By Stuart Dredge, The Guardian
Google ended 2013 with more than a million Android apps on its Google Play store, and a commanding share of the smartphone market – as well as rapidly-rising tablet sales.
It was a good year for new Android apps too, from entertainment and lifestyle apps through to more serious productivity tools. The year also saw a notable upswing in the number of high-quality children’s apps available on Android, as developers caught on to growing use by parents.
Earlier today, the Guardian’s 50 best Android games of 2013 roundup was published. This is the companion piece, covering the best non-game apps for Android smartphones and tablets of the year. As in the previous piece, each app’s title is a link to the Google Play store.
Think something doesn’t deserve to be included, or spotted an excellent app that’s been missed out? Make your views known in the comments section. And if you want to dive into the Guardian’s deeper Android app coverage from 2013, browse the archive of weekly Best Android Apps roundups.
An award-winning app on iPhone and iPad, Band of the Day proved just as impressive on Android, with its simple mission of spotlighting a single new band or musician every day. Streaming music, biographies, videos and photos help you tell whether they’re up your street or not.
The BBC’s official sports app offers news, live text commentary, fixtures and tables, and a mixture of live and on-demand video and audio from a range of events. Live radio streams and the ability to customise it for your favourite teams were among the updates added during 2013 too.
It took a while, but BjÃ¶rk’s Biophilia album-app finally made the leap from iOS to Android this year. As before, it offers an individual “mini-app” for every song on her last album, with a mixture of games, creativity and musicmaking tools to explore the sounds of Biophilia.
Bloom.fm is a stylish streaming-music app, starting with free personal radio where you choose a genre or artist to get a stream of similar music. Pay £1, £5 or £10 a month, and you can “borrow” a certain amount of tracks to listen to on demand. A beautifully-designed and innovative app.
Circa was one of a host of startups trying to disrupt the news industry through aggregation: in this case, editorial staff “condensing the news” to bitesize segments, and updating stories over time so you can follow them. It launched this year with a US skew towards tech, politics and science.
Budding Android superstar DJs (or, indeed, super round-a-friend’s-house-commandeering-the-stereo DJs) should be flocking to Cross DJ, a DJing app released late this year with a clean, uncluttered design to get you mixing and scratching your digital music files.
Web 2.0 veteran Digg was reinvented in 2013, serving up blog posts, videos and social updates to its users on Android. The timing was good too: just as Google closed its Google Reader RSS service, Digg offered an alternative way to keep tabs on RSS feeds and share stories to social networks.
The idea of interactive fiction can make some literary purists a bit grumpy, but Dave Morris’ adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein wasn’t a gimmick. It saw you influencing the decisions of Frankenstein himself (yes, NOT the monster, the man) as the story goes on.
UK consortium Radioplayer gathers live streams, catch-up shows and podcasts from a range of British radio stations, including the BBC and commercial radio alike. This was its Android tablet app, joining a separate smartphone version, offering streams and program recommendations.
BBC iPlayer Radio for Android also promised live streams from the BBC’s national radio stations, plus access to shows from the last seven days (and podcasts) on demand. Video clips, alerts for upcoming programmes and an alarm-clock function were also part of the mix.
BSkyB’s Sky Go service got plenty of mobile love this year, including this app optimised for Android tablets. It was a way to watch Sky live over Wi-Fi or the mobile network, along with films and children’s shows on-demand. As the year went on, more and more content was added.
Irish startup Soundwave aims to help people discover new music by following what friends and tastemakers are playing. The app tracks and shares song plays on Spotify and Rdio, as well as on your Android device, while showing you the plays of others – as well as aggregated charts.
Microsoft’s official second-screen app debuted just ahead of the launch of its Xbox One next-gen console. You can use it to control the Xbox One, access media, browse the web on TV – and, for games that support it, use it as a companion for extra gameplay features.
This was the BBC’s first official CBeebies app for Android, offering high-quality mini-games for some of the pre-school TV channel’s main shows including Octonauts, Alphablocks, Something Special and Tree Fu Tom. Light educational elements underpinned the gameplay.
This was a delightful combination of origami and virtual pets. Kids have to populate a zoo with colourful animals by folding them (virtually) together following on-screen prompts, then keep the menagerie occupied with items. The in-app currency is earned purely by playing, not paying.
Channel 4 commissioned this endless-runner game in the style of Temple Run for its Snowman sequel. You control the Snowman as he makes his way across the UK towards the North Pole. It uses in-app purchases, but with a £20 spending cap on individual players to avoid bill-shock.
This was a treat: an app inspired by Minecraft from popular children’s publisher Toca Boca. It involved building … well, building anything you like using coloured blocks, helped by six robot characters – each with their own building, decorating or destroying ability. Creative joy.
The second Toca Boca game on this roundup was also its first on the Google Play store. It gets kids to play hairdresser for six characters, cutting, styling and colouring to their heart’s content with simple touchscreen gestures, before showing off their work to the nearest sibling, friend or adult.
Disney was another big name in children’s entertainment putting more oomph into Android in 2013. This creative storytelling tool for kids was based on the Toy Story films. Children can pick a character, setting and props, then record their own voice telling the story.
Released in January, Fitocracy could be just as handy a year later to combat post-Christmas bloat. It turned getting fit into an almost RPG-style game where you earn points for workouts, rise in levels and “slay the laziness dragon”. Social features are built in for extra motivation.
Social travel service Gogobot wanted to help you discover interesting places to holiday based on other people’s experiences, with an app to browse their virtual “postcards” and reviews, scout out more than 60,000 destinations and then book hotels to stay in.
Brand new from Google this year, Helpouts is a service that connects you to a host of experts from cooking, beauty and fitness/nutrition through to computers and electronics, for video calls paid for by the minute, or per call. An interesting idea whose wider potential may be seen in 2014.
Learnist was one of the startups trying to help people learn online – or, as it describes itself: “like a collaborative, multimedia and interactive ebook from the future”. It pulls in content from around the web including YouTube, Wikipedia and SoundCloud, and sorts it into topics.
Activity-tracking app Moves had one crucial difference to the likes of Fitbit and Jawbone UP: it didn’t require an extra gadget. Instead, it uses your smartphone’s sensors to measure your daily steps, recording your location as it goes for a mini life-diary on top.
Autodesk’s SketchBook Ink drawing app was as warmly received on Android tablets as it had been on iPad. Working in portrait or landscape orientation, it offered slick touchscreen line-drawing, with plenty of options to export images for further work on other devices.
Jawbone’s UP wristband was one of a plethora of fitness gadgets available to track your activity and sleep patterns this year. Its Android companion app enabled UP owners to dig into their data, while also logging their eating and drinking, setting sleep alarms and see what friends are up to.
This was an app to find “child-friendly places” around the UK, based on your current location. Divided into Eat, Play and Pamper categories, it covers more than 10,000 places from pram-friendly restaurants to soft-play centres. And yes, dads can use it too, although the developer also released a separate app for them.
YPlan was one of an emerging crop of apps aiming to help you decide where to spend evenings out. At launch, it covered London and New York, providing a slick list of events, and helping you buy tickets – often at a discount. Music, cinema, theatre and even “chessboxing” were among the offers.
Developer Six to Start made the innovative Zombies, Run! fitness game, which got people jogging while pretending to be chased by zombies. This follow-up took similar basic principles, but it is less athletic: using your walking steps as part of the gameplay rather than requiring you to run – complete with the NHS as a partner.
PRODUCTIVITY / TOOLS
The official BBC Weather app provided forecasts for the UK, automatically for your current location or via search for other places. Besides temperature and sun/rain details, it provides pressure, visibility, humidity, UV and pollen data, with a lock-screen widget just for Android.
Cal is a calendar app by developer Any.do that works in maps, contacts and social networks to ensure you’re always up to speed on where you’re going and who you’re meeting. It also connects neatly to the developer’s previous app, task-list Any.do, to tick off your chores as you go.
The Paper Camera photography app did pretty well on Android, so this year its developers returned with a follow-up: Camera 2. Billed as the “ultimate real-time effects app”, it has a host of filters, as well as the ability to shoot photos and videos, and share the results to various social networks.
The hit iOS photography app snapped onto Android this year, with just as impressive a range of photography features focused on taking better shots, not just on sharing them. You could dig as deep as you like into the app’s shooting and editing tools to improve your mobile photography skills.
Cover is a “smart lockscreen” for Android smartphones, replacing Google’s own lockscreen to provide speedy access to your most useful apps, flick quickly between them, and a “peek” feature to glance at what’s new before opening an app. It also tries to suggest apps based on your context.
Developer Dolphin pitched its latest app as a Snapchat of browsing. No, not because it is full of nudes. It’s about privacy: a browser that automatically deletes (or “shreds” in its terminology) your browsing history, cache, passwords and cookies whenever you quit browsing.
Anonymous search engine DuckDuckGo’s official Android app wanted to be a haven for more users who are turning away from Google. The app offers similarly-anonymous search functions to the website, but also doubles as a news-reading app for news, entertainment, sports, technology and other areas.
The original GO Launcher app was hugely popular on Android as an alternative homescreen. This year it got a new premium version, which blocks ads, adds two-finger gestures (not that kind) and additional animations, with more features promised in forthcoming updates.
Reports this year suggested Microsoft makes plenty of money from Android just from patent licensing. This remote-desktop app was another facet of its business, helping people log in to their Windows computers from their Android devices.
Quip was the startup launched by former Facebook CTO Bret Taylor, aiming to shake up the way people collaborate on documents. It’s a cloud-synchronised word-processing app that runs across smartphones, tablet and computers, with an emphasis on people working together on files.
Typing app Swype had been available on a select few Android devices before, but this year it hit the Google Play store. Its signature swipe-based typing may now be part of other virtual keyboards, but a solid predictive engine and voice recognition features aimed to set it above the rivals.
VSCO Cam got plenty of “at last!” reviews on the Google Play store when it transferred from iOS to Android this year. It’s an impressively-slick app for shooting and editing your snaps. An in-app store of “packs” to tweak your images is how it makes its money.
2013 was the year when BlackBerry’s messaging app BBM launched on other devices, including Android. It initially focused on text chatting and sharing photos, files and voice notes, with the group chat and broadcast messages that made it popular on its home platform. Expect more features in 2014.
Promising “daily motivation”, Lift aimed to help you “take regular steps toward healthy life change”, whether that’s giving up bad habits, getting fitter or developing new career skills. The idea being that you set your priorities and use the app to keep track of your progress.
MixBit was a video-sharing app from a couple of YouTube’s original co-founders. The videos you share are split into up-to-16-second clips, which can be strung together into sequences of up to an hour. Simple, slick editing tools come with an emphasis on sharing and remixing videos with other users
Rando put a fun skew on photo-sharing: an app that got you to snap a pic (using a circular frame) and then send it to … Well, you don’t know who it’s going to: Rando handles the job of pinging it “anonymously to somebody completely random” – somebody else using the Rando app, obviously.
Technology company Silent Circle was in the news this year after shutting its encrypted email service “to prevent spying” in the wake of the Guardian’s NSA revelations. Silent Text was another part of its business: encrypted text messaging with file-transfers of up to 100MB too.
Tinder was a bona-fide craze this year: a dating app showing you people nearby who might be a match, with a hot-or-not style swiping interface to indicate interest, and the ability to text-chat to matches before deciding whether to meet. Also one of the most popular pub spectator-sports of 2013.
Twitter on Android isn’t new, but this year saw Twitter’s first native tablet app for Android, redesigned for their bigger screens. An initially-limited release for a few models led the way for more devices to come, providing an even better way to tweet (or just read) on the sofa.
Video-sharing app Vyclone’s tagline is “Film together”. That means you shoot video of whatever you like, then Vyclone figures out who else is filming at the same time in the same place, and stitches all your clips together into a multi-angle video.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk