Monthly Archives: June, 2013

5 Underrated Android Apps

Whether you’re a Daydream-dreaming, widget-happy, launcher-prone power-user (who incidentally is unhealthily fond of hyphens and adverbs) or someone who just got a new Galaxy S4, there are plenty of popular, seemingly unescapable apps that you’ve likely firmly integrated into your routine. Google’s suite of Android apps, Facebook, WhatsApp, Zedge: these are the usual suspects. When I’ve made app recommendations in the past, I’ve often done so with an eye (in sky) toward apps either popular in Google Play or which cover essential smartphone functions.  Essentially, I’ve been a poster boy for Big Android, and so it’s time to be more “indie.”

For a change, I am going to focus here on five apps with relative small install bases (none more than 1M, most less than 50K) and which handle somewhat esoteric functionality. It’ll be hard to top Beautiful Widgets’ customizable Daydream in the latter regard…but let’s try:

Twilight

Twilight for Android

Twilight for Android.

I lamely joked about this app’s name in my previous entry. Essentially, Twilight puts a hazy red filter over your entire screen. It activates the filter at sundown and lifts it at sunset – so there is some loose vampiric quality to this APK, both in its modus operandi and its effect on your battery.

The sickly red filter (Instagram, take note) makes the screen allegedly more soothing to the eye, allowing you to sleep more easily since your eyes aren’t being hassled by bluer lights. It keeps a persistent notification in your task bar that can be used to pause the effect at any time. Convenient, free, on-and off vampiric cycles: sign me up, right?

Mokriya Craigslist

Mokriya Craigslist for Android

Mokriya Craigslist interface.

Craigslist: a technology so old that it’s actually fast. Speed and simplicity have been Craigslist’s calling cards since the days of CRT monitors. It still looks like something out of 2001, but like similarly drab but speedy sites like Drudge Report, it works, as Jason Fried has persuasively argued

Mokriya takes Craigslist and updates it for the brave new world of handheld mobile screens and fancy fonts. The interface has smooth animations, a card-based system for posts, and easy response actions. You can also set up alerts so you’ll never miss the chance to bid first on a machine of snow doom again.

Pattrn

Pattrn wallpapers

Pattrn wallpapers.

Pattrn brings the hipsterdom of Instagram (or Hipstamatic, even) to wallpapers. It has a big selection of patterned wallpapers, sort of like if Zedge had been taken over by Urban Outfitters. You can share wallpapers, save them to the Gallery, star them, or more importantly, dig into their hex values and perform searches for matching hexes. Hexy!

Sliding Messaging Pro

SMS Client Sliding Messaging Pro

Sliding Messaging Pro

Idea: a service (likely illegal) that could post the same thing to SMS, Google+ Hangouts, and Snapchat simultaneously. Until that day, however, we’ll have to stick with slickly animated, Dashclock-compliant clients like Sliding Messaging Pro (SMP).

SMP does SMS with flair. Slide from one conversation to another or slide-out the left panel to see all contacts or the right one to start a new conversation/message. It’s customizable with different themes. It has some trouble with MMS right now, but in the age of Snapchat novels, who needs that?

Notif Pro

Notif

Notif Pro rich notification.

Like the weirdo Friday app from Dexetra (which I’ll do an entire piece about one of these days), this tops the list of “Greatest Possibly Useless Apps.” A Play Store review of Friday once said “Cool app. I don’t know yet if it is a useless app or not but a like it,” which is basically how I feel about Notif Pro.

Notif Pro lets you create custom notifications on Android 4.1.+. It takes advantage of Android’s rich notifications, so you can make lists, add photos, or change the icon associated with it. A grocery list is a good use case, but personally, I love making reminders to make coffee, and then enriching them by adding a LinkedIn notification icon and a picture.

A Quick Guide to Android Daydreams

Android 4.2+ has daydreams, usually about what life would be like without its useless stock Email client, or its drab News and Weather app, or Google Earth (but never its beloved Movie Studio).

It also has Daydreams, or interactive screen-savers, with actionable content, which are another example of Jelly Bean’s redundancies, alongside wireless charging (cool and only minimally useful) and NFC for Google Wallet and niche power-user apps like NFC Task Launcher. The small sliver of living persons using 4.2+ have access to more uselessly beautiful junk than even an “iPhone only” Instagrammer could shake a real vintage camera at. Here’s what one looks like (the red tint on the screen is due to the Twilight app I’m using):

Google Currents Daydream

Google Currents Daydream

I haven’t used a screensaver for anything since the heyday of Windows 95 and its amazing brick-mazes. So why would I use a Daydream?

To charge wirelessly to be MAXXlike, 

To be MAXXlike, perchance to Daydream..

Well, that’s not a great explanation – Daydreams if anything contribute to lack of battery life (and focus), but they’re pretty and useful for making non-Android users jealous, which after all is the main point of using Android. Basically, if you’re walking past your charging phone, you can maybe use a Daydream to learn a bit about what Google Currents thinks is interesting, or watch Beautiful Widgets’ cheeky weather animations, which now seem set to arrive in iOS 7:

BW Pro

Beautiful Widgets Pro Daydream

Like all the good fancy stuff in Jelly Bean, Daydreams are little toggles, wrapped in Roboto, inside a submenu. You’ll have to go to Setting -> Display -> Daydreams to view your options. Default options include Currents, Clock, and Photo Table. 3rd-party options include Beautiful Widgets Pro, Flipboard, and StumbleUpon. Some Daydreams have settings; I’ve sometimes changed Beautiful Widgets’ weather read-out’s text color to match the hex values on my wallpaper.

Android Daydream Settings

Daydreams Settings

The Currents daydream is perhaps the most esoterically styled sophisticated, which isn’t a surprise given that it’s a Google app. News stories cascade over the screen and can be tapped to open them up in the Currents app.

Like virtually any non-Search/Maps/G+ initiative, I don’t know how long Google will keep around this geeky quirk hidden away in Jelly Bean. Its demise wouldn’t upset Twitter-hounds and news-junkies the way that the Google Reader shutdown did/will, unless their replacement workflow had become scanning the Currents Daydream for infrequently updated news, floating like islands between 500px entries.

The Android OS is Now Just a Bunch of Apps

The recent release of Google Keyboard and Google+ Hangouts to the Play Store demonstrates a key trend in Android’s evolution. Specifically, apps and services that were once deeply integrated into the OS – like the stock keyboard and the former Google Talk client – are now apps that nearly anyone running ICS and later can download onto their devices. Google is chopping up Android and distributing it to anyone who can access the Play Store. You don’t need a cutting-edge, “clean” Android device to get a “stock” user experience now.

Almost all of the beautiful Holo-UI apps that make up the “stock Android” or Nexus experience can now be loaded painlessly onto the majority of Google-centric Android devices. Along with the trend toward “Nexus Experience” versions of previously OEM-skinned devices like the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4, I think we may have seen (in the white Nexus 4) the last of standalone Nexus hardware. The piecemealing of Android is certainly a driving force behind this trend.

The amount of exclusive territory that Nexus/stock devices have left is shrinking, now that Google has distributed much of the core Android experience (i.e., its own apps) via the Play Store. By my count, stock devices still have the following non-downloadable apps:

  • Calculator: serviceable, but lacks a lockscreen widget.
  • Camera: the stock camera APK.
  • Clock: most notable for its analog widget, which is still inferior to some 3rd-party alternatives.
  • Downloads: the downloads manager/lister.
  • Email: an email client that looks like a sadder version of Gmail.
  • Gallery: the stock photo picker, with integration with G+/Picasa web albums, as well as its own peculiar set of filters.
  • Messaging: the barebones SMS client.
  • Movie Studio: an unstable but richly-featured video editor, which is somehow one of my favorite Android apps.
  • News & Weather: a barebones news and weather client that redirects news stories to Chrome.
  • Phone: the Holo-themed dialer.

There are a few other interesting items that could be tossed-in, like the stock iWinn IME (an emoji keyboard) or even the (Android) Launcher itself, which I could almost half-see being relaunched as, ugh, Google+ Home.

Is this a net positive for users? It’s hard to know. Stock Android is pretty, but commercially unimportant. While it has some of the most beautiful UI available on any platform, stock is increasingly an aggressive vehicle for Google’s own services, to the detriment of many 3rd-party developers (and would-be competitors). Google Keyboard? It takes direct aim at both Swype and SwiftKey, the latter having been one of the top-grossing Android apps of all time. Google+ Hangouts? A shot at WhatsApp (one of the most successful Android apps), Tango, Skype, and many others.

I don’t see competition with these 3rd-party devs as something evil, but in the context of Google’s overarching ambition, it is worrisome. They’re trying to run the table, and that mission comes thru even in seemingly innocuous releases like Google Keyboard.

How to Get PDFs and ePubs into Google Play Books

Google Play Books has received numerous updates in the last few months, including one that added PDF/ePub reading and markup support. This is a welcome change. The default QuickOffice viewer in Chrome for Android isn’t the friendliest or richest way to read PDFs/ePubs, so users who are serious about PDF/ePub reading on Android have probably downloaded a 3rd-party alternative like the free Adobe Reader or the more expansive ezPDF Reader Pro. While the latter app is still good for easy annotation and heavy document manipulation, Play Books is now a nice way to simply read documents on Android, and maybe add some notes and bookmarks as you go (these items are then synced to your Google account, so that they appear on the Web viewer, too).

To get PDFs or ePubs into Play Books, you must use the Google Play desktop site (http://play.google.com). Select “My Books” at the top, and then select “Upload” – it’s that simple. You can pick documents from your local machine or from your Drive.

Play Books at Google Play

How to Upload in Google Play Books on the Web.

On your Android device, you can find the books in your library, alongside any purchased or freely downloaded books from Google Play. The interface is similar to reading a book from the Google Play Store – there’s a page slider at the bottom, along with some display options and settings near the top.

Play Books on Android PDF

Reading a PDF in Google Play Books for Android

The same display filters (like Sepia) for books can also be applied to PDFs and ePubs.

Sepia Filter
The sepia display filter on a PDF in Google Play Books.

For PDFs that are “flowing text mode” rather than “scanned pages” mode, you can add annotations and notes. Not all PDFs support this feature out of the box, so you may need to do a PDF reflow on them in an app like the aforementioned ezPDF Reader Pro.

Image

I hope that Google eventually makes it easier to open PDFs/ePubs from Gmail or Chrome on Android directly into Play Books. Better reflow and annotation options could also help to simplify the PDF/ePub workflow on Android, even if it would represent yet another incursion by Google upon territory essential to many 3rd-party developers.

UPDATE

You can also use the Android app to pin your uploaded documents for offline reading. Simply tap the 3-dot column on a given document and then tap “Keep on Device.” It works in similar fashion to Google Play Music.

Play Books Offline

Tap the 3-dot button to bring up the option to pin a PDF/ePub to your device.

The Future (and the Past) of Shopping

Farhad Manjoo figures that same-day delivery services Amazon Fresh and Google Shopping Express are the future of shopping, a future wherein persons won’t have to leave their houses for produce and other groceries:

“After using it for a few weeks, it’s hard to escape the notion that a service like Shopping Express represents the future of shopping. (Also the past of shopping—the return of profitless late-1990s’ services like Kozmo and WebVan, though presumably with some way of making money this time.) It’s not just Google: Yesterday, Reuters reported that Amazon is expanding AmazonFresh, its grocery delivery service, to big cities beyond Seattle, where it has been running for several years. Amazon’s move confirms the theory I floated a year ago, that the e-commerce giant’s long-term goal is to make same-day shipping the norm for most of its customers.”

WebVan was certainly one of the greatest disappointments of its time and emblematic of the dot-com mindset. It wanted to do same-day delivery, but couldn’t make the economics or the customer service aspects work. But I wonder if Manjoo knows what the past of shopping really looks like?

Milkmen and icemen of the legit type used to deliver consumable goods to Americans’ front-doors. Paperboys (their declining profession once immortalized and coincidentally eulogized by Atari) delivered newspapers. 1920s-era American apartment buildings like mine so took for granted this economic model that they built special doors into the walls so that milkmen in particular could put deliveries into them. This type of service delivery, combined with the often-proposed “Internet of things” (a physical, tangible network of networked appliances and devices), is not so much something truly novel as it is a revival of old economic models.

Manjoo is better than most in at least realizing that the future often looks a lot like the past, even if he does cordon-off his perspective to tech ventures. But these instances are good reminders that knowing at least some history lets you see the future much better.