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Google Play App Roundup: Action Launcher, Dynamite Jack, and System Monitor

By Ryan Whitwam

A new home screen, explosive gaming, and system tools.

The Android platform gives app developers the ability to access all kinds of data and settings. Apps don't have to act like self-contained bubbles -- they can interact and change the way your device works. Finding the best apps can be tough, though. But that's why we have the Google Play App Roundup every week. Just click the app name to head right to the Play Store to check things out for yourself.

This week we rethink the home screen, sneak around, and monitor the system.

Action Launcher

Android has had custom launchers for as long as it’s existed. Most of the current crop offer similar functionality, and even look very much like one another. Then, there’s Action Launcher. This app came out a few months ago, but it just added a feature that takes home screen management to an entirely different level.

Before we get to the crazy, paradigm-shifting new stuff, let’s talk about how Action Launcher works. The app drawer is gone, replaced by a more spacious hotseat area. Instead of the app drawer, there is an app list icon in the upper left corner as part of a home screen action bar. Tap it to get a scrollable list of your apps. You can also do an edge gesture (swipe in from the extreme left of the screen) to open the app list. Also in the action bar you’ll find search, settings, and a Google Play link. This is an unusual setup, but you will adjust and maybe even find it is much faster for you.

Action Launcher still comes with all the panel settings like grid size and the number of screens. Folders have a second function in Action Launcher as “Covers.” A cover takes the first item in a folder and makes it the default icon. Tap on the Cover, and the app opens. Swipe up or down on the icon, and the folder view opens. This is insanely useful.

Okay, now keep in mind how Covers work as we get to the new feature, which is called “Shutters.” Any app icon (in a folder or on the home screen) that has a widget will automatically act as a Shutter (denoted by the small horizontal lines next to it). Tapping on a Shutter opens the app, but swiping up or down on the Shutter opens the widget... in a window... on the home screen.

So you can access an app’s widget without taking up a bunch of space, and it only takes a single gesture. This is great for something like Gmail or Messaging. You can get an overview of the information present in the app without opening it. It will completely change how you make use of apps and widgets on your phone.

Action Launcher is also just as snappy as the competition swiping through home screens. I have no complaints about battery life, or lag at all. It is a little light on customization options, and could use a better way to manage home screen panels. This home screen replacement comes with support for both phones and tablets, and it’s only $3.99. It’s currently my favorite launcher, so take a look.

Dynamite Jack

You are Jack, a once proud space marine. After being captured by aliens, you’re forced to toil in the Anathema mines. But what’s this? A prison break! With just your trusty flashlight and some bombs, you have to sneak Jack out of the mines to freedom. It sounds simple, but it takes some real strategy.

Dynamite Jack is a top-down game, but you can’t really see all your surroundings because mines, as it turns out, are dark. You’ll have to rely on scant lighting in the tunnels, as well as the flashlights both you and the guards carry. Should a guard spot you in a cone of light, it’s instant death. You want to avoid that.

You can control Jack with a virtual joystick, or by drawing a line for him to follow. I find that the line mode, while intuitive, doesn't provide enough fine control. I had much more success with the joystick.

In each stage, you have to collect the flashlight and detonator, but once you have the latter it’s a ticket to unlimited bombs. The guards usually take the same path as they patrol, so you can sneak up, drop a bomb, then retreat to a safe distance to blow them sky high. In addition, the bombs are used to bore out new tunnels in the rock.

Each cavern has a few save points that also act as a refuge from guards -- use this to your advantage. You may also have to scavenge a bit to find keycards that grant access to new areas.

Your goal is to make it from the starting area to the point of light that indicates the path to the next level. After 28 grueling stages, you will have escaped the mine. The cool thing about Dynamite Jack is the game doesn’t stop there. Other players have built hundreds of custom levels with the built-in level editor, and many of them are quite good.

Dynamite Jack is visually simple by design. The patterns of light and shadow are easy to follow as they sweep past, threatening to reveal you to the enemy. This game doesn’t rely on fancy textures and shader effects to draw you in. No, it’s clean, enjoyable gameplay that gets the job done.

At $2.99 Dynamite Jack is perhaps a little more expensive than I expected it to be, but the game is undeniably fun. It’s worth a peek.

System Monitor

Android is rather unprecedented in that it gives the user access to a wealth of system performance information. This is incredibly useful when the time comes to troubleshoot a problem, or do some system tweaks. Although, Android’s built-in system info tools are nearly useless. To get serious about performance, you need to use a third-party app, and System Monitor might be the best out there.

Whereas most apps that dredge up this kind of esoteric information are a little on the ugly side, System Monitor is lovely. It uses the Android Holo light theme, but adds in some UI flourishes that keep things interesting.

Upon opening the app, you’ll get a clean, live-updated graph of your CPU usage. If you’ve got a multi-core device (as I’m sure most of you do) there is a toggle in the action bar that shows the individual clocks and status of each core. This is very cool because you can actually see how different kinds of ARM chips manage cores.

The entire graph interface is also swipable. To the right are RAM, I/O, and network activity graphs. Each one is live-updated and color coded. In the action bar of all the graphs, you’ll see a button to activate the flying monitor. This is a (really cool) floating window that is basically a tiny version of the graph. It will stay on top of other apps, and is handy for keeping an eye on things while you’re digging around elsewhere. You can control the size of the window by dragging the corner. It can also be dragged wherever you want on the screen.

As if that wasn’t enough, there are two more features that set System Monitor apart, but they’ll only work if you’re running a new-ish version of Android. Jelly Bean 4.1 and higher devices can take advantage of expandable notifications that have the same live-updating graphs from the app. Just slide your notification pane open and you can see live data for CPU, RAM, I/O, and network. If you only want one, that’s fine too.

The other new feature requires Android 4.2, and it’s something we’re seeing a lot these days: a DashClock extension. DashClock is the killer lockscreen widget that makes lockscreen widgets a thing people want to use. System Monitor can show any of your stats in DashClock, which some folks might like to have.

System Monitor is $2 in Google Play, but I think that’s a bargain for everything it does.

That’s it for this week’s Roundup. I hope you found something of interest, and if not, check back next time for more of the best Android has to offer.