Brandon's Notepad

January 20, 2015

Android Applications: Office Suites

Home > My Lists > Technology > Android Applications > Office Suites


Office suite software is another genre where I found little satisfaction on the Android platform. For reading Microsoft Office files, the popular choice has always been Documents To Go (DTG) by DataViz. Other office suites exist (e.g. OfficeSuite 8, Polaris Office), but DTG keeps popping up. I think I’ve even seen it preloaded on several phones now, because I don’t remember installing it, yet there it is.

The need to view Microsoft Office documents is common, but what I really needed was an app for viewing and perhaps even editing (gasp) Open Office (OO) documents. All of the home computers run Linux and we have no Microsoft Office installations whatsoever. I really don’t want to save all of my files in a non-native format either, so for a long time it appeared that document sharing between the OO world and the tablet was limited to PDF. While writing this post, I noticed that there is an app called AndrOpen Office that seems to be oft-downloaded and rated highly, but at this point, I am not inclined to bother trying it.

Why not, you ask? Because all of my “office” work has shifted to either Evernote or Google Drive (formerly Docs). I use Evernote to store reference materials, mostly information that eventually ends up here. Drive is where I type letters and create spreadsheets, which (when finalized) I usually store in PDF format on a local drive at home. I’m still not willing to put all of my data eggs in a single cloud basket.


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Android Applications: Social Media

Filed under: Android — Brandon @ 10:42 am
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Home > My Lists > Technology > Android Applications > Social Media


Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, etc. I don’t have a lot to write about these. I stuck with the official apps out of concern for security and I had to accept their shortcomings for what they were. What I can say is that these apps evolved over time for the better. Bugs got fixed. New bugs weren’t as bad. Once in a while, a valued feature would just go away. And none of the apps ever fully replaced their web-based counterparts. The sites were always far more feature-rich.

For me, these apps were always lackluster. This probably had everything to do with the fact that my tablet was not “always on”. When I did have access to WiFi — which was at home for the most part — I also had my computer at hand. The tablet was just another place to do (some of) what I needed to do. Since I’ve been using an iPhone (a relatively recent development), I find the same apps on that platform to be invaluable. In fact, they often make the task at hand easier.


August 25, 2014

Android Applications: PDF Readers

Filed under: Android,Computer Software — Brandon @ 1:50 pm
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Home > My Lists > Android Applications > PDF Readers


I rely on the PDF format a lot! Besides the e-books, technical manuals, tax forms, and what not that I download, I also create PDFs for archival of my own documents. Having said that, it’s good to have options!


Evaluation Criteria

PDF Readers are like Web Browsers in that you expect them to render the page properly at a minimum. They can vary on how well that perform even that simple text. Then, there is navigation, how smoothly the page scrolls for example, and whether or not the links in the tables of contents work. The little things matter too, like the ability to perform text searches or jump to a particular page. In the past, I have experienced compatibility problems with PDFs created using non-Adobe software, so I need a reader that can handle them. I’d also love having the ability to annotate PDFs (highlight, write in the margins, etc.).

Selected App Reviews

Adobe Reader. The old standby! Reviews confirm that it works, but can be slow and may not read non-Adobe PDFs. I have not yet had these issues myself. It does support bookmarks, text search, sharing, several page-flow options, and “go to page” via a slider.

PDF To Go. It came loaded with the tablet. Very basic. Cannot even “go to page” with the free version.

ezPDF Reader. Full version ($3) permits annotation, personal bookmarks, and some other neat features. Some reviewers have noted some limitations, including the inability to read from SD card. Haven’t tried it yet.


August 22, 2014

Android Habit Formation Apps

Filed under: Android,Computer Software — Brandon @ 5:02 pm
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Home > My Lists > Android Applications > Habit Formation


There exists a class of apps designed for the sole purpose of helping you build good habits and kick bad ones. Approaches vary by app, but most of them focus on positive formation by allowing you to create a list of habits that you want to form (e.g. jog, drink enough water, get sufficient sleep), and then letting you check them off each day that you do them. A few apps were obviously designed to help you avoid certain habits (e.g. smoking, snacking, etc.), as progress is shown in the number of days since you last slipped.

I started to evaluate several of these offerings, but decided to stop when it became evident that this sort of app was not going to work well for me at all. First, being one who practices GTD, I am more interested in finding creative ways to remind myself to do things rather than to force myself to remember to do them. Second, it seemed like the whole habit-formation process works best when actions are checked off in a timely manner (and indeed, some of the apps pretty much required real-time entry), which may work well with a smartphone, but I couldn’t realistically have my tablet with me all the time, and full data entry every evening was a burden at best.


Android Games

Filed under: Android,Games — Brandon @ 3:50 pm
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Home > My Lists > Android Applications > Games


A tablet is a computer, and what would a computer be these days without games? Even an avid reader like me needs a mindless escape on occasion. Like portable games consoles, the tablet grants immediate access to great games any time and any where.


Evaluation Criteria

People like different kinds of games for various reasons. Since I don’t have the time to kill playing RPGs or first-person shooters like I used to, I prefer simple strategy games, like puzzles, board games, cards, dice, etc. I usually have five minutes here and ten minutes there, and I don’t want to get so involved in a game that I feel like I can’t put it down at a moment’s notice. And when I do, the ability to pick up right where I left off is a big plus.

Selected App Reviews

Triple Town. I had to put this one at the top of my list. It is by far my favorite game! You are given a 6×6 grid terrain that contains (mostly) bare ground and some randomly placed objects, such as grass, shrubs, trees, and rocks. The top left cell is a plate where you can temporarily hold an object. Each turn, you are given a new object to place onto the grid. When three like objects are placed adjacent to one another, they combine to form an object of a higher order in the cell where that last one was placed. Three patches of grass form a shrub, three shrubs form a tree, three trees for a hut, etc. The object is to earn points before completely running out of room. And then there are the bears that move a space each turn and get in the way of your progress. Besides building bigger and fancier objects (like floating castles), there are point-based goals to be met as well.

Angry Birds. For the longest time, tablet (and smartphone) ads showed devices bearing screenshots of this game, its popularity tapped by marketers in much the same way as Pac-Man was used to sell the Atari 2600 and Super Mario Brothers the NES. It put to rest the question on every buyer’s mind: rest assured, this device will let you play Angry Birds. Basically, the birds are upset with the pigs that bully them, and they need the player’s help to fight back. They are launched at the enemy using a large slingshot, and different kinds of birds wreak different kinds of ballistic havoc upon impact. Angry Birds has earned the right to be the most popular game on the Android platform in my opinion, even if it isn’t my favorite. It has a simple strategy, yet the levels get progressively harder and eventually require more planning than brute force. What’s more, the game proved to be quite extensible through a series of themed releases, eventually crossing into other fictional universes, such as Star Wars and Transformers.

Cut the Rope. Another one of my addictions. Review to come…

Drisk. Screenshots remind me of World Master. Review to come…

Frozen Bubble. One of my Linux favorites. Review to come…

Refraction. My buddy’s addiction. Review to come…


May 20, 2013

Android Applications: Shopping Lists

Home > My Lists > Android Applications > Shopping Lists


I do a lot of the household’s grocery shopping and I’m always running little errands to the grocery, hardware, and big-box department stores. My lists are manifest on paper, in e-mail, and (all too often) in my head. Sometimes I have to consult two or three different lists during a single visit. I needed to find a way to maintain a single, consolidated shopping list, and the tablet seemed like an excellent platform for the job.

[Content last updated on 5/20/2013]


Evaluation Criteria

The basic requirement is that the app reliably maintains a clean list of items that can be crossed off (or at least removed) as necessary. This is simple functionality and there are many Android apps out there that will do the job sufficiently. However, I really didn’t want to retype items that I buy on a regular basis, and it would be great to have a master list that I could use to take inventory around the house before a big shopping trip in the hope of cutting down the number of small errands in the week that follows. Identifying the store for each item is also important.

Here’s a few other considerations:

  • The ability to record an item’s price is of limited value to me for several reasons. First, prices change all the time (even if only by a few cents) and even if I know that one store has the lowest price, I’m not going to make a special trip if it’s the only item I need to buy there. Gas it too expensive these days to care much about a difference of a few cents on a can of green beans. Also, I’m not going to maintain price data for everything I buy across three or four grocery stores. It is nice to know approximately how much something costs and it is helpful to know the sale prices for the current week.
  • Many apps include barcode-scanning functionality, usually for easy lookup of items against a product database. It may be a neat feature, but I’m not going to make it a requirement. In part, I often prefer to be generic. For example, the line item “Shampoo for him” leaves room for choice based on price, availability, and the plain freedom to choose something different once in a while. [Based on my experience after the evaluation was over, this feature worked best with name-brand items and not so well with store-brand items — which happens to include a lot of what we buy!]

Selected App Reviews

OI Shopping List. [v1.6] This app is very simple at first blush but several advanced features make it scale nicely. Multiple shopping lists can be stored. Adding items to a list involves typing the name of the item into a text box at the bottom of the screen and clicking the ‘Add’ button. To check an item off of the list (or cross it off, depending on the theme) just tap it. The app can be configured to hide checked items automatically. The “Clean Up List” function appears to wipe all checked items from the list, but it really only hides them. The “Pick Item” function then lets you add items back to the list as needed. By default, this occurs in a dialogue box; however, there is a setting that allows for the picking of items inline on the list. A “Mark All Items” function allows for quick cleanup so that items can be picked or added anew. Wait, there’s more! Various attributes can be (optionally) set for each item, such as quantity, units, price, tags, priority (numeric), and even notes (requires OI Notepad). If any of the items on the list have a price, then the total is tallied at the bottom. Quantity and unit values precede the name of the item on the list view if they contain values. There are no categories (e.g. Frozen Foods), but tags work well in this capacity (caveat: without autocomplete, the tags would have to be retyped every time). Prices can also the tracked by store. (BUG ALERT! In version 1.6, no matter which item you choose, the Stores dialog box gets stuck on the first item on the list if it is accessed through the Edit Item dialogue box. Long-tapping on the item and choosing “Stores…” works fine.) Here’s the best part! The list can be filtered by store and/or tag! This works even when picking items to add to the list, which means you can set the tag filter while taking inventory around the house and then set the store filter when shopping at a particular store. When the store filter is on, the price for that store is shown! (Unfiltered, it shows the lowest price.) How powerful is that! There is also a barcode scanning function (which requires the Barcode OI Plugin), but I have not tried it.

This app is clearly my favorite because it met my evaluation criteria. It lets me work the way I want to work. I can turn on the inline pick function and go from room to room determining what needs to be purchased (a binary decision). The store filter turns my master list into a store-specific list, and the tag filter limits my choices when taking inventory and allows me to focus aisle by aisle at the store.

Out of Milk. [v3.1.4] This app has one of the best user interfaces in my opinion. Version 1.6 has three functions available: Shopping List, Pantry List, and To-Do List (not reviewed). The Shopping and Pantry lists look very much the same, and multiple lists of each kind can be created; however, these lists are integrated only loosely. In a Shopping List, a line item can include values for quantity, unit, unit price, and category, as well as check boxes for “Tax-Free” and “Coupon”, and a long text field for notes. The list is grouped by category and footed by two price tallies: “Total” and “Remaining Total” (i.e. price total of unchecked items). Setting the tax rate will automatically add tax for all items not marked as “Tax-Free” and prices are adjusted for coupons, either in amount or percentage. (BUG ALERT! I entered an item with quantity of “2” and unit price of $10. On the list it stated in small print, “2 @ $20.00”. This is misleading. “2 @ $10.00 = $20.00 Total” or “Qty: 2 Total: $20.00” would be far less ambiguous.) In a Pantry List, an item still has a unit price, category (with the same values as on the Shopping List), and notes. The quantity and unit values are still available, but not by default. In their stead, a slider control labeled “Amount” ranges continuously from “None” to “Half” to “Full”. The values on the line item are then qualified in small print as “None left”, “Almost empty”, “About half left”, etc. The quantity and unit values take the place of the slider if the “Enter Number Instead” checkbox is checked. The other two checkboxes don’t exist in the Pantry List. Both include a price history (stack array) that is automatically updated when a price is changed. So, it is obvious that the Shopping List function is meant to be used to plan a very specific shopping trip (with the possible side benefit of making you think twice about impulse purchases lest they mess up your perfectly-planned list) and the second function lends itself to keeping a household inventory, either periodic or perpetual (with the downside being that you have to review your entire list as you march through every store and reset the quantities either when items go into the basket or after the purchase is complete). These functions are not mutually exclusive. Use the Pantry List to track items typically kept on hand (like paper towels, soap, etc.) and add non-staple items to the Shopping List (such as steak because it is on sale this week or a bottle of wine for Friday night). This app also has a built-in barcode scanner that found every item I scanned, including desk supplies.

I really like the split Shopping List and Pantry List concept; however, unlike OI, I have to remember what is on each. For example, are bananas on the Pantry List or the Shopping List? Probably the former. Ground beef? Probably the latter.

Grocery IQ. [v2.5.2] This app has a very nice interface and it was going to be my app of choice when I started, but it quickly fell out of favor. For starters, and this was probably a fluke, but the first time I tried to use the app at the grocery store, my list was gone! It reappeared the next day. The barcode scanner would not return any store brand products. In fact, only brand name products could be found in the database. Also, this app is for use with electronic coupons, and I don’t use a lot of coupons anymore, so I moved on to other apps.

To be fair, I just fired up the app before writing this, and was able to find Kroger brand goods. I may revisit it someday, perhaps just for getting the coupons during shopping trips.

Our Groceries. [v2.2.0] This app is very basic. It does support multiple shopping lists and has a large number of generic products in its database (e.g. “eggs” and “milk”).

ZipList. [v2.3] This is a sufficient app that allows multiple lists, and common item attributes, such as quantity, units, size, price, etc. The database includes both generic and name brand items, but I did not try out the barcode scanner. ZipList does have a helpful store feature that lets you search for and maintain a list of favorite stores and customize the aisle order for each. Items can then be categorized by aisle (most have logical defaults) and assigned to particular stores in the list. This automatically sorts store lists to streamline shopping trips and prevent needless walks back and forth across the store.

The weekly ZipList e-mail newsletter includes links to a lot of tasty recipes.

Retail Store Apps

The retail grocers are definitely competing in the mobile arena. I have loaded a few apps, including Kroger, Albertsons, Tom Thumb, Target, and Walmart. They all offer a competitive list of features, including weekly ads, shopping lists, online coupons, store locators, prescriptions, shopper’s club rewards, gift card services, and gift registries.

Again, these apps may be useful for taking advantage of deals and coupon in-store (i.e. pick up an item and scan the barcode to see if there is a coupon), but I’d rather not have to access a half-dozen apps to plan the week’s shopping. Moreover, these apps are going to change more frequently than the generic apps to stay competitive, so I don’t see much value in reviewing them in detail.


Android Applications: Travel

Home > My Lists > Android Applications > Travel


I don’t travel a lot. My job does not call for it and we leave town on holiday once or twice a year…maybe. So, this review isn’t so much a head-to-head comparison of apps as it is a set of experiences and opinions.

[Content last updated on 5/19/2013]


Trip Planning (Generic)

Tripit. This itinerary app is extremely useful! It lets you plan your trip minute-by-minute. You can add specific types of transportation, places to stay and eat, and activities. Both the app and the website is fully functional (rare that both work equally well), and they seem to sync without issue. I think it even looked up my flight information, because I don’t remember entering in all of the details by hand.

BathroomFinder. More to come…

San Francisco 2012

Triposo San Francisco. This app came in really handy before and during the trip. The category listings (“See and do”, “Eat, drink and sleep”, etc.) are easy to browse and help you target places of interest. The map feature, however, paid real dividends! Once I knew what part of town we’d be in on a particular day, I could zoom in to reveal the local restaurants, as well as other things to see and do in the neighborhood. When our plans changed unexpectedly (e.g. “Ewww, I’m not eating there!”), this app provided alternatives.

TripAdvisor City Guide. I didn’t use this app much, and looking back at it, I’m not sure why. It’s very similar to Triposo’s offering, but this one is backed by a website I am familiar with. I will definitely keep TripAdvisor in mind for our next trip, especially since I just found a few cool things we missed in San Francisco while writing this post.

SFMTA Muni+. This app is made for locals, especially those who commute using public transportation and have tight schedules. It provides system alerts including information about current delays as well as future route changes, construction, and other events. The MUNI map is grainy, but the Trip Planner was useful in getting to know the system. It allows you to plan a trip across town, providing transfers and fee information. The CityPASS more or less eliminated the need to calculate fares and printed route maps and bus schedules provided a more comprehensive view, especially useful when more flexibility was necessary.

QuickBART. Very similar to Muni+, but much simpler. It includes a planner function and a static system map. Obviously, the rails are less susceptible to delays than buses.

San Francisco Map. This app by Bill Ray is just a hi-res copy of the system map. It was also useful, though I had the printed map on hand as well.


May 1, 2013

Android Applications: Web Browsers

Home > My Lists > Android Applications > Web Browsers


Web browsing is an essential part of the tablet user experience, and there is no shortage of browser options available on the Android platform, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. With nothing to lose, I decided to try several. Here are my conclusions.


Evaluation Criteria

Actually, for this post, I’m not going to focus on a list of specific features or performance benchmarks. Browsers perform one basic job and should do so well. No one is going to complain that their browser is too fast or that it seems to handle any and all multimedia content thrown at it without flaw. We just expect these things, and there are plenty of other sites that cover benchmark testing and the like. Also, I was trying to find a good all-purpose browser, which may not be what everyone else needs. Plus, features change over time and good technology today is (hopefully) replaced by better technology tomorrow. That’s not to say that I didn’t have specific requirements going into this evaluation (and I do mention some of them below), but the specific criteria don’t seem to matter as much in the long run as the process for evaluation and the overall philosophy that came about as a result.

The Best

Ultimately, I decided to stick with the big name browsers: Chrome, Firefox & Opera. These proved to be the most stable and the most feature rich. They had by far the biggest footprints, but they were still small in comparison to the space available on my tablet. Tabbed and private browsing functions are big selling points, and these were not available in other smaller offerings, at least not at first. Chrome is my favorite. Its user interface is more slick than Firefox’s (IMHO) and the ability to share open tabs across devices (e.g. with Chromium on my laptop) is very useful. Firefox is still my second-favorite browser, and though the placement of tabs on the side in landscape mode is less efficient, it does make for easy tab navigation. Opera has some nice eye candy, like the Start Page grid, but I have not been pleased with the overall performance or feel, so I usually only open Opera if I need to access a page that won’t load using the other two. Ironically, there were some sites that I visit frequently that would not work in Opera, and even if this improves over time (through patches and/or changes in content) as long as Chrome and Firefox work as well as they do, I don’t really have a vested interest in making Opera by browser of choice. Security, frequency of updates, quality of testing, and other software development issues played a role in the decision to stick with the big guys as well.

The Rest

Each of the other offerings I tried seemed to cater to specific needs. Some emphasized how lightweight they were, which means they would work better on lower end phones than the default browser (and thus, far better than the heavyweights discussed above). Simplicity was also a selling point, targeting users with smaller screens. Of course, there were those few that included user interface features that they hoped would catch on like wild fire. But none of them had it all, or at least enough to effectively compete with Chrome and Firefox for my loyalty. I did try Dolphin Browser (HD & Mini) early on, which came highly recommended by a friend. The magazine view looked very appealing, but again, that’s just eye candy, and I never did latch on to the gesture interface, despite my Palm Pilot nostalgia. I did get really excited about the Pocket browser (formerly Read It Later) for offline browsing, but in practice I never put it to much use. There were others, but the details don’t seem worth mentioning now.

The Future

Does this mean I’m not going to try out new browsers going forward? Not at all. In fact, while I was redrafting this post, I read about the Puffin browser. I had seen the name in passing, but I never looked into it. And who knows what else the future of browsers holds?


February 27, 2012

Android Applications

ShortURL: http://goo.gl/wUxLzx
Home > My Lists > Technology > Android Applications


This page started off as a list of apps I wanted to try, become a set of reviews, and now contains a mixture of elements that I consider part of my Android experience.


Android & Me

A few years ago, I bought a tablet computer. It was a bit of a luxury, but it proved to be very convenient for things like casual browsing at the coffee shop and checking off shopping list items at the grocery store. I was using it more like a PDA than a browsing platform or ebook reader. I had already started compiling a long list of apps that I wanted to try, and after I started using the tablet on a regular basis, I started posting short reviews for many of them. At some point, it became impossible for me to keep up with the new offerings and all of the updates, and my work on this topic stopped. I continued to use the unit for some time, and then I was given an iPhone by my employer. My need for the tablet dissipated, and now I plan to repurpose the unit as a desktop MP3 player. I am now more interested in documenting my experiences with the Android tablet, retaining whatever remains useful from the reviews.

Reviews

I’m slowly migrating the sections below into bite-sized posts.

Productivity

Editing & Notetaking.

AK Notepad. [468K] By the makers of Catch (below). This appears to be a very simple notepad, but does allow tagging and export.
Catch. [size varies]
Evernote. [6.9M] I have started using Evernote online and love it! The app is great too!
Inkpad Notepad. [445K] I created an account and used this notepad online. It’s clean and simple, but I was hoping to see the same options as are shown on the screenshots for the Android app, namely the ability to create checkbox-laden to-do lists. All I get is blank notebook paper.
OneNote. [7M] Well, first of all, it’s made by Microsoft, which almost automatically disqualifies if from my list; however, I was impressed with it a few years ago when tablet PCs (read: laptops with swivel screens) first came out. It’s limited to a certain number of notes before you have to pay a license fee, and it does not appear that notes can be exported. I think I have better options.

Planners.

DGT GTD + Toodledo. [1.3M + 233K] This app syncs with Toodledo (with extension), which I already use for GTD components. I need this, but I’m not holding my breath. It’s third-party and only in beta testing.
Pocket Informant. [2.4M] It syncs with Toodledo and I like the book layout interface! The User Guide is available in PDF format on the Market page. I need to read this before deciding. For $13, which is a lot for an Android app, I expect it to work well.

Religion

Laudate (Catholic One). [4.8M] This is one of the first apps I had to evaluate. Confession: I installed it on a tab in the store. It has a lot of good stuff! I wrote to the author who confirmed that the lectionary and divine office require an Internet connection, but smaller content, such as prayers, rosary, and stations do not. Interestingly, the NAB Bible relies on a connection, but the Douay Rheims does not — I wonder if this is due to copyright restrictions. I came to realize that I could download most, if not all, of the same content to an SD card in PDF or TXT format, and/or cache it with Read It Later (see above).

Photography

Skitch. [1.5M] I definitely want this app if for nothing but to annotate pictures to post on Facebook.
Measure & Sketch.
My Measures & Dimensions.

Utilities (was System/Toys)

Bump. [2.7M] Recommended by a friend, but it looks like it’s most useful for phones, and I’m not sure I’d use it for much of anything at all.
Graffiti. [free:4.1M pro:2M] Palm-style data input. From what I’ve read, it disables some browser zooming.
Sky Map. [2.2M] Great reviews, and it’s not critical for me, so I will probably use it. I can get back into astronomy again!
Swype. Similar to Graffiti (above). I don’t see it on the Market anymore.
Voxer. [3.2M] PTT/walkie talkie functionality. Probably not necessary on a tablet. Perhaps on a phone. Recommended by a friend.
Connectbot. [707K] Installed this at a store. All I could do was ‘cd’ and ‘ls’. No grep, sed, perl, etc. The good stuff (if it exists) probably requires rooting the tablet.
Juice Defender. [size varies] Comes in regular ($0), plus ($2), and ultimate ($5). Recommended by a friend. I will probably try it.
Lookout. [3.3M] Security and antivirus suite recommended by a friend.
App Organizer. Recommended by a friend to keep app icons organized and not cluttered.

Yet To Research

Milage Tracker. I’d like to capture the data once.
Mindmapping. I’ve used MindMeister in the past. I don’t use this type of tool often.
DOT Reader. I’ve used Graphviz in the past and can create the files with a text editor.
PicsArt – Photo Studio
Sketch Notes
FreeNote
Note Plus +
GMemory


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