“Stock” Android has become increasingly functional, reliable, and consistent after getting a facelift with 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and then 4.1 Jelly Bean. The evolution of its current unified “flat” aesthetic has arisen from Google’s renewed focus on, well, everything, and in its wake it has opened up a gulf between itself and the looser, anything-goes aesthetics of Android 2.3 and earlier. As such, Google’s vision of “stock Android” can often clash with the design of many 3rd-party apps, even as many of them have risen to the challenge and issued their own Holo-designed apps. Commercially, stock Android is a dud: even LG, after the heartening success of the Nexus 4 (which in the Samsung-dominated Android world is victory enough, for now), is no longer going to be bothering with Nexus manufacturing.
So what’s the point of Holo and the whole “stock” experience? Well: I think it has its merits, if only because it weeds out crapware and bloat and gives users a quality experience due to its reliance on Google’s mostly great apps and services (even if you don’t use G+, the app itself is still a beautiful thing, for example). But it still has lots of shortcomings, like its blatant disregard for entire categories like podcasting or good video playback, and the increasing sprawl of Google apps and services – now that Google wants to stick its fingers in every pot, how long until the Android install image is itself so large and bloat that it won’t be much of a relief from the overloaded ones that come with the Samsung Galaxy S4 or many other bloatware-stuffed phones?
Since it’s unlikely that stock Android will ever be a blockbluster, it’s basically left behind for nitpicking types like me to nit and pick it apart, so with that, let’s look at some of the most important stock Android apps, and the available alternatives. These lists aren’t totally comprehensive, for the sake of conserving space more than anything. I apologize in advance if I’ve left out a key app(s): let me know in comments.
Stock Option: Chrome
Chrome is a capable WebKit-based browser, but so is Dolphin, and thanks to Dolphin’s Jetpack add-on, the latter’s speed can often outstrip even Google’s own browser. But speed isn’t everything. Dolphin’s tab interface is straight out of Android 2.3 and feels like a desktop app that has been scaled-down for mobile. Chrome, by contrast, feels mobile-first and has a nice stacked window interface. It also keeps in sync with Chrome on other devices.
Firefox is a good alternative to either of the above. It also keeps in sync with your other instances of Firefox and is decently fast. Firefox also does a better job of respecting privacy, by letting you enable Do Not Track and install ad-blocking add-ons.
Opera is now Webkit-based, too, and it features a neat “offroad” mode which lets you get better speeds even on slower connections.
The one worthy challenger, however, is Next Browser. Built by the team behind the GO Launcher, Next is a speedy, sleekly designed browser that I now use as my default.
Stock option: Gallery
Major alternatives: QuickPic
This is a tough one. Gallery has a slick scrolling interface (one of the only instances of satisfactory Android scrolling, sadly) and keeps in sync with your Picasa/G+ albums. It also has filters, if for some reason you didn’t get your fair share from Instagram, Snapseed, Flickr, Pixlr Express…
QuickPic, however, is, well, quicker. And it weeds out those Web albums by default, making for a simplified photo browsing experience.
Stock Options: Email, Gmail
Email clients are a wasteland on Android. Gmail for Android, with its swipe gestures, quick actions from notifications, and compatibility with Dashclock Widget and Google Now, is so good that it discourages competition. The stock Email client has a similar interface, sans swipe gestures or quick actions, and can be made compatible with Dashclock via the handy Any Dash Pro app.
K-9 Mail is my favorite of the non-stock options: it has a ton of functionality and customization built-in, along with a handy Dashclock extension, although its interface is reminiscent of the 2.3 era, with lots of options tucked away in the menu.
MailDroid Pro is a completely built-from-scratch client that is either ad-supported or ridiculously expensive (or maybe not, given the difficulty of building good email clients), neither of which make it an easy buy unless you’re looking to experiment.
Stock Option: Messaging
SMS seems to be on the ropes outside of the US, where unlimited text/talk plans are rare. Even in the US, it is under siege from OTT (over the top) services like WhatsApp and Line (see below). All the same, SMS is still important for many users since it sidesteps many of the requirements (like two-way clients) that OTT services have.
Sliding Messasing Pro is an immaculate, super customizable SMS client with MMS support and a buttery sliding UI. Highly recommended. Go SMS Pro is packed with features, but is also in-your-face and a little too eager to have access to your phone so that it can begin spamming you with offers to join its own messaging network. Chomp SMS is fine but a little strange: it hasn’t worked out its notifications such that it doesn’t duplicate the stock app’s SMS notifications.
Stock Options: Gallery/Google Play Movies & TV
Major Alternatives: MX Player Pro
Android doesn’t do video playback so well natively: it sends the video to Gallery, doesn’t offer many options, and doesn’t support all formats. MX Player Pro has nice acceleration options, pinch-to-zoom, and support for virtually all video formats.
Stock option: Google Currents
The demise of Google Reader leaves behind a strange RSS landscape on Android. Google Currents is Google’s own alternative: it can integrate RSS feeds, as well as pretty “editions” of many popular websites and blogs. I wrote about it here. However, it’s a bit unstable and gummy at times. You’re likely better off sticking with its editions when possible and limiting its RSS feeds to just a few favorites.
Feedly is a popular alternative that updates promptly and has lots of sharing and sorting options. It perhaps isn’t ideal for huge feed collections, which is where rival gReader can excel. While gReader doesn’t have the slick interface of either Currents or Feedly, it is a bit more feature-rich, and one hopes that it’ll keep its word and remain functional past July 1.
Press is a minimalistic, subtly designed RSS client with Dashclock Support that also promises to remain operational after July 1. Its my weapon of choice if I use RSS on mobile, which isn’t that often.
Stock option: News and Weather
The stock News and Weather app is pretty bare-bones, but it’s weather and uses common weather data, so you’re not going to find a revelatory alternative. Accordingly, assessing weather apps is more about style and bells/whistles.
Eye in Sky has a good widget and lots of customization options for its colors and icons. Beautiful Widgets is true to its name, letting you setup sophisticated widgets on your screens that display date and weather; it also has a neat Daydream/screensaver. And WeatherBug Elite is a more traditional, fewer-frills weather app that receives frequent updates. Like Eye in Sky, it can also pin a temperature read-out to your task bar.
Stock Option: Clock widget
Major Alternative: Dashclock Widget
This is one of the easiest ways to upgrade your Android experience (on Android 4.2 and later, anyway). Simply download the free Dashclock Widget, add it to your lockscreen, and remove the default clock widget. You can then begin adding all sorts of custom extensions and data to your lockscreen.
Stock Option: Google Play Music
Music apps are a dime a dozen, and despite their number I don’t think they vary all that music in their quality. Most of them have licenses for the same catalogues, so differentiation comes down to interface, price, and, probably, whatever service you began using.
Google Play Music offers a music store, a locker to which you can upload up to 20,000 songs, and access to album/song streams and custom radio stations. It covers almost every base, and it’s cheap, too (for now – signing up before the end of June can lock you into a lower $7.99 monthly rate). But it doesn’t have a desktop app, works only on Android/Web, and has a relatively minimalist aesthetic (in keeping with stock Android).
Spotify works on nearly any platform, but its app design is wonky and often unstable, especially on Android, where sometimes I have to go back and reenter a search query for it to register. Since I’m already entrenched in Spotify, making the switch to near-duplicates like Rdio or Last.fm is pretty much out of the question, but the prospect of integrating a streaming collection with my 8k song library in my Google Play Music library is also enticing (Google Play Music displays both locker-stored albums, store purchases, and streaming albums/songs in the same location, unlike Spotify, which separates them).
Stock Option: QuickOffice Viewer, Google Play Books (kind of)
The default PDF viewer is stock Android is ungainly, with all of its option tucked away into the overflow button on 4.0+. You can load your PDFs into Google Play Books, but you’ll have to go to the Play site on your Mac/PC first.
Adobe Reader and iAnnotate PDF are both free and feature annotation tools, with iAnnotate having a slightly larger variety. But ezPDF Reader Pro is worth the price tag, since it has high-level features like PDF reflow, integration with cloud services, and a bookshelf UI.
Stock Option: Google+
Major Alternatives: …just kidding
-The ScreenGrab Team
The Nexus 4 supports wireless charging via the Qi standard. But until this week, LG’s official charging orb – a sci-fi worthy trinket that looks like a Palm Touchstone or the better half of the ill-fated Nexus Q – had remained vaporware. No more: for a cool $60 USD, you can win the envy of every techie around you and free your phone from microUSB charging.
The orb’s sleek, futuristic design is a proclamation of Google’s (via LG) growing attention to form as much as function. It’s light, smooth, and yet premium-feeling, not unlike an iPhone 5. But make no mistake, this orb is mainly about style. It must be plugged into a power source via the microUSB cable and travel adapter (US/Canada only) while it charges your Nexus 4 or other Qi-compatible phone (just for reference, I was able to charge a Nokia Lumia 920 using this orb, too).
For either phone, charging via Qi is not necessarily an upgrade over standard cabled charging: it takes longer (about four hours for the Nexus 4, if it’s totally drained) and requires more hardware, too. Mostly, it just looks cool. But it does have one major perk which I can see improving one’s experience with their phone: its doubling as a dock.
The phone can be charged successfully at either horizontal or vertical orientations, but I preferred vertical, which puts the phone at a nice viewing angle for reading, checking email, or other one-handed/-fingered tasks. In this way, the orb became a surprisingly well-integrated part of my workstation, and even when I wasn’t interacting with it, it served as a passive news source, since I had set up Google Currents as the default Daydream (a feature of Android 4.2.x which is akin to a screensaver displayed while your Nexus device charges). The 4.2.2 update also brings a special notification sound reserved only for indicating that wireless charging has begun.
This orb is mostly style, but some substance, too. Its usefulness as a dock underscores the benefits of having a larger-screened phone with plenty of real estate for reading or typing. In that sense, it’s reaffirms everything that’s good about the Nexus 4. Highly recommended to completists, geeks, and productivity nuts, but perhaps just a novelty or unnecessary toy for the casual Android fan.
-The ScreenGrab Team