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    Tested In-Depth: HTC One M8 Smartphone

    Will and Norm sit down to review HTC's new flagship Android smartphone. The HTC One (M8) is the successor to the phone that got Norm to switch from iOS to Android, and it has a few new features that differentiate it from phones like Google's Nexus 5.

    Google Play App Roundup: Google Camera, Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Hopeless: Space Shooting

    There are a ton of great apps and games in Google Play, and they're not just going to download themselves. Are they? If they are, we have something of a mystery to solve. In the meantime, let's see what's cooking in the Play Store with the weekly Google Play App Roundup. Just click the links to head right to the Play Store page and check out the apps for yourself.

    This week we've got a new stock camera app, a game with spider men, and a space shooter with marshmallow men.

    Google Camera

    Google's camera revamp didn't come soon enough to help the Nexus 5 at launch, but now Mountain View's camera app has been updated and launched in the Play Store. That means you can install it on any device, but Nexus and Google Play Edition devices will benefit the most. This app removes some of the more advanced features that had little use and adds afew new things along with a spiffy new interface,

    The first thing to address is the capture button, which is pretty big now. This is good as it's easy to press, but some seem like a poor use of space. However, this big button solves a major issues with Nexus device cameras. The Nexus 5 takes 4:3 images (as do most other devices in the line) at 8MP. The old camera app filled the viewfinder, but it's a 16:9 screen. Thus, the top and bottom of the frame were cut off in the preview. This made it very hard to frame a shot well. With this update, the camera viewfinder now has a true 4:3 ratio. On devices that do take 16:9 images, the button is semi-transparent so you can still see the whole frame.

    The settings are now off to the left and can be brought up with a swipe. This is where all the main capture modes are found, and also links to the main app settings (not very easy to find there, Google). You have stills, video, Photosphere, panorama, and lens blur. Yes, the lens blur option is new -- apparently that's the hot new thing for a camera to do.

    The lens blur effect in the Google Camera is a bit awkward, but the results are pretty good. All you have to do is snap a picture and slowly pan the phone upward, keeping it pointed at the subject. After that you can tap on areas of the photo to focus and apply lens blur behind that point. It's not as easy to capture, but still does what it says. There is also a bit of rendering time for each image and they are scaled down to about 2000 pixels tall.

    With lens blur effect

    The image quality will vary depending on your device, but I'm seeing a modest improvement on the Nexus 5. The Galaxy S5 doesn't seem to like the focus system in the Google Camera, though. You can still take HDR shots in the still camera and Photospheres are now much higher resolution. Unfortunately, some settings like white manual white balance are not included at this time.

    The Google Camera is free and it's worth checking out to see if it does better on your device than the included solution. Of course, anyone running a stock device or an AOSP-based ROM should get on this ASAP.

    11 Essential Tweaks for Your New Samsung Galaxy S5

    The Galaxy S5 is finally here, debuting new hardware and software from Samsung. Even those who have owned a Galaxy phone before are sure to find a few unexpected treats in this device. Samsung has traditionally engineered one of the more extreme Android skins, but TouchWiz has come a long way since its early days of iPhone cloning.

    There are some excellent features you'll want to take advantage of, and some you will want to hide as best you can. Let's get your Galaxy S5 in shape!

    Kill Bundled Apps

    Unless you've picked up the unlocked international Galaxy S5, there are going to be some carrier apps cluttering things up. Even the unlocked version will have a couple Samsung services you probably won't want or need. Luckily, Android supports disabling included apps that can't be uninstalled. They still take up a little space, but they won't run in the background or accumulate data.

    Just take a peek in the app drawer and decide what needs to go. Open the main system settings and find Application Manager. Slide over to the All Apps tab and scroll down until you find the app or apps you want to disable. It'll probably be things like bundled navigation apps, caller ID services, security suites, and other unnecessary junk. Open the desired entry and tap "Turn Off." Other Android devices label the button Disable, but it's the same thing.

    You can find all the disabled apps in a tab to the far right in the Application Manager called (predictably) Turned Off. You can go there to turn things back on if you need them.

    Tested Explains: How Google's Project Ara Smartphone Works

    Project Ara is real, and Google has its fingers on the pulse of the technologies required to make modular smartphones a reality. Given the overwhelming public response to the Phonebloks concept, it's something that users seem to want, too. But whether or not Project Ara modular phones have a future in the smartphone marketplace will largely depend on whether or not there's a strong hardware ecosystem to support it. The custom PC market wouldn't have flourished a decade ago if component manufacturers weren't making user-friendly video cards, storage drives, motherboards, and power supplies--the building blocks of a PC. That's the point of this week's Ara Developers Conference: getting partners excited and educated about how they can build hardware to support that vision for a modular phone.

    The two-day conference, which was also streamed online, coincided with the release of the Project Ara MDK, or Module Developers Kit. This MDK provides the guidelines for designing Ara-compatible hardware, and along with the technical talks presented at the conference, offer the first clear look in the technologies that make Ara possible, if not completely practical. I attended the conference and read through the MDK to get a high-level understanding Google's plans for Ara, which goes far to address the concerns we and experts have had about the modular phone concept. I'm not yet a believer, but at least this clearly isn't a pipe dream. The following are what I consider the important takeaways from what Google has revealed so far.

    A brief note: the conference was also the first public showing of a Project Ara working prototype (past photos have been of non-functioning mockups), though the unit was unable to boot up and had a cracked screen. A little appropriate, given that both the main processing unit and screen are replaceable modules.

    Project Ara is two core components: the Endoskeleton and the Module

    On the hardware side, Google has laid out specific guidelines for how Project Ara phones can be built. The most important piece of hardware is the chassis, or what Project Ara leads are calling the "Endoskeleton." Think of this as an analogue to a PC case--it's where all the modular components will attach. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the design of Razer's Project Christine, in that a central "spine" traverses the length of Project Ara phones, with "ribs" branching out to split the phone into rectangular subsections. In terms of spatial units, the Endoskeleton (or Endo) is measured in terms of blocks, with a standard phone being a 3x6 grid of blocks. A mini Ara phone spec would be a 2x5 grid, while a potential large phone size would be a 4x7 grid.

    Fitting into the spaces allotted by the Endos structure would be the Project Ara Modules, the building blocks that give the smartphone its functionality. These modules, which can be 1x1, 2x1, or 2x2 blocks, are what Google hopes its hardware partners will develop to sell to Project Ara users. Modules can include not only basic smartphone components like the display, speakers, microphone, and battery, but also accessories like IR cameras, biometric readers, and other interface hardware. The brains of a Project Ara phone--the CPU and memory--live in a primary Application Processor module, which takes up a 2x2 module. (In the prototype, the AP was running a TI OMAP 4460 SoC.) While additional storage can be attached in separate modules, you won't be able to split up the the AP--processor, memory, SD card slot, and other core operational hardware go hand-in-hand.

    In Brief: Amazon's Smartphone May Have 3D Interface

    First tablets, then a settop box, and now a smartphone. Amazon is increasingly becoming not only a services company, but a devices one as well. There have been many rumors in the past few weeks indicating that Amazon is almost ready to reveal its first smartphone, with the Wall Street Journal claiming a June announcement for a product release before the end of the year. BGR today posted not only many more details about this potential upcoming phone, but also what they claim are photos of the device. The high-end phone will run a heavily-forked version of Android, run on hardware similar to that found in other new Android phones, and have a 4.7-inch 720p screen. That relatively low resolution is likely to its big differentiating feature: four IR cameras on the front of the phone used for face and eye tracking. Ostensibly, these cameras will track the user to facilitate a glasses-free 3D interface. BGR's sources claim that this 3D effect will not be like the parallax filters used in the Nintendo DS. Instead, it'd be more like the faux 3D parallax effect (and nauseating side effects) of iOS 7's wallpaper, but one that responds based on where you head is instead of how you tilt your phone. The increased battery drain from processing and rendering this effect is likely why the phone would have a 720p display (also likely heavily subsidized), and my guess is that this novel interface effect is a trojan horse to let Amazon track user behavior when using their phones. Amazon wants to know not only how you're browsing the web and using your phone, but where your attention is, as well. More scary than exciting stuff.

    Norman
    Google Play App Roundup: Today Calendar, The Walking Dead, and Wind-up Knight 2

    A new week has dawned, and there are new smartphones hitting the streets. You want to have the latest and greatest apps for your new purchase, right? That's what we bring in the weekly Google Play App Roundup -- all the content that's fit for your Android device. Just lick the links to head right to the Play Store.

    This week we've got a new calendar, a game with zombies, and a fabulous platformer.

    Today Calendar

    Your phone comes with some version of the Android calendar app, whether it's a custom solution from the OEM with Google's account back end added, or the Play Store version of the Google app. Today Calendar is freshly out of beta and could give all those other solutions a run for their money. However, you're going to have to part with a little of YOUR money to find out.

    Today Calendar is based on the AOSP calendar app, but has some UI tweaks and additional features built-in. The interface has been cleaned up in this app when compared to the stock app. The gray-on-gray UI is gone, replaced instead with accented whites and a blue action bar. It's interesting that this app now looks a little more like a modern Android app than Google's own calendar app.

    There are still weekly and agenda views, and they haven't changed much beyond some performance and UI optimizations. The month view is where all the really cool things are happening in Today Calendar. Rather than have a stretched-out month-long calendar taking up the entire screen, Today Calendar integrates an agenda with the calendar. The developer calls this the All-In-One view, which pretty much explains it. You can tap on any day from the calendar in the top half of the screen to see the agenda for that day in the bottom half. It's really the best of both worlds, and much more useful than other views. You can also swipe to move between days in the All-In-One view.

    The app itself is great, but that's only part of what you get with Today Calendar. Buying this app also gives you the Today Widgets, which are available as a separate purchase as well. These are highly-configurable, scroallable calendar widgets -- both month and agenda view -- with multiple themes and options. Settings for these widgets are available when you place them, or from within the Today Calendar app.

    Today Calendar will run you $2.99, but it's definitely something you should consider as a replacement for your current calendar app. Even if you end up not liking the app, the widgets can be used independently and linked with a shortcut to the stock app.

    Google Play App Roundup: Javelin Browser, AirFighter Pro, and Inkling

    A new week means a new batch of Android apps and games for your consideration. This is the Google Play App Roundup, which brings you the best new and newly updated content in the Play Store every week. Just hit the links to head right to the Play Store and download for yourself.

    This week we have a new browser that might become your default, a game for the best pilots, and an app that makes books more interactive.

    Javelin Browser

    Chrome for Android is better than it once was, but it still doesn't perform perfectly on some devices. There are many alternatives in the Play Store based on AOSP, but Javelin Browser isn't just another clone. This app offers some interesting functionality and a very modern UI. What's more, you can check it out for free.

    Javelin is based on the open source fan favorite Lightning Browser, an Android browser optimized for tablets that has a very minimal footprint and clean UI. Javelin beefs up the feature set of Lightning a bit, but it also maintains the responsive performance. The most noticeable change for anyone who is accustomed to Chrome on Android will be the exposed tab bar up top. You can tap on the plus button to add more, and move between tabs with a tap. There is also a two-finger swipe gesture to move one tab left or right. The interface takes advantage of the transparent nav and status bars in KitKat as well.

    As for loading speed, it seems about as fast as Chrome Beta, possibly a little faster when you have a few tabs open. Javelin isn't doing as many things in the background -- there's no cloud syncing or Google account control, so naturally it can get things done slightly quicker. There is also a reading mode that strips out all the ads and superfluous bits sort of like Readability or Pocket. As for the quality of regular page rendering, I have no complaints. Javelin is running a standard version of mobile WebKit, so there should be no issues with things looking wonky.

    The free version of Javelin includes basic browsing capabilities, but your homepage is locked to the default Javelin page. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- it's just a pretty picture and a search bar. Javelin pro also allows unlimited tabs, but the free version has a generous limit of 10 tabs. Pro will also include (eventually) Android Wear integration.

    So this is all pretty conventional browser stuff, but Javelin has another cool extra -- a built-in VPN. You have to pay a monthly fee of $1.99, but there are free VPNs out there if you don't care about quality. The VPN service in Javelin can get around web blocks and hide your traffic, bu it's also very fast. which makes a VPN actually worth using. I saw no degradation in speeds when connected to the VPN, and latency was only a bit higher (about 90ms vs. 60ms).

    Javelin does a good job as a free browser, but the extra stuff is there via an in-app purchase if you want it. Oh, it also has built-in ad blocking, if that's a thing you're cool with. Javelin Browser is definitely worth a look as an alternative to Chrome.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (March 2014)

    You're definitely in a tough spot if you need a new phone right now. There are several top-tier devices just over the horizon, and you might regret picking up a new device spur of the moment. This is you chance to jump on the next big thing in Android. You have to make it count, especially if it's going to take you two years to get out from under this one.

    The HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5 are coming soon (or may already be here for some), but are these the best purchases? Let's see what you options are like on the big four US carriers.

    Photo credit: Flickr user janitors via Creative Commons.

    AT&T

    On Ma Bell the Galaxy S5 is dropping on April 11th, which is close enough to consider it an option. It would be bizarre to pretend it didn't exist. The new HTC One is also on AT&T, and you can place online orders for it right now. It won't be in most stores until next week, but that's close enough. This still leaves the Nexus 5, Google's flagship at a lower overall cost. Let's start with the M8.

    HTC has taken the same basic design from the last One and refined it for the M8. The device has a more curved design that's easier to hold than the angular M7. It's still a solid chunk of aluminum and glass, though. While the rounded aesthetic isn't as futuristic-feeling, it's still a very attractive device. The design's only weak point is the large bezel space up front on the top and bottom. It's likely this was an engineering necessity for the internals, but you do get those big BoomSound speakers up front.

    Inside is a Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16-32GB of storage with a microSD card slot. The screen is a little larger than last year's flagship at 5-inches and 1080p. It's still one of the best screens in all of the mobile world. Around back is the 4MP Ultrapixel sensor and secondary depth-of-field camera. This lets you do some neat post-capture blur effects, but don't expect game-changing photos.

    The HTC One M8 comes with Android 4.4.2 and Sense 6.0. This version of HTC's software is definitely the best it has ever built. The design language is flatter and more cohesive this time, and it makes extensive use of the transparent status bar in Android KtiKat. I'm also very pleased with HTC's decision to move to on-screen navigation buttons with the M8. I've only had limited time with the M8, but it is phenomenally fast by all accounts.

    Google Play App Roundup: LastPass, Epoch 2, and Castle Doombad

    Your phone or tablet is a significant investment, and it just won't do to have it running substandard applications. No, we can't have that. That's why the Google Play App Roundup comes your way every week with the best new stuff in Google Play. Just click the links to head directly to the Play Store.

    This week passwords get easier, robots get violent, and princesses get kidnapped.

    LastPass

    The LastPass password management app came out a few years ago, but it saw a significant update this past week that makes it absolutely worth checking out. LastPass used to support various methods of copying and pasting usernames and passwords into your regular web browser, but by far the fastest way to use it was to open sites with the built-in LasPass browser. That's far from ideal, but you don't have to bother with that anymore. The new LastPass can autofill into any app on your device.

    When you install or update the LastPass app, it will ask you to enable it in accessibility settings. This is a common requirement for apps that need to enter or read text from your device. It links you to the correct menu, and it should only take a second. From there, each time you tap on a password field in the browser or most apps, LastPass will pop up a floating window and ask if you want it to log you in.

    The app contains various settings for the master password and PIN code so you can make sure your logins are kept secure, so this feature doesn't make things any locked down. With the web browser it simply checks for matching URLs among your passwords just like the desktop browser extension. If there are multiple accounts for a particular service, you can choose between them. This aspect works like a charm.

    As for apps (which is probably even more impressive), it works most of the time. LastPass essentially has mappings for a lot of popular apps that connect the package name to a specific service. So if you try to log into the official Twitter client, the LastPass app recognizes it and fills in your details automatically. If you try it with Talon, it won't know which account you are trying to access. Not to fear, though. There's a search button in the popup that will let you find the account in your vault and permanently link it with the app.

    All the pre-existing options for using LastPass in the browser are still there, so go with that if you're more comfortable. However, I feel like the universal autofill is what makes this the perfect solution. Not only is LastPass an established company with a pretty good security record, this app makes it very easy to log into all your accounts and add new ones.

    The LastPass app is free to try with a 14 day trial. After that you need to have a subscription to LastPass premium for $1 per month. With the autofill, it's definitely worth that.

    How To Control and Manage Your Android Phone from Your Desktop

    Your smartphone may very well be the hub of your digital life, but there are still times we all need to sit down at a computer to get some work done. At times like that, you don't want to constantly pick up the phone to check notifications, retrieve files, and send messages. There are ways to avoid that by installing a few apps that let you control and manage your Android device from a computer. Your options vary a bit based on how you balance control and convenience.

    Notifications

    One of the core features of Android is the notification framework. Google has added some awesome new features in the last few revisions, but there is one that doesn't get a lot of praise -- the notification listener. This feature was introduced in Android 4.3, so you'll have to be on that version or higher to take advantage of most of these apps and services.

    The notification listener provides a secure way for an app to mirror notifications in both directions. That is, duplicate the notification from the system UI, and also tell the system when a notification has been dismissed so you don't see it in the regular notification shade as well. This framework can be used to duplicate notifications anywhere -- even on a desktop.

    There are a few apps that can be used to monitor all your Android notifications on a computer, but the most popular might be Pushbullet. This app is good for more than just keeping track of your notifications. It can send text, links, addresses, and files between your devices as well. To set up the notification service, just make sure you have the Pushbullet extension running in Chrome or Firefox (yes, that's required) and enable Pushbullet on the phone or tablet you want to monitor.

    Google Play App Roundup: Link Bubble, God of Light, and Mount and Blade: Warband

    There is a never ending stream of new content showing up in the Play Store, but that makes it easy to miss the really good stuff. Luckily, we're stationed there to filter out the best apps and games to serve up weekly in the Google Play App Roundup. Just hit the links to go right the Play Store.

    This week we've got a excellent new way you browse the web, a game filled with delightful puzzles, and a PC game shrunken down to Android.

    Link Bubble

    It might only take a few seconds at a time, but have you ever thought about how much of your life you spend looking at blank loading page in your browser? It really adds up, but Link Bubble is a new app that makes Android act a little more like a desktop with true multitasking. Rather than clicking a link and waiting on the page to redirect and load, the link loads in the background and waits for you in a floating bubble. When you want to check it out, Link Bubble opens a nifty floating browser.

    Why would you want to do this? Imagine that you're browsing Twitter and you want to check out a link in your timeline. Normally you'd tap it and the link would go directly to Chrome (or whatever your default browser is). You would wait through the Twitter link shortener redirect, the page load, and maybe another redirect as the mobile version of the page is pulled up. With Link Bubble, all that happens in the background and you can keep scrolling through the timeline. You can even stack up more pages inside the bubble and switch between them.

    The bubble can be maximized at any time by tapping. When minimized it remains floating on top of whatever app you have up. It's a lot like a Facebook chat head -- you can move it around and dock it on the edge of the screen, or just toss it around for fun. The browser window fills most of the screen when maximized, except for the very top where your various bubbles are lined up like tabs. This makes it very convenient to open a bunch of links and go through them after you're done in your current app.

    In addition to viewing the content in Link Bubble, you can manage each bubble individually. There are three active zones on the screen -- two configurable share links at the top and a close icon at the bottom. Drag a bubble down and hold to close all, or just flick one down to close only that bubble. The sharing links are great for adding content to Pocket, opening in Chrome, or sending a link in a message.

    Using Link Bubble really changes how you use an Android device. It can intercept links from any app, but it doesn't get in the way of specialized content. In the settings you can view and modify the default apps for links to Google+, YouTube, Facebook, and more. It also has a YouTube button in the action bar of the floating window that links you directly to the YouTube app if there are embedded videos in the page.

    The convenience of Link Bubble cannot be overstated. It's an excellent experience and well worth your time to check out. The app is free to try with only a single bubble and app at a time. The $4.99 pro upgrade gives you unlimited use.

    In Brief: Google Announces Android Wear Platform

    Google's watch project isn't hardware at all, but an extension of Android for wearables. It's called Android Wear. Google unveiled the project today in a blog post, describing it as a way to bring Android to wearables, starting with smart watches that will be released later this year. Two concept videos (embedded below) show how Google envisions users will interact with Android Wear devices, though it's unclear if these devices will have to be tethered to Android phones, or will offer functionality that you can't get from a smartphone. From Google's descriptions, it looks like Android Wear devices will tap into Google Now, as well as voice search and commands, a la Moto X's passive listening ability. Motorola and LG have both announced Android Wear watches, and other partners on board include Samsung, HTC, and Asus. Developers can sign up for a preview now.

    Norman
    The State of OEM User Interfaces on Android

    The OEM Android skins that have now become so reviled were almost essential in the early days of Android. It used to be that you NEEDED something like Sense UI (as it was called at the time) to get any advanced software features in your smartphone. Google was rolling updates fast, but those early days were about laying the groundwork, not polishing the user experience. Fast forward to today and we've got a stock Android platform that is functional, feature-rich, and quite attractive. The OEM skins are still hanging around, though. Is there anything redeeming going on there?

    Photo credit: Flickr user pestoverde via Creative Commons.

    Let's take a look at the Android software designed by some of the top OEMs and see where we stand. Stock might be the most desirable, but what if you can't get it? Who's the next best?

    Samsung TouchWiz

    I still remember using a Galaxy S when they rolled out the first version of the modern TouchWiz UI -- before that TouchWiz was almost unrecognizable. The biggest problem at the time was Samsung's insistence on looking like iOS. Well a few years, a lawsuit, and millions upon million of sales have cured the company of its Apple lust. TouchWiz has evolved into its own pseudo-fork of Android with custom apps and services.

    Early versions of TouchWiz were hard on the eyes due to the insanely bright colors. That's still true to a degree, but Samsung has cleaned up its act somewhat. More of the stock Android UI shines through, though the OEM can't seem to keep itself from at least tweaking the colors.

    I spend most of my time using a stock Nexus 5, so every time I use a TouchWiz device I'm struck by one thing -- there's so much stuff. Samsung piles on features and UI elements that seem profoundly unnecessary to me. For example, the notification tray tells you when you're connected to WiFi, or have the device plugged into power -- thanks, Samsung. The settings are also cluttered and unnecessarily rearranged compared to almost all other Android devices (even more-so on the Galaxy S5). Many of the features like Smart Stay and Smart Scroll that Samsung was so proud of last year have never worked right for me (and many others). It's just a lot of clutter for very little benefit.

    Google Play App Roundup: Minuum Keyboard, Rochard, and Beyond Space

    A new week has dawned and that means it's time to check in on the Play Store. The best of Android is waiting, but first you have to find it. That's what the Google Play App Roundup is all about -- pointing out the best new and newly upgraded apps and games. Just click the links to head right to the Google Play Store.

    This week we've got an unusual new keyboard, a console-quality platformer, and a space shooter with all the right moves.

    Minuum Keyboard

    Most third-party keyboard on Android follow a design that simply builds on a traditional keyboard. There are a few that eschew that idea, but the learning curve that comes with that makes it hard to take advantage of any features the keyboard might have. Minuum was crowd funded last year and hit Android as a beta shortly thereafter. Now it's out of beta and has a free one-month trial. This alternative doesn't completely abandon the traditional keyboard, but it does make a lot of interesting tweaks.

    The goal of Minuum is to allow you to reclaim some of your screen real estate from the on-screen keyboard. Instead of a full multi-row layout, Minuum crunches QWERTY down to a single staggered row. You just have to get close to the right letters and Minuum uses aggressive spell check to figure out what you mean.

    Because this is still technically QWERTY, the learning curve is not as steep. You just have to adjust to remembering where on the horizontal each key is. The autocorrect is make or break in Minuum, and it's actually pretty impressive. Nine times out of ten it selects the right word from whatever nonsense I've typed in. Other times the right term is in the suggestion bar and requires a tap to select it.

    If you need to enter specific words, just drag up from a key and you can select any letter or special character from a certain area. Minuum includes a few layout settings, including an option to expand it to a full keyboard. I don't see the use of that unless you're typing a lot of non-dictionary words, though.

    I feel like I'm about as fast with Minuum as I am with a regular keyboard, but my brain gets a little derailed when I need to type something that isn't recognized as a real word. This keyboard seems like it has real potential and doesn't require you relearn how to type. Check out the free trial and see if it works for you. The full version will run you $3.99.

    Google Play App Roundup: Blimps, Smash Hit, and Out There

    A new week has dawned, and with it comes a new list of great things happening on Android. This is the Google Play App Roundup where we tell you what needs to be on your phone or tablet right now. Just click the links to head to Google Play and grab these apps for yourself.

    This week we make calls easier, smash stuff, and explore out there.

    Blimps

    Trends are shifting away from communicating via phone calls, but there are still times you need to use your phone as a phone. Android makes it easy to get something else done while you're stuck on the phone, but controlling the call is still a bit of a pain. Blimps makes it a little more convenient by placing floating controls on your screen.

    Blimps is always running in the background, but it only comes to life when you start a call. You get a small call end and speakerphone button. Each one is its own separate unit and you can move them around the screen to wherever you want. They'll stay on top of whatever you're doing so you can manage the call easily. It's certainly a lot better than hopping back to the dialer of messing around in the notification shade.

    This app has another neat trick too -- when the proximity sensor is triggered, the buttons quickly disappear to prevent accidental touches. It's really slick. The entire experience of using Blimp is the same way. The buttons respond immediately upon tapping and work exactly as intended.

    Blimp is still very new, so the options are a bit sparse. If you only want one or the other button, there are toggles for them in the settings. You can also disable the app completely, but I don't see any need. It runs well and doesn't seem to affect battery drain at all.

    The developer says more features are coming, but what we have now is free. I wouldn't be surprised if in-app purchases are implemented later for whatever comes next. You should definitely check it out, but be aware some OEM skins might interfere with how Blimps works.

    The Best Android Smartphone for Your Network (February 2014)

    Sure, you could wait a few months and pick up a next-generation flagship Android device, but if you need a new phone now, there are plenty of great options. So many, in fact, that you might be a little overwhelmed. Not to worry -- we're here to help you sort through the dozens of Android phones on each of the big US carriers.

    Prices are continuing to come down as new devices are on the horizon, and that means you can save some cash on a phones that's still really excellent.

    Google Play App Roundup: Google Now launcher, Superior Tactics, and Solid Explorer Chromecast Plugin

    The Play Store just keeps accumulating new apps and games. So many that you have little hope of finding all the good stuff just casually poking around. That's why we have the Google Play App Roundup. This is where you can come to find out about all the cool new stuff on Android. Just click the links to head right to the Play Store.

    This week we get the next generation of launchers, a game with lasers, and more Chromecasting.

    Google Now Launcher

    We've known Google was planning big things with its updated Google Now-infused launcher, but there's finally some movement. The official Google Now Launcher has shown up in the Play Store, but it won't work on all devices just yet. I suspect it's just a matter of time, though. This isn't app isn't technically the launcher itself, but it unlocks the potential already in the Google Search app.

    The Google Now Launcher (GNL) comes stock on the Nexus 5, but this update adds all other Nexus phones and tablets running Android 4.4 as well as all current Google Play Experience devices. That's the OFFICIAL list, but it also sounds like any device running a custom ROM based on KitKat should also be able to get the new launcher from Google Play. There are ways to install this on almost all Android devices, but finally having GNL in Google Play is a huge deal.

    The new launcher will offer to import your layout from the old launcher, so migration shouldn't be too bad. GNL only uses the number of screens necessary for what you keep there. To add more just drag an icon or widget to the right and drop it on the screen that appears. The far left panel is always the main panel, then there is Google Now one swipe to the left.

    Having Google Now on the home interface might not seem like a big change, but it ends up getting a lot more use, at least for me. The swipe up gesture on devices with on-screen buttons still works as expected too. The "Okay Google" trigger phrase for voice search works on the home screen in addition to the search app. The Google panel can't be moved, but all the others can be reordered in the long-press menu. That's also where widgets have ended up.

    For phones and smaller tablets, GNL works very well. You won't have as many options as with Nova or the other third-party apps, but it integrates Google search in a way unofficial apps can't. On 10-inch slates, it's kind of a toss up. The grid size seems a bit odd -- not quite taking advantage of the space. However, it feels a little more modern.

    If you have a compatible device, this is at least worth checking out. The Google Now Launcher is Google's home interface going forward.

    Google Play App Roundup: Type Machine, Colin McRae Rally, and Pathogen

    The time has come for yet another Google Play App Roundup. This is where you can come every week to find out what's new and cool on Android. Just click the links to head right to Google Play.

    This time we've got a system utility you'll love, a different kind of racer, and a strategy game sure to frustrate you in a good way.

    Type Machine

    How often have you typed out a bunch of text only to have the app or website throw an error and eat all your words? Well, there is a new app that will make sure that never happens again. Type Machine makes a backup of everything you type into your device, but it does so in a secure fashion. The presentation and feature set is also killer.

    Installing this app requires a quick trip to the accessibility settings where you can enable Type Machine. This is how it makes a copy of the text you enter. Almost everything you type will be dumped into the Type Machine app and organized by the app it came from. You can open Type Machine and use the navigation pane to select the app and see all the text you've entered. The only thing this app won't slurp up by default is passwords.

    When reviewing a snippet of text, Type Machine presents you with a timeline at the bottom of the screen. You can scrub through to see the entire text entry process. So if you deleted something and reworded, the app still has the text that didn't make it into the final version -- you simply have to rewind to a time when it existed. Any text in Type Machine can be copied and used elsewhere.

    Now, you're probably thinking this sounds crazy. Why would you trust an app to keep all your text entries? The first thing to know -- Type Machine doesn't have the internet access permission, so it couldn't send your text anywhere even if it wanted to. You are also able to blacklist apps in the settings to prevent Type Machine from monitoring them. Everything it saves is deleted once per day by default, but you can turn that up to 7 days, or disable the auto-delete completely. Finally, there is a PIN lock function that keeps any unauthorized party from getting at your words.

    Type Machine has a very clean Android-style layout and it scales correctly to phones and tablets. There was a similar app some years ago that did the same basic thing, though with fewer features. It was abandoned by the developer, but it was never this slick or useful.

    After checking out Type Machine, I immediately put it on all my devices. This is a must-have at only $1.99.

    How To Use the Xposed Framework for Android

    There are a lot of things you can do with root access on an Android phone, but many users are eventually pushed to flashing a ROM for the ultimate in customization. Well, things have been changing a bit over the past year with the introduction and expansion of the Xposed framework. This tool makes customizing a device considerably easier without all that tedious flashing, but is Xposed all it's cracked up to be?

    Like with all things root, there are important things you need to know before you go wild tweaking every app and setting on your device. Let's explore the possibilities.

    Photo credit: Flickr user zallio via Creative Commons.

    What Is Xposed?

    Xposed isn't just another root app, though it comes in the form of an APK that you sideload on a rooted device. This simple action deploys the Xposed framework in your system directory. It reaches into the core components of Android and allows you to make changes that give you a ROM-like experience without leaving the stock software completely behind.

    Xposed uses modules, which themselves are also sideloaded on the device. You can think of these as feature packs -- chop up a ROM like Paranoid Android or CyanogenMod into its assorted components, and that's a bit like a module you would install for Xposed. If you want to alter the look of your notification shade, there are modules for that. Additional lock screen shortcuts? Yes, you can get a module for that too. The list goes on and on.

    The Xposed Framework has a frontend installer app that lists modules for download and allows you to enable and disable them as needed. There are also plenty you can grab online from places like the Xposed Repo and XDA. There are even some in Google Play. Most of the modules have their own settings UI that you can use to configure the tweaks they offer.

    Google Play App Roundup: Muzei, The Room Two, and Amateur Surgeon 3

    The spring phone season is spinning up, so you may well have your eye on a new device very soon. In advance of that, you might want to stock up on good apps and games to enjoy when you finally have it in your hands. We can help you with that first part. Every week in the Google Play App Roundup we check out what's new and cool in Google Play. Just click the links to head right to the Play Store.

    This week we have a new live wallpaper from a noted developer, a game with plenty of puzzles, and some questionable medical practices.

    Muzei

    Googler Roman Nurik is known among Android users for making the excellent DashClock widget. Now he's back with a different kind of app -- a live wallpaper called Muzei. Unlike some (okay, most) live wallpapers, Muzei isn't some sort of constantly moving image. It uses Android's live wallpaper functionality to create a blurred backdrop behind your icons that changes throughout the day. The images behind the blur effect are the magic of Muzei.

    The default setting for Muzei will download a new piece of art each day -- the launch image was Van Gogh's Starry Night. Muzei lowers the brightness and applies a Gaussian blur to make sure the background on your home screen isn't too busy. The results look great, and you can bring the real image forward for a few seconds at any time by double-tapping on the screen. The Muzei app can also be used to view the unfiltered image in all its glory.

    This would be a nice trick all by itself, but maybe not worthy of a spot in the Roundup. However, like DashClock, this app has a developer API for building extensions. The daily art feed is just one of many sources for backgrounds. There are already standalone extensions for the Astronomy Picture of the Day, Flickr, 500px, Reddit, and more. Some apps like Reddit Sync have added extensions too. Yes, there is also support for local images in Muzei, but the online streams are more fun.

    Each extension has its own settings, but most include a way to refine the source (for example, picking specific sub-Reddits in the Reddit extensions) and change the refresh time. Muzei itself includes the settings to change the blur and dim effect universally, which is a nice option to have.

    I have installed this on all my devices, and I love it. It's just a very clever way to get attractive backgrounds rotating on your device that don't make it harder to see what's going on with the icons and widgets. Developers seem to be taking to Muzei pretty well, which makes for a ton of choices. Muzei and all the current extensions are completely free.