26 May 2010

A (re-)look at the Samsung SGH-i600

I realise that I am in the fortunate position of owning both an HTC HD2 and a Toshiba TG01, two super specc'd and very speedy Windows Mobile smart phones. More on the Tosh later, as I have now upgraded to 6.5.x and it is working beautifully as my portable media player, synchronizing beautifully with my Windows media centre.

Until last week, the HD2 was my actual phone, but, much as I like it, there are a few things which I would prefer to see in it. The first is a longer battery life - with Exchange and Twitter running you are lucky to get through 12 hours of use before a recharge. The second is that, much as I like Swype, the on-screen software inpout panels (SIPs) are much more effective on a resistive screen, and I prefer a harware keyboard anyway. The third is that the HD2, even though it is all screen, is still pretty massive.

I am also someone who is fortunate enough to have 2 SIM cards: one for voice and texts (with minimal data) and one for data alone. So, what was the best way to optimize my devices? Well, it would make sense for me to put the data SIM into the HD2 because with internet connection sharing and the marvellous WiFi router, it would be the easiest for using that connection. I also like that I can take it with me and have its serve independently as a mobile internet device (do people still use the term "MID"?).

The Tosh is still my home browsing device, so that meant I needed a new phone, preferably one with a hardware keyboard, WiFi, HSDPA and also pretty cheap. That's where the Samsung SGH-i600 came in. I manage to snag one on eBay for just under £40. It came announced as SIM-locked to O2, but O2 doesn't really lock their handsets so both the 3 and the Orange SIMs work in it. After doing the basic tests to make sure everything was operational I flashed it from Windows Mobile 5.0 to Windows Mobile 6.1. This is not a particularly difficult procress but definitely requires Windows XP (not Vista or 7) and involves a particular sequence of ROM flashes to allow the progression to higher versions of the OS. Now it has the lovely sliding panels interface and all.

Key programs I've loaded on board in no particular order:

  • twikini

  • total commander

  • facebook

  • windows live

  • marketplace

  • bing

  • google maps

  • keep recordin'

  • live mesh

  • myphone

  • opera mini 5 beta

  • smart piano

  • tcpmp

  • tempoperfect

  • weather watcher

  • wm wifi router

Overall I am pretty pleased with the result. The phone serves mainly as a social networking hub and with push email, twitter (via twikini) and facebook all of my bases are covered. This being an older phone the internet connection is HSDPA version 1, but it is fast enough even for browsing using Opera mini.

One thing I will say is that the normal battery is definitely not enough. You will need to use the extended battery if you want to use any kind of connectivity. Thankfully the phone came with a jewel box shaped charger so you are never without an extra. One work of caution though, for reasons entirely incomprehensible to me, Samsung have cables which either charge your phone, or synchronize it, but not both. So you cannot charge the phone with the USB cable that comes with the phone and must use the included wall plug. For people like me who use a single wall wart USB adapter then plug the variety of USB cables in to allow charging of all the different electrical gizmos this is singularly annoying!

My other criticism is that the processor isn't all that quick (certainly conmpared to the two snapdragon devices), so if you are contemplating watching videos encoded in the native QVGA resolition, then you will ve disappointed. Instead, I reencode everything using Windows Media Encoder into the Pocket PC 220x176 profile. This keeps a decent framerate and image quality, with a small file size.

Overall, I'm pretty happy with this arrangeent; my conclusion is that nothing can beat a hardware keyboard at the end of the day!

21 April 2010

Hacking the joggler

So the joggler arrived on Monday and it is a pretty cool gadget as I described previously. But in its box fresh state it is fairly limited. For instance, the news source is limited to Sky News. Who decided that? When I booted it up, a firmware update did a bit to correct it my allowing the installation of the official app store and Google calendar rather than the built in O2 one. Intriguingly, my joggler, unlike the publicity materials, only bears O2 branding in the firmware, and nowhere on the hardware at all. This bodes well for future software upgrades!

I wasted no time in applying the telnet hack, which was somewhat delayed only by my inability to find a suitable USB stick, followed by the Pimp My Joggler hack. This installed a load of BBC streaming channels (amongst other programs) which now come to the Joggler via WiFi. All in all, pretty cool. I am now just waiting for the rest of iPlayer and hopefully the other terrestrial channels to show up for a great in kitchen telly! Even if they don't, all is not lost as the good news is that the joggler can already conect to my home server to view TV shows stored on it recorded by my media center.

19 April 2010

That big ass table

It was with some surprise that I wandered into Delft tourist information to find Microsoft Surface in action there. Never touched one of these before, and it was unoccupied. I am convinced this really is the way of the future!

10 April 2010

Joggler, not iPad

Readers of my blog will realize that the iPad is basically the antithesis of everything I believe in when it comes to gadgetry: a shiny, slick, seductive trinket which is also a closed and proprietary appliance. I'm not saying that this is not right for many people, but for me, with my propensity to tinker and tweak, it is unsatisfying. And the suggestion that any company can decide what I run on my own computer once I've bought it is frankly downright insulting. I can't put it better than Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing, or Peter Bright at Ars Technica, but in short, Apple is doing its hardest to lock people into its own way at the expense of open standards. Bad, bad Apple!

This did not, of course, stop me from popping down to the Apple Store by the Licoln Center for a quick fondle, and I must say that it does swoop and swoosh with considerable aplomb, so the device is very appealing from an aesthetic level in terms of both the hardware and software. What really put me off though, in addition to the above, was the zealous fervour of the random member of the public next to me, trying to convince his friend about the wonders of this new device. It was as though he was a paid salesman who was regurgitating that ridiculous video where Jonathan Ives is going on about how "magical" the iPad is. Urk. She, on the other hand, was sensibly asking things like "Where is the keyboard?" and "I have a netbook, why do I need this?" If there is one thing worse than the smugness of Apple, it is the sumugess of its users.

Anyway, exposing myself to new tech makes me itchy to buy something, so I withdrew before I made a regretable mistake, but wasn't quite fast enough. When I got in, I chanced across an advert for the O2 Joggler and how it was going for just £49.99 for a limited time to celebrate the launch of the app store. Now, I remember the Joggler when it first came out: it is a rebranded OpenPeak Open Frame, but O2's customizations and firmware castrated its functionality leaving it as little more than a really expensive photoframe (it originally cost £149.99). Despite this, it really is a great piece of hardware with pretty good specifications including a 7" WVGA capacitive touch screen, WiFi, a built-in speaker and an Atom processor. The hardware alone costs more than £50, so at that price I could't say no.

A bit more reading, however, and I have now discovered that O2 have finally released an SDK and a style guide, which bodes well for new funcitonality. They have already added Google Calendar, Google Maps and YouTube. And there are other hackers out there who have managed to install Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Android and even Maemo Mer onto it. The joggler does not ahve batteries, so it may have been more prudent to have waited for a true Android tablet, but it wouldn't have been this cheap. Will give it a bit of a play and see where it goes. Delivery due any time now!

26 March 2010

Replacing the N800

For a device which, for the better part of 18 months was my main way of accessing and listening or watching podcasts, I blogged very little about the Nokia N800. Sadly, with the arrival of the Toshiba TG01, I decided that it was time for it to find a new home, and it has, courtesy of eBay, flown the coop.

Of course, this means that the TG01 had to be repurposed to this role. But could it live up to the standards of the N800? Well the answer is both a 'yes' and a 'no'. First of all, the TG01 just doesn't have anywhere near the same kinds of speakers of the N800. I don't mind the loss of stereo sound, but I do mind that the Toshiba can't really crank up the volume enough. I don't need it to be too loud, just loud enough to overcome the sound of frying something in the kitchen or splashing about in the tub. The TG01 can't quite achieve this. The other major issue is the lack of a built in stand. I looked on line for a case which has this as part of the design, but they were nowhere to be found. Instead I have taken to using a bit of blutack to stick the stand which came with the TG01, a weird 3-way folding contraption, to the back of the phone. It works but is hardly cosmetic. I guess the best thing is that it works in both landscape and portrait where the N800 could not.

So, what do I use now as my pod catcher? Well, the one I have settled on is BeyondPod, which has two great features. The first is automatic seeking and downloading of podcasts. This means I never have to check manually and all the latest material is there for me to watch when I want. It also has a great automatic delete function, which I have set to remove podcats older than three weeks. This is essential as I have an 8GB card in there which is surprisingly little capacity. I am still sticking to downloading the versions of the podcasts formatted for the PSP as the resolution is fine, but some shows just don't come compressed that way, such as the Engadget Show. There was some trepidation the first time I played this on the TG01 - would the Snapdragon processor hold up? - but it all seems to run fine at the encoded frame rate. Of course the file is totally massive, and, for my purposes, unnecessarily so.

The other amazing program is myPlayer, a great riff on the BBC iPlayer, but which supports most of the U.K.'s on-line TV channels as well as the one from the Beeb. Now, in this case the resolution does matter, as what comes through is blocky and pixelated, and now and then there are limitations to the speed at which it streams. This can lead to the odd glitch in playback.

Finally, the Snapdragon processor really comes into its own when myPlayer is combined with my pair of bluetooth speakers. I have, in the past used an HTC Magician to try to stream audio, and this worked fairly well. The N800 does not have the BT audio profile so could not connect to the external speakers. But the TG01 handles the combined streaming of video into the device via Wifi, decoding and displaying the image on the screen, and transmitting the audio out via bluetooth to the speakers without a hitch. Amazing! To a certain extent it also mitigates the disadvantage of the poor built-in speakers.

11 February 2010

Panucci, gPodder and the N800: portable podcasts

So, quite a while ago I asked who the N800 is for. I think we all realise that the Nokia internet tablets were a bit of an experiment for Nokia, and I would even classify the recently released N900 in that category. Nokia have been tweaking the size, the keyboard, the connectivity, but I can honestly say that each of the devices has its own merits and the more recent iterations are not necessarily 'better'.

There are a couple of features of the N800 which, despite it being two generations old, I think still cannot be matched by current devices. The first is its front facing stereo speakers which are not only loud, they are clear and fairly punchy. They remind me of the transistor radio of old. The second is that built-in kick stand so you can prop the tablet up wherever you like. The combination of these two, and WiFi connectivity, means that the N800 is a near perfect portable podcatcher and playback device, not just for audio but video as well.

The podcast client I use is gPodder which has a number of new features since I started using it, the main one being the automatic checking of your podcast lists. It then informs you that a new podcast is available. For audio podcast playback I strongly recommend Panucci which is actually named after the pizza restaurant owner in Furutama. The main advantage of this is that it can bookmark where you stopped a podcast so if you stop listening to it, you can resume where you left off. For video podcast playback I just use mPlayer mainly for the wide codec support. My top tip for this is that the processor in the N800 cannot really handle WVGA podcasts, so you are better off downloading the option for the PSP (400 x 272) which, on the high pixel density screen of the N800 looks great.

10 February 2010

Pimping your Windows Mobile 6.1

Let's face it, we all like something new and shiny, but very often it isn't the hardware which is stale, it is the software. After all, once you have a high-res colour screen, a keyboard, every connectivity option under the sun including GPS and WiFi running on a decent processor, do you really need anything more? If you are a geek like me, the answer is always 'yes', but at least the hunger (and the expense) can be delayed by tweaking your device. This is especially true if you have a phone by a company which has not been blessed with the benevolent hackitude that is xda-developers, so an automatic Windows Mobile OS upgrade is not always available. In such a situation, what is a geek to do? The good news is that even if you are stuck on Windows Mobile 6.1, there is quite a bit you can do to make it friendlier for your fingers, and add a little visual "wow!" And all for free too! Here's my handy guide to how I've pimped out my i-mate Ultimate 9502.

Update the boring today screen with TouchFlo
Officially, TouchFlo only runs on HTC devices. Indeed, many of TouchFlo's tabs are hooked into HTC-specific programs, registry keys and dlls. Unofficially, however, you can get most of the features up and running without too much bother. In that respect TF2D is easier to get going than TF3D. Pijulius over on xda-developers has worked hard to port the graphics from QVGA (which is the screen resolution it works on natively) so that TouchFlo 2D runs on VGA screens. I have tweaked my own installation a bit by commenting out the tabs which don't work in the home.xml file and also tweaked some of the images so that the clock and buttons more closely resemble the most current iterations of HTC Sense. The main advantage is you get finger friendly buttons and a slick graphical interface which will keep even the most jaded geek happy for a little longer.

Add finger scrolling and finger-friendly menus
Of course, the finger friendliness should not be limited to the homescreen only. Ideally it should extend all the way through the UI. There is no escaping that Windows Mobile was designed for stylus use; I have no complaints about this, but if you really want to use your fingers on those occasions when strecthing to the silo just won't do, then this can also be achieved. In fact, this involves three programs. The first is FTouchFlo by Efrost which gives you a semblance of finger friendly scrolling, so you don't have to use the scroll bars. This is paired with Schaps' FTouchFlo Configuration Tool which lets you even more finely tweak some of the settings. Finally, to replace Windows Mobile 6.1's default tiny menus, you should use Francarl's FingerSuite. Although this looks like HTC's current default menus it in fact predated HTC's implementation. Works just as well!

Intercept the start menu and change the background
One of the new features of Windows Mobile 6.5 is that when you click on the start menu flag you don't get that tiny drop down menu any more. Instead it takes you to that hexagonal grid of all your programs. You can emulate this to a certain degree in Windows Mobile 6.1 by using a program called Start Launcher by Bartwell. What this does is intercept a click on the start button so that it will run any other program. To get it to take you directly to the programs folder, just configure a 'tap' to direct to /windows/folderview.exe. My top tip is to leave 'tap and hold' activating the old menu so you can easily get to settings. While you're there, if you are bored of the horrid white background of the programs folder, then you can change this too. I'm using grey, but really, almost any colour can be used. Just install UI Tweaker. Oh, and you may have noticed how my taskbar and soft keys are flat black? Well, that's because I'm using the HTC Black theme taken from my own HTC Touch Diamond.

Change the keyboard
There is no denying that the built in keyboard for Windows Mobile 6.1 sucks big time if you want to use your fingers. Thankfully you can always install an alternative software input panel (SIP). The ones I like and use are the Finger Touch keyboard by Teksoft and the Swype keyboard. I hesitate to recommend the latter as it seems to have been literally 'swiped' off the Omnia II ROM. In terms of function, however, I have to say that it works perfectly on resistive touchscreens. Both come with a range of alternative keyboards to suit every type of finger (or thumb) and both can be skinned as well, so you can integrate them right into whatever theme you have chosen for your device.

Beautify your SMS
This tweak falls into the not-absolutely-necessary-but-it-looks-pretty category. Since Windows mobile 6.1 we have had threaded SMSes. If you are one of those people who would prefer the display to look more like a series of speech bubbles then Astronaut's work in Skin SMS will be right up your alley. The power of the community means that all sorts of skins are now available, from the more staid versions like those from HTC Messaging and the iPhone to rather more florid user-generated variants. You are sure to find a skin which suits you.

Multiple personalities

Nearly a month ago I asked myself what to do with my old phone now that my new one had arrived. Well, it turns out there are many merits to tinkering with a device which you don't have to rely on as a primary means of communication. I have long extolled the virtues of Windows Mobile as one of those operating systems where you can change anything from the browser to the UI, from the file explorer you use to the icons which represent the applications. What I hadn't expected, however, was the ability to totally change the OS of some of these phones. For that we have to thank the geniuses at HTC for making their phones so damn hackable, and the even greater geniuses at xda-developers for doing the actual hacking, and sharing the fruits of their labour with us mere mortals.

Their latest efforts extend the life of my old HTC Touch Diamond far beyond what I could rightfully expect, because not only have they tweaked Windows, they have enabled the hardware to run not one but two completely different operating systems. For instance, not only can you dual boot into the latest build of Android on the phone, you can also run Blackberry OS via the Blackberry application suite. I can tell you that exploring both these OSes will provide me with many happy hours of tweaking!

27 January 2010

Getting a "sense" of the Toshiba TG01

As you may have gathered, my phone was upgraded, and I am now in posession of a Toshiba TG01. The shocking thing is that this phone is, for whatever reason, not very popular on Orange, and they are in the process of getting rid of them. I was amazed that they gave it to me entirely for free (on a contract, albeit a low one); we are talking about a Windows Mobile 6.5 smart phone with a 4.1" WVGA screen and a Snapdragon processor humming along at 1GHz encased in one of the most gorgeous and thinnest shells I have ever seen. Bargain!

Naturally, hardware alone does not a good phone make, and software also plays a very big role. I did try using Toshiba's own stripe interface which wasn't really as bad as people make out, and Orange's customizations which I think are truly dreadful and ugly, as well as Titanium, the default Zune-like interface of WM6.5, but because I have been using the HTC Diamond for so long, I have gotten used to the default HTC interface. I think the Diamond was the first device to use TouchFlo 3D, and with time this has gradually been upgraded and is now called HTC Sense. In fact, my Diamond currently runs HTC Sense 2.1, so I was seriously missing the interface.

Well, the good news is that this being Windows Mobile, if you don't like the UI you can always change it, and one enterprising soul has created a Sense 2.1 cab installer. This runs very well on the TG01 as you might imagine, and is both fast and responsive. You do get all the amazing 3D weather animations which never cease to wow me. Here is a video I made of it in action.

Sadly there are a few tabs which don't really work fully. The first is the contacts tab which, while you are able to assign favourites, on my device and setup crashes when you click on "All Contacts" on the left soft key. Also, video doesn't appear in the pictures and videos tab, nor does the picture viewer open when you click on a photo. HTC Album (HTC's own photo viewer) doesn't seem to install properly on this device. Obviously, and link to an HTC proprietary program is non-functional either.
None of these are deal breakers for me, and I have to say it does make the transition from my HTC Diamond to the Toshiba TG01 that much easier. I know that many people are hesitant about using a non HTC phone because they will lose Sense (which explains why HTC is going after the low end with the HTC Smart to get you hooked on the UI). HTC Sense on the Toshiba TG01 serves as a bit of a reassurance to those who are thinking of taking on leap with this great deal of a phone.

15 January 2010

18 months

Wow. I can't believe it has been 18 months since I first received my HTC Touch Diamond. The only reason I know is that upgrade time has swung around again, and I have a new phone. In the last 18 months I have to say that the Diamond has been a real trooper: I have flashed the ROM at least a dozen times, each time falling in love with the interface all over again as something new is discovered.

The last 18 months have seen the unofficial releases of Windows Mobile 6.5, 6.5.1 and 6.5.3, all of which have run on my phone, as well as TouchFlo3D in its various incarnations right up to HTC Sense. Not all the new ROMs were that stable and some were downright buggy, but it was a risk I was willing to take. At the end of the day, the most stable ROM was one still based on 6.1: Gen.Y's really quite wonderful D2 R5 ROM which uses HTC Sense 2.1, and that is the one I've stuck with for the last few months.

So, now that the new phone has arrived, it begs the quesiton, what should I do with my trusty Diamond? I still love the phone because it is so small. Over time, however, the WiFi has ceased to work, which has proven to be quite a big problem as without the SIM it now has no independent connectivity apart from Bluetooth and GPS. Of course when synchronized it can use the PC's pass-through connection, but that is quite limiting. At the moment I have it set up as a 4GB mp3 player, but I am thinking of doing something a little more adventurous with it. Any suggestions?