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Google Play App Roundup: Quickly, The Sandbox, and Puzzle Retreat

By Ryan Whitwam

More launching, making reality, and solving puzzles.

It's time again to dive into the Google Play Store and see what apps we can find. Every week we find the best new and newly updated apps for the Roundup, and this week is no exception. Just click on the app name to head to the Play Store.

This week we've got an app for convenient app launching, a game where you make the rules, and a relaxing puzzler.

Quickly

As a rule, I try to keep my notification shade from getting too cluttered. After all, it’s supposed to be for notifications. However, developers are always trying to find new uses for that space, often with limited success. A new app called Quickly might actually offer the kind of functionality that earns it a place on your phone or tablet, though. This app puts a miniature app launcher where you can always access it -- in the notification shade.

Before we get started, this is a Jelly Bean app only. If you’re not running 4.1 or 4.2, it won’t work. Why? Quickly relies on the more robust expandable notifications deployed in Android 4.1. Configuration in the app is very simple. Just choose the number of 4-icon rows you want in your Quickly notification, and start picking apps from your installed list.

You can have up to three rows for a total of 12 icons. It will start as a collapsed notification, but you can expand it to get all your chosen links. If your shade is looking a little full, you can also collapse it back down to get the links out of the way. When you launch apps from Quickly, it acts just like launching from a standard icon. There is no intermediate Quickly screen, and no delay.

You can control how the notification is presented in the Quickly settings as well. By changing the priority of the service, you can keep the notification at the top of your list with a persistent icon in the status bar. If you don’t want the icon, you can lower the priority and let Quickly organize itself within other content that might show up in your pulldown. The priority control options are much appreciated. Developers have just started utilizing this feature in Android, and it makes persistent notifications so much easier to use.

Quickly hasn’t caused any perceptible slowdown on my Nexus 7 running Android 4.2.2. Both the notification drawer and home screen are unaffected, even with 12 links in Quickly. According the the developer, this app uses only 800kb of memory, so even more resource constrained systems should be able to run it just fine. This app will run you $0.99 in the Play Store.

The Sandbox

If you could do anything -- build anything -- what would you do? That’s the implicit question asked by The Sandbox, a newly arrived game on Android. In The Sandbox, you take on the role of an amateur deity with the option to build entire worlds. This game has some Alchemy-like experiences of creating materials, and also serious puzzle solving.

The first thing you’ll want to do in The Sandbox, is play the initial block of story levels. It is here that you’ll learn the ins and outs of manipulating the world and making new substances. The game guides you through the steps to make glass, lava, lightning, and other neat stuff. Once you discover a substance or effect, you can buy permanent access to it with mana.

Anything you’ve unlocked with mana can be painted on the game board as much as you like. Most solids drop down lfrom your finger with gravity, but gasses float upward. So you can put down layers of soil, rock, and mud to create a fertile zone for plants to grow -- yes, plants just grow by themselves. That’s one of the really cool things about The Sandbox. You’ll encounter weather, the effects of time, temperature, and other factors. And since you’re a god-in-training, you can adjust all these things.

The free-play mode is unlocked after a few stages are complete, but that’s also where the puzzles start getting more challenging. The puzzling aspect is a nice break from just the wholesale mayhem you can bring by setting off volcanoes and conjuring up thunderstorms.

It can be a little hard to drop things where you want in certain circumstances. There is a zoom control, but it's not the best. This doesn't bother me too much because rarely do you need to be exact. I can see this annoying some players, though.

The graphics are simple by design. It isn't pixelated -- it’s pixel art. It makes even more sense here because all the substances you’re using to build worlds are made up of 1x1 “pixel blocks.” Many of the items and substances you lay down have their own unique sound, which is a nice touch.

There are 30 missions in the free part of the game, but keep in mind you get the free play mode too. If you want more levels, you can get packs for $1-2. Likewise, if you need more mana to unlock items, you can buy that too. I think to get the most out of The Sandbox, you’re going to have to spend at least a few bucks on it. If you're somehow ethically opposed to all in-app purchases, skip this. I’m fine with some up-sells, but you’re going to want to turn off the notification icon that offers you free mana to come back to the game (if you're on 4.0 or higher).

There’s so much to learn in this game I feel like I can’t do it justice after only a few days. This is only scratching the surface. You should play around with The Sandbox a bit and see if you can justify a little bit of an investment.

Puzzle Retreat

So many puzzle games pile on the stress to make things more exciting, but maybe you just want to chill out with a little brain teaser? That’s what Puzzle Retreat is all about. This is a new puzzle game on Android that is relaxing and challenging at the same time.

The goal in each level of Puzzle Retreat is a simple one: fill in all the spaces on the game board. The shape and size of the board will change in each level, but you’ve always got just the right number of ice blocks. Throughout the board you’ll have several spaces with X number of blocks. Just swipe in one of the four possible directions and the blocks slide out in that direction, taking up residence in the first available slot. Subsequent blocks can glide over top of already seated ones.

Sure, that sounds simple, and it is for the first few levels. The catch is that you have to use all the blocks, and if you fill the wrong spaces with blocks from one hub, you won’t be able to get the others where they need to go. As the levels progress, you also get a few more curveballs with special blocks that channel blocks off in a different direction, melt your ice, or stop other blocks from sliding over top.

Completing these puzzles if very satisfying, and there’s no penalty for making a mistake. You can reset the entire puzzle, or just go back a few moves by resetting the hubs where the blocks start out.

Puzzle Retreat is beautiful in a minimalist sort of way. It looks like you’re playing with blocks in an expertly carved wood board. There is no background music, which struck me at first as a little odd. But as I found myself more and more engrossed with the puzzles, I actually liked the quiet. The only sound Puzzle Retreat makes is a satisfying click as blocks slot into place.

You can play 50 puzzles for free, and you can skip ones you just can’t figure out. Why? Hey, this game is all about relaxing out. No need to worry about getting stuck on that one level. If you master the free stages, more level packs can be bought for $0.99, and there are a lot of level packs. Give the free stages a shot and I think you’ll be sold.

That's it for this week. Check back next time for more apps to improve your phone.