Monthly Archives: June 2011

Changing Timesheets II: The finalists

After a long quest of installing and uninstalling literally dozens of apps, I have narrowed it down to Four programs.

  • All four have one-touch widgets for one-touch clocking in and out.
  • All four widgets display clock-in status and information about hours worked.
  • All four have clean, easy-to-use interfaces.
  • All four are free, or have free versions with sufficient functionality for my needs.

So without further ado, here, in alphabetical order, are the finalists:

  1. Clock Card: (Free Trial Version, <$3 for the full license) The developer has been very helpful in importing data from my old system. Due to the low price of the full version (€1.99=about $3, I have actually shelled out a few shekels to unlock the full version of the program. The interface was very clean, with big, friendly buttons for clocking in and out. This was one of only two apps where the developer replied to my e-mail requesting help in importing data from my old system. Likes: This has a one-touch widget for clocking in and out that works beautifully. The widget drops you into and out of the program. The developer considers that a fault that needs fixing, but I kind of like it, as it is a great way of providing feedback that the widget actually functioned. Dislikes: Fonts are a little small in Days/Weeks/Months view, and the font used in the widget is just a bit too small… or maybe my eyes are just getting old. Also, “rebuilds” took a little while…
  2. Hours Bank: (Free) An elegant little program that works quite nicely. The interface is very clean: the main screen has four tabs — Today/Week/Month/Blotter (entire database of clockings). Likes: Has a little clock-shaped widget for one-touch clocking. The widget changes color when you press it; red = clocked in, blue = clocked out. Dislikes: Duplicate clockings are not automagically removed. No help/FAQ menu item. There does not seem to be a way to add clockings retrospectively
  3. My Work Clock: (Free) This was one of the first apps that I discovered. It was also the first that I encountered that had a widget — a very informative two-slot creation that displayed time at work and a punch-in/out button. Unfortunately the widget did not always work, necessitating entering the program manually to check. And sometimes when it did work, it often did not update to show the new status.
  4. Time Recording: (Free basic version, <$3 for the full version) I nearly dropped this program from my shortlist, as the widgets did not seem work as I would expect — selecting one simply invoked the program. Then I read the manual (always a good idea), and there, tucked away in a sub-menu of an obscure tab in the preferences menu, was a “widget click action” setting that allowed the widgets to work in the way that I wanted. This should have been the default behavior. The author was also very helpful; he provided detailed technical  information regarding how to open up the database file so that I could merge old data. I eventually decided that it was not work the bother, but at least I know how…

Stay tuned for the winner.

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Power Hungry

Having canvassed many smartphone-owning friends, one universal complaint that I heard from all of them was that battery life is never good enough. My previous phone – a Motorola W755 – could go for several days between charges. My new Droid X2, on the other hand, can barely get through a single day without needing to spend some quality time in the company of a charger. So, in the spirit of public service, here some hints and tips to maximize battery life and minimize the chances of running out of phone at an inopportune time:

  • Turn the screen off or down: The screen uses more power than anything else —  so turn it off while not in use, and minimize the timeout before the screen switches itself off. While in use, turn the brightness down as much as possible. Alternatively, if the phone has an auto-brightness setting, use it.
  • Bluetooth: Milady never uses Bluetooth. On the rare occasion that her phone chews its way through a fully-charged battery in half a day, it is confusing to Bluetooth is invariably switched on. After investigation, we usually find that this is due to her throwing her phone into the den of chaos that is known as her handbag. If you don’t use it, turn it off!
  • Wi-Fi: Most smartphones also have a built-in Wi-Fi transmitter. While this is a boon to have when you need added bandwidth, it is a power hog when you don’t, and should be turned off when not in use. I recommend a free app called Y5, that turns Wi-Fi on and off depending on if you are in the same location
  • GPS: The GPS Location system is yet another transmitter, and like all of the above transmitters, it uses power. If you are not going anywhere, or do not need GPS-related services (such as navigation of local weather) you can save a little power by switching it off.
  • Auto-Sync: This feature is found on some smartphones. It is useful to have when you need e-mail updates in a hurry. If you don’t need it, turn it off.
  • Apps: This is a contentious issue. Some contend that no unnecessary app should be running (why, for instance, is IM always running on my device when I never use it?), while others contend  that running-but-dormant apps use next to no power, and the system’s habit of automatically restarting some manually-terminated apps can cause more problems than it solves.

If those hints don’t do it for you, it is time to roll out the big guns.

  • Chaaaaarge! Having chargers at home, work and in the car are a good way to ensure that you are never caught short.
  • Extended Battery: Many phones have the abililty to replace the stock battery with high-capacity one. Unfortunately extended batteries usually add size to the phone, and the resulting bulk make it impossible to fit the phone into some cases and cradles. iPhone owners don’t have this problem; their phones are sealed and the batteries are safely out of the reach of their grubby paws.
  • The Hot Spare. Before I got my smartphone, Milady and I both had the same phone. So I purchased an extra battery and a wall charger. An exhausted battery could then be swapped with the “Hot Spare” in a matter of seconds. Since she used her phone a lot more than I did, having a hot spare on standby was a boon for her. Once again, iPhone users, you are out of luck here.

This has been a public service announcement. I hope that it has been of service.

Changing Timesheets I

In my day job, I have to keep a record of hours worked, so that I can correctly fill out my timesheets at the end of each week. For the past six years I have been using Jody Sankey’s excellent “Timesheet” program on my Palm T3. Now I am looking for something similar for my new Android-powered Droid X2. And so I have been trolling through the offerings available on the Android and Amazon app stores.

There are literally scores of time sheet, time-punch, clock-in and similar apps available. You would think that seven years of progress would mean that they would all blow the creaky old Palm app into the weeds, but that has not proven to be the case.

Perhaps because of the much-ballyhooed “Zen of Palm”, the trusty old app was extremely elegant; I had set up my trusty T3 so that pressing one of the hard buttons bought up the app, and then the center button was used to clock in and out. This meant that clocking in and out was a one-handed operation that could be done without looking at the screen. Having played with dozens of Android apps I have yet to find one that works as well, and with so little effort.

My needs are simple:

  • I need something to track clockings-in and -out, and total hours worked per day and per week.
  • I need to be able to manually insert and adjust entries if I forget to clock in or out.
  • Sometimes, I forget to clock-in on time; so I need to be able to adjust the clock-in time after clocking in.
  • Sometimes I forget to clock-out when going home; so I need to be able to easily add a clock-out for the previous day without jumping through all sorts of hoops.
  • I do not need a project planner.
  • I do not need the ability to track multiple jobs at multiple locations.
  • I do not need the ability to create and maintain multiple tasks – just log the time that I am at work.@I do not need to track multiple concurrent tasks.
  • I do not need to be able to track mileage.
  • I don’t need something that tells me when it is time to go home.
  • I don’t want something that tracks overtime (OT is at standard rate)@I do not need — or want — a calculation of earnings.
  • If possible, I would like something that can accept the data from my old system.
  • It would be really nice to have widget — an on-screen button that allows me to clock-in and out quickly without having to enter the app and fiddle around while I am trying to do other things.

I am perfectly willing to pay for something that I know will work — and will pay handsomely for something that works perfectly — but one of the biggest problems with the app market is that they only have a 15-minute refund window, enforced by the app store.

For some apps, such as games, 15 minutes is more than enough to ensure that the app runs on your machine and meets your needs. For a timesheet app, that period is at least a week; given that this app has a lifespan measured in years, two weeks or a month would be better. In my opinion, that decision should not be made by the app store; the developer of the app is the best judge of how long a user needs to evaluate the program.

Some have a free version that is time-or functionality limited, and those were the first ones I looked at. None of them was as elegant as the Palm Timesheet program. My initial favorite fell out of the running after the program stopped running when the trial expired; suddenly I could not even view previous records without buying the full version — NEXT!!

Another app didn’t make the cut when I realized that I had to purchase the full version in order to manually adjust entries. Sorry boys, but that ain’t what I would call an “advanced feature”.

Still another app — one that I really liked — fell out of contention when I found that there was no way to contact the author to ask a simple question about the possibility of importing data.

So… where do we go from here? Stay tuned for the finalists and the winner.

How Sprint Lost My Business

Many years ago, when I was with Sprint, I called to renew my contract. I asked Customer Service if they would move the off-peak start from 8PM to 7PM.

They said “No”.

I signed up with Verizon, then called up to cancel with Sprint, where I spoke to a very nice man from the “Customer Retention” Department. The conversation went something like this…

  • I am calling to cancel my service.
  • I am sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do to get you to stay?
  • If you could have changed the off-peak start from 8PM to 7PM…
  • …sure I can do that.
  • When I asked Customer Service earlier, they said “No”
  • They can’t but I can.
  • That’s rather silly, isn’t it? Anyway it’s too late – I just signed the contract.
  • You can cancel with them within 14 days.
  • I’m not doing that – and Sprint lost a customer because their CS folks aren’t empowered.
  • But I am.
  • Too late – barn door locked, horse bolted.

That was about ten years ago, and we’ve been with Verizon ever since.

From a Palm to a Droid

I have carried a PDA since late 1991, when I purchased my first Psion – a Series 3. Over the next ten years or so, I went through several varieties, including the 3a, 3mx and 5mx, and became such an authority on them that I had my own column in Palmtop User magazine. The machines were elegantly designed; these pocket-sized wonders supported office apps and e-books on pocket-sized devices that ran for 30-40 hours off a pair of AA batteries. To this day, theirs was the only platform I have encountered that supports undated items (“to-dos”), dated items (“day-notes”) and timed items (“appointments”) interchangeably. The 5mx had a netbook-sized keyboard in a pocket-sized clamshell device; an innovation that made them the machines for writers and journalists (they actually trademarked the term “Netbook” for use in a later product). They were years ahead of their time.

But Psion became an victim of their own success; they stopped listening to their users, who clamored for a color screen (even at the expense of battery life) and a USB interface (far faster than serial communications). They dared to tell their users that they knew better, and that arrogance cost them everything — they fell from grace, and the competition ate them alive. Instead, the company slowly imploded, leaving behind only Symbian, descended from EPOC (the operating system of the Series Five), which was spun off as a partnership with Motorola, Nokia and Ericsson. I am confident that if they had released a newer 5mx with these features, that used USB to sync, they would still be around today.

But they didn’t, and in 2004, I finally jumped ship. After months of research, I purchased my first Palm machine — a Tungsten T. The lack of a keyboard was a difficult thing to live with, but the ability to sync with a PC meant that the keyboard-intensive stuff could be done there and then synced into the Palm. The T|T also boasted a collapsible form factor that made it about the size of a pack of cigarettes. A year later I upgraded to a T2, and a year after that, to a T3. I never got used to Grafitti 2, preferring instead to “hack” the newer machines to use the older-but-more-efficient original grafitti found on the T|T.

I loved the T3, and we were very happy for many years. Like Psion, Palm designed tight, efficient systems (developers used to talk about “The Zen of Palm”). For instance, on the Palm, looking up a contact’s details was a one-handed task. But that simplicity meant that they weren’t offering what the market was clamoring for; music, movies and media. Microsoft made several attempts at market domination (as Microsoft generally do) starting off with mediocre, poorly-supported offerings (as Microsoft generally do), but getting better with every generation until they became a real market presence (as Microsoft generally do). And Palm, like Psion, lost their way.

This didn’t bother me, I was happy with the T3, and even purchased a spare against the day it would give up the ghost. In 2007 I purchased an iPod, and somewhere along the line, I acquired a cellphone. And all three of them lived on my belt in harmony, and everyone was pleased, except for Her Ladyship, who thought I looked too geeky. And she had a point, though I thought there was no such thing as “looking too geeky”…

And so it came to pass that I replaced my cheap flip-phone with a shiny new Droid X2. Moving and merging contacts and phone numbers from the old phone and the PDA were fairly straightforward; I restored the numbers stored on the old phone to the new, backed it up to my Google account, then spent a couple of hours copy-and-pasting from Palm Desktop and de-duplicating.

The appointments on the were a little more difficult; after a little Googling I ran across palm2csv, which allowed me to export the entire agenda from Palm Desktop and import it into Google Calendar. Agan, this took a couple of hours to tidy up, particularly with regard to Birthdays, Anniversaries and other repeating items.

This leaves three major functions that still run best on the Palm. Timesheets, Task Lists, and Voice Recording. Over the next few weeks I will be looking for replacements for all three, and attempting to document what I find. Once those have been ported over to the phone, I will be without a dedicated PDA for the first time in nearly twenty years.

Good grief — has it really been that long?

There’s an App for that

I’ve been playing with the phone for a week now. Here’s what I have found:

  • The green notification light does not work as advertised.
  • I miss the voice-recorder button on my old T3…
  • …but not as much as I though I would
  • The phone needs to be “rebooted” about once a day, otherwise it starts to slow down.
  • It once rebooted spontaneously when I plugged it into a dock…
  • …but it only happened once. Hum.
  • It senses when it is close to your head, and turns off the screen. Cool!

The Android interface is quite interesting. There are seven screens that you can slide between, each has 16 icon slots (plus three persistent slots at the bottom.) and you can put anything you want anywhere. In addition, the phone also supports three “profiles: — three sets of screens that you can switch between (mine are “Home”, “Work” and “Play”). Here are a selection of my favorite apps; all are free, though some have modestly-priced bigger brothers , which I highly recommend if you want to support the programmers.

Must-have Apps:

  • Y5:  This ingenious little app watches your movements using the built-in GPS. If you arrive at a location where there is a Wi-Fi location to which you have connected before, it switches on Wi-Fi. When you leave that location, it turns off Wi-Fi, saving your battery.
  • Barcode Reader: QR-codes — those square barcodes that first appeared on packages some years ago — are popping up everywhere. They are often displayed on websites. This app allows you to read them, which comes in useful when installing other apps; find the app on your desktop or laptop computer, read the code from the screen using your phone, and it takes you right where you need to go.
  • Netflix: If you have a Netflix account, this allows you to stream movies to your phone, which is super cool. the Netflix app is not supported on the Droid X2, but I am sure that it will be soon. In the meantime, there is a “hacked” version that bypasses the machine id check. There is nothing nefarious about this if you are paying for the service, it’s just a support issue.
  • GasBuddy: Find out where gas is cheap!
  • KeyRing: Keep the BarCodes of all those loyalty cards on your smartphone.
  • Prey/Lookout: If you misplace your phone, these app/web service combinations will help you figure out where you left it. If it has been stolen, it will help you track down the basta… er… scoundrel who stole it. Lookout also includes anti-malware functionality.
  • Moboplayer: There are many video players available; this is my personal favorite.

My favorite Apps

  • Amazon Kindle: I have no plans to buy a Kindle; both the hardware and the books are overpriced, and DRM is a big turn-off for me. However, there are plenty of free or very cheap books on the Kindle Store — I’m currently reading one that cost only 99c.
  • Groupon/LivingSocial/Daily Deals/DealDrop/Ben’s Bargains/eBay/Craigslist Notification — if you like to keep up with the latest bargains around the net without wasting lots of time, these apps are highly recommended… and a whole lot quicker than surfing for the information.
  • Adobe Reader — gotta read those PDFs, particularly since the manual comes in this format…
  • To-Do List — I am not a fan of digital to-do lists; the best I ever encountered was “Agenda” on the Psion Series 3 and 5 machines. The Palm had a passable one, but the problem with To-do lists on Android machines is the overhead required to navigate to the app, open it and then type it in. I prefer handwritten to-do lists, as they do not interrupt workflow. Having said all that, T-Do List’s killer feature is that it syncs with Toodledo, a killer online to-do list.
  • EverNote — Similar to To-do list, this allows you to take notes on your phone, synced to the EverNote web service.
  • Twitter — If you have a Twitter account, there are literally dozens of apps that will allow you to keep track of it. Seesmic is recommended if you do lots of social networking, but if, like me, you refuse to to open a FaceBook account, this is the better bet.
  • Wallswitch: So many wallpapers, so little time. This neat little app will automagically change the wallpaper at an interval of your choosing.