Android and VPNs

Over the past 6 months or so I’ve gotten to the point with my Android phone that I have started to use it for a lot of things I used to do only on my laptop. I typically run through about 3 gb of bandwidth a month, with 2/3rds of that being on public and semi-public wifi networks.

Since I’d prefer not to be spied on, I decided to go ahead and start VPN-ing whenever I’m connected to a wifi network I don’t own (which I’ve been doing for a couple years now on my laptop).

After doing a bit of research online, I signed up for a trial account at StrongVPN. And immediately ran into problems. From my experience, the PPTP feature in Android simply doesn’t work. It didn’t work on my Nexus One and doesn’t work on my TMobile G2, and it doesn’t work with either StrongVPN or another VPN service I use for my laptop.

I was able to get L2TP to work, however, using IPSec pre-shared key and keeping the L2TP secret disabled.

After sorting through that, the system has worked flawlessly. Android is smart enough to display a nice key symbol in the status bar so I can quickly verify that I am connected to the VPN as I am web surfing.

I set StrongVPN to use one it New York servers, and while I haven’t done any bandwidth testing to see what the speed hit is, that’s because whatever it is is so low that I don’t notice it in my day to day use of the network. I signed up for a 3-month subscription for $36.

Android really needs to add the ability to create a widget of a particular VPN network, but in the meantime VPN Show is a free app that will get you¬†VPN settings screen in one click where you can select from the networks you’ve configured.

CallTrack Android App

CallTrack is a free call logging app for Android with a twist — it logs phone activity to your Google Calendar. It can log missed, incoming and outgoing calls (and you can tell it log any or all of those). Once it adds the call to Google Calendar, selecting details will show the length of the call, and of course you could always go in and add notes related to the call.

The app will let you choose which of your Google Calendars to sync phone calls with. I went ahead and created a new private Phone Calls calendar just for the app, and so far it has worked flawlessly (thought reviews of the app indicate it does occasionally create duplicate entries — I haven’t seen that yet, though, so it is possible that bug has been fixed).

Damn I love apps that let me effortlessly track one more thing.

NetCounter for Android

NetCounter is a small, free app for Android that simply logs how much bandwidth you’re using on your smart phone. It will break the usage down by cell usage vs. Wi-Fi, and all the data it logs are easily exported to a CSV file.

I’ve been using it since I first got my G2 oh so long ago (i.e. about one year and three Android phones ago), and have been very happy with it.

Self-Tracking Apps for Android

I’ve been using Zealogs.com to do a lot of self-tracking (seriously — I track several dozen different daily variables from weight to blood pressure, etc), but recently decided for a number of reasons it would be better to do my tracking locally on my Android.

So, off I went to the Marketplace and after installing and uninstalling a number of apps settled on two to handle my tracking needs.

First I added Sleep Bot Tracker Log which, as the name suggests, only tracks one thing — how much sleep I’m getting every night. It is a really well-done app, especially considering its free. Press a widget when you go to sleep, and then again when you wake up, and it tracks and graphs how much sleep you’re getting. Noting when I go to sleep and wake up has always been something I thought was a pain, and this makes it trivially easy (plus I hate having to do the math on how much time I slept if I went to bed at 10:17 p.m. and woke up at 6:03 a.m.)

Second, for everything else, I settled on Zagalaga’s KeepTrack. KeepTrack lets me do almost everything I was doing on Zealogs. It lets me create what it calls a “Watch” which is anything I want to keep track of, and then gives me the option of tracking it as a number, a yes/no flag, or as a text field. It can then chart the values I enter over time and export as a text file or XML.

The only thing I wish KeepTrack had was the ability to add text notes to numerical and yes/no types. For example, if I enter 22,000 as the value in my Steps tracker, I’d like to be able to note what I did that day that resulted in me walking so far above my normal average.

Otherwise, KeepTrack does exactly what I wanted and, like Sleep Bot, is free.

Simplenote

I first gave Simplenote a whirl after reading Adam Pash’s fanboy-esque paen to the service at Lifehacker, The Holy Grail of Ubiquitous Plain-Text Capture. Simplenote does pretty much just one thing, but it does in incredibly well — it lets you create and manage text files and sync those across multiple platforms. As Pash wrote,

What works best for me may not be what works best for you. A lot of people prefer applications like Evernote, which lets you capture nearly any form of text or media you want and is accessible via the web, desktop applications, and smartphone apps. Personally, Evernote’s a bit too large (and sometimes too bloated) for my taste. All I’ve ever wanted is the ability to create plain text files on my computer, sync those files to my phone and other computers (without any extra effort on my part), and the ability to edit or create new files from any of those buckets. That’s what I describe below.

And Simplenote does the above almost flawlessly. There are clients for it for Mac, Windows, iPhone, Android, Linux and maybe even the BeOS for all I know. I typically create a number of set text files from templates each morning on my Windows laptop and then update that throughout the day from whatever device I have closest, usually my Nexus one. The various clients sync with the Simplenote online service, and the result is, as Pash emphasizes, text capture becomes ubiquitous and easy.

Which is not to say the client software is all made equal. One thing I wish the clients would add would be a basic “insert timestamp” option. I use a text expander software fto handle that with Windows-based ResophNotes client, but I’m not aware of how to accomplish automatically inserting a timestamp in any of the Android clients.

On the other hand the Android client I use, AndroNoter, has a convenient “Email” button which lets me email the content of a textfile to whatever email address I want. That works for me because I use Simplenote mostly for files that I’m still editing and then forward the finished file to one of my Gmail accounts for archiving.

Simplenote is free, but for $8.99/year there is a premium version that, among other things, eliminates all adds, provides automatic backups, and lets you forward emails to Simplenote to create text files that way if you’d prefer.

Simplenote has become one of those tools I use so frequently it has just become a background process in everything I do throughout the day.