Category Archives: Android

Google Goes Googly

I’ve been a “fan” of Google for more than ten years. However, they just did something that made me feel very uncomfortable.

They recently updated their YouTube App, but when I went to The Android Market Google Play store I was confronted with the following horror-show:

That’s a bloody awful lot of permissions!

Why all the new permissions? Why does YouTube need access to my contents (which they already own) device info (which they already know) and Contacts (which they already store)?

But wait! There’s more! A few days later they replaced the “Not Now” link (why not a button?) on the nag screen nag screen with a thirty-second countdown timer:

Update Or else

This screen comes up every time the app is started, which is extremely annoying, Google are playing hardball in their attempt to get you to get you to upgrade… and sign away a load of your personal information for which they have no clearly explained need.

Unlike most users, I do not use my main account to watch YouTube, so it doesn’t affect me. Instead, I use a secondary account with no Contacts for them to scarf, so updating is no big deal for me. I advise other users to do the same. But it is enough to make one wonder…

Google, what on Earth are you playing at?

Hobson’s Choice

An oldie but a goodie: I no longer have the phone but I found this screenshot:

Screenshot_2014-01-07-07-39-47

So where’s the “Cancel” Button?

Open letter to Verizon: It’s *my* phone

Dear Verizon

I have had a love-hate relationship with you for well over a decade.#In that time I have gone through several varieties of flip phones and two smart phones — and am about to move to my third. I have found your service to be first-rate — I can drive from my house to Florida, a journey of nearly a thousand miles — without losing voice or data connectivity. Bravo.

When I started with you many years ago, I found you to be both reasonable and proactive. Your Customer Service was matchless; when you made a billing error on your favor, you refunded me twice the difference. I have not seen that before or since. Bravo.

However, my recent experiences with you have left me wondering if you are suffering from some form of corporate form of megalomania.

My first Smartphone was a Motorola Droid X2. I had opted for an Android-powered phone as I knew that Android was an “open” system. Unlike most others, which are shrouded in secrecy, the Android Operating System is “open-source” which means that the source code for the operating system was freely available for download, which means that members of the public can access the source code and “roll their own” operating systems — and before long, communities of folks appeared on the internet who love to do just that. As a tinkerer, this appealed to me. As a consumer, I saw that this made it possible to extend the life of a phone beyond the date at which the manufacturer will support it.

This was particularly important in the case of the Droid X2: while on paper, this was an excellent piece of kit (it was one of the earliest phones to have a dual-core processor), it suffered from reliability/heat problems. One of its favorite party pieces was to freeze/lock-up/reboot while on the road while I was using it for navigation.#Being the adventurous type, I looked around for the solution to this problem, and I found it in the form of “rooting”. I have already written on this subject of rooting, so I will not bore you with the details. Any road up, with a little research, a lot of reading and a bit of work, I was able to “root” the phone and disable or remove unnecessary software. This made the phone run faster, more reliably and with less overheating and fewer freezes.

But time marches on, and so does Android; The phone went through several updates, from Android version 2.2 (“Froyo”) to 2.3.5 (“Gingerbred). Like all Android updated, these changes originated from Google, but went through you before they got to your phone. And you could not resist the temptation to add little “gifts” in the form of “security enhancements” — and it seems that the removal of root access was always at the top of your list. As a result, every time an Over-The-Air update (“OTA”) became available, I had to avoid, delay or turn off the update mechanism until some bright spark could figure out if this update broke root, and how to get the useful Android updates that I wanted without losing the control of the phone that I had worked so hard to obtain.

Time went by, and I outgrew the DX2; it was no longer man enough for some of the tasks that it was being called upon to perform. So I upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy S3. This one started at Android 4.0.4 (“Ice Cream Sandwich”), and this time you saw fit to “lock” the bootloader in an attempt to prevent S3 owners like me from actually doing what they wanted with their phones. But thanks to some innovative hackery, the bootloader was speedily unlocked, and the phone was liberated from your shackles. Naturally, I rooted it right out of the box. Further updates came — Android 4.3 (“Jellybean”) and 4.4 (“Kitkat”), and at every turn you kept finding new and innovative ways to lock down my phone and make it ever more unhackable — all in the name of “security”.

Eventually I tired of fighting with your destructive updates and installed a Custom ROM. Yes, you don’t approve. I get that. Yes, that means that you won’t support it; I guess that’s the price of freedom.

The Samsung Galaxy S3 is now three years old, and one of the best-selling Android phones in history. But time marches on, and newer, faster phones have become available. I just purchased a used S4, and this will be my third smartphone. It will be placed into service in a few weeks, as soon as:

  1. I have a case for it, and
  2. I have found way to root it and remove all of your shovelware.

I am not your typical user. I understand that 99% of your user base neither need nor want rooted phones; I get that. For the majority of users, rooting is giving them more power than they need. And I understand that your Customer Support folks do not want to deal with a thousand hacked variants of every phone on the market. It is not unrealistic to insist that these phones be tamper-proofed while under warranty, and it is not unreasonable to deny support for tampered phones if the tampering is the cause of the problem. I get that. But this is a problem that can be solved to everyone’s satisfaction.

This is not without precedent. Until recently, you, like all cell phone carriers, locked your phones to prevent them from being connected to other carriers; nobody wanted to be the first to find their phones being connected to competing services. But Congress has recently ruled that all cell phone companies should unlock phones on demand. This has the effect of making phones more useful and extending their lives, rather then becoming expensive doorstops.

Yours is the only major cellphone company in the world that goes to such extraordinary lengths to lock down your phones. For the vast majority of your users, this is understandable, but for the 1% of technically competent users who wish to exercise control of their phones at the expense of warranty support, you should allow unlocking of bootloaders and allow those of us who wish to tinker with our phones the freedom to do so.

After all. It’s my phone.

Was That It?

Ubi Soft Disappoints again.

Today, Ubi Soft released an update for Assassin’s Creed: Pirates, a game that I have been playing for months and actually wrote the book on. Having played this new version, I am less than enthused at what they have done. As best I can tell, the progress is as follows:

  • Add new “Temple Run” games within the game (just what I needed — a game which I absolutely loathe and cannot play to save my life)
  • Fixed the “daily bonus” (finally)
  • Added *nothing* to move the as-yet-incomplete story along.

As the actress said to the Bishop: “Was that it?”

Real Racing Revisited

Or: enough with the alliterations already!

This article started life some time ago as an all-singing, all-dancing one-stop-shop for all things Real Racing 3: Hints, tips, advice and a walkthrough. Then the “good folks” at Electronic Arts bought out a new version of the game which added a few unwelcome features (locked cars, locked series, Drive Points, PR rating), and reduced the prize money payouts. These “improvements” all had the effect of reducing earnings and increasing spending, presumably in the hope of “driving” you into the store to spend some real money. I responded by downgrading to the previous version, starting again — the upgrade “broke” my data and downgrading cost me R$1.6M and 19 cars — and working my way slowly back to greatness.

Any road up, the changes that were made to the game are enough to obsolete a lot of what I have written, so this is what is left. Hope it helps.

Hints and Tips

  • DO NOT BUY A CAR JUST TO COMPLETE ONE SERIES! Before you start a series, determine in advance which vehicles are worth purchasing, and which ones are not. When you get the one-off 20% off offer, there will be no opportunity to check if that car will be useful in the future. It is not generally worth purchasing a vehicle just to complete a single event. A vehicle that is found in three events, on the other hand, is definitely worth buying.
  •  Never pay full price for a car (unless you have to). To get a car at 20% off, enter an event that features that car and has a car you already own. Race your car until the object of your affections is unlocked… and voila, 20% off!
  • Be patient! If you don’t need a car immediately, don’t buy it – sometimes cars go on sale for as low as half-price.
  • If you refuse to buy a car when offered, don’t worry — you will get that offer again if the car comes up in a different event — you can always get it then and complete both events, but DO NOT BUY A CAR JUST TO COMPLETE ONE SERIES!
  • When racing against AI “bots”, one strategy is to stay on the inside and out-brake them (they brake earlier than they need to) and pass on the inside. It is also possible to pass on the outside, but make sure that you have passed them before exiting the bend or they will run wide and hit you (if you’re lucky) or run you off the track (if you’re not).
  • Keep up with repairs; they are cheap and instantaneous. Perform maintenance as necessary, though some may be procrastinated if the benefit is small or the race will not need that quality. Do not upgrade a car unless you have to.
  • Know your tracks! Some tracks, like Melbourne and Brands Hatch have lots of turns with few long straights, while other like the Indianapolis Speedway (a.k.a. “Go Fast, Turn Left”) favor flat-out speed. This will influence which car is best for that track. This means practice, practice, practice.
  • Since you can always do a race again, it is possible to make money from re-doing a race you have already completed — a practice known as “Farming”.
  • Longer races make more money than shorter ones, and later races in an event make more money than earlier ones. Expect to make R$12,000-15,000 per race at this level.

Can’t win a race? Here are some pointers:

  • Choose the right car  for the track: Go for stability and cornering on short, twisty circuits, speed on longer ones.
  • If at first you don’t succeed… Races aren’t won, they are lost – by making mistakes that cost you speed, time and the gold trophy. A little tyre squeal is nothing to worry about, but the screeching of tyres is the sound of speed being lost.
  • …try, try, try again. if you can’t finish in the top three, finish last. That’s right, last! If you keep losing a race badly, enough times, the game will eventually handicap the other drivers by slowing them down, at which point you’ll be able to pass them much more easily. The quickest way to do this is to come last in an elimination race, which takes all of twenty seconds of staying in last place. Yes, this is “cheating”, but so is the behavior of some of the bots, as I will shortly explain…
  • Avoid running into the back of other cars; you will slow down, and they will take off like a rocket, a lose/lose proposition. Annoyingly, this does not happen when they rear-end you. Apparently you can change the laws of physics.
  • Auto-braking makes for an easy game but poor performance. Turn brake assist to low (or off completely, if you are feeling adventurous). This will allow you to out-brake your opponents in the turns – but don’t brake too late!
  • Learn the art of the inside bash, where you deliberately enter a bend a little too fast and “bounce” off another car instead of slowing down. Do it right and you won’t lose speed… but they go spinning off the track. Slimy, yet satisfying..!
  • Online? Go offline. The “matchmaking” routine does a good job of matching you up with challenging but beatable opponents, but sometimes it gets things spectacularly wrong, as the screen-shot below shows. This is especially true in “non-race races” such as “endurance”, “autocross” and “speed record” events. Going offline uses built-in AI drivers (Oddly, Modesto Lingerfelter etc), who are more predictable, and may give you the victory you need.
  • OIffline? Go online. This will change out the drivers. Sometimes the game will give you real-world drivers who are easier to pass.
  • Don’t give up too easily: Sometimes the leader will be so much faster than you that he is out of sight, and it feels like you ‘ll never catch him. Be patient, bots are not very clever when it comes to passing one another, particularly on narrow circuits like Melbourne and Suzuka. If you are lucky, the leader will get tangled in a bunch of cars on a corner while you sail serenely by.
  • If all else fails, you could always upgrade your car…
Endurance

Something tells me I’m not going to win this one…

Early-Game Walkthrough

  • The game begins with R$35000 in the bank and 20 Gold pieces in your pocket
  • Start with Pure Stock Challenge (like you have a choice)
  • Buy the Focus, NOT THE SILVIA! The Focus is a little more expensive, but being front-wheel-drive makes it handle better and corner a lot easier than the Nissan.
  • Race to finish in the first three. Do not worry about coming in first just yet, you can go back and “clean up” later.
  • You will not be able to afford the Silvia when you unlock it; don’t worry, you will get a chance later; besides, it is the cheapest car in the game.
  • Make sure you have at least R$35000 by the time you get 45% done,  so you can afford the Challenger R/T when it becomes available at a discounted price.
  • If you have been saving your money,  you should have enough money to buy the BMW when it is offered it at 20% off. Once upgraded, this is the best car in the series.
  • Go back and re-do earlier races until you have finished first in every event (except, of course, the Silvia Showcase).
  • By the time you reach the end of the series, you should have completed every race except the Nissan Silvia Showcase, and thanks to your two purchases, you should have also unlocked Global Production Pursuit (Dodge Challenger R/T), Coupe Clash (BMW), Road Car International (Focus) and V8 Muscle Hustle (Dodge Challenger R/T).
  • If you want to complete Pure Stock Challenge, go for Road Car International and unlock the Silvia at 20% off. This happens after only three races (9%), so make sure you have your money (R$23500) ready!
  • Once you have the Silvia, go back and do the Showcase. This is on the Indianapolis Speedway; the easiest track in the game, and a great candidate for taking off the training wheels (assists). Done right, it is an easy win, completing the Pure Stock Challenge and winning you $15000 and 15 Gold.
  • Where you go from here is up to you; the next logical choice is the Road Car International, since you now have two cars, but if you want to be adventurous and move up to faster vehicles, you can always do the V8 Muscle Hustle, which will bag you its bigger brother, the Challenger SRT8 (R$41,120) at 17%, the Camaro and the Shelby – four of the loveliest cars in the early game.
  • Make sure you snag the BMW Z4 M Coupe and the Ford Shelby GT500 at the earliest opportunity; each runs in four different events, making them the most useful cars in the game.

Make Money Fast!

For me, a gaming session consists of two things:

  • Career driving: Working through a series towards completion. Only work on one or two at a time, as you will need to accumulate the money to purchase discounted cars as they become unlocked.
  • Cash Accumulation: The last few races of a series are the most lucrative. One early-game favorite is the last race of Road Car International, which pays out more than $20k for about fifteen minutes of work. Another one is the last Hockenheim race in “Everyday Heroes”, R$18600 for in nine minutes. Although the payout of the latter is lower, it is a quicker race, and therefore a much more efficient way to make money.

Prepare to Launch!

At the end of my recent piece on Jelly Bean, I mentioned a few annoyances.

  • The app drawer scrolls horizontally instead of vertically. My earlier phone – a Droid X2 – had a vertically-scrolling app drawer; I personally found this far easier to navigate than jumping from page to page.
  • When you plug your phone in to charge, the screen lights up for no good reason. This is not necessary and is sometimes a distraction – the indicator light is all the feedback I need.
  • Unnecessary shutdown/restart confirmation.
  • No scrolling wallpaper
  • Widgets stop responding. My central home screen is almost entirely widgets. However, they often do not update For instance, the Accupedo widget in the top right “freezes” until the phone is rebooted.

While Googling to find a solution to the first problem, I stumbled across a couple of launchers, called NovaLaunch and Holo Launcher HD.

For those who don’t know, a “Launcher” in Android is the Front-End program that runs the GUI (like “Explorer” in Windows, “Finder” in Mac OSX, or Gnome/KDE in Linux). While Android has a stock launcher that works just fine, most carriers and manufacturers feel the need to “brand” their phones by putting in a custom “skin” – Motorola’s is called “Blur”, HTC’s is called “Sense”. Samsung’s is called “TouchWiz” .

The stock Touchwiz screen

The stock Touchwiz screen

However, there is nothing to stop you from adding an aftermarket launcher – there are some very good ones out there, but the learning curve is steep enough to discourage all but the most adventurous of users. However, for those who are willing to put in the legwork, there is much to discover and enjoy…

So why try a new launcher at all? Simple – to improve the look and feel. Both launchers offer functionality to do things that the stock launcher (TouchWiz, in this case) cannot. For instance, both allow you to change the app drawer from horizontal (swipe sideways to move from page to page) to vertical (flick up and down one big list), and both also allow you to specify the number of rows and columns. TouchWiz limits you to 4×4=16 app icons on a page…

Stock 4x4 App Drawer

Stock 4×4 App Drawer

, but I have been able to comfortably bump this up to 6×7=42 — more than double the number of icons without sacrificing usability.

Holo Launcher 5x7 App Drawer

Holo Launcher’s 5×7 App Drawer

Similarly I have increased the main screen from 4×4 to 5×5, and cut the total number of screens I use to only three, another improvement in usability.

Improved Holo Launcher screen

Improved Holo Launcher screen

So what’s the verdict? Both launchers are excellent, but Holo-Launcher gets the slight edge as it makes the home screen rotatable. No widget freezes at all.

After a week or so of testing out the two launchers, I uninstalled Nova Launcher and made Holo Launcher my default, then I paid a few dollars for the full version; not because I needed the extra functionality, but because I wanted to support the developers on a small way.