The Google Play Store contains hundreds of thousands of apps, but most of them aren't going to make your phone better. The App Roundup here covers those that will improve your Android experience. This is where you can find out what new apps, and newly updated apps are great, and why. Just click on the app name to go right to the Play Store to pick it up.
This week ReadItLater evolves, Radiant Defense makes tower defense cool again, and Spotify finally gets with the program.
Pocket is the new evolution of ReadItLater
For the last few years, ReadItLater has been a reliable service that competed with the much more stylish Instapaper. The technical side of ReadItLater was always solid, with good formatting and was fast as syncing. It was the interface design that held it back. The app in particular didn’t really evolve as mobile platforms did. Last week, ReadItLater was transformed into Pocket, and it makes everything better. In fact, it bests Papermill, which you may have seen here last week.
The functionality of Pocket is what you would expect, and the APIs are all unchanged. That’s a good thing because you can still use the same plug-ins and services you were using with ReadItLater to add articles. You can save content with your desktop, or on the phone through the Android sharing menu. However you do it, Pocket does a great job of organizing and formatting your articles. Syncing is has also been almost instant in my testing.
This app is remarkable mostly because the interface is drop-dead gorgeous and functional at the same time. There are different views for the phone and tablet version of Pocket, but it’s all the same APK. Pocket is taking advantage of one of the remarkable things about Android with this single file. The app just understands if it’s running on a tablet or phone, and renders the matching UI.
The phone has a scrollable list of articles, each with a thumbnail. The action bar has options for refreshing your list, and filtering your list to only show videos, images, or text articles. There is a delightful little flair of color at the top of the app, just above the action bar. It’s little touches like this that make Pocket feel polished.
On the tablet, Pocket has a different feel, but it’s obviously the same app. Articles are laid out in a grid with big feature images. If you want to switch to a list view that squeezes more items on the screen, there is an option for that in the action bar, but the default UI is just so lovely.
There is a persistent search box below the action bar, and this might be the part of the UI I care for the least. It is an unnecessary use of vertical pixels. A button in the action bar would be better. Long-pressing on list entries pulls up options for sharing, tagging, and more. This isn’t the most intuitive action, but it works.
Articles are perfectly displayed in the Pocket app. Images are scaled properly, the text is crisp and clear, and all the options you need are at your fingertips. Pocket will download the stripped-down version of the article so you can read it offline, but if you’ve got data, there is a toggle at the top of the article to go to web mode. The bottom action bar has options for marking things as read, adding tags, and favorites.
By simplifying and polishing its UI, Pocket (formerly ReadItLater) has stolen my heart when it comes to reading list apps. It’s well-designed, fast, and the syncing is instantaneous. Best of all, this app and service are entirely free.
Radiant Defense makes tower defense cool again
Tower defense games have been done to death, granted. But Radiant Defense is valiantly pulling the genre back from the underworld for one more run. This game comes from the developer of hits like RoboTek, Radiant, and Evac. It has the distinctive glowing style Hexage is known for, but updates things a little. Radiant Defense also uses in-app purchases in the nicest way possible.
Radiant Defense takes some of the best features of tower defense games, and weaves it into a single complete package. First off, the path the creeps follow in each stage is controlled by you. You can place blocks to build your own custom path to keep the enemy close to your weapons for longer.
You can place those blocks during the building phase after each wave, a great feature if you ask me. After each wave, you have as much time as you need to change your path, upgrade towers, and build new ones. If you fail at stopping the creeps in a wave, you start over in the last build mode, which I really appreciate. Radiant Defense is hard, and you’re going to have to go through a lot of trial and error to find the best strategy.The game also does a good job of saving your place if you need to exit at short notice.
There are over a dozen weapons in the game, with most being regular automated towers. There are a few special weapons that you can actually interact with, though. I really like that you can get a description of each tower’s abilities before building it, as well. Radiant Defense comes with a subset of towers, and sells you in-app purchases to unlock the others. The game itself is free, so I was not immediately dismissive of this approach. After playing the game, I actually think this is a great system.
Each weapon pack comes with 2-3 new items and costs $0.99. Developers can make in-app content permanent, or tie it to a single installation. Radiant Defense thankfully goes with the former. I was able to access my purchased content on multiple devices by going into the settings and using the “Restore Purchases” button. So don’t shy away on account of the upsell. The game is free, and you’d easily pay $3-4 for a game of this caliber, so dropping an equal amount on optional upgrades seems like a good deal.
The way different towers interact is very important in Radiant Defense. Some creeps are resistant to one type of damage or another, for instance. You will also need to build research units (non-attacking structures) to access the high-end towers. This introduces an element of timing. Do you spend that $200 on a research unit now, or upgrade your towers? It’s always a tough call.
Graphically, Radiant Defense is great. If you’ve ever played RoboTek, it’s got the same vibe as that one. Lots of negative space, glowing avatars, and lighting effects. It feels a little like a smoother version of Tron, actually. I’ve enjoyed seeing Hexage develop its style over time while still keeping the same recognizable aesthetic. The sound is better than most tower defense games. The music is good, but largely a riff on the soundtrack from RoboTek. The sound of turrets firing isn't overwhelming either.
Radiant Defense is among the best tower defense games out there, and it’s free. You can get through a few stages easily without paying anything. Though, things do ramp up after not too long, and you’re faced with high difficulty, or paying a few bucks for a great game. It was an easy choice for me.
Spotify Beta is a long overdue change
For a long time now, Spotify has been one of the most unsightly apps I use on Android. Clunky, blurry, and slow, were the adjectives best attached to Spotify on Android. A few days ago, Spotify announced a total redesign of its Android app, and made the beta publicly available. It’s not perfect, and that’s probably not just because it’s a beta, but it’s a vast improvement over the old version.
The main screen in the new Spotify is now a clean playlist interface. Your playlists are separated into those that have been downloaded to your device, and those only in the cloud. At the top of this screen is a bar that could be an action bar if only it would try a little harder. There is a menu button on the (wrong) left side which slides out a menu with search, playlist, settings and more. Not the best interface decision, and very similar to Facebook.
The app does use a lot of icons and design from Holo. There are drop downs that use that distinctive Android aesthetic, and in the settings there are all those Holo-style toggle switches. One thing I really like about the design is that Spotify did its own thing with the colors. It’s all done in gray and green to fit with Spotify’s theme, and it looks very good with the addition of more white space.
When you’re playing a song, that terrible slide up playback window is dead and gone. Instead you get a slim banner across the bottom of the screen with the currently playing track, along with a play/pause button. Tapping on it goes to an attractive full screen player with all the controls you'd expect. One problem I do have with this interface is that the way to get back to the track list is an ‘X’ in the upper left corner. This is incredibly non-intuitive.
You should know before installing this app that there is no widget yet. The previous version had one, but it was all-around terrible. This is a beta app, and I expect a real widget to be added before it is finalized.
For all the beta weirdness in the new Spotify, I really prefer it to the original because it’s not only cleaner, but much faster as well. Scrolling through playlists is buttery smooth, and downloads take forever to queue up.
If you are a Spotify premium subscriber, you can get this app from the Spotify forums. It will replace your current app, but if you ask me, that’s a very good thing.