Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The State of the Nook

I've already mentioned how I think the B&N Nook Color is the best, most cost efficient tablet out there right now. At under $200 (if you get a brand new one on eBay, or even a factory refurbished one), you get a device that can run Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) remarkably well, and even a hacked version of Honeycomb.

What I want to describe in this post is the further steps you can take to get more out of your Nook.

Step 1: get a better ROM
Whatever phone or tablet you get, you can safely assume the OS installation (commonly known as ROM) you got with it contains some stuff that you could do without. Whether it's stock applications that your mobile provider tries to push on you, or some OS features that they locked out "for your own good".

For Android, there's no better alternative ROM then CyanogenMod. Not only does it free your Android, it also add extra features like themes, CPU overclocking and various widgets. It's supported on almost 30 devices (find out if yours is on the list) and installed with the aid of a micro SD card, that all devices support. It does requires some expertise to install, but the site contains step-by-step guides.

I came across Maurice Mongeon's blog, dedicated to improving your Nook. This particular post discusses how to deploy a CM nightly build and he has several other helpful ones, including instructions on how to restore your Nook to its original state (nice if you intend to return or resell it). Not only is the blog helpful, but Maurice helped me to fix some issues and even recommended some great apps to get more out of the Nook. Thanks Maurice!

Step 2: get some apps
Here's a list of apps I currently have on my Nook, all of which you can get from the Android Market (with the exception of Netflix, see note below).
1. Utilities
    1. ES File Explorer - best file manager
    2. Gemini app - task manager
    3. Gemini Task killer widget - cleans memory with 1 click
    4. Dropbox
    5. PocketCloud - VNC client
    6. Terminal Emulator - terminal into Android
    7. ConnectBot - SSH client
    8. Titanium Backup - backup all your apps and settings
    9. Wifi Analyzer - find the strongest signal
    10. Speed Test - test Wifi connection speed
    11. Shark - network sniffer
    12. Keepass Android - password vault
    13. Hacker Keyboard - full keyboard, with all special keys and TAB
    14. Battery widget - see battery % on main screen
2. Hacks
    1. ROM Manager - install new ROMs
    2. Battery Caliberation - calibrate battery after ROM installation
    3. Nook Screen Recalibrate - after every ROM installation
    4. Nook tweaks - speed, audio and USB host
    5. ClockSync - atomic clock synch for WiFi
3. Media
    1. CNN
    2. Aldico - multiple format book reader
    3. ACV - best comic book reader out there
    4. Nook - well, you did buy a Nook :)
    5. Kindle - Amazon's book app
    6. Evernote - share notes across devices
    7. MoboPlayer - media player
    8. Pandora - music service
    9. Tunein radio - bettr than an FM receiver
    10. HD wallpaper - get a new one every day
    11. Netflix - stream movies from Netflix
    12. IMDB
    13. Youtube
    14. Amazon MP3
4. Social and shopping
    1. LinkedIn
    2. Gh4a
    3. Google+
    4. Twitter
    5. Meetup
    6. WootWatch
    7. Amazon
    8. eBay
    9. NewEgg
    10. Wiki Encycloopedia

To use Netflix on your Nook, follow these easy steps:
  1. Download the app "Nook Color Odds and Ends"
  2. Select EMMC>fix netflix and reboot the device.
    This basically will change the device name in you Nook's props file to a device Netflix supports
  3. Download the Netflix apk (currently 1.2.2 - search for newer ones)
  4. Run it and log in
  5.  If you like doing things manually, or understand how things work, read this article.
Step 3: get some hardware
Like all other tablets, the Nook is great for consuming media, less so for producing media. Well, not anymore.

App #4 on the "Hacking" apps list allows you to turn on "USB Host" mode. What it means is that with the help of a simple USB plug (less than $3 on Amazon), you can connect any USB device (keyboards, mice, cameras) to your Nook.

I already had an HP wireless media keyboard (got it for less than $20 3 months ago). It has a built in mouse, a tiny USB connector and several multimedia shortcut keys.

Finally I got a tablet stand to prop up my Nook - and Tada! Instant mini laptop.
The Android OS supports keyboards and mice easily, and even some of the multimedia keys (volume, start/stop) work in some of the apps.
This album contains photos of all pieces of hardware mentioned.

I actually managed to write this post in the Android Blogger app on the Nook, and upload photos from my phone. My favorite use for the Nook right now is taking notes at meetups and classes directly into Evernote. I can always access and edit them later on my laptop.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

East Coast Android

The last 3 weeks I went back on the road for some family visits. I did manage to squeeze some tech in the form of my “new” Android phone.
[in this post, clicking a photo will take you to the full album]

I started by flying out to Montreal. I lucked out and got there while they were having one of those perfect summer weeks. I had an amazing day at the farmers market, and the park, watching a group of Brazilian drummers and an encounter with a raccoon who just didn’t take no for an answer.

From there, we drove down to NY, spent the night and continued to Stamford, CT for a big family gathering. I saw some relatives from all over the US I haven’t seen in years. Fun was had by all.

At that point in time I bought an Android phone on eBay. My small Comet was running through its battery to fast and it’s screen was a bit too small to get the full Android experience. I also became a bit disenfranchised with the virtual keyboard (even when it uses Swype – which is a step in the right direction) and started yearning for my Blackberry real keyboard days.

I therefore opted for the T-Mobile G2 (also known as the HTC Desire), that has both virtual and physical keyboards. It also supports the T-Mobile 4G network, that worked great for me throughout the trip. I got it for $220 and T-Mobile immediately unlocked it for me, so it can be used worldwide.
I actually left AT&T after being with them since 2004 because they wouldn’t unlock an Android phone and actually had some of the stock Android options (like applications source – needed for private and Amazon apps, and tethering) locked out in their ROM. I mean, if I buy a phone, I get to decide what it can or can’t do, not a network. So goodbye AT&T – call me back when you’ve bought a clue.

I’m glad to report the transfer was quick and painless – I got to keep my number, my Google Voice was oblivious to the change, and I even got a refund from AT&T – they sent me a check for $1.83 Smile.

So when I hit those hotels along the way with a verrrry slow internet connection (I’m talking to you, Hilton hotels – all of you in the US. The ones in London have such high speed, I’d like to live in them permanentlySmile), I pulled out my G2 and used it as a wireless hotspot (make sure you sign for the “unlimited” package first). Speed was 3-5Gbit, and I managed to watch Netflix files on the device as well.

The battery runs out fast when streaming and the solution I found was to spend $11 on a 3500mAh battery at DealExtreme (free shipping). Yes, it makes the phone more cumbersome, but at more than 2.5 times the original battery, you can do more and recharge your phone once every 3 days.

One pet peeve I have with Android’s way of treating batteries (other than the way it drains them quickly with all those needless services running in the background), is the power alerts. Android issues an alert at 20%, 10%, 15% and 5% of power, finally starting a shutdown at around 3%. The problem is: it does it by percentages, not actual left power. Case in point: with the original 1300 mAh battery, a 10% alert means you have less than 130 mAh left. But with the 3500 mAh one, you still have 350 mAh left, which is almost 30% of the original. And 3% of 3500 should still be enough for several more hours. Just one more way statistics are lying to us.

From Stamford we continued to a weekend in Boston. Sadly, we got rained in for most of it, but we did get to tour the Boston Commons and the downtown area. Since it was the day before the final Stanley Cup game between Boston and Vancouver, all the statues were dressed with Bruins jerseys.I wonder what would George Washington say about this Smile

From there we continued to Cambridge and got a tour of Harvard from an old friend who studies there. There’s a tradition kept by tourists, that if you touch the left shoe of John Harvard’s statue, you get accepted to Harvard.

This tradition, according to my host, has 3 main flows:
  1. John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard’s university – it existed several years before he arrived
  2. This statue is not of John Harvard – no one know what he looks like so the artists just improvised
  3. The fraternity kids tend to tank up on beer, piss on the left shoe of the statue and stand in the windows laughing their asses off as tourists touch the shoe
So all in all, another tourist trap – literally Smile.

From Boston, we continued back south to NY, with one night stop at Hartford (another slow networked Hilton – for shame). After a brief visit with my sister, I flew back to SFO, utilizing some of my Continental points to boot myself to first class on a United flight. This was one of those 3-class flights, so 1st just made me want to stay on the plane and continue to Australia.

And to end this post on a celebratory note, I attended the 4th of July concert at Shoreline Amphitheater for the 3rd year in a row. It was nice as always, this being the 100th year of the SF Symphony, who performed well. I took some shots of the fireworks and 2 videos, one of Jon Miller, the SF Giants anchor, performing the poem “Casey at the bat” and the other of the E.T. theme by John Williams. Several hours later I got an email from youtube notifying me I may be violating copyrights. So, hopefully the videos are still there.