Google’s Android apps are by and large top-notch, although the increasing number of them means that average experience may be getting watered down by duds like Google News and Weather. With so many apps only ported to Android as an afterthought (many, like Instagram, have ported over their bottom-icon heavy look), Google’s specialized design is refreshing. Chrome is no exception. While it doesn’t have Dolphin’s speed or customizations or Firefox’s open source character, Chrome is fine, fast, and full of useful options such as bandwidth conservation (which can sometimes make its rendering of Facebook.com perform better than Facebook’s actual Android app).
You’re waiting for a “but,” so here it is: Mobile Web browsing is stuck in the desktop era. There’s still the URL bar and a bunch of tabs stuck weirdly (and inconveniently) in something that looks like a file cabinet – it doesn’t get much more “legacy” than that. Plus, a mobile Web browser is often somewhere you end up, not somewhere you open with intent. You’re sent to Chrome (or Safari or IE) because you click a link and then wait a few seconds for a blank page to fill out.
There’s something jarring about that process. It really becomes apparent when going through Google Search results, clicking on one, seeing it open in Chrome, then having to go back to Search to go through more that may be interesting. The workaround is to just search directly from Chrome, but the UI is less appealing. Ideally, Google would merge Search and Chrome into one runtime.
Until they do, though, there are some good alternatives to Chrome, both in terms of usability, privacy, and innovative design. I’ve rounded up a few of the best ones here.
If you want something with more pizzaz: Dolphin
Dolphin is speedy, with excellent HTML5 performance a fluid UI. It’s also an ecosystem unto itself, with tons of add-ons and color packs. The look and feel is especially good on tablets and big phones, since it has enough real estate to pull off its desktop-like tab design (if you’re into that). Possible drawbacks include its awkward sharing menus (the best way to share to Pocket is to install a supplementary app) and less support for deep linking (i.e., having links redirect to relevant apps rather than websites) than Chrome. Nice quirks include the ability to create and save drawings that stand in for URLs – you could doodle an ‘F’ to go to Facebook, for example.
If you want something that is private and different: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories
DuckDuckGo is known mostly as an anti-NSA search engine that doesn’t track its users. It’s more than that, as its mobile app name suggests. On Android, it can serve as a news reader with customizable feeds drawing up on various subreddits and popular Web publications – it’s way better than the card-heavy Google Play Newsstand. It’s also a browser. URLs can be entered into the search box and they’ll go directly to that page if correct. You could do all your browsing from within the DuckDuckGo for Android app. Plus, there’s the option to use Orbot to connect the app to Tor for privacy.
If you want something futuristic: Link Bubble
Link Bubble isn’t a replacement for Chrome per se. It’ll still need Chrome or another browser as a fallback, but it’s really a leap beyond almost every other mobile Web experience for Android. Here’s how it works.
When you click a link anywhere, it’ll load in the background and then appear in a small bubble that is drawn over the screen (it lingers until you dismiss it using the notification tray). So say you’re in Google Search and you tap something. It loads in Link Bubble to the side, but you stay inside Google Search, uninterrupted. You can have many bubbles open at once (they’re basically like tabs). Link Bubble has a unique, fun UI for dragging the bubbles to the upper left to save to Pocket, to the upper right to share, and down to close.
Link Bubble is perfect reaction to the disruptive “click, wait for a blank page to load in a Web browser” behavior that characterizes most mobile linking and browsing. It takes some time to get used to, but it becomes a time saver.
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.