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Gadget patrol: indispensable Android apps

So I have a Google Nexus tablet. What do I do with it?

Well, Android 4.1 is just about acceptable as an alternative to iOS. The user interface is rather less polished and the average standard of app design is ... well, it tends to lack the design aesthetic of apps written by Apple fanboys who have been brainwashed with the Cult of Cupertino's desire for things to be functional, pleasing, and useful. This is not a good thing, and the result is a somewhat sparse app ecosystem cluttered with junk, me-too apps, and a scattering of malware. Fragmentation beckons.

However, there are some hidden gems ...

Before I get into the software, I'd like to note that the Google Nexus (manufactured by Asus) is a nice piece of kit—certainly it's solidly built, and excellent value for money at its current price. Unlike Samsung there's no proprietary dock connector with a $35 replacement cable if you lose the one that came with it. (There's no 3G or micro-SD card expansion either, or a rear-facing camera: but I can live with that.) Android 4.1 is indeed far better than 3.x or 2.x versions, and the Nexus experience is fairly clean, right out of the box.

I use a couple of hardware accessories: the Maxell Airstash to provide additional off-device storage, and the (no longer manufactured) iGo Stowaway ultra-thin bluetooth keyboard (note: you can still find them second hand for a lot less than the Amazon vendors are asking). The Airstash is a tiny NAS device that takes files on an SD card (or SDXC; mine's a 64Gb card) and makes them available via wifi and a WebDAV server, thus adding extra capacity to the Nexus's 16Gb internal storage. The Stowaway keyboard ... you wouldn't want to write an entire book on one, but it's far better for touch-typing than the on-screen keyboard. I'm still in search of the ultimate carrying case and tablet stand, but I'm sure I'll find something that works for me eventually.

On the software side, if you use Android I'm sure you're familiar with the basics, from the Facebook app and Chromeweb browser through Evernote, DropBox, and Amazon's Kindle for Android app. It feels redundant to discuss these; they're in every "top 10 Android apps you can't live without" article.

So I'd like to draw attention to some less well known items.

First, the beta release of Firefox for Android. On iOS, the app store terms and conditions preclude web browsers that are not based on the WebKit rendering engine. Firefox on Android, in contrast, is the real thing: a re-implementation of Firefox with a touch-friendly user interface, complete with plug-ins, desktop synching, and various privacy controls. If you use Firefox on your desktop, then you probably want to use it on your Android tablet: it's as simple as that.

Editing office documents is hard to avoid. But prior to this month, Android was rather bad at it. You had a choice between Google Docs and the regular grown-up-from-palmtop app suites such as Documents to Go and QuickOffice Pro; all of these are deficient, lacking key features of any desktop word processor or spreadsheet app, and unable to open a wide range of file formats. Earlier this month, however, German company SoftMaker released an Android port of their office suite, SoftMaker office for Android (logically enough). It's not in the Google Play store; you need to download the APK files to your device then run them from a file management utility (in my case, I'm using Rhythm Software's File Manager). What you get is a vastly more functional office suite than the competition, with support in the word processor for paragraph and character styles, change tracking, spelling and grammar checking, Dropbox and Evernote integration, import and export of RTF, ODT, DOC, DOCX and other file formats, and a bunch more besides. I haven't explored the Spreadsheet or Presentation components fully yet, but they similarly look to have much more functionality than QuickOffice or Documents to Go. This shouldn't be surprising: SoftMaker Office started life as a lightweight Microsoft Office clone (much like StarOffice, which subsequently became OpenOffice/LibreOffice), before carving out a niche as the most powerful office package on Microsoft's Windows CE and PocketPC platforms—while the desktop version is less flexible than the big beasts (lacking a macro language, if I recall correctly) on the tablet or phone it shines.

(On the book creation front, I gather work is underway on a port of Scrivener to Android, but I don't expect it to show up before 2013.)

I mentioned the File Manager I use. However, for the AirStash it's necessary to use a file utility that can talk to a WebDAV server. Maxell have just released an early beta of the AirStash+ app for Android, allowing configuration of and streaming from the AirStash; alternatively WebDAV Navigator provides a utility for file-level access to the contents of a WebDAV share, making it possible to use the AirStash as an external file store.

I get itchy if I don't have access to a UNIX (or Linux) command line. I've unlocked my Nexus (details too long and tedious to go into here) and installed BusyBox, even dabbled with a command-line Debian distribution that runs atop Android. However, for a minimal experience (including busybox, a terminal emulator, a version of the vim text editor, and an HTML and Java development environment) I heartily recommend Spartacus IDE. It's an application package that gives you a terminal environment and a basic Linux command line, along with a bunch of useful tools to make my inner late 80s/early 90s UNIX gearhead feel right at home.

Some reading tools: Instapaper for Android for web clippings and read-it-later sessions, FBReader for reading non-DRM'd ebooks, and Kindle for Android, because access to the world's biggest ebook store is hard to get away from.

Lastly, some general utilities: Hacker's Keyboard provides a better on-screen keyboard for use with Spartacus IDE and other terminal apps; External Keyboard Helper helps Android handle the quirks of bluetooth keyboards (including key remapping), and Rotation Locker makes it easy to lock or unlock automatic screen rotation.

This is, I stress, a subset of the stuff cluttering up my tablet: hopefully it's helpful to someone because it's a list of the less well known items that nevertheless make a 7" Android tablet useful as a mobile productivity appliance. After a month or so of carrying it, I find myself somewhat conflicted over it relative to the iPad. It can, when rooted, do stuff that Apple simply won't let me do on the iPad, and which I find useful; in particular, a browser with ad-blocking and do-not-track, a powerful office package, and a working terminal environment make it indispensable. On the other hand, the iPad has a wider range of apps, and many of them are just plain better thought-out and easier to use. Both classes of tablet do about 80-90% of what I want a tablet to do ... and the missing 10-20% is a different subset of functionality on each platform. So for the time being, I get to carry both. Sigh.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on September 2, 2012 10:28 PM.

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