The 13 essential Android tablet apps
Just got an Android tablet? Congratulations: You now have a device that can do pretty much everything your computer can, and more. But you need to grab some apps to get the most out of your new tablet, as the real fun starts when you download and install software from the Google Play store. Here are our picks for the essential apps that every new tablet user should try, the apps that can make your tablet faster, cooler, more flexible, and more useful than it was when you first fired it up.
SwiftKey 3 Tablet Keyboard
The on-screen keyboard that comes with Android is okay for typing short notes, but typing anything longer gets old pretty quickly. A better keyboard such as SwiftKey ($4) can make you a faster, more accurate typist by allowing you to customize the keyboard to your typing style. These customization features include how the software autocorrects typos, and how it produces predictions that guess the word before you finish it. When you type a couple of letters, SwiftKey offers a number of guesses at the word, any of which you can select with a touch. If you frequently use unusual terms, you can easily add them to a custom dictionary, allowing the software to recognize the words after a few letters.
SwiftKey also provides two keyboard layouts: the conventional full keyboard and a split layout that puts all of the letter keys under the thumbs; it's ideal for typing when you want to keep both hands on the tablet.
Although SwiftKey is more comfortable to use and more flexible than Google’s standard on-screen keyboard, it is still not as good as a physical keyboard, especially for longer typing sessions. Another option to help with that is Swype, which comes preinstalled on many tablets and is available as a free download. Swype doesn't have quite the same selection of features (and the current freely available beta version crashed occasionally in our tests), but it does offer the same layouts, a one-handed key-swipe mode, and speech-recognition typing.
Want to turn your tablet into an instant-messaging powerhouse? Download Trillian (free). Rather than struggle with different apps for each IM account, you can handle them all at once. It supports all the major services, including AIM, Google Chat, Twitter, and Yahoo Messenger.
To use it, you set up a Trillian account, which stores your credentials in the cloud. The Trillian Android client allows you to log in to the online service, after which you can send or receive messages on any of your accounts, set individual statuses, and send and receive files. It also stores your chat logs online so that you can seamlessly move a conversation from device to device without losing track (you can disable this feature if necessary). It supports background notifications, too, so you can still be available while you're playing Angry Birds Star Wars.
I found no major issues, except that the system sometimes left me logged on to the IM services even after I lost connectivity, giving the false impression that I was available. That's a result of the proxy between the user and the IM service—the proxy does not always notice the disconnection. The free version includes advertisements; you can remove them by buying the pro version, which costs $12 a year.
Most Android tablets (those with Android 4.0) come with a built-in Web browser imaginatively called Browser. Google introduced its Chrome browser for tablets with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, but you can add this browser to a non-Jelly Bean tablet at no charge. Compared with Google’s previous stock offering, Chrome is much faster, better looking, and easier to use. It offers most of the options of its desktop cousin, except support for Chrome extensions or apps. Strong HTML5 support does allow for a lot of fancy browser-based tricks, though, and browsing itself is much smoother and faster than in Firefox. Chrome for Android also supports syncing of bookmarks, open tabs, and passwords through a Google account, which makes it easy to move a browsing session from one device to another.
If you use Firefox on your PC, though, you might want to consider loading up the Android version of Mozilla's browser. Although it is not as fast as Chrome on Android, it does offer bookmark and history syncing, so Firefox fans can easily share bookmarks across devices.
Strong passwords are a necessity of modern life, but they can be impossible to remember. 1Password Reader allows you to get around this problem by securely copying your passwords onto your tablet from the PC or Mac version of the program. In addition to passwords, the app can store details such as identities (name, address, phone number, and the like), secure notes, and credit card details. You can copy these encrypted details manually or sync them through a Dropbox account (Dropbox itself does not need to be installed), and then copy them to the clipboard or use them to directly access a site via the AutoLogin feature within 1Password Reader.
A few drawbacks: The app lacks an automatic or scheduled sync with Dropbox, and the AutoLogin feature works only with the very basic browser built into the app. To use a password with another, better browser such as Chrome, you have to copy it to the clipboard, which is far more awkward than on the desktop version (which can automatically fill out and submit usernames and passwords). Here's hoping that developer AgileBits will look at integrating the app with other Android browsers in future versions. In the meantime, however, 1Password Reader offers a simple, straightforward way to keep your passwords more secure yet still readily available.
Your new tablet is cool, but it can't do everything. Sometimes you need to be able to reach out over the Internet and control another computer to retrieve a file. TeamViewer for Remote Control is a great option for remotely controlling other computers from an Android tablet, because it works with pretty much every type of computer (including Windows, Mac, and Linux machines) and it can even work the other way, allowing you to control many Android tablets from your PC. The combination of the TeamViewer application on the computer and the free Android client allows you to connect remotely to the computer with a six-digit ID and password; you don't need to set up an account. Doing so offers some benefits, though: When you log in to your TeamViewer account, you can see all of the computers attached to the account.
Once logged in, you can transfer files between the two, or remotely control the computer as if you were sitting in front of it. The client also allows you to change the screen resolution of the remote computer—a huge help if you use a big monitor on the remote computer and have a smaller tablet.
Another alternative is LogMeIn, which has a similar set of features but allows file transfers only if you subscribe to the paid service.
QuickOffice Pro HD
Microsoft has not yet produced a version of Office for local use on an Android tablet, but QuickOffice Pro HD ($8) gets close. With this suite, you can open and edit Office files, including Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. The app can also retrieve documents from cloud storage accounts, so you can grab, edit, and save a document stored on, say, Dropbox from within the program. (You can view PDF files and add notes to them, but you can't edit them.)
It isn't a perfect solution, though: QuickOffice choked on some of my more complex Excel spreadsheets, and some Word documents wound up incorrectly rendered. In addition, the editing features are much more basic than those of the full version of Microsoft Office, so don't expect QuickOffice to replace Word on your laptop. QuickOffice does include a wide range of features, however, such as a spelling checker and the ability to create tables and import images. Combine this app with TeamViewer, and you have a solution for the darn-I-left-my-laptop-at-work-and-I-have-to-show-the-sales-figures-to-the-boss-at-dinner problem.
Next page: Other essential Android tablet apps
Many great ideas have started out scribbled on the back of a napkin, but that was before tablets were available. Evernote (free) allows you to take notes, photos, sketches, and URLs and share them across devices. This means you can ditch the napkin or paper scrap and instead jot down notes and sketch your next invention on your tablet, create a to-do list for developing the invention, and then expand the notes and update the initial sketch on your PC later. You can also capture audio and photos from a tablet, so you can record for posterity the train of thought that led to the big idea.
You can tag, sort, file, and otherwise index your notes and other information, so keeping your thoughts more organized is easy. And although Evernote doesn't offer a full-fledged word processor or sketching program, the online service is at the heart of a growing ecosystem of task-specific apps such as the sketching program Skitch and the contact management program Evernote Hello.
George Jetson had one, and now you do as well: a videophone. Except yours is cooler than his, because your tablet can go on the road with you, while his was attached to his TV. Skype (free) is our pick for the best video and audio calling application for Android tablets, because it is the most widely used and flexible service-and-app combo around. You can use the app to make free Skype-to-Skype calls, and you can use it to make calls to cell phones and landlines for a per-minute or flat-rate monthly fee. You can also conduct audio and video conference calls.
Admittedly, we found that the call quality varied a lot; video calls in particular require a lot of bandwidth, and calls have a noticeably longer audio delay than a normal phone call does. Making calls over a cellular connection is also sometimes not possible, since some phone companies block Skype traffic on their data networks. Note, too, that Skype does not work with other videophone software (such as Apple's FaceTime or Google Chat), since Skype hasn't adopted the open standards that others now use. Despite all that, however, it remains the simplest, most widely used videophone software.
Online bookstores such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble each have their own e-reader apps for tablets. But for a book reader that can handle a slew of other formats, turn to Moon+Reader, which provides the best reading for ePub, .mobi, .cbr, and many additional ebook formats. It offers an appealing, customizable reading screen (including an attractive page-flip animation and controllable scrolling), powerful search and bookmarking features, plus direct dictionary or thesaurus access.
Better still is the Pro version ($5), which offers the ability to read PDFs, as well as Dropbox support. That last feature alone may be worth the price, as it makes transfering books to your tablet easy—just copy them to your Dropbox on your PC, and they will appear on your bookshelf when you sync. Your current location in the book is also saved to Dropbox, so you can read on several different devices and not lose your spot.
DoubleTwist Player and AirSync
Getting your music and video onto your tablet can be a pain. The easiest way to do it is to use the syncing and playback software DoubleTwist (free) and its AirSync add-on ($5). This combination allows you to sync over Wi-Fi, moving files automatically between your desktop and tablet from anywhere within range of your Wi-Fi network. You can stick your tablet on a bedside charger, for instance, and then have it automatically download new MP3s and videos from your desktop PC. DoubleTwist is also a decent music and video player that looks a lot like iTunes, which can make an iPad-to-Android-tablet transition a little easier, and can make the process of synchronizing your desktop and mobile music collections much simpler.
SketchBook Pro for Tablets
An Android tablet can be a clean canvas just waiting for you to exercise your artistic talents. SketchBook Pro for Tablets ($5) from Autodesk is the best sketching and painting app for Android. That's perhaps no surprise: The company is known for high-end design tools, and the Android version is based on the Windows version of SketchBook Pro. All of the features you expect are present, including more than 60 brushes and pens, unlimited undo, and multiple layers with controllable blending and opacity. You can customize the interface to put the tools you frequently use up front, and you can save images as layered Photoshop files for further editing on the desktop.
On the downside, it lacks pressure sensitivity (even with tablets that offer support for that, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1), and the canvas is locked in landscape mode. The program does a reasonable job of simulating pressure sensitivity with the brushes, so you get the distinctive lighter tail at the end of a stroke, but it's not the same as the real thing. The canvas is also limited by the size of the screen, so you can't create something bigger than the screen of your tablet.
If you like to watch or listen to podcasts, you need a program that can automatically download new episodes directly to your tablet. DoggCatcher ($5) handles both video and audio podcasts with ease, checking the shows you subscribe to and downloading new episodes whenever you start the program. You get a lot of control over the process, including determining how many episodes the app downloads, how many old ones it keeps, and how much space they take. That last item is very useful if you have a limited amount of storage space and don't want to fill it up with large video files. We had no problems in our tests playing back audio podcasts while doing other tablet tasks, so you can listen to podcasts in the background while browsing.
The only feature that is absent is easy download scheduling. It is possible to load the program whenever you start the tablet and then have it download new episodes every few hours, but that takes up a good chunk of memory, which can be at a premium on lower-end tablets. A smaller program that downloads the new episodes on a schedule would be a good addition to this app.
Sometimes you need to take the Web with you. When you go beyond the range of your Wi-Fi, an offline browser such as Pocket (free) can help you bring Web content with you by downloading it and storing it on your tablet before you leave. Then you can read that material at your leisure without an Internet connection. Pocket works well for finding content on your laptop or desktop, and then sharing it for reading on your tablet. When you are browsing the Web on your desktop, simply click a button in the browser bar to flag the current page in your Pocket account (plug-ins are available on all major browsers). Then, when you start the Pocket Android app, it downloads all of the flagged pages to your tablet, ready to be enjoyed later on.
It has a few flaws, however. Although the program advertises support for video, that feature doesn't work offline on most sites (the company claims that many sites prohibit downloading video for offline viewing), and you have to manually flag every page of multipage articles. You can get around the latter issue in some cases (look for the printer-friendly or one-page view of a long article, and mark that version), but it would be nice to download YouTube videos for offline viewing, or at least to get some warning when you mark a video that might not work.
For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.