An Introduction to Android


I gave a brief introductory talk about Android at this month’s LUV meeting. Here are the slides with a brief description. All the screen-shots were made on a Samsung Galaxy S running Cyanogenmod version 7.1 [1] (Android version 2.3.7). With that build of Cyanogenmod you can press the power button for about 1.5 seconds to get a menu which gives an option to take a screen shot.

The aim of the talk was to give an overview of what Android can do. I also gave some random commentary about Android such as explaining why it doesn’t make a good phone.

Most of the pictures in this post have links to the Android applications in question.

Essential and Important Apps

picture of root shell access running df

I started by explaining why having root access to your system is really important, including the issue of backing up an Android phone [2]. Cyanogenmod includes a terminal program which allows you to run “su –“. Running a shell as root isn’t generally that useful, what you really want is to be able to run programs such as Titanium Backup which can only work properly if given root access. When you run an OS that allows root access you can run “su –” at a terminal prompt and you can also have an application use a GUI to request root access.

I recommend rooting and modding an Android phone immediately after buying it. However that takes some time which is somewhat equivalent to money and is a significant hidden cost to purchasing an Android phone.

picture of 3g watchdog bandwidth monitor

The business models of telephone companies seem to involve hidding users for unexpected fees and extra fees for excess bandwidth can be really expensive. 3G Watchdog is one app that can monitor bandwidth and disable data transfers if too much is used. Onavo is an alternative that allows tracking data use on a per-application basis, but it only runs on Android 2.3.x while 3G Watchdog works on Android 2.1.

Official EBay app searching for Samsung Android phones

EBay has an official app which is handy for searching for items. So far I’ve only used it to get price estimates and have used a PC for buying.

K9 viewing my SE Linux mailing list email

K9 seems to be the best MUA for Android. The MUA that ships with Android 2.1 isn’t nearly as good and K9 is good enough that I didn’t even bother testing the MUA from Cyanogenmod. The above picture shows a list of mail in my SE Linux folder.

graph by opticron grapher

The Opticron Grapher is a good graphing calculator. I won’t claim it’s the best because I didn’t seriously test such programs, but for the basic tests I’ve done it has worked well.

Google map of LUV location

The Google Maps client comes with every Android system, the above shows the location of the LUV meeting.

Open Street Map location of the LUV meeting

Osmand is an Android client for the Open Street Map project. Here is the web site for the Open Street Map project [3]. One significant advantage of OSM over the Google Maps is that OSM is free, the data is all contributed by users – like Wikipedia. Another significant advantage is that you can download as much data as you need to your phone, for example the entire dataset for Australia is about 200M. Storing 200M of data on your phone is no big deal when you consider the availability of phones with more than 16G of storage and the ability to use a map when offline is a real benefit.

So far I’ve used Osmand while waiting for a train at an underground station and I plan to use it to track my progress the next time I’m on a cruise.

serval mesh networking and VOIP

Serval is a mesh networking application for Android that supports VOIP phone calls and distributing messages and files. It’s designed to be used in disaster areas, but there are lots of other potential uses of the technology. The Serval Project blog has an article about the presentation they gave at LCA 2012 [4].

periodic table
details about Titanium

Periodic Droid is my favorite Periodic Table viewing program.

tomfusion Au Weather forecast app

The Tomfusion AU Weather forecast app seemed to be better than the one from the BoM last time I checked. It’s probably the best weather app for Australia.

screen-shot of LUV web site
LUV web site zoomed in

The Opera Mini browser is often faster than other browsers because it uses a compressing proxy run by Opera. It’s not so good for privacy though…

LUV page on Wikipedia

I have been using Wapedia for browsing Wikipedia. Since giving the talk I discovered the Official Wikipedia browser from the Wikimedia foundation [5] which is a better fit for my needs and I’ve uninstalled Wapedia.

As an aside modern phones have 16G of storage or more and could easily have a copy of the entire English text of Wikipedia on internal storage. It would be good if someone like Jason King (who is known for work on stand-alone DVD images for Wikipedia) was to write an Android program to do this.

Handy Apps

Androsensor showing GPS, accelleration, and light intensity
Androsensor showing magnetic field, orientation, and battery

Androsensor is a program to display output from most (all?) of the sensors on your phone. The results aren’t as accurate as one would hope, for example Earth’s gravity is 9.81m/s^2 – not the 10.26m/s^2 my phone registered. But they are a useful indication.

picture of Coke can, scanning the barcode
Google search on Coke can barcode
QR Code lookup of Facebook page

The Zxing Barcode scanner is one of many programs that will scan barcodes with the camera in an Android phone. It can launch a Google search on a product code or open a URL from a
QR Code. The above pictures show it scanning a Coke can (the can and other background was displayed on the full screen before the screen capture program activated), doing a Google search on the can barcode, and looking up a QR code that was on an advertisment outside the LUV venue.

picture from the bridge of the Dawn Princess in Tauranga NZ

Cruise Cams allows you to download pictures from cruise ships. Some cruise ships have several cameras on different parts of the ship uploading pictures regularly so that people around the world can see what’s happening.

list of geo-caches near the park where I prepared most of my notes

The c:geo opensource program allows you to get information on Geocaches and see a compass or map showing the location. This program has been getting an increasing number of features to do everything you might want to do related to Geocaching. The above picture shows some caches that are close to where I made the screen-shot, in a park a couple of Km from the meeting location.

picture of Google Sky Map in the direction of Andromeda

The Google Sky map uses augmented reality techniques to display stars in the direction that your phone is pointing along with their names and the names of the constellations.

Marine Traffic showing ships near me
Marine Traffic showing the Pacific Sun highlighted on a Google Map
Marine Traffic showing details of the Pacific Sun
Photos of the Pacific sun taken by fans and shown by Marine Traffic

The Marine Traffic program shows the locations of ships as well as lots of information about them. The above pictures show me discovering that the Pacific Sun was nearby, viewing it’s location on Google Maps, seeing the details, and then viewing fan pictures.

The developer’s web site allows viewing all the same data without an Android phone [6]. Anyone can join the project by buying an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver and configuring a PC to take data from AIS and send it to the servers. As an aside they seem to be missing coverage in western Victoria, so it would be good if someone near Apollo Bay or Warrnambool could install an AIS receiver and help out.

Satellite map from Satellite AR

Satellite AR uses augmented reality to show the location of satellites and other things in spare. Unfortunately the screen capture process turned off the camera as I had a sign advertising fast food positioned in an amusing location in the background.

Shipmate overview of Dawn Princess
Shipmate map of Dawn Princess

Shipmate publishes a set of programs giving information on cruise ships, they have one program for each cruise line. Above is the program for the Princess cruise line, the above pictures give information on the Dawn Princess. Unfortunately the program wasn’t usable without net access when I tried to use it on a cruise ship.


Air Attack HD game, clone of 1942

Air Attack HD is an entertaining game that demonstrates the capability of Android phones to run action games. Like many Android games it has a free version and paid versions if you want more.

picture of Angry Birds

Angry Birds is one of the most well known games for touch-screen devices. It has also spawned a huge line of merchandise.

Labyrinth Lite
Labyrinth Lite from a different angle

Labyrinth Lite is one of the many Android games based on the old mechanical game where you tilt a toy to roll a ball-bearing through a maze. It’s free and is better than most of the free games in that genre.

Minecraft Pocket Edtion

Minecraft Pocket Edition allows you to play Minecraft on your phone. The demo version doesn’t allow saving the game, you have to buy the game for about $5 if you want to do that. It also lacked the full features of the game last time I checked, it didn’t have monsters.

Paradise Island overview
Paradise Island details of Bungalow

Paradise Island is one of many business simulation games for Android. It’s more playable than most and has very detailed graphics, but the down-side is that it’s a memory hog and will crash if you don’t have enough RAM. It’s one of the games that are free to download but encourage you to pay money to level up, for some players it’s probably a very expensive game.

Tower Raiders 2, Pratt was eaten by a Grue

Tower Raiders 2 is one of the better tower defense games for Android.


7 thoughts on “An Introduction to Android”

  1. Andrew Shadura says:

    Russell, OsmAnd can do vector data, so the amount of flash space you need then is even smaller, and the picture looks better.

  2. rjc says:

    Hi Russell,

    Thanks for a good read read and the screenshots, there we some apps which I didn’t know previously and will end up on my HTC Hero shortly.

    One thing I can recommend if F-Droid, an Android app repository with FOSS apps.



  3. Gares says:

    You don’t mention uniwas as one of the best games for android? Shame on you! It has no free version, but for strategy game lovers it is really worth the price.

  4. Matthias says:

    While you mention k9 already for mail, you should IMHO also have a look at apg which enables gpg for k9. One should consider a separate key for the mobile device and switch the default setting away from HTMLizing signed/encrypted mails but then it works like a charm.

  5. Julien G says:

    It’s worth pointing out that ICS has inbuilt data usage tracking.

    Osmand is kinda shiny but I think the Google Maps output is still better looking (and the internal maps are nice where they’re supported), I am biased though.

    “Zxing Barcode scanner” looks no different then the Google scanner app (which is built in on Google images, but in the market for those not)

  6. etbe says:

    Andrew: Do you mean it always does vector data or it may do vector data? How do I know if it’s doing vector data or bitmaps? Am I correct in assuming that a 200MB file for a country the size of Australia has to be vector?

    rjc: In future I will probably write a post about free software on Android and will mention F-Droid in detail, thanks for linking to it here.

    Gares: My aim is demonstrating what Android can do for games, there’s lots of great games I didn’t mention.

    Matthias: Thanks for mentioning that. Of course it depends on your usage model, I have no plans to run GPG on my phone at this time but I can imagine that program being useful for others.

  7. TextSecure is pretty essential too, it can fully replace the built in SMS app and provides OTR like encryption capabilities to SMS.

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