This column first appeared in Vegas Seven
It’s safe to say that almost everyone in America is aware of the iPhone, but if you ask a random sampling of 100 people strolling the Strip if they are aware of an Android phone, perhaps 30 will say yes.
The problem with Android is that it’s an operating system used on many different phones. And really, who among us wants to talk about operating systems? When we talk about the iPhone, we talk about how easy it is to use, we point out our apps, and we use it as a photo album to show off our kids. The iPhone is a singular product with a singular identity.
Meanwhile—and with a lot less fanfare and media attention—the Android mobile operating system (backed by Google) is available on several phones from each major U.S. wireless carrier, giving the platform significantly more reach than the iPhone.
Like the iPhone, Android phones operate “apps,” those useful third-party applications that make a smartphone more like a pocket computer. And unlike iPhones, Android phones can run multiple apps at the same time. This means you can listen to a music-playing app such as Last.fm while using Twidroid to post updates to Twitter. Multitasking won’t be available on the iPhone until after a software upgrade currently planned for the summer.
However, finding apps is more challenging on Android than the iPhone since there is no coordinated store like iTunes. The best place to shop for apps is on your phone, which can be limiting if you just want to browse. You can look for apps at the online Android Market, but it even suggests that users search the Android store on your phone for more choices. There are third-party sites such as AppVee.com, and each wireless carrier is creating stores to shop for Android apps.
Regardless, Android apps are plenty good and a great reason why you should consider buying an Android phone. There are about 50,000 available as of this writing, and that figure is likely to double by the end of the year. To get you started, here are my top 10 suggestions:
A Online Radio. I love Internet radio, with its ability to tune into broadcast and Internet-only stations around the world. But finding the stations you want to hear can be tricky. The A Online Radio app acts as a radio tuner, allowing you to browse stations by country, format, what’s popular among other users, Beatles music or songs inspired by Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien (yes, that’s an option, honest). Basically, this app brings the world to your phone. Free.
Buddy Runner. Even if you’re not a runner—let’s call it an aggressive walker—this is a fine app for tracking your progress on foot (or bike). When you start a run, walk or ride, start the app. It will track how far you’re going, how fast and, through the phone’s built-in GPS capabilities, your route. If you’re a road warrior who likes to take a run during business trips, this is a great way to track how far you went. If you want, you can share your route maps with your friends on Facebook. Free.
Easy Note. If you’re like me, you’re always jotting down ideas, memos to yourself and items you just don’t want to forget. On the iPhone, the notes mode is handy for such memos. On Android phones, I like Easy Note. It is cleverly organized, with tabbed headings for shopping lists, ideas, to-do lists and items you need to study. Open each tab and create a note. It’s saved there on a sticky-note-looking memo that you click on to expand to see the entire note. Free.
Last.fm, Pandora and Slacker. All three are free and fine music discovery apps that stream tunes to your phone. My current favorite is Last.fm, but I’m fickle on this topic. Here’s what I like about each: Last.fm integrates with your iTunes account to feed you play lists based on what you own and what’s similar to that. It’s best to sign up online at Last.fm before downloading the app. Pandora is a little easier to operate, but the catalog of music not quite as deep. Just type in a few bands you like and the app will create stations filled with similar artists. The more bands you include, the better and more interesting the music. Slacker also creates stations based on your channels, but you can also tap into user-created stations and those created by Slacker. When Michael Jackson died in 2009, Slacker created a great tribute station, filled with original Jackson music—obscure and popular—plus clever covers from a wide range of musicians.
Listen. Are you a fan of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air but never in the car when it airs? Well, with Google’s outstanding Listen app, you can search for Fresh Air and a list of recent episodes will pop up. You can listen to the audio as well as subscribe to a feed for new episodes as they are added. Listen is an ingenious app that searches audio files, so it scans major broadcasts from news organizations and podcasts from around the world. If you are a Cubs fan living in Las Vegas, use Listen to find audio commentary about your favorite team. Or you can search for news headlines and you’ll get audio feeds from CNN, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and a number of local stations. This is a great tool for workouts. Free.
MLB At Bat 2010. This app is the gold standard among sports apps. It started on the iPhone and provides the radio broadcasts (home and visiting team) from each Major League Baseball game. The so-called “displaced fan”—who lives in Las Vegas but cheers for a team back in New York—will adore this app. It includes real-time box scores and video highlights of top plays. If it’s just scores you want, SportsTap (free) is recommended. You can access live scores from any game plus set alerts to update you when a game starts, ends and if there’s a scoring change. $14.99.
Movies by Flixster. A fine, useful example of why location-based GPS services are so popular. This movie app provides summaries of current releases (including trailers), a one-click directory of the theaters closest to you (including a phone number and driving directions), listings of nearby restaurants and even listings of new DVD releases. Movie reviews are provided through Rotten Tomatoes and there’s a link to Internet Movie Database, in case you want more details about a flick. (You know, important information like, “Hey, wasn’t that guy also in Inglourious Basterds?”) Free.
OpenTable. Need to make a reservation for dinner? OpenTable can help road warriors impress clients while on the move. The app will find your current location (or you can type in one you’re heading to), asks what time you’d like to have lunch or dinner and how many people will be with you, then spits out between 20 and 100 dining options. Click on the one that you find most appetizing and you will find reviews, the menu and directions to the front door. Click on the available reservation times—it provides three within a half-hour of your desired time—and set your reservation. Free.
TV.com. Is your flight is delayed again and do you need a distraction to calm your nerves? How about watching a classic episode of Star Trek? The TV.com app is chock-full of classic TV shows as well as popular new ones, such as the CSI series. If there’s a drawback, it’s that the shows only come from CBS, the CW, CNET, Showtime and a few niche broadcasters. While the TV.com app doesn’t have the breadth of content like Hulu.com, there are still plenty of goodies to watch—all for free. The videos play pretty smoothly over a 3G-network connection, too. Free.
Twidroid for Twitter. If you manage multiple Twitter accounts, you’ll want to upgrade to the Pro version ($3.99) of this fine Twitter app. Otherwise, the free version provides all the Twitter tools you really need. It updates quickly, you can view your lists, attach videos or photos stored on the phone, manage your profile, change the font setting in case your eyes need help (hey, Twitter is more popular with 40-somethings than 20-somethings!) and a whole bunch of other things.