There is far more to smartphone life than Apple’s iPhone. Google launched its Android software in 2008 and has since sold more than 300m of its smartphones; currently, more than 850,000 are added to that number every day.
More than 450 000 apps are available on Google Play, which is generating more than 1bn app downloads every month. The latest Android smartphones are also viable competitors to the iPhone, but Android apps haven’t always had a great press. Android has been criticised on security grounds, with accusations that there are more viruses and malware apps on Google’s store than on Apple’s App Store. However, Android apps have to ask for explicit permission to access your personal data and phone features, so familiarise yourself with these permissions requests when installing apps and you’ll be less at risk.
Big games such as Grand Theft Auto III and Angry Birds Rio now launch on Android at the same time as on iPhone, while all the major social networking apps are also available on both. There is a growing catalogue of useful productivity tools and lifestyle apps, while Google has ensured that its key web services all have polished incarnations for Android.
Over time, Google has made it easier for people with Android smartphones to find new apps, too. Its recently rebranded Google Play store has improved greatly on the one available when the first Android phone went on sale, but as with iPhone, finding the best apps can still feel like rooting through a digital haystack; apps such as Appsfire (featured here) are making the needle hunt less of a chore.
Android is interesting, because it attracts two very different kinds of people: on the one hand, tech-savvy users who have made a decision to choose Android over iPhone and regular phone users who want a nice smartphone for a more affordable price. We’ve taken as read that you’ll be installing some of the most obvious apps, such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Amazon Kindle, BBC iPlayer and eBay, which is why they aren’t in this list.
We’ve left out some very good apps due to restrictions on their availability or the phones they work with. Google Chrome browser (currently restricted to the handful of handsets running the latest Ice Cream Sandwich Android software) and excellent keyboard app Swype (still in beta and not available on Google Play) are two examples. However, the fact that they will be available for all Android users in the near future is another reason for smartphone owners to feel excited about the future of their gadgets. This list of 50 apps is a starting point, but there is plenty more in store.
Our top 50 pick of the Android phone apps
Free This is a simple utility that replaces your Android phone’s default “Share” menu with a better one, to make it quick to share your photos, messages and updates on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.
Free It started as a way for groups of friends to check into bars, restaurants and other venues and earn points for their gadding about. That’s still true, but now it’s as much about using that data to recommend new, cool venues to visit.
Free One of several social location apps that are all the rage. You sign in with your Facebook details and it then alerts you when people with similar friends and interests are nearby, so you never need miss an important connection.
Free It’s nowhere near as big as Facebook, but Google is making a big push for its Google+ social network, which has plenty of fans already. Its most impressive feature is Mobile Hangouts: live video chat with up to nine friends at once — and while you’re on the go.
Free Instagram for Android has only just been announced, but Path is plugging the gap with this well-designed social photography app. Upload photos for friends to see and post them to Facebook to share with your wider circle.
Free If Facebook is for fun, Linkedin is strictly for business: a network for your work contacts. Its easy-to-use Android app helps you add new people, see what your contacts are up to and enables you to browse news from your industry.
Free An app that wants to kill off SMSes, replacing them with instant messaging that works across every smartphone. It supports text, photos, voice notes and videos and also offers group-chat features.
Tunein Radio Pro
30c TuneIn is an essential download for radio buffs or anyone who regularly travels abroad and wants to fend off homesickness. It streams more than 50 000 radio stations — including the big UK ones — as well as podcasts.
Free She’s sold more than 20m albums and scooped a host of awards and Adele’s official Android app is equally classy. It offers news, videos and tour dates, as well as a “fan wall” to post comments and chat to other fans.
7Digital Music Store
Free Looking for a good Android alternative to Apple’s iTunes Store for music downloads? 7digital is the one. It has a catalogue of 18m tracks for sale and lets you re-download your purchases when you buy a new device.
Free This sounds too good to be true for football fans, but it isn’t. ESPN’s app delivers video highlights of Premier League goals just minutes after they’re scored, as well as live scores and stats. It’s free, and funded by ads.
Free Are you listening to a tune on the radio or in a club, but can’t quite place it? Shazam is your friend. It identifies tracks, then enables you buy them, watch the YouTube videos or start them playing in Spotify. It can also display lyrics.
Free to Sky subscribers Sky’s live TV app offers up to 23 channels, although how many exactly depends on which you have access to through your home subscription. They stream over 3G or Wi-Fi and you can register up to two devices.
$15.80a month Streaming music service Spotify goes from strength to strength, with more than 15m tracks available to stream or store locally on your phone for offline listening. It also works with Facebook for friends’ music recommendations.
Free Californian conference Ted is famous for its thought-provoking technology talks, as big thinkers grapple with the future of … everything. Its Android app serves up its archive of videos, many of them genuinely mind-changing.
Angry Birds Rio
Free You can’t escape Angry Birds on any smartphone these days. The game sees you catapulting the miffed birds at nefarious pigs, with the addition of characters from animated movie Rio and boss battles to spice up the action.
$1 There are full simulations, such as FIFA on Android, but the most addictive football game is Flick Soccer, which sees you flicking free kicks into a goal from a variety of positions. Fearsomely addictive, with bags of depth.
$1.20 Fruit Ninja is another casual game that’s as playable on Android as it is on iPhone. Here, you’re slashing various fruit in half with swipes of your finger on the touchscreen, building up your score with squishy skills.
Grand Theft Auto III
$4.70 It’s 10 years old, but GTA III still feels fresh on a cellphone. This is the full console game crammed on to Android devices, with new touchscreen controls. Your nan still wouldn’t approve, but this is excellent.
Minecraft – pocket edition
$6.80 Want a game where you make things rather than kill them? Minecraft sees you roaming a colourful virtual world made of blocks and digging and building to your heart’s content. It’s like digital Lego for gamers.
Tank Hero: Laser Wars
$3.15 The first Tank Hero has been a big hit on Android, with more than 5m downloads. This sequel bumps up the puzzle action, as you kit out a tank with all manner of destructive weapons to eliminate enemies.
$2.30 Another excellent iPhone game that has found its way on to Android. Willow the Whale soars through the clouds as he seeks to escape the evil Baron Von Barry. The soundtrack comes from Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys.
Words With Friends
Free Words With Friends is basically Scrabble under a different name: you make words with tiles on a board with rows and columns. Here, though, you’re competing with your Facebook friends, taking turns at your leisure.
Words With Friends
$4.70 Having started life as a PC game, World of Goo has become one of the stickiest Android games. It sees you squeezing and stretching goo balls to build objects to get you through a succession of puzzle levels. Tactile and wonderful.
The Cat in the Hat
$3 There is a comprehensive selection of Dr Seuss books on the Android Market, so why not start with the most famous? You get voice narration, sound effects and words that rise up to help children’s comprehension.
Free This app puts a slick, mobile interface on the Guardian website, complete with podcasts, videos, the ability to save articles for offline reading and customise the homescreen categories.
FreeThe BBC’s official news app for Android is a well-designed way to scoot quickly through its stories, from UK and world through to technology, business and entertainment. You can also pick categories for its homescreen to suit.
Free Pulse is one of a clutch of news aggregation apps for Android. You tell it what websites you like and it pulls down the latest stories, while also letting you search for keywords of specific topics you’re interested in.
AA Eco Drive
Free An app that aims to save you money while also helping the planet? That will be AA Eco Drive, which uses GPS to track your driving style, then provides useful tips on how you can be more efficient at conserving fuel.
Free One of Android’s strong points is its striking robot logo, something capitalised on by Google’s own Androidify app. It lets you create your own Android avatars, complete with accessories, to store and share with friends.
Free This app is still in beta, but if you are thinking of moving house or redecorating, it could still prove invaluable. Buildapp enables you to design your rooms in 3D and then move virtual furniture around to see how it might look.
Free Google Maps remains, hands down, the best maps app for Android. Hardly surprising — it’s easy to use and the maps are clear and detailed. Although built into Android, this standalone version is updated more frequently.
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.fatattitude.buschecker&feature=search_result#?t=W251bGwsMSwxLDEsImNvbS5mYXRhdHRpdHVkZS5idXNjaGVja2VyIl0.” target=”_blank”>London Bus Checker
$2.60 This app has been a huge hit with London’s commuters on iPhone, but now it’s on Android too. See live times of the buses coming to your nearest stop, based on live data from Transport for London as they travel around.
$9.50 a month Netflix is a service for streaming films and television shows. It crossed over to Britain from the United States early this year and has a broad selection of things to watch. It works well on Android smartphones and tablets.
Free Picture messaging, Facebook and email might be good ways to share your photos, but sometimes you have to get physical. Touchnote turns your pics into postcards, sent to any address for $2.36 a time.
Train Times UK
$5.50 If you’re used to using the National Rail website to look up train times, Train Times UK is the best equivalent on Android. It provides live departure and arrival times, fare details and directions to and from stations.
Free Barclays’ new mobile payments app is an innovative and impressive idea: send money direct to friends’ bank accounts from your phone. For now, only Barclays customers can send, but that will change in the future.
Free Appsfire is an app to help you shop for … apps. It lets you browse your own collection and, crucially, recommends other app downloads you might like, based on your tastes. Appsfire offers a good way to keep on top of the latest apps.
Amazon Mobile for Android
Free Still think people won’t shop on a phone? They said that about websites once. Amazon’s app is fast and efficient for browsing and buying products, with barcode scanning to get more details on something when in a real-world shop.
Free Tesco’s shopping app is a model of simplicity and effectiveness, as you create and manage shopping lists, book delivery slots and switch between the mobile and web shopping services. You can also scan products in-store to add them to your list.
Advanced Tasks Killer
Free If you’re experiencing performance issues with your Android smartphone, it may be because too many apps are running in the background. Advanced Task Killer is the antidote, helping you shut down those you don’t need.
Free Wonder why there’s so much excitement around cloud services? Dropbox should help you understand. When installed on your computer and Android, you can swap files between the two at will — photos, videos, documents …
Free Another good advert for the power of the cloud, Evernote wants to help you “remember everything across all of the devices you use”, storing and synchronising notes and to-do lists, while adding photos for visual memory aids.
Free It should come as no surprise that Google’s own online office suite works very well as an Android app. You can create, edit and share Google Docs with it; it also uses the camera to convert snaps of printed text into documents.
Free You may know that your mobile tariff provides 500MB of data a month, but do you know how that data gets used by different apps? Onavo will show youhow, monitoring data traffic and displaying it as easy-to-understand charts.
Free Looking for an alternative to Google’s preloaded Android web browser? Opera Mini is well worth a look. It uses compression technology that ensures websites load faster and cost you much less in data usage — a godsend when roaming abroad.
Free Originally made by Google, this app has just been open sourced for other developers to work on. It’s an excellent showcase for Android phones: point your device at the sky and it will tell you what the various stars are.
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These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.
The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.
And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.