NORAD tracking Santa on your iPad and smartphone

Norad is tracking Santa again this yearAs it has done every year for the past 56 years, NORAD is once again tracking Santa this holiday season. But for Christmas 2011, the military organization that watches the skies above North America, has added the ability to follow St. Nick’s progress on your iPhone, iPad, and Android devices as well.

The satellite tracking went live earlier today and has been following Santa’s sled as he’s made his annual rounds through the timezones where it is already Christmas Eve night. Even now, he is delivering presents to homes on the other side of the planet and spreading holiday cheer where ever he goes. You’ll be able to check in on his progress throughout the day today, and watch in anticipation as he nears your neighborhood as well.

Of course, many of us have full days of shopping ahead, not to mention gatherings with friends and families to attend, so we won’t always be close to our computers to track Santa ourselves. But never fear, as NORAD has released the NORAD Tracks Santa app, which is available in both the App Store for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, as well as the Android Market for the plethora of devices that run that mobile operating system. Through this app, you’ll not only be able to keep an eye on the Man in Red, you’ll also be able to play the amusing “Elf Toss” game too. If you’re old school, you can still track Santa in Google Earth too.

Be sure to add these apps to your device now. After all, you’ll definitely want to be home, and snugly tucked in your bed, when Santa comes to deliver your gifts tonight.


Review: Motorola Defy on T-Mobile – rugged Android phone

Back in September, we mentioned the Motorola Defy – the world’s first GSM rugged smartphone. And a little over a month later, the phone is already lined up to hit store shelves. As we promised back then, we’d get our hands on a review unit – and today we’ve got the photos and review to help keep that promise.

The Defy is Motorola’s second rugged Android smartphone, after their i1 on Sprint Nextel. The arrival of the Defy on T-Mobile means Motorola has firmly secured a top spot in the world of rugged Android phones.

First the basics – Inside the Defy is an 800MHz processor, Android 2.1, GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, accelerometer, electronic compass, a 5 megapixel camera, FM radio and a MicroSD card slot. In other words – not too much astounding as this is quickly becoming the bare minimum anyone expects from an Android phone. Storage for the phone comes from 2GB of shared storage memory and 512MB of ram. Its 3.7″ 480×854 pixel screen sits behind a Gorilla Glass panel.

What makes the Defy special is that it can survive the elements – scratches, sand, snow, dust and water. This doesn’t necessarily mean the phone can come swimming with you, but as I’ll explain later, a bit of water won’t hurt this phone.

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The phone is surprisingly light – most likely because I’m used to large devices like the G2 or the Nexus One, but holding the Defy is an unexpected pleasure – despite it weighing just four ounces, the whole package feels really sturdy.

On the top is a power switch and headphone jack (with a plastic cover). On the left side is the sync/charge port, also covered by a plastic cap, and on the right side are two volume rockers.

On the rear of the Defy is its battery cover, which is locked in place by a sliding switch. The back is also where you’ll find its 5MP camera and LED flash.

Behind the cover is space for the MicroSD card (it takes cards up to 32GB), the SIM card slot and of course the battery. The entire back portion contains seals and gaskets, and the rear of the battery cover has a small amount of sealant, all designed to keep water out.

A review of a rugged phone would not be complete without putting the phone to the test with some water – I sprayed it continuously, then left it wet for ten minutes. I then sprayed it again, and turned it on. I repeated this test four times, and I’m happy to report that it survived just fine. I eventually dried it off, but there are absolutely no traces of the phone having been soaked.

Of course, there is a difference between soaked, and submerged, but “underwater” is not listed in the elements it’ll survive. It will get through a rain storm just fine, and it won’t have a problem with a day at the beach.

The front panel is made of Corning Gorilla Glass – a specially formulated glass which is much stronger than previous generations of panels. This alone makes for a much more rugged device.

There is not much I can say about the Android Operating System that hasn’t already been said. The Defy runs Android 2.1 – which is a bit of a disappointment, because it means your brand new phone already comes one version below the current one (2.2). I’m hoping this will eventually be updated.

Included on the phone is the Motorola Blur interface on top of Android – which means you get easy access to messaging and social media tools.

One pleasant surprise on the phone is the addition of T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling app. This new Android feature allows you to access the T-Mobile network using Wi-Fi. This is obviously fantastic for people abroad or if you have no signal. Calls are routed over Wi-Fi, and minutes come out of your regular pool.

When you go outside the country, you simply pull up a Wi-Fi connection and you’ll be able to make calls. And while this technology is not new, the Defy is one of the first to offer it on Android. You do not need to sign up for anything extra, and there is no configuration necessary – simply turn it on, and it works.

Other pre-installed apps include the T-Mobile Mobile App Pack, Audio Postcards, Blockbuster video streaming, a DLNA media streaming app, the Amazon Kindle reader, Quick Office, a task manager, Swype keyboard, Telenav GPS navigation and T-Mobile account tools. These are all of course in addition to the Moto Blur apps like Family Room.

Motorola also included a better music player than the default Android version – and this one supports the built in FM radio, streaming radio and music recognition through Soundhound.

(photo from the built in camera – hi-res versions are in the gallery)

Photos from the 5MP camera are are actually quite good – as long as there is enough light. Indoors, the camera can use its flash, but the results are hit or miss – too close and they are too bright, too far away and they are too dark. Video is only in VGA resolution, so no HD shots from this smartphone.

Final Thoughts

Putting aside the fact that I absolutely love Android – the Defy has taken me by surprise. It is light yet rugged, compact yet speedy. Not everyone will love the Moto Blur interface – but that is the nice thing about Android – if you find something you don’t like, you simply replace it with something else.

The phone survived my basic elements tests fine, call quality is good (even when on speakerphone) and the touch panel is very responsive. The screen is also quite usable in sunlight – and looked much better than my G2 or Nexus One.

Battery life is rated to be just under 7 hours of talk time and 9 days of standby – I’ve not had the phone long enough to check that claim, but as with most smartphones, anything that can last more than a day should be considered good.

Included in the box is the phone, battery, battery cover, a 2GB MicroSD card, MicroUSB cable, a charger and a headset.

The Motorola Defy on T-Mobile launches in November for $99.99 after a $50 mail in rebate, when purchased on a two-year agreement with a data plan. To learn more about the phone, or to order one when it becomes available, head on over to T-Mobile.com.

Archos 7 Home Tablet review

Last week, we reviewed the Archos 5 Internet Tablet – a device that surprised us by being quite competent. In today’s review, we’ll take a closer look at the newest Android powered tablet from Archos, to determine whether bigger really is better.

On paper, the Archos 7 Home Tablet seems to be quite decent – a 7″ touch screen, USB host, 8GB of storage, a MicroSD card slot and the Android operating system. Sadly, “on paper” is where the good news ends.

The hardware is a real disappointment – it feels cheap, there is a small hole on the front where someone had obviously planned to install a webcam, and even the good things carried over from the Archos 5 have been screwed up – like the kickstand. On the Archos 5, this kickstand is a sturdy metal leg, but on the 7, it is a flimsy piece of plastic.

Then there is the screen – In order to keep the price down, Archos obviously decided on a fairly cheap screen, but in doing so, they turned the device into a major disappointment. Colors look dim, the touch sensitivity is weak and inaccurate.

Applications

Sadly, the worst part of the unit may be its software – the Archos 7 Home Tablet runs on Android 1.5 – a version that is well over a year old. And this means you miss out on a lot of the features included in current Android version. And – like the Archos 5, the 7 lacks access to the Google app market – opting to offer downloads through the awful Archos applib. This means the majority of good apps for Android are unavailable. Of course, there are ways around this, but the extra effort involved may not be worth it.

The unit comes with a very basic assortment of apps – browser, email (but no Gmail app), an e-book reader, music/video player, file browser, global time app and photo browser/photo frame.

Performance is also a major issue – some basic actions (like opening the video app) take almost 20 seconds – inexcusable on any kind of tablet. Opening a similar app on my Nexus One takes no more than 2 seconds.

Multimedia features

The Archos 7 Home Tablet comes with an Archos developed music and video player – both apps are pretty competent, albeit a tad basic. Audio is great – thanks to speakers on each side of the screen. Sadly, in their infinite wisdom, Archos removed physical volume control buttons, which means you need to tap the on-screen volume controls.

Like the Archos 5, the 7 has a good array of media format support – including MP3, OGG, FLAC,APE, WAV and ACC in the music department and H.264, Realvideo and MPEG-4 (.avi, .mp4, .mkv, .mov and .flv) in the video department.

I also noticed that the video player constantly “forgot” to play movies in expanded width – so each time I opened a video clip, I had to resize it. Not a massive inconvenience, but still something that should be fixed.

Hardware

The Archos 7 Home Tablet feels fairly well made – most of the front and back are covered in polished metal. The 8GB of memory is sufficient for a couple of movies and songs – but you’ll need to invest in a MicroSD card if you want to carry more.

Unlike most other Android devices, the 7 lacks an accelerometer – this may not seem like a huge deal, but some apps insist on starting in portrait mode, and there is no way to rotate them.

Inside the unit is a 600MHz processor, 128MB of ram and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. It lacks the video output options of the Archos 5 (and we could not confirm that is even has any kind of video output available). A “USB host” option is advertised, but you’ll need to invest in a separate cable for this, because it shares the MicroUSB port on the device. With USB host, you’ll be able to add a USB keyboard and/or mouse. Personally, I would have preferred to see Bluetooth instead, but that is sadly lacking on the 7.

For travelers

Unlike the iPad, the Archos 7 Home Tablet is the perfect size for watching a movie on a plane. Its built in (flimsy) kickstand mean you won’t have to invest in a case/stand.

Archos rate the battery at 42 hours of music playback, and 7 hours of video – making it surprisingly decent given its lightweight design.

Final thoughts

This is a tough one – at $199, you get a fairly decent 7″ media player – something you won’t find from any other brand name company. But that $199 also comes with a bunch of compromises. The screen, lack of Android market and lack of video output make it a pretty weak option in my opinion. That said – if you just want the most basic of devices that can play music and video, you can’t really find anything better right now (at least not at this price point).

Android tablets are going to be very popular – there are at least 20 of them on their way later this year, but if you can’t wait for them, this $200 investment won’t be too disappointing – assuming you only buy it for media playback or Internet browsing. A purchase expecting a full Android experience will let you down, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

Top free Android travel apps

Several days ago, the Apple iPad got some attention from us with an overview of its best travel apps – and today we take a look at the best in free travel apps for the Android platform. Launched in September 2008, Android has seen an astounding growth, and has made its way onto phones from almost every major manufacturer and almost every mobile operator.

Recently, Gadling showed why we think Android is the future of smartphones, and the best pick for travelers. So, if you have an Android powered device, check out these free apps that can make traveling easier.

A gallery with barcode download links to all these apps can be found at the bottom of this article – just download the Android Barcode Scanner and point your phone at the special QR code, and it’ll take you to directly to the Market download link.

Kayak

Kayak is a real personal favorite of mine – mainly because it does so much in a single app. Within Kayak for Android, you get access to flights, hotels, car rentals, flight status, airline information, flight price trends and more – all in a free app. Think of Kayak as your Swiss Army travel tool set.

The app even offers integration with Kayak.com, offering instant access to saved trips.

Transport Maps

Transport maps is one of the least good looking apps in this lineup – but it does one thing really well – provide worldwide maps of public transit systems. The app covers 100’s of bus, train, tram and light rail networks, and maps can be downloaded before your trip and saved locally on your device, reducing data costs.

Sadly, it lacks route planning, so you’ll need to know how to read a map and determine where you are when you use the app.

StayHIP

We mentioned this brand new app yesterday – and it really does deserve a spot in this list. StayHIP is the first mobile app designed specifically for hotel reservations at boutique properties. Forget finding the same old chain hotels – let StayHIP find you a chic, intimate or hip hotel and get away from the ordinary.

Google Goggles

Google Goggles has quickly become my absolute favorite app to play with on my phone. Think of Goggles as Google search, using your camera. Point your phone at a product, and Google Goggles will search for it, and provide product links.

Do the same with foreign languages (French, Italian, German and Spanish), and it’ll provide an instant translation – all without having to touch your keyboard. This is obvious fantastic for quick translations of signs or anything else you encounter on the road.

Taxi Magic

Need a cab? Let Taxi Magic pull up your location, along with a list of all available cab companies in your area. Some companies even support instant reservations through the app – others just offer a phone link. The app has helped me over and over again when I find myself in need of a cab because I’m too drunk to stumble back to my hotel.

Yelp

Yelp is the grandaddy of travel friendly apps. Use Yelp to find food, drinks, stores and more – and get feedback on the location from fellow Yelp users.

No longer will you have to suffer through a horrible dinner – simply avoid anything with poor ratings, and stick to the top rated locations. Best of all, Yelp offers instant access to things like the address, prices and opening hours, which lets you stay clear of flash heavy restaurant sites.

XE Currency conversion

XE.com is one of the best currency calculators on the web – and their Android mobile app makes access to live currency rates even easier. Simply refresh the current rates, and calculate whether that fantastic pair of jeans or new iPod really is much cheaper than it is back home.

Google Maps with navigation

Android phones running Android versions 1.6 and newer get access to Google maps with navigation. The application is powerful enough to be a full replacement for your GPS unit – but it will require access to a data connection to receive its maps – it can’t store maps locally.

Still, free is always a good thing, and best of all – Google maps with navigation lets you get directions specifically for driving, walking, public transit or cycling.

Hotels Near Me

StayHIP a little too hip for you? Hotels Near Me offers a more generic search system of hotels in your area. Simply enter your location, or let it detect where you are using GPS – and it’ll provide a list of all hotels in your vicinity.

Sort by star rating, price, distance and more – and read a description of hotel amenities, guest reviews and room prices. Then, complete the entire booking process right inside the app.

Where

Where is the kind of app that can make you feel less like a stranger – no matter where you are. Let Where pick up your location, and it’ll offer the weather, news, local coupons, events, gas prices and more. Inside the app, you even get quick access to the Yellow Pages, for those rare emergencies where you really need a locksmith, doctor or worse…

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Google Nexus One review – and why Android is the future of mobile phones

We don’t take much time here on Gadling to review mobile phones – and rightfully so, as there are plenty of other sites that do a much better job than we can pull off. Still, there is something to be said about a phone review that has a strong focus on travel, and describing why a certain phone (and its mobile operating system) are the best available choice for active travelers.

In this review – we’ll take a closer look at the Google Nexus One, and the Android operating system powering it. First a brief refresher – Android is a product of the Open Handset Alliance, a group of 65 companies that got together to develop a mobile operating system. Android is often (incorrectly) referred to as “the Google phone” – even though Google is just another member of the alliance, it is most certainly not “Google only”. That said – most phones released do come with great Google integration along with several very powerful Google built applications.Here are some of the reasons I personally feel that Android is the best pick for travelers – obviously you are free to disagree with me, because everyone has different requirements from their phone.

Multitasking and notifications

Yes – Android is not the only phone in the world that can multitask – but it does this without any hullabaloo (and certainly none of the fanfare Apple used to announce multitasking on the upcoming iPhone OS). Android has done multitasking since the very first phone, in the very first version.

There is no task manager required (though you can install one), there is no complicated app double-tap to see running tasks, and there is nothing to worry about – apps run in the background, and you can surf the web and listen to Pandora or Slacker without having to think twice.

The same applies to any app – checking flight times in TripIt? You can leave TripIt, read an email and return to TripIt right where you left off – without having to log in again or start from scratch. Seriously – it makes the entire experience so much more efficient.

Best of all – multitasking is so integrated in the OS, that battery life is not impacted too much when you push the device to its limits. On most Android powered devices, battery life is between 18 and 36 hours, depending on usage.

The notification system on Android is (in my opinion) the best of any mobile operating system. There are no silly push notifications that rely on other servers to hope you catch their message on time – all apps can run in the background, and send notifications to the pull-down notifier available from almost any screen. Gate change? It’ll notify you right away, and you don’t have to worry about missing the little popup window.

Applications and the Android Marketplace

Android now boasts more than 50,000 apps – an impressive performance, especially when you look at its initial slow growth. But now Android is taking off at such an insane pace, developers are keeping up.

There is no denying that the iPhone is miles ahead of what Android has to offer – but the majority of the apps that travelers use on the iPhone are also on Android. Apps like Urbanspoon, FlightTrack Pro, TripIt and more have been available for several months now.

Best of all, the Android Marketplace allows for 24 hour trials of all apps along with carrier and credit-card billing. No longer will you fall for an app purchase, only to discover that the app is useless or broken – simply uninstall within 24 hours and you won’t be charged.

The default Android apps on a Google experience phone include Google maps, YouTube, the fantastic Android browser, Google Voice support and a variety of standard programs like calendar, contacts and a calculator.

Additional Google apps add things like Google Earth, Google Sky Map and Google Goggles (all free).

Oh, and Google Maps on Android does free turn by turn navigation – without any monthly fees.

Widgets and your home screen

This is the part I love the most about Android – on most recent Android versions, you get at least four different home screens – and these home screens can be filled with almost anything you want – from application shortcuts to direct dial and text message buttons. The majority of quality apps also offer widgets – instead of having to open FlightTrack, I can simply place its widget on my home screen.

Best of all, I can create different home screens for different events – so I have a “business” screen and a “personal” screen, both offering different apps and shortcuts.

Google integration is as seamless as it gets

With Google life is simple – you either use it (and love it), or you don’t. In my case, my life revolves around Google. I use it for my mail, my searches, my contacts, my calendar, my domain names and even as a way to track where my friends and family are.

Yes – I put a lot of faith in Google, but they have never let me down. Google integration on Android is amazing – you enter your Google account, and you are done. The phone syncs everything from Google to your phone. Changes made in your Google calendar are immediately pushed to your phone (and vice-versa). The same applies to contacts and emails.

If you have multiple Google accounts, you can add them, and manage them in the email client. Added a photo to a contact on your phone? That same photo is instantly synced to your online client where it is viewable in your contacts.

Another great part of the Google integration is voice control – you can use your voice in almost any portion of the phone – from entering an address in Google maps, to searches and even within text entry.

Multimedia is where it should be (finally)

The initial offering of multimedia applications on Android was quite pathetic – it played music, but no videos. It had a headphone jack, but no Bluetooth audio. Those days are long gone, and the current multimedia system on Android is fantastic.

The platform has Slacker, Pandora and (coming soon) Sirius Radio. The video player is excellent, and there are several very easy to use add-on multimedia players. You can search Youtube, and upload video from the phone directly to Youtube, browse photo galleries using the new gallery app, and sync/send photos to any number of photo hosting services.

iTunes users can even sync their Android phone using Doubletwist which also converts and syncs most popular video file formats. And yes – Doubletwist is free.

Android is an open world

Almost every Android powered phone can be “rooted” (a term describing a method of obtaining full and unrestricted access to the device) – and while the process often voids your warranty, the rewards are usually worth it.

There is a massive developer world where smart people make Android even better than it is today. Some developers release new and improved versions of the phone firmware several times a week – unlocking even more features.

But, even if you don’t want to risk unlocking your phone, the entire Android system is more open than most mobile operating systems on the market. Want a different touch-screen keyboard? Go ahead. Need to be able to “tether” your phone to your laptop? No problem. Want a nice rotating 3D wallpaper? Go ahead. Google Voice? Already installed. The list goes on and on. Android may not be a fully open system (without rooting there are still things you can’t do), but those restrictions are mainly in place to prevent you from breaking stuff.

In addition to this, Google (who operate the marketplace) are not constantly trying to police what you can download. They don’t care if you like porn apps, apps that are overly political, or apps that “may replace core apps on the phone”. Developers can write and sell any app they want – though there is obviously some protection against rogue apps.

In the Android world, Adobe Flash is soon going to become a reality – unlike on the iPhone where Apple has pretty much decided that Flash is useless and that it’ll never come to their phone. Anyone that has browsed the web knows how much Flash content there is – and why Flash support is important. Both Adobe Flash 10.1 and Adobe AIR 2.0 will be released as beta versions very soon.

Choice in operators and phones

Android started as one phone on one operator – and has now evolved into something much, much bigger. Android phones are now available on the four largest operators in the country, along with countless international operators. Phones come from companies like Motorola, LG, Samsung, HTC, Sony-Ericsson and even companies like Acer, Dell and Lenovo are getting on board.

Best of all – Android is not just a system that powers phones – Android media tablets are available from Archos and even the Barnes and Noble Nook e-reader is an Android powered device.

The end result is that you can pick based on price, brand, features or operator – and make sure you get the phone you really want, without having to settle.

What is not so good?

Life in Android land isn’t all perfect – because so many companies make Android phones, there is some “fragmentation” in the version of Android installed on the phone. Some phones come with the newest version, others may still be shipped with a year old version. Thankfully, Google has acknowledged the problem, and should be able to push updates to phones regardless of the manufacturer and model, greatly reducing the time it takes for updates to be released.

Also, Android phones lack the immense accessory lineup offered to iPhone owners. Sure, there are some cases, cables and docks – but forget finding an Android suitable alarm clock or solar powered case.

And finally – if you are a hardcore gamer, the assortment of games on Android will probably disappoint you. There are some great titles, but nowhere near the entertainment value of iPhone or portable gaming consoles.

So – why Android for travelers?

Looking at all of the above – it makes sense to pick Android as your mobile operating system. As a traveler, I prefer Android because of the Google integration, widgets, free navigation support and availability of hardware.

Google integration means my phone and Google are always in sync – if I happen to lose my phone, I can remotely track, lock or wipe it (using WaveSecure), pick up a new Android phone and as soon as it is done syncing, everything is back in place. There are no monthly fees for this, as it is all part of the Google world.

Because my wife and I share calendars, she can add things to my schedule, and anything she adds to TripIt is also automatically added to my phone (and this obviously also works the other way around). I don’t need to pay for an Exchange service, and I don’t need a yearly subscription to MobileMe.

Widgets
make my life easier because I can see more without having to open apps for everything. I even have a widget that shows a camera image of my front door (so I can check for packages left by FedEx or UPS). My FlightTrack widget shows my upcoming flights, and Weatherbug shows the weather forecast (based on my current location). I even have a Widget that controls the TiVo in my bedroom (which is handy when I can’t find the remote).

Free Google maps with navigation allow me to leave my dedicated GPS system at home. Google maps with navigation is a full navigation system, with support for driving or walking. Add a nice car mount, and you have yourself a perfectly usable navigation device (though I must point out that you will need a data connection for the maps to be accessed). Other than my monthly data plan, there are no fees for Google navigation.

And finally – availability of hardware. With Android, I don’t need to wait for the next new phone – new devices are coming out almost monthly, and even though the investment is steep (this is an expensive hobby), I can have the latest and greatest phone 4 or 5 times a year, instead of once a year.

The Google Nexus One

At the moment – the Google Nexus One is the best there is for people on T-Mobile or AT&T in the U.S. Of course, “the best” can change in a matter of weeks, when the next new phone is released.

Inside the Nexus One is a 1GHz processor, a 5 megapixel auto-focus camera (with flash) and a really stunning OLED display with 800×480 pixels (which is not very good in direct sunlight). The phone has GPS, a compass, accelerometer, and worldwide 3G support. Best of all – the GPS and compass are put to amazing use inside Google maps street view – simply start the app, and point your phone around – it’ll show street views based on what it is looking at.

The phone looks good, feels good, and has enough power to handle anything I throw at it. Memory expansion comes from a MicroSD card – 16GB cards can be found for just $40, and 32GB cards are on their way. Oh, and I can obviously invest in a spare battery, because unlike some brands, Google doesn’t mind me removing the back panel to replace my own damn battery.

The Nexus One is available with a new (or extended) contract for $179 (only available for T-Mobile), or for $529 unlocked and without a contract for customers on T-Mobile and AT&T in the U.S. and Rogers in Canada. Within the next couple of months, the phone will be available for Sprint and Verizon in the U.S. Vodafone in Europe is getting it on April 30.

Buying the unlocked version means you can swap out the sim card when you travel – all without the need for a paperclip or “sim card removal tool”.

The future of Android is secure

The future of Android handsets looks bright – this summer, Sprint will be releasing the HTC EVO 4G – an Android device with 3G and 4G access, along with an amazing screen, great camera and TV-output. In just two years, Android has evolved from a pretty basic device onto the most powerful mobile phone ever developed.

I’ve been a phone freak for years – and rarely keep the same phone for more than 4 months, but after almost 200 different phones, Android has become my new home – and a home I don’t see myself leaving any time soon. The phone may change, but the operating system feel just right for my needs.

Of course, hardware support isn’t the only driving force – as more and more developers try to make money with their Android apps, the quality of programs in the Android Marketplace will get better every month.