Dec 242013
 

Doc McStuffinsTo those of you who celebrate, merry Christmas!

I thought I’d list some useful previous posts I’ve written, as well as other holiday highlights…

I got a new Nexus 7/Nook/etc. for Christmas; what can I do with it?

For those who’re giving/receiving an Android-based tablet or smartphone for the holiday, here’s my post on recommended Android apps.

Where can I buy digital comics besides Comixology?

For those looking to buy digital comics with said tablet, and don’t want to use Comixology, here’s my post on non-Comixology digital comics sources.

I just want to watch that Garfield/Charlie Brown/Snow Miser special…

Interested in spending the day watching holiday specials? Here’s my top 10 list of favorite specials (and runners-up), as well as my posts on various Christmas specials.

I’m reading this to kill time between Christmas and New Year’s…geez, there’s nothing on TV

Are you reading this after Christmas and want to know about animated specials referencing New Year’s or Boxing Day? There’s a post for that too, albeit a short one (they aren’t popular holidays for cartoons, apparently).

Who the heck hasn’t “saved Christmas” at this point? Dora the Explorer?!

Finally, if you’re wondering what minority cartoon characters have “saved Christmas,” here’s a list of some who have done so. For the record, Dora’s saved Christmas and a second holiday…

Nov 262013
 

Wreck-It Ralph on Blu-rayLately, I’ve been considering going to high definition for future movie and TV show purchases. Between the direction things are moving, my owning an HDTV set, and that the HD version of “Wreck-It Ralph” I’ve seen looks a lot better than my DVD version does, I figure it’s time to make the move.

But what kind of HD videos? The current choices are Blu-ray and the various digital media stores, the latter dominated by iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. I’ve written about Blu-ray in the past, and why I’ve mostly ignored it until now, given my dislike of its downsides: it’s another rapidly-spinning-disc media format (when I feel the future for video is in digital files, just as we’ve seen in the shift from CDs in music); it’s laden with more annoying DRM than DVDs ever had (a major reason Blu-ray was likely created in the first place); its attempts to make DVDs obsolete feels rather aggressive, despite that it’s only been about a decade since DVDs largely displaced VHS; and they still have the nerve to charge more for high definition over standard definition, despite no clear reason for the extra cost at this point other than a cash grab.

Still, when I went to compare Blu-ray to the digital video services of iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play, I concluded that ultimately, Blu-ray has the advantage over those stores, despite its flaws. The biggest problem of the stores is that they’re designed and geared toward working with their parent companies’ own device ecosystems, with cross-platform compatibility often iffy to nonexistent. Even DRMed ebooks aren’t as bad as the current state of digital video—at least Comixology allows one to read their books in a web browser, Android tablet or iPad.

Meanwhile, since its earlier days, Blu-ray’s DRM aspects have been sidestepped or defeated, and they’ve become easier to rip: the program MakeMKV is a popular means of ripping BR discs to an MKV file, and can be followed up by the use of programs like Handbrake or MP4tools to convert the MKV file to a smaller/more device-friendly file size and format. Said files would also be DRM-free, allowing one to put them on any device, unencumbered by one daring to actually buy a device based on desired features, not by whether they’re tied to a specific company/operating system. There’s also being able to back up the files to a hard drive, as well as still owning the original disc.

In my case, I have a mix of devices: a 2012 Mac Mini; an Xbox 360; a Nexus 4 smartphone; and a first-generation Nexus 7 tablet. This CNET article has a table summarizing which service is compatible with which device (updated 3/20/14: the article dates from over a year ago at this point; there’s been a few changes since it was written, but it’s still useful):

http://news.cnet.com/8301-33620_3-57566817-278/how-trapped-are-your-digital-movies-and-tv-shows/

As for my own devices, I’ve summarized their media store compatibility below (updated 3/20/14):

  • Mac Mini: iTunes; Google Play (via web browser; SD and HD); Amazon (via web browser; SD video only)
  • Xbox 360: Amazon; its own Xbox media services; Google Play videos (via the YouTube app, under “purchases”)
  • Nexus 4/Nexus 7: Google Play

As you can see, Amazon’s determined to push the Kindle, and thus won’t make their service available for straight Android devices; Google’s focused on Android, and thus their non-Android services are mediocre; and Apple’s definitely not offering much for non-iOS/OS X devices. The Xbox has support for its own services, Amazon and (technically) Google Play (via the YouTube app).

Since I don’t feel one should be punished for daring to buy tablets/smartphones/computers from a mix of operating systems/manufacturers, converting Blu-ray video to digital files seems the best course to take. At least until DRM is (hopefully) finally killed off for videos sold through iTunes, etc., though given VHS/DVD’s history (Macrovision, etc.), it’s debatable if or when that day will arrive.

Finally, yes, technically there’s also pirating videos from torrents, etc., which would have all of the same advantages as ripping Blu-rays/DVDs save the obvious one: no compensation for those that created the movies/TV shows. There’s also piracy’s other downsides (MPAA lawsuit threats, hit-and-miss availability of certain things, sketchy websites, etc.).

Sep 082013
 

Yahoo WeatherYahoo!, the company that’s recently adopted a wide range of changes, ranging from buying Tumblr to changing its logo, is striving to make inroads into the mobile world. Besides their recently improved Flickr app, Yahoo’s also improved its Weather app.

The new Yahoo Weather app makes use of Flickr images to provide within the app full-screen background images, depending on one’s city/location. Among the aspects of this app:

  • A clean view and layout of weather information, including today’s high and low temperatures, hourly temperature forecasts, precipitation predictions, and a five- or ten-day forecast.
  • Sunrise and sunset information is provided, along with wind speed/direction, with slightly animated graphics.
  • A weather radar map is provided. Oddly, tapping it brings up Google Maps’ information, instead of the Weather Channel’s maps. Yahoo usually pulls its weather information from the Weather Channel.
  • Severe weather alerts are provided, along with (in the settings) switching from Imperial to metric units.
  • Widgets are provided in various sizes and functions, including a widget integrating a clock.

As nice as it is, Yahoo Weather has its downsides:

  • The information provided might be a bit too basic. More detailed data, for those that need it, will require either a different weather app or going to a weather related website.
  • The settings are buried at the bottom of a slide-out menu, below various other Yahoo functions (sports, etc.) that’re included for no clear reason, and just serve as unneeded clutter.

Overall, Yahoo Weather’s a nice, easy to use app, and should serve most users well. For those that need more detailed weather statistics, however, they may wish to consider AccuWeather or Weatherbug.

Here’s some screenshots of Yahoo Weather in action:
Yahoo weather 1 Yahoo weather 2
Yahoo weather 3 Yahoo weather 4

Sep 032013
 

Android 4.4 (KitKat)Earlier today, Google announced that it’s arranged a licensing deal with candy maker Nestle that’ll see Android 4.4 have the dessert-themed name… “KitKat.” Yes, after the candy bar.

Google’s always chosen dessert-themed names for Android, as listed on this tie-in page, which also advertises Google Play/Android device prizes embedded in select Kit Kat wrappers. As for the spelling, it looks like the Android OS will be named “KitKat” (in camel case), while Google refers to the candy itself as “Kit Kat” (with a space).

And yes, the article’s correct: Kit Kats are made and sold by Hershey here in the United States, but by Nestle elsewhere. No word on whether Key Lime Pie, the previous next-gen name for Android, will be used for a future version. For that matter, there’s no word on whether or not we’ll see future Android versions retain generic dessert names, or also enter into marketing arrangements with other candy makers. Can you imagine Android versions named “Twizzler,” “Dilly Bar,” or “Twinkie?”

Aug 102013
 

Nexus 4Several months back, I bought the Nexus 4 smartphone, which I spent much time pondering whether it’d be worth buying. My main concern was the various reports about the phone’s back glass cracking. While I posted an initial review, I thought I’d offer an update on how the phone’s going so far.

T-Mobile plan

I signed up with the $30/month T-Mobile plan, advertised on their website. The plan comes with 100 minutes plus 5GB of data. Data with T-Mobile works fine for me, even at my workplace, which often has issues with dead zones. And since I’m not streaming YouTube or Netflix heavily, I’m not in danger of hitting the 5GB cap.

The minutes, however, I have hit at least once; while I don’t talk much on the phone, conversations with family may sometimes stretch on at length. Hitting the limit while I was on vacation also wasn’t the most convenient time. Thus, I’ve kept an extra $5-$10 on my T-Mobile account in case time runs over. The $30/month plan charges an extra 10 cents per minute ($6/hour) for anything over 100 minutes.

I’m thinking about signing up with the non-free version of Skype, which for $3/month offers an unlimited calling plan from Skype’s mobile app to phone lines. It’d be cheap (versus what the next suitable tier of T-Mobile service would run), give me the benefits of unlimited calling, and save on my T-Mobile phone minutes.

Stock Android

The Nexus 4 comes with stock Android, which I’ve greatly enjoyed. The two best aspects being that my phone’s 8GB of space isn’t eaten up by unwanted garbage apps put there by the manufacturer, and I get to receive upgrades to the newest Android versions fairly quickly.

The apps work as well as any other mid-to-high end Android phone, of course.

Phone camera

I’ve made use of the phone’s camera, such as on my recent trip to Seattle. While the camera works fine for taking casual snapshots, the camera isn’t one of the Nexus 4′s strong points. It’s nicer than my previous phone’s cameras, but probably not as nice as the iPhone’s camera.

Protecting the phone

This was my biggest concern, per the various online reports about the phone breaking. However, most of these reports seem to show the phone never had any sort of case on it. In my case, I bought a generic $25 case from a T-Mobile kiosk; probably thanks to the case, the Nexus 4 has held up so far, even after the inevitable dropping of my phone a few times. I also put a screen protector on the phone, ones that I ordered from an Amazon vendor. The shields have prevented scratches so far, but the ones I bought seem to give the phone screen a slightly grainy look.

Conclusion

Overall, I’m enjoying the Nexus 4, and glad I bought it. I’d still consider this phone as a viable choice, provided one has a case for it. I assume Google will want to release an updated version soon, as the Nexus 4 model is about a year old.

If one’s considering alternate phones, other phones I’d look at include the recently-announced Moto X, the HTC One, the Samsung Galaxy S 4, and (for iOS fans) the iPhone 5. Engadget’s summer 2013 smartphone guide might be worth reading.

Jul 062013
 

OI FlashlightWhile there’s tons of flashlight apps in the Google Play store, a lot of them ask for a high number of and/or odd permissions. While some of the permissions are presumably for advertising, others might be questionable at best.

OI Flashlight is a flashlight app whose only permission it asks for is for the camera, and that’s in order to make use of the camera’s flash. No advertising, etc., and the app’s free.

Features include whether or not to use the camera’s flash instead of the screen backslight, and changing the screen color. However, changing the screen color requires a separate color picker app to download.

The app works as advertised otherwise, and (like most flashlight apps) is easy to use.

Jun 252013
 

A new app I’ve been using lately is SpeedTest.net. Based on and tied into the popular website of the same name, Speedtest.net is an app that lets you test your smartphone’s data connection speed. The app comes in versions for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone.

As its Google Play page description notes, Speedtest.net lets one test the server ping, upload, and download speeds. The settings allow one to choose whether to display speeds in kbps, mbps, or kb/s. There’s also an option to choose which server to test with based on the distance away. (Distances are measured in kilometers only.) Another feature is the ability to store a record of past test results, as well as export them in .CSV format.

I find Speedtest.net useful for situations such as my workplace, where my smartphone’s data speed often comes to a crawl, and I’d like to know by just how much of a crawl.

Here’s some examples of Speedtest.net in action. Yes, my workplace data connection’s sometimes that slow!
speedtest1

speedtest2

speedtest3

speedtest4

May 272013
 

android_logoSince I’ve upgraded to a new phone recently (the pleasant to use Nexus 4), I thought I’d write about what apps I use on my Android smartphone and tablet. Note that my choice of favorite apps might be different from what others use; I’m not an Instagram or Pinterest user, for starters.

Social Media

  • Facebook: yes, I have this one on my devices.
  • Google+: though Google+ is pre-installed, I’d install it on my own anyway. Google’s social media service is pretty nice compared to Facebook, and doesn’t change its privacy rules every other week.
  • Twitter: just the stock Twitter app, especially with how Twitter lately has been bent on killing off any rival Twitter apps.
  • imo: a multi-protocol instant messaging app.

Audio

  • Android MP3: Amazon’s MP3 store may be accessed through this app, as well as its cloud music player.
  • Pandora: the popular streaming audio service.
  • Play Music: built in already, but functions well enough for my audio playing purposes. More hardcore music enthusiasts can find alternative apps through Google Play.
  • Shazam: the popular app that tells the name of a song playing when the device is held up to the radio/stereo/other audio source. I don’t frequently use this app, but sometimes it’s nice to have around for fun.
  • TuneIn Radio Pro: I paid for the non-free version of this useful streaming audio app, which streams various radio stations from around the world. I use this app to listen to NPR, as well as sometimes Canada’s CBC.

Video

  • MX Player: while the default video player works well enough, MX Player offers support for more formats, and comes with a few extra features.
  • Netflix: the streaming video service gets some use on my tablet.

Comics

  • Comics: the plainly-named Comixology app is useful for reading what comics I’ve bought through the service.
  • GoComics: a newspaper comic strip reading app I’ve written about previously.
  • Perfect Viewer: an excellent comic reading app for Android devices, with support for popular non-DRM formats (CBR, CBZ, PDF, JPG) and for reading Western or Japanese comics.

Ebooks

  • Aldiko: this popular ebook reading app works quite well with non-DRMed ebooks, such as those from Project Gutenberg or bought from the few ebookstores without DRM (like Tor’s books). There’s also removing DRM from legally purchased books on one’s own, of course.
  • Amazon Kindle: the popular Kindle app is something I install for the few Kindle books I have.
  • Nook: Barnes and Noble’s ebook store app. Besides a holdover from my Nook Color days, I also purchase most of my digital comics and magazines through the Nook app.
  • OverDrive Media: an app that allows one to check out ebooks from public libraries. Unfortunately, the nature of how libraries are forced to offer ebooks, thanks to large publishers’ ham-fisted meddling, doesn’t make this as appealing as it should.

Photos

  • Flickr: a recent update to this app has now brought it up to par with the iOS version, and thus it’s a vast improvement. The only drawback is there’s no automatic backup feature for smartphone photos, similar to what’s found in the Google+ and Dropbox apps.

Utilities/Tools

  • Astro File Manager: an app that allows for browsing through an Android device’s file directories much like on a desktop computer. Particularly useful for devices with an SD card, or when a particular file is needed to be found.
  • Dictionary Premium: Dictionary.com’s dictionary and thesaurus app. While there’s a free version, I opted to pay for the ad-free version.
  • Evernote: the online-based notekeeping service is something I use frequently and find highly useful. Since I just use it for text-based lists (and not photos/audio/etc.), I stick with the free version.
  • KeePassDroid: the Android version of the popular password database program KeePass.
  • Lookout: a popular smartphone security service.
  • Unit Converter: useful for converting from U.S. Imperial units (inches, miles, gallons, etc.) to metric units.

Games

  • Angry Birds: yes, I have the ever-popular game, too. However, I’m not a big Android gamer.

Miscellaneous

  • AccuWeather: a weather app.
  • Dropbox: the popular online storage service. Installing the app on my devices, desktop computer, and laptop helps with some personal file-sharing aspects.
  • Feedly: the replacement RSS service I’ve found for the soon-to-shut-down Google Reader.
  • IMDB: an app for the popular online movie information database.
  • StopWatch & Timer+: while there’s a free version, I use this app often enough I paid for the non-free version. The app does what its name says: offer various timer pre-sets.
  • WeatherBug: another weather app, though with more features/detailed forecasts than AccuWeather’s app.
May 192013
 

Nexus 4About a week ago, I bought the Nexus 4 smartphone via Google’s website. After much consideration, I decided the Nexus 4 sounded like the best option for the following reasons:

  • It’s inexpensive. I bought the 8GB model for $299 + two-day shipping + tax.
  • It’s unlocked and not part of a contract, allowing me to use a range of company’s prepaid services via swapping out the micro-SIM card. Even with the cost of going through several lesser smartphones in the past few years, I’ve calculated being on prepaid has still been much cheaper than what being on a contract during that time would’ve ran.
  • The only other prepaid option at the $300 range would’ve been the Samsung Galaxy S II. While it’s a nice enough phone, I didn’t think paying that much for 2011-era smartphone tech was a good idea.

Registration and set-up

The phone arrived pretty quickly, as did the micro-SIM card I ordered from T-Mobile, the prepaid carrier I’ve decided to use. Registering on T-Mobile’s website lets one choose a $30/month prepaid plan that offers “unlimited” 3G/4G data (data capped at 5GB) and 100 minutes per month. If one needs more than 100 minutes, extra time costs 10 cents/minute, which would be $6 for an hour. While the Nexus 4 doesn’t have “true” 4G (no LTE), it’s still much faster than my former Virgin Mobile/Sprint network, so I’m fine with it. I also don’t get many phone calls, so 100 minutes (and any extra time as needed) should work fine.

Setting up the Nexus 4 is just like setting up any other Android phone, including its hardware “cousin” the Nexus 7 tablet. After entering your Google email address and password, you’re prompted whether to restore previously saved apps/some options, which I chose to do. The Nexus 4 went ahead and downloaded most of the same apps I used on my previous phone and Nexus 7 tablet; for some reason, the Nexus 4 also imported the tablet’s wallpaper, which I soon changed.

Porting the phone number from Virgin Mobile ran into some problems. Porting required my Virgin Mobile account number, which forced me to call Virgin to acquire; the number wasn’t available via their online account management system. I finally got the number, after dealing with attempts by their customer service associate to hard sell sticking with Virgin. I then called T-Mobile and let them know I didn’t enter the account number when I registered online, which they soon entered for me. After this, the registration and number porting went through, and I set up the phone’s voice mail. Another reason for calling: when I initially went through T-Mobile’s online registration, the final step threw up an error message stating I hadn’t chosen some (unchoosable) payment option, an error I presume was related to my first account number-less attempt at porting the number from Virgin.

For more setup tips, GottaBeMobile’s Nexus 4 guide has some decent ones.

Android software

One of the Nexus 4′s signature traits is its use of a pure Android installation, without any manufacturer “skins.” Thus, things work quite smoothly, with the Nexus 4 running the newest version of Android. If you’ve used the Nexus 7 tablet, you’ll find the Nexus 4 works similarly. I am, however, still getting used to the size of the phone. With a 4.7-inch screen, it’s definitely the biggest smartphone I’ve ever used.

Protecting the phone

I purchased a case and plastic screen shield for the phone, as I usually do for smartphones. It’s also to address my one hesitation I had about buying the Nexus 4: comments online about the glass back cracking. However, none of the tech sites I usually read, nor Amazon.com’s user reviews, seemed to find it as prominent a problem as the comments made it out to sound. Phones made of glass don’t seem to have slowed down sales of the iPhone 4 or 4S, though Apple did wise up and dropped the use of glass from the iPhone 5. Hopefully, LG/Google will do the same for the next version of the Nexus phone.

Camera and photos

Taking photos works nicely, but some of the pictures have the wrong datestamp, defaulting to December 8, 2002 for some reason. While it’s easily fixed in iPhoto or Flickr, it’s still a concern.

The automatic backup of photos to either Google+ or Dropbox is nice. I’m still trying to figure out which one to stick with, though Google+ doesn’t expire access to most of its free storage space after a few years like Dropbox does. I wish Flickr would improve its Android app; automatic backing up of photos to Flickr doesn’t seem to be an option.

Here’s a few of the photos I’ve taken with the Nexus 4:

Downtown Milwaukee, May 2013

IMG_20130518_160227

IMG_20130518_160553

Conclusion

Overall, I’m enjoying the Nexus 4, and so far, I’m glad I bought the phone. I’m hoping the phone’s strong, mid-to-high-range specs (glass back/lack of LTE aside) make it last longer and have fewer problems than the previous two prepaid smartphones.

Those looking to buy a new unlocked or prepaid smartphone would probably be well served by the Nexus 4, keeping in mind the above mentioned caveats about the glass back/LTE. If buying a phone on contract, however, I’d also look at the HTC One, iPhone 5, and Galaxy S 4.

Apr 212013
 
GoComics app

The GoComics app, on Android.

As reported by Engadget, Universal Uclick’s released a comics viewing app for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone based devices. Universal Uclick is a national syndicate formed by a merger a few years ago of online site Uclick and traditional newspaper comic strip syndicate Universal Press Syndicate. While Universal’s comics have been available for years for viewing through their website (www.gocomics.com), one can now view them through this app, as well. Strips I enjoy reading via Uclick include “FoxTrot,” “Doonesbury,” “Luann,” “Baldo,” “La Cucaracha,” and “Pearls Before Swine.” Other classic strips carried as reruns include “Peanuts,” “For Better or For Worse,” and “Calvin and Hobbes.”

My brief look at the app (on my Nexus 7 tablet) shows it seems nice enough, with the same functionality as the website: the ability to forward to others links to favorite strips, as well as bookmark favorites. Unfortunately (as of this writing), the app wouldn’t let me log in to my Uclick account. However, the Google Play store description has a response stating they plan to fix this in an update very soon.

Since I usually read newspaper comics on my desktop each morning, I probably won’t make heavy use of this app. However, it might be useful for trips away from home, when I’ll be more reliant on my tablet, and don’t feel like firing up my laptop. Of course, I’d still have to read the non-Uclick strips I enjoy (“Mutts,” “Edge City,” etc.) via other means.