Sunday, March 1, 2015

5 techie things to do with your Android smartphone

A lot of us, these days, use smartphones, without even realising the fact that we hold in our palms, and carry in our pockets, devices which are a lot powerful than the personal computers we had at our disposal just a couple of years ago. The introduction of full fledged operating systems that run under the hoods of our smartphones, and the apps (short for application) that have been developed to make use of the hardware our smartphones boast of, and the software capabilities of our smartphone OS's, has made the deal as sweet as it could have been.
Today, cellphones have become an outright necessity for us, to keep us connected to outside world, our loved ones, and whoever you name it, relies on cellphones to be connected. The introduction of better smartphones and the penetration of internet and associated services, social networking applications, photo and video sharing services have substantially increased the demand for smartphones.

The situation today seems like almost everyone who can afford a cellphone has a smartphone. Though, this is far from reality, atleast here in India, but the fast penetration of smartphones and affordable internet in cities and towns of the countries supported by a number of local players to the likes of Micromax, Karbonn, Lava among a number of other re-branders, who, import phones manufactured by OEM players in countries like China, rebrand the devices with their brand identity and sell the devices competing with some of the biggest international brands like Samsung, Apple, Sony and Google, trying to take a bigger share of a price sensitive market, one whose economy is rapidly growing, like India. This competition among brands to get a bigger share of customers results in consumers getting devices in a varied number of configurations and price points.

While the smartphone market share has increased, the services and features, both free and paid, associated with smartphones are also increasing and getting better day by day. For example, the Global Positioning System (also known as GPS) in almost ubiquitous, and is present in almost the cheapest of the smartphones available in the market. Similar is the case with imaging sensors (popularly known as cameras), which too are available in almost every cellphone, barring a very few dirt cheap feature phones. The features have become increased and become better, but the same is not getting used by many. This can be ascertained from the fact that you can still find people on bikes and in cars, stopping by and asking for directions to places from people, even though, today's navigation technology is capable of providing you door-step directions. Though, some make use of stand-alone GPS assisted Navigators installed in their cars which helps them in navigating, the small GPS chip embedded in the smartphone lying idle, or at most, helping you stay connected to your social buddies and sharing your selfies online, but not for getting directions to your destination. Well, this is just a small example. There area number of uses a smartphone can serve you, and that too pretty efficiently, with almost no added costs. I'm going to reveal some of these, as, being a techie, this is something I've been tinkering with since late 2011, when I bought my second smartphone, one that though being not very expensive, was worth the caption - "Smartphone".

5 techie things you can do with your Android smartphone

1. Photography: Well, everyone does that, what's new with it? Yes, everyone does that, there's nothing new with it, but then, if you change your perspective a bit to see what I am talking about, you might understand the point. The imaging sensors inside our cameras have improved a lot in the recent times. With some manufacturers selling high end smartphones featuring huge image resolutions - 41MP (with 38MP effect resolution) for the Nokia Lumia 1020 or other devices boasting of high resolution sensors like the Nokia Lumia 1520 or its somewhat cheaper cousin Nokia Lumia 930, both of which feature 20MP sensors with high end optics and featuring Optical Image Stabilization, to some featuring Optical Zoom capabilities like the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom.  These days, some of the newly launched devices pack a punch with great hardware with awesome photography abilities. Devices like Motorola Droid Turbo aka Moto Turbo, or Xperia Z1, Z2 and Z3 from the Sony stable, all featuring 20.7 MP sensors, which has been known for their great camera phones, thanks to their CyberShot technology. Though, you need not go such high end to get you great pictures from a decently priced smartphone camera, that too without any post processing, and frankly speaking Better Photography is not all about having high megapixel count in your camera, as there are a number of other factors working behind the scenes. Just take your smartphone, turn on the camera, and press that button to click something you liked a lot. Like that flower in the park you went around in the morning for workout, or the sunset in all its glory with the crimson skies and orange ball of fire. All you need to do is tinker around with a few settings, if you can, like contrast, brightness, exposure and saturation, and such to get awesome pictures. I have been using some smartphones for some time now, and infact, all I've got are smartphones, for now for digital photography, and I think people do like my photography works with smartphones. Here's a link to my gardening blog, and my flickr profile. You can go and check the shots for yourself. Though, I'm not much of an outgoing person and like shooting the flowers and plants I grow over in my rooftop container garden. The pictures will give you some idea of the capabilities of a decent smartphone's photographic capabilities. Just to let you know, none of the smartphones used by me here are more than 15K (250 USD), which can be considered a decent and affordable budget for purchasing a smartphone here in India.

2. Navigation (Free of cost, almost): You read it right, Navigation. Using your phone to go from one place to another, and that too absolutely free of cost, though, you still need to bear a one time cost of some things, I'll tell you in a while. While most of us know that there is a small feature called GPS that is available in our phones. Some phones these days do feature an alternate navigation feature called GLONASS, and some devices feature both GPS and GLONASS. You might also be knowing that you can use your phone to show you directions to go from one place to another. But did you know that you can actually make use of that inbuilt GPS or GLONASS feature to navigate in a much efficient way? Well, some of you who might have used older Nokia Smartphones, in the prime days of Nokia Corp. might know the capability of GPS and it's use in navigation. Okay, let us decode this a bit in detail. GPS, an abbreviation for Global Positioning System is a Satellite based Navigation system operated by the United States of America and GLONASS, short for Globalnaya navigatsionnaya sputnikovaya sistema or GLObal NAvigation Satellite System, a Russian alternative for GPS operated by the USA. 

Here Maps
A screenshot of Nokia Here application for Android, in action

Basically these are Navigation systems based on networks of satellites orbiting the earth in the space, more precisely, constellations of satellites that help compatible receivers to get a reference of their position that is shown as per the imaginary grid of Latitudes and Longitudinal system called coordinates and helps it set up a near-precise latitudinal and longitudinal location of the receiver. This is done with the help of a method called triangulation that takes into consideration location information from atleast 3 navigation satellites to help establish a precise location. The more satellites, the better. The reciever "locks" the signal with the satellites and requires a clear line of sight, that is, no obstruction in between the reciever and the satellites, which means, it works best outdoors, and with clear skies. Both these services are quite precise, and while highest levels of precision being restricted for military use by both these countries, with the US operating a constellation of around 32 Global Positioning Satellites while the Russia operating a constellation of 24 satellites both the countries' navigation systems provide free civilian navigation access using their satellite systems.

There are applications like Google Maps and other navigation such applications that can be used by the user to help them go from one place to another. An application like Google Maps primarily makes use of Internet data and Telecom network location infrastructure to ascertain the approximate location of the reciever, further using data from GPS satellites to establish a precise location in conjunction of telecom network location infrastructure and the GPS satellites' data. Further, it loads the map information from its Google Maps servers, since, it operates an awesome mapping service via its products - Google Maps and Google Earth. This results in consumption of internet data to establish the location and loading of map data on the consumer device, i.e. the smartphone. Earlier, Nokia Corp. in its prime days had acquired a Navigation and Mapping service called NavTeq, which was engaged in satellite based mapping of the earth and gathering of such other navigational data. This acquisiton helped Nokia build a robust mapping and navigation application, which they initially called Ovi Maps, then renamed it as Nokia Maps and these days it is rechristened as Here Maps. This application, was initially available for Nokia devices and last year was made available for Android devices. The application uses map data that is can be downloaded once, and then can be used in conjunction with GPS satellites and network data to establish a location and navigation information for the device. The best thing about Nokia's Here maps is the fact that this is free, and can be used even when accessing the Internet is not possible, which means, you can actually use here maps in a remote location where there is no internet connectivity of mobile phone network infrastructure , while in such a scenario, Google Maps will be useless. So, all you have to do is, go to the Google's Play Store for Android devices, download Here Maps, install it, and then, from within the application, download the offline map data and the turn by turn voice navigation sound packs to provide you a sound based navigation system, which, is another advantage of Nokia's navigation application. Windows phone users and Apple iOS users too have the same available at their respective app stores.

3. Web Development: Yes, you read it right. I am actually saying Web Development. Around a year back, while I was working on an opensource web development platform, PHP, an idea clicked me. Why not look for something that could help me do this on the go, i.e. on my cellphone, since, it in itself is a pretty capable computer running on a 1.5GHz dual core processor, a GigaByte of RAM and enough space to see me through in my day to day life. I looked up the Google Play Store, and found applications that actually did the very thing I was looking for. I downloaded them, installed them, and voila, I had a PHP local development server running on my smartphone. 
AndroPHP Local PHP Server App for Android
A screenshot of the AndroPHP app for android, that lets you run a local php server on your phone

PHPMyAdmin running on AndroPHP server for Android
A screenshot of the PHPMyAdmin login screen running on AndroPHP php server on your phone

PHPMyAdmin running on AndroPHP server for Android
A screenshot of the PHPMyAdmin homepage running on AndroPHP php server on your phone

While programmers (essentially Web Developers) use Local Web servers like IIS (Internet Information Service), for windows based web development, XAMPP or WAMP servers for PHP based web development, there are apps that run as miniature versions of PHP web servers capable of being installed on android smartphones and allowing you to start programming on the fly. These servers feature almost all PHP features and databases too, meaning that you can actually do a full scale PHP web development right on your smartphone. And believe me, it actually works. I have installed a couple of such servers on my phone and have ran some PHP codes successfully. If you too would like to try some of these, you can take a look at these apps on the Google Play Store for Android devices. Though, using a small smartphone and the soft keyboard is a big headache in writing codes, if your phone supports external Keyboard and Mouse via a compatible USB OTG (On The Go) cable, you can attach a keyboard as well to write code on your phone.

4. A Small Computer: ? Indeed. It packs so much hardware inside the hood, why can't it work as a small All-In-One (AIO) computer? Just plug in an external keyboard/mouse and you have got yourself a computer with a keyboard. The Onscreen Keyboard on our android devices are one of the hinderances that make using the power inside our smartphones a task in itself. Well, you can go and get yourself a USB OTG cable to try out your luck with an external keyboard, and as some theories suggest, you can actually use multiple external input devices with a USB hub connected to your smartphone, to give you a complete PC experience, with a small screen. I made a video out of this functionality of my smartphone and I guess, this should work on a majority of Android powered devices. In case it isn't, you can reach out to the play store and download an application called External Keyboard by Medion, which might help your phone connect to an external keyboard. Just for information, not all devices come equipped with support for an external keyboard or mouse, or a gamepad, so, some of you might end up disappointed for the lack of it. This small computer can be used for light stuff like composing your next blogpost, writing a story or a poem, which won't need turning on your computer or the laptop.

5. Turn your smartphone into a Server: Most of our smartphones, these days, are connected to internet almost 24x7. With the increased penetration of internet and Social Networking, we like being in touch with our friends on the social networking platforms almost all the time. Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp updates are being provided to us almost all the time. If our phones do these things, can't we use them to work up as a server? A Web Server, an FTP Server or a Media Server? Yes we can. With the help of some dedicated applications for Android devices, we can actually make this happen. There are apps like Servers Ultimate, Web Server Ultimate to make your phone a Web Server and run your websites via your phone. Apps like Wifi Media Share, Pixel Media Server - DMS can help you make your device a media server to share media files off your device. Be it pictures, videos, or audio files, your device can work up to do much more than what it is being used for. Similarly, there are apps that open up the possibility for your device to be used as FTP servers for your web projects, or in case you need to share files over the internet. You can actually use an app to make your phone an FTP server. FTPServer by Andreas Liebig and another  FTP Server by are such applications that can make your device an FTP server to share your files over the internet or intranet.

WiFi Media Server App
The WiFi Media Server application in action
Servers Ultimate App running web and PHP server on Android Device FTP Server running on Android Device
The Servers Ultimate app, running the webserver and PHP and Lighttpd Server on my phoneFTP Server app that can transform your phone into a portable FTP server
There are a tonne of other functionalities that your smartphone supports and that these functionalities help ease your life, like doubling up as an exercise/workout buddy. Just download an app from the the app store, configure it according to your physical profile and it will help you out track your daily workout regime, almost free of cost. I will go over to some of these things you can do with the help of GPS/GLONASS free of cost, something, that many of you didn't even know, was possible.

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