We love both Android and iOS, but the open nature of Andorid just means it can do things others just can’t. Here are our favourite Android apps and features that you won’t find on its Apple-clad brethren.
A note on flame wars: We love iOS, and obviously it has many of its own things going for it. This post isn’t meant to flame or troll the iPhone; it’s more of a “If you’ve decided to go Android, make sure you’re taking advantage of these awesome exclusive features, since they’re part of what makes Android great” post. Please keep the flame wars to a minimum in the comments.
10. Alternative Keyboards
From text predictors like Swiftkey to the innovative ideas like Swype and the downright adventurous like 8pen, you have a lot of different keyboard choices on Android. Typing on a tiny phone keyboard isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, so it’s great that Android provides so many options to make it as painless for people as possible, and super-easy to install. The iPhone has other keyboards, but they’re usually separate apps that require you to import text to another program—it’s just the kind of system-level functionality that’s hard to get around.
One of the most powerful, useful Android apps around is Tasker, the automation program that lets you turn your phone into a superphone. You can turn settings on and off for certain applications, by location, time of day, and pretty much any other condition you can think of. With the right commands in place, Tasker can access the deepest and darkest settings on your phone, which is something you just can’t do on other platforms. Be sure to also check out our second list of Tasker setups, three handy Tasker profiles from our readers, and how to roll your own “Find my iPhone” for Android. Similar apps like the battery-saving JuiceDefender would also fall into this category.[imgclear]
8. Custom Home Launchers
While iPhone users can customise their home screen quite a bit if they’ve jailbroken, they don’t allow the kind of customisation that you can get on Android with custom home launchers. Third party launchers can add all sorts of extra features to the home screens of your device, like gestures, different kinds of shortucts, and even low-level settings that can help speed up an older phone. Whether you’re using the super-fast LauncherPro or the insanely customizable ADWLauncher, third-party launchers add a ton of configuration to your device.[imgclear]
Sure, they take up a bit of space, but there’s no substitute for the convenience of having a big weather widget right on your home screen, or a music widget to show you the currently playing track. Even more useful are the to-do list widgets, that take an “in your face” approach to productivity, which is not only effective but necessary from people, as they don’t require you to actually look for your to-do list—they’re always reminding you of what you need to do. If you’ve jailbroken, you can get widget-like apps for the iPhone, but you can only put them on your lock screen—not the actual home screens that you’re always swiping through.[imgclear]
6. Removable Storage and Battery
It isn’t part of the Android software, necessarily, but Android’s open nature allows for quite a few hardware advantages too—namely the ability to take out, swap, and upgrade your battery and SD card. If you find that you’ve maxed out the storage on your iPhone, you’re pretty much out of luck, whereas with an Android phone you can pop in a new SD card and have gigabytes more storage to play with. Similarly, you can swap out a spare battery for longer trips or even get an extended battery that’ll help your phone go longer without charging. Photo by Hiroyuki Takeda.[imgclear]
5. Wireless App Installation
Browsing for and discovering new apps should be fun, not a challenge to make it through a tiny app store with your sanity intact. The App Store and Cydia App Store aren’t exactly fun to browse on your phone, but you either have to download apps on your phone or plug it into iTunes to sync them all over. With the new Android Market, or with third-party sites like AppBrain, you can find a cool app, hit the install button, and it’ll be on your phone the next time you pick it up. It doesn’t get much more convenient than that.[imgclear]
4. Custom ROMs
While there are a lot of third-party apps that give you advanced features on Android, one of the coolest parts about the entire OS being open source is that people can take it, tweak it all over, and install their version instead of the one that comes with your phone. Whether it’s the feature-filled CyanogenMod or the interface-overhauling MIUI ROM, there’s little limit to how much you can tweak your Android experience. As with launchers, these give you a lot of system-level tweaks that you just wouldn’t be able to get this easily on other platforms—and it puts them easily within users’ reach. Whether it’s tweaks that speed up your phone or features like FM radio, custom ROMs are without a doubt one of the biggest advantages to Android’s openness around.
3. Controlling Your Phone From Your Computer
This one’s a little more out there, but we’ve featured quite a few apps that let you actually control your Android phone from your PC—whether you just want to send texts from Chrome or access any of its other functions right from a web browser. iOS has apps like TeamViewer, which let you access the phone itself, but it’s only a screen-sharing app—it doesn’t actually let you access the phone’s baser functions from another interface, which can be a very overlooked convenience.[imgclear]
Say what you want about Flash, but it’s everywhere you go, and when you’re forced to view the web without it, you realise how much you actually rely on it day-to-day. Whether it’s accessing fully Flash web sites, watching Flash videos, or playing games like the ones on Kongregate, having Flash installed on your phone and tablet let you access a lot of things you otherwise couldn’t have. We may grimace when we hear its name, but it’s too prevalent to go without. It just feels like you don’t have the whole web at your fingertips.[imgclear]
1. True App Integration
Google Voice may finally be available for the iPhone, but the experience will never be the same as it is on Android. Other iPhone apps always direct you to the default dialer and visual voicemail apps, so even if you want to use Google Voice full time, you have to manually navigate it to yourself. On Android, apps like Google Voice integrate directly with the operating system—if you want to make calls with Google Voice, every call you make from the phone’s dialer goes through Google Voice. When you click on a phone number in your browser or in Google Maps, it goes through Google Voice instead of sending you to the wrong dialer. True app integration like this makes using custom phone, SMS, voicemail, and even browser apps absolutely seamless on Android, which is something you won’t find on the more locked-down iPhone platform. (And that remains true even when Google Voice itself isn’t available globally — the principle matters even when the features vary.)
We do love the iPhone here at Lifehacker, but we also love tweaking and hacking our phones into oblivion, and Android just does it better than any other platform. These are just a few of the many tweaks you can make to an Android phone, but they’re certainly some of the most special. Got any of your own favourites that weren’t featured? Be sure to share them in the comments below.