Distributed computing comes to Android with BOINC

Our understanding of the world around us has grown by leaps and bounds since the invention of the computer. The simulation of complex systems in particular involves crunching a ton of numbers, a task computers excel at. Unfortunately, the very best number crunchers happen to be extremely expensive, both to buy and to maintain. Through a system known as distributed computing large, complex tasks can be completed without the hassle of managing a supercomputer.

Image credit: NASA

In distributed computing, a central server offloads small tasks to the computers connected to its network. Each computer completes its task and sends the results back to the server. By utilizing the spare CPU cycles of tens of thousands of volunteer computers, a project like Folding@Home can complete vital research without needing to buy pricey supercomputers. Distributed computing networks exist for a vast array of scientific pursuits, including disease research, the factorization of large integers, and even the search for extraterrestrial life.

Major distributed computing platforms have been available for the desktop computer for more than a decade, and a Folding@Home app can even be installed on the PS3, but until now the mobile market has remained largely untouched. The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) has changed that with the recent release of their Android app.


Upon first opening BOINC’s app you’ll be prompted to select a distributed computing project to contribute to. A brief overview of each project’s goals can be found on BOINC’s website or by selecting a project in the app. After selecting a project you’ll need to create an account to track your computing progress. Once you’ve created an account, BOINC is ready to do its work.

You’re probably thinking that an app of this nature would quickly drain your phone’s battery, and you’d be right if the BOINC app ran continuously. Thankfully, it isn’t configured to run continuously. By default, it only runs when your phone is connected to power, and even then only when the battery is charged to at least 90%. These settings (and others) can be fine tuned in the preferences menu. I highly recommend changing the max used storage space option to something much lower, as the default setting is absurdly high.

The computing power of a current generation smartphone might not compare to that of even a meager desktop computer, but combined with thousands of other phones that power becomes much more substantial. Every little bit helps.

BOINC is available for Android and can be found on the Play Store. Clients for Windows, Mac, and Linux can be found on the BOINC website.

How to identify planes and planets with your mobile phone

Last Saturday found our family sitting outside on a warm evening, relaxing after a barbecue. The sky was so clear that we were able to clearly make out two contrails and the shape of an aircraft. This was way above our heads and clearly not a plane using the local airport.

While my relatives discussed its likely route and estimated its height, I quietly took out my iPhone. I felt sure I had heard of an app that could tell you about planes overhead. Leaving them to their discussion, I asked Google.

Plane Finder AR for iOS

Within a couple of minutes, I had used the 3G network to download Plane Finder AR.

I tapped on the app, pointed my iPhone’s camera at the plane and within seconds I knew that the plane was en route from London Heathrow to Morocco. I also knew its flight number and its height (which turned out to be within 1000 feet of my grandfather’s estimate).

Plane Finder on iPhone
Plane Finder on iPhone

Sometimes technology can leave you speechless and this was one of those times. I spent quite a while looking out for planes after that. Every time, just pointing the app at the aircraft told me its origin, destination and various other information.

Thinking about it, the combination of publicly available flight information, a compass and a reliable GPS is probably all that it took to make this app, but that’s really not the point. There was nobody at that barbecue that wasn’t truly amazed by what it could do.

SkySafari for iOS and Android

Looking at planes isn’t the only reason I have found to point my iPhone at the sky.

We are lucky enough to live in an area with very little light pollution. On a clear night, we have a superb view of the stars. As a result, SkySafari was one of the first apps I downloaded for the iPhone (it is also available for Android).

Sky Safari uses GPS to overlay a map of the solar system when your mobile phone is pointed at the sky, making it easy to identify individual stars and planets. It’s then possible to drill down to specific information about each of them.

SkySafari gets a little technical. I know nothing about astronomy, so some of the information at my fingertips is a mystery to me. However, it is great when someone points and says “I think that’s Venus,” and I can whip out the iPhone and confirm it!

Another great feature of SkySafari is its “SkyWeek” functionality that informs you about significant events in the sky such as eclipses and other phenomena. For those keen to learn about astronomy, this information is a great starting point.

Although neither of these sky-based apps are things I use daily, they are fascinating demonstrations of the things that smartphones can do. Two of our Saturday night party members have now ordered iPhones – not because they are great phones, not because they are good for browsing the Web and not because they are fantastic media players.

They’ve ordered them because they can point them at planes and see where they’re going.

One Small Step for Android, One Giant Leap for Synthetic Robotic Organisms

You might remember that we gave away some pretty sweet limited edition Android collectibles a few months ago.  As it turns out, these Androids had a few buddies that recently took a trip to the upper stratosphere (about 100,000 feet above the Earth’s surface) to take part in a research experiment by Google.

Image Courtesy Google

A team at Google built seven payloads equipped with Nexus S Android smartphones (with accompanying Android toys commanding each payload) and sent them into the Earth’s atmosphere with weather balloons.  The goal was to capture data with the Nexus S’s internal sensors, including GPS, accelerometer, magnetometer, and gyroscope – not to mention that they got some amazing shots of our big blue planet.

Image Courtesy Google

While I was in college, several of my engineering classmates sent a similar type of balloon into our atmosphere to measure ozone gas profiles in the stratosphere, so Google’s project immediately piqued my interest.  The Nexus S phones sent up used applications like Google Maps (with the new offline data mode available in version 5.0), Google Sky Map, Google Latitude, and some custom apps that sampled data from the phone’s sensors.

Data captured from the Nexus S, rendered in Google Earth.

With the data they collected, the Google team determined speeds and altitudes of the jet stream, and also found that the Nexus S’s internal GPS functioned up to a max altitude of around 60,000 feet (a secondary high-altitude GPS was included in the payload for more robust data collection).  If you’re feeling science-y, check out the rest of their findings in the What We Found section of their blog post.

Lastly, check out the beautiful video they shot from one of the payloads below.  Is this breathtaking footage or what?

You can also check out a brief summary of the project in the following video.

I love when big companies use their tremendous resources to do interesting science experiments like atmosphere and space exploration. Research projects like this are conducted at universities around the world all the time, but when Google does a project like this, we all get to follow along with it.

On a side note: If anybody at Google needs help sending Android phones into space, please call/text/tweet/email/fax/telegraph me and I’ll be there in a heartbeat.

Perseids Meteor Shower Peaks Soon, Find the Best Time to Watch Where You Live

Depending on where you live, the Perseids meteor shower will be reaching its peak sometime during the night of August 12th and the morning of August 13th.  Since many factors can impact the visibility of astronomical events like meteor showers, NASA provides a great Java applet called the Fluxtimator that can show you the best time to go stargazing.

To use the Fluxtimator, select the meteor shower you would like to observe (tonight’s being “#7 Perseids”), select your location, and then select your viewing conditions.  Specifying your viewing conditions will help fine tune the ideal time to view the event.

Once you’ve entered the information, you’ll see a chart displaying the optimal times to view the shower.  In my part of the world, best viewing conditions for the Perseids will occur between 1am and 5am on August 13th.

The Fluxtimator takes into account moonlight (which is supposed to be minimal this year, providing a better view of the shower), but you should stay away from city lights and street lamps for the best possible view.

The Perseids should be visible around the Cassiopeia constellation, and you can check out Sky and Telescope’s great illustration of where to look.  Android users can use the free app Google Sky Map to easily locate the correct area to watch.

Happy stargazing!

Image credit: Tambako

Staff Picks: Top Gadgets and Tech of 2009

2009 brought some amazing advances in technology and gadgets, so the staff at Techerator has put together a list of their favorite tech of 2009.  Let us know about your favorite tech of 2009 in the comments at the bottom!

Evan Wondrasek

  1. Android-based Phones – I bought a Motorola Droid on launch day and have never been so happy with a gadget.  This phone has all the hardware necessary to utilize Android’s wonderful multitasking, and I’ve seen leaps and bounds with application development over the past few months.
  2. Netbooks – I’m away from my apartment more than ever this year, but I haven’t had to make any compromises because of my Asus 1005HA. (which I reviewed).  Modern netbooks offer plenty of processing power and batteries that can keep you going all day.  It can be a little difficult working on a tiny screen, but you can’t beat these devices for their stuff-in-your-backpack portability.
  3. Xbox 360 – I’m not a big gamer like some of my fellow contributors, but I’ve really enjoyed some of the great titles that have been released in 2009.  More than anything though, I use my Xbox as a media center to stream Netflix Instant Watch and video files from my PC.
  4. iPod Touch – Until I bought my Droid, this was my go-to device for mobile browsing and entertainment.  Despite the fact that I was limited to wifi access, I typically would reach for my Touch before my laptop.
  5. Growing 3G Mobile Networks – Everybody is arguing about “who has the best 3G network” – but have we forgotten how amazing this technology is in the first place?  The internet on my mobile phone is considerably faster than many DSL connections, so if you’re using a mobile phone on 3G right now, take a second to appreciate how awesome this technology is.

Dustin Patterson

  1. Netbooks – Netbooks are my favorite technology of 2009. I purchased my netbook this year and am really glad I did (I’m actually writing this article from it right now.) Ever since I purchased it, my netbook has gone with me almost everywhere I go. [Check out our 5 reasons why a netbook might be right for you]
  2. Atom Processors – Tied in with my number 1, this little guy has help to push the netbook market to where it is today. With their ultra-low voltage requirements and small form-factor, these small yet powerful processors are the core of today’s mobile computing technology and show that big things really do come in small packages.
  3. USB 3.0 Devices – Although none have been released yet, 2009 showed some major development of consumer USB 3.0 devices. I’m looking forward to 2010 when we will be able to transfer at 0.4 GByte/s (almost a full CD in a second).
  4. Solid State Drives – I took an interest in solid state drives this year when I purchased my netbook (which does contain an SSD). Although not quite mainstream, solid state drives are definitely the future of consumer storage with their faster speeds and higher reliability rates. I look forward to when I am able to purchase a larger SSD in the coming year.
  5. Android Smart Phones – This year was the year for the Android-based phone. With the highly anticipated release of the Motorola Droid on the Verizon network, many people are now able to get their hands on a powerful and customizable phone powered by Android. Although I do not have one for myself, I look forward to purchasing an Android-based phone in the coming year.

Reis Pritchard

  1. iPod Touch – I already have a mobile phone, and the Zune HD just doesn’t have the plethora of apps to choose from that the iTunes store has, making this my media player of choice this year.
  2. Samsung Alias 2 – This was the first phone with a QWERTY keyboard I’ve ever owned, and typing on it is very easy having biggish, physical buttons (I am not touch-typing friendly).  Also, the changing e-ink technology is great for quickly switching from letters to numbers to symbols.
  3. Bose QuietComfort 3 Headphones – Bose means quality, and if you have the extra money to spend on these, your ears will thank you.
  4. LG Blu-Ray Burner (Black) – Home video, now in HD!
  5. Razer DeathAdder Mouse – This was the first mouse I ever spent more than 10 bucks on, and it has made me a noticeably better gamer.

Kevin Schulte

  1. Playstation 3 – I finally picked up a PS3 this summer, and it quickly turned into my favorite console of the current generation.  Great exclusive games, a Blu-Ray player, and free online play make the PS3 hard to beat.  Plus you can install Linux on it.
  2. Motorola Droid – I don’t personally have one (yet), but it’s impossible to not acknowledge that there’s finally a killer phone for the Android platform.
  3. Creative Zen X-Fi – Of the iPod alternatives I looked at, the Zen X-Fi was the most attractive choice. It does everything I want at a very reasonable price. As a bonus, it comes with earphones that sell for around $50 if purchased separately.
  4. Hard Drives – Hard drives were in the spotlight for computer hardware this year. Solid state drives have continued to drop in price and rise in speed, and high capacity traditional drives dropped to dirt cheap levels.
  5. Logitech G500 Gaming Mouse – My old G5 bit the dust this year, and I picked up a G500 to replace it. It takes everything good about the G5 and perfects it, and takes every complaint I had about the G5 and fixes it.

Derek Dahlen

  1. XBMC Media Center – The open-source XBMC Media Center (formerly Xbox Media Center) software is my HTPC solution of choice. With a large development community creating new features and eliminating bugs, XBMC continues to be my go-to solution for media playback on my TV.
  2. Google Android Phones – I’ve been playing around with Android for quite a while now, and am thoroughly impressed with how the mobile OS is shaping up. With the lag time in updates from phone makers and providers, rooting your Android phone and performing updates to the latest and greatest versions is a must.
  3. Windows 7 – Windows 7 released in fall of ’09 with an incredible adoption rate. With Microsoft’s free beta program, they created quite a bit of hype from geeks across the globe. If you’re still on Windows, you should definitely be giving 7 a look.  [Check out all of our guides about Windows 7]
  4. Nvidia Ion Netbooks – Nvidia’s ION platform has given netbooks the ability to perform semi-intensive video activities that netbooks have desperately needed. (Watching YouTube in HD, 720p video playback) I think these netbooks are going to blow up in 2010.
  5. Intel Core i5 750 – With low prices and excellent overclocking ability, Intel’s Core i5 has finally given enthusiasts an affordable path to a 4 Ghz quad-core solution.

David Carman

  1. Large Hadron Collider – It’s awesome.  Still not convinced?Image courtesy Ethan Hein
  2. Smartphones – I don’t have one but they are a huge leap forward in terms of personal and portable computing.  Navigating NYC is so much easier with my brother’s iPhone than it would be without it, we are using it constantly.

Patrick Vinge

  1. Drobo – The best on-site back up solution of all time.  With the ability to add hard drives together to create a backup, you can’t have a safer set up.  Expandable up to 16 terabytes, Drobo can be a solution for commercial applications as well.
  2. Unibody Macbook Pro – The most solid laptop made today, with amazing performance from the hardware.  The only drawback?  Price.
  3. Solio Hybrid 1000 Solar Charger – This is a light weight USB solar charger for backpacking and camping.  It takes about 4 hours to fully charge an iPod, but when your hiking all day long and it can clip to your pack it is a great tool to keep your music playing.
  4. T-Mobile G1 – The original Android phone has continued to receive updates while many others have stolen the limelight. This phone works great and supports almost all new Android applications.
  5. Linksys WRT54GL – This is one of the older Linksys routers, but still can be the core of any good (and cheap) home network.  Easily has the greatest pool of third party firmware released, giving it the ability to compete with any major corporate level routers.

Michael Green

  1. Android Smart Phones –  I use my Motorola Droid A LOT. It is so nice to have a smartphone because I am always connected, and I frequently find myself using my phone to do random Google searches that I would otherwise have to go find a computer to perform. I also find that since I have gotten my phone I am using my desktop computer much less than I used to. As lazy as it sounds the most annoying part of using my computer is waiting for it to start up and with my smart phone I don’t have to wait for anything. I get up in the morning and check my email from my bed in a matter of seconds all I have to do is unlock my phone and open up the Gmail app.