One good reason

One good reason I’ve found to stick with Android is this:

RedPhone by Whisper Systems

In case you don’t feel like reading about it, it’s a free (for personal use) end-to-end encrypted VOIP client.  There may be other methods out there, including personal Asterix PBXs, but this seems to work with the least fuss. Google Voice may or may not work with it I believe, as native SMS’ing must be working by default on the phone.  To test I used my native phone number instead of my GV number, it worked fine over data.

Also for Android, AGP offers OpenPGP compatibility and the K-9 Mail client app then integrates the GPG functionality.

Bingo. Bango.

UPDATE: As of late November 2011 it appears RedPhone has been pulled from the Android Market and the app itself can no longer connect to Whisper Systems’ servers.  The application was in Beta, so this could mean there is a full release coming out or perhaps something required that it be pulled from the Android Market.  So for right now, I’m unaware of any other end-to-end encrypted VOIP applications for Android.

Virgin, VOIP & the LG

As a follow-up, after a couple of months using the LG Optimus V (on Virgin Mobile) I’d say for the cost, it works as well as can be expected. When you stray too far from the highway 3G and 1X data often disappear completely. Sometimes the 3G radio doesn’t refresh (which apparently is a bug in Android 2.2, but this phone certainly exhibits it) so in a spotty 3G location it takes a few minutes to find the data signal. Again, for $25/month this seems acceptable. A higher end smartphone, or an iPhone, cost closer to $90/month. Depends what you need as an end user, but Z & I find it totally acceptable, especially considering the cost savings and Google integration.

The downside of the $25/month plan is only 300 “anytime” cellular minutes (and no free night/weekend minutes). To get around this I’ve registered my Sipgate One phone number with the Nimbuzz app for Android. When I have a quality wifi connection I disable all cellular radios (Airplane Mode). To make an outgoing call I use the Google Voice Callback app, so I must first answer the call in Nimbuzz (Sipgate has free incoming calls like a landline) and then it connects me to whomever I’m calling. I tried using SipDroid and CSIPsimple, but neither worked consistently. For whatever reason, Sipgate and Nimbuzz work better together.

As far as apps that make the small screen on this phone more usable, I really like the Miren Web Browser over the stock Android Browser. For one, you can easily go in and out of full screen mode. Secondly, it’s easy to turn off images over 3G to improve browsing speeds. For a while I searched high and low for a decent RSS reader app to sync to Google Reader, and finally I realized a better browser would really make the difference, and I was right. Miren using Google Reader’s mobile page is quite usable and is much quicker than any of the other stand alone “readers” I tried. Thirdly, the stock Android Browser didn’t support HTML5 audio and video tags correctly, Miren seems to handle these better and is much quicker than Opera Mobile.

While certainly not Siri on the iPhone 4S, Android’s ‘Speech to Text’ functionality works quite well. I’ve taken to using it for sending short SMS’s and for dictating short emails, especially while walking. The touch keyboard isn’t great, especially on a screen this size. Swype is better for some things but I find the predictive standard 2.2 keyboard to be a little bit faster. Again, I think the dictation engine is clearly the “way forward” but right now on this phone, it can be a little sluggish at times.

I think if you’re willing to accept these limitations this phone is a terrific value. I’m pretty sure the Optimus V can be bought outright for ~$100. Virgin’s $25/month plan increased recently to $35/month and for $45/month you get 1200 minutes (with “unlimited SMS & data”). So again, it’s still significantly less expensive (per annum) than any of the other carriers, but you must be willing to accept potentially sub-optimal cellular coverage and a smallish screen on a slightly underpowered phone. But it works. And I have been quite happy to have unlimited calling on Wifi. So there you go.

Note of full disclosure: I bought my LG Optimus V at retail price using my own funds. I have no stake in LG, Sprint Nextel or Virgin Mobile. This is simply a blog post about a phone.

I Can Blink

C turned me on to Blink, a very high quality SIP communications package, which just happens to be GNU General Public Licensed, v3. With Android 2.2 and Google Voice I’ve been forced to use a mix-mash of modes to make cSipSimple work reliably. Part of the issue is forwarding phones. With Google Voice I am now forwarding to Gmail, Virgin Mobile, and now SIPgate One. When I turn off all cellular communcations in theory cSipSimple should be the only phone to ring, and in theory it shouldn’t use mobile anytime minutes.

I managed to get this to work on the PEAP encrypted 802.1x Wifi on campus, so in theory at home it should work fine. ICE/STUN with NAT seems to help call quality. The SIPGate iOS application also seems to work fine, though sometimes there is a bit of crackling not present on SIP>SIP calls using other clients.

A third option, which may or may not be in the works at the Googleplex [sic] is the integration of SIP directly to Google Voice. Google was likely testing this functionality as Dan York wrote in his blog, however, it appears Google pulled the plug on it publicly. It would be incredibly convenient to not have to route via the PSTN for Google Voice because as Dan mentions, the calls are already IP based, if only they could stay that way Google Voice users would have higher quality calls and an easier time of it. To test if you have any SIP functionality, plug in +1xxxxxxxxxx@sip.voice.google.com, where that number is your GV number.

Cutting Cords & the Best Deal Going

So I finally got another Android phone. This time I think it’ll stick. My little prepaid Nokia 2330 on T-Mobile was finally proving itself too expensive, especially in comparison to the current deal Virgin Mobile has with the LG Optimus V Android phone. For $25/month I now get 300 minutes of talk and unlimited SMS and data. Not that SMS matters too much since I use Google Voice as my carrier, but nonetheless, it’s nice not having to pay $0.10 per SMS as I did using T-Mobile Prepaid (which will soon be owned by Bell/AT&T).

Like all Android phones Google Voice integrates very well. The Optimus V runs a mostly stock version of Froyo, Android’s version 2.2 OS. Compared to the Huwaie Ideos (T-Mobile Comet) that I owned briefly, the LG Optimus V is fast. That’s not saying much, but the phone has been very usable so far. There are are a few things that are not as polished as iOS 4.x (on our iPod Touch), but the fact that it can make and receive phone calls, a feat I was unable to replicate consistently using the iPod Touch save for making Skype Out calls, makes it worth the $25/month.

My latest effort to avoid using up my 300 minutes of talk time while I’m at home is getting SIP to work. It’s a similar idea to Skype, except you’re not paying Microsoft for your minutes. Unlimited Skype outgoing usually works out to about $3/month. With a free SIP number from SIP Gate One I can reroute calls via Google Voice to the SIP number while I’m at home using Wifi.

If I’m on the computer I’ll usually make calls via the Gmail Gchat voice call-out function. The best Android SIP client I found so far is CSipSimple. It is in active development, works well, and requires significantly less setup than SIPdroid. Android’s “Gingerbread” OS update (2.3.x) actually integrates SIP calling natively into the mobile operating system. Sadly, it seems most carriers do not push for the latest updates on their phones, and with the exception of the flagship models or “Google Phones” like the Nexus One and Nexus S, you’ll need to root/flash the phone yourself if you want 2.3, if there is even a stable port for your phone.

So those are my first impressions. I’ll write more about the LG Optimus V and SIP as I get some more use out of it.

Virgin Mobile's LG Optimus V

Virgin Mobile's LG Optimus V

Skype is still down

Well, there I was saying how great a consumer service Skype’s $3/mo unlimited calling is and it’s been down for almost a day. Oh well.

http://www.skype.com/intl/en-us/StatusUpdate/

When it’s back up, it’ll still be a good value. Sadly, it’s not reliable, as in “bomb proof” as in the “5 nines” and 99.999 % up time. Skype had issues earlier this past week with “login authentication” so clearly there’s been some sort of back end shenanigans that’s created this mess. Oh well, the separation pains from eBay perhaps. But, how about that T-Mobile Pre-Paid? It works. How about that Google Voice? Calls are free in 2011, booya! Except when people I call say it sounds terrible and I have to call them back on Skype. Oh wait a minute. Drat.

Goodbye Comet

I returned the T-Mobile Comet and exchanged it for a cheap candy bar style Nokia prepaid phone. Android 2.2, on the Comet, simply required too much work. Skype was nearly unusable. The Gmail native app from Google had to be updated, and even then the sync functionality with Gmail didn’t work correctly. Let me re-state that: Gmail didn’t work correctly on a Google phone. Thankfully contacts synced fine, but I had to update nearly every app that came with the phone.

So, maybe it’s something to do with Huwaei and the T-Mobile build of Froyo 2.2 or perhaps things simply aren’t as polished across the board. Compared to my experiences with iOS 3.x and 4.x I’d say it’s like night and day. Yes, it’d be nice to have a bulk task manager (other than double clicking ‘home’) in iOS 4.2, but it doesn’t really make a difference, you can run 20 apps “backgrounded”. In Android you absolutely must use a task killer or your phone runs out of memory and turns to molasses. Multitasking in iOS simply works and is more intuitive. Skype works nearly as well as a native phone dialer, Netflix streams terrifically, and the bundled iOS apps are all winners. And with the 4.2 update I can stream audio to the Airport Express directly from the iPod Touch and wirelessly print. At no point using Android did I think to myself, ‘Man this is so much easier/quicker/better than the iPod Touch’, in fact I lamented that for $180, despite being the cheapest Android phone on the market, it just wasn’t very good.

It’s unfortunate, in my limited usage of WebOS I’d say that Palm had a superior product that was poorly marketed, that suffered early quality control issues, and with HP’s purchase, has essentially died a premature death. Compared to Android 2.2 – WebOS 1.x feels significantly more polished – and really should be second to Apple in smart phone market share. When you go to the Verizon store and look at the myriad Android phones (several now bundled with Bing! as default search engine) it becomes clear that the carriers and Google simply don’t care about the user’s experience. While I’m sure the newest Nexus S is a better example of what Android can do, I don’t trust telecommunication companies to make good UID & IxD decisions.

Huwaei Bitches! Taking over the world one inexpensive Android handset at a time

I was in need of a phone after dropping off the map and switching my cell line to virtual carrier 3jam. In the US post-paid contracts vary between $40-$100/month (by which American’s pay the most in the world on a per-minute/megabyte rates) and often the the cheaper plans gouge on text messages and have fewer minutes.

So, I bought a Huwaei Ideos (T-Mobile “Comet”) pre-paid, off contract.  It features Android 2.2 & runs Skype natively.  So far I’ve been happy with Skype’s $3/mo unlimited calling plan, and 3jam forwards to Skype natively using OpenSky. Problems in the system arise when you’re masking numbers (IDs) and sending text messages (IDs again) and dealing with multiple voicemails and trying to use Google Voice. Here is a short list of bullet points in my limited experience so far with virtual lines and consumer VoIP telephony.

1) Skype has the best call quality, using both smart phones and computers, in/out of PSTN and VoIP & as an added bonus Skype can ID itself as your cell line.  The downside to Skype (even with their new 5.x beta) is that the user interface is absolutely terrible.  Using 2.8.x for OS X involves managing three different windows with countless notifications that are difficult to turn off or remove.  In the 5.x beta I made a video call, switched to chat mode, and was unable to ever switch back to the video call!  I was stuck in chat mode for all future calls.  I reverted back to 2.8.x.  I’m not sure if it’s a function of eBay slowly bleeding them to death or they simply are not hiring professionals in UX/IxD; either way it’s embarrassing.

2) Google Voice and SIP tend to result in garbled conversations, usually forcing a Skype Out call.  Google bought Gizmo5 which now gives any Gmail user a “phone” when they’re logged into Gmail.  Again, the sound quality isn’t superb but there is the convenience of taking calls from within an already open window.

3) 3jam.com has great SMS features but their web interface (which lacks an HTML5 mobile interface) and pricing structure need an overhaul.  Probably the most killer feature of 3jam (and GV) is being able to send and receive SMSs within Gmail. And the fact is they were the only company I was able to find on planet earth that allows you to port-in your number and send/receive SMS’s eg. they’re a virtual number switching service just like Google Voice.

4) Google Voice doesn’t allow adjustment of their voicemail ring extension (25 seconds = however many rings) while 3jam allows you to adjust pickup time in seconds. And to make things worse, Skype’s voicemail is implemented based upon your subscription which once enabled, cannot be turned off! The work around seems to be to cancel your subscription, which seems ridiculous if you bought a year subscription and need to turn off Skype’s voicemail (note: when Skype is running there is a “disable voicemail” option, however, when Skype is not active its voicemail takes over).

So all of this is to say that I’m not sure if it’s the best system for everyone. It’s certainly more versatile, in that I can forward my main number to any number I want (in the world) and pay reasonable rates while doing it, call screening is unlimited and voicemail is transcribed and emailed to me. I do think Skype’s $3/mo unlimited calling is a terrific deal and it does consistently have very good call quality. In the US Sprint (& prepaid Virgin Mobile) each have very inexpensive plans, T-Mobile averages $0.10-$0.15/min prepaid. It really depends on your usage and how many minutes you talk on your cell phone while outside of the house, and perhaps even what mobile network your friends/family use.

VoIP had/has the potential to drastically reduce user’s cost of telephony except that cable and phone providers are in the business of making money and not reducing consumer’s communications bills. “Triple Play” packages that usually start at $100/mo are not a good value when you consider that these companies are paying pennies on the dollar now to provide phone service (that is now routed digitally). Similarly, mobile data plans costs are on the rise as carriers begin to cap total data usage and/or charge for extended features such as tethering4GLTE etc. Verizon and Skype even penned a deal whereby Skype minutes (even over Wi-Fi) result in monthly minutes being used! This is to say, if they can make money and “offer value” to consumers while decreasing mobile network usage they’ll do it. More about the Ideos phone in another post.

A web application that is a browser & vice versa

Lately I’ve been using Gmail to take my incoming phone calls over Google Voice (via 3jam). At some point I grew tired of paying a large carrier what I deemed an excessive monthly fee for not very many cellular minutes and I ported my cell line to 3jam. I already had a Google Voice number so I forward my old cell number (via 3jam) to GV. I tend to miss calls, however, when I either forget to leave Skype open or I close my instance of Gmail. Thankfully, there is a solution: Fluid (& Prism) run with the idea of site specific browsers (SSBs) giving web applications a native feel.

The basic concept is that you can create an icon for web applications to run “stand alone”. In my case Gmail (& Google Voice, or Reader) can be launched as “applications” and easily backgrounded. Fluid is easy to use and extensible with scripts, enabling a plethora of possibilities. When using Gmail as a phone it requires both Flash (& Google Talk plugins) in your Internet Plug-Ins directory to be able to make/receive phone calls.

This is not the most ideal solution for VoIP calling. Siemens sells the Gigaset which would allow me to take VoIP/SIP based calls at home over a “normal” handset with out having to have a computer with Gmail open. ATA (analog telephone adapters) allow the use “plain old telephones” to be plugged into your home network, generally the same idea as the Gigaset, though the Gigaset integrates a 1.9GHz wireless transmission system and VoIP router into one package.

The final part of this puzzle to save on monthly usage fees is a prepaid cell phone (depending on your usage). T-Mobile recently released a pleasantly inexpensive Android 2.2 powered handset made by Huawei called the Comet. For about $150 this not terrible Android phone gives PDA functionality and can use Skype/SIP calling over WiFi. The rest of the time minutes are forwarded and used at the standard T-Mobile $0.10/min rate prepaid rate.

Gmail on your dock

Gmail icons for Fluid by EvenWu on Flickr