Nate's Straight Talk Express: Android Apps & Widgets

Nate Allen
Columnist from  Indianola, IA
| March 9, 2010


As I explained in last week's column, I'm using the HTC Droid Eris utilizing HTC's Sense UI with the Android operating system (currently Android version 1.5).  This week, I'll focus on customization options with Android vs. other operating systems that I've used, as well as the apps and widgets that I use most with my HTC Droid Eris.

Android is the most user friendly mainstream operating system available right now in terms of its ability to customize the homescreen, especially because it allows widgets.  The Blackberry OS is probably the least customizable on the market, and in my opinion lacks the ability to capture the imagination of ordinary non-business oriented consumers.  Blackberry does not support widgets, and in fact limits the number of app shortcuts available on the default homescreen. Blackberry's only advantages over other operating systems are the speed with which apps open and its mastery of email, which is no small feat.  Similarly, the Windows Mobile phones I've used offered no widget support (except for Samsung's Touchwiz UI, which was excruciating to use on the Omnia), and default homescreen customization options were very limited.  I am very much looking forward to Microsoft's next generation Windows Phone 7 Series in the second half of this year, however.  I really think Microsoft will be back with a vengeance to challenge Android and Apple. Palm's webOS is very good looking, but also lacks customization options. If Palm can make some improvements in this regard and with respect to webOS' overall speed, they could really gain respect as a viable competitor to Apple and Android.  

For the unfamiliar, here's a brief explanation of the difference between apps and widgets. Android supports the ability to place application shortcuts on the homescreen panels so that you don't have to search through all of your apps each time to find the one you want.  This is very similar in concept to shortcuts on a PC desktop.  When you tap an shortcut icon, the application it's linked to opens for use.  Widgets, on the other hand, are active application interfaces that live on your homescreen panel.  They can be designed to pull data from an app, or they may be "freestanding," without the need for any other software installed on the phone.  I love widgets because they make data available at a glance without the need to dig into full apps.  Not all apps in the Marketplace come with widgets, but many do.  

A few examples of great apps and widgets that I've found in the Marketplace: First, the Radiotime app is the single most exciting app that I have to tell you about. I will definitely be writing more about Radiotime in a subsequent column, but here's a preview.  Radiotime gives me access to literally thousands of streaming radio stations throughout the country (ClearChannel Stations are available only through the iheartradio app, however) and I can easily find most any genre of music, or classification of talk radio programming, including  syndicated radio programs, at any time of the day.  I actually use the auxiliary jack in my car to listen to radio programming using my Droid Eris and Radiotime on the way to and from work.  This works so well, I plan to cancel my XM Radio subscription and use this exclusively going forward. I'm a talk radio junkie and commute at least an hour per day to and from work and am able to listen to most all of the same programming that I've been used to with XM Radio.  (Note: My car's factory radio did not include an auxiliary jack or iPod adapter, but I found a great aftermarket module that gave me both, which I'd be happy to share about as well in a future column if there is interest.)

One of the most useful widgets I use is Android Agenda Widget, which places a list of my calendar entries for the current day and upcoming several days, as many as will fit within the customizable widget size option that I have chosen. It updates itself at a user-defined interval by pulling data from the calendar app.  

There are a couple of messaging apps that I use all the time.  First, the Hancent SMS app. HTC's messaging app (which comes pre-installed on Droid Eris) is great, but not quite as good as the Handcent SMS app.  Handcent is infinitely customizable, from the ability to change the look of the app through different themes and conversation styles to the ability to enable popup notifications of new SMS and MMS messages.  The main reason I use Handcent is the popup feature.  With popups enabled, upon arrival of a new SMS text message a popup will appear that allows me to read and quickly reply to the message without having to open the app itsef (the app may be used to view older messages and threaded conversations).  I've disabled notifications in HTC's messaging app and have removed its shortcut from the homescreen panel in favor of Handcent and the experience is now seamless.  Its as if Handcent came with the Eris instead of HTC's app.

The other great messaging app is Google Talk, which is an instant messaging app that allows you to send messages to other Google Talk users without using your wireless carrier's SMS data.  I communicate with my wife via Google Talk to avoid using up our pre-paid SMS allowance each month.  Verizon has a crappy way of charging users for sending and recieving SMS and MMS messages to other Verizon users - even to other phones on the same family share plan.  I know, you can pay $10 extra per line for unlimited SMS and MMS messages between Verizon phones, but I don't want to have to pay that extra money if I can avoid it.  My wife and I use the $5 SMS and MMS add-on which allows 250 messages before you a $0.20 charge for every subsequent message sent or received.  My wife and I used to send and receive lots of texts, but now with Google Talk we can communicate without message length being an issue and without worrying about going over our monthly messaging allowance.

About two weeks ago, I discovered the Touiteur Twitter app and it has quickly become one of my favorite new apps.  I don't have room to go into it now, but suffice it to say Touiteur is the best Twitter experience I've had on the Droid Eris to date. Maybe next time I'll get into Touiteur and some more killer Android apps.  Let me know in the comments what your favorite apps are, and also some suggestions on what you'd like to see in future columns. 


Products mentioned