Spotify and Google Play Music (All Access or no) have made it more of a chore to listen to whole albums. With infinite resources at my disposal (should I relisten to Black Sabbath’s 13? Is the new Weekend album as good as non-Huey Lewis Sports?), paralysis sets in. And Play Music’s card system isn’t helpful – give me a list, or give me death, I say. Don’t make me scroll thru endless boxes with laughing pictures of Aaliyah and the wrong B12.
There’s a certain anonymizing effect that streaming music services have on every note that passes through them. The listener doesn’t own it, and the artist receives peanuts for it, and in theory it could be just one of a never-ending string of songs played from that same account on a given day; Spotify has no run-out groove or optical laser. Jaron Lanier commented:
“I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.”
It’s bad enough for individual songs, but what about full-length albums? Conventional wisdom says that infinite plays and custom playlists on streaming music services mean that traditional albums, with their meticulously crafted running orders, segues, reprises, and lyrical or thematic concepts, are DOA. But you could have made the same case when the first CD player with track shuffle was released.
The album was built for vinyl in the 1960s and, to a lesser extent, the 1970s. Vinyl is the anti-Internet: it discourages dilettantism and track skipping, and by being so damn large and requiring a huge apparatus just to be played-back even at low quality, it takes up the whole room. There were no multiscreen living rooms during vinyl’s heyday, but I don’t think there could have been any, so all-encompassing is vinyl.
Vinyl is to music as Lisp is to programming languages. Per James Gosling:
“Lisp is a Black Hole: if you try to design something that’s not Lisp, but like Lisp, you’ll find that the gravitational forces on the design will suck it into the Black Hole, and it will become Lisp“.
An album made during the heyday of LP records conformed to the physical details of the medium: continuous, uninterrupted playback for 15-30 minutes, split into at least 2 sides. Full user attention was required. And vinyl had unique artistic possibilities, explored to their fullest by classics like Abbey Road (side 2 is a medley ; furthermore, the jarring “She’s So Heavy/Here Comes the Sun” break required the listener to actually get up and switch the record in order to be relieved of the deafening, sudden ending to the former song) and the Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free (side 1 is all about vegetables; side 2 is about high school nostalgia and Lolita), but even knew albums like The Knife’s instantly legendary Shaking the Habitual (any album whose title references Foucault gets a thumbs-up from me), on which the epic “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized” has an entire side, all to its lonesome, to stretch and unwind its spacious rumination.
In light of how long (a millennium, I think) the codex book form has been with us (and will continue to be with us – get on any CTA train in Chicago and compare the number of paperbacks to the number of people reading on Kindles/iPads, and you’ll probably be shocked at how many more are in the former category), it’s worth investigating why music only achieved similar status between roughly the mid 1960s and the present day. Meaning, music was fitted to a discrete unit that had to be consumed sequentially: you listened to an album like you read a book, start to finish, with full mindshare dedicated to the artist and their specific vision at a specific moment in time.
For years, I’ve kept an obsessive “Top 10 favorite albums” list, updating it with new choices, often impulsively after digesting some album du jour (I try to listen to at least one new album per day – one of the blessings Spotify provides), but some have remained there for a long time. I’ve noticed that many of my true favorites – the early work of Aphex Twin, the 1960s Mothers albums – are items that I own on vinyl and am willing to consume only with devoted attention. I think that part of vinyl’s ongoing appeal, which is significant enough even to buoy podunk record shops, is that is immune to nonsense about “disruption” – it offers a literally analog experience that has no digital equivalent, since it, in a way, assumes isolation and dedication, not fragmentation and iteration (Latinate roots abound in these high minded “tech” discussions).
So I wanted to look briefly at one of the albums that has always been at the top of my list: We’re Only in it for the Money by The Mothers of Invention.
I picked the 1995 CD remaster up at a Ear X-Tacy in Louisville, KY (since closed: the shop, not the city) in the summer of 2005, after my first year of college. I had just gotten my first iPod in the winter of ’04 but still carried a CD player around for cases like this one, when I didn’t have iTunes for Windows (during the dark days, before I migrated to Chrome OS and OS X). So I gave it a listen on the way home, 90 minutes from Louisville to Lebanon, and I have since given it probably 500 additional listens, more than any album I own.
The album is a snapshot of the era, but it transcends the hippie, freak, and psychedelic movements that inform it. Mothers mastermind Frank Zappa originally intended for it to be a mashup of Mothers music and Lenny Bruce comedy, a concept mercifully scrapped in favor of a melange of psychedelia, melodic surf rock, collage, and comedy. Much of its change can be attributed to the 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper by The Beatles, which blazed new trails and created almost every album cliché in the book, from seamless transitions between songs to “epic” avant-garde closing songs.
We’re Only in it… crams 19 songs into under 40 minutes, and the last song takes up nearly 7 minutes of that. It’s a master course in rich, detailed economy. Those first 18 songs breeze past in what seems like seconds.
Eric Clapton shows up on both “Are you Hung Up?” and “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music” to shout and/or stonily reminisce against a strangely affecting sonic collage background. The latter song samples (in 1968!) a surf rock that Zappa produced.
“Who Needs the Peace Corps?” is a history lesson about LSD, the Grateful Dead, and Haight-Asbury, set to a nifty vocal melody and squawking sax. The other two songs in its suite – “Concentration Moon” and “Mom & Dad” – foreshadowed the Kent St. shootings with masterful songwriting. The latter may be the most moving song in the Zappa canon, set to a 2/2 beat elevated by mallet-played drums and an endlessly catchy guitar figure. I used to hum it while working in a Subaru factory during that endless, oppressive 2005 coma summer. “May be,” since “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance,” despite its silly title, can nearly induce tears from me, for its high-minded idealism set to a parody doo-wop melody. It’s so good that a merely instrumental version of it salvaged the otherwise drab Lumpy Gravy album that Zappa issued in 1967.
“Mother People” pays homage to “sleeping in a phone booth” (what’s that, you’ll probably ask) and incorporates an orchestral section: all in under 3 minutes. “Lonely Little Girl” has a riff and a vocal that would make Led Zeppelin blush: it shifts so many gears and unveils so many motifs in its sub-2 minute running time that you wonder why anyone else tries.
There are so many details to go into, especially about the album’s tortured version history. And of course there’s the multi-layered beautiful guitars of “The Idiot Bastard Son” and the sick humor of “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black.” But I’ll stop for now. Next time, I’ll look at another one of my favorite albums.
Google Play Music is the Android app that made me like Android. Back in early 2012, when it was just Google Music and its icon was a pair of non-glossy black headphones, it (more so than any other app) showed the beautiful future of Android by wrapping the most easily used music locker service ever inside of a clean design. ICS may have been nascent and mainstream Android still mired in Gingerbread’s ugly capacitive buttons, but Google Music was a trip into the future, even on my early 2011 single-core HTC Inspire.
It was a nice coincidence that the app came to public attention at the same moment that Megaupload was getting shut down; Google Music showed how storing and accessing a massive collection of music (up to 20,000 songs for free) could be made palatable, safe, and legal for even the most casual users. It was a music app that embraced rather than resisted over ten years’ worth of changes in music consumption habits, as it didn’t care where you got the songs from and treated them no differently than the songs you bought through the app’s store front. Whereas Google’s apps (and Android apps in general) were often complicated or overly tech in comparison to their iOS counterparts, Google Music was a lean alternative to the increasingly bloated iTunes and impossible-to-understand (for non-techies) services like iTunes Match.
Google Music replaced the iPod I used to carry around, and for a solid year and half it was easily the most used app on my phones. But now, I don’t turn to it as often. Sure, I still have a huge 60+ GB collection of 320kbps music, much of it rare, stored in there (and redundantly backed up to multiple Google Drives), but something about the app is driving me away. I use Spotify a lot, but it’s not a complete substitute since: 1) it doesn’t have a lot of the more obscure tracks and regional album variations that I have collected; 2) I don’t own the music. So why I am suddenly down on Google Play Music?
I think it’s the cards. Ever since the advent of Google Now, Google has become fixated on converting many of its apps to card-based UI. After Now, much of the Play suite got card interfaces, too. I don’t use Google Play Books, Magazines, or Movies nearly enough to care about their cards, but the cards in Music just don’t work for me and I think they are killing my usage of the app.
Cards are perfect for Google Now (which admittedly I barely use) or Twitter for Android because they capture discrete pieces of information that you’re likely to view in isolation and then, once you’re done with them, swipe them away or hit the back button. Music doesn’t work this way: much of the time, you’re probably navigating through a list of albums or songs. In the original iPhone keynote, Steve Jobs spent what now seems like an inordinate amount of time showing off the new phone’s ability to do things like scroll through album covers. It was an assurance, I believe, to customers that even on a device on which music playback wasn’t the only, or even primary, functionality (it was going to cannibalize many of their iPods, after all) that the ability to peruse a music collection would be preserved.
The old Google Music had a classic list interface with album art. The new one instead has a big fat wall of cards: not only does it not feel good to scroll thru them, but it makes even harder to find music because so much real estate is instead taken up by the album art that Google has supplied (unless you uploaded it yourself; even if you did, sometimes Google will replace it, like it did in the instance of the European and American covers for Paul Oakenfold’s Bunkka). The cards overemphasize each album and don’t respect the flow or shape of your entire collection (possibly a failure of “big data”? heh). The indication is certainly that you should be using the search bar to find your music (something that was touted during the unveiling of All Access at this year’s I/O), but that’s become harder to use, too, thank to All Access.
I subscribed to All Access, Google’s Spotify clone, for a month before giving it a rest. Initially, I was excited at the prospect of consolidating all my music listening needs ex podcasting into one app, but the card interface just didn’t work out and was made worse by the search functionality, whose consistency varied. It made no distinction between my collection and its own streaming library. The Verge touted this as one of its advantages over Spotify (which respects the distinction), but it made me get lost looking for an album or song sometimes.
I doubt that Google makes revenue of any significance from its pay-to-download music store, and would probably prefer if everyone just streamed the songs that it had ultimate control over. But for now, it has revealed its limited knowledge of music or music apps in its effort to build-out its monolithic Google Now-Google+-hyperlocal superapp, a failure that can be attributed to Google’s solipsism (good Greek word – read the Benedict Evans entry I linked to, which explains this phenomena in Facebook and Google better than I can).
(And yes, I realize that this blog has a card-based theme of sorts.)
I don’t use Google Now anymore. It occasionally chirps up in my notification tray with a depressing White Sox score, but I barely use the swipe-up gesture to access its cards. The last time I did, it didn’t even give me transit info for the closest bus stop and still showed sports some old Blackhawks playoff scores that I hadn’t manually swiped away (1. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup over a week ago, and here’s a video from the parade; 2. That clear-out gesture is surprisingly hard to make). I initially loved the idea of a comprehensive think-ahead assistant that could pool together transit schedules, sports scores, and Gmail notices into one interface. It has seemingly improved since last year, now that it can show predicative news or music suggestions. But the price is that one has to go on using Google for everything – Google Search to scour the Web, Google Play Music to play both your own collection and stream other content, GMail to handle all email. And it’s becoming an increasingly unbearable price.
Apple blogger Marco Arment, with whom I don’t always agree (he’s dismissive of Android), had a great post up about how Google, along with peers Facebook and Twitter, were essentially killing the standards-based Web that had given life to them in the first place. Twitter doesn’t play nice with 3rd-party debs. Facebook has always been a walled garden. And Google, once a leader in standards compliance, nows wants everything behind the G+ wall: chat clients, video calling, photo backup, etc. I agree with Arment that Twitter in particular may have the theoretical high ground, since Twitter developers aren’t entitled to unfettered access to others’ proprietary services. But it, like Facebook and especially like Google, want to ultimately control what you see, i.e., ads and promotions.
Losing the standards-based Web would be tragic, but maybe not for the reasons that some cite. It would be painful to go on losing services like Google Reader or Falcon Pro (whose demise I recently chronicled), sure. Yet the real pain will come from large swathes of Web being the exclusive provinces of certain corporations who, for reasons either furtive or coercive, decide to give info to the American NSA. You’re social walled garden is also conveniently a surveillance state – it has natural tracking mechanisms and clear owners (by contrast, no one “owns” RSS or email) who can be talked into compliance. And of course, the rhetoric from both the array of walled gardens and from the NSA itself is all about making your worry less. Using Google Play Music apparently makes streaming music simpler (I never had a problem with Spotify, though), while the NSA’s collection of email is for the (truly outlandish) purpose of making you worry less about terrorism, something that kills fewer persons per year than bathtub falls do.
Google Now is really a microcosm for the time of cordoned-off surveillance made possible by the perfect convergence of the Web giants’ collective renewed focus on proprietary services and America’s obsession with surveilling (and being surveilled! many people of course have no issue with exposing all their info, they will even volunteer it, and because of them there’s a whole cottage industry of bullshit related to “no one cares about/should care about privacy, derp” out there). Are these suggested “research more” topics really going to enlighten me, or are they just going to take me to some SEO pile? Well, I don’t have to worry about that question anymore, at least practically (I’ll go on pondering it as philosophical issue), since I just use DuckDuckGo.
DuckDuckGo is a search engine and news service that has become an unlikely hero in the recent NSA revelations. It doesn’t track users and provides results that, at least in my heavy daily usage, seem to be as good as Google’s, if not better since fewer persons are out there trying to game them. It reminds me of using Firefox for the first time back in the dark days of WinXP/IE: a startling relief, a glass of ice water in hell. When you download the Android app, there’s no sign-in, no “we just need your email, pretty plz,” no “connect with Facebook/G+,” no “add all your friends and family as ___”. It just goes directly into a news feed with a search bar at the top. In one fell swoop, both Google Search and Google Now are strangely unessential on my Google-designed phone.
Of the three Web titans Arment mentions, Google by far has the most to lose in the potential anti-NSA/anti-tracking world that DuckDuckGo represents. No tracking and fewer ad impressions mean that Google’s business model – which most people don’t understand – just doesn’t work. And unlike Facebook or Twitter, Google has no unique service, with the possible exception of its sophisticated Maps: most of its services are fast-follow efforts or copies, with Google Drive (which combines MS Office with Dropbox) being the best example. You can take your email, your search queries, or your files and notes elsewhere; but you can’t necessarily take your Twitter followers or Facebook friends. Their walled gardens are simply better than G+. This is why Google needs to create Arment’s described “lockdown” effect via G+ in order to compete with Twitter et al, and it has to do this in spite of Apple’s efforts to clear Google off the iPhone (how long til we see Bing as the default search engine on the iPhone?). Good luck.
I agree with Arment’s conclusion, expressed as a retort to the proprietary lockdown efforts from leading Web companies: “[F]uck them, and fuck that.” It’ll take huge steps to stem the tide of them and of the surveillance (both by them and by government) that they enable, however. The recent Google reversal on retiring CalDAV in favor of the Google Calendar API represents one such small victory, and I hope that there are more. And switching to DuckDuckGo is one good, painless way to get back on the path to a saner, more private existence.
“Mobile-first” and “mobile-only” are almost clichés in terms of current app design. But overuse of “mobile” language aside, iOS and Android users have definitely benefitted from this new focus from developers on producing software that exploits and respects the unique capabilities of smaller devices. Maybe even too much so: I recently combed thru my app drawer and felt overwhelmed by the nearly 100 apps – most of them both beautifully designed and easy to use – in it. My first instinct was to simply cut myself off from many of the services provided by these apps, so as to simplify my experience and reduce app count. I initially thought about completely ditching RSS reading and some social networking, for example.
Ultimately, I opted to do something different and instead I redistributed my workflow across my mobile device (a Nexus 4), my Mac, and my wifi-enabled Wii U. Although many of the apps and services I was using had versions available for both Android and OS X (and Web), I decided to restrict many of them to only one of my devices and ignore its other versions. So for example, I kept the mobile Google+ Hangouts app, but eschewed its desktop Web/Gmail version, and likewise kept my desktop RSS reader (Reeder) while ditching my previous mobile RSS clients.
The most difficult, yet most rewarding, part of this process was determining which apps and services I could remove from my phone and perform only on my Mac or Wii U. Amid the swirl of “mobile-only”/”mobile-first lingo,” I reflexively felt that I was selling myself short by offloading many of the excellent apps and services I used onto my relatively old-fashioned Mac and my dainty Wii U, but the experience has been liberating. I have improved my phone’s battery life, reduced clutter in its launcher, and restored some piece of mind: there are fewer things to blankly stare at and anxiously check on my phone while on the train, at the very least.
More importantly, I know have a firmer sense of what I want each device, with its accompanying apps and services, to do. The productivity bump and happiness that I have experienced has also made me realize, finally, why Windows 8 has flopped. Trying to treat all devices the same and have them run the same apps is a recipe for poor user experience and too many duplicate services. It becomes more difficult to know what any given device excels at, or what a user should focus on when using it. If focus is truly saying no to a thousand things, then it’s important to say “no” to certain apps or services on certain platforms. Steve Jobs famously said “no” to Flash on iOS, but one doesn’t even have to be that wonky or technical when creating workflow boundaries and segmentation in his/her own life: I’ve said “no” to Web browsing on my Wii U and to Netflix on my phone, for example.
With this move toward device segmentation and focus in mind, I’ll finally delve into the tasks that I know do only on desktop or in the living room, so as to relieve some of the strain and overload from my mobile device. I perform these tasks using only my Mac or my Wii U, and I do not use their corresponding apps or services on my Nexus 4.
RSS can be tricky: you probably shouldn’t subscribe to any frequently updated sites, since they will overwhelm your feed and leave you with a “1000+ unread” notification that makes combing thru the list a chore. Rather, sites that push out an update once or twice per day (or every other day) are ideal material for RSS. Rewarding RSS reading requires you to have specialized taste borne out of general desktop Web browsing (see below), as well as a tinkerer’s mindset for adding and subtracting feeds. It’s a workflow meant for a desktop.
Granted, there are some good RSS clients for Android: Press and Minimal Reader Pro spring to mind. However, neither is great at managing feeds due to their minimalism and current reliance on the soon-to-be-extinct Google Reader. Plus, I’ve yet to find an Android rival for Reeder, which I use on my Mac an which is also available for iOS. The time-shifted nature of RSS also makes it something that I often only get around to once I’m back home, not working, and sitting down, with Reeder in front of me, and so I forego using a mobile client most of the time. This may change if and when RSS undergoes its needed post-Google Reader facelift.
The thrill of wide-open desktop browsing doesn’t exist on mobile. Maybe it’s because most mobile sites are bastardizations of their desktop forbearers, or because screen size is a limiting factor. Moreover, most mobile apps are still much better and much faster than their equivalent websites. I haven’t disabled Chrome on my phone, but I seldom use it unless another app directed me there. Instead, I prefer news aggregators like Flipboard and Google Currents, or strong native apps like The Verge, Mokriya Craigslist, and Reddit is Fun Golden Platinum.
Of this trio, only Tumblr has a first-rate Android app in terms of aesthetics and friendliness to battery life. It’s easy for me to see why I don’t like using any of them on mobile: they all began as desktop websites, and then had to be downsized into standalone apps. Alongside these aesthetic and functional quibbles with website-to-app transitions, I also consciously limit my Facebook and LinkedIn intake by only checking them on desktop, and in the case of Tumblr, I may create content for it on my phone, but I usually save it to Google Drive (if only to back it up, which I’ll always end up doing one way or another) and then finish formatting and editing it on my desktop before posting it.
Twitter is a different story, due to its hyper-concise format. I’ll talk about it in the next entry. Google+ – which is almost completely ignorable as a standlone site on desktop – is also much better on mobile, wherein it performs useful background functions like photo backup. Mobile-first networks like Instagram and Vine are obvious exclusions as well.
Spotify is a unique case. Its Android app is certainly functional, but unstable and not so good with search. It is difficult to get a fully populated list of returned search results, and in many cases you must hit the back button and re-key the search. Its Mac app is much better – the gobs of menus and lengthy lists are right at home on the desktop. For listening to music on my Nexus 4, I use Google Play Music, where I have a large, precisely categorized personal collection accessible via a clean UI, and the terrific holo-styled Pocket Casts, which I use to play weekly trance podcasts from Above & Beyond and Armin Van Buuren, among others.
I’m not a huge fan of Netflix on tablets or large-screen phones. I do probably 99% of my Netflix viewing on an HDTV connected to my Wii U, with the remainder done on my Mac. I can see the appeal of viewing Netflix while lying in bed, so I don’t rule out its mobile possibilities altogether. However, most of the video watching I do on mobile is via YouTube, Google Play Movies, or my own movie collection as played by MX Player Pro.
Skype is a good desktop messenger and video calling service, but it may as well be DOA on Android, especially stock Android. Google+ Hangouts (the successor to Google Talk) is much simpler, since it requires only a Google+ account and has a dead-simple video calling/messaging interface. Plus, Skype for Android is unfortunately a battery-drainer, in my experience. That said, Skype’s shortcomings on mobile are balanced by its strengths on desktop: its native Mac app is still an appealing alternative to having to open up Google+ in Safari/Chrome.
In part two, I shall look at apps or services that I now do exclusively on mobile, as well as the select group of apps and services that I use on both desktop and mobile.
“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