Saturday, February 26, 2011

Old phone, new life - donut to froyo

Desire Z and G1 - both on Android 2.2 "froyo"
 I got my G1 phone (also known as an HTC Dream) in early 2009, a few months after it first came out. I recently replaced it with an HTC Desire Z (known as the G2 in the US) which I think is great. But, I really liked my old G1 and was a little sad to let it sit in the corner gathering dust. But, after 2 years, surely it was time for the G1 to retire, I mean, it can't keep up with Android Desires and iPhone 4s?

The truth is that HTC decided not to take the operating system on the G1 beyond Android 1.6 "donut". But could its admittedly meagre CPU clock rate or limited internal memory let it run Android 2.2 "froyo" in a way that in any way compared to my new phone?

To find out I decided to root the phone (gain complete and low level access to it) and install something called the Cyanogen mod. This is a build of the operating system made possible by the fact that Android is an open source project. I've heard people claim Android isn't properly open source, but I think that's just  plain wrong. The google apps (gmail, calendar, maps etc) that usually come with Android are not open source, but they're not part of the operating system; they can easily be replaced.

The installation of the Cyanogen mod is not that straightforward, but it doesn't require anything truly hardcore, such as modifying the hardware or editing source code. Have a read of my detailed account if you'd like to know more. My experience was made more troublesome because my phone was locked to T-Mobile, which means that it will only accept a T-Mobile SIM card. This meant that the phone refused to do anything without a fair bit of hacking right at the start, which I found very frustrating.

Anyway, after a  bit of a fight I got it installed and I was very impressed. My G1 is noticeably snappier running 2.2 than it was with 1.6 and, although not as fast and smooth as my Desire Z, it's not that far off. The browser is quite zippy, the pinch zoom works (perhaps with a slight stutter) and google maps work fine - it's all quite usable. More than that, it looks better too and even has window effects and animations (if you're into that kind of thing).

In fact, I'm left wondering why my Desire Z isn't much faster than it is. That could be because the Sense UI that HTC put on it is inefficient, but I suspect it's the other way around: the specs of our phones haven't increased as much as marketing and anecdotal "look how cool my shiny new phone is" comments have lead us to believe, instead any gains in hardware specs are swallowed up by new features to "sell" the product. Some features are useful, but others like pointless apps and stupidly high screen resolutions are not.

Well, my gratitude to Mr Cyanogen and his merry band and to the open source-ness of Android. I was amused to see that the little robot widget on my G1's new home screen sprouted a speech bubble that contained the few commands needed to extract the latest version of Android from a code repository and build it from source. One day I'll get around to building the Android source code myself.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On the sleeper

I've found myself travelling around the UK quite a bit this last week, taking in three of my favourite haunts: Glasgow, London and Cambridge.

The majority of the travelling was on the sleeper train. The sleeper train departs Glasgow a little before midnight, when central station is huge, hollow, smooth and clean. You walk along platform 10 and are greeted by a conductor (I'm not sure if that's the right title, perhaps carriage concierge is more appropriate) who checks your ticket and who records your preference for tea or coffee and cooked or continental breakfast. I’m not sure why they ask you. I always get both tea and coffee, and even if I ask for continental, I get handed a hot packet with MEAT written on the label.

The carriages are definitely in the British Rail slam-door era, circa 1990. It's a bit like a working museum in some ways. Perhaps I give the impression that I don't like the sleeper. Nothing could be further from the truth, I love it. It’s clean and functional but is most definitely not “shiny”. In the toilets, I'm delighted to find that the foot button approach to flushing toilets and operating taps is still employed.

And, possibly my favourite bit: there's a restaurant car. Well, it's more like a dimly lit bar car. Again, it's not decked out in the latest fashions - it's all a bit early 1990s - but I like that. The stewards are endearingly grumpy. One tall, bald-headed Glaswegian steward entertained me upon one of my first trips on the sleeper by explaining how he was hit on the head with a brick upon entering a public house in Kilmarnock. "How delightful!" I chirped as I clasped my hands together excitedly, "and what of the other scars upon your face, what stories do they hold?" OK, I didn’t say that; he might have thrown me through the window.

On my most recent trip I was genuinely pleased to spend a good half an hour talking to a lovely old lady whom I knew from my student days at Glasgow University Observatory. She's 80 this year, but full of energy and was charging down to London to exhibit a collection of original letters and photographs sent between various famous astronomers of yester-century. I handled each carefully mounted and protected A4 wallet with great care as she handed them to me over our table of wine, sandwiches and Laphroaig. Marvellous.

She told me her habit was to finish her refreshments and retire when the train reached Carstairs, where (I think) the train gets shunted together with the Edinburgh sleeper, rather clusmily. I didn’t have the staying power of this near-octogenarian, so bade her goodnight before Carstairs.

I made my way down the narrow corridors past the row of small cabins. It’s so narrow that you have to angle your body and walk slightly sideways. But, as I was walking down the corridor a hand reached out from a cabin doorway and grabbed me, pulled me in and threw me to the floor. It was the henchmen of my evil nemesis, Professor Moriarty. We struggled for a while until I bested one by trapping him inside a folding bunk. The other I managed to eject through the window after electrocuting his metal teeth with a broken table lamp bulb. I then climbed into bed with Eva Marie Saint. I may be getting this bit confused with a few films. Hmmm, hard to be sure.

If you get fed up faffing around at security at airports or are bothered by short haul air travel's pollution and wastefulness, or just fancy something different, give the sleeper a go. And do so soon before they make it all intolerably shiny like everything else these days.