Thursday, August 29, 2013

Mobile apps to make your (first world) life better

Perhaps the last thing the Internet needs right now is another list of app recommendations - you can easily find more comprehensive lists with a simple web search.  But in case you want to get *my* take on things (this general topic has come up with a couple of my friends recently) or you don't keep up with sites like Lifehacker, I'll post some of the apps that I use to get things done.  These are geared toward Android (I'm currently rolling with the Nexus 4 and both generations of the Nexus 7), but most of these (or similar) can be found on iOS and perhaps Windows Phone.

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Google Authenticator - Free

I set up two-factor authentication on all my accounts that support it, and pretty much everybody (except Twitter - which I don't actually have an account for, but their two-factor scheme is pretty novel) uses Time-based One-time Password (TOTP) for it.  Apps like Google Authenticator and Authy make managing your accounts with TOTP two-step verification super easy.  If you use long and distinct pseudorandom passwords (see KeePassDroid entry below) for your online accounts, then you're probably fine.  But two-factor authentication may (I'm less convinced than I used to be) add some extra protection that could put your mind at ease.


AutomateIt - Free or $1.99

Some would argue that Tasker is the premier mobile automation app, but it does not offer a free version.  AutomateIt is probably not as powerful, but the freemium model it uses makes it a bit more attractive.  For the uninitiated, these apps allow you to set up rules so that your phone performs certain actions when specific events occur.  For example, my favorite pair of rules use my phone's coarse location data (i.e., w/o even turning on GPS) to disable WiFi when I leave home and enable WiFi when I return.  This conserves battery power in both instances because WiFi is more efficient for data transfer than cellular when you're connected, but your phone wastes power by searching for WiFi networks when you're not around a network that you can connect to.

There are battery management apps, e.g., Juice Defender, that provide/use more complex rules in this arena, but I prefer general automation apps because they provide benefits outside just power management.  Triggers can be include battery level, time, e-mail, SMS, NFC, GPS, bluetooth, WiFi, weather, and many others.  Actions can include notifications, changing settings, launching apps, and others.


ES File Explorer - Free

There are many apps that take advantage of the access that Android gives to the underlying file system, and this app is a prime example.  This app, however, is much more than a file explorer, as it includes a cloud storage client and an FTP client.  Another good alternative (which I tried ages ago, but chose this one over it) is ASTRO File Manager.


Evernote - Free

In case you've been living under a rock...  This is probably the most robust cross-platform note (and more) taking application out there.  It also integrates well with many other apps and services.


Google+ Hangouts - Free

There are other worthy video chat apps out there - some even cross-platform - but this one is cross-platform and offers group chats for free.


HD Widgets - $1.99

The main reason I installed this app was to get a lock screen weather widget that shows a multi-day forecast.  But then I ended up trashing the other widgets on my main home screen and using widgets from this app instead.  All of its widgets, whether on the lock screen or the home screen, are fully customizable with options ranging from time to weather to a veritable cornucopia of quick settings toggles.  While this app takes the cake in terms of customizable widgets, I've also read good things about Beautiful Widgets (available in free and pro versions).


KeePassDroid - Free

If you take online security seriously, you should use distinct pseudorandom passwords for each of your accounts that you care about.  This means that you either better have an amazing memory or you should use a password manager (and preferably one that can generate random passwords for you).  The idea with a password manager is that it encrypts and stores your various passwords, so you only have to remember one (hopefully very long and random) password.  You can then sync your encrypted password database among your various (some potentially mobile) devices, each with a program or app that can decrypt the database for you when you provide the appropriate password.  There's more to be said about password management, but that should suffice in this setting.

I use KeePass because you can use it to do all this for free, though it requires a bit of setup.  There are easier options out there, such as LastPass and 1Password, but their services cost money.


Mint - Free

This is mostly a way for me to sneak in a recommendation for Mint - a free personal finance management service that you can use to get a holistic view of all your financial accounts.  Since I have all my bank accounts, credit cards, 401K, and real estate property hooked into it, I can easily determine my net worth and see how it changes over time.  You can also track your spending relative to budgets that you set, as well as set up savings goals.  It doesn't hurt that the mobile app is pretty fantastic as well.


Google Play Music - Free, though All Access requires a subscription

You can use it like iTunes Match, except for free, or like Spotify (in which case you pay a subscription fee).  I wouldn't recommend switching if you already use Spotify or Rdio, but it may be a better option if you haven't yet made a decision.


Pocket Casts - $3.99

Hands-down the best podcast management app out there.  But you pay a (relative) premium for that.  This app is the main enabler for me getting back into podcasts.


ringPod - Free

A simple and powerful ringtone editor - I used it to make ringtones and notifications from some of my favorite songs.  It's a simplified version of Ringtone Maker that doesn't require access to your contacts.  If you want to be able to set ringtones for contacts within the app itself, you can give that a shot.


Shush! - Free

If you're like me (or at least like I used to be), your phone is unintentionally on silent/vibrate most of the time because you often forget to turn the ringer back on after going somewhere that requires silencing it.  Fortunately, this app can hook into the Android system so that whenever you turn the ringer off (or put it on vibrate) it prompts you for a duration of time to keep the ringer off.  So sometime after you get out of that meeting, movie, or whatever, it will automatically turn your ringer back on, if you haven't already.


Slice - Free

Slice is a service that hooks into your mailbox to figure out when you've made online purchases.  It then extracts shipping information from your confirmation e-mails and the app can notify you when your packages are shipped and/or delivered.  The potential worry is that you are giving a third party access to your e-mail.  There are alternatives - Google Now can also hook into e-mails and give package notifications, but that works for GMail only.  Hotmail/Live/Outlook.com can offer quick access to tracking info from the shipment confirmation, but you must find/open that e-mail first.


Slider Widget - Free

This simple widget offers quick access to the various volume settings (ringtone, media, notification, alarm, system, voice call) in the Android OS without having to go hunt for them in various settings menus.  It also includes a slider for display brightness.  Not too fancy, but quite useful at times.


SugarSync - Free, though some storage options cost money

This is another case of me sneaking in a service recommendation.  There are quite a few quite good cloud storage options out there, and I've tried a good number of them (SkyDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, and others).  The two main reasons that I eventually settled on SugarSync (for now, at least) are:
  • The ability to sync arbitrary folders on your computer.  Most other cloud storage services only sync items in a certain folder in the filesystem.  For example, I have all my data on my PC on a separate hard drive from the OS.  In order to sync these files using the other services, I had to either use another program to sync the real data files with copies in the cloud sync folder, or use symbolic links in the cloud sync folder to the real data folders.  Each of these workarounds had its issues, though the latter was preferable to the former.
  • File versioning - SugarSync keeps the last 5 versions of synced files, in case you do something bad and need to restore an old version.  Dropbox keeps 30 days of history, which may be better or worse depending on the situation, but is at least pretty good.  SkyDrive only offers version history on Microsoft documents, but does include a recycle bin for deleted files.  Similarly, Google Drive only provides versioning for Google Docs.
Despite these advantages, it may not be worth switching if you already use a cloud storage service that works for you.  It is also worth noting that all these cloud services provide pretty good mobile apps. 


Tasks - Free or $0.99

If you use the task functionality in Google Calendar and/or GMail, then this app is among the best mobile companions - its only essential function is providing a nice interface to Google's tasks.  Both versions offer the same functionality, but the free version is ad supported.  There is quite a bit of competition in this category, though - there are other, more full-featured, task management apps that also offer synchronization with Google: Any.do, Astrid, and GTasks are examples.  Honorable mention also goes to Calendar++, which provides an amazing interface that integrates Google's calendar and task functionality (basically, what the Google Calendar app *should* be) except for one fatal flaw - it destroys your battery life for some reason.


TripIt - Free

TripIt is a nifty travel organization service that works by having you forward your flight/hotel/car/event/etc confirmation e-mails to them.  It automatically organizes everything into an itinerary for you.  They also provide a nice mobile app.


Wifi Analyzer - Free

This is a handy tool for troubleshooting congested WiFi networks or helping configure WiFi networks to avoid interference with other nearby networks.  It shows graphs that indicate what channels nearby networks are using in addition to their signal strength.

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So there's my list.  If you have any feedback or suggestions, feel free to let me know via either comment or direct message.

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