• 2011-03-21 14:10:00

    Slicehost vs. Linode

    Through the years I have hosted my sites on various hosting companies. I had the really good experiences like Vertexhost and really terrible ones - I don't remember the name of the host, but that kid, as it turned out to be later on, managed to lose 1.6GB of my data. You can safely say that I have been burned by bad hosting companies but also have enjoyed the services of good ones. In the case of Vertexhost, I part owned that company a few years back and I know that the current owner is a straight up guy and really cares for his customers.

    Since I moved my emails to Google Apps I only need the hosting for my personal sites such as my blog, my wife's sites (burntoutmom.com, greekmommy.net) and a few other small sites.

    I used to host those sites on one of my company's clusters. The bandwidth consumed was nothing to write home about (I think in total it was a couple of GB per month ~ 1.00 USD) so it didn't matter that I had them there. However, recent events forced me to move them out of that cluster. I was on the market for good and relatively cheap hosting. I did not want to purchase my own server or co-locate with someone else. My solution was going to be a VPS since I would be in control of what I install and what I need.

    Slicehost

    Without much thought, I signed up for Slicehost, which is a subsidiary of Rackspace, a very well known and reputable company.

    I got their 4GB package (250.00 USD per month) and installed Gentoo on it. Apart from the price which was a bit steep, everything else was fine. I was happy to be able to host my sites in a configuration that I was comfortable with, under the understanding that if the VPS failed, then all my sites would go down. That however is the risk that everyone takes while hosting their sites on a single machine. The higher the availability and redundancy the higher the cost.

    I must admit that signing up was not a very happy experience. I went and paid with my credit card, as they pro-rate your month based on your package. Almost immediately after signing up, came the email informing me that my credit card has been charged for the relevant amount. I got into the box through ssh, updated the /etc/make.conf file with the USE flags that I needed, run emerge --sync and then emerge --update --deep --newuse --verbose world so as to update the system.

    It must have been around 5-10 minutes into the process that I received an email from Slicehost saying that they are checking my account information and that I need to confirm my credit card details. I immediately replied to their email (gotta love the desktop notifications on GMail), with the information they needed.

    After I sent the email, I noticed that the box was not responding. I tried to log back in and could not. I was also logged out (and could not log back in) to their management console on Slicehost site. I was fuming! They severed the connection to the VPS in the middle of compilation to check my credit card information. I understand that they need to perform checks for fraud but two questions came to mind:

    • Why did they have to sever the connection and not just send an email, and if I did not reply, just block access to the box? That would have been a heck of a lot of an inconvenience to myself i.e. the end user.
    • Why did the initial email say that my credit card has been charged and it had not?

    No more than 10 minutes later the whole thing had been resolved. I received an email saying that "everything is OK and your account has been restored", at which point I logged back in to redo the compilations. I also received emails from their support/billing team apologizing but stating that although the initial email states that they charge the credit card, they don't. It is something they need to correct because it pisses people (like me) off.

    There was nothing wrong with my setup - everything was working perfectly but the price was really what was bothering me. I would be able to support the sites for a few months, but since literally none of them is making money (maybe a dollar here or there from my blog but that is about it), I would have to pay out of pocket for the hosting every month. I had to find a different solution that would be:

    • cheaper than Slicehost
    • flexible in terms of setup
    • easy to use in terms of controlling your VPS

    After a lot of research I ended up with two winners: Linode and Prgrm. I opted for Linode, because although it was quite a bit more expensive than Prgmr, it had the better console in handling your VPS. I will, however, try out Prgmr's services in the near future so as to assess how good they are. They definitely cannot be beat in price.

    Linode

    Setting up an account with Linode was very easy. I didn't have any of the mini-saga I had with Slicehost. The account was created right there and then, my credit card charged and I was up and running in no time. Immediately I could see a difference in price. Linode's package for 4GB or RAM is 90.00 USD cheaper (159.00 USD vs. 250.00 USD for Slicehost). For the same package, the price difference is huge.

    I started testing the network, creating my VPS in the Atlanta, GA datacenter (Linode offers a number of data centers for you to create your own). The functionality that was available to me was identical and in some cases superior to that of Slicehost. There are a lot more distributions to choose from, and you can partition your VPS the way you want it to name a couple.

    Shifting through the documentation, I saw a few topics regarding high availability websites. The articles described using DRDB, nginX, heartbeat and pacemaker etc. to keep your sites highly available. I was intrigued by the information and set off to create a load balancer using two VPSs and nginX. I have documented the process and this is another blog post that will come later on this week.

    While experimenting with the load balancer (and it was Saturday evening) I had to add a new IP address to one of the VPS instances. At the time my account would not allow such a change and I had to contact support. I did and got a reply in less than 5 minutes. I was really impressed by this. Subsequent tickets were answered within the 5 minute time frame. Kudos to Linode support for their speed and professionalism.

    Conclusion

    For a lot cheaper, Linode offered the same thing that Slicehost did. Moving my sites from one VPS to another was a matter of changing my DNS records to point to the new IP address.

    I have been using Linode for a week and so far so good. The support is superb and the documentation is full of how-to's that allows me to experiment with anything I want to - and the prices are not going to break me.

    Resources

  • 2011-03-10 14:00:00

    Additional storage for Google Apps users

    I have been using Google Apps for a number of years now and I have gotten so used to it that I cannot fathom any other way of operating. I am sure that some of you share that sentiment. :)

    Limitations

    Up until a few months ago, Google Apps had its limitations. The actual Apps was in some sort of a jailshell, isolated from the whole Google suite of applications. For that reason you could not use your Google Apps login to enjoy the service of Google Reader for instance. You had to be sneaky about it. You had to create a Google Account with the same username (and password if you liked) as your Google Apps domain and although the two did not communicate, you could have effectively "one login" for all services.

    This limitation became more apparent with the increased usage of Android phones (where you need to have a Google Account on your phone) as well as Google Voice. Users have been asking about the "merge" and Google responded with significant infrastructure changes to cater for the transition. In my blog post Google Apps and Google Accounts Merge I present additional information about this, inclusive of a How-To on the transition for administrators of Google Apps. Unfortunately the process is not perfect and there are still some services that are not fully integrated with the new infrastructure (but will be in the future). For instance in my domain, since I use Google Voice with my domain email account, I am still on the "old" system because the account could not be transitioned. It will happen in the end, it just takes time.

    Storage Needs

    The biggest issue for me that was related to these two separated accounts (Google Apps Account vs. Google Account) was Picasa and Google Docs.

    I have been very methodical in my filing, utilizing electronic storage as much as possible. For that reason I have been scanning documents and uploading them to Google Docs (or if they were available in PDF format I would just upload them). The documents would range from personal, utility bills, bank statements, anything that I want to store. Soon I realized that the 1GB that Google Apps offers for documents will not cut it. I therefore created a new account which I named DocsMule1 (clearly to signify its purpose). I created one folder in that account, uploaded as many documents as I could there and shared that document with my own account as well as my wife's. Soon I found more limitations since I ended up with 3 mule accounts. Since there was no option for me to upgrade the storage (even if I paid for it), I had to change my strategy. Managing documents from 3 or more different accounts is not an easy and convenient task.

    I downloaded all my documents back to my computer (gotta love Google's Data Liberation) and deleted them from the Google Apps mule accounts and then deleted those accounts - just to keep everything tidy. I then launched my Gmail account and signed into Google Docs. I created one folder which I shared with my Google Apps accounts (my wife's and mine) and then paid $50.00 for a whole year - which provided me with 200GB of space. You can always check how much space you are using by visiting the Manage Storage page of your Google Account.

    Once that was done, I started creating my folders (collections now) and uploaded all my documents up there. In addition to that, since my parents live in Greece, they rely on VoIP chat as well as my Picasa to stay in touch with their grandchildren. My wife and I, through the use of our mini camera as well as our Android phones, take a lot of pictures of the kids, documenting the little things that they do on a regular basis. This serves as a good archive for them when they grow up but also as a good way to stay in touch with my parents. Google's additional storage was the solution.

    Problem solved. With minimal money I had everything sorted out. It did however inconvenience me quite a bit in the end, since a lot of my data was scattered now. The GMail account would keep Picasa and Docs, the Google Apps account my email, my Google account my Reader, Web history etc. Not very convenient but it works.

    Storage for Google Apps

    Around February, Google announced that they will be offering the option to Google Apps users to purchase additional storage. I was really happy about that since I could therefore ditch the GMail account for handling my docs and keep everything under the domain account. However something was wrong. When Google revealed their pricing (the announcement is not there any more but the prices I am quoting are real), I quickly found out that for the storage I currently have, I would need to spend $700.00 a year instead of $50.00. That did not make sense at all. Needless to say, I stayed with my existing plan.

    Initial Pricing Plan
     Storage     Price (per year)
       5 GB         17.50 USD
      20 GB         70.00 USD
      80 GB        280.00 USD
     200 GB        700.00 USD  <==
     400 GB      1,400.00 USD
       1 TB      3,500.00 USD
       2 TB      7,000.00 USD
       4 TB     14,000.00 USD
       8 TB     28,000.00 USD
      16 TB     56,000.00 USD
    
    New Pricing Plan

    A few days ago, Google announced changes in the pricing of additional storage for Google Apps users as well as changes to the free storage that Google offers for Picasa. Picasa Web Albums does offer 1GB of free storage but now photos of 800x800 pixels or less as well as videos of 15 minutes or less do not count against the 1GB of storage. You can read more about the Picasa Web Albums storage in the relevant help page.

     Storage     Price (per year)
      20 GB         5.00 USD
      80 GB        20.00 USD
     200 GB        50.00 USD
     400 GB       100.00 USD
       1 TB       256.00 USD
       2 TB       512.00 USD
       4 TB     1,024.00 USD
       8 TB     2,048.00 USD
      16 TB     4,096.00 USD
    

    As far as the new pricing is concerned, Google brought everything in line with Google Accounts pricing (effectively scrapping the initial - expensive - pricing plan for extra storage). The help page Google Storage - How it Works offers additional information for those that want to use/upgrade their storage while using a Google Apps account. Effectively it now costs exactly the same to purchase additional space for your Google Apps account (to store documents) as it would if you were using a different Google Account. That probably means that I have to download everything to my computer and re-upload it to my Google Apps account....

    To take advantage of this feature, you will have to go to the Purchase additional storage page while logged in with the Google Apps account that you wish to purchase storage for. Note that there is a warning that appears in red (see image) that warns you that you are using a Google Apps account. Google provides this information since your Google Apps account relies on the Google Apps administrator. If you have an account on Google Apps and you purchase storage, that storage will be gone if the administrator deletes or restricts access to your account.

    Conclusion

    In my view, Google has done it again. They now offer an extremely affordable and secure way of storing your data. There are loads of people that have concerns about where their data is stored, who has ownership of the data stored, what does Google do with the data etc. A lot of these questions can easily be answered if you google (duh) the relevant terms or search in Google's Help Center. Data Liberation allows you to retrieve your data whenever you want to. If on the other hand you are skeptical and do not wish to store your data there, don't. It is your choice.

    References

  • 2011-02-06 13:47:00

    A look in the past and the future

    It has been months since I last posted a blog post. A lot of things have happened since August and I have a lot of material to post - just not the discipline to sit down and proof all the drafts so that I can post them.

    2010

    2010 has been a rough year mostly on a personal level. I lost my brother in law in March, my daughter was born in May, there was great uncertainty at work during the summer, an upgrade went bad for Long Hair Care Forum to name a few of the highlights.

    Since this is officially my first year of blogging, I was happy to see some of the statistics for that year (well 8 months to be exact since I haven't posted since August).

    Visits 8,940
    Pageviews 11,979
    Pages/Visit 1.41
    Bounce Rate 81.34%
    Avg Time on Site 00:01:10
    % New Visits 85.04%

    The most visited posts were:

    Google Apps and Google Accounts merge with 1,601 pageviews (13.37%) Subversion Backup [How-To] with 1,289 pageviews (10.76%) Android 2.2 (Froyo) Review with 1,124 pageviews (9.38%)

    Not that bad for a first year.

    2011

    When I started blogging my main focus was to mostly address coding issues. However due to the plethora of solutions on the Internet, the content that I wanted to relay was not that interesting or had been covered a hundred times or more. For instance I did start posting about design patterns here and here, but at the same time Giorgio Sironi started blogging about design patterns and did an excellent job at it, so that topic was scrapped. My posts then started covering a much broader scope, mostly that of technology with a small personal flare.

    For 2011 I will continue on the same scope. I intend on blogging about interesting things technologically, how-to's and topics that I want to share with the community.

    As always, whatever is presented in this blog is my personal opinion. Every post covered here as well with any code are free of copyright and you are free to use them in your projects at your own risk.

    A big thank you to everyone that visited this blog whether you shared your opinion with me or not. I hope to meet the expectations of producing interesting content in the future.

  • 2010-08-18 13:17:00

    Google Apps and google Accounts merge

    Anyone that has a Google Apps account and wants to access other services like Google Reader, Google Voice etc. knows that the username and password of the Google Apps account does not work for these services, since those are not available for Google Apps accounts. To get around this limitation, what you could do (and what I have done in the past) is to sign up for a new Google Account with the same email address as your Google Apps account. This of course creates confusion at times, duplication of data and disassociation of services. The most obvious example of this is on an Android device. To use my phone, I need to sign in with my Google Apps account. However, to use my Google Voice number, I have to use sign in again for that service but now using my Google Account (which uses the same email address). This works but I still have to keep two sets of contacts - one for the Google Apps and one in Google Voice.

    According to Google, 9 of the top 20 requests> from Google Apps customers are for their accounts to work with more services from Google. To facilitate this, the Google Apps account had to be merged with the Google Account. This page in Google Apps Help describes the transition.

    Unfortunately this was not a simple flip of a switch for Google. Significant infrastructure changes had to be in place prior to the merging of the accounts. We were promised that this change would be in place by fall and we have not been disappointed. Google is rolling out the update slowly but if you want to 'speed up' the process, you can sign up for an early round of testing of the new infrastructure. I have signed up for several of my Google Apps domains a couple of weeks ago.

    I am happy to announce that one of my domains has already gone through the merge process. The domain is BeautyAndTheGeek.IT which is a Google Apps Premier edition. My other domains that are hosted in Google Apps have not transitioned yet and I suspect that Google is first merging Premium accounts, then Educational, Government and it will finish up with the Standard edition of Google Apps, which kind of makes sense (paid customers first!).

    Email Invitation

    The merge process works as follows:

    • If your Google Apps account email address has never been used to access Google products such as Google Reader, Google Voice, Google Code etc. then your Google Apps account will be converted to a Google Account.

    • If your Google Apps account email address has been used to access Google products such as Google Reader, Google Voice, Google Code etc. then your Google Apps account is conflicting with your Google Account. This page in Google Apps Administrator Help provides an overview of conflicting accounts. In short both of your accounts will merge and the data will be associated with your Google Apps account, which will now be the same as your Google Account.

    There are certain limitations to this merge (as one would expect :)). These are as follows:

    • If the offline feature is enabled in GMail, the user has to synchronize before the transition. If they don't, they will lose their offline messages.
    • Offline Google Calendar doesn't work for Google Apps accounts that have transitioned.
    • The following Google products don't work with Google Apps accounts that have transitioned:
      • Android Market for Developers
      • Google Extra Storage (bummer)
      • Health (bummer again)
      • PowerMeter
      • Profiles
      • Web History
      • YouTube
    • The purchase of additional Google Storage is currently unavailable for Google Apps accounts. No storage can be purchased for a Google Apps account, although it will be available later this year. If a user account has already purchased extra storage (like I have) in an existing Google Account, the storage will remain in that account and will not transfer to the respective Google Apps account after the transition.
    • Delegating email only works with the same account type (i.e. Google Apps)
    • Any Picasa Web Album, Profile, or Wave usernames cannot be moved from an existing account to your Google Apps account.

    Resources: Transition readiness checklist, Conflicting accounts, Early adopters, Additional storage for Google Apps, Google Apps Administrator Help Center

    The process

    Google Apps - Dashboard Warning

    Once I logged in my Google Apps Administration area, the Dashboard presented a new notice at the top. In short the notice states that new services will be available to the Google Apps accounts. This will be achieved with the transition of the Google Apps Account to a Google Account. The update is free and Google will automatically roll it out on September 30, 2010.

    Resource: Google Apps core suite

    Google Apps - Understand the Transition

    Clicking the "Get Started" button at the bottom of the notice will start a wizard that helps with the transition of the domain's accounts to Google accounts of your users (some or all). The first screen contains information that aids in understanding the transition and what is involved. Moving to the new infrastructure will update your control panel and give you control over which Google services your users can access with their accounts.

    Resource: Transition readiness checklist, Google Apps Administrator Help Center

    Google Apps - New Services

    Based on the services that are available for your domain user accounts, the screen above might be slightly different. It does however give you (the administrator) the ability to enable or disable services for your users. Note that turning off a service will disallow your users to sign up for that service using their Google Apps account for your domain. It will however not stop them from using a totally different Google Account (personal for instance) to access that service.

    Google Apps - Notify Conflicting Accounts

    Confirming the new services, the wizard will display a new screen, that will allow you to notify those users that have conflicting accounts. This screen provides information on how many users have conflicting accounts (in my case only 1), what happens to those accounts (the merge process) and what should you do as the administrator. Google will not provide information on which of your users have conflicting accounts. What they will however do, is offer you a temporary email address and an email template, that you can use to email your users. The email template is shown in the "Google Apps - Email to User" section below.

    Google Apps - Select Users

    Clicking Continue, brings up the User Selection screen. Here the administrator can select whose account will be transitioned for now. You can choose to pilot test this transition with a small set of users or everyone. The difference is that if you choose a small set of users to pilot test this transition, you can revert their accounts back to what they were prior to this step. If you choose "Everyone" from this screen, the change will be across the organization and cannot be undone. Reminder here that the transition will happen either way by the end of September, 2010. Finally you have the option to inform the users when their account transition is complete. This generates an email (in English) to the user with relevant information. You can see the email in section "Google Apps - Email to User" below.

    Resource: Early adopters

    Google Apps - Confirmation

    Clicking Continue again will bring up the final screen which is the confirmation page. Google is very thorough and I like the confirmation screen. The information in this screen is a summary of what the wizard collected in previous steps. You (the administrator) will have to confirm in several places that you have understood the process, read the agreement and then accept the whole process. Clicking I accept. Start the transition. will make things happen :)

    Resources: Transition readiness checklist

    Google Apps - Transition in progress

    Navigating back to the dashboard, you will see a message notifying you that there is a transition in place for the accounts of your domain and can take up to 24 hours to be completed. This serves as a reminder on what has just happened. The notice will disappear once the transition is completed.

    Google Apps - Email to User

    If you (the administrator) chose to notify your users of this transition (see step Select Users above), they will receive an email like the one shown above. If you chose to notify your users with a different message then that message should have been sent to the temporary email address that Google has provided (see step Notifying Conflicting Accounts above)

    Resources: Data ownership, Transition readiness checklist, Google Apps Administrator Help Center

    Google Apps - Email to User after Transition

    Finally another email will be sent to the user summarizing what has happened with their account. This email contains links to additional resources.

    Resources: List of products, New sign in option, Data ownership, What is a browser?, Using multiple accounts, Help Center for Admins, Google Apps Administrator Help Center

    Google Apps - User Login message for Account Merge

    Once the transition operation is completed, the next time the user logs in their account, they will see the screen above. In short this screen informs the user of what has happened and provides links to online resources for help. The user must click I accept. Continue to my account for them to have access to their account. This is a one off process.

    Resources: Google Apps Administrator Help Center, Google Security and Privacy, Using multiple accounts, Terms of Service

    Conclusion

    Without a doubt this is a huge step forward for Google and for us as admins or users. The ability to have a single sign on to use their products not only helps them but us by simplifying everything. That also means that if a hacker guesses that my password is password1 they have access to all my Google related services... but oh well :)

    Joking apart though, I am really excited that this change has finally occurred. I am guessing that the next steps would be to give users or admins the ability to purchase additional storage for a single account is something that in my view will make quite a lot of money for Google. A lot of people will want to keep all their emails and are nearing or have reached their email quota. Administrators would be happy to pay for certain users that have depleted their email storage allocation without converting their whole Google Apps edition to the Premier one. After all, if your organization has 100 users and 5 of them are near capacity, even if you pay $20 per user it will cost $100 per year. If however the whole account is changed to a Premier account (with 25Gb per mailbox) the cost will go up to $5,000.

    Some questions come to mind:

    • Will the user be able to purchase storage for all services or just for email?
    • Will the 1Gb limit from Docs be lifted and will it be combined with storage for mail?
    • $20 a year gives you 80Gb in Picasa. Will Google follow that model or change it? According to the Additional storage for Google Apps page it appears that it will be more expensive now to have more space.
    • If storage is so cheap (Picasa) will it be extended to Google Documents? It appears that 7.5Gb is enough for the vast majority of users as far as email is concerned, but 1Gb for Docs is not enough. For a society moving towards a full electronic document storage this could help a lot.

    Still a long way to go until everything clears up. I am not sure that Google has all the answers yet but they are moving forward and this is the most encouraging news of all!

  • 2010-06-21 12:31:00

    Android 2.2 (Froyo) Review

    Android 2.2 (Froyo)

    The newest version of the Android Operating System has been codenamed Froyo (as in Frozen Yogurt).

    Although I have heard of the name, I was not following very closely the development of the said OS, so I did not know what to expect. The presentation on Day 2 at Google I/O was more than impressive so I had to get my hands on it :)

    After the GoogleIO presentation, I was regularly checking (Settings – About Phone – System Updates) my phone to see what kind of version I am running and whether the update was waiting for me. Unfortunately I was disappointed every time, therefore I resigned to the idea that it will update when it is pushed to my phone.

    A few days later though, reports on the blogosphere started appearing of users now running on Froyo. The update started rolling out so it was a matter of time for me. Most of the reports were coming from California, so if I were to look at the geography, it would take the update quite a bit of time to reach West Virginia :)

    Through my regular research on the Internet, I found a few interesting blog posts that claimed that one can update the Nexus One without waiting for the update to be rolled out. Having nothing to lose, I decided to try it on my phone and see what happens.

    Upgrade to Froyo

    Below is how I upgraded my Nexus One to Froyo. I had a couple of failed attempts, loads of Googling but I finally managed to get it to work. Luckily a couple of days later an article appeared on Lifehacker which confirmed that the steps I took were the correct ones!

    I connected my Nexus One to my computer using the USB cable.

    The phone was detected and I mounted the SD card from the phone (bring down the notification area and select the USB connection – select mount to mount the SD card)

    When I performed these steps I had to navigate to a URL on the Android website (see article on Lifehacker).

    I copied the file and pasted it on my newly mounted drive which was the SD card of my Nexus One

    The file is 45Mb and when the copy was completed, I unmounted the SD card from the computer initially (click the status area and select Safely remove drive) and then from the phone (from the notification area select USB connection and select Unmount)

    The update instructions below are the original work of SimonNWalker and can be referenced here.

    With the update file uploaded on the Nexus One, all I had to do is shut down the device so that I can reboot it in recovery mode. The steps I took are as follows:


    I clicked and held the power button until the menu appeared. I selected Power Off, confirming that I wish the phone to power off.

    Once the phone powered off completely, I pressed and held the trackball button down and then pressed the power button. A new screen appeared (which, like myself, you probably have never seen before) with three androids on skateboards at the bottom and several options at the top.

    I navigated using the power and the volume buttons. I selected the first option (Bootloader) using the volume buttons and pressed the power button to activate it.

    A new menu appeared with the following options:

    FASTBOOT

    RECOVERY

    CLEAR STORAGE

    SIMLOCK

    I navigated to RECOVERY and selected it

    The familiar Nexus One X appeared on the screen. A few seconds later, a little android with a big exclamation mark in a triangle replaced the X.

    The next step I took was to press simultaneously the power button and the volume up button.

    This brought a new menu at the top.

    The options available were:

    • reboot system now
    • apply sdcard:update.zip
    • wipe data/factory reset
    • wipe cache partition

    Using the trackball, I navigated to the second option and pressed the trackball button down.

    At this point the update started and some information was flashing on the screen for a while, where some files were patched, some deleted, new ones copied and others replaced accordingly. The whole process took roughly 5 minutes from start to finish.

    Features that I found

    Please note that these are my own observations. Some of the features here might have been present in the previous version of Android (Eclair) and I simply did not notice them. If that is the case please let me know and I will correct the post accordingly.

    Phone search (Search throughout the phone itself)

    This is one of the updates that I just love. Froyo allows you to search a lot of content that is stored on your phone. The content includes your contacts, sms messages, applications, twitter feeds and many more. With all this power it is very easy to find the information you are looking for with the press of a few keys on the virtual keyboard (Figure 4).

    Since with great power comes great responsibility, Froyo allows you to select what can be searched. Go to Settings - Search - Searchable Items and you will find the following options:

    • Web (web search, bookmarks and browser history)
    • Aldiko (only if you have it installed)
    • Apps (names of installed applications)
    • Contacts (names of your contacts)
    • Finance (stock tickers, company names) (only if you have it installed)
    • Google Sky Map (only if you have it installed)
    • Messaging (text in your messages)
    • Music (artists, albums and tracks)
    • Twitter (searchable tweets) (only if you have it installed)

    I am sure that the search extends to other applications. Your results might vary based on the apps you have installed.

    Tethering - Wi-Fi Hotspot

    When I first heard about this feature during the presentation of Froyo at Google I/O>, I was really excited.

    I spend every day 3 hours on the train, where I mostly work on my notebook. Having the ability to tether my phone and work online is essential. A couple of years back when I bought my first iPhone, I managed to jailbreak it and installed iPhoneModem on it to achieve the functionality that I wanted (tethering). It wasn't fancy (after all don't expect miracles with AT&T's EDGE network) but it worked. I could get my emails reply quickly and disconnect.

    When I got my Nexus One, I bought PDA Net to achieve the same result. It worked too but again in a very basic mode but it was draining the battery very fast and was running the phone very hot.

    After I upgraded to Froyo, I uninstalled PDA Net and have been working with the built in functionality ever since.

    To access the Tethering options, you will need to go to Settings - Wireless & Networks - Tethering & portable hotspot. The options shown on Figure 6 appear, which allow you to switch the Wi-Fi hotspot on or off. A USB tethering option also exists for those that want to keep their phone charged with the power that comes from their notebook or attached device. Once the hotspot is enabled, a blue icon appears at the top notification bar. The configuration of the hotspot is really easy and can be seen in figures 7 and 8. For those wondering why I chose the SSID of my hotspot to be one of the most infectious (Windows) viruses ever, it is exactly for that reason. Apart from the WPA2 encryption, the name itself is a deterrent for anyone that might get ideas in stealing bandwidth.

    Everything works perfectly apart from AT&T's EDGE network, which is really slow. The Nexus One I have can support T-Mobile's 3G network. I haven't switched to T-Mobile yet since there was no need. I fear though that I will not be able to escape the inevitable.

    On June 2nd AT&T issued press release where they showed us once again that they don't give a damn about their customers since they lie, deceive and overcharge for a mediocre (at best) service. You can read the press release and draw your own conclusions but to me it seemed once again a slap in the face.

    No more unlimited data plans for new customers, yet it is not clear what will happen to existing customers such as myself. I read somewhere in the blogosphere that those plans will remain as is, but this is AT&T that we are talking about - the same company that claims that calls to 1-800 numbers are free yet they charge you minutes for it.

    I have signed for the unlimited data plan, yet AT&T does not allow me to tether. Why? What difference does it make? They still offer the same crappy EDGE network whether I watch a YouTube video on my phone or on my computer. The answer is in the press release. They want more money. As phones get 'smarter' they phone companies get greedier. John Gruber offers a good analysis of the new AT&T data plans.

    I do not know how this will evolve but I will definitely continue using the Wi-Fi hotspot on my train ride, whether this will be with AT&T or T-Mobile. Perhaps if I change to T-Mobile I will be able to have better coverage. AT&T in West Virginia is not the greatest carrier. Notable is a recent phone conversation that I had with my wife while I was driving (I am wearing the headsets btw) where the line dropped 9 times :(

    Phone/Web buttons at the bottom of every screen and desktop

    This was something that was needed in my opinion (Figure 9). I was pressing way too many buttons to get to the phone, especially if I was not on the main screen. This little shortcut is very well received and thought of. I do not think that there is enough space for an additional 2 buttons (for the future release of Android) but you never know.

    Perhaps a future version will allow you to customize those buttons.

    Android development though has to be very cautious when releasing functionality. I am sure that Apple is checking everything that Android does with a microscope. With their enormous patent book near by, they will not hesitate to sue Android (or Google for that matter) for patent infringement (see Apple sues HTC).

    More accounts to sync with

    This area can be accessed via Settings - Accounts & sync settings<.

    I noticed that not only my regular GMail and Google Apps accounts appear but also YouTube as well as Twitter. I have installed the official Twitter application so I am pretty sure that this synchronization appears because of that application.

    I have not tried it with Seesmic or any other twitter application, so if you have any additional information please let me know and I will modify this post accordingly.

    I would also be very interested to know which other applications offer synchronization capabilities or take advantage of Android's synchronization API. If you have any other applications that synchronize on your phone, please let me know and I will include it in this post too.

    Easy account switch (Email)

    When I switched from an iPhone to an Android based phone, certain things were just "not right", not because there was something wrong with them - it was how I was used to things being done. One of those areas was the email. With the iPhone I was used to a traditional listing of accounts and then once something was selected I would go into the folders and then emails. If I wanted to change accounts I would have to go back two steps and then enter the account that I wanted.

    This seems a very logical approach and it is easy to get used to. Although the Android has a better email management interface, it lacked the ability to quickly switch accounts and thus not spend time tapping away going back or forth. In that area the iPhone was better. Note the was. It was not because the user will tap less times, but because you would tap the back button twice which was located in the same area of the screen at all times. For the Android you had to press the menu button and then select Accounts. This was again the same amount of steps but the iPhone approach felt more natural.

    With Froyo a new button appears at the top right of your email screen which will allow you to quickly go to the account selection screen. This effectively reduces the steps by one.

    Analyzing briefly my emails, I can say that on average I receive 25 emails on my personal account and 35 on my business (I chose the two accounts that I get the most traffic). So if in theory I get two emails every time I check my email, that would mean that I am checking my phone 12 - 17 times a day (assuming again that I get the batches of emails on both accounts at the same time). It would therefore be safe to assume that I check my emails 15 times a day where I need to switch from one account to another.

    So the math gives us:

    Taps Average Email Checks per Day Week Month Year
    iPhone 2 15 210 900 10,950
    Android 1 15 105 450 5,475

    Clearly with the above I am using now half of the screen taps than I used to with Android Eclair or with the iPhone. However the this rough calculation shows how much I was tapping in the past prior to Froyo. Goodbye RSI. :)

    Colored labels in your email (like GMail)

    If you are like me and use Google Apps or GMail, you are by now accustomed to the colored labels on your emails, that you don't know what you have been doing without them all this time.

    With Froyo, this functionality is now available in my mobile device allowing me to visually identify emails of high interest.

    For instance, Figure 12 shows my setup. As you can see I mark clients with a green label color and financial institutions (bills mainly) with a red color. When an email reaches my mailbox and is automatically labeled due to a relevant filter, I can easily identify its importance using this color coding.

    Having this functionality on my mobile device is invaluable!

    Easier navigation between emails - New < > buttons appear on the phone to get you from email to email

    Another huge improvement in the navigation part as far as emails are concerned came in the screen where I read a specific email.

    There are two extra buttons at the bottom of that screen which allow navigation to the previous or next message.

    Another great tap saving feature!

    Better voice recognition

    I had some problems with this feature from time to time primarily due to my accent – a blend of Greek – English British – German and English American. After a few tries on the new system, I can say that there is improvement since it recognized now queries that it had failed in the past.

    The voice search will probably never be able to detect everything that everyone is saying due to the different accents and voices of people but it is getting pretty close to perfect in my case.

    One thing that I love about voice search is the voice navigation. I have purchased the car dock for my Nexus One and I use the voice navigation almost everywhere I go. Understanding that I want to go to Rockville, MD instead of Rock Creek is awesome!

    Marketplace – Update all, autoupdate for each application

    This feature was missing and was probably one of the ones that were mostly requested by the users. The Update All to the installed applications.

    Luckily the Android developers have heard our pleas and Froyo now features an Update All button at the bottom of the Downloads section in the Marketplace application.

    Adding to this functionality, the user now has the ability to automatically update selected (or all) applications. When clicking on one of the applications to update, a checkbox appears which allows for automatic updates. If the checkbox is checked, the next time the selected application has an update, the phone will download it and install it.

    There will always be a notification regarding the action in the notification area, but unless you know where the application is coming from (and you trust the source) you should keep this checked off. I know I might be getting a bit paranoid here but that is what I did.

    Different notification for Text Messages (trackball)

    I am not sure if this existed in Eclair but I just noticed it. When an email arrives, the trackball will start glowing briefly in regular intervals with a white color to visually notify me about the email(s) waiting for me.

    If I receive a Google Voice message though, the trackball will still start glowing but this time it will be with a green color. This way I know that a text message is waiting for me.

    I have sent a text message to my AT&T number and did see the trackball glowing but this time it was only white. It appears that the green trackball notification is a feature of Google Voice on Froyo or again it was always a Google Voice feature and I hadn't noticed, at which point I am getting excited for nothing :)

    New icons for USB Connect/Disconnect and USB debugging

    These ones I loved them the first time I saw them. If USB debugging is enabled (Settings - Applications - Development - USB Debugging), the minute the phone is connected to the computer using the USB cable, a new icon will appear in the notification area (Figure 15). It appears that it is an android bug of sorts :)

    When the phone is connected to the computer via the USB cable, the user has the ability to use the SD card as a storage device. Once the relevant entry in the notification bar is tapped, the screen with the "Turn on USB storage" will appear. If I switch the USB storage on, the screen changes slightly.

    These were two really cool (in my view) new screens that engage the user even more in exploring their device!

    Camera control

    A new enhancement appeared in the Camera application (Figure 18).

    The new menu that changes position based on the orientation of your phone (horizontal or vertical) allow for zooming, flash control, white balance control, geolocation and exposure.

    The options available are:

    • Zoom: 1x, 1.2x, 1.4x, 1.7x, 2x
    • Flash mode: Auto, On, Off
    • White balance: Auto, Incandescent, Daylight, Fluorescent, Cloudy
    • Store location: Off, On
    • Focus mode: Auto, Infinity
    • Exposure: -2, -1, 0, +1, +2

    Unfortunately these controls only appear when taking photos and not when shooting video. I am sure however that this functionality (and more) will be extended to the video capturing aspect of the camera application.

    Select text

    This is an area where the iPhone was far better than the Eclair and unfortunately still is with Froyo. The gap though has decreased significantly.

    With Froyo I can now select text from say an email and paste it somewhere else - even a different application. The Select Text option is hidden under the More menu button and once selected, it creates a small mouse pointer. That is the start of where it will start selecting (Figure 20).

    I simply point to the top left area I want to copy from and drag my finger diagonally to end up at the bottom right of the area I want to select. This will select the text in a very appealing pink color and as soon as I lift my finger from the screen it will copy the text on the keyboard (Figure 21).

    The technique on the iPhone is better but not by much - as I wrote the gap has decreased significantly. On the iPhone you have a magnifying glass where you can pinpoint exactly where you want to start copying (or inserting text - same functionality).

    Again unfortunately this functionality (the one with the magnifying glass for selecting text) is patented by Apple Inc. and will not be seen on an Android based phone but I am sure that the Android developers will come up with something that will give us the same if not better user experience.

    FLASH Support

    Steve Jobs never kept secret his thoughts about Flash support on an iPhone. Although many people were hopeful that something will be worked out with Adobe in the end, Mr. Jobs shut the door on Adobe. Adobe then invested time and resources to work something out and right before they were able to release their solution Apple changed the iPhone Developer License Agreement to allow only applications written in Objective-C, C, C++ or Javascript and executed by the OS Webkit engine. Adobe had enough and issued a 'screw you apple' (not officially of course).

    The presentation on Day 2 at Google I/O included the news that Flash will be allowed and supported on Android based phones that run Froyo (or newer versions).

    I have to admit, the first version of Flash that I installed (it is still in BETA) was really slow. However three versions later, I am happy to announce that it works as well as a desktop machine. I have not tried to load a heavy flash based website but my brother in law's website (www.dnm.gr) loads just fine and you can see all the information that you need to see :)

    I am sure that in the coming months we will see a lot more progress in that area.

    Conclusion

    The Android 2.2 (Froyo) is a huge step forward. It provides users with a lot of functionality that transforms a phone to a multifunction communication device. The only thing that we are missing now is proper coverage from the national carriers (AT&T this one is for you) and without having to sell our first born children to pay for the monthly bills (AT&T this one is for you too).

    Update

    There has been another blog post on AndroidAndMe explaining how to update Froyo to the latest build (this one is a patch not the real thing).

    Update 2010-07-04

    Happy 4th of July! It came with the update for Froyo (officially now) on my cellphone. I am now running the FFR91 build (and so does my wife).