Naughtyware. No, not that sort.

It looks like some app development may be taking a dark turn. Since ebay has released a new version of its app, the old version no longer works on my phone.

I start it, it crashes and then it kindly notifies me that a new version of the app is available.

The new version requires the location privilege, where the old location did not, and now to use ebay on my phone I have little choice but to install it and switch off location services while I use it.

Sigh.

This wasn’t the droid I was looking for

Motorola Razr HD smartphone rear cover
Good finish… bad start!

I was so happy recently to unpack my brand new Motorola RAZR HD.  It’s a lovely device. Wonderfully built, with a 4.7 inch 720p screen, replete with Gorilla Glass, and backed by a rubberized kevlar weave.  The aluminium strip separating the two, running around the edge of the phone, provides a premium feel.

Or, at least, this is what I was led to believe from various reviews.

In reality, what you have is a beautiful brick – with good battery life. Android 4.1.2, the operating system shipped with the phone and modified by Google/Motorola Mobility, to ensure the phone is quite unusable, provides an amazing experience – if you connect up your Google account.

The Empire Strikes Back

What happens if you don’t have a Google account, or if you’re unprepared to create one?

What happens is that the software on the phone may refuse to play nicely with other software you choose to install. Here are some examples of this obnoxiusness:

  • Phone set-up
    • Before even seeing the home-screen, you are prompted to log into your Google account – or create a new one. You decline.
    • You are reassured that it’s a really good idea to create a Google account, otherwise you’ll “miss out”.
    • Resolutely, you continue. You get to the home screen. Then you want to install something from the Android Market (sorry, “Google Play”). You now cannot avoid creating or using a Google account.
  • Contacts
    • The phone is still behaving as though you are not fully connected to Google. Therefore, your data storage is predominatly on the phone only.
    • However, you might want to check this in ‘Accounts and Sync’ (which we’ll get on to in a sec)
    • You have the option of synchronising your data off elsewhere, away from Google’s servers. The CardDAV Sync software on Google Play provides the vehicle for doing this*. You download and install it, set up the sync with your CardDAV server, and sync away.
    • You might find that some of the software from Google updates on your phone during this time, now that it has access to the market.
    • All good… but, you soon come to realise that you cannot add new contacts to your chosen sync location. Take the scenario where you receive an SMS from an unknown number. You try to add the contact from the SMS, and can only do so to local storage.
    • Worse still, your only option to alleviate this – the only sync location you can add contacts to is – that’s right, a/your Google account.
    • If you delete your Google account on the phone, you then find that you cannot sync your contacts anywhere, because you cannot specify a default Contacts Store in the Contacts app.
  • Calendar
    • The same is broadly true of the Calendar. If you are not sync’ed with a Google account, the only calendar you can use on the phone is the built-in phone calendar. You cannot use another, third-party calendar as the default store or synchronisation copy.
    • If you create calendar events on your phone without a Google account, even though you have other accounts which provide full calendar syncing capability, you will still be creating an event on the local calendar that has no synchronisation counterpart
    • During the course of writing this article, strangely the option appeared in my calendar to utilise alternative calendars when creating an event. We shall see if this persists..
  • Accounts & Sync
      • This section has become a total mess in Jelly Bean – especially in Motorola’s implementation.
      • You start at the home screen: swipe down (or across from left-to-right) to get to Settings (the cog symbol)
      • In Settings, you scroll down the list to the Accounts section. Hit CalDAV or CardDAV.
      • You are then taken to the respective app’s account information with a link to Edit account settings. Let’s hit that.
      • The screen scrolls again to another black screen showing the same account, the settings of which you want to change. Yet another tap on this…
      • .. and hey presto, you’re finally in! Here you make changes and then hit the back key.
      • … and then hit the back key…
      • … and then hit the back key…
      • and then you’re at Settings again, so..
      • … you then hit the back key…
      • …and you’re out!  (seriously, was this actually DESIGNED?!)
    • Going the other way into the apps settings (sorry if this is too painful for you) you first hit the Apps shortcut:
    • Hit the CalDAV or CardDAV icon
    • You then have the option: “Add account”, or “Go to accounts & sync”. Let’s say I want to edit an account, I’d choose “go to accounts and sync”..right? I tap it.
    • Oh, then there’s a pop-up style interface with ALL of your sync accounts. So I have to find my CalDAV app in the sync accounts list and tap on it…
    • Then I can see the calendar account I want to sync.  But how do I edit it? When i tap on it, it synchronises! Ahh, wait, there’s a menu/settings button (the one with three squares). I tap on that…
    • … and get the options “Sync now” or “Remove account”.
    • So, let’s get this right: to EDIT my app’s data, I go to Settings > Accounts & Sync (not to the app). And when I want to SYNC the account or DELETE it, I go to the app! That’s logical!

    In summary…

    Android is an open source ecosystem that encourages vendors to produce lock-in experiences which are frustrating, dysfunctional and unintuitive.

    And to think I was pro-android this time last week.  I suppose I still have the t-shirt.  The retailer will soon have the phone back, though.

    bootnote

    *CalDAV sync and CardDAV sync are both great pieces of software that fully get my support (and have done, in the financial sense).  I use them here as examples of good apps which are potentially made almost impossible to use by the restrictions imposed by Android OEMs.

    (to view all photos in this article, visit my flickr photoset)

    I’ve been needing a netbook for work for a little while.  So, chancing upon Martin Lewis‘s wonderful MoneySavingExpert web site, this article on cheaper netbooks was the prompt I needed.

    My main criteria for a netbook were:

    • Battery life as long as possible.
    • With my large hands, it must be as ergonomic and accommodating as possible.
    • Preferably without Windows.  What’s the point of paying for something I won’t use?
    • Linux must work well on it.
    • As light & small as possible.

    Given that nearly all early (pre dual core) netbooks are based on Intel’s Atom / 945 mobile chipset, most of the above criteria were already met.  Ergonomically, I’d read that each netbook had its foibles, so this point was moot.  The battery life was, for me, the deciding factor, which is why I chose a Samsung N130: the only model in the discounted range which ships with a 6-cell battery.  In ideal circumstances, this will last 6 hours.


    Order process, shipping, packing and unpacking

    The Argos outlet on eBay accepted only PayPal payments, but this didn’t matter to me.  The purchase process was as painless as you could expect.  I ordered the unit on a Friday morning.  On a Monday morning, at my office, it arrived courtesy of a cheery DHL delivery chap.  No complaints so far!

    The packing itself was as you’d expect: satisfactory for the job, with nothing much else to note.  Unboxing the unit was a quick affair, and before long I had a shiny netbook on my desk.  Considering this unit is classed as “refurbished”, I could see absolutely no defect or mark on it whatsoever.  I would have been very happy were this brand new.

    Plugging in, powering on, first impressions

    When unpacking the device, I was impressed with the general feel of it.  The plastic shell feels robust and the lid action is smooth.  Instead of a clasp, the lid clamps to the base by means (I’m guessing) of a magnet arrangement, which has a lovely feel about it.  Furthermore, Fedora behaves as expected, going straight into standby when the lid is closed.

    The weight of the unit was good too.  Before I put the battery in, that is.  After that, the weight felt subjectively like it had more than doubled, which would put some people off I’d imagine. However, it’s hardly as heavy as my laptop so by my standards it’s still very light.  A positive effect of the battery unit is in providing more stability while on a desk, and more resistance to the motion of closing/opening the lid.  All together, it works well.

    Along the front, left of the touchpad, are 5 LEDs.  I question the value of having an “on” LED in addition to a “charging” LED, but these are tiny devices so power consumption is likely to be equally tiny.  Besides, if unplugged, the charging LED isn’t illuminated. Again, another moot point.

    The feel of the keyboard is good. There isn’t a compromise in terms of key press action, although to fit in a full QWERTY keyboard, some compromises in layout have had to take place. As you can see, the hash (#)/tilde and right square-bracket/brace keys are squashed in, but the compromise is acceptable.

    Fedora installation and general usage

    I use Fedora, CentOS and Red Hat in my day job, so for me it’s the architecture that I prefer due to familiarity (which, in this case, has not yet bred contempt!).

    Using the usblive-creator tool in F13 on my laptop, I was able to set up a USB drive with a Fedora 12 live CD image, ready to boot and install on the netbook.  I’d opted for F12 because I’ve had issues with mobile broadband on F13 that worked fine on F12, and mobility is the primary goal here.  A quick change to the boot order in the BIOS and it was good to go.


    I was surprised how quickly the installation completed.  After having read about Atoms generally being slow processors, I’d expected an unhealthy dose of lethargy when installing the OS.  The first boot wasn’t particularly tardy either (and this is running on a 160GB Toshiba hard drive with Fedora’s default encrypted LVM set up).  It’s comparable to my HP laptop (2007 model) with a Turion TL-60 (@2GHz) w/4GiB RAM (@667MHz).  In usage, though, it’s somewhat slower than the AMD laptop, taking considerably longer to load up Firefox (with half as many extensions, too).

    As hoped, my Huawei E270 mobile broadband dongle worked straight away.  I was also pleased that the webcam worked with no effort whatsoever (screenshot shows Cheese; ’nuff said)! So, what doesn’t work straight away?

    • Brightness controls on the keyboard.  Probably fixed easily by identifying the char code generated with the keystroke and binding it to the dim/brightening function in GConf (he says, having no real clue..)
    • Wireless.  I believe a Broadcom 4312 is under the bonnet, so this shouldn’t be a hard fix with a quick visit to linuxwireless.org.
    • Some things I haven’t tested yet, like monitor switching and the built-in microphone.  But everything else seems to work fine.

    A bit more on ergnomics

    It has taken me a little while to get used to the layout of the keyboard and touchpad.  A problem I am overcoming slowly is that the touchpad’s two buttons are actually a single, rocker-style button.  It sits flush to the surface of the base, and this lack of tactile feel I find awkward.  I often find my thumb in the wrong position, mistakenly pressing on the bottom of the touchpad rather than the left button.  The pointer then jumps across the screen instead of clicking on the intended widget.  A small but annoying issue.

    Also, the keyboard is great to use while typing (as I do here, writing this review on the N130) but for cursor positioning it can become more tricky.  Hitting CTRL-End to position the cursor at the end of some text, for example, is now CTRL-Fn-PgDn(End), given the multi-function aspect of the PgDn(End) key.  Likewise, the cursor keys are just a shade on the small side.  But these are minor complaints in the overall picture.

    Final analysis

    Taking into account the annoyances, weighing them against the needs of the many… I would have to have to award this machine 8/10.  At £150 (incl VAT) + £4 postage, it has exceeded my expectations.  Sure, it’s not perfect, but the price, utility and solid build get my vote.  I would recommend one for a partner, friend or colleague….. maybe even a parent 😉

    Oh, there is one thing about it that I couldn’t understand.  There was this sticker on the top which made no sense (“Designed for Windows XP”).  Surely you design an operating system for target hardware and not the other way around..?  Well, regardless, I think the new location for the sticker makes much more sense.  🙂


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