Tech Scan: The Android Spring

So now that you have that shiny new Android smartphone, are you getting the best out of it? And look at those apps that Amazon makes easy to get.
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Android phone apps: an international marketplace

So now that you have that shiny new Android smartphone, are you getting the best out of it? And look at those apps that Amazon makes easy to get.

What are the best of the best apps for getting the most pleasure from your Android device?

I have a few ideas . . . and if you’re looking for something relatively harmless to do over this long Memorial Day weekend, maybe stopping into your favorite app store and reviewing some of these little marvels might work well for you.

Android phones have become, well, fashionable.  With hot new models including the oversized tablet-like Samsung Galaxy Note, the buzz-worthy Samsung Galaxy S3 and the HTC One X, Android phone owners have true bragging rights instead of iPhone envy.

According to a report from the IDG research firm, as quoted by ZD Net, Android commandeered 59 percent of all phones sold in the first quarter of this year; Apple came in second at 23 percent.

There are hundreds of thousands of Android apps out there.  It all can get terribly confusing ... so here’s my list of some of the apps that make Android phones worth owning.

Some of these apps are also available on the iPhone. That’s actually a good thing. To me, it means that your Android phone is even more competitive with the iPhone, and you can now look at both flavors of phones on a much more level playing field.

First, know that you now have two major app stores to shop in: Google Play and the Amazon Appstore.  Google Play is home to virtually all leading apps in all categories, and has become a focal point for acquiring Google-marketed apps, music, movies, and TV shows, games, etc.  The Amazon Appstore offers a free app daily (some are even worth having), and just introduced a download-and-test-before-buying feature for the Android phone that had previously been available only on computers.

Amazon has a separate app—Amazon Mobile—for its vast array of other items for sale, including its “scan it” and “snap it” feature (also available on the iPhone) enabling you to grab either a bar code or a photo of the item you want, and giving you Amazon’s price for it.

And how can any reader live without either their Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook ereaders? Answer: you can’t. But do note that Google has its Play Books book tore, with some literary rarities that aren’t available elsewhere.

I’ve grown quite fond of the free Dolphin browser. It started as an Android app and migrated to the iPhone, but I think its heart is still in Android. It makes searching for websites quite easy with your voice and with gestures in addition to using a keyboard. You can develop custom strokes for opening your favorite app.  It now has 50 add-ons: a translation program, change the interface colors, switch between mobile and desktop views. A really adaptable browser.

But let’s say that a site takes entirely too long to load. I will use an alternate browser called TextOnly that strips out everything from a website except its text. Let’s say you have a long article in the Daily Beast, but takes forever to load on your mobile phone. Instead, type in the web acddress into TextOnly and there’s simply unadorned text to read.

Watching TV on today’s powerful Android phones means you can have smooth pictures, good audio, and not break your data plan every time you want to watch something. I’m still additicted to my Slingbox connection, which lets me tap into my cable TV box and watch all my cable channels and recorded programs. If you’ve found Slingbox and other assorted TV/movie outlets such as Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Al Jazeera, PBS, Smithsonian Channel, Twit TV, and more on an iPhone, you can enjoy them as well on your Android phone. A free app called SPB-TV gives me access to channels across the world and in multiple channels. I can watch live English-language news broadcasts from China’s CCTV, Africa’s VozAfrica, plus native-language channels from Russia, Serbia, and even a few local USA channels.

Radio too is well represented. Of all the apps possible to own, I gravitate toward TuneIn Radio, which has access to virtually every radio station on the planet, including all our local Seattle FM stations, as well as access to untold numbers of podcasts. Doggcatcher is another popular podcast/videocast outlet for Android.

News and magazines deserve a entire article on their own, and I’m not going to attempt to to cover the range of media available on Android.  My personal news apps include The New York Times, FeedR – which lets me tap into my Google Reader account and my 150+ subscriptions; a news reader called Zite (now owned by CNN) that lets me pick key topics and presents them in a news magazine form, and Currents, launched earlier this year by Google that lets me see a variety of popular news sites in a magazine form:The Daily Beast, Engadget, Fast Company, TechCrunch, Slate, and, yes, TMZ.

Airdroid lets you “talk” directly to your computer via WiFi for loading and unloading files, photos, apps, etc.  Although there are “cloud” solutions aplenty from Google, Box Dropbox, and even Microsoft, the idea of  uploading and downloading stuff with your computer is still an attractive idea. Got that PowerPoint presentation you want to show on your phone? With Airdroid you can simply upload it wirelessly from your computer.

AppGarden Lite: Here’s a treasure trove of mini-apps that are just fun to have. Want to convert anything to anything? Looking for a sales or mortgage calculator?  A soundbite to help you pronounce a word?  This is simply a great Swiss Army Knife of goodies.

The Extensive Notes Pro notepad has been reviewed as a “ridiculously full-featured note taking app.” And that it is.  Although Evernote has many of the same features, I look for this app when I want to write up a short note. It accesses Google Translate, a stopwatch, a written an audio or video note; it even looks up song lyrics. Fun stuff.

When it comes to keyboards, Android has a flock to choose from.  For me, however, the Flex T9 keyboard is the most full-featured usable keyboard available.  You can enter data by keyboard, voice dictation, handwriting and “swyping” text (e.g. , you keep your finger on the keyboard and move from letter to letter).  A product from Nuance (makers of Dragon Naturally Speaking dication software), it’s one of the bext exclusively Android features around.

I have a mancrush on the game “Words With Friends,” among the world’s most popular Scrabble-like games.  I play it on multiple Android and iOS devices, but I prefer playing it on Android because I can access the best word “assistant” on any platform (some call it a “cheat” but I don’t).  It’s called, strangely enough, Word Help For Friends and it does precisely what it’s supposed to do. Type in the letters you have in your tray, then type in the letter or letters you want to match to.  The speed and accuracy of the word match makes for stimulating gaming.

With people becoming more accustomed to the idea of copying their personal DVDs to their computers, then storing them on their mobile devices, there’s yet another alternative: “streaming” them over the Internet to their mobile device. This makes your home computer into your personal “cloud,” and there's a program called Skifta, developed by giant Qualcomm for the Android system. Once you’ve set up the software—which is relatively painless—you can watch your movies, recorded TV shows, listen to your music or watch a slideshow of your photos whereve you happen to be in the world.  Moreover, you can access Skifta, then “push” it on WiFi to stereos, TVs, and computers provided they have DNLA or UPnP-compatibility.

Last of all, there’s the gaming world. If I really want to get into gaming when I’m home, I break out the iPad and have at it. My tastes are conventional on my Android phone: Angry Birds, Bejeweled 2, Pinball Deluxe, Mahjongg Artifacts, and Solitaire Pak. Getting wrapped up in games that get my full attention is not as much fun on my phone as on a full sized tablet. But that’s just me.

If you would like to add your favorite Android apps, please do so in the comments section below.

Happy Memorial Day.


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