Android Automation Showdown: Tasker vs Locale

By Ryan Whitwam

If you want Android to manage itself, which automation app should you use?

Android’s open application framework has been the source of some consternation when it comes to security, but it also allows developers to innovate in a truly significant way. An example of this, and a feature that makes Android a more interesting platform, is automation. Apps like Tasker and Locale take advantage of Android’s robust public APIs and multitasking to make your phone more aware of what’s doing on and where it is.

With these two strong contenders for the best Android automation app, which should you choose? Both apps come with a small financial investment, and you need the facts, so read on.

Locale

Locale walks a fine line between complexity and ease of use. With a little investigation, most users will be able to design Locale situations that automate the phone quite well, but if you dive beneath the surface, there’s more to learn. Before doing that, you need to sort out the basics of the UI.

The various Situations in Locale will be listed on the main screen in order of importance from top to bottom. It is possible that you will have more than one active Situation. For instance you might be at home, so a Home situation is active, but maybe it is also late an night and your Sleep situation is active too. If you want your Sleep Situation, with what we can only assume a silent ringer profile, Sleep needs to be above Home in the list.

Adding new Situations is a snap; just hit the button and choose a set of conditions. Locale comes with the basics like battery level, location, device orientation, contact call, and time. As you go along adding conditions, be aware they are being added as ‘and’ events. So at this place, provided it is also this time, activate the Situation. If you long-press that add conditions button, you can create ‘or’ conditions. This is handy to activate the Situation in two different places or times.

When you have the conditions set, it’s time to pick the settings you want to toggle. You can choose to turn various radios on or off, change the brightness, change ringtones, set the volume, and change the wallpaper. Both here and in the conditions, you have a fair number of options, but Locale is somewhat extensible. With Android Market Locale Plug-ins, you can add new conditions and settings to Locale. Some apps, like Seal and Astrid, even come with Locale Plug-ins.

Locale has a lot going for it. It’s easy to use, but has some advanced functionality under the hood. We have found the battery usage to be absolutely amazing. Even when using location-based Situations, Locale barely registers on the Battery Use screen. The mini-ecosystem of Locale plug-ins has been very interesting and useful, but still feels a little limited. If there is not a plug-in that does what you want, you just can’t do it.

Locale is just $4 in the Android Market, and we feel the level of polish and overall quality are more than commensurate with the asking price.

Tasker

In all the ways that Locale is accessible, Tasker is not. The other side of that coin is that Tasker is incredibly powerful. If you can dream it, odds are that it can be done with Tasker. Want to pull up a menu of audio apps when headphones are plugged in? Automatically ignore a call and send a text to the caller? Maybe you’d like to create a log file that tracks your battery performance over time? Tasker can do all of that, and more.

In Tasker, users have to create a Profile for each situation they might want to control settings for, then choose tasks for that profile. There are a few dozen variables that can be used to trigger a profile. Everything from time of day and location, to whether a certain app is open. The analog to this in Locale is the relatively limited number of conditions.

The next step is to choose a setting, which again, there area huge number of in Tasker. Load apps, play specific audio tracks, alter just about any system setting imaginable, or even encrypt files. As an added bonus, Tasker can also make use of Locale Plug-ins. The layering of settings can get complicated, and there is an additional settings menu that you can use to tweak a task's properties.

For more advanced tasks, Tasker allows anyone to write manual variables to instruct the app to perform tasks. It gets complicated, but there is a community of folks that can help you design Tasker profiles, and there are quite a few how-tos around.

Aside from what we feel is an unnecessarily complex interface, Tasker is a little less kind to battery life than Locale is. We find that it’s fairly aggressive with GPS usage, whereas Locale makes good use of network location to notice when you are moving. Tasker does come in a little more expensive than Locale at $6.49.

Which one is right for you?

Locale is a straightforward, reliable app that is easy to pick up and use. Tasker is extraordinarily powerful, but highly complex. If we take the price difference out of the equation, it comes down to ease of use vs. features.

Locale works, but is a little lighter on features. The plug-in ecosystem helps with that, but if no one has developed a plug-in for your situation, there isn’t anything left. We like that Locale makes it easy to control a lot of situations, and to know what is in effect at what time. It also uses the Google data backup API, so once you get the perfect situations worked out, you don’t have to worry about losing them.

Tasker goes after the hardcore Android user that likes to spend hours tweaking to get things just right. If the challenge of designing a more efficient machine is your idea of a good time, Tasker could be best for you. The UI is not intuitive at all, and there are a lot of buttons, but there is real functionality behind all of them. With a little practice, some of the simpler Profiles should be easy. However, the learning curve shoots up from there.

Even though Locale is the less popular of the two apps these days, we think more users will be able to put it to good use. If you are looking to automate your settings, check out Locale first. Do you use an automation app on Android? If so, let us know which one.