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Category Archives: How-to Guide

(Android) Notifications: Useful Apps and Extensions

Android Notifications

Just another day at the Android 4.3 notification office.

Notifications are the one thing that Android has always done better than iOS. Even Android 1.0 from 2008 had status bar notifications, a feature that the iPhone et al did not get until the addition of Notification Center in iOS 5 in late 2011, at which point Apple opted for the familiar pull-down gesture that was already widespread on the seas of Gingerbread and Froyo phones.

iOS 7 has a lot of promise in its revamped approach to notifications, but Jelly Bean raised the bar and has kept Android in the lead on this score at least. Expandable notifications gave a user a window into rich content and enabled an endless array of quick actions. Want to type out a quick text without opening the SMS app? Want to archive an email instantly? Want to view a list of items? There’s an app notification for that.

In a way, I think that Google’s insane focus on notifications was the first step toward bring Android at least level with iOS in quality. The system notification UI – so neatly grouped in that pull-down menu – provided a common framework from which a user could interact with apps without having to actually enter the apps as much, hence mitigating annoyances like aesthetic gaps between iOS and Android versions or the shittiness of garbage collected languages (read: Java) on mobile and in the hands of devs who don’t do manual collection.

Here are twelve apps and two Chrome extensions that can up the notification game.

Eye in Sky

What it is: A top-shelf weather app.

Notification perks: 1) persistent, regularly updated temperature figure in the status bar; 2) Dashclock extension; 3) expandable weather notification with customizable icons and forecasts.

Sleep as Android

What it is: A handy sleep tracker app that catalogs your deep and light sleep percentages and also features an alarm clock.

Notification perks: 1) sleep tracker toggle in notification bar

Notif Pro

What it is: A custom notifications app.

Notifications perk: 1) expandable; 2) lists; 3) alerts; 4) photos

PushBullet

What it is: An app that can receive pushed images, files, and/or lists from its accompanying Chrome extension.

Notification perks: 1) Dashclock extension; 2) expandable notification for lists and image previews

Desktop Notifications

What it is: a way to connect your Android notifications with your desktop instance of Chrome or Firefox.

Notification perks: shows all Android notifications in a popup in the lower-right in Chrome or Firefox. I love using this on Chrome OS with its extension.

Battery Widget Reborn

What it is: A battery conservation and tracking tool.

Notification perks: 1) expandable notification with usage chart/time remaining estimate; 2) Dashclock extension; 3) Daydream; 4) lockscreen widget

Sliding Messaging Pro

What it is: An SMS client and a huge upgrade over stock (and it gets updated all the time)

Notification perks: gee, where to begin: 1) Dashclock extension; 2) multiple widgets; 3) persistent quick text notification in status bar; 4) expandable notifications with read/reply options for new messages; 5) scrollable widget that can be overlaid inside of any app.

Spotify

What it is: A music streaming service. I assume you’ve heard of it.

Notification perks: 1) expandable notification with forward/backward/play/pause control and add to playlist button

Pocket Casts

What it is: A podcasting client.

Notification perks: 1) expandable notification with rewind/fast forward (not just forward/back) and play/pause controls

DashClock Widget

What is: A lockscreen notification center which I’ve written about here.

Notification perks: Out-of-the-box compatibilty with Gmail, SMS, weather, Google Calendar etc. Customizable with numerous extensions.

ActiveNotifications

What it is: A way to bring the Moto X’s distinctive (and somewhat intrusive) notifications to any Android phone

Notification perks: 1) screen wakes with specific information about each notification’s content.

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How to replace all of Google’s apps on your Android device

If you like Android but are either fatigued by or unhappy with Google’s burgeoning product portfolio, then you’re in luck. Android is super flexible and lets you replace any of Google’s popular consumer-facing apps with 3rd-party alternatives. You can do this without even rooting your phone. Simply choose the alternative app over the Google app when given the option, by tapping it and then tapping “Always” in the dialog box:

Complete Action Using

An example of choosing a 3rd-party app as the default over a stock app.

App: Chrome

Replacement: Link Bubble

Link Bubble is mobile browsing reimagined. It doesn’t look like any other browser and is instead an overlay (a “bubble” that loads your links in the background and then can be expanded when you want to read them. I’ve written a more detailed guide here.

Apps: Google Search/Google Now/News and Weather

Replacement: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories

If you’re tired of tracking and privacy breaches, DuckDuckGo is a good bet. It has a simple, lean search engine that doesn’t engage in filter bias, so you’ll see the same results as everyone else: no “personalized” results based on years of tracking. Founder Gabriel Weinberg aims to make DuckDuckGo the Craigslist of search engines, i.e., a reliable an simple service that sticks to what it’s good at. The DuckDuck Go app for Android also includes a nice news reader that draws from Reddit, the New Yorker, and others.

App: Gmail/Email (stock client)

Replacement: Kaiten Mail

Kaiten Mail is a $5 client (the free version is ad-supported, which I don’t recommend) with lots of customization options for look, feel, refresh interval, and display. It’s fast and has perks like a rich text editor.  Most importantly, it features rich Jellybean notifications that you reply or delete a message from a notification. I only wish that it had  a scrollable widget or DashClock support, but for now I can work around the latter using AnyDash Pro.

App: Google Drive

Replacement: Dropbox

This one’s easy. Dropbox does virtually the same thing as Drive, with the exception of spreadsheet creation or saving to .gdoc format (neither exactly a pressing need on a phone in particular).

App: Google Keep

Replacement: Simplenote

I like Google Keep, but it’s busy and is essentially a place for collecting junk from around the Web. Simplenote is dead simple but supported by Automattic (the makers of WordPress.com). It has tags, deep search, and a Mac app, too.

App: Google Play Newsstand

Replacement: Flipboard/Press

I like Newsstand’s widget and RSS support, but Flipboard was the original visual-centric reader. You can connect numerous feeds and editions, as well as your social profiles (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). The ability to create/curate custom magazines is a unique Flipboard feature.

For RSS reading, Press offers a much richer set of features and is compatible with services such as Feed Wrangler and Feedly.

App: Google Maps

Replacement: All-In-One Offline Maps

The only real competitors to Google Maps at the macro level are Bing Maps and Apple Maps, neither of which is available for Android. All-In-One Offline Maps is a clever app that lets you have offline access to maps, which can be handy if you just need a map and not an overwhelming social data mining solution.

Google+ Hangouts

Replacements: Skype, WhatsApp, Tango, LINE

Another easy one. WhatsApp and Skype both have more users. Tango is a comprehensive VoIP, messaging, and video conferencing solution. IMO is a hybrid messenger app that has support GTalk, Facebook, AIM, and others alongside its own Broadcasts service, which is similar to Twitter/ADN.

App: Google Keyboard

Replacement: Swype

Now that Google has its own keyboard app (just a standalone version of the former Android Keyboard), any device running 4.0+ can download it. Swype is a capable 3rd-party alternative that feels slightly more accurate to me, at least for now. It also has a built-in voice assistant called Dragon.

App: YouTube

Replacements: TubeBox, Vimeo (not recommended)

YouTube is tough to replace because it’s a social location/hub more than an app. If you still need YouTube’s unique content stream and critical mass, TubeBox is a YouTube client with better multitasking support. If you’re looking to break off completely, Vimeo is an alternative to YouTube that sadly has only a lackluster Android app (its iOS app is much better).

App: Calendar

Replacement: ZenDay

ZenDay is a unique calendar/to-do list combo (something I’ve always wanted; I see less and less reason to have a standalone reminders app) with 3D animations. It has a steep learning curve, but can be worth it if you’re tired of the corporate doldrums of Google Calendar.

App: Google Wallet

Replacement: ???

NFC payments aren’t very popular. I keep Wallet around for paying at Walgreens sometimes, but I’ve made exponentially more purchases with the Starbucks apps, for example, which uses a simple barcode rather than an NFC chip.

How to use UCCW

Ultimate Custom Clock Widget (UCCW) is one of the most powerful and versatile Android widgets. It’s free with ads in Google Play, although you can make a $5 in-app purchase to remove them.

Despite its name, UCCW can be configured to support almost any Android app or activity, not just clocks. It has two basic features:

  1. a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor for designing your own UCCW widget.
  2. integration with a wide range of UCCW skins and themes from Google Play.

Most likely, you’re here to find out how to implement someone else’s UCCW skin or theme through the UCCW app (i.e., feature #2). A successful implementation may look like these examples:

UCCW

PlayBar skin for UCCW. Running on Jelly Bean 4.2.2 w/Nova Launcher Prime and PlayCon icon theme.

UCCW Clock

UCCW w/ShadowClock skin. Running on Jellybean 4.2.2 w/Nova Launcher Prime and Lustre icon theme.

Whether you’re setting up the perfect clock widget or just trying to impress others with your fancy home screen, UCCW is worth playing around with. Here’s how to set it up in less than five minutes:

1. Download UCCW from Google Play

UCCW is free to download here. Consider a $5 donation to remove the ads.

UCCW

The default UCCW screen.

2. Search for “UCCW” in Google Play and download a UCCW skin or theme that you like

The search should return a variety of UCCW-compatible skins and themes. They’ll appear in Google Play as apps, but they’re essentially just plugins for UCCW. For example, the PlayBar theme in the first screenshot above requires UCCW.

UCCW Android Skins

A sampling of downloadable UCCW skins.

3. Create a widget anywhere on your screen

Select Widgets -> UCCW in your launcher to get started. After that, select a widget size (unlike widgets associated with apps like Google+, UCCW can be implemented in many default sizes), and then select a skin or theme. Any UCCW skins and themes you download should appear in the UCCW app. You may have to scroll down to see them all:

PlayBar skins

Choosing from among PlayBar skins for UCCW.

4. Create and lock hotspots

Depending on what UCCW skin or theme you use, you may have the option to edit the widget’s hotspots. A hotspot is simply a part of the widget that can be configured to open an Android app when tapped.

For example, the widgets from the very first screenshot in this post all redirect to their titular apps (“Chrome” opens Chrome, and so on). You can edit the hotspot and link it to any app that you want. Afterward, you’ll need to go to the settings menu inside the UCCW app and enable Hotspot Mode so that tapping the widget does what you want it to do instead of sending you back to the UCCW editor.

UCCW Widget

Editing the Chrome widget in the PlayBar skin for UCCW. Note that both color and hotspot are editable.

Adjusting hotspot Chrome

Adjusting the hotspot for the Chrome widget.

Lock widgets Android

Use Hotspot Mode to lock the color/hotspot changes you’ve made to your UCCW widget.

5. Finish Up

Simply tap the screen as per the instructions to add the finished widget.

Touch Here

Touch to finish placing the newly created UCCW widget.

Facebook Widget

Placing a finished Facebook UCCW widget on a home screen.