About two years ago, I upgraded my traditional cell phone to a (then) state-of-the-art Nokia smartphone running the latest version of the Symbian operating system. With that smartphone I had 3G Internet speeds, could read my e-mail, watch YouTube videos, browse Web sites and download any of the hundreds of Symbian apps then available.Now the Symbian operating system is functionally obsolete. Nokia, the primary user (and effective owner) of Symbian, has virtually killed it, entering into a billion-dollar deal with Microsoft to produce Windows smartphones. Knowing that I was eligible for an upgrade from my cell phone provider, I wandered into a company-owned store and perused the offerings. My carrier had a wide selection of smartphones using Google’s Android operating system, and a handful of smartphones with the latest mobile version of Windows. However, I did not see any Apple-powered devices. After thoroughly reviewing the specifications, price and performance of each, and reading the online reviews using my now obsolescent smartphone, I selected an Android smartphone. This new Android will be my constant companion for the next two years, so I had better learn to like it.
According to Wikipedia, “Android is a Linux-based operating system for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers. It is developed by the Open Handset Alliance, led by Google, and other companies. ... (T)he Open Handset Alliance, a consortium of 86 hardware, software and telecommunication companies devoted to advancing open standards for mobile devices. Google releases the Android code as open-source, under the Apache License. The Android Open Source Project (AOSP) is tasked with the maintenance and further development of Android.” Also according to Wikipedia, “Android was listed as the best-selling smartphone platform worldwide ... with over 300 million Android devices in use by February 2012. According to Google’s Andy Rubin, as of December 2011, there were over 700,000 Android devices activated every day.”
As I type this, the latest stable release of Android is version 4.04, but tweaks, updates and improvements are frequently released. Even though the latest stable version of Android is 4.04 — which has been proven to function well on almost all smartphones and tablets — there are some older Android devices that may have problems with the newer version. It should also be noted that while almost all newer Android devices can run the 4.04 with no significant problems, several of the cell phone companies and tablet makers make it difficult to upgrade to newer versions. These companies may possibly require that it can only be downloaded and installed when explicitly approved by the carrier or manufacturer of the device. While there are online instructions on how to upgrade to the latest versions of Android prior to the official release and approval of the carrier, those who choose to do so may find that their carrier may not be able to support their smartphones that have had unauthorized upgrades.
With a worldwide installed base in excess of 300 million Android devices, and hundreds of thousands more being added on a daily basis, there is a huge market for what are called “apps” (applications) that can run on Android devices. Most of the Android apps are written in a form of Java and can be downloaded through Google Play (play.google.com) or from third-party sources. By the end of 2011, there were more than 500,000 Android apps available (source: Wikipedia), with more than 10 billion downloads from Google’s Android Market (now Google Play). With so many Android apps to choose from, it would be very helpful to have a resource that has reviewed and evaluated many of them. My personal favorite is Gizmo’s TechSupportAlert.com.
Gizmo’s TechSupportAlert.com is best known as a source of reviews and evaluations for PC software, but it also includes extensive listings for Linux and Android. While many of the Android apps are purely commercial in nature and are for sale, Gizmo has compiled what many believe to be the canonical list of free Android apps at techsupportalert.com/best-free-android-apps.htm. Acknowledging that there are a lot of paid apps available, and that often there are excellent quality free competitors, Gizmo states, “To help you get the best of the free ones, we have selected some gems in each category and added them here in a convenient list with clear and brief descriptions of each application item.” Gizmo also offers simple instructions on how to download and install any of the apps that are listed, either through links on his Web site or through the use of the QR Code or barcode scanner integrated with the cameras on most newer Android devices, which will connect directly to Google Play for download.Gizmo’s “Best Free Android Apps” (techsupportalert.com/best-free-android-apps.htm) is departmentalized into 12 sections or chapters, each containing a comprehensive listing, evaluations and quality rankings of the apps. The thousands of apps reviewed and rated can be found under the headings: Introduction / What’s New; Home and Office; Image Tools; Multimedia; Disk and File Tools; Desktop and System; Security and Privacy; Internet and E-mail; Phone and Messaging; Network, Website and Server; Education; and Games.
With such a broad base of users and devices, Android devices and users have increasing become targets for a variety of Android specific viruses and malware. Section 7 of Gizmo’s listing is “Best Free Security and Privacy for Android” where recommendations are displayed for the best free anti-malware utilities, apps protection, password managers and (lost or stolen) device trackers. The ratings and evaluations for each free app listed are compiled from a “community” of up to 1,500 users who routinely test and assess the software. According to the “community,” the top-rated free anti-virus and malware product is Lookout Security and Antivirus, which has been downloaded more than 15 million times from Google play. While a premium (paid) version of Lookout is available with additional features, the free version would likely be adequate for most users. Lookout provides protection from malware, backup of critical software and a method of locating a lost phone. The paid version of Lookout adds a safe browsing and privacy feature to the basic service.
In a more practical way, many Android apps can be used to assist the user while shopping to save money in a variety of ways. While not necessarily listed by Gizmo, the Google Play store (listed on some devices simply as “Play Store”) has a lot of free apps that many users would find extremely helpful. Users may need to use the Google Play search function, but the results may be personally very beneficial. Many of the major supermarket chains offer free apps that can display sale items and other useful information. The supermarket apps may even be used to create and display e-coupons! For example, Kroger is one of our major local supermarket chains, and Kroger offers a free app. The Kroger app interactively displays the local ads, a store locator, a listing of current Kroger Rewards (such as the current gasoline discounts available at many of the Kroger gas stations) and customizable e-coupons. Right now, my Kroger app lists about 200 selectable e-coupons that are digitally added to a Kroger key tag or affinity card. At the checkout, when the Kroger key tag is used, any e-coupons are automatically deducted at the register without the use of paper coupons. New coupons are frequently added, and old expired coupons are automatically deleted. It is up to the user to periodically review any new offerings and select those of interest. The coupons and weekly ad can interactively be used to create a digital shopping list viewable on the Android device.
Some other apps that I frequently use are from UPS, FedEx and the post office (USPS). These apps can all be used to track items in real time, arrange for shipments and postage, and perform many of the other related tasks. I have also downloaded free apps from Google Play for my local radio and TV stations, local and national newspapers, and other free information sources. With the free, fully customizable, iHeartRadio app, listeners can listen to more than 800 ClearChannel radio stations from about 150 cities, including my weekly radio show on KLVI (Mondays, 6 p.m. Central time). Other apps are available for major department and discount stores, including Target, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Walmart, Sam’s Club, BestBuy and many others. Online stores such as Amazon, Newegg, TigerDirect, Overstock and others also have free apps. Many of these retail store apps, both for physical and virtual stores, offer an interesting service where the user can utilize the camera in his Android device to scan a barcode or UPC to get information on a product. Some apps, such as Amazon’s, can be used to scan a barcode in a competitor’s store and display Amazon’s discounted prices. One of my favorites is the Google Shopper app, which (according to Google), “ ... recognizes products by cover art, barcode, voice and text search. You can find local and online prices, reviews, specifications, videos and more to help you make the best purchasing decision.”
With more than a half-million Android apps to choose from, including Gizmo’s list of recommendations for free software as well as the massive listings on Google Play and other sources, a modern Android powered smart device may be a good choice.
Listen to Ira Wilsker’s weekly radio show on Mondays from 6-7 p.m. on KLVI 560AM.