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2 years ago

Android A to Z: Multitasking

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Multitasking is a word you'll hear a lot around here and at other places on the Internet that talk about smartphones or other tech. It doesn't mean what it used to, back when dinosaurs with long beards first dreamed up computers, but it still makes a very big difference for some folks and can be the deciding factor when picking a smartphone operating system. Let's have a look and see what the fuss is all about, and how it relates to Android.

A long time ago, in a laboratory far, far away, some Jedi masters decided that computers should do more than one thing at a time. They really already were doing plenty of things behind the scenes, but to the user it was a case of entering a command, and waiting for it to finish. Using threads and schedulers, and probably a little magic and a lot of luck, engineers were able to work up an operating system that could run more than one user command at a time, and multitasking was born. When you switch to a new VT (virtual terminal) on a Unix box with no GUI, you're multitasking. When you have more than one window open on your Windows or Mac or other computer that does have a GUI, you're multitasking. You're doing more than one thing at a time, and the computer is running more than one user task at a time. You can now read Android Central while your completely legal torrents are downloading in the background.

On a smartphone, multitasking is a bit different. We don't have the luxury of a 20-inch monitor, so showing more than one "thing" running at a time isn't a big deal. Samsung is testing the waters and trying it with the Galaxy S III with the Pop-Up Play feature, but for the most part whatever we're doing takes the whole screen to do it. We also don't have tons of RAM and video memory available and have to watch the power usage. This means smartphone multitasking has to be a bit, well, smarter. 

Smartphones have been multitasking for a long time. All the mobile operating systems do it a bit differently -- some suspending all other apps in the background, some saving the state and closing the app itself, and others just letting everything run. The way Android does it is to let threads and processes run depending on their priority. If you're using Google Play Music, the processes that make the sound come out of the speaker have a high enough priority to stay running when you switch away from the app. Not all of it is running in the background, but enough of it is to keep the tunes playing. Other apps can be killed if they aren't being used, and some apps get "frozen" (for lack of a better word) and restore themselves when brought back to the foreground. What's important, and prioritized, is decided when the application is written and compiled so the end user doesn't have to worry about it. It's not perfect, but it follows the very strong multitasking model from Linux and tweaks it for Android. It's all open-source, so manufacturers and ROM builders can (and have) tweaked things to allocate memory the way they want it allocated. Sometimes the tweaks are great, sometimes not so much

In the end, remember the next time you open an app and start up where you left off that you're seeing multitasking at work. 

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: LG's L-series smartphones

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This time on Android A to Z we're going to be talking about LG's L-series phones. They made a big splash earlier this year at Mobile World Congress, and a few carriers in Canada jumped at the chance to sell them, but then they seem to have fallen off the map. I'll admit, even I have to look and see what we're talking about when we have potential news about the L3, L5, or L7. Let's have a refresh.

Imagine LG's Prada phone, but remade for folks who don't buy Prada. The L-series phones are all stylish (and really resemble LG's iconic Prada phones -- check out our look at them in Barcelona) and have an emphasis on good looks. The entry-level L3 competes with phones like HTC's One V and Samsung's entry-level Galaxy phones. It's running Gingerbread on a 3.2-inch display, but it looks nice doing it. Compared to something like the Motorola Defy Mini, you get good looks along with your dirt-cheap pricing. The L5 takes things up a notch to Ice Cream Sandwich and a 4-inch screen, placing it in the middle of the road where most people look first when buying a new smartphone. They'll see the L5, and notice the build materials and design. Finally, the L7 looks to compete with the big dogs of the Android world, with all the bells and whistles you would expect from a high-end smartphone, in a damn fine looking external shell. All three are eye-grabbing, and getting people to notice is the first hurdle. We're really not sure why we don't hear more and see more about them, but we're guessing a saturated market has something to do with it. 

Maybe we'll see the L-series phones make their way into the spotlight, maybe we won't. But at least now we all know what we're talking about when we see them mentioned.

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2 years ago

CrackBerry Kevin World Tour: What accessories do I need for my Android phone?

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While sounding off about my HTC One X experiences during Thursday's Android Central Podcast, I brought up the topic of accessories. When it comes to BlackBerry, I have my list of favorites, and usually go on a shopping spree after I upgrade to a new phone. A pair of charging stands (need for both nightstand and office desk), a case or skin or screen protector, car mount, spare batteries, extra chargers (I tend to leave them in hotels)... you get the picture, I'm a bit of an accessory junkie. For some items I prefer going OEM while for other items I prefer going third party.

This is the first time I'm really going all-in on an Android phone, and it's a fresh start for me on the accessory front. I took a stroll through ShopAndroid.com today and loaded some items up into the cart, but figured before checking out I should check in with the Android Central community and get their input. I could tell from the comments to my Mobile Nations World Tour post that there are a lot of smart people on this site with a lot of strong opinions. So help me out here. What are the must-have accessories that will help me get the most out of the Android experience?

Don't be shy. Let me know in the comments. I lucked in by already owning a matching pair of Beats for my One X, but that's all I've got.

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: Jellybean!

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Jellybean is the name of a delicious hard-shelled confectionery with a soft, even more delicious inside. Made mostly of sugar and Unicorn sweat, they are a favorite of Android bloggers and ex-presidents, and probably are really good for you. Especially the black ones. Or the green ones. Sometimes the white ones, too.

It's also the rumored nickname of the next version of Android.

Since version 1.5, Android has had code names based on sweets and treats. We've seen Cupcake (v. 1.5), Donut (v. 1.6), Eclair (v. 2.0.1 and 2.1), Froyo (v. 2.2), Gingerbread (v. 2.3), Honeycomb (v. 3.0, 3.1, and 3.2), and Ice Cream Sandwich (v. 4.0) so far. We're pretty sure that the next version will have a similar delicious name. What we're not sure of is exactly what version it will be, or exactly what name it will carry. The general speculation is that we'll see Android 4.1 with the code name Jellybean sometime this year. But until we hear it from Google, that's all just a series of educated guesses.

What's not just a guess is that it will get everyone excited, bring new features (and bugs) to the table, and we'll be all over it as soon as it appears. That's what we do -- eat jelly beans and talk Android 24/7. Life is good.

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2 years ago

Pro tip: Avoid unsightly contextless crotch shots on the Google+ app with better descriptions

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No, Google+ app. Not "this." Because "this," being a comic-drawn crotch shot, is not what I wanted folks to focus their attention on when I linked to Peter Ha's TechCrunch piece debunking the Bloomberg story that Microsoft had "shut out" HTC from manufacturing Windows 8 devices. My only comment -- "This."

(BTW, Bloomberg's is a fairly ridiculous story, led by the all-too-familiar "people with knowledge of the matter." If you didn't bite on it, kudos.)

But if you'd seen my post from the Google+ app, all you'd know is that apparently I like cartoon pr0n. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, I suppose.)

This all stems, of course, from Google's recent redesign of the Google+ app. And for the most part, it's a beautiful redesign. Images are large. Posts are easy to follow -- so long as you don't actually link to anything. It's something I noted at the outset but apparently forgot because I'm using G+ on the desktop side most of the time. It's also a step backward. The app used to have this problem, then it got fixed in April. Now? It's gone again, at least in the stream view.  (Tap into the post and things look better, with headlines and summaries.)

I've learned my lesson. This'll put an end to the one-liners. I'll use 20 words when only one is needed. Or Google could just add back a little beta of metadata.

Regardless, learn from my mistake. Only you can prevent inadvertent contextless Google+ crotch shots.

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: What is an IMEI?

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The IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number is a unique set of 15 digits used on GSM phones to identify them. Because the SIM card is associated with the user and can  be swapped from phone to phone, a method is needed to keep track of the hardware itself, and that's why the IMEI was developed. Math nerds will enjoy the way they are calculated -- the first 14 digits are decided by the GSM association, and the final check digit is computed using what's called the Luhn Formula -- crazy base-8 math that mere mortals like most of us don't understand, nor want to understand. You can see the IMEI of your Android phone by looking in settings > About phone if you're curious. (Or on the box if you still have it. Or under the battery or on the phone itself.

What is this number used for? That's the real question, isn't it. Like the MEID number on CDMA phones (think Sprint and Verizon), the IMEI is used for network control. It's not very common, but your mobile operator can block a phone based on it's IMEI in cases where it's been reported stolen or someone didn't pay the bill. Because it's not easy to change the IMEI of your phone (and maybe even illegal -- check your local laws) it's also used to keep track of phones that were involved in criminal activity, and the UK in particular has a handy database of phones used for these purposes. The IMEI number is also used to specify a phone for wiretapping by federal governments worldwide.

On a lighter note, Android apps can also use your IMEI number. The app will declare that it has access to your personal information, and the IMEI can be used to keep track of the device in a remote database. This sounds pretty scary, but it's an easy way (though not necessarily the best way) for app developers to keep a settings database online for your phone, in their app. Let's say you mark a bunch of favorites in a wallpaper app. Those favorites are kept in a small database file online, and when you reconnect to the app it reads your IMEI number to find your preferences. Not an ideal method, but it's easy.

One last thing -- now that we know a little more about IMEI numbers, they will soon be changing to IMEISV numbers. The use-case scenarios are the same, but the data structure and method of calculation is different. An IMEISV gets rid of the check digit (and its complicated Luhn formulated calculation) in favor of two digits used for software version numbering. Like everything else in the mobile space, network identification changes rapidly.

Check out the complete Android Dictionary

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: Haptic feedback

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We're back with another installment of Android A to Z, and this time we're looking at haptic feedback. It's one of those little things that can make a big difference, and something we never really think about. Simply put, haptic feedback (commonly referred to as haptics) is the use of touch feedback to the end user. You know how your Android phone vibrates a tiny bit when you tap one of the navigation buttons? That's haptics at work.

Since the screen on your Android phone or tablet is pretty much just a smooth sheet of glass of some sort or another, it's difficult to register any sort of tactile feedback to our fingers. When we type on a computer keyboard, we know when our fingers have pressed a key down. Our mouse (and some trackpads) do the same thing with a healthy click when we press the button. On a smartphone, we just have to trust we've done something, and wait for it to happen. Haptics helps here. The short and light vibration when typing out a message with an on-screen keyboard can make a big difference for many of us, and I can see myself being pretty frustrated if an on-screen button didn't let me know I had pressed it.

Haptics go beyond navigation and the keyboard though. They can be a very important part of mobile gaming. Gunning your way through an enemy horde is much more satisfying when you feel every shot from your rifle, and nothing lets you know you've hit the wall in your favorite racing game like a harsh vibration from your phone or tablet. 

Probably the best thing about haptic feedback on Android devices is the way it can be customized. The OS itself is open, meaning OEM and developers can adjust things to get them just the way they like, including leaving the settings wide open to the user like we see in CyanogenMod ROMs. More importantly, application developers have access to the hardware controller to customize haptic feedback for their products. It goes one step further with the addition of things like the Immersion haptic SDK to the mix, where developers have an almost unlimited way to make their applications register with your fingers as well as your eyes and ears. Sometimes, the little things mean a lot.

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: Google Play

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Today on Android A to Z we're going to talk about Google Play. If you're new to Android, you see us throw it around a lot when talking about downloading apps, but there's a good bit more to it, and we think there's even more planned. It's much more than a name for Android's official application store, and it's worth having a good long look at it.

Looking at the Google Play store on your phone or on the web, you'll see categories of the different types of media Google has to offer. There are Music, Apps, Books, and Movies -- and one more treat we'll get to in a minute. At each section of the Play store you'll find media for your Android device, sometimes free, sometimes not free. For the things you'll need to pay for there's Google Wallet (the service, not the Android app) and if you're downloading from your Android phone some carriers support direct billing. Shopping is pretty straightforward, you browse the sections by category, and when you find something you want, you simply tap a button and it gets downloaded to your device. As long as the content is available in your region (that's a sore spot Google needs to work out), and you have the correct application (Books and Movies use an Android app you can get free from the Applications section of the Google Play store), things are pretty instant and pretty simple.

One really cool thing we never seem to remember to talk about is downloading apps from the web on your computer directly to your Android device. Using a regular hyperlink to the Google Play store, like this one for Dropbox, you'll find a handy install button you can click to install it to your phone or tablet. If you have more than one Android device, you'll get to choose which on to install it to. Books, Movies and Music work the same way -- once installed from the web they are instantly available on your Android device(s). This type of integration between the web interface and the phone version is pretty awesome, and makes for easy shopping.

There's one more section of the Google Play store. You won't see it from your phone, and it's the latest (and most exciting) section of Google Play. It's the Devices section. Right now you can buy a factory unlocked Galaxy Nexus, as well as a few accessories, direct from Google. The cupboards looks pretty bare now, but we have a feeling it may soon have more to offer, and we'll see phones, tablets, Google TV units and related accessories there for sale.

Google seems pretty dedicated to their new Google Play branding, and so far it's worked well. Android is turning into it's own ecosystem, and as dedicated Android enthusiasts we're excited to see how it all plays out!

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: F is for Factory Reset

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A factory reset is the ultimate cleansing of your Android device. It's usually either a last resort to fix a problem, done before you sell it, or because you like to flash ROMs. When you perform a factory reset you're essentially wiping out everything you've ever done to the phone and restoring it back to the basic manufacturer software. As we've mentioned before, it doesn't uninstall any software updates you've received from the folks who made your phone, but it does wipe out any core application updates you've grabbed from the Google Play store. The technical details are as follows:

  • /system is untouched, because it's normally read-only
  • /data is erased
  • /cache is erased
  • /sdcard is untouched

When your phone or tablet reboots, it's like it was when you opened the box as far as apps and user data goes, except for your data on the SD card partition (either a real, physical microSD card or a partition named sdcard). 

Doing a factory reset is easy -- open the settings, do a little digging (different manufacturers put it in different places, but start with privacy or storage), select it and confirm. Your device will reboot into the recovery partition, erase everything, they reboot into the setup again. One thing to note though -- if you've rooted and ROM'd in any way, you should never do a factory reset from settings. Often times it works just fine, but some devices and some ROMs are so different once hacked that you'll end up with a bricked phone. We hate bricked phones around these parts. Follow the instructions from the folks who developed the software you're running instead, and use the reset method they recommend. 

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2 years ago

Android A to Z: End of life

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End of life is a term none of us ever want to hear. We envision it means the death of our phone, and we should just throw it away and get a newer model. After all, it's at the end of its life, right? Not really. End of life means something different to carriers and manufacturers than it does to enthusiasts like us. The easy way to look at it is that when the folks in suits get together and decide that a phone isn't going to make enough money so it's worthwhile to keep producing it, it has reached the end of its life. That may mean a refreshed, newer model (like the Droid RAZR MAXX), or a shift to a newer model with new, and arguably better, features like the EVO 3D. We have to remember that the folks who make these phones do it so they can make money, and like any good business they want to maximize their profits.

But what does end of life mean in the real world? First off, it means that once the current stock sitting on the shelves is sold there won't be any more new ones to replace them with. There may be refurbished units floating around, but no more new phones of that model are being made. It doesn't mean that the phone is done getting updates, but don't expect too many new features to come along -- things are in maintenance mode and bug fixes and security patches are the only things that will be addressed. It also doesn't mean your warranty is affected in any way. Even if you were to buy a brand new phone that has already reached the end of life status, you'll still get the full manufacturers warranty.

Most importantly, it doesn't mean that the phone is going to stop doing anything it already does today. The HTC EVO 4G is a great example. It was a huge hit for HTC and Sprint, and actually stayed in production longer than any of us would have thought. Some places are still selling them new (although they're getting harder to find), and those EVO 4G's sold new today are every bit as good, and have the same warranty from HTC, as the ones sold in 2010. Sprint still offers customer service, and it's still one heck of a phone. 

Don't be put off by the words end of life. While we wouldn't recommend you search out a new phone that's already been discontinued, they still perform as they should and you'll find lots of folks who still love them. 

Check out the complete Android Dictionary

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