15 Essential Android Apps

Like many, many other smartphone users, you have an Android phone. Maybe your carrier forced you into a smartphone and it was free with contract. Maybe you heard about Android and decided to check it out. Maybe you got tired of your iPhone and headed for greener pastures. Or maybe you’re on T-Mobile and it’s the closest thing to and iPhone. Whatever the reason, you are now privy to a veritable panoply of apps for your convenience and/or pleasure.

A few notes: first off, I am not including games here because I’m not a game reviewer nor am I that enthusiastic about mobile gaming. Also, I noted for Kindle Fire users if the app was also in the Amazon App Store, since there is no Play Store access on the Fire. And finally, some of these apps have multiple programs with the same functionality, and I offered up the one that I picked for myself months ago. But things change quickly. If there’s a better app than the one I’m recommending, drop me a note and I’ll check out. Note that this started as a top 6 list, but I just kept piling on the apps. I could probably add another 10 apps to this list, but a lot of those are more essential to me than to normal users. Maybe for another day. So on with the list in no particular order.

Google Maps/Navigation

Price: Free (Pre-installed)

What it does:

Gets you directions and turn by turn navigation. Everyone knows Google Maps by now. But there is much more to be had once you tap the blue arrowhead in the lower right hand corner – now the location information is taken to the Navigation program, where a soothing female voice tells you when your turns and exits are coming. It’s essentially a Garmin in your phone, for free. I usually turn this program on and shut off the screen. The voice directions are enough to get me to where I’m going.

Swiftkey 3

Price: $2.99 (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does:

It will change your life. Swiftkey is an alternative keyboard that basically takes all other soft keyboards and smashes them into the floor repeatedly like the Hulk. Swiftkey’s word suggestions are not merely dictionary based, but also syntax based. It also learns from the way you type, taking into consideration names, phrases and word combinations that pop up in your emails and texts (this feature can be turned off for the paranoids). For the most part, three or four letters is all it takes to get the right word 90% of the time, and there are times Swiftkey will string together three or four words in a row, which is like a hitting 4 X 4 combo in Tetris.

Tip 1: If you do get Swiftkey, go into the advanced settings and change the long press delay to around 200ms. This will allow you to use the clearly marked alt numbers and symbols so quickly you’ll hardly even need to go to the second or third screen for them.

Tip 2: If you want to erase an entire word, swipe across the keyboard to the left. This deletes the entire word.

Think about this – you need to type on a smartphone all the time. Get the best keyboard out there. If you’re squeamish about spending the $3, there’s a free trial version that lets you take it out for a test drive. I wish I had Swiftkey on my desktop as well, since it would save me a staggering number of keystrokes.

Flashlight HD LED

Price: Free (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does:

Turns your LED flash into a flashlight. It could not be handier. Wanna see what’s under the couch? Need to see what’s in the recesses of your closet? This app will shine a light on your quest. The reason I picked one over a dozen other programs is that it lights up when you open the program. It’s all about one touch actions for me.

Note that Kindle Fire owners can only use the screen option. There’s no camera and ergo no flash on the Kindle Fire.

Facebook

Price: Free (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does:

It makes you cry. Because it’s slow. It hangs at times. It’s butt ugly. Unfortunately, it’s a reflection of the putrid website, so these things will probably never change. It’s easily the worst app on this entire list. So why is it “essential”? Because it allows you to upload photos to your Facebook account into a few taps, straight from your camera program. The new version even allows you to select multiple photos at a time. As a sharing interface, it’s the shit. As a user interface, it’s total shit. But if you like to post photos on Facebook, you must have it.

Pocket

Price: Free (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does:

It’s an offline reader. Almost any article on the internet can be sent to Pocket, where it is reconstructed into an easy to read and eye pleasing format. Originally, I loved Pocket because it allowed me to read articles even if I didn’t have a data connection (for instance, the train or the bathroom at work). What I love even more now is that I can read my articles without all the webpage clutter. It also generally saves my spot in the article if I exit out to another app (try to make your mobile browser to do that). And the kicker? Set up a pocket account and it will sync everything across your devices (including the desktop version of Chrome). So I can send an article to Pocket from my desk, start reading it on my phone, and then finish it up on my tablet. I installed Pocket solely because I wanted to read the internets while pooping, but it’s turned into so much more (Pocket, that is, not the pooping). The Read Later option is built into many website content apps, like Cracked.com and in most web browsers. Even better – it’s also found in Flipboard. What’s that, you may ask?

Flipboard (not available for 10” tablets)

Price: Free (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does: It’s a glorified RSS reader. But it’s also a glorious RSS reader. Three aspects of Flipboard make it stand out from the pack – first off, it updates your feeds and loads articles much faster than the other RSS readers I’ve used, like Pulse and Google Currents. And the curated topics will give you a lot of relevant stuff to read. It collects articles from the internet and delivers them to you in a magazine like format where you flip (swipe up) to the next article. But it’s also the best Facebook app around, displaying your wall as if it were a magazine spread. And even though it won’t display all of your wall posts (certain posts never show up in Flipboard and I’m not sure what setting is causing that), it’s 100 times nicer to check out Facebook on Flipboard than the actual Facebook app (which, like like I explained, is shit). The icing on the cake is the Pocket integration – long press in the article summary view (so you don’t even have to load the article), and you can tap Read Later to shoot the article to Pocket. I can queue up a dozen articles in a minute and read them later in Pocket. Flipboard + Pocket is an article consumption smorgasbord.

Gauge Battery Widget

Price: Free

What it does: Tells you how much battery you have as a percentage in your notification bar. The default meter gives you a green gauge with no actual demarcations and such coarse levels that half may be half or more likely just over 25%. And while there is a percentage on the battery meter with the newer Android OS, it’s so teeny tiny that it’s difficult to read it at a glance. Other battery widgets tell you the remaining battery percentage as a homescreen widget. But Gauge will put that battery meter in your notification bar, which means you can check it at a glance without even unlocking your phone. Most apps display the notification bar on top, so for the most part, you don’t have to go out back to the home screen to see how much juice you have left. And I hate to say it, but knowing how much battery you have left is a fact of life with Android.

Pocket Casts

Price: $2.99

What it does:

It downloads, organizes, and plays podcasts. And there’s no middle man here – the podcasts download directly to your device. I listen to podcasts more than music while driving, and this is hands down the best one I’ve used on Android.

Chrome (ICS and above)

Price: Free

What it does:

It does the internet! It’s fast, it’s relatively stable, and even if it locks up every once in a while, it remembers where you were and picks up form the last time. I used to use Dolphin HD, but I’ve come around to Chrome and use it exclusively now. I still think Dolphin does a bunch of things better (like bookmarks, gestures, and font scaling/rendering), but Chrome is well more stable and faster. Note that you must be on at least Android 4.0 (aka Ice Cream Sandwich aka ICS) to install Chrome. Sorry man.

Amazon Appstore

Price: Free

What it does:

It allows you access to the Amazon App Store. It allows you to check out the Free App of The Day, a daily promotion that allows you to download… uh… free apps. Sure, 95% of the FAOTDs are rubbish games. But there’s some gold mixed in with the dross every now and then. Essentially all of the Amazon apps are also in the Play Store (but not vice versa), so you have a choice of which store to install it from (the actual app is identical). I tend to go for the Play Store version only because they tend to get quicker updates from the developers, and some devs have pulled out of Amazon’s Market, so you’ll never get updates in that case (buying an app through Amazon does not mean you have the rights to install it from the Play Store and vice versa). But if Amazon is giving away an app that’s full price in the Play Store, then that’s an easy decision. The best deal I’ve ever seen was Office Suite Pro, a $14.99 Word & Excel compatible app I got for free.

Kindle

Price: Free

What it does:

Reads mobi formatted books as well as pdf format (although on phones, the latter sucks donkey balls). You can purchase ebooks from Amazon and download them directly to your device. You can share your progress across devices if the mobi file supports it. This is the reason I never bought an actual Kindle. I didn’t need one.

Dice Player

Price: Free

What it does:

Plays almost every video format and container – avi, mkv, mp4, wmv, mov, divx, xvid, h.264, etc. Instead of converting video files before loading them onto your phone or tablet, just copy them straight to the device and Dice will take care of the rest. If you don’t feel like copying them, then go ahead and stream them directly from your PC – Dice will do that too. The only files I can’t play smoothly are HD broadcast recordings, but that’s a horsepower issue. Oh, and you can shrink your video to a resizeable pop-up window so you can send texts while watching a video. Currently, only the native video player on the Galaxy S3 supports that feature. And it also handles subtitles! And you can FF/RR with a swipe. The bottom line – I can’t believe this is free.

ES File Explorer File Manager

Price: Free (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does:

It’s a file explorer and unpacks zip and rar files. It can also browse and transfer files from network shares wirelessly. Why do you need this? Because sometimes you need to move files from one folder to another. Or unrar an archive file. Or move small files back and forth from your PC. I use this app every day. I also use Solid Explorer Beta 2 because it has a nice split screen view and wifi file transfers are much, much quicker, but ES File Explorer is much easier to use. Solid Explorer Beta 2 is more of a power user app.

Dropbox

Price: Free (also in the Amazon Appstore)

What it does:

Two things: first, it allows you to shuttle files back and forth from your mobile device to your PC using the cloud as an intermediary. You can also share these files with friends as well. It also gives you to option to back up your photos automatically, although the 2GB you get for free probably won’t cover all of it (YMMV, I’m a bit of a shutterbug so 2GB is only about 6 month’s worth for me). This is another app I use on my phone at least once a week, although I use it daily to sync files across multiple desktops.

Google+

Price: Free

What it does:

It’s Google answer to Facebook and Twitter combined. In many respects it’s better than Facebook except for the fact that Facebook has a gajillion more people on it. Even if you don’t take advantage of the social aspects of Google+, the sole reason to sign up for an account is to upload every picture and video you take to Picasa automatically (this feature is defaulted to wifi only for those without unlimited data plans). Free cloud backup for all of your photos? Why are you waiting?

Key Ring

Price: Free

What it does:

Enter your store card data into the app and the cashier can scan the bar code from your phone. And you don’t even need to type in the barcode — there’s a built in bar code scanner that will do that for you.

So there’s my list, 15 apps that will turn your Android phone into a consumption and production powerhouse, all for the grand total of… $6. And if you get a tablet along with your phone, it will cost you an additional… $0. Because any app you buy can be installed in any of your other Android devices.

Sweet.

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