by Christopher Tippins for the Software Synergy Group
Before I begin this article on Android Apps, I’ve written several other articles on the Android OS that you might find helpful: the Android versus iOS, rooting an Android device and installing customized ROMs.
In this last of the series, I’m going to talk about my favorite Android applications and why I like them.
For starters, note that I’m running an Asus Transformer TF101 tablet, not an Android phone. My app list for a phone would be different as it serves a completely different purpose. Note that in addition to the applications below, I talk about quite a few others in my other articles – a few of which I consider mandatory so check out those articles with the link above.
It should be pointed out that many of the applications I’m going to talk about are also available for the iPhone or iPad (iOS). I have no doubt that they will be as helpful to iPad users as they are for Android users. I’ll note each app as I go through my list as to whether or not it’s available for iOS as well.
I’m going to focus on several categories that comprise what I do with my tablet: reading (books and magazines), watching film and video and general utilities.
There are, of course, thousands of apps to do a great many things.
I primarily use my Transformer for the above, so your list may be different.
OK, let’s get started:
Before I talk about the actual applications I use on the Transformer, here is a Windows application you will love to prepare books for use by your tablet. It’s called Calibre:
Calibre is an application you can use to manage and port books, magazines and just about anything from various input formats to an output format that your device will understand.
How has it been helpful to me?
Simple: I have a plethora of books and reading material from my old days as a Palm TX user that lived in what’s called a pdb format. Calibre allowed me to port from pdb to epub format for easy use on my Transformer.
Many years ago I tried to standardize on what format to use for ebooks and at that time, pdb for the Palm was fairly ubiquitous. Technology being what it is (and Palm more or less fading into oblivion now) I needed an application to rescue my pdb library. Calibre is it. It truly is a wonderful application and best of all, it’s free.
While it has the ability to handle document sync to and from devices, I don’t use it for that. I’ll talk later about how I do syncs.
This is one of the nicest applications I’ve seen in a long time and it will be of great benefit if you like to read whether your platform is Android or iOS.
Aldiko is full featured epub book reader. It will also read pdf’s. One of the most maddening things I’ve found with other book readers is that many of them will not allow bookmark creation or allow for multiple books to be open at the same time. How can you read without being able to place a bookmark or without being able to open different books (magazines, etc.)?
I’ve come to love this app for its simplicity as well as its functionality. It’s nothing less than superb. While it will handle pdfs just fine, I use another app to open those:
I looked at many pdf readers before deciding on this one. Hands down it’s the clear winner in my book. Aside from doing the mandatory (bookmarks, searches, etc.) it has the capability to do annotations – a function you wouldn’t expect on a tablet device. It’s also fast (meaning pdfs need to be rendered as you move from page to page) and ezPDF Reader makes little work of this process.
Documents to Go (Android/iOS/$14.99)
I’ve loved Documents to Go ever since I started using it in the Palm OS environment probably over 10 years ago. I bought a copy back then for my Palm gadgets. I own a copy for my iPhone. I now own a copy for my Android.
Not only is it the best application for viewing (and editing to a limited degree) Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents on your mobile device, it also comes with a feature that allows you to pick and choose files and folders on your PC to be synchronized with your device. I had some big problems getting this to work at first – it certainly wasn’t as trouble free as it was setting it up for my Palm and iOS devices. Ultimately I found a solution for my particular problem on one of the Dataviz forums (that support wasn’t aware of) and since then I’ve had no more problems. In spite of those problems I still love this app.
A few caveats:
It has a pdf reader – I had high hopes for it but I didn’t like it. No bookmarking and slow as a dog. It needs a lot of work.
Also, I use this app solely to sync MS Office files. I use Dropbox for everything else. I’ll get to that later.
This app will handle reading and viewing of fairly simple documents (I’ve tested two column bulleted docs with no problems). Be aware that the more complex your documents, the more you might run into problems so don’t expect miracles.
Insofar as editing goes, I don’t do much on my tablet. As I’ve mentioned in another article I view tablets as consumptive devices. I leave production to their second cousins, the laptop and netbook.
Polaris(Free on Transformer)
I’ll mention Polaris only because it comes free with the Transformer. Like Documents to Go, it will view and allow editing of MS Office files. I can’t honestly say that I tested it too much other than I know it does works. I’m such a diehard DTG fan, though, that I immediately purchased and installed that. Strangely, though, if you don’t get it with your Transformer, you can’t actually buy it. I’m not sure what the story is on that. Although they have a website, they don’t have an Android Market app. Odd.
Bubble UPnP(Android / iOS / $4.69)
I did a write up on this app in my Android versus iOS article so you can read all I have to say there about this wonderful app. In a nutshell, though, this app allows you to deliver content from your DLNA server to your Android device (and any other DLNA supported device you have).
I love it.
Note that in addition to this rendering app you’ll also need a player (coming up next in this article).
Note for Apple/VLC fans: I love VLC, too, and yes it will stream content to your Android or iOS device, but it won’t stream content to your DLNA supported Blu Ray device or HDTV. Nuff said.
VPlayer(Android / $4.99)
I love VPlayer. I tested a number of video players and this is the ONLY one that could play everything I tossed at it: .avis, .mkvs, .tss, .mp4s, .movs, .flvs – you name it. Some of the other players I tested either couldn’t play a particular file type or would lock up or not even load. This is the one app that does it all.
Dropbox (Andriod / iOS / Free for 2GB)
I’ve come to not only love Dropbox, but depend on it as the standard by which I move files to my Transformer. Here’s how it works: Simply install it on your PC and then install it on your Android (or iOS) device. I have a folder on my PC that I call “Current Reading”. I then set Dropbox on my PC to use that folder as its default. Then I simply move files into it to be ported to the Dropbox server (note the folder structure I use above). A few minutes later (depending on the file sizes and how long it takes to copy them to the servers) they are ready to be opened on my Transformer (or iPhone for that matter – you can link multiple platforms with this app).
This is better than sliced bread. When I’m done reading a book or magazine I simply delete it from Dropbox. I’ve managed to stay well under the 2GB limit simply by being careful about not loading up too many files at one time.
The only down side I can see to Dropbox is the 2 GB limitation (hardly surprising – you can’t expect them to be doling out unlimited server space for free) and that you can only sync one account on your PC and /or devices, so if you’re sharing a tablet with your wife or someone else you have to share file space.
So, using “Documents to Go” to move MS Office files and Dropbox for everything else, it’s easy to port data to and from your tablet. If you setup some rules and follow a simple structure for organizing your files, you won’t go out of your mind trying to figure out where your data lives.
TeamViewer(PC/Mac/Android / iOS / Free for personal use)
If you’ve read some of my iOS articles, you’ll know that I’ve always been a big fan of LogmeIn Ignition. It’s what I’ve used to gain remote access to my PC from my iPhone (although if the truth be told, trying to do much on a PC from an iPhone can be an exercise in futility).
I paid about $30.00 dollars for Ignition when I bought it and I didn’t want to shell out another $30.00 for my Android so I started to look at some alternatives, many of which I didn’t like or had trouble getting to work properly. Originally I had looked at Splashtop but decided against it as there are questions as to whether or not it encrypts data in transit. I finally found a decent app in TeamViewer. The best part is that it’s free across all platforms for personal use.
Setup is relatively straightforward by installing the Windows application and then installing the remote apps for your device. I now have replaced LogMeIn Ignition on my iPhone with the iOS app and am also using it on my Android tablet as well.
So for free, it’s tough to beat this app. I really love the LogMeIn products but I just couldn’t see forking over another $30.00 for my Android device when this product will do more or less the same thing.
Note that they offer reasonable plans for business users that are in some cases less expensive then LogMeIn, so take a look at their web site for more info.
Dolphin Browser (Android / iOS / Free)
Initially, I used the default browser that comes with Android, but over time it began to bother me with how sluggish it would become with multiple sites open or accessing a page with flash, etc.
So I decided to give Dolphin browser a go and wow – what a difference in performance – even with flash set to load by default.
This program, by the way, is so feature rich you could be lost for days looking at its various settings and what you can configure. In fact, it drove me a bit nuts trying to figure out how to organize and manage my bookmarks until I found a post in a forum on how to do just that.
But in the end you’ve got to love an app that gives you more as opposed to less at the cost of having to just take a bit more time to set it up.
Best of all, it’s free.
One more thing.
Yes, the Android version supports Flash. The other, um, tablet OS does not.
iBird Pro(Android / iOS / Price varies but $9.99 for Android or $14.99 for iOS)
I’m a birder and I’m also a photographer of birds so this goes on my best Android apps list. There is no better bird application out there. Even the Audubon’s app falls short compared to iBird Pro. Arguably I didn’t need to purchase this for my Android as I already have it on my iPhone, but I got it on a sale price and for the few bucks I had to spend for it at the time, it’s simply my way of saying “excellent job” to the developers of this incredible reference.
It’s applications like this that make it a joy to have gadgets (and figure out interesting ways to use them).
Note that they offer a “Lite” version which is free if you just want to test it out and you can also purchase a “Yard” version that includes just a subset of birds. Keep an eye out for the Pro version as it goes on sale from time to time. At any price, however, it’s a great tool.
ZFolio(Android / iOS / $2.99)
As mentioned earlier, I’m a photographer and one of my most crucial apps is ZFolio. It allows me to setup a sync process with my account on Zenfolio and download all my photos to the Transformer.
If you’re a photographer it’s tough to beat a portfolio that you can easily port around on your tablet.
I also have this app on my iPhone as well.
This is a good time to make note of just how handy a tablet is. You don’t have to be a professional photographer to make use a tablet or even have an app like this. If all you want to do is to share holiday snapshots with the family, a tablet is great for this purpose.
I’m sure you’ve tried to show photos to Aunt Ethel and at 76 she might be kind enough to tell you the photos you just showed on your iPhone look great, but the bottom line is she probably didn’t even see them.
A tablet solves that problem.
And ZFolio is a great app if you’ve got an account at ZenFolio and want to port it to your tablet. Best part? It syncs while your device is charged automatically – you don’t even have to worry about remembering to do this.
Netflix (Android / iOS / App is free / monthly account starts at $7.99 for streaming only)
We’ve all heard of Netflix and we all know that they now offer streaming video for $7.99 a month (doesn’t include DVD rentals).
So you’ll love knowing that when you get an Android (or iOS) device you can watch your movies right on the gadget.
My Blu Ray includes firmware to watch Netflix on the TV, but I love that I can now watch it on the Android. While I have this app for the iPhone, I never used it much as the screen was obviously too small.
It’s great on the Android, though, when I want to plug in headphones and watch a movie without disturbing anyone.
Great service – great app – and great price – free.
Amazon Prime (Andriod / iOS / Prime membership $79.00 a year)
In case you’re unaware, Amazon offers free 2 day shipping on many products they sell if you sign up for what they call “Amazon Prime” membership (the cost for this service is $79.00 a year). Included with that membership is free streaming of movies and TV shows (and a free Kindle book rental a month).
So this is one of those bonuses you’ll get if you’re an Amazon Prime member:
You get to stream and watch video right on your Android (or iOS) device.
I hemmed and hawed at paying $79.00 bucks for an Amazon Prime membership but when I started figuring out what I spent in shipping one day, the decision was a no brainer (this assumes you do business with Amazon and your shipping costs outweigh the cost of the service.)
Also, if you’re a Transformer owner you can simply add an HDMI cable, hook it up to your TV and voila – you’ve got streaming video direct to your HDTV. The video quality using this solution is excellent, by the way.
Wi-Fi Analyzer(Android / Free)
OK, it won’t turn your Android device into a Fluke AirMagnet, but for free it’s a great app for testing signal strength if you’re setting up AP’s. I like to also use NetStumbler on a netbook or laptop, but this app isn’t bad and does a decent job of not only finding AP’s but mapping out signal strength as you move around either from room to room or outside.
This concludes my “Best Android Apps” article.
My list is obviously tailored to things I do and how I work (or play) with my gadget so it’s a given you may find other tools and apps that give you more bang for your buck.
It’s also a given that as time goes by my list will certainly change.
If I find something of interest I’ll add it to notes in an addendum at the end of this article or the comment section.
In conclusion of this entire serious of articles, the most definitive point I can make to you is that tablet computing has revolutionized the way I consume media.
Whether you ultimately choose an Android device or an iPad, if you regularly digest books and film, you’ll love how these gadgets serve it up.
Enjoy and happy tableting!
Christopher Tippins for the Software Synergy Group