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My Favorite Android Apps of 2012

By Ryan Whitwam

Google Play is overflowing with amazing apps. Here are the ones I loved using this past year.

It’s been quite a year for Android apps. Google did away with the Android Market brand, replacing it with the more generic Google Play. Apps got bigger and more secure, and we also saw some big name iOS apps finally move to Android. At the same time, developers created apps on Android that cater exclusively to the platform’s strengths.

Let’s review my favorite ten Android apps and games of 2012. So here they are in no particular order.

Pocket

With the increasing popularity of WiFi tablets like the Nexus 7, offline reading has become very important on Android. Luckily, the Read It Later folks completely redesigned their service in 2012 and created Pocket. Right out of the gate, it was a wonderful experience. It’s one of the best apps from 2012, and a personal favorite of mine.

Pocket has great UIs for both phones and tablets. While I much prefer to read long-form articles on a tablet, Pocket makes the phone experience fairly good as well. Your articles are listed in a list or a grid, depending on the layout you prefer. The grid looks really killer on a tablet, though. The app uses Holo design elements, but it avoids the cookie cutter approach.

When you save something to Pocket, it strips out all the extraneous elements like ads, sidebars, and backgrounds. What you’re left with is a clean, easy to read article. You can scroll vertically through a post, or you can swipe side to side to advance one page at a time.

The way Pocket handles article saving is really well-implemented. You can share any page through the built-in Android sharing menu and add it to Pocket. Likewise, there are browser add-ons that can do the same thing. The article is pushed down to your devices automatically, which saves battery. You just pick up your tablet, and it’s got your content already on it.

The app and the service are both free. The old Read It Later app used to be paid, so that’s a welcome change. Some of the competition requires paid apps and subscriptions, but not Pocket. It’s clearly one of the best apps of 2012.

Dead Trigger

You know, killing Zombies is pretty cool. There are plenty of games on consoles that make the experience a feast for the eyes, but Dead Trigger is the first zombie slasher to really wow me on an Android device. Not only is is gorgeous, but it’s free to play. Yes, there are in-app purchases, but the way they are handled makes this game really stand out.

Let’s start with the visuals, seeing as this is the thing that will draw most people in. Dead Trigger works on almost all devices, but it has enhanced graphics on Tegra 3 chips. The lighting effects, textures, and animations are essentially console level. The environments are rich and detailed, with expansive playable areas.

The zombies in this game come in both fast and slow varieties. The way they move -- it’s creepy. Life-like, or maybe dead-like? Whatever it is, they look real. Everything about the game is intense and totally engrossing.

The controls are good -- basically what you get from any of the other top-tier shooters on touchscreens. Dual virtual thumbsticks and a cluster of action buttons off the the right. It controls smoothly and accuracy seems to be good. You can also use a wireless or wired controller to really show the zombies who’s boss.

All your missions are laid out on a map from which you can choose where to go next. There are rewards to be earned by completing stages, and also bonuses just for continuing to play. I would prefer that Dead Trigger didn’t rely on in-app purchases, but the developers handle it really well. Most of the equipment is reasonably priced, and you can win huge piles of in-game currency fairly easily.

By far the most important aspect of Dead Trigger’s payment model is that you can create an account and sync your game data to the cloud. So you can spend money on guns and armor, then pick up where you left off on a new device (or factory reset) without losing anything. This really makes me more comfortable spending a few bucks.

Dead Trigger is one of the best shooters on Android, and you can try it free. It will take up a few gigabytes of space, so be aware.

Solid Explorer

If you don’t have a file explorer on your Android device, I’m not sure how you even use it. There are just times that you need to find a downloaded file or shuffle things around in a way that the standard Android tools can’t manage. I used to always use Astro, but then Solid Explorer launched in 2012. It’s pretty great.

The big innovation in Solid Explorer is the dual-pane interface. In portrait mode, there are two panes that you can slide between. Each one can be at a different place in the file system, making it easy to move files around. Copy from one tab, slide over, and paste immediately. In landscape mode, you can have both panes up at the same time. The app also supports root access.

Not only does Solid Explorer work wonderfully with your local files, but it plugs into your online storage in services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and Box. Once you’re logged into one of these services, you can have it displayed in one of your tabs like a local folder.

There is an entire section of the app for file system metrics. If you’re running a large file operation, there is a detailed progress screen. You can also see what is taking up all your storage space, but this view is much more detailed than the stock Android settings screen. It has excellent pie charts and multiple ways to visualize your storage usage.

The touch response is extremely snappy and scrolling is buttery smooth, even in folders with a ton of large files. The app has both light and dark themes that I think are very clean and sharp. If there is a UI concern with Solid Explorer, it’s that the developer hasn’t really adhered to the Holo guidelines. As such, it takes a little getting used to.

The Solid Explorer beta was free for a good six months, but in late 2012 the final version was out. It will run you $1.99, but it’s far and away the best file explorer on Android and a top app in 2012.

Flipboard

Using a RSS news reader is a really useful way to stay up on the news, but if you try to explain RSS to most folks their eyes will glaze over. Enter Flipboard. This is an app that accomplishes the same basic task as an RSS reader, but maybe in a less precise way. Flipboard takes your interests, sprinkles in links from your social accounts, and builds a beautiful digital magazine that you can flip through.

The name of the app comes from the page flipping animation as you browse through the various pages. There is something very satisfying about the gesture and I like that it doesn’t feel skeuomorphic. This feels like an authentically digital page flipping motion, if that makes any sense.

I’m always a little amazed how well Flipboard manages to pull all the images and content out of a page and fit it into the app UI so expertly. Images from your Twitter stream feel right at home as you page through the app. The long form news stories that your friends share are paginated and organized for easy reading.

Flipboard has slight interface tweaks on phones and tablets, but the app works in essentially the same way. It’s a sign of thoughtful design when established interface paradigms can function on different kinds of devices.

Setting up Flipboard can be a little tedious as you log into multiple social accounts and select interests, but it’s definitely worth it. The more data you feed the app, the more news it can deliver. It’s not great for laser-like focus on a specific kind of news, but Flipboard feels like the best newspaper replacement on any device.

Flipboard is free on Android, so make sure this top 2012 app gets some use on your devices in 2013.

Plague Inc.

It can be fun to play the bad guy from time to time, and there’s no bigger bad guy than the super-germ that’s about to wipe out humanity. Plague Inc. arrived on Android a few months ago after a successful run on iOS. I was hooked right from the start and this is one of the few games that I keep coming back to long after the newness has worn off.

Plague Inc. is slow to start, but things really get going as you learn how to craft the perfect disease. It all starts with a single infection in a country of your choosing. You slowly get DNA points that can be used to add new abilities to your pathogen. The rate DNA points are acquired, and the traits you can use are determined by the kind of pathogen you play. For example, a virus evolves quickly but is fragile. A fungus is slow to evolve, but can spread easily through the air via spores.

You’re going to spend most of your time staring at a world map with red blotches indicating where your disease has taken root. The counter at the bottom shows you how many are infected and how many have been killed. Ideally, you will want to infect as many as possible before turning deadly. Humans tend to notice deaths, and the more noticeable you are the faster the humans will work on a cure.

The thing that makes Plague Inc. fun to replay is the way random events change the experience. Unexpected mutations will occur, new technologies are developed, and infection control procedures are implemented. You have to cope with all of these to successfully eliminate humanity.

This game is free to play with some in-app purchases. You can unlock all the content by playing and winning, or just pay a little to get access to everything right away. I don’t mind this system at all. Plague Inc. is absolutely one of the best games I played in 2012.

Snapseed

Image editing apps are one of the basic must-haves on any modern touchscreen device. There are the basic tools built into most Android phones, and there are the high-end solutions like Photoshop Touch. In between, however, is a vast and poorly served gulf. Rather, there was before Snapseed showed up.

Google bought Snapseed and shepherded it onto Android just a few weeks ago. This image editing app serves two purposes: to tweak photos to make them look better, and to add filters that make them look worse (some would say). Whether or not you care for hipster filters, Snapseed handles image editing very well.

All the interactions are clever and touchscreen-friendly. The tools are laid out in a scrollable interface that conforms to the device you’re using -- tablets have their own layout that makes use of the additional space. You can crop, straighten, adjust brightness and contrast, and a ton more. The way Snapseed lets you choose adjustment points is very handy for spot fixes.

All the adjustments are tuned by swiping across the screen. Specific effects in each tool category are chosen by dragging up and down. The intensity of the effect is changed by side to side swipes. The auto-adjustment setting is also very, very good. I like the photos that come out of Snapseed more than just about any other app I’ve tested.

The other feature that really made Snapseed standout from the competition in 2012 is the compare mode. Just press and hold the compare button and the image flips back to its original state. You can go back and forth a few times to make sure the changes you’ve made are actually good ones. This fixes a problem I seem to have with image editors -- I always wonder if I’m doing more harm than good.

Snapseed is free now that it’s a Google product, and it definitely belongs on every Android device. There is no doubt this is one of the best apps of 2012.

Osmos HD

It was very early in 2012 that Osmos HD hit Google Play, and it was an immediate hit. Osmos was a PC game before it ever arrived on a touchscreen device, but it’s like it was always meant to be there. This is a game that manages to be gorgeous, relaxing, and challenging all at the same time. If that’s not a big accomplishment worthy of a spot on this list, I don’t know what is.

In Osmos HD, you play as a tiny mote -- a single cell trying to survive in a swirling pool teeming with life. Most of the cells around you are much bigger, and thus dangerous. Your goal in most stages is to simply become the biggest by gobbling up everything smaller than you to gain mass. It sounds simple, but it can be devilishly hard.

You propel yourself in Osmos by tapping to throw off a tiny bit of mass in the direction of your finger. This pushes you along in the opposite direction, with each successive expulsion increasing your speed. You have to be careful, though -- this is lost mass that makes you smaller and more vulnerable.

There is an entire new level to the game when you realize that you can use your mass ejections to influence other motes. That small bit of energy impacting a large stationary mote can start it floating away, thus clearing a path for you. This becomes an important gameplay mechanic and it’s very cool. You have to be patient with Osmos, but you can also speed up and slow down time as you like. The physics used in Osmos are awesome.

Visually, Osmos is still one of the best games on Android. It’s all gentle glowing effects and vibrant colors in the foreground. The backdrop is contrasting dark and inky. Osmos really shows you what an AMOLED screen can do. The sound is also a real treat. It’s spacey mood music that fits with the game’s vibe perfectly.

You can check out the free demo, but Osmos HD is only $2.99 in Google Play. It’s definitely worth it.

Radiant Particles

It’s very seldom that I find a live wallpaper that I think is actually worth running. So many live wallpapers are too busy, or have some sort of battery drain problem. Not Radiant Particles. This app showed up early in 2012, and I still use it frequently.

Radiant Particles turns your home screen background into a swirling mass of glowing points of light. They blow around forming eddies and swirls in response to your touch. The app has a huge number of settings to tweak the appearance to suit your tastes. It has colors, particle counts, speed, and more.

Even boosting the particles to a fairly high level doesn’t seem to negatively impact my devices. Everything is still as snappy as before, and battery drain is minimal. I might see a few percent of drain coming from Radiant Particles if I have the screen on a lot, but it’s evidently a very tightly coded application.

There is even a cool little bonus app mode where you can just play with the particles sans home screen interference. It’s more fun than you think.

When done correctly, live wallpapers make your phone or tablet feel alive in your hand. Google seems to have de-emphasized live wallpapers in recent builds of Android, but developers like this one are still doing great things. The full version of Radiant Particles is a little over $1, but there is a free trial too.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted

The Need For Speed is an institution when it comes to racing games. Others have tried to duplicate it, but with limited success. If you’re looking for a serious racing game, Need For Speed is still it, and Most Wanted is the best of the series so far.

The controls are standard for racing games on a touch screen, but there is a noticeable smoothness to the steering on Need For Speed. The cars seem to weave through traffic just like you envision as you tilt the device. You accelerate constantly in this game, but can amp things up by swiping up for nitro. Drifting is easier than other racing games -- just over-steer and you drift automatically.

You can choose whichever races you want from the map. Some are speed runs, and others are conventional races. There are different classes of vehicle including sports cars, SUVs, and supercars. You have to buy your rides for each race if you don’t have a qualifying car, but the game showers you with money when you place well in a race. You can even re-run races for extra cash.

As for the graphics; amazing. This is far and away the best looking racing game on Android. Frankly, it’s one of the best looking games in general too. The cars are incredibly detailed, and they take body damage throughout a race. Reflections and motion blur are also used in all the right places.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted doesn’t break new ground, but it refines the racing genre to near perfection. That’s why it’s clearly one of the best apps of 2012. This game usually sells for $6.99, but is on sale for $0.99 as of this writing. Worth it at either price.

Falcon Widget and Falcon Pro

Rounding out the list is a little bit of a double recommendation. The Falcon Widget came out a few months ago, showing off how amazing Android’s widget framework really is. It’s not so much a widget as it is a basic Twitter client. Then Falcon Pro recently arrived to back that experience with a lovely, responsive, full-fledged Twitter client. Together, they make for the best Twitter experience of 2012.

The Falcon Widget can be used to refresh, notify, and post tweets. It can also show you user profiles, tweeted images, and mentions. All this happens from the home screen. There are two layouts: a standard list, and the grid. The grid is easier to follow in my opinion, but the list is more information dense on a 720p phone. The Falcon Widget is snappy, attractive, and free.

Falcon Pro is a full Twitter client that can be paired with the widget by linking it with the app shortcut in the upper left corner. Falcon Pro takes smoothness to a whole new level. You really have to try it to believe how responsive this app is. Your timeline, tweets, and DMs are accessed by tapping on the buttons at the top. Sliding to the right and left pulls out an info panel (left), and a search/tag panel (right).

The app has all the usual Twitter features like embedded media, notification control, and picture uploads. I’m also happy to see muting included, which many clients neglect. There are some missing features like themes and tighter integration with the Falcon Widget app. Still, for $0.99 Falcon Pro is a steal. Together, these apps are a shoe-in for 2012’s top ten.

So that’s a look back at the best of 2012. We had great 3D games, news readers, Twitter apps, and photo editors. 2013 has a lot to live up to, but I’m sure developers will be up to the task. Now that you know what I think about the year in Android apps, let’s hear what you liked.