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:
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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.
Android is huge. This year alone, it will outsell all Windows, OS X, and iOS devices combined, although many of these sales won’t come with Jellybean installed or even with the prospect of it ever being installed. And the Android user base is nearly as fragmented as the OS itself. Its wide reach has brought together a strange group of folks from all points along the tech-savviness spectrum.
While messing around with the classic Androidify, I came up with these four umbrella groups that I think capture most of the total Android user base. Some of these groups overlaps (The Hardcore Hacker and The Holo Purist, for example) while others are obviously mutually exclusive.
The Hardcore Hacker
Raison d’être: To take advantage of Android’s flexibility via custom ROMs, rooting, and power-user apps.
Quintessential apps: XDA-Developers, Titanium Backup PRO Key, Tasker, Paranoid Android Preferences, ROM Manager (Premium), various custom keyboards
Device of choice: anything that can run their latest creation
Modding an Android device is enormously popular, especially in the US. Developers in particular can take advantage of Android’s less locked-down structure to make it look like nearly anything. Rooting can also get rid of unwanted bloatware and allow for more nuanced battery management.
The Holo Purist
Raison d’être: to show off how pretty and elitist Android can be; to show off that Android users actually care about design.
Devices of choice: Nexus 4, Nexus 7, Nexus 10, “Nexus Experience” phones (maybe)
Google has created a nice aesthetic with Holo, its recommendations for 4.0+ app design. A Holo Purist would lean heavily on Google’s own apps at the expense of third part alternatives, but she would also seek out non-Google apps that followed the same guidelines, too. I consider myself part of this category.
The Accidental Android User
Raison d’être: to use a phone that is more affordable than the iPhone
Quintessential apps: Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Candy Crush Saga, Snapchat, Pandora
Devices of choice: HTC Evo 4G, Samsung Galaxy S2 (or S3), Amazon Kindle Fire
The Accidental Android user may not regard their phone as anything more than a phone. They likely use Android because of cost or carrier encouragement or (in rare cases) extreme anti-Apple bias. Their apps are likely to be hugely popular apps that aren’t differentiated much between platforms or which are popular alternatives to SMS and niche Google Services.
The Overzealous Reviewer
Raison d’être: to announce that she isn’t using an iPhone/iPad and that this new Android device might just be “the best smartphone, period” after running it thru a real-world use case like looped video streaming on maximum brightness with Twitter running in the background.
Quintessential apps: The Verge, Evernote, Twitter, Rdio, Spotify, Netflix
Devices of choice: HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4
This category is an outgrowth of the huge media “Apple is doomed” meme, in which some of the most technically powerful Android phones are analyzed in terms of irrelevant specifications like gHz or video playback endurance (the latter doesn’t even matter much unless you install a third party player) rather than user experience. The S4’s Geekbench score vis-a-vis the iPhone 5 is a good example. Also, one need not be a professional reviewer to fit into this category.
Smartphone OSes have evolved to the point that they deliver experiences more akin to traditional computer OSes (OS X, Windows) than to anything that once ran on mobile phones (I’m thinking almost anything pre-iPhone, but especially BlackBerry and Symbian). iOS 7’s huge leap ahead into a paradigm dominated by high GPU requirements and by first-party options for audio/video calls (FaceTime, which now supports audio), messages (iMessage), and bulk file transfer (AirDrop) severs many of its ties with the carrier-dominated devices of years past. iOS once used obvious textures to invite input from users more used to hard-button carrier decks with plane-jane software, and so its revitalization as a more translucent, slightly flatter OS encapsulates its maturity.
Android was never as plush and textured as iOS, perhaps because it had originally been designed for BlackBerry-like phones with hardware keys and then proceeded thru a series of hurried changes that culminated with the apparent maturity of Jellybean. But there are still many vestiges of old-school “this is a phone, not a smartphone” thinking in its design. Here are five that really could use a facelift
Visual Voicemail by Default
Google hasn’t done much with Google Voice, which it purchased from GrandCentral over four years ago. It isn’t a system app and it performs poorly as an SMS solution, too. Android has no default support for visual voicemail, so Voice and various paid solutions like YouMail. Perhaps this issue shall be fixed once Google folds Voice into Hangouts. This voicemail setup may be a carrier issue, though, and as such hard to implement except on stock devices.
Keyboard and Dictionary Improvements
The Google Keyboard is decent, but its accuracy and comfort still don’t match third-party alternatives like Swype. One of its most annoying features is its save-to-dictionary function, as seen here:
Am I supposed to tap the word that the arrow is pointing to, or the text to the right of the arrow? Basic usability improvements here could make the default keyboard friendlier and easier to use.
Quick Text/Rich Notifications for SMS
Gmail supports rich expandable notifications that permit immediate replies or archiving. By contrast, the SMS app is barebones, with none of that. I can understand the design decision, perhaps: Google wants users to use Hangouts or Talk over the carrier-dependent SMS. But with Google wanting to get into every niche, why shouldn’t it try to cop some features from the excellent Sliding Messaging Pro (seen in above shot), which permits a persistent Quick Text notification/widget and an expandable reply/read/delete notification.
A better Camera app
The Android camera app, with its inscrutable radial menu and logos, has “this is a cameraphone, not a camera” written all over it. It’s 2013; every smartphone is a cameraphone by definition. Hiding all of the options in deference to a “clean” radial menu only makes things more complex, not more simple. They should also just fold the stock Gallery app’s filters/editing features into the Camera. Currently, they’re buried deep in the Gallery app. The apparent Android 4.3 redesign is small step forward, but it still seem part of the same backward mindset as its predecessor.
A Native Podcast App
The iPhone’s stock Podcasts app is no great shakes, but Android doesn’t even have one. For the niche geeky audience that Nexus/stock devices cater to, a stock podcasting client seems like a no-brainer.
Now that Falcon Pro is in a tailspin induced by the perfect storm of Twitter’s harsh API policy and the app’s own shady token “resets,” there’s room at the top for high-end Twitter clients on Android. And of course, there’s the official Twitter app, which is serviceable if unremarkable.
Carbon is free, ad-free, and beautiful. True to its name (“carbon” is derived from “carbo,” the Latin word for coal), it has a pitch-colored interface that scrolls as fluidly as any Android app outside of the Robin client for App.net (ADN). The timeline can be tilted to refresh it. Settings and menus (lists, trends, etc.) are nested at the right. Your Twitter profile can be edited at the left.
- beautiful design
- great responsiveness
- ability to edit Twitter profile
- widget, in-app browser
- No DashClock support
- Google Play reports that it has been downloaded 100k-500k times, meaning that it could hit the Twitter API ceiling soon.
Talk about a true-blue Holo app: Robird looks a lot like the Nexus Android dialer, with three black-and-blue columns. Robird utilizes a minimalist aesthetic that focuses just on your timeline, interactions, and DMs. Its scrolling is nothing to write home about, but it has useful tap-and-hold gestures that will be familiar to any Falcon Pro pro.
- Simple, unobtrusive, and intuitive design
- DashClock support
- Configurable refresh interval (15-45 minutes)
- Useful gestures
- Not that popular, meaning it still has a long life ahead of it.
- $1.99 price (this isn’t a con to me, but it will be to many)
- No widget
- Not much support for lists or trends
Plume is an old-school Twitter client from the same developers behind Beautiful Widgets. It is available in both free and paid versions. The latter is pricey at $5, but the app has some perks in the form of an internal browser and a lockscreen widget.
- free (if you can put up with the ads)
- immune to token limit since it’s an older app
- lockscreen widget
- scrollable widget
- familiar slide-out UI on the left
- Facebook integration
- paid version is relatively expensive
- no DashClock support except via 3rd-party extension
- older-looking design/aesthetic
It’s the official Twitter app: what’s there to say? You’ll never have to worry about it running out of tokens. It has exclusive features like photo filters which aren’t much to right home about; iOS 7 and Android Jellybean and later both ahve native photo filters, to say nothing of Instagram.
- not subject to restrictions placed on clients
- photo filters
- casual, familiar feel that will appeal to some
- unimaginative design
- promoted Tweets in your stream
- battery drainer
- mostly for casual users, meaning it won’t work as well for heavier users
My in-depth review here.
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:
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?
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 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!
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?
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.