Favorite Things

Android Power's 3 favorite things for December 2014

From a fresh take on the home screen to an inexpensive accessory that makes your phone more secure, this month's picks are oozing with Android-flavored awesomeness.

Android Power Favorite Things

Favorite Things

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New phones, tablets, and smartwatches sure are exciting -- but sometimes it's the smaller stuff that really makes me smile. An app, an accessory, any little thing that brings a breath of fresh air into my Android devices and makes me appreciate just how cool technology can be. 

That's why I like to take a moment to pause and shine the light on a few of my favorite things related to Android every so often -- things that frequently get lost in the shuffle of our day-to-day big-picture discussion. They don't necessarily have to be transformative. They just have to bring a grin onto my surly (but still lovable) face.

So without further ado, here are three things I'm particularly fond of at the moment:

1. Action Launcher 3

It's no secret that I've long relied on the excellent Nova Launcher (Prime) for my various personal Android devices. As much as I love checking out other launchers, at the end of the day, Nova's always been the home screen setup I've returned to.

For the first time in years, another launcher has actually won me over. It's the new Action Launcher 3, released by whiz-dev Chris Lacy last week.

Action Launcher's been around for a while, but this new version is a complete rewrite that takes the app's best ideas and elements and brings them into the Google Now/Material Design world. If you're looking for a typical Android launcher, this is not it. And that's precisely what makes it so interesting.

Some of Action Launcher's marquee features include the Quickdrawer, a fast way to access your apps by sliding over from the left of any home screen panel; Covers, which are clutter-free folders that live within app shortcuts and can be opened by swiping upward on the icon; and Shutters, which allow you to keep widgets available on demand without having them take up any permanent space on your home screen.

That last one deserves a bit more explanation: Let's say I have a shortcut to Gmail on my home screen. With Shutters, I can make it so that swiping upward on the Gmail icon pulls up the Gmail widget right then and there, allowing me to glimpse inside of my inbox without having to open the app. The widget shows up only when I activate it; the rest of the time, it remains tidily tucked away and out of sight.

Action Launcher 3 - Shutters

I could do the same thing with any shortcut and widget combination -- having a widget with my Twitter mentions appear when I swipe upward on a Twitter icon, having a widget with my latest messages appear when I swipe upward on a Hangouts icon, or having a widget with my Google Keep notes appear when I swipe upward on a Google Drive icon. You can mix and match and set things up any way you like. It really is a clever concept that adds a whole new level of possibility into Android's already-powerful widget system.

Action Launcher 3 has another neat feature in which it can automatically "read" your current wallpaper and then theme the rest of your home screen accordingly -- so if you have a photo of a sunset over the sand as your wallpaper, it might make your search bar yellow and your various backgrounds (in the Quickdrawer, folders, and so forth) dark brown. Especially if you use an app like Muzei to rotate your wallpaper on a regular basis, this is a very cool touch that instantly transforms the entire look of your phone in a coordinated manner. It's one of those things that sounds simple on paper but feels -- to borrow a phrase I once heard somewhere -- almost magical when it happens.

Action Launcher 3 - Quicktheme
Action Launcher 3 Quicktheme (2)

Other handy options include a customizable top-of-screen search/action bar and the ability to double-tap (or triple-tap, if you prefer) anywhere on the display to turn your phone's screen off.

It took a few days for me to reshape my work flow around Action Launcher's strengths, but I'm really enjoying it now and don't see myself wanting to give up its unusual features anytime soon. If you want something different with a lot of innovative and useful elements, Action Launcher 3 is well worth giving a whirl.

It's free to download and try, though you'll have to pony up five bucks (via an in-app purchase) if you want to use everything it has to offer.

2. Motorola Keylink

Who woulda thought a $25 keychain would become one of my most useful gadgets? Motorola's Keylink is a small fob that pairs with your phone via Bluetooth. You can then use it to make your phone ring -- or use your phone to make your keys ring and/or pinpoint their last known location on a map.

Motorola Keylink

That's handy for those of us with marshmallowy brains who frequently lose things within our own homes and offices. Cooler yet, though, is the fact that the Keylink can serve as a trusted Bluetooth device for any recent Moto phone or any Android phone/tablet with Lollipop in place. That means once you pair it and set things up, the keychain can automatically keep your phone or tablet unlocked anytime it's nearby. Your device will then require your PIN, pattern, or password whenever the keychain isn't present.

Between that and Lollipop's trusted place and face options, there's absolutely no excuse for leaving your phone unsecured anymore. All these options create a powerful combination of security and convenience for those of us who want that sort of balance.

The only downside to the Keylink is that it's damn-near impossible to find at the moment. With its simple usefulness and impulse-purchase price, I can't say I'm surprised. But I'll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for the opportunity to pick a few up for my family as soon as they're back in stock.

3. The Runway watch face for Android Wear

Having official support for third-party watch faces on Android Wear is a fun (if somewhat overdue) feature. I've been checking out some of the initial designs available in the Play Store, and while there are plenty of nice-looking faces to be sampled, one in particular has stood out to me.

It's called Runway, and it's part of a series of free face designs called ustwo Smart Watch Faces. I like Runway because it makes my smartwatch feel smart yet stylish: It turns the display into a dynamic circle that shows me the upcoming weather in an attractive and easy-to-read sliced-pie design.

Runway always positions the current time at the top of the face. It then divides the face into thirds and shows the forecast for each upcoming chunk of the day by way of a simple graphic -- clouds, sun, rain drops, or whatever the case might be. The precise current time sits in the center of the design, making it dead-simple to see even with the fastest of glances.

Runway Face Android Wear

Yes, it's a gloomy and cloudy day here. If there were anything else in the forecast, it'd show up on the face.

The face also looks great in Wear's dimmed mode -- what you see whenever you aren't actively using your watch. All the same info remains easy to read and is just scaled down into a line-driven black-and-white state.

Runway Face Android Wear (Dim)

Smartwatch face designers have tons of info at their disposal, and many of them end up trying to cram too much of it into a small surface area. I don't want my watch face to be a complex dashboard jam-packed with every bit of data available; I want it to be something I can easily glance at to glean pertinent info -- the type of info only a connected device could provide, and the type of info I'd actually need to know at a glance.

Runway's clever configuration manages to accomplish that with style and grace -- and that, my friends, is why it's one of my favorite things in the land of Android right now. Stay tuned for more.

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