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10 Android Apps

25-04-2012

The Android Market had a huge year in 2011. Google rolled out the web-based Market, and with it more tools for developers and users alike. Apps have been flowing into the Market like never before, and we've sometimes had trouble keeping up. Each week we bring you five of the best new things in the Market, but now it's time for the 10 best apps of the year.

We've got everything from stunning shooters to simple utilities. The one thing they all have in common is that they are the best of the best.

Shush!

For an app to really stick with you, it needs to solve a problem in an elegant way. That’s why the first app on our top 10 list for 2011 is Shush. This app forever saves users from forgetting to turn the ringer back up after silencing it. There’s no app to launch, and no complicated settings to fiddle with. Shut off the ringer, and Shush handles everything.

We’ve used this app on a number of phones, and it always works like a charm. Just hold the volume down toggle until the phone is silent, and Shush pops up a box across the bottom of the screen. This stylish little interface has a large circular timer that you can use to set the length of time until the ringer comes back to life. You may also choose the volume level you want it restored to.

When you have chosen your options, tap “Shush” and forget all about it. Your ringtone is restored at the predetermined time. There is also a notification in the status bar that will remind you when it’s set to come back on. Tapping on it will bring the sound back immediately. In instances where you just want the ringer off, you can just tap “keep it off” to silence the phone normally. You can also just ignore Shush when it pops up and your ringer will remain off.

If you’re not using Shush, you should. And why not? It’s free in the Android Market. That's a real deal for an app we use almost every day.

Sprinkle

Here we have a more recent addition to the Android Market. Sprinkle is a physics-based puzzler that we just can’t seem to put down. It’s one of those games that makes the quest for arbitrary in-game points seem compelling, and downright fun. It’s also got some of the best 2D graphics and fluid physics that we’ve ever seen.

The gist of this game is that flaming space debris is raining down on the good alien-people of Titan. It’s up to you to use a fire-fighting contraption to get the water where it needs to go before any homes are burned. To do this, you have to make use of the environment as well as various blocks and boulders.

What gets us about this game every single time we play it is that the levels are incredibly well-designed. You have to evaluate where the flames are, which are the most threatening, and which you can hit most easily. Once you’re familiar with the “rules” of Sprinkle, it will become clear where water needs to go to wash over the flames.

That’s not to say the game is terribly easy. It’s not; you will need timing and good aim to put out all the fires. The controls are great, though. So if you can’t hack it, there’s not one to blame but yourself. Tap and drag anywhere on the screen to change the angle of the water nozzle. Dragging the crane holding the nozzle up and down can also get you a better angle. When you’re lined up, jut hit the fire -- er, water button in the lower right corner.

The game also looks great. It was originally designed for Tegra 2 devices, but it runs just fine on most other high-end phones now. The 2D environment shows a little depth and shading along with its crisp edges. The lighting effects for the fire are excellent, and the water looks great sloshing about. Sprinkle is a joy to look at as much as it is to play. This game is in the Android market for $1.99, and it’s one of the best apps of 2011.

Any.DO

For a long time, Astrid has been the best of the best in Android to-do mangers, but then there was Any.DO. This app is gorgeous, functional, and totally free. There are different themes, drag-and-drop task management, and gestures to be had inside.

The design of the app is very clean, making it easy to find what you’re looking for. There is a dark theme in addition to the white one, and it looks great on AMOLED screens. When you add a task, Any.DO will take its best guess at what you are trying to get at, and displays some options in a drop down. If the task involves calling a contact, there will even be a handy phone link next to the task.

To clear tasks, just draw a line through them with your finger. That marks it as complete, and you can clear your complete tasks by either tapping the “x” next to each one, or shake the device to clear everything. If you just tap on an item, you get a popup that lets you set priority, reminders, notes, and more. Any.DO uses natural language for getting things done. It’s just today, tomorrow, this week, and later. You can long-press to drag an entry between these spaces.

Some of the extras here include a number of widgets that change color to match the theme of the app, and syncing to various task management services. Any.DO looks great, and has the features you need. It's now our favorite to-do manager, and that makes it one of the best apps of 2011.

Shadowgun

When MadFinger Games showed off Shadowgun, we were floored by the gorgeous visuals and solid gameplay. When it was revealed to be Tegra-only, we were a little less floored. But as with most apps, this one was eventually opened up to all capable devices. After playing Shadowgun for just a few minutes, it is clear that this is one of the best shooters on a mobile device.

It goes without saying that Shadowgun is one of the most attractive games out there, but we also like that it scales well to different devices. It looks better on some Tegra 2 devices, but it tones things down to work on mid-range phones too.

The control scheme is just what we’d expect from a well-designed shooter. There is a virtual joystick on the left for movement, and a virtual joystick on the right for aiming. You can hit the fire button and then continue to drag in order to sweep your projectiles across an area. We’re always impressed with the smoothness of aiming in Shadowgun. Even distant enemies can be pinpointed without a lot of fussing with the controls.

In each combat area, you will have to take cover behind some manner of barracade and take out the enemy before they get to you. The enemies in Shadowgun aren’t completely brain-dead, but they do occasionally leave a limb exposed from cover, or go running into your line of fire. There are a fair number of different units to take on, and some epic boss fights too.

Shadowgun is also top of the heap when it comes to voice acting. This is a place where too many games look to save some money, but the voices in Shadowgun are believable and crystal-clear. This is a more expensive game at $4.99, but it’s still a great buy.

AntTek File Explorer Pro

We haven’t had a lot of opportunity to talk about AntTek File Explorer since we first featured the free version earlier this year. At the time, it was on the verge of something big, and it’s slowly been improving over time, and now we think the Pro edition of this app is clearly one of the best file managers on Android.

This app does all the things you’d expect a file manager to do. It lets you view, move, and delete files on your SD card. The interface is clean and efficient with support for drag and drop file management. AntTek also uses a slick slide up temporary drawer to help you move files around. No tapping through context menus, just open the temporary directory, drag a file or folder in, and drag it back out in another folder.

Perhaps the most innovative part of the app is the way it manages Android’s fragments API. This app works on both tablets and phones thanks to its use of fragments, but you can change out the information you want displayed very easily. Just hit the layout edit button at the top of the screen, and you can change the information shown in each column. There are two columns on the phone interface, but more for tablets. We quite like having a parent directory hierarchy in the smaller left panel, but you can also add things like file previews, extended information, and favorite files.

There are a few themes to choose from, including a really snazzy Android look. This app is just a joy to use, and we’re more than happy to recommend the ad-free pro version for $1.99.

SeekDroid

Your smartphone is an expensive piece of gear, and you take it with you everywhere. You might have only paid $200 for it, but if it should need replacing due to loss or damage, it might cost upwards of $500-600. Why risk it when a single $4.99 fee can put your mind at ease? SeekDroid is a great little app that lets you track, lock, and if it comes to it, remote wipe your phone.

Just install the app and sign up for a SeekDroid account. The app will register itself as an administrator with your help, giving it access to hardware controls. If your phone is ever missing in action, just head over to the excellent SeekDroid site, and ping your phone for location information. In a few seconds, you should have a good approximation of where your device is.

The site also has options to lock the device with a PIN that you make up on the spot. This will keep any dastardly individuals from getting your personal data while you try to recover the device. If the device might be nearby, the SeekDroid service can make it ring at maximum volume even if you left it on silent. If you just plain know you’re not getting that phone back, you can push down a command from the SeekDroid site to wipe the phone and the SD card in it.

An added bonus feature that we don’t see often in these apps is the ability to pull up the call log from your missing device to see if anyone is using it. Everything that SeekDroid does can be handled without alerting whoever has your phone, which is handy if you’re unsure of their intentions. SeekDroid is far and away the best phone security app on Android, and one of our favorite apps of the past year. It’s yours for $4.99.

Google+

Say what you will about Google+ as a site, the Google+ app started off good, and has become great. The way it ties in with your Android phone makes it tremendously easy to share content on Google’s social network. Through updates, the app now has all the main features included, and feels totally done.

The main screen in Google+ has everything you need. There is a notification bar at the top with the familiar red, productivity-stealing box that lets you know when there is something new happening. From the main page you can jump off to any number of areas including your main stream, your profile, messenger, photos, and Circles.

It could be said that Google’s big feature was Circles, and you can take complete control of them in the Android app. You can edit, create, and modify circles from the app. You can also check out posts from each circle individually.

Viewing posts, watching videos, and adding +1s work quite well in the app. Creating new posts, especially if you’re using a picture, works beautifully. When other users comment on your posts, or mention you, a notification is pushed down so you will see it in the Android status bar, not just in the app. For devices with front-facing cameras, there is even the option of using Google Hangouts. This actually works surprisingly well in our experience.

Google has also granted Android users on Google+ unlimited storage space for pictures, with a few caveats. Your images can be automatically uploaded to G+, but they will be scaled to no more than 2048 pixels on a side, and videos can’t be longer than 15 minutes.

The overall experience really sells the service to Android users. With Android 4.0 pushing users to sign up right away, it’s likely to get more crowded and useful as time goes on.

Battleheart

Some games are so terribly addictive that they should be kept out of reach of children. Battleheart is a game that you won’t ever want to put down, even though you will occasionally be tremendously frustrated with the tough levels and challenging strategic gameplay. It’s the perfect mashup of real-time strategy and RPG.

Each level in Battleheart is essentially an onslaught of enemy forces for a predetermined length of time. Survive and you enjoy the spoils, die and you have to try again. You can have a party of up to 4 adventurers that you move around by tapping and dragging. When you have one of them selected, a number of special power will be available. These regenerate, so use them as much as possible.

The reason we keep coming back to this game, and the reason it’s here, is that Battleheart is very well-balanced. Your characters level up, gaining new powers, and you can buy better weapons for them. As you get more powerful, the enemies get more aggressive. It never feels like you are over-leveled for the game.

The game looks like a living cartoon on your screen. The units are heavily outlined, and very smooth. The environments are varied and colorful, as well. Each unit has its own unique animations that look great and are stutter-free on all the devices we’ve tested the game on. Some early graphical issues with the game have been well and truly solved.

This game is hugely fun, and is easy to pick up. Don’t start playing this game when you have other pressing concerns, though. Battleheart will eat your time up fast. This game is a mere $2.99 in the Market. Not bad for one of the best apps of the year.

Screen Filter

It’s not something you really think about when buying a new smartphone, but the minimum brightness on most of these phones is still crazy-bright for a dark room. That’s where this handy little utility called Screen Filter comes in. Screen Filter lets you push the brightness way, way down so you can comfortably use your device in a dark room.

The app itself is very barebones with just a slider for choosing the strength of the filter, and a preview of the effects on a block of text. Opening the app will actually just turn on the filter, and you have to tap the Screen Filter notification to get into the app. When you choose brightness settings, they will stick so that each time you launch the app, the screen will dim the same amount.

This by itself is incredibly useful, but Screen Filter also gives you more control with widgets. Just add these 1x1 icons and the app will have you choose the level of dimming. Each time you press one, it will initiate the predetermined filter. You can have a few of these on your home screen for different lighting conditions.

This app hasn’t really changed so much since we spotted it earlier this year, but it doesn’t need to. It still gets daily use on our devices. This great utility is completely free in the Market.

QuickPic

We quite like the new Gallery app in Android 4.0, but odds are that you don’t have access to that software just yet. If not, we have to suggest -- no, insist that you go pick up QuickPic from the Android Market. This is a replacement image gallery that dispenses with all the animations, and unnecessary effects in favor of raw speed and ease of use. It is almost certainly going to be better than the Gallery your OEM put on the phone.

QuickPic plugs into the Android system and can be called up in place of the Gallery if you choose. The main interface shows all the folders on your device that contain pictures or videos, and it does this fast (as the name implies). Dropping new files into monitored folders doesn’t even phase this app. It caches thumbnails of the new images in a snap.

Open any folder and the contents will be laid out in a simple grid. Long-pressing uncovers all the usual options like deleting, copying, and cropping. You can also hide folders from the app, or even have the app drop a .nomedia file in a folder so it isn’t indexed by the system at all. QuickPic can even stand in for tasks like setting wallpaper, which it does very well. This is a free app, so you should definitely pick it up if you’re less than happy with the stock Gallery on your phone.

That’s it, folks. These 10 apps are our favorites from the last year on Android. Whether you’re looking for an intense shooter like Shadowgun, or a nice casual puzzler like Sprinkle, Android has it. And it’s only on Android that you’ll get great utilities like Shush and Screen Filter. But we're not done yet.

Honorable mentions

There are a few apps that don't quite make the list of the top ten, but we wanted to make sure they got some mention here. So read on for three more options that are very, very good.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit

Who doesn’t like a good racing game? This is a genre well-suited to a mobile device equipped with an accelerometer, but some racing sims just don’t grab us. EA’s Need for Speed series has consistently been high-quality, but Hot Pursuit takes it to a whole new level. This game looks great, controls well, and has unique gameplay.

If you’ve played the desktop or console version of this title, the Android app is going to be familiar. That in and of itself is a real accomplishment. You can play as either a drag racer, or a cop. Both career lines are full of great missions and unlockable content. There is even some crossover content that unlocks in the other storyline. There are a ton of races to play, but there is some overlap in track design.

There are straight ‘get from here to there first’ races, but there are also time trials and other miscellaneous races. For the police missions there are some runs where you just have to take out illegal racers. Both sides in this conflict are armed with barricades, signal jammers, spike strips, and more. Your special abilities are controlled with buttons in the lower right and will recharge over time.

Controls are a hold over from previous games in the series. The car will accelerate constantly unless you brake by pressing in the lower left quadrant. Swipe up on the screen for nitro, and down for the e-brake. Steering is accelerometer-bases, and we are always impressed with the incredible smoothness of it.

The cars and tracks look great, and performance is good even on single-core devices. Textures are good everywhere, but especially on the cars. Edges are mostly free of jaggies. We also really dig the slow-motion animations when there is a crash or you catch some good air.

Like a lot of EA’s games, this one doesn’t come cheap. It’s $6.99 and there is a large additional data download that will keep you from trying before the return window is up. Still, we keep coming back to this as our racing game of choice.

Dead Space

EA’s survival-horror title Dead Space is a new arrival on Android, but it warrants a spot here just for its sheer scope. There are times while you’re playing this game that you can almost forget it’s just a phone. The game looks great, and the atmosphere is is very much that of a real survival-horror game.

Like Shadowgun, this game uses a dual joystick system for movement and aiming. It’s third-person too. Dead Space has a somewhat more complicated control scheme, with swipe areas off to the left, special powers on the back of your character’s space suit, and reload buttons on your guns. After you get used to all that, the game controls very well.

This isn’t a run and gun experience, though. It is carefully, even deliberately crafted. Each step you take is tracked by the game, and various events unfold when you hit critical junctures. Creatures pop out to attack, but sometimes they aren’t real. Dead and dismembered bodies appear out of thin air, and inhuman screeches echo from around corners. The game recommends that you play with headphones on, and we concur.

As good as the gameplay is, the graphics are even better. Environments are incredibly detailed, and the lighting effects produce amazing shadows. Textures look good, even close up. The game is also mostly free of aliasing. The only bummer is that most single-core devices won’t be allowed to download and run the game, not that it would be a good experience anyway.

Dead Space costs $6.99 in the Android Market, and it’s something you should look at if you’ve got a compatible device. Remember there is a large additional data download.

DropSnap

This is an app that still gets daily use around here. Unlike a lot of apps, that doesn’t mean that it takes up a lot of your time. DropSnap plugs into your Dropbox account and will automatically sync all the pictures and videos you take on your phone to the cloud. You can have as little or as much interaction with DropSnap as you want.

Once DropSnap is installed, it’s going to need you to input your Dropbox credentials as well as choose your destination directory and the folder monitored on the phone. If your phone is not new, you can sync the existing content you have by hitting the refresh button on the main screen. This app will obviously use a lot of bandwidth, so make sure you’re on Wi-Fi.

Your mobile data can also be spared in the long term with a quick trip into the settings. DropSnap lets you choose to sync files immediately after they are taken, or to just check-in every few hours for new items. There is also a toggle for Wi-Fi only uploads. Finally, you can have the app notify you of successful or unsuccessful uploads.

DropSnap is a really good-looking app, which is a little sad because it does most of its work behind the scenes. We have found it to be utterly reliable. DropSnap has also won our hearts because by tying in with Dropbox, it makes it easy to get instant full-resolution backups on multiple PCs. Real shutterbugs might have to worry about running out of space in a free 2GB Dropbox account. The full version of DropSnap costs $4.

And that's it! What a year of Android apps it has been. Feel free to talk about your favorites in the comments below.

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