Guest blogger Karl Newark writes:
As a big fan and long time user of Android, it leaves me with a sad feeling in the bottom of my heart every time someone says the Android user interface and general experience to the consumer is not as good as other platforms. But it’s true: Other, more streamlined, less open, and non-customizable operating systems generally run more smoothly and have less of the small yet frustrating bugs.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom in the large and somewhat complicated world of Android. App developers can use the access they have to their advantage, and the experience of Android can benefit from this. Here are six apps that I use regularly, and I think everyone with an applicable Android-based device should try.
HaxSync – ICS Facebook Sync
During February 2011, Google released an update for the Nexus S, which at the time was its flagship handset. This update removed Facebook contact sync (as well as doing other things) due to Facebook and Google’s less than cooperative relationship. As this update rolled out from other manufacturers, the sudden lack of Facebook sync annoyed a lot of people and began to infuriate the masses.
With the release of the Ice Cream Sandwich update, the default People application for Android had a massive overhaul with a lot of emphasis on contact pictures and social updates. Although adding information from Twitter and Google+ works fine, it isn’t enough without Facebook. It wasn’t long before this problem was solved; Mathias Roth created HaxSync – ICS Facebook Sync.
This is a simple application, but I love it. It works perfectly and leaves your Google contacts full of all the content that should be there: statuses, profile images, birthdays, and events (which can be synced to the Android Calendar app if you so choose). The options for this app are all only accessible via settings, which I like; it is less obtrusive and more discreet.
This app costs $0.99 US or £0.89 UK and is well worth it for any Ice Cream Sandwich user.
Shush! Ringer Restorer
Shush! is probably the most simplistic application on this list; in fact, I would say it is more of a tweak, but with over 500,000 installs in the last 30 days, and a 4.6/5 average rating, I would say its simplistic quality is a thing of beauty.
When you put your phone on silent by hitting the volume rocker, a box will pop up with an intuitive timer. You select how long you wish your phone to be on silent, and that’s it. Simple!
This app does have a couple of settings: one to toggle notifications regarding the timer, and the other is for you to choose the color of the highlighted area. I chose to set mine to blue as it matches my battery icon and clock — the default color is a bright pink.
This app is completely free and is compatible with nearly all devices and versions of Android (2.0 and up).
To put it simply, Chrome Beta is arguably the most popular desktop browser these days. Cautiously ported to the mobile platform, it could have gone horribly wrong, but Google seemed to get it spot on. The browser is silky smooth and graphically accelerated, and will do nearly anything the stock Android browser can do and much more.
All of your Google browsing data is available to sync, and history, bookmarks, and open tabs are probably the most important. As with the desktop version, as you type into the address bar, Chrome will very intelligently search all of your history and bookmarks, which can save a lot of time. Also the browser can show you all of the tabs you have open on other devices and give you the option of opening them.
Google has also made some more mobile-specific changes. Tabs are now given a “deck of cards” style interface, similar to what I have seen on webOS. In the tabs menu, you can move your phone one way or another and the browser will use the signals from the accelerometer to move the tabs accordingly. This is very pleasing to the eye, but the practicalities of this feature are debatable; also, you can now switch tabs with a full left-to-right swipe. The latest upgrade also added a feature that gives the user a option to pin bookmarks to Android’s home-screen, similar to iOS.
There are some problems with this app, however (but remember, it is in beta). For starters, it doesn’t support Flash, which a lot of Android users have gotten used to having. I can say that I do not miss it at all; Flash was good a year or two ago, but most Flash-based sites now have dedicated applications available on Google Play. There are also a few “hangs” and force closes every now and then.
This app is only available for Ice Cream Sandwich — which has annoyed a lot of people — but I can see the logic behind this. My Nexus S (not the latest Nexus device) has Ice Cream Sandwich and is most likely the least powerful device with which to have it. Chrome really does give my phone a run for its money and I can tell it is struggling sometimes; it seems that Chrome is really intended for the higher-end Android devices available today.
Another official Google application, Car Home surprisingly isn’t included on a lot of phones. There’s not a lot to say about this one; it’s just a simple interface with big icons for the applications that are relevant while driving such as music, navigation, etc., but you are free to customize and add your own shortcuts. This is all translucent and laid over your phone’s wallpaper. Over all, the application is free, responsive, and very handy if you like to dock your phone in your car.
doubleTwist is a very popular free app for Android (as well as other mobile platforms) that gets a lot of coverage all over the Internet, but it is generally referred to as a way to synchronize an iTunes library to an Android device. In my opinion, it is a lot more than that.
One potential problem with Android is the fact that it doesn’t really have any features to help you sync your content from a PC. Google seems to be encouraging everything to be pushed to the cloud, which is nice… when it works. But this is still unrealistic for a lot of people with data limits, lack of signal, and other complications, people still want to have content stored on the mobile device rather than over a network to which they may or not be able to connect.
If you want your content to be stored on your device, you will quickly find that this is easy on Android — easy, yet tedious, as the Android device will be recognized as a mass storage device. Dragging and dropping through a file explorer can take time, especially when trying to arrange everything neatly in folders.
This application works with two parts: the mobile app, which is a nice, simple media player, and the desktop client that is basically a stripped-down and lightweight iTunes. All you have to do is import your music library into the desktop software and from there you can make playlists and play your media as you desire. It actually makes a nice desktop app in its own right; it has a podcast feature and uses the Amazon Music Store as a download service. Nice!
You can then synchronize all of your music from the library or selected playlists. It works much the same with video, and it can import any new photos.
There is an add-on for this app called AirSync, which works in much the same way, but lets you sync your media over a Wi-Fi network. It works quite smoothly and is generally considered to be a good app. The only criticism I hear is that you have to initiate the software from the desktop client — it is not automatic. The price is $4.99 in the US and £4.99 in the UK.
Unlock with WiFi
With more and more personal data being stored on mobile devices, it is important to have at least some security features enabled. Android offers a few different screen lock formats — some more secure than others — but generally, the more secure they are, the more annoying they are to use. It can be a real frustration to unlock your phone every time you want to check a message, but it can be dangerous to leave a phone unprotected.
Unlock with WiFi doesn’t solve that problem completely, but it helps and will make your experience with Android less frustrating. It’s simple, really. This app will detect when your device is connected to your specified home network and disable the lock screen, meaning you don’t have to deal with a lock screen as often.
There is a free version and a paid version ($3.00 US or £2.00 UK). The paid version allows you to add more than one network as a home network, so you can (for instance) have your phone’s lock screen automatically disabled at a friend’s house.