2011 Android Apps Buyers Guide
I spend a lot of time handling Android devices. This summer and autumn I had the pleasure of test-driving the DROID RAZR for a few months before it became part of the rumor mill. Now the RAZR is my everyday carry device. The LTE service is nice when I’m in a metro area, but out here in the boondocks the 3G reception in the RAZR is unlike any phone I’ve had.
The large screen has caused a bit of resurgence in app buying these last few months. I’ve done some posts in the past about apps, so I thought I’d do a refresh.
You have your contacts in Google’s contact manager, right? Last week I had a panicked call from my niece. She did a factory data reset on a Sprint phone because the rep told her to do so. Guess what? Sprint CDMA phones don’t have SIM cards. Neither do Verizon CDMA phones. Guess where her contacts were stored? In the phone memory. She's screwed. We managed to rebuild a lot of her contacts from my database, her husband's, my wife's, and others, but she lost a lot of numbers. Learn from her mistake.
If you’re coming to Android, you must have your contacts in the online contact manager. Not only is it better for syncing and storing, it's just a better way to manage the data. You’ll spend an afternoon doing it, but get your contacts off the SIM card or out of phone memory. While you’re at it, get your contacts into the format of every single human has a separate record. Not “Bob & Carol Smith”. That’s for greeting cards. This is your phone. Bob Smith has a cell phone in 2011 and does Carol. They need separate records.
Last APP off, First one on
Since I wipe a phone a lot, this is the process I go through. If you ever need to do a "Factory Data Reset", this is good reading. If not, just skip to the next section.
After getting the Android Market established, I install a $5 paid app called “MyBackup Pro”. This valuable tool allows me to reinstall apps and data much faster without requiring root access like many backup programs. If you ever realize you need to wipe your phone, here's the process…
- Buy MyBackup Pro and register the app. You will create a user ID and password the first time. You will need to save these for later use. You can also create a numeric ID for their web access and email it to yourself, which I found a nice touch.
- Backup your apps and data to the external (removable) SD card. This is the tricky part because some OEMs (Motorola included) create internal memory and call it the "SD Card" some times. If you aren't paying attention, this can get wiped in the Factory Data Reset.
- Remove your SD card from the phone. This is just a safety precaution to make sure you don't accidentally wipe out your backed up data.
- After you've backed up your data and apps, wipe your phone with "Settings->Privacy->Factory Data Reset". This will take around 10 minutes to complete.
- Insert your SD card back into your phone.
- When you reboot, go through the setup process. Connect your phone to your Google account but don't do any other activity.
- Log into the Android Market
- Install MyBackup Pro. When you reinstall the app, you will need to re-enter the numbers you used in Step 1. The app may say that it can't authorize you. If you get this message, just reboot your phone and try again. I've never had this fail to fix the problem. It's a quirk in the authentication mechanism when a phone is newly connected to a Google account.
- Install your other apps from the Android Market using the MyBackup Pro restore user interface. You will have to use the back arrow to come out of the market for each app, but this will take only about 10-15 seconds for each app and chances are you only have at most 20 apps or so. You probably don't do a reset as often as I do and I don't find this terribly annoying.
- Once your apps are installed, restore your data from the card using the MyBackup Pro UI.
- Go into each app and configure its operation.
This isn't a perfect operation and some apps will lose their data. It's unavoidable. But, it's better than nothing.
MyBackup Pro is a nice interface for doing regular backups, which you should do periodically. It will backup to your SD card or their cloud interface and comes with 100MB of online storage for that same $5. Also consider letting Google back your data up in their cloud. This is an option when you first configure your phone in the setup process. I find this avoids about 15 minutes of configuration every time I do a full reset.
My Killer Apps
Google Calendar – I know this isn’t an app in the Android Market, but the Google calendar, both online and on my mobile devices is my #1 killer app. Even if Android did nothing more than make phone calls and show my Google Calendar I would consider it a success. My life is so completely driven by my Google Calendar that I wouldn’t know what to do without it. Yes, email is nice, but I think I would almost appreciate not having email when I'm on the move.
I have about 15 separate calendars in my workspace that I view:
- work calendar
- products’ timelines
- team PTO schedules
- open source project activities
- wife’s personal schedule
- personal schedule
- a friends' schedule who works 7 on/7 off (we watch his property)
- TripIt itinerary
- kids schedule
- kids' school public calendar
- alma mater sporting events
- several professional team schedules
All these things are beautifully interwoven and color-coded so I know what my days look like. Like this…
Pandora Radio is the background music to my life. I enjoy the service so much that I paid for the subscription and don’t regret it. Sure, there are some quirks to it, but I discover so many new artists based on qualities of artists I know. Start today for free by going to their web site and trying their web player and then download the mobile app from the Android Market.
DroidLight – This is the original “use your Android phone as a flashlight” app, written my co-worker Mike for the original Droid in 2009. It works on more than just Motorola devices, so show him some love. Download it and give him good reviews. I can’t tell you how many times this app has saved my ass in the dark. Fumbling around, looking for keys, finding a path through a cotton field, or when the power goes out in a snow storm. Trust me, the time to get this app is not after you need it.
When docked in my bedside table, my phone activates Alarm Clock Plus. This app is which is an enhanced version of the stock clock app with added features. Highly recommended if you travel across time zones or want more control over how you are brought out of your slumber. The thing I like is this app has the notion of ‘gentle’ alarms that gradually get louder over the course of about a minute rather than something that shocks you awake. The author has an ad-supported version, as well.
Dropbox is your big shared folder in the sky. If you don’t have an account yet, get one. The free version gets you 2GB. Install the software on your home computer and your work computer and the app your phone. Then put your shared files there and it magically syncs them. Of course, you have to use some common sense in how you share them, especially if you work in a sensitive environment. The Dropbox team has done a very good job of making the software work seamlessly on the desktop, tablet, and mobile device. http://www.dropbox.com
Google Docs is not up to the point where Microsoft Office was, not even in 1997, but that may be a good thing. It’s good enough for 80% of the writing I do and 90% of the spreadsheets. The fact that I can reliably pull out my tablet and show a Google Docs version to someone anywhere and edit it in real time is beautiful. There are products out there that provide MS Office-like functions for Android tablets, but I’m not a fan.
LastPass is where I store my web passwords. There are several other products out there with similar features, but I like the integration and syncing with my desktop web browser for the same low price per year.
Google Reader is an RSS feed reader with nice features that includes syncing with the desktop version. I subscribe to a lot of news feeds and use my phone to flip between them during the day while I’m traveling, in a doctors office, or just waiting on the kids to get out of school. I’ve also been trying NewsRob which handles much of the sync task, but I’m not ready to jump over just yet. If you read a lot of news from CBS, NY Times, Engadget, BBC, comic strips, blogs, podcasts, either of these apps will work for you. If you want the major headlines brought to you, Pulse Reader made a big splash last year and it is very attractive. Similarly, News Republic is very visual, but it uses more bandwidth than I want for just reading news articles.
Google Translate - I have a passable understanding of the Western European languages and I'm trying to figure out Portuguese. My team is in Brazil and we’re connected on Twitter and G+. During the day, they talk to me in English, but at night, I have to see what fun they’re up to. With Google Translate on my phone, I know how to say hangover in Sao Paulo and grapefruit in Paris.
Why would you need anything other than Google Maps? Well, if you’re in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa perhaps. Or maybe you can’t have a data plan. Or maybe you don’t actually have a phone.
Mapdroyd is an app that reads files from the Open Street Map project and displays map data on your device. Pull down map bundles from the internet and store on your SD card and you can have reliable maps at your fingers without a data connection.
TripIt is a great service for anyone who does more than one flight a year. Forward those confirmation emails to their sync service and they do the hard work. The TripIt mobile app is a nice view onto your data. It’s not a requirement to use the app if you use the calendar to sync, but it doesn’t hurt to have the data in their app and in your calendar.
Tweetcaster Pro is the Twitter client I use. Your mileage may vary. There is an ad-supported version as well. I prefer this app to the official Twitter Android client, but I’ll admit that I haven’t tried the official client in about 6 months. It might’ve improved greatly since that first release. I tweet a lot as myself and for my job, so I need to keep accounts separated and responsive.
Wikidroid for Wikipedia – When I was a kid, I read the entire World Book encyclopedia. All 26 volumes. Plus the 15 volumes of ChildCraft. So it should come as no surprise that I’m a Wikipedia junkie. Wikidroid is my favorite Wikipedia client. I also paid for the Wikidroid Plus key that removes advertisements.
I’m playing with Google+. It’s still growing and most of the talk isn’t very interesting yet. I’m hoping it will get past the early adopter stage because I have no intention of returning to Facebook.
Have you ever started reading a web article at work and realized that you couldn’t finish it? Say hello to Read it Later. This app includes a set of magical scripts for your desktop web browser that distill large stories into small files for your mobile device and syncs them. It’s like going back to 2002 and having MobiPocket, only this doesn’t suck. There is a similar product called instapaper, but the author of instapaper is hostile toward Android, so the apps you see in the Android Market are not official instapaper readers.
If you have an unlimited or high-rate data plan, you might be able to utilize some of that for your laptop or another device. If your phone doesn’t have a tethering app built-in, look at an app called PDANet. The free version of this app will allow you to perform HTTP requests from laptop to the web via your phone. If you need secure connections, you will need to drop down the registration cost, which is $15.95. Make sure your data plan will allow you to tether before you do this, though, as most carriers have monitoring processes in place to catch users who abuse tethering plans.
Barcode Scanner - If you haven’t seen one of those square two dimensional barcodes yet, then you haven’t been paying attention. This barcode scanner is useful for more than just that though. If you’re furniture shopping and want to compare prices at another store, just scan a barcode. Or, if you want to keep you kids occupied while in Costco, give them your phone and let them play Barcode Beasties. On a more serious note, if you plan to use your phone for Google’s 2-step verification (and you should eventually), you will need the barcode scanner on your phone to use with the Google Authenticator app.
ASTRO File Manager is the one tool you need for lots of duties. A lot of people will tell you not to mess with Task Killers and I’m one of them. But, you do need a file manager and ASTRO is a nice one and it will back up unprotected apps. It also has a pretty nice video player built into it.
App List Backup doesn’t backup your apps. It just backs up the full names of the apps to the SD card. This can useful because after a factory reset and restore, you can use it to tell Android Market to start restoring from the list that it contains. Because of the way that Android Market works, apps that are restored from a backup aren’t updated, but apps that are restored from links will be this is a better way to restore apps that you want to maintain over time. The UI isn’t very nice, though. This is just someone’s time-saver. It’s not an actual polished product.
I’m not a gamer, but I do use my phone to entertain me as well as keep me updated on work activities. I’m content with music, videos, simple games and puzzles for the most part.
Andoku (for phones) and Andoku 2 (phones or tablets) are a beautiful implementation of sudoku with several interesting variants. Thousands of puzzles built in and many ways to customize the user experience to meet your way of playing the game.
Shortyz is my crossword puzzle solver of choice. I’ve paid for crossword puzzle apps on Palm OS and Windows Mobile and this free app kicks the crap out of any paid app. It syncs daily puzzles from about a dozen sources in less than the time it takes to find a seat on the CalTrain.
Have you discovered Google Sky Map yet? If not, download it, go outside, and point your phone at the sky. Day or night, but it’s best at night. Especially a dark night. You will be amazed. We live on the edge of a small town in the middle of nowhere, so I can be somewhere that my telescope can exploit in no time flat. On nights when the moon isn’t out, I can just sit on my back porch and explore with nothing more than my phone or tablet.
I bought Flick Golf on a whim after Romain Guy recommended it on G+. I’m actually quite enthralled by it. It’s not your typical “putt to win” type of golf game and the graphics are gorgeous. For $1, it’s a nice distraction.
I think the first Android Market app I bought was Abduction. This game is a platformer involving a cow that bounces upwards toward a UFO to find her friends. The kids have always thought it fun and I’ve paid for the upgrade, called Abduction world attack. The upgrade no longer works with my RAZR, but there is another title called Abduction 2.
Pocket God is utterly pointless and silly. I normally would say it wasn’t worth the dollar that I spent on it, but it kept my daughter in stitches for the better part of an hour while my wife shopped at Target. For that, I can assure you that made it worth every cent, so it stays on the phone.
Google Books is the first thing that goes on my tablet. If you’ve read my blog this summer, you saw several posts about reading eBooks. I’m not reading books on my phone, but I’ve read at least 15 books this year on the XOOM. I’m pretty well done buying paper books for entertainment. The publishers need to solve the money thing, though, because I think I’d rather pay the author $8 directly than to pay a media company $12.
I’m in the search for a truly usable music player app, to be honest. The recent announcement of the Google Music service and music locker is great. The client app on the device is just OK and I use it when I have to. I don’t care if I see album artwork and I’d prefer they work on the navigation for playing from local storage. There are alternatives, each with their fans, like WinAmp, DoubleTwist, and PowerAMP, but they all seem to suffer from the same UI ugliness, only shifted around. The WinAmp wireless sync from the desktop is nice after you get it set up–you can fill your phones’ SD card with the music from your PC without messing with cables.
MX Video Player – For playing movies from your SD card. Playing video is hit or miss, depending on your devices’ CPU and the way the files are encoded on your SD card. If the file won’t play straight off the card, you might need to install a CODEC from the market. If that doesn’t work, try one of the other players, such as MoboPlayer or mVideoPlayer. Also, as mentioned above, the ASTRO file manager, which I’ve found to be quite good.
Car Cast podcast Player is Bob Hermann’s pet project that he uses in his car every day on his commute. He wrote this app because nobody else would and fixes it when he finds bugs. If you want a simple and usable podcast player that syncs to the online sources with big buttons for using on a car dock, this is the way to go. The UI isn't pretty though.
I always install Shazam because I want to know who’s singing that song they’re playing at the restaurant or when I’m driving my crummy rental car with the crummy terrestrial radio.
I installed the Photowall widget on my phone and my XOOM tablet because it’s pretty darn cool. It turned my docked tablet into a crazy cool photo viewer better than anything we’ve ever seen at Best Buy. Then 4 days later I noticed that I was getting about 40% less battery life out of both these device than I was before I installed the widget and it had to go. Which was a shame because it totally rocked.
I’ve used Evernote for a number of years and I loved the way it just worked in everything I used. But somehow I realized about a month ago that I’d gone about 6 months with this new hard drive and it wasn’t installed. And if I had gone that long, did I really need it? Evernote, like Dropbox, is installed on all your computers and devices and it handles the synchronization chore. It’s less file based and more about the individual snippets that you’ve clipped.
If you are a task-driven person, you might find that Remember the Milk (aka RTM) is a system that works for handling TO DO items. I’ve tried on 2 different occasions to fit myself into its’ model and cannot. Their system has a web interface that integrates into Google Apps, GMail, and has an Android client. They have a free and premium model and I tried both. It appeared that they had some success early on, but they didn’t grow with their success and haven’t fixed their software past the first releases. It's a shame because it was a good start and any alternative to Google Tasks is worth a try. There were some Android client apps that worked with RTM and Google Tasks, such as Astrid. I don't know why it's so hard to make this work. Maybe it's me.
Paid by the word?
OK, I'll wrap it up. I have more apps that I install for testing and debugging, but they probably aren't that interesting to most folks. These are the ones that actually get some play time for fun or work at least once a week or two on at least one of the gadgets I have around the barn.
Thanks for stopping by! I hope your holidays are filled with joy and maybe a new (Motorola) gadget or two.