Monday, June 28, 2010

My top 10 Android apps

Of course a phones priority should be to make calls, but today people expect so much more from these powerful mini computers resting in their pockets and purses. The Android operating system is the most powerful and fastest selling mobile phone operating system available today. Not only does it enable you to make phone calls, but to send text messages and chat with your friends online; browse the web; check your email; purchase and listen to music; take and share pictures and video; manage your contacts, calendar and to-do lists, gps navigation and much more. With Android smartphones using more data monthly than all other smartphones combined, they are truly connecting the masses online wherever they may be.

Android definitely does not fall short when it comes to customization however. With a market accessible directly from the phone and growing in applications by thousands every week, it can be difficult for a new user to sift through everything out there and pick the few that really make the phone their own. I have pointed out my top 10 favorite applications with a short description of each to help you as a starting point.

1: Google Voice (free)

Seems like people are doing more playing than talking on their mobile phones these days, but when you do talk there is no better way to do it than with Google Voice. Screen and block unwanted callers, personal greetings for individual contacts or groups, record your conversations, get voicemail transcribed to text with lots of delivery options, a new number to ring all your phones (mobile and landlines), free unlimited text messaging. Full integration with Android makes it simple to use as a full phone and messaging replacement. The Google Voice beta just ended, so it is now open to everyone to try.

2: Swype (beta, free, android exclusive)

Why type when you can Swype? This software keyboard replacement is not only fun, it is the fastest way to enter text on your mobile devices. Full replacement means it is available for use directly in all of your apps, (no copy & paste needed on Android). Run the tutorial after installation to quickly get you up to pace on this awesome input method. I also recommend using MyTextSpeed to really learn how to swype fast. The latest round of beta just ended, but hopefully they will do another soon or release the final product shortly.

3: Launcher Pro (beta, free, android exclusive)

This home screen replacement is the best i've seen. It takes the standard Android desktop and makes it faster while adding some new features and customization. Includes up to 7 home screens, expose effect, a scrollable dock bar with customizable apps and icons, 3d app drawer, landscape mode and more. The only negative is losing the Sense Widgets, but there are many widget packs available in the market to replace them. Updates are frequent and it just gets better as they get closer to a final release.

4: Trackmaster ($4.99, android exclusive)

Trackmaster is a very precise lap timer, but that just barely scratches the surface of this apps features. It is also a great data logger and gives you very useful statistics. If you participate in any type of motor sports, you will not know how you ever did it without Trackmaster. Take it with you to your club racing, lapping or hpde days, rallycross, autocross, etc. While it's not something everyone will use, it is simply an amazing app and really showcases what is possible on Android. For drag racers and tuners, check out Dynomaster by the same author.

5: Connectbot (free, android exclusive)

This is a full featured SSH and telnet client which supports public key authentication and port forwarding. Works with hardware or software keyboards and maps essential keys like ctrl, alt & esc. I use this to remotely and securely manage my servers, home DVR and connect Andchat (below) to my IRC proxy (which is only possible using true multi-tasking only available on Android). Not an essential app for everyone, but no SSH application on any other mobile platform can compare to Connectbot when you really need it.

6: Pandora (free)

Pandora really needs no introduction. You can use it without any account or registration, but if you are willing to part with $3/mo you get some good premium options including no ads and high quality audio. Pandora for Android is great and the desktop widget and stations folder make it a better experience than other mobile platforms. You can get Widget Locker from the market and use the Pandora widget on your lock screen for a truly immersive experience.

7: (free)

I have invested a lot of time writing algorithms to create the perfect playlist and while Pandora does a good job for casual listening, when I really want to rock out I will play my music directly from my SD card using the built-in Android music player. Since my algorithms depend heavily on data it is only right to give it back. The official application is the most full featured and also works with ScrobbleDroid and Simple Scrobbler API's so it is the only scrobbler you need. On Android, can scrobble music played from any application immediately and directly from the phone, no syncing with your PC required.

8: Andchat (free, android exclusive)

Most of my online social interaction happens on IRC instead of Facebook or Twitter. It is one of the first real-time chat protocols and one of the last places online where you can find any sort of privacy these days. It is a great place to go if you need some Linux or programming help (just don't be surprised if someone tells you to RTFM if you haven't done a simple Google search first). You can find me on AfterNET.

9: ShopSavvy (free)

First winner of the Android Developers Challenge, ShopSavvy is a great tool that can save you some time and more importantly some money. Simply scan a barcode or search by product name and it will find the cheapest prices for item online and local. You can even set up shopping lists (or wish lists) and price alerts to be notified when a product falls below a certain price. Unfortunately it is no longer an Android exclusive.

10: WRC (free)

I am a rally fan and the recently released official WRC application for Android is perfect. It gives complete access to the latest rankings and news, event information, driver and team bios, stats, photos, and even videos from the events. It's everything a rally fan could ask for besides a seat next to Loeb as he dominates the competition in Bulgaria next week.

Honorable mentions:

Facebook: An essential app to most, however the featured Android phones these days usally come with Facebook support built right in with much better integration than the offical application.

Twitter: Same as Facebook, most phones come with better support built-in and the official app requires Android 2.0 or higher. Twidroid is a good Twitter client, but I have a strict policy about giving my sensitive login information to 3rd parties.

Spare Parts: Some developers don't know how to write applications for mobile devices and can eat through your battery pretty quickly. This is a great utility to see what applications are using up your battery as well as tweaking some phone options for longer battery life, but if you stick to well known programs from good developers shouldn't needed. If you find your battery isn't performing well download it and look for applications with high partial wake lock usage.

Astro File Manager: A good utility for managing phone storage, all of which can be accomplished using the built-in operating system tools or by connecting your phone to a computer via USB. It is good to keep around but will not be needed daily.

Techbuzz: A nice RSS reader and widget, however it lacks the ability to add your own feeds and I much prefer the news app included with Sense UI. Newsrob is supposed to be a good reader also, but requires your Google account login and password which makes it a deal killer for me.

Shazam: Pretty cool program that uses the phones mic to identify music playing. If the list was the top 15 applications, it would be included for sure.

ShootMe: Takes screenshots (like the ones here), but unless you are using an HTC Evo, it requires the device to be rooted.

Weatherbug: Good weather application with current conditions and forecast, a good widget also, but it eats through your battery like crazy and I have no problems with the default Sense UI weather app.

Fring: Video chat. Supposed to be good but is currently broken on the Evo and suffers horrible video lag.

I hope this list helps you get started using and customizing your new Android phone, or can introduce long time users to new applications. If you have a favorite I missed, please leave it in the comments below.

Friday, June 25, 2010

How to improve battery life on your HTC Evo 4G (or any Android smartphone)


The HTC Evo 4G is an awesome smartphone with its 4G data network, Wi-Fi hotspot tethering, large high resolution display, fast 1GHz snapdragon processor, 512MB memory, 8MP camera with dual LED flash capable of 720p video recording and front facing vga camera for video chat. Hardware wise, it is the current top of the line smartphone (with how fast Android moves there will always be something better in a month or two), but all this power isn't free, it comes at the cost of battery consumption.

There is a lot of false claims online regarding the "abysmal" battery life of the Evo. This was started by a blogger who reported getting 10 hours out of the device while using it for checking email repeatedly, using GPS navigation, listening to music and watching tv. He was also using Advanced Task Killer, which is known to use more battery than it saves. Can someone please explain to me how 10 hours doing all that is bad battery performance? Regardless, complaints have escalated with people now claiming their Evo's die in 3-4 hours from a full charge and cannot even last a night sitting idle in standby. I personally believe most of these claims are coming from the likes of iPhone fanboys who feel threatened by the Evo (or other featured Android smartphones) which have never actually set their hands on the device and are just spreading F.U.D. about the internet in an attempt to defend their "magical" IDevices.

The battery on the Evo is 1500mAh, as far as I know it is the largest standard cellphone battery, but I haven't researched it that much. It is fully capable of making it through an entire day with moderate usage and uses very little power draw at idle even with the sub-optimal default settings. With just a few settings tweaked and a little knowledge of the Android operating system, you can get well over 24 hours of use on a single charge without the need of larger batteries, addtional batteries or usb charging packs (although those options are available if you need them).



New batteries take several charge and discharge cycles to reach full capacity, so the first thing you should do with your Evo (or any mobile device) is turn the power on and let the battery drain completely then charge the battery to 100% with the power turned off (don't worry, a full charge only takes ~2 1/2 hours from 0%). This is the quickest way to condition your battery and should be repeated every few months to keep the battery in tip-top shape.

With the battery conditioned, phone booted and on the home screen, press the Menu button and then press Settings. Press Wireless & networks, then press Wi-Fi settings. Un-check Network Notification.

Network notification constantly scans for open wireless networks to connect to whenever Wi-Fi is turned on, this scanning is a major draw on battery. With network notifications turned off, you can still connect to any wireless hotspots you have previously connected to just by turning Wi-Fi on and being in range. To add a new wireless network in the future, return to this screen and it will scan for any access points within range. Press on the network name to connect and it will be saved for future use.

From the Wi-Fi settings screen, press the Menu button and then press Advanced. Press on Wi-Fi sleep policy and set it to Never. Wi-Fi data requires less power draw than 3G data services and very little draw at idle, however by default the Wi-Fi shuts down shortly after the screen is turned off. If you have any services or applications still running, the phone will try to re-establish a Wi-Fi connection and then disconnect again any time data is requested. This constant connect and disconnect requires way more power than just leaving Wi-Fi idle.

Return to the Wireless & network settings by pressing Back twice and then press 4G settings. From here un-check Network notification. Similar to Wi-Fi network notification this constantly scans for 4G networks in your area to connect to. 4G is a power hog and constantly scanning is even more so. You should only be using 4G when you need the increased bandwith and turning 4G on will automatically connect to the best 4G network in range so it should not need to constantly be scanning.

Press back twice again to return to the main Settings screen and press Sound & display. In here un-check both Phone vibrate and Haptic feedback. Phone vibrate is self-explanatory, it vibrates the phone when it rings, the vibration is very weak and with your volume set appropriately the phone will be audible. It will still vibrate in silent mode with this turned off. Haptic feedback vibrates the phone under your finger when you press on buttons, it makes the phone seem more responsive but each vibrate takes extra power draw. This does not turn off Haptic feedback for the keyboard, only the OS. The phone might seem bland after disabling it, but you get use to it quickly.

Continue down this list to the Display settings and press Brightness. Make sure Automatic brightness is checked (the default setting) and press OK. Now press on Screen timeout and set this to 1 minute (default setting) or lower. These are pretty self explanatory. Automatic brightness will automatically adjust the brightness depending on the ambient lighting. I have always found the screen to be readable outside in direct light or in bed with lights out using this setting.

Return again to the main Settings by pressing back and press Accounts & sync. Go through the list of applications listed and set the syncing schedule for each to an appropriate timeout. I have weather at 1 hour and everything else at 2 hours or Never. I prefer manual syncing so I am not disturbed constantly by email, facebook, twitter or news updates since I am at my desktop all day and already get notified of such events. When I am away from my desktop, I use the phones applications to manually check for updates when needed. Set these to whatever is appropriate to what software you have installed and how you use them.


DO NOT USE TASK KILLERS OR OVERCLOCK UTILITIES. Android is perfectly capable of managing your memory and running processes all on its own without user intervention. It will gracefully close down applications that are idle or when more resources are needed. Task killers run in the background, constantly polling for applications to force close. This eats up way more battery than it saves. In the rare case that you do need to force close an application you can do this by going to Settings > Applications > Manage applications, press the application, then press force stop. Android will also automatically underclock the processor to the minimum required level needed and to almost nothing when the screen is off and no applications are active. If an application is constantly running in the background when it shouldn't, uninstall the application, rate it poorly and leave a comment to the developer to fix their application.

Use the Sense Widgets or Android Power Toggle widget to toggle 4G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS on and off as needed. 4G uses a lot of battery to feed that up to 10Mbps connection, only enable it when you need the extra bandwidth. Wi-Fi can generally be left on as it uses little draw at idle and less draw than 3G for data, but if there will be no Wi-Fi networks in range for a while, turn it off. Bluetooth should only be on when its being used period. GPS uses no power if no applications are currently requesting location data from the API but make sure you close any applications that require a constant GPS lock, I prefer to use cellular location data instead for general location unless I need fine location which requires GPS such as Google Navigation. If you know you will be away for an extended period of time without the ability to charge also turn off auto-sync for all applications.

Use the power button to turn off your display instead of just letting the screen timeout take care of it. Sure, this isn't a big thing especially if you have your screen timeout set low, but every minute your screen is on idle, is another minute you can't use it later.

Use the Back button to exit applications instead of the Home button. This tells Android you are done with the application and to either close the activity immediately or give it priority to close when resources are needed. Pressing the Home button keeps the activity running as normal.

Install the application Spare Parts from the Android Market. Use it to keep an eye on applications requesting a Partial wake lock. This means that those applications are requesting the phone to stay awake even when the screen is off, preventing the phone from ever going fully to sleep. Open Spare Parts and press Battery history, then select Partial wake usage. All applications will use a partial wake lock at some point, but keep an eye on this list for anything that has a high percentage of wake locks and either check the settings of that application or remove it and vote it down in the Market, the app is broken.

You can disable Sense UI and run the vanilla Android interface which will increase the speed (as if the phones aren't fast enough already) and battery life (should be acceptible if you followed the other recommendations). After using Sense, the vanialla Android interface seems lacking, but its acceptable and will greatly improve when Android 2.2 (Froyo) is released for Evo "Very Soon". Do disable Sense UI go to Settings > Applications > Manage Applications > HTC Sense. Press Clear defaults then press Force stop. When you return to the home screen, check the Default checkbox and press Launcher. To enable Sense UI again, repeat these steps but clear defaults and force stop Launcher instead of HTC Sense.


There is an update planned for the week of June 28, 2010 which fixes a known bug with Facebook syncing in Sense UI and will improve battery life. When Android 2.2 (Froyo) hits the Evo "Very Soon", the battery life will be improved significantly.

With everything that these phones are capable of, the battery to the contrary of what some bloggers will have you believe, is actually quite amazing and will last longer than any "magical" smartphone.

Keep in mind batteries DO die. If you have done all of these suggestions, and you are truly seeing poor battery life, you have a bad battery, have it replaced under warranty.

I hope this post was useful to you, if you have any other suggestions please leave them in the comments below.