Android apps I use

Or, degooglifying myself, part 0

I’ve always been mindful of vendor lock-in. I like options; vendor lock-in takes options away. I’ve been particularly paranoid about smartphone platforms: a couple of dollars on apps here and there and before you know it you’re invested in your current platform to the tune of a hundred bucks or more.

Fleeing then-horrible Blackberry, I went with Android in 2011. Since then, Google has been progressively killing off sync options (Contacts, Calendar) to less popular platforms, raising additional fears about data lock-in. I haven’t found a “perfect” platform-and-device combination, so there’s always been a lingering dissatisfaction. (I started writing this post in April 2013.) Over the years I realized I would like to reduce my dependence on Google’s goodwill/advertising/world domination plans and start hosting my data myself.

The first step to quitting is knowing what exactly you’d miss. In 2012, I half-jokingly asked on Twitter about an app to track my app usage. I didn’t hear anything and some basic searches were not promising, so I ended up compiling a list by hand. Here’s apps I use, and have used, on Android.

Currently used on Nexus 5

  • Firefox: my main browser these days. I had been an Opera user since version 3.6 (so since 1999), including Opera Mobile on Maemo, Opera Mini on Blackberry, and then Opera Mobile on Android, but decided to move off after their switch to Webkit/Blink in 2013. I sort of miss Opera Link for desktop to mobile sync, but not enough to set up Firefox Sync even though I also use Firefox on desktop.
  • Citymapper: pretty fantastic for getting to new destinations in London, and useful by notifying about delays and problems on routes to known destinations. The app itself is very good but for a local transit-focused app it could have better local information (accurate walking transfer times, etc).
  • VX ConnectBot: replaceable with any other decent SSH client with private/public key support.
  • Opera Mobile: back-up browser, on account of hopefully being less evil than straight-up Google Chrome. I kept the old Presto engine version 12 until Android 5, when it would no longer start, so now it’s the Blink version.
  • MuPDF: a good, basic PDF reader that removes a dependency on Google Docs for newer Android versions.
  • GPS Status, GPSLogger: sometimes handy, but in practice I’ve mostly used them for finding speed of buses/trains I’ve travelled on. I’m not married to the particular apps, I’d think they would be mostly interchangeable on other platforms.
  • Last.fm: I use it only for scrobbling, but I feel surprisingly strongly about continuing to scrobble or use an equivalent service.
  • MAPS.ME: workable for my map-browsing addiction, offline maps are useful to limit amount of mobile data used. Since recently, offline search is also free, which is pretty cool, though perhaps not fully sustainable. Generally not as polished as Maps but I want it – and OSM – to succeed.
  • Skype: used mostly because my tablet was at first my only device with a video camera, and then my most reliable device with a video camera. It had all sorts of video weirdness on Android 2.2 that, among others, caused my camera image to be rotated by 270 degrees. Nevertheless, Skype in general works fairly reliably and I have non-technical family members added, so I probably want to have at least one Skype-enabled device at any time, though it’s fine if it’s a laptop rather than a handheld device.
  • ES File Explorer: yeah, I’m one of those people. It’s more handy than I’d have thought. I don’t use it often but when I use it, it’s really handy.
  • Nova launcher: more configurable than default Android 5 launcher, I use Nova to disable a bunch of UI I don’t use and change app icons.

Google Cloud

The ultimate point of the exercise is eventual degooglifying and moving from Google cloud services to self-hosting. Here’s what I use now:

  • Calendar: this might be tricky. I use desktop Calendar a lot, but it’s almost more for keeping track of todos than for appointments. Sync between a mobile app and a web interface is important, but my usage on mobile is pretty much limited to getting alerts/reminders and read-primary events overview. I don’t want to be stuck to Google’s implementation, and I would like to move off if I can get comparable experience and reliability on self-hosting. Being able to take an iCalendar feed and vibrate for reminders might be sufficient for a mobile app replacement.
  • Hangouts: I have extremely mixed feelings. Google Talk started out simple and useful at first but it has been downhill for several years now. Progressive push towards Google+ integration-by-lock-in really stretches Google’s motto. Multi-device sync isn’t great these days and the SMS integration in recent Android versions has been a tire fire. I would like to move to my own XMPP server, maybe using my Hangouts/Talk account via a basic third-party client.
  • Gmail: I don’t get a lot of email so I don’t really care strongly. One slightly unorthodox use I have is writing notes as drafts, because they get backed up and are easily accessible on the web version afterwards. (The post that kicked off this blog started as a Gmail draft in the Blackberry OS 4.5 / J2ME version.) After three years, drafts are still a little too easy to discard with no undo, but I haven’t lost too much recently. I currently like Gmail as an app well enough, but would like to self-host my mail, and would be happy with a decent IMAP client.
  • People / Contacts: it’s nice to get contacts synced down and have phone numbers, emails, and addresses in one place, but my contact list is not huge or frequently used. Not necessarily crucial, especially if the replacement platform supports a standard import/export format.
  • Maps: I’ve been trying to limit my use of Google Maps, but still find myself using them for things like opening hours and transit information outside of London. The POI database is decidedly impressive, and the satellite imagery is occasionally handy, though street maps are no better and sometimes worse than OpenStreetMap’s.
  • Authenticator: for my Google account. This is an open standard so presumably I could just use a different implementation.

Built-in functionality

I use these on Android, but I don’t need the exact app. They are pretty basic functionality that should be available on pretty much any platform:

  • Calculator: absolutely vanilla.
  • Camera: not much to say about it, I just want to be able to disable flash and that’s about it. I have other cameras so I’m not particularly picky about quality of the photos, the faster the better though.
  • Clock: used for a timer, alarm, time in other timezones
  • Play Music: I use Play Music to play local music on the device only. It’s built in but it’s not the greatest player I’ve used, a bit buggy and overkill for my purposes. UI integration into notifications drawer is fairly well done though.

Convenience apps

Nice-to-have or handy things that aren’t really critical:

  • BBC Weather: it’s well done, but I definitely wouldn’t die having to use the website.
  • Barclays, Barclays Pingit: I use it mainly for quick account checks, mobile PINsentry, and receiving cute pictures with Pingit transfers. I could live without these. Due to strict “security” policies (cannot be installed on rooted devices) I might have to.
  • ZXing / Barcode Scanner: a no-nonsense app of the kind that’s good to have, not used often, but when want to use it you value it being quick to access from your homescreen and quick to use. Though ZXing is excellent, I’m not attached to this particular app. Any decent barcode/QR code scanner will work.
  • XE currency rates: I could use an online version, particularly if currencies displayed on first load can be configured.
  • Flickr: a diversion for browsing and a fast way to get notifications, but I don’t upload photos from the app and I could do without it.
  • Google Keep: I’ve tried using it for todo lists but it didn’t result in substantially more todo tasks being completed. It’s neat for literally grocery lists but I could definitely live without it, or use an equivalent on other platforms.
  • PinDroid: it’s useful for saving links with Android intents to save links as “read later”. Occasional check of unread bookmarks to find things to read. Most of my Pinboard usage is search, either by tag or free-text, and I never found had much need to search on mobile. I could use m.pinboard.in easily.
  • Starbucks: nice for rewards and finding cafes, but I could probably get away with a photo of the barcode or a similar loyalty scheme solution.
  • Tube Assistant: neat to have, about the level of functionality I think a native app is best at, definitely in “nice to have” category though.

Apps I installed but don’t really use

  • Duolingo: app installed aspirationally :) I used to use it on my tablet but never really got into it on the phone.
  • Google Translate: seems like it’d be useful but I haven’t really used it a lot. Could probably do with the website if I had to, particularly with URL shortcuts/editable search engines
  • OpenTTD, Transport Tycoon Lite: I keep on meaning to try them out and see if they’re as enjoyable as a desktop version, but haven’t gotten around to it yet

Used in the past, not anymore

  • Opera Mobile (Presto), Opera Mini: around 2011, when I was buying my first Android devices, being able to run an Opera version that supported Opera Link was of nearly overriding priority. I used both Opera Mobile and Mini at first; having two browsers, both synced with same bookmarks, was useful for cases like logging into Twitter with two different accounts, and Mini’s smaller data use and battery drain was useful. But Link hasn’t worked really well since at least 2012 (“Opera Link is busy synchronizing your final settings…” on desktop, sync failing altogether on mobile), my in-browser bookmarks were de facto replaced with Pinboard, and my speed dial links didn’t change frequently enough to make it really crucial. Opera was Blinkered in 2013 and I’ve replaced it with Firefox on the Nexus 5 in the name of supporting rendering engine diversity. It has turned out to be a pretty good browser, even if it did take six years (t, t2), and though it’s slow on the older devices.
  • Google Talk: Talk on Androids 2.2 and 2.3 wasn’t great. Most of the time it wouldn’t show me contacts’ online status until after I had messaged them, and there were some nasty edge cases where lack of connection wouldn’t be properly detected and I would lose what I wrote (no thanks to no ability to copy text from a conversation so I have to retype it). Then there was the bug of duplicate conversation views: if I entered a conversation from a notification and started typing a message, going back into the app via the home screen wouldn’t show me the half-typed message. But it mostly worked. My old Androids meant no voice or video Talk, so I used Skype instead.
  • Google Reader: ha! I was never really been super happy with Reader, at least the version available on Androids 2.2 and 2.3. It worked, but the interface left a bit to be desired. After the 2011 introduction of side-swipe to move between items, items with photos or other content that made them wider than visible viewport and forced side-scrolling became danger zones, always threatening to move to another item when I didn’t mean to. It was killed off in July 2013 and I used desktop Opera’s built-in client for a while before settling on Miniflux. No loss here.
  • Google Latitude: I used Latitude back before it got nerfed, it was kind of useful for finding a couple of friends but I haven’t particularly missed it. Personal location history was neat, personal location history hosted by Google perhaps slightly less so.
  • car2go: in theory would be replaceable with a good mobile/slimmed down website, in practice this website didn’t exist at the time. I moved out of car2go coverage so no use for this now.
  • Memo: astonishingly to me, stock Android doesn’t come with a memo app. My Blackberry had one and so I obviously used it. My Samsung-flavoured Android had one, and I used it. I never took to fancier note apps, and to get sync and back-up I mostly wrote Gmail drafts (see above). I would like a memo app, but really I’d be happiest with an app that syncs to my personal MediaWiki installation, and have been toying with writing one if it does not exist.
  • Mint.com: I used to use it between 2011 and 2013 without really liking it. It was slow and unreliable at the time, and now I’ve moved to a country that Mint doesn’t cover. I’ve been slowly reimplementing what of Mint I did use as a web app accessible from any platform.
  • TeslaLED / flashlight app: obsoleted on Android Lollipop, I assume any phone would have equivalent functionality either built-in or as a simple app. Nice homescreen shortcut to easily toggle the light is nice.

Neat idea, I didn’t use it much though

  • Reading: The Economist, The Globe and Mail, Wikipedia app (geolocating nearby article subjects!)
  • PeakAR: installed it in Vancouver to identify mountains but it never worked well, maybe shoddy on-device compass was to blame
  • Pleco: see also Duolingo
  • AIDE: impressive proof of concept but I didn’t really need it,
  • OverDrive Media Console: library e-book rentals. Neat idea in theory, in practice despite buying the tablet as a reading device I didn’t do any substantial reading on it, and got an e-ink Kobo later.

Didn’t install on Nexus 5, don’t really miss it

  • SimplyDraw: it’s a good app that I installed it on the tablet but didn’t really use much. I haven’t reinstalled on Nexus 5, don’t miss it.
  • Twitter: I quote from my 2013 draft: “meh”. I’ve been using mobile.twitter.com and it’s fine. I kind of miss easy ability to use two different accounts, but in practice I don’t use Twitter often enough and logging into two accounts in two different browsers is alright. Permissions required by the modern app are more than a bit scary and I do not trust Twitter with my full contact book or the ability to draw over other apps or read phone status and identity. See also: LinkedIn. #AndroidPermissionCreep
  • BatteryBot: This is a nice, basic app that is the opposite of #AndroidPermissionCreep with simple functionality: put exact battery percentage in the notifications bar. I remember it being a big deal when I first got my Nexus One and was amazed phones could report battery percentage more accurately than 10% my Blackberry did. However, I haven’t used it on the Nexus 5 and haven’t really missed it.
  • Shazam: don’t really use it enough to bother
  • ATM locator apps (for ING, CIBC) in Canada where they come in handy
  • Google+: I hardly ever used it, except for cloud sync of photos taken with my devices. Thankfully we’ve come far from the buy-a-custom-cable-to-get-pictures-off-phone era of early cameraphones. However, having to have the whole Google+ installed to use just one arguably non-core feature was super annoying (though I’m sure Google loved it), and I eventually removed it from my Nexus One because of the highly limited space available for apps (thanks for nothing, HTC). I disabled it on the Nexus 5 and haven’t really missed it, though an alternative auto-syncing solution (optimally to my own webspace) might be worth looking for even if I don’t move off Android.
  • Stuff I didn’t end up using almost at all: Box; Goggles (now looks to be dying a Reader death); Kobo (I have a e-ink e-reader which I find much better); Youtube (didn’t use it other than showcase my own videos); I tried Epistle and Evernote for note-taking but didn’t get into them.