Launcher 7

Sep. 7th, 2011 09:46 pm
The tumblr experiment has been kind of a failure, pretty much the only response it gets is spammers. So, something here for a change.

I've been poking at quite a few Android launchers. Most of them are a variation on the same basic theme as the stock launcher: you have some number of home screens on which you place widgets, shortcuts to apps, folders, that sort of thing. You have a button on-screen which, when tapped, presents all your installed applications in some form, typically as a grid of icons.

One which moves away from this is Launcher 7. This is a pretty clear imitation of the basic Windows Phone 7 launcher interface. Last time I looked at it it was pretty unimpressive, but it's got a lot better.

The gist of it is that you have a home screen made up of tiles. When tapped these will typically open an appropriate application. Some of them are "live" tiles, in that they convey meaningful information, like the number of missed calls or unread text messages.

Here's a screenshot of my home screen:

Read more... )

This is taking advantage of two extra things I didn't mention above. The top two tiles are "widget" tiles. They contain Android widgets. The left one is Beautiful Widgets Weather 1x1 with the background disabled and a simple outline skin. The right one is DigiClock tweaked to look the way I want.

Immediately below this is a 2x1 calendar live tile. This cycles through my next couple of appointments. Tap it and it opens the Calendar application.

Below that is the dialler -- which is a live tile, but I don't have any missed calls -- and the contacts tile. The contacts tile is similar to the WP7 contacts tile, it cycles through contact images.

When you slide right-to-left the application menu comes up. This is a simple list of applications, sorted alphabetically. Press the "search" key here and you'll get this nice jump list:

Read more... )

Tap a letter, you go straight to that section of the app list. Nice and simple.

Launcher 7 also supports having a web page as a live tile, and you can create a tile which contains a folder of applications.

The author has some sort of Facebook integration and a proper clock live tile on the to-do list. These would be nice little extras. But basically, if you want something in a live tile you can work around this by finding or writing a widget to do the job.

Overall, it's a pretty nice launcher.
I've had the Desire for just on two months now, so it's a reasonable time to reflect on the choice.

I was really happy. And then a software update was silently applied -- or at least I think that's what happened -- and now FriendStream is completely broken and the ActiveSync stuff is behaving weirdly too. Nothing changed on the OMA server, and all the non-Desire clients are working just fine (a colleague with a Desire is having the same problem), so either it's the software from HTC/Google or it's something in the Telstra network.

The browser also started behaving annoyingly, with pinch-zoom broken and replaced by cut-and-paste. Power cycling the phone as per recommendations on random forum threads discussing the FriendStream thing seems to have sorted that, at least.

I am perhaps more productive with FriendStream dead, as the Facebook app uses a font too small for me to read and thus I look at that much less often.

All this aside, and assuming I can get it satisfactorily resolved...

The phone itself remains really good. I am particularly liking Swype. I got into the beta programme when they opened it up, doesn't seem to be available standalone any more.

It's a replacement input method. Presents an on-screen keyboard, which can be used in the usual way, but which has an alternate trick: put your finger on the first letter of the word you want, "swipe" it over the keyboard so you cross each of the letters in the word, and it'll figure out what word you wanted. It does reasonably well and is faster than the usual approach once you're used to it.

My biggest gripe with the phone is the input method stuff. What I want is for applications to remember which input method was last used with that application, but it seems to be a system-wide setting. This is particularly frustrating with the PIN-lock system, because what one really wants is a numeric keypad, not a QWERTY keyboard.

Would I make the same choice of phone today? Probably. The iPhone 4 doesn't seem to have worked out so well, it looks like the Desire will be getting the next stable CyanogenMod release, as well as an official Froyo build, and it's now available on a $59/month contract. I might be tempted by the Samsung Galaxy S if Samsung didn't have such a bad reputation for software updates and it wasn't going to be on a shoddy network, and if I had a lower budget I might hold out for the HTC Wildfire next month. But otherwise, pretty happy with the Android choice
I've had this thing for two days now. Not enough time to be claiming a deep understanding but enough to make some initial comments. The primary comparison will be to the phone it's replacing, a 16GB iPhone 3G, but I'll try not to repeat too much of the obvious stuff every random reviewer mentions.

I have not used any Android device before, so I'm going to comment on the overall "HTC Desire experience" without trying to draw too many distinctions between what's part of this device and the HTC Sense overlay, and what's part of Android proper.

Physically it feels pretty good to hold. Enough heft to feel solid. And it looks very shiny, have had quite a few comments about that at work from people randomly passing my desk.

Hard-button-wise, there's the power button at the top, volume rocker on the left side, the four "standard" Android keys at the bottom, and an optical trackball in the lower-middle. Those "standard" keys are "home", "menu", "back", and "search". They do what you would expect pretty much everywhere, so for example in any application where search is a relevant function you hit the search button and off you go.

For those who've never touched one of these devices before, the home screens (there are seven on the Desire) are a four-by-four grid. Widgets can use more than one square, of course, but they all fit into this format. So, for example, my "home" home screen has a four-by-two clock showing the current location's time and weather at the top, a pair of two-by-one digital clocks showing the time in Hong Kong and New York immediately below, and then a four-by-one calendar widget showing the next item.

Generally tapping on a widget will take you into the application it relates to. A few are very single-purpose -- toggling a phone setting like WiFi -- so they just do whatever it is they're supposed to do when tapped. It's reasonably intuitive.

The web browser is, for my purposes, better than mobile Safari. It does the double-tap-to-zoom thing, but if you zoom further it makes the text larger and reflows it. I cannot being to describe how helpful that is with sub-par vision. Otherwise it's basically just a browser, it does what you'd expect it to do and works just like every other half-decent mobile browser.

The Mail application -- as distinct from the GMail application -- is both more flexible and frustratingly dodgy than the iPhone equivalent. The message-viewer has the same nice reflow as the browser, and lets you set a default font size which is large enough for me to read without my glasses. Which is lovely.

It also has a relatively sophisticated set of options for polling and notifications. Each account can have a peak/off-peak schedule, independently setting how often to poll. So, for example, I've got it configured to automatically check my personal email every half hour from 8AM to midnight, and it'll go off and check it outside those hours if I open the app.

But then it goes and muffs it by not having any way to set the IMAP folders to be used for drafts, sent-mail, and such. Instead it just goes off and creates "[Imap]/Sent" and so on. This while talking to GMail as a backend.

Still, it works pretty nicely. It's also handling my work Exchange mail via OMA quite handily.

The less said about the GMail application the better. It's there, it provides an interface a little more like GMail proper, but it has pretty much no useful options to tweak and presents everything in the tiniest font imaginable. Can't pinch-zoom in the message view.

The calendar app does what you'd expect, I haven't had any trouble with it. It's quite happily syncing both my personal calendars from Google and my work calendars from Exchange via OMA. The last time I tried to make my iPhone do this -- about a year ago -- it wasn't very good at it, but this Just Works.

Exchange support in general was a complete non-problem to get going. Answer a few questions -- the most tricky for most users being the name of the OMA server -- and off it went.

The Music application works as expected. It's fairly similar to the iPod app on an iPhone. One nice touch is that if the phone is locked you can press the power key and the music player interface immediately appears -- no unlocking required. This is particularly helpful when you've set a security code and need to stop playback right now.

I do have a couple of minor quibbles. The HTC Clock widget has some views that look very nice, but they want a four-by-three space. With the city tag turned off they only actually occupy four-by-two. Given that the weather data is from the ironically-named AccuWeather it's not very useful, so a two-by-four view of one of those lovely Bell & Ross knockoff faces would be a great choice, except for the dead space.

I'd like some way to quickly switch keyboards without digging into the settings. There's a key to go into the input settings menu, which is fine, but I'd rather it just gave a popup with all the installed keyboards listed plus an item to go into the broader input settings. A bit like -- gods help me -- Windows Mobile circa 2004.

The battery burns down pretty quickly. Yesterday I got it below 10% with about half an hour on the phone, half an hour of music, and an awful lot of poking at the sheer novelty of the thing. Granted I have the screen brightness maxed out, so a more "normal" user who can actually read the thing on a lower brightness will have an easier time battery-wise. And it is very much in the shiny-new-fiddle stage.

There is an Accessibility menu in the settings area, but I have no idea what it might do as it contains just one item -- a toggle labelled "Accessibility" -- which is unchecked and greyed-out. No idea if this is the usual for Android or because there's some component missing or because it's got HTC Sense running. Google is not being my friend here as "htc desire accessibility" simply returns lots of pages about "access", which is a rather less useful term when we're talking mobile phone networks.

Ultimately the biggest advantage Android has over the iPhone for an end-user is, in my view, the way apps can hook into just about anything and one can replace parts that don't perform the way one wants. I have, for example, installed a replacement SMS tool (chompSMS) because the built-in one doesn't offer any options for larger fonts. On the iPhone I'd just squint and occasionally grouch.

This has the potential for trouble, too, so it may perhaps require more sophistication from the user than the iPhone approach. But there's no particular reason why most people would need to replace the built-in components so it isn't demanding that the user know how to do this stuff, it just provides the option.

Anyway, so far so good. The only functions I haven't been able to migrate off the iPhone are audiobooks and ebooks -- Audible and Kindle respectively. Amazon has said in both cases that work is underway on Android clients, so that is hopefully only a matter of time. For now, I'll move audiobooks over to my Kindle, and forget about the extra-portable ebooks for a while.


Abort, Rephrase, Ignore?

October 2011

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