HERE maps and GPS navigating to Upper Canada Village

Nokia HERE Maps and Navigation Review

There are plenty of GPS Navigation apps available to Android users, from big names to odd names and no names. The latest addition to crop is Nokia’s HERE. Obviously this is a big name! Most importantly this is a primary provider since Nokia’s HERE subsidiary is a mapping company – this isn’t just a third-party app that relies on someone else’s data.

The next thing to take note of is that this is coming from the new Nokia that is no longer beholden to Redmond whip masters. I was always a big fan of Nokia (most of my mobile phones were from them) so I really hope they do well and work hard to get out of the Microsoft shadow and regain their former glory.

I finally had the opportunity to really put HERE through the paces on a recent road trip to the USA – which means no data while roaming!!!
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Flickr Image Editor

Flickr 3 Point Oh!

You know your app is long overdue for a refresh when the latest release is big news across the web. Flickr 3.0 clogged the inter-tubes today and although the new version adds some great features it still doesn’t live up to the competition.

The new interface is much more slick and you have some ability to manage your photo stream now. The biggest enhancement is automatic uploading of photos and videos (so apps like Flync are now somewhat redundant, but not entirely). The other big change is the camera.

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Android Camera Apps

What’s the Best Android Camera App

One of the things I like to do most with my smart phone is take pictures. I’ve been through more than my share of camera apps, and probably purchased more than I needed to. Here’s a run-down of what I’ve discovered along the way.

Samsung Camera UI

Samsung Camera UI

Update 1: I’ve made some discoveries regarding Snap Camera and A Better Camera that improve the review. I’d also like to highlight some developers who’ve been very responsive.

Obviously there were issues with the camera app that came with my Samsung Galaxy S3 that made me start looking for an alternative. The most egregious problem was that the camera app kept losing its settings, especially my selection of short-cuts, if I was storing photos on the phone (as opposed to the SD card). The other issues were the interface and functionality was pretty basic, and when launching the camera from the Cover lock screen I couldn’t switch to the video camera.

Two elements I’ve included in the review are whether you can specify the storage location for your pictures (and videos). Some of the apps only let you choose between phone/device and SD card while other let you specify the full path to the storage location. This may be an issue if and when your device is on Android 4.4 Kit Kat since it changes how the external SD Card is accessed and used. Personally I can’t believe that Google would make such a breaking change without any mitigation path so I suspect that as people come to better understand the changes in 4.4 they will re-implement whatever needs to be done and everything will be just perfect!

I’ve also indicated whether you can take still pictures while shooting video. This is a great little feature allows you to capture the whole event as well as the little moments along the way. Not all the apps were capable of this, in fact some couldn’t even take videos! The Samsung Camera allows you specify the general storage location (phone or SD card) and grab stills while shooting video.

One thing none of the cameras featured was a document mode for scanning pages. I know apps like Evernote and Handy Scanner both have these features, but I would find it convenient to have them in a generic camera app rather than a component of another app.

Cover Camera Selection

Cover Camera Selection

The issue with camera apps is they’re notoriously finicky. Each phone, even from the same manufacturer, uses different hardware for their camera. Some camera’s are really unique – like those from HTC, and then there’s Samsung’s line of Android powered point-and-shoot cameras. An app that works perfectly for me might not work properly, or even launch, on your phone.

The list of camera apps I tried includes Camera KK (and it’s predecessor Camera JB+), Nexus Camera: KitKat Camera, Focal, Camera FV-5, Open Camera, Snap Camera, and A Better Camera. A few other things to note are that I prefer QuickPic as my gallery app and Aviary as my photo editor; and I also use the Cover lock screen replacement which features quick-access to the camera that by-passes the security.

Camera KK

CameraKK UI

CameraKK UI

This camera from Moblynx is built on Google’s camera source code, but fine tunes and adds a few features. I started with the predecessor, Camera JB+ (which included a gallery app), and used this camera exclusively until I ran into some lag issues when taking pictures – especially when using the flash. The interface is pretty clean and, apart from the lag, all the functions work very well. You can specify the general storage location with this app; and you can take stills while shooting a video. One of the things I really appreciated was that this camera did NOT come bundled with another gallery app since I prefer QuickPic. The developer is very responsive to e-mails.

Nexus Camera: KitKat Camera

Nexus Camera UI

Nexus Camera UI

Following the lag issues I was experiencing with Camera KK I decided to give this camera app a try. It is also built from the same code base as the Nexus camera like Camera KK. However this app sticks closer to the original and doesn’t add any features or do any fine-tuning. You can’t specify the storage location at all, but you can take stills while shooting video. And unfortunately it also suffered from a frustratingly long lag when taking pictures. I assume the lag is either because the source target’s Nexus cameras or because it’s so generic it doesn’t handle specific interactions with the Galaxy S3 camera.

Focal

Focal UI

Focal UI

I was really looking forward to this camera since it came from CyanogenMod. It has a unique interface that could be quite powerful, but there are some features that just don’t work yet (it is in beta). Most annoying is missing EXIF data like orientation (portrait/landscape) and geo-location. One of the coolest features is PicSphere mode for taking 360-degree photos. Another cool feature is being able to pin open the configurations you change most often so you can quickly access them; and quickly changing modes using the outside edge of the shutter button. You can’t specify the storage location at all, and in theory you can grab stills while shooting video but neither worked very well for me during my testing. Although I can launch this camera from Cover it doesn’t by-pass the security screen. The developer is active on the project’s XDA Developers thread.

Camera FV-5

Camera FV-5 UI

Camera FV-5 UI

This is the camera app to use if you want a DSLR in your phone. Everything possible is adjustable, there’s no fancy icons of snowman wearing party hats at night; just the controls you would expect to find on a real camera. Granted on a phone, with it’s tiny little capture element and feeble LED flash there’s only so much the settings can accomplish. But for some phones, and for Android cameras, this is a great app to have. I used it a lot to take a series of bracketed photos for Google+ to make an HDR photo from – automagically!!! For the storage location you can choose from suggested paths or specify your own, and this is only a still camera – no video! This app does NOT integrate with Cover though.

Open Camera

Open Camera UI

Open Camera UI

This app is a whole new design effort that re-imagines the camera interface on a touch screen. It definitely has the most unique interface, but I have to admit I wasn’t too crazy about it as it involved a lot of cycling through choices and waiting for the choice to take effect rather than being able to directly choose the option I wanted. This app is still under heavy development though so hopefully this is something that will change. The camera interface also displays some very useful information, like a horizon line, compass direction, and angle. You can’t specify the storage location at all, and not only does it not take stills while capturing video the video I did capture was mostly green static! This app does NOT integrate with Cover. The developer is very responsive on the project’s Source Forge site.

Snap Camera

Snap Camera UI

Snap Camera UI

The interface of this camera comes back to the one found in Google’s Nexus camera app, but the camera itself works differently and has a lot of other features. One of the most interesting features is the camera shutter and the video shutter are on-screen together, so there’s no switching modes – both are always available. My biggest issue is with navigating the menus actually. You can specify the full path to the storage location, and although the camera shutter button is always visible during video capture you can’t capture any stills unless the option is activated! This camera app also comes with a gallery app and video player (neither of which I would choose to use since I have QuickPic).

A Better Camera

A Better Camera UI

A Better Camera UI

The author of this app has a prolific collection of photography apps that are brought together into this one app. You could always install only the specific app you want, but the fun thing with ABC is there’s also a widget that let’s you open the camera directly into the mode you want. It also features DRO, Dynamic Range Optimization, to enhance your photos as you take them. The interface is quite powerful and really takes advantage of the touch screen interface, making all the functionality easily accessible. With ABC you can choose between phone or SD Card presets or specify your own path to the storage location; unfortunately though you can’t grab any stills while shooting a video. Although I can launch this camera from Cover it doesn’t by-pass the security screen. The developer is very responsive in the Google+ community.

Conclusion

Unfortunately there’s no perfect camera app in this list. Either they can’t be launched from Cover (which is essential for me), or I can’t grab stills while shooting video (with two kids multi-tasking is a requirement), or it suffers from some incompatibility with my phone (broken video, excessive lag, etc.). I’m going to keep Camera FV-5 around for those times when I really need to geek-out with my photos, but for my day-to-day camera I feel like I’m stuck with the average performing but generally functional Samsung camera app.

Another interesting observation is that half the cameras listed here use the same interface design (not the same options though) coming from the Google Nexus camera interface. It’s an interesting interface with a lot of sliding left/right and up/down to access options and make choices. But I found it a bit difficult to work with since the icons are small (i.e.: hard to press) and you end-up wandering all over your screen as you move through the menus.

Cross-posted on 2FatDads

Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 LTE Review

This review was made possible with the generous support of Pop Radiator!

This weekend I had the opportunity to play with a Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 with LTE. It’s a great Android Honeycomb tablet with connectivity every where you go thanks to the LTE radio.

I only had the tablet for the weekend, and quite a busy weekend, but I managed to try a few things out. Of course my wife and I checked our e-mail (Hotmail and GMail) and browsed the web (including some Flash), of course we played some a lot of Solitaire, did some navigation, and to see how well LTE was working ran Speed Test on a regular basis.

Screen size

The 8.9 inch screen size is a bit smaller than most Android tablets, that typically have a 10.1 inch screens (except the Sony Tablet S with its 9.4 inch screen size). The iPad has a 9.7 inch screen. The screen is big enough for all the things I wanted to do, and there’s about a one-inch bezel around the screen that makes it easy to hold.

In a few instances though I found that holding the screen in portrait mode was preferable because it meant no up-and-down scrolling, but then the size of the text and images was almost too small to be comfortable. Given the choice I think I would prefer a 10.1 inch tablet for that reason.

Flash

There’s a few web sites I use regularly that depend on Flash for their RIA. In general Flash works very well, and every Flash test site I tried said the Flash plug-in I had was 100% compatible. But in reality the few sites where I absolutely require Flash the experience was not impressive. It probably wasn’t Adobe’s fault, more likely the widgets the web sites choose don’t support a touch interface too well (too small a target area, or too many too close together).

Web services need to move beyond Flash and develop either native apps or build better HTML5 mobile web sites.

Phone vs. Tablet apps

Two of the apps I installed were designed for phones with a smaller screen rather than a tablet with a higher resolution. One simply centered itself in the middle of the screen, which was fine but a bit disappointing that the extra real estate wasn’t used to provide more information. The other app stretched itself out to fill the whole screen, but ended up looking pixelated.

In the end I guess each developer decides how they handle different screen sizes. Apple went through the same growing pains when they introduced the iPad. Hopefully Google their developers over this hump quickly.

LTE

Long Term Evolution or LTE is the next standard that mobile operators are moving towards. Most of the networks are still on HSPA or HSPA+. The promise of these standards is high speed internet access anywhere, from 21 Mpbs up to 75 Mbps for LTE. The reality is about one tenth of that!

I ran SpeedTest.net’s app on a few occasions to see what kind of though put I was getting. I check if I was using LTE or HSPA, but the results are still useful to see how prevalent LTE really is.

Test Connection Download Upload Latency Server
9 Lte 7.56 7.38 29 Mount Royal, QC
8 Lte 9.46 0.91 31 Mount Royal, QC
7 Umts 8.06 2.61 33 Mount Royal, QC
6 Umts 6.20 1.50 52 Montreal, QC
5 Umts 4.09 0.28 60 Boucherville
4 Umts 3.51 0.66 71 Mount Royal, QC
3 Umts 3.00 1.35 59 Mount Royal, QC
2 Umts 6.32 2.99 89 Mount Royal, QC
1 Umts 4.90 1.41 58 Washington, DC
Average   5.90 2.12 54  
Average LTE   8.51 4.15 30  
Average UMTS   5.15 1.54 60  

Note: Download and Upload speeds in Mbps, Latency in milliseconds

As you can see I never achieved the 75 Mbps promise of LTE that the device an theoretically handle. I never achieved the maximum speed promised by any of the standards, but I was happy to beat the HSPA expected average of 3.5 Mbps.

Navigation

Just for the heck of it, I pulled up the Navigation app on the tablet on our way to Sugaring Off. I also had the TomTom VIA 1435 going as well as the Navigation app on my Android Gingerbread phone. In terms of directions all three were spot-on and pretty much in sync – although the three-way spoken directions got annoying pretty fast.

The coolest thing about the navigation app on the tablet is how much more on either side of the route you can see. This is especially great when navigating around town and making frequent turns, you can see much more of the upcoming route and prepare yourself for the next few turns.

The biggest problem I had with navigating with the Tab is the glossy screen makes it very reflective. And on a sunny day it can make it almost impossible to see what’s on the screen. The other problem is the interface isn’t designed for the rapid jabbing a driver usually subjects his GPS to with one hand while driving 120 km/h with one hand on the wheel!

Conclusion

The tablet is a great size, much more useful than a 7-inch tablet but not quite as unwieldy as a 10-inch tablet. The rubberized back makes holding it comfortable and secure. The wireless network access means you make full use of it where ever your are, but the promise of LTE speeds falls back on your provider but the tablet is ready as soon as your network is.

See my complete Weekend with a Samsung Tab 8.9 LTE tablet photo gallery.

Cross-posted on 2FatDads