My fellow Android enthusiasts: 2013 is a new year for us. It promises to deliver unto us a cache of new phones, new tablets, new versions and features, and new frontiers in terms of what Android can offer its users. At the heart of all of our collective love for Android, we yearn for experiences that will bring us the joy we associate with using our devices. We use our phones every day to call others, to send and receive text messages, and to check the time. But what is it that allows us to go beyond this basic functionality? What allows us to conduct business on or derive pleasure from our devices? What is the most important aspect of the Android experience? Answer?
The applications. Apps afford us the opportunity to perform tasks and engage in activities that would be otherwise impossible outside of the realm of flexibility to which we have access thanks to smart phones. And while Android was long maligned for its lack of quality applications, 2012 was an integral year in terms of eliminating that stigma. Even more so, 2013 will be a crucial year for demonstrating the strength of the Android platform and its host of applications, which is on pace to exceed 1 billion within the coming months.
But in the meantime, how can we distinguish the good from the bad, the functional from the fluff, and the stars from the posers? Below I have created a list of the best Android app from each category listed in the Google Play Store as they currently stand. Every user is different, and many of you may need more quality apps from one category than another, but the list is designed to act as a primer for what Android has to offer, especially for those of you who received your first Android device during the holidays or purchased a newer, better one as part of welcoming in a new year. Whatever the case may be, we have you covered. Just remind yourself while reading that the selection process for “best anything” is subjective; keep an open mind and hopefully you will discover something that you like!
Note: I decided against selecting applications from the following categories because they do not seem to have a strong, overarching theme: Libraries and Demo, Lifestyle, Personalization, Shopping, Tools, Transportation, and Widgets (though for a list of my top widgets, you can click here).
Books and Reference
Coming in just behind “Bible” (because really, who could beat out the Bible for number one?) and the official Dictionary.com app on the “Top Free” section of Books and Reference, Kindle, from Amazon Mobile, is one of the best book apps available on the market. While Amazon has built its own platform for its Kindle devices on top of Android, the company still sees fit to host a standard Android app on the Play Store. And despite my tendency to support Google’s products and services, I am grateful that Amazon offers Kindle as a standalone app, because it truly is home to the better service and e-book offerings Amazon provides. Reading books on Android devices, especially tablets, is a pleasure with the Kindle app, and with handy features like the ability to change text size and built-in dictionary function (take that, Dictionary.com!), I would be hard pressed to recommend any other app from the Books and Reference category as strongly.
Play Store: Kindle
Business is a rather broad category, but most everyone, especially those that work in an office setting, has need to write formal documents or form a spreadsheet or create a presentation once in a while. Failing that, most everyone at least needs to view those files once in a while. And for those use cases, a multi-tool office suite like Kingsoft Office is the app for the job. A free download on the Play Store, Kingsoft Office is a perfectly useable application that rivals top paid office suites like OfficeSuite Pro, which, based on my past assessments, often prove a little too expensive at their normal prices for what they offer. I have purchased other office apps at a discount, and while I like them marginally better than a free app for some things, Kingsoft has a slick interface and the developer seems to update it often enough that it remains stable and feature-rich as any other paid option. Wait for a sale, but in the meantime, download Kingsoft Office and use it for those occasions you need to have a functional Swiss Army knife of productivity tools.
Play Store: Kingsoft Office
One of the fun reasons for which I purchased my Nexus 7 was to have access to a portable comic reader. I thought maybe I could download one or two comics to see how I liked the Nexus for that purpose. Once I discovered the aptly named Comics from Comixology, I was downloading Batman comics like crazy. The app acts like a store from which you can download free and paid comics and then view and read them, turning from page to page with the same gestures you would use in an app like the aforementioned Kindle. Comics may not be for everyone, and if you already own a substantial collection of digital comics, you would probably just want a comic reader app that allows you to load and read the ones you have. But if you like the idea of being able to purchase new comics as they become available or you just want a central hub for all things comics, Comics has little competition.
Play Store: Comics
Call me old-fashioned, as you kids now have your Facebook Messenger and your WhatsApp and all that, but I like me some Google Voice. I signed up for Voice when it became available and a few years later, the whole service, the app included, still provides me with a wide array of functions that I cannot get from any other one source. Voice is my Internet-based text messaging, my call forwarding service, and my voicemail all wrapped up into one convenient app. Though support for the app in the way of new features has seemingly stopped altogether, I sincerely look for Google to give Voice a huge push in 2013, even if they combine it with several of their other, lesser messaging apps to condense their efforts into one solid service. Skeptical? Read more about Voice, sign up, download the app; you will not be sorry.
Play Store: Google Voice
Another broad category, Education means different things to different people. Is it a section of apps for students enrolled in grade school or college, or teachers who want to introduce Android into the classroom, or people who simply want to learn? The category seems to contain apps for all of those purposes, but TED, the one I want to bring to your attention, could potentially fit into all three parameters. TED is an app for the non-profit of the same name devoted to ideas worth spreading. The app features talks from individuals with expertise in many different areas; the one thing they all have in common is that they are trying to convey information about important subjects. So whether you are a student, teacher, or life-long learner, TED offers you a repository for quality content on a variety of subjects.
Play Store: TED
Entertainment is yet another difficult category to pin down because what one person may find entertaining is not necessarily what others may find entertaining. But judging from the “Top Free” section, users seem to like their video apps. Number one? Netflix, of course. Most everyone likes to enjoy a television program or movie, at least now and again, and Netflix can probably claim to have been one of the first major video content providers on Android. Because it has been around so long, Netflix has managed to develop a fluid, well-designed app perfect for what it is meant to do. And as the company grows its offerings with a deal to provide a wide array of Disney content and new series like House of Cards produced in-house, Netflix continues to be one of the best content providers in 2013.
Play Store: Netflix
For Finance, you can hardly argue against the Mint.com Personal Finance app, mainly for two reasons. The first, most important reason is that the app is free; if you spend money on mobile apps, you already have financial issues…I kid, I kid. The real reason to use Mint is its functionality and well-designed user interface. Mint is a beautiful app, especially on tablets, and one that you will want to use often, if not to simply look at it, then to take advantage of its features, like budgeting, monitoring bank and credit card accounts, and setting up short- and long-term savings goals. And while providing the personal information necessary to use these features seems intimidating, privacy and security is not something I take lightly; Mint is a trustworthy app and one you will be glad you decided to trust.
Play Store: Mint.com Personal Finance
Health and Fitness
Somewhat recently I listed Recipe Search as one of my top cooking apps for Android, and while it is a bit narrow in terms of what it offers as far as health and fitness are concerned, I think it fits well here. Recipe Search is a robust, feature-rich app with a unique interface that visualizes the creations its users post, and its primary function is that of searching for, wait a minute…Recipes! If you want to maintain a better lifestyle and wish to seek out new, healthy recipes, Recipe Search offers a way to do that really ends up being rather fun. In addition to looking up new meals to try, you can also use its Meal Planner and Shopping List tools to aid you in structuring your meal schedule. While it may not be the most obvious choice for this category, Recipe Search has some subtle, yet helpful, features that will make opting for a healthy lifestyle easy and fun.
Play Store: Recipe Search
Users often use live wallpapers in an effort to make their devices a bit more personal. Leaving the default wallpaper, as I often do (on my phone anyway), is boring to most and setting up a different one, especially one that has neat visual effects, is the hip thing to do. Fortunately I succumbed to attempting to be one of the cool kids by setting up Lonely Tree from Broken Teapot Studios on my Nexus 7. I frequent r/Android on reddit, and a while ago an independent developer posted a thread urging people to check out his attempt at a live wallpaper. I purchased the full version almost immediately after trying the demo. Lonely Tree features a single, leafless tree, blowing in the user-controlled wind and snow, and it is truly gorgeous. The dev looks to deliver some additional seasons and features over time, so I think I will probably stick with this one for the duration to see how it changes. Beauty is a subjective quality, but I can say objectively that Lonely Tree is a quality live wallpaper and one you should try if you like them.
Play Store: Lonely Tree
Media and Video
For Google’s Android, you would be hard-pressed to discover a better all-around video app than Google’s YouTube. The ubiquity of YouTube, especially in the mobile space, is well established, and unsurprisingly the experience of a Google-owned service on a Google-owned platform is top notch. YouTube takes advantage of larger screen real estate than most apps can, but works just as well on smaller-screened devices. If you need to show your coworker that funny commercial or you simply want to lie in bed and watch some content from your feed before you sleep, the YouTube app is there to fulfill your needs.
Play Store: YouTube
While we are not all of us healthcare professionals, most of us are humans, and humans become ill from time to time. For the sick who thirst for knowledge, Medscape, brought to you by WebMD, allows you to glean all of the medicine-related information, news, and reference materials you could possibly want from an app, and for free. Though I certainly do not advocate you use the app to seek out your own treatments or fuel preposterous notions that you have some sort of rare disorder, I do recommend using it for the practical information it can provide about medicines you already use. I actually work in a position that requires me to administer medications to people from time to time, and I fully expect to make use of the app on occasion. For the lay person, Medscape may not be all that useful, but it does contain a wealth of medicinal information at the tips of your fingers, and that is really all you could hope for in such an app.
Play Store: Medscape
Music and Audio
The Music and Audio category poses yet another difficult group of apps from which to select but one to represent it. Again, I may be old-fashioned, but I like Play Music from Google, an app that allows me to listen to individual songs or albums I purchase from the Play Store or upload to my allotted storage space. Everyone seems high on streaming music from services like Pandora or Spotify, but seeing as how most carriers have moved from unlimited data plans to plans capped at 2GB for the lowest price, I cannot justify relying on those services to fulfill my music needs all month long. Play Music is not the best app in terms of functionality, but for the convenience of integrating my music collection into Google’s service and having access to it in a variety of ways, I am willing to overlook its faults and hope that Google improves on it in the new year.
Play Store: Google Play Music
News and Magazines
I have been waiting to write about this one for a month or so, and now that I have arrived at the News and Magazines category of this post, I think now is the time. Press, which I first discovered when I read a feature about it on The Verge, is a beautiful, functional app that allows you to read full articles from your Google Reader subscriptions without necessarily having to open them in a full browser; though if you do, Press has an in-app browser that renders the page in a readable view. The app is $1.99 and stands as one of the few paid apps in my post today, but I recommend it highly, more so than the free resource-hogging Google Currents. If you use regularly Reader, Press could end up replacing it entirely; and even if you do not, you might want to start just to take advantage of the pleasurable news-reading experience Press provides.
Play Store: Press
Recently I decided to try Snapseed for my photo editing needs, and even though I rarely edit photos, I now see myself doing it more. Snapseed is a lightweight app that features a simple interface and fairly intuitive controls, a powerful combination that serves for quick, easy edits. The app allows you to change many different elements and apply various filters, and you can post your images to Google+ through an integrated share option easily; for free, you could hardly want more in a photo app. The only issue I run into is that I prefer the larger screen of my Nexus 7 for editing photos, but the device itself has no camera, so I need to move the photos from phone to tablet or use only the ones shared between them via some cloud storage service. This is not a knock on Snapseed though; even if the Nexus 7 did have a camera, I think I would probably refrain from being on those people who take pictures on their tablets (not that there is anything wrong with that…Ahem).
Play Store: Snapseed
Productivity is a subject in which I am well versed; perhaps if Google had a procrastination category…In any case, when I am trying to be productive, using Tasks helps me to keep sight of what I need to do. I have written extensively on Tasks before and I have been using it all the while since, so I have nothing more to add. But if you have no time to read my lengthy review, I will just tell you straight up: for $0.99, buy it.
Play Store: Tasks
While I have made no effort to hide my love for Twitter client Tweedle, I think the title of best social app on Android goes to Google+. Google+ does not boast the same user base as Facebook or the same quick convenience as Twitter, but what it does offer is a rich social experience in terms of its design and features. The official app in particular provides a quality user interface and an experience free of clutter and distraction. I generally use it to follow people in the tech world because they tend to gravitate toward Google+ for its simplicity. The Circles system works well for following people like that because they do not need to know you. You just place them in a circle and see their posts; no need for friend requests and all that nonsense. Google+ is a service that needs more users, but not much else. Everything you could want in a social experience is waiting to be had; jump in and check it out!
Play Store: Google+
Travel and Local
For travel, nothing beats Google Maps. The app provides detailed map coverage, turn-by-turn directions, and information about the local area. Interestingly the app supposedly has a better interface on the iOS version, which Google released in response to Apple’s decision to no longer use Google for its maps needs in iOS 6. Clearly the overwhelming number of downloads on both platforms indicates the high desirability of the free service, but hopefully Google updates the interface for Android users too. I highly suspect they will this year, given how important Maps is to users. Look for some improvements to be announced at the 2013 Google I/O Developer Conference.
Play Store: Google Maps
And finally we have arrived at the Weather category. For a beautiful, simple representation of weather conditions in your areas of choice, the Eye in Sky Weather app is best. You can select a variety of different visual styles and your choice is reflected in the app itself as well as the various widgets available for it. Though it has not seen an update since late 2012, Eye in Sky Weather sets a standard for weather apps moving forward. Eye in Sky Weather demonstrates that data, however uninteresting it may be for a topic of conversation, can be presented in a stunning and informative way.
Play Store: Eye in Sky Weather
That concludes my State of the Apps address for this year. As always, if you have any other categories you would like us to tackle, any apps you would like us to review, or any lessons about Android you would like to learn, please let us know in the comments. Thank you for reading!
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