Tech: Car apps, Twitter redesign

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Apps help drivers unlock their cars' secrets

What secrets are your car keeping from you? There is a host of apps waiting out there to help you find out.

Although most cars are very forthcoming with basic information like speed, engine revolutions per minute and coolant temperature, there is actually a lot more data they could share if allowed to do so.

The trivia is wide-ranging. How much power and torque are produced with every tap of the gas pedal? What forces are at work upon the driver during braking? What about during a curve?

Of course, such information is hardly necessary to operate a car. But anyone who wants to know it does not need to outfit his car with special instruments originally intended for a racing car. All you need is an OBD-2 connection, a smartphone and the proper app.

OBD stands for “on-board diagnosis." The vehicle diagnostic system is common in many cars.

Mechanics can hook up their diagnostic tools to the OBD-2 socket – usually located beneath the dashboard’s left side – to check up on warning signals that the car’s computer has registered and stored.

Allowing mechanics such access has made it much easier to figure out technical defects. But you don’t have to be a mechanic to take advantage of the connection, for example if you want to get real-time vehicle and driving data from the car and onto your smartphone.

"This is a fun pastime for people who are very keen on their car," says Harald Schmidtke of the German Association of Automobile Tuners (VDAT).

That means people who are truly interested in getting technical details while they drive, or who might want to get some of the excitement of a racecar into their family sedan.

Others might want to actually take their car onto a racetrack and then check the computer for detailed data afterwards.

Possible adapters such motoring enthusiasts might want to consider include Drivedeck Sport Pro. Lescars also has one. Both performed well in a recent test by German computer magazine Computerbild.

Drivedeck Sport Pro, at 299 euros (410 United States dollars) sends data about performance, revolutions, cross acceleration and air mass live to an Android smartphone or iPhone with the help of Bluetooth.

The data can be displayed in a format that resembles a rounded dashboard gauge and can be stored on a computer for later evaluation.

According to Computerbild, the app is set up for 500 different car models. Owners of non-supported cars need only ask for the manufacturer to provide the proper format. However, it does not work with diesel-powered cars.

Lescars' adapter (50 euros) uses wi-fi to share data and works with a variety of apps.

The magazine tested it with Dashcommand (about 10 euros), which works with both petrol- and diesel-powered cars. The review was favourable, noting the amount of data transmitted and the variety of functions and ways to view the data, even if the controls could be fussy.

However, enthusiasts have to prepare themselves for the fact that the data the adapters generate will not be as precise as what one might get at a mechanic’s.

"A lot of figures, like revolutions per minute, are only inferred by the car's electronics and not actually measured," explains Manfred Barth, an editor at Computerbild. But that is why adapters with apps aren’t as costly as buying special measuring instruments.

Opel has plans for a similar system for its Corsa OPS and Astra OPC sports-cars, as well as for a few further models. It is compatible with iPhones, iPads and the iPod Touch. The system costs 290 euros, while the app costs 89 cents.

Vincenzo Luca, who works with German quality assessment agency TUV Sued says car owners do not need to be worried about the adapters damaging their cars' electronics systems. The real concern should be making sure that the driver isn’t distracted by the flow of data or the placement of the smartphone.

Twitter announces redesign 

The social networking service Twitter is revamping its design, the San Francisco-based company announced Tuesday.

"The new web profile lets you use a larger profile photo, customise your header, show off your best Tweets," Twitter said on its blog.

Tweets will be better organised overall, the company said. Users will be able to see which of their tweets have engendered the most activity, because they will appear larger. Users will also be able to pin their best tweets to the top of the page.

There will also be a variety of options for users when checking out other timelines.

Twitter said that starting Tuesday the new features will be available to some users, while all users should be able to use them in the coming weeks.

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