Yesterday, the Mobile Madhouse team got together and picked our top ten Android games. Today, we’re going to be doing something similar: our favourite ten pure utility applications from the Android store. They may not be as glitzy, and they may not eat up as much of your spare time, as their counterpart games – but when it comes to usefulness and utility, our picks are always peerless!
10 – SetCPU
One of the most bare-bones and utilitarian applications from our selection, SetCPU nevertheless boasts a variety of uses. At its base, SetCPU is a tool for altering the CPU settings of a rooted Android Smartphone: in purely technical terms, that means it’s capable of performing feats like overclocking your processor, to allow for greater multitasking potential, or dialling down the speed of your CPU to conserve battery life as long as possible. Its true strength, however, lies in its ability to construct dynamic profiles, operating on sophisticated yet easy-to-use #IF statements.
That means that if certain conditions are met, the profiles will kick in and perform their set function. For example, you could overclock your processor up until it reaches a certain temperature; and at that point, automatically cause it to return to default factory settings (or even reduce CPU speed further, to allow swifter cool-down). Or you could set your mobile to automatically enter sleep mode during a certain time of the day, ensuring that you don’t compromise your battery by forgetting to turn your phone off after bedtime, or during work hours. It’s far from the most exciting application out there, but if you’re looking to have total control over the technical aspects of your device, there are few better applications out there.
9 – FlightTrack
If you’re in a line of work which necessitates repeated plane travel, FlightTrack will be literally indispensable to you. It does exactly what you’d expect, based on the title: tracking over 16,000 airports worldwide and covering more than 1400 airlines, FlightTrack gives you real-time, constantly updating information about all the minutiae of any flight you’re embarking upon: departure times, gate statuses, and even direct links to alternate flights. In the event that yours is cancelled, you can find a replacement in a mere tap!
In addition to this basic utility, FlightTrack has a number of other features; including the ability to share the status of your flight via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, the capacity to view your seat in relation to the rest of the plane, and even fully imaged tracker maps, which will detail the type of weather your flight can be expected to encounter on-route. It’s refreshing to see an application with such a clear-cut use include so many fringe features like this, to make the experience that much more user-friendly.
There are only two real disadvantages to be found with FlightTrack, in fact – first, the fact that charter flights are not supported via the application; secondly, the fact that its many features means that it’s a real drain on the battery power of your Smartphone. Perusing it for any kind of extended period can be devastating. With that said, FlightTrack has anticipated even this failing, by incorporating a simple homescreen widget, to allow you to track your flight of choice even when the application is closed. For the constant traveller, there’s no better companion to be found than FlightTrack.
8 – Nova Launcher Prime
Nova Launcher Prime is, essentially, a homescreen replacement compatible with Android 4.0+ Smartphones, for those who want a more performance-driven UI than the default Ice Cream Sandwich. With that said, the amount of features Nova possesses marks it apart from other, lesser overlays. For a start, it’s very intuitive; there are a number of default gestures that you can perform to swiftly (in some cases, automatically) launch applications on the homescreen, such as pinching, swiping, or two-finger tapping, which cuts down on the clumsy touch-screen fumblings that some overlays encourage.
In addition to its intuitive interface, Nova Launcher’s smart features perform automatic tasks like hiding little-used applications on the desktop, ensuring that there’s less clutter to be found, and features an automatic count of any missed messages, ensuring that you’ll never lose important information from your Gmail or SMS. There is the capacity for unlimited custom tabs, and apps can be organized into individual tabs or custom folders. It’s a much cleaner and more utilitarian option than the messier ICS default screen, and for that, it has the Mobile Madhouse recommendation!
7 – SketchBook Mobile
While desktop computers possess far greater power when it comes to drawing/editing applications such as Photoshop, most of the artists I know prefer to perform on a tablet computer. That’s because it’s a far more intuitive and personal experience, and probably also because it’s more evocative of classical art: it’s almost like an electronic sketchpad. So I’m always excited to see a mobile and tablet-oriented piece of drawing/editing software, especially when it’s of such a high-quality standard as SketchBook Mobile.
It possesses most of the same features an illustrator would expect of Photoshop: the capacity for multiple layers, many different brush types, a full spectrum of colours to choose from and even some fairly basic editing software. It has an attractive UI, a negligible price tag and is very responsive to pen strokes: everything, in short, that you would require from your editing software.
The only common complaint I’ve heard about SketchBook relates to its “pen pressure support” feature; theoretically, the application should be able to detect how hard you’re pressing down with the pen, and adjust the resultant illustration accordingly in terms of line thickness/depth of shading. But many customers claim this functionality is stunted or completely absent on their device. While I can’t say that’s a crippling loss for a casual sketcher like myself, it may well be a deal-breaker for a desktop-user, accustomed to fine-tuned detail and unwilling to compromise on perfection. With that said, the price of SketchBook Mobile, coupled with its plethora of features, means that it’s hard to get angry about even its failings. At it's core, it remains a very competent and very fun app.
6 – SoundHound
Following in the footsteps of applications like Shazam, SoundHound is specifically designed to circumvent one of life’s major irritations – having a song lyric or tune stuck in your head, without remembering the song name or artist. Unlike Shazam, however (whose major draw was the capacity to hold your device up to a radio, and have information about the song rapidly show up on screen), SoundHound also possesses the incredible ability to recognise songs when sung or hummed by you, making it far more useful on-the-go.
In addition to its primary function of swiftly recognising different songs, SoundHound has a number of fringe features, too; links to the social networking sites of identified artists, links to YouTube to watch song videos, optional auto-sharing so your friends can see the songs you’ve listened to, and even the capacity to buy songs in several different formats, once they’ve been identified. For ease of use, there’s a homescreen widget which permits you to identify music without having to launch the application. And for the purposes of nostalgia, the application can even remember the location you first discovered a song, in case you want to get a little teary-eyed over that Rod Stewart ballad. So if you have a bad memory, and a passion for music, you should make SoundHound your first priority.
5 – Star Chart
Some of the applications we reviewed were utilitarian to the extreme, focusing only on bare-bones utility; of them all, only Star Chart surpassed its base usage to transcend into something of gorgeous aesthetic appeal. All you have to do is point your Android device up at the sky, and hey presto – Star Chart will identify the star (or planet) you’re looking at. Utilizing state-of-the-art GPS technology and 3D imaging techniques, Star Chart also calculates the positions of every other star and planet in the sky based on your initial image, permitting you to know precisely what’s going on in the sky – even in broad daylight!
But, of course, that isn’t all. The constellations are rendered as beautiful pieces of artwork (inspired by the art of a 15th
century astronomer), lending an elegant and classy air to the application. It also permits you to explore the night sky through finger-tapping, allowing you to play at being an armchair astronomer yourself – and with accurate, photorealistic depictions of the 5000+ different stars visible from Earth, you may even be caught up in the illusion yourself! Additionally, you can find out more information about any celestial body of your choice by simply clicking on it - allowing you to find out its diameter, distance from the sun, and more!
Fully configurable to your exacting specifications, Star Chart allows you to ignore any object you’re not interested in. If you just want to view the constellations responsible for star signs, you can; if you only want to see planets, and no stars, you can do that too. You can even manually enter a location to discover what the night sky looks like from a different continent. The crowning achievement for me, though, is the capacity to point your Android device at the ground
during daytime, and see the opposite hemisphere’s star system. Even if you have no interest in astronomy or the solar system at large, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t give Star Chart a look; you won’t find a cheaper way to blow apart your mind and your expectations!
4 – Titanium Backup PRO
No frills, no fancy widgets, no overlays – the Titanium Backup PRO is usable and useful, a no-nonsense application with a clear-cut mission statement and a dedication to fulfilling it. Its primary function, obviously, is to back up your files: its utilitarian interface allows you to quickly and easily set up a backup system. Whether you want to individually back up your save game files and applications, or have them automatically backed up en-masse at preset intervals, Titanium Backup has the capacity to cater to your exacting specifications.
It also possesses a number of auxiliary functions, such as the capacity to freeze apps, encrypt your files to ensure they are secure, sync itself to cloud-based storage systems such as Dropbox... it can even backup your applications without closing them down - ensuring total system security even when you’re, say, playing Angry Birds on the sly. The developers are constantly adding new functionality as and when appropriate; the capacity to sync to Google Drive was enabled less than three days after its initial debut! With constant free updates, you can’t really say no – so if you don’t want to lose any vital information on your Android mobile, make sure to invest in Titanium Backup.
3 – Paper Camera
Another stylish novelty application, Paper Camera is one of a plethora of applications that allows you to set a filter, which will subsequently be applied to any photograph you take with your phone’s camera. Though a fairly simple proposition, the sheer number of filters available (including sketches, neon, and film noir style) ensures that you have a huge amount of choice when it comes to your photography. Additionally, it differs from many other applications that utilize such filters, in that the filter is pre-set prior to taking the photograph, rather than acting as a post-effect (which can compromise on the quality of the photographs).
The watchword of Paper Camera appears to be “convenience”, because the whole experience is streamlined and stripped down. Once a photograph is taken, it is automatically placed into your gallery; there’s no need to save it, or introduce a file name. The interface is practically idiot-proof; without any complex editing options to trip up the casual user, there’s virtually no learning curve whatsoever – once you’ve enabled your effect of choice, you just snap, snap, snap to your heart’s content. That’s what really makes Paper Camera so special, compared to competition which is often more polished and professional; while it’s a little rough around the edges, it has heart to fall back on.
2 – Smart Tools
Smart Tools is, essentially, a portmanteau application: a combination of five separate applications, released (for free) individually under the aegis of the titular Smart Tools Co: Smart Ruler Pro, Smart Measure Pro, Smart Compass Pro, Smart Meter Pro and Smart Light Pro. As you might be able to guess, Ruler was designed to measure things like length and angle; Measure was designed to measure height and distance; Sound Meter is a sound-level meter with a vibrometer attached; Compass is (of course) a compass, with a GPS and metal detector also attached; and Light is an application which simulates a flashlight.
Individually, these applications were all useful pieces of utility, but together they constitute the software equivalent of a Swiss penknife: multi-purpose and innately adaptable. If you ever find yourself wondering how long your pen is, or how far exactly you are from the nearest toilet, you now have the capability to satisfy even the most meandering supposition! Smart Tools may not be nearly as glamorous as an application like Paper Camera, but of all the applications we downloaded in preparation for this list, Smart Tools assuredly saw the most use.
1 – SwiftKey X Keyboard
You might be a little underwhelmed by the notion of a digital touchscreen keyboard taking precedence over flashier (and, let’s be honest, more groundbreaking) applications like SoundHound in our estimation, but anybody who has used the SwiftKey X Keyboard will attest to how incredibly useful it is. It possesses much more sophisticated technology than other digital keyboards; while many keyboards have the capacity to “learn” words, ensuring that they become more synchronized with your idiom and vocabulary as time goes on, SwiftKey X – as the name implies – is much faster at synonymising itself with you.
In addition to this swift learning capacity, the SwiftKey X can also predict the structure of your sentences, meaning it will offer suggestions on words you’re likely to use next. After building up a bit of a rapport with your keyboard, it’s even possible to construct sentences “mad-libs” style, by just allowing the keyboard to predict the words you want. It also has a spellchecker of unparalleled sophistication; even the sloppiest typographical errors are magically transformed into cohesive sentences. As if all that wasn’t enough, the keyboard can be resized at will, meaning that an individual with smaller or larger hands won’t suffer unduly while typing – all they have to do is alter the settings of the application!
With thirty five different language keyboards to choose from, and more on the way, SwiftKey X Keyboard truly deserves its lofty position in the top five rankings of Android’s (paid) application store. At less than £2, it’s one of the best bargains available there, too – you really stand to lose nothing by giving it a try. It comes highly recommended, and is, by common consensus, the favourite utility application of the Mobile Madhouse team!