My trusty Samsung SGH-T399 phone began to flake out last week. First it insisted that a number of apps needed to be reinstalled, then some apps lost their data. These sound like memory failures. Within a few days, the phone refused to re-start.
I replaced it with a low-cost Samsung SM-G360T, for $140 from the local T-mobile store. T-mobile calls it a GALAXY CORE Prime™. It’s small (4.5 inch screen), includes LTE, a quad core CPU, 8 GB of memory, 5 megapixel camera, replaceable battery, and a slot for a micro SD card up to 200GB. To keep costs low, Samsung seems to have deleted the magnetic sensor, the automatic screen illumination control, and lighted “back” buttons. I can live without these niceties.
The phone includes Android 5.1.1, which in most respects is an improvement over my old SGH-T399’s Android 4.
I notice on T-Mobile’s website that they’re now discounting this phone for $99. I recommend it, if your needs are similar to mine. At that price, I may buy a second SM-G360T, as a backup phone.
While watching a Youtube video clip about the recovery of a stolen bicycle, I learned about Burner, a smartphone app that allows a smartphone user to temporarily mask his or her phone number with an alias phone number. It’s available for iPhones, but not yet for Android phones. (originally published on 31 December 2012. 9 July 2014: Burner is now available for Android phones, as well as IOS.)
Theft recovery seems like a perfect use for telephone anonymity. The victim, who’s a Portland, Oregon resident, responded to a Seattle Craigslist for sale ad for what seemed to be his stolen bike. He used Burner to make his phone calls appear to originate in Seattle.
My Android phone arrived with useless apps that were installed by T-Mobile. Some of them load at start time and needlessly consume processor cycles and memory.
I’ve found that I can free up about 60 megabytes of memory shortly after starting up the phone. I run Task Manager by holding down the phone’s Home button. Next I press the Task manager button, followed by the RAM button at the top of the screen.
Next, I press the Clear memory button at the bottom of the screen. This stops at least ten useless apps and frees at least 50 megabytes of memory.
On my Android Gingerbread phone, these extra megabytes of available memory make the difference between long YouTube videos crashing the phone and streaming to completion. YMMV.
I love to stream podcasts or live audio programs to my Android phone (Gingerbread 2.3.6 on a Samsung SGH-T679). Sometimes when I’ve heard enough, I can’t stop the streaming. Then, I resort to forcing the streaming app (such as TuneIn) to stop. From any Home screen,
Scroll to and tap Settings
Choose Manage Applications
Scroll to and choose the streaming application (such as TuneIn)
Press the Force stop button
Press the OK button
The streaming should have stopped now. If not, maybe another app is streaming audio; try the same procedure but choose a different app to stop. Otherwise, restart your Android device.
Display nearby WiFi access points in the palm of your hand.
When I arrive at the site of a client who needs WiFi help, my first step is to survey the site for existing WiFi RF signals. I usually use NetStumbler on a netbook. Now I can perform a similar survey on my Android phone, which I carry in my pocket.
I’ve tried Meraki WiFi Stumbler and Wigle WiFi Wardriver. For this survey application, I prefer Meraki WiFi Stumbler. It provides a bar chart with WiFi channel numbers on the x-axis and wireless access points’ (identified by their SSIDs) signal strengths in dB on the y-axis. It seems to be less sensitive and scan slower than Wigle, but its display is ideal for a quick WiFi site survey. Wigle is more comprehensive and an impressive piece of work, but its added features aren’t needed for ad-hoc WiFi site surveys.
My headline calls this hardware/software system a “spectrum analyzer”. That’s not strictly true. A full-blown spectrum analyzer displays all of a signal’s blemishes: distortion products, noise sidebands, harmonics, etc. The graph displayed by Meraki is merely a symbolic representation of nearby WiFi signals, after filtering out their blemishes. In most cases, it’s all the information that I need.
Oct 22: I’ve begun to use WiEye. I like it. Its display is simple, provides excellent resolution, and quick response. I found it in the Google Play Store.
Android is an impressive operating system, but it’s far from perfect.
Android employs pre-emptive multi-tasking: the operating system retains control of the CPU even after starting a new process. It will, without warning, shut down background applications to free up memory. (Most modern operating systems on computers with disk drives, as they run low on memory, will swap least-recently-used memory contents to disk. This is called virtual memory. My Android phone has no disk, so there is no virtual memory.)
diagram: Alvaro Fuentes Vasquez (Kronox)
Unfortunately, when it needs memory, Android will shut down background apps without warning. Sometimes it shuts down Tunein, and that app doesn’t allow streams to resume from the interruption point. Trying to resume the audio stream can waste tens of minutes.
High-Level programming provides fast app development but poor control
Android provides high-level system calls to its apps, and the apps are written in high-level languages. The result is that for real-time functions such as streaming media, the user has very little idea of program progress or user control. At least half the time that I try to stream media, my attempt fails a few minutes later, with no real indication of why it failed.
This reminds me of the MS-DOS days: MS-DOS and PC-DOS provided system calls for communication. They were limited and slow, so communication application programmers simply ignored the MS-DOS system calls and instead used low-level routines to talk directly to the underlying hardware. They could do this without breaking the system, because MS-DOS was a single-user, single-tasking operating system. It broke some portability between hardware platforms. The world of Android is much more complex: the phone’s stability requires that each Android app behaves itself by communicating via Android system calls only. (It’s easy to forget that this thing is, after all, a phone.)
I don’t know where this is headed. Clearly Android needs work on its user interface. It probably ought to ask permission before shutting down a background app. It should provide low-level system calls, and the app writers need to use those system calls to improve the interface for the poor Android user.
This article is based upon my experience with my Samsung SGH-T679 Insight II 4G (aka Galaxy Exhibit 4G) T-Mobile phone. It uses Android 2.3.6, which I guess is named Gingerbread.
For me, having podcasts in my pocket is the smartphone’s killer app.
I’ve mentioned that I like to listen to audio as I program computers. (One exception: when I must concentrate on a stubborn problem, I need silence.) With my new Android phone, I can listen as I take walks, as well. At the moment, I’m listening to a 15-minute long biographical sketch of mathematician Joseph Fourier.
This podcast is part of BBC’s A Brief History of Mathematics. I found this series within the History section of the free BBC Podcasts app that I downloaded from the Google Play Store. The BBC Podcasts app is loaded with podcasts, neatly arranged by category. So far, I’ve stuck with the factual, scientific, and historical ones. It’s a goldmine that costs nothing.
I’ve also been listening to the technology podcasts that are available within the Tunein app. These include Michio Kaku’s Explorations in Science, The Wall Street Journal’s Technology Marketplace Report, etc. You can download the Tunein app from the Google Play Store, as well.
I’m overjoyed to have stumbled upon these podcast apps, because (as you may have guessed) the program content that I like to listen to isn’t standard broadcast fare. For me, the promise of “content on demand” has been fulfilled. I’m grateful to these podcasters for making this material available.
If you have an iPhone, I’d guess that the same apps are available from the iTunes store.
I recently purchased a T-Mobile Samsung Exhibit II 4G SGH-T679 phone from Amazon for about $190. (T-Mobile’s stores sell it for $330. That’s the unsubsidized price.) It’s a second-tier smartphone, but has all of the features that I want in a smallish package. It’s advertised as a prepaid phone, but my postpaid T-Mobile SIM card from my flip-phone worked fine. Based on my few days’ use, I’m not convinced that I want to always carry a smartphone. In many ways, my little Samsung SGH-T439 flip-phone makes more sense for voice, text, and consulting Wikipedia. I predict that I’ll continue to swap my SIM card between the two phones.
I added a Sandisk 30GB microSD card for $20 from Amazon, and a silicone case and screen cover ($8). The phone is lightweight and easily fits in my pants pocket. Its replaceable battery drains quickly, but the phone allows you to turn off power-draining circuits such as WiFi and Bluetooth when they’re not needed. I like the fact that from the Settings menu, I can monitor what purports to be real-time RF signal strength in dBm. I’ve seen this vary from -73 dBm to -109 dBm in my neighborhood.
T-Mobile has loaded this Android phone with apps, most of which I think I’ll delete, once I gain root privileges. That should be an adventure, but is apparently the only way to gain the privileges necessary to delete the apps.
My initial impression of the touchscreen interface is that it’s horrible. Maybe I’ll grow fonder of it with use.
It’s hard to believe now, but some pundits in 2006/2007 predicted failure for Apple’s rumored new phone. They felt that Apple should stick to making computers and iPods, not phones. (Of course, the iPhone is a computer.) The pundits argued that the smartphone market was already overcrowded: the Palm Treo, RIM Blackberry, and Nokia E61 controlled the market, leaving no room for Apple.
“Today, we are introducing three revolutionary products. The first is a wide-screen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary new mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.” <insert patter here>
“Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device. Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone!”
The pundits were wrong, of course. A major reason is that Apple made it easy for third-party developers to create and distribute iPhone applications. The hardware was very nice, but I think it was the software — the friendly user interface and the proliferation of useful apps — that powered the iPhone’s runaway success.
In five years, neither RIM nor Palm responded with a viable competitor, and they’re now footnotes. Microsoft responded with an operating system that nobody liked. Only Google and partners provided viable competition.
Well done, Steve!
One indicator of success is that the wireless carriers are reporting less voice traffic per subscriber, and more data traffic. They’re responding by making more attractive voice offers and capping their data plans.
I know it’s a lame headline, but I see no pattern to iPhone speech distortion.
Months ago I planned to write an article that documented my observations of speech distortion when conversing with iPhone users. I thought that I saw a pattern: Verizon iPhone subscribers and iPhone 4S users had more speech distortion; AT&T iPhone subscribers and iPhone 3 and earlier users had less speech distortion.
I became interested in the topic because my phone conversations with iPhone users were frequently very low quality. Distortion would obscure syllables, words, or whole sentences.
My testing resources were nil; I would rely upon my very imprecise ear and the patience of my iPhone friends. A funny thing happened on my way to this article: any pattern that I thought that I saw initially, vanished.
Even the simplest analog system can introduce speech distortion caused by a number of anomalies. Modern cellular phone systems add still more variables that can cause speech distortion. One source is multi-path reception: the same radio signal arrives at the receiving antenna after following multiple paths. Each path involves different delays, so the signals are out of phase and interfere with each other. This is most likely to be a problem in urban areas with tall buildings. GSM systems such as AT&T’s can reduce this effect through frequency hopping.
Test equipment is required at both ends of a telephone conversation to perform most audio distortion tests. One useful test is for intermodulation — the mixing of two tones, resulting in additional tones that weren’t in the original two-tone input signal. The difference in amplitude between the original tones at the test system output and the new tones is measured in decibels (dB). An acceptable difference of signal level to intermodulation (IM) distortion product levels might be -35 dB or more. My ear tells me that cell phone (not just iPhone) IM noise is frequently much, much worse than -35 dB. If I had to guess, IM distortion often is perhaps -10 dB or worse: there’s plenty of audio level; it’s just completely garbled. I’ve not found any real-world iPhone IM distortion test results.
I have one friend with an AT&T iPhone 3 that sounded great one day (no distortion at all), and much worse another day when connected to a different cell tower. Another friend with a Verizon iPhone 4S sounds consistently bad.
One positive result: I found a good mobile phone forum and blog: howardforums.com
I’m surprised that we accept such abysmal speech quality from our mobile phones. (In the old Ma Bell wired telephone days, Bell Labs devoted enormous resources to minimizing speech distortion. Low speech distortion meant that people talked more via phone, which resulted in more revenue.) I wish that I could document a pattern to iPhone speech distortion, but I can’t. Sorry.
What are your iPhone speech distortion observations?
Smartphones’ GPS apps have eaten into GPS device sales.
TomTom’s North American sales of its portable GPS units have been falling since consumers have decided that they’d rather use the GPS apps in their smartphones. TomTom’s shares dropped from 56 euros in 2007 to less than 3 euros last month. The company has announced major cuts in R&D, marketing, and payroll overheads. They also will outsource some Netherlands-based manufacturing to less expensive countries. (Does this mean China?) They predict future growth in the OEM automotive and traffic information markets.
Two years ago I wrote an article about how pleased I was with my new entry-level TomTom GPS. I still am. Smartphones are fine for GPS info, but they rely upon continuous data connections with cell towers to display maps: if they lose their (billable time) data connections, their maps no longer update. By contrast, maps are built into portable TomTom GPS devices; all they need are signals from at least 3 GPS satellites.
Since the early 1970’s, the Oakland-based band Tower Of Power has asked, “What Is Hip?”. (Answer: Hipness is what it is. Sometimes hipness is what it ain’t. What’s hip today might become passe’.)
Last week’s Blackberry outages couldn’t have occurred at a worst time for RIM.
esearch In Motion, Ltd., (RIM) has positioned its Blackberry as the smartphone for business people who can’t afford downtime. Its email and instant messaging services use their own servers, which ensure privacy and until last week were pretty reliable.
Last week, on the eve of Apple’s iPhone 4s launch, something in RIM’s European backbone broke, disconnecting Blackberry users from, well, everything. The outage spread to North America and most Blackberry users were without service for about 3 days.
RIM sounded the PR alarm and offered $100 value free apps to its users, but the press isn’t good:
The smartphone market is changing quickly. Apple iPhone and Android phone sales are exploding, and Blackberry sales are quickly shrinking. RIM has had to retreat to the corporate market, whose IT managers like the control that RIM’s servers give them.
Everybody else is jumping aboard the iPhone and Android trains, and RIM’s outage last week gave those trains even more fuel.
A new smartphone app highlights societal and environmental impact of smartphones.
Phone Story, an unusual app that was added and then almost immediately deleted from Apple’s App Store today, attempts, in the form of a game, to educate smartphone users about the environmental and societal impacts of their high-tech toys and their planned obsolescence.
Apple uses Foxconn, a very large and controversial China-based consumer electronics assembler, to assemble its iPhone and other Apple products. Foxconn has been accused of near- slave labor practices. Worker suicides are so frequent that the company erected nets around its worker dormitories to arrest suicidal jumping workers. In March, the article Apple’s Foxconn Predicament by Justin Rohrlich described other serious problems with Foxconn.
“You were looking for something that could signal your status, your dynamic lifestyle, your unique personality. Just like everyone else.”
Fritz Lang, in his 1926 silent film masterpiece Metropolis, had his vision of the future almost right. We do have the idle yuppies frittering away their time in garden spots, and we do have the masses of subjugated workers, but the workers aren’t underground (yet), and they’re not shoveling coal. They’re in China, assembling our toys.
Phone Story also illuminates raw materials mining and toxic waste disposal problems that are caused by mass fabrication of consumer electronic gadgets.
In the hilarious 1979 movie The In-Laws, Peter Falk’s character, absent-mindedly watching The Price Is Right TV game show, asks, “Do you mean that they do this just so that they can win all that crap?” I share his amazement.