- 1 What Am I Carrying Around?
- 2 Apps, Apps, And Apps
- 3 The "Other Stuff"
We've been ruminating on the idea of a series like this for a while at Android Police, and today, we're finally taking the plunge. Want to know the Android apps, tools, and hardware the editors of Android Police use day to day? Now you can! I mean, if you want to know. We won't be offended if you don't. Promise.
So, how's this going to work? We're going to start with hardware, then get into apps. From there, we'll talk about more hardware, in the form of the secondary accessories and other gizmos that we feel "complete" our Android lives. Yeah, this is kind of like TheVerge's "what's in your bag?" series, but we're going to focus more on the whole Android part. Here goes nothing.
What Am I Carrying Around?
Phone(s): HTC One X / Galaxy S III, on AT&T.
What it's running: A near-stock Android 4.0 Sense 4.1 ROM, rooted and unlocked / Android 4.0 with TouchWiz 4, stock, unrooted.
I love the One X. I survive Sense.
Underneath the bland UI overlay coating, I have absolutely no hesitation in saying the One X, as a whole, is a better piece of hardware than any other smartphone on the market right now, period. It just is. From the display, to the build quality, to the overall performance potential, it all comes together in a truly fantastic package.
But, the software. The software is the Achilles' heel. Since the latest update that allows remapping of the home button, that's gotten better. I went for a custom ROM that fixed it well before HTC, though. And really, if that problem had been remedied in a more timely fashion, I probably wouldn't even use a custom ROM. Beyond that, Sense has some annoying quirks. I'd really just prefer to run Android 4.1 bone stock, but that's not an option unless you want to live on the bleeding edge of XDA. And I... don't.
Right now, though, I'm using a Galaxy S III for a few weeks. Out of the box, the overall UX of TouchWiz is plainly superior to Sense on the One X, and that makes me kind of sad. Everything is at least a little faster, everything is less buggy, and most things just kind of work better. If I'm telling someone what the best Android phone to buy today is, it's the Galaxy S III. HTC screwed up Sense 4, and after you've experienced the buttery-smoothness of TouchWiz, that becomes obvious.
But, TouchWiz is really ugly, has seemingly endless "first time use" prompts, and a heaping helping of Samsung's trademark valueless value-added features. I guess what I'm saying is that both UIs have major flaws - I just find TouchWiz more pleasant to use, and mostly because it's faster / less buggy. As for the build quality of the phone, it's OK, but I hate that finger grease inevitably makes the Galaxy S III feel slimy after just a few minutes of handling. It's gross.
There's also the fact that Samsung just sort of does things differently than everyone else - but rarely in ways that actually improve anything. It's needless tweaking. Most of it just screams "LOOK, WE'RE DIFFERENTIATING!" Volume controls on the left, instead of the right. Horrible notification sounds. The physical home button (still hate it after a few weeks). The flipped (from HTC / virtual buttons) back / settings buttons. Back is to the left, Samsung, there is no disputing that, it's computing UX 101. The Android power control widget is gone. The volume controls are needlessly complicated (ringtone and notification volume should at least be able to be bound). Auto-brightness is way too dark, and there's no stock widget to adjust brightness - you have to go to settings. I constantly either fail at the unlock gesture, or accidentally grab one of the quick shortcut icons.
Anyway, there are some great ways to run Android in your pocket out there right now, and I think these are the best two currently available. But the Galaxy S III is probably the better choice for most people. It's also probably getting Jelly Bean first. That said, after experiencing both sides of the custom UI fence, I may pony up for the new Nexus phone (one of them, if there are several) this fall - if it has effing LTE. Stock Android is just better now. Anyone saying otherwise is trying to sell you something.
Tablet: Nexus 7
What it's running: Android 4.1, stock, unrooted.
It's not the only Android tablet I own, but it is the only one I haven't had to convince myself to use on a regular basis. The rest of them just collect dust now, which is slightly sad, but also very telling.
Netflix? Nexus 7. Bluetooth music streaming hub? Nexus 7. The perfect reading machine? Nexus 7. If you don't own an Android tablet, or you're on the fence about a 7" device, go play with a Nexus 7 at Staples or something. And I only say this out of concern for the one really farsighted person with baseball gloves for hands who might find a 7" display a little too small or difficult to read.
Otherwise, you have no reason not to buy one. The Kindle Fire HD is not better than this, and nothing Samsung or ASUS are going to release in the next few months will top it. Especially once the new version of Android comes out near the end of the year. At that point, every tablet is going to look "behind the times" compared to the Nexus 7.
So, stop making excuses for that half-assed, $500, 10.1" paperweight you bought and have deluded yourself into "liking" because you have some sort of strange combination of denial and buyer's remorse. This is from someone who tried to use a Transformer Prime as a note taking machine daily for two months. It was awful. It's still awful. Give up.
This is Android tablet Nirvana. Accept your new god and start drinking the sweet, delicious Kool-Aid with the rest of us, please.
Apps, Apps, And Apps
Holy crap this is going to be boring for most of you. I am probably the least imaginative app discoverer in existence. Seriously, if "new apps" were the East Indies, and I was Columbus, I would've said "screw it" after like an hour and turned the boat around. Any new app I "discover" is courtesy of Artem, Cameron, or someone else on the team, and only after they've already told me like 50 times to download it. But here they are - prepare to be unsurpised.
I use what's on the phone. A big part of my job is being a phone reviewer. I want to experience what 98% of other people will experience when using their phones. That, and I think Android has finally reached a point where custom launchers just aren't necessary. And that, to me, is a good thing. Of all the skinned launchers, I like HTC's best - it's not too different from stock Android, unlike the TouchWiz launcher. I just wish it was faster. If I could choose any launcher, I'd go bone stock Android. I have zero reservations saying that, especially with the smoothness improvements and smart widget placement in Android 4.1. I've used Nova/Tesla launcher, was an ADW.EX diehard for over a year, and have dabbled with GOLauncher, too. I always end up back at stock for one reason or another.
Who doesn't use Gmail? I mean, I guess some people are still forced to use awful Exchange server accounts, and people over 40 might still use Yahoo or AOL, but if you're a rational human being, you already know Gmail is better than any other mail service out there. And the Gmail app is better than any other email app out there. If you're using Android but still not using Gmail, I feel sorry for you son - I got ninety-nine problems, but an email client ain't one.
Browser: Google Chrome
Like Gmail, Google Chrome for Android is one of those things that, if you are invested in the Google Services world, you should probably be using if you can. Is it perfect? God no. Chrome is still buggy on Android, I get complete failures to render pages on a daily basis (usually happens when I have too many tabs open). But I've never really gotten into the third-party browser scene. Artem raves about Dolphin, and I've used it, but I can't say I love it. The multi-device sync on Chrome is just too much convenience for me to pass up, so I live with Chrome's (numerous) faults, and expect them to eventually be fixed.
Chat / SMS: Google Talk and Google Voice
Again, another "if you live in the Googleverse" pick. Some people still use Yahoo, AOL, or Live Messenger. And that's OK. I don't. The Talk for Android app is fantastic. A third-party chat client just isn't needed on Android, unless, as I said, you don't use Google Talk. It's all I use, and it's all I see myself using for the foreseeable future.
As for SMS, I use Google Voice. Because I am a cheapskate. I don't have a texting plan on AT&T (pay-per-use), and that saves me $15-20 a month, depending on how often I'm forced to use my real phone number for SMS'ing (eg, people who don't have my GVoice number). The Voice app itself is pretty awful. The conversation view is jumbled, the app is stupidly slow, and half the time messages get hung "queuing" when you try to send them. I live with it, because it saves me money. And because Google Voicemail is awesome.
I hate digital calendars with a fiery passion. They're difficult to create events for, the interfaces are universally terrible and clunky, and they take way too much work to simply glance at. I have a calendar on my wall. That is my calendar. Some time soon, I'm actually going to buy a day planner just to avoid using a digital calendar when I'm on the go. The fact of the matter is that I can create a detailed "event" on my wall calendar in 15 seconds. It takes a minute plus to do the same thing in Google Calendar. It takes me 3 seconds to check an event on my wall calendar, but probably two or three times that on my phone.
But when I'm forced to use a digital calendar (read: fairly often), I just end up using whatever the stock app on the phone is. Sense calendar, TouchWiz calendar, Android calendar. It doesn't make a difference to me. I find the entire experience of using a digital calendar tedious and annoying, so I don't really care which one I'm forced to use.
Cloud Storage: Dropbox
Here at Android Police, we use Dropbox for sharing files, because Dropbox is awesome. It works extremely well with the native file browser on Windows (yay shell actions), the Android app is superb, and free storage is easy to come by. I use the Dropbox app on a regular basis, and I'm extremely happy with it. The only time I use Google Drive is on my Windows computers, in the browser, and only for various Google Docs stored there. Google Drive's web UI sucks, the app for Android is mediocre, and the Windows app is basically unfinished. I don't see that changing any time soon.
Music: Amazon MP3
I've been buying music from Amazon MP3 for over 2 years now (since purchasing my Nexus One, actually), and I have no reason to stop. DRM-free, properly-labeled 256Kbps MP3s that I can re-download whenever I want. For simply buying music, Amazon MP3 is the best service out there, bar-none. The prices are great, the selection is basically the same as iTunes (read: massive), and all my purchases are automatically available for cloud playback as well. I also pay for Amazon's Cloud Music service, meaning I can keep all my other MP3s there.
For free music, I use Pandora. I refuse to pay for Spotify just to have it on my phone (not to mention I find the app and the service itself horribly unintuitive). I use Google Music occasionally, to play back locally stored files, mostly. That's really it, though. The Amazon MP3 Android app does everything I want, and although the streaming "logic" isn't great when you have a slow connection, I still think it's one of the better music apps on Android. Just because it's not "holo" doesn't mean it's not good.
I could not live without Yelp. Well, I could, but my existence would be less meaningful for it. Yelp is the only business rating directory I really trust (mostly for food). Sure, sometimes I'll glance at UrbanSpoon, MenuPages, or Google Maps (for the Zagat rating), but Yelp is my go-to. The app itself is in need of a visual and functional overhaul, in my opinion, but it's reliable enough.
Personal Pick: The Official Twitter App
Yeah, I use the official Twitter app for Android. Sue me - I love it, and nothing you say can make me not love it. I've used a lot of Twitter clients (in fact, probably every popular one), and none of them are as fast or as readable as the official Twitter app. Sorry. Now, if you're on a phone using Gingerbread, the official Twitter app sucks a lot more (it's way slower, older font). But hey, I'm not, so I use the best Twitter app for my needs. I don't care about customization, or Holo, or the ability to sign into multiple social networks. I care about reading my Twitter feed and tweeting, and this is the best app out there for doing that.
Some Other Random Apps I Like
- Gas Buddy: For finding my favorite kind of gas: the cheap kind.
- IMDB: For settling arguments with my girlfriend.
- Flixster: Because RottenTomatoes doesn't have an app.
- Astro: My favorite file manager.
- OnTheFly: The best way to find cheap flights from your phone.
- Netflix: It's horrible but it works.
- BaconReader: Because Reddit.
- Google Goggles: Because it's fun.
- Craigslist: Mostly for fantasizing about classic cars I can't afford.
- Amazon: For buying stuff.
The "Other Stuff"
Laptop: Some sort of 15" Sony Vaio
Listen, I have a desktop. When I needed a laptop, I just wanted something with a good display (this one is matte, 1920x1080, and gorgeous), decent horsepower (Sandy Bridge i5), and a price tag that said "secondary computer." For $900 out the door with a free sheet battery, I couldn't pass this Vaio up.
But seriously, don't ever buy a Vaio laptop. Sony's customer service requires massaging in order to get anywhere with a repair request, and the fact that my laptop's HDD failed within 6 months of purchase doesn't exactly scream "reliability" from the treetops. Also, I had to have the display replaced because the plastic "VAIO" inlay on the back of it pressed against the panel and left a mirror image of itself burned into the screen. Lovely.
On top of all that, Sony isn't exactly raking in the dough lately, and as such has closed many of its retail stores, and clamped down on warranty service to decrease overhead. It's just not worth it. My next laptop will probably be a Macbook with Bootcamp, unless something demonstrably better pops up in the next year (I'm not betting on it).
Bag: Powerbag Instant Messenger
It's a messenger bag with swappable battery packs that charge your stuff. It's a really good messenger bag in general, too. This thing has tons of well-padded space, perfectly organized compartments, and is nice and non-descript. I guess it looks a little nerdy (because black nylon with reflector strip), but I like it.
Medic pouches and leather briefcases are cool, but they don't have jack on a well-designed messenger in terms of actually organizing your stuff. I don't want to have to dig around for 30 seconds to find my pen or headphones just to look "hip." I spent 4 years wearing either a Dakine or a Timbuk2 on a bicycle almost daily, and they're great bags, but they don't charge my phone while I'm on the move. The Powerbag is also water-resistant, and the laptop sleeve has a nice, secure fit for a 15" notebook.
Camera: Canon SX230HS
I get that DSLRs are the only way to go if you want to be a serious tech journalist. But I would also be a seriously poor tech journalist if I went out and bought a T3i and one extra lens today.
For $215 on Amazon, I got a 12MP camera with 14x true optical zoom and Canon image stabilization. All my reviews in the last 8 months have photos taken with this camera. You can see a clear progression from "LOOK AT ME I'M A PHOTOGRAPHER AND I DON'T EVEN WHAT IS THIS 'EXPOSURE' BUSINESS" to "not so awful" over time. I like this camera, the zoom is truly invaluable, and as long as I can keep it still, it takes great pictures - when the lighting is decent. It takes more work to get it "right" than a Canon S95 (I haven't used Auto mode in 6 months), and it's less versatile for it, but it's also a lot cheaper. In addition, it's been a nice intro primer for me to cameras in general. Photography just wasn't something I was ever interested in before.
Eventually, I see myself just skipping over a DSLR altogether and going to a mirrorless compact (like Sony's new NEX-5R), because if there's one thing I don't want to do, it's carry another bag just for my camera. I'm lazy, is the point I'm making here.
[Personal Pick] Headphones: Etymotic Research hf2 / Grado SR80i
No work day is complete without some tunes, and I like my tunes to sound good.
I love my Etymotic hf2s. I wouldn't hear a train coming if I was laying on the tracks with these things on. Of course, that's probably because they burrow into your ears like those bugs from Star Trek II. Not exactly for everyone (I lovingly refer to them as the "Skullfucker 5000s"). Oh, and they sound fantastic. Super neutral, balanced, and flat - like a good reference headphone should. When I need to drown out the rest of the world (airplane, public transport, valley girl twang), these are a lifesaver.
But if I love my Etymotics, I lust after my Grado SR80i's. Yeah, they're kind of uncomfortable after more than a couple hours of listening, they're not particularly portable, and they have an absurdly cumbersome, thick cord. But they make sweet, sweet love to my ears. If the Etymotics are a rock-solid German sports coupe, the Grados are a temperamental Italian convertible. Both make you happy, but only one really makes you feel like you're doing something special. They're also open-backed and on-ear, so they're big, drown out almost no background noise, and make a fair bit of their own. I love these for work because the mix of music and random environmental sounds basically keep all the audio in the "background" of my thoughts, allowing me to focus on the task at hand.
There are a few things I tend not to leave home without, especially if I'm going on a work trip.
- Secondary portable device charger, in this case a MyCharge 6000mAh. Android's great and all, but let's be real, no one but RAZR MAXX owners have fully eradicated range anxiety.
- Logitech M225 wireless mouse. I use it sometimes.
- Business cards, because I'm businessy.
- Victorinox Ranger Swiss Army Knife - you never know when you'll need to open wine, beer, or cut some fool.
- Pilot G2 Limited gel pen, which makes almost no sense because I never carry paper. But I do need to write things on occasion.
- Like a million microUSB cables.
- Microfiber cloth (whatever I've stolen from my latest review unit - you'd be surprised how many things come with one).
- GorillaPod bendable tripod thingy, for when I've had too much coffee / not enough sleep and need to take pictures.
- A handful of spare camera batteries.
- A bi-fold leather wallet with 2 stitched-on pockets and nothing else. Because I'm hip like that.
And that's it. Now you know about the things I use. Don't you feel enriched? Feel free to ask questions in the comments. Or call me an idiot for buying a Sony laptop. I still regret it.