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Google Play App Roundup: Chrome Beta, Galactic, and Fitocracy

By Ryan Whitwam

Browsing, space, and fitness.

As we all try to get over the post-CES malaise, it can be helpful to have some cool apps to unwind with. But digging through the Play Store can be work in and of itself. That's why the Google Play App Roundup is here. This is where we tell you what's new and cool in the Play Store. Just click the app name to head right to the Play Store and check it out for yourself.

This week browsing gets faster, space is explored, and exercise is gamified.

Chrome Beta

Everyone had high hopes for Chrome on Android when it came out almost a year ago. While it did bring some great new features, it wasn’t updated nearly often enough to keep up with phone hardware and competing apps. Chrome for Android is currently based on the v18 code base, whereas stable desktop Chrome is on v23. It’s now looking like Google is speeding things up by opening a beta channel release of Chrome for Android based on the v25 beta branch.

This is not strictly a beta channel release in the same way the desktop beta is. On a computer you can only run the stable, beta, or developer version of Chrome. Google is making the Android beta more like the Canary desktop program. Canary is a cutting edge dev build of Chrome that you can run side-by-side with another channel. It’s the same deal on Android, but Google isn’t making it easy to find Chrome Beta.

You’ll need a direct link to download Chrome Beta from the Play Store. Searching for it, or even scanning through all of Google’s listed apps will yield nothing. The installation and login process is virtually identical to the stable version. In fact, there are no outward sign that you’re using a beta release of Chrome, save for the different icon.

According to Google, the Chrome Beta is faster than the stable channel. It claims a 25-30% improvement in the Octane benchmark. I can report that it does feel a little snappier. Heavy pages load faster, and scrolling is smoother on the Nexus 7. Recent updates to the stable channel seem to have been dragging my devices down, but the beta is much nicer overall.

I ran a Sunspider benchmark so try and get some handle on how much faster Chrome Beta is behind the scenes for me. I found that the beta version was about 20% faster in this benchmark. Take that for what you will.

If you choose to run Chrome Beta on your device (4.0 and higher), you will be assured of the fastest updates and speed boosts. However, you’ll also have to deal with some bugs. In this release iFrame scrolling is busted, Yahoo links don’t work, and the text handler behaves oddly, among others.

If you like to get the newest stuff before everyone else, grab the Chrome Beta from the link above. I'm using it full time now.

Galactic

When you first start playing Galactic, it seems a little limited. And indeed, it's not a particularly deep game, but the longer you play, the more Galactic throws at you. This is a puzzle game with just a dash of platforming.

You kick off each level by timing the launch of your projectile such that it doesn't fly off into empty space. The launch angle sweeps back and forth, but you can stop it by tapping on the screen. If it looks good, tap again to launch. You can start the motion again by tapping with two fingers.

This element of timing and direction is important because things get quite active in the playable area. Your projectile will need to land in orbit of a planet right out of the gate. You'll need to orient yourself fast, though. A few quick spins around the center of gravity and your projectile goes flying off randomly. A single tap is used to launch yourself out of orbit, presumably toward the next planetoid.

Some of the planets you need to reach are moving through space as well. You might launch yourself out of orbit at the proper angle, but if you do so too early, there might not be anything ahead to stop you. Sometimes, a straight line won't even do it. You can tap on the screen to expend some energy moving your projectile manually. This is limited, but can save you if you overshoot the next planetary platform.

The game throws various mechanisms and tricks of physics at you as the levels continue. The goal is to collect stars throughout the stage until your star meter is full. Once that is done, the warp gate at the end of the level is open. Should you enter the gate without enough star power you will be transported back to the beginning of the stage. This is a little jarring, but you can take another run at getting the stars you missed. If you run out of energy, the level is completely reset.

There are 50 levels in the main game mode, and many of the levels are quite challenging. Sandbox mode is a little different, but still a good time. You have to maneuver an asteroid around and pick up more mass to become a planet, then a star, and so on.

Graphics are reasonably good in Galactic. I find the gameplay more compelling than the visuals, but there's nothing wrong with them either. The backgrounds are nice to look at and the physics are easy to grasp. It could use some deeper lighting effects, but the game is very smooth as is.

Galactic is a solid game, and it's only $0.99. You should definitely take a look at it.

Fitocracy

Gamification is a big deal these days. You can turn anything into a game if you want. See, people like quests and leveling up, and oh -- badges. People love badges. Fitocracy is an effort to make working out a little more enjoyable for those who usually procrastinate when it’s time to hit the gym.

Right from the start I was impressed with how clean and well-designed Fitocracy is. From the font to the smart use of Holo guidelines, Fitocracy is the app most devs wish they could design. When you set up an account or log in, you are presented with a scrollable list of badges you can earn by completing quests. You might have to walk a certain distance in the next week to complete a quest, or perform three specific exercises, or some other combination of exercises. You can tap on any quest to get the details on what you need to do in order to complete it. There are also peppy little blurbs describing the activity.

When the time comes to workout, make sure you have the right date selected in the top bar, then tap the “Workout’ button. If you selected a quest previously, Fitocracy will ask if you want to automatically start on those exercises. If you’re playing fast and loose, you can search for exercises and add them to your routine manually. Fitocracy keeps track of your efforts, and saves the exercises you use most for easy access.

You’ll enter your exercises into the app, and it rewards you with points. Get enough points and you’ll level up and earn more badges. You can check out your past workouts in the app by choosing the date too.

There is a social aspect top Fitocracy as well. You can share you badges and workout stats on various social networks. There is also an activity feed where you can see updates from people you've added to your Fitocracy friends list.

You don’t really get anything for exercising with the app except bragging rights -- oh, I guess you get to not die of a heart attack because you never exercise. In the end, it’s just a fun little tool to motivate you to hit the gym. Fitocracy is free in the Play Store.

That's it for this week. I hope you found something that strikes your fancy, and if not, check back next time or let me know when you find something killer.