Why this list?

There is no shortage of lists of top Android apps. Most tech blogs / online magazines have one every year. You can find these listicles pretty much anywhere. If you want to see a bunch of generic lists, try this Google search.

I've been an Android user since 2009, and I've had a number of Android phones (HTC, Samsung, Motorola, LG), and I've tried hundreds of apps, both free and paid. I'm an actual user, not a professional tech blogger looking to write clickbait, and these recs definitely are not sponsored. These are real apps I actually use on my phone and that are super helpful to me.

I'd love to see more of these kinds of lists from other users, so this is my contribution.

What didn't make the list?

I'm not going to recommend apps that are just super popular and obvious. If you're a Facebook and Instagram user, you're probably going to install the Facebook and Instagram apps—you don't need anyone to recommend those apps to you. In fact, there's not even a point in me linking to those apps.

Tasker has been over-recommended, and if you're geeky enough to use it, you probably already know about it.

There are also good apps that are essentially abandonware (e.g., Juice Defender). I'm recommending apps that are either reasonably maintained or don't really need frequent updates to work.

Here's the list (in alphabetical order)

I'm not going to rank these in an order apart from alphabetical, because they all have different functions and operate in different categories from each other.

dropbox Dropbox
Dropbox isn't an obvious recommendation. I use CrashPlan, but I don't install the CrashPlan app on my phone. The Dropbox app could be a lot better than it is (for example, syncing a subset of folders or all folders both ways instead of only allowing for manual downloads and uploads). It is, however, super handy for automatically uploading photos to Camera Uploads in the background, so if you want to have backup copies of your photos on an actual computer with Dropbox installed (and not just Google's cloud storage for photos), you don't even have to think about it.

There are options to back up only on wireless or to back up only photos or both photos and videos.

opinionrewards Google Opinion Rewards
I'm not a tinfoil hat person. I do take some reasonable steps to guard privacy, but I don't really care that much. If you're like me in that regard and want to earn some Google Play credit, this is a great app to have. You just answer surveys periodically and get credit to spend later. It's a matter of cents (or pence?) here and there, but it adds up fairly quickly—at least enough to purchase some pay-for apps.

isyncr iSyncr for iTunes for Android
A lot of Android users have probably abandoned iTunes in favor of some other music management software. If you still keep songs in your iTunes library, this is a handy sync tool, and it's pretty solid. The developer responds to feedback and has put a lot of work into refining the interface over the years.

iSyncr can do both wireless and wired sync, and you can schedule it to sync at a certain time per day. It will also sync play counts.

みっちりねこ だっしゅ!DX ~日本一周の旅~ みっちりねこ だっしゅ!DX ~日本一周の旅~
I don't read Japanese, but I'm still able to guess through the menus and play this super-fun racing game ("dash") that isn't a side-scroller and doesn't run away from you (the cat(s) run toward you, actually). This "DX" version is more up to date and plays more like Mario Brothers in terms of having different worlds or stops you have to go through. The plus of that is that it's interesting. The minus is that if you get stuck on a level... you're pretty much stuck!

(Honorable mention: みっちりねこ だっしゅ!, which is the regular, less-up-to-date version with no storyline—just straight-up neverending dashing. It's a little bit buggy, because you can't continue without the touchscreen controls getting stuck, but it's still better than the iOS version, which just crashes when you're about to start the race.)

network Network
I'm sure there are legitimate other uses for the Network app, but I use it at Disneyland to get a working signal. When Disneyland gets really crowded, as it often does, the LTE networks get clogged up, so even when your smartphone appears to have signal, it may not actually download or upload anything. Some versions of Android do not give you fine-tuned control over the 2g/3g/4g/LTE settings, but this app will let you specify exactly what network you want. So in normal use, I'll go for LTE/GSM/CDMA Auto, which usually gets me LTE, and when I'm at Disneyland, I switch to WCDMA Only, which puts me on 4G/HSPA+, which isn't as cluttered.

opera Opera
I've tried a lot of web browsers, including Chrome, Puffin, xScope, Dolphin, Boat, Firefox, Naked, Maxthon... I can't even remember the names of all of them. I keep coming back to Opera, though.

It does have one huge flaw (which a lot of non-Chrome browsers share)—it decides to open app links as actual links instead of opening the app. For example, if you click on an Instagram link, instead of launching the Instagram app, it will just take you to the Instagram website.

A few things I dig about Opera on Android:

  • Once you start scrolling on a long page, an arrow appears that allows you to jump to the bottom or the top.
  • Opera will wrap text when you zoom on a page.
  • The controls to navigate tabs is on the bottom of the screen (handy for one-handed browsing).
  • Tabs open by default in the background, and there aren't too many options in the context menu.

pocketcasts Pocket Casts
I tried a few podcast apps, and this one just stuck with me. It has a simple interface. It works reliably. It will allow you to queue up podcasts, auto-delete downloads when finished listening... it's just simple and elegant.

poweramp PowerAmp
I honestly don't remember all the pros and cons of the various music players. I did try Player Pro at one point and also Rocket Player. PowerAmp just works for me. I like the look of the app. I like its ability to cut out silence, to resume play on headset plug-in, to allow for equalizer adjustment. I've just found it to be a good, reliable media player.

Ski Safari 2
I'm a big fan of 2D games, as opposed to 3D ones, and I like the side-scrollers of yore (Super Mario Bros.). This is a great side-scroller with cute music, sounds, and animation. In this sequel, unfortunately, you can't pay to get rid of the ads, but the ads appear only once you complete a level (not during actual gameplay). They've also finally added the option to play a female skier instead of just the default Sven.

wordfeud WordFeud
When Words with Friends started up, it was iOS-only, so my iPhone-using friends wanted to play with me, but I couldn't play with them. I convinced a bunch of my iPhone-using friends to download WordFeud, and I've found WordFeud to be much better a Scrabble game, mainly because you can actually pay to get rid of the ads (you can't do that on Words with Friends). It also just doesn't have all the bright colors and distracting animations. WordFeud just focuses on the game play.

Nexus 5x: Second Impressions

November 2nd, 2015

Here's a follow-up to last week's Nexus 5x: First Impressions post.

What I've liked so far

Basically, it's all the same stuff that impressed me at first—mainly the camera and the fingerprint sensor.

What's bothered me so far

While this list may look long, it doesn't mean I'm not enjoying using the phone, but I do have some nitpicks, so here they are:

  1. Even though the double-tap on the power button launches up the camera no matter where you are (great!), you'd think (as it did on the Moto X after a double-twist) that the phone being already unlocked would return you to an unlocked state after you launch up the camera. Nope. Whether the phone was unlocked or not before you launch the camera with the power button double-tap, it will be relocked after you're done with the camera. Sure, you can unlock it again quickly using the fingerprint sensor, but in terms of usability and user expectations, there's no reason launching up the camera should change the phone from an unlocked state to a locked state.
  2. Google will prompt you to enable Google Now cards and Google Now on Tap. That's fine. That's what I expect them to do. But even after you click to enable them and then decide to disable them again, there will still be a prompt, when you hold the home button, to enable them. Advertise once, please. Once I've seen it, I don't need to see it again. I opted out. Don't bug me.
  3. If you plug your Nexus 5x in to a computer, it will always default to charging only and not to transferring files. There is no way to change this default. The behavior is even more bothersome if your main computer is a Mac, because Android File Transfer (the Mac program you have to use to transfer files to/from Android) will automatically launch up when a phone is plugged in, but since the phone isn't set to transfer files, Android File Transfer will think the phone is just locked and give you an error message, which means you have to temporarily (again, no way to permanently change this setting) set the phone to transfer files and then re-launch Android File Transfer.
  4. When you first set up the phone, it asks if you want to require a password every time the phone boots up. Two issues with this—if you select to require a password, there's no way to change it back without factory resetting your phone; and even if you select not to require the password, it will still require a password!
  5. Apps aren't all updated to work with Marshmallow yet. Not exactly the fault of the phone, but just something to keep in mind. I tried using Firefox with Adblock. and it would constantly cause the phone to reboot (Chrome and Opera operate just fine). VolumeNext doesn't work to skip forward with a regular auxiliary cable (not headphones) but can skip backwards—didn't have that issue with lollipop. Those are just two examples. There will probably be others for other users. After a while, the app developers will update their apps to be more compatible with Marshmallow.
  6. The camera aspect ratio defaults to 4:3 instead of 16:9. The phone is advertised at having a 12 megapixel camera, but if you change it to 16:9, it drops to 8 megapixels. It may be fine to have 4:3 for Instagram, but when you look at your photos in the Photos app, there will be black bars (because the phone itself has closer to a 16:9 aspect ratio). I've changed it to 16:9, and it seems to be much better. I don't believe the drop in megapixels adversely affects the quality of the photos.

Do I still recommend this phone?

Hell, yes! As I mentioned before, those are tiny nitpicks people should be aware of, but the day-to-day use of the phone is great. Still a bit too large for my tastes, but there is no 4.3-inch screen on a new Nexus phone, so it's at least smaller than the 6p.

Nexus 5x: First Impressions

October 27th, 2015

Two years ago, I posted up Moto X: First Impressions. I just got the new Nexus 5x, and I thought I'd post my first impressions of that phone as well.

The Good

  • The camera photos seem crisp and the camera focuses quickly. I haven't had a chance to thoroughly test it in low light, but I've done a few indoor shots, and they seem immensely better than what I could capture on my (albeit two-year-old) Moto X.
  • The fingerprint sensor is amazing. It is indeed fast—almost instantaneous. And I find its placement on the back of the phone to be very convenient. Even though the phone is tall, the fingerprint sensor isn't toward the top of the phone... it's more toward the middle, so I don't have to reach up that high to get it. It's close to where my index finger would naturally rest. I was also able to register two of my index fingers and also two of my spouse's, so either of us can use the phone without always having to enter a password. The other up side to this is, since I don't need the password often (not at all, so far), I can make it a fairly complex one. When you have to enter a password/pin/pattern ten or twenty times a day, it's tempting to make it short and simple.
  • The screen looks good. I don't know anything about resolution numbers and pixels per inch or types of displays, but it looks good to me. Not too much glare. Not too much color saturation (or too little). Video looks good. I also like that the display brightness can go low. The lowest brightness on my old Moto X was still too bright in a dark room (so I ended up having to download a "night mode" app for my old phone).
  • Double-tap power button camera activation is a good call. I know Google was considering implementing the double-twist to activate the camera, the feature that debuted with my old Moto X, and I'm glad they went with a double-tap of the power button instead. The double-twist was an awesome feature, but the Moto X was a nice tiny-sized phone you could easily hold in one hand and twist around without worrying about dropping. Even though the Nexus 5x is smaller than the Nexus 6p, the 5x is still enormous, and so having a double-twist action ups the risk on dropping the phone.
  • The physical build is good. I know a lot of people like to bag on plastic (vs. metal), but the plastic of the Nexus 5x feels and looks nice. The phone still has a premium feel to it. Even though visually it looks as if the rear camera bulges out the back, the phone is still able to sit flat on a table without wobbling.
  • Power and volume buttons are well placed. The phone, as I mentioned before, is tall. So it's good the power and volume buttons, although above the middle, are closer to the middle than the top of the phone, making them all easy to reach (no, I don't have giant man-hands).

The Okay

  • One front speaker is fine. I'd love two front-facing stereo speakers. Since every other phone I've had has had one rear-facing speaker, even having only one front-facing mono speaker is a huge upgrade for me. I know some audiophiles out there will be disappointed in this. The volume is adequate. If you turn the volume up, you can hear things fine, but you won't ever have to worry about turning the volume too high. Having two visual speakers even though only one is functional is a terrible idea, especially since the speaker design attracts fuzz and lint.
  • The camera app is not terrible. A lot of reviews have been down on the Google Camera app as being too simplified and barebones. I'm coming from the Moto X, which has basically nothing on the screen, and you tap anywhere on the screen to take a picture, so the controls for the Google Camera seem almost overwhelming to me. I've always felt with Android that you can get a more sophisticated camera app from the Google Play Store if that stuff matters to you. I will say the noises that the camera app emits when you switch to video or start a video or take a picture are annoying.
  • 32 GB is all right, but 64 GB would be better. One of the reasons I was tempted by the Moto X Pure is its microSD expansion. The Nexus 5x has only internal flash storage, and the max is 32 GB. To be honest, if 64 GB was an option, I don't know that I would have gotten it, but I know a lot of Android fans love to put as much crap as they can on their phones. I had 16 GB on my old Moto X, so 32 GB seems like a wonderland of space.

The Bad

  • The Google Now launcher is horrible. This is probably more of a Marshmallow thing than a Nexus 5x thing, but I hate the new Google Now launcher. The icons are enormous. There is no longer the press and move up action to launch something (which, in the past, I was able to link to Opera instead of Google Now). Not only that, but you can't have any screens to the left of the home screen. By default, there's only one home screen and any home screens you add all have to be to the right of it. So I've opted to replace the Google Now launcher with my old buddy, the Nova Launcher. Now my icons are the right size, and I can configure my screens (and the home button gestures) however I want.
  • The phone is too big. Yes, I've mentioned this several times, but it really is bad. My spouse assures me I'll get used to the size, but for now (first impressions, remember?) it's extremely annoying. I take public transit, which means I'm often standing with only one hand available. The phone is definitely too big for one-handed use (unless you have giant man-hands). Unfortunately, this is just the direction phones are going. I was debating between the Moto X Pure and the Nexus phones, and of the three (Pure, 5x, 6p), the 5x is the smallest. Nevertheless, it's a bit too big for my tastes.
  • The accessories it comes with are meager. You get a standard power adapter and USB-C-to-USB-C cable. You also get a little SIM card ejector tool. That's pretty much it. I was hoping for a USB-C-to-USB-A or USB-C-to-microUSB adapter. USB-C may be the "new thing," but it's far away from mass adoption, very far away. I also found it odd that no headphones were included. Every Android phone I've gotten in the past has come with a pair of crappy headphones. I know the audiophiles out there usually ditch the crappy headphones anyway, but I'm not an audiophile. I appreciate an included pair of headphones. Could be just me.

The Untested

  • Phone call quality. Some people on the Android Forums complained about the phone quality being terrible. I haven't had a chance to see if that's really the case.
  • Battery life. I've had the phone one day. And I've been charging it a lot and not using it very extensively, so it's really hard for me to say how the battery life is at this point.

Summary of first impressions

No real big surprises. I'd read a lot of reviews of the phone before getting it. The three big draws for me were the fingerprint sensor, the better camera, and the timely OTA updates from Google. I guess eventually I get used to using an enormous phone...

Unboxing the Nexus 5x

October 26th, 2015

Useless Backstory: Moto X to Nexus 5x

My by far favorite Android phone since 2009 has been the Moto X 2013. Indeed, if it were not for its subpar camera, I would say it is, even now, still the best Android phone. The Moto X 2013 had innovative new features (ones that—had Apple released them in the iPhone—iPhone fans would be gushing about as evidence of Apple pushing new boundaries and being very user-centered in its design... since Motorola's marketing department isn't as good, most people just ignored these features): ambient display, double-twist to activate camera, OK Google Now, etc.

That said, I find myself using my phone's camera more and more often and being very sad about especially the low-light shots from the Moto X 2013. I've also found the fingerprint sensor on the new iOS devices to be pretty cool, and the reviews said the sensor on the Nexus 5x is even more responsive. I also find it a bit awkward to press my thumb on the home button of an iOS device to unlock it. I like the idea of the sensor being on the back of the phone where your index finger might naturally rest when picking up the phone.

More Useless Backstory: Fed Ex Annoyances

I was dumb and decided to have Google deliver to my apartment instead of my workplace. So Fed Ex attempted a delivery when I wasn't home, and then I tried to get it over the weekend and called Fed Ex, but the customer service representative, whom I could barely understand, said the facility was closed over the weekend, so I couldn't pick it up in person. Oddly, I couldn't redirect the destination either—something I'm pretty sure I've done in the past. When I did happen to be home the second time, the Fed Ex delivery person said, "This is the second time I've tried to deliver this," as if he were scolding me. Seriously? I'm supposed to be always home? What the...? I didn't say anything smarmy back to him, though, because I was excited to check out the new phone.

The Unboxing: Featuring my bad photography skills

Yes, I like having a good camera. No, I'm a terrible photographer. Most of these shots I took with a shaky hand using my old Moto X 2013. A few of the later ones I took using an iPad Mini.

2015-10-26 13.36.12
It comes in a very cute small square box.

2015-10-26 13.36.30
Once you get the cover off, the front of the box has a logo that's supposed to be an X, I suppose.

2015-10-26 13.36.43
You can open the box without scissors. It's taped down on only one side of the square.

2015-10-26 13.36.54
LG took a cue from IKEA and put in some cryptic wordless instructions. The phone itself comes in a translucent sleeve, which is really just for show (my Moto X 2013 came with a screen protector on it, which I used for two full years and never had to buy a third-party protector to replace it with).

Then, there's the USB-C cable and the charger.

2015-10-26 13.37.43
Beneath the phone is a playing card that tells you you get a 90-day trial for Google Play Music. There's also a small Safety + Warranty booklet.

The tiny, shiny circle with a pin at the end lets you pop up the SIM card holder from the phone. I was also able to use this same one to pop out the SIM card holder for my old Moto X 2013.

2015-10-26 13.38.12
Another random shot of the cable and charger.

2015-10-26 14.47.06
Here is the Nexus 5x next to my Moto X 2013. The Nexus 5x is enormous compared to my old phone, which I'm a bit sad about. I really wanted a new Nexus phone, and the Nexus 5x is smaller than the 6p, so I opted for the 5x, but it's still huge!

2015-10-26 14.47.24
I didn't do any actual measurements, but the phone thickness seems okay, It's more flat than curved but about the same thickness as the Moto X 2013.

2015-10-26 14.47.44
Another gratuitous "Why is this phone so big?!" shot.

I haven't had a ton of time to play around with the phone yet, but the camera seems good (I haven't tried it in low light yet, though), and the fingerprint sensor is indeed fast in terms of responsiveness.

Some Background

I did my first proper unroot of my Moto X 2013 recently, and I learned something interesting in the process. In the past, when I've rooted and unrooted my Moto X 2013, I'd request/download the factory image straight from the Motorola website and restore that back.

Recently, though, I tried to take an OTA (over-the-air) update from Motorola, and it would download the update, try to install the update, and then error out. I'd then get a message about how the update was unsuccessful. I tried reflashing the recovery and the system. Reflashing everything, clearing the cache, clearing the user data. The OTA update (from Motorola, mind you) did not like the factory image from Motorola's website.

The only way I could get it to work (big shoutout to mastarifla from the XDA forums for the tip) was downloading a factory image from a third-party website. Then the OTA update (from Motorola) liked it and installed the update successfully. Go figure.

Some of you all may be skeptical about downloading "factory images" frmo third-party websites, and that's fine, but this was the only one that I could get an official OTA from Motorola to install on properly. Your mileage may vary.

Prerequisites and Files to Download

Before you begin, make sure you do the following:

  1. Back up any important data—either to the Cloud or your computer's hard drive or both. This includes but isn't limited to photos, music, apps, bookmarks.
  2. Download the appropriate moto-fastboot files for your operating system from the first post in this thread. For some reason, the regular fastboot can't do some of the larger files, so a special moto-fastboot has to be used.
  3. Download the appropriate factory build files for your model of Moto X.

Note for Windows users

I don't use Windows, but I've heard that you can use RSD Lite to restore the phone instead of running the commands below. Unfortunately, I can't walk you through those steps. You can find details here.

Actual Steps

I'm basing these off of what I did on Mac OS X. There's a terminal in Windows and one in Linux, too, so similar principles will apply, but the exact steps may be slightly different.

  1. Once the factory build is downloaded, double-click it to unzip it.
  2. Move the unzipped moto-fastboot file into the unzipped folder. For Macs, that would be moto-fastboot-x64.
  3. Open up the /Applications/Utilities/Terminal.app and type in
    with a space at the end
  4. Drag the factory build unzipped folder to the terminal, and then hit Enter. Your terminal should now be focused on that directory.
  5. With your phone unplugged, hold down the power button until it prompts you to power off. Then power it off when prompted.
  6. While holding the volume-down key, tap the power button and wait for it to boot up. It should boot into something called "fastboot mode" with a black screen and some colored text.
  7. Keeping the phone in fastboot mode, connect it to your computer via USB.
  8. Run the following commands (note: it may be better to copy and paste them one by one than to do them all at once in a script or to retype them manually).
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 erase cache
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 erase userdata
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 flash partition gpt.bin
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 flash motoboot motoboot.img
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 flash logo logo.bin
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 flash motoboot motoboot.img
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 flash logo logo.bin
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 flash boot boot.img
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 flash recovery recovery.img
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 flash system system.img
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 flash modem NON-HLOS.bin
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 erase modemst1
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 erase modemst2
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 flash fsg fsg.mbn
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 erase customize
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 erase clogo
    ./moto-fastboot-osx64 oem fb_mode_clear

It's possible that erasing userdata may not be necessary. More details in XT1053 222.27.5 Stagefright OTA Update Guide.

After that, when you reboot your Moto X, it should be back to factory settings and able to take OTA updates.