Android Apps

Android essentials: 13 apps I can't live without

These are the apps I need to make a device do what I want it to do -- and they might just work wonders for you, too.

Android Essential Apps

We spend a lot of time talking about Lollipop and OS-level issues with Android -- but you know what's just as important as the operating system on your phone or tablet? The apps that surround it.

The right apps can make your device easier and more enjoyable to use. They can give it powers you didn't know were possible. They can make it feel like your own custom-tailored gadget -- whether you've been using it for two minutes or for two years.

As someone who spends an absurd amount of hours staring at Android phones and tablets, I've given a lot of thought to what apps matter the most to me. There's the stuff I keep around and use once in a while, sure, but what are the essential apps I need to feel like a device is mine -- and to make it do what I need it to do? If I could install only a dozen apps on a device, which apps would I choose?

I had to cheat a little and give myself a baker's dozen -- hey, a geek's gotta eat -- but after much contemplation, these are the Android apps I can't live without.

(Note that for the purposes of this story, I'm focusing on apps you actually have to download and install onto a device. I'm not including core Google services like Gmail, Google+, and Drive, all of which are certainly essential to me but come preinstalled on most Android phones and tablets.)

1. SwiftKey Keyboard

Google's stock Android keyboard has gotten much better over the years, but I don't feel at home in a device until I have SwiftKey in place. Why? Simple: SwiftKey has the best layout, design, and functionality for my needs. Its next-word prediction knows me almost too well, and its swipe-to-type capability works wonderfully when I want it.

Android Essential Apps: SwiftKey

SwiftKey excels in layout and functionality (left) and offers a large selection of themes (right)

I like using the app with the Lollipop-esque Material Light theme (99 cents via in-app purchase) and with the long-press duration (under the "Advanced" section of SwiftKey's settings) set to 200, which makes it faster and more fluid to hit secondary keys like numbers and special characters.

(Free with optional in-app theme purchases)

2. Action Launcher 3

I've been using the new Action Launcher 3 home screen replacement app for nearly two months now, and I can't imagine giving it up anytime soon. Action Launcher has a Material Design-inspired motif and offers some neat features that make it stand out from most run-of-the-mill Android launchers -- like the ability to keep widgets available on demand without having them take up any permanent space on your home screen.

Other nice touches include a streamlined sliding app drawer and an instant-theming option that can automatically style your entire home screen to match your wallpaper (something that works astonishingly well with Muzei).

Android Essential Apps: Action Launcher

Action Launcher automatically themes your entire home screen to match your wallpaper (left) and allows you to call up widgets on demand (right)

Action Launcher 3 has given my personal setup a fresh and modern makeover and made it more efficient than ever. It's become a core part of what makes a phone or tablet feel like my own.

(Free with $5 in-app upgrade to unlock all features)

3. Link Bubble

I've said before that this app will change the way you use your phone, and I wasn't kidding: Once you get used to having Link Bubble around, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.

In short, Link Bubble acts as a companion to your regular mobile browser by intelligently handling all the links you open from within other apps. So instead of being taken out of an app and into your browser when you tap a link in something like Twitter or Google+, Link Bubble opens the link in a floating bubble on the side of your screen. You can then tap the bubble whenever you're ready to read the content, and the pages appear in overlay windows on top of whatever else you're doing.

Android Essential Apps: Link Bubble

Link Bubble makes opening links from apps (left) and then reading what you've opened (right) less disruptive

No waiting, no interrupted work flow, and no wasted time. Link Bubble is always one of the very first apps I install on a new phone or tablet -- and there's good reason why.

(Free with $4 "pro" upgrade to unlock all features)

4. Google Voice

This one isn't exciting -- and in fact, it isn't even anything I actively use once it's installed -- but it's as much a necessity for me as an app could possibly be. Google's Google Voice app allows me to route my calls from my Google Voice number to any phone I'm using. As a guy who frequently moves from one device to another, that type of freedom and flexibility is invaluable.

While most of Voice's functionality has now been shifted into Hangouts -- which is where I actually send and receive texts, receive voicemails, and sometimes make VoIP-style calls from my Google Voice number -- the GV app itself is still needed in order for the phone-forwarding process to work. It's something I set up once then promptly forget is there.


5. FeedlyReader

I read a ton of tech news and rely on Feedly to keep up with the many sites I follow. But while Feedly's Web interface is suitable enough, the company's own Android app has always left me wanting more.

A third-party app called FeedlyReader fills that void with style and grace. With a clean and attractive Material Design vibe and an impressive array of features -- like configurable left- and right-swipe actions within the story list and tons of opportunities for customization -- FeedlyReader has almost everything I've ever wanted in an mobile RSS client.

Android Essential Apps: FeedlyReader

FeedlyReader brings modern Android design and plenty of functionality into the Feedly news-reading world

It's the first reader app I've actually enjoyed using instead of merely settling to accept.


6. Pocket

As part of my voracious news-reading and social media-surfing habit, I encounter a lot of interesting content. More, in fact, than I usually have time to read in a typical day.

That's why Pocket is an absolute must-have in my Android app arsenal. Anytime I come across an article I want to read later -- whether it's in Chrome, Twitter, Google+, FeedlyReader, Google News & Weather, or anywhere else -- I just shoot it over to Pocket using Android's excellent system-wide sharing function.

I barely even have to stop what I'm doing, and the story is saved and ready for me to savor whenever I have the time -- from any device, anywhere, whether I'm online or off. Doesn't get much better than that.


7. Talon for Twitter (Plus)

Twitter's a big part of my day-to-day routine, but the company's official Android app isn't exactly awe-inspiring. So now that all of my primary personal devices are running Lollipop, I've moved to Talon for Twitter (Plus) for all of my tweet-related needs. The app has a clean and minimalist Material Design theme that's a pleasure to use, and it does everything I want from a Twitter client without all the silliness the official Twitter app requires.

Android Essential Apps: Talon For Twitter Plus

Talon for Twitter (Plus) is a Lollipop-level Twitter client that puts Twitter's official app to shame

Tweeting without compromise. Gotta love it.

($4, available for Android 5.0+ only)

8. Authy

If you aren't yet using two-factor authentication for your Google account -- and any other account that allows it -- you should be. It's a simple way to protect your valuable (and often invaluable) data from hackers, and it doesn't take much extra effort on your behalf.

After much research and deliberation, I switched from Google's official Authenticator app to Authy late last year. It does the same basic thing as Google's app, with the same standard of security -- only in a far superior package with a more modern and user-friendly design and some useful extra features (including some powerful options for multidevice synchronization).

I couldn't get by without it.


9. Android Wear

The official Android Wear app isn't the most electrifying thing in and of itself, but if you use an Android Wear smartwatch -- which I do -- it's a must-have in order for your watch to stay paired and connected. 'Nuff said.


10. Pushbullet

It took me a while to get on-board with the Pushbullet train, but nowadays, it's one of the most useful apps on my devices and one I rely upon daily. Pushbullet is all about creating an open connection between your various computers and mobile devices -- your phone, your tablet, and even your laptop or desktop PC (by way of its companion browser extensions or Windows/Mac apps).

For me, Pushbullet's value lies in two main areas. First is its universal copy-and-paste feature: With the app installed on your phone or tablet and on your PC, it's as if all of the devices share a single linked clipboard. You can highlight text on your computer, hit Ctrl-C, then pick up your Android phone or tablet and instantly paste the text anywhere. You can do it the other way, too -- highlighting text on your Android device, copying it, then hitting Ctrl-V on your computer to paste it on that end. It's almost eerie how well it works and how native it feels.

Android Essential Apps: Pushbullet

Pushbullet gives you a universal clipboard across multiple devices (left) and lets you wirelessly beam links, images, and files between phones, tablets, and PCs (right)

The second feature I've come to love is Pushbullet's ability to "push" content wirelessly between two devices, regardless of their physical proximity. It's awesome when I need to quickly zap an image or file from my phone to my computer, but it comes in handy in simpler ways as well -- like when I come across a news article, Web page, or Amazon listing that I want to look at after work. I just push it from my computer to my tablet, where it'll be waiting for me at the end of the day. Or when I'm looking at something on my phone or tablet and want to show it to my wife -- so I push it wirelessly to her tablet, where it appears as a notification for her (since we've opted to link our accounts in that way).

Pushbullet is full of power, and it's become a real must-have on any device I'm using.


11. Pandora

It may be the "old-school" music-streaming solution, but you know what? After years of careful honing, Pandora knows exactly what sort of music I want to hear when I'm in the mood for variety. It's my go-to app when I'm working out or working around the house, and rarely a day goes by without it being opened on one of my devices.

(Free with optional $5/mo. subscription for ad-free listening)

12. Netflix

We use Google's Chromecast to watch lots of Internet-streamed content -- which means any Android device around the house can serve as the remote. All it needs is the official Netflix app on it, and it's good to go. What more can I say?

(Free with $8/mo. Netflix subscription)

13. Screebl

One of the most annoying parts of using a phone or tablet is having the screen time out and shut off while you're still looking at something (but not actively touching the display). A simple little app called Screebl makes that inconvenience a thing of the past.

All you do is activate Screebl on your Android device, and it keeps your screen on anytime you're holding it and shuts it off whenever you put it down. It uses your device's sensors to detect activity, and it works consistently well -- even in dim environments, where light-requiring features like Motorola's "Attentive Display" often falter.

Screebl seems to have issues with a handful of phones and tablets, but it's a tough one to give up once you've seen how much it can improve your mobile experience (not to mention your battery life).

(Free with optional $2 upgrade for extra features and no ads)

The lucky 13

So there you have it: the 13 Android apps I can't live without. Hopefully some of them will serve you as well as they've served me.

And rest assured: This list will evolve over time. That's the beauty of Android: Nothing stays stagnant for long, and there's always something new and interesting right around the corner -- just waiting to win you over.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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