TIME Smartphones

OnePlus One Review: Phone of Dreams

Jared Newman for TIME

It's hard to imagine a better phone for Android geeks. Too bad you can't get one.

As I walked around Google’s I/O conference last month, my phone seemed to have a mythical status among the Android faithful.

“Is that the OnePlus One?” they’d ask. “How’d you get it? Can I see?” But it wasn’t the phone’s capabilities that made them so curious. It was the fact that the OnePlus One is nearly impossible to buy.

Right now, the only way to purchase a OnePlus One is through an invitation from another owner. And because OnePlus only seeded the phone to a small batch of original owners through a contest and other promotions, there aren’t a lot of Ones to go around. (Mine came direct from the OnePlus PR department, with no invites attached.)

It’s easy to see why Android geeks are clamoring for the OnePlus One. It has all the hallmarks of a high-end Android phone, including a 5.5-inch 1080p display, a 2.5 GHz quad-core processor, 3 GB of RAM, 64 GB of storage, a 13-megapixel rear camera and a 5-megapixel front camera.

But at $350 unlocked, it’s roughly half the price of an unlocked iPhone 5s or Samsung Galaxy S5. While you can get subsidized phones for cheaper, an unsubsidized plan from AT&T or T-Mobile would save a lot of money in the long run when paired with a OnePlus One.

Besides, the OnePlus One is a standout phone even without the cost savings.

The funny thing is that when I show this phone to regular people, it draws an entirely different reaction. There’s nothing outwardly impressive or even noteworthy about it, save for the black backing that’s as grippy as ultra-fine sandpaper. (A 16 GB white model has a ground cashew backing that’s supposed to feel like baby skin. I found someone at I/O with this version, and while it felt pretty smooth, I didn’t have my test baby on hand for comparison.)

Still, much of the OnePlus One’s appeal comes from what it doesn’t do. In contrast to so many other Android phones, the One is devoid of questionable gimmicks and flare for flare’s sake. The front of the phone is unadorned with tacky brand names or logos, and there are no dual-lens cameras, finicky fingerprint readers or problematic curved glass. When the screen is off, it’s nothing but a thin silver frame surrounding a panel of black glass. The simplicity is striking.

Jared Newman for TIME

Start it up, and you’ll find something very close to stock Android 4.4, with hardly any unnecessary bloatware. The handful of tweaks that do exist come courtesy of CyanogenMod, a modification of stock Android that many enthusiasts install on their phones anyway. There’s a quick settings bar that appears above your notifications, a set of audio equalizer controls and a store for themes that alter the phone’s look and feel. But none of these additions feel intrusive, and most of them can be modified or removed.

Because the system is unburdened by junk and excessive visual flourishes, the OnePlus One always feels fast. The phone never left me hanging as I switched apps, swiped through homescreens and opened the camera. That’s not always the case with the latest mainstream Android phones.

The camera also lacks frilly features, but it’s dependable all around. Its f/2.0 aperture means it can handle low-light photography about as well as the HTC One (no relation), and while it’s not quite as good as HTC’s phone at fending off shaky hands, it’s capable of snapping much more detailed photos. I had no major issues with responsiveness either, as the phone takes about a second to establish focus and snaps photos instantly thereafter. My sole complaint is that you can’t hold the shutter button down for burst mode like you can on the HTC One and iPhone 5s. (There is a separate burst mode option, but that defeats the purpose when you’re trying to capture the perfect moment.)

Jared Newman for TIME

The other thing you only appreciate with time is the OnePlus One’s battery. I tend to charge my phone every night, but after most days I had well over 50 percent battery life in the tank. That includes days when I was constantly using the phone’s mobile hotspot or watching lots of video. It was nice having a phone where battery life was not a concern at all.

My only problems with the OnePlus One tended not to rise above nitpick status. The display, while clear and crisp enough at 1080p, can be a bit hard to read outdoors on sunny days, and its auto-brightness setting doesn’t always hit the appropriate level. I could also do without some of the software tweaks that OnePlus has added, such as the settings shortcuts that are redundant with Android’s own quick settings panel, and the gesture-based shortcuts that I always seemed to enter accidentally. But as I said above, OnePlus allows you to switch these off.

Most of the time, the OnePlus One just did what it was supposed to do. And outside the geekier climes of Google I/O, it never drew attention to itself by causing headaches or getting in the way, and never felt like it was anything less than a high-end handset.

That’s exactly how a smartphone should be, and it’s sad that so many Android vendors feel the need to distract with flips and cartwheels instead. If OnePlus can actually distribute this phone more broadly–and I’m told an actual pre-order system is coming eventually–its ability to excite people without glitz and gimmickry will be its greatest trick.

TIME

How Fluently Do You Speak Emoji?

Take our quiz to find out how well you know texting's favorite icons.

(Note: most emoji definitions sourced from Emojipedia.)

TIME Video Games

Atari Unveils Pridefest, an LGBT-Themed Social Sim Game

Atari

Atari says it's working on an iOS and Android game that's effectively a parade-building sim designed to appeal to the LGBT community.

A social sim game designed to appeal to the LGBT community is coming to an iOS or Android tablet near you, Atari says. Dubbed Pridefest, players will be able to “launch their very own personalized pride parade in a city of their choosing.”

So, customize parade flotillas by choosing size, components, mascots and decorations, as well as surrounding structures and side attractions, which in turn feed a city happiness metric, checking off quest or challenge goals to unlock new parades, receive festival supplies or secure bonuses. Social elements of the game also include avatar customization, chatting with friends and the option to bring your parade to friends’ cities, or to join in on theirs.

While there’s no specific release date yet, Atari promises this is “coming soon.”

“To have [Atari] support our conference and cause, as well as bring an LGBTQ-themed game to market is a huge step toward equality in gaming,” GaymerX founder Matt Conn said in a statement. “It’s extremely important that we see these large publishers like Atari stepping up to the plate, and I’m excited that they have the courage to take the first step in supporting the community.”

As Conn mentions, Pridefest is significant in a number of ways. While LGBT characters have been featured in games before–even as a protagonist in, for example, My Ex-Boyfriend the Space Tyrant–this seems to be an exception to the rule, and certainly not the norm. Pridefest may be the first video game to unambiguously cater to the LGBT community as a whole.

That said, the game carries with it huge potential for stereotyping. The concept alone, that LGBT is de facto synonymous with “pride parades,” “flotillas,” “colorful decorations” and so forth seems a little reductive, pandering to pop culture simplifications of what it means to be LGBT.

Anyone considering purchasing this game should consider the following: Assuming the underlying gameplay is competent, is this the sort of game someone who identifies as LGBT would also want to play? Are games that fold LGBT characters and issues into more mature game narratives, say a character like Dragon Age Inquisition‘s Dorian (or at least what we know of that character at this point), of greater interest?

Another, greater question for the gaming community: If you could roll out your own LGBT-themed or inclusive games, what kinds of games might they be?

 

TIME Wearables

Android Wear Face-Off: LG G Watch vs. Samsung Gear Live

LG's G Watch (left) and Samsung's Gear Live (right) Jared Newman for TIME

How to pick a smartwatch if you're one of Android Wear's earliest adopters.

Let’s say you plan to ignore the advice of most reviews and buy an Android Wear smartwatch right now. Even though more stylish designs are on the way, you’ve got money to spend and want to see what the fuss is about.

How do you choose between Samsung’s Gear Live and LG’s G Watch? After using each one over the last couple of weeks, I think it’s pretty easy to decide. But first, let’s go through the pros and cons of each watch:

Style

You won’t win a lot of style points for either watch, as they are both thick, square slabs that take up a lot of space across the wrist. In fact, if you hold them next to each other, the watch bodies, bezels and screens are almost exactly the same size.

Where Samsung’s Gear Live stands out, though, is the use of metal around the body and on the clasp under your wrist. The watch band also appears thinner due to its tapered edges, and the snap-in mechanism is less bulky than the G Watch’s more traditional buckle. The Gear Live is a bit gaudier, but it also makes a statement. That’s more my style, given that neither watch is understated to begin with.

Advantage: Samsung Gear Live

Features

The Gear Live and G Watch have almost exactly the same features, as they are required to run the same Android Wear software. Samsung does include a heart rate monitor, but I had trouble getting consistent readings and question whether this is a useful feature anyway. (If you can check your own pulse, you can just as easily measure it with the basic stopwatch function on either watch.)

The G Watch’s best feature, oddly enough, is its selection of watch faces. It has a lot of sharp-looking ones that Samsung doesn’t, and while this will become less of an issue as more third-party watch faces hit the Google Play Store, it’s nice to have some quality faces out of the box.

Advantage: LG G Watch, slightly

Jared Newman for TIME

Comfort

As I mentioned above, the Samsung Gear Live’s watch band has a couple of pins on the end, which you snap into any two holes further up the band. The G Watch has a standard buckle that keeps the watch securely fastened, along with a loop of plastic for holding down the excess strap material.

I found the Gear Live’s band to be more comfortable overall, with ridges on the inside that let your wrist breathe a bit, and it’s nice not to have any excess material to deal with. By comparison, the G Watch’s flat, rubberized band seemed to make my wrist feel sticky and sweaty before long. Both watches do have removable straps, at least.

Advantage: Samsung Gear Live

Battery and Charging

This one isn’t even close. Not only does LG’s G Watch have a larger battery, it also has a better charging cradle that you can just drop the watch onto at night. It’s much more convenient than the Samsung Gear Live’s charging pod, which needs to be snapped onto the underside of the watch in a particular way.

You’ll likely want to charge either watch every night, which actually isn’t a big deal once you get in the habit. (In a way, it’s better than having to charge every few days, because the nightly charge becomes routine.) But the need for a nightly top-up makes a convenient charging mechanism all the more important.

Advantage: LG G Watch

Jared Newman for TIME

Display Quality

In theory, the 320-by-320 resolution AMOLED panel on Samsung’s Gear Live should be the winner over LG’s 280-by-280 LCD screen, as it provides sharper images and better viewing angles.

But the G Watch does have one advantage in its outdoor readability. While neither watch performs well in direct sunlight, LG’s watch does a slightly better job of fending off the sun’s glare at full brightness. It’s not a big enough difference to beat the Gear Live’s display overall, but it does make the displays closer in quality than they look on paper.

Advantage: Samsung Gear Live, slightly

Verdict

Style and comfort are extremely important to me considering this is something I have to wear every day, and the Gear Live’s advantages in those areas outweigh its pesky charger and inferior watch faces. (If I was buying one myself, the Gear Live’s $199 price tag compared to $229 for the LG G Watch wouldn’t hurt.)

LG’s G Watch is still worth considering for some users, especially those who plan to swap in their own straps. But I’m not going that route, so the Samsung Gear Live will be my go-to smartwatch as I continue to get a feel for Android Wear.

TIME Gadgets

10 Free Android Apps Everyone Should Download

Great everyday apps that span multiple genres

Every time I get a new Android smartphone or tablet, I install certain apps right away, before I even really start to play with the device — apps I use every week, if not every day, on the Android gadgets I test as well as the ones I own. For your benefit, I’ve narrowed down the list to 10 free Android apps I can’t live without.

SwiftKey Keyboard

SwiftKey

Because most stock keyboards aren’t that great, SwiftKey is often the first app I download on a new phone or tablet. SwiftKey’s prediction engine, which offers suggestions for words as you type as well as the next word you need, is based on the words you use most. It learns from your everyday input as well as from your email, social media accounts, your blog’s RSS feeds and other sources (if you connect them). If you have more than one Android device or decide to upgrade, you don’t have to start over with the learning. SwiftKey can store this data in the cloud and sync it across multiple devices.

SwiftKey saves typing time in multiple ways: Swype-like trace-to-type, shortcuts, long-press for alt characters and a dedicated number row on top if you want it. This is one of the most customizable keyboards I’ve used, with multiple color themes, the ability to change the size of keys and even the ability to split or push the keyboard to one edge or the other — great for phablet use.

Price: Free on the Google Play Store.

AccuWeather

Of the seemingly million weather apps for Android (including the one that probably came with your phone, complete with animated widget), AccuWeather offers you one solid reason to ditch them and download it instead: MinuteCast.

MinuteCast tells you the weather at this moment exactly where you’re standing or in whatever zip code you enter — not the forecast for the whole city, the forecast for right where you are right now. MinuteCast is especially useful during storms. Want to know when it will start raining, when it will stop or when it will let up enough for you to dash home? This app will tell you.

Price: Free on the Google Play Store.

TrustGo

Android boasts some decent built-in security measures for keeping your data safe and finding a lost phone, but they don’t address the other major mobile security threat: malware. TrustGo adds that protection plus advanced security features such as capturing images of a person trying to crack your security code, sounding an alarm to help you find a misplaced device and wiping the device remotely. Of all the free security apps available, TrustGo provides the most features for free.

Price: Free on the Google Play Store.

Firefox Mobile

Mozilla

Firefox is our top web browser pick for your personal computer as well as your mobile devices. Google Chrome is great and comes preloaded on Android devices, but thanks to its large library of add-ons, Firefox is worth an extra step to download and install. Chrome doesn’t support extensions on Android, but Firefox users can add Adblock, a cookie cleaner, Flash video downloaders and hundreds more tools.

Beyond that, Firefox Mobile is fast, clean and attractive, with an interface that syncs bookmarks, passwords and other data between all your browsers for seamless desktop-to-mobile use.

Price: Free on the Google Play Store.

Yelp

Google Maps is turning into a decent restaurant and business suggestion app, but Yelp still has Google beat in terms of sheer data. Yelp’s millions of user reviews are only one reason I use this app almost every day. New businesses show up on Yelp faster, and drilling down searches to a specific area brings up more results with a ton of reviews. Plus, I love Yelp Monocle, an augmented reality feature that shows ratings and business names on top of a real-time view from your camera.

Price: Free on the Google Play Store.

TuneIn Radio

As soon as I got a smartphone, I ditched my alarm clock. The feature I missed most after making the switch was waking up to my favorite radio station. That’s one of the reasons I like TuneIn Radio.

TuneIn Radio can access any station with an online stream, and you can choose to wake up to that station via the app’s alarm. While you listen, TuneIn brings up information about the song and artist or the program, which you can save. You can also use TuneIn to search beyond traditional radio for podcasts.

Price: Free on the Google Play Store.

Evernote

Evernote

Most note-taking apps work fine for jotting down quick ideas and shopping lists, but Evernote offers so much more. Even if you think you need something simple, you’d be surprised how a more comprehensive app can change your daily habits. I’m a fan of receiving reminders about my notes, so I know to follow up. When I can’t write or type fast enough, audio notes save the day.

The best feature is the page camera. Take a snapshot of printed or handwritten pages, and Evernote scans them for words that it then indexes to show up in searches.

Price: Free on the Google Play Store.

Pocket

Flipping through news using Flipboard, Blinkfeed, an RSS reader or Pulse is fine when most of the articles and posts are short enough to read in a minute or less. But for long reads, you want an app that strips away distractions (like ads) to offer an ebook-like reading experience that lets you immerse yourself in the words.

That’s why I love Pocket. Saving articles from your browser is easy, and Pocket automatically syncs all your stored articles for offline reading. Read them when you’re ready, even if you’re on a plane or a subway car. The reading experience is great, giving you control over the text’s font, size and background.

Price: Free on the Google Play Store.

Kingsoft Office

Downloading a document from email for reading or editing can be a pain if the office suite you’re using messes with the formatting, isn’t designed as well for small screens as it is for large ones or can’t save in the most popular file formats. Most preloaded office suites are a pain, so I always replace them with Kingsoft.

On top of Kingsoft’s qualities as a good document editor, it connects to cloud services like Dropbox and Google Drive to allow you to edit and sync without opening another app. It can save to Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint formats as well as in PDF format.

Price: Free on the Google Play Store.

DuoLingo

Learning a new language doesn’t come easily for everyone, especially adult beginners. But there comes a time when knowing basic phrases and greetings is useful: when you’re traveling abroad, moving into a mixed-culture neighborhood, trying to meet that cute guy or girl who only speaks Italian …

DuoLingo can help prepare you for basic conversation in just a few months via fun exercises you do occasionally. You don’t have to deal with the commitment of a class or spend hundreds of dollars right from the start.

Price: Free on the Google Play Store.

This article was written by K.T. Bradford and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME How-To

Video: How to Properly Delete Your Android Phone or Tablet Data

Here's an extra step to ensure it's safe to get rid of your old Android device.

+ READ ARTICLE
TIME Security

Android’s Factory Reset Doesn’t Totally Delete Your Stuff; Here’s How to Fix It

Jared Newman for TIME

A security firm dug through some old Android phones, and came up with plenty of unmentionables.

If you’re planning to sell or give away an old Android phone, be aware that a factory reset isn’t enough to safely wipe your data.

Security firm Avast reports that it’s possible to recover data from factory-wiped Android phones with the help of widely-available digital forensics tools. According to CNET, the firm purchased 20 Android phones on eBay and used various data extraction methods to recover e-mails, text messages and photos–including hundreds of nude male selfies.

“Although at first glance the phones appeared thoroughly erased, we were able to recover a lot of private data,” Avast wrote in its report.

Of course, Avast would like Android users to install the company’s security software, which is capable of performing a more thorough data wipe. But that’s not really necessary. As CNET points out, you can easily protect your data with Android’s built-in encryption tools just before getting rid of your phone.

To turn on encryption, go to Settings > Security and select “Encrypt phone.” Plug in the phone and set it aside, as the encryption can take an hour or longer. Once it’s finished, factory reset the phone like you normally would.

While this process won’t completely erase everything, it essentially locks up any data remnants and throws away the key, making it significantly harder for someone to recover sensitive information. You can also perform additional factory resets for added layers of protection, though this shouldn’t be necessary for most users.

The problem is that most people won’t know to take this extra step. The obvious fix would be to include a “thoroughly wipe phone” option at the time of the reset, so hopefully this is something Google will consider for future versions of Android.

TIME Smartphones

50 Best Android Apps for 2014

From high-end Android handsets to low-cost prepaid phones, you’re not getting the full value unless you load up on great apps. We’re here to help, with recommendations for news, weather, productivity, task management and more.

  • Agent

    If you’ve ever envied the “Assist” feature on Motorola’s latest handset, Agent is a worthy substitute that works with any Android phone. When you’re driving, Agent can read text messages aloud and let you dictate responses by voice, and it can automatically leave a marker where you parked. It can also silence your phone during meetings, and it lets you set nighttime hours when only a specific list of contacts can get through. It’s like having a silent personal assistant, and all it takes is a few minutes of set-up.

    Link: Agent (Free)

  • BitTorrent Sync

    Cloud storage is great for accessing files from anywhere, but sometimes you want something more secure that isn’t subject to recurring subscription costs. BitTorrent Sync fulfills that need by automatically syncing any folder from your phone to your tablet or PC–or vice versa–over your local Wi-Fi network. Set it up for your phone’s photo folder, and your precious memories will always be backed up on your computer’s hard drive.

    Link: BitTorrent Sync (Free)

  • CBS Sports

    CBS does a mighty fine job with brackets and fantasy sports leagues, but its Android app is no slouch either. You’ll get real-time stats for most major sports, including live game trackers and push notifications. There’s also on-demand video highlights, live fantasy football and fantasy baseball shows, and personalized news feeds based on your favorite teams.

    Link: CBS Sports (Free)

  • Chrome Remote Desktop

    While there are plenty of remote desktop apps for Android, Chrome Remote Desktop has the advantage of being simple, free and unlimited, and it doesn’t need any additional client software if you already use the Chrome browser on your computer. Just add the Remote Desktop app in Chrome, set up a PIN for remote access, and you can quickly get to your entire desktop. It’s handy if you need to send yourself a file or check on a desktop program.

    Link: Chrome Remote Desktop (Free)

  • Circa News

    With an almost unlimited number of news sources nowadays, it’s almost impossible to keep up with everything that’s going on without a little help. Circa rounds up the most important news events and breaks each one down into a stream of bite-sized snippets, letting you see the latest updates first before flicking your way downward to get more of the back-story.

    Link: Circa News (Free)

  • CloudMagic

    One of the frustrating things about Android is that it comes with two e-mail apps–one for Gmail, and another for everything else. CloudMagic is a fine alternative if you’d rather combine them into a single app. It supports lots of services including Gmail, Exchange, Yahoo and IMAP, and it has a slick interface that easily rivals Android’s native Gmail experience. It also has some helpful integration with other apps such as OneNote, MailChimp and Pocket.

    Link: CloudMagic (Free)

  • ConvertPad

    ConvertPad isn’t the prettiest unit-conversion app around, but it’s free, and it’s loaded with pretty much everything, from weight and distance to energy flux and radiation absorbed dose. It does currency conversions as well and keeps itself up to date on exchange rates. You can also customize which categories you want to see, just in case viscosity and capacitance aren’t things you’ll be converting anytime soon.

    Link: ConvertPad (Free)

  • Current Caller ID

    Although your smartphone can recognize calls from your contact list, for some reason full caller ID never made the leap from the landline era. Current Caller ID compensates by drawing on WhitePages to tell you who’s calling, and letting you block telemarketers. And for people you do know, the app can show that contact’s recent social network updates and local weather conditions as the call comes in.

    Link: Current Caller ID (Free)

  • EndlessTV

    Need to kill a few minutes? EndlessTV lets you pick from well-known video sources such as Comedy Central and ESPN, and gives you a steady stream of clips with no ads. And if you don’t like what you see, you can swipe to the next video. It’s sort of like channel surfing, but on your phone, and it’s free.

    Link: EndlessTV (Free)

  • ES File Explorer

    ES File Explorer is a free file browser with a slick interface and lots of features, including integration with cloud storage services like Google Drive and Dropbox. You can certainly get by without a file browser on Android, but it’s nice to have one in case you ever want to sort photos into folders or send multiple files as a ZIP file.

    Link: ES File Explorer (Free)

  • Fandango Movies

    Fandango is one of a few apps for movie listings, trailers and ticket purchases, but its simple interface and clean design leave it a cut above the rest. From the top of the page, you can easily see what’s playing near you, and there’s a lot of editorial video below the fold if you just want to see what’s happening in Hollywood.

    Link: Fandango Movies (Free)

  • Flipboard

    Flipboard is like a personalized miniature magazine for Internet content. It takes stories from around the web and reformats them into little pages of text and images, so you can flip through by swiping up and down. You can also plug in your Twitter or Facebook profiles, and Flipboard will pull the links that people share into the mix — along with the occasional tweet or timeline post.

    Link: Flipboard (Free)

  • Gas Guru

    Here’s a easy way to save up money for some of the other apps on this list: Install Gas Guru, and use it to find the cheapest gas in your area. Nearby stations are displayed on a map, along with color indicators that show how good the pricing is. You can also compare prices in multiple locations, such as home and work, to figure out the best place to fill up. You’ll have app money in no time.

    Link: Gas Guru (Free)

  • Get Sh*t Done!

    This unashamedly vulgar app isn’t so much a task manager as it is a task motivator. Assign yourself a job, set the timer and–this is the important part–add a reward for success and a punishment for failure. Get Sh*t Done will try to amp you up along the way. It’s a clever tool to keep yourself from procrastinating, even if it’s a little heavy on the bro-speak.

    Link: Get Sh*t Done! (Free)

  • Google Docs and Sheets

    Although Google Drive is still around, Google recently split off its document and spreadsheet editors into separate apps. They’re basically unchanged from before, which means that they’re still a great pair of tools for creating and editing documents from a mobile device. But they do have one new trick: You can now edit and save Microsoft Word and Excel files without any cumbersome conversion process.

    Link: Google Docs and Google Sheets (Free)

  • Google Keep

    Keep is definitely worth checking out if you need a quick way to get your thoughts down. You can create notes with text, by voice (with automatic transcription), with photos or as a list, and they’ll show up in chronological order. Notes are automatically saved online, so you can access them on your computer’s web browser at drive.google.com/keep.

    Link: Google Keep (Free)

  • Google Translate

    When you need to translate text or spoken words, Google’s translation app still has no equal, especially with this year’s addition of offline translation. Google Translate now supports text and speech translation in 80 languages.

    Link: Google Translate (Free)

  • Google Wallet

    Google’s Wallet app comes with a bunch of finance-related features, but the most useful one is the ability to store loyalty cards in a central location. You can load any loyalty card into Wallet by scanning the bar code or entering the card number, and you can sign up for a handful of programs directly through the app. It beats carrying around a dozen cards on your keychain.

    Link: Google Wallet (Free)

  • Holo Bulb

    Nothing fancy here, just a slick little flashlight app with a focus on battery efficiency and simple, ad-free design. Tap the big bulb to turn on your phone’s LED flash bulb, or use Holo Bulb’s widget to turn the light on directly from your home screen.

    Link: Holo Bulb (Free)

  • Hotel Tonight

    Hotel Tonight might just be one of the most aptly-named apps on this list. If you’re in a pinch and need to book a hotel room, Hotel Tonight will show you which ones are available nearby and help you book all the way up until 2am. The company says it personally vets all of the hotels it lists, too, and you can book for up to five nights if the hotel you’re considering has enough space available.

    Link: Hotel Tonight (Free)

  • IFTTT

    With so many web-based services to take advantage of nowadays, a little automation goes a long way. Think of IFTTT (If This, Then That) as a middleman that sits between all of them, letting them interact with each other. You can get an e-mail when it’s raining, save your photos to a cloud-based storage service, or get a text message when your stocks go up or down.

    Link: IFTTT (Free)

  • iSyncr for iTunes

    If you want to listen to your iTunes music collection on your phone, but aren’t ready to go fully online with Google Play, iSyncr can help. Install the companion desktop app, and then use the Android app to transfer your library, either over USB or Wi-Fi. The desktop software is fairly light–it’s just a syncing tool, not a full-blown iTunes replacement–and supports some advanced features such as album art, syncing of multiple iTunes libraries and the ability to transfer playlists created on the phone back to the computer.

    Link: iSyncr for iTunes ($4.99)

  • Life Time Alarm Clock

    While almost every Android phone comes with a clock app, Life Time Alarm Clock aims to be better at breaking the wake-snooze cycle. You can set a “pre-alarm” to gently stir you with calmer tones, set hard limits on snooze time and give yourself simple puzzles to help shake your grogginess. And although the app doesn’t have a huge set of sounds to choose from, it does support MP3 playback.

    Link: Life Time Alarm Clock (Free)

  • Link Bubble

    Instead of replacing your phone’s default browser, Link Bubble acts as a supplement, opening links in the background while you use apps like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. The idea is that you can keep scrolling through your feed without interruption, then open the fully-loaded page whenever you’re ready. It’s free to use with a single app and one bubble at a time, and you can remove those limits with the $5 “Pro” version.

    Link: Link Bubble (Free)

  • Mailbox

    Mailbox looks to tame your Gmail and iCloud inboxes by letting you quickly archive e-mails with a swipe or turn them into task-like entities to deal with later. The app’s design emphasizes speed and simplicity, helping you to slice through your mountain of messages in a matter of minutes. Yes, you’re basically engaging in digital procrastination, but at least it’ll help you feel somewhat organized. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of reaching inbox zero, if only for a short while.

    Link: Mailbox (Free)

  • Microsoft Office Mobile

    Microsoft’s productivity suite used to cost $99 per year with an Office 365 subscription, but not anymore. The Android phone version is now free, so you can view Office documents in full fidelity and make light edits. And if you use OneDrive cloud storage, all those documents will be waiting for you when you get back to your computer.

    Link: Microsoft Office Mobile (Free)

  • Mint.com Personal Finance

    Managing your finances may not be the most exciting activity, but at least Mint.com makes it look good. The Android app provides a crisp, clean interface for keeping track of your expenses and accounts. You can also get e-mail and text alerts when it’s time to pay the bills.

    Link: Mint.com Personal Finance (Free)

  • Notification Toggle

    Notification Toggle is a crucial app if your phone doesn’t come with its own quick settings menu, or if you’re not satisfied with the one you’ve got. This highly customizable menu resides in the notification bar, and lets you adjust things like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, brightness, rotation lock, airplane mode, mobile data, NFC and audio. It can also include shortcuts to your favorite apps.

    Link: Notification Toggle (Free)

  • OpenTable

    OpenTable helps you skip all the nonsense of trying to make a restaurant reservation over the phone and get right to the point: what’s nearby, which times are available, and how are the reviews? Potential eateries can be filtered by cuisine, distance, price and more. Once you find a restaurant that looks good and has an available table, tap to reserve it. Done and done.

    Link: Open Table (Free)

  • Photo Editor by Aviary

    Aviary’s mobile photo editor is loaded with effects, filters and enhancement tools. But most importantly, it has a “meme” button that superimposes the black-outlined Impact font on top of your photos, so you can hang on Reddit with the best of them. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, just relax and enjoy all the other editing tools that Aviary has to offer.

    Link: Photo Editor by Aviary (Free)

  • Pocket

    Let’s say you find a long article on the web — something you need at least 10 minutes to read — but you’re at work or otherwise too busy to read it all right away. Just install the Pocket extension or bookmarklet in your browser, and you can save the story for your lunch break. Pocket’s Android app formats web pages in a clean, booklike view, and it stores content off-line so you can still catch up even while in a dead zone.

    Link: Pocket (Free)

  • Pocket Casts

    Android doesn’t have a built-in podcast app, but Pocket Casts is the best stand-in you’ll find. It’s a beautifully designed app on both phones and tablets, with plenty of features including auto-downloads, variable speed playback and cross-device syncing.

    Link: Pocket Casts ($3.99)

  • Power Bubble – Spirit Level

    The Google Play Store is lousy with bubble level apps, but this one by Boy-Coy has just the right amount of skeuomorphism. An “LED” meter reads the angle of the level, and the app will beep as the angle approaches zero. And while the app shows advertisements, you can choose to hide them if you wish (in exchange for a minor guilt trip for not supporting the developers).

    Link: Power Bubble – Spirit Level (Free)

  • Remember the Umbrella

    Even if you have a favorite weather app already, Remember the Umbrella serves an important purpose: If the forecast at the start of your day shows a high chance of precipitation, the app sends a notification telling you to take an umbrella. All you do is specify the notification time and whether you want alerts by noise or by voice. Ideally, you’ll often forget that the app is even installed.

    Link: Remember the Umbrella (Free)

  • RoadNinja

    Imagine you’re on a road trip and you see a highway sign advertising a McDonald’s two miles ahead. You’re getting hungry, but you don’t particularly like McDonald’s, and you’ll be kicking yourself if you pull off and there’s a Carl’s Jr. at the very next exit. RoadNinja can save you from this dilemma by giving you a list of services near each exit. You can also customize which services you want to see, and look up Foursquare reviews for some of the more obscure roadside stops.

    Link: RoadNinja (Free)

  • Secret

    One of several apps that lets people anonymously air their dirty laundry, Secret digs through your contact list and builds a network of people you may or may not know. You’re then given an endless feed of secrets to read through, revealing people’s innermost fears, desires and impulses. It’s sort of addictive, but don’t believe everything you read.

    Link: Secret (Free)

  • Shazam

    You hear a song you like. You don’t know who plays it. You open Shazam and press the big button, and a few seconds later, the app tells you the title, the artist, the album and even the lyrics. It’s basically the embodiment of what mobile apps are all about.

    Link: Shazam (Free)

  • ShopSavvy Barcode Scanner

    ShopSavvy is the slickest barcode scanner you’ll find, and unlike some others, it’s not biased in favor of any particular retailer. Using your phone’s camera to scan barcodes, ShopSavvy serves up product information and reviews, and can tell you if there’s a better deal to be found online or in another nearby store. The app also shows the latest deals, coupons and promos, so you can be prepared before the shopping spree begins.

    Link: ShopSavvy Barcode Scanner (Free)

  • Songkick Concerts

    Songkick helps you find concerts with minimal effort. The first time you open the app, it scans your music library, Google Play Music account and Last.fm account (if you have one), and then lists nearby shows for the bands in your catalog. You can also get alerts for new concerts and add a widget to the home screen to keep an eye on upcoming shows. It’s perfect for people who aspire to see more music but always forget to look things up.

    Link: Songkick Concerts (Free)

  • Spotify

    If you haven’t checked out Spotify on smartphones lately, it’s worth another look. The recently-overhauled free version lets you listen to any artist, album or playlist on shuffle if you’re using an Android phone–that’s more generous than most other free streaming music service–while Android tablet owners have access to single songs. A $10 per month subscription gives you on-demand listening, offline playback, no ads and higher sound quality.

    Link: Spotify (Free)

  • Stitcher Radio

    Why settle for one talk-radio source when you can choose from thousands? Stitcher brings together live stations, recorded talk-radio shows and podcasts from around the web into a single app and lets you create custom stations based on your favorites. Plus, it doesn’t get all weird around power lines the way AM radio does.

    Link: Stitcher Radio (Free)

  • Sunrise Calendar

    Android’s built-in Calendar app is fine for people who keep really good calendars on their own, but sometimes you need a little help. Sunrise Calendar can connect to lots of other online services, including Facebook (for events and birthdays) and TripIt (for flights and reservations). It’s a handy way to automate your calendar, and it helps that the design is easy on the eyes.

    Link: Sunrise Calendar (Free)

  • Swype Keyboard

    While Swype has plenty of competitors, its years of experience still make for the most accurate gesture keyboard available. Instead of tapping on each letter, you simply drag a finger across all the letters in a word, and Swype uses prediction to figure out what you meant to write. Take a week or two to get used to it, and suddenly regular typing will seem impossibly sluggish.

    Link: Swype ($3.99)

  • TripIt

    With a little extra effort up front, TripIt spares you from digging for your travel details later. Just forward your flight, hotel, car rental and restaurant reservations to plans@tripit.com, and the app pulls them into separate itineraries. And if you use Gmail, Tripit gathers those details automatically.

    Link: TripIt (Free)

  • Triposo

    Although Triposo’s design is a bit dated, it’s hard to complain about the app’s wealth of worldwide travel data. Each locale is loaded with intel on things to do, sights to see, places to eat and special events–to the point that it’s even useful for where you live. You can also download individual guides for offline access, which is helpful for overseas trips.

    Link: Triposo (Free)

  • Umano

    When talk radio and podcasts won’t do, Umano will read the news straight from your favorite websites, kind of like an audiobook for current events. You can download articles for listening offline, make playlists and personalize the kinds of stories you’re interested in.

    Link: Umano (Free)

  • Valet

    Valet won’t park your car for you, but it’ll tell you where you left it, and remind you when the meter’s about to expire. For those who live in the city, Valet can even remember street sweeping schedules. If you have Bluetooth or a car dock, the app will mark your spot automatically, so you won’t have to remember anything. Isn’t that what technology’s all about?

    Link: Valet (Free)

  • Weather Underground

    To begin with, Weather Underground has an excellent layout, starting with the basic forecast flowing into ever-more detailed data as you scroll down the page. But what really helps this weather app stand out is its “hyper-local” data from enthusiast weather stations around the world. This way, you can find out whether the area you’re headed to is a little bit warmer or colder, or is due for a shower.

    Link: Weather Underground (Free)

  • Yelp

    There’s still nothing better than Yelp when you want to find a nearby restaurant, barber shop, auto mechanic, dry cleaner and so on. Peruse the user reviews or swipe to the bottom of each listing for helpful information about ambiance, suggested attire and the parking situation. You can even use filters to see only what’s open right now.

    Link: Yelp (Free)

  • Zedge

    Wallpaper and ringtone apps are somewhat notorious for adware, but Zedge is a safe choice with no shady advertising tactics. It has plenty of ringtones and wallpapers to choose from, and getting them onto your phone can be done with the press of a button.

    Link: Zedge (Free)

TIME Video Games

Android TV Could Actually Succeed as a Game Console

Jared Newman for TIME

Google's new platform for TVs and set-top boxes puts games in the spotlight, but don't write it off as another Ouya.

On some level, it’s easy to laugh off the gaming element of Android TV, Google’s new living room platform that will arrive later this year.

The notion that a small, cheap set-top box could threaten large, expensive game consoles seemed popular a year ago, when “microconsoles” like Ouya and GameStick were hitting the market. But these devices haven’t taken off, and while the traditional game console market appears to be contracting, it’s still a big business, with sales in the millions for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

Still, after seeing more of Android TV at last week’s Google I/O conference, I think Google’s gaming efforts have a chance to succeed. Along with whatever Apple is reportedly working on, Android TV could be the disruptive force in living room gaming that pundits–myself included–have been predicting for years.

Ouya’s main problem was that it occupied an awkward middle ground between high-end game consoles and cheaper all-purpose entertainment boxes. It was marketed as a gaming product, but its catalog wasn’t meaty enough to attract core gamers. Meanwhile, as a media streamer, Ouya didn’t have a lot of essential apps, further limiting its appeal to people who were considering an Apple TV or Roku.

But Ouya’s approach did have some flashes of brilliance. It has some great small-scale games that you can pick up quickly and play in short bursts, and the experience of rifling through Ouya’s digital store and sampling a dozen free-to-try indie titles is something you can’t get from the big consoles. While Ouya’s gaming experience is hard to justify on its own, it could work as a supplement to a low-cost streaming media device or a smart TV.

That’s the approach Android TV is taking, and while it’s not the first set-top box with gaming–both Amazon Fire TV and Roku offer some games as well–it puts a greater emphasis on games than any other device I’ve seen. Instead of being relegated to a sub-menu, games appear on the same main screen as Android TV’s apps and recommendations. When you scroll down to the apps list, the games list pops into view, getting an equal amount of space, so it’s impossible to ignore.

Google has even built in some hooks for people who play games on Android phones and tablets. Because everything’s coming from the Google Play Store, you’ll likely be able to buy a game once and play it across all devices. Google is also supporting achievements, friends lists and cloud saves through its Google Play Games service, so you can switch between a phone, tablet and TV without losing any progress. The only console maker that could offer something similar is Microsoft, and it has bungled every opportunity to do so.

Will Android TV appeal to core gamers? I’m skeptical, but the involvement of gaming hardware maker Razer suggests that Google at least wants to try. Meanwhile, Nvidia’s K1 processor is the first chip to support Android TV, appearing in the reference device that Google is giving to app developers. If Nvidia brings GameStream and Grid to Android TV, it could allow for high-end gaming on cheaper set-top boxes and smart TVs.

Regardless, I suspect that the bigger prize is the demographic of users who enjoy games, but won’t take the plunge on a pricier console–the people who say “I like games, but if I bought a PlayStation 4 I’d never leave the house.” I’m 31 years old, and I can’t tell you how many people my age have said that to me when I tell them about my gaming habits. If Google and Apple can lure those people in with streaming video and music, and then show them a world of games that are easy to pick up and put down, the microconsole might not be such a joke.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

 

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