Tag: Android

Cell phone shopping in 2019

My current phone is a Samsung Galaxy S5, purchased in 2015. I have gotten a lot of value out of the phone. Four years is a lot of time, but I think this year will be its last, for a number of reasons:

  • Screen life. For about the last year, when the screen goes to dim, it flickers. This makes the screen difficult to use with auto-brightness turned on. Also, I don’t think the max brightness is as high as it once was.
  • RAM and Storage.
    • The phone has 2GB of RAM. I find that the phone becomes very sluggish when RAM utilization exceeds 80%. I’ve taken to running a memory optimization app as needed, which when I’m actively using the phone can be as frequently as every few minutes. This has gotten to become a pain.
    • I have 16GB of internal memory, and a 32GB SD card. Android prefers to install apps and write files to the internal memory, ignoring the nice big empty space on the SD card. But when the internal memory is filled, performance is terrible. Not only can I not install updates, but the internal storage seems to be used for cache files and so on, and when there’s not enough space for the system and apps to cache data, performance becomes terrible.
  • Android updates. My carrier stopped releasing updates about 2 years ago, and I’m still on Android 6.0, which is 3 major releases behind current.

If it wasn’t for the performance issues related to RAM and cache inadequacy, this would still be a very capable phone, and I could maybe live with the screen until it finally died.

The absolute best thing about the Galaxy S5 has been the fact that it has a removable battery, and the aftermarket released some very good extended batteries. Powered by an Anker 7500mah battery, I’ve never had to worry about running out of juice, even when I’ve spent the whole day on the go, without access to a charging break. More than twice the capacity of the stock battery, it made the phone about 3/4″ of an inch thick and weigh almost a pound, but it was without question worth the added bulk.

So what do I want in a new smartphone? It doesn’t seem that the US market understands me. Here’s what’s important to me:

Pocketable

If I can’t fit it in a pants pocket — without it looking like I’m happy to see you — I don’t want it. But phones are still growing bigger and bigger. Now 6 inch screens seem to be the norm. It’s hard to use the phone with one hand when it’s so big. The Galaxy S5 is close to the maximum size that I would want to consider, and nearly everything in the 2019 market is larger.

Direct OS updates from Google

Carriers do not prioritize software updates, and tend to roll them out lagging their actual release by many months, sometimes as much as a year, and that’s if they bother to release the update at all. This is terrible.

Running out of date versions of Android can leave you vulnerable through security holes that have been patched in newer versions, and leave you out unable to install and run apps that require a higher version than is available on your handset.

Google has made a few Android handsets over the years — the Nexus line, the Pixel series, that they release updates for directly. Why can’t the rest of the world get behind that? Well, if they supported the product, then you’d be able to continue using it, and you wouldn’t have to buy the new product every 1-2 years.

Bare Android OS; No bundled apps

Carriers like to customize their phone as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition, and one of the ways they do so is by bundling apps. Unfortunately, much like with Windows 95 computers sold by OEMs, I have no interest in using many of these apps. It’s stupid to waste space on the internal memory by including these apps that I have no use for, and because they are baked into the system, they can’t be removed to free up the space.

Just provide the core operating system and the bare minimum apps needed to function as a phone: a phone app, a SMS app, a Contacts app, and the Play Store app. Let me decide what else I need to install.

If you really must bundle, then maybe offer a “Carrier Bundle” app manifest that you can use to bulk-install all the recommended default apps from the Play Store. Allow users to customize the bundle, giving us a line-item veto to opt out of installing whatever parts of the bundle we don’t want.

Big, big removable battery

My first Samsung Galaxy, the S2, was an OK phone until the battery wore out and wouldn’t hold a charge anymore. I spent a year with battery anxiety. Off charger, the battery charge dropped about 1%/minute, and so I basically spent a year walking from power outlet to power outlet, umbilical to the wall and unable to go out for more than 2-3 hours without freaking out over my dying battery. I didn’t realize at the time that the battery was bad and needed to be replaced, I just thought that the phone had some app that was power hungry and that no matter what I tried to do I couldn’t figure out how to make the phone sleep and save battery.

This taught me just how important battery life is, and when I bought the S5, I immediately went out and found the biggest battery I could for it.

But most phones these days have non-removable batteries in them, meaning that when they wear out, you either have to take the phone somewhere to be repaired with a replacement battery, or you have to buy a whole new phone.

A Li-ion battery will probably be good for 2, maybe 3 years of daily charge cycling, and if the handset is built as ruggedly as I’d like, it should be able to last longer than that. A removable battery makes this simple as buying a new battery and replacing it.

Durable

I want a phone that I can drop onto concrete and immerse in water without fear of damaging it. Usually this is solved by buying a ruggedized case for it, and this is fine, but it does add to the bulk of the phone. So why have two cases — a slim case that the phone is built inside of, and a rugged outer case? Why not just have one rugged case? The space saved by not having an inner casing could be given over to more battery, or cut down on the overall size of the device.

There are a lot of models on the market these days that are water resistant and durable enough not to take damage when dropped, especially when you factor in the afermarket armor. I don’t have a problem finding phones that meet my needs in this area, but this is probably the only area where I don’t see a lot of room for improvment needed.

Performance

I need to explain myself. I do not need blazing fast, cutting edge processor. My Galaxy S5 is a 4 year old design and when it’s not hampered by cache and memory limits, it’s absolutely fine. But the amount of system maintenance that I need to do on a daily basis anymore has gotten ridiculous. Freshly wiped, this is still a fast phone, and that’s enough for me. So Android should build into itself features that keep a healthy amount of free memory and cache storage at all times. I don’t know why this is such a problem, or why it’s gotten worse as time has gone by. During the first year or so that I had the phone, I never had such problems. About every year since then, I’ve eventually had to wipe it and start over, and am shocked at how fast the phone really is. After my last wipe, though, I didn’t want to spend an evening doing this every time the phone started feeling slow, and it felt slow within a week of my last wipe. So I started looking into performance optimization apps, and have been limping along with the help of those. But Android really needs to get its act together and handle its own maintenance and performance optimization, better than it does. Like, at all.

“Features”

Every other neat thing a smartphone does, is, I guess, nice, but I don’t care that much about it for it to sell me on a must-have device. I guess I’m in the minority here. I don’t need to be impressed by magic. I mostly am impressed by stuff that works well, and simply.

A decent camera is of course very handy, but it doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. A GPS radio that works well and doesn’t lose signal when I actually need it would be great.

I dunno, what else is there? Stuff like fingerprint readers, heartrate monitors, and so on, I don’t really use, or care about.

Open Letter to Smart Phone Manufacturers

Dear Smartphone Industry,

I don’t need a bigger screen, OK? I need a screen that will fit comfortably in my pocket. My front hip pocket to be exact. The dimensions of the Samsung Galaxy S5are about as big as I can go. Really, the S2 was more comfortable.

I don’t need a thinner phone. I need a phone that feels comfortable in the hand.

I don’t need a thinner phone. I need a phone with ample battery, such that I don’t need to charge for several *days*, despite heavy use of the device. If you made the phone phone that was inch thick, and all that extra space was battery, and I could go a week without charging, that would be AMAZING.

While we’re at it, I would also really like intelligent battery management. I would like apps that need to use the network to not talk to the network directly, but talk to a network handler, which will determine if/when to allow the data to be transmitted. I can then configure the network manager to either not allow any transmission (like airplane mode; saving maximum battery), or allow all transmissions at any time (fastest response but lousy battery), or burst mode (leaving the transmitters off most of the time, but waking up and reconnecting every N minutes, sending/receiving data that has accumulated in that time, or when I request it).

Lastly, tell network providers to quit bundling apps with their phones. I don’t want or need so many of them, and there’s no way to uninstall the ones that are baked into the firmware. I can figure out what I need and install it. If I’m upgrading or migrating from an old phone, it should carry all that stuff over, with all my settings and data anyway. There’s no need to bundle anything. Just provide me with a bare phone.

And tell network providers that they must roll out security updates in a timely fashion (days, not months) so that users aren’t left vulnerable. Frequent, more granular updates rather than one or two monolithic updates before support for my handset model is dropped entirely, would be great.

Thanks,

The Vulnerable Android

Recently a story about a vulnerability affecting 95% of Android devices made the rounds. The vulnerability is particularly nasty, in that it can be exploited by sending a SMS message to the target, which in some cases need not even be read by the user, and which can be deleted immediately after the device has been compromised, leaving no visible trace to the user that they have been pwnd. If the thought of this isn’t enough to make you shit your pants, it’s probably because you’re not wearing any. Compounding the problem is the slowness with which cellular carriers typically roll out updates for the phones they sell.

It’s clear that it’s not a top priority for cell carriers to update the software on your handset. If it was, they’d do it in a more timely manner. Once they stop marketing a given model, it becomes increasingly unlikely that they will spend any money in support of it; it becomes their incentive to let your old phone go out of date so that you will have to buy a new handset.

This is clearly not in the interests of the consumer. The distribution model for software updates of the base firmware needs to change. It’s trivial to take app updates from Google Play, but not the Android firmware. For firmware updates, customers have to wait for the carrier to release an update, and then users have to go into the Android settings and find the “check for updates” feature and manually initiate the update, and that’s just crazy. Just as we do not look to our ISP to provide updates for our desktop PC, we should not be looking to our cell provider for these updates either. All devices should have the shortest possible update path — that is, get the update directly from the source of the software. Cell carriers are middle-men who provide packaging, bundling, and distribution, and they need to get out of the way, and let users get updates directly from the software maintainers.

This is especially important when it comes to critical security patches. Customers should not have to root their phone to gain this level of control over a device that they paid for and own.

Consumers should reject business models that call what they buy a “service” or “subscription” or “license” and insist on true ownership. I expect it’s too late for this to change, but that won’t stop me from advocating for it.

Since we do not yet live in this world, Android users need to take steps to mitigate vulnerabilities that they cannot patch.

It’s always a good idea to think about mitigation steps anyway, since it’s always possible for an unknown, undisclosed vulnerability to be present on a system, and so you should always assume that your device is vulnerable, and thus take steps to ensure that if it is compromised, you can accept the consequences of the event. It’s just a little more difficult to come up with mitigation strategies when the vulnerabilities are not known, but not impossible. All that you need to do is use your imagination to think of what could an attacker do with your phone if they got complete access to it, and ask yourself what you can do to minimize the harm and exposure of that.

If you have a smartphone, it’s not much of a stretch to say that You are your phone. Your entire life is in there. Your contacts, photos, web browsing history, your saved passwords, access to your email accounts where you receive password reset requests for all your other accounts. An compromised device also compromises two-factor authentication. If you use two-factor authentication, one of the two “factors” involved is a 1-time key that is sent to your phone via SMS. This, plus your password, are the two “factors” that are supposed to be a more secure form of authenticating than just using a password alone. But if your phone is compromised, and the 1-time key is sent to your phone, and therefore shared with the attacker who pwnd your phone, two-factor authentication is no longer effective at protecting you. And if the attacker can read your password reset request emails, and use them to gain control over your other accounts, that’s a very serious liability. Once your attacker has access to all your accounts, they can deny you access to them, and start impersonating you.

To mitigate these risks, I recommend the following:

  1. Stop treating the google account associated with your android devices as your “home” or “primary” account. Keep the minimum information and stuff in the account that you need in order to make the phone useful for you, and have that account be a “throwaway” account, which you can discontinue using if it gets compromised. I guess that probably means just using it for storing your contacts, and maybe for photos backups.
  2. Do not use the google account associated with your android devices as a point of contact for password resets. Create a secret email just for password resets, and use it only for that purpose. Don’t log into that account from your android device. Of course, most services will send you other mail to the account you use for password resets, so you’ll have a hard time using your password email only for that purpose, but limit your use as much as possible, so you do not become overly reliant on the account for other uses.

Do you have any other ideas for limiting the value of your compromised phone or tablet to an attacker? Comment below with your ideas.

The Flappy Bird Flap

Flappy Bird: the Justin Bieber of indie mobile games?

The game development community has been buzzing with controversy over a game called Flappy Bird since the weekend, in an incident that has even gotten headlines in the mainstream media.

As of Sunday, the game has been taken down by its creator, Dong Nguyen, in response to harassment and even death threats, due to all the negative attention the game has received in the wake of inexplicable sudden popularity of the game.

Allegedly the game had been earning $50,000/day in ad revenue in recent weeks, since becoming the most popular download in the iOS and Android stores. There’s a certain amount of professional jealousy about this success, considering how undeserving the game is. As well, there is a great deal of resentment that the game’s art style appears to be borrowed from Super Mario Bros, and seems to ride the coattails of Angry Birds, and directly rips off the play mechanics of a variety of similar, earlier games, none of which has been anywhere near this successful. Since the takedown a slew of imitators have flooded the app stores with play-alike games, some of them parodies, some seemingly earnest ripoffs. Even crazier, a few people have put their iOS and Android devices with Flappy Bird installed on eBay for a ridiculous markup.

The combination of the game’s popularity, and lack of originality or quality makes a Justin Bieber analogy seem apt.

After hearing about the game for the first time on Friday night, I had to try it if I was going to have an opinion on it, and my impression is that the game is indeed not very good, yet it does undeniably have an addictive quality to it. Flappy Bird is starkly simple, lacks depth, and brutally difficult. In terms of “finish”, it is only rudimentary in it’s polish — there is a (apparently broken) leader board, and the graphics have a few color scheme variations, but beyond that there’s nothing. It has the feel of the first or second project of a newbie game developer, and tried to build a game imitating another game, without originality or polish, using ripped art assets and a derivative title that rides the coattails of both Super Mario Bros. and Angry Birds. No wonder the game development community is howling. Yet, apparently this minimalism has struck a chord with many players who appear to genuinely like the game.

Success is an enigma… an aggravating, annoying enigma

It’s seemingly inexplicable that this game should be super popular, and therefore curious. I suspect that the popularity is not accidental, but rather arose out of a perfect storm of factors.

First, it seems likely that the Mario pipe graphics account in part for some popularity, as it makes players curious about the relationship between this game and the Mario world. This might serve to entice would-be players to download the game and try it out. As well, the word “Bird” in the title probably contributes to curiosity as well, due to the popularity of Angry Birds.

Further, I speculate that the game inspires people to talk about it, either about how bad the game is, or how aggravatingly difficult it is. Some players may play it for the sake of irony, or to laugh at it. I downloaded and played it just to see what all the fuss was about, and to develop an informed opinion so I could write about it, and to see if there just might be something there that I could learn from to make my own games more popular.

Even so, for the game to have so many downloads, it must have some genuine appeal that keeps players interested after trying it. It seems unlikely that the game could generate the type of advertisement revenue we’ve heard it has if people were only downloading it to play it a few times and laugh at it. It seems that a substantial number of players actually like the game, or perhaps play it out of a sort of perverse masochism, hating the game’s rage-inducing difficulty as they try again to beat their high score, while hating the entire experience for being so utterly basic, so unvarying, so stupidly hard and unforgiving.

The simplicity combined with the difficulty probably accounts for the game’s appeal, whether people genuinely like it or hate it with a passion. And the controversy over the rip-off aspects of the game probably only added fuel to the publicity fire, resulting in this weekend’s climax. The game had been out for several months before suddenly catching on, though. What was the event that triggered the sudden spike? I’m sure every game developer is dying to know. Was it “organic” or engineered? Was it an accident or is there genuine merit to the design, hidden to critics and game developers, despite their scorn?

The fact that Nguyen has taken the game down, walking away from a $50,000/day paycheck may be the most remarkable development in this story. The pressures of all the attention, so much of it negative, must be incredible for him to shut down such an income stream. Of course, he may already have enough money in the bank that he’ll never have to work again. And there may be a few battles over that revenue to come from the various IP holders who feel wronged. But it seems like Nguyen may have been most sensitive to the criticism of the quality of the game itself. This is a most un-Bieber-like plot twist.

Flappy, we hardly knew ye

I don’t yet know what to make of all this, but it seems to point to a business strategy of making very simple, unoriginal games, rather than auteurs striving to craft high quality, original games that innovate. I guess it depends on what motivates you as a developer. But if I had even 1/100th the success of Flappy Bird with my games, I’d be set up to quit my day job. One tenth, and I could be free to make whatever games pleased me, to whatever standard of quality I wanted, for the rest of my life, regardless of whether any more of them were popular. It seems worth pursuing, then, to explore this apparently untapped “shitty games” market to see if setting my sights lower could bring greater rewards. The risk involved in a game that can be developed in 2-3 days, compared to the potential reward, seems far more attractive, compared to spending months or years building a labor of love that may or may not have an audience beyond the author.

Driven to distraction

Top techy things I’m doing that aren’t game-dev (aside from my day job):

  1. Trying to root my Android device. Mission accomplished.
  2. In order to recover a draft from the local storage on my my WordPress for Android app that got eaten for some reason. Mission accomplished.
  3. Trying to get Chrome to allow me to download root-enabling exploits for my Android device so that I can get root. Mission accomplished.
  4. Temporarily disabling security features on Windows to allow the root-enabling exploits to unpack from their .zip archive and run. Mission accomplished.
  5. Seriously, Google, everyone knows you can root your device, and there are a multitude of legit reasons to do so, it’s open source, open source is supposed to mean freedom, so stop with the forcing people to hack their way into root already. It’s MY device, I paid for it, I’m it’s owner. I shouldn’t need to pwn it to own it. There should be a supported configuration “enable root” that should be all I need to do. It’s totally unacceptable from a freedom standpoint not to have this as a supported feature. By not providing it, you are making yourself an adversary to your customers.
  6. Figure out why when I try to log in to administer this site in Chrome browser on Windows, I get redirected back to the login form, but Firefox and IE don’t have a problem authenticating me. I mean, I have a pretty good idea why, but I just don’t understand why the setting I changed affects Chrome this way, but not IE or FF. Managed to get this one working, at least.

Seriously, I really need a staff of assistants who can do things for me so I can focus on game dev. Doing everything for myself is so inefficient. I wish it were feasible to have underlings. If not a servant class, then at least AI capable of understanding and doing what I want done without me having to spell out every last detail of how.

Product Review: Samsung Galaxy SII on T-Mobile

I am not an early adopter when it comes to technology that I want to rely on every day, so I came to Android only recently. After reading a lot of positive reviews, I bought a T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy SII. I’ve been using it for two months, now, so here’s my thoughts on it:

iPhone killer?

Many of the reviews said that the Galaxy SII was better in many respects than the current iPhone, and on paper I could see those claims arguably looked valid. It has a larger screen, for one — and it’s a very high quality screen, too. I like that I can remove the battery if I want to, the fact that it has an SD slot so I can expand the memory without having to pay Apple premium for the capacity. I understand why Apple made the design choices they did with the battery, the sacrifice in field replaceable battery for greater battery capacity to phone size makes a little more sense to me than the SD slot decision, which feels like pure greed.

And anyway, unless I want to switch carriers — which, thanks to the prevalent business model in the USA, is a rather expensive and therefore unattractive proposition — I can’t own an iPhone unless I want to hack it to work on T-Mobile, and I was reluctant to do so because of my experience with my last unlocked phone, a Nokia E75.

That phone was a nice enough handset — small, durable, held up for more than two years, fit well in the hand, decent battery life, had OK web browsing and wifi capability, though poor compared to a true smartphone, but for some reason T-Mobile never supported its MMS capabilities adequately, and through my carrier, it could only send/receive 5-7kb postage stamp sized images, which was annoying considering it had a 5MP camera and normally T-Mobile’s size limit for MMS is 300kb. I’d seen a hacked iPhone on T-Mobile in person and it seemed like a number of the features were not well supported, so this time I wanted to go with an officially supported handset.

I didn’t really want to give up the E75, but after a particularly unfortunate drop onto a hardwood floor, the bezel broke, leaving the edge of the keyboard unsupported so it would flop around and let pocket crud accumulate under its membrane. And the battery wasn’t holding a charge like it used to, and the screen had gotten to where it was pretty scratched up. I was sick of the ever-widening gap in browsing capability with my E75, and have been wanting to try my hand at mobile app development for a while, so Android seemed like the next phone for me.

Purchasing

I did my research, and all reviews said that the Galaxy SII was by far the best handset available currently in the market. It didn’t have a physical keyboard, which concerned me, because I’m a heavy texter and I like the feel of a physical keyboard, even if it’s micro sized. But what sold me was some special pricing and offers that T-Mobile was running, which allowed me to get the phone at a $50 rebate, plus $100 in trade-in value for my old Shadow handset. That put the Galaxy SII at a price I was comfortable with, so I bought it.

By the way, T-Mobile, if you’re reading this, your handling of the trade-in program is awful. I sent my handset in to you a week after I bought my phone, on May 6, and a month later (June 4) I got an email from you saying that time was running out and I’d better ship it to you soon or I would lose out on the trade-in. I wrote back to say that I’d sent the phone in three weeks ago, and it should be there by now, and I was alarmed that you hadn’t received it. I did get a response to this, but all it said was that your receiving process takes a very long time, and that phones are only entered into your system after they get processed.

t-mobile trade in process is awful

T-Mobile trade in process is awful

That is just unacceptably stupid and wrong. The very first thing you should do in your process is confirm receipt of the package! I very strongly suspect that I will never see that $100, and if I don’t, you can forget about me sticking with T-mobile for my next phone. It’s 7/6 and I still haven’t received any confirmation that my trade-in was received and processed.

[Update 7/10: After writing to them again when I wrote this review, I got a response today, four days later. They tell me my rebate is scheduled to be sent out at the end of this month, so I guess that means that they did receive the trade-in from me; however, it also means that they never did bother to notify me of this. At least it’s not lost.]

[Update 8/20: Finally received my $100 gift card for my trade in. Only took about three months!]

Initial Impressions

My initial impression of the phone was that I liked it a lot, but it would take a little getting used to the lack of physical keyboard. In the store, they let me play with their demo model long enough to get confident that Swype input really was feasible and could work. I expected some foibles with it, and I knew I wouldn’t care for the lack of tactile feedback, which necessitated looking at the screen more as I typed, but I could accept that as a trade off given the many advantages of the new phone.

The screen was beautiful, web browsing was fast and pages rendered much better than with the Opera Mobile I was running on my E75 (its default browser was lamentably out of date, whatever it was.) Installing apps was very easy, and I found a few fun ones and a few useful ones that I liked. I spent a few days playing around with configuring this and that, learning how to connect the phone to my laptop so I could back up my contacts and get photos and stuff off.

Battery Life

I guess I must be a heavy user of the phone, because my battery will only last about 8-10 hours on a charge. This is barely adequate to get through a work day, and forces me to umbilical to a wall outlet whenever possible to top off my charge, and forces me to carry around a charger, which is just one more thing I don’t really want to have to carry with me. It’s alright when I’m sitting at a desk for work all day, or if I’m driving around I can use a car charger, but if I’m walking around all day, it’s a cause of anxiety. There are aftermarket super-batteries that you can get, and they’re not too expensive, but they are bulky, adding a bulge to the rear of the phone, which is incompatible with any protective armor cases you can currently buy for the phone. Since the SII has been out for a while, it seems unlikely that this will change, which is unfortunate.

Android, I appreciate that you can change settings when battery is below a certain threshold, to prolong life. That’s really great. But would it be too much trouble to restore the old settings while I’m charging, or at least when the charge level goes back about that threshold? It really sucks to have to reconfigure manually every damn day when I shouldn’t have to.

Swype: It’s garage. It’s guache. It’s gator. Ah, fuck it. G-A-R-B-A-G-E.

If you want to turn your life into a commercial of arrows, buy a smartphone without a physical keyboard and try Swype. It’s garbage. Using it produces a comedy of errors. Quite possibly a tragedy of errors, as well.

Swype is absolute dogshit. I say that, playing off of the business idiom “eat your own dogfood.” I find it really hard to believe that Swype’s developers are using Swype on a day-to-day basis. My friend Max said to me, he says, “MAYBE YOU JUST SUCK AT SWYPE, HOLMES.”

Maybe you just suck at Swype, Holmes.

Max confronts me with the ugly truth I just can’t admit to myself.

It is not possible for someone to suck this much at something for so long and not get better. Ergo, Swype is at fault.

After I typed in my first web or email address, I forget which, Swype decided it had “learned” new grammar rules and that it should not ever put a space after a period, which it formerly had done any time I finished a sentence. Swype, you need to learn when a sentence ends vs. when a dot is used in a url or email address, or as a decimal in a number.

I really hate to give the impression that I’m unprofessional by using swear words, but I thought about it a lot and I truly cannot give an honest review of this product without them. I’m sorry, it’s that bad.

Swype’s accuracy is so hit or miss, it’s like you’re permanently drunk whenever you try to type with it. DamnYouAutoCorrect.com is funny, and a lot of the time feels contrived — but in real life it’s a disaster. Sometimes you sound like a dadaist on LSD, other times you sound like a grammar-challenged moron, and at the worst of times it makes you say things you didn’t mean, but with the limited context the recipient has no idea. This fucks up communication so badly, I’m actually scared to use it for anything important at this point. Swype makes me really, really angry on a regular basis.

I thought, OK I just need to proof read before I send, right? Well, it’s not so easy. First, to accurately swype, your eyes have to really follow your finger. You naturally want to continue swyping out words until you’re done with whatever you’re writing, but if you do that, your eyes aren’t watching Swype’s output, which at its default accuracy/speed setting is wrong about 1-in-3 words, sometimes more. Even at the “best” accuracy setting, it’s about 2-in-10, which is not nearly better enough. Like OCR, swype recognition of words is not useful unless it is accurate over 99% of the time, and it’s far short of that. Backing up and proofreading a lot of text, and then changing every third word, is much slower than simply hunt and pecking the input.

So the only way for me to effectively swype is to verify after each and every word. Your eyes feel like you’re watching a tennis match as they bounce from the screen keyboard to the output box. It really slows your wpm down. It’s truly a step backward if they can’t fix this. I found that it did get better if I set the accuracy to maximum, but it still gets words wrong frequently enough that I really have to watch what it’s saying for me regardless. If you’re not a wordsmith, you may not care, but for me it’s a major problem.

It’s not faster than hunt and peck if you have to meticulously scan every single god damn word that it guesses you meant to enter just to make sure that it’s right. It completely destroys the appearance that you are intelligent and in command of language. Every time I see something I’ve typed with it, I’m embarrassed, because it’s NOT what I typed. If you enjoy Mad Libs, you’ll probably like Swype a lot, but if you value your command of language and feel that the impression you give others through texting is important, you’ll hate it. Perhaps swypographical errors are to be expected in SMS messages, and are temporary and have a tiny audience, so don’t matter. Except when you’re trying to be cool, or smooth, or persuasive, or say something heartfelt over SMS, and it completely ruins the moment. It’s another thing when you try to use the screen keyboard to enter text on a web site, like facebook, and it utterly botches your input and turns you into a blathering moron.

I used to look down on people who couldn’t use language, but now thanks to Swype I feel like we’re all in the same boat. It’s worse than the battery life issue, which just produces anxiety that I won’t be able to use the phone when I need it. Swype makes me absolutely angry. It’s a solid concept, but the execution needs improvement. There are replacement soft keyboards, but I haven’t tried any yet. Most of them cost between $2.99-9.99, and for a $500 phone, it better come with a @%#$@) keyboard input that @#$@#ing works.

I’d be very happy if they made a version of this handset that is twice as thick, but has a physical, slide-out QWERTY keyboard.

Apps

I’m not a huge App user yet, but I love how easy it is to install new apps. I haven’t bought any yet, but I’ve downloaded a dozen or so that sounded useful.

Reviewing specific apps is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but I will single out the official Facebook app for a WTF award for not having Share links on the mobile app. It’s nicer to use the FB app than visit facebook in a web browser, but not being able to Share things is really a strange user experience design decision and I can’t understand why they only show the Like link.

I’m a little disappointed that I can’t remove some of the bundled apps that I don’t want and will never use.

Netflix is a nice service and all, but I’ll never use it on my phone, and I don’t have a Netflix account, at all. If the phone came with a “light” or “free” version, I might use it and end up getting into it enough that I’d pay for the service, but out of the box it was only interested in me if I was a paid subscriber, or if T-Mobile bundled a subscription with the phone. Maybe just a limited 1-2 movies/month introductory deal, included with your plan. As it is, it’s about 20mb of storage on my phone that I’ll never get back. I generally have better things to do than watch video on a tiny phone screen, but it could possibly come in handy once or twice.

Contacts

The only other major complaint I’ve had about the phone in the first week of ownership was the royal clusterfuck it made of my contacts. When I got the phone, the salesman asked me if I already had a gmail account that I’d like to use with the phone. I’ve had a gmail account since 2004 or so, and have been using it as my primary non-professional email address for much of that time, so I said sure.

I kindof wish I hadn’t, though, because Android really fubared my contacts. I had a mess of my old phone’s imported contacts, my gmail contacts (including anyone who I’d ever emailed for any reason in the last 8 years), and my google+ circles. Worse, these weren’t well integrated. I had three and four entries for some people. There is a merge feature in the Contacts app, but it sucks. I ended up clearing out about 90% of my contacts, but I believe as a result my autocomplete when filling To: field in gmail’s web UI will no longer remember a large number of the addresses it used to.

The reality is, the people I interact with via my cell phone are not the same as the people who I email. In some cases, sure, there’s overlap. Certainly, when I’m accessing my email account through my cell phone, I want full access to my email contacts. And some people I have a phone number for, I also have an email address for. But there are a lot of people who I email, or know very casually on google+, who I don’t necessarily ever want to IM/SMS/call. I like having my identity compartmentalized, and being relatively anonymous in certain circles. Android really doesn’t account for this in its design of the user experience for contacts, at all. It didn’t ask me (maybe it did ask the sales guy who set it up for me) if I wanted all these contacts to be jumbled together into one writhing mass of humanity, and there wasn’t any way to undo it after the fact. It was pretty horrible. I ended up using Wondershare MobileGo to manage my contacts, which was still pretty tedious and awful, but did the job, insofar as it helped me to mass delete and consolidate dozens of contacts. It still took over four hours to go through everyone and clear everything up, and that’s really not acceptable.

I’m pretty sure that I’m not unique in how I deal with my contacts, so I think Android really drops the ball here. I have a few suggestions for improving the user experience:

  1. Allow users to filter contacts by source. Here’s all your Contacts from your old phone. Here’s all your gmail Contacts. Here’s your google+ contacts.
  2. Better Merge feature. Mass select N contacts, and then click Merge. Not select merge, then select any two contacts.
  3. When there’s conflicts, such as multiple phone numbers and email, keep them by default, ask which one is primary, and ask if any are outdated. I had a few contacts resurrect from my old phone’s trash, apparently, and I don’t even know if I have their current contact info now, because who memorizes everyone’s phone number? A great solution here would be to have some kind of service that automatically looks up each bit of contact info and attempts to verify that they’re still good. I imagine this would be very difficult for email addresses, but would potentially be do-able for phone numbers and mailing addresses.
  4. Use gmail’s metrics for how much you’ve written to a given contact in your gmail contacts, and auto-filter out contacts whom you’ve contacted below a given threshold. If I have ever emailed some address one time in my entire life, and it was more than a year ago, chances are good I don’t need them in my phone’s Contacts.

One thing I did appreciate was that it included every new word it found in my Contacts into the autocorrect dictionary. So now when guessing wrong at what I’m swyping, I can pull up street and city names, and the odd last name or first name of some person I’ve communicated with at some point in the last decade. This is actually useful when I intend to type those words, as well. It’s a feature.

Messaging

SMS/MMS, IM, Talk. Also, Twitter. All these apps on my phone just to send short text messages to people. Why so many apps that do almost exactly the same thing? I really would like a single solution, which can seamlessly handle all protocols.

Also, and this is truly beyond bad, I have had a lot of inconsistent reliability issues with sending SMS. I never really know if someone got an SMS that I send from this phone. I never had this problem before I upgraded to this handset. I’m not sure what factors are at play, either. I SMS a short list of people on a regular basis, but I have consistently had problems with sending to one particular contact. It seems to deliver my outbound messages reliably only when I send as a new message; if I reply to the existing thread of messages, it is very likely to fail to deliver the message — although it appears on my end that it sent successfully. I’m not sure how high the failure rate is, but it must be at least 50%, perhaps even 75% or 90% when replying to them. My workaround is to always initiate a new message. It shows up in the same threaded conversation anyway, but somehow if I simply reply, it doesn’t work, but if I start a new SMS, and address it to this contact, it will go through. It’s a ridiculous problem and absolutely should not be tolerated. So far, T-Mobile has been unable to figure out the cause and provide a fix for it. I don’t know if it affects other contacts, either. If I send some message to someone, and they never get it, chances are they’ll never notice that they never got a message that they never knew about, and thus won’t bring it up, so I’ll never know. Not knowing is awful. It could be ruining a lot of friendships, and killing potential relationships that never develop because they thought I’d stay in touch, and I thought that if they really wanted me to stay in touch with them, they’d reply back to my message… that they never got.

[Update 7/11/12: Several people recommended the swiftkey3 app as a replacement. I tried it out and it does seem to be more accurate, although it works by tapping only. I did like the swyping motion, my issue with Swype was its accuracy problems and poor prediction. Swiftkey3 is a $3.99 app, and while I do resent having to spend money to get a soft keyboard that actually works, I’m glad it actually works. My accuracy with Swiftkey is somewhere in the high 90’s, and its guessing capabilities are amazing — both in correcting off-target key taps, and to suggest what my next word is most likely to be. It gets my recommendation if you’re looking for a better touchscreen text input.]

I didn’t have too many issues with the Mail app, which integrates pretty well with my gmail account. Read messages are marked read whether I read them in gmail in a web browser, in the mail app on the phone, or in Thunderbird on my PC. And that’s how it should be. If I delete something, though, I have to delete it everywhere. I guess this is a safer approach to take, but triple-redundant deleting can be annoying. I feel like there should be an option to mark the message deleted, update the server, and then the next time the other clients talk to the server, it passes along the info that this message is now marked as deleted also.

The only problem I have had with the Mail app started happening to me just this week. A few times, now, I’ve launched it, watched it update itself, and then mark every damn message in my Inbox Unread. It’s annoying not to know what message threads you’re up to date on and which contain new messages that you should probably read. So far it’s only happened a couple times, and I’m not sure what causes it, but if it happens a lot, I’ll be looking for a new app to read gmail with.

[Update 7/12/12: I’ve observed this problem happening repeatedly since it started happening. It doesn’t happen all the time, and when it does happen it seems to be temporary. I don’t have to go through and re-read everything to mark them read again — usually exiting the app and re-launching it will correct the read message marking. It’s still an annoying defect, but not as severe as I had first feared.]

Maps and GPS

I didn’t expect that I would use these functions as much as I do, but they are nice to have at times. I prefer not to use a GPS; I have a good sense of direction and I have developed it over the years by not relying on external tools for navigation. I prefer to keep my bearings, the lay of the land, and driving directions in my head as much as possible, and as a result I usually only need to write down driving directions once, and then after that I can reliably drive that route from memory, very likely.

But when driving someplace I’ve never been to before, it does come in handy. Where I used to write down directions, and worry that I’ll run into a detour or wrong information, or miss a turn, I now have greater confidence that the GPS will redirect me if something unexpected happens.

Unfortunately, it drains the battery faster than just about anything. I don’t know if this is because the GPS transmitter uses a lot of power, or because it tends to leave the display turned on (normally the battery usage statistics say that the display alone can account for 60-65% of the battery consumption all by itself). But when driving, I just plug it in to the car charger, and it about barely holds even on charge — I drove to Columbus, OH, from Cleveland, OH with it and gained 1-2% of charge in a 2.5hr drive. I doubt that I would have had any battery left if I hadn’t been charging it the whole time. Whoa.

Camera

The Galaxy SII does have one of the nicer cameras I’ve used in a cell phone. It takes good pictures, at moderate distances. I like the on-screen controls. I love the capability to share via any service I can think of, right from the phone. That’s really the best thing about the camera — the social integration.

I’m not too crazy about using it for self-portaits. The wide angle lens makes my nose look big and bloated, and I’m way less handsome that way. That’s my only complaint with it. If I had 2-3x longer arms, I could take better pictures of myself at the distances it’s intended to be used, and just zoom in.

Conclusion

I want to say I like my phone a lot. The Galaxy SII is an impressive gadget. It does a lot of cool things. Most of the time, I think to myself, “I have a really good phone.”

But now that I’ve objectively reflected on all the glitches and problems I have had with it in the first two months of ownership, I’m aware that I’ve been living with a lot of cognitive dissonance. The problems that I’ve had with it are significant, important problems — the most severe type of problems are the social consequences of having a phone that mangles your wordsmithing and fails to even deliver messages reliably.

It’s a cool phone when it isn’t pissing me off. But it pisses me off most of the time when I’m using it. It’s very useful for web browsing, and I use it for that about half of the time. That’s when I really like it. When I’m trying to use it to communicate with someone, though, which is it’s primary purpose, I feel like it’s ruining my life. Not exaggerating in the slightest. The silent delivery failures have harmed relationships that I have with friends and make people think I don’t care about them or that I’m ignoring them, and this makes them feel very hurt, and I have no idea that it’s going on unless I see the friend in person and they bring it up. The swypo errors make me look like a complete idiot on a frequent basis.

The battery life is another major issue, and a lot of reviews seem to gloss over this. Sure, you install a battery minder app that will automatically shut down stuff that you’re not using in order to conserve juice, but they really didn’t serve the market well by providing an 1800mah battery. If you have a phone like this, you want to use the hell out of it, all day long. 1800 milliamp hours gives you a full day’s worth of charge and then some only if you don’t use it. If you do use it, you can get by for half the day, and then spend the next few hours hoping it doesn’t die and you miss an important call or message, or need to look up some bit of crucial information and can’t. And if you don’t use it, what’s the point?

All phone makers, now hear this:  We can deal with the extra weight. Give us 3x battery life and bulkier phones with a real keyboard. At least make it an option. And make armored cases that fit the extended battery covers, please!

A lot of the reviews that I’ve read have been over the top positive, saying it’s the best phone there is, period, including iPhone. I haven’t tried an iPhone still, but I’d be really surprised if the user experience of an iPhone isn’t 10x more polished. I have no idea, but I sure hope so.

I don’t want to hate Android, or this phone, or T-Mobile, but I do have a lot of issues with all three of them at this point. There is a lot here to impress, and a lot of potential, but fitting it all together and smoothing the rough edges and polishing it, well that has a long, long way to go yet.

I really can’t believe that I spent this much money on something that I use every day, and am having this poor an experience with it. There’s a lot of potential in this platform, and even in this handset, and so many of the problems seem like they’d be relatively easy to fix.

Game Maker Studio 1.0 Launched

Today YoYoGames announced the launch of Game Maker Studio 1.0. This long-awaited release finally gives Game Maker developers the ability to build games that run natively on Windows, OS X, iOS, Android, and HTML5. I’d heard some time ago that there was a Symbian module in the works as well, but I don’t see any mention of it in their releases — I doubt that it will be missed. Also announced today is that Game Maker HTML5 is no longer a standalone product, and has been folded into Studio.

I participated in the HTML5 beta as well as the Studio beta, and reported a fair number of bugs. While I’m enthusiastic, I think it remains to be seen how successful the new Studio will be — the impression I’ve gotten from my limited work in HTML5 is that the differences of each platform impose constraints on a unified project, and often during the beta I found that stuff that worked in a Windows build didn’t in HTML5. Hopefully that’s all just part of the beta. I definitely like the direction YoYoGames has been headed in, and as long as they execute, it should be a good time to be a Game Maker developer.

The highlights of Studio:

  1. Multi-platform build targeting
  2. Source Control
  3. new built-in Physics features

Game Maker’s proprietary language, GML, is going through some redesign as well, but we probably won’t see the full vision for a time, until Game Maker 9 is released. With Studio 1.0, it seems that YoYoGames has started deprecating certain functions, in order to drop Windows-specific stuff and embrace a more platform-agnostic approach, which should mean that developers won’t have to worry about whether a given instruction makes is supported or makes sense on the OS they’re targeting. Hopefully this will encourage cross-platform application releases and make them the norm rather than the exception.

With the launch, YoYoGames announced pricing, and it’s a little different from what I expected. The base Studio Core (giving you Windows and OS X build capability) is $99. Considering that Game Maker Standard was $40, roughly doubling the price to give you access to OS X seems reasonable.

The HTML5 module is an additional $99. $199 was the original price of HTML5, so for $198 you get Studio with the HTML5 extension. I think a lot of Game Maker users were shocked at the price jump, but when you consider how cool it is to have the capability of distributing your games through the web with no extra plug in or extension needed to run, it’s awfully nice.

The mobile platform modules are another $199 each for OS X and Android. This means the full Studio suite will run a developer almost $600, or 15 times what it costs for Standard. YoYoGames justifies this by saying that these are optional modules for professional developers, and I’m sure it costs them lots of money to develop the runner for these platforms. It’s a bit odd to think that for just $200 you can reach 3 major platforms, but to get another two platforms it triples the price. In any case, the idea seems to be that the ease of selling on the mobile markets makes it worth the cost of the tools, and I’m glad they tiered their pricing rather than force everyone to pay full price all or nothing. Starting out at $99 or $200 is a lot more reasonable, and buying the mobile modules later takes a bit of the sting out of the price. Compared with Unity Pro, which is $1500 for its base, and an additional $400 each for iOS and Android, it’s still quite inexpensive as a professional developer tool.