One thing we never grow tired of on Android is the myriad selection of apps available for use in a particular purpose. Be it text messaging, music listening, or file transfers, there's always a solid grouping of well-made apps to choose from. But whose app fits your needs best? Three of us here at Android Police are going to give you our personal favorites in an ongoing rundown series. We'll give you our picks in a wide variety of areas - from home screens to instant messaging. In this week's episode, we'll be looking at music, messaging, and file transfer applications.
The People / The Phones
Here's a brief introduction to our phones. We want to give you an idea of how we've personalized Android to fit our personal preferences.
Aaron Gingrich / EVO 4G: I wouldn't say I've been around the block when it comes to ROMs, especially compared to my editorial brethren. Within two weeks of buying the EVO at launch, I'd rooted and flashed Fresh 0.2 (which, ironically, is the first post to ever bring me to the AndroidPolice website). I was a perfectly content Fresh user until CM6 nightlies landed in July, bringing the total number of ROMs I've tried to a whopping two. I rocked out to the AOSP-driven goodness that is CM until... well, just a few weeks ago. After more and more substantial issues kept cropping up with my subsequent stable CM releases, I recently went back to Fresh - albeit this time, 3.5. I'm happily back to Sense, though I anticipate switching back to CM once stable WiMax builds drop.
Android Version: Fresh Mod 3.5
David Ruddock / Nexus One: I've been using my Nexus One for about a year now, and I've become stubbornly loyal to a lot of my favorite apps in that time. The phone's smaller screen makes some apps and skins less viable, and the vanilla Android experience sometimes makes me hesitant to "dirty up" my UI.
Android Version: CyanogenMod 7 Nightly Build (Gingerbread 2.3.1)
Jaroslav Stekl / EVO 4G: Although I'm notorious for hating custom UIs and carrier-installed bloatware, I'll admit to having tolerated HTC's Sense UI for some time after buying my EVO 4G. In fact, it wasn't until early September - three whole months after the phone came out - that I installed an AOSP ROM. Since then, I've been jumping back and forth between a number of custom ROMs, some Sense-based, some with vanilla Android at their core. I don't use a ton of apps, but I do have a small collection of them that I use an almost daily basis.
Android Version: CyanogenMod 7 Nightly (Gingerbread 2.3.1)
Now, let's move on to our first comparison: music apps.
Smartphones have rapidly replaced personal MP3 players for many people, and the vast selection of music streaming options for Android can be a little overwhelming. Most people will opt for whatever their favorite web-based streaming service was on their personal computer, but some of those apps can be less than fantastic. We'll give you our personal favorites.
Aaron's Pick: doubleTwist. To be fair though, I've spent a grand total of 45 minutes with the app thus far. Honestly, I've had a hell of a time finding a music app that fits my needs - with every app I tried, I encountered a deal-breaking issue - until doubleTwist. Before I get into why doubleTwist works for me though, I'll tell you what else I've tried, and why it didn't work:
- Rdio - Streaming bug with the latest EVO update means that most music apps just don't work (or, rather, didn't.) On top of that, Rdio's desktop service still couldn't replace iTunes, since I use iTunes to burn CDs and keep track of my substantial library of MP3s. Taking it to the cloud is cool, but music is a great fallback for when I don't have net acccess.
- HomePipe - Wasn't really music-oriented enough; to me, it was more of a remote access client. No playlist support? Bah - 'nuff said.
- Audiogalaxy - Somehow didn't access all my music - specifically, the most recently added stuff seemed to just not be there for no discernable reason. Given that the most recent stuff is what I most want to listen to, that was a major issue.
- Subsonic - Was, by far, the most pant-crappingly annoying to attempt to setup. After 20 minutes of trying to get it to recognize my music folder to no avail, I decided this was not something I was willing to have to donate for in 30 days. Pass.
And so I landed on doubleTwist - which, unfortunately, had utterly slipped my mind throughout the entire process. Most importantly, it has fantastic integration with iTunes (which, yes, I realize isn't what the cool kids are using these days... you hipsters.) An interface that mimics iTunes means there's virtually no learning curve, and super-simple playlist syncing and support is a major plus. I planned on testing it for a few days before paying $5 for AirSync - which brings Wi-Fi syncing of music, videos, and pictures - but after spending part of the day with doubleTwist, I'm sold. After playing with AirSync for a few minutes, my love is even more strongly solidified.
David's Pick: Subsonic. I've heard the gripes about the bemoaned "donation" requirement for the desktop server application, but Subsonic remains my favorite way to stream music onto my Android device. Granted, it is probably the most complicated of the three here, but toting around my 50GB plus music collection just isn't practical, and sometimes it's nice to be able to listen to that one song at a particular moment.
Subsonic requires you to install its web-based HTTP server on Windows, Mac or Linux. The Subsonic service then scans your hard drive (you can specify folders), grabs your music, gets any album artwork it can find (or automatically looks it up), and you're good to go. You'll have to dive into the settings and register a name for your server so that it is easily accessible from your Android phone. Subsonic redirects from your registered name to your Subsonic server for free, though a 10 Euro suggested donation is required to license your Subsonic server beyond the 30-day trial.
For the tech-savvy Android user, Subsonic has always seemed like a no-brainer to me.
Jaroslav's Pick: Winamp. A long-time fan of Winamp's Windows client, I was irrationally excited to hear that the music player had finally made its way to the Android Market. Not only does Winamp have an awesome UI; it also allows you to quickly find the song you're listening to on YouTube and Pandora (as well as a bunch of other multimedia-related apps), permanently delete the currently playing song, and wirelessly sync your phone's music library with that of your computer.
Granted, these features can be found in other music apps, but I feel that Winamp's combination of them (along with its excellent UI) makes it a winner in this category. Be warned, however: Winamp requires the music files to be stored locally on your SD card, so people with unusually large music collections may encounter storage issues.
Android's stock text messaging platform has been called "boring," partly for its very skeletal theme and for its lack of customization options. Along with that, Google Talk for Android has been underwhelming for many as an IM platform because of its lack of support for other large chat clients like AIM and Yahoo. As such, numerous 3rd party apps have popped up to fill the demand for more friendly texting and instant messaging solutions. Unfortunately, many of these apps are, for lack of a better word, garbage - and there's a heap of them to dig through.
Aaron's Pick: Stock Sense messaging and Google Talk. Hot on the heels of admitting that I still use iTunes, I'm going to tell you that I also use the stock messaging app that comes bundled with Sense. You know what I used when I was on CyanogenMod, though? Trick question - I used Stock AOSP messaging. In the past, I've tried both Chomp and Handcent, and loved both. What I didn't love was the double-messaging thing (getting the message in both Chomp/Handcent and the stock Messaging app), and I didn't like either app enough to take the time to solve the problem - so I just uninstalled.
Yes, I realize blurring everything half defeats the purpose of having the screenshots to begin with. Have to do it, though.
For me, Sense messaging is a nice step up, falling somewhere between stock AOSP and Chomp/Handcent/GoSMS - it's more attractive than AOSP, at least equally as functional (if not more), and doesn't come with any negative side-effects. What's not to like?
That's it, Chris - go out with a bang.
As with the others, I also use Google Talk a fair bit - although I almost exclusively use it to talk to AP and other Android people. In fact, I can only think of a single time I've ever used it to talk to somebody in place of texting, probably because most laypeople don't use it.
David's Pick: Stock messaging plus Google Talk. I never understood what was so bad about the stock Android text messaging app (aside from the odd misdirected texting problem some users have experienced). It's quick, easy, and bare bones. I get occasional problems when MMS messages pile up (eg, slow scrolling), but overall, I see no reason to switch to a 3rd party solution.
As for instant messaging, Google Talk covers most of my needs. It's the most well-designed IM platform on Android, but its Achilles Heel is the lack of support for other IM providers (such as AIM, Yahoo, and MSN). At the end of the day, most of the important people I need to talk to use GChat, and I can text message those who don't. Having tried the official AIM and Yahoo applications along with some multi-client platforms, I can say they have a long way to go before I'll use them willingly.
Jaroslav's Pick: Handcent SMS plus BeejiveIM. There's a reason why Handcent SMS is so popular: it's one of the (if not the) best text messaging apps in the Market. Not only does it look great out of the box; you can further customize its user interface via downloadable skins to make it look just the way you want it.
And Handcent SMS is no slouch when it comes to features - you can backup/restore your SMS messages, send/receive texts via a popup interface that can be accessed from pretty much anywhere in the Android system, and use a T9-style keyboard. In short, it's awesome - and I'm not even a heavy texter.
BeejiveIM is like the Handcent SMS of instant messaging apps - its UI is smooth, its features plentiful and extremely polished, and its customization options virtually endless. You could argue that its interface is a bit too much like that of an iOS app, but then again, that's not necessarily a bad thing - iPhone apps are known to have better UIs than Android apps (though this isn't always true).
One thing we've never been happy about on Android is managing files between my phone and my computer. While Google's cloud approach to most things has reduced the need for manual syncing to almost zero, people often transfer pictures, application packages, and ROM packages to their phones. Then there's the issue of which direction you're sending those files - from your computer to your phone, or from your phone to your computer. It can be a bit of a headache.
Aaron's Pick: I'm really starting to feel like the anti-nerd nerd of the team (and, hell, I am in some ways), but frankly, I don't find myself needing to transfer files to/from my PC with much frequency. When I ran CM, I also used Astro File Manager and File Manager. Now that I'm back to Fresh I use ES File Explorer. (And, when I say use(d), I mean... once. Possibly twice.)
As for syncing files... well, about all I need is music, which I now get via doubleTwist AirSync. When I'm on my home WiFi, it automatically syncs my selected playlists - meaning I do absolutely no extra work. About three weeks ago, I downloaded Dropbox on my PC, and installed the app on my EVO. I have yet to actually install the program, and haven't ever opened the app. I'll get there some day - when I need it.
David's Pick: Astro File Manager plus Awesome Drop. If we're talking about sending things from my phone to my PC, Astro is my preferred solution. Astro Premium will set you back $4, but it's the ultimate Android file management application, and completely worth it. But, we're talking about file transfers here, I'll save that for another time.
Let's say I download a ZIP or PDF on my Nexus One, and later want to send it to my PC, but I don't have a USB cable with me. Surprisingly, this has happened to me. Astro is great for these quick and dirty file transfers - just browse to your SD card's download directory, long press on the file, and hit "Send" via Gmail. Email yourself the file, done and done. For files exceeding 10MB or so, this isn't super practical. But without an FTP server or SMB access to your computer, I haven't found a great way to push large files from my phone to my PC. If you're sending 20 JPEG files, Astro can also conveniently compress them into a single ZIP file.
If we're going in reverse, Awesome Drop is my tool of choice. Awesome Drop is absurdly simple, and we've reviewed it in-depth - download the Android app, then go to labs.dashwire.com via your computer's browser. Enter the pin number you see into the app on your phone, and then drag files from your computer into the browser window. That's it. The files will populate in your phone's SD card and show up in list form inside the app.
The main thing to love about Awesome Drop is the fact that it can be used from almost any computer - your phone is the only part of the equation that needs any software. It's not great for huge files, but what is? There's a reason you have a USB port on your phone. I rarely find myself thinking "I wish I could transfer this 300MB file to my phone," and in those situations I probably have my USB cable handy. But 99.9% of the time, I'm transferring a small file and just need something that can do the job quickly and efficiently.
Jaroslav's Pick: Astro File Manager plus Dropbox. I'm not going to repeat what David has said above - simply put, Astro stands in a class of its own when it comes to file management.
As for Dropbox, I don't think the service needs any introduction - it's the most popular cloud storage client in the world (and rightly so). Its Android app provides a simple way to upload your files to the Dropbox cloud so that you can access them from just about anywhere on just about any device. It's fast, integrates with other Android apps (like the Gallery app) nicely, and is just a great way to get your stuff on/off your Android device. Double thumbs up.