Friday, 30 November 2012

2012 has been a good year for Android. The Galaxy S III has been a sales behemoth, the Nexus 7 proved that Android tablets can sell too, and there have been plenty of great new apps. As 2012 comes to a close, let's take a look at the year's top Android apps and games. 
Google Chrome
Google's heralded desktop browser made its mobile debut this year. It lives up to the hype. Speedy and simple, the free Chrome is miles ahead of the old stock Android browser.
Google Drive
More than just a Dropbox rival, Google Drive is a cloud locker and basic word processor rolled into one. Store up to 5 GB of files for free, and edit your docs on the go. If you're invested in the Android ecosystem, Drive is essential.
Google Now

We're cheating a bit here, as Google Now isn't available as a standalone app. But any device running Android 4.1 or higher gets the next generation of Google search, known as Google Now.
In many ways, Google Now surpasses iOS' Siri. It skips the spunky personality, and simply delivers relevant information ... even before you ask for it. At the subway station? Now will show you what trains are coming. Merging onto the highway? Now gives you traffic. Voice searches are also returned much quicker than Siri.
If you're comfortable with much of your life being uploaded to Google's servers (chances are, it is anyway), Now can be a personal assistant that actually helps.
OneLouder Apps released the most beautiful weather app for Android this year, called 1Weather. It gives you all the weather info you'd need with an attractive design that we'd like to see more of on Android.
If you want to fully appreciate the gorgeous app, you can pay an extra US$1.99 for the Pro version.
The former iOS-exclusive Instagram made its way to Android this year. The Facebook-owned app lets you snap pics with a variety of filters, and quickly upload them to your favorite social networks.
OnLive Desktop
OnLive Desktop gives your Android tablet a touch-friendly, cloud version of Microsoft Windows. The only catch is that you'll need a persistent internet connection.
The free OnLive Desktop account offers basic Windows access, including Office and Adobe Reader. The premium Desktop Plus adds Internet Explorer (including Flash) at Gigabit speeds for US$4.99 per month.
Solid Explorer Beta

Who knew file navigation had room for improvement? With multi-panel viewing, drag-and-drop, and support for rooted devices, Solid Explorer ups the ante for Android file management.
A slew of formerly iOS-exclusive reading apps hit the Play Store this year. At the front of that pack is Flipboard.
Flipboard presents news in an attractive and responsive magazine-style layout. You can link to your Google Reader account or browse the plethora of curated Flipboard channels.
Instapaper, Pocket, Readability
Instapaper, Pocket, and Readability let you store news articles to read later. They're more than bookmark services, though, as they present articles in clean, text-and-image only views.
All three offer nearly identical feature sets, so you may want to experiment to find your favorite. No tablet is complete without one of them.
If you're lounging on the couch with your Nexus 7, you probably don't want to grab your phone every time you send a text message. TabletSMS lets you send and receive texts from your tablet – all using your phone number. lets you collaborate with friends and strangers on a live setlist. Queue up your favorite jams, and vote others' selections up or down.
Wave Control
Practice your Jedi powers and control your phone with a wave of the hand. Wave Control lets you play or skip songs without touching your screen. It doesn't always work seamlessly, but it's a great tool nonetheless.
Firefox's Android browser stayed in beta for years, and lagged far behind its competition. That changed this year when Mozilla released Firefox for Android. It emphasizes speed, an overhauled user interface, and customizable add-ons. It even adds an Instapaper-like "Reader mode," that de-clutters articles for simple viewing.
Magisto - Magical Video Editor
Magisto is the lazy person's video editing app. Add video clips, and Magisto will analyze and compile them into a movie, complete with soundtrack. It even lowers the music volume when people are speaking. It isn't perfect, but it's as artistic as a computer can be right now.
Swiftkey 3
Swiftkey has been one of Android's best keyboards for years, but 2012 saw the release of Swiftkey 3. It marks a big step forward, with better error correction and "Smart Space," which inserts missing spaces in blocks of text.
Also keep an eye out for the upcoming Swiftkey Flow, a Swype-like trace keyboard with Swiftkey's predictive text.
Temple Run
The iOS classic Temple Run came to Android in 2012. Snag an idol and run, jump, and slide from the crazy apes in hot pursuit. It's addictive, endless running arcade fun at its finest.
Dead Trigger
Android wouldn't be a legit gaming platform if it didn't have at least one good first-person zombie shooter. Dead Trigger gives you just that, for the unbeatable price of free.
One of the breakthrough mobile games of 2012, Horn is a Zelda-inspired action puzzler. Its striking visuals and console-like gameplay will keep you entertained for hours.
Angry Birds Space, Angry Birds Star Wars
In 2012, Rovio's Angry Birds franchise continued its quest for world domination. The two latest entries, Angry Birds Space and Angry Birds Star Wars, brought some refreshing innovation (and a shameless tie-in) to the formulaic series. Don't knock anti-gravity bird-flinging until you've tried it.
N.O.V.A. 3
Until Microsoft brings H.A.L.O. to Android (fat chance), Gameloft's copycatN.O.V.A. franchise is as close as you'll get. Despite its cringe-inducing voice acting and lack of originality, N.O.V.A. 3 provides terrific visuals and hours of entertaining gameplay.
Reaction Engines Ltd. announced on Wednesday the completion of a critical round of testing of its SABRE engine’s precooler system. The SABRE is a radical type of hybrid jet/rocket engine capable of propelling a spacecraft into orbit or an aircraft in the atmosphere, at a velocity of Mach 5 (3,800 mph, 3,300 knots, 6,115 km/h). It’s intended for Reaction Engines’SKYLON spacecraft and its airliner derivative, the LAPCAT A2 hypersonic aircraft. 
The company had carried out its own tests earlier this year at its facility in Oxfordshire, UK and this series was done under the supervision of the European Space Agency (ESA) on behalf of the UK Space Agency to provide official validation of the technology. According to Reaction Engine’s press release, "the pre-cooler test objectives have all been successfully met and ESA are satisfied that the tests demonstrate the technology required for the SABRE engine development." 

Skylon itself is something of a radical departure as well. It’s a planned Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) spacecraft that's intended to take off and land at conventional airports. Unlike many hypersonic craft, SKYLON will take off and accelerate to hypersonic speeds under its own power using the SABRE engine, without the need of a mothership or rocket boosters. The engine is thermodynamically simple, but extremely complex in engineering. It is designed to be extremely lightweight, with the skin of some components being thinner than a human hair.

Conventional rockets require special launch facilities and need to carry along the oxygen needed to burn their fuel. This adds weight and reduces the payload that can be delivered to orbit. If the rocket is a SSTO designed to return to Earth, the payload is even smaller. SKYLON’s SABRE engine reduces the need for carrying so much oxygen by using air like a jet, to burn its fuel for part of the ascent.

SABRE is basically a rocket engine that uses a precooled compressor for part of the ascent. It acts as an air-breathing jet until it reaches Mach 5 and an altitude of 25 kilometers (15.53 mi). By this time, it’s already 20 percent on its way to space. For the other 80 percent, SABRE converts to a pure rocket mode using its onboard store of liquid oxygen instead of air to loft into orbit at a speed of Mach 25 (19,000 mph, 16,500 knots, 30,600 km/h).
Since it works at everything from a dead stop to escape velocity, the SABRE engine not only needs to be able to switch from jet to rocket mode, it also needs to be able to reconfigure its geometry in flight to accommodate the constantly-changing pressure and temperature of the air blasting into it. Imagine being caught in a wind 25 times stronger than that of a Category 5 hurricane, and you can see the magnitude of the problem.

The SABRE engine requires the incoming air to be compressed to 140 atmospheres. This compression makes the air so hot that it would melt any known material, so the incoming air needs to be pre-cooled until its nearly a liquid. Previous experimental engines used the cryogenic hydrogen fuel to cool the heat exchangers, but this wasted fuel and caused all sorts of problems, such as making metals brittle.
SABRE gets around this by using a closed-loop helium cycle. This is designed to cool the incoming airstream from over 1,000ºC (1,832ºF) to -150ºC (-238ºF) in less than 1/100th of a second without blocking with frost. It’s less wasteful of the hydrogen, which keeps the helium loop cold and avoids hydrogen brittling, so more heat-resistant materials can be used. Once cooled, a “relatively conventional” turbo compressor using jet engine technology can be used to compress the air to the required pressure – “relatively” being the operative word for an engine designed to go into space.
Reaction Engines is still years away from a completed engine and the construction of SKYLON is years after that, though the company remains optimistic and is currently seeking additional funds to continue development.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Five years ago, the iPhone didn't support third-party apps. Today, it's a fully-fledged computer that fits in your pocket. There are now apps for editing photos and videos, playing recent console games, and composing electronic soundtracks. Which of those stood out from the crowd this year? Let's take a look at the best iPhone apps of 2012. 
Possibly Mac OS X's best email app came to the iPhone this year, and it's a gem. Sparrow has an attractive interface, and a feature set designed to please volume emailers.
There is, however, one big problem with Sparrow. It lacks push notifications. Google's purchase of Sparrow also means that future support for the iOS app will likely be minimal.
Even with those huge caveats, though, Sparrow is the iPhone's first third-party email client worth having.
This year, Apple completed the conversion of its iLife suite to iOS. But iPhoto is nothing like its desktop counterpart. This version is a gesture-based editing suite designed specifically for touch screens. Its controls take some getting used to, but it's easily one of the best apps for enhancing pics on the go. 
In 2012, Google released a version of its popular Chrome browser for iOS. Its interface and syncing get top marks, but it can't boast any performance improvements over Safari. Through no fault of Google's, it's powered by the same engine (iOS WebKit) as Apple's default browser.
Google Drive
More than just a Dropbox clone, Google Drive offers cloud storage and simple document editing on the go. Users get 5 GB of free storage, and you can pay $25/year to increase that to 25 GB.
Google's recent update, which adds spreadsheet editing, only reinforces Drive as one of the best apps of 2012.
iTranslate Voice
iTranslate Voice lets two people who speak different languages have a conversation. Tap the English button, speak, and listen as your words are spoken in the target language. When your friend taps the other button and speaks, their words are spoken in your language. While results can be hit and miss at times, its support for over 30 languages makes it a handy tool for travelers. However, it does require a constant internet connection.
Burner gives you a disposable phone number for calling and texting. It's great for Craigslist transactions, online dating, and all sorts of shady activities (or so I hear).
The only downsides are that each new number is a bit pricey, and you only get limited blocks of minutes and messages. You can also achieve the same ends for free by creating multiple Google Voice accounts.
Drafts is a virtual scratchpad. When you open the app, it's immediately ready for input. When you're finished typing, a couple of taps will copy the text to the clipboard or export it to a variety of popular apps.
Summly is built on a simple idea: you only need quick summaries of the news. It only gives you a couple of short paragraphs for each story. If you want more than the barebones version, you can double-tap on the feed to read the full article.
The app has a terrific interface, and provides all the expected sharing options (though read later services are conspicuously absent). Summly's source variety can be improved, but it still might be the most innovative news app of 2012.
Solar is a simple and beautiful weather app. The color gradient tells you the temperature and weather. Swipe up for the next few hours, swipe down for the next three days, and swipe to the left to change locations.
The only drawback is that the developers still haven't updated Solar for the 4-inch screens of the iPhone 5 and iPod touch 5G.
Dark Sky
Another elegantly simple weather app is Dark Sky. The app answers three questions: "what's the temperature?", "is it raining?", and "is it going to rain?" Unless you're a weather geek, that may be all you need to know.
For those seeking more detail, a tap or a swipe will show you the radar and the next day's forecast.
Pocket, Readability
These two apps make it harder to justify spending $3.99 on the excellent Instapaper. The free Pocket and Readability apps save lists of web articles, and present them in a clean, clutter-free layout.
Clear is the most polarizing app of the year. Depending on who you ask, the gesture-based to-do list is either a breakthrough, or too clever for its own good. Love it or hate it, Clear is worth checking out.
Bastion is one of the most stylish and imaginative video games in years. Originally released for Xbox Live, the iOS port has stunning graphics, a memorable soundtrack, and surprisingly deep RPG elements. The star of the show, though, is the gravelly-voiced narrator who reacts to your every move.
Max Payne Mobile
Max Payne was one of the top games of the last decade. Eleven years after its initial release, it's one of the top games on the iPhone. The mobile port has enhanced visuals and some of the best virtual controls in the App Store.
Angry Birds Space, Angry Birds Star Wars
Long live casual gaming. Rovio gave us two new Angry Birds entries this year: Angry Birds Space and Angry Birds Star Wars. The titles breathed new life into the worn-out formula, with zero-gravity bird-flinging and familiar Lucas characters
N.O.V.A. 3
Until Microsoft brings H.A.L.O. to the iPhone (fat chance), Gameloft's copycat N.O.V.A. franchise is as close as you'll get. Despite its cringe-inducing voice acting and lack of originality, N.O.V.A. 3 provides terrific visuals and hours of entertaining first-person shooting.
Zynga's Horn is a Zelda-inspired action puzzler. Though it can get repetitive, its striking visuals and RPG leveling make it one of the most console-like games in the App Store.

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Monday, 26 November 2012

Do you ever get the creep feeling that store mannequins are ... watchingyou? Well, that feeling may now be justified. Italian display form company Almax has recently introduced its EyeSee line of mannequins, that are equipped with cameras and microprocessors in their heads.
The idea behind the mannequins is that they could be located in storefront windows or specific areas of the store, where they would gather demographic data on the customers. Using facial recognition software, they can reportedly determine things such as a person’s age range, gender and race. The mannequins will also keep track of the number of people to pass through a certain area within a given amount of time, and how much time each person spends there.

Almax suggests that store owners could then use that data to develop targeted marketing strategies, to place salespeople in the parts of the store with the highest traffic, to see what times of day are busiest (and with what sort of customers), and to gauge the effectiveness of window displays or the popularity of displayed items.
Needless to say, privacy concerns are definitely an issue. According to the company, all the data is processed within the mannequins, so no outside computers are involved, and nothing is transmitted. Nonetheless, that doesn’t change the fact that the mannequins would actually be watching you – and scrutinizing you.
The EyeSee mannequins were designed and are manufactured by Kee Square, a facial recognition tech company affiliated with Politecnico di Milano.
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Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, says that the missions to Mars by his company will use rockets powered by methane, which can be manufactured on the Red Planet. The announcement came last as the South-African born entrepreneur was giving a lecture in November to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, where he was presented with the Gold Medal – the society’s highest award. 
In his talk, Musk said that he foresees the first Mars mission as a collaboration of private industry and government, but is prepared for the possibility that it will be just commercial. His vision is to see a manned landing on Mars within 15 years as the prelude to colonization. With this in mind, he said that the only way to make such a program economical is to keep transport costs as low as possible. 
His target is to keep the price of passage at US$500,000, which he said is was within reach of people in developed countries. "Most people in their mid-forties could put together enough money to make the trip,” he said. “Half a million dollars, that's a normal middle-class couple in California."
Part of keeping these costs down is the choice of fuel. "The cheapest fuel is methane,” said Musk. “So it's going to be methane. Also, the great thing about methane is that you can create it on Mars because Mars has a CO2atmosphere and there's a lot of water ice also. Conceivably, you could extract water vapor from the atmosphere. With water you've got H2O plus CO2 and bingo, you can replace propellant."
Musk was referring to the Sabatier reaction, which uses a nickel catalyst to convert water and carbon dioxide into methane gas and water. It has been proposed as a means of creating rocket propellants on Mars, with one possibility being to send automated factories to the Red Planet to process fuel in anticipation of a manned landing.
Musk also pointed out that methane performs almost as well or better than kerosene or hydrogen, but has certain advantages – especially over hydrogen. “Methane is much easier to deal with. It's not a cryogen and hydrogen likes to get into all sort of places, making metal brittle and creating invisible high-temperature fires and that sort of thing. Methane is just much easier to deal with."
As to kerosene, Musk said, “The energy cost of methane is the lowest and it has a slight (specific impulse) advantage over kerosene and it does not have the pain-in-the-ass factor that hydrogen has.”
Musk added that the Russians have made advances in methane-powered rockets, so the technology is there. Another factor he cited is that the Mars ship needs to be not only cheap, but large, since making the over two-year journey in Dragon would result in the astronauts “coming back mad, if at all.” This makes inexpensive propellant even more important.
As part of this long-term planning, SpaceX will be using methane in its future rockets, beginning with the Raptor upper-stage engine. The technology will then migrate through the rest of the flight systems as development proceeds.
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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Nokia's new service is an alternative to Apple Maps
The iOS version of Nokia's cloud-based mapping service has been released on Apple's App Store. The service boasts a number of compelling features and undoubtedly aims to capitalize on the problems encountered by iPhone and iPad owners while using Cupertino's own Maps app.
Nokia Here provides access to all of the company's mapping data, regardless of the platform you're using. The web-based version has been available for use since the announcement on November 13th (compatible with Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari), and you can even fire up the service on devices running Android 2.2 and up.
The iOS app, based on HTML5, offers some compelling functionality, including the ability to save a geographical area for offline use and voice-guided walking directions. The service will also feature public transport directions, as well as the company's Collections service, which lets users save their favorite locations to a personal account. Lastly, Nokia has included a Community View feature which allows users to see (you guessed it) community-sourced information about the local area in addition to the company's own offering.
In addition to the iOS app, users can access Here from PCs and mobile devices running Andr...
The release of the service on Apple's iOS is significant due to the negative reaction to the company's own Maps app. An upgrade to iOS 6 removed the popular Google Maps app from user's iPhone or iPad, replacing it with Apple Maps, the quality and accuracy of which fell short of what consumers have come to expect from Cupertino's products.
Nokia has also partnered with Mozilla, and plans to bring a mobile web version of the maps service to the company's Firefox OS sometime in 2013.
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