Thursday, 12 December 2013

How many paid Android apps do you really need?


Last night in my favourite bar I found myself in the middle of a booze-fueled Android-versus-Apple discussion with the drinks spilling over paid versus free apps. I'd rather talk about girls and cars and football instead, but filling a blog with reviews of free apps attracts a certain type of feedback...

- Eve:
Apple rocks, the snake said so. Us iGadget disciples spend way much more money on bits and bites and therefore get better more kool apps. Duh!
Fair point.

- Andy:
Droidheads are better off, 'cos there's so much free competition in the Play Store that you can spend more money on beer instead of apps. Cheers!
Fairer point.

So which Android apps are really worth their my money due to lack of free competition? I scrolled through the 150 or so apps in my drawer to add up the score. The list below is based on the assumption that you've rooted your Android phones and tablets and run AdAway or another Android equivalent of AdBlock, just like you do in Chrome and Firefox. Because you know that the NSA taps into Google's ad servers too, don't you?

I expected to find more paid apps on my Android toys, but the list is really quite short. Yes, it surprised me too. Androids free ecosystem is really really really good.

The usual disclaimers apply. If you're into games, free may not get you the playground street cred you need. Your mileage may vary, etc. Now here's the list.


Navigon

Free navigation apps are a dime a dozen, but those that need a permanent online lifeline to grab maps and calculate routes get really expensive once you cross the border into Terra Data Roaming. I often find myself driving in places where the roaming rates are even higher than Winston Rodney on a bag of dutch weed, and all those free offline navigation apps that rely on patchy OpenStreetMap data just don't cut it once you roll off the beaten track. Sure, Navigon costs a fortune, but since I use it for business trips too I made my job pay for it.

PlayerPro (or PowerAmp, same difference)

Pulling in lyrics, an on-the-fly Play Queue, and a library browser that lets you thumb through your mp3 tags and your folders should be a standard feature of every music player, but most music apps out there are terrible. There's a Play Store full of free music players, but they all fail to deliver something or other.

Titanium

Plenty of backup apps out there that back up your apps and your app data. But when you change your ROMs as often as your underwear, batch restore becomes a basic necessity of life. That doesn't come for free yet.

Holo Launcher (or Nova, Apex, ...)

The only free launcher that doesn't make you pay for dock icon swipes is GO Launcher EX, but you need to use a really old version if you don't want a bloated shopping mall disguised as a launcher. If you're looking for a launcher that doesn't try to sell you icon packs at every tap, forking out a euro or two is the better option.

Swype

Sure, some free keyboards let you swype your texts too, but apps like MultiLing and TouchPal don't get your words right as often as the app with the trademark that turned as generic as coke and aspirin.


And that's it on my phones and tablets. Only a handful of paid apps managed to outperform the freeware. Root Explorer and Pocket Informant would have made it to this list many years ago, but ever since every file manager does root and cloud for free and Business Calendar has custom reminder times there are even less apps for Google to take a 30% cut from. Say what? You're missing WhatsApp in the lineup? I'd pay if WhatsApp wants my money, but so far they always extended my free trial everytime it was about to expire.

Not counting my employer-sponsored navigation app and the voluntary donations I PayPalled out just because I liked the devs (more than I ever paid in the Play Store), my Android gadgets hold a grand total of €15 on commercial Android apps. That's less than half my monthly phone bill. For each and every other paid app I ever considered buying I found a free competitor that did the job just as well or even better. If Android developers want my money they need to code something really unique that you can't find in any free app. And no, ads don't count. It's a tough job, but competing against free was never meant to be easy.

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Tuesday, 18 June 2013

If This Then That for free: Llama wins



Automate your Android

Need to automate some stuff on your Android gadget? There are plenty of apps out there to tone down your ringtone, switch off your data, or make your phone incommunicado when the time is right, and put it all back on when needed.

But which of those apps are good? And which apps should you avoid?

Apps that don't cut it

Tasker can do more than any similar app, but it only comes in a paid version and it won't let you try before you buy. For a complex app like Tasker the 15 minute Play Store trial is nowhere near enough.

Locale opens its Play Store description with some threatening text about people getting jailed for letting their phone ring. Too bad this scareware won't let you test if it really keeps you out of jail, unless you rob a bank to pay for the app first. The 15 minute Play Store window is not enough to try the app at different locations, unless you move really fast between your place and the courthouse.

AutomateIt won't let you test combined rules (e.g. "when at home" and "plugged in") unless you pay first. It's not easy to set multiple cell towers in a location trigger, and it only lets you change all the volumes, not just one or some.

Profile Flow has a free version, but it's so crippled that it's totally useless. Anything location-based doesn't work at all until you pay, so for all practical purposes there's only a paid version. You have to hand over your money before you can test if its location triggers will work for you.

Smart Settings doesn't have a lot of settings in it, and even fewer triggers. Maybe that will change, but for now there's so much missing from the app that there's no reason to use it.

Android Automate makes it excessively complicated to set triggers and actions. Worse yet, its location triggers are limited to battery-killing GPS and data-requiring network location. It won't toggle mobile data, and you can't set roaming state as a trigger.

Atooma tries to simplify setting up triggers by making you pick 'em from cartoon-like dials. It will use your light sensor, but not cell towers. It can toggle silent mode on and off, but won't give you any control over ringtone volume. I kicked Atooma off my phone real quick.

The best "if this then that" app is free, doesn't have any ads, and it doesn't ask for internet permissions. And of course it comes with lots of triggers and actions and an easy way to set them.

Llama is good, could be better

The winner is Llama. It's free, it doesn't have ads, it never goes online, and it has a pretty good user interface. It comes with lots of triggers, lots of actions, full control over all your ringtone and message tone levels, and you can choose to let it figure out where you are by cell towers (no battery, no data), network location (some battery, some data), or GPS (sucks your battery dry like a pregnant vampire, and it doesn't even work indoors). If your Android is rooted Llama can do even more for it.

There are a few features missing, though. Llama won't let you set movement as a trigger, so forget about things like auto-disabling WiFi when driving, or sending all incoming calls straight to voicemail when you're on the road. Maybe movement won't trigger Llama because the sensors would suck your battery dry too fast? It won't use the light sensor either, so you can't make it switch from ringing to vibration when you pocket your phone. Llama won't let you toggle debug mode either. Too bad, because leaving USB debugging opens up your phone for criminals and the government (yes, that's a tautology). It would be nice if Llama could auto-enable USB debugging when you launch apps that need it, and shut it off when you tap your way out of those apps.

Since Llama uses cell towers to guesstimate where you are, it can be very inaccurate out in the countryside where cell towers are few and far between. In cities it's not flawless either, because it can take a long time before Llama learns about all the towers that serve the same location. For example, after a week Llama still finds new cell towers near my house (12 and counting), and everytime it sees a new tower it thinks I've left the building. This could easily be fixed by detecting movement: a cell tower change when your phone isn't moving means that you didn't go anywhere, and Llama could auto-add the new tower to your current location.

A cheap'n'dirty way to fix the inaccuracy of cell tower locations is to pull an old dumbphone from the bottom drawer and keep it plugged in with bluetooth switched on. Set up a matching trigger in Llama and it knows when you're home, and you don't have to bump your phone against any NFC tags either. No need to worry about battery life, because bluetooth doesn't need a lot of power. Leave an old Nokia from 2003 in your car to send out its bluetooth signal to work around the lack of a motion trigger.

Llama has a simple tab layout, but it won't let you swipe between tabs. It won't let you choose which tab to launch into by default either. It wastes a lot of screen space on useless Llama factoids. They keep repeating and get annoying real quick, but Llama won't let you switch them off.

But the user interface flaws don't matter much, because Llama is one of those set-and-forget apps that you don't need to face very often. A few extra triggers and actions is all that Llama needs to turn from a good app into a great app.

If you want more features than Llama offers, Tasker is the only paid alternative that's worth your money. With Llama and Tasker out there it doesn't make any sense to buy apps like Locale, Profile Flow, or AutomateIt.

Llama


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Monday, 17 June 2013

Why Google should make its own ad blocker



All or none

Don't like ads on your Android? If you rooted your gadget you can keep almost every ad away with AdAway or AdFree. Not rooted? AdBlock Plus will keep a lot of annoying ads away.

But what if you want to allow a few ads in the small number of apps that deserve a few pennies from their banners?

AdAway and AdFree work like sledgehammers. They block ad servers by telling your Android hosts file to send ad requests to hell. Unfortunately they won't let you whitelist any apps or sites, so if you tell it to block those annoying Google ads it will block all of them.

And they block 'em forever. If you want to run an app ad-free for a while to decide if you want to keep it, then allow its ads if you think the app is worth it, you can't.

Fighting the spamware from the Play Store

The Google Play Store has about a million apps in it, and most of 'em are crap. There are a few hundred thousand apps out there that exist for the sole purpose of spamming your phone or tablet with ads without giving you anything useful in return. Sure, you can uninstall the junk as soon as you find out you've been cheated into downloading it, but sometimes it's too late and the spammer already got paid.

Because an increasing number of apps dump spammy icons on your homescreen, add some crappy links to your browser bookmarks, and even try to change your browser homepage to send you to a website nobody with half a working brain cell would ever choose to visit. And that spamware pays as soon as it's installed, which encourages rogue developers to flood the Play Store with even more junk apps just to make a quick few pennies in the thirty seconds between installing and removing the spamware.
Worse yet, when you uninstall theoffending app that doesn't remove its spam. The homescreen links, crap shortcuts, and junk homepage stay behind for you to clean up.

A job for Google

How to kick the crap out of the Play Store? A good start would be some Googlecode that prevents apps from the Play Store from showing ads within the first hour or so. This way the spamware can't rake in undeserved money in the few minutes it takes you to find out you've been tricked into downloading app spam, and only apps that are good enough to keep make money from ads.

Along the same lines, Google could stop apps from sending out your IMEI, phone number, address book, email, and other sensitive data until the app has proven worthy by staying on your device for more than an hour. Fixing the broken Android permissions system would help a lot as well. For starters, Google could split the "phone state and identity" permission into "phone state" (mostly harmless) and "phone identity" (widely abused by thousands of apps).

Quarantining ads and data to keep the money away from the spammers and scammers would dramatically improve the quality of the apps on offer in Google's app store. It would also increase the reputation of ad-supported apps, and push less people into installing ad blockers. By making an ad blocker of its own, Google could increase the value of the ads that remain. It would be much better than Google's current attempt to keep ad blockers out of its shop.

One more thing that Google should do: require that each and every app in the Play Store discloses that it has ads and where they come from before you install them, and kick out apps that fail to be up-front about their ads. Or maybe Google shouldn't. If an app doesn't tell you it has any ads in it, you don't have to feel guilty about blocking them ;)

Just say no to bad ads

Have some apps on your phone or tablet that take their advertising too far? If they don't need internet access to do their job, firewalling them offline ensures that they can't download stuff that you'd rather keep out. It also ensures that they can't steal your phone number or other data that you want to keep to yourself. Ad servers that load blinking gif animations, try to push malware to your device, or abuse Flash or HTML5 to send you ads that make noise are easily blocked with AdAway (my favourite ad blocker) or AdFree.

AFWall+ (excellent firewall)

AdAway, AdFree, and AdBlock Plus

Addons Detector (tells you which ads are in which apps, because the dev often doesn't)


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Thursday, 16 May 2013

Life after Hangouts: Google Breadcrumb Trail, Google Popcorn, Google Bla Bla Bla, and the end of Android as we know it

 
Hangouts in the Play Store

Google released their messaging app called Google+ Hangouts. It's available for download for all Android devices except those that run really old Android versions.

Hangouts bundles Google Talk and Google+ chat. Some call it an integrated chat app, but for a real integrated chat suite the messaging features of Hangouts need to get built into a multi-network chat client like imo so you can hang out on Google, Skype, and Facebook at the same time.

What's in a name?

Why Hangouts?

Because it fits in the new naming philosophy that Google adopted when it launched the Play Store.

We all know the story of the Play Store, right? Android Market didn't cut it, so that stale and rusty name had to go. Let's face it, if you want your employees to download a spreadsheet app for their company-provided tablets, the best way to tell them you mean business is to send them to a place called Play Store. By renaming that old app store Google finally got its foot in the door of the corporate world.

Calling a messaging app something with chat, talk, or messaging in it was not a good idea either. Google saw the errors of their ways and promised to change. It was about time, with WhatsApp sitting on the top spot and Blackberry Messenger about to creep into Android this summer. That's why the marketing department at Mountain View pushed the Google Talk update as Google+ Hangouts. They had no choice. Any other name and you'd confuse it with a social network, a chatroom, or an online street corner next to the mobile liquor store.

Hangups

All your Hangouts chats are stored in the Google cloud, so you can sync 'em across all your gadgets. You can switch chat history off, but only per chat. There's no "set and forget" switch to turn it off once and for all. You can't appear offline either. If your Android is online everyone can see you're ready to receive messages. If you don't want to hang out with your boss and your ex you'll have to block them.

Want to use Hangouts for a VoIP call? You can, but video is switched on by default. You have to mute the video part of video chat if you just want to talk. Hangouts doesn't do SMS yet, but Google will throw it into the mix later on.

When I opened Hangouts for the first time it populated its "frequently contacted" list with lots of people that I never ever texted, called, or hangouted in any way. With 25 entries that frequently contacted list is way too long, it takes a lot of scrolling to get to the main contact list.

On the bright side, Hangouts lets you hang up. The sign out option is buried deep down in the settings screen, but where WhatsApp and Viber refuse to add an off switch Google Hangouts lets you go incommunicado when you don't have time to chat. You can also "snooze" Hangouts, but you have to choose from a list of six preset durations in excessively large increments. Snoozing leaves you connected, but there'll be no notifications to wake you up. Hangouts won't let you switch off its autostart trigger, but on a rooted phone you can tame it with an autostart manager.

Hang on for more

Next victim candidate for the Big Renaming Operation (BRO): Google Maps.

Because a map sounds like something that your grandfather used back in 2007, and who wants to be seen with that? To regain street cred for their app that navigates the streets, Google decided on Google Breadcrumbs. Point it to a location (like an old skool hangout) and the new updated navigation app will fill your screen with tiny dots that morph into little crumbs of bread when you pinch to zoom in. Be careful though, because you'll end up hopelessly lost if your breadcrumbs get eaten by some Angry Birds.

Want to watch movies on your Android? In a few months Google will merge Androids video player with the movie store from the Play Store into a new movie app called Google Popcorn.

The biggest news comes last. When Google Voice goes global it will be rebranded so that everybody in all 200+ countries on the planet will instantly recognise what the app is for and how it should be used. After months of brainstorming, crowdthinking, and the combined efforts of the worlds ten biggest marketing firms Larry Page himself descended from the cloud to announce that the new ├╝berVoIP app will be known in the entire Galaxy (including the Galaxy S4 mini) as Google Bla Bla Bla. According to Google's Android development team they're aiming for a strong brand that elegantly catches the main use of all mobile voice options out there.

And it's not just apps. There's an entire operating system waiting for a new identity. The days of Android are numbered. But what will be its new name?

Hangouts in the Play Store


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Thursday, 9 May 2013

Small step towards integration: Google Earth adds Street View


Even though Android has a share menu to make apps talk together, things are not very integrated. Most Android apps do one thing only, and you usually need a collection of apps with overlapping functions to do related things. A handful of Google messaging apps, a bunch of different search apps, an email app and a Gmail app, and a bunch of alarm clock/countdown timer/stopwatch/time zone/clock synchronization apps instead of a single integrated time app. For chat and VoIP you need an entire homescreen!

And then there are the Google Earth, Google Maps, Street View, and Sky Map apps where a single integrated map and navigation app could have done the job. Google Maps doesn't even have a share menu, so you can't switch from a map in Maps to a birds eye view in Earth. Google Earth has a share menu, but you can't use it to jump from Earth to Maps. It looks like these apps were made on different planets in not-so-parallel universes.

But now Street View is cheating on Maps by sleeping with Earth. The new edition of Google Earth zooms down all the way to street level. It's still slow as an alien sloth, it still crashes as fast as a North Korean rocket, it's still not in the same galaxy as Google Maps, and it still doesn't let you swipe upwards to get a seamless view of the sky over the earth. But maybe a future update will launch Google Earth into space?

Google Earth


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Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Viber now VoIPs on Windows and Mac, adds video messages, forgets off switch again



The Color Purple

VoIP and messaging app Viber added a few new weapons to fight Skype.

But first things first: Viber is still ugly like hell, even with the new looks that come with the latest update. Holo looks or not, the Viber purple is only good for the color blind. The new icon is no beauty either. Now that it looks like a text balloon and its corners got rounded it looks a little bit more like WhatsApps icon. Well, the shape does. The color...

OK Computer

And now the purple beast attacks your computer too. Viber made versions for Windows and Mac (no Linux version yet), so Skype faces competition on even more devices.

Viber messages on computers sync with those on phones, and vice versa.

Viber can transfer calls from your phone to your computer or the other way 'round. If you started a call on your computer, you can switch it through to your phone and walk away from your desk. If your battery is about to run dry you can send the call to your computer. Pingponging live calls between phones and computers can be useful, sometimes.

Viber now lets you send video messages too. That doesn't mean its messaging feature can compete with WhatsApp yet, though. But they're inching a little closer. You can make video calls too, but only from your computer. Your phone only Vibers plain old speech.

You Talk Too Much

Too bad the off switch is still broken. If you want to be incommunicado for a while but keep your phone connected to the internet, you have to play with the autostart options on your rooted phone. There's no other way to make Vibers cloud-to-device-messaging service shut up. Same thing if you don't want Viber to autorun when you boot your phone, because Viber doesn't want your phone to run Viberless ever. When will Viber learn that when you're roaming abroad you don't mind a few bytes from WhatsApp, but you're not gonna spend a fortune VoIPing on a horribly expensive international data connection. Simply ignoring incoming calls is not an option, because you can't silence Vibers ringtone.

You can't block contacts on Viber either, so anyone who has your phone number can Viber you, even if you block normal calls in your contacts app.

The new update improved Viber a bit, but apps like Skype and Vonage still have lots of things that Viber doesn't have. It's time for Viber to release a public API so the developers at the xda forums can make custom Vibers for different tastes.

Viber


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Thursday, 2 May 2013

Google Googles stops taking the long way but keeps making noise

picture from Wikipedia
Google Googles is a great picture identifier, a good text and business card scanner, a useful translation app, a quick'n'dirty barcode scanner, sudoku solver, and a few things more.

But it has two things going against it.

A couple of updates ago Goggles got a start screen with picture shooting as an option. That extra screen meant you couldn't shoot pictures straight after opening the app anymore. The last update removed the extra screen, so you can start shooting without delay. Just like you could do with the very old versions of the app.

They didn't fix second flaw yet. When you shoot a picture and send it to Google, the Goggles app spits out a very loud and annoying beep. There's no way to switch it off, short of decompiling the APK and hunting down the code that generates that horrible beeping noise. Even if you put your phone in silent mode Goggles keeps screaming.

Time for Google to ditch the beep. While they're working on the app anyway, they can integrate it with their other Android search apps. Search, voice search, gesture search, and Goggles all in a single super search app, why didn't Google make this already?

Google Goggles


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Friday, 26 April 2013

AirDroid gets more cloudy


Want wireless control over your Android? AirDroid is the easiest way to hook your computer to your phone or tablet over WiFi. You can pingpong files back and forth, backup your apps, play with your contacts and messages, browse your pictures, play your movies and music, and much more.

Among other things, AirDroid has a task killer to nuke misbehaving apps, which is also a quick way into your app settings.

The latest update adds a bunch of cloud features.

The new AirDroid does C2DM (cloud to device messaging), which lets you kick AirDroid awake through the web browser on your computer without even touching your phone. You can do so over your own WiFi network, but you can also do it over AirDroids servers. This can save the day if you forget your phone or tablet at home and you urgently need to grab a contact, message, or file from it while on the go.

It's also an easy way to turn an old phone or tablet into a file server.

Now that AirDroid can kick your Android out of bed from the cloud its maker grabbed the opportunity to add some anti-theft features. You can locate your device and wipe it from a distance, just like with all anti-theft apps. And you can make AirDroid snap pictures to catch the thief. Its remote camera option has other uses too. For example, it's an easy way to keep an eye on the baby room. Too bad you can't control AirDroid by SMS (yet), because this would make its remote control options even more accessible.

I wonder what's next. If AirDroid can make your phone talk with a web browser, it can also make it talk with AirDroid on other phones. This opens up lots of possibilities. For example, messaging and VoIP could hitch a ride on AirDroids new cloud connections. Or AirDroid could double as a P2P network. Let's see what the next update brings.

AirDroid (Google Play)


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Saturday, 20 April 2013

Stop Google, Facebook, and other Big Brothers from tracking everything you do on your Android gadget


Big Brother is watching you. For real.

Your supermarket doesn't need to know that you watch online porn, your bank doesn't need to know who you vote for, and your health insurance doesn't need to know what you smoked during that stag party in Amsterdam last weekend. So why should Google know what you see on CNN.com, and why should Facebook know what you read on android underground? And how can you stop them from following you around wherever you go?

Let's assume you avoided Google and found this site through Yahoo or Bing instead. And then you clicked through to the xda forums (a great Android forum, make sure you have a look). God doesn't have a clue what you did, but Google knows where you were and how you got there. There are two reasons why Google knows more than God: Google exists and Google has cookies.

And that's why your screen fills up with ads for Android stuff.

Even if you don't use Gmail and tell your browser to block "third party cookies," Google still tracks you. They don't need cookies for that. They just send out tiny invisible images ("web beacons" in Googlespeak). When those things hit your computer Google knows your IP address, among other things. And you probably watch a YouTube clip or two. That's Google too. This blog is hosted on blogspot, bought by Google ten years ago. And both xda and android underground have ads from Google. So does eBay. And a hundred million other sites. If you block Google's ads they still stalk you with Google Analytics, which is used by countless sites to generate visitor stats.

Facebook knows when you visit sites like xda, because their "Like" button is served straight from Facebooks own servers. I can't stop Google from seeing you here (because this blog is hosted on their servers), but Facebook and Twitter don't see you on my site unless you click the "share" and "tweet" buttons yourself. Same goes for Digg and Reddit. Their buttons down below don't come from their own servers, so if you don't click digg or reddit they'll never know you were here.

But just about every site you visit has Google ads, Google Analytics, a +1 button, and buttons to like and share and digg and tweet. Most sites load 'em straight from the source, which makes it pretty hard to stop the big brothers from watching you. Even tinfoil hats won't help. But you can still keep a lot of your web history private. Not only on your computer, but on your Android phone or tablet too.

Why not let the advertisers play and have it their way? Allowing advertisers to build a detailed profile of you may sound innocent, and you get free apps and websites in return, right? But does your crystal ball rule out scenarios like the one painted by DuckDuckGo?

The big internet phone book and its little brother

AdBlock can keep most ads out of Firefox and Chrome, but what about your other web browsers? And your email, feed reader, games, and apps?

Enter the hosts file. This text file counts the days in the dungeons of your Windows system folder, and you can tell it to keep uninvited visitors out of your computer.

How does this work? Whenever your computer stumbles upon URLs like google.com or obnoxious.adspammer.net it has to look up an IP address. Think of the URL as the name, and the IP address as its phone number. Your computer asks a DNS server to match the name to the IP address. Those DNS servers are really big phonebooks for websites and all other internet content. When the DNS server hands over the IP address, your computer dials it to pull in the ads, cookies, Tweet buttons, and whatnot...

...unless the domain name is written in your hosts file. Then your computer skips the DNS lookup and calls the IP address from your own little phonebook instead.

And guess what? Windows isn't the only operating system with a hosts file. Your Android gadget has one too. And you can use it to stop Facebook and Google from tracking every step you take.

Your hosts file as a bouncer

If your hosts file has an IP address for a website, your Windows computer dials the IP from your hosts file and waits for the other end to pick up.

But you can make sure the other end never picks up. Just make sure that any unwanted domain name is tied to a fake phone number and you're done. That's how the hosts file keeps the unwanted out, and that's how you can stop Facebook and Google Analytics and Twitter from following you around.

For example, my Windows hosts file has a lot of entries like this one:
127.0.0.1     pagead2.googlesyndication.com
This tiny little line tells my computers, phones, and tablets to ask Google for their annoying Adsense banners by calling 127.0.0.1. Guess what? That's not Google's IP address! It's the"loopback" address of my own computer, and it's the loopback address of your computer too. And your Android phone, and your Android tablet.

When your device asks 127.0.0.1 for ads or tracking cookies it never gets them, because you're smart enough not to run a webserver full of Google ads on your own hardware. You're not hosting any Facebook Like buttons either. So your computer just answers with "nothing to see here, keep moving" and that's exactly what your web browser, app, or game does. No ad banner, no share button, just some empty space. Smart web browsers won't even show the empty space, they just display the useful content as if the ad was never there.

Your Windows hosts file sits in "C:\windows\system32\drivers\etc\hosts" if you've installed Windows on drive letter C. The hosts file doesn't have an extension, so Windows won't know what to do if you doubleclick it. But make a shortcut to %windir%\notepad.exe %windir%\system32\drivers\etc\hosts and your hosts file opens in your text editor whenever you click it. Copy/paste one of the many blocklists that are floating around on the web into your hosts file and most bannerfarms will no longer pollute your computer with their ads. Their tracking cookies won't make it to your computer either.

Your Android hosts file lives in /system/etc/hosts (sometimes in /data/data/hosts). If you have root access you can open it in text editors like Jota and fill it with all the sites you want to keep away. But there's no need to fight with your hosts file in a text editor. There's an app for that.

Lock out Facebook

Many "Like" buttons are pulled in straight from facebook.com. If you block that domain you'll lock yourself out of your own Facebook account, right?

Wrong.

If you block facebook.com most "Like" buttons will stay away from you, but you can still go to www.facebook.com to post pictures of your cat and read what your friends are drinking. Those three letters make a world of difference as far as your hosts file is concerned. Don't forget to block ads.facebook.com, ads.ak.facebook.com, and creative.ak.facebook.com too.

You don't need to feel sorry for those hungry employees at Facebook HQ. When you visit www.facebook.com you'll still see their ads over there, so they'll get something out of your visit. Not as much as they would like, but you don't need to maximise their profits. They can still make money when you visit their site without following you around all over the web. If you don't have a Facebook account they won't even know that you exist. And that's how it should be, because why should Facebook collect your private data if you don't use their services?

Lock out Google

Taming the unwanted bits of Google is a bit harder, because they attack from many different hangouts.

If you don't want to see Google ads on sites other than Google.com or Gmail, start by feeding this list into your hosts file:
127.0.0.1    googleads.g.doubleclick.net
127.0.0.1    googleads2.g.doubleclick.net
127.0.0.1    googleads.g.doubleclick.net
127.0.0.1    googleads2.g.doubleclick.net
127.0.0.1    googlesyndication.com
127.0.0.1    www.googlesyndication.com
127.0.0.1    pagead.googlesyndication.com
127.0.0.1    pagead1.googlesyndication.com
127.0.0.1    pagead2.googlesyndication.com
127.0.0.1    domains.googlesyndication.com
127.0.0.1    tcp.googlesyndication.com
127.0.0.1    googleadservices.com
127.0.0.1    www.googleadservices.com
127.0.0.1    partner.googleadservices.com
127.0.0.1    pagead2.googleadservices.com
127.0.0.1    partnerad.l.google.com
127.0.0.1    4.afs.googleadservices.com
Restart your browser, reload this site, and see android underground without Google ads. No problem, you're still welcome here. I don't make this site for the money (and those ads don't pay much anyway). Surf a few other sites and notice they have way less advertising than before. The pagead2.googlesyndication.com line is the most important of the blacklist, because it houses almost all Google ad banners that pop up in your web browser.

Want an ad-free YouTube?
127.0.0.1    ads.youtube.com
Ads in your Android apps? Sure, their developers need to pay the rent too, but there are other ways to make money. They could sell a version of their app with more features than its free cousin, or throw in a PayPal donate button. If you're a small developer without millions of downloads a donate link probably pays more than the ad banners. To keep AdMob (the mobile version of Adsense) out of your Android:
127.0.0.1    admob.com
127.0.0.1    a.admob.com
127.0.0.1    analytics.admob.com
127.0.0.1    c.admob.com
127.0.0.1    jp.admob.com
127.0.0.1    media.admob.com
127.0.0.1    mm.admob.com
127.0.0.1    mmv.admob.com
127.0.0.1    mm1.vip.sc1.admob.com
127.0.0.1    p.admob.com
127.0.0.1    r.admob.com
By keeping AdMob banners out of your apps they can't beam your location to the mothership. Whoever thought it was a good idea to poll your GPS location to tell advertisers exactly where you are deserves a weekend in the scorpion pit.

Websites may have good reasons to know a little bit about their audience, but why should they tell Google about your visit? If you don't want Google looking over your shoulder when you read your online newspaper, smile at your hosts file and ask it to block:
127.0.0.1    video-stats.video.google.com
127.0.0.1    google-analytics.com
127.0.0.1    analytics-api-samples.googlecode.com
127.0.0.1    wintricksbanner.googlepages.com
127.0.0.1    www.google-analytics.com
127.0.0.1    www-google-analytics.l.google.com
127.0.0.1    ssl.google-analytics.com
127.0.0.1    googletagservices.com
127.0.0.1    www.googletagservices.com
Almost done now. If you don't use Google+, why have +1 buttons on your screen? Those nosy buttons tell Google what you do online, so:
127.0.0.1    plusone.google.com
Now most "+1" buttons will be gone. Those that survive are hosted outside Google, so they won't tell where you've been as long as you don't click 'em.

Of course Google still records your visits to Google Search, YouTube, and Blogspot. And Gmail will still display its ads in your web browser. Fair enough. If you use their mail service they deserve something in return. But there's no reason why Google should connect your email with your visits to all the non-Google sites on the web. Gmail and YouTube may be worth a finger, but not your entire hand.

There's an app for that

You can keep a lot of junk away without editing your hosts file. AdBlock Plus can keep most ads out of Firefox and Chrome, even if your phone is not rooted. This makes websites look a lot better, and stops many advertisers from poisoning your phone with tracking cookies or worse.

But if you want to reap the full benefits of Android you should root your phone or tablet. There's a reason you didn't buy an iPhone or one of those Windows thingies with tiles, right?

Rooted your phone but still afraid of the hosts file? Get a firewall. Firewalled apps can't download ads. Did I already tell you that ads that don't load don't send your location or your phone number out to the marketers?

AFWall+ is my favourite Android firewall, but the firewall built into avast is also very good. I told AFWall+ to keep all my apps away from the web by default, except those apps that really need internet to work. Apps that break without internet go on my whitelist, apps that work offline stay offline.

But what about apps that can only do their job online and return with a boatload of stowaway ads? Music streaming without internet just doesn't work, a web browser that can't pass your firewall is as dead as an electronic paperweight. If you firewall everything offline your smartphone won't be smart anymore.

Time to call my favourite hosts file assistant: AdAway. It can feed blocklists from many different places to your hosts file with just a tap on your screen. This keeps most ads out of your phone. Not only from websites, but from your apps too. Good for you, because psychologists agree that too much advertising causes stress and anxiety. Those banner ads are the digital equivalent of LDL, the bad version of cholesterol. Some ads even infect your phone with really bad malware! Need any more reason to block 'em? Ads and LDL should only be consumed in very limited quantities to keep you and your Android healthy.

AdAway can do more than download prefab blocklists. You can build your own, which is a good way to stop popular apps like Dolphin from leaking information that should stay aboard your phone.

If you believe that ad blockers kill all free apps and make the internet go up in smoke, just build a catflap for advertisers that don't chase you like a stalker. Should one of AdAways blacklists block an advertiser that you like, you can easily put it on the whitelist. It's up to you to block the bad banners with bad manners (that's most of 'em) and only let in ads that behave well and don't trace all your online footsteps. Your Android, your choice.

AdAway
AdBlock Plus
AFWall+
avast

DuckDuckGo Doomsday Scenario


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Friday, 19 April 2013

"Free" phone calls: what's in it for Facebook?


Talk freely

There are plenty of Android apps to phone for free. Google Voice, Skype, fring, Viber, TextMe, Vonage, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

All those free apps have one thing in common. They need money to feed their hungry programmers.

Many VoIP apps use their free "VoIP-only" service as a method to advertise their paid offers to call landlines and cell phones. SkypeOut is the leader of the pack, Vonage and fring are among the followers. Apps like Skype and fring display ads to generate income. TextMe has taken mobile advertising a step further: you can earn "free" minutes if you watch advertorials or download "free" apps full of in-app purchasing options of the Farmville farm cash flavour. Viber doesn't seem to have any way to monetise their app yet, but sooner or later they're gonna sell Skype-like services or break their promise to stay free of ads.

And now Facebook enters the VoIP market. They've been testing it in some countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, and the UK, and they just added USA to the list of places where you can sell your soul over the phone call your Facebook friends for free. It won't be long until Facebook calls go global.

Free, sure. But how do you pay them back? Mark Zuckerberg needs to pay the rent, you know?

What's on your mind?

Facebook is gonna slap ads on your calls for sure, one way or another. And given Facebooks privacy track record, there may be a very dark side to their "free" calls. Because if you don't pay for the product, then you are the product. And Facebook doesn't give you away for free. They want to sell you on the market for as much money as legally possible.

Advertising is the currency in this transaction. And just like there are cheap pesos and expensive Bitcoins, not all ads are created equally. That's why Facebook doesn't want to show you just any random ad. They want to show you targeted ads based on what they believe to be your interests, no matter if you'd rather keep those interests to yourself. Because the more of your personal data goes into the ad, the higher the payout.

To sell you to the highest bidder for the highest price, Facebook needs to know what's on your mind. That's why Facebooks status update textbox literally reads "What's on your mind?" But do you really write everything that's on your mind in there?

When you go out to movies, restaurants, and concerts you let the entire world know what a great time you had. And maybe you annoy all your Facebook friends with all those viral video ads you click on. Or worse. Being born and raised in a country with an atheist majority, I've unfriended quite a few people because they kept posting about how great their god is each and every day. Political propaganda, birthdays, weddings, babies, deaths in the family, it all goes on Facebook. You may even be guilty of clicking the "Share on Facebook" button right here on android underground. And let's not even get started on all those pictures of your cat.

Yes, Facebook has turned the world into ancient Egypt. We worship cats and write on walls about it.

What you don't tell Uncle Facebook

Frequent poster and lurker alike, there is some stuff we'll never share on Facebook. Some things are just not meant for all to see. Are your debts so bad that your car got repossessed? Did the ATM eat your credit card because you defaulted on your payments yet again? Got diagnosed with depression or a sexually transmitted disease? Are you about to divorce?

Your credit score is worth a lot. And some advertisers will pay big money if you can tell them who suffers from embarrassing diseases. Trouble with your employer? About to divorce? Lawyers like to know so they can offer you their legal services, and everybody knows those sharks have business ethics on par with Haliburton and Berlusconi's media empire. No matter what secrets you may have, they're a business opportunity for someone out there.

Facebook wants to know. Everything. They just need a way to make you tell it all to them.

We have ways to make you talk

There's Facebook Chat to talk in private, but not many people use it because MSN and WhatsApp have most of the market. Google mines your Gmail to pick ads, but Facebook didn't manage to copy that trick. Sure, every Facebook member has a free Facebook email address, but most people don't even know they have one. And for obvious reasons websites about collection agencies, gonorrhea, or drug addiction don't have Facebooks "Like" button on them.

Enter Plan B. or is it Plan C or D already?

By letting you call your friends for free through Facebooks servers, they have a chance to listen in on things that you would never write on your Facebook wall. Just think of the advertising opportunities!

Calling your doctor because the wild night with the girl that looked better with every beer left you with a burning itch "down there?" Asking your parents for money because the supermarket refused your credit card? Talking with your sister about your upcoming divorce? If you do it through Facebook they can send it all through their speech recognition software and extract some extremely valuable keywords from your extremely private phone calls. If their programmers are really smart (and they are!), their code could even read your mood from the way you talk. Drunk when you're calling your ex? Facebook will know.

So if you call through Facebook Messenger and you suddenly see ads for legal counsel, Alcoholic Anonymous, payday loans, and cheap Zoloft in neutral packaging, there's no need to wonder how Facebook knows. You told your friends, therefore you told Facebook. "Like" it or not.

Why waterboard people if there are much more effective ways to make 'em talk? A free VoIP app can be a goldmine if you're good at data mining. Remember the old saying that your grandma taught you? "There's no such thing as a free lunch unless you are the lunch."


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Thursday, 11 April 2013

ES File Explorer looks better, needs finishing touch



Ugly duck gets a facelift

The best file manager for Android? ES File Explorer! The best-looking file manager for Android? Definitely not ES File Explorer! It's a prime example of an app that favors function over form.

And it has functions aplenty. It browses the files and folders on your memory card and the internal memory of your phone or tablet. If you rooted your device, ES File Explorer lets you play with every file and folder in the bowels of your operating system. Add integration with all the popular cloud storage providers, an FTP client and an FTP server, access to Samba shares, a bluetooth file manager, and that's just the file management part of the app.

But the app was ugly! But that's gonna change, because its maker is busy giving the app a makeover. There are plenty of rough edges left and the paint is still wet, but if you want a preview you can take a sneak peak in the Google Play Store before the new ES File Explorer goes official.

Clutter to the menu

The first improvement shows right when you launch the app. It used to be a slow starter, but now it launches much faster.

The main screen is a lot less cluttered than before. This comes at a price, though, because what's cleaned out of the main screen now sits in the menu. And the menu doesn't make things easy to reach, because everything is buried in submenus and some entries have rather counterintuitive names.

Windows!

The old tabs are gone, but not really. There used to be five predefined tabs (local files, ftp, bluetooth, Samba, cloud storage), but now ES File Explorer has windows.

No, not the windows that the Evil Empire ditched for tiles, but a set of up to eight tabs with the content of your choice. You can have a window for the files on your SD card, another for internal memory, a third window for Dropbox, another for Google Drive, one more for your favourite FTP server, whatever you want. This is incredibly useful if you want to move files from one cloud storage account to another, or if you need to copy stuff from SD to internal memory without tapping all the way through your folder structure and back again.

Too bad those windows are hard to identify. They're labeled with tiny little icons so you don't know what's inside until you open them. A Dropbox windows and a Skydrive window have the same icon and there's no text in the tab bar to help you out. The only tab with a name next to the icon is for the currently open window, which is the very window that doesn't really need a name because its contents already stare in your face.

ES File Explorer lets you decide which set of windows it should open at launch (good), but you can't choose which one is selected by default (bad). The app always launches into the leftmost window and you can't reorder them. Maybe that will happen soon, because drag'n'drop sorting should be easy to add.

Making new windows requires a trip to the menu. It would be nice if you could just long-tap a folder, cloud account, or FTP server, and select "create new window" so you don't need to make a top level window and then tap all the way down to where you want to go.

View to forget

Another oversight is the way ES File Explorer remembers your display settings, or rather how easy it forgets them. If I set the view to "small details," then exit the app from one of the "managers" in the tools submenu (more on that later), it switches to "large icons" all by itself. This is probably because the view is not stored per window. Instead, changing the view applies to all windows, but you only notice how everything changes when you relaunch the app.

OK, one more user interface issue. You can toggle the toolbars out of sight by pinch-to-zoom, but you can no longer hide the Android status bar. I wonder if "full screen" will make a comeback someday?

Root browser

ES File Explorer comes with a root browser, but it's not easy to find. Tapping the button labeled "root explorer" doesn't open "/" (the root folder). Instead, it pulls you into a menu full of options, many of them unrelated to exploring the root of your file system. The option that really gets you into the root browser is somewhere near the bottom of the list.

When I finally tapped into the root browser I caught it going online for no apparent reason. When you browse local folders and you have auto-update switched off, ES File Explorer has no business online, but for some reason it generates network traffic anyway. The old version of the app does the same thing. Maybe the developer of the app should explain what's going on here.

Cloud, FTP, hotspot

ES File Explorer talks with eight different cloud storage services, which is more than any other file manager. And you can store multiple accounts per service, so nothing can stop you from pingponging files between your sixteen different Dropbox accounts.

There's an FTP client as well. And an FTP server, but this is confusingly called "remote manager" instead of simply "FTP server."

More weird names: the built-in WiFi hotspot is called "net manager." But crazy name or not, the big news here is of course that tethering now comes built into your file manager. But...

...if you have WiFi switched on, start the hotspot, and then close it, you're left with WiFi switched off. ES File Explorer doesn't return your phone to its pre-tethering WiFi state.

And the hotspot doesn't work without a mobile data connection. You might say "duh!, how else are you gonna tie mobile data to WiFi?" but there's a good reason for running a hotspot without mobile data, or even without a SIM card. Run a hotspot and launch the FTP server and you could share files over your ad hoc network, but only if ES File Explorer learns to play hotspot without data.

Want a shortcut to the hotspot feature? Can't have it. Not yet, anyway. ES File Explorer can put a direct shortcut to its built-in FTP server on your homescreen, but if you want to switch the hotspot on you have to launch the file manager and tap all through the menu to the entry called "net manager."

Unshared download manager

More connectivity: ES File Manager now comes with a download manager. You can paste URLs into it, but for some inexplicable reason it doesn't appear in Androids share menu. That's too bad, because otherwise you could send links straight from your web browser to the download manager. Give Advanced Download Manager a try. It can be summoned straight from the share menu. Maybe ES File Explorer can replace it one day?

The verdict

This story may look like a long list of complaints. That's not because ES File Explorer is a bad app, but because this is a test version with plenty of room for improvement before it replaces the old app. The official release is planned for the 20th of April, so it's reasonable to expect that most issues will be painted over by then. Even with the rough edges of the current beta version it's clear that the new ES File Explorer is a big improvement over the previous version.

ES File Explorer public test version (may disappear when testing's done)
ES File Explorer (finished product)


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Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Gemini App Manager won't defrost what it froze, tame your apps with App Quarantine, SystemCleanup, Autostarts, or ROM Toolbox


Gemini has an evil twin

Gemini App Manager can do many things. Its main attraction is its autostart manager. Unlike many other apps that only let you stop apps from launching at boot, Gemini lets you kill all autostart triggers. Gemini also used to let you freeze bloatware for free, something that apps like Titanium only do if you pay.

But then Gemini had trouble with its advertiser. Since then, Gemini is free of ads (good), but the app is crippled now (bad).

Instead of switching to a new advertiser (plenty to choose from), the maker of Gemini decided to remove features from the free version to persuade people to get the paid version instead. The free version of the new updated Gemini doesn't have "expert mode" anymore. For most practical purposes, this means that you have to tap the screen one more time to get into things like autostart settings. Not a big deal.

But the free version doesn't freeze apps anymore. And it won't defrost them either.

And that's where many Gemini users got in trouble. Imagine: you use an app like Gemini to freeze all those built-in apps that you don't want to use, expecting that you can "unfreeze" them when needed. And then you update Gemini, only to find out that all those apps you froze for free will stay frozen forever, unless you pay the maker of the app that froze 'em. For obvious reasons many Gemini users were not amused, and the app got its fair share of 1* ratings in the Google Play Store. Some cried bait and switch, others screamed ransomware.

Break the ice

Suppose you froze some apps, updated Gemini, and found that you can't defrost your apps anymore. And you forgot to backup the old version of Gemini, so you can't restore the version that worked. Now what?

You could uninstall your frozen apps, then reinstall to get 'em working again. But that doesn't always work. If you froze the bloatware from your carrier or phone manufacturer then the uninstall/reinstall route is closed for you.

Buy the paid version of Gemini to free your frozen apps? Why should you reward an app that let you down so badly? And anyway, you get more bang for the euro if you buy the full version of Titanium instead.

Or you could look for other apps that can freeze and defrost for free. And when you're busy grabbing freebees from the Play Store you might as well get a new free autostart manager too. There are plenty of apps to choose from.

Apps to tame your apps

App Quarantine can freeze your apps. And defrost them, even if they were frozen with another app. And it does it all for free. SystemCleanup freezes and defrosts for free too. It has an autostart manager built in, but many autorun triggers are missing so you're better off using Autostarts or ROM Toolbox for that.

Autostarts is a paid download from the Google Play Store, but since it's an open source app released under the GPL Autostarts is 100% free in F-Droid.

Gemini is not the only app that got ruined by an update. So always back up your apps before updating, because for some inexplicable reason the Play Store doesn't have a rollback feature.

App Quarantine (freeze and defrost for free, no ads whatsoever)
SystemCleanup (can kill and freeze unwanted apps)
Autostarts (F-Droid)
ROM Toolbox (autostart manager and much, much, much more)
AutoStart Manager (the autorun manager from ROM Toolbox as a stand-alone app)


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Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Google Translate goes offline



Speak unconnected

When do you really need to translate something from one language to another? When you're in a foreign country where nobody speaks a language you understand and vice versa. This often means you're in a place where international data roaming charges are even more scandalous than politics, so you definitely need a translation app that works when all data connections are off.

That meant that Google Translate was out of the question, because every word had to pass Google HQ before being sent back to you in another language.

But not anymore, because now Google Translate works offline.

To make it work you need to download the languages you want to use offline. At over 200 MB apiece you'll want to do that when you're still in a place with fast free WiFi. But once the language files sit on your memory card you can translate words and phrases without paying a fortune for that measly single bar of wireless signal out in the jungle.

Some offline things still off

Offline translation works for words and short phrases, but as text gets longer the translations become increasingly inaccurate. Online translation taps into a bigger database, but it also suffers from the Babelfish effect. I wouldn't use Google Translate for an eBook, neither online nor offline.

If you got the right text-to-speak languages installed, Google Translate can do the talking for you offline. If you let your phone or tablet play online it will speak non-installed languages too, and the voices sound more natural. Tiny little oversight: Google Translate speaks brazilian portuguese, but it won't talk in the original european style.

Not everything works offline (yet). Voice input and handwriting recognition only work online. You also need a live internet connection when you want to translate text on pictures, just like with Google Goggles. So if you want to translate the menu, look for a restaurant with free WiFi.

Speak no evil, hear no evil Speak evil, hear evil

Sometimes a single word says more than a thousand pictures, and if you really need to tell the truth to that taxi driver that took you back the long way Google can help you out. Google Translate doesn't censor the expletives that make Mrs. Cook blush, so I guess the app store from Apple gets a Disneyfied version of the app.

Translating your dirty words can be a bit off, though. The worlds most popular four-letter word in the screenshot above got translated correctly in portuguese, but Google translated the spanish version a bit too freely. If you've seen the movie Rec you know that the literal translation would have done the job just fine.

Talk together

The update to Google Translate is a big improvement, but it's not enough to replace all the other translators on your Android. I keep two other dictionary apps on my phone.

QuickDic only translates single words, and its speech output doesn't work on my phone. I keep it because it has Wiktionary and explains the meaning of words in addition to translating them. And it has lots of languages that are missing in Google Translate, like basque, bengali, kurdish, and zulu.

Euro Dictionary has a very limited vocabulary, but it translates the important words of thirteen european languages offline without need to download hundreds of megabytes of language packs.

Google Translate
QuickDic and Euro Dictionary


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Sunday, 17 March 2013

Android Facebook apps: Friendcaster, Seesmic, Fast, Atrium, Stream, Flipster, Tinfoil, FBM, Connector, facebook web



Facebook without Facebook

The official Android Facebook app invites vitriolic Play Store comments due to its abominable performance. Facebook eats RAM like Wimpy eats burgers, it sucks your battery dry like a vampire with bulimia, you need voodoo to stop it from autostarting, and if you cross the border its massive background traffic will force you to take a second mortgage on your house to pay your data roaming bill.

Google must have been smoking something really good and heavy when they decided to give Facebook a "top developer" label in their app store. The official Facebook app proves that Android task killers serve a purpose after all.

Enough about the official Facebook app now. There are plenty of ways to Facebook without it, and just about each and every alternative Android Facebook app beats the piece of crap from Mark Zuckerberg hands down.

Friendcaster and Seesmic

Friendcaster is the most feature-rich Facebook app out there. Like all alternative Facebook clients, Friendcaster is faster than the official app. If you head to the settings and switch off "alert for Facebook notifications" Friendcaster stays offline until you explicitly tell it to go online. And unlike the official app, Friendcaster can handle multiple Facebook accounts.

Seesmic combines Facebook and Twitter in one app, and lets you post to both networks in one shot.

Both Friendcaster and Seesmic show all Facebook posts, even if you told Facebook not to show everything. If you have a million Facebook friends this makes things unmanagable. If you're overwhelmed by the number of posts you better move on to one of the other Facebook alternatives, because they filter your Facebook feed just like the official Facebook app does.

Fast for Facebook, Atrium, Stream, and Flipster

Fast for Facebook is designed to limit data traffic and go easy on your battery. It won't push any Facebook updates by itself unless you choose to install its push notifications plugin.

Atrium has an excessive amount of annoying ads, and there's no ad-free version. Maybe the ads pay more than Atrium can make from selling their app? Of course you can simply use an ad blocker like AdAway so you never have to look at those annoying ads. Or just forget about Atrium, because its user interface isn't that good. For example, to refresh your Facebook feed in Atrium you have to take a trip to the menu. Atrium could really use a pull-to-refresh option or refresh button.

Stream is a lean Facebook app that tries to ruin the experience with very annoying ads, so get the full version or use an ad blocker.

Flipster is a light-weight Facebook app that's not ready for human consumption. It doesn't show posts that don't have pictures in them, and if you want to post something or send a message you'll often find that you can't. Maybe Flipster will evolve into a usable Facebook client, but for now you better stick with one of the other apps.

Wrappers for the Facebook mobile website

Why use a Facebook app if you can just use their website? One reason for using an app is to get push notifications, another reason is to manage your privacy settings. But if you want to do those things from the mobile website, there's an app for that. In fact, there's more than one.

FBM, Tinfoil, and Connector are wrappers around the mobile Facebook website that add extra features. They show everything you'd see on the Facebook website, including things you'd rather not see such as sponsored content. You can switch push notifications off (the official Facebook app won't let you do that), or you can switch 'em on (which the mobile website won't do). And these apps let you manage your facebook privacy settings and other controls, which you can't do with the full-blown Facebook apps. The exception is facebook web, which is a bare bones Facebook browser without any options or push notifications.

All these website wrappers lack a scroll thumb for quick navigation through your Facebook feed, but Tinfoil has a "jump to top" button in its menu. If the mobile version is too limited for you, Tinfoil can display the full Facebook site too.

A more serious problem that bites all Facebook site wrappers is that they have difficulties posting pictures to albums. And when I tried Connector it popped up lots of errors about not being able to create a secure connection.

imo

Imo is not a Facebook app, but a multi-network instant messenger that connects to Facebook chat and other chat networks. Facebook chatting in imo works better than in any other Facebook app.

Choose your weapon

If you don't mind the lack of filtering, use Friendcaster (my current favourite) or Seesmic. If you want to keep your Facebook feed filtered, use Atrium if you have an ad blocker or Fast if you don't want to block ads or buy the ad-free version.

Don't want a full Facebook app? Then get Tinfoil or FBM.

There are more Facebook apps out there, but I stayed away from apps that haven't been updated in ages. I didn't touch Scope and Hootsuite because they require their own app-specific account in addition to your Facebook login.

Full Facebook apps:

Friendcaster (very good Facebook app, no filtering)
Seesmic (Facebook and Twitter app, no filtering)
Fast (good Facebook app with filtering)
Atrium (with obnoxious ads)
Stream (with annoying ads)
Flipster (not ready for use yet)
Facebook (official app, sucks big time)

Wrappers around the mobile Facebook site:

Tinfoil
FBM
Connector
facebook web (bugs!)

Chat app:

imo (use an old version, because the new interface didn't improve things)


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Friday, 15 March 2013

Google boots ad blockers from Play Store: is it because of Adblock Plus?


Google finds an excuse to block ad blockers

Google lives from advertising, so for obvious reasons they're not happy with apps that block ads. But Google also tries to maintain an image of neutrality, and keeping ad blocking apps out of its Play Store doesn't go well with maintaining that image.

That used to be no problem, because the popular ad blockers AdFree and AdAway require root access to write their blocklists to the hosts file in the Android system folders. Because ad blocking required a rooted phone or tablet, over 95% of all Android devices didn't block any ads.

But then Adblock Plus entered the scene. This app is not as good as AdFree and AdAway, but is has one feature that poses a major threat to Googles business model: Adblock Plus doesn't need root.

Adblock Plus made ad blocking accessible to the masses, so Google had to think of something to keep the pennies flowing in.

And Google found something. Their small print for Play Store publishers says something about not interfering with the functions of third party services:

"You agree that you will not engage in any activity with the Market, including the development or distribution of Products, that interferes with, disrupts, damages, or accesses in an unauthorized manner the devices, servers, networks, or other properties or services of any third party including, but not limited to, Android users, Google or any mobile network operator."

It looks like Google sees banner farms as third party services that deserve free reign on your Android phone or tablet, so they kicked the three most popular ad blocking apps out of their app store.

Of course all the tech sites on the web screamed bloody murder. By removing ad blockers from the Play Store Google did an excellent job at advertising their existence. I'm sure that more people are blocking Googles advertisements now.

Who needs Google to block ads?

Google didn't kick out all ad blockers yet. ROM Toolbox has a built-in ad blocker, and as I write this it's still alive and kicking in the Google Play Store. But its maker said he'll have to pull the ad block feature out. Not that it really matters, because there's no shortage of good ad blockers. They may be gone from the Play Store, but you can easily get 'em elsewhere.

AdAway is my favourite ad blocker. Gone from the Play Store, but ready for grabs on (oh, the irony!) code.google.com. And if you want to get it the easy way and be notified of updates, just download it from open source Android app store F-Droid.

AdFree is a good ad killer too. The AdFree site still links to the dead Google Play Store page, but I guess that will be fixed soon. For now you can download AdFree from (yes, really) docs.google.com.

Adblock Plus is the Android flavour of the famous Firefox and Chrome plugin. You can grab it directly from their own site. It's not as good as AdAway or AdFree, but Adblock Plus doesn't require root access so it works for everyone.

Lucky Patcher can strip the code that adds Google ads out of your apps. It doesn't remove ads from other banner farms, and it doesn't clean out ads from websites, but it lets you yank the ads from the biggest ad pusher out of your apps without altering your hosts file (AdAway and AdFree) or running a local proxy server (AdBlock Plus) on your Android device.

Note: because Android requires that apps are signed, switching from a Play Store version to an F-Droid or sideloaded version of your ad blocker can pop up signature erro messages. If that happens, you need to uninstall the Play Store version before you can install another version of the same app with a different signature. If you don't want to lose your settings and custom block lists, back up the app settings with a backup app like Titanium (the free version will do), and restore the settings (only the settings, not the app) after you've switched to the non-Play Store version.

Block those ads!

Whether ad blockers are a gift from heaven or the root of all that's evil is topic of a never-ending debate. My take: websites and app developers have the right to try to show ads on your screen, but you have no obligation to let those ads in unless you explicitly agreed to. Most apps in the Play Store don't tell you that they have ads or where they come from, and adware is usually accompanied by screenshots that don't show any ads, so you don't have to allow their ads into your Android. Come to think of it, most apps in the Google Play Store don't come with any terms of use at all, so feel free to use 'em any way you like and block whatever you want to block.

Does blocking ads kill free apps and sites? Probably not. The vast majority of app developers don't make any money from their ads. But even if ad blocking kills free stuff that's not the end of the world. It just means that the market has spoken and advertising is no longer a viable way to monetize apps and websites. And if that business model reaches the end of its life then those that depend on it will have to think of a new business model. Of course advertisers can keep their business model alive by making their ads smaller, less flashy, and reducing the frequency with which they appear in apps and websites. The more-is-better approach to advertising is the reason why all those ad blockers were invented in the first place.

Do you see any ads on this site? If you don't, your ad blocker is doing its job. Congrats!

AdAway review on android underground
AdAway on code.google.com
AdAway on F-Droid

AdFree at bigtincan.com
AdFree from Google Docs (direct app download link)

Adblock Plus

Lucky Patcher


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Saturday, 9 March 2013

Android PDF readers with text reflow: Foxit Mobile beats qPDF and Adobe


Most PDFs were made for printers and big monitors. They often have multiple columns, which looks good on paper but not on small screens. And you usually need to do a lot of horizontal scrolling if you want to keep the letters big enough to read.

Most mobile web browsers rearrange website content to fit your screen. If you want to read PDFs on your phone, you need a PDF reader that can reflow the text to break the lines into chunks that fit a narrow display.


Adobe Reader

Adobe makes bloated clunky apps for Windows, but they made the first free Android PDF reader with text reflow. And their Android app is surprisingly lean and efficient. It behaves quite well too: Adobe Reader for Android won't go online unless you use a feature that really requires internet access.

When you switch on text reflow you can't always increase the size of reflowed text. Even worse, Adobe Reader wraps the text around the pictures (if any), but pictures may end up at unexpected places. If you read scientific papers in Adobe Reader with text reflow switched on, figure legends often appear far away from their figures, which made me look for alternative apps.

Adobe Reader


qPDF Reader

Large files load really slow in qPDF, but once they're loaded all parts of the document display really fast. There's a scroll thumb for quick scrolling through long texts, and you can make bookmarks to find your way back in PDFs with many pages. qPDF doesn't ask for internet access, but as a result PDFs with DRM usually don't work.

When you switch on text reflow qPDF won't show any pictures, and you often get weird formatting. This is why I don't use qPDF.

qPDF Viewer


Foxit Mobile PDF Lite

Foxit opens PDFs really fast if they don't have big complex images in them. It can open PDFs from Dropbox and box.net, and Foxit doesn't seem to use its internet permissions for anything else. I couldn't catch it going online when I opened locally stored files.

You can rotate your documents without rotating your phone by pushing a button. You need this button if you want to rotate your text, because rotating your phone won't rotate the screen even if you want it to.

Foxit can remember your position in a file, which is especially useful for large documents. And it has a thumbnail view to quickly navigate to the page you like. It's got bookmarks too, but they only appear when you swipe from the far left to the right. If you missed that part in the quick start guide you'll never find your bookmarks. A bookmark button in the menu would make things a lot easier.

When you scroll through a PDF it may take a while before the content appears, especially in text reflow view. Pinch-to-zoom only works in single page and continuous view mode. You can't zoom in and out by pinching in text reflow view. On the bright side,  the zoom buttons work really well.

Foxit shows images inline in text reflow view at the right places (figures and figure legends stay together), which is the reason it's my default PDF viewer on my Android now. It's my default PDF reader on Windows too.

Foxit Mobile PDF


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Thursday, 7 March 2013

AFWall+ firewalls better, adds toggle widget


Need to keep some of your apps offline? AFWall+ is the best firewall for Android since DroidWall isn't updated anymore. It splits internet permissions into three types that you can allow or deny at will: WiFi, mobile data, and mobile data roaming. And unlike other firewalls, AFWall+ can notify you when it detects new apps so you don't forget to set firewall rules for them.

The latest AFWall+ update kills some bugs and fixes a data leak when you boot your phone (as long as you shut down properly before starting it again).

New features: VPN rules to allow blocked apps to go online when you're on a secure connection, option to can set AFWall+ as device administrator so malicious apps can't uninstall it, and a widget to toggle your firewall rules on and off.

You need a rooted phone to run AFWall+. Don't let that scare you away, because a rooted phone is more secure than an unrooted phone if you know what you're doing. And remember: if you have other apps with built-in firewall options (like LBE Privacy Guard or avast), make sure you have only one firewall active at the same time. If you run multiple firewalls together they'll fight over who gets to write the iptables.

AFWall+ (Google Play Store)
AFWall+ on xda

other stand-alone firewalls:

Android Firewall by jtschohl
DroidWall

security apps with built-in firewalls:

avast!
LBE Privacy Guard


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Saturday, 2 March 2013

Book Catalogue makes goodreads easier to reach, prevents accidental edits


Book Catalogue is a very good app to keep track of your books. It syncs with goodreads and LibraryThing, and keeps everything locally stored on your phone too. Book Catalogue is a better goodreads app than goodreads own Android app.

It had one major flaw, though. To sync with goodreads you had to dig deep into the menus and scroll through a screen called "admin."

But not anymore. Book Catalogue moved the goodreads sync options straight into the first menu that you see when you hit the menu button (or overflow menu on buttonless phones and tablets). That overflow menu on the action bar is another new thing in Book Catalogue, so now it's finally ready for the Android 4.x age.

What else is new? Book Catalogue now opens your books in a "view only" screen to avoid accidental edits. Of course you can still edit your book details, but you have to push an edit button first.

Book Catalogue


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Friday, 1 March 2013

New Skyfire drops Flash video, old Skyfire keeps it


Flash is old, eats batteries for breakfast, and has almost as many bugs as Windows. But there are plenty of websites out there that don't work without it, so the old Flash is gonna be with us for some time to come.

Web browser Skyfire has watered-down Flash support. The only Flash it delivers is Flash video. You know, those video files in ".flv" format. Skyfire is useful for a few other video sites that other browsers won't touch.

But Skyfire made a very stupid decision. The new Skyfire drops Flash video support. Since the video capabilities are the only reason to use the app (it's not a very good web browser), Skyfire is useless since version 5.

But if you ever had version 4 running on your Android you get to keep video support. And because v5 is a totally new app, you can run the old and new Skyfire together if you want to.

If you never had version 4 installed, don't bother installing it now. The old Skyfire will only do Flash video for users who had the app before the switch to the Flashless version 5.

old Skyfire v4.0 (with Flash video, but not for new users)
new Skyfire (no Flash)

how to force Flash on your Android phone or tablet


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Thursday, 28 February 2013

Skype adds video messages, keeps noise


Form over function

A long time ago Skype for Android had a good user interface with tabs. But then Skype decided to get new looks, and form replaced function. They added unwanted noise as well. More than a year ago Skype took away the possibility to silence the startup and shutdown sounds. You can't switch off the deafening dialpad tones either.

Have an Android tablet? Skype removed the portrait view three months ago, limiting you to portrait view. This is especially annoying on small 7" tablets.

Portrait back, noise remains

The protests of the tablet owners got so loud (even louder than the dialpad beeps!) that Skype decided to to bring back the old classic view. But only for tablets. If you Skype on your phone you're still stuck with the terrible tabless layout.

Too bad the unwanted noise is still there. Want to send a quiet Skype text message? Then put your phone in silent mode, because Skype still won't let you get rid of the start and exit sounds. The noisy dialpad can't be silenced either.

Video messages

Skype didn't just repair their layout for tablets, they added something new as well. Now you can send video messages with Skype. You get twenty messages for free. If you want to keep sending video messages you'll have to pay for them.

Old Skype

If you want Skype with tabs, get a copy of the (very old) version 1.0.0.983. It doesn't have video messages, it doesn't have video calls either, and it lacks a bunch of security updates. But if you're willing to pay that price to get the tabs back you can Google for the old apk file. Bonus feature: the old Skype doesn't have the ads that were unleashed on american, british, and german skypers. If you only use Skype for instant messaging you're better of with multi-network chat app imo. You may want to use an older version of that app, because the makers of imo also decided that form is more important than function.

Skype (Google Play store)
skype.com
Skype 1.0.0.983 (Google)

Skype competitors:

Vonage
Viber
CSipSimple


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