Tuesday, 18 November 2014

First impressions of Android 5: Tasting the Lollipop

First impressions of Android 5: Tasting the Lollipop

The much touted android update to android 5 nicknamed Lollipop finally arrived on my Nexus 5 and I thought this is a good time to give you my initial impressions.  I don’t intend to use this space as another long list to explore the differences between KitKat and Lollipop as this has been done by others really well (eg http://fieldguide.gizmodo.com/16-things-you-can-do-in-android-lollipop-that-you-could-1659628014).  Instead this is my initial impression of using it and is there any difference that matter.

Lollipop has a number of new features and uses on the ART rather than Dalvik which its predecessors use (see https://source.android.com/devices/tech/dalvik/).  This supposedly makes the phone run faster.  I have used ART on both a Nexus 4 and 5 for a while now and think it does add to performance in a noticeable way by loading apps faster and switching between them rapidly. 

The appearance

The appearance of Lollipop is better, the much touted material design (https://developer.android.com/design/material/index.html) makes the overall look much better with a better shadowing and animation. The redesigned Google apps such as Gmail, Google Plus, Play Music, Maps, Photos, Hangouts, Play Store, Youtube and Keep have all received the new design updates.















Flappy Android


As a bonus which all android owners have, Google adds a hidden game which is specific to the operating system.  The Lollipop game is a variation on Flappy Birds which is slightly harder than the original but will occupy any child for ages.  To get to the game simply to go settings > about phone > Android version and repeatedly click on the Android Version. You then get a picture which you have to click repeatedly again, although I find just leaving your finger on it works best and is less stressful and after a bit the hidden game is opened.

Battery life

The key to the new update was that users would find astonishing battery savings as a result of project Volta (http://www.geeksquad.co.uk/articles/what-is-project-volta). This means that Lollipop also give you a new battery display in the settings with approximate time left.   

Sadly, from the limited experience I have had of Lollipop this is where things are seriously let down.  I was getting between 1 ½- 2 days out of my Nexus 5 with all my apps running and using the phone for most things during the day.  I would class my usage as reasonably heavy. 

Since the update the battery stats are alarmingly poor and it appears like the phone is draining fully within 16 hours with no usage making the phone useless for taking with me when 24 hours phone life is required.   

To be honest this might not be the case as I have not had the phone updated long enough to give a true picture, but I am noticing the battery draining very fast whilst on standby.  This could be app related and I will investigate this, but nothing is immediately obvious.







One reason why the phone could be draining so fast is the new notification system that adds notifications to the lock screen, which is something Apple did from the beginning. This feature is configurable and useful.  

I suspect this is also the source of the power loss as this means all the apps are constantly in the memory of your device.   

The notifications can be customised so you only get priority alerts or receive none at all, which could be the best power saving of all.




The Lollipop display has some great features which include a redesigned notification tab which allows you to reconfigure essential elements of the device such as wireless, Bluetooth, flashlight, and other important features which is a really good feature. 

The actual settings look has been redesigned and now seems a lot better to look at as well as having a few more functions.


Overall opinion

Is Lollipop really as sweet as it sounds? 

Well, yes and no. 

I love the new design, it does seem quick, and I love the notifications and new customisations but I defy anyone to be able to work with a phone that cannot last 24 hours.   

Hopefully, this might settle down in due course and the battery life will get better but if it does not then this could be a serious issue for Google to address.

Update (Nov 2014)

Having used used Lollipop for a while the battery issue is not as bad as first though and will provide a full day. I also like most of the new features and find the phone better and more responsive than it was under KitKat. Thumbs up Google for the update.

One proviso: some apps might not be compatible, so check your favourite apps on the Play Store before upgrading to ensure that they are compatible.

Monday, 23 June 2014

My favourite Fitness app – VirtuaGym www virtuagym.com

Fitness apps are becoming the obsession of the moment. The prominence of the likes of Fitbit (http://www.fitbit.com), the Apple’s Health App (https://www.apple.com/ios/ios8/health/) and the new Google Fit app (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/10897506/Google-Fit-for-Android-to-take-on-Apple-HealthKit.html) add to the ubiquityof apps in this developing market.

I never thought I would be able to exercise and  I did not believe that an app would be able to solve my exercise fears until I discovered Virtuagym (www.virtuagym.com) which is available on iPhone (http://itunes.apple.com/nl/app/virtuagym/id514316985) and android phones (http://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=digifit.virtuagym.client.android). 

What I like about VirtuaGym

VirtuaGym is a simple app providing exercises for the home, home gym or actual gym. Its main selling point is a virtual person caller 'Brad Fit', who demonstrates the exercises for you and does them with you in real time.  Now I know this might sound stupid, but it actually works well for someone like me.  I am a complete novice to exercise, and therefore I tend to rush into exercises too fast and get tired very easily and very quickly. The app slows me down.  It makes me think about each stage of the exercise and most importantly does all the counting and timing for me.

It has a very simple fitness test you can do which involves recording your height, weight etc. and asks you to do jumping jacks for two minutes, and then do as many lunges, press-ups and sit-ups as you can in addition to recording your pulse. This is not ideal for the beginner, as I could not have done 2 minutes of jumping jacks to save my life when I first started using the app. 

I started on a predefined workout called the Morning Workout (Novice) which gives you a lot of stretching exercises which when you do them slowly build up your core strength.  After doing these regularly for a month, I ventured further into doing more exercises and exploring other levels.

The app allows for a range of customisation. for example, when you get into some of the more advanced stages you are required to run twice a week. Now, I do not run. Even my kids have not managed to get me to run yet so and app is up against a lot of resistance. I cycle, on a road bike, instead. I can reconfigure my workouts so that I can cycle instead of running.   I can and have also designed my own workout regime which I do every day when I am not cycling.

Since I started using the app I have developed core strength and slowly building up stamina as well. In fact I would not have got the bike if it had not been for my abilities developing fast whilst using the app.

What I don’t like about the app

No app is perfect, and much as I love VirtuaGym, there are some irritations, which are with the design. Firstly, Brad Fit can provide, as default, motivational speech. Now this might sound good, but this is a computerised voice with no emotion saying things such as “heads will turn” which might well be the case, but as a bloke in his fifties, this is possibly not because I am great looking with a ripped body, but rather because I am drooling or some such other reason. Also If I am to get motivational speech from a man I want an army sergeant shouting at me and ordering me to continue. In preference I would actually rather like a female voice, telling me how hot I look as this might help the ego a little. 

You can customise, but the customisation is very limited and predefined workout elements are not available for you to customise in your own workout. To obtain better customisation, you are encouraged to sign up to a monthly Pro package. I tend to object to anything I have to pay for monthly, as I will tend to lose interest and continue paying, so I avoid this at all costs which is sad as I would gladly pay a few quid for a pro version of the app providing more customisation and bespoke reports etc. on a one of basis.  I am sure there are many others who would do the same.

The reports are a final issue for me. I would like to see how many exercises I did today, this week, this moth and how many calories I burned etc. The app only provides a running total, which misses the point somehow. I know for example that I have done 1,684 minutes of exercise and burned 15,425 calories since I started using the app.  I have not lost weight but it is redistributed somewhat.  On the website, which uses Flash to animate the characters, there is more information, but I like many other people access the information through the app and rarely go to the site. As I am an android user, the flash elements of the site are lost to me from my mobile devices.

Overall opinion

I have only scratched the surface on what this app can do. I have not mentioned the achievement badges you get and the other elements of the app and community that come with using the app. I have on the other hand, tried many other apps and not found any to compare. I now feel I should exercise and actually enjoy the burn and the sweat. I have only used the app for a few months but I know I will continue to do so for many more. I also suspect that as Google and Apple reveal more about their health apps they will be using some of the best bits form this app.

The app is free to download and use but there is an in app purchase of the Pro mode if you feel you want to sign up to this instead of a gym. Personally, I will stick to the free mode until a one off payment for Pro becomes available and then I will assess whether the value is worth the price of the upgrade.

So overall, I love the app and would want to promote it to others as I think it is excellent. Of course, if you are a seasoned athlete, this app is possibly not for you. However, for everyone else it is ideal.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

My 10 best free cloud storage services

With the increased use of mobile devices we are all heading to the cloud for storage solutions. Cloud storage is both easy to access and easy to use, in the majority of cases. Cloud storage is a simple way of backing up important files so they can be share securely between devices wherever you are.  So instead of taking a CDR, DVD, USB or external drive with you a safer method of taking your files with you is to use the cloud.  If you have ever had a hard drive failure or needed to reformat a computer you will be aware of the need to back up data in advance so you can restore everything. In the age of computer attacks from all sides, putting your data in the hands of other as a backup is a very sensible idea.

I have been a regular cloud user for a number of years now and present my ten favourite cloud providers. They are ordered in my own personal order based on convenience, ease of use, free storage amount and security.  Most providers give a certain amount of storage free but you can top this up by using apps or recommending friends. Most cloud storage providers also provide apps and desktop software for Windows, Linux and Macs. A consideration is whether you install the desktop client which gives you a Windows Explorer view. You might want to specify which folders you want to download to the desktop client as you can easily fill your computer heard drive with files from your cloud clients.

1.      Dropbox (dropbox.com): the first and possibly the most widely used cloud provider. It gives you a basic and poultry 2GB of space but this can easily be added to but is enough to store key songs, books, photos and documents.

2.      Copy (copy.com): My surprise second favourite provider gives you a hue 15GB of free storage. Copy also shares your storage space when you share file space with someone else.  So this is ideal for business use as you only use half both parties involved in the share.

3.       Box (box.com): A close third. Box gives 10GB of free storage and a reasonable desktop client. A solid performer which I use regularly.

4.      Google Drive (drive.google.com): Google Drive is a useful cloud provision, as you can work in the cloud through Google Docs and save them directly to your cloud storage.  You get a generous 15GB of space when you open a Google, but this also includes the space taken up by your Google mail provision.

5.      OneDrive (onedrive.live.com): Microsoft’s venture into the cloud is a good effective and stable platform offering 7GB on signup. This is a useful place to put your documents and photos. If you have a Microsoft computer this is a good bet.

6.      Tresorit (tresorit.com): Tresorit is a useful edition to the top providers. Offering 5GB as standard and expandable to 16GB. This is worthy of inclusion as it is the place to store really important files as it uses using AES-256, TLS and RSA-4096 protocols to encrypt your data. Although all the other providers encrypt your data and will keep it safe Tresorit adds further layers of encryption so is ideal for the files you cannot afford to be without. (2015 update: Having used Tresorit for a few years this is my number one provider for work related storage).

7.       MediaFire (mediafire.com): Another provider offering a massive 50GB of free storage but with a stipulation that individual file sizes cannot exceed 200MB. So a great place to backup and store your precious photos.

8.       SurDoc (Surdoc.com): SurDoc offer 100GB of free space! It claims military security so your documents should be safe. I have used this for a while and find the Windows app ok but uploading 100GBs of data might take a very long time. One issue With SurDoc is that after 12 months you have to renew your storage, which means that users are sent renewal notices requesting them to advertise SurDoc on Twitter, Facebook and through other methods in order to retain the storage offered.  Consequently, many people will use this for minimum storage rather than the whole amount available as this would require 100 adverts retain it annually. (2015 update: I stopped using SurDoc as after a year they require you to renew by tweeting or advertising their service.  I have little objection in doing this in principle if I believe I want to do this but to be forced to do so is unacceptable. I have since pulled almost everything from SurDocs).

9.       Shared (Shared.com): I include shared here because it offers 100GB of free storage but has no apps of desktop software to go with it. So it is just a web based share system, which places certain difficulties with uploading files and folders.

10. Amazon Cloud drive (amazon.co.uk/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000655803): Amazon offer 5GB of free storage for your music and photos. There is not a lot to say on this one you either like or hate Amazon. (2015 update: Amazon have rescinded the free storage and only allow a paid for option. This is a shame and consequently I have removed all items from their storage.)

Cloud storage is here to stay and whilst other physical media such as CDs and DVDs are likely to disappear in the future, virtual data storage is going to grow. If you want to share data such a photos with friends and family or want to collaborate in business with associates’ securely sharing documents then the cloud is the place to be. 

One other provider I did not mention but deserves a mention is Bitcasa (bitcasa.com) who offer 20GB of free storage which is supposedly secure. I use to use this provider a lot as they offered a photo backup for my phone and computers, which most other providers now do. What I liked was their “infinite drive” which appears as a new drive on your computer. It is easy to drop things into the infinite drive so storage is easy. What I do not like though is their software seems to want to clone your whole hard drive in a viral way. When you install the desktop software the default is to upload your whole hard drive to their infinite drive. I also noticed that the resources for this drive were excessive so have removed it from all my devices and use it online only.

If you download all the cloud providers mentioned in this article you have the potential of a staggering 329GB of free cloud storage.  

Cloud storage also disproves the adage, ‘size is everything’. Good software, ease of access to files and good security are all as important if not more. 

What is your favourite and why?

Update: PCloud (https://www.pcloud.com/) offers 20GB of storage and seems to have good apps to download to upload and download your files. This could be one to watch and a possible alternative to SurDoc.

2015 update: I still use cloud storage a lot but am more concerned with security and longevity of free storage.  With many providers adding stipulations of changing from a free to a paid for service it is wise to choose with care. I now use One drive for photos, Tresorit for business, Copy for other files, Dropbox for everyday storage (short-term) and Google Docs for miscellany which I wish to keep. It is also important to consider the footprint on the storage on mobile devices when using the cloud managers as Dropbox seems to download all of its content to my tablet but not my phone, hence blocking my tablet up. Box is similar but allows you to choose what to download, as does Mediafire.  What is essential is that you monitor the conditions on storage providers for changes and have the flexibility to move your storage to another provider should the terms and conditions change.  I also recommend that you, as a must, keep backups on physical external hard drives as Cloud storage is fine but it always pays to back up things yourself.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Windows 8 Metro screen makes me angry

The stupidity of Microsoft Windows 8 and 8.1 Metro screen.

I, like many others, am not a great fan of the Metro screen of Windows 8 or 8.1. Apart from the childish appearance and buggy apps on a PC (they might work on a phone) the Metro screen is buggy and illogical. Most of Microsoft Windows programmes are. Even the illogical ones something that can be learned and still do what you expect.

I was a little amazed when I first got Windows 8 which I have updated since to 8.1 that the metro screen is illogical. Apart from the obvious difficulties with this operating system (OS) such as the switching between screens, moving from metro to desktop and back again by moving the cursor to the edge corner of the right hand side and all the other modifications that Linux have been using for many years.

So I was left a bit incensed with the update feature for the Metro screen and the presentation of “your apps”. 

Firstly, the update of the metro apps is done automatically, apparently, and can be adjusted in the metro screen by pointing at the right edge and getting the secret menu up and clicking on settings, under settings is update. This is most reassuring especially when you get a notice stating that 2 applications have been installed.  No mention what they are or whether you instructed the installation.  In the age of heightened computer security this is a clear error of programming, which puts Microsoft in control and you the user not in control.

The second annoyance is is just stupid to me.

To get to the store, click on the store tile on the metro screen.

Screenshot 2014-04-10 17.58.06.png

You are then presented with the Metro screen store screen:

Screenshot 2014-04-10 17.58.25.png

The joy about this screen is there is no information on what apps I have installed, only adverts for more apps to download. So you have to right click on this screen to get:

Screenshot 2014-04-10 17.58.36.png

So you need to click on the middle green rectangle at the top of the screen and then you get a few minutes of this:

Screenshot 2014-04-10 17.58.51.png

This, like all Microsoft updates take ages, and is nothing like the instant Android or very fast iOS updates.  After a long wait you finally arrive at your desire page “your apps”:

Screenshot 2014-04-10 17.59.25.png

So here are “your apps”, apart from they are not your apps after all, they are the apps “not installed on your computer”! Why would Microsoft default to this screen? If i wanted to know what apps I had not installed I would have clicked on a button marked apps not installed.  So I now need to click on the dropdown menu to highlight “apps installed on my computer” and low and behold:

Screenshot 2014-04-10 17.59.48.png

I finally get the apps I have installed on my PC… along with a lot of apps I have uninstalled. Why are these there? Why are Microsoft forcing me to look at apps I have not got installed on my Metro screen? Are they under the impression that most people will never uninstall an app because it fails to meet expectations or is buggy?

Screenshot 2014-04-10 17.59.54.png

I know this is a petty annoyance and I should get a life, but it is really very poor design and exemplary of the rather poor overall look, feel and user experience that people updating to the latest Microsoft OS are experiencing. It is also made worse by the user experience of Android and iOS mobile devices. Usability is critical and easy of use and not having to go through hoops to achieve and action are central to design, so why is this still in Windows 8 and 8.1? Let's hope with Windows 10 these issues will be addressed as they are a real bugbear.