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Android comparison Flickr G1 geotagging Google Docs Google Latitude Google Maps Google Spreadsheets iphone iPod last.fm MP3 music Pandora Python review social networking social software

Adding GPS tracking to your Android phone with Google My Tracks

Did you see the squirrel? I’ve recently switched over from my iPhone to an HTC Dream phone running Google’s Android operating system, otherwise known as the G1.  One of the main reasons I switched was because my older iPhone didn’t have a real GPS, and the cell-tower triangulation just didn’t cut it in many parts of the country.

Google just released an app that makes the GPS really useful, called My Tracks.  I’m not the first to write about it, and there’s a pretty thorough review at AndroidGuys, but I thought I’d share my first experience.  This is also an excuse to post more pictures of my cute kid on my supposedly technology-focused blog, since she came along for the walk.

To use My Tracks you’ll need to download it for free from the Android Market. Once you have it installed it’s just a matter of starting up and hitting the menu button and then Record Track.  You can put your phone in your pocket and forget about it while you hike or even surf the web and use other apps – it will keep running in the background.  Multitasking is another advantage that Android has over the iPhone.

Here’s my walk with my internet-famous firstborn:


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It’s fairly accurate, and you can even tell which side of the street I walked on most of the time. Mountain View is no metropolis but walking near tallish buildings downtown did seem to throw it off a bit. I promise I was not staggering from side to side as I walked down Castro Street.

You also get summary data about the duration, traveling speed, and even elevation changes of your trip.

On the trail at Rancho San Antonio The best thing about My Tracks is that it uses Google Maps and makes it easy to share your route with people. One note – you’ll have the click the little down arrow button on the map screen and choose “Send to Google…” before it shows up in your “My Maps” list in Google Maps. To embed the result in the blog post (like I did above), click the “Link” link in Google Maps and you’ll get code for an iframe.

You can also share some route details with Google Docs but to be honest I was hoping for more data – I’d like to get the point-by-point GPS data so I can use it to automatically geotag photos. I am an obsessive geotagger on Flickr but it’s just too time-consuming to do it manually if the data already exists somewhere. You can access Google Docs spreadsheet data with Python, after all.

Another similar Google product I haven’t signed up for yet is Latitude – I’m not so much worried about privacy as I am unlikely to be traveling around enough for it to be interesting at this point. Athena likes to go for walks but we aren’t roaming too far yet.

iPhone Apps – Pandora vs. Last.fm vs. iTunes

San Jose Taiko rocking the main stage Since the release of the iPhone 2.0 firmware and the App Store, I’ve been like a kid in a candy store. At some point I’ll get around to a list of recommended apps but for now I just want to compare two music listening / online radio applications: Last.fm and Pandora.

You do, of course, have many more options – the App Store Music category has about 30 apps listed, many of them designed to help you enjoy and discover new tunes. And you always have the built-in iPod functionality of the phone which syncs with iTunes on the desktop. But Last.fm and Pandora have been around for a while as very impressive web apps so those were the first two I decided to take a look at. They have very different approaches to recommending music with lots of data and cool algorithms.

Pandora

Pandora is based on the Music Genome Project – basically, their system breaks down each song into a series of attributes. For example, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody has “demanding vocal performances, mild rhythmic syncopation, heavy use of vocal harmonies, a prominent rhythm piano part,” among other features. Give Pandora a song or musician and it will create a radio station of similar music. It’s really that simple.

As each song comes up you can give it a thumbs up or thumbs down and you can skip a few songs per station per hour. The iPhone interface displays the album art front and center with a button in the upper-right corner to show you why the system chose the song.

I’ve played with Pandora off and on for a while and my experience is that it does much better with stations created around one or two bands or songs than stations built on large lists of music you enjoy. Add 10 rock bands to your “Road trip with Steve 2008” station and if one of them has folk influences you’re bound to get some sleepy folk in there now and again. Give it just one band and it can get some amazing results – check out my Gorillaz station, for example.

The drawback to Pandora is that it only has very rudimentary data collection and social features. You can find other people listing to the same song on the website but user profiles are pretty sparse, and there’s no groups, message boards, etc. But if you just want to listen, and don’t want to bother with all that other stuff, Pandora provides a pretty great experience.

Last.fm

Last.fm builds radios stations for you and makes recommendations based on the listening data of thousands of other listeners, whether they’re using the Last.fm site, the mobile app, or a scrobbler plugin in their desktop MP3 player software. You can also listen to stations based around a single musician or band, but Last.fm gives you more options and better results the more you listen and participate in the social features of the site. For example, take a look at the listing for Bohemian Rhapsody – you can see top listeners, how users have tagged the song, similar songs, comments, message board posts, etc.

The user interface is actually quite similar to Pandora’s, with options to note that you love or hate a song, a skip button, album art, etc. You can see a bio of the band, similar artists, and upcoming events, which is cool in theory but I haven’t really used.

I’m a long time user of Last.fm from back in the Audioscrobbler days (check out the Geek Music group) and you definitely get more out of it the more you listen. You don’t really have to participate that much, just letting Last.fm know what you’re listing to improves recommendations and radio plays. My favorite thing about it is all the stats it collects. You can see which bands and songs you listen to most often and find out the most popular bands in Sri Lanka.

Compared to Pandora, though, the recommendations aren’t always as interesting… not bad, but I find myself pleasantly surprised more often while listening to Pandora. For comparison, listen to the Gorillaz similar artists radio station.

iPod + iTunes

You can, of course, skip online radio altogether and just use the built-in iPod functionality along with iTunes on the desktop.  There’s a lot to be said for going this route – the interface is nice and usable, the iPhone holds a decent amount of music, and iTunes collects of the same listening data that makes Last.fm so cool.  Also, it will work no matter how conjested the local network is and doesn’t drain the battery nearly as quickly.

But you miss out on all the social networking features and it’s a lot harder to discover new music.  So I think of it more as a back-up plan…  guaranteed access to some of my personal music library.

The Winner

Actually, there’s no need to pick one as the winner – they’re all available for use on your computer and your iPhone.

Have a favorite?  Share your experience in the comments section.