Monday, January 14, 2013

Everything Lots Of Things You Wanted To Know About Android Smartphone Apps

Over Christmas break one of my relatives who had just purchased the new Samsung Galaxy S III beast phone asked me point-blank: "What apps should I get for this thing?"  He indicated that he used it primarily as an actual phone (what?!) and was thus -- perhaps not surprisingly -- unimpressed with this latest/greatest Android device.  Upon further reflection, I think that's actually a great question that fortunately has a simple answer: "What do you use your phone for?"

That's really what it's all about.  If you just want a phone to make phone calls, don't bother with a smartphone and data plan.  It's overkill and a waste of your money.  If you want phone calls plus basic email and Internet browsing, it's still pretty simple, and the default apps that come on most smartphones will suffice.  But, if you want to really get your money's worth out of your smartphone, there's a whole world of apps just waiting for you to go get them.  I'm a tinkerer and I play a lot with apps, settings and features just for fun, so hopefully some of my experience can be helpful to you, especially if you're one of those who is wondering what apps you should get for this fancy (expensive) gadget you own.

Remember the commercial that established the phrase "there's an app for that?"  Honestly, no matter what you're trying to accomplish with your phone, there probably is an app to do it.  Last I knew, the Apple App Store had something like 700,000 apps in it and Google Play (the Android app store) had around 650,000.  That's not even counting the Amazon App Store, the Windows Phone app store, or any of the other smaller independent ones like Getjar.  But none of those are any good to you unless you know what you want to do, so that's the first question you need to answer.  Everything else falls into place pretty quickly after that.  Don't know what your phone is even capable of?  Well, it can do pretty much everything that a normal computer can do...just on a smaller screen, and with much better mobility.  Not everything, of course, but most of it.  So, think big, and poke around and figure out what you want.  As a starting point, here are some of the apps I've got on my phone and/or Kindle Fire (or have used in the past), a quick description about them, and a link to their location in the Google Play store (this post assumes a basic level of knowledge on how to get apps from the app store and install them).

You'll notice some potentially confusing terminology about an "app" and a "widget."  The functional difference between them is pretty huge even if they may not look much different.  Think of an app as a static application like Microsoft Word.  When you need it, you explicitly start it, do what you need to do, and close it.  In contrast, a widget is like a window into real-time information that keeps updating all the time.  It installs like an app, looks like an app, and largely functions like an app, but it's designed more to be a live information pass-through than a standalone app.  It doesn't shut down.  The only real potential downside is performance - the more widgets you use, the more potential you have for bogging down your phone (after all, these are all real-time updates that don't shut down!).  Just keep adding them until you notice things slowing down, and you'll know how much your particular phone can handle.

Oh, one more thing - Android uses some really nice cost models.  Most Android apps use either an ad-supported model where you get the app for free (but have to look at ads for other products/services while you use them) or the "freemium" model, which basically means that you can use a limited version for free but have to pay to get the full features and functionality.  Both work well because the free versions provide most of the functionality that most users need, and the hardcore users who need the full version are happy to pay for it.  It doesn't hurt that most Android apps are only $3-4 (many are less), far less expensive than most Apple apps.  I've purchased the full versions of a couple apps for just a buck or two simply to show appreciation to the developers for their free versions, and that's not uncommon in the open source world.  In some cases, developers will offer extra goodies (backgrounds or themes, etc.) that aren't essential to the app's functionality in return for payment.  Either way, everyone wins.

Now, on to the apps...and remember, this is merely a starting point!

Launchers are essentially the heart and soul of your smartphone.  When you turn on the screen, the launcher is what creates the actual arrangement of your screens and provides the basic functionality of how your phone interacts with you.  Some are designed to be fast and simple, some emphasize customization, some have tons of bells and whistles.  It's a total preference thing, so the best idea is to try several and then pick the one that works best for you.

  • Go Launcher EX - one of (if not the) biggest and best launchers on the market today; the cool thing about Go is that they have created an entire ecosystem around it - you can download add-ons for widgets, weather, contacts, themes, and other things that all integrate seamlessly (think Microsoft Office rather than Microsoft Word); the launcher itself provides incredible customization for making your phone your phone.
  • Nova - Very close to the functionality and customization of Go, but with better performance.
  • Apex, ADW.Launcher, and LauncherPro are generally well regarded, too, and there are plenty of others out there that I haven't tried.

Internet Browser
Let's be honest - one of the big reasons to have a smartphone is to have access to data and the Internet on the go.  The choice of browser is pretty big.  First off, if you're talking about Android, the stock (i.e. built in) one really isn't bad.  Give it a try first and see what you think, then check these out:

  • Chrome - This is the little brother of the desktop browser, and just as slick; the best part about this is that the built-in sync functionality allows you to access your bookmarks, passwords, and even open tabs from any of your devices.  For example, if I'm reading an article on my home PC, I can go to work, open Chrome on my phone and pick up that same article later in the day.  The only downside is that it's only available for Android 4.0+ devices, so if you have an older phone and don't see it in Google Play, that's why.
  • Firefox - This is another great browser (also the little brother version of the desktop browser), capable of tons of customization via plug-ins, and the same kind of sync'ing as Chrome.
  • Dolphin - This mobile-only browser is fast and good, with lots of customization.  If you don't care about sync'ing with other (desktop) devices, this one might be the best out there.

There are a lot of these.  No, really, I mean a lot.  Try lots, pick your favorite, and go with it.

  • 1Weather - This one has a very clean, very simple interface.  It has my favorite weather widget (see red circle in picture below) because it packs a whole lot of info in a small but useful space.  A lot more details are available if you actually open up the app itself, including long-range forecasts, alerts, radar, and so on.
  • Notification Weather - This is a really slick one I just found that actually sits like a widget in your notification area.  Another very clean and simple interface, I'm looking to play with it some more.  (I'm not 100% certain, but I think it's only available on Jelly Bean devices which are so far few and between...)
  • Weather Channel - There are lots of channel- or brand-specific weather apps out there (i.e. Go Weather, Accuweather, Google Weather, etc.), but for an intuitive interface and useful features, I like this one best.

Weather/Clock/Homescreen Widgets
There are several great apps that allow you to create widgets for your homescreen that include some combination of clocks, weather updates, the date/time, and other info in a way that many people use as a full homescreen.  I'm certain there are more than the ones I've listed below, but I've had good luck with all of these.  The green circle above shows one example of HD Widgets (the one I happen to have installed right now), but there are an almost unlimited number of iterations and styles available.  Don't get intimidated by these, it's almost as easy as point-and-tap to create them.

  • Beautiful Widgets - Probably the first big one to fulfill this niche, it has tons of customization and themes available.
  • Fancy Widgets - Essentially the same stuff as Beautiful Widgets, just not the first one.
  • HD Widgets - Ditto.

Purely for fun/entertainment

  • Angry Birds (original, Seasons, Rio, Space, Star Wars) - need I say more? If you don't know these, just give them a try for some strangely addicting fun.
  • Bad Piggies - By the same company that created Angry Birds, this is a spin-off game using the same physics engine, but the idea here is to create vehicles that the pigs (the bad guys in Angry Birds) use to navigate through obstacle courses.  This is still pretty cool, but eventually these get pretty tricky, and this isn't quite up to the level of AB.
  • Quell and Quell Reflect - A sedate strategy game with soothing music and impeccable graphics.
  • Robo Defense - Very shallow, very simple, very fun.
  • TuneIn Radio - Streaming radio on your device.
  • Words With Friends - Basically online Scrabble.
  • Netflix or QueueManager - Links to your Netflix account; the official app lets you watch stuff, but is surprisingly lacking when it comes to actually managing your queue...QueueManager, on the other hand, does a good job of that.


  • Amazon Kindle for Android - Read your Amazon ebooks on pretty much any device (Android, iPhone/iPad, desktop).  The best part about this is that all of your books are sync'd to the same page so you never have to bother with keeping track of where you are; you can also add bookmarks or notes, and you can share excerpts with others directly from the app.  Amazon did a bang-up job with this ecosystem.
  • Aldiko - The best non-Amazon reader app I've seen; good features, easy to use.
  • Bible - The biggest and best, though I've seen others (like MySword Bible) with far more tools and advanced features; this one has a verse of the day, devotions, and daily reading plans built in.


  • CircleLauncher - This great little tool lets you create widgets to give you two-tap access to groups of specific contacts or apps.  Below is a sample of both contacts and apps.  One tap on the circle launcher brings up your list, then you just tap again to run the app (or place the call, or whatever).  For contacts, if you have pictures set up then they'll show here; for an app list you see the app's native icon.  There's a vertical or horizontal configuration available, but I prefer the circles.
  • Dropbox, Box, SugarSync - Everything is tied to the cloud nowadays, so having a firm understanding of how to access online services is essential. Think of these apps as online repositories where you can store documents, music, pictures...pretty much any computer file, really.  It's all accessible as long as you have a connection (either cell service or wifi), and you can set up auto-syncing on your home computer so that files are transferred instantly between the two.  For example, let's look at vacation pictures from a few years ago (not as far back as film rolls...just digital camera pics).  What happened if you lost your camera on the trip home?  Your pics were gone, period.  Not so anymore.  Let's say you take a priceless vacation picture with your phone, which subsequently gets dropped into the lake.  The phone is gone, but your pictures were automatically uploaded to one of these services, which then sync'd them to your computer at home.  Sure, you have to replace your phone, but you'll have those priceless pics sitting on your desktop when you get home.  But what if your house burns down on the same day?  You can still rest easy knowing that the digital picture is sitting safe and sound in the cloud, and all you need to do is log into your account from any other computer to get to them.  Pretty slick, huh?  It's also extremely easy to share pictures and files with others using these services.  These are an absolute must-have for anyone using their phone as a multi-purpose device rather than just a phone.
  • Quickpic - An outstanding picture manager, much better than the standard gallery app.
  • Elixir - This is like a digital toolbox with a ton of informational and management functionality; also lots of great widgets for things like toggling wifi on/off, one-touch dialing shortcuts, etc.
  • Jot - If you need to jot down a quick thought or two for later, this is perfect.
  • AK Notepad - A great notepad app for writing/saving information; links to to sync all of your notes to an online service so you can access them from your desktop computer.
  • Llama - Named for 'location aware mobile app', and it's just that - it monitors where you are and activates rules you create depending on your location.  For example, I have mine set to automatically put my phone on vibrate when I get to work, and when I leave it turns full volume back on.  The key difference here is that it uses cell towers to determine your location rather than the GPS, which is slightly less accurate but far less demanding on battery life.
  • FoxFi - Allows your phone to become a wifi hotspot (as long as you get cell service) that your wifi-only devices (i.e. iPad, Kindle, etc.) can use to connect on the go.
  • Alarm Clock Xtrme - I'm not sure what's so extreme about it, but I do know it's easy to use and gives you a variety of options for how you want to wake up, how you shut off the snooze, and so on.


  • Lookout - The best mobile anti-virus and security app on the market, it includes remote location (and locking/wiping for the premium version), backup capability, and other features.
  • Prey - Another great remote location app if your phone ever gets lost/stolen.
  • SeekDroid - Yet another one (really, if your phone gets stolen, can you ever have too many of these hiding around your phone?).
  • WheresMyDroid - (no, no you cannot!)


  • QuickOffice - Lets you open and read Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint documents on your phone (if you want to edit those documents, you'll need to purchase the full version).
  • Documents To Go - Ditto, and to be honest I'm not sure I could tell you the difference between this and QuickOffice, let alone which one has better features; both are good.
  • SwiftKey - This is a replacement keyboard that suggests words as you type that it thinks you'll use next, reducing the number of keystrokes by at least 40% (if you allow it to 'learn' your email/Facebook/text messaging apps I think it's actually closer to 60%).

There are tons of these, too, but here are the ones I think are best:

  • Friendcaster - Facebook, but better than the native Facebook app.
  • Plume - Probably the best Twitter client on the market, with tons of features and a simple interface.
  • Tweetcaster - Another great Twitter client.
  • GoSMS Pro - A great text messaging app that integrates seamlessly with Go Launcher.
  • Handcent - One of the most popular text messaging apps available.

This is a gigantic segment all by itself.  If you have a favorite news/info channel (i.e. WSJ, Fox, CNN, BBC, Drudge, local stations, etc.), you can assume they have their own app and probably be correct.  News aggregators such as Pulse, Google Currents, or Flipboard pull in articles and stories from multiple sources and make it easy and fast to scan loads of headlines.  If you've made it this far through the blog post, you have the idea...just try a bunch of them and keep what you like!

Others worth mentioning
There are tons of others worth mentioning.  Music apps such as Winamp, DoubleTwist, Google Music, or countless others provide a wealth of audio enjoyment.  Administrative tools abound for keeping up with the health of your phone, and allow you to optimize the software for better performance.  There are measurement tools, conversion tools, calculators, location-based apps that do anything and everything (maps, navigation, keep track of where you parked your car, revealing constellations in the night sky, etc.), apps to check prices, apps for stores, apps for coupons, and more photo and social media apps than you can shake a stick at.  I mean it when I say there's an app for pretty much everything.

Root-required Apps
Ah, rooting.  If you're not interested in being a power user of your Android smartphone, you can skip this section.  Of course, this is where you can tap that next level of usefulness, so skipping it means leaving a lot of functionality on the table.

What is rooting?  The short version of rooting is to *ahem* acquire root-level access to your phone.  There is a bit of an ethical debate here, and while I'll dance right up to it I'm not going to dig in; instead, I'll stick to explaining the high level situation and how things work in general terms in the name of being purely informational.  There are several layers of access to a smartphone, and a gross oversimplification would be something like this:
  1. hardware layer --- what the phone is physically capable of doing
  2. OS software layer --- the native Android operating system
  3. manufacturer software layer --- what the manufacturer (i.e. Samsung, Motorola, etc.) allows the carrier to access
  4. carrier software layer --- what the wireless carrier (i.e. Verizon, AT&T, etc.) allows the consumer to access
  5. consumer software layer --- what you can access when you take your new phone out of the box
So, the consumer software is the most restricted, the carrier software is slightly less restricted than that, and so on.  The profit margins on these sophisticated devices are actually not that big, so they have to make money through paid services, and that's where this progressive lock-down comes in.  Take wifi hotspot capability on Verizon, for example.  Though the phone you buy from Verizon is perfectly capable of acting as a wifi hotspot for other nearby devices, they will use their software to shut down that capability...until you pay them the $20/mo. it takes to re-enable it.  That's the way it works, at least until the hackers enter the picture.

Android is essentially a scaled-down version of Linux, and is available to anyone as an open-sourced product to study, revise, and adapt.  It doesn't take long for hackers to slice through a new version and modify portions of the code to do all kinds of amazing things.  There's nothing wrong, illegal, or unethical about that - that's the whole point of open source code.  But, manufacturers and carriers then add their own proprietary layers of software on top of that to close off those functionalities that they want to be paid for.  [Side note - here's where the ethical debate comes in.  Manufacturers and carriers say they deserve to be paid for this advanced functionality on the products they're selling, and hackers say people paid for the phone so they deserve to get full use out of it.  I can see both sides....but again, debate isn't the intent here...]

The key is to gain "root" access.  In computer terms, a "root" user can see everything and do everything to every file on a system.  Every door is open.  So, to "root" a smartphone is to hack through the proprietary software and gain "root" access.  Once this happens, everything else becomes possible, and the consumer suddenly bypasses levels 3-5 above and leaps straight to level 2 with full access to all the software on the device.  This opens up an incredible amount of power and allows the user to tap into the full hardware and software capability of the phone.

There are a number of good reasons to want this access.  Here are a few of the biggest ones:
  1. Wifi.  I used the wifi example above for a reason - this is huge for a lot of people, especially as carriers have revoked unlimited data plans over the past couple years.
  2. Backups.  The lousy 'backups' that the carrier apps perform are incomplete at best, and totally useless at worst.  Once you're rooted, you can make complete backups of everything on your phone (this is good for obvious reasons).  Many apps have two components - the executable app itself, and the data that stores the state of the user's progress in the app.  Let's say you pass all levels of Angry Birds with 3 stars and then buy a new phone.  When you install Angry Birds on the new phone, you've got exactly the same app as you did before...but you start over with zero stars because the data component remained on the old phone.  With a rooted backup process you can capture both the app and the data, package it up in numerous ways, upload it to Dropbox, copy it to a removable SD card...whatever you want to do to preserve it and/or import it to your new phone.  The point is you've got access to it, so you don't have to lose it.  
  3. Customization.  With root access you can change fonts, colors, shapes, sizes, pictures...everything.  This isn't just the cosmetic changes that themes perform, either, this is actually re-writing the files themselves to alter the way your phone looks and works.
  4. Bloat removal.  Most smartphones come pre-installed with junk apps that try to sell you additional software or force you to use their own functionality to do things.  For example, Verizon has their own navigation app that they want you to use.  It's okay but it lacks the seamless integration with Google's other services that Google Maps has.  And yet, when I try to navigate somewhere, it has an aggravating insistence on using the Verizon app rather than Google Maps.  The carriers know this is annoying, too, so that bloatware is built into their proprietary software and the consumer can't remove it.  However, with root access you can freeze or remove that bloatware so it never bothers you again.
  5. New/Modified ROMs.  A smartphone's operating system is also referred to as a "ROM", which is a throwback to the old "read only memory" of long ago.  To draw an understandable comparison to a desktop computer, consider this your Microsoft-approved version of Windows.  Well, believe it or not, the manufacturers and carriers aren't the only ones with talented code monkeys, and there are lots of independent developers who create fully functional ROMs of their own.  Similar to the motivation behind using a non-stock launcher app, ROMs are designed for different purposes.  Sometimes they're exactly the same as the native Android, but with the carrier bloat removed prior to installation; sometimes they've got a particular theme or color scheme built in; some may have specialized functionality like oversized fonts and buttons.  Whatever can be coded can be made into a new ROM.  You can also package up the entire ROM running on your phone and save it off as a backup; if something goes wrong on your phone, you can simply import the old ROM and you're instantly back up and running.  By working with the entire ROM, you don't even have to install individual apps again - it's like capturing a snapshot of your entire Windows desktop computer, but for your phone.
There are plenty more reasons, of course, but these seem to be the ones I consistently see as being the most valid.  There is a trade-off to pursuing root, though.  First, it will invalidate any warranty remaining on your device.  Second, you may screw something up and ruin your phone.  Third, you may do everything right and still ruin your phone.  Call it the Spiderman Principle: with great power comes great responsibility.

As I said before, root level access lets you do anything you want to any file on there...including blowing something away or messing with something that you shouldn't have.  An extra complication is the fact that each phone is different, so a thoroughly tested and perfected rooting method for the Galaxy S III probably won't work on the Razr Maxx HD (it might not even work on another Samsung phone, much less a different manufacturer).  So there's plenty of risk involved.  This post is already long enough so I won't go into where to find this information and guidance.  If you really want to know you can contact me directly and I'll be happy to help you.

All of that is the foundation for the list of my favorite root level apps:

  • Titanium Backup - This is probably the biggest name in root apps and backups.  You can backup everything manually or by a schedule, automatically upload your backups to one of several cloud storage services, and perform a dizzying array of other import/export things that I haven't even begun to explore.  It's got loads of functionality that I assume a developer would find incredibly useful, too, all for just a few bucks.
  • Root Explorer - The stock file manager is only allowed access to certain parts of your phone; this one uses root access to get to everything.
  • ROM Toolbox - Another personal favorite is this toolbox.  It is truly a work of art, containing many of the same backup and development functionalities of Titanium Backup; it includes a root browser (like Root Explorer), a complete theme changer, the ability to change your phone's boot animation or individual system icons, numerous performance enhancement tools, an ad blocker (when this is used in combination with many of the afore-mentioned ad-supported apps, you have essentially the full app for free)...the list is gigantic.  It's an incredible amount of stuff, especially for just $5.
  • ROM Manager.  This is another giant in rooted apps.  Remember how I mentioned you could install a completely different "OS" or swap out the entire ROM at once?  ROM Manager is one of the best tools to automate that process and allow you to do it smoothly and (hopefully) without error.
  • Airdroid.  This is another one I've just recently found.  It connects your phone to your computer, making it extremely easy to transfer files to/from your phone, copy URLs or contacts, or any of a number of other tasks that are pretty tedious otherwise.  No cables, no drivers, just a standard browser.
  • Light Flow.  Lets you control the notifications on your phone (LED light, ringtones, vibration, etc.) per app; the free version gives you good functionality, but you'll need to purchase the full version to get all the goodies.
  • Wifi Tether.  Wifi, anyone?
And so on, and so on.  I think you get the point by now.  The bottom line is that your smartphone can do so much more than make phone calls.  It truly is an integrated communications hub combined with a digital multi-tool that can do just about anything you need.

All you have to do is imagine, then go looking.  Hopefully this has helped you do that.
Happy Android-ing!

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