Co-Pilot GPS App – Works Without Data Connection

Google offers Navigation for free, and most people seem to agree that it is very good. However, it comes with one not-always-so-teency limitation: it only works if you have a data connection.

Fortunately a good alternative/backup is available, for a great price. Co-Pilot USA is a nav app that includes downloadable maps that can be installed in main memory (if you have enough space) or your SD card. This turns your Android phone into a full-time GPS, irrespective of whether you have a data connection. Co-pilot used to sell for about $30, and even that didn’t seem too bad, but in response to competing with Free, they have lowered prices, including a $5 USA maps option.

I’ve only dabbled with Co-Pilot, so consider this review far from definitive. But on my Captivate (Samsung Galaxy S), it works about as well as Google Navigation. It does seem to offer a number of features and configuration options, far more than Google Navigate. One which I am eager to try out is the detour functionality. I really think Navigate is missing a pretty important use case, which is–highway traffic jam, I’m going to jump off on the next exit, get me back on the highway in X miles.

Google Navigation still has some significant advantages because of the built-in integration with Google Maps, so it remains my default choice for around-town navigation.

One relatively consideration with Co-Pilot is space–Co-Pilot consumes about 1.5 Gb. So if you are operating with a first-generation Android phone (e.g., original Droid, myTouch 3G), you will probably want to have a 4 Gb or larger SD card. That Co-Pilot has more configuration options than Google Navigator is good and bad. The more option is good, the clutter and potential confusion is bad. They do have a “Restore to Defaults” option, which is a big step in the right direction, but you have to muck in the UI to find that, too.

Bottom-line–for $5, this is a very worthwhile tool to add to your Android toolkit.

White Pages App

I’ve found White Pages to be a very nice, freemium app. It’s the free part that I am most interested in, though. As its name implies, it gives you white pages telephone listings, and yellow pages as well. It has a good interface, and it seems to have everything the dead tree phonebook would have. That alone is quite useful, and the data-entry part in the app interface is much easier than trying to use a web page not optimized for mobile.

But the real value-add comes from the integration. In one click you can map and navigate, or add to your contacts. I find that very convenient. A nice bonus is one-click emailing of the address.

Where the freemium part comes in is tying the lookup functionality to Caller ID. Standard land-line Caller ID doesn’t carry over to the cell world–you just get the number (unless the number matches one of your contacts, of course). White Pages bridges that gap, by intercepting the incoming number, and looking up the white pages listing, if there is one. I haven’t really tried this, it comes at a price, and I don’t really need it. I also tend to avoid unnecessary “TSR-ish” things on my phone where possible, especially when they could interfere with the most fundamental phone functions–I don’t want my phone hanging or crashing when I’m trying to take an incoming call.

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Troubleshoot Phone Lag Using Watchdog

There is a lot of debate in the Android world about whether you should even need a task killer. According to theory, if everything is well-behaved, you shouldn’t really need one. However, I was experiencing moderately severe lagginess on my MT3G, so I was pretty sure something was not well behaved. The lagginess disappeared briefly after a reboot, and completely after a Master Rese, until eventually I installed enough stuff that I got the problem app(s) back.  The problem I had was that I couldn’t figure out what app was the offending party.

I had a Wing Tseng’s Task Manager, which was a very nice task-killer, and it gave me a CPU readout, which was frequently pegged at 100%. But it did not isolate the problem app. I never did find the problem app, because I wound up using my son’s upgrade to get a new Android phone (T-Mobile Vibrant, aka, Samsung Galaxy S), and I passed the MT3G to him. He is having no problems, so I am pretty confident  it was something I had installed.

In the meantime, though, I finally discovered a good app that monitors CPU usage, and creates alerts if a user-defined threshold is exceeded. This app is Watchdog. Basically, Watchdog gives you the other half of Windows Task Manager functionality–in addition to having the ability to kill an app, it tells you which one is redlining your CPU.

I’ve had it running on my new phone, with a low threshold, and it gave me a few alerts for CPU usage in the 30% range, but those were very transient. It was comforting to know that I now had the instrumentation to troubleshoot, if need be. And as Murphy would have it, need arose soon.

I dropped my shiny, new Vibrant onto concrete, from waist height. It landed square on its face, and it suffered a number of cracks. It was still functioning and perfectly useable, but severely disfigured. Fortunately, and somewhat out of character, I had retained the protection plan. So for a “mere” $130, I got a replacement.

I first backed up from my cracked phone to the SD card, using MyBackup Pro, then popped the SD card into the new phone and initiated a restore. That all worked fine, though I noticed the calendar took a long time to restore. But it was well worth it, saved me probably 80% of the effort of setting up a new phone from scratch. Then the problems began.

I started noticing lag. My prior 2 weeks with a Vibrant had been completely lag-free, so this was really alarming. Then the Watchdog alerts started showing up. The Calendar app was consuming 30%-60% of the CPU. Of all the apps to find as the culprit, this was one of the worst, since it is a built-in Google experience app. I don’t think you can un-install it, even if you wanted to.

After 30 minutes of typical flailing, I started thinking a little more deeply about the symptoms. I remembered that Watchdog had asked me to back up Calendar and Contacts. I wondered a little about that–since auto-synch of those Google Apps is a core Android feature, but I had proceeded to say “Yes”. Then I remembered how long it had taken to restore the Calendar. I decided to do another Master Reset, and this time, not restore the Calendar.

That worked like a charm. So I think the Calendar restore must have gotten into some kind of infinite loop with the Calendar synch. Never a dull moment.

I think that CPU monitoring and logging is pretty critical instrumentation. Even if not directly exposed to users, it seems like something Google would want to have built in (just as Windows NT and beyond has Task Manager). And if not Google, I think it woudl be in the best interests of the carriers or phone manufacturers to pre-install something.

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Tasker: Android Scripting-Like App

Tasker is an impressive Android app that has been getting a lot of publicity in certain quarters. I have only dabbled with it, so I won’t try to expand on the reviews that are already out there. Just a few small hints and comments

Based on reviews and my initial look, the level of customization you can accomplish with Tasker is extremely impressive. You could easily create a Profile that is equivalent to the “Where’s My Droid?” app, for finding a lost or misplaced phone, for instance. For those who want this kind of functionality, it is well worth the ~$5 cost.

Beyond what it can do, just as an app in its own right I think it is the most sophisticated, most complete app I have seen. The phone-based and web-based documentation also seems quite thorough, and a community already seems to be springing up.

Download Tasker from the site, not the market–that way you get a 14-day trial instead of the standard 1-day trial.

I found the vocabulary a little confusing. What they call Contexts, I would call Events. But the Events keyword is already in use, for the specific Android system events (as opposed to events that are tied to the GPS location, the date/time, the state of the device). What they call Profiles, I would call Macros.

I think the next frontier for Tasker will be for Android Apps to expose APIs that can be called from Tasker. There are already a couple of those evident. For instance, I would like the MyTracks app to automatically start recording a track any time I fire it up, because that is what I want to do 95% of the time I invoke it (it is a little slow to load, and I am usually in a hurry when using it, because I am about to leave on a group bike ride). Or better yet, maybe I have a shortcut to MyTracks that does this; if I invoke the standard app, without shortcut, then I would get the standard behavior.

If you are a tinkerer or hobbyist, try Tasker, I think you will be impressed. If you just want to use your phone, then this is probably not an app for you.

Android 2.2 will be a wifi hotspot?

Forget tethering, wifi is the way to go.

If what they say at Engadget is true, I just wasted a bunch of money on a Verizon mifi device, two year contract. I carry a Droid in my pocket with me everywhere I go. I have a Nexus One in the desk drawer. I will now have an excess capacity of wifi on my person. Woe is me!

I wonder how much Verizon will charge to turn this on?

I use an AT&T SIM in my Nexus One. How will they like this?

Next week is Google’s devcon. Expect the earth to shake. This is just the beginning.

Gartenberg: “Don’t get too excited about tethering and hotspot features in FroYo, almost certain carriers will have last word on function and price.”

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Google Navigation – Real-Time, Crowd-Sourced Traffic

Google Maps–both mobile and web versions– include real-time, crowd-sourced traffic information. This is something that others have been trying to do for years, if not for decades. Google is quietly making it happen now, leveraging the rapid uptake in Google Maps for Mobile (notably, but not exclusively, on the Android platform), plus the always-on nature of the mobile phone.

In my day-to-day life, I have not gotten all that much benefit from this feature. I have checked it out, but I live in a second-tier traffic city, Minneapolis-St. Paul, where rush hour is more or less just that, a mere hour or two. So mostly I can check the MN-DOT website and quickly see the arterial congestion. There aren’t a lot of alternate routes to consider.

But today, I was driving with my wife and family, from visiting my parents in northern VA, to the BWI airport in Baltimore.  Unexpectedly, I ran into traffic, even though it was Sunday afternoon. Heavy traffic. So heavy that we started getting nervous about the time, even though we had left ourselves a 1+ hour cushion.

So I took a look at Google Traffic. Bad news–there was an even bigger stretch of slow traffic farther ahead on I-295. So while Beth drove, I plotted an alternate route, skirting 295 until traffic broke up. It was a little nerve-wracking, and not the easiest thing, using a handheld-size screen, but it paid off. We arrived still in good time.

So for those of you “lucky” enough to live in tier 1 traffic cities 😉 , I think Google Traffic could prove useful on a more day-to-day basis.

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The iPad could learn from Droid

A picture named seven.gifI know Apple is the leader here, but there are at least a couple of ideas in Android that should be in the Apple mobile operating system.

1. Search is very nicely integrated into everything about the Android. Not surprising because Google got its start in search. I used my Droid to look something up at lunch today and thought later — how would I have done that in the iPad. I would have had to quit whatever I was doing (if it wasn’t Safari). Droid has search right on the home screen. Hit the Home button and click in the search box and type away.

2. My iPad is always beeping. What is it beeping about? I have no idea and as far as I know there’s no way to find out. That’s just bizarre. Now I didn’t used to think so until I got accustomed to the very nice Notifications menu in Android. Want to know why it’s talking to you? Just click in the menu and pull it down. There’s the list. Now for all I know there’s a way to do this in iPhone/iPad. Let me know.

One more thing about how stunning you might think this thing is for real-world people. I had to ride the 7 train from Main St in Flushing to Times Square today. Doesn’t get much more mainstream than that. Believe me. I took out the iPad at Main St, and used it all the way Queens Plaza (the train goes underground shortly after that). Connected to the net via my Sprint mifi. Now there was a kid sitting across from me, I’d guess 13 or 14, Asian, eating some Pringles and staring at the iPad. Got out after three stops, never said a word. Otherwise everyone else ignored me and my flashy new device.

In other words, it’s Sunday, and the guy has a Kindle so BFD. Been there done that. (There was a guy with a Kindle and his girlfriend had a real book.)

I’m not trying to draw any global lessons from this, but real people need real reasons to get excited. The form factor is nice, I like it (even love it). But soon after that what matters is what it can do for me, and what I can do with it.

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