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2 years ago

What is NFC? [Android A to Z]

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What is NFC?  NFC stands for Near-Field Communication and is a set of standards (established in 2004) for small, portable devices to establish radio communications with each other. Devices need to be close, usually no more than a few centimeters apart (and often they need to touch), which is why it's a Near-Field way to communicate. The standards cover data exchange formats defined by the NFC Forum (no, not that kind of forum) and are based on the original radio frequency identification (RFID) standards.  The forum also certifies devices like tags, cards, and smartphones.  

The coolest part of all this is that only one of the devices needs to be "smart."  Most of us has a credit card of some sort that we can tap against a payment machine, either at the gas pump or a cash register.  Both the payment machine and the credit card are NFC devices, but the card only has a string of information electronically written to a tiny chip embedded inside it.  And this is useful for other things, like starting and handling more robust communications like Wifi or Bluetooth, but most often it's used with one of these "dumb" chips.  These dumb chips can be written with any information, and the smart device determines what happens when communication is established.  

Of course, what most of us here think of when we hear NFC is Google Wallet.  Google Wallet takes things a step further by using your Android phone as both a smart device and a dumb device.  When you tap your phone at McDonald's to pay for those McNuggets, it's simply sharing your credit card credentials like any card would.  But there's functionality and hardware there to accept payments, track balances, provide security and more.  Right now it's only officially available as a test on the Nexus S 4G, but it's been hacked onto other phones with NFC hardware.  Soon, we'll see it (and other apps for things like ISIS) as a standard on Android phones.  Until then, we'll just have to play with tags and Android Beam.

Previously on Android A to Z: What is MWC?; Find more in the Android Dictionary

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2 years ago

What is Mobile World Congress? [Android A to Z]

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What is Mobile World Congress? The next big mobile trade show on our Android schedule is Mobile World Congress -- or MWC, for those in the know. It's in Barcelona, Spain, and has been since 2006 (and will be through 2018). Before that, it was known as 3GSM World and was in Cannes, France. This year will be the last at the Fira de Barcelona, a beautiful venue that actually allows for some sunlight (or dreary rain), with towers at the entrance and Palau Nacional rising at the far end.

MWC has a decidedly different feel than CES, which we just wrapped up in Las Vegas, or the bi-annual CTIA shows that rotate among different cities in the United States. Gone are the booth babes, and you'll see far more suits than you will in Sin City. That's not to say that Mobile World Congress is a boring show for Android -- far from it. MWC is where we'll see the latest and greatest from many of the major manufacturers. To wit:

And we've got meetings. And dinners. And dinner meetings. A slow show for Android, Mobile World Congress is not. Plus it's in Barcelona -- this year from Feb. 27 through March 1, a few weeks later than in years past -- smack on the western edge of the Mediterranean, full of culture and food. And phones. Feel free to hate us now.

Previously on Android A to Z: What is a launcher; Find more in the Android Dictionary

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: What is a launcher?

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What is an Android launcher? Probably the most powerful feature of Android is its ability to be customized. And that starts with what's typically called the "launcher." The launcher usually is considered to be the homescreens and app drawer, and they come in all sorts of flavors and designs.

When you hear people talk about "stock" Android, this usually is what they're referring to -- homescreens and app drawer unchanged from what Google includes in the open-sourced code. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. From there, you can download any number of third-party "launchers," which will change the look and functionality of the homescreens and the app drawer. Home screens can have different animations. Or different docks at the bottom. Or a specific number of home screens. App drawers can have more scrolling or sorting options. The possibilities might not be endless, but they're certainly numerous.

Google has included a lot of improvements in the Ice Cream Sandwich launcher, but third-party apps absolutely are not yet obsolete.) Some of the more popular third-party launchers include:

There is no shortage of third-party launchers. But they're not the only ones. Smartphone manufacturers all have their own launchers, too. HTC has its Sense UI, its own homescreen and its own app drawer, all nicknamed "Rosie." Motorola has long has its "Blur" user interface. Samsung has "TouchWiz." Don't like any of them? You can install a third-party launcher on top of the default user interface. And with as powerful as today's phones are, you can do so without any real degradation in performance.

Previously on Android A to Z: What is a kernel?; Find more in the Android Dictionary

 

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2 years ago

AC Asks: Are you using Google Currents?

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Google Currents is closing in on being two months old. Initial growth has seemed pretty impressive -- we've got around 178,000 subscribers -- but how much are you folks actually using it? We'll share some numbers here shortly. But for now, let's hear it. Are you using Google Currents? And if so, how often? And if you're looking to give it a shot, hit our subscribe link below.

Subscribe on Google Currents: Android Central; iMore; Mobile Nations

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: What is a kernel?

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What is a kernel?  If you spend any time reading Android forums, blogs, how-to posts or online discussion you'll soon hear people talking about the kernel.  A kernel isn't something unique to Android -- iOS and MacOS have one, Windows has one, BlackBerry's QNX has one, in fact all high level operating systems have one.  The one we're interested in is Linux, as it's the one Android uses. Let's try to break down what it is and what it does.

Android devices use the Linux kernel, but it's not the exact same kernel other Linux-based operating systems use.  There's a lot of Android specific code built in, and Google's Android kernel maintainers have their work cut out for them.  OEMs have to contribute as well, because they need to develop hardware drivers for the parts they're using for the kernel version they're using.  This is why it takes a while for independent Android developers and hackers to port new versions to older devices and get everything working.  Drivers written to work with the Gingerbread kernel on a phone won't necessarily work with the Ice Cream Sandwich kernel.  And that's important, because one of the kernel's main functions is to control the hardware.  It's a whole lot of source code, with more options while building it than you can imagine, but in the end it's just the intermediary between the hardware and the software.

When software needs the hardware to do anything, it sends a request to the kernel.  And when we say anything, we mean anything.  From the brightness of the screen, to the volume level, to initiating a call through the radio, even what's drawn on the display is ultimately controlled by the kernel.  For example -- when you tap the search button on your phone, you tell the software to open the search application.  What happens is that you touched a certain point on the digitizer, which tells the software that you've touched the screen at those coordinates.  The software knows that when that particular spot is touched, the search dialog is supposed to open.  The kernel is what tells the digitizer to look (or listen, events are "listened" for) for touches, helps figure out where you touched, and tells the system you touched it.  In turn, when the system receives a touch event at a specific point from the kernel (through the driver) it knows what to draw on your screen.  Both the hardware and the software communicate both ways with the kernel, and that's how your phone knows when to do something.  Input from one side is sent as output to the other, whether it's you playing Angry Birds, or connecting to your car's Bluetooth.  

It sounds complicated, and it is.  But it's also pretty standard computer logic -- there's an action of some sort generated for every event.  Without the kernel to accept and send information, developers would have to write code for every single event for every single piece of hardware in your device.  With the kernel, all they have to do is communicate with it through the Android system API's, and hardware developers only have to make the device hardware communicate with the kernel.  The good thing is that you don't need to know exactly how or why the kernel does what it does, just understanding that it's the go-between from software to hardware gives you a pretty good grasp of what's happening under the glass.  Sort of gives a whole new outlook towards those fellows who stay up all night to work on kernels for your phone, doesn't it?

Previously on Android A to Z: What is the JIT?; Find more in the Android Dictionary

 

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: What is the JIT?

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What is the JIT?  JIT stands for "Just In Time," and we use it to describe a Dalvik JIT compiler, which was added to Android with the 2.2 release.  It compiles bytecode into native machine code at runtime.  Essentially it takes the code for an app, analyzes it and converts it into something that runs faster.  It does all this while the application is running, and that's where the "just in time" tag comes from.  The JIT compiler designed for Android also can do this with a very short "warm up" time, meaning it doesn't take very long to analyze the code before it starts working.  It stores information in a cache in your phone's RAM, which means it's not an ideal solution for devices with low memory.  It's been optimized to have a small footprint -- about 100K per process -- but even that is enough to impact performance on older models like the G1 or HTC Magic.  This is why most phones that came before the Nexus One never got an official version from Google -- hardware limitations.

You hear terms like "runs faster" or 4 to 5 times performance increase anytime you talk about Android's JIT compiler.  A JIT compiler simply saves CPU cycles -- more work can be done for each clock cycle.  This means applications that were throttled by CPU performance get faster, and apps that are "rate-limited" (run until they are finished without taxing the processor to the maximum) finish faster and use less battery because of it.  Not all applications see a significant speed increase, and most applications written with the NDK or in native code won't see an increase at all, as they don't use the Dalvik virtual machine.  

If all this reads like Greek to you, that's OK.  To the end user (that's you and me) all we should see is better performance in most of our applications.  We certainly saw that when Froyo was released for the Nexus One, and things have just gotten better with every release.  For the more technically inclined, check out the video from Android engineers Ben Cheng and Bill Buzbee during Google I/O 2010 where the JIT compiler was introduced.

Previously on Android A to Z: What's an IPS display?; Find more in the Android Dictionary

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: What's an IPS display?

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What is an IPS display? IPS stands for In-Plane Switching. It's commonly found in high-end monitors -- gaining mainstream notoriety in Apple's displays -- and has also found its way into tablets. The iPad uses IPS displays. ASUS has an IPS display in its Transformer Prime tablet. And Samsung has its own flavor of IPS in the Galaxy Tab 10.1, which is it calls Super PLS (Plane-Line Switching).

The long and short of it is that you get better color representation -- that is, whites are white, blacks and back, reds are red, etc. -- and better viewing angles. That's perhaps less of an issue with tablets than larger displays, because you're more likely to be using it directly in front of your face. But wider viewing angles are always better than not. (And we've seen some pretty horrid tablet displays in our day.)

There's not a lot of arguing against that, technically speaking, an IPS display is just "better" than a non-IPS display. If you have the option between an IPS or non-IPS display, we'd go with the former.

Previously on Android A to Z: H is for Hacking; Find more in the Android Dictionary

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: H is for Hacking

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Hacking.  It means a lot of different things to different people, and to the public at large it conjures up imagery of evil people in exotic places.  When we talk about hacking here at Android Central, we usually mean it in its original sense -- tearing into software (or hardware) and changing things until they fit our liking.  That's the good kind, and what we're going to talk about now.

Android hacking covers a lot of bases, from small but interesting things like changing statusbar icons and colors, to giant projects like custom-built AOSP ROMs, to super-geeky things like enabling the hidden FM Radio and 720p video recording on the Nexus One.  Most of the time installing and using any of these hacks will require your phone be rooted, and may even require a custom recovery designed to flash files that haven't been signed by the phone's manufacturer.  It can be complicated, and it pretty much voids any warranty that may be left on the device you're hacking away at.  

All these hacks you read and hear about are also usually pretty device-specific.  You'll not want to try things designed for the HTC Droid Incredible on your Motorola Photon, or even the HTC Droid Incredible 2.  This is where a little research and a lot of reading becomes necessary so you have a handle on what you're doing before you do it.  Armed with a little knowledge you sure can have a blast hacking away at your Android phone or tablet.

But we'd be remiss in not mentioning the bad hacking.  You know what it is. You should know when to avoid it. There are gray areas, to be sure, and we're not going to get overly preachy here. If it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. Remember that real people work real hard on apps and hardware. Just sayin'.

Either way, you don't want to go it alone.  We'll tell you about the hacks and modifications here at Android Central, and the forums are full of people just like you and me who love our Android phones, and want to explore more about them.  Use them, and we can all hack together. 

Previously on Android A to Z: What is GSM?; Find more in the Android Dictionary

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: What is GSM?

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What is GSM? When it comes to Android devices, especially for us here in the U.S., there are two major differentiators that really have nothing to do with Android and everything to do with the carrier you plan on using the device on. When you're talking about a mobile device, you're either talking about a GSM device, or a CDMA device. GSM stands for Global System for Mobile Communications and is the network standard for much of the world. 

Of the four major carriers here in the United States, T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM technology. In Europe, you'll be hard-pressed to find something other than GSM. In Asia, you'll still find some CDMA carriers. 

A major advantage, at least from an end-user perspective, of GSM is the ability to easily swap devices, thanks to the SIM card. That's the little card (like what you see in the picture above) that contains are information that allows you to connect to a network, and it also can contain contact information. Pop the card into a new phone, and your phone number and contacts come with you.

There are a couple caveats to that, of course. One is that the phone you're using has to have radios to work on specific frequencies. While T-Mobile and AT&T are both GSM carriers and share the same EDGE radio frequency, they use different 3G frequencies, and most devices released in the United States can only connect to one or the other. (That's not always the case though -- some phones, like the GSM Galaxy Nexus, have the ability to do both) Another hurdle is that carriers usually "lock" the device to only use their own SIM cards. That is, if you put an AT&T SIM card into a T-Mobile phone, it'll ask for an unlock code. You can purchase the codes online, or the carrier may give it to you for free, if your account is in good standing. Outside the U.S., this is less of an issue because phones often are purchased "unlocked," albeit at higher prices than you'll see here.

But, wait. It gets more confusing. The new 4G LTE is a GSM standard. Therefore, Verizon and (soon) Sprint are using GSM technologies on their otherwise-CDMA phones. And both of those carriers have had "world phones" in the past -- traditional CDMA devices with GSM radios tucked in for use outside the United States.

Is GSM preferred over CDMA? For some, it's just a personal thing. For others, it's a perceived technical thing (such as building penetration). For others, it's a business thing, like being able to more easily use your personal device overseas with a prepaid SIM.   

Previously on Android A to Z: What is fastboot?; Find more in the Android Dictionary

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: What is fastboot?

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What is fastboot? In Android, fastboot is a special diagnostic and engineering protocol that you can boot your Android device into.  While in fastboot, you can modify the file system images from a computer over a USB connection.  It's a powerful, nerdy tool that deserves to be broken down into terms we all can understand -- let's try and do that.

Not all phones have a fastboot mode that the user can access.  It's turned on with Nexus devices by default (as well as a few other phones and tablets) and has been enabled by independent Android developers and enthusiasts on some other phones.  It also requires more than what ships with the Android SDK, and different USB drivers for Windows computers.  Fastboot runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux and all the information about setting it up can be found in the forums if you're interested.  Once set up, you boot your phone to fastboot and you can flash image files to your phone's internal memory.  Flashing a custom recovery like ClockworkMod is a popular use case, as is resetting it all back using factory images after we're done breaking things.  The images you flash don't need to be signed with a particular key, so just about anything will try to flash -- even if it shouldn't be used, so use care.  There are other commands you can use with fastboot, and they're a bit more advanced.  Things like erasing partitions and overriding kernel command line options can be done, and this makes the tool very useful for developing hardware and software solutions that may need customized booting procedures.  With a little bit of knowledge, and the right Android hardware, fastboot can be a great tool.

Previously on Android A to Z: What's an ETF?; Find more in the Android Dictionary

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: What's an ETF?

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What's an ETF? An early termination fee is something you agree to, albeit grudgingly, when you sign a contract with a carrier. In return for, say, Verizon, selling you a phone for $199 instead of the "full" $499 off-contract price, you agree that you'll stay with that carrier for a given amount of time. In the U.S., that's usually two years. (In Canada, it could be an excruciating three years.) So you get a cheaper phone, and the carrier gets guaranteed monthly payments.

You can break out of that contract, but there are penalties. That's where the ETF comes in. If you want to break a contract and move your service to another carrier, you'll have to pay the early termination fee. It's usually prorated depending on how many months are left on your contract, which is good. But it still can be several hundred dollars. (Occasionally you'll hear about your new carrier promising to pay the ETF for you.)

Here are the ETF conditions for the four major U.S. carriers as of this writing:

  • Verizon: $350 for an "advanced device"; $175 for others.
  • Sprint: $350 for an "advanced device"; $200 for others
  • AT&T: $325 for an "advanced device"; $150 for others
  • T-Mobile: $200 if more than 180 days left on contract; $100 for 91-180 days left on contract; $50 for 30-90 days. With less than 30 days remaining, ETF is $50 or amount of your bill, whichever is less

Previously on Android A to Z: What is Dalvik; Find more in the Android Dictionary

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: What is Dalvik

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What is Dalvik?  We hear that word getting thrown around a lot on the Internet when talking about Android and its inner workings.  While there's no easy explanation we can give in just a few paragraphs, we can cover the basics and point you in the right direction if you need to feed your nerdly side. In its simplest terms, Dalvik is a virtual machine that runs applications and code written in Java. A standard Java compiler turns source code (written as text files) into Bytecode, then compiled into a .dex file that the Dalvik VM can read and use. In essence, class files are converted into .dex files (much like a jar file if one were using the standard Java VM) and then read and executed by the Dalvik Virtual Machine. Duplicate data used in class files is included only once in the .dex output, which saves space and uses less overhead. The executable files can be modified again when you install an application to make things even more optimized for mobile. Things like byte order swapping and linking data structure and function libraries inline make the files smaller and run better on our devices. The Dalvik VM was written from square one with Android in mind.

Confused yet?  Don't feel bad, geeky programming talk usually has that effect. Think of it this way -- when you build a Java application for your computer, a Java Virtual Machine runs the compiled output of the source code. This is why Java runs on just about any operating system. Dalvik is a mobile-optimized version of a Java Virtual Machine, built with code from the Apache Harmony project, which is open-source and runs better than a standard Java VM would on our limited hardware, designed so that you can run more than one instance of the VM at a time -- ie multitasking.  Because Dalvik is open-source, it's also been ported to other operating systems, like the one on the BlackBerry PlayBook. It's pretty damn complicated, pretty damn cool, and Oracle (the company that bought Java from Sun) hates it.

Android uses Dalvik because while the license for the standard Java Virtual Machine is GPL2 (free and open-source), when placed in a mobile device and using the Java Micro Edition, it is not.  The big dispute between Google and Oracle is all based around Dalvik.  Google claims it was written in a "clean-room" environment without using any of Oracle's code, and Oracle disagrees.  We claim to have no idea, we're just glad it works as well as it does. 

For more on Dalvik, see the Google I/O website.

Previously on Android A to Z: What is CES?; Find more in The Android Dictionary

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2 years ago

How to use BBC iPlayer on the Galaxy Nexus (or any unsupported ICS device)

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The official BBC iPlayer app for Android is great, assuming your phone or tablet is on the list of approved devices. If it's not, you won't even be able to see the app in the Android Market, and the mobile web player will turn you away with an error message. Two devices which still aren't officially supported are the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S (assuming you've got the ICS update), as the iPlayer currently rejects all Android 4.0 phones out of hand.

Never fear, though, because we've got a simple workaround that'll let you enjoy iPlayer content on both these devices with a minimal amount of fuss. Join us after the jump to find out how.

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: What is CES?

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What is CES? In just a few short days we'll be back yet again in Las Vegas for the 2012 International CES. That's Consumer Electronics Show, if you don't know, and it's the largest gathering of nerds west of the Mississippi. Or east of the Mississippi. Or anywhere near Mississippi. 

CES isn't just a mobile show, though. It's everything electronics. And while that means you don't get quite as much mobile tech as you will, say, at Mobile World Congress (in Barcelona in late February) or CTIA (in New Orleans in May), we'll still see our share. In January 2011, CES is where we got our first good look at the likes of the Motorola Xoom Honeycomb tablet. And the Droid Bionic, Cliq 2 and Atrix, and the HTC ThunderBolt, Inspire 4G and EVO Shift 4G. And LG Optimus 2X and Revolution.

Here's what's coming up this year:

  • CES doesn't officially start until Tuesday, Jan. 10. That's when the show floors open.
  • But Monday, Jan. 9, is Media Day. Press conference after press conference. It's a little insane, actually.
  • And stuff's actually going down on Sunday, too. Le sigh.
  • Unlike years past, the Adult Entertainment Expo isn't taking place at the same time, adjacent to some of the same venues. There shall be no (or at least not quite as much) accidental mixing of nerds and nipples. (We can't be held responsible for what happens in Vegas after hours, though.)
  • We're going to have more liveblogs than you'll be able to follow. It'll be epic.

So, yeah. There's going to be plenty of stuff to keep us busy.

And you'll be able to keep track of it all at our Android @ CES 2012 page.

Previously on Android A to Z: What is a bootloader?; More at The Android Dictionary

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2 years ago

How to report Android Market scammers and spammers from your browser

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Android Central reader @mjroberts22 this morning alerted us to an evil developer in the Android Market. A number of apps from Quarter MiLL look legit. We've featured Super Why Adventures -- a children's app -- on the site before. But look closely. In the app description, and after paying your $1.99 here, you'll note that it says to download the Amazon version of the app if this one isn't working properly.

That, obviously, should be a big red flag for everyone. In other words, DO NOT BUY THESE APPS.

But if you spot an evil developer, what to do about it? If you're using the Android Market from your phone, it's easy -- just scroll down to the bottom of the app and report it. If you're browing from your desktop, there's a handy link for reporting "inappropriate" apps (including scammers and spammers). We've got the link below. Just out the forum, and Google will do its thing.

More: Report a suspicious Android app to Google

Thanks to @mjroberts22 and @U_Mainah for the tips!

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