well protected by the Krusell cover for this to be an issue.

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