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My Mobile Phone Experiment, Part Three – Thoughts on Android

After reluctantantly saying goodbye to my HTC HD2 Windows Mobile 6.5 device earlier this year, I started an experiment. Grabbing a SIM Only Deal from mobile carrier, Three – I would, in turn, use an iPhone, a Windows Phone device and an Android device for a few weeks at a time each, using them in anger as my sole device for day-to-day activities, both business and leisure.

You can read about my original motivations for this experiment here.

You can read part one of this experiment – my thoughts on the iPhone here.

You can read part two of this experiment – my thoughts on the Windows Phone here.

HTC SensationAt the start of September, my friend Steve Silk at Staffordshire University provided me with a HTC Sensation running Android 2.3.

So how did I find it? Read on!

Firstly, this experiment isn’t about the handsets themselves – it’s more about understanding the capabilities of the various Mobile Operating Systems out there. That said, the HTC Sensation looks beautiful – with a large bright 4.3” screen, very thin design but comfortable enough in the hand – plus a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, making it really fast in use, and an impressive 8 Mega-Pixel Camera.

I initially felt uncomfortable using the catch to take the back of the case off to insert the SIM card, as the case does feel plasticky and flimsy, but got used to it over time. The Micro-USB charging slot is on the left hand side, which feels awkward too – and the power button on the top of the device doesn’t feel comfortable initially as it’s too thin, but again, you get used to it. You’ll hear that phrase “I got used to it” a lot…

The Sensation boots up quickly… sometimes. I’ve gone from pressing the power button to entering my SIM PIN and being at the home screen in as little as 5 seconds on most occasions, yet on others it inexplicably takes 30 seconds or more from the SIM PIN to arriving at the home screen. It’s still faster than most other Smartphones I’ve tried though.

Through the setup stage, and no surprise here, you’ll need a Google account. Everything revolves around a Google account, so if you’re going Android, get used to using Google.

imageOn the home-screen, HTC have placed their HTC Sense interface on top of the usual Android UI. As a fan of HTC Sense, I quickly got to grips with this and was swiping left and right between the numerous home pages you’re offered to install Widgets and App shortcuts.

Talking of Widgets, which are small “always active” apps on the Android screen, HTC bundle a load of them out of the box – from Calendars to Agendas to something HTC call “Friend Stream”, a Twitter-like display of all your friends Twitter and Facebook updates. I found myself using it a lot. There are also a ton of widgets you can download for free. The home-screen may not look too impressive at first glance, but you can customise it to your own specifications very quickly.

Android gives the ability to create folders on a home-screen to contain Apps, but it’s far from intuitive to do this. I had to ask a fellow Android user to show me how. Once you’ve got it, it’s simple. Likewise adding App shortcuts and moving them between folders is simple, but clunky. This was the start of a number of indications that Apple’s iOS is simply easier to jump right in and get working with when compared to Android, but that Android is more customisable. Another running theme in my findings.

Google+ ScreenshotGetting back to Social Media, and I was blown away by how well Android and HTC Sense integrates with not just Twitter and Facebook, but LinkedIn, Google+ as well as Exchange, GoogleMail, Flickr, Foursquare and seemingly anything else you wanted to use. Once you’ve setup an account for each of these platforms, the HTC Sensation pulls all the updates and any other information from them and presents it in a unified fashion within your contacts screen. It *can* get messy, the Sensation occasionally got confused with duplicate GoogleMail and Exchange information – but on the whole it’s fairly amazing to be able to see all your friends latest Facebook updates, their Mobile numbers (whether pulled from Exchange or Facebook), Flickr pictures, Twitter updates and everything else in one location. Of course, you can use the individual apps for Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc. as normal – but if you’re a heavy Social Media user, then you’ll love Android.

Android is hot on notifications. It’ll automatically notify you of new e-mails, voicemails, SMS, Facebook messages, Google+ updates, software upgrades, patches and… just about anything it can. All of these are present in a non-obtrusive way in the notification bar at the top of the home screen, which you slide your finger down to open and view. Initially, all these notifications can become a distraction – constantly sat winking at you from the top of the screen. Over time I learned to quieten the Sensation though – turning off notifications and learning to resist the temptation to act upon others. Android is *very* customisable from this perspective. Out of the box it can blow your mind with all the info it presents, but as you become comfortable you can tailor it to your own liking.

As you’d expect, GoogleMail is supported very well under Android. It’s very easy to setup and you can easily archive messages, read HTML messages, and do just about everything you’d do in GoogleMail.

Microsoft Exchange support was just as easy to setup, and reading and responding to e-mails was a pleasure within the Android GUI. Frustratingly though, Android (like iOS and WP7) doesn’t support Exchange Tasks and Notes. Again I’ve got to ask, if Windows Mobile 6.5 supported these features years ago, why don’t modern SmartPhones? Bizarre. There is a 3rd Party app called Touchdown which brings Tasks and Note support into Android, but it feels a standalone app rather than integrated into the Android experience, and so I couldn’t find myself comfortable using it. Google – as well as Apple and Microsoft – please support Exchange Tasks and Notes in your Smartphones!

The SMS client was very easy to use, with threaded messages and the ability to forward SMS to other contacts. I did notice that Android grouped together conversations though, so if you sent a group SMS – then your inbox would show that conversation separately, but not under individuals SMS threads. I’m guessing this can be changed, and I can see why this would be of benefit to some people, but I occasionally found it confusing.

Wi-Fi is a breeze to setup. You’re instantly notified (see the pattern here?) when an Open Signal is available, and it’s a few clicks to setup your favourite Wi-Fi connections. Once you’ve set a number of Wi-Fi connections up, Android automatically and seamlessly connects to them as you move around. However… this hammers the battery something rotten. I found that using the HTC Sensation as a web browsing device killed the battery life, and it wasn’t unusual for me to require a charge after 90 minutes or so solid use. Not good.

Green Power Battery SaverAs with all the shortcomings in Android though, there are workarounds. I installed an app called Green Power Free that turns off Wi-Fi when the device isn’t in use. It helped, but the battery life on the Sensation is still really poor – I couldn’t get a full days use of it without some charging in between.

Getting back to Apps though, and this is where Android excels. The Android Market isn’t quite as nice an experience as Apple’s AppStore, but it is packed full of apps – some good, some shockingly bad. Whereas Apple vet all apps that appear in their appstore, Google don’t place the same restrictions on. This becomes self-regulating though as you find yourself using apps based on Word of Mouth recommendations or the ratings other users have given the app in the Market.

I couldn’t find a single App that I used on iOS missing from the Android Market. What’s more, I found a few Apps that I would have loved to have used on IOS but couldn’t find, available on Android. Overall, I think I prefer Android’s Open policy to Apple’s vetted apps policy as it allows more variety.

You might think that all these 3rd party apps (especially the poor ones) affect stability. Well, during a months use the Sensation crashed and rebooted just one time. Throughout the rest of the time I noticed one or two inexplicable slow-down’s, occasionally, but overall the platform was really robust.

Moving between Android Apps is fairly easy – pressing and holding the Home Button on the HTC Sensation brings up recent apps for you to browse through, and pressing the back button sometimes takes you back to your previous app. I say sometimes, because other times it didn’t seem to work and I had to manually go and find the app to re-visit it. With full multi-tasking support for all apps though, this wasn’t a problem as every app was presented in exactly the same state you left it.

Web Browsing is a great experience (battery life problems, as we’ve discussed, apart). I installed the free Dolphin Browser HD to replace the built in web-browser, and didn’t look back. It’s a pleasure to use, with the ability to pinch and zoom in on screens with text being wrapped automatically, and share content with any of the Social Media sites integrated into Android.

Android supports Adobe Flash, and there are great apps for both YouTube and BBC iPlayer. If the HTC Sensation had a more resilient battery, you could easily use this as your one and only media device.

The HTC Sensation has a physical Search button, and was context sensitive. Press it from the home screen and you’re presented with a Google Web Search box. Press it within Facebook, and you’re presented with a Facebook friend search. Very neat.

There is no physical camera button though, which is irritating if you’re a Social snapper like myself. The camera app is pretty amazing though, taking good quality shots and offering you the ability to easily tidy them up with crops and auto-enhancements, before sending them directly to Facebook, Flickr, Twitter or any other 3rd Party app you’ve installed. It doesn’t just blindly send the picture either – the Facebook app allows you to tag people, the Twitter app allows you to add Hashtags – just a really good experience.

Google+ Android App ScreenshotOne feature that did have me going “Wow” was the Google+ app feature that automatically captures and uploads any photos you take on the camera to a private location on the web, and then easily allowing you to share those pictures on Google+. A great way to both backup your snaps and share them.

Again, if you’re a Social Media person, you’ll love Android.

You don’t really need a PC to use this ‘phone, as it sets up out of the box and it’s easy to install apps and run Android updates over the air. However, if you do connect it to a PC then you can browse the device as a drive, or install software to use the PC’s Internet connection from your ‘phone – a useful feature I used whilst avoiding Roaming Data charges in Europe during the test.

Doggcatcher ScreenshotI didn’t play a lot of games on the Android, but there are tons to choose from. Likewise, I only used the Android to listen to Podcasts (using the great Doggcatcher app) and the occasional tune via the integrated FM Radio rather than lots of music, but it was intuitive to use, and I felt comfortable leaving behind my iPod Touch in favour of an all-in-one device like the Sensation.

By this stage you’re probably getting the impression I liked Android. You’d be right. It isn’t as intuitive as iOS, nor does it have the clean style of Windows Phone, and for that reason I didn’t pick up the ‘phone and become instantly “Wowed”. But for every irritation I came across, I found that Android’s customisation ability allowed me to overcome that irritation. What’s more, time and time again I came across instances where I thought “It’d be nice to be able to do this…” and investigation showed that Android allowed me to do that.

You’ll gather I think that Android’s Social Media integration is incredible. I thought iOS was good in this area, but it can’t hold a candle to Android – which offers an amazing choice of options to remain connected and share content.

It’s been a month since I began using Android, and a strange feeling has come over me. Unlike Apple iPhone users, or even Windows Phone users, I don’t feel voraciously defensive about Android. If I’m asked how Android is, I won’t staunchly defend the Android platform against the sticks and stones of others. I just smile and say “Well, I like it”.

Unlike the Apple iPhone – it doesn’t “just work”. It takes a bit of time to get used to, and for the non-techy this will be a challenge, but once mastered, you can customise it to the hilt to do everything you want, exactly as you want it.

Unlike the Windows Phone – it doesn’t blow your socks off the first time you see it. But it feels very much like Windows Phone in that it’s challenging the way you’re used to doing things, and offering you new, more efficient ways of doing stuff on a day-to-day basis.

But you know what? After a month, it feels comfortable and it works just how I want it too – both as a business device and a consumer device for a Social Media addict.

I really don’t want to give the HTC Sensation back. If I had a choice of which Mobile Operating System I’d like to use tomorrow, it’d probably be Android, but oddly I’m sure I’d begrudgingly live with a Windows Phone or an iPhone too.

I’m aware the HTC Sensation is a pretty kick-arse handset in terms of capabilities and has a ton of HTC customisation goodness to it. To this end I’m going to grab another lower spec HTC Android handset to see how that performs, and I’m also going to grab a non-HTC Android handset (the Samsung Galaxy S2 springs to mind) to see what the non-HTC Android experience is like.

Since I started the experiment, Windows Phone’s latest update – Mango – has also been released. As promised, as the next part of this experiment I’m going to revisit the Windows Phone platform with the Mango update to see what has changed there.

Despite having tested the three main mobile O/S from Apple, Microsoft and Google – this experiment is far from over. I think it’s fair to say you can see my clear favourites emerging though.

Watch this space. Smile

 

How Smartphone Users See Each Other

I’ve had a ton of feedback from iPhone, Android and Windows Phone fans about my blog post on my Mobile Phone experiment.

I was wrong when I said that this reminded me of the days of the Atari vs Commodore “format wars”. This is much more intense! People are *really* passionate about their mobile ‘phone O/S of choice!

Alistair Forbes, General Manager at GFI Max sent me this cartoon (courtesy of www.csectioncomics.com) which I think sums up what people really think of other Smartphone users! Smile

 

How Smartphone Users See Each Other

 

For what it’s worth – two days in to the first phone of the experiment (an iPhone) and I’m *loving* the wide variety of apps, but am getting irritated by the flaky Bluetooth support and relatively poor battery life. More soon…

 

Looking at the Sony Ericsson k850i

Sony Ericsson k850iIt’s 20:45 GMT here in the UK and I’m waiting to go into a Telephone Conference Call with some American colleagues. Whilst I wait for everyone to come on the line I’m naturally using my time productively (ahem…) to setup my new “going out” mobile ‘phone – the Sony Ericsson k850i.

What’s a “going out” ‘phone? Well I normally use a T-Mobile MDA Vario II on a day-to-day basis – but when out socialising then that particular rather chunky beast spoils the cut of my (if I do say so myself – very fashionable) trousers, so I keep a slimmer (or “candy bar” as I’ve heard it called) ‘phone for these occasions.

My old Sony Ericsson k600i with it’s 1.3 megapixel camera was starting to look a little dated, so it was off to eBay to treat myself to the k850i – and very cool it is too! A “Cybershot” ‘branded phone – it comes with a nice 5 megapixel camera and some very neat photo enhancing technology. Naturally it’s also 3G capable and runs Java too, plus has Bluetooth and all the usual gubbins.

Unlike my MDA Vario II, the Sony Ericsson ‘phones don’t run Windows Mobile and thus don’t synchronise their contact list with Microsoft Outlook. Therefore I’ve got a select few friends and family numbers only in my “going out” ‘phone, and the thought of transferring these numbers manually between my old ‘phone and the new ‘phone seemed quite the chore. Never fear – Mobyko to the rescue! Once you’ve registered for free with Mobyko and given it your make/model of ‘phone and your telephone number, you can sync your Contacts “over the air” to their secure servers. In my case, once I’d done this I then told Mobyko I’d moved to a new ‘phone, popped my SIM card into my k850i and sync’d those contacts back! Voila – no manual transfer necessary! Mobyko also has a Facebook plug-in that allows you to sync your contacts Facebook profile pictures to your ‘phone – and the ability to save SMS, MMS and Videos from you ‘phone to their servers too – all very neat!

Sadly, transferring my Mobile Web-browser bookmarks from the old ‘phone to the new one wasn’t quite as automatic, but it did give me a chance to review some sites that you might find useful yourself…

Flickr Mobilem.flickr.com – Upload those MMS shots directly to your photo stream!

Google Productswww.google.co.uk/m/products – Google Maps, Google Mail and by the time you read this, Google Time-Travel (probably…)

XE Currency Converterwww.xe.com/wap – Useful foreign currency converter

Directory Enqurieswap.bt.com/wap – Cheaper (as in free!) than calling 118 rip-me-off…

Facebook Mobilem.facebook.com – Update your Status from the pub to let everyone know you’re drunk, not just those people with you!

The Best Windows Mobile Apps – Part II

In my last blog post, I talked about some of the 3rd Party Windows Mobile Applications that could enable you to run your business from the pub to be more productive.

As promised, in this post I’ll talk about some of the applications I use to work remotely and to get myself from A to B.

Top of that list of applications is… CoPilot Live. When I first moved from a PDA to a Windows Mobile Phone, I was dismayed to find that my favourite Satellite Navigation software, TomTom, did not work on my T-Mobile MDA Vario II. I had tried other Sat-Nav software in the past and never found anything to match TomTom in terms of ease of use and features.

Then I tried CoPilot Live and changed my allegiances instantly! With Postcode Searching, a Walk/Cycle/Drive navigation feature (handy for when you are strolling/riding around a City Centre), good POI’s (Points of Interest) and all the other features you’ve come to expect from a decent Sat-Nav system, CoPilot gets a big thumbs up. In my mind though, the best feature is it’s excellent “divert” facility. Let me give you a scenario. You’re driving down the M6 Motorway and notice a traffic jam – do you take the exit to try and avoid the traffic, or take your chances and sit it out? When I used TomTom and hit the “Divert” button, it took me off the Motorway via the next exit, then down a country road, then down another country road and… I never saw the Motorway again! With CoPilot, you hit the “Divert” button and it smartly realises you want to miss out the next few minutes of your journey (i.e. the traffic jam) but get back onto the quickest route home again a.s.a.p. So CoPilot would take you via the exit off the Motorway, guide you through some country lanes, then put you back on the Motorway after the Traffic Jam for the quickest route home. Personally, this feature has saved me many a frustrating crawl through Traffic – so kudos CoPilot!

Many modern Windows Mobile devices (such as the T-Mobile MDA Vario III, which Andy Parkes owns) now come with GPS built-in, so no need for an external GPS receiver at all.

But as well as getting from A to B easily, the modern geek needs to be able to stay connected with both his clients and important web-sites (such as Facebook) – and to do this he or she will need a good web-browser on their Mobile device. Frankly, the version of Internet Explorer built in to Windows Mobile is basic. By basic I mean, it’s rubbish… No Tabbed-Browsing, Poor Toolbar and all the features you’ll find on your Desktop browser are missing. This is where Pocket IE Plus from ReenSoft comes in. PIEPlus isn’t a replacement for IE on Windows Mobile, it’s more of an enhancement to gives you access to many of the features, such as Tabbed Browsing, that you’ve come to expect from a modern web-browser. It also optimises content for your Mobile screen and feels much snappier in use. PIEPlus has a free 14-day trial so you can try before you buy.

Although I’ve not used it myself yet, I understand the latest version of Opera Mobile might be a very strong contender for best Mobile Browser too – so it’s worth checking that out.

As for web-sites you may want to use when out of the office – the excellent remote control software LogMeIn works under Windows Mobile and has allowed me to remotely troubleshoot a clients server many a time. You wouldn’t want to spend all day administering machines with it by any means, but it can be a life saver in a pinch. When enabled on your Exchange Server, Outlook Mobile Access (https://yourserver/oma) is also very useful if push-email isn’t available to you. Finally, BBC News, Better Management and Facebook all have Mobile enabled versions of their sites that are essential for pretending to look busy with in quiet moments…

Quick tip – if you’re finding your web-browsing on your Mobile device a little sluggish to get started when you open your browser, it may well be your ISP’s poor overworked DNS servers at fault. Try changing your Windows Mobile Device (Start > Settings > Connections) to use the excellent OpenDNS servers and instantly see the difference it makes!

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that many of the Microsoft Windows Live! services, such as Hotmail, Live Messenger and Live Spaces are available to access directly from your Mobile Device. Setting these services up is easy – simply get yourself over to http://www.gowindowslive.com/Mobile/Landing/Home/Default.aspx? and click the “Try it now” link in the top right hand corner to ask for the Live settings to be sent to your Mobile Device via SMS text message. Click the resulting link that arrives on your Windows Mobile Device and you’re on your way!

Of course, when you’re out of the office you don’t have access to that highly secure filing system you use to store all the usernames, passwords and URL’s you need to gain access to the various systems you administer. Time to chuck out those badly organised Post-It notes and scraps of paper, my friend, and move to KeePass!

KeePass (Keep Passwords Safe) allows you to store all those important details securely on your Desktop PC, but the beauty of this bit of software is that a Windows Mobile version of KeePass is also available. Make sure your KeePass Secure Password storage file is part of your Activesync Synchronised Files so that it is transferred to your Windows Mobile device regularly – install KeePass on your Windows Mobile device – and suddenly you have an upto date copy of all your important information to hand wherever you are!

In my next blog post, I’ll take a final look at my favourite Windows Mobile apps and discuss the software I use to help me find Wireless Hotspots, chat for free, take photographs with my Windows Mobile Device, blog anywhere, and most important of all – have fun! :-)

The Best Windows Mobile Apps – Part I

In my last posting, I talked about the Windows Mobile platform. I’ve been using Windows Mobile devices for a few years now – starting with the old Dell Axim X5 and Dell Axim x50v PDA’s, and now currently using the T-Mobile MDA Vario II for 12 months or more – the Vario II being a modern combined PDA and Mobile ‘Phone unit.

The Vario II is a great device in day-to-day use. Using Windows Mobile 5, QWERTY keyboard, Bluetooth, built-in Wi-Fi, 3G Data – plus combine it with a T-Mobile “Web’n’Walk” Tariff and set it up to work with your Microsoft Exchange Server for Push E-Mail and you can happily wander down the pub without your laptop – confident you can be “productive” on your Mobile device whilst enjoying a pint of lager or two.

But start conducting your business from the taverns of the UK in this way, and you’ll soon find the Windows Mobile platforms has shortcomings. Things work… but of a fashion. You get stuff done… but you can’t help but feel there’s a better way of doing things.

There is – and it involves beefing up your Device with a few 3rd Party Applications. Today I’ll list my “Must Have” picks for improving your day-to-day productivity, and in my next couple of posts I’ll list the best of the rest.

First off, you’ll need more storage space than your device currently has. I’d recommend slotting a 1GB or 2GB SDCard (or equivalent storage media) into your device, and getting into the habit of installing your applications there. There’s a lot to be said for installing apps directly to your device’s main storage area – but in my experience, troubleshooting Windows Mobile crashing because it’s run out of main storage space is not a fun experience…

Secondly, get your Credit Card ready. Whilst some of these apps are free, the majority aren’t. Hey – you want regular updates, good technical support and new features? Splash the cash – the writers of these pieces of code need to make a living, just like you and I. The good news is most of this software comes from the good old US of A, and with the ridiculously poor state of the yankee Dollar, you can grab some really good deals buying directly in Colonial Currency. You’ll generally find that Windows Mobile apps bought this way are just a few pounds each – barginous!

First on my list of “Must Have’s” is… Pocket Informant. If you have a lot of contacts, have lots of appointments to attend, a To-Do list as long as your arm… or simply have the memory span of a goldfish (like me) – then Pocket Informant will save your skin many times over. PI is a replacement for Windows Mobile’s own Contact, Task-List and Calendar – but it’s much more than that. It makes finding in formation simple, so much so that I’ve found myself becoming a roaming Directory Enquiries for my Friends and Colleagues who I regularly get calls from asking “Do you have so and so’s number on you?” or “Can you text me this address?”. I need to start charging these people…

Next up is… Pocket Breeze. If you’ve got a Today screen that displays your name and the date… then you need this app to make the most of your Today real-estate. Pocket Breeze integrates with Pocket Informant (and many other apps) to show you at-a-glance your upcoming appointments, important tasks and a plethora of other information of your choice. It’s highly customisable, and saves me minutes of digging through calendars and tasks lists every day.

Getting worried about the additional apps you’re installing and how big your Start Menu is going to become? Then you’ll next need… iLauncher.

iLauncher gives you a set of customisable tabs (“Productivity”, “Games”, “Internet”, etc) where you can store shortcuts to all your apps and reach them in a just a couple of jabs of your digit. It can also display other information such as your Battery and Storage status. iLauncher also gives you a great way of managing your open apps – enabling you to minimise, close or re-open them easily. Finally, a great feature of iLauncher is the ability to make some shortcut icons larger than others – handy when you’re driving in the car and want to open an app to view some data whilst your Mobile Device rests in the Car Holder on your Dashboard *and* keep an eye on the road. Not that I have ever used this dangerous act…

So that’s your Diary, To-Do List, Contact List and Application Management covered – plus you’ve now got a Today Screen that screams “I’m important and busy!” (provided you don’t let anyone see your 1615 appointment – “Watch Eastenders on TV with Bar of Chocolate”) – in my next blog post I’ll look at the applications I use on my Windows Mobile device to work remotely and get myself from A to B effectively.

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