Archive for October, 2010

Global Radio – “Radio Goo Goo, Radio Ga Ga”

Global Radio

Global Radio are the company behind some of the UK’s largest commercial radio stations such as Xfm, Galaxy, Heart, Capital FM and Gold. They have also made a respectable entry into the Android Marketplace by releasing a range of internet radio apps that give you access to their whole range of stations.  As you can see here, each app is named after each station but thankfully they all do the exact same thing so, unlike Pokemon, you don’t need to grab them all; it’s simply a choice of whichever station you want as your default choice when the app starts. Each app gives the choice to stream from a number of commercial radio stations from all over the UK covering all kinds of aspects of popular music directly to your Android handset. The only downside is that many of these are local variations of the same radio station (Galaxy Manchester, Galaxy Birmingham etc) and therefore have the exact same playlists, still for a free app it’s not a bad deal.

Visually the app is pretty bare, just three self-explanatory buttons along the top (favourite, channel lists and power on/off) leaving the rest of the screen free for station info and the inevitable pop up ads. Luckily the pop-up ads don’t get in the way of using the app or listening to the music, the adverts on the station itself may be another matter however.

So what shall we listen to, some Heart? How about some Heart? Can you get Heart on this thing?

You can easily leave the app playing in the background and on a wi-fi connection it’ll confidently stream content with no hassle, on 3G however the connection can drop out from time to time. There doesn’t seem to be an option to optimise the stream quality for 3G connections, in fact settings are limited to just one option, whether you want the screen to always stay on. This aside the app operates very well, scrolling through and cueing up new channels is quick and hassle free and the audio quality sounds perfectly fine. You can build up a list of your favourtie stations simply by playing a channel and pressing the ‘favourite’ button in the top left of the main screen. You can remove stations from your favourites list with a simple ‘long press’. There is also a widget which, despite looking plain, gives you access to your favourites list, the app itself and a simple play/stop button; not overly flashy but perfectly functional which in many ways sums up this series of apps.

Bottom line : For something that is free (albeit ad-supported) this is actually a pretty solid app. Regarding the content, there’s a lot of overlap but it’s simple to use, it’s runs smoothly and (if you don’t mind commerical radio) offers a varied range of music to listen to.

App Round Up – Doing It For The Kids

I love how versatile the Android platform can be. Thanks to the countless apps in the marketplace your Android handset can facilitate all kinds of situations. Something I could never do with my previous handsets was get my young children involved but now there’s all kinds of apps that your children can enjoy to help stimulate their co-ordination and spark their imaginations. For this App Round Up I have highlighted a few apps suitable for your kids to enjoy, even if you don’t have kids some of these are definately worth a try just to enjoy a change of pace from all that stressful Angry Birds action.

Ethereal Dialpad (Synthesizer) – Whilst not being strictly aimed at kids this excellent musical app is great for for messing about with whatever your age. Simply drag your finger across the screen to create flowing musical tones whilst the screen reacts to your movements. It really has to be seen to be fully appreciated and at a tiny 32kb install there’s no reason not to try it out. Recommended.
Kaleidoscope – Draw simple or complex multi-coloured Kaleidoscope images with this simple app. You can actually create some surprisingly cool results with this.

MagicMarker – A simple touch paint app that creates neon images on a black background, kinda retro but also cool. You can share your results online or save your creations as wallpaper for your android handset homescreen.

Talking Tom Cat – Over 250,000 downloads and counting. It’s a large install but it’s worth it for at least a few minutes of fun if you have room (since I installed this it would seem that install to SD is now possible). Your on-screen pet cat ‘Tom’ will respond to your voice and touch. You can pet him, grab his tale or poke him and when you speak to him he repeats what you say in a high pitched voice. You can also disable the slightly more violent animations (although my kids think they’re hilarious) as well as record videos of him in action to upload to Facebook or YouTube.

xPiano – An effective Piano app that boasts 4 octaves, 12 instruments, multitouch and a record/play function. The free version is no longer being updated but it’s still has plenty of features to make it worthwhile. There’s also a more featured stacked paid version.

Zebra Paint – Colouring in, Android style. Pick a template and start adding colour using the touch screen. Simple but great for younger children.

Hope you find some of those useful. Do you have any other suggestions? If you do, feel free to add them in the comments section.

Winamp Beta – It’s The Llama’s Pyjamas

Winamp Beta

If, like me, you rock an Android handset then I guess that, also like me, you’re thinking it must be Christmas right now. At the time of writing this we’ve had Angry Birds, Tweetdeck, an updated YouTube app, all in the last 10 days and now Winamp Beta has popped up on the Marketplace to a rapturous reception from the Android community.

Hello old friend, it's been a while. My, you're looking nice.

I’ve always struggled to find an Android based music player that I’m 100% happy with but the Winamp team, thanks to their talent for appealing and intuitive design, have ported their popular media player to the Android platform with great success. This truly is the trusty old Winamp experience scaled down to your Android handset right down to the familiar ‘Winamp, It Whips The Llama’s Ass’ soundclip when you first start up the app; it’s like meeting an old friend who happens to have kept themselves in great shape.
Hands down the UI on Winamp is the best I have found on Android so far for playing music. It’s not overly flash or fussy but it helps you get the job done with ease. From the home screen you can access Artists, Albums, Songs, Playlists, History or the Search function, menus are responsive and the program runs perfectly. Wherever you are in the UI you can usually get to wherever you want to go with a minimal amount of navigation thanks in part to the excellent ‘drag-up’ Now Playing screen. For me, the Now Playing screen is the most important part in any music player and should be accessible as easily as possible (take note Audiogalaxy), the ‘drag up’ feature of Winamp makes this possible.

In this case the Now Playing screen also includes some shameless cross promotion.

The Now Playing screen features everything you need, play/seek controls, album art, access to the current playlist, a list of all tracks / albums by the current artist, shuffle/repeat controls and the all important home button. Creating and editing playlists on your handset is easily done via long pressing on songs when in a tracklist. Also tucked away in the long press menu are options to use a particular track as a ringtone and a search function to find the track on Youtube or the Internet. For widget fans Winamp also comes with a very tidy widget with all the basic controls you need to control your music from your home screen, there’s only one size at the moment but I would assume that more will be developed as the program moves closer towards a final release.
Scrobbling to Last.fm is also possible, you’ll need to install the Last.fm app on your handset; as yet there are no options to share info on currently playing tracks to Twitter or Facebook.
If you install the new Beta version of Winamp on your PC you can also stream your music library to your handset via Wi-Fi. Sadly I could not get the Winamp Beta program to install on my Windows 7 installation. That’s the downside of a Beta I guess, someone will always be at the worse end of the testing experience, in this case it just happens to be me. Even without the streaming capabilities Winamp Beta has easily pushed aside all other media players on my handset, if they include shoutcast radio or video playback in future versions then I could be finding myself throwing all kinds of other apps on the scrapheap (or should that be Appheap?, sorry).

Links : Install via AppBrain, Official Winamp Blog Post

Bottom line : Boasting a superb and robust UI with easy to access features; this is the best audio player app I’ve used on Android so far. As a music player it ticks all the boxes, if you can get the streaming library to work then it’s an utterly essential app.

Audiogalaxy – My God, It’s Full Of Stars

Audiogalaxy

Whilst spending this week looking for media streaming apps for my HTC Desire I was quite surprised to come across Audiogalaxy. Originally, back in 2001 Audiogalaxy was a website that attracted file sharers who were abandoning Napster at the time. Eventually it’s main file sharing functions were shut down and users drifted away to get their content elsewhere. In 2010 Audiogalaxy relaunched as a service that allows you to stream your DRM-free music stored on your home computer to your phone from anywhere using 3G, EDGE, or WiFi, and all for free. Imagine having tonnes of music right there on your handset ready to stream with no limit set by storage space, I’m happy to say Audiogalaxy (which is currently in beta) achieves what it promises.

The 'now playing' screen pretty much has everything you need.

First, you need to register at www.audiogalaxy.com so you can download Auidogalaxy for the PC or MAC, wherever you install this is where your tunes will be streamed from. This is a painless step although once installed Audiogalaxy immediately runs off searching for your stored music which I’d rather wish it didn’t do. I didn’t want all my music online straight away, I wanted to pick certain folders first. You can eventually tell Audiogalaxy what folders to focus on but not before the program has sniffed out a bunch of tracks and added them to your library. It’s not a negative aspect and it’s something that sorts itself out once you’ve specified your music folders, it’s just annoying that you’re already having to reign the program back under control before you even get started. Once that’s done, you just download the app to your handset, log in and stream away.
The menu screens are fairly basic but they get the job done, you can look at your playlists, browse via artist or album, use the search function and see what’s currently playing. Slightly annoyingly, albums are only sorted by title name whereas some people may like them grouped or sorted by artist name, it’s not a massive problem though. The search function is great, whatever you enter is cross-referenced with song, artist and albums titles, results pop up quick and are presented in a tidy list with album artwork. In all lists of tracks you can long click a song and choose whether to listen now or add to the queue. From here it would be nice to have a way to go straight to the now playing screen but instead you have to go back to the main menu in order to do that. This doesn’t ruin the experience but it’s a small niggle all the same.

Searching for tracks works a treat.

Quite simply, everything works very well, especially on wi-fi. Even on a 3G signal (of average strength) I streamed music for over 20 minutes with only two stutters to allow the app time to buffer more music. Tracks load up quickly, the ‘now playing’ screen shows artwork if available and whilst not being flashy, it does everything you need it to do. From here you can also easily save the current queue of music to a new playlist, ideal for those ‘on-the-fly’ playlist creations.
Audiogalaxy is totally lacking in options, pressing the menu key only gives you a choice of refreshing the screen or logging out. An option to increase the buffer would be handy (although to be fair Audiogalaxy seems to do an ok job of managing this itself), and some kind of EQ would be great. I imagine a number of users will also lament the lack of a widget or Last.FM scrobbling which I can understand. Still, considering that this app is still only in Beta these are hopefully features that will appear in further updates. Right now I am just glad this app works as well as it does.

Links : Install via AppBrain, Official Site

Bottom line : A great music streaming app which confidently does the job it sets out to do. Whilst the UI isn’t perfect and it’s lacking certain features the fact that it’s a totally free app makes it a recommended install.

Homepipe – The Internet is a series of… Pipes?

HomePipe Free

It didn’t work. The End.

What? You want more?

Fine, let’s dive in then.

HomePipe allows you to stream your media from your home storage direct to your Android handset. Wherever you are you can access videos, music, view photos and all for free. There’s a few steps involved with setting it all up but they are very simple. All you need do is download the Homepipe client for your ‘storage’ computer and sync with the Homepipe app on your Android handset and then you are all geared up to stream. It all sounds brilliant except for one problem…
I couldn’t get it to work.
Browsing files works just fine, everything processes at the speed you expect and there’s something nerdishly exciting about having access to all of your media wherever you are. For my first go, seeing as I was on a 3G signal, I decided to stick with streaming mp3’s; no point taxing my connection with bandwidth heavy videos that it couldn’t handle. I picked a song, it started to buffer and so I waited, and waited… and waited some more. In the end I gave up. I tried another mp3 but this time one of a lower bitrate, still the same. This happened with every file I tried and I initially put it down to poor performance over 3G.
Later that day when I had access to a wi-fi network I gave it another go only to continue having the same problem. I could browse through my media perfectly fine but every file I tried to play ended in buffer flavoured fail. There’s a support thread over at getsatisfaction.com which I posted in and it would seem that this is an issue that has been around for at least 3 months. I can appreciate that when you create something like this it’s not easy keeping up with various support issues but leaving a crucial one like this hanging for a quarter of a year isn’t going to inspire confidence in your product. As it stands there seems to be no immediate solution to this and I’ve since found an alternative app that does work (review coming up after this one). I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who get on fine with Homepipe (let us know in the comments if you do) and I wish I was one of them but sadly, I am not.

Links : Install via AppBrain, Official Page

Bottom Line : An app that could have ruled them all, had it actually worked.

Grooveshark – Shark Tale or Shark Fail?

Grooveshark

Sigh! Grooveshark on Android should’ve been great. More than that, Grooveshark should’ve been amazing and right now I should be telling you to stop what you’re doing and to go grab this app as soon as possible. But it isn’t amazing, it isn’t great and yet it so could’ve been, it’s practically heartbreaking. For only $3 a month, Grooveshark offers you access to millions of songs which you can stream straight to your phone. You can search for songs, create & save playlists and ‘favourite’ the tunes you like the most, there’s even a “hassle-free” trial period. If anything this should be a real competitor to Spotify and even iTunes but sadly, despite the fact that the app does what it’s supposed to (search for and stream music), creating and saving playlists takes more work than you may be willing to put in.
For the uninitiated, Grooveshark in it’s proper form is an online music search engine that allows you to search and stream music, it’s like Spotify except that it runs in a web browser rather than being it’s own program. Sadly it’s UI isn’t as polished as Spotify (in fact it’s downright awkward at times) but you can dip in and do the same things as Spotify wherever you have a computer and a good internet connection and you don’t even need an account to use it. To use the free trial on Grooveshark for Android you will need to get a Grooveshark account, the good news is that these are totally free to get and once you do, your Grooveshark App trial will last for 14 days or 50 played songs with no need for payment details. It really is hassle free and it allows for a long enough run to give you a good idea of whether you want to stump up for a subscription.

It's all there on the homescreen, all it needs to do now is respond when you select something.

Once you’ve logged in you’re greeted with the clearly presented homescreen, from here you can access your playlists, favourited songs, offline songs (more on that later), popular songs on Grooveshark and Radio Stations. Clicking on ‘playlist’ left me waiting for longer than I expected whilst the app grabbed my playlists (all five of them) from the Grooveshark server, and this was over wi-fi too, hardly a good sign. Sadly this happened almost everytime I clicked playlist or any other icon that required an internet connection, sometimes the app would even become unresponsive, even at a low $3 a month this isn’t really acceptable. When it does work Grooveshark runs well, scrolling through playlists or the lengthy ‘What’s Popular’ list with smooth abandon. Using playlists you’ve already created is fine, you can organise them by name or date and you can even share them via any apps which appear in your share list on your handset. Creating playlists however, whether it’s from scratch or via saving a playlist created by another user, is pretty much hopeless. If you have a list of songs you’d like to save to a playlist you have to save them one by one, there is no multiple select option. To make matters worse the app doesn’t remember what playlist you previously selected so with every save you have to go back into the drop down menu of playlists and tell it where you’d like the song to go. If your account has anything more than half a dozen playlists this makes creating a simple playlist tiresome chore.

Using playlists is great, creating them however will drive you insane.

Saving other users playlists, particularly ones based on albums, is also a hit and miss affair. Saving them is simple enough but due to the user managed nature of Grooveshark you may be saving a poorly created playlist, it could be in the wrong order or even missing entire tracks. There is a separate definition to search for albums rather than playlists but there doesn’t seem to be an option to save these so you can go back to them at a later time. This is consistent area where Grooveshark falls down, at times the UI can be counter intuitive and for an app that’s trying to compete with iTunes or Spotify getting the UI right is half the battle.
Searching for songs works well, results usually come back in plentiful supply and if you’ve drawn a blank for search ideas (as is always the case when you can search for anything) the ‘Popular’ list is on hand to offer all kinds of suggestions to get you started. Once you select a song, you can play it, share a link to other mediums such as Facebook or Twitter, add it to favourites or a playlist or even make it available offline. Offline songs are stored in Grooveshark’s ‘offline’ folder on your SD card, they can only be played by the Grooveshark app. Having songs stored offline is ideal for when you have no wi-fi access (using Grooveshark on 3G is a futile exercise), it’s an excellent feature that stops this app from being a total write off.

Ok, think I'll just skip to my favourite par... OH GOD THERE'S NO SKIP FUNCTION!

Once you’ve got a song up and running, the ‘Now Playing’ screen seems to fulfill the necessary criteria and to be fair Grooveshark streams music perfectly well over wi-fi. You have buttons to favourite a track, add it to a playlist or share it. There also basic play/pause, next & prev track controls, access to your playlist is done via a cool ‘drag up’ menu and there’s also a ‘Radio’ button with which you can rate a track and build a ‘Last.Fm’ style playlist (Last.Fm scrobbling is also possible in the full app). If you go into landscape mode the screen arranges itself into a better layout and you can ‘swipe’ through the tracks in your playing queue, very nice. What’s totally missing however is a seek option, there is no way to select what point in a track you would like to listen to despite the fact that the screenshot for Grooveshark on AppBrain clearly show one.
In a way that’s the Grooveshark experience in a nutshell, for each thing it does right it does something else horrendously wrong which ruins what could have been a must have Android app. It’s not a complete loss, most of these issues are things that can be fixed in future builds, whether I’ll be able to try those builds out is another matter as Wraith3 points out in the Marketplace comments section.

Needs to reset free trial after bug fixes. How am I supposed to know if it got any better if I can’t log in?

…. hmmm good point.

Links : Install via AppBrain, Official Page

Bottom line : A counter productive and sometimes unresponsive UI, along with unreliable content ruins what could have been the one of the best apps in the Android Marketplace. For a subscription based app, even at only £3 a month, it’s still not good enough. Here’s hoping that things improve for the future.

App Round Up – Quick & Useful Apps

Among the many applications on the Android Marketplace there are a number of apps that exist purely to perform one simple task. These are the kind of apps that you either use only occasionally or they become a part of the furniture to the point that you think they came with the phone in the first place. In most cases these apps can be an essential part of your day-to-day Android experience. Due to their small size and simple purpose it’s a bit of a stretch to write a comprehensive review on each of these apps so instead here’s a rundown of a few of the best ones that I have found in the last few months of using Android.

AppRemover – Essential. A quick and easy way to uninstall apps on your handset. Faultless.

 

Analytics Widget – A bit niche this one. If you have a website or blog this widget will keep track of how many hits you’ve had that day. A simple and effective ego massage, lovely.

Fast Reboot – When you run this, all your apps will shut down and then restart again as if you’ve just powered up. It’s not a proper reboot but it’s a fast way to help free up memory or kickstart an app back to life when your handset is being sluggish.

Quick Settings – Another essential app. Get quick access to all your main settings wherever you are via the drag down status menu. All it takes is a  simple swipe and a press. If I were Google, I’d add this function to all builds of Android from now on.

SDMove – A quick and easy way to see what apps take advantage of the ‘move to sd’ functionality of Froyo and then move them to your SD card.

 

Silent Boot – I have a HTC Desire, it very much likes to make a song and dance when it’s switched on which is highly annoying. This app silences the tone that plays on start-up. I cannot praise this simple app enough.

SMS Backup & Restore – Simple backup & restore of your sms messages. Doesn’t get more simpler than that.

 

URL Shortener – A godsend for sharing url’s on twitter ,facebook, etc. Long click a url in your browser’s address bar and share it with URL Shortener, it will shorten the link via your chosen service and copy the shortened URL to your clipboard. You can then paste the shortened link wherever you need it. Excellent.

 

Do you have any other suggestions? Add them in the comments section.

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