Five apps that are better than Android pre-installs

BitDepth#949 for August 12

The excellent and free Sunrise calendaring app skips the irritating skeuomorphism of Samsung’s SPlanner for a spare, digitally native interface and welcome added features.
The excellent and free Sunrise calendaring app skips the irritating skeuomorphism of Samsung’s SPlanner for a spare, digitally native interface and welcome added features.

After using an Android mobile phone for the last four years, I’m not afraid to tell anyone thinking of switching to the platform from iOS to prepare themselves for a slimmer selection of software in almost every category.

Given the relative dearth of must-have apps compared to the flourishing iOS platform, it’s constantly surprising to me that more top shelf apps aren’t bundled with Android phones instead of the crapware that tends to infest them.

Even worse, most of these apps can’t be uninstalled or even moved to an SD card, so when you do find a better product, it’s going to live on the phone alongside software you won’t ever use and probably don’t like very much.

That raises the stakes for a replacement app, but some are absolutely worth considering.

Handcent replaces the SMS Messaging software that ships with an Android phone. It supports themes, so you can choose a look for your message threads that you prefer. As it turns out, I quite like Handcent’s default look and feel, which suits my need to manage message threads quickly.

Hardcore texters will like some of the deeper features, which include blacklisting, spellchecking and auto-splitting messages if you regularly send to phones with character limitations.

If you text regularly on Android, it’s worth a look.

SwiftKey is a much lower level replacement for the standard Android software keypad. Typing on a touchscreen is such a personal thing that it’s hard to say if it will work for you, but I like the layout of this virtual keyboard, which sports larger targets for my big fingertips and a more sensible selection of characters, which reduces the amount of switching I have to do between keysets in a typical typing session.

I’ve found that its typing predictions improve dramatically over time. I’m happy with the basic keyboard theme, but users with tablets may want to spring for one of the alternative themes and layouts offered for sale as an in-app purchase.

Periodically, Swiftkey will report on how much typing it’s saved you through its word predictions. At first, I found it to be a bit of bragging, but as the software has learned what I tend to write, the time and typing savings are soaring.

Until quite recently, I was happy with the bare-bones built-in music player on Android, despite its sloppy handling of album art. Then a recent OS update made accessing music on an external SD card a hit or miss proposition. In my case, a definite miss.

Faced with the prospect of moving 1.6GB of music to the phone’s already stuffed internal memory, I started looking around for substitutes.

Rocket Player earned its US$4 fee in less than 24 hours. Not only does it access music on an SD card with no issues, it efficiently shows album art for over two hundred songs accurately and provides much bigger on-screen buttons for controlling playback.

Throw in a ten-band equalizer that I’m yet to tweak for my car’s lame audio (you get five bands with the free version), themes to customise the look of the player, scrobbling support and options to download album art and you’ve got a winner for the platform.

The picture viewer on Android is perfectly functional. Until you work with a lot of photographs on the device. There’s probably a way to delete fifteen photos in one go using the Photos app, but I haven’t found it and there’s nothing like the sharing and editing options you’ll find in QuickPic.

If you want to browse your photos on Picasa, Dropbox, 500px or Google Drive as well as images everywhere on your device, this is the software you need.

Add to that basic cropping and resizing tools and the option to send your photos off to a multitude of online services and you might see why it’s the right hand to my work with Photoshop Touch on Android.

The calendar on Android tends to be an unsightly mess. Riddled with skeuomorphism, it expends needless effort at looking like a paper calendar while missing all the value of a digital calendaring app. I’d abandoned appointment checking on Android until I found Sunrise.

This is an app that doesn’t just look good, it works amazingly well, accessing your Google calendar as well as your iCloud calendar, if you happen to be an iOS or Mac user. That it also talks to Evernote and GitHub just seems like wretched excess.

As a bonus, here are two apps you should also consider. Google Maps is good, but Waze is just brilliant. They do different things with geographic information, but when you’re lost in a car, you’re likely to find Waze far more useful for charting a way back to familiar territory.

Waze also accesses crowdsourced data, so the more it’s used, the smarter it gets. Fortunately, it’s used a lot in T&T, so it’s plenty smart about the lesser-known parts of the country and Google Maps doesn’t have anything like the traffic density alerts in Waze.

There isn’t a native to-do list function in Google’s suite of online software or on Android, so why not add the best of them all, Wunderlist. I’ve written about this software before, so find out what it can do for you here.