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2 years ago

What is tethering? [Android A to Z]

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What is tethering?  Besides the grounds for a giant debate about ethics (the kind that you can only find on the Internet) tethering, in this case, means to share the Internet connection from your phone with other devices. There are several ways to accomplish this -- connecting your phone to your computer via USB, setting up your phone as a wireless hotspot and router, and sharing a data stream over Bluetooth. All these connection types are built into Android, with native Bluetooth tethering new in Ice Cream Sandwich. Of course, different manufacturers can, and have, modified things so that these options are excluded -- at the behest of the carrier, of course. We'll talk more about why in a few minutes.

Tethering itself is pretty easily done.  USB tethering involves installing device drivers (Windows only) and plugging in your phone to a high-speed USB port on your computer, then using your computer's built-in connection manager to use the phone or tablet as a USB modem. Bluetooth tethering will need the phone paired with the computer, and the connection type set up correctly in your computer's Bluetooth settings. Wifi is the easiest way -- you just turn it on and connect as you would any other wireless hotspot.

Except that many carriers, especially in the United States, have blocked tethering this way.  

You see, your carrier wants to charge you a premium to use your data plan from any device besides your phone.  Nobody likes it, but it's in the terms you agreed to when you signed up. They have all sorts of ways to block tethering on their end, and they are pretty diligent about it. Android hackers and developers also have found ways to work around these blocks, and it's a big cat and mouse game. An inside source with one the the biggest cellular carriers in the world has specifically told me that if your usage pattern draws suspicion, there is no current method that can't be detected by you carrier, including the newer VPN methods. If you do it a lot, without paying the extra fees associated with it, you'll get caught.

We're not going to judge anyone, and a few of us here at Android Central think charging extra for tethering is silly -- especially with data caps. Just know what may happen before you start so you don't get caught unaware.

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

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2 years ago

Erase your Android device before getting rid of it [Android 101]

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With the news today that Motorola accidentally shipped out 100 refurbished Xoom tablets without properly wiping the previous owners' information, it's worth a reminder of what you need to do when selling, returning or otherwise disposing of an Android device.

With any electronic device -- computer, tablet, smartphone or whatever -- it's important to keep your personal data secure. That means within your control, not just floating around for anyone to see. And that means not just tossing something in the trash when you're done with it. Or selling a device in the same state as it was when you finished with it.

You must remember to wipe.

Android makes it pretty easy to wipe -- or hard reset -- though it can vary slightly from device to device, hiding the rest option under strange menus. The best thing to do is to go to your settings menu and look for a reset option.

  • On the Galaxy Nexus with Ice Cream Sandwich, it's under the aptly named "Backup and Reset" option. Choose "Factory data reset," and you're done.
  • On recent Motorola phones, look under the "Storage" option in the settings menu. That's also where it is on the new LG Spectrum.
  • On Samsung phones, go to Settings>Privacy and choose factory reset.
  • On Honeycomb tablets (like the Xoom), it's under >Settings> Privacy.

Point is, the option to hard-reset is there, you might just have to look for it. (Note to manufacturers and carriers: Let's standardize that, shall we?) If you'd prefer, you can also wipe from the stock recovery, but that really happens when you reset from the menu. (Read our Android A to Z listing for recovery for more on that.)

And this is important, too -- don't forget your microSD card. Data on it -- including pictures and videos, as well as some application data -- generally isn't erased with a factory reset. Some phones give you the option to format the SD card at the same time you erase the rest of the device. If not, you'll want to connect the device to a computer and format the card. If you're really paranoid, use one of those overwriting formatting programs. Or at the very least, just take it out of the device you're getting rid of.

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2 years ago

What is sideloading? [Android A to Z]

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What is sideloading?  It's a term you see a lot thrown around while talking about Android applications, and it's simple to explain.  It means installing applications without using the official Android Market.  What's less simple is how it's done and why you would do it.  That's where this post comes in.  Let's explain it, shall we?

How to do it is easy enough, so let's start there.  In the Application settings on your Android phone, you'll find a check box to "Allow installation of non-Market applications."  When it's checked, you can sideload.  You'll also see a pop-up warning when you check this box letting you know that your phone is now more vulnerable to attacks from applications, and that you accept all the responsibility that comes with doing this.  It makes sense -- you can't hold Google responsible for applications you didn't download through their service using their security methods.  

Sideloading apps is easy to do as well.  You download them to your phone, then use a file manager application to find them and "click" their entry.  You'll invoke the app installer program, and it will install your app just as if it had came from the trusted Android Market.  It won't be associated with your Android Market account, but it shows in your app drawer just like all the rest.  It didn't used to be this easy for everyone.  Under the guise of security, AT&T used to block users from sideloading by removing the Unknown sources field in the device settings.  Whenever you tried to manually install an app, it would be blocked because it wasn't allowed.  This could be circumvented by using adb from the SDK or by using a program like the Sideload Wonder Machine.  Luckily, those days are past us and AT&T has re-evaluated their position, and now allows the installation of non-Market apps.

Why would you want to sideload.  There are several reasons, one being that Google has allowed carriers to block certain applications based on the model and network your device is running on.  We've seen carriers block apps that permit tethering without paying the extra associated fees, and some carriers have exclusives for certain apps and they aren't available for the others.  That's a whole other mess that we'll tackle in another post -- just know that it happens.  There are other reasons to need to sideload apps, too.  Want to use a different appstore like the one from Amazon?  You'll need to enable sideloading.  The same goes for beta testing apps for developers, or even coding your own apps and testing them on your phone.  There are a lot of legitimate reasons for sideloading.  Of course, there's always the piracy aspect.  If you want to steal from hard working developers you'll need to enable sideloading.  You also suck.  Sideload, but don't steal from developers.

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

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2 years ago

What is recovery? [Android A to Z]

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What is recovery?  In Android, recovery refers to the dedicated, bootable partition that has the recovery console installed.  A combination of key presses (or instructions from a command line) will boot your phone to recovery, where you can find tools to help repair (recover) your installation as well as install official OS updates.  Because Android is open and has the recovery source code available, building a customized version with more and different options is relatively easy as well.  Let's look at both options.

The stock recovery is pretty limited, but that's by design.  Its main purpose is to delete all user data and files, or to perform system updates.  Normally, both these operations are started from the running Android system, or you can do things manually and boot right into recovery yourself.  When you tell your phone to do a factory reset, recovery is what boots up and erases the files and data.  Likewise with updates -- when we restart to install an official OS update, it's done in recovery.  Recovery is also where we go to manually install official OS updates we've downloaded from the Internet.  It's very useful, but limited.

Custom Android recoveries offer much more.  They have been coded to allow for backup and restore functions, selective deletion of data so you don't have to wipe everything, and modified to allow update packages that have not been digitally signed by official sources.  You also can mount various partitions so that you can copy files to the SD card without having to remove it or reboot into Android. Anytime you see someone mentioning Clockwork or Amon Ra, they're talking about custom recoveries.  Because of the extra functionality built in, they are a pretty important tool for folks who want to hack their Android phone or tablet.  Recoveries aren't as pretty as a custom ROM and don't get the same love from users and bloggers that custom builds of Android do, but in the end they're even more important. Without them none of this custom ROM stuff would be possible.  

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

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2 years ago

Galaxy Nexus tips and tricks [From the forums]

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So you got a shiny new Samsung Galaxy Nexus in your hands and you are left wondering exactly just what it can do, and how to do it. It's the first device to launch with the newest Android operating platform, Ice Cream Sandwich, and while the core functionality is the same as older versions, a lot has changed, too. From the on-screen buttons to the new menu locations, there's a good chance you're stumbling around a bit while using your new phone.

We have the best forum community in the Android world, and great folks just like you and I are always working hard to bring nothing shy of the best for everyone. Forums member milominderbinder has taken some time to create an extremely comprehensive guide of tips and tricks to make your experience with your new Galaxy Nexus even better. From things as simple as the new navigation methods to fixes for Facebook sync and much more, this guide is a must read. A few tidbits:

  • How to get Facebook Sync working
  • Change the notification LED
  • No microSD card? No problem
  • Low speaker volume
  • Camera focus
  • Messaging fixes

The list goes on and on. And that's one of the great things about having a Nexus device. While it's better than many straight out of the box, you also can apply more tweaks than you have time for in any given day and make the phone just as good as it can be. And because it's a Nexus device, you also can start from scratch anytime you want, or back up your phone with a custom recovery. Whether you think you have a pretty good feel of the device or you just grabbed one, you can definitely learn something from milo's guide.

Discuss in the Android Central Forums

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: What is a QR code?

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What is a QR code? These things are everywhere nowadays. Little square barcode-looking things. They're on website, they're on pictures, they're on advertisements -- they're everywhere. So what's a QR code and what do you do with it?

In a nutshell, a Quick Response Code is used to tell your phone to do something. Invented by Toyota in the mid-1990s, they "store" more information than traditional UPC barcodes and work better with languages more complicated than English. (Which is to say, most of them, especially in Asia.)

The way it works is this: Using a scanning app (there's Google's own Goggles app, or plenty of others in the Android Market), your phone's camera scans the code and then interprets it. There are different versions of QR codes, which can contain different amounts of information. 

Most often, QR codes are used to link to a website or video or some other online content. Your scanning app should preview the link for you as a safety feature so that you can't be automatically redirected to a malicious (or otherwise untoward) website or video.

Here at Android Central, you'll regularly find QR codes to quickly link to applications in the Android Market.

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

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2 years ago

What is a PRL? [Android A to Z]

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What is a PRL?  PRL stands for Preferred Roaming List and is a database used in CDMA (think Sprint and Verizon here) phones.  It's built and provided by your carrier, and used when your phone is connecting to the tower.  It indicates which radio bands, sub-bands, and service provider IDs will be searched for, then allows the phone to connect to the correct tower.  Without a correct and valid PRL, your phone won't be able to roam outside your home network, and may not be able to connect at all inside the network.  The database consists of an Acquisition table, which lists which radio frequencies to search for in which areas, and a System table, which tells the phone which towers it is allowed to connect to, and the preferred order.

Notice we said it connects to the correct tower and not the strongest tower.  If you're in an area with weak but steady signal from your carrier, the PRL will connect you to that signal rather than connect to a stronger signal on a different carrier.  When Palm released the Pre on Sprint (the first CDMA smartphone with "root" access to the system) people quickly learned how to hack the PRL to force a connection on Verizon towers in areas of poor Sprint coverage.  The same thing is done today with certain CDMA Android phones, and usually ends up with the same result -- a letter from your carrier telling you it's been nice having you as a customer, but it's time to part ways.  Not all hacking is good, kids, and when it adversely affects the network, it makes the other, good kind of hacking look bad.   

The PRL is usually sent as an over-the-air update when needed, but often -- especially if you travel a lot -- it's necessary to manually update it.  It's pretty easy to do:

  • Sprint: dial ##873283#
  • Telus: dial *22803 
  • Metro PCS, US Cellular, Verizon (3G phones only): dial *228

Android phones also have an option to update the PRL in most CDMA phones, you'll find that in the settings pages.  If you have a CDMA/LTE phone on Verizon or Metro PCS, your PRL will auto-update as needed, so don't fool with it.  Also it's not a good idea to update your PRL while you're roaming on another carrier.  

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

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2 years ago

What is open source? [Android A to Z]

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What is open source? Open-source software is software that makes the source code freely available, for anyone to see and use. There are different open-source licenses that have different use conditions, from the GPL (GNU General Public License) -- which allows "free distribution under the condition that further developments and applications are put under the same license" -- to more liberal licenses like the Apache License, which doesn't require modifications to be open and have the source code available.  Android uses both of these licenses, and we'll have a look at them in turn.

The Linux kernel that is used in the OS is covered under the GPL.  This means that any changes made to the source code must be made available when a binary (geek-speak for a compiled, executable piece of software) is released to the public.  This means manufacturers like HTC, Samsung, Motorola and the rest must release the kernel source-code for any devices they sell at the same time they begin selling them.  For the most part, hardware manufacturers are pretty good about doing so, but they often miss the time frame and release the source code a little later than we would like.  These are the code releases you see us mention -- the kernel and other open-source "bits" that are covered under the GPL.

The Android OS source code is released mostly under the Apache License.  Anybody is allowed to download the source code and change it however they like, but they are not required to make their changes available in source code form to the public.  This is why we can't change and recompile things like HTC Sense or MotoBlur -- the changes to the base Android source code aren't available to us.  While many folks (myself included) don't like this situation very much, it does make sense from a business standpoint.  If manufacturers had to share all of their secrets, there wouldn't be as much monetary incentive to innovate, so the source was offered with a far more liberal license.  It certainly worked, as we see devices from many major players in the electronics world.

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

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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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