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Summary:

For the 99th time I get to share my week with you. I’ve seen gadgets going out the door of Mobile Tech Manor, other gadgets taking on bigger roles in my work and cool software running on them all. Plus there’s that button obsession thing…

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Friday is here, and for the 99th time I get to share my week in Mobile Tech Manor. It’s incredible how long I’ve been doing this column. There have been gadgets going out the revolving door in the Manor, other gadgets taking on bigger roles in my work day, and software running on them all. Come on in and share my week.

Gadgetry

The doors at Mobile Tech Manor aren’t really revolving doors, but with gadgets going in and out so often, maybe that would make sense. This week, a couple of smartphones headed back home, the HTC Droid Incredible and the Motorola Droid X. These are the two newest Android phones in the Verizon Droid line. I thought I had already sent the Incredible back to Verizon, but found it boxed up and sitting in the corner when I went to send the Droid X back. Oops.

I came to really like the Droid X; I feel Motorola has done a great job with this phone. I was impressed with how small and light it is in spite of that large gorgeous screen. Android 2.2 had not rolled out OTA for the test unit prior to returning it, so I didn’t get to test it with the new OS.  I imagine it will be even better with the performance increases inherent in Froyo.

This week, I agonized over whether or not I wanted to root my EVO 4G. That’s the first step required to allow using third party ROMs from the web to add features not on the shipping version. I was reluctant to do that, as I have been quite pleased with the stock EVO, and I don’t want to create problems for myself. On the other hand having played with a Nexus One running Froyo (Android 2.2), I am itching to have that update.

There is a ROM available for rooted EVOs that allows running Froyo, and I have been sorely tempted to bite the bullet and root the phone. It’s not as dangerous as it used to be; you can fairly easily restore to the stock ROM if problems are encountered.

I was ready to do this yesterday, but word leaked that Sprint will roll out an update containing Froyo and other goodies starting today. That is great news, so I’ve decided to hold off for now. Let’s hope I get that Sprint update quickly.

App central

I was putting a lot of software through paces all week. I love trying new apps and checking out new features when an app I already use gets an update. I’ve been duly impressed with LogMeIn Ignition for Android since it’s recent release. The ability to connect to my Mac and Windows systems from the EVO is very powerful.

I don’t depend on the ability to remotely connect from my smartphone for my work, but the process works so well that those who need to will find it very useful. I was able to use it for my work as a test, but I wouldn’t want to blog from my EVO routinely.

I’ve shared blogging from the iPad in the past, and how I used LogMeIn on that device to connect to a computer back in the Manor to finish the publishing process. I duplicated that effort on the EVO, and it worked surprisingly well. I wrote the draft blog post on the EVO using the WordPress app (which received a minor update this week), and then used LogMeIn on the EVO to connect to the Mac back home to finish the publication. It was easier than I expected, and could be used in a pinch, which was the purpose of my test.

I picked up Pocket Informant for the iPad the moment it was available, and it has become an integral part of my daily work routine. I usually have PI running on the iPad next to my work system in the Manor, which lets me keep on top of appointments and tasks that need my attention. It’s very useful having the tasks and calendars in one app at my fingertips. I highly recommend this to those needing the same.

I’m always looking for cool, useful apps to try on my different devices. I found a couple this week that have obtained a place on my home screen on the EVO, a rare recognition. Edwin for Android is a simple utility that takes spoken commands and instigates the desired action. I can ask Edwin what time it is and it will speak the time to me. It will launch programs by name and fire off searches by voice.

Google voice search in Android is pretty good, but Edwin extends the ability and provides a simple interface to the functions. One day I was craving Chinese food and asked Edwin “where is nearest Chinese food.” A disembodied voice informed me that Panda Express was as xxxxx street xxx. I already knew that, but it could be awfully useful when visiting a new area. I then told Edwin to “map nearest Chinese food” and after verbally confirming what it was doing, it fired up Google Maps centered at my current location with all restaurants offering Chinese food indicated by pins. This is a good use of the technology. Edwin is free so it’s worth trying.

Another Android app I’ve been using a lot is the Houston Traffic app. This shows traffic conditions for all of Houston on a map that can be zoomed and dragged around the screen as desired. There is also a tab to show the Transtar traffic cams, a great way to know what Houston’s traffic conditions are like before heading out into the fray. It’s a useful free app.

I saved the best app for last. I found Tasker for Android on Lifehacker yesterday, and it is the most powerful free app you’ll ever find. It’s a macro program on steroids, able to do anything on an Android phone automatically, triggered by virtually anything you wish. It can run things at certain times, control certain aspects of the phone when particular events occur, and just about anything else you might imagine. Take a look below at the tasks I defined within the first 15 minutes of using Tasker, and you’ll begin to see the sky’s the limit to what you can do with it.

The first thing I did with Tasker was create two profiles for GPS. I leave it off all the time, and it’s a pain when I run Google Maps or Sprint Navigation, as I have to manually turn GPS on, then remember to turn it off when I exit those programs. With Tasker, my EVO now automatically turns on GPS when either navigation program is run, and then turns it off when I exit the program.

Then I got fancy with Tasker based on an example from Lifehacker. I created a profile that does something very cool. When I set my EVO face down on a table, the phone goes into silent mode and turns off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. When I turn it over everything goes back the way it was when turned face down.

When I talk to my Mom on the phone it’s usually painful at first. Mom is hard of hearing, and she yells into the phone as a result. She blasts my ears on every call until I get the volume turned down halfway. Enter Tasker — when I call Mom’s number, or she calls me (Caller ID) the EVO volume jumps to the magic half volume setting. When I hang up, the call the volume reverts to what it was prior to the call.

Lastly, I got really sophisticated with Tasker which took me a couple of tries to get right. I wanted an easy way to get back to the main home screen no matter what I was doing on the phone. Now when I shake the phone to the right and back up again, it jumps instantly back to that screen. I can shake the phone in any application, and in just one second I’m back to the home screen. Pretty cool, no? I’ve only scratched the surface with what I can do with Tasker, and I intend to turn my EVO into the most powerful superphone ever. Did I mention that Tasker is only GBP 3.99?

My obsession for push buttons explained

I have a confession: I am a button-aholic. I like things operated by pushing buttons — the more buttons the better. This obsession crosses all aspects of my life, and plays a big role in my love for gadgetry with touch screens. I’ve been fanatically using gadgets with touch controls and buttons for as long as I can remember.

This week, I realized where my fascination with operating things with buttons originated. The realization hit me as I was walking down memory lane toward a different destination than where I ended up; I took a mental left turn when I meant to take a right. Those blasts from the past never follow the rules.

I was remembering the 16th year of my life; more accurately, I was revisiting learning to drive a car. You remember being 16, that time of life when you are bullet-proof. No, you are invincible, as you think nothing can really hurt you. Well, the only thing that can hurt you at 16 is embarrassment in front of your peers — that can actually be fatal.

The year was 1972, and I was learning to drive the family car at 16. The embarrassment was in full force. We had a lovely Dodge Dart — a 1963 model if I remember the year correctly. This car was the ugliest car ever made, far uglier than the Edsel you’ve surely seen. It was absolutely the most uncool car a teenager could be seen driving, and to do so with a parent in the passenger seat was nearly traumatic.

So back to the button fascination. Why did this ugly Dodge Dart start me on a lifetime trip of pushing buttons? Because of the push button transmission, of course. The Dart didn’t have a manual transmission with a gear stick; it didn’t even have an automatic transmission with a lever. No, the Dodge Dart was the only car I’ve ever seen to have push buttons instead of a regular gear shifter.

Not just any old push buttons, the Dart’s buttons were little round buttons to the left of the steering wheel. They had to be operated with the left hand, probably a safety feature designed to keep idiot teenaged passengers from slamming the car into reverse on the highway as a practical joke. Invincible teenagers do things like that.

These buttons were positioned in a slanted vertical row, with reverse being the top-most and low gear at the bottom. These buttons were finicky, at least in our old Dart. You had to hit a button dead-center, and forcefully, to get it to actually depress. Failure to do so resulted in either nothing happening at all, or worse a horrific grinding noise signaling that the transmission was being destroyed. This noise was the most embarrassing thing you could do in the Dart, other than forgetting to turn the key before driving.

These buttons were bad enough to operate by an image-conscious teenager, especially being right-handed, but the sliding lever for Park was even worse. That lever was situated next to the buttons, and slid up for Park and down for everything else. That turned the process of going from parked to driving into a two-step dance. Slide the lever down, hit the button for Drive (or Reverse). The amount of coordination required to do this effortlessly was beyond this 16 year old.

My left hand has never been coordinated; it’s designed to operate nothing more precisely than a bulky baseball glove, for Pete’s sake. This two-step dance in the Dart was just not possible for me on the first try. Ever. It was always slide, push, grind. Reverse the process and start over again. I don’t believe I ever got the Dart going in less than three tries.

That’s why the embarrassment factor of the Dart was at the top of the meter, especially when first learning to drive. I cringed at the thought of a practice driving session with my Dad because of those darn buttons. I loved to drive once I got going, it was the getting going part that mortified me.

It wasn’t until later that I noticed that other cars lacked the buttons. They all had slick gear shifts or levers that worked as advertised. The Dart may have been the only vehicle besides the space shuttle to have a push button transmission.

As traumatic as the push buttons were to me while learning to drive, I believe they conditioned me to expect everything to operate with them. I jumped on handheld gadgets early on due to the touch operation. Pushing a button to make something happen was second nature to me, and doing so without the grinding noise was wonderful. My fascination with all things touch I blame firmly on Dodge and the old Dart.

e-Book of the week

This week I’ve been engrossed in a sci-fi collection of short stories that is a fantastic read. The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 27th Annual Collection covers a lot of sci-fi ground, from the near future to the oh-so-distant future. It contains 32 short stories that bounce all over space, and I’m enjoying the heck out of the collection.

While reading this week, I realized my e-book reading method has changed, and for the better. When the iPad was first released, it quickly became my favorite reading device. I love the iPad reading experience, and the long battery life is great for long reading sessions. I like to head out of the office for lunch each day, and I would take the iPad along to read while having a bite.

This week, I noticed I wasn’t bringing the iPad along. Since the Kindle app for Android was released recently, I’ve been using the EVO a lot for reading books. The screen of the EVO makes for a good reader, and it saves me from bringing an extra gadget along for my lunch breaks.

I still use the iPad for reading while at home; it can’t be beat for long reading sessions. But the EVO is great when I head out, because it’s already in my pocket and it has something the iPad lacks for my lunch reading: the kickstand. Folks make fun of a phone having a kickstand, but it makes the EVO perfect for reading while eating.

Wrap-up

I hope you enjoyed sharing the week at Mobile Tech Manor. It was a good week full of gadgets, apps and buttons. Drop by next week, and we’ll do it all over again. Wow, next week will be the 100th MTM column! Maybe we’ll do something special. Until then, take care.

Disclosure: Automattic, maker of WordPress.com, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d): Google Takes the Open Battle to Apple on Multiple Fronts

  1. Robert Peterson Friday, July 30, 2010

    The tasker application isn’t free, but costs GBP 3.49 (around $5) via Paypal / Google Checkout when purchased directly from the developer (http://tasker.dinglisch.net/) and GBP 3.99 (around $6) when bought via the Android Market. Buying direct not only costs less, but provides for a trial period and nets the developer more cash.

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    1. You are correct, the charge hadn’t appeared on my acct. yet and I forgot about it. I’ll update the post, thanks.

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  2. Wow, amazing how time flies by, huh? I remember starting to read this blog before you ever even thought about being a full time blogger. ;) Now, I’m done with college and you’ve gotten situated, into your new career.

    Well, I won’t congratulate you now, that wouldn’t do ya any good. :) I’m gonna wait ’till next week for the 100th column.

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  3. Frank McPherson Friday, July 30, 2010

    Hey James, in regards to your Tasker & the Face Down event to switch to vibrate, do you find that it only works when the phone is on? With my Nexus One, flipping the phone either way when it is off (suspended) does nothing, same if I turn if off on the lock screen. The only way I get it to work is to be in the phone.

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    1. The phone has to be on when placed face down. That turns everything off and keeps it off until picking it back up again.

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  4. Now if you could just get Tasker to automatically turn the pages for your in your Kindle app WHILE you have it on the kickstand… then you’d really have something! :-)

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  5. Dr. Roland Kehr Friday, July 30, 2010

    James, could you use a program like Edwin for Android to turn pages while reading on your EVO 4G? Now that would be a GREAT app capability. Hands-free page turning while munching on lunch! BTW, I am serious on my question, as I don’t currently have a smartphone.

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    1. Hmm. Tasker can be programmed to execute via voice, I believe. Hmm…

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  6. Hi James,

    I was curious about you using the EVO’s kickstand when reading. I’m a relatively fast reader (not Evelyn Wood-fast, but fast nonetheless). I assume you are, too, given how many books you read.

    When I’m eating and reading books or long articles on my different phones, I need to turn the page rather often. If I used the kickstand, I’d still probably have to continually hold the phone on the table to turn the page quickly.

    My preferred way of phone reading is holding the food or utensil in one hand, and the phone in the other which allows me to turn the page with the same hand.

    (By the way, my father had a push-button transmission on, I think, his Chrysler.

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