Hallelujah! The Return of the Nexus

Android

An Android

Thanks to two fantastic experts on the internet I have my Nexus 7 tablet running just like it did on Christmas day in 2012 when I got it. Woohoo.

The process of “downgrading” from the problematic (to put it politely) Android 5 Lollipop (not so much the sweet as the bitter medicine) to the much better version 4 (Kitkat – always preferred chocolate anyway) was, as described in most places, a pain in the neck requiring the use of the Android SDK, digging into long-forgotten MS-DOS territory of environment variables etc, and command prompts. The post I found linked to a document on Google Docs that the author (Techno Bill) had written which streamlined the process.

Having followed the instructions for collecting the required files in a folder on my PC’s C: drive, and eventually managing to install the necessary drivers, thanks to the second online saviour, I fired up a command prompt in windows and was taken back to my earliest days of PC computing – typing commands and seeing the remote device respond accordingly. It was, strangely, fun. Back to the old days, typing commands, like we had to once upon a time, as manually as you can without resorting to machine code.

A few commands and a bit of waiting later and I hit the return key on the last command of the actual process of flashing Android 4.4.4 back on it.  This was the no-turning-back point, if it worked all would be well, if not, I’d be off to Argos tomorrow to buy a new Samsung…

I have never been so pleased to see the old google animated flower type loading screen, or that old home screen (after the initial setup, naturally). Instantly I knew it was right again. Even as it started to update the default apps, and Gmail looked for all the unread email I’d ignored for the last few years, it was so much quicker – under Lollipop I’d have to wait half an hour before I could use it after switching on the WiFi but the re-Kitkatified (?) Nexus was flying within seconds.

Yet another example of the wonder that is the collective fount of knowledge that is the internet.  No more thoughts of buying a new tablet, the Nexus is back.

Get a Dashcam for Only £4*

Light Trails

Light Trails

(* plus one old Android smartphone, not included)

I only drive my car once a week, generally, when I visit my folks, twenty-something miles up the A1.  However, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said “I wish I could have recorded that” after some idiot has done something daft and/or dangerous.

Dashcams have gained in popularity over the last few years, overcoming fears that people might take exception to being filmed while driving (ok, maybe that’s just my fear), due in part to the videos posted from russia of often spectacular footage of crashes and meteorites.  Of course, apart from the draw of gaining YouTube views the footage is handy for insurance or police evidence reasons in case of an accident.

I’ve looked at various options over the years and decided that I couldn’t justify the more expensive (better reviewed, supposedly better quality) ones and yet the cheaper ones seemed to get mixed reviews and needed to be powered from the car to work properly.  The problem with a wired cam for me is that my convoluted smartphone charging and combined Bluetooth receiver/FM Transmitter combo setup takes up all the USB charging ports I’ve got in the car.

Then a couple of weeks ago I had a revelation, via a Gizmodo UK article on reusing supposedly outmoded gadgets.

I have two smartphones, the older of the two Xperias being semi-retired after becoming brain-addled a few years back, lacking storage and running very slowly suddenly, for eighteen months it’s been a receive-only connection to my old phone number for texts from the network pleading with my to top up my credit.  But as mentioned in the article it could serve as a dashcam with one free app.

So off I went.  Firstly I turned sync off on  most of the Google services as I don’t want it downloading historical emails.  Next I deleted any apps that were never going to be used again (including, it seemed, the one that had caused its memory and speed issues – it’s like having my old phone back).  Finally I installed the CamOnRoad dashcam app and after a few settings tweaks to save the videos onto the SD card it was up and running.  Two advantages to this Xperia dashcam is a great camera and long battery life – it’s cordless!

The last part of the solution was mounting it on the windscreen.  The next day at the supermarket I found a £4 smartphone holder.  The first test showed this wobbled too much on the road but a simple block of rubber jammed between the dashboard top and the phone holder kept everything stable and free of seasickness-inducing motion.

The only other issue was finding the videos on the phone to copy to the computer but putting the phone in “pretend I’m a USB disk” mode (Mass Storage Mode to be precise) sorted that out – after much head-scratching and cries of “where the blazes are you hiding them?”  Or words to that effect.

I can also still use the old phone for one of the other tips in the article too – as a Google Play Music streaming device with either headphones or one of my many Bluetooth speakers.

Technology becomes seemingly outdated quickly today, the hardware can’t cope with new software, they run out of space, but if you can’t or don’t want to throw devices away or sell them then there are people coming up with creative and useful ways to give this tech a second life.

 

Dear Google…

Very dear Google, at the moment, it seems.  In both money, time and torn out hair.

Two years ago my folks bought me a Google Nexus 7 (by Asus) for Christmas as I couldn’t afford the £200 cost myself and over those two years it has remained a terrific gadget, so useful to me, checking emails, quick notes into Evernote, streaming my entire, extensive, music collection over a bluetooth speaker system etc, as I’ve mentioned before.

Then Google announced Android 5.0 – Lollypop.  A new look, a new heart, faster, leaner, better – for every device that would take it.  Until I clicked on the download button on the update my Nexus 7 rarely stuttered, only very occasionally did it slow down, usually down to an errant website or, very rarely, a misbehaving app.  Now though it can’t even display Google Earth street views without crashing completely, touches are completely unresponsive, though sometimes it’ll do what I’ve asked a minute or so later.  Google Maps zooms out when I make the gesture to zoom in, bouncing back out to the original map size like it thinks I’ve changed my mind.

I’ve read the forums where others afflicted like myself have tried to suggest fixes – I’ve cleared the cache by booting into its safe mode” and it seemed to work, for a day or so and then we were back to the same sorry state of affairs of frustratedly stabbing at the screen like it’s going to suddenly notice that I’m doing something.  The Jellybean version of android introduced Project Butter which made Android smoother and slicker, I think Lollypop must refer to a toffee apple as this feels more like Project Treacle.

In tech parlance our Nexus 7s (Nexii?) are as good as bricked, and it’s all the more annoying that it’s on Google’s own device – they should know their own hardware.  The Nexus line was originally a kind of reference hardware of sorts, the first out the gate with a new O/S to show how other manufacturers should make their devices.  The thing is that the Nexus devices have been so good and such good value for money that they’ve not been just bought by techies who will accept that they’re using a beta-test device and can get round any bugs, these are mainstream devices with respected names engraved on them, a major update like this shouldn’t effectively break the hardware or ruin the user experience.

To be fair, briefly, it’s not just Google as Apple too have had a similar experience with iOS 8 making many iPhones etc unusable after the update, issues which took some sorting out via various updates.

I have a Sony phone which will never be updated beyond Android 4.3 because Sony doesn’t feel that 4.4 (Kitkat) would run well on it, this I can accept and because of this the Xperia still runs beautifully and unless something I load onto it changes that it will for some time.  I also have a laptop which sometimes loads to a black screen and I can’t log on until I put it to sleep and wake it again and it sometimes crashes yet I don’t mind one bit – because it’s running Windows 10, which is currently only in its experimental, technical preview stage.

That’s the thing pre-beta test operating systems will inevitably contain bugs, that’s the point of beta test software, you use it, you accept it, but Android 5.0 on an older Google device feels like a piece of beta software pushed out as finished.

So Google, please make it work, I can’t afford a Nexus 9, I want my Nexus 7 back.

[Really Google, I mean it, I can barely type at the moment, I’m pleading, hands clasped, on my knees, which are starting to feel sore…]

 

Update:  Ok, so it’s a couple of weeks later, Christmas has been and gone and I’m now less than charitable, my Nexus is still next to useless, every time I go to use it the battery’s flat, it’ll work fine for a while then I’ll try to browse the internet and it’ll start locking up again, sometimes Maps will work, sometimes it won’t.  All I’m thinking now, while looking for contingencies of cheap non-Google tablets (I did find myself thinking “if only I had an iPad” the other day but in reality I’m thinking more the Asus/Acer route), is how long will it be before someone sues Google over this.

End of January – the 5.0.2 update came in, all was fine, it was like having a new tablet again, woohoo!  Then after a couple of weeks it was back to being unresponsive most of the time again.  Seriously, Google, I want my £200 back, plz, k thx for nothing, bye.

March 15th – Android 5.1 “Bug Fixes” Ooh, they’ve fixed it.  No.  Now it’s just as unresponsive as ever and now the Ebay app won’t connect to the internet while Gmail will – it’s fine though if I switch the router off and on again.  Oh joy.

May 26th – There’s an article on Gizmodo about the future of Nexus devices.  I know the future of one Nexus device and it involves a rubbish bin, as I couldn’t in all conscience even give away this now almost bricked slab of glass and plastic to anyone.  It works for looking at Ebay, oh and Gmail but only if I leave it for twenty minutes after it connects to my WiFi in order to let it sort itself out.  If I try to search for something it goes into 1998 PC speed mode when any browser loads, I can barely use the internet on it basically.  Google Maps is the same, most of the time it just locks solid when I try to zoom into a map, after half an hour of forced reboots and trying to ignore it the thing will suddenly work ok, for a while.

I’m at a loss to explain it, as is anyone else.  If this was an Apple device their reputation would be taking a battering.

Anyway, time to save up and move on – Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 it is then.

Cloudless

Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain (c) 2013 Andy Vickers

Like walking into a house when you’ve been away for a while I pull off the dust-sheets and open all the curtains…

It feels like such a long time since I’ve been able to post anything here, in reality it’s been a couple of weeks that I’ve not been able to access The Lunch’s dashboard or create new posts.  At first I thought it was my browser, my computer, my ISP, I searched online for WordPress issues but couldn’t find anything so was stumped.  Then finally via Google I found mention of a similar issue on another blog which told me it was a problem with WordPress servers being blocked by ISPs due to someone’s blog breaking Terms of Service.  A demonstration of how one persons actions can cascade on systems like the internet.

Secondly the other week we had rain that looked like a monsoon, almost as dense as fog, waves of water were flowing off the tops of roofs across the road, the road outside itself became a river, water erupted from drain covers.  One driver of an expensive saloon car *cough*a BMW*cough* clearly felt that a couple of inches of water was too risky and reversed back then drove down the pavement instead while others ploughed through regardless spraying people and buildings with torrents of water.  One especially impressive young man managed to leap completely over the large bow-wave created by one passing car as it rolled along the pavement.  As usual I watched the rain and lightning, listened to the thunder.

All seemed ok that evening as the storm passed and things settled back to normal.  The next evening though I found my landline phone wasn’t working, seems the storm had taken out the phone lines locally, and then the terrible reality struck.  NO INTERNET EITHER – The Cloud taken out by Rain Clouds.   Arghhh.  I couldn’t even use 3G on my mobile because I hadn’t got enough credit.  It didn’t bother me that much, the emails can wait, I’d perhaps miss one of the Deals of the Day emails but there probably wouldn’t be anything decent anyway.  I watched some TV then thought about listening to some music, the new CD I’d ordered for example, I’d got the MP3 version free, downloaded it and then uploaded it to Google Music, I’ll listen to that…  Ah.  Maybe not.

Luckily I’d still got it on my computer too (the CD itself hadn’t arrived yet) so I could still listen but it was a little reminder that when you put everything in the cloud and you lose your connection you’re stuffed.  This is why I only use cloud services as backups or as a quick and convenient way of accessing music or photos on just about any device I have.   Other services like Evernote and Wunderlist will sync with the cloud database once reconnected so at least they’re still usable locally.

Lifehacker has some useful advice in case of internet outages including using a mobile hotspot or tethered 3G phone, borrowing a neighbour’s internet or using public wifi if these are available which shows that thinking ahead can save the day but even then at the wrong time you might still be netless.

Maybe one day the dreams of the likes of Google with their (mostly) everything-online Chrome OS will be realised but we’d need an internet that only goes off when the power to run the computer does too.

It Just Works

English: 2008 Computex: ASUS SP-BT23 Bluetooth...

English: 2008 Computex: ASUS SP-BT23 Bluetooth Speaker. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The phrase “it just works” is one of Apple’s key marketing ideas and it encompasses the concept that users should be able to pick up an iPhone, iPad and use it, without any instructions and if they want to connect it to their Macbook, their Airplay speakers or to another iDevice then that will all Just Work too.  They achieve this by having a limited range of products and by using mostly proprietary standards – like Airplay – and because of these two things the technology doesn’t have to deal with the massive variations of hardware encountered by other devices; one Apple device knows what another one is called and how it talks, so to speak, already.

The thing is this illusion, that this is as a result of their products being better designed, is a half-truth – competing technologies only tend to require a couple of clicks to work together, like getting my Sony phone to play music via my bluetooth headset adaptor or hi-fi adaptor – all I need to do is press a button on the adaptor and select the output source on the phone, or my tablet, or laptop even.  The thing is that there is an increasing expectation that you shouldn’t need to do anything yourself to make it work, even if it is just pressing a button.

To this ends we see products like a set of £1200 speakers which, instead of connecting via bluetooth, require a dongle to be plugged into the bottom of your phone or tablet like some kind of digital limpet, making your device more cumbersome but meaning that all you have to do is plug it in.  A case of making it easy taking precedence over the handling of the technology.  And then there’s another side to all this – the ecosystem.  Apple in particular make all these add-ons, or licence the technology to other companies to make docks etc, that all work seamlessly together but the same limitation to Apple hardware that makes it possible for it to all work together means it’d be awfully expensive to switch brands later.

The situation in the Android/PC camp though is improving though.  Near Field Communication (NFC) tech is allowing speakers and more that connect using bluetooth via a simple tap of the phone on the top of the peripheral, the proximity allowing the two devices to know that they’re compatible and meant to be together, like silicon blind-date, if you like.  I have a smart BluRay player that has a companion Android app that automatically found and connected to the player via the WiFi network and on a similar vein modern WiFi routers can even connect to devices automatically using Wireless Protected Setup – although the latter still needs some user input, after all it’s not practical to carry your desktop PC and tap it on the router.  Another example is the WiFi printer that only requires a single button press to connect to your PC the first time it’s installed.

The dream of smart appliances all talking to each other via wireless networks is starting to come true but for it to be truly universal manufacturers need to use open standards and as users we need to accept that sometimes we’ll need to read the manual, or on-screen instructions, and push some buttons to help them along.

I <3 My Smartphone

Android 4.0.1

Android 4.0.1 (Photo credit: laihiu)

There, I’ve said it.  Ok, so I don’t love it, it’s not like I cuddle it, much.  But as someone who for quite a while didn’t bother to find out what was so smart about smartphones having one is a revelation.  I’ve written before about how useful it is to be able to share information across phone, tablet and laptop but this time I’ll share a few recommendations for apps that I’ve found invaluable to my life.

Interestingly I also found the other day that this little device even makes old fashioned phone calls.  Ha!

As someone who has intermittent memory Android’s notification bar is a joy.  For example, I have a checkup at the dentist next month, it was booked six months ago, I need to book a day off work to go – I don’t need to, it’s just a good excuse to have a lie-in on a Tuesday.  I opened up Google Calendar, added the appointment, added a reminder for the time then opened up Wunderlist and added a to-do list item for booking the day off complete with a reminder which will pop up on Monday morning.  The best thing about all these reminders – I also set them two weeks ahead for birthdays so I don’t leave cards until the last minute – is they persist in the notification bar until you remove them so every time I get a new email or app update I see the reminder too.  It’s pretty much foolproof.

Wunderlist is a well designed to-do list app which supports reminders, notes and nested to-dos and is cross-platform, i.e. it has apps on Android, iOS, PC, Mac and Linux all of which sync via the web – there is also website based access if you’re using someone elses computer.

Regularly is a tool for remembering events that happen predictably and regularly.  You set up a new event, set the interval that it needs to be done, each day, each month etc and then every time it’s due and you’ve done it you add an entry to that item’s log and the counter resets, if you don’t do it the app reminds you that it’s overdue.  Perhaps scheduling a chinese takeaway every month could be a bit too much, not that I have done, honestly.

There are many notepad apps for quick notes, the one I use is OI Notepad, in the end I chose it because it looked nice and had a colourful icon.  It’s useful for quick notes when the phone isn’t connected to the internet.  I could use Evernote which is also installed but I prefer to use that on my Nexus 7 where it has a bit more screen to play with.

Of course there are other apps I particularly recommend such as the Met Office Weather app which allows you to have multiple pages of favourite locations, includes five-day forecasts and even sunrise and sunset times; the Facebook app if you’re signed up which is pretty good now; the BBC’s News app is useful and finally Firefox which I personally prefer to the built-in browser because I use it on the laptop and I can sync the bookmarks between the two.

The always-on nature of smartphones and tablets is also particularly useful to me as I can just quickly look at a webpage or make a note without having to put the laptop back on – usually this happens just before I’m about to go to bed.

It has been said recently that people have now started to use technology to get round the problems caused by other technology, like carrying an always connected smartphone in order to always be able to get work emails, but for me my technology just helps me with my annoyingly poor memory.

Adventures With a Chinese Android

It all started eighteen months ago…

Cheap, small, curvaceous but not as slender as more expensive models my droid arrived late and wasn’t quite what I’d ordered…

Chinese Android

Chinese Android (image credit: Andy Vickers)

The picture showed a proper USB port, this didn’t have one but never mind.

I’d been contemplating a tablet computer for a while but wasn’t sure I’d get much use from one so I didn’t want to splash out on a Samsung or Asus I might regret getting.  I could see the advantage of a handheld, touchscreen computer for web browsing, picture and video viewing, quick email or Facebook viewing and so on especially since Apple and Google had managed to make operating systems that suited the way people would use them, i.e. with fingers, and because unlike previous tablets they ran smartphone software not desktop software they could be smaller and lighter.

My MID Epad looked like a shrunken iPad and even came in a very nice, Apple-esque box with a magnetic closure and it was packed with technology that iPad owners would snigger at; old-fashioned resistive touchscreen, an old processor, little memory, low-res screen, plastic back – PLASTIC!  Short battery life.  Not being a perfectionist and being careful financially with such experiments I accepted that what I had wasn’t cutting edge, so far from cutting edge in fact that you could butter bread with it.  Anyway, it was quick enough to play videos, the screen responded well enough to flick through ebooks.  I could even play Angry Birds.

The first problem was that these tablets come with Android but are not approved by Google so can’t access many of the apps in the Play Store, the default Google apps such as the contacts app won’t synchronise properly and often you don’t get updates.  For some these are not problems, if all you want is to browse and get email and read ebooks.  Gizmodo UK recently proclaimed that chinese tablets were all “crappy” and that Google was having to keep Android open to support this flow of effluent but it depends on how you define crappy, what you find acceptable and whether you’re looking at your £65 tablet from the point of view of a well paid tech journalist, someone who just wants to look at the odd web page or a blogger on the minimum wage.

It niggled me admittedly but again I lived with it and was able to get round the issues in a way that isn’t possible with out of the box Apple devices – I put apps on manually, sideloaded them, having downloaded them from app sites.  Most were old versions and again they wouldn’t get updates.  Playing videos from the computer required some research on how to make the software access a shared network drive, though as usual the net provided excellent step-by-step guides, though if anyone mentions the word Samba near me I may cry.  Ok, so it didn’t “just work” as certain fruity products are supposed to do but as a bit of a geek it was interesting.  The hair I pulled out has grown back.

It was a challenging device all in all – it had to be charged after a couple of hours use so I had to make an adaptor lead so I didn’t have to sit two feet away from where the power supply plugged in and so I could have a right-angle plug into the device.  Sometimes the internet browsing was painfully slow.  I loved reading books on it, even using it in a tent in the middle of the Lake District until the battery died again, though using it outside in sunlight was out of the question – one-nil to Kindle and paper.  Being non-approved some of the apps I wanted I just couldn’t have, and the dream of sharing data across computer, phone and tablet would have to wait a while.

The more I used it though the more I saw that the arguments of those people on gadget blogs who complained that tablets were too simplistic, that you “can’t code on them”, and so on were wrong.  The tablet is the perfect consumption device, I can lounge on the sofa and read the news, read a book, browse a website, check mail, listen to music or watch video streamed from my computer, I even have apps filled with tasty recipes which I haven’t yet got round to cooking.  I can share things I’m interested in there and then, add to my read it later.

Now, of course, this is well known and Kindle Fires, Nexus 7s and iPad Minis have been this years big Christmas gift – my mum got a Kindle Fire for her birthday last week because it was the perfect computer for her; so simple to use, just point and tap to read, browse the net or get more books or games.  I now have an Sony Xperia Android smartphone and a Nexus 7 tablet myself, both have newer versions of the software, I can listen to music via bluetooth from either and do even more than with my Chinese Droid, my emails, contacts, to do lists, notebooks, reading lists and bookmarks are automatically synced and available wherever I want them, all from small, thin light devices.

I remember seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek and similar, seeing those little pads of information and thinking how great it would be to have all that in your hand.  And it is.  Amazing.

I’m Listening

Quietz!  I hearz sumpin coming...

Quietz! I hearz sumpin coming… (Photo credit: pjern)

Voice control of computers has been a dream since before Scotty tried to chat up an Apple Mac in that Star Trek film and now processing power is enabling it to be a reality even though it is still comparatively basic at the moment; even Apple’s Siri is a human-friendly front end of what is effectively a search engine.  Both Siri and Android’s voice actions allow commands to be given to the devices and although they are pretty good at recognising what you ask them to do it’s still not an artificial intelligence.

Nuance, the company that created the technology behind Siri, are working on voice recognition systems that don’t need to be told when to listen (by a tap or a voice command like “Hi Siri”, “Xbox listen” or “Computer?”).  These systems are always listening, just waiting for you to say something that it might be able to do something about; just mumble “I wonder what the weather’s going to be like at the weekend” and your phone will instantly have the weather news for you like the world’s fastest personal assistant, never having to be asked, always ready with the answer.  The idea has great potential in streamlining device use, or customizing the information shown on services like Google Now.

But how annoying could it become if you’re having a normal conversation or even talking to yourself and your phone lights up “sorry, I didn’t catch that, do you want me to find something for you?”  to which you instinctively say “no, I wasn’t talking to you.”  Even more annoying is when your phone replies “oh, well if you’re going to be like that.” and sulks for two days.

No doubt the software will eventually have ways of detecting whether there is more than one voice being heard so it can ignore questions that aren’t directed at it and just sit there making notes about what you and your friend, relative, partner or cat are talking about in case it can find something relevant should it be called upon but there could still be occasions when it may go off and search for something that it shouldn’t perhaps.  Will it apologise for getting you into an embarrassing situation based on something it heard on a tv show?

Of course this will have the conspiracy theorists worried that it’s sending everything you say to the government but that’s inevitable, they probably also think the government’s reading their emails too.  Now where’s my phone hiding?

[Gizmodo UK]