Yann Vernier’s Blog

2011-11-06

Moving the blog

Today I helped my mother getting a wordpress site up on our domain, vernier.se. Mostly so that I won’t forget to keep it running, I decided to move my own blog over there, too. I apologize for any inconvenience, but please head on over.

Yann Vernier’s blog at yann.vernier.se

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2011-10-12

Firmware news

Filed under: Android, Ebook reader — yannv @ 15:41

Yesterday, on my way home, I saw a long awaited bit of news; CyanogenMod 7.1 has been released. This prompted a round of firmware updating for both the HTC and PocketBook (I know, that’s not an Android device – but I was looking up firmware news), and here are my notes about the experience at this very early stage.

Android update – CyanogenMod 7.1

Most of this went well. I found it very hard to look up what’s new in the newer ClockworkMod (5.0.2.0), and as it’s recovery level stuff, I was hesitant to install it. In the end, I did install it, and it works fine. The new ROM manager (4.5.0.1) doesn’t seem to manage passing commands to the recovery mode, so I now do backups and upgrades from the recovery menu itself. In fact, I had to, as the initial upgrade attempt led to a complete hang; recovery mode installing of 7.1 fixed that, at least.

As for the new update, the changelog is rather exhaustive but some details only show up in testing:

Bluetooth tethering

It’s supposed to be there – sdptool browse on a laptop shows PAN service. The downside here is that what I used to have was Bluetooth DUN, and that’s what my ebook reader supports. Obviously the issue here is more with pocketbook’s lockdowns (or I’d just add PAN into the pocketbook), but it’s just not doing the job for me.

Touch to focus

Works just fine, actually; I just had to switch focus mode to touch. Unfortunately, that disables the half-press autofocus. I would have preferred to have touch do touch to focus and half-press do center or maybe last point focus; perhaps also long touch to snap a picture once focusing finishes. Trying this feature out inadvertently led me to discover that doubletap zooms the preview, which is helpful.

Calendar

I initially forgot to reinstall the Google apps. I’m not sure if it’s because of this, or because of installing them from the original zip, but it ended up wiping my calendar. If I had it backed up to Google this would not be an issue, but apparently this is Google’s way of punishing offline users, because even restoring a full backup doesn’t get it back. As the calendar is as critical to me as the phone book, I’m very disappointed.

PocketBook update – D903.2.1.2 20110916_194508

This update was a little smoother. Dump the update file in the internal flash, choose update, and there it goes. Although this is not the first 2.1 firmware, it’s still a beta and introduces major new features; think of it as another prerelease. But it’s a bit of a milestone, and I’ll show why.

Multitasking

You read that right. It runs Linux, so of course it has been multitasking all this time, but now you can officially jump between programs. We’ve done this with some hackery before, such as review’s hack to scribble on screenshots, but not to this level. The quick menu (formerly last open books) now shows active programs, holding Back shows not only which are open but what program (so we can tell pdfviewer and adobeviewer apart). This really makes the 256MB RAM of the 903 work for us, as we can have multiple books open (I personally keep jumping between datasheets, protocol specifications and such).

One detail here is that long Back no longer defaults to force quit (but it is configurable). The Task list (also referred to as Express-menu and Task manager) has a new context menu to kill tasks, although they’ve forgotten to add translations for the choices; they show as @task_goto and @task_kill. I’ve also had issues with slowdowns and even the system becoming unresponsive, but it doesn’t happen easily; one might want to do simple housekeeping like closing books with Back instead of jumping out with Home.

New library browser

One of my major reasons to choose the PocketBook was that you could browse the filesystem, and therefore arrange your books any way you like with directories. It didn’t have very good metadata handling. The new library browser is sharp, slick, and fast! It can filter on books we’re reading or favorites; group by folder, author, series, genre or format; sort by file name, title, last open, creation, series or author, in either order; and search instantly. The popup menu to select viewer, handle files and such is now shown with a long press of the center button, because the menu button toggles the library view options menu.

I find two weaknesses with the new browser: Jumping to specific pages in a long list is gone, but this is mitigated by the list updating near instantly with the paging buttons. Also, returning to the list after launching something doesn’t necessarily get you to the same item you were on before.

Note taking and text to speech

The new note taking we saw in the previous release, which has optimized scribbling on top of pages, is now available in pdfviewer and fbreader, not only adobeviewer. This means it works for most supported formats (djviewer is still lagging). This actually brings us a note taking feature that can compete with any other brand, very good going!

The text to speech engine, likewise, is now in pdfviewer, adobeviewer and fbreader.

On-screen keyboard finally usable

Oh, we could enter things. But it was incredibly sluggish, because every time you entered a letter it would slowly flash that key before moving on to what you typed next. Now those animations are allowed to overlap, which means we can type about as fast as it goes, rather than type then wait an eternity for it to finish drawing. It’s not flawless however, as moving around with the buttons sometimes leaves a key highlit; but this is a minor cosmetic flaw.

New web browser

Yes, again. This time around it looks to be Arora. It properly supports stylus calibration, paging with the page buttons, and saving settings and bookmarks. There’s even a file selector to open local files, should you wish to get html files rendered accurately instead of the reading oriented view of fbreader.

It’s not all good, however; it’s impossible to navigate without the stylus (menu causes it to exit), it also plays animated GIFs (seriously, just give us the last frame and stop wasting energy), and it does not get the mobile or printer friendly layouts of pages. It also does not allow editing URLs, only entering new ones. Offline usage is seriously crippled by it attempting to go online repeatedly even when it does not need to, but at least it doesn’t simply close like the old one did.

It seems like the old browsers are gone (I’ll have to investigate this closer), including breaking PocketNews.

FBreader update

FBreader has received some proper attention this time around; along with text to speech and note taking, it got what looks like an upgrade to a more recent upstream release. This means it supports images and formatting (at least to some degree), making it much more reasonable for viewing epub and html material.

Conclusion

This is not the update that brings the PocketBook to a level I recommend. It is the update that brings its featyre set out of a level I’m embarrassed to own. I only wish the same could be said about the company and restrictions (why do these companies demand we respect their sabotage while they do not respect the developers’ licensing?). If you have a 603 or 903, I’d say the update is well worth it, but for other models I haven’t an inkling. I’d say the next things to work on are: Zoom and pan controls, button controls for a web browser, perhaps text to speech and new notes in djviewer, and bluetooth PAN. But we already know PocketBook do not take advice. It’s not quite risk free, as I’ve had to hit reset once (and we don’t have a tool for that in the stylus like Palm did), but it’s a considerable step up.

2011-09-14

Some more Android bits

Filed under: Android — yannv @ 23:23

A few apps were omitted from my previous post about Android, mostly because I considered them not that helpful for the audience at large. However, I don’t really have a large audience, nor a clue what they’d like to see – so that’s a pretty poor reason. And of course a few were added since, to cover unanticipated whims. So, here’s a few more.

STHLM Traveling

I nearly always use SL (Stockholm local transit) to get around. They offer a usable web search, and a wap page (which they’ve naturally downgraded to the point a search can’t be bookmarked on my older WAP browser), but STHLM Traveling simply beats them for convenience. It searches the same backend, but has smoother completion, can search from current position, allows saving routes without registering some online account and so on. Straightforward and helpful.

E-nummerguiden

This tool would really be useful to a wider European audience, but it’s in Swedish. E numbers are simply a database of food additives within Europe, and this lets me look them up. It’s good to be able to tell what’s what even offline. Wikipedia do cover the list. The downside of this app will sound silly – it just doesn’t handle input that well. The search button does nothing, and it doesn’t use numeric entry although all it’s for is looking up numbers.

Simon Tatham’s puzzle collection

Really installed more out of habit than anything else. On the E71, I frequently used the puzzles, but on the HTC I rarely do – in part because it’s much better for reading, and in part because the controls are just worse. I’m not at all accurate with the capacitive touchscreen and the optical trackpad requires awkward motions instead of simple presses.

PDF viewer

Naturally, the phone can’t beat my e-book reader for displaying PDFs, but it does have interactivity and online connectivity going for it. So as I browse the web and find an article, I frequently want to see the contents. A PDF viewer was in order, and I don’t much like what Adobe have done on other platforms, so I figured I’d go for an open source one. The one I got is called APV (although it shows as PDF Viewer), and it’s just decent. I’m likely to reconsider this one, as their webpage linked me to VuDroid.

Addendum: Nope, VuDroid wasn’t even close. Admittedly I like getting DjVu viewing too, but the interface was awful (fullscreen does not mean cover my screen with an unnecessary and unclear UI widget instead of content), and it was really slow. As it is now, that’s one app that won’t replace APV. APV annoys me enough by popping up zoom buttons (it lacks pinch) every time I scroll, but those do go away.

Google Sky Map

A rather neat gimmick, this shows stars – something I had plenty of programs for, but it fits well in this format. Using the accelerometer, location, and compass, it maps nicely to how you point the phone.

StopWatch & Timer

I added this simply because I’ve missed the functions on the E71. It’s fairly decent, though the whole thing looks like a bit of an advertisement. Always the nitpicker, I have to point out this not only does only one timer (for stopwatch, that’s fairly normal and it does laps), it only does one of the functions at any time. So no stopwatch while the timer is ticking, and no nice way to time multiple things. I could go to the effort of writing a better one, but I have other time wastes like writing this down.

Incidentally, I also got my first homebuilt Android app running this Monday. It’s of very local use only (remote control for a robot at work), so it’s not going up for public use, but it’s a start. It was nearly a pure web port using PhoneGap (and there’s the link I’m most likely to have a use for in this whole article), but I did have to add one line of Java to get it to go fullscreen properly.

2011-08-10

Useful Android addons

Filed under: Android, Gadgets — yannv @ 09:30

It had to happen. Given my gadget mania, physical wear, and Nokia’s new direction (straight down the drain), the replacement for my E71 has at last been selected, and it’s an Android phone.

I still required a physical keyboard, GPS, extensibility and tethering. On the wishlist were high resolution screen, good battery, openness and good platform support (like the scripting support for the E71 did not get). So I ended up with a HTC Desire Z, seemingly also known as Vision or G2.

With a background from PalmOS and Symbian, I had some demands for the PIM portion of the device. Unlimited reminders, a readable calendar, and note taking. From the E71 days, I also use the map quite frequently, so preloading maps was important. And a SSH client for remotely accessing my shell accounts. Reading up on Android, I found the default installs are a bit of a crapshoot (in particular, the HTC was unnecessarily sluggish), but the platform can be mixed and matched rather well. So I set about finding tools.

Basic system

I went for CyanogenMod, as I love to tinker, it listed a few attractive features, and a friend uses it as well. As it turned out, starting it up took a bit more effort than expected (the instructions I found were wrong), and some of the listed features were absent (in particular, camera focus controls). It’s quite possible some of the features I started searching for later were actually included in HTC’s offering; I do not know.

Calendar

Some searching online, browsing through reviews and examining screenshots, led me to install Jorte. It is a calendar with a focus on plain looks, but with many options and a slightly more direct interface than the original calendar. I hit two little gotchas in setting it up, however: First, set it to use Google’s calendar for storage, not its own, or repeated events won’t work. Second, in order to avoid duplicated alerts, turn alerts off in the old calendar, and find the oddly named “When not notifying at Google Calendar mode”; this setting must be off to enable Jorte’s alerts. I’m not yet entirely certain what to use in the end; the one thing I’ve not found in Jorte that Calendar has is selecting time graphically (tap a time to create an event).

A particular feature I’ll probably want to find later on is recurring tasks. Mainly for chores like shopping and laundry, these would be tasks that show up as reminders a set time after they’ve been completed.

Messaging

Email

I installed K-9 Mail, as well as APG for PGP support. It offers usable IMAP support including folders.

SMS

I had initially thought I’d be adding something for this, perhaps chomp.. but the default Messaging app looks good enough to me.

Remote access

I use ConnectBot for SSH access. The version I installed doesn’t recognize the Tab key, and I have to mess with the software keyboard to get < or >, but it’s a start.

Note taking

This section quite baffled me. There was no apparent note taking included; neither text nor scribbles. So I searched and found Note Everything. While it’s the first app so far to have a Pro variant, the difference is only in extra features; there are no ads to suffer, and the free version is quite usable. It offers text, doodle and audio notes. The latter two are quite basic (though at least easy to export), but the text notes can stand a little closer inspection. You can organize notes in folders, put them on the home screen as widgets (although only their title shows up), and even link them together WikiStyle.

Calculator and unit converter

Lots of options, as usual, but the one I’m using currently is handyCalc. The one gripe is that there’s no soft keypad for hexadecimal entry. It does a lot of other things, however, like equation system solving, editable history, custom variables and functions, and graphs. The advanced features may require going through the demo or tutorial, but luckily that is included. It also covers units and currencies.

GPS stuff

For geocaching, I installed (by advice from a friend) c:geo. It works well, including custom directions (by coordinates plus bearing and distance), online logging, and compass. I added Geohash Droid for geohashing, which seems much more basic but usable. It does link to the day’s wiki page. And of course, there’s Maps – and the addon to precache areas, which I found under the Labs menu choice.

Data auditing

This is another surprising omission. I couldn’t find how much traffic I had been using on my cellular data plan, so I installed 3G Watchdog. There are some reports of inaccuracy, and it can only log traffic from when it is installed, so I’ll see how it holds up. The Pro variant allows tracking each application, which could come in really handy.

Shortcuts

Not an app, but quite helpful – beyond categorizing your apps into folders, putting apps (and particular views inside) on the home screen, and multitasking, I find I can bind pretty much the whole keyboard to jump directly to my apps. This is done in Settings→Applications→Quick launch, where Search+letter can be bound.

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