Pure Android is great, but not all of its stock apps are. MaximumTech shows you which apps are most lacking—and the best replacements for them.
Many people love the vanilla Android experience. It’s smoother, faster, and a lot friendlier when it comes to over-the-air (OTA) updates, but it can also be a little lacking when it comes to certain functionality. That’s exactly why OEMs put custom interfaces on their Android devices. Samsung has its Touchwiz; HTC has Sense; Motorola has MotoBlur; and the list goes on. Fortunately, Android lets you customize just about every aspect of your device through the use of apps, and we’ve got a great list of apps to strengthen the weak points that come with an unadulterated version of Android.
The stock Android browser has definitely come a long way from its original version—now sporting multi-touch zooming, faster webpage rendering, and overall smoother experience, but the interface can still feel a bit clunky.
Dolphin HD delivers a desktop-like browsing experience without running into the barriers of a mobile device. You’ll get everything from quick tabbed browsing and downloadable themes to add-ons and gestures. And yes, just like the stock browser, Dolphin HD does support Flash (on compatible devices).
Much like Dolphin HD, Opera Mobile focuses on bringing features to mobile browsing. If you’re already a devout Opera user, Opera Mobile should be a no brainer. It will let you sync your browsing history, bookmarks, and passwords between your mobile and desktop browser using Opera Link. And if browsing speed is what you’re after, Opera Mini handles all data and rendering on its own servers before pushing the compressed data to your device.
It’s no surprise that one of the most popular desktop browsers has a mobile version as well. Firefox for Android is almost like a combination of Dolphin and Opera Mobile. Like Dolphin, it has a long list of useful add-ons, and borrowing from Opera, it allows for syncing with your desktop browser. Its tabbed browsing isn’t quite as fluent as Dolphin HD, but it makes up for it by being quite fast when rendering web pages.
Android’s default Messaging app is capable of all your typical texting needs, but it offers very little else. Things like group messaging are impossible, and even MMS messages are quite limited. Fortunately, there are two feature-rich messaging apps in the market that bridge the gap. Just be sure to turn off your notifications in the original Messaging app to avoid duplicated notifications.
Handcent SMS is by far the most popular messaging app on the Android platform. It has theme options to customize its look, group messaging, optional spellchecker, enhanced MMS support, and plenty more. It also offers several messaging services for sending text messages without a texting plan and sharing high-resolution images.
In its heyday, ChompSMS was neck-and-neck with Handcent, but it has since fallen behind. Still, many people use it as their preferred messaging app because of its useful widget and popup features, as well as its integration with TextFreak, a free texting solution available on Android, iOS, and Blackberry.
When it comes to email apps on Android, Gmail is virtually unrivaled, easily best-in-class for search, organization, composition, and message handling. The problem is that it only works for your Gmail account. For everything else, there’s the clumsy Email app; however, it is possible to configure your Gmail account to send and receive email from other accounts.
Setting this up is simple. All you have to do is go into your Gmail settings (on a non-mobile browser), and under Accounts and Imports, you’ll see “Send mail as.” Just click the “Send mail from another address” button and follow the prompts. If you know your mail server’s SMTP info you can route messages through your own mail servers. Otherwise Gmail can send the messages itself, with an appended reply-to address. Be sure to forward the mail from your other account to your Gmail or use the “Add POP3 email account” button to add your alternate account.
Not all E-mail accounts are compatible with the above Gmail method. For those cases, the best alternative is K-9 Mail. No, it’s not email for dogs; K-9 Mail is arguably the best alternate email app on the Android Marketplace. While it can’t match the power of Gmail, it still offers many useful features, such as attachment management, syncing mail to your SD card (great for saving battery and people with multiple devices), POP3 and IMAP support, popup notifications, and multiple accounts to name a few.
One of the biggest complaints about vanilla Android is its camera app. It’s almost completely devoid of features, such as a digital zoom or timer. Camera Zoom FX not only gives you a handful of fun filters, but also features digital zooming, a shutter timer, geo-tagging, and even image stabilization. It’s a little pricey but greatly improves the usefulness of your Android’s camera.
Just like the stock browser, the stock music player has seen a ton of improvement recently. Its biggest asset is the ability to play songs stored on the cloud via Google Music Beta (storing up to 20,000 songs). This is great, except the app still feels very disorganized, and with 20,000 songs to sort through, that can be a big problem.
Winamp isn’t just for Windows anymore, and its popularity has definitely spilled over to Android. It can’t link up with any sort of cloud based music storage, but it can search your music library and present everything in a very organized manor. It also offers SHOUTcast streaming, wireless syncing, and even free music downloads.
Just like Winamp, doubleTwist includes a suite of extra features, including wireless syncing, Internet radio, and music or video streaming to other devices. Many of these features come in the form of paid plug-ins, however, but plenty of people still prefer doubleTwist for its sleek interface and inclusion of video playback.
Android has always been at a huge disadvantage when it comes to video playback, and stock Android app users suffer the most, lacking codec support for many common video formats. The default video app, Gallery, handles some video formats, but AVI’s and H.264 sources are usually off limits. MX Video Player offers hardware decoding for the devices that have it and software decoding for those that don’t, allowing playback of essentially all video sources. However, some devices relying on software rendering may have trouble with HD content.
If all you need to do is some simple arithmetic, Android’s default calculator app is fine, but if you’ve ever tried finding a square root (which it can do), you probably know how much of a pain in the ass it is.
People love RealCalc Scientific Calculator because it looks and functions just as you’d expect from a scientific calculator. Plus, under its skin is a long list of additional features, such as unit conversions, results history, and even Reverse Polish Notation.
HandyCalc isn’t quite as clean and straightforward as RealCalc, but its appeal is that it does much, much more. Apart from up to date currency and unit conversions, HandyCalc is capable of 2D graphing, algebraic manipulation, and even solving algebraic equations.
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