July 2, 2012

Android Apps - Free Edition

   I got to thinking the other day about things I might write about. I realized that I've had an Android phone for more than 2 years and have yet to talk about those things that make smart phones great. So I am going to spend a bit of time reviewing and recommending a handful of apps that I find to be worth writing about, the free ones at least.
   Whenever a conversation comes up with a friend thinking of getting a smart phone I mention that the number 1 app that I use and that I know others use is Google Maps. If you ever use a map program on your computer you know that it's a great way to get to new places and get around while you are in new places. Having this on your phone is awesome. I can't count the number of times when my wife and I have used it to find places to eat while we were already out somewhere. We love to read reviews of places nearby that we can see but are sometimes skeptical of. There have been times where Maps has helped my wife get home from trips around Los Angeles. And there have been many days where the traffic report in Maps has helped us avoid hours in gridlock. It's a no brainer really and it comes with almost any Android device. If you bought an Android phone and it wasn't already there you might consider returning it for something else.
   Recently I read a good review for an app called Vlingo. Basically it is a voice search feature similar to Siri. Now Android comes stock with a voice search capability and has long before Siri ever showed up on an Apple device. Vlingo tries to expand on what is already there. One excellent feature is the safe driving mode. When turned on it will read your incoming text messages to you. It's not bad when going on long trips. Vlingo does a few things that Google's voice search doesn't. For instance it will open apps. I think this is the main shortcoming of the previous versions of Google's version. However, in coming months a new version of Voice Search is being packaged with the newest version of Android that will probably make Vlingo irrelevant. I'm not certain this feature will be ported to older versions of Android. So my recommendation is to go ahead and give Vlingo a try.
   Another free app I recently downloaded that I can't get enough of is called Silent Time. This app is something that runs in the background once you set it up to provide you with, wait for it, silent time. I got used to CyanogenMod recently. CM has a similar feature built right in where you can set certain times of the day or night to not take phone calls. Silent time is a bit more powerful. It gives you options similar to alarm clocks. You can set up a lot of timers if you have a lot of needs. In my case I set up 3. I have 2 timers set up to make my phone shut up all night long during the weekdays and longer on weekends. I have a few friends in Africa that occasionally forget to parse the time difference when they call me. It's not fun having your phone ring in the middle of the night on a work day. Also since I use my phone as my alarm clock I find that I almost never turn it off at night. The last setting I have for church. Since I take my phone to church and always set it to vibrate I thought it would be convenient if the phone did the button pushing for me. The neat thing here is that it lets you distinguish between full silent and vibrate modes.
   Some of my friends like to tell me they could never read a book on a phone. I currently have 4 apps designed mainly for reading. I have Nook, Kindle, Play Books and LDS Scriptures. At first I was skeptical of reading on such a small screen. I have been pleasantly surprised at how comfortable reading on a phone can be. I am currently reading The Reality Dysfunction on my Nook reader. There are a lot of eBook readers available now. Almost all of them have apps that can be used on a phone or a tablet. Why settle for 1 reader when I can have 4. I should add that they are not all equal. I personally prefer the Nook reader experience. The pages turn and it is easy to read type. I know other people prefer the Kindle app for other reasons. I have used them all and usually just read on whichever one sales me the book for the best price. If the prices are the same I default to the Nook. The apps are free though the books are not.
   One last one I want to recommend trying is HeyTell. This is an app that reproduces the push to talk functionality of older phones like Nextel used to have. I remember my uncle had everyone on his construction crew carry those things around back in the day. Heytell doesn't use phone minutes. It sends short voice messages over the internet between users. It doesn't use your contacts like a phone either. You set up friend lists. Right now only a few people I know use it so I only message a few people. But for those few people it has replaced texting. It's simple and easy and the voice quality is excellent. The audio does come out of the speaker portion of your phone so if you have a bad speaker phone it will sound as good as your speaker can handle.
   I have a lot more. I will follow this up later with some games and some things I actually spent money on.