September 22, 2014

App Review: Almost Hands Free

Lets face it, everyone likes music.  As Android users, however, we have a love/hate relationship with our devices regarding music.  We love that we are not trapped by iTunes, but we hate the features that “other” platforms offer (insert fruit name here).  If you’re looking for voice activated search of your music collection on Android, give  Almost Hands Free a try.

The application is still being actively developed with at least 2 updates being pushed out while I was writing.  Aside from music searching, Almost Hands Free is able to search contacts, saved podcasts and Google Maps.  Future updates promise LAST.fm and internet radio station support as well.

The developer suggests the app is perfect for the car and the first thing that pops out at you is the big, readable text and simple UI.  While I didn’t test the application in the car, I did test the speech recognition with both no ambient noise as well as large amounts of ambient noise including my dishwasher, other music, and while outside with people talking.  Each time I spoke clearly and no more than about 2 feet away from the microphone.  The speech recognition engine rarely floundered and deciphered almost everything I said accurately.  This started to degrade rapidly as I moved beyond 2 feet, but unless you’re expecting voice recognition from the 3rd row seat of a Suburban, I doubt this will be a problem.

The artist, song, and album search almost always returned the result I was looking for which is great seeing I have a large amount of songs on my sd card.  If you search by song, when the search result is returned, the music starts playing via the built in music player.  Searching by artist or album will return a list before you’re presented with the voice option.  Unfortunately, searching by song, artist, and album was what I had the most trouble with regarding force closes.  This is the main feature of the application and when it worked, it worked well.  I am using a modded ROM however so those users with stock builds may get better mileage.

The contact search feature worked flawlessly for me.  Simply tap the search key, speak the name, and tap the result.  While this feature is already available for most users by long pressing the talk key, I find it helpful to be rolled into an app with other voice recognition functions.  Additionally, the map search worked well, however despite paying for the app, I was met with location-based ads at the top of the Google Maps application once the search was completed by Almost Hands Free.  Aside from that, I like being taken directly to Google Maps so I can scroll through my search results, enable navigation, get driving directions or any of the tons  of other features in Google Maps.  I was hoping that saying one of my contact’s names would start a search for the address I had saved for them, but that didn’t happen.  Perhaps this feature will be incorporated into a future release.

Once of my favorite features is that the application over rules  your screen’s timeout settings meaning the screen will always be lit and waiting for your next query.  While some may find this a negative, I look at it as a positive feature mostly because unlocking your phone in a cardock and while driving is a pain, especially if you have the “slide to unlock” feature of recent Android OS updates.

I do feel, however, one of the app’s greatest strengths, may also be a weakness.   While the app has a simplified UI, it maybe too simple.  There is nothing in the menu option other than a text size selector and the long press is an underutilized action.  A long press could bring up recent searches for each choice or a favorites menu for favorite artists, songs, locations etc.  The menu option could bring up a help screen a change log, and about screen or other features commonly seen in applications.  To say the UI is polished would be accurate, however polishing a simple text menu with no deeper levels should be expected at this point in Android development.  I would really like to see the long press utilized somehow to shorten the sequences for search queries that are recent or frequent.

A couple things that I noticed while playing with this app is that after the player advanced to the next song, the song name didn’t change.  Also, there was an error with the appearance of the familiar “complete action using” screen built into Android itself which appeared after my call was completed.  I’m not sure if this bug lies with Almost Hands Free, Phonetell, or the Android OS itself.

In short, the app is still in its infancy and once some of the bugs are hashed out, it will definitely be a keeper.  Also, the developer seems eager and responsive and the market comments seem mostly positive and excited about the future of this app.  Scan the barcode to be taken to the Android Market for download.

Tested Almost Hands Free 2.4981 on a T-Mobile G1 with Cyanogenmod 5.0.8 stable (Android 2.1)

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