Wednesday, August 29, 2012

CarHacker: Defeating the Curved Interior of a Prius to Mount a Nexus7

I'm a white middle-class male working in the tech industry in the Silicon Valley, so it should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that I drive a Prius.

As I told Ian during our podcast player App Clinic, the only thing missing from the stock version of this modern marvel of hybrid engineering technology is a convenient place to mount my Nexus 7.

The Prius interior is a combination of smooth lines and continuous curves that offer seemingly few surfaces flat enough to accomodate 7 inches of Android tablet awesomeness. Until today.

With all my music in the cloud and a full-blown addiction to the unrivaled Google Maps (and by extension Google Navigation), I elected to purchase a model without the fancier radio package or built-in GPS receiver.

The music I own is in Google Music, and what I don't own I listen to using Pandora or Spotify. If I want to listen to the radio, I use TuneIn.

As a result, my car stereo - which takes up a significant portion of the dash - is nothing more than an elaborate routing mechanism to get the audio from my Android devices directed out of the car's speakers. It also represents one of the few flat surfaces available within a vehicle seemingly designed to contain absolutely no straight sides.

When is a Tablet Stand Not a Tablet Stand? When It's a Mount.

I've been using this handy little tablet stand since I got my Xoom, and everything since - from 7 and 10 inch Galaxy Tabs to my new Nexus 7.

It has both long and a short third legs to allow for propping your tablet at either 10 or 80 degrees.

It turns out that my Prius has a legacy mounting slot at the top of the in-car stereo panel (Edit: turns out this is for playing "compact discs") into which the shorter leg fits very snuggly.

The application of a couple of 3M backing tabs from some wall hooks is used to hold it firmly in place laterally and a 3M cable tie hook keeps the power and audio cables neatly tucked away.

The pincers of the stand are collapsable, so I can bring them as close together as I need in order to use the same mount to hold a phone, 7" or 10" tablets each in portrait or landscape orientations. The whole thing leans backwards slightly, and that - plus the "tacky" pads on the stand - help to keep everything in place when driving.

It would be better if I could figure out a way to use the Nexus 7 pogo pins for charging, and maybe come up with some kind of bluetooth solution for audio, but for now I'm pretty happy!


Monday, August 13, 2012

The Friday App Clinic: Podcast Players

Every week The Friday App Clinic takes a critical look at a selection of apps in a particular category. Our focus on is to help developers learn how to make their apps magical, and we'll use these corresponding blog posts to provide links to some of the techniques you can use to make that happen.
Last Friday Ian Ni-Lewis and I took the scalpel to podcast players. Up on the tablet were Doggcatcher, Beyond Pod, Pocket Casts, Volksempfänger, Listen Up, Good News, Podax, and Hipstacast.

Podcast Player Essentials

Let's start by looking at the fundamentals to creating a good podcast player.

Audio playback and control

This Android Training class on Managing Your Audio Playback explains audio focus and how to make sure your app responds to hardware and bluetooth multimedia control keys.

We recommend you create a homescreen widget to show users what's playing, and offer a shortcut to pause or skip tracks.

Use the Remote Control Client to offer the same details and shortcuts to users from the lock screen, and enrich your ongoing Notifications to support pause and resume playback at any time. While some of the apps we looked at allowed you to pause playback from a notification, doing so removed the notification, requiring you to relaunch the app to resume playback.

Offline Media Playback

Like any media playing app, a podcast player should continue to work even when your network connection is intermittent or disabled.

You can use the Download Manager to download podcasts in the background, using techniques like prefetching, as described in Android Training class Transferring Data Without Draining the Battery, to ensure that users are never left listening to "dead air" while the next track buffers or downloads.

Taking things a step further, Ian called out the elimination of the refresh button as the gold standard for podcast players.

Eliminating the refresh button is hard - which explains why all of the apps we looked at included a refresh button. To effectively remove it, you need to ensure that all your feeds are constantly up to date.  The best solution is to use Google Cloud Messaging to notify each installation of your app whenever a new podcast is available.

Making Podcast Player Work Like Magic

Playing a Podcast

Listening to podcasts is the sort of thing you tend to do when you're using your eyes for something else.

With your eyes otherwise occupied interacting with your app needs to be intuitive and familiar.

From a user-perspective, there's very little difference between a podcast player and a music player, but we noticed that many of the podcast players were presented more as podcast feed managers rather than media players, with playback controls like pause and skip were often hidden behind secondary tabs or even menu options.

Consider arranging your UI to focus around playback, so the media control buttons should always be available whenever a podcast is playing.


Podcasts are amazing -- there's thousands of hours of fresh content in every posible genre available for free, every day. But like TV and radio, content discovery is a key challenge.

The perfect podcast player should be as easy to use as the radio. Turn it on, and you should be able to start listening to something interesting within one or two clicks. That means presenting new users with a selection of content that's likely to get them hooked.

 In the apps we looked at, we noticed that the behavior of the "next" and "previous" buttons was often unpredictable. If the user hits "next", your app should be able to determine something for them to listen to without them having to pick it out specifically.

Similarly, never present users with an empty screen, or rely on them knowing and entering a podcast URL in order to get started. Even if they're experienced podcast listeners with their favorite feeds, make it easy for them to test your app before they go to the trouble of importing their favorites.

Managing Subscriptions

The focus of many of the apps we looked at was in managing your subscriptions and controlling which episodes were downloaded. These are largely implementation details that help you decide how often to refresh feeds, which feeds to fetch, and which episodes to download ahead of time.

While important, this functionality but is secondary to the point of your app. In most cases, a user's preferences will be global for all their favorite podcasts, so rather than having them configure different settings for each feed, create a sensible (customizable) default and apply it to all their subscriptions. Now you only need to allow users to browse content and select the sources they favor.

Show users what they've got organized in ways that are familiar and obvious: genres, albums, artists, and playlists.
Tune in every Friday at 1pm Pacific Time (UTC-7) for The Friday App Clinic with Ian Ni-Lewis and Reto Meier.