Starter apps for your new Android phone
Just got a new phone for the holidays? Here are eleven apps to get you started in the brave new world of Android. Some are for work, some are for play and a few do both at the same time. Most are free or under $5.
A Netflix streaming account is required to get the most out of a smartphone these days, Android or otherwise. The Netflix catalog is vast for the low monthly fee, and will have you rethinking your cable package in short order. A big part of Netflix’s appeal lies in the quality of the app, which is a pleasure to use and easy to navigate. Each movie and TV show entry features its own synopsis, as well as a rating that you can edit to receive better viewing recommendations.
Pandora may be the granddaddy of Internet radio, but it’s still the best place to find new tunes that are certain to satisfy. Pandora’s ability to match your tastes based on several seed songs or artists selected by the user remains unsurpassed, although the algorithms aren’t infallible. For example, adding too much variety to any single station blurs the focus of the picks, so grouping similar types of music tends to provide better results. The ad situation has also deteriorated in recent years, although the free service is still tolerable, and you can always upgrade to ad-free listening for a fee.
Plex turns your personal collection of TV shows and movies into a Netflix-like streaming service hosted from your PC or Mac. The app allows you to stream your media library to your phone via Wi-Fi or over the Internet, even under limited bandwidth conditions. Initial setup is a snap, and adding media to your library is just a matter of copying files to the appropriate subfolder on your computer. Since much of the video transcoding is handled on the server end, Plex is also an ideal way to view video formats that your phone might have trouble with.
Getting files off of a smartphone can be an exercise in frustration. Cable tethers, transfer modes, SD card swap outs, and other data retrieval rituals feel downright archaic these days—and with good reason: aren’t these supposed to be wireless devices? Developer Dooblu feels your pain, and provides WiFi Explorer (free and pro versions) to turn your phone into a network connected storage device, complete with password-protected login. All you need to download files from your phone is a Web browser; no other special software is required. Newer versions of the app support batch selection and drag and drop file rearrangement, making it even easier to move lots of files between devices.
Managing files on your phone isn’t glamorous but sometimes it's unavoidable. A simple search for a "file manager" on the Google Play store brings up countless results, but Solid Explorer stands out from the pack by offering dual browsing panels, support for compressed files, cloud sync with various services, and enhanced file information. Why utilities like these don’t get bundled into the OS is a mystery to me, but at $2 for this superb package (a free trial is available), it's not a problem I'm going to dwell on. Makes an ideal companion to WiFi Explorer.
Most people send text messages these days, but there’s still a holdout crowd addicted to IM-ing, 90’s style. The tools of choice have changed from yesteryear’s AIM and Yahoo to more modern Facebook Chat and Google’s GTalk, but the experience is largely the same. Rather than load a separate app for each service, IMO Messenger gives you a single client that talks almost every dialect of IM, from Skype to ICQ. The app features support for photos, voice chat, and other advanced features, so interactions aren't simply limited to typed text. Some latency problems and missing organizational features keep it from being perfect, but IMO remains the app of choice for Internet chat, especially because it’s free. IRC users will have to look elsewhere, however.
Everyone with an Android device should have a Google voice number as a backup to their standard line. While this free service has its limits (you cannot send attachments with text messages, for example) the advantages of a seamlessly integrated second phone line are significant. Since you control when and how the second line connects with your phone, it makes for an ideal business number or contact point for acquaintances. A separate voicemail system with full notification, transcription, and Gmail integration keeps you abreast of messages without mixing them together on your private line.
Splashtop Remote Desktop
High-speed data networks and HD resolutions have opened up a new future for desktop sharing on mobile devices—one no longer limited to stroboscopic screen updates and drunken, swerving control responses. Splashtop Remote Desktop allows full control over remote PCs, offering multiple styles of precise, trackpad-style mouse emulation. Bandwidth needs are modest given the level of performance, and either Wi-Fi or a speedy 4G network will allow full-motion video and gaming without frustration. For many users, this is the best way to gain access to a quality suite of office apps—namely, the ones already installed on their desktop PC.
OnLive is a service that offers first-rate gaming via its cloud-based streaming delivery system. Featuring a catalog packed with AAA PC game titles, OnLive’s servers handle the computation busywork and deliver just the visuals, Netflix style. Images are slightly soft and there’s a hint of lag in high-speed action games, but the process works remarkably well over a speedy network on a modern smartphone. OnLive even offers a Bluetooth gamepad to ease control translation issues for games that don’t make the leap to touchscreen input smoothly. Android has plenty of native entertainment apps, but if you’re a hardcore gamer, OnLive is the only way to get the latest and greatest titles on your smartphone today. OnLive packs monthly fees, but the PlayPack bundle, which includes 249 games, runs just $10 a month and provides discounts on other titles.