Monday, 23 December 2013

Quick Review: Nova Launcher Beta

If you're into customising your phone and making it yours, chances are that you've already installed a custom launcher. Nova is a good solid example, and it's been my launcher of choice for a good while now.

It's very similar to the AOSP (Android Open Source Project) launcher, except that you can customise the bejeesus out of it. You can choose the grid size, and even the speed of the animations. Thankfully, the stock settings are perfectly good if you're a bit daunted by the amount of settings.

There are any amount of other more in-depth reviews out there, so I'll just finish up by saying that it's a good option for anyone looking for a way to waste a lot of time getting it just so ;)

Seeing as I won't be posting until next weekend or afterwards, I'd like to say:

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Best computing device for students

Students need computers. This is becoming clearer with every passing month and year. Maybe secondary school students don't, but college students certainly do. Well, it's a pain to go without one.

So which one is best for students? An ideal computer for students would be cheap as chips and very portable, without losing out on power or screen/build quality. A pretty tall order, and really it's up to you which device you go for; all I can do is give you a few things to consider before spending a few hundred euro/pounds/dollars. For this, I'm going to restrict my budget to portable devices which cost less than €500, eliminating all Macs and desktops.

There was a time when the only halfway-cheap computers you could buy were running Windows. Not any more. You can pick up a perfectly good Chromebook for €250.

Chromebooks are basically laptops running a glorified version of Google's Chrome browser. Almost everything is done in the browser, including editing documents, courtesy of Google Drive. Naturally, you'd want to be fairly heavily invested in Google's ecosystem for this to be a seamless transition. Programmes like Skype and Office are missing, although Google does have alternatives. There's also no "swiss-army knife" video player like VLC on ChromeOS (I could be corrected on that one though).

So what good is it then? It's ideal for people who use their laptops for web-surfing and general work, or who want a second computer. Thankfully the OS is also light enough to balance the middling specs.

Windows is undoubtedly the best supported of all the Operating Systems, simply because so many companies use it. It's also had enough time to get lots of programmes, unlike ChromeOS. While Windows 8 has proved to be very controversial, it is still a lot more complete as an operating system. You also get brilliant programmes such as Microsoft Office and the VLC Media Player.

Of course, decent Windows laptops cost a lot more cash than Chromebooks. A decent Windows laptop will cost at least €400, if you want more-than-mediocre specs. There are also lots of brands to choose from. Personally, I quite like Dell, and I've heard good things about Lenovo, although I can only say for sure about Dell.

There are netbooks around, which are on the nice side of €300, but typically they have a severely limited version of Windows, and very poor specs. Couple that with a resource-heavy OS, and you've got a very sub-par user experience. Honestly, if you're looking at netbooks, take a look at a Chromebook instead.

Or you could look at a tablet, if it's within budget. Getting a tablet and a keyboard dock may satisfy your needs. I've always found touchscreens to be awkward to type on for longer documents. Apple's iPad has a large advantage in this area, as there are any amount of officially recommended keyboard docks available. Android's offerings suffer in this respect, as there are only 3rd party options, and then only for the most popular devices. You should also watch out that your tablet is secure in the dock, and isn't liable to fall over (not something you want happening in a lecture theatre).

Android's sub-par tablet-optimised app selection is a discussion for another day, but it's enough to say that Apple's selection wipes the floor with Android's. That said, there are enough good Office suites to choose from on Android (personally I use Polaris Office and Quickoffice). The iPad has lots of options, and, though I can't vouch for anything personally, I hear that Office2 HD is a good option.

The iPad Mini starts at €299, and the iPad 2 starts at €389. Keyboards can then cost anything up to another €150. Android tablets are generally cheaper, with my personal favourite being the Nexus 7 (2013), starting at €250. Keyboards for the Nexus 7 can be bought on eBay or Amazon for around €35-50. You can also buy more expensive tablets from Sony or Samsung, although once again you're faced with the issue of keyboards. ASUS got around this issue by including selling their own docks with their tablets. These tablet and dock combinations tend to cost around €500.

Really, it's up to you what you choose.If all you want is something to write essays and surf the net on, then I'd recommend a Chromebook. If you need a more supported Operating System, or just more processing power, then a Windows laptop is the way to go. While I have seen people using iPads as their main device, I wouldn't recommend it unless you're sure that it'll do what you need it to.

The best thing to do is to go into somewhere like Curry's, where they have display models you can play around with. That's worth as much as any guide.

If you think I've left anything out, please feel free to comment.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Quick App Comparison: Swiftkey Pro vs Google Keyboard

One of the biggest things people do on their phones is to text, be it with SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook, or whatever. As with everything, it's worth getting a good keyboard for the job. I mostly use either Swiftkey or Google Keyboard. Both of these are available for Android. IOS, due to its highly restricted nature, only has the stock keyboard, although you can do your typing in apps like Fleksy, and paste your stuff where you want it.

Please bear in mind that these are just my personal thoughts, feel free to comment if you disagree.

Google Keyboard is a pretty straightforward keyboard, with no real bells or whistles, aside from its swipe gestures, which now include being able to swipe to the spacebar to insert a space without taking your finger off the screen. As such, it has little to no customisability. Instead it offers simple stability which you can count on all the time. Oh, and you can download it free of charge, providing your phone is running Android 4.0 or higher.

Swiftkey offers you any amount of customisation. It includes 13 themes, and an extensive range of language packs, including Irish! Swiftkey also offers Cloud Sync, meaning that you can add words to your dictionary on one device, and have that word in the dictionary across all devices. In my experience, however, Swiftkey isn't quite as snappy in opening, closing, and general typing, as Google's offering. Swiftkey isn't free however. You can download a free trial for a month, but then you have to buy the full app for €3.99.

For phones, my keyboard of choice is most definitely Google Keyboard.

But, what about tablets? Here is where Swiftkey comes into its own. Google Keyboard takes up about half the screen real estate in landscape, and probably about a third in landscape. It still types perfectly well, but it's always seemed to me to be a terrible waste of screen. Obviously, the devs over at Swiftkey had the same thought. Layouts for Living allows you to change the keyboard to a two-handed split layout, or shift all the keys to the left or right. My personal favourite is the ability to completely undock the keyboard from the bottom of the screen, and move the keyboard around the screen to where you want it. While this does mean that text boxes don't move up to be above the keyboard, it also means that the keyboard only takes up a fraction of the space on-screen, allowing you to see much more of the app or webpage you're in.

Thanks to Layouts for Living, Swiftkey is much better than Google Keyboard for tablets, especially in landscape. It may be a bit steep, but if you type a lot on your tablet, it's well worth it.

Google Keyboard: Recommended for phones and smaller tablets
  • Free
  • Stable
  • Smooth
  • Gesture typing
  • Not so much customisability
Swiftkey Pro: Recommended for larger tablets (i.e. 10" tablets)
  • Loads of customisability
  • Layouts for Living
  • Innovative developers
  • Cloud sync
  • Lots of languages
  • Not free
  • Some small performance issues