Archive for November, 2010

XiiaLive Lite – No, I don’t know how to pronounce it either

XiiaLive Lite

The obligatory 'Now Playing' screenshot

Way way-a-ways back, long before Android existed, I used to own a Nokia N95 and for me it was the best phone in the world ever. One of the reasons I loved it was for the excellent Nokia Internet Radio app. It was made by Nokia themselves and it was a superb application that, in typical Nokia style, was never pushed into the spotlight like it deserved to be and it remained largely ignored.
One of the first things I looked for when I got my HTC Desire was the Android equivalent and I found it in DroidLive, now known as the unpronounceable (and therefore much harder to remember) XiiaLive Lite. XiiaLive is an app that gives you free access to the thousands of internet radio stations that make up the SHOUTcast.com network, whatever genre of music you’re looking for (not forgetting the talk, sports and community broadcasts) SHOUTcast and it’s directory of over 35,000 stations has more than likely got what you’re looking for. With so much content to deal with XiiaLive does a great job of helping you stay on top of it all within the confines of your Android handset’s small lcd screen.
The first thing you’ll notice is the UI, it’s pretty striking stuff with black backgrounds and glowing text, it may not be to every-one’s taste and it’s slightly tricky to navigate your way around the app at first but it operates at a quick pace and once you’re settled in you are good to go.

The timer function is ideal for when it's Dreamy Sleepy Nighty Snoozy Snooze time.

From the home screen you can browse the top stations, genres or perform a search as well as browse your favourites, history, settings and tracks you have previously tagged. Performing searches bring back countless results complete with information on current listeners and bit-rate; once you’ve found something you like a single click will take you straight into the listening screen. This screen contains pretty much everything you need, there’s on screen volume controls, track details, a handy ‘timer’ function that closes the app after a certain time (perfect for listening when you’re tucked up in bed) and a ‘tagme’ button. If you hear a track you like you can press ‘tagme’ and it’s details are saved to the ‘tagged’ list of songs which is accessible from the main menu.  There’s also a simple one bar widget to throw up on your home screen which lets you choose or play/stop your station of choice.
Streaming works as well as you’d expect over wi-fi and even on 3G I could go for at least 30 minutes without a single dropout although this is more down to network reception rather than the app itself. In the wake of ‘PowerAmp‘ it’s a shame that there’s no EQ but this doesn’t ruin the app for me. The paid version of XiiaLive claims to cut out the adverts but in all the time I’ve usedn the Lite version I’ve not heard any ads at all, maybe that’s more to do with the stations that I’m listening to.
In conclusion XiiaLive Lite is an app that’s worth downloading, it’s ideal as an alternative source of music away from what you may already have stored on your handset.

Link : Install via AppBrain

Bottom Line : XiiaLive is a great app for music lovers looking to have access to free internet radio wherever they are. Recommended.

Slice It! – Slashy Slashy!

Slice It!

Originally on the iOS platform, ‘Slice It’ is a game in which you slice large shapes into a number of equally sized smaller parts within a certain limit of ‘slices’, it doesn’t sound like much but in actual fact it’s a brilliant idea that’s ideal for touchscreen phones. Without a doubt, ‘Slice It’ is by far the best looking game I have played on an Android handset but bizarrely it’s also a game where the more I play it the more I find myself hating it. For everything it does perfectly it also does something else that makes me want to uninstall it as quickly as I possibly can.
The first thing that strikes you about ‘Slice It’ is the presentation and style of the game, it really pushes the ‘pencils and paper’ theme to the fore putting it very much in the same realm as a high quality Nintendo DS game and on the AMOLED screen of the HTC Desire these graphics are very striking indeed. The game itself is great, it eases you in to proceedings nicely and before you know you’re stuck in that ‘just one more level’ mindset however it’s not long before the problems become apparent.

Yeah, let's get slicing mo-fo's!

First up is the number of levels, the game ships with 60 levels which for a free app of this quality is brilliant. The app then also teases at an extra 40 levels and says they’ll be released sooner if more 5 star reviews of the game are posted on the Marketplace. Is it me or is that just a little bit, y’know… wrong? I’d rather pay to have extra levels for I game I truly enjoyed rather than be bribed into writing a 5 star review against my will in order to get them. If anything it seems to undermine any confidence the makers have in the game, are they so desperate for good reviews they need to hold their customers to ransom?
The annoyances don’t stop there. One of the worst things happens whenever you fail a level, you’re treated to a pop-up link that CONSUMES ALMOST THE ENTIRE SCREEN. Sure it’s not a big deal to press the skip button but in the app itself there is a consistent ad-link at the bottom of the screen at all times, throwing such a huge pop up into the game as well (especially during a moment of fail) is just taking the piss.
Sadly failing comes all too often in the later levels but it’s not down to the difficulty of the game, it’s more to do with how fiddly it can be to accurately draw slices in exactly the right places.

...and here's the game in action. Oh no wait... it's a hugely annoying pop up.

Just a few pixels out and you can end up making miniscule slices which will make you fail a level. There is an undo button you can use after making a such a slice but once you fail a level you cannot undo your last step, you have to start again from scratch, once you’ve skipped past the annoying pop-up that is; it’s enough to drive you to write a grumpy review on an Android based blog.
I’m really torn on this app, when it works it’s an addictive game and it’s far more polished than the previous gaming titles we’ve reviewed. Yet it seems to exist purely to groom you into writing 5 star reviews for the creators and buying the other full price apps they have made. Fair enough it’s a free app and the people involved need to get paid but there are better ways to go about it and the methods employed here do nothing but leave a sour taste in my mouth.

Links : Download from Getjar

Bottom Line : A brilliant game that looks gorgeous but is ruined (for me) by it’s fiddlier gameplay and annoying pop ups.

Crazy Bird – I Got 99 Problems But A Crazy Bird Ain’t One

Crazy Bird

Phew! After all that stressful Rooting & Flashing from last weekend I needed an app to help me unwind and Crazy Bird looked like just the thing I was looking for. Crazy Bird is one of the many apps currently riding on the coattails of the success that is Angry Birds. It’s description on AppBrain pulls no punches with regards to subtlety, “Can you help the angry birds find his destiny?” it asks, talk about standing on the shoulders of giants. You play the role of the ‘Crazy Bird’ (who let’s be honest isn’t really the slightest bit crazy) and your task is to jump from one disc to another making them disappear as you go whilst making your way to the final target disc. Each screen has to be totally cleared of discs before you can proceed to the next level so you’ll need to plan ahead in order to clear all the discs without stranding yourself. Later levels introduce platforms that don’t disappear or only let you move in one direction as well as bombs that explode within a number of steps.  Really this game could have been based around other, more logical themes; a frog jumping on lilypads or a mouse jumping on mousetraps but no it’s a bird jumping on discs that float in the sky, yeah that makes sense.
The game itself plays well enough, I’m sure I’ve seen this style of puzzle game somewhere before but Crazy Bird is still a simple, effective idea to casually dip into to get your brain working. There’s a charming simplicity to the presentation which firmly places the game in the realm of ‘pleasant quick distraction’ rather than ‘super-massive time vortex’. There’s still the odd rough edge, the in-game transistion from day to night is a straight switch from one to the other, a little animation would have added a little polish but really it’s just a cosmetic complaint. Blatant ‘Angry Birds’ promotional tactics aside, Crazy Bird is a fairly enjoyable free puzzle game which despite being far from a graphical tour-de-force is still enough to divert your attention for a few minutes.

Links : Install via AppBrain

Bottom Line : A basic looking (which may put off some people) but a pleasant enough free puzzler that throws down a bit of challenge to keep you busy.

So I Finally Decided To Root My Android Phone

*There’s no app review today. Yesterday I decided to root my handset and write an account of how it played out. Hopefully this will help give an idea of how the process works. Normal service will resume in our next post*

I’ve been struggling for app space on my HTC Desire for a few weeks now and the idea of rooting my handset has become an increasingly attractive proposition; I have finally decided to make that leap of faith and dive into the murky world of software modding. To be honest I’m not entirely new to this, a few years ago when I owned an MDA Vario I managed to flash that with a custom rom that greatly improved its useability and performance. These are the reasons why I’m rooting and flashing my HTC Desire, plus the fact that I can’t help but fiddle with stuff I shouldn’t be fiddling with. I figured I’d take notes during the process so you can get idea of what’s involved.

Just to be absolutely clear this isn’t a guide on rooting / flashing and you should only undertake this task if you are absolutely sure about what you are doing. I take zero responsibility if you kill your phone as a result of reading this post (as I write this I havn’t actually rooted my phone yet and it’s possible that I may kill it before finishing this post). If you do decide to do this and you come across a problem I cannot help you, you’re on your own, much like I am right now.

Step 1 – Prep, Prep & More Prep : I decided to root my handset using this excellent guide over at XDA-Developers.com. I’ve read through the instructions a few times to familiarise myself with the process as well as downloaded any files ahead of time to a specific folder named ‘Android Root’ on my computer so that I’d have them handy should I need them. I find that for tasks like this you can’t do enough research so if you are thinking of doing this, read up on it first, then read up on it again.

Step 2 – Rooting : Here we go, the scary stuff. The two things I’ve done before starting is fully charge my phone and backup the sd card, with that done it’s time to get rooting. Start the clock….

00:00 – Running UnrEVOked, rooting process started.

00:01 – Stuff happening, I am chewing on my knuckles.

00:02 – A couple of handset reboots.

00:05 – ‘Done’ message appears, handset is rebooting again.

00:06 – Handset rebooted. Hey, that wasn’t so bad. My knuckles hurt though.

So now my handset is back to its main screen, everything looks the same and it all works as normal but now I have root access to the handset. Let’s get flashing.

Step 3 – Flashing a Rom : Ah right, here’s the scary stuff. I’ve installed Titanium Backup and performed the app backup procedure, I went out to get lunch while that worked its magic. As I type I’m now performing the Nandroid backup, this is saving the current state of my phone so I can always go back to square one if I need to. Now that’s done the next step is the really scary bit, totally wiping the phone, deep breath… and done.

Hmmm that was quick, it took all of a nanosecond to wipe my complete Android history, somehow that’s slightly depressing.

Now with my blank phone it’s all set for a new Rom, there are countless Rom flavours to choose from. There are Roms based on the vanilla Android OS, some with modded extras with the HTC Sense UI thrown in, the CyanogenMod Roms are very popular. I have decided to go for ‘RoDrIgUeZsTyLe™ (0.11.12) MIUIMOD [V1.8.1] BLAZING FAST & STABLE’. MIUI is a chinese variant of the Android OS, it has just the slightest whiff of iOS about it and it’s proving quite popular with those who choose to root / flash their handsets. It’s been translated and tweaked into all kinds of variants and with this one claiming to be both ‘Blazing Fast‘ and ‘Stable‘ it’s hard to say no. Here’s a video of it in action (although this clip looks strangely sped up), you might want to turn your speakers down first though.

So here we go… installing… installing… installing… and done. That wasn’t too painful.

The first reboot is taking a short while, this is due to the app cache being rebuilt. Things are already looking good, there’s a swish bootup animation which has already got my excitement perked. Now it’s booted up and woah, it’s different.

Oooh, shiny, new, different. Plus it's FAST.

More home screen real estate than you'll know what to do with.

Can't.. stop.. looking.. at.. my.. lock screen. It's lush.

Well, it’s quick and it looks great. It’s weird not having an app tray and having everything live on the home screens but with an endless amount of homescreens to fill it shouldn’t be a problem keeping things tidy.

I can use Titanium backup to recover my apps from their previous state, Handcent SMS has come back with its settings intact but is sadly lacking my previous conversations. Tweetdeck however has come back exactly how I left it so if you undertake this be prepared to start afresh with certain apps. Speaking of which, fingers crossed that I havn’t lost my Angry Birds progress! I want to get the Apps2SD aspect setup but that’s a whole new set of things to research so I’m going to stop the blog here.

In summary, my initial reaction is that I’m happy I took the plunge with this, there’s now a bit of work to do with getting things back to how they were (settings, apps, contacts etc) but it will be worth it (although I’ve had two crash/resets so far in 24 hours, hopefully this is just a case of settling in). All in all it’s worth a try if you’ve done the homework and are felling brave, all at your own risk obviously.

Finally I just want to add a huge thanks to all those who have laid the groundwork to help me do this. From writing the guides on XDA-Developers.com, making the tools that get under the bonnet of Android and those who create the Roms that improve our handsets. Thanks guys.

Pulse News Reader – An Android App That Kicks RSS

Pulse News Reader

I use Google Reader to keep up with my favourite websites, it’s a great tool for managing RSS feeds and it translates pretty well to my Android handset via the mobile web browser. Despite this I’ve always felt that I’d prefer to have an actual decent app do the job of handling my new feeds on my HTC Desire and upon hearing the news that it had been price dropped to £0 I decided to give ‘Pulse News Reader’ a spin. Since making an appearance during the launch of the iPad the app has found itself on the recieving end of tonnes of attention across both the iOS and Android platforms to the point where it has landed a coveted spot in the ‘App Store Hall of Fame’.

Pulse News Reader allows you to take feeds from 20 RSS streams of your choice and have them displayed on your screen in a touch senstive ‘News Strip’ style interface. You can easily choose and organise your sources as well as share articles directly to Twitter, Facebook or any other app on your handset (complete with a shortened url).

When I first saw that video I didn’t even wait for it to finish, I dived straight into the Marketplace to download the app and I’m glad to say that Pulse does pretty much everything right.

Hey look! It's us, in RSS form.

Moving around the numerous feeds and menus is intuitive, easy work and for the most part it does a great job of grabbing images from each article to populate your streams.  As a result it looks great, there’s minimal lag and it also makes short work of showing you what you want to see, even on 3G. A little tip to help save on battery drain, you may want to dip into the settings and disable ‘Background Updates’. You can also, via Pulse, log into your Google Reader account, choose from any feeds you have set-up and stick them in Pulse’s main screen. I love that using this app I can easily share an article with Tweetdeck and have it create a tweet complete with a shortened url, I can then edit the tweet and send it from any one of my three Twitter accounts; all within a few steps. Brilliant! Pulse is a clever idea excellently executed. If you use RSS news feeds then this is a great way to stay on top of them.

Links : Install via AppBrain, Official Website

Bottom Line : A visually slick app that quickly delivers your RSS feeds in a dynamic fashion. Excellent stuff.

Evernote – Forever ever, Forever ever?

Evernote

You’d think that seeing as Android is a Google creation that it would seemlessly integrate with the many Google services that can be used on a desktop computer and yet despite my love for Android it’s utterly baffling how it’s impossible to effectively use Google Documents on my HTC desire. I can view my online documents through my mobile web browser (although it takes a few steps to get there) but there is no way to create or edit documents, it truly is a missed opportunity of palm-meets-face proportions. For me, Evernote has been the alternative choice to Google Documents but it’s never been quite the fully featured app that I wanted it to be. For the uninitiated, Evernote is a free service that allows you enter any info you like, be it a note, a picture or a voice recording and have it sync with your online account that you can access from any computer with an internet connection, it’s essentially an online notebook.

A few weeks ago the latest version of Evernote for Android was released and pretty much everything about the original app has been improved including the highly requested ability to be able to create notes when not online. Evernote has become a pretty essential download for anyone who needs to take down and sync notes whilst on the move

Helpfully the Evernote team have taken the time to produce an informative video that demonstrates how Evernote works it’s magic (plus it saves me churning out 500 words on how to use it).

The video doesn’t oversell it, Evernote really is as good as it looks. The intuitive UI has a pleasing look to it and using the app is quick and easy. A detailed review of the latest features can also be found on Evernote’s blog. It’s worth noting that Evernote is a pretty flexible service, whether it’s making a to-do list, drafting posts for your blog (ahem!) or one of the many other possibilities as mentioned in this excellent list by Andrew Maxwell. If there’s one complaint I have to make its the fact that it doesn’t seem possible to create new notebooks from within the app, that can only be done on the website. This aside, the Evernote team have pulled this one out of the bag. Kudos. It looks like Google is playing catch-up on this one.

Bottom Line : A much improved app that fills a gap missed by Google. Very useful and very well made. Great stuff.

Update : Less than ten minutes after publishing this post I read the news that Google are rolling out online Google Docs editing for Froyo users (link in the comments section). I’m certain this is a direct response to my blog post rather than something they were going to do all along. Yup, totally that. Ahem!

How To Videos from Howcast.com – …And That’s How, For Now*

How To Videos from Howcast.com

Remember that bit in ‘The Matrix’ when Trinity needed to learn how to fly a helicopter and had the necessary skills loaded into her brain within a matter of seconds? Well now you can do EXACTLY that with your Android handset and by EXACTLY I mean not really anything like that at all but if you do find yourself in a situation when you need some knowledge fast then the Howcast app is a pretty good place to start.

I wish I had this app two weeks ago, ALL of these things happened to me that week.

Howcast.com is a website stuffed full of handy ‘How To’ videos ranging from ‘How to make a mojito’ to ‘How to cut off your arm and save your life’ whilst covering everything in-between, Howcast.com pretty much answers every kind of ‘How Do I’ based question and now they’ve made that goldmine of handy hints directly available on your Android handset.

Considering the plethora of content available the Howcast app does a good job of getting you where you need to go and quickly. From the main screen you can access recently added or top rated videos as well as a random choice of video and the list of all twenty-five categories. Best of all is the ‘Favourites’ functionality, you can bookmark any video and have it added to your Favourites folder, this adds a very useful level of personalisation to the app effectively giving you the chance to build your own tailor-made fountain of knowledge.

I swear I am only watching this video for screenshot purposes. I am actaully raelly veary gud at typieng.

The UI is clear and informative, each list of videos includes thumbnail images along with info on duration and how users of Howcast ‘rated’ each video; Menus scroll smoothly and quickly making getting around the app a breeze.
The content itself can vary, some videos can be zippy and to the point with a cheeky ‘tongue firmly in cheek’ style of delivery while other videos can be a bit droll and over-long. Whichever style you end up with you can at least be sure that you won’t get short-changed on the knowledge front (depending on the video topic of course) and that’s the whole point of this app.
The only downsides are the lack of HD videos and no option to store favourite videos locally, so if you find yourself stuck somewhere with no wi-fi or decent 3G signal then you’ll need to start asking yourself the big question ‘What would MacGyver do?’.
Howcast isn’t for everyone, some people may get annoyed by the more frivolous topics (How To Talk To Your Cat for example) but it’s worth an install just to have a quick look around. You never know, you may even learn something in the process.

Link : Install via AppBrain

Bottom Line : A world of knowledge in your pocket, and all for free. Worth a try.

*For non-UK readers ‘That’s How For Now’ is a nod to the classic kids TV shows ‘How’ and ‘How2’ hosted by the legendary Fred Dineage.

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