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!