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Dogsolitude_uk v2.1

Poking a sharp stick in the eyes of the abyss

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Not an iPad 2
dogsolitude_v2
There's a lot of hype around the recent release of the iPad 2. By a strange synchronous quirk of fate, I found myself paddling in the shallow end of the tablet PC ocean. Here are the results of my fishing about.

My Mother recently won a small, cheap, 7" Android Tablet PC in a raffle. In her words, she "didn't have a use for the (bl00dy) thing", and so she sent it to me.

Hello Robot

'Android' is the name of the operating system it uses. An operating system is the thing that sits on your computer and lets you open programs, move and delete files, manages the icons, puts the little clock in the corner of the screen and so on. Windows is an operating system, and is the most common one on PCs, if you use a Mac you've probably got OS/X, and if you have a beard you'll probably be using Linux. Small devices like mobile phones and tablets use either iOS or Android. Apple make iOS, and Google make Android.

The item itself had no manufacturer details, and to this day I have no idea who assembled it. I haven't opened it up yet to have a poke around inside, partially because there's something rattling around in there and so I fear for the structural integrity of the device. Whatever is moving around in there is small, and no doubt one of those small, odd-shaped things that bounces and will do it's best to escape the moment the case is opened.

Following the instructions (which covered how to charge the thing, and warned me not to immerse it in water) I plugged in the charger, and turned it on. A green dancing Robot appeared while it booted.

Connecting it to the Net

The first thing to do is to get it to connect to the net. Picking up a WiFi signal should be s simple matter of turning on the WiFi, finding an access point, and entering the security key. However I had problems with all three stages.

The WiFi kept tuning itself off, which meant I kept having to go back to the home page, prodding the WiFi button, scrolling down to the 'Turn wiFi on' option, turning it on, waiting 30 seconds for it to scan the available networks and then turn itself off again. Sometimes it would crash, necessitating a restart. Hello Robot.

If the WiFi stayed on long enough to select my home network, then it would then lose it again after assigning me a dynamic IP address (this is a bit like the device's phone number, which the network uses to identify the device). Sometimes it would crash during this process.

On the odd occasion it found my network *and* stayed on, I was then prompted for my security code. This had to be entered using the stylus on a virtual keyboard, and unfortunately the screen/stylus combo aren't very responsive so it took a few attempt to type in a code that looks something like "99D767BAC38EA23B0C0176D15". The inevitable typos led to a crash and having to reboot. Hello Robot.

Once the code was entered I was cheered to see that the device remembered it, before shutting the WiFi off again.

A subsequent reboot revealed that the device remembers the WiFi codes and will attempt to connect on booting. A optimistic-looking Wireless Signal Icon appeared in the menu bar, only for WiFi to be turned off the instant I used anything that required it, such as a browser.

By now the device was getting dangerously warm. Not the usual 'warm' you get when charging a phone or laptop, but the kind of 'warm' you get from an old set of 1970s Christmas Tree Lights. The kind of warm that's uncomfortable to have near your body.

I reasoned that the charging process and resultant heat (a) may have something to do with the WiFi problems by causing some sort of interference and (b) may indicate that the battery was charged (or at least about to melt), so I unplugged the charger and lo, the WiFi stayed on.

In fact, the WiFi and connection was fine once the power supply was taken out of the equation, and the device continued to work happily for a good couple of hours before the juice ran out.

Surfing away, I decided to browse for some Apps. It's worth noting at this point that the word 'App' is short for 'Application', not 'Apple', and 'Application' is a generic term for a bit of software that does something. Recently Apple had a legal spat with Amazon about Amazon's Android App Store being called an 'App Store', however as I understand it common sense has prevailed and Amazon are now allowed to call their online repository of fart apps and picture slideshows an App Store, in the same way that someone who sells bicycles is allowed to call their outlet a 'Bike Shop'.

Shopping for Apps


My first port of call was the official Android Market App Store.

After digging out my never-used gmail password and logging into Google, I navigated my browser to the online app store. I tried to buy Shredder Chess fo Android, but was told that I had no mobile device attached to my Google account. OK, so Google wants me to register my device with them for some nefarious reason. I don't know why, and don't know why I can't just download the file over the internet. I don't have to register my PC with Steam.

Putting this aside for the time being, I try to register my little tablet PC. To no avail. Google seem to think that every Android device has a phone number, and they require it for registering your device. However my tablet doesn't have a phone number, because it's not a phone.

In effect, this means that the Android Market is closed off and no use to me. I cannot even buy an app and download it on to my PC and sideload it on to the tablet using a USB cable. Madness.

Anyway, I reason that as Android is a fairly open system I may be able to find somewhere else to download apps, either on to my tablet directly, or on to my PC. I Google for alternative app stores and sources of apps.

At first glance, there are loads of 'Android app stores' on the internet. However most have one drawback: they're not actually stores at all, they're just websites that carry adverts, lists of apps, and download buttons that *link directly back to the Android Marketplace*.

Some do actually carry .apk files, however they come with their own issues. Notably 'AppBrain' requires it's own AppBrain app to be downloaded in order to download the other apps from its site, but you can only get this from the Android Market, thus rendering the exercise rather pointless.

The Internet: Satan's Own Engine of Lies and Deceit

This put me in mind of a situation I had years ago, where I was looking for cracked software. This was back in the days before The PirateBay and Torrents, and at a time when one would reasonably expect to find a site, click on a download link and be done with it. Not so. I kept finding Warez sites all over the place, however every time you clicked on 'Download Now!' or whatever on one of them, another Warez site would open, again promising you a world of cracked, free software joy. Eventually you realise it's all just lies, damned lies, designed to build up click count, stick dodgy stuff on your PC and gain advertising revenue. Great if you have lots of banner ads on a pay-per-view basis, damned annoying and a complete waste of time if you're just trying to get hold of a file.

A similar principle seems to apply to most, if not all, of these purported Android App Stores: zero files hosted, the same user reviews on site after site, loads of adverts (presumably pay-per-view) and links from their pages back to the Android Market. You also see a similar state of affairs on those 'Watch TV for free!' sites, free eBook sites, in fact any site where one might be looking for 'free' stuff.

I tried to install the Amazon Appstore, unfortunately it's US-only at the moment.

To make matters mildly worse, there doesn't appear to be a 'canonical' support site or network for Android users. Apart from the official Android website, which contains details of the OS for developers, there's not much there for users. I even spent a good ten minutes googling to try and find out how to delete an icon off the start screen, and eventually found the answer *on a forum*.

After much Googling and trawling through settings, I worked out that the version of Android on this poor little machine (I had started to feel a bit sorry for it by now) was 1.6. Now with most operating systems you can upgrade them. Linux will do it automatically if you want it to, Windows and OS X need a bit of money upfront, but I could find no instructions on upgrading Android to 2.2 anywhere, nor what the hardware requirements were for that release.

This whole situation is an utterly bewildering state of affairs. I must be missing something really obvious, but from the inability of the tablet to surf the net whilst charging, through to Google seeming to lock tablets out of the Android Market and the general lack of any usable info on upgrading and basic operation, we appear to have a device whose operation and support appear to have been designed by a combination of Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka.

The damned annoying thing is that I want it to work, and work well. It's almost tempting me to go out and buy a decent Android tablet with a proper app store on it.

Unfortunately I've grown rather attached to it after all that ballyhoo, so I'll persevere.

Obtaining Decent Android Software Without Using the Android Marketplace


Applying myself to the issue at hand, I used every every erg of Google-fu at my disposal, and found the following site:

http://android-apk.info/

Most of the language is in Arabic, but it allowed me to download the .apk for the wonderful Opera browser, which transformed the machine into a useable way of surfing the web. You can also get the .apk directly from Opera here, I chose Opera Mini 6 for Android.

Chess on Android

OK, so that's webbing sorted. Next I needed some chess software. Ideally it would be Shredder chess, but that only appears to be available from the Android Market place. I found this instead, from the wonderful Chess.com site:

http://www.chess.com/download/view/chesscom-for-android-phones--devices

This enables online play, logging into Chess.com, watching tutorial vids and also gives you tactics training. More Googling revealed Aart Bik's Chess for Android:

http://www.aartbik.com/MISC/chess.html

Aart Bik works for Google, and from the looks of his site has hardcore coding skills the likes of which many of us mere mortals can only dream. His chess program allows use of different chess engines, such as Stockfish, as well.

EDIT: I'd like to add Chess Free at the AndAppStore, which looks nice and polished.

SlideME is a nice, open appstore. It has a large number of apps that are readily downloadable with no need to register anything:

http://slideme.org/

They also have their own marketplace app as well. Make sure you have an SD card in your device for extra capacity though. anyway,

SlideMe had the Amazon Kindle .apk as well, so that got downloaded and stuck on the machine too.

To summarise I managed to get a bog-standard, white-label, anonymously-manufactured Android 1.6 device into a pleasantly usable state with a few workarounds. I hope this is useful to anyone else in a similar situation, however I find it rather strange that Google appear to be trumpeting the 'openness' of their Android system whilst at the same time not exactly being very helpful regarding teh appstore or the OS.

So, what I want to know is the following:

1 - Why can't I download apps from the Android Market to my PC and sideload them via USB on to my tablet?
2 - Why can't I download the Android Market on to my PC, and sideload that into my tablet so I can download Market apps to my Tablet directly?
3 - Dammit, why can't I download and install the Android Market to my tablet off the internet via the browser?
4 - Why do I have to have an Android device registered with Google to use the Market in the first place?
5 - Why wont it let me register my tablet online from the tablet?
6 - Why does Google seem to think that tablets have phone numbers?
7 - Why is it so difficult to upgrade the Android OS? Why doesn't it have a 'Check for updates' function? I suspect that this may be due to the wildly different hardware configuration, but Linux manages admirably.
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cheap tablets generally tend to be more trouble than they're worth - and upgrading their OS is often next to impossible. this is probably due to the fact that they're slung together in some sweatshop somewhere out of the cheapest components around and then hacked to work with one particular OS version before being slung out the door and left to fend for themselves.

i've probably been spoilt but i wouldn't go for any first gen tablet apart from the iPad - and the juries not back on any of the second gen devices yet either - except for the one from cupertino - although some are looking as though they might be interesting ... xoom, playbook, flyer ...

"cheap tablets generally tend to be more trouble than they're worth"

As my post was intended, perhaps unconsciously, to demonstrate!

I did eventually become rather fond of the thing, perhaps in the same way that one starts to like someone that one often argues with, but were I to go into the full list of drawbacks of the device I could easily have filled another few hundred words (especially about the sensitivity of the inappropriately-named touchscreen).

Still, it was free (thanks Mum!), and it wasn't even attempting to pretend to be anything it wasn't, but I was surprised about how much constructive use I got out of it in the end, espcially once I'd got a few things installed on it.

For now though I think I'll take a back seat when it comes to tablets, but I'll keep an eye out for the ones you mention.

I'm guessing it's a resistive screen rather than a capacitive then - they require pressure to work so are a bit sucky.

(can't believe I put juries rather than jury's ... How embarrassing)

It's very resistive, insofar as it resists all attempts to use it. :)

The only way to download .apk's from the Google Android Market (TM) is using their app on the phone. You can't download them from the website. In fact the website is new, as in a few months, it was just the app till then.
Click 'install' on the website and it just sends a push URL to your phone to get it to download.

To have Google apps, which includes the market but is also maps, official gmail client, contact and calendar sync, and some other shizzle, you have to be branded a 'Google Experience device'. This means cooperating with google who test it, check it's high quality before they have their name emblazoned on it. There may be a fee for this, dunno... if you're working on something awesome (Nexus-S, Xoom) I reckon they waive it.

As Android is opensource any old company is welcome to download the source, compile it and stick it on their hardware... but they won't get the Google apps (NOT opensource) and they can't call it a 'Google device'.

Still with me?

Google did not officially support tablets before Android 3.0. So even if little Korean Co did ask for approval, they're very unlikely to get it. Neither has anyone else really, Archos didn't, that one with no label they sold at Next (the clothes shop) didn't... maybe Samsung did on the Galaxy tab, dunno, but they'll have had to go to some efforts to gain favour.

Some manufacturers make their own markets, and their own apps to get at them. Yours can't be arsed.
None are as good as Google's.

You can probably illegally install the 'Market, and other Google apps, on your thingumy. It's probably all bundled up in one easy package by now, check forum.xda-developers.com. I did that to Mikki's Archos 10.1 thing, works fine.

Most devices do have a 'check for updates' function, but it's controlled by the manufacturer, or worse the phone network. Google sends the manufacturer the code (or they get it from the open source repo), they fiddle with it - add drivers, test it, then push it to the unbranded users or to the network. The network then adds their logo and a load of shit apps and 3 months later pushes it to the users.
Your cheapo tablet manufacturer could not be arsed. If you can find them, they might offer an update as a .zip. It would have taken 10 minutes to customise settings with a link to the site with the .zip, but they could not be arsed.

If it's resistive it's one of the £130-ish ones, horrible to use, really can't compare to a device with a decent screen, probably some reason why Google don't want to be associated with it!

I think you've done very well getting this far. Visit xda, try and work out what device it is, and see if they've got anything for you. Ideally there'll be a 2.2 (or maybe 2.3, but lets not push it) custom ROM .zip with the Google shizzle pre-installed.

Oh and the fun you've had with .apk websites is because they probably ARE warez! The only reason most people (most people have a google approved phone) would go scouring the interwebz for .apk is to get copies of paid apps. Many exist apparently, but you are then in warez website land.


I'll be ordering one of these beauties a bit later today. £429 including keyboard dock. Good old Asustek!

http://www.expertreviews.co.uk/tablet-pcs/1283857/hands-on-asus-eeepad-transformer-review

Thanks for the detailed reply!

Yeah, my questions at the end were largely rhetorical, and more aimed at Google's decision to not allow non-Honeycomb tablet users to download and install the Android Market .apk. It makes a bit more sense now, thanks :)

Enabling the download of a package would not make it any more 'open source' than Half Life 2, say, or Fruityloops or any other downloadable software, so I was rather curious as to their reasons!

Mine did have an app market on it, but it was shite :) Seriously, I haven't seen such a pile of bilge since Cascade's Cassette 50, which contained 50 Spectrum games for £9.95.

Still, Slideme is pretty good and has some useful stuff on there, Opera have an app store too, and Amazon have just opened one (for the US only currently, but this may change soon) as well.

I am still unable to ascertain the manufacturer of this device (seriously, I'm not joking)...

I'll give XDA a go, thanks for the tip :)

Oh, and the app websites don't host anything... Not even cracked or illegal .apks! They're lists of apps, with screenshots and descriptions, and user comments. Click on 'buy now', and you get sent to the Android Market!!!

*headdesk*

Seriously, for sheer pointlessness these sites are in a league of their own, but obviously they're gettign ad revenue...

That eeepad looks amazing... I expect a review in the next few weeks!

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