One tablet fits all – laptop-less travel blogging

tablettravel

(Note: this article is not directly applicable to iOS users, but feel free to get ideas for exploring on iOS)

For the first time ever, i can forgo bringing a laptop on my upcoming trip. What held me back before was the inability of my tablet to be used for moving photos from the camera SD card to another larger storage. I use a Nexus 7 2013 which comes with no SD card slot. I suppose if you are on a short trip, you don’t even need to move the photos at all, especially if you have a large capacity SD card. I will be on a 5 weeks trip, so i had better be prepared.

The solution to my problem consists of an OTG adapter coupled with a USB SD card reader and the app Nexus USB OTG File Manager. This app can read AND write to a FAT32 SD card (does not require rooting but only works on a Nexus device), which is compatible with my Nikon camera.

My Nexus tablet also functions as my GPS navigation device. The size of the device (7 inches) is just right, anything bigger would obstruct the view from the car. A 7 inch tablet can actually be stuffed into the pocket of my pants (though not very comfortable for long durations), so it is useful for those times when i need to make frequent reference to itinerary details. And of course, i also use the tablet for casual internet browsing and messaging.

Another important function that my tablet fulfills is translation. This is available for free with the offline translation mode of the Google Translate app. For languages that use latin-based characters (which covers most of Europe), you will be able to do translation in both ways since keyboard input does not present a problem. Otherwise (East Asian languages for example), you might have to contend with having only one way translation (i.e. from English to the other language), which is still better than nothing. I have actually tried using an OCR app to try to decipher random Japanese characters, but the recognition rate is practically zero.

For the first time ever, i intend to do travel blogging while on a trip. This would be quite strenuous if i had to use the on-screen keyboard to type an article. The OTG adapter comes to my rescue once again. I can plug in a real physical keyboard and a mouse to the tablet at the same time, through a USB hub (pictured above). Now, that’s quite comfy for blogging on the go. I sourced the Acer KU-0906 keyboard from taobao.com for a grand total of RMB 51 (S$11.20). You might be thinking, why not use Bluetooth keyboard/mouse? USB is better than Bluetooth because it will have minimal drain on your tablet battery. Besides, you won’t have an extra set of batteries (for the keyboard/mouse) to worry about.

The total weight of the full setup in the picture above comes in at 970g. That is probably equal or less than the weight of an ultrabook laptop, which cannot be used for GPS navigation nor for on-the-go referencing of information. I’m so happy i don’t have to bear the extra weight of a laptop on future trips anymore.

Review: Nook HD+

nook hd

Current contenders for a low cost 9 or 10 inch tablet basically comes down to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (US$329), Kindle Fire HD 8.9 (US$299) and Nook HD+ (US$269). There are cheaper tablets yet of course, but those are probably not worth considering given the typical poor specifications, low build quality and lack of after-sales support.

You would have guessed by now that i have cast my vote on the Nook HD+, since this review is on the Nook HD+. Here’s a summarized comparison of the tablets:

  Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 Kindle Fire HD 8.9 Nook HD+
Resolution 1280 X 800 TFT 1920 X 1200 IPS 1920 X 1280 IPS
CPU/GPU 1 GHz TI OMAP 4430 Dual-Core / PowerVR SGX540 1.5 GHz OMAP4470 Dual-Core / PowerVR SGX544 1.5 GHz OMAP4470 Dual-Core / PowerVR SGX544
Weight 1.28 pounds (580g) 20 oz (567g) 18.2 oz (515g)
Battery size and life 7000 mAh (9 hours of video) 6000 mAh (10 hours continuous use) Unknown (Up to 10 hours of reading, Up to 9 hours of video)
Other features microSD card slot, front and rear cameras, GPS, Bluetooth, USB 2.0 Host Front camera, Dolby audio, dual stereo speakers, dual-band dual antenna Wi-Fi, Bluetooth microSD card slot, Bluetooth

The choice is very much dependent on the feature one is after. If GPS navigation is a must, then only the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 fits the bill. If video conferencing or photography is required, then the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 can be considered. Otherwise, all 3 tablets can be used for general browsing and media consumption.

Hardware wise, the Nook HD+ is sleek, and the screen is truly beautiful to behold. The quality of the screen, to me, is the main consideration when choosing a tablet. The high resolution of the Nook HD+ display allows you to read webpages or documents one page at a time without having to zoom in or to scroll about, which you may have to do on a lower resolution display. Performance wise, the responsiveness is more than adequate, with occasional sluggishness. The battery need only to be charged every 2 days with 2-3 hours of usage per day. Software wise, well, the Nook HD+ is practically useless if you don’t mod it (it’s easy to do so by the way). Having done the mod, you’ll be able to install Apps without being forced to go through the Barnes and Noble ecosystem. The skinning done by Barnes and Noble do come with some bugs (e.g. the button for clearing the notification events does not always show up and the recent activities list is always empty) but these minor shortcomings are quite bearable.

All in all, a nice tablet for daily use (great for reading in the loo), at a very low price!

Truly Useful Android Apps

jorte

I’ve been wanting to write this article for some time but interestingly, i’ve just lost my Android phone! So this is a bit like a post-mortem dump. After the excitement of getting a new phone and experimenting with Apps has worn out, the Apps i found myself using frequently were:

Jorte Calendar – Offers both Calendar and Tasks functionalities that are both synced with your Google account. As at the time i started using this App (probably almost a year ago), this was the only App that offered Google Tasks capability in addition to Google Calendar. Furthermore, i also like the “Agenda” style calendar widget that lists your calendar items in full, plus the widget to display your task list as well. I think no other calendar App is as comprehensive as this one.

Singapore Map – The mobile App by streetdirectory.com (which i think most people would know offers rather detailed maps for Singapore). More than just offering maps, this App gives you directions and even calculates the ERP incurred for the route. Infinitely better than Google Maps. Beware that the directions could be wrong sometimes.

SwiFTP – Somehow i didn’t manage to get Dropbox and the like to work. SwiFTP, an FTP server that runs on your Android phone, works just as well, if not better, for transferring files wirelessly between a phone and a computer. While i think most people are probably not able to handle the initial setup required for connecting an FTP client to the SwiFTP server, once setup, most people should be able to handle using an FTP client to transfer files between the phone and the computer.

K-9 Mail – Email client for Android phone. Probably better than the stock email App that comes with your phone.

ColorNote – A simple note taking App with widget capability for displaying notes.

Not a long list, but these are Apps i can’t do without.

From Eclair to Froyo: Apps Update Review

Having upgraded to Froyo from Eclair, some apps which i have recommended before are no longer needed in my opinion. Here’s a rundown on the keepers and losers as well as new apps you may want to use with Froyo:

Keepers

  • APN on-off Widget – Froyo now actually comes with a “Data network mode” option to turn data on/off from the long-press power button menu. Despite that, it is still far easier to the same through a widget on the home page. There are a few Apps that offer this functionality and I’ve settled on “APN on-off Widget”.

Losers

  • Advanced Task Killer – Froyo comes with a built-in Task Manager which to me does the job and takes the place of ATK. Interestingly, the number of active tasks indicated in the Task Manager tallies with the apps you actually launched, whereas back in Eclair, ATK would report a lot of tasks running in the background which you never expected them to be running (since you didn’t launch them).
  • Startup Cleaner – Since it’s no longer the case that apps seem to get launched on their own during startup, or at least the Task Manager tells me so.
  • SeePU – Again, Froyo comes with a built-in widget called Program Monitor that reports the number of active apps running as well as the general “health” indicated through a colour coded bar. Granted, this widget is nowhere near the aesthetics of SeePU, and it takes up 2 slots on your precious home page screen. What i’ve decided to do is to not use either, since the phone is already much more responsive than before due to superior task management and i don’t actually need to monitor the CPU/RAM utilization anymore.
  • Auto Mount – In Eclair, Auto Mount solved the pain of having to pull down the notification page to mount USB storage. With Froyo, a button to turn on/off the USB storage is displayed upon plugging in the USB cable and this is exactly how it should be.
  • One Click Lag Fix – this may be a contentious recommendation, since fast enough for me may not be fast enough for you. Froyo is fast enough for me, so i’ll pass on this one.

New apps

  • Tethering Widget – To turn on tethering, you’d have to navigate 2 levels deep into Settings. Previously, with Eclair on my Samsung Galaxy S, Samsung provided a “PC Internet” button to turn on USB tethering under their “Quick Launch” menu that is displayed when you plug in the USB cable. Now, with both USB and Wifi Tethering offered as standard features in Froyo, Samsung removed the “PC Internet” button, which forces you to have to go through Settings. Fret not, “Tethering Widget” comes to your rescue! It gives you the option to toggle either USB or Wifi tethering with a single click! Naturally it is placed just beside the APN on-off Widget on my home screen.

Samsung Galaxy S Froyo Review

androidfroyo

Upgraded my Samsung Galaxy S to the highly anticipated Froyo (i.e. Android 2.2) firmware more than a week ago. Main impression: the phone does seem more responsive. Previously (i.e. when running Android 2.1 aka Eclair), the phone is often in a state where the CPU is fully utilized and is unable to respond for no less than 10 seconds. With Froyo, there seems to be a huge improvement in task management, which is evident also from the improved responsiveness even when the phone is installing a new app (which used to stall the phone completely).

Battery life remains more or less the same as before. Without having data turned on, the phone can easily run for 2 days without recharging. With data turned on and with moderate usage, you can barely get through the day on a single charge.

Besides improved reliability, the most important features of Froyo must be Flash and App to SD. It is rather amusing to see animations on webpages, and they work at any zoom level. It’s particularly cute when you zoom out completely to see the entire webpage. Also, with Flash, Google Analytics and Google Financial charts are finally viewable from a phone. With App to SD, you can now install Apps to the internal SD storage, which is a generous 14GB on the Galaxy S.

Not forgetting to mention, the built-in browser works like a charm. Webpages load insanely fast. I find no reason to use alternative browsers now, given that webpages render correctly (used to have problem with the Google Adsense page with the browser on Eclair) and Flash is supported (not sure if they work in other browsers).

By the way, a tip regarding upgrading the firmware (did mine at the service centre): you may lose files in the internal SD storage. In my case i have previously applied the ext2 file system lag fix, which i think increases the possibility of getting corrupted files (i ended up with a LOST.DIR folder with lots of files in it). It’s probably a good idea to undo the lag fix first before upgrading, or simply backup the files in your internal SD storage first.

Free Android Apps for your trip

travelapps

First off, an important tip: trash your APN (i.e. Data) toggling widget before you leave the country so you don’t inadvertently turn on data while your phone is on roaming overseas and chalk up heart-wrenching charges to your phone bill.

Now, if you are not going to use data while overseas, you will need to get the information you need into your phone beforehand. Here are the apps you may want to use:

xe currency – Ok, for this app, you actually need data connection to get currency exchange rate updates. What you can do is to perform updates up to the point before you trash your APN widget. Thereafter, while overseas, even without data, you can use this app to get a fairly accurate calculation of prices in your local currency (long press on a currency to enter the price in that currency).

ShootMe – This app captures your phone screenshots, which is useful for taking screenshots of the Google map searches you do on your phone for those places overseas you need to get to. Note that this app requires that you root your phone though (as with just about all the phone screenshot capture apps).

OsmAnd – OsmAnd stands for Open Street Map for Android. This app strives to be a full-fledge GPS app, but fails at navigation and address search (which relies on user contribution to its address indexes). However, it does offline map browsing just fine. Grab your offline maps from GoogleMaps. Here’s how:

  • Download Mobile Atlas Creator for ripping map tiles. Get zoom levels 11 through 17 (down to 100 meters which gives you fairly good detail).
  • Put the map tiles into the /sdcard/osmand/tiles/GoogleMaps folder. If you need maps for a few cities/countries, what you could do is to save the map for each city in a separate folder (e.g. /sdcard/osmand/tiles/Sydney, /sdcard/osmand/tiles/Hong Kong) and rename the folder to /sdcard/osmand/tiles/GoogleMaps when you need to switch to it.
  • Download the city/country index from Settings -> Data -> Download indexes. This allows you to perform searches of at least the major roads of the city/country.
  • Remember to turn off the “Use Internet” option in the settings

Compass – Besides offering you the obvious functionality of a compass, which may come in handy at times, it also allows you to keep track of places you have been to, taking notes and photos of the place through the companion app, Catch. This in my opinion is better than Trip Journal (Lite version is free), which, though it offers the ability to tag a place to a specific trip and has a nice looking user interface, is overly complex (non-intuitive) to use.

Been There – Finally, once you’ve been there, you’ll probably want to browse photos you’ve taken of those places. This app lays out the photos according to its location on a map, provided you’ve geo-tagged your photos (turn on GPS in your camera settings). And yes, you do need data connection for the map display, which, now that you’re back home, you can safely turn on.

Android Apps Mini Review 3

AppBrain – Besides allowing you to sync your apps list so that you can re-install them in case you had to reset your phone back to factory settings, the most prominent feature is the app recommendation, which, frankly, is the source through which i discovered most of the apps i’m recommending in my mini app reviews. So go ahead, install AppBrain and browse the hot apps every now and then. The quality of the apps listed is way better than those listed in the default Google Market App (which i suspect may have been prioritized based on ad dollars from the App publishers).

No Lock – Removes the phone locking screen, so you don’t need to fumble to unlock the phone when there’s an incoming call. Or if you have the habit of taking frequent glances at your widget updates, you can avoid having to swipe the screen each time, which becomes annoying after a while. I’ve almost forgotten that there’s such a thing as a phone lock screen, except when i reboot the phone (doesn’t show again after being unlocked). Comes with a widget to toggle between lock and unlocked.

Cleaner – Widget to make the screen icons disappear so you can see your beautiful wallpaper. Obviously you’ve chosen a nice wallpaper which you may want to show to your friends from time to time. Show it to them in its full glory with this app.

SeePU – Keeps you informed on the CPU and memory utilization status on a small icon in the notification bar, updated every 2 seconds under the default setting. Lets you know that you should expect the phone to be laggy if the CPU utilization is high, or whether you should kill some apps if the memory is running low.

TuneIn Radio – Listen to Internet Radio stations (though it also supports podcasts, IMO Stitcher still works better). Has the ability to find local radio stations, which is pretty cool.

Relax and Sleep – Combine relaxing sounds of the ocean, rain, cricket etc. to help you to fall asleep on those sleepless nights. It works!

What to do if your Android phone won’t boot

Buy a new phone. Just kidding. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Don’t take risks if the potential gain is not significant. I learnt it the hard way when i tried out some App Launchers (Launcher Pro and QuickDesk Beta), both of which rendered my Samsung Galaxy S unbootable (phone starts up but refuses to show the home screen).

The first time this happened, it took half a day of reboot attempts before the phone somehow boot into safe mode. The second time, just didn’t have the patience and went ahead to reset phone to factory settings. With that, i learnt another important lesson, again the hard way – the importance of doing backup! Before that, I always added contacts to the phone. With the reset to factory settings, all was gone. Thereafter, i took a hard look at the options available when adding contacts and realized that adding to your google account was one of them. Your contacts list is synced with your google account and can be restored at will.
Now, other than your contacts list, you would typically also want to backup your Apps. There are two ways about this – backing up to SD card and syncing with an online account (specifically AppBrain). I would recommend doing both. Restoring from SD card would obviously be faster, and you could also retain paid apps. Syncing with AppBrain will allow you to restore your Apps to a more recent state your phone was in as you will probably sync more often than you would backup to SD card.

Other than that, rest assured, the files that were residing in the phone ROM or your SD card will not be wiped out. As for the rest of the phone configuration, i don’t mind wiping them actually. As an added bonus, i discovered that doing a factory reset doesn’t wipe the One-Click Lag Fix applied (for Samsung Galaxy S phones), nor does it revoke the rooting of the phone.

So, resetting your phone to factory settings isn’t all that painful, but then again, don’t be trigger happy in trying advanced Apps if you don’t know what you’re doing!

Android Apps Mini Review 2

OCLF

Along with those apps i have mentioned before, here are more which made it to my must have list:

Auto Mount – Automatically mount as USB Mass Storage your phone internal storage and SD card when you plug in the USB cable, no need to click the Mount button in notifications!

Car Mode – Toggle to speakerphone mode with a single click (works like a widget!)

APN Backup & Restore – Backup your APN settings to SD card, in case anything goes wrong when you update your firmware.

Startup Cleaner – Shows you all the User and System Apps that start running when you turn on your phone, allowing you to disable them from running. Also allows you to do App uninstallation. Note: Apps will still get launched on their own somehow so you still need a task killer to kill them off periodically.

Just Pictures – Currently my default image gallery viewer. Shows 6 thumbnails per page which is about just right. Also allows you to setup and browse your flickr, photobucket etc. photos, now that’s cool!

Camera 360/Camera Illusion – Either of these would give you nice photo enhancement effects, such as Lomo filter. The photos captured as-is from typical phone cameras usually “cannot make it” (at least it is so on the Galaxy S). With some effects applied, at least the photo would look fun.

One Click Lag Fix (Galaxy S only) – Probably the most important App for Galaxy S phone users. This App will give you a performance bump (just search for “1 click lag fix” and you should see many such reports). I applied the lag fix on my stock firmware (Singtel JF4) and i could say that it certainly does what it says. This posting gives fairly detailed information on what it actually does. It takes more than one click to apply the fix actually, but is easy enough. Some notes to help those who want to do so:

  1. Upon launching the App, you should Check Free Space to see if you have the 1GB space needed to continue with the fix. Next, you have to root your phone. You are then asked to turn off your phone and to turn on your phone in recovery mode.
  2. With your phone off, press the power + volume up + home buttons simultaneously to turn on your phone into recovery mode. Use the volume control to scroll down to “apply update.zip” and press the home button to select it.
  3. Turn on your phone again and hold your breath. It will take longer than usual for the phone to turn on, and it may even take more than one attempt to turn on your phone (at least it was so in my case). Be patient and don’t panic.
  4. Launch the One Click Lag Fix App again and Install EXT2 Tools, followed by the OneClickLagFix and you’re done!

Update: see recommendation for Froyo here

Android Apps Mini Review

FreeApp

You can probably find thousands of “My Android Apps List” postings out there, here’s mine (standard built-in apps excluded):


Essentials

HTC IME Keyboard – Beats Swype which i was using initially. Tapping on each letter still gives a better chance of recognizing the letter intended (any error is limited to the alphabets surrounding the one typed) compared to swiping (the path of the swipe could include a long string of unrelated characters).

Google Pinyin Keyboard – The de-facto keyboard for Chinese characters entry. Includes text prediction for English word entry.

APN OnOff – Widget for quickly toggling data on or off. Just tap on the widget to toggle, can’t get any easier than that.

Handcent SMS – Lots of debate on which is the best SMS app. Didn’t try any other but this one just works for me. Most important feature is probably the SMS pop-up and quick reply. Threaded view of messages work fine too, though it is not so much a concern for me how the messages are presented.

Advanced Task Killer – Again, there are lots of debate on whether task killer apps are needed for Android. My take is, probably. Even if it does not help in conserving battery life, at least it helps to conserve memory. Also, you may notice that some apps gets launched on their own accord, which gives me a discomforting feeling. I would try to uninstall these apps if i can help it, otherwise, at least get them killed off automatically when they start running without my knowledge. I have tried Task Manager before using ATK, and the way it uses notification to inform you on tasks killed is simply annoying (you could turn this notification off, but then you don’t get notified at all). ATK simply pops up a quick message to tell you it’s killed some apps, and this works even when you’re in the middle of playing games, without disrupting what you are doing. Basically, you could say ATK is install-and-forget-it, which is what most background utility software should be like.

Astro/ES File Explorer – Most first-time Android users would wonder, where’s the file browser/manager? It’s probably included as one of the built-in apps that comes with your phone, but you can probably just forget about it. Just download and use Astro/ES, you won’t need anything else. My preference is slanted towards ES in terms of usability. It has a multi-select mode which seems to be lacking in Astro. Both also come with the tool to allow you to back up your Apps to the SD card.

Skyfire – My browser of choice. I have also tried the built-in browser and Opera, neither could display the Google adsense page correctly, which Skyfire alone is able to. It also allows you to toggle between Desktop and Android mode. Quite frankly though, it feels laggy. While scrolling down the engadget website, it pauses for a few seconds between each page-down. It is also slow in responding to switching between tabs. Will have to put up with these until Froyo, on which i’m pitching my hope on a dramatic improvement on browsing experience.


Other Useful Apps

Calendar Pad – A calendar replacement app which displays the detailed event item text in the monthly calendar view. Makes it much easier to see what’s supposed to happen on which date in the month. It also provides a 1X1 widget for you to display today’s date which otherwise isn’t shown at all on my phone home page (useful for non-HTC phone users i suppose).

Stitcher – Podcast player that comes with a widget to pause/play. Bookmark your favourite podcast content sources and your daily commutes (especially if you drive) will never be boring again.

ShowNearby – Shows you places of interest around you. It even includes AXS machine and ERP gantry locations (and no wonder, since this app is developed in Singapore). It’s interesting (delightful even) to see the little red triangles adjusting its orientation to point to the direction where the place of interest is, even as you turn the phone around. Select the place of interest and you get the option to see the map and streetview. In the map view, you are given directions on how to get there. Simple and intuitive, amazing!

Meebo IM – IM client supporting most IM protocols out there. Feels a little slow in general but works.

Astrid TasksGTasks – Synchronizes with Google Tasks, which, presumably, since you are already using a Google phone, you have a Google account (GMail, GTalk etc.), so why not also use Google Tasks rather than having to sign up and synchronize with yet another provider. If you are a task-oriented person who loves to check off a task list (like i do), you definitely need a task list application besides the standard calendar app (which strictly speaking doesn’t quite give you task list features). The web interface (part of Google Calendar actually) of Google Tasks is quite nice by the way, better than this GTasks app. The ability to synchronize with Google Tasks is the primary reason you need this app.

Gmote – Use your phone as a remote control to play media files on your pc. While it works quite reliably, i dislike the fact that the Gmote server which you have to install on your PC handles the playing of media files instead of other programs (say Windows Media Player) that you already have on your PC. You might have a preference to use Winamp for playing music and VLC for video playback on your PC for example, but you can’t use those with Gmote of course. There is actually a VLC remote app that allows you to control the VLC player on the PC. Besides using the VLC player for playback of media files (for which you can be sure it performs well), it has the added ability to add a folder to the playlist and to play in shuffle mode, features which are surprisingly missing in Gmote. Quite unfortunately though, the VLC remote app was done as sort of a Google-sponsored student project which isn’t actively developed and supported, and i have had issues with reliability. Anyhow, the concept of using your phone as media playback remote control is quite cool if you have a HTPC.

Update: see recommendation for Froyo here