Apps and Android Fragmentation

Smashing Magazine LogoWhen it comes to developing for Google’s favourite operating system, Android fragmentation is often bandied around as an issue for app developers. But how bad is it really and what’s the impact?

Fortunately you don’t have to make do with my wild guesses and assumptions as Smashing Magazine have a done a comprehensive critical analysis of testing done by app and game developers using the TestDroid cloud-based testing suite. Over 17 million tests were run on 288 different devices over 3 months early in 2014. Depending on region and measurement, the 288 devices represent somewhere between 92% and 97% of Android phones. With the credentials laid out, let’s take a look and see what the testing revealed.

Most of us will have seen the version stats from Google, showing the relative percentage of Android versions. Put simply, Froyo is less than 1%, Gingerbread is around 10% and ditto for Ice Cream Sandwich. Jelly Bean takes the lion’s share at nearly 55% and KitKat comes in second at about 25%.

Android LogoSmashing Magazine’s testing showed that on average 23% of apps exhibit a problem when moving between versions of Android. The biggest problems arose with Gingerbread (30%) followed by KitKat at 21%. Jelly Bean and ancient Honeycomb were next. Interestingly, although Gingerbread is the oldest version with significant market share, 40% of tested apps still work with this version.

The figures also reveal that ICS is the most stable version of Android with a low failure rate that broadly continues through Jelly Bean, though KitKat was more problematic with an increased error rate.

While the OS can cause problems, the hardware’s not blameless either. The research looked at screen resolution and the impact of memory on apps as well. Devices with resolutions of  2560 × 1600, 1280 × 800 and 1280 × 720 pixels gave the fewest problems, typically 1.5% or less. Small screen resolutions were the worst with 400 × 240 and 320 × 240 pixels being particularly bad.

On the RAM front, 512 MB seems to be a significant cut-off point and it’s no surprise that Google recommends this as a minimum. With this amount of memory or less, around 40% of tested apps exhibited problems. At 768 MB and above, the error rate falls to 16% and by 1 GB RAM, it’s down to 1%.

Overall, this is all interesting stuff and a fascinating insight into what app developers have to put up with. I’ve only covered a few of the areas and there’s additional analysis on drivers, OEM customisations and chipsets. I thoroughly recommend that you read the whole article over at Smashing Magazine to understand more.

Taking a slightly different view from a user perspective, if you want a really stable device, you should be buying a high resolution device, with 1 GB RAM and running Ice Cream Sandwich. Hmm.

Read An eBook Day

Read an ebook dayJust in case you were going to miss it, Thursday is “Read an a eBook Day“, a celebration of modern storytelling. Surprisingly, it’s not sponsored by Amazon on behalf of the Kindle but rather OverDrive whose apps let you borrow library books for free. Yes, for free.

It’s probably one of the best keep secrets in the whole tablet and ereader business. Contrary to what Amazon would  have you believe, you don’t have to buy ebooks from them as there are plenty of up-to-date novels available from your local library. The downside is that transferring books isn’t that slick and you need an ereader that’s not tied in to the Amazon ecosystem. I have a Nook, but ereaders from Sony and Kobo are supported as well, and you need to load the books via a PC rather than downloading across the Net.

If you have tablet, it’s much easier as the OverDrive app is available for iOS, Android, Kindle and Windows Phone, as well as for Windows and Mac desktop platforms. Check the appropriate app store or else try OverDrive‘s web site. Once you have the app, all that’s needed is a membership of a library and you can download directly from your library to your tablet.

Instead of “Read an eBook Day”, Thursday should be “Read a Free eBook from your Local Library Day”.

Archos Smart Home Review

Archos LogoThese days it’s either i-this or smart-that with new gadgets measuring and changing our personal environment. From Fitbit to Philips Hue, the internet of things is steadily growing and into this increasingly connected world, French firm Archos have stepped in. Their Smart Home tablet wirelessly connects sensors to a central hub that monitors and initiates actions based on conditions. Archos kindly lent me a Smart Home to raise the IQ of my house. Let’s take a look.

Archos Smart Home Box

In the box there’s the Smart Home tablet, plus six connected objects; two mini-cams, two movement tags and two weather tags. The tablet itself looks much like a digital photo frame but it’s actually a small 7″ device running Android 4.2.

Archos Smart Home Front View

Archos Smart Home Rear View

In the looks department, the Smart Home tablet fits the bill with styling that wouldn’t look out of place in a living room. It is all plastic, including the screen which seems to be acrylic rather than glass, but perhaps will better withstand being knocked. Some thought has been given to the design as the screen’s viewing angle appears to be have been adjusted slightly so that screen looks good when someone looks down at it, rather than straight on. There’s only about 2.5 GB of free memory on-board but there is a microSD card slot to boost the Smart Home’s capacity. Performance-wise, it’s no speed demon with a 1.2 GHz ARM processor, but as most of the time the Smart Home just sits there receiving data, it’s a not a big deal. A camera and a thermometer are built into the tablet too and these can be used to take pictures and measure the temperatureas well as the connected objects.

The connected objects are shown below with the mini-cam, weather tag and movement tag from left to right. All have sticky pads which allow adhesion to flat surfaces round the house. The mini-cam ball is held in the foot by magnets and it means the ball can oriented in almost any direction. The weather tag measures temperature and humidity, and the movement tag can measure both motion and door opening / closing.

Archos Smart Home Sensors

Getting setup is easy and straightforward. Running the Archos Smart Home software initially asks for the different rooms where devices are located.

Smart Home Rooms

Once the rooms are setup, the connected objects can be added into the relevant room. The objects use Bluetooth rather than Zigbee and pairing is simply a case of holding down a button on the connected object for 5 seconds. It worked flawlessly. The pairing screen shows all the objects available, not only the ones in the box.

Accessories

Once all setup, the Smart Home tablet presents a view with the room and all the objects in the room.

Hall

In the Hall, I had two mini-cams, a weather tag and a movement tag. Tapping on any device in the app then gives more data or information – here’s the weather tag showing data over the past week for both temperature and humidity.

Temperature and Humidity

Great but how do we get from monitoring the weather to doing something smart? Archos have the answer by building simple “if this, do that” programs. For example, if temperature falls below two degrees Celsius, email to me “It might be slippy.” Or more usefully, if the door opens, take a picture and send an email – like this.

Program

Sure enough, when the front door is opened, I get an email (my personal email is address is obscured by the black box).

Mail

 

The mini-cam also takes a picture (or a short video) but they won’t show a live feed, presumably because Bluetooth can’t transfer the data very quickly. You’ll notice one of the slight problems….the Smart Home doesn’t really take pictures fast enough as in many of the photos the person who opened the door has already moved out of shot. These are all real life photos, nothing was staged. A mini-cam positioned further down the hall generally did better at getting people entering the property.

Minicam Pictures

Out of the box, there’s a fairly limited range of actions such as send email, turn on plug and so on, but Smart Home can use the Tasker app to do more. Tasker supports a wide range of actions, including starting other apps, which makes it quite a powerful solution. However, even this simple email-me-on-the-front-door-opening is useful when wanting to know if someone has arrived home safely (or a thief has broken into your house!)

Other nifty features are that the Smart Home can be accessed from other tablets or smartphones. After a straightforward authorisation process, the system can be viewed from other devices both inside and outside the house. Here’s what it looks like on my smartphone.

Smartphone View

Overall, the Smart Home worked well, mostly sitting on the table doing its job. I did find that I mostly used my ordinary tablet (a Nexus 7)  to work with the Smart Home rather than picking up the unit itself. I set the Smart Home tablet up as a digital photo frame using the standard Android Daydream screensaver to fit into the room.

There were a couple of problems, the first being the range and penetration of Bluetooth. I live in a modest house with brick walls which meant that the weather tag at the rear of the property couldn’t be picked up if the Smart Home tablet was in the front room. Secondly, battery life – the mini-cams seemed get through a set of batteries in about a fortnight and each one took three CR2450 button cells. The movement and weather tags weren’t quite so bad – perhaps a month and only one battery. As an aside there’s no way of muting the low battery warnings that appear in orange on the screen. A connected object could be disconnected but that deleted the historical date at the same time.

Bizarrely, the other problem was how I felt about spying on my family, which is not anything to do with the Archos Smart Home, so I’ll save that for another post. I can see the Smart Home working for families with children that come home when the parents are still at work and the email notifications would give any parent a measure of comfort that their son or daughter is home safe.

The Smart Home costs GB£199 from Archos’ online store. Other additional connected objects are “coming soon”, including an HD weatherproof camera and a siren tag. In summary, the Smart Home is a well integrated system that has room for expansion with more types of connected objects but watch out for the limitations of Bluetooth range and battery life.

Thanks to Archos for the loan of the Smart Home.

 

Optoma ML1500 DLP Projector Review

Optoma LogoThe Optoma ML1500 DLP Projector is a stylish ultra mobile LED projector which pretty much does it all in a very neat little package with a good complement of ports, connections and fun tricks. Let’s take a look.

Optoma Front

Measuring just 27 x 17 x 4.5 cm and weighing only 1.4 kg, the ML1500 is very portable and comes with a neoprene carrying case. As you’ll see from the photos, the projector is attractively styled, with the ports on the back and a touchpad on the top. The touchpad can be used to operate the built-in menus to control the ML1500 and there is also a supplied remote control for when changes need to be made from afar. On the bottom, a third leg can be screwed in and out to adjust the angle, and a standard photo mount allows the projector to be hung from above. Finally, a lever on the side controls the focus.

Optoma ML1500 Rear

Round the back there is a plethora of connections, with composite video, HDMI and VGA connectors, 3.5mm jacks for audio and microUSB, USB and SD card slots. Connect up the ML1500 to a PC or laptop and it appears as an Optoma WXGA (1280×800) monitor and with suitable OS, you can do the usual tricks of either reproducing the current desktop or extending the desktop to the ML1500’s display. Locking onto the VGA signal took a second or two, but nothing out of the ordinary. The small size of the projector meant that I could keep it on my desk and if I needed to have an impromptu team meeting that needed something shown, I could quickly turn the ML1500 onto a nearby wall, rather than everyone huddle round a monitor.

Optoma ML1500 Remote ControlOn the fun side, the ML1500 makes a good partner to mini media streamers like the Roku Streaming Stick or Chromecast. The stick can be plugged into the ML1500’s HDMI sockets and power pulled from an adjacent USB socket. All set and good to watch Netflix or other streaming service with minimum of fuss.

The ML1500 does a few other tricks up its sleeve (or USB port as the case may be). First of all, the projector has a built-in media player and office document viewer that will show films, play music and display Word, Excel, Powerpoint and PDF files directly from either an SD card or USB memory stick. I didn’t deliberately try to break the viewer but the ML1500 managed to cope with all the Office documents that I threw at it. It’s relatively easy to navigate round the documents and zoom in or out with the remote control. The on-screen menus are easy to navigate with large friendly icons showing the way.

Playing movies is cool too, with the ML1500 handling mp4, avi and mov format files (though I didn’t confirm the codecs inside each). The presentation is good with the projector keeping up with the action and the picture is fine in unlit room – it doesn’t need to be darkened. Obviously you can have a pretty big screen if you want – I watched a couple of films and really got into the cinematic feel of things. Colours were good and sound is ok – it’s not hifi but you can connect up via a 3.5 mm jack if you want more oomph.

Optoma WiFi DongleNext on the list of clever things is the USB wifi dongle which plugs into the ML1500. Once connected to the “Optoma Display” wireless network, you can use an app on your smartphone or tablet to play presentations and display media. I used WiFi-Doc on Android and the app is available for iPhone and iPad too. It’s easy to use – select what you want to show and it’ll be shown by the ML1500. You can zoom in and out of photos and documents, and about a second later, the projector will update to show the change. Here’s the app showing a photo of the house that Mel Gibson used while filming Braveheart. The app wasn’t quite as good as the built-in player when it came showing office files as a couple of pdfs had missing images.WiFi-Doc App

A final nifty feature was auto-keystone correction, where the ML1500 automatically adjusts the projection to account for the angle of the projector, which means that the picture on the screen is always rectangular and not fatter at the top than the bottom.

One minor niggle is that adjusting the focus has to be done manually and it can’t be corrected using the remote control. Not a big deal in most circumstances but could be an issue if the projector was mounted high up.

Although I’m not a projector expert, I enjoyed putting the ML1500 through its paces. Its comprehensive ports and built-in media player make it a good choice for both business and pleasure, and for those on the move, the low weight and PC-free capabilities, are attractive. I think it’s priced about right too at under £700.

Thanks to Optoma for the review unit.

Roku Streaming Stick Review

This is Gonna Be FunRoku‘s streaming media boxes have been around since 2008, arguably taking the #2 spot behind the Apple TV. This is an impressive achievement considering the absence of a major brand behind the product line. Here in the UK, set-top boxes like Apple TV, Roku, and Google TV have a relatively low-profile: the BBC’s iPlayer catchup service is massively popular, but as the app is widely available on satellite decoders, cable boxes, games consoles and laptops, there is little demand for an additional streaming device. The latest generation of low cost, plug-in streamers from Roku and Google may well change this. Let’s take a look.

Roku Box

What I have here is the UK edition of Roku’s Streaming Stick, a thumb-sized streaming device that plugs directly into a TV’s HDMI port, bringing Roku’s wide range of content and 450+ channels to a British audience. We’re used to a high quality TV service from the likes of the BBC, so the content has to be there, and we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s get it out of the box first.

Roku in Box

The Streaming Stick is presented in Roku’s trademark purple with neat packaging that promotes “This is going to be fun”. In the box is the Streaming Stick itself, a remote control (including decent batteries) and the power supply, which is actually a USB charger, connecting to the Streaming Stick via microUSB.

Streaming Stick and Controller

The remote control is slightly different to the previous generation – there are no game buttons, motion controller or headphone jack, and it uses WiFi Direct rather than Bluetooth to communicate with the Streaming Stick. Admittedly of little consequence unless you are an existing Roku owner expecting those features.

Getting started is easy – plug the Stick into the TV’s HDMI port, power it up with the microUSB cable and put the batteries into the remote control. Switching over to the HDMI channel, the Roku Streaming Stick initially asks for the password to a local wifi network. Once connected to the wider internet, existing Roku owners can can login with their credentials or new owners can sign up for a user name and password. Apart from having to use the remote control rather than a keyboard to do the finger work, it’s painless.

Roku uses the metaphor of channels to deliver media and content. For the smartphone generation, these are more easily thought of as apps which mostly deliver video content. In addition to programmes, there are games, weather forecasts and picture viewers. From the hundreds of channels available, you add favourites to your account to build up your collection. Some channels / apps cost a few pounds, but the vast majority are free.

My Roku Channels

From a UK perspective most of the major players are on-board with apps for BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Demand 5 and Sky Store. ITV player is noticeable in its absence. There are apps too for Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, Flickr and the Roku Media Player which does what it says, playing locally available pictures, music and video. There are lots of other apps and channels to choose from, categorised by type to help you find what you want.

Channel Categories

Many of the channels are US-centric and there’s a ton of faith-based programming, mostly Christian with a smaller number of other faiths. Local US TV stations are also present, which can be fun if you are going to be visiting an area on holiday or business.

US Local News on Roku

Of course, there are plenty of independent content producers as well. GNC is right at home on the Roku….

Geek News on Roku

To complement the content, there’s also an app for smartphones, which lets your device replace the remote control, both at a simple button pushing level and for more advanced features such as choosing new channels.

Roku App Remote Control Roku App

But the real trick is the “Play on Roku” feature which pushes content from your smartphone to the Roku, including music, photos and videos. All you do is select the content on your phone and, bang, it’s up on the big screen in glorious HD. It’s a great feature and a fantastic way to review photos and short videos on a larger screen, especially after a holiday. If you take a lots of photos with your smartphone, it’s almost worth getting a Roku for this feature alone.

One final thing…as I mentioned, the Roku Streaming Stick is powered by microUSB via a provided USB charger. I found that the Streaming Stick wasn’t terribly fussy about the power source and that you can easily run the Stick from other sources, such as a USB battery pack or even the TV itself, if equipped with a USB port. Could be handy to know if you are travelling or simply want a tidier entertainment unit.

MicroUSB Roku

Overall, the Roku Streaming Stick is a great little gadget that provides loads of extra content for UK viewers. It might be a more expensive at £50 than the Google Chromecast at £30, but there’s more content and the Roku has a remote control, which I think is a plus point. It’s handy too for a second TV that perhaps doesn’t have a satellite or cable connection, and can now use iPlayer or Netflix. It’s a neat, plug’n’play solution that is about as simple as it can be.

Thanks to Roku for the review unit.

Payleven Mobile Payments at The Gadget Show

Payleven Chip and PINOne of the common problems facing start-ups and small businesses are the costs associated with taking credit card payments. The transaction costs can be high for small turnovers and point-of-sale machines are expensive with a monthly rental fee. To counter this problem, Payleven offers a low-cost mobile payment solution for European businesses using a Chip’n’PIN card reader that uses Bluetooth to communicate with both Apple, Android and Amazon smartphones and tablets. The Chip’n’PIN unit costs only GB£60 (ex-VAT) with a transaction charge of 2.75%. Payleven have partnered with GoTab to offer a complete solution for around £250 including a tablet and the card reader.

The approach is similar to US-based Square, but as Chip’n’PIN is only beginning to be required across the pond, Square’s reader unit is a simpler card-swipe device that plugs straight into the smartphone. Having a full Chip’n’PIN card reader in Europe is a necessity but the independent unit makes the transaction look much more professional anyway.

Simon from Payleven tells me about their solution and takes me through some of the features.

Optoma Pico-Projector at The Gadget Show

Optoma specialise in digital projectors with a range going from personal pico-projectors all the way up to professional stacking projectors for large-scale installations. Here at The Gadget Show, Optoma were showing off their  ML750, an ultra-compact LED projector about 12 cm square and 4 cm deep. The picture below doesn’t get over how small the unit is.

Optoma ML-750 Projector

James from Optoma runs through the features of the ML750, which with the addition of a small wireless dongle (the little white object in the top left of the photo) allows presentation and streaming directly from the tablets and smartphones over wi-fi to the projector. The feature works with both Apple and Android devices using a downloadable app.

The native resolution is 1280×800 but will show 720p and 1080i video sources. It’ll even do 3D with additional active shutter glasses, though I’m not sure anyone is interested anymore. Still, the feature’s there.

I’m not a big projector expert, but at the event the ML750 was showing a series of film clips and it was very watchable. Obviously nothing like an HD monitor but for a portable device showing a 32″ display, it was impressive.

Available online for GB£400.

Canon Legria Mini at The Gadget Show

I have to be honest, I was completely unaware of the Canon Legria Mini digital camcorder until I spotted it at The Gadget Show. Canon describe it as a “Digital Creative Camcorder” and it’s very much designed for bloggers, artists and the selfie generation who want to record themselves doing what they love. It’s different from a normal camcorder as the Legria Mini is designed to be setup and used by the subject of the recording: the 2.7″ flip-up touchscreen is clearly visible by those being recorded and the wide-angle lens captures more of what’s going on. There’s a flip down stand on the bottom as well to help get the Mini perfectly positioned.

Canon Legria Mini

Obviously the Mini can be used as a normal camcorder and specwise, it’s full HD at 25p 1920 x 1080. There’s streaming to smartphones and tablets via wi-fi, with a complementary remote control app on both iOS and Android. Still photos run to 12 megapixels (4000 x 3000)

There are two variants, the Mini and the Mini X. The latter is a “pro” version with CD-quality sound, AVCHD recording in addition to MP4 and SD cards instead of microSD.

Canon Legria Mini X Streaming

I’m sold and Eno gives me a demo at The Gadget Show. Available now on-line at around GB£200 for the Mini and GB£350 for the Mini X.

Libratone Speakers at The Gadget Show

Danish audio specialists Libratone are relative new kids on the block, being established in 2009/10, but they’re making a strong impression with their colour co-ordinated hi-fi wireless speakers. I took the opportunity to learn more about Libratone’s range from Tom at The Gadget Show.

Libratone Speakers

Libratone ZippLibratone works with both Apple and Android devices supporting a range of protocols, including AirPlay, Wi-Fi Direct and DLNA, Libratone has four models in the range;
– the Lounge, a soundbar to go below a flatscreen TV
– the Zipp, a cylindrical speaker which is both AC and battery powered
– the Loop, a freestanding or wall-mounting round speaker
– the Live, a freestanding three-sided dipole speaker

All the speakers have removable covers that can be changed to suit the decor, either fitting in discreetly or standing out as a feature. Although it’s difficult to assess the audio quality in an exhibition hall, the demo I heard was suitably impressive and if you are in the market for this kind of product, I would definitely give them a listen.

Safe Games for Kids by Toca Boca at The Gadget Show

Toca BocaAs a a parent with a tablet-loving daughter, I’m always worried that she’s either playing inappropriate games or else building up whopping a credit card bill via in-app purchases. Being tech-savvy, I can easily rectify the latter by controlling the password to my account, but this doesn’t always negate pester-power. The former is still a concern and I’m not alone as these two issues are relevant to parents everywhere.

To help mums and dads, Swedish outfit Toca Boca, “a play studio that makes digital toys for kids” have created a range of open-ended, non-competitive games that appeal to children where the initial purchase cost is the only time you need to flex the credit card. There are over 20 apps available for Apple, Android and Amazon devices, and include games for young hairdressers, chefs, doctors, vets, chemists, scientists and drivers. The themes are very similar to some of the popular “free” games that are out there; the Toca Boca versions usually cost US$2.99 but there are no subsequent in-app purchases.

I chat to Sonia about the Toca Boca apps and how parents can be more confident in what their children playing on their tablets without the worry of an enlarged credit card bill.