Essential Android Apps

Thursday, April 10, 2014

It's been a while since I posted, and my last post was about my switch from iOS back to Android, so I'll give a quick update on how that's going first. I'll admit there are still a few things that I dearly miss about iOS, mostly the ecosystem of apps (especially since I use a Mac). I also miss the physical phone - I loved my iPhone 5. Now that I'm used to a bigger screen (5" on the Nexus 5), I would like a phone that is an iPhone with a bigger screen. The iPhone 5 has a 4" screen and when I use my wife's phone, I just feel that the screen is too cramped, especially when typing. My ideal would be something the size of the Moto X - 4.7" screen, a little wider than what the iPhone has, but the physical casing of the iPhone (that aluminum body is just so nice). I've always said that Apple makes the best hardware and I continue to stand by that. All in all though, I'm very pleased with my transition to Android and I am in no hurry to go back to iOS for my mobile operating system. So on that note, let me walk through what I feel are some of the most essential (and/or most useful) Android apps:

Dropbox - fantastic app, even more useful on Android than on iOS because you have access to the filesystem. Super easy way to get files onto your phone without plugging it in.

Mailbox - I waited months for this to be released and it actually just came out a couple of days ago. I previously had the Gmail app in this slot, but IMO, Mailbox is a much better alternative. Gmail is still a really solid app, but I'd give Mailbox a shot if you haven't tried it yet. The app is gesture based and aims to help you get to Inbox Zero by treating your mailbox as a to-do list. This was one of my favorite apps on iOS, and I'm thrilled to see it finally make its way to Android.

Chrome - the Chrome browser comes default on all Android devices now, and if you're using Chrome on the desktop (you should be), this is a huge win. Bookmark and tab syncing across devices is phenomenal.

Hangouts - the new text messaging app from Google integrates Google hangouts with SMS messaging all in the same app. Really well done. If your phone doesn't come installed with it, go get it.

Netflix - obvious one here. Gets about 1000% more useful if you have a Chromecast device.

Simplenote - I mentioned this in my list of iOS and Mac apps too, but this is a great syncing note app. Very simple interface, no frills. I write my posts in Simplenote. Great for when you need to jot something down really quickly, because it lets you get to writing with very few steps.

Pushbullet - these next three apps are three of the best, most useful apps on my phone. Every Android user should get these apps. Pushbullet is an app that lets you easily send content from your phone to your browser, and vice versa. If you're on your laptop and you have a link you want on your phone, no more emailing yourself links, just click the browser extension and it defaults to populate the current URL in the content area and asks you which device you want to send it to. Best of all, it's lightning fast. Perhaps the BEST feature of Pushbullet is it can mirror phone notifications to your browser, so you don't need to pick up your phone every time it vibrates, you can see the notification on your screen and even dismiss it on your device directly from the browser notification. It's really an incredible app.

MightyText - Maybe the most useful app I use on my device. Install it on your phone, sign in to the web app, and you can text from your browser. No picking up your phone, just leave the tab pinned in your browser and you're set. Combine this with Pushbullet and it's notification mirroring in Chrome, and you've got a really powerful app combo.

LightFlow - this app lets you customize the pulsing light color per app notification. For example, by default the light pulses white for everything. LightFlow lets you make the light pulse green for texts, blue for emails, red for missed calls, sky blue for Twitter notifications, etc. When your phone vibrates, you can easily get an idea of what caused it to vibrate and if it's something you don't care about, you don't need to worry about it. Very convenient.

Press - beautiful RSS reader. Integrates with a few feed managers (I prefer Feedly), but once you get your feeds set up, you'll only ever use Press unless you're adding/removing feeds. The app isn't free ($3 I think...) but it's very much worth the price if you do any significant amount of reading on your phone.

Chromecast - if you have a Chromecast, you need this app (literally, you need it to set up the Chromecast). Also you should get a Chromecast if you don't have one. They are incredible devices and cost only $35.

Twitter - I'm actually pretty torn on this one. I struggle to recommend this app, but there isn't a better Twitter app for Android. Let me explain why. There are definitely better apps out there than the official Twitter app in terms of features, look and feel, etc. The big drawback is that Twitter has it's Notifications API locked down, so third party apps can't send you real-time notifications for things like mentions, DMs, favorites, etc. They have to pull requests for that periodically, which means you may wait 10-15 minutes to get notified that someone mentioned you in a tweet. If you don't care about things like that, then I'd suggest checking out Plume, Carbon, or Talon - all are excellent apps. Talon even has a feature called "Talon Pull" that sets up a listener on Twitter's servers and can push nearly real-time notifications, but there are still some API interactions that Twitter has locked down completely. I've tried many other apps but I keep coming back to the official one because of the real-time notifications. It's not a bad app by any means, so if you're in the same camp as me, you're not missing out on a good Twitter app.

Google Wallet - if you're switching to Android or are already on Android, you might as well buy into the whole ecosystem of apps. Google Wallet is a great app that basically acts as a debit card - you can load money up into the app via your bank account and spend it at various online retailers, the Google Play store, or even get a [free] Google Wallet card mailed to you for use at any retailer. It's a totally free service and it's pretty awesome.

Wunderlist - to-do list apps are a dime a dozen, but this one stands out among the rabble. Wunderlist has tons of features, but manages not to overwhelm you or clutter the interface. Everything is very intuitive, and it has all the features you'd want of a to-do list app: recurring tasks, reminders, sub-tasks, lists, even shared tasks. You can upgrade to Wunderlist Pro and pay for features like being able to assign tasks to individuals on a team, but at it's core, Wunderlist remains a free app. Check it out, and if you don't like it I'd recommend giving a shot, they're another wonderful to-do app (that company also has a calendar app, Cal, and is in the process of creating an email app and a note taking app to complete their suite. Keep tabs on them!)

QuizUp - you've got to have some fun on your phone, right? QuizUp is a radically popular quiz game for Android and iOS that pairs you up with either a friend or a stranger in one of hundreds of categories, ranging from movies to history to sports to pop culture. It's really a very well done app, and even if you've only got 5 minutes to spare, you can easily get a couple of rounds in. Great time killer and very fun. It can also be very educational depending on which categories you play.

Google Opinion Rewards - do you like free money? Then you need to download this app. How it works is that when you sign up, you check the options that are relevant to you and any time Google has a survey, you'll get a notification. The surveys are anywhere from 1 or 2 up to 7 or 8 questions long, almost always multiple choice, and upon completion of the survey, you get credit to your account on the Google Play store. I've gotten anywhere from $0.10 to $0.75. Not a lot of money, but when a good app only costs $1-$3, you can pretty easily earn enough to pay for a few apps that you might not normally shell out the cash for. You won't get surveys all the time - maybe 2-3 times a month, but they're quick and you get free money. What are you waiting for? Stop reading and go install it!

Sliding Explorer - last but certainly not least, this app is a file system browser. It's got a very clean interface and is easy to navigate. One of the perks of Android is that you have access to the filesystem, so if you ever find yourself digging around in there, get this app.