A Samsung Galaxy phone won’t go to sleep as long as you’re staring at the screen. An LG Optimus handset lets you run apps in tiny windows on top of the desktop, while Motorola RAZR devices can perform key tasks according to a schedule. Some call the proliferation of custom features Android fragmentation, but I call them innovation, as OEMs are adding functionality faster than you can say Google.
Fortunately, you don’t need to buy a particular brand of phone to get an enhanced Android experience. A number of third-party apps available through the Google Play store can replicate the best custom features that Samsung, LG, HTC and Motorola have to offer.
Even as Microsoft tries to hide the actual windows in the latest version of its Windows operating system, LG's QSlide feature lets you put one or two small windows on top of your work running the browser, video player, memo calendar or calculator apps. Samsung's Pop-Up Play does the same thing, only for video. Alternative Apps: While not as attractive as QSlide or Pop-up Play, Android has a slew of third-party floating apps that will put windows on top of your work. Floating Browser Flux is a resizable browser in a window that has tabs and can be activated from the notification drawer. Super Video plays local video files in a window, while Floating YouTube plays streaming videos. Floating Mail and Floating Chat promise the ability to put email or IMs on top of your work, but neither app was able to connect to our accounts. AirCalc provides a floating calculator, complete with a see-through screen. Unfortunately, none of these floating apps allow you to adjust transparency like the LG and Samsung solutions do.
Both LG and Samsung provide the ability to take screenshots, draw on them with your stylus or finger and share them. LG’s QuickMemo stands out, because it lets you scribble a note on top of the screen (example: “Buy milk”) and keep them there even as you continue to use your desktop and apps below. Alternative App: Floating Draw lets you scribble on your screen and either save the results as an image file or leave your drawing as a layer on top of the screen as you continue to use your phone. When running, the free app puts a small pen icon in the lower right corner of your screen. Just tap it, and you’re ready to scribble.
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Ever wish you had a universal translator like the one Captain Kirk uses? While not able to decode Klingon, LG’s QTranslator app can convert foreign language writing to English (or your native tongue) in real- time via the device’s camera. So when you’re staring at that all-Mandarin menu, you just point your rear-facing lens at the page and English-language translations appear next to the Hanzi characters. While Google Translate can provide translations of foreign writing, it requires you to take a still image and highlight the text you want rather than working in real-time as you move your phone around. Alternative App: CamDictionary also allows you to translate words in real- time just by rolling your phone over them. Available in a free trial version that unlocks more vocabulary features for $1.99, the app also has several downloadable offline dictionaries that can translate text even when you don’t have an Internet connection. We tested CamDictionary by running it over the Hanzi characters in a Chinese-language textbook and found the translations quick and accurate.
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Don’t you hate it when you’re reading something intently on your phone and suddenly the screen turns black and goes to sleep because you haven’t tapped the glass in a while? Samsung’s Smart Stay feature uses your phone’s webcam to determine that you’re still staring at the screen and reset its timeout. Fortunately, you don’t need a Samsung phone to get this functionality. Alternative: SmartStay Ex, a free app, provides the same functionality, with more options than Samsung offers. Where Samsung just has a check box in the Android display settings menu to enable its Smart Stay, the SmartStay Ex app lets you decide how frequently the app looks for your face and how many times it must fail to see your mug before letting the system sleep. I particularly like the icon SmartStay Ex puts in the status bar, which changes color to show you whether it has detected your face. A Pro version gives you even more options.
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LG’s Vu Talk feature lets you share a common whiteboard with your call partner, so as you’re talking you can be drawing things on the same page. Unfortunately, in order for Vu Talk to work, your friend must also have an LG phone that comes with the software. Alternative: SyncSpace provides a real-time digital whiteboard you can use to draw together with multiple Android or iOS users. Unfortunately, unlike Vu Talk, this free app doesn’t support sharing photos or maps.
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One of the more attractive features of HTC’s Sense UI is its optional People Widget, which displays social updates from your friends right on your desktop. While not quite as good looking, there are several free alternatives in the Google Play Market. Alternatives: Taptu allows you to create custom widgets with streams from Facebook, Twitter and various news feeds. BlingBoard also provides an attractive 4 x 4 widget with Facebook, Gmail and Twitter updates, along with missed calls and SMS messages.
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Even the largest phones only provide between 5 and 6 inches of screen for watching HD movies. So what if you want to get a closer look at the skier slaloming down the middle of the display rather than seeing the whole mountain? LG’s Live Zoom feature lets you pinch-to-zoom in on offline videos just like you can for Web pages and photos. Alternatives: BSPlayer Free also lets you pinch-to-zoom in and out on offline videos. Like Super Video, the free app can also float its video player on top of other apps. The app even supports gesture controls and screenshot captures from within a video.
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Android 4 and above devices with NFC (Near Field Communication) chips have a feature called Android Beam, which allows users to transfer contacts, photos and other small pieces of data just by tapping the backs of their devices together. However, Samsung’s S Beam feature improves on standard Android Beam by sending the data over Wi-Fi Direct rather than Bluetooth, which makes file transfers as much as 10 times faster. Alternative: While not quite as simple to use as S Beam, a few third-party utilities exist that will let you use Wi-Fi Direct to send files from one device to another. We tried a number of these and none work automatically when you tap the backs of devices together, but they will work from the Android Share menu, provided both parties are running the same app. Two apps we tried successfully were j4velin’s WiFi Direct and Billy Lam’s Send!.
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Motorola Mobility may not get any love from Google, but we’ve always been fond of the Smart Actions phone automation app Moto puts on its RAZR phones. Using Smart Actions, we’ve been able to configure our phone to automatically go into silent mode when we’re in a meeting or stop syncing data at night when we want to save data. Alternatives: For $3.99, PhoneWeaver isn’t quite as attractive or intuitive as Smart Actions — its interface for creating tasks looks very basic — but it does allow you to schedule changes to your phone based on your calendar, time of day or location. The slightly more expensive Tasker costs $6.49 and supports 200 different actions, with a much more attractive UI.
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There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to hang up your ringing smartphone quickly while everyone in the room stares at you disapprovingly. Fortunately, Samsung provides an easy way to deny an incoming call by just flipping the phone over to silence it. Other Samsung motions include Direct Call, which starts dialing the phone number of a contact as soon as you lift the phone to your ear. Alternatives: Flip Silent is a very simple free app that silences your ringer as soon as you flip your phone over in either direction. Easy Answer, which is also free, provides a host of other motion control features, including the ability to answer the phone by lifting it to your ear. However, if you want to silence a call in Easy Answer, you’ll have to shake the phone rather than turning it over.