Geek News: Latest Technology, Product Reviews, Gadgets and Tech Podcast News for Geeks


Fun With Android – “Camera 360”

Posted by tomwiles at 8:05 PM on September 17, 2010

A few months have passed since getting my Sprint HTC Evo. I’ve had a chance to try out a number of different apps. I’ve finally found one I liked well enough to buy. “Camera 360” is a full-featured software camera that can be used in addition to or as a replacement for the stock camera software that ships with different Android phone models.

Camera 360 offers many more features and user controls than come with the standard stock Android camera software. One of the features that sold me on the idea of paying the $3.99 for the ad-free version of the camera is the inclusion of high dynamic range or HDR photo simulation. Camera 360’s HDR simulation modes offers the ability to generate some very interesting photo results.

Here are some before and after HDR simulated images taken with Camera 360. Camera 360 can be set to automatically save the original non-processed JPEG file if that is your preference. The HDR effect works great for some images and not-so-great for others.

Camera 360 is an extremely fun application that has gotten me to the point where I’m constantly playing with my phone’s built-in camera. I haven’t had this much instant gratification fun from a digital camera in a number of years. Camera 360 is an Android app worth paying the $3.99 for.

Do Frequent Phone O/S Updates Make Sense?

Posted by tomwiles at 1:01 AM on August 18, 2010

I’ve had my HTC Evo for a couple of months or more at this point. When I first turned it on, there was an update waiting. The update installed. So far, so good.

Over the next few weeks I heard there was another update available, but it turned out there was a problem with the update. It took HTC and Sprint about a week or more to fix the problem update, but since the Evo was still in very short supply, I chose not to update it right away. What if there was a problem with the update and it bricked the phone? How would I get an immediate replacement? Better to wait.

A few days ago, Sprint and HTC started releasing the “Froyo” or “Frozen Yogurt” Android 2.2 update for the Evo. I decided it was time to take the plunge and accept the update.

There were two updates. The first one downloaded and installed, and then the second. No problems.

Now I’m asking myself, did the upgrade to Android 2.2 live up to all the hype? Android 2.2 on the Evo might be a little bit more snappy, but it’s hard to tell since the Evo already had excellent performance with the version of Android it shipped with. There are a few changes here and there that improve usability, some of them somewhat worthwhile, but was it really worth the trouble? The phone was a great device before the update. It’s a great device after the update.

Are updates to existing smartphones enough reason for consumers to get really excited over? As I see it, if lots of new basic usability and reliability can be added with a particular update, then it’s likely worthwhile. Smartphones are still evolving devices.

It seems to me that the job of adding new functionality to smartphones falls primarily to apps, and not necessarily the operating system itself. The operating system should be a stable, functional platform that offers basic functionality and services to those apps.

Once smartphone operating system design begins to mature however, the danger of updating and changing things just for the sake of change is always a potential risk. Also keep in mind that on average people replace cell phones about every 18 months, which is a much more frequent replacement cycle than desktop and laptop computers.

In the realm of desktop computer software, Microsoft Office is a great example of mature software design. There are only so many things word processing software can do. Microsoft Word and Excel both had good design and usability for me starting way back with Office 95. With subsequent releases, Microsoft seemed to sometimes arbitrarily change things just for the sake of change, which is a huge usability mistake. Computer software design is not the same as car styling design.

Are Smartphone Apps Really Practical?

Posted by tomwiles at 12:50 AM on August 6, 2010

Today’s smartphones are amazing devices and can do some pretty cool things. Some of the apps can be quite remarkable, but do they offer real-world functionality?

Yesterday was another 104 degree day. Get used to it – there are days like this every year.

I was in my bedroom yesterday afternoon and suddenly the lights went out. To spare you the details, the problem ended up being an aging 60 amp breaker that had weakened to the point where it couldn’t handle my dishwasher and washing machine running simultaneously.

So here I was standing there in front of the breaker box with a magnifying glass trying to make out the tiny numbers printed on the breaker in question and writing them down on a piece of paper. After a few minutes, I realized there was a barcode sticker located on the top of the breaker. Unfortunately, it was located in a position where there was no way that I could see the numbers on it.

Barcode… barcode… BARCODE!!! I have multiple barcode apps on my HTC Evo smartphone. “I wonder if I can possibly scan that barcode with my phone?” I thought to myself. I got the phone, started the Amazon Barcode app, and held the phone up a rather awkward, non-ideal position, trying to hold the phone as still as possible. Success!! The barcode suddenly scanned. I was able to click on the button to look the number up in Google and to my delight it popped right up with the product description and the actual model number of the electrical breaker.

A quick trip to the nearest Lowe’s store and $10 dollars later, I had the exact replacement breaker model that I needed.

It turns out that the Amazon Barcode app ended up being very useful in a way that I could have never imagined.

Amazon Kindle E-Books

Posted by tomwiles at 3:55 AM on July 27, 2010

Shortly after getting my HTC Evo phone, one of the initial apps I downloaded from the Android Marketplace was the Amazon Kindle app with the idea I’d probably check it out at some point. Weeks went by, and I pretty much ignored the app.

Yesterday I was talking to a good friend that is in the process of formatting e-books for an author friend of his, including formatting the books in the Kindle format. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned to him once again that I needed check the Android Kindle app out. He pointed out that there were free e-books available in the Kindle format on the Amazon website, including many books from 1922 and before that were now in the public domain, so after I finished his call I went on Amazon.Com with my computer and started digging around in the Kindle Store area of Amazon. Sure enough, there seemed to be plenty of free e-books available, so I started adding them. To get the Kindle app on my phone to synch with my Amazon account couldn’t be easier, I simply entered in my email address and Amazon password into the app. Any books in my Amazon storage area are quickly updated to the app.

Sure, some of the free books weren’t exactly my taste, but I was able to open them on my phone and finally see how well the Kindle app worked. Hummm, not bad – not bad at all. To make a long story short, I ended up finding a current book I really liked and purchased it for $9.99.

What a pleasant surprise I was in for. Reading a Kindle book on my HTC Evo is actually a good experience. The text is quite legible. The surprising part is that twice now I’ve carried the phone with me into restaurants and was able to easily read using the phone while eating. Of course, the HTC Evo has a handy built-in kick stand that allows the phone to sit on its side at an angle. I can eat and then periodically lightly touch the right side of the screen in order to make the Kindle app advance to the next page. The Kindle app even synchs the latest page I’m on back to the server, so if I open the book up again either on my phone or on my laptop, it opens up right at the exact page where I stopped reading.

At this point I have no plans on buying an actual Kindle, however I suspect I will be buying more Kindle e-books in the future. I often carry my phone around with me wherever I go, and because of the way the Kindle app works across all Kindle apps associated with my account, I have instant access to every Kindle e-book in my Amazon account storage area on every associated Kindle installation. There are often times I end up having to cool my heels waiting on something, and it’s incredibly handy to be able to use that otherwise often wasted waiting time reading. Ten minutes here and twenty minutes there really do add up over time.

All of this talk about, “Oh, the iPad has killed the Kindle” is bogus. Amazon has been very smart to put Kindle apps out for as wide a variety of devices as possible. Even if they don’t sell that many Kindle readers, the Kindle format e-book is a huge Amazon win, both for Amazon and for consumers like me.

History Is About To Repeat

Posted by tomwiles at 12:18 AM on July 15, 2010

I remember it well. Back around October of 2004, I first heard the word “podcast” used on The David Lawrence Show via my XM Satellite Radio. It sounded interesting, and I wrote it down on my driver logbook cover with the idea of looking it up later. I heard David mention it again once or twice over the next few weeks. Finally, in early December of 2004 I finally got around to looking it up. I found Adam Curry’s podcast, realized what it was, and knew that I felt compelled to not only listen to podcasts but get involved as a podcaster myself. This was exactly what I’d been looking for for many years – a wide variety of content that I could choose, download, and control the playback/consumption of on MY terms.

Podcasting took previously-existing elements and applied them with a new twist. MP3 files had already existed for a number of years. Virtually every computer already came with a sound card and had the basic ability to both play back and record audio. Portable MP3 players had been around for a while. Apart from Adam Curry’s and Dave Winer’s contribution of the podcasting concept and making it work, the one key element that suddenly made podcasting viable and actually inevitable was the fact that Internet bandwidth got good enough to make it practical.

Practical is an important key.

We have now passed another important milestone in terms of mobile bandwidth. Mobile bandwidth, while not yet perfect, has improved dramatically in both terms of data delivery and coverage. About three or more years ago I had experimented with streaming audio via my smartphone while driving my truck, and quickly determined that it wasn’t viable. I couldn’t listen long at all before I would lose the stream. No problem, I had plenty of podcasts to listen to.

I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about Pandora.Com lately, so last week I finally tried the Pandora Android app out on my new Sprint HTC Evo. To my surprise, it worked amazingly well – even in Arizona and the western third of New Mexico along Interstate 40 where Sprint still has 1XRT service. The streaming music sounded great, and the few times it did briefly drop out in a couple of mountainous areas, it automatically reconnected and reestablished the playback stream.

(By the way, a side note – I was surprised to learn that Verizon has NO data card coverage around the Kingman, Arizona area – my Verizon aircard would NOT connect in the Kingman area.)

Streaming radio via the Internet in a moving vehicle is now practical. Smartphones have also reached critical mass to the point where they are really beginning to move into the mainstream. Even though streaming Internet audio has been around for quite a few years at this point, I believe the automotive market for streaming audio is about to open up in a massive way.

Up until this point most people have felt that streaming Internet radio had plateaued or was only going to grow slowly. I believe that improved cell networks along with smartphone proliferation will create a new market for streaming audio services. The automobile has been the traditional stronghold of terrestrial and now satellite radio services. An old kid that’s been around a while suddenly has a big and growing shot at a new lease-on life.

I believe opportunities exist for streaming Internet radio stations that deliver highly specialized content. For us geeks, imagine a 24/7 tech-centric streaming station. The sky really is the limit. The cost of running a streaming station can be very low, so therefore it becomes possible and practical to narrowcast to relatively small audiences.

Smart Phone Critical Mass

Posted by tomwiles at 4:34 PM on July 12, 2010

The smartphone is a concept and an evolving device that has been around for a few years, though until now mass consumer adoption has been slow.

The introduction of the iPhone in June 2007 marked a radical improvement in smartphone interface design, usability and device capabilities. The iPhone caused a big upheaval in the then somewhat sleepy cell phone market. Even though the iPhone was an instant hit and unquestionably successful product, Apple’s choice of tying the iPhone exclusively to AT&T in the United States likely slowed the pace of faster smartphone adoption. In a way, this slowing of smartphone adoption has been good because it has allowed carriers to beef up their networks in the interim.

Google entered the smartphone market announcing Android in November of 2007. Initial implementations of Android-powered devices demonstrated promise, but it has taken a while for Android itself to be improved, and smartphone manufacturers such as HTC and Motorola to come up with highly-desirable devices that take full advantage of Android’s evolving and and advanced features and capabilities.

We are now in July of 2010. The iPhone 4 has been introduced. Alongside the iPhone 4, highly-desirable and functional devices such as the HTC Evo 4G, Droid Incredible , Droid X, and other Android-powered devices have either arrived or are shortly to come on the market. Now there’s suddenly a new problem – all of these devices are in short supply, and manufacturers such as HTC are scrambling to ramp up production to meet the demand that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Where did all of this smartphone demand come from? There are several pieces of the marketplace puzzle that have finally come together all at the same time. The new smartphone devices are finally at a point where they are highly usable. Multiple competing cell networks are finally at a point where data connectivity and speed make them usable. Also, millions of consumers over the past few years have become intimately familiar with “dumb” phone models that have had smartphone-like features embedded into them, such as integrated cameras, limited Internet browsing, gaming, text messaging and GPS functionality. They make regular use of these features, and are ready to move up to better devices with larger screens.

The smartphone has reached critical mass and is ready to continue the march towards maturation. Smartphones are becoming a very mainstream product. People who a few years ago would have never considered any phone labeled with the smartphone moniker are now readily embracing the new devices.

As a result of this mass consumer adoption of the smartphone that’s now underway, the market for highly-specialized smartphone apps will continue to explode to a degree in the future we might consider surprising even today. Multiple millions of consumers have millions of different needs and expectations. This exploding smartphone app market lends itself to the development of highly specialized niche applications.

Virtually any type of personal or industrial use a computer can be put to can likely also be done with a specialized app running on a modern smartphone. One tiny example of this is already in use is the area of automotive diagnostics. For many years, automotive technicians have used laptop computers in conjunction with special software connected via a cable to an automotive diagnostic port to onboard vehicle computers. Such software already exists for the iPhone to be used in place of a laptop computer, able to replace the cable connection with a Bluetooth connection. Imagine this realized potential multiplied a million times and you catch a glimpse of the future potential for smartphone apps and the uses these devices can and will be put to.

Smartphones Growing In Europe

Posted by Andrew at 5:07 AM on July 5, 2010

IDC‘s latest press release on mobile phones and smartphones in Europe shows the sector grew 8% in the past year, that smartphones represent over a quarter of all phones shipped and that current leader Nokia is losing market share.

The total mobile market grew 8% year-on-year with over 42 million units shipped in the first quarter of 2010.  Of this, smartphones were 12 million units, representing 28% of the market and up 57% on last year.  Mobile phones actually dropped 4% showing the trend towards the more powerful devices.

Overall, Nokia still rules the mobile market, with just under 33% of the market in the first quarter but this is down 9% in the year.  Samsung runs a close second with 29% of the market.  No-one else has anywhere near the  market share of these two.  Even Apple and RIM only have 7.0% and 5.6% respectively.

Looking at just the smartphone market, Nokia is still out front with nearly 41% market share, but again this is well down from 57% last year.  Apple is second with 25%, closely followed by RIM with 20%.

HTC comes fourth with 7.5% and consequently, Android outsold Windows Mobile for the first time.  No sign at all of Palm’s WebOS devices which anecdotally have only sold well in Germany.

To honest, anyone familiar with the space doesn’t need IDC to tell them that Nokia is struggling.  Partly it’s because the smartphone range isn’t great, but I think Nokia just isn’t hip anymore.  Forgive me if I’m being shallow but Apple = cool.  Blackberry = cool.  Android = cool.

The full tables are in the press release but they’re not labelled very well.  The first table is the total mobile phone market, the second table is the smartphone market.

Living With The Sprint HTC Evo

Posted by tomwiles at 7:46 PM on July 3, 2010

I’ve been living with my HTC Evo now for a few weeks, long enough where I can make a few informed observations about the device.

The Evo’s 4.3 inch multi-touch screen is superb. I’ve been surprised by the brightness and readability of the Evo’s screen even in a vehicle or outdoors in sunlight. The screen is big enough to be useful, yet the device still fits into a regular shirt pocket.

The Evo is fast and responsive. It seems that no matter what programs are open, the Evo remains just as responsive — there’s no wait for programs or configuration screens to pop open. The other smart phones I’ve owned in the past are dog-slow and sluggish by comparison.

The HTC’s “Sense” user interface that sits on top of Android is a winner. Popular social networking sites are slickly integrated right into every aspect of the phone’s functionality, making it possible to share most everything you can think of with a couple of taps.

The WiFi hotspot feature is also a tremendous convenience. It does have its quirks though. I’ve found that if I have opened up a bunch of different applications in the course of using the phone, if I then open up the WiFi hotspot feature, something will go wrong after a few hours and turn off the battery’s charging circuit. Something I have installed and am running may be causing this to happen. If I reboot the phone and then run the WiFi hotspot feature, this problem doesn’t occur and the battery keeps charging when it’s plugged in to AC power.

The integrated GPS is able to quickly find a signal. There are two GPS navigation choices that are included – Google Navigation and Sprint Navigation. Both work exactly as expected. I find myself making the most use of Google Navigation and Google Maps. The ability to search for businesses in a local area based on the phone’s own GPS location is extremely useful and I typically find I use that feature several times a day.

4G is currently not a good reason to buy an Evo because 4G coverage is currently extremely limited. This situation is in the process of changing. In the meantime, I’m happy with Sprint’s 3G coverage. I knew about this 4G limitation going in to getting this phone, so it’s not a problem for me. In reality, it’s likely going to take two or three years before 4G is widely deployed. I’ve been a Sprint data customer for more than 5 years, so I’ve witnessed (and lived with) the process firsthand of them going from 1XRT service that was limited to the eastern half of the country to widely-deployed EVDO Rev “A” 3G service.

Android is light years better than Windows Mobile 5, 6 or 6.5. When Android needs to pull data from the Internet it quickly pulls it without fuss or muss. All the versions of Windows Mobile I’ve dealt with have a “Dial-up Networking” routine they have to go through just as if it was a desktop computer connecting via a modem, which is slow and sometimes prone to fail. Windows Mobile data connections must be manually closed when not in use or they can drain the battery. Android just does what you expect it to without jumping through a bunch of hoops.

The Evo’s main 8 megapixel camera is very good, and the interface allows instant uploading of photos to services such as Flickr and Facebook. The front-facing camera will work with a free program called “Fring” that will allow two-way video conferencing, but I’ve found Fring’s interface confused and somewhat unreliable.

Sprint appears to be blocking the uploading of videos recorded on the phone even through the phone’s integrated browser when signed in to YouTube. However, I was able to email a video as an attachment to my YouTube account.

The Evo’s “HD video” recording capability is not anywhere close to HD standards. Furthermore, the sound quality of recorded video and audio is quite poor. The Evo is not a replacement for a real video camera. It is only fair to note here that all iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads have superior audio recording capabilities. Also the iPhone 4’s HD video recording capabilities are obviously quite superior to the Evo’s.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the HTC Evo. That being said, keep in mind that it requires expensive voice/data plans if you wish to take advantage of all its capabilities. Furthermore as a two and one half year plus Sprint customer I’m satisfied with the quality and speed of the Sprint network.

Better Apps and Better Data Needed

Posted by tomwiles at 7:20 PM on June 19, 2010

Better Apps and Better Data NeededWhen it comes to certain types of software or social networking sites, I have tended to hold back and let others to be the first to jump on the bandwagon. For example, Twitter was around a year or two before I decided to sign up and see what all the fuss was about. I did the same thing with Facebook. After all, it seems in the initial stages there are dozens and dozens of similar types of sites that are trying to compete for the big prize, and I refuse to sign up for any or all of them until it becomes clear that they are doing something to set themselves apart to garner real interest. In the past I’ve signed up for plenty of sites and it seems like I’m the only one present. The formula is easy – the more people that sign up and actually use a site, the more useful it becomes.

In the smart phone realm I’ve been hearing people talk a lot about Foursquare. I kept hearing it mentioned, but really had little clue what functionality it offered. I kept hearing about Starbucks discounts and Mayors in conjunction with Foursquare and wondered what on earth that was about and what that had to do with a smart phone app.

Since I’m the proud owner of the Sprint Evo 4G smart phone, I’ve been checking out all sorts of interesting Android apps. The Foursquare name kept periodically coming up, so I decided I would check it out.

Once I loaded Foursquare on my Evo and opened the app up for the first time I was presented with a Foursquare login screen and realized I had to go to their site in a browser to create an account, which I did. As part of the Foursquare account generation process, they present you with options of connecting your new account to Facebook and Twitter – very smart on their part, because it helps to connect with friends that are already Foursquare members.

After I logged in on my phone, it was cool to be able to see where those friends had been when they “checked in” from various restaurants and businesses around the country and the world. That’s cool. However, the “Location” tab makes the app EXTREMELY useful for me. I’m an over-the-road truck driver, constantly driving up and down freeways across the country. I happened to be at Gas City, Indiana when I installed Foursquare, so I was a bit surprised to see listed all the restaurants and convenience stores at the exit I was at along I-69, and the distance in meters they were away from where my truck was parked. It uses the phone’s built-in GPS chip so that it knows exactly where it’s at and what businesses are around – within “four square miles” perhaps?

All of these GPS-enabled smart phone apps are great, but they don’t solve all of my problems. I’m constantly looking for truck washes (refrigerated trailers constantly need washed out before reloading) as well as truck stops and truck parking. Even Google’s database has been gamed – try typing “truck stop” or “truck wash” along with the city name of your choice into Google and see if the search results aren’t misleading. “Truck wash” and a city name will often result in car wash business listings, useless for my purposes.

The bottom line is there’s still plenty of room for future smart phone app development. More specialized apps and better databases are two elements that can result in more useful apps.

Smart Phones Getting Smarter

Posted by tomwiles at 1:20 PM on June 18, 2010

Smart Phones Getting SmarterWith my recent purchase of the Sprint HTC Evo 4G, I’m on my third smart phone. It’s been quite an interesting ride.

The first one was an HTC PPC-6700, running Windows Mobile 5 with the original incarnation of Alltel EVDO, integrated WiFi, and a slide-out keyboard. The phone had terrible battery life, and the operating system was sluggish. I personally found the slide-out keyboard to be next to useless, and it’s presence made the phone too thick. On long phone calls or with intensive data usage, the phone could get hot enough to cause it to lock up or reboot without good ventilation. Nonetheless, I kept it for a couple of years, passing it on to one of my younger brothers when I was done with it.

Smart phone number two was a Sprint HTC Touch. It had the same sized screen, but was much thinner and sleeker. It had a bit better battery life than the 6700, but not by much, and no WiFi. The operating system was still a bit sluggish. Sprint and HTC upgraded it to Windows Mobile 6.1, and with the integrated GPS chip, it functioned with the included Sprint GPS Navigation software, which is actually quite good. For about a year and a half, I used this phone as my podcast aggregator (with a paid aggregator app) and playback device, which actually worked reasonably well. A $20 dollar keyboard app gave me an iPhone-style onscreen keyboard to replace the next-to-useless software keyboard included with Windows Mobile. I used this phone up until a few days ago, keeping it for about two and one half years.

Enter now the Evo 4G. I have to say this is probably one of the most impressive, satisfying gadgets I’ve ever owned, and that’s saying something. Compared to the HTC Touch, the Evo is about ¾ of an inch longer and ½ an inch wider and about the same thickness as the Touch. The Evo’s large touch screen is spectacular, and the Android operating system is extremely responsive and smooth regardless of how many apps I have running. The integrated WiFi hotspot is fantastic and works incredibly well, though it can cause the need to reboot the phone after downloading about 1.5 gigabytes of data. The Evo stays very cool while in use.

My conclusion? The best computer is the one that’s in your pocket.