RogerBW's Blog

Apps that have lasted 16 June 2020

A friend is experimenting with LineageOS, and it's about two years since I started to use it, so I thought I'd review the apps that I'm still running frequently.

For getting apps onto the thing in the first place, F-Droid, which you may have to install the hard way (details vary by device, but pushing the APK down a USB link tends to be involved). That gets you access to its repository of freeware, which includes Aurora Store, which in turn gets you anonymous access to the Google Play Store without having to run Google's spyware. (That's technically a licence violation, but even as a devotee of Shub-Niggurath, there are some places I don't want tentacles.) This means that I can't run paid apps, because part of the spyware is the authentication/payment structure; I won't run apps with advertisements; and I mostly can't run apps that need GSF (Google Services Framework, also known as Google Mobile Services, Google Services for Mobile, Google Play Services, Google Market Services).

(A note to app developers: yes, I know, relying on GSF makes things easier for you. It's also a fat finger held up to your users saying, at best, "I don't care about your privacy, I just want an easy life".)

So then it's utilities. Keyboards first: I use AnySoftKeyboard (com.menny.android.anysoftkeyboard) most of the time (good non-ASCII character support, effective correction/autocompletion engine). For crunchier things, Hacker's Keyboard (org.pocketworkstation.pckeyboard), because most of the time on Android you don't need a cursor up or down, so most keyboards don't provide it. (There doesn't seem to be a way to tell Android "when I put this app in the foreground, switch to this keyboard".)

The main crunchier thing is Termux (com.termux), a terminal window on the phone. (After all, if the computer in your pocket doesn't run emacs, is it really a computer?) I have a nest of utility scripts to do things like uploading my photos or GPS tracks to other machines on the home network, rather than to whichever external hosting service is in favour today. sftp for general file movements. (Really, the difficulty of file transfer is one of the most alien things about Android to me. I'm really surprised that there doesn't seem to be any sort of SMB/CIFS client built in; F-Droid has one package that can do sftp and isn't entirely hateful. Judging by VLC, networked file access is something applications are expected to provide for themselves, which is just daft. On the other hand, "share" is trying to be a kind of super-clipboard and always has eleventeen options I don't want…)

Going along with Termux is Markor (net.gsantner.markor), a plain text editor. (Yes, I use emacs too; it depends on the sort of document I'm working on.) This is where I keep shopping lists and other things I might otherwise have in a notebook.

I use OpenVPN to get access to the home network while I'm elsewhere, and while there are lots of dodgy-looking clients for it, the one I've found works best is OpenVPN for Android (de.blinkt.openvpn) (and now you know why I'm putting the links and formal app names in here, because that's not exactly a distinctive name). I find it's happiest if rather than configuring it on the phone you give it a pre-built configuration file, which as it turns out is just an openvpn conf file renamed with a ".openvpn" extension, with any key material appropriately encoded and embedded in a <secret>…</secret> block.

Music at home is provided via mpd so naturally I want a client for that. M.A.L.P. (org.gateshipone.malp) is the least hateful of the ones I've tried, though ncmpcpp under Termux is still better. (Well, ncmpcpp is better than all the desktop clients I've seen for Linux too.) (And M.A.L.P. supports streaming within the app – not an MPD feature – so there's no need to use an external player such as VLC. Which I do still have installed, but I hardly ever use.)

Of course one desires a calculator, and of course one desires it to use Reverse Polish Notation, so one uses RPNCalc (org.efalk.rpncalc).

A web browser is a necessity, and the best I've found is the DuckDuckGo browser (com.duckduckgo.mobile.android). By default you get effective ad blocking and automatic tracker wiping, and it does a better job of complicated page rendering than the OS's built-in one. (Many of the things for which dedicated apps are apparently the norm are things I find I can do via the browser.) Recently it's gained the ability to "fireproof" trusted sites, i.e. not to wipe their cookies, so that you can stay logged in. The only flaw, and it's a relatively minor one, is that it doesn't support giving a username/password for basic auth in a URL; this is unlikely to be relevant to most people.

For location and route finding, I use OSMAnd+ (net.osmand.plus) - completely free if you get it via F-Droid, payware if via Google Play. OpenStreetMap is by far the best freely-available mapping data I've found for everything except actual driveable roads, and it's generally no worse with those than anyone else; and unlike any of the others, one can actually add to it. (For example, I have corrected and extended various walking routes near here.) Being able to download regions in advance is also handy; last Essen I was able to say "aha, the restaurant you've just mentioned is here" while 100,000 other people were still waiting for a data connection. This doesn't do live traffic, but it does do routefinding and directions (and interfaces to my location-sharing system). Probably the thing I use most when I'm actually leaving the house.

One of the reasons I got a smartphone at all is Signal (org.thoughtcrime.securesms). Solid encryption, not owned by Facebook, dead easy to use. Bruce approves.

I find I don't do much email on the go (I usually ssh into a proper Linux box and run mutt there), but K-9 Mail (com.fsck.k9) still gets the job done. You can write proper interleaved replies with it, though it's hard work.

For a calendar client, I use Etar (ws.xsoh.etar); it's not that different from the stock client, but it's being actively maintained. Because the built-in synchronisation systems only work to external commercial services and I keep my own damn calendars on my own damn hardware rather than trusting someone else to care more about the privacy and reliability of my data than I do (ahem), I synchronise with DavX5 (at.bitfire.davdroid).

I use XMPP for local messaging from alert systems and so on, so I need a client for that. The least bad I've found is Xabber (com.xabber.android); it phones home in a minor way, but unlike all the others it actually works with something other than a big commercial service. (And I believe the Play Store version is more intrusive.) So that's what I have for now. I also use CSipSimple for VoIP with SIP/RTP, though that's not even on app stores any more; there are lots of SIP clients, but the rest of them that I've tried don't work with my setup (which is nonstandard only insofar as I'm running it myself).

On to fribbles and frills. The best camera driver I've found is Open Camera (net.sourceforge.opencamera) – note that if your device supports the "Camera2 API", which pretty much any vaguely modern phone should, and you enable it in the settings here that will give a lot more flexibility. I've been doing most of my photography with this since I got a phone with a decent camera, on the basis that it's the one I have with me, and it works very nicely.

I like to know sunrise and sunset times, and Sun Times (com.forrestguice.suntimeswidget) does this for me. (This is another one where the Google Play version is more intrusive.) There's a separate package to insert astronomical events into the phone's calendar, but I already have a thing that generates those on the master calendar server. I mean, why wouldn't I?

When one wants to choose someone at random, e.g. to be the first player in a boardgame, many people like Chwazi. I favour Fingers (com.ModernAlchemy.Fingers) because it's pretty and I am shallow. (It'll also do a full random order, and random team assignments.) For other boardgame and RPG utilities, OneTwo (com.nicue.onetwo) will offer a less-pretty chooser, dice roller, score counter and chess-clock timer (though what it doesn't do, indeed what no score counter app I've found yet will do, is allow you to say "X has got 16 more points" without mentally adding 16 to the current score and nudging up the counter until it gets there; I suppose what I want is effectively a bunch of separate simple calculators running in parallel). For a really pretty dice roller, Dice Roller (com.aptasystems.diceroller) uses the Unity physics engine – though for on-line games, the vast majority of the time, I just roll actual dice.

One needs a Barcode Scanner (com.google.zxing.client.android). Or at least I find I do.

Sky Map (com.google.android.stardroid) (definitely this F-Droid version; the Play Store one has gone down the dark path) is decent for answering "what's that light in the sky" or "where is Venus". Note that it relies heavily on the phone's magnetic compass. Many phone cases have powerful magnets in them. Just saying.

I had expected to use the phone to look things up in PDFs, so I installed Document Viewer (org.sufficientlysecure.viewer), but I've ended up barely using it. Maybe if I had a tablet or something else with a larger screen. (It did make a good emergency ebook viewer when I'd left my Kobo at home.)


  1. Posted by John Dallman at 10:01am on 16 June 2020

    The lack of SMB/CIFS/NFS clients seems to be part of the "doesn't need system administration" philosophy of Android. "You can't install device drivers" is another part of that, both of which are shared with iOS.

    At least Android doesn't have the iOS restriction that apps can't see each other's files.

  2. Posted by Dave D at 10:40am on 16 June 2020

    I did find an app 'keepscore' that lets you accumulate scores by just telling it what player X has earned. It has buttons to add fixed numbers like +1, +5, +10 (and it will accumulate the ones you press within an interval, so that the log shows a single addition), or you can hold something to pop up a box to input an arbitrary number. Unfortunately, (the version I have, at least) seems to then add double that number to the score :-( But it says it's open-source, so should be able to fix that if it isn't already.

    My phone is vintage - no updates beyond gingerbread - so I can't run any modern apps.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 12:48pm on 16 June 2020

    John: yeah, which reminds me of the old Windows "contact your system administrator" messages. I am my system administrator, now show me some diagnostics.

    Some Android apps like to pretend that files don't exist at all. No, I won't save that debug log to plain text or copy it to the clipboard, I will Share it and some other program can accept it. As far as I can see this is more common on iOS.

    Dave: com.nolanlawson.keepscore? For me that gets the "older version of Android" warning, not a problem in itself; but the history box (to let you add again what you added last time) doesn't seem to do anything when tapped. Still, better than the others in that it tells you how much you're in the process of adding. Thanks.

  4. Posted by John Dallman at 04:30pm on 16 June 2020

    Roger: Yes, iOS likes to pretend that documents, pictures, music and films are the only kinds of files. Software written for both OSes tends to lowest common denominator.

    Dave: Thanks for mentioning keepscore, added. I also get "Older Android" but it works.

  5. Posted by Ian at 05:25pm on 16 June 2020

    Actually John, some of that has changed on iOS.

    The iOS13 Files app implementation can talk SMB and see other devices on the LAN. Plus inside it, you can set up direct access to cloud storage services (eg dropbox, google drive, onedrive etc) and also see local folders for each app.

    The latter means it's possible for the user to move files from one app to another and for modern apps that choose to implement iOS13 support to see the folders where other apps store files. iPads can also finally see and use USB storage too!

    It's still not ideal and a bit clunky.

    But in many ways it works better than the (differently bad) file system on Android.

    And it's infinitely better than the mess that is the Chrome OS local file system when you factor in the "Android inside another limited OS madness" that happens when you try and move files between Android apps and non-Android apps on Chrome OS.

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