Mar 012014
 

I saw a VIA APC 8750 single-board computer for $20 on eBay. After poking around various reviews, tech blogs, and forums, it sounded like a computer with some promise but a few problems.

The 8750 looks great on paper: 800 MHz ARM CPU; 512 MB RAM; 2 GB on-board NAND flash memory; VGA and HDMI video up to 720p; 4 USB ports; microSD slot; stereo audio in and out. No case, but it comes with a AC power adapter. Plus various pins for hooking up serial ports and sundry devices. All for $50 new (or, in my case, $23 used including shipping).

In real life, the 8750 doesn’t look so good. VIA (confusingly calling themselves APC for this line of computers) took a great idea and completely screwed it up.

The big problem? They took a good tinkerer’s computer and installed a completely locked-down version of Android Gingerbread on it.

Yes. Gingerbread. A very outdated version of Android. And they locked it down, with no root access. And no app store of any kind. And only a few apps: A crashy browser; a crashy version of YouTube; a Settings manager; and a front-end to Google Search, plus a Contacts  manager and the terrible Android Email (not Gmail) client. That’s it. That’s all. No Linux. No BSD.

One determined hacker did manage to get Raspbian Linux running on his 8750, and provided binaries and instructions to the world. But he got zero support from VIA for his efforts, and he eventually decided that he had better things to do than act as homebrew-support for a company that didn’t support tinkering on their tinkerer’s computer. So, he pulled down his blog and his binaries. And that was that. It’s currently still possible to follow the recipe and install Raspbian, but you’ll need to cook up your own serial cable and 3.3V (not 5V) connection in order to access the 8750’s console mode in order to do so. Or live with an old, slightly broken hack-version of Raspbian booting off of the microSD card.

You can also sideload Android apps via microSD card or USB flash drive. They of course need to be Gingerbread compatible, and can’t require root access. You can even install Google Play.

Whee.

Overall, the 8750 wasn’t a total waste for the price of a movie ticket and snacks. I enjoyed monkeying around with it for several hours, trying different ways to get root access, or to update Android, or to get a modern version of Linux running.

I really have to wonder what the people at VIA were thinking, though: they made an interesting competitor to the Raspberry Pi, then put a locked-down, ancient version of a completely inappropriate OS on it.

May 152011
 

I’ve never been comfortable thinking of myself as a rabid Jobs-worshipping Apple fan, but I do like their products. Particularly the way they rarely push me to the point of either tossing them in the trash or leaving them on a shelf to collect dust. My 4-year-old low-end Mac Mini is still chugging along, happy as a clam, running the latest version of OS X. My iPod nano and iPod touch are both working fine. And my iPad is my most favoritest toy at home. I use it constantly. I stopped taking it to work mostly because I didn’t want anything bad to happen to my preciousssss. But I’ve always been open to trying whatever gadget gets the job done (like my Sansa, for instance, or my Windows netbook and PC). And I’ve heard many good things about Android.

So, I’ve wanted to get an Android phone for a while. OK, I really wanted to get an iPhone;  but it’s hard to justify (or even afford) the $70+ / month plan payments that both AT&T and Verizon iPhones are saddled with. Hello, Android, and hello cheap smartphone plans. Plus, Android is supposed to be fun to tinker with, better than iOS in some ways, and basically the future of smartphones. I want to see that future. I want to see it with my fingers.

I heard about Virgin Mobile’s $25 / month smartphone plan–no hidden fees or weird taxes, $25 flat, no contract. And that $25 includes “unlimited” 3G, and 300 talk minutes. There are currently two Android phones available with that plan, a Samsung with a slide-out keyboard and poor reviews, and the $200 LG Optimus V with no keyboard and good reviews. I figured that I could manage $25 a month, and my tax refund almost covered the cost of the phone. So, I bought one. And bought a 16 GB microSD card for $25 on Amazon to give it a little more space than the 2 GB card that came with the phone. And a $25 top-up Virgin Mobile card while I was at the grocery store. Total cost to get the phone up and running: $250, plus sales tax. And if I ever decide to drop the Virgin Mobile plan, there’s no “early termination” charge or any such BS. I just stop buying re-up cards. Even so, I’d still have a pretty nifty gadget that works fine over WiFi.

Here are my impressions of my first Android gadget.

The Good:

  • To my delight, the phone part of the Optimus is quite good. Even at 2 bars, I still can understand people clearly. Good stuff. I don’t expect smartphones to be good phones, but this one is quite usable. I wish I could say the same for the Android dialer app, which is very aggressive about fading away (so you can’t accidentally press buttons on the keypad with your face while talking); it makes it very difficult to punch in extra digits after you’ve dialed a number. But I’ve read that there are other dialer apps available which work much better than the stock one.
  • The rest of the Optimus isn’t bad. It’s sturdy, lightweight, and has a very bright, readable screen. The shell is pretty much all plastic, but isn’t ugly. I haven’t bought a case or screen protector for it, and it’s still fine after months of use. I do carry it in a hand-knitted Hodag sleeve.
  • The camera works surprisingly well, and takes pretty good pictures, even close-ups. Good enough that I’ll probably take this phone on vacation rather than my beloved Kodak V210. But I’ll miss that amazing wide-angle lens, which takes fantastic panoramic shots. Well, they’re small. Maybe I’ll take both the phone and the camera.
  • One more Thumbs Up to Virgin Mobile for the $25/month plan with no contract, “unlimited” 3G, and 300 talk minutes per month. Re-ups can be done via cards I buy at the grocery store–no automatic recurring charges on my credit card, no unexplained price creep. Sweet! But, hey, VM, fix your website. It’s very pretty, but that huge informative footer at the bottom makes it difficult to type data into forms that are partially covered by that footer.
  • And another Thumbs Up to LG and Virgin Mobile for not thinking that they need to “improve” Android. Unlike many phone manufacturers and carriers, LG and VM have pretty much left Android on the Optimus V alone; it’s almost straight stock, pure 2.2 goodness from Google. And supposedly, LG will upgrade it to Android 2.3 one of these days. Or not. Well, that’s a common issue on Android phones, and if it is never upgraded, I won’t mind.
  • A big Thumbs Up to all the choices out there for Android phones. Admittedly, the phones are all pretty similar, outside of keyboard or not, screen size / quality, and computing power. But it is nice to be able to choose a cheap phone with some limitations (see below) from a smaller carrier with a bargain plan. With iPhone, it’s either AT&T or Verizon, and both their plans are currently almost identical: on-contract and expensive.
  • Notifications on Android are really, really nice. When you get an email or SMS message, or an app finishes doing something in the background, little icons appear up in the status bar at the top of the phone, along with the time, battery level, and signal strength icons. Put your finger on the status bar, pull down, and down comes a list that covers the screen. All the notifications about the emails and SMS messages and whatall are listed; tap on one of the notifications, and you are whisked to the app that posted the notification. Very nice, very intuitive, and a couple of taps on the Back button takes you back to what you were doing before you looked at the list. The status bar can get pretty cluttered when you’ve got notifications from more than one app waiting, but you get used to that quickly.
  • Officially, Virgin Mobile doesn’t allow using your Android phone as a mobile WiFi hotspot. And, in fact, the configuration switch to turn it on is missing. Unofficially, you’re exactly 1 app away from enabling it. It’s amusingly trivial to do, and it seems to work fine. I don’t have any real plans to use it, but it’s nice to know it’s available if I ever need it in a pinch while traveling.
  • I don’t know why, but using 2D barcodes to link to apps has never caught on in the iOS world. Maybe the barcodes are just too ugly for Steve Jobs’ tastes or something. But it’s pretty handy to be surfing the web on my Mac, stumble across an app that sounds interesting, bring up the 2D barcode for the app on the monitor–all Android apps seem to have one, scan it with a barcode reader app on my phone, and bingo, download and install the app. It’s a very fast and painless process. It takes far longer to explain than to do.
  • I’ve read over and over again about how wonderful Widgets on Android are. Well, they’re OK, and I could see how having a few on my iPod touch would be nice. I’ve always been a big fan of Apple’s Desk Accessories–I used them heavily back in the early MacOS days–and that’s pretty much exactly what Android Widgets are. So maybe I’m jaded. To my mind, Android Widgets are the same as OS X Widgets, which are the same as Desk Accessories. And when you’ve seen one weather or stock market or email Widget, you’ve pretty much seen them all, and I saw them all 20 years ago. There is also a real downside to having Widgets on a phone: they run all the time, so they reduce battery life, and take up a smidge of computing power each.
  • The integrated voice recognition works quite well for many tasks. It doesn’t work so well for others, like recognizing arbitrary words when searching on Google. It also sends the speech to Google’s servers to do the heavy lifting, so it needs network connectivity to work, and can be a bit laggy at times, but those are small complaints for something that really makes the phone easier to use overall.
  • Google Maps is transformed into a very good GPS system on Android, just as good (if not better) than anything made by Garmin or TomTom. The only downside is that it needs a solid 3G connection to work.
  • For having a 600 MHz CPU, the phone is no slouch. Sometimes the user interface stalls or lags for a moment or two, but it basically hangs in there. My iPod touch, which has a slower CPU, is definitely smoother and faster feeling, but the Optimus is nowhere near as bad as I expected. I guess that’s a good thing.
  • I like Amazon’s new Android app store. They give away a different app, totally free, every day. I’ve snagged a few of them. Unsurprisingly, the Amazon app store is significantly better organized and run than Google’s market–even with the new upgrades to the market over the last few days.
  • On a related note, I have yet to actually purchase an Android app with cash money. This is in stark contrast to the hundreds of dollars I’ve spent on apps for my iPad and iPod touch.
    • I think that part of the reason is because all of the basic utility apps (and most of the popular social apps) are free on Android. That’s nice. And some of the free apps are really handy, like the widget that gives you individual control over the WiFi, 3G, and phone radios, to better control battery drain. Or the app that automatically switches the phone to “airplane mode” and turns off all the radios when you press the power button. Nice!
    • But beyond that, the apps currently available for Android are very weak sauce compared to what is out there for iOS. It isn’t a question of there being more iOS apps, but that there are far, far more interesting, high-quality apps for iOS. The difference between the cool toys and excellent games available on the App Store and the poor clones (or complete lack of anything equivalent) on the Market is shocking. I have yet to find a single non-free Android app that I’ve had the slightest interest in. Maybe that will change as Android continues to gain popularity, but it’s been around and popular for a while now, and the Market is still understocked.
    • Another reason that I have yet to buy an app is that I don’t trust Google’s Market with my credit card. Not because I think they’ll overcharge my card or something, but because it still seems very beta…and very Wild West. I probably will buy an Android app one of these days, but when I do, it will almost certainly be through the nice, well-run Amazon app store, not Google’s mostly-baked Market. I trust Amazon to handle sales correctly and to resolve problems should they arise. It’s what they do, and they do it very well. Google has yet to demonstrate that they deserve that trust. Google is really good at Search. They’ve yet to become good at Store.
    • Update 6/12/2011: I’ve had the phone for almost 2 months now. I still have yet to buy an app for it. I have snagged several free apps from the Amazon app store. But I haven’t used any of them for more than a few minutes. I’m mentally ready to buy an Android app–heck, I want to buy one just to finally get that over with and say that I have. But the only Android app I’ve found that I use a lot is K-9 mail (which is a pretty decent, and free, email client). Meanwhile, I’ve purchased several apps for my iPad and iPod touch. So it goes.

The Bad:

  • You know how Android phones can run Flash and iPhones can’t? Well, guess what? My Android phone can’t run Flash. In fact, many of the cheaper Android phones can’t. They use computer chips that aren’t supported (yet?) by Adobe. Funny how that fact never seems to be worth mentioning by the Android faithful. It isn’t clear if the problem is because the phone’s hardware just isn’t powerful enough to run Flash smoothly, or if Adobe has started with the high-end phones and simply hasn’t gotten around to making the software work on the cheap phones. Either way, no Flash. But the one and only thing I’ve ever wished I had Flash on my iPad for is playing FarmVille and CityVille. Other than that, for me, it’s a non-issue. Except for being bemused by Google’s claims that Android phones run Flash. Some do, some don’t.
  • Like with Widgets, I read repeatedly about how multitasking is, like, way betterer on Android than iOS. Meh. They both work, and both get the job done, in slightly different ways. As near as I can tell, iOS does a better job of killing background apps cleanly without getting us users involved, but Android gives us a much clearer picture of exactly what all is currently running. So, here I was all excited about this wonderful thing Android can do better. After using Android for a while, I have no idea what all the fuss is about. Ultimately, it’s a technical challenge for the coders, but a very small issue for end users. Seriously, who cares?
  • I didn’t ever like using the dinky on-screen keyboard on my iPod touch, but somehow Android managed to take a bad experience and make it worse. On the plus side, the Optimus comes with the Swype alternative keyboard pre-installed, but I guess I’m just not a swyper. I much prefer poking at the screen to dragging my finger around on it. I’ve tried other alternatives to the stock Android keyboard out there that are supposed to be better. Meh. My iPod touch still reigns supreme as the best of the worst, king of the tiny marginally usable on-screen keyboards. Apple should be proud.
  • This is a minor nit, but the way that Android handles USB connections to the desktop computer is fussy and fragile compared to iTunes. It gets the job done, and dragging-n-dropping music and videos straight from my computer’s desktop to the phone’s microSD card is nice, but authorizing USB mode, then digging around in folders with user-hostile names like DCIM (or simply confusing ones, like the three folders all named “downloads” or something very similar) is annoying compared to the one-step iPhone process of “drag whatever-it-is onto iTunes and it’ll be put where it belongs and organized automatically”. The USB connection has locked up a few times, but Android always seems to recover after a minute or two.
  • There are some aspects to Android that are just clunky. For example: How you “back up” or “undo” in an app is inconsistent: sometimes you swipe on the screen; sometimes you tap on an on-screen button; sometimes the only way to do it is to move your finger off the screen and use the physical Back button, which can be mildly jarring. I didn’t appreciate how consistently consistent iOS and its apps are until I used Android.
  • Similarly, the Menu button is a strange jack of all trades. What it’s used for varies wildly from app to app, even between apps from Google. Sometimes it’s brings up a configuration screen; other times, it displays secondary options; and occasionally it does nothing at all. To me, it feels like a holdover from the pre-iPhone smartphones, a relic that Google should have left behind. I’ve come to have a Android rule of thumb: when poking and swiping every which way doesn’t seem to work, try pressing the Menu button; whatever it is that I’m trying to do is probably hidden under that button. I really dislike the Menu button; I think that Google should simply get rid of it, and have apps display an on-screen button of the appropriate kind and at the appropriate time instead.
  • Just to be complete: The Home button is fine, and seems to be equivalent to The Button on an iPhone. The Search button is a shortcut to doing a Google search through the browser; I used it once just to confirm what it did, then promptly forgot that it existed. It seems to be a button that Google put there primarily because it leads directly to Google’s big moneymaker: search and targeted ads.

The Ugly:

  • As Google becomes a larger, more successful, and more profit-oriented enterprise, I trust them less and less, to the point that I don’t trust them at all nowadays. (Which is not to say that I trust Apple or Amazon or Microsoft more. I don’t. But I’ve always been more careful with them than with Google, because they never said that they’d not be evil. They’re aggressive for-profit corporations, and have always acted the part.) So, I’m growing ever more leery of Google’s increasing harvesting and exploitation of any and all data that they can collect. Which, for me, is a lot of data. I’ve pretty much had my entire on-line life on Google’s servers for several years. But I never trusted them as much as I would have liked to, and now that trust is gone. In terms of my Android phone, as soon as I activated the Optimus, it merrily connected to the Google mothership, and sync-ed up with my GMail account. And with every other Google account I have: pictures, blogs, maps, RSS feeds, you name it. A lot of stuff. A lot of stuff. It was a bit shocking to see it all collected in one place, so effortlessly and so rapidly. And to realize that all that stuff is on the servers of a company that makes most of their money off of analyzing the data on their servers, and using it to sell targeted ads (and possibly some of the info itself) to their clients–other large corporations. So, while there’s not much I can do about my personal data that Google already has,  I’m now actively moving my life away from Google, and will keep a suspicious eye on exactly what information is being stored on this phone, and thereby eventually on Google’s servers. It won’t be much.
  • This leads to a convenience issue: Is the phone mine, or is it Google’s? If Google’s servers go offline, much of what makes my smartphone uniquely useful go with them. This is because Android follows Google’s approach of centralized design. Android doesn’t just check in for messages and email, it synchronizes lots of data with Google’s servers, and relies on them for much of its magic. Without those servers, there’s no Google Maps, no integrated voice command. In contrast, if Apple’s servers go down, almost all of an iPhone continues to function. You lose the ability to buy or update apps, but that’s about it. Android has an Achilles’ heel, a single point of failure, and that point is Google itself. The centralized design is also network-heavy; it uses a lot of traffic, and requires a reliable, fast connection to make it work. To me, it seems like a design that is bound to be outdated within–at most–a few years, as smartphones’ computing abilities continue to grow: Why have a remote server do speech processing, when the phone has the hardware to do it itself? Why fetch maps and route-planning data when it can easily be stored locally? Ultimately, to me, Android’s design appears to be as much for Google’s benefit as it is for mine.
  • I actually ran out of space to install apps. I’m not kidding. With a 16 GB storage card with about 1 GB used. And maybe 50 apps on the phone, if that many. And they’re all small apps, like maybe 10 megs each, tops. It seems that even though Android is now capable of installing apps on the microSD card, it still needs to put a few megs of info per app on the internal storage (and many apps won’t play nice on the microSD card at all, and must live entirely on the internal storage). The Optimus V, like many of the low-end Android phones, has only a couple hundred megs available for those little slivers of apps that don’t go on the microSD card. Well, when you’ve got a bunch of little slivers, the space they need adds up, and the next thing you know: plenty of space on the microSD card, but no more apps for you, because the internal storage is completely full. D’oh. Coming from my iPad and iPod touch where I literally have hundreds of apps installed on each, and many of the iPad game apps are well over a gig in size each, it’s a shock. As in: This is broken, Google. Fix it.
  • I thought the iPhone had bad battery life. Even with light usage, I had to be careful to plug it in at the end of the day every day. But this Android phone brought battery suck to a new low. After a full charge, and before I installed any new apps, with it just sitting there, screen off, it was dead after 5 hours. Yikes. I was able to get things under control by installing the app that gave me control over the radios, and the app that auto-switched to airplane mode when I hit the power button. As a result, the phone goes for several days of occasional light use without needing a recharge. The downside is that it won’t receive phone calls except while I’m using it. But for my purposes, that’s fine. I never intended to actually use it as a phone–I’ve got a throwaway Verizon contract-free dumb phone on a much cheaper plan for that. But come on, Google. A phone that you need to either charge twice a day or take direct control of the battery management of is more hassle than it’s worth. Apple is kicking your butt here. This is a bad joke. Fix it.
  • I can’t ever recall having to do a hard reset on any of my iOS devices. Ever. I wouldn’t even know how. Within the first 2 days of using the Optimus, it completely locked up and couldn’t recover no matter what I did. Twice. Both times it happened while accessing the 2 GB microSD card that came with the phone (so perhaps it was a bad card–but still). Pulling the battery solved the problem both times. A brutal solution, but a reliable one. At least the Optimus has a battery cover that’s easy to remove. Google is infamous for releasing stuff that’s still beta-quality, and clearly Android is no different from their other software. If Android is going to rely on microSD cards for basic functionality, then it should be able to handle them, good, bad, defective, whatever. No excuses. In a device sold to regular consumers rather than techies, low-level hardware stuff like this should just work; Android should never have a problem that requires pulling the battery to solve. This is broken, Google. Fix it.

Overall, I think the Optimus V is a fine phone for the price, and Virgin Mobile’s plan is a very good deal. Android 2.2 is pretty OK, but it’s definitely not iOS, either in terms of robustness or user-friendliness. The apps currently available on the Android Market are either utilitarian or uninteresting. Battery management is far more hands-on than it should or could be. I would strongly recommend this phone to anyone who likes gadgets that are in and of themselves fun to tinker with, or who is looking for a bargain phone that can be made quite usable with a little sweat equity. I would not recommend it to anyone who is at all technologically phobic; anyone who is concerned about Google’s access to the data stored on their phone; or anyone who is looking for a phone that just works.

Update 6/12/2011: I still completely agree with my earlier assessment. I’ve been carrying the phone with me as a replacement for my iPod touch for almost two months now, and I use it only slightly more than I used the iPod, which is faint praise. I use it more because I can check my email without having to connect to WiFi (and enter a login and password to access the WiFi, which is a serious hassle on a device this size). I listen to music about as often; it sounds about as good as on the iPod, and ol’ WinAmp is usable without being overly “helpful”. I was thinking that I might tinker with the phone: root it and install an XDA ROM. But I’ve yet to find a compelling reason to do so. Perhaps when an Android 3.1 ROM is available for this model (if one ever is). In the mean time, it’s a good phone for a good price. Android is OK, but it’s not iOS. The uneven requirements for usage of the Menu and Back buttons is a constant irritant. I’ve tried different browsers, but haven’t found one nearly as good as Atomic on the iPod. Long term, I hope to replace this phone with an iPhone when or if ever one becomes available on a contract-free low-cost plan. Until then, the Optimus is an adequate placeholder.

Update 10/5/2011: I am fairly happy with the phone overall. For $25 / month, I’m quite happy with the Virgin Mobile service; it is an honest bargain. VM has since raised the rate to $35/month, but my phone is grandfathered in at the older rate. I’d still consider the service a bargain at $35 / month.

The phone is an excellent feature phone. Is it a $200 feature phone? No. But that’s pretty much exactly how I use it:

  • As a phone (it is a pretty good phone, though the Android dialer drives me crazy)
  • To take pictures (the camera is good and is easy to use)
  • To check email (using the K9 email client, which is a little buggy, but is free)
  • To listen to music and podcasts (using WinAmp, which is pretty good)
  • To check a mobile-web-based city bus tracker (using the Dolphin web browser, which is adequate for this one use, but is free).

There is nothing special about any of these uses; I can do all of them on my backup $20 feature phone, but they’re easier and faster on this phone. However, that’s where my usage of this phone ends. I find that once I start trying to use other apps or Android features, I quickly end up in the Android quagmire:

  • Responsiveness goes down because some app is doing something or other in the background. Screen touches are ignored, or worse, are queued up until the phone is less busy, then processed inappropriately. Menus go from sorta-sliding to stuck. It’s amazing how many apps seem to do this. Once you’ve launched them, they never really go away, they just linger around and occasionally decide that they need to do something that sucks up the CPU.
  • All those lingering apps also kill the battery. Which is short-lived enough as it is, thanks.
  • The phone often freezes within moments of unlocking the front screen, because Android has zero self-control and tries to do everything at once. Multiple app updates are all started as soon as the phone has a 3G signal. Every single app (weather, text messages, email) jumps onto the dogpile, all trying to update at the same time. Android thrashes to the point that it is completely unresponsive and the battery starts getting very warm, or completely locks up and the battery cools back down. I’ve turned off most of the automatic settings that cause this problem to happen, but the Marketplace won’t work at all unless background communication is allowed, and that opens the barn door. Oh, good, another chance to see if holding down the power button will cause Android to shut down cleanly (nope) or it’s time to fix Android by pulling the battery.

So, I stick to the basic, safe apps that don’t seem to cause too many problems. I keep most of the automatic features turned off. And as a result, I have a very fancy feature phone.

As soon as Virgin Mobile or one of their many competitors offers an iPhone 4 on a similar plan, my fancy Android feature phone goes on Craigslist.