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Samsung Galaxy S Vibrant

Abundant Apps Accelerate Android's Assault on Apple

By Jim Bray
February 4, 2011

The Smartphone may be one of the greatest adaptations of computer technology known to Mankind so far for the way it – and the media to which it's attached wirelessly – is putting the world in the palms of our hands.

Most familiar through Apple's iPhone, and now the iPad – though the latter is more a tool than a phone while the former is a like the Swiss Army Knife of telephony – smart phones are becoming necessary tools for today's busy and connected citizen.

It's a movement that I, who could never be accused of being a Luddite, didn't appreciate until it came into my life via osmosis: my son had an original iPhone and when he let me play with it I was intrigued, then enamored. What a marvelous device!

I finally took the plunge and actually paid $50 for a Samsung Galaxy Vibrant on a three year voice/data plan last fall. Why the Galaxy and Android? Easy. I got a better deal on it than I could've gotten with the iPhone 4 at that particular time – and I'd have had to wait for the iPhone. The Apple had been my first choice, because I'd inherited that first generation iPhone from my son when V3 came out and he was faced with either tossing it into a landfill or giving it to charity which, of course, begins at home.

It's basically a Mac versus PC-type thing – with Windows also in the mix now to muddy the waters further – and, looking back, I'm glad I chose the Android environment. I love the iPhone, and I understand that some of its shortcomings – such as the lack of multitasking – have been addressed with V4. But the Galaxy is a bit easier to use, with a couple of extra buttons on its face besides the Home button, and they give you extra flexibility than you get with iPhone's single Home button. It makes a big difference to me.

It doesn't hurt that the Samsung has a gorgeous AMOLED screen, either, though that has nothing to do with the Android environment or this column, so we'll speak no more of it. For now…

Anyway, when I bought the Samsung I was assured by the sales dude that there were as many or more apps available for Android as for Apple. The numbers are irrelevant, of course, compared with the quality of the apps but, since Sturgeon's Law states that "90 per cent of everything is crap," there may be some safety in big numbers to help assure the maximum size of that 10 per cent of apps that may be worth your while.

Visiting the app store reveals more choices than you can shake a memory stick at, most of which, if not exactly falling into Sturgeon territory, are irrelevant to my life. It's an amazing array of stuff, though, with free and "unfree" apps ranging from the sublime – such as e-book or business card readers – to the ridiculous, such as Talking Tom Cat, which "Repeats everything you say with a funny voice." By that, they mean the app uses a funny voice – your voice as if you'd inhaled helium – you don't actually have to use a funny voice to activate it. I tried.

Actually, Talking Tom Cat's pretty cute, but it's hardly a productivity tool.

There's a bar code reader you can download free that lets you scan products UPC codes in the store and possibly get a review or other info online automatically. The bar code isn't always in the database, but when it works it's very handy. You can also scan codes from magazines and the app store that home your smart phone's browser to a particular site – a video enhancement of a print article, perhaps, or an app to download and install.

I also love the SIRIUS Satellite radio app that uses the service's Internet feed to bring you most – though not all – of the channels you can get with a real SIRIUS radio.

SIRIUS Satellite app for AndroidOne app that isn't available yet for Android, but which they assure me is coming, is LIVIO's Internet Radio. Where much "Internet radio" consists of obscure online "radio stations", LIVIO includes real, terrestrial radio stations from all over the world – so if you like listening to Rush Limbaugh but live in Africa (and have phone and/or Internet service!), you can do it. Stations are organized by location, format, show, and the like, and the app will even bring in your local radio stations' streams.

Individual radio stations also offer their own apps that send their stream to your phone.

Beyond the apps is Bluetooth interfacing. This wireless standard is showing up more and more in cars – as it should, because it gives you hands free operation of your cell phone. But it's also useful for sending music wirelessly from your music player – which could very well be a smart phone –and it works very well. Exactly how well depends on the car; some will let you skip tracks from their audio system controls, while some merely take the streaming feed as it comes.

The great thing about connecting your smart phone to your car – whether streaming or wired – is that you can do more than play music: you can also play your satellite radio or radio station apps and the like – depending on the car, the phone, etc.

I'd like to see an interface that would duplicate the smart phone's screen and functionality on the car's LCD instead of just handling the music player, though. That would be ideal. It's probably inevitable, too, if it hasn't been done already. 

Having a smart phone can also save you money on a navigation system, assuming its price isn't tied into the overall multimedia interface. There are some excellent navigation apps for smart phones, ones that offer most if not all of the features a built in or portable device would, and depending on the app you can choose your destination right from your phone's address book.

 I also have a nifty shopping app for a retail chain that not only knows which branch I'm in but which can show the company's inventory, often with pictures and short descriptions, and tell me if a particular item is in stock in that particular store.

Some free apps are scaled down versions of more robust ones they want you to pay for and sometimes they'll inflict ads on you unless you upgrade, though the few ads I've seen so far are easy to ignore.

The only real drawbacks to a smart phone are the battery life (especially if you use Bluetooth a lot) and the fact that the small size of the phones limits the size of the screen. This latter point, of course, is why  there are tablets such as the iPad, Samsung's Galaxy tab and, judging from this year's Consumer Electronics Show, about a million others. Neither the smart phone nor tablet will replace the other, though I could see only keeping a basic cell phone (if you can find one!) and using a tablet for the rest of the smart phone delights.

That would require phone companies to allow for a second device on one's plan, though, without ripping people off.

Copyright 2011 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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