In just a few short years, Android has grown from a small project within Google to the most prolific mobile operating system on the planet. The app ecosystem has grown right along with it. In our annual Lifehacker Pack for Android, we chose the best, most useful and most essential apps you could ever need on your phone.
The Lifehacker Pack is a yearly snapshot of our favourite, essential applications for each of our favourite platforms. For our always-updating directory of all the best apps, be sure to bookmark our Android App Directory.
To-do list managers come in more flavours than Skittles, but one of these three should work for just about everyone. In addition to being a Lifehacker crowd favourite, Any.DO comes with a bunch of sweet extra features. Google Keep keeps things simpler and as straightforward as possible, while Wunderlist is packed with great features. Whatever your preferences, one of these two-do apps should work for you.
When it comes to scheduling Gmail messages and keeping your inbox in line, it’s hard to beat Boomerang. The app lets you set up messages to send at a future date, hide certain emails for a while, remind you to respond to something later on, and even send recurring messages. It’s not easy to beat the built-in Gmail app, but Boomerang manages to pull it off pretty well.
Calendar apps on mobile aren’t always the best looking or easiest to use apps. However, Agenda Calendar makes calendars look good. You can swipe between week, month and agenda views. It also features a dramatically simplified event creation tool, so you can add an appointment without a dozen taps.
Dropbox is the standard when it comes to syncing files between multiple computers. Nothing beats its speed, simplicity and ubiquity. However, if you like to stick to Google’s ecosystem, Google Drive offers a bit more flexibility when it comes to integrated apps. With Google’s suite of document editing apps to accompany Drive, you may even use both in tandem (as many of us do).
The internet is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. It takes an equally big app to keep track of everything you need to save from it. Evernote, when used properly, can help even the most disorganized person sort, store and find their stuff. You can even combine it with Pocket to reduce clutter while still saving everything.
For some reason, many of us are much more comfortable grinding away at tedious tasks if we get to level up. HabitRPG takes this concept and applies to real life instead of World of Warcraft. Create habits or repetitive tasks you want to perform and it will give you experience points for completing them. If you fail to do so, you’ll lose health points. The app is one of the best ways to productively gamify your life.
Internet and Communications
Chrome is one of the most popular browsers on Android, not only because it’s the default, but because it’s one of the most powerful. However, despite being at a disadvantage, Dolphin still manages to impress us. Dolphin is consistently faster on older hardware and includes a wealth of extensions, unlike the mobile version of Chrome. Both are excellent choices.
Twitter clients haven’t had the best ride ever since Twitter started limiting the number of authentication tokens third-party apps can use. However, our pick for best Twitter client, Falcon Pro, has soldiered on and found a way to cheat the system. As long as you’re able to get a token, it’s easily one of the best ways to use Twitter while mobile.
Ever since Google replaced Google Talk with Hangouts, the app has been getting incrementally better. It can now merge your IM and SMS conversations, supports group messaging, and it comes with a slick new widget. If you haven’t taken a look at Hangouts for your primary messaging and/or texting application, it’s worth a second look.
If you don’t want to take the risk to port your number over to Google Voice, you can still send and receive text messages from your desktop with MightyText. The service runs on your phone and only mirrors the texts your phone receives, so it can’t work unless your phone is turned on and has service. Still, it’s more convenient than pulling it out of your pocket and typing on a tiny screen if you’re at your desktop.
Google Now became and remains one of the most useful apps you can have on your phone. It’s almost impossible to list all the amazing things Google Now can do (although we’ve tried), but the short list includes voice commands, reminders, travel time, package tracking and lots more. It even bumped previous Lifehacker pack app Valet off the list when it added parking spot tracking, making a separate app redundant. Just be sure to train Google Now well.
Calling Google Maps an essential app is a bit of an undersell, as it’s one of the most-used Android apps of all time. Last year, Google Maps for Android got a major overhaul with a lot of excellent new features, including integrated search history and local traffic incidents.
Google Now includes basic weather forecasting, but if you need a little more oomph in your predictions, 1Weather is the app to beat. The app comes with live-updating widgets, animated radar and cloud cover maps, and plenty of other information that you just don’t get with Google Now. It may not be for everyone, but if you need more than the most basic weather info, 1Weather is your jam.
For years, Google didn’t have much in the way of protection for your phone. Last year, that changed with the introduction of Android Device Manager, which can find, lock, wipe, or ring your phone remotely. As basic security goes, it’s the bare minimum anyone should have. If you’re looking for something more, Lookout does much of what ADM does, plus protects you from phishing scams and backs up your data.
Music and Photos
When Google launched Play Music All Access, we were pretty blown away by both the length of its name and how impressive it is as a music service. If you want to bring your own music library, Google lets you upload songs, so if a particular track or artist isn’t included in its subscription, you’re not out of luck. Spotify, on the other hand, excels by having a free, ad-supported option for the desktop, as well as a lot of excellent features. Its desktop app even allows developers to augment it, so there’s plenty to explore.
If you’re not keen on managing your own huge library and would rather just let an algorithm decide your playlist for you, Pandora stands alone. The service is known for its ability to match users’ tastes reliably with minimal interaction. Just set it and forget it.
When future historians describe the early 21st century, they will make note of the fact that “radio” does not just describe an automated music playlist, but was actually a technology unto itself once. TuneIn radio may be one of the last vestiges of the old world, but it remains useful by being able to play radio broadcasts from around the world, not just your own backyard. If you enjoy actual broadcast radio shows, TuneIn is for you.
Instagram may have started as a place to share pictures of your lunch (I assume), but it’s grown up to include a wide variety of useful features like direct photo and video messaging, and more useful photo editing features. You may be able to get many of the same features through a few other apps (see below), but Instagram offers the entire package in one service.
When it comes to editing photos without a social network attached, it’s hard to do better than Snapseed or Google+ Photos. Despite both being owned by Google, they offer different feature sets. Google+ Photos has plenty of hidden features like automatic backup, special effects and “Auto Awesome”. Snapseed, on the other hand, offers more elaborate and fine-grain controls for tweaking photographs. Neither one is a match for Photoshop proper, but they both get the job done plenty well on mobile. They even share many of the same features.
Camera ZOOM FX remains one of our favourite Android cameras. It supports time lapse shots, customising your hardware buttons to perform camera functions, and a horizontal level indicator, on top of the standard suite of photo editing and sharing features, it’s hard to beat. If you don’t need all the bells and whistles, however, Google Camera offers many unique, user-friendly features like lens blur, photospheres and HDR.
Movies and Video
Arguably, there was no more noble purpose to the smartphone revolution than to finally, and with authority answer the question “Where do I recognise that actor from?” IMDb is useful for more than just trivia, though. You can search for showtimes, create lists of movies you want to see and get notified of new releases. If you ever watch movies, IMDb belongs on your phone.
Streaming your entire media library to your phone was unheard of just a few years ago. Yet, Plex came along to make that dream come true. The service already lets you stream from your desktop to other computers or even your home theatre. The Android app costs $US5 (though there’s a free version if you’re a PlexPass subscriber), but it’s well worth it to have everything you’ve ever downloaded available in your pocket without using up an extra byte of storage.
Plex isn’t for everyone. Whether you have a limited amount of data or just watch too many movies, sometimes it’s helpful to have some files on your phone directly. BS Player is our favourite pick for Android video player. It supports a wide array of file formats, has a pop-out player so you can watch a video while you do other things, and it can even stream content over local networks.
Reading and News
Bookmarks are ok for saving the occasional web page that you need to hang on to, but for saving articles to read later, you’ll start to get overwhelmed real fast. Pocket helps by saving articles in their entirety so you can read come back to them when you have time, even when you’re offline. If you want to get more advanced, you can use Pocket to save everything you need online.
Between Amazon’s Kindle app and Google’s Play Books, it’s never been easier to find a way to read books on your phone or tablet. Amazon has the advantage in having one of the most robust libraries, as well as a powerful app. Play Books is no slouch either (and in fact it’s our favourite ereader for Android). Fortunately you can buy books from whatever store you choose and read them in one place, so you can pick your reader based on the features you need, rather than the book library.
When Google Reader closed down last year, it shook up the news reader ecosystem. In fact, our previous pick for this category was Press, a Google Reader client. However, Feedly stepped up to fill the void and, in many ways, it exceeds what Google ever did. Feedly not only has one of the best news reader apps around, but it has its own ecosystem of clients, so if you don’t like the default interface, you can use Feedly as a backend to sync all your feeds.
Health, Food and Fitness
Runkeeper has been one of our favourite fitness apps for years. Over the last year, the app has added plenty of new features including a new training tab that provides schedules for workouts and plans specifically designed for the type of health goal you want to achieve.
Runkeeper is excellent for runners, but if you’re looking for a more robust health and fitness app, Fitocracy gamifies your entire workout. It also encourages community involvement in order to keep you accountable. It also has a robust web app that keeps you engaged when you’re at your desk. If you’re ready to step beyond basic fitness tracking, Fitocracy is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
If you really do spend a third of your life sleeping (using very rough, probably inaccurate maths), it makes sense to get the best rest you can. SleepBot tracks your sleep patterns, monitoring for movement, recording sounds, and even using customised alarms to ease you into waking up, rather than blasting you with a loud, uncomfortable honk.
Yelp is one of those apps that’s so good at what it does, its name becomes synonymous with the task itself. When it comes to restaurant discovery and reviews, Yelp is the de facto standard. With a huge library of user reviews, it’s never been easier not only to find your next meal, but know ahead of time whether or not a restaurant is worth your time and money.
Google’s default launcher is pretty good, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. Nova and Apex are both excellent, customisable launchers with copious extra features on top of existing functionality. With both, you can hide unwanted apps, choose custom animations and apply custom icon/skin packs. Which one is better is largely a matter of personal preference, so pick one or try both and see which one you like.
Widgets have always been one of Android’s strongest unique features and nowhere is that more apparent than Dashclock. This widget can display information at a glance like number of unread emails, missed calls, or calendar appointment. The real awesome thing, however, is that you can get extensions to add even more info like battery life, contact shortcuts, or RSS feeds. With the right extensions, Dashclock may be the only widget you ever need.
Smartphone customisation site My Colour Screen debuted its brand new Themer app this past year. This custom launcher provides a much higher degree of control than other launchers. In addition, you can add an entirely new interface design with a single tap. If you’re the type to frequently change the look of your phone, it’s hard to beat Themer. You can even check out some of the best themes here.
SwiftKey was already our favourite Android keyboard before it became free to use. With intelligent word prediction, Swype-like gesture input and cloud sync of custom dictionaries, it’s difficult to find a better typing experience on your phone.
Most phones can adjust their notification volume with hardware buttons, but it’s usually an all-or-nothing thing. Silence takes it to the next level by allowing you to set custom levels for the various forms of volume on your phone based on time of day. You can even tie it into your Google Calendar so your phone automatically silences itself if it sees you’re in a meeting.
Every platform has that one killer app that can do just about everything and is more than worth its purchase price. On Android, Tasker is that app. There’s almost no limit to what this automation tool can do. You can use it to turn on your lights when you get home, or do just about anything with your voice.
Android doesn’t come with a built in file explorer like desktop operating systems do, but ES File Explorer more than picks up the slack. It can explore your SD card or internal storage, access your files via FTP, or even manage your Dropbox files in the same app. It even comes with a built in app manager, so you can install, uninstall and back up apps. Some features may require root, but it’s useful for everyone.
Fiddling with your tiny phone when you’re at a full computer is a pain, particularly if you need to access files on your phone. AirDroid does more than you could possibly ever need, all without ever touching your handset. The app remotely access everything on your phone via the web browser, even allowing you to read and reply to text messages from your computer.
In keeping with the theme of fixing minor annoyances with insanely robust apps, Unified Remote is the yin to AirDroid’s yang. You can use this app to remotely control your computer over Wi-Fi with your phone or tablet. While it does include a virtual trackpad and keyboard, Unified Remote really shines with custom remotes for common apps, including VLC and Plex. You can even create custom widgets to control just about everything on your HTPC from a single home screen.
Strictly speaking, Greenify isn’t a root app anymore, but it’s still best when you are rooted. It monitors your apps and disables any you aren’t using to help save battery (so Facebook can’t drain your battery in the background when you haven’t touched it for hours). If you’re not rooted, you can still select a list of apps that you want to hibernate and add a “hibernate all” switch to your home screen, but it’s not nearly as robust without root.
Contrary to what Android’s welcome screens would have you believe, Google doesn’t have a proper backup and restore system out of the box. Titanium Backup is the classic mainstay that fixes this problem. Despite being an older app, it still checks out. Rooted users can employ Titanium Backup to create a fully automated app backup system.
Few can argue that Xposed is one of the most powerful and useful apps root users can have. Technically, Xposed is a framework that allows users to create their own customised version of Android solely using modules. While it’s not a total replacement for custom ROMs, it’s good enough for many users.