Monday, February 28, 2011

Four Free Android Apps That Make Even Low-End Tablets a Joy

$800 for the new "Honeycomb" Android 3.0 Motorola Xoom sounds silly to begin with, but after looking at the stuff that's out there -- free! -- even for lower-end devices, it strikes me as completely insane to fork over more than $200 or so for an Android tablet.

I'm really grooving on my new Velocity Cruz Reader -- an Android 2.0 ("Eclair") tablet that sells in the $100-$150 range as an "ebook reader" but does a lot more than just hooking you in to the (pre-installed) Borders ebook app. Even without direct access to Google's "Android Market," the Cruz makes a number of apps available via its own "market," and has hooks to other sources. Also, a little web searching works for finding direct downloads of app package (.apk) files.

Four free apps that have a permanent home on my tablet:

Daily Paper

Before I had the Internet, there was little I loved more than picking up a copy of my area's daily newspaper with my morning coffee, checking out the headlines and op-eds, and browsing the other sections throughout the day when I had a spare minute.

Daily Paper is a set of bookmarks formatted as an Android app, but what a set of bookmarks! 110 newspapers in 10 languages, and I'm holding them in my hand instead of scrunching over a desktop monitor. No plugging quarters into a streetcorner machine; I just choose my paper (for reasons of my own, I have three daily habits -- the UK's Guardian, the New York Post and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) and go.


I've used the Borders app and Amazon's Kindle app. Barnes & Noble's Nook app is supposed to work on the Cruz, but kept crapping out on me.

FBReaderJ is a free, open source ebook reader that handles the standard epub format as well as some others that I haven't tried yet. In terms of performance and ease of use, I like it better than the commercial apps. There's also a desktop version without the "J" at the end.

Of course, there's the access question -- "Digital Rights Management" means that you can't buy your books in proprietary format and then read them in FBReader. But there's lots of free and paid stuff out there (classics, public domain, material published commercially without DRM, etc.), tools are available to strip DRM and convert files, or you can just plain "pirate" the goods.

I'm not going to go into a long argument on the subject of "intellectual property" here. If it pleases you to pay for the books (and I hope it does), pay for the books. But once you have, there's no reason, IMHO, to feel constrained to only read them in the format you paid for. You were paying for the right to read the book, not just for the paper it was printed on.

Example: There's an author whose name you'd certainly recognize and whose books I love. I've purchased all but one or two of his books in "dead tree" format (in one case, several copies in both hardback and paperback), and will buy the others when I come across them. I also pay his company a continuing subscription fee for access to an ongoing collaborative fiction project he's involved in. So no, I don't feel a bit guilty about downloading "pirate" epubs of the books I've already bought from him, to read on the tablet. Yes, there's "something about a real book," but in this author's case that "something" is that the "real book" weighs out at 2-3 times as much as the tablet.

Anyway, check out FBReaderJ. If nothing else, I predict you'll find that it serves you better for reading the free stuff than those commercial/proprietary apps do.


You may very well be familiar with Pandora already from the desktop version. It's streaming "Internet music radio" cooked to your own tastes in custom-made "stations" based on a "music genome" (you like Band A; Bands B and C sound like Band A in some specific way, so their stuff shows up on your "Like Band A" station; you can use "like/don't like" switches, add elements, etc. to nudge it until you're happy with it).

Pandora's Android app brings the music to your tablet. 40 free hours a month, paid "unlimited" plans available.


ZumoDrive lets you sync files between your tablet and desktop computer. It also allows you to stream MP3s (and, supposedly, your iTunes playlists, though I haven't been able to get that to work yet) on your tablet from your PC via Internet. One gigabyte of storage/sync space is free. A second free gigabyte can be earned by going through the ZumoDrive tutorial and referring friends. If you need more space, it's cheap.

Two gigabytes may not sound like a lot, but even that much is a pretty big load to remove from your tablet's onboard/SD storage.

News, books, music and sync/storage -- all free, all available even without Android Market access, all compatible at least as far down the version ladder as Android 2.0.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Say hello to my little friend ...

Velocity Micro Cruz Reader R101

I finally gave up on a $50 e-reader -- not because I don't think it's going to get here eventually (I've been seeing some that looked a lot like my "requirements doc" minimum machine in the $75 range lately), but because it's reached the point where $100 to $150 gets you a lot more than just a reader.

I've been saving my pennies, containing my enthusiasm and waiting, but last week I finally went ahead and popped for one of those $100-$150 machines. It arrived today.

Three machines were on my radar. I settled on the Velocity Micro Cruz Reader for a couple of reasons:

Price: I paid $120 for the Cruz Reader. That's a little more than I'd have paid for Augen's The Book, but $30 less than the best price I noticed on the Pandigital Novel. The Reader runs Android 2.0 ("Eclair"). Whether or not it can support later versions, I don't know yet. If not, I'm still okay with it.

Operating System: The Book is Linux-based. I love me some Linux, but I've been itching to try Android. So, it was the Cruz Reader versus the Pandigital Novel, and ... well, see "price" above.

Features: A lot of that comes back to the OS -- Cruz has its own "app store," and from there the user can download an app that runs the Android Marketplace. The potential isn't limitless (the Cruz Reader doesn't have a camera, GPS, microphone, etc.), but you can extend its capabilities. When I mentioned that The Book is Linux-based, I meant based -- it isn't running any kind of well-known, full-blown distribution, and apparently requires hacking/modding to turn it into anything but an e-reader with basic web browser.

The device arrived this afternoon and I spent about two hours playing with it before sitting down to review it. As new aspects reveal themselves, I'll update this review.

Short Summary: I pronounce myself quite satisfied with the device. It's not an Apple iPad or one of the new $600-$800 tablets. I didn't expect it to be. It's a $100-$150 device, and I believe I'm getting at least $100-$150 in value.

The Details:

The Reader arrived with about 50% battery power. Two hours of use, including power-consumptive activities like wifi-connected web surfing and video playback, ran it down to about 25%. One attractive stated feature of the device is that the battery is user-replaceable.

I've used the Reader as a reader with two different apps so far: The Borders app and the Amazon Kindle app (I don't do business with Amazon any more, but I still have access to digital content I bought back when).

The Borders app comes pre-installed. The Kindle app is available for free download in the Cruz Market. I understand that Barnes and Noble's Nook app will also run on the Reader, and intend to install it later.

The Reader ran both Borders and Kindle flawlessly. I easily downloaded books to my libraries, opened them and browsed them. With the Nook app and a standard non-DRM epub reader (I'll download that later, too), I'm satisfied that I have maximum variety and price competition within my reach.

Other applications I've tried so far:

The pre-installed web browser. It's a bit slow ... but as I've mentioned, we're talking about a low-end device here. I'd hate to have to work on the web with it, but it's fine for catching up with a favorite blog or reading the news headlines.

Facebook Mobile: Facebook on a tablet isn't as nice as from a desktop, but it works. I should probably mention here that the only keyboard available is a touchscreen keyboard. It's not meant for heavy typing. But a quick status update shouldn't be a problem. Came pre-installed.

Twidroyd: I was worried about this one, as Twitter suspended Twidroyd between the time I ordered the device and the time it arrived. But it works. You can tweet, and keep up with friends' tweets, on the Reader. Came pre-installed.

Dr. Eye: This is a dictionary that comes pre-installed. I haven't really put it through its paces, but I ran a few terms through it and got quick, decent definitions (it's apparently a product of Oxford University).

YouTube Viewer: This is a free app available for download from the Cruz Market. The video's a bit grainy on a 4:3, 800x600 display, but for the nth time, this is a cheap device. I watched a couple of Charlie the Unicorn videos. They played. The sound ran in sync with the video. It's all good.

Notes of interest to potential buyers:

* The Reader's touch screen is "resistive" rather than "capacitative." This means that you press on it (with a finger or, not included, a stylus) to get results, rather than it picking up your body heat. Having messed around with a friend's iPod Touch awhile back, I've found that I prefer the resistive screen (capacitative doesn't seem very responsive). The down side, probably, is that a resistive touch screen wears out more quickly since it has moving parts. Higher-end Velocity Cruz tablets do offer capacitative screens.

* The device operates on 256Mb of RAM and has an internal 4Gb SD card. An external slot supports additional SD storage.

* Included as accessories: An AC charger, a cable for syncing/moving stuff back and forth between the Reader and your computer (USB on one end, mini-USB for the single port on the Reader end), and a spiffy neoprene sleeve. Oh, and a nearly useless paper "quick start guide." If you can't intuit your way around the device, a more comprehensive guide is available for download [PDF].

Conclusion: I got at least as much as I expected for the price, and probably more. The Reader has me covered as a reader, with significant additional and useful features that I expect to use regularly. Only time will reveal its durability, but it and its accessories seem to be, upon slightly more than casual inspection, of quality manufacture. As of now, I'm extremely pleased with the Velocity Micro Cruz Reader, and recommend it to KN@PPSTER's readers.

Update, end of day 2: Despite some issues, I'm still happy with the Velocity Cruz Reader.

The Barnes and Noble Nook app doesn't seem to be available in the Cruz Market. I grabbed it from elsewhere, installed it ... and it shuts down every time I try to get a book. I'm going to keep messing with that because of the available ereader apps it's the one I expect I'd like best (among other things, it lets you "borrow/lend" ebooks for up to two weeks at a time). I've been reading Thomas Paine on the Borders app. It's quite nice.

After its first full charge, the Reader gave me several hours of use -- I didn't count them, but probably 4-5 -- even though I was constantly running Pandora, which presumably consumes quite a bit of power running sound out the speakers, streaming via wi-fi, etc.

In addition to Pandora, I installed an app called "Daily Paper" (I think I got that one from the Android Market) that pulls up the mobile sites of bazillions of papers from a convenient list. I read news for a living, but I enjoy it much more on a tablet while lounging than at my desk in "work mode."

Another presumably power-consuming app I've been using is the YouTube viewer. I'm auditing David Blight's "open course" on the Civil War and Reconstruction (courtesy of Yale). I had been watching the lectures on iTunes and Academic Earth, but they're available on YouTube and (see comment on lounging versus desk):

I also installed ZumoDrive (referral link!), an online storage app that lets me keep files on my desktop computer but use them from the tablet (including, allegedly, my iTunes library -- haven't tried that out yet).

Speaking of storage, that's one thing I haven't figured out yet -- I've run into "not much space left" warnings while installing, even though I show a LOT of space available when I look. Like I said, I'm still figuring this out.

I installed, then uninstalled, a browser called Skyfire. I wanted it because I'd heard that it could be used to watch shows on Hulu (because it runs the data through its own servers and doesn't identify itself to Hulu as a tablet), but apparently Hulu got onto that trick, and told me that it "doesn't support Skyfire."

In the near future, I expect to "root" the device so that I can get rid of some of the preinstalled apps that I'll never use. Eventually I'll have it ultra-personalized ... but I'm definitely enjoying it in its arrival state with some added apps. It's a keeper.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.


House approves dramatic cuts in federal spending in 235-189 vote

The cuts come to $61 billion. That's about 1.6% of the $3.81 trillion 20011 federal budget. It's about 3.7% of the 2011 federal budget deficit of $1.645 trillion.

Cutting less than 4% of your over-spending isn't "dramatic." It isn't "drastic." And, the fevered imaginings of US Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA) aside, it's for damn sure not even close to "a meat-ax approach on top of a meat-ax approach."

Not only is $61 billion not "dramatic," "drastic" or "a meat-ax approach on top of a meat-ax approach," it's not even, to use a much over-used word, "serious."

"Serious" would be cutting that $1.654 trillion deficit entirely. For a little gold "sensible" star, cut a little more than that to get a surplus and use that surplus to draw down debt principal. Only at some point well beyond those would words like "dramatic" become accurately descriptive.

$61 billion is just campaign propaganda grab-ass.

But I guess it's better than nothing.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

What's in a word?

The New York Observer's Dan Duray on The End of Blogging:

Whatever blogs have become, there seems to be universal agreement that the format that made them ubiquitous -- the reverse-chronological aggregation accompanied by commentary -- is not long for this world, and Mr. Denton's scoop-friendly redesign would seem to be the best evidence of that. In fact, the decline of the blog has come so quickly, one has to wonder whether we ever really liked the medium at all.

Which misses the point entirely. It's like asserting that the key to the printing press's ubiquity was some particular characteristic of the D-K typeface that Peter Schoffer designed for Johannes Gutenberg, rather than the fact that Gutenberg's invention meant manuscripts no longer had to be copied out by monks in longhand. "Reverse chronological aggregation" was really just an incidental, if noticeable, feature of blogging. As Robert Stacy McCain points out, the real key to blog ubiquity was:

that software companies had created free (or cheap) online publishing tools which didn’t require advanced technological skill to use.

Blog software (and the content management systems it evolved into) made it easy and inexpensive for virtually anyone to pop up a web site -- not just a home page with some links and cheesy graphics and maybe some other pages nested beneath it (if you could keep track of them and remember to link them and so on), but a site automatically organized and indexed in a way that made intuitive sense.

Remember what a revolution that was?

If you were on the net 15 years ago, you likely "marked up" your web pages by hand in a text editor (or at best using a fussy "WYSIWYG" web editor which usually didn't give you "what you saw" if it was any more complicated than "this is me and here are some pictures of my cat"), then logged into a Unix shell account and uploaded them via FTP. You had to keep your site organized manually and God help you if you lost track of what you were doing.

If you worked for a commercial outfit, they might have a primitive CMS -- custom-programmed for their site by programmers who charged hefty hourly fees for design, improvement, maintenance, etc. But if it was personal or if you were trying to start something up on a shoestring, you spent a lot of time futzing around with the technical side of things.

Now you log into Blogger or Wordpress or Drupal or Joomla or whatever and go to town. If you do any manual HTML markup, it's because you're just used to that (I resemble that remark). On the design end, pre-fab "themes" get the job done with little or no customization unless you're getting bizarre (I recently had to learn and implement some PHP because I am bizarre -- and whined incessantly about it the whole time).

I suppose it's possible that the word "blog" will fade into history, but the revolution that word represents is permanent, barring worldwide technological catastrophe.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Did Apple just commit iPad/iPhone suicide? [Updated/Corrected/Retracted]

Per Digital Trends:

Apple has rejected an e-book reading app from Sony, citing a new change in policy. Apps can no longer sell or access content not purchased through the App Store.

So, you've got a popular smart phone (the iPhone).

And you've got a popular tablet (the iPad).

And you've got competition (Android).

How the hell do you come up with the idea that you can be the winner in that situation by putting up additional roadblocks between the customer and the content, especially when you're already asking more for your hardware than the competition is?

I admit that I'm on the bottom end of the prospective iPhone/iPad customer set, and that I've been leaning toward going Android when I get a tablet anyway, but this seals the deal. Why would I buy the higher-priced Apple hardware when Apple also artificially limits my options for using it?

Update: AppleInsider reports that the original story on Apple's "new policy" was incorrect.

Apparently the requirement for an App Store app is something like this: If it offers content other than via Apple's commission-producing scheme, it must also allow the user to choose to buy it via the Apple route. Which isn't as bad by a damn sight.

Sorry about that.