Android apps I use, March 2019

When I got my Moto G5 in January 2018, I didn’t sign it into my Google account. That’s generally worked well, but there’s been catches when it comes to getting apps. Here’s a few notes.

I’ve been trying to limit my use of my smartphone, including to avoid vendor lock-in to Google/Android. I also have a bit of a problem compulsively checking for updates and news, so as much as possible I try to not have many apps. But so far I’ve felt I need a few.

I previously made lists of apps I was using in November 2016 and in January 2015, and this post is sort of an update to those.

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  • Berlin summer was sunny and unseasonally hot. It was dry, which took off the edge when temperatures touched 40, but was not kind to forests. Brandenburg wasn’t nearly as bad as British Columbia, but there were a couple of forest fires, one of which we smelled in the middle of the night. Is that a campfire? No, it’s climate change. It was good ice cream weather, less good for nature.
  • We moved to Toronto in November. More on Toronto in a three-month post around February, but briefly: south; sun; cold; lake; asphalt; concrete; food.
  • In January we travelled to Vietnam and Hong Kong, which was nice and busy and warm. In June we stopped briefly in London on the way to travelling around Ireland, which was very scenic and green and warm. In July we went to Gdynia and then had a sightseeing trip back via Malbork, Toruń, and Bydgoszcz. In October we stopped over in the Azores on the way to Toronto, and that was also green and mountainous and warm and pleasant. We had a couple of day trips, to Buckow (Märkische Schweiz) and Brandenburg an der Havel in the summer, and to Kitchener for a fairly German Christmas market in December. Overall it felt like we travelled less than last year, and we were happy with the amount.
  • I continued my involvement with Electricity Map, and got increasingly into OpenStreetMap later in the year. It helps that there’s a lot of mapping to be done in Toronto.
  • I read 32 books (Goodreads). I’m particularly pleased with reading some books in German (admittedly mostly translated novels — it’s easier when there’s a plot to follow, doubly so if I’ve read the book in the past). I managed my third-highest-ever number of books (32) and pages (11612) read. Noteworthy series: Rivers of London, Chmielewska’s autobiography, and two-thirds of His Dark Materials in German.
  • Music: still not much live. looks better because it includes a mini-festival and openers; the actual shows were The Rural Alberta Advantage in Kreuzberg in February; then the next was Dream Serenade in November (The RAA, Owen Pallett, iskwē among others); then Stars in December. With three shows, I equalled the low result of 2012, and it would have been lower if I didn’t move to Toronto in November. The two RAA shows were the fifth and sixth time seeing them in last 7 years, and the Stars show was my ninth Stars show in 10 years.
  • Recorded music: more now! ( Having decent speakers helped. Particularly enjoyed: FM Belfast’s Island Broadcast, finally giving Broken Social Scene’s Hug of Thunder something resembling its due, and continuing with You Say Party, Boards of Canada, Cocteau Twins, and Röyksopp. I made a conscious effort, enjoyed music, and scrobbled second-most tracks since 2012: 3758, average of about 10 a day. My next goal is 5000 tracks, which would be best since 2012; stretch goal is 7500 (20 per day, equalling my long-term average including university days). I didn’t really listen to much new stuff though, that would be nice to change.
  • I learned some German. I got to a decent intermediate level. Sometime around the middle of the year something unblocked and I started to get it and at times think in German. Credit where credit’s due: my employer paid for 1.5 hour weekly private lessons and that helped a lot. Of course I left Germany soon after. Next year I’ll be looking for ways to keep my skills somewhat alive — or at least get a certificate — but there are also so many other languages to learn.
  • Hardware: I continued using my Thinkpad X220 with broken internal screen plugged into an external screen, until the move to Toronto (without the external screen) brought the issue to a head and I moved the hard drive into a T420s borrowed from my partner. I still have rather too many computers in various states of dysfunction (the X220, a T60p, an X200, and at least one Socket AM2 tower at my parents’ house) and hope to fix that soon.
  • I bought a new phone (I wrote about my first impressions) and didn’t connect it to my Google accounts, which I feel slightly proud of. But I didn’t do anything new in terms of moving away from Google, and rather little in terms of cleaning up data online and offline.
  • Before the Vietnam trip I bought a used Canon S120, replacing the S100 lost in 2016. It has excellent ergonomics, a good lens and sensor that can do decent low-light pictures (I’m not afraid of 1/30 s exposures), but the 2013-era legacy-camera-company software is very visibly lacking compared to what Google can do on phone sensors for backlit subjects.
  • My Nikon D60 DSLR suffered a possibly fatal shutter misalignment during the Ireland trip. I wasn’t able to repair it when I tried in October. I’ll try again, but it might be time for a newer bigger camera.
  • I continued with my diary. My paper notebook isn’t seeing as much use. Still it’s nice.
  • I am making slow progress on digitizing, but progress nevertheless. Moving continents helped push the line on some old stuff, but not all. We had a nice moving-contents list which detailed much of what we owned. It was a lot.
  • The skyline waits for the world.

Reconstructing transit usage from Presto records

Public transit in Toronto area can now be paid with Presto fare cards. As part of an online registration functionality, one can access their card activity history. I was curious to what extent it would be possible to use that data to automatically reconstruct trips I’ve taken. I was most interested in distance travelled and mode (bus, subway, streetcar, train).

Useful data available is:

  1. Time of tap
  2. Transit agency operating the vehicle or station tapped
  3. Location of the tap – with some limitations, sometimes inaccurate
  4. Amount paid

The data isn’t quite perfect for my purposes. There are a few problems:

  1. Taps are not required everywhere
    1. Most trips do not require tapping out when leaving, including when leaving the subway. In many cases, a 2-stop trip can look the same as a 12-stop trip.
    2. Particularly in City of Toronto there are many in-station transfers for transferring between subway and buses that do not require taps
  2. The location of the tap is sometimes wrong (perhaps due to malfunctioning GPS)
  3. Sometimes a location is recorded specifically (“Square One GO Bus Terminal”), sometimes generically (“Zone 20”)
  4. Taps can take a few hours or days to arrive in online history (particularly the bus card readers seem to be uploaded nightly), though it does come in eventually
  5. There is a “discount” field which doesn’t actually show discounts as publicized in official fare schedules and is, as far as I can tell, useless

(Presto online interface also has a “Transit Usage Report” view, but it seems to only include fare payments, and none of the free transfers. As I understand it, it’s used for claiming tax credits.)

The exports are straightforward enough: it’s a simple CSV file. It is in reverse chronological order (latest taps first), but that’s easy to reverse.

Given the data, here’s what’s possible:

  1. Calculating the minimum number of trips taken, by only counting trips that had a fare charged
  2. Calculating the minimum number of trips involving the subway, by only counting entering subways with no in-station bus or streetcar transfers (these are mostly downtown Toronto)
  3. Estimating, with fairly high probability, at least one of modes of transport (bus, streetcar, subway, train) involved in a trip
  4. Estimating, with better than chance probability but not close to perfect, the number of logical “trips” taken and some of the modes involved

Here are some less obvious samples of actual data, commented to note what I was actually doing. I switched the order to earlier taps first for easier reading.

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Nexus 6P exit review

In January 2017 I was issued a Nexus 6P by my new employer. The timing was fortunate as I had broken my Nexus 5 (see my exit review) the previous month, so the Nexus 6P ended up as my main phone for a while.

I had only requested an “Android” phone (all the choice I was given); the phone was issued by a corporate hardware provider.

As I noted before, the screen is very large. The phone is not suited for using single-handed. It’s also a rather oblong, tall device, so it’s not particularly great for horizontal two-handed use. I didn’t like it.

But the screen is pretty.

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Moto G5 first impressions

Cheap, cheerful, and competent

In January 2018 I found myself looking for a new mobile device. The main use cases were playing music, displaying a map offline, making phone calls, and sending short text messages. The timing was driven by going on a three-week trip abroad.

Devices currently available on the smartphone market generally fall into one of the following two categories:

  1. large and cheap smartphones with outdated software and no guarantee of software updates, but with features like SD card slots and standard headphone jacks
  2. large and expensive premium smartphones with newest software, sometimes with guarantee of software updates, taking less-is-more approach to features

A middle ground where one would hope for up-to-date software for under 400 EUR is rather hard to find. Phones smaller than 5″ screen are very niche.

I chose the first category, and bought a Motorola Moto G5 for 159.99 EUR including taxes (241.24 CAD at time of purchase).

It’s great. It’s cheap and cheerful. It’s plastic fantastic. It doesn’t feel premium and that’s awesome.

I don’t worry about dropping it, breaking it, losing it, getting a case for it. I just use it. It’s not everything I’d want, but for the price it’s just fine.

It’s grey and black and plastic and there’s not much more to it. There’s a “Moto” text on the front which isn’t too obnoxious, and an M logo on the back which I covered with a stick-on kickstand. It’s probably a bit thicker than a Nexus, but, whatever.

I have resolved the size issue by not carrying my phone as often. I won’t drop a phone taking it out of my pocket if I don’t have it in my pocket.

Quick intro to technology: It’s model XT1676, version PVT1. It’s got a 5″ screen, 1920×1080 IPS, you don’t need more. It’s got 16 GB of onboard storage, a microSD card slot, a microUSB connector, dual SIM slots, and a 3.5 mm headphone/microphone jack. It’s got 2 GB of RAM although you might want a bit more. It’s got a fingerprint reader on the front which works fine.

Here are a few catches: Because the bezels around the screen are quite large, overall the phone is somewhat larger than a Nexus 5. As I initially wanted my next phone to be smaller, not larger, that’s not great, but a small cheap phone doesn’t appear to be a possibility in 2018. The camera is nominally 13 MP, but in reality is quite a bit worse than the camera on a 2015 Nexus 6P, and is only about as good as the 2013 Nexus 5’s 8 MP camera. 2 GB of RAM is not quite enough for Android running and Firefox with more than one tab loaded. The SD card and the SIM cards are not hot-swappable.

The software situation is rather grim, as expected. In January 2018 I bought it with Android 7.0 (the latest is 8.1) and security updates up to August 2017. In late February it received an exciting update to Android 7.0 with security updates as of November 2017. A Nexus this is not. Of course, the economics of providing a 160 EUR device with timely updates are terrible, so it is unlikely anyone will do any better barring an industry-wide move to open source bootloaders and drivers for mobile devices.

(Update September 2018: the phone is currently on Android 7.0 with Android patches up to July 2018. So for now at least the security updates seem to be trickling in, with a few months’ delay. Update November 2018: the phone received an update to Android 8.1 with patches up to August 2018.)

Out of the box

Thankfully, the stock install is low on bloatware. Motorola was kind enough to just let Android do its thing. The complete list of software installed out of the box is:

  • Calculator
  • Google Calendar †
  • Camera
  • Google Chrome
  • Clock (standard Android alarm clock and timer)
  • Contacts
  • Device help (some Moto app, not obnoxious)
  • Downloads (Android’s “it’s not a file explorer we swear”)
  • Google Drive
  • Google Duo †
  • FM Radio
  • Gmail (also supports email servers other than Gmail)
  • Google search app
  • Google Maps
  • Messages (SMS)
  • Moto (configures gestures and ambient display settings)
  • Phone
  • Google Photos
  • Play Movies & TV †
  • Play Music
  • Play Store †
  • Settings
  • Voice search
  • Wallpapers
  • Youtube

As part of my attempts to degooglify, I’ve not logged in to my Google account on the device. In general, this works alright — better than I had expected. However, software marked with dagger † above doesn’t work without a Google account: Calendar (won’t start at all); Duo (the video chat app – it wants me to opt in to something on startup, I didn’t investigate since I don’t use it anyway); Play Movies & TV; Play Store. Google search app works just fine without logging in. Maps works without logging in, except for saving locations. Play Music works with music files copied onto the device.

Google Photos initially used to show images on the device just fine. Since the February update, it continuously sends notifications that it won’t run unless I update Google Play services (which I can’t do without logging in to Play Store), but seems to actually still run fine.

“OK Google” always-on-listening works by default in launcher, without a Google account; it can be disabled in settings. There is a default widget for weather from AccuWeather.

None of the default apps are removable, but they can be disabled. This hides them from the launcher app list, which is enough for my purpose: avoiding distraction.

This being Android, software installs fine from APK files. In particular, Firefox and run well. More on third-party software later.

My usage

  • Playing music: works fine. An SD card slot means I didn’t have to overpay the manufacturer for onboard storage. When used mostly for music a couple hours a day, the battery life is about a week.
  • Running an offline map: competent in, which uses OpenStreetMap data. The phone came on a three-week trip with maps of Vietnam and Hong Kong, and worked well. Offline search was mostly fine, occasionally laggy, but that might have had something to do with downloading all of Guangdong to cache Hong Kong.
  • Making phone calls: competent. Dual SIMs were nice for staying connected just-in-case when we had a local SIM on the trip, but I don’t use them day-to-day now.
  • Sending short text messages: yep, it does that, with a standard Android keyboard.

It’s a functional enough little computer, and it makes phone calls, too. I am satisfied.