Thursday, November 11, 2010

Android Input - playing with 8Pen

I recently read about 8pen - a new input method for Android, created for touchscreen input, rather than adapting our existing keyboard to somehow function in a tiny space with no tactile feedback or input guidance.

I was reluctant to give 8pen a go, not because I could see there would be a significant learning curve, but because I resent paying for an app that I really am just wanting to try out.  I am curious by nature, and I mostly agree that adapting what we have used for years to fit our new devices is a little on the side of craziness.  However, they sadly don't do a limited trial, so I spent the ~$NZ 2.04 and installed the app. (By this stage I'd already watched the introductory video so knew what I was getting myself in for).

So, just to briefly give you the gist of 8pen without sending you off to their website to find out more - the characters are laid out in an X shape, with a central round area as below:
You enter characters by starting in the central circle, moving out to the region your letter is on, then moving around the X through up to 4 quadrants and finally returning to the central region - it's really hard to explain in words, but quite simple in action. 

An example: to input the letter r
  1. start with your finger in the inner circle, 
  2. drag out to the right hand quandrant, 
  3. then in the direction that the r is in (so anticlockwise), drag your finger through 2 quadrants (ending  in the left hand quadrant between blue & green)
  4. and finally return to the central circle.
Why 2 quadrants? Because the letter r is the 2nd one along the axis.  If you'd wanted f - the 3rd letter on the same axis, you'd have done the same, however you'd have gone around 3 quadrants instead of 2.

To input a word, you simply string together a whole bunch of letters without raising your finger.  If you raise your finger after inputting a letter, a space is implied.

So, I expect that's probably as clear as mud - as I said, it sounds really complicated in words.

What did I think of it after using it?  Well, I like the concept, I think the implementation is pretty good - easy to capitalise, add special characters, insert smileys and punctuation, however, and this is a killer for me, I found all those tiny but quite precise actions that required me to keep my finger on the surface of the phone quite problematic - my wrist became very sore very quickly, and the build-up of skin oils on the screen means that dragging your finger across the surface becomes more and more difficult. 

I did a comparison from a comfort perspective between 8pen and the standard android keyboard, and I do find that pecking at the various keys on the keyboard is actually much better for my hands - rather than using lots of tiny muscles to make small precise movements with a single finger, I use a couple of large muscles and move my whole hand to the various keys.

I wasn't quite sure what was going on with the predictive text part of 8pen, but I certainly didn't find it as accurate as the standard keyboard - it seemed to regularly think that I was trying to enter obscure words of at least 5 syllables when I was just trying to write 'testing' for example!

8pen has also implemented non-standard gestures that you can record - anything that doesn't start in the central section can be recorded as a gesture.  So for example, I get really sick of having to type my email address in. With 8pen, I created a single gesture which I could draw in the input area and have it translate to my full email address.  This I like.  But the physical aspects of using 8pen mean that it is a no-go for me I'm afraid.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Holidaying in Sydney with an Android

We've recently returned from an 11 day holiday in Sydney, Australia, including a couple of days up in the Hunter Valley tasting wines and cheeses.  I used my Android phone extensively during the holiday, where I would previously have done a whole lot of research and preparation before I went, and carried guidebooks and pieces of paper with the things I thought would be helpful. 

Here is a list of the things I found helpful, and some things that enabled this.

  • Firstly, I didn't bother buying an Australian SIM card, which meant that I 100% avoided using any data over 3G - at $5 per Mb, forget it!  However, for the Sydney part of the holiday at least, we were staying in a hotel with free WiFi for all guests (Radisson Plaza on O'Connell St)
  • There are plenty of free WiFi hotspots around Sydney!  We made use of:
    • Upper deck of the Manly ferry - you have up to 2 blocks of 30 minutes/30Mb (whichever you hit first) per day
    • Museum of Syndey Cafe - there is a 'Free Wireless Hotspot' here that requires you simply to fill in a simple survey to get access (I believe there are more of these around)
    • The new Westfield Mall on Pitt St (which opened while we were there)
  • TripIt - Simon's been using this for a while, but finally convinced me to use it in earnest for this trip, where I would normallly have done up a one page calendar with all the hotel and transportation information and carried around a printed copy.  So I had the master trip in TripIt online, added Simon as a traveller, then installed the Android App so I always had the details with me.  (Nb that I also have a TripIt calendar linked into my Google Calendar - so I also had all the appointments in Jorte - my preferred Android Calendar app). One thing I would like to see from TripIt is that the app not be read-only as it currently is.
    • I used 'other' events in Tripit to write notes about shops we were interested in, restaurants we wanted to make bookings for and info we'd found about transport and such like - so again, these were all just there in my phone (again, with the slight frustration that I couldn't edit them using the TripIt app)
  • TripViewBeta - I cannot recommend this app enough!  I started off using a bus app, and 'next manly ferry' app, then stumbed on this one and promptly removed the others.  This includes all bus, train & ferry timetables for Sydney - you can either search by route, or by start and destination suburb, save trips, then refer to them as needed.  And the public transport in Sydney is fabulous!  (well, coming from Auckland it is anyway).  We did a lot of walking in central Sydney, but we also ventured out to Neutral Bay, Manly, Central, Surry Hills (a couple of times), and contemplated heading to Leichhardt, but gave that a miss in the end.
  • c:geo - for geocaching of course. :-)  Although I have to admit, getting coordinates in central city is an absolute nightmare, and every cache you look at will include log entries of people commenting about not being able to get a lock!  
  • Foursquare - again, this is another app that Simon has been using for ages and regularly encouraged me to do so, and I finally relented and signed up while we were in Sydney.  This was useful in that it was good to see where there other people nearby - this often indicated good local hangouts, and the tips at various locations were also useful - recommendations for dishes to try, seats to avoid, service to not expect!  One thing to note, if you sign up from your phone, even if you use the browser, you don't seem to be able to add a photo to your profile (at least on my N1 I couldn't, and had to use the netbook we'd taken with us).
  • Camera - I got some great pics from my N1 camera, which I then shared up to flickr using...
  • FlickrFree.  (photos can be seen here) Simon then used some of these, along with the ones he'd taken, for our Sydney blogposts.
There were a bunch of other guidebook style apps I had installed for both Australia & Sydney, but they all ended up being next to useless.  Most of what we did and saw was based on recommendations from friends (particularly restaurants), plus a few specific google searches for things we hoped to find while we were there.