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Google Play App Roundup: Aviate, I, Gladiator, and Cal

By Ryan Whitwam

Launchers, gladiators, and calendars.

Apps move quickly on Android. No sooner have you found an app you can get cozy with, a better alternative has come along. We're here to make sure you're ahead of the curve -- that you're always on the bleeding edge. That's what the Google Play App Roundup is for. Just click on the links to head to Google Play and get the best new apps and games for your device.

This week we've got a killer new launcher, a game from ages gone by, and an app that will spruce up your agenda.

Aviate

There are plenty of Android home screens in Google Play that can give you some added features, or hide the horrendously ugly things your device maker has done to Android. However, most of them still look pretty much like an Android launcher. Aviate is an effort to turn the device's main interface into something more -- a context-aware dashboard with intelligent organization of apps and settings. Aviate has been in private alpha for a few weeks, but it has just now reached semi-open beta. Let's see if it's worth getting on the waiting list.

Aviate has three home screen panels, with the main one being a space for your most important content. At the bottom are your most frequently used apps, then above that you can fit in 1-3 small widgets. Swipe to the right and you get the Collections. These are lists of apps generated by Aviate in groups like, games, news, travel, work, social, and more. You can control what order these are in, what apps are contained in each, and which ones are visible. However, Aviate seems to make some good guesses about what goes where. One more swipe to the right is a full app list with a fast-scroll area on the far right. Finding your apps is really fast with Aviate.

This launcher tracks your location and changes throughout the day. The current "Space" is always indicated by the icon in the upper left. Simply swipe up to get to the Aviate Space with special items and data. It has morning, work, home, out and about, night, as well as specific location Spaces for restaurants and businesses. Each one of these gives you a different set of apps and widgets. For example, the work Space shows you upcoming calendar events, the work app collection, and quick access to sending email and making new calendar entries. The nighttime Space has a quick toggle for silent mode, alarms, tomorrow's schedule, and selected nighttime apps. You can manually swap between Spaces by swiping to the left.

This is still beta, so some of the Space switching seems buggy. For example, I don't need the Space for a restaurant near my house when I'm at home. Most of the time Aviate seems good about switching modes when it should, though. The content it pulls up in each Space can also be modified to suit your preferences. My initial impression of the functionality here is more positive than any other new home screen I've used.

Aviate is also absolutely gorgeous. It's like a subtle, professional Holo Light UI has taken over your home screen. Animations are smooth and the touch response is dead on. In the settings Space you can swap to a dark UI, but I prefer the light one -- it matches with widgets better. You can't have a wallpaper with Aviate, which is a little odd at first, but the entire screen is understandably taken up by content.

Aviate is an impressive beta product, and invites aren't too hard to come by. If you install it, you can get on the list for access. Alternatively, ask around for an invite. All current users have a few to share. Yes, I have some. Bug me on Twitter or G+ if you want one.

I, Gladiator

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you need to hear this: in-app purchases aren't going anywhere. It's best you just accept this is a major part of mobile gaming. In fact, Android users have it easy compared to iOS folks. IAPs are much less pervasive on Android, but you will still come across them, especially in high-end games like the newly released I, Gladiator. This hack-and-slash combat title has killer graphics and engaging gameplay, but it comes at a price.

The backstory in I, Gladiator is a familiar one of betrayal and a return to glory. It's interesting enough if you want to pay attention to it, but there's no real impact on the gameplay. What really matters here is your performance in the arena. As a gladiator, you have to cut your opponents to pieces before they do the same to you. Each battle lasts about five minutes with various dangers and opposing gladiators to contend with.

The controls in this title are alternatingly efficient and infuriating. When you're doing battle, you simply swipe across the screen to swing your weapons in various directions. Some patterns will also trigger powerful combo attacks. Doing well improves your popularity with the crowd, which can be used to get extra gold or health during battle.

Movement, however, could use some work. You can hold the block button and drag around to move your character, but it's awkward and hard to see where you're going. When not actively in a fight, you can press the block button to run in whichever direction you're facing. I don't know why the developers didn't just implement a thumbstick control As it stands you can get yourself into some trouble if you're not very careful.

The gameplay is a little repetitive, but the game does a good job of presenting different kinds of enemies to fight. Sometimes you might have a dozen regular gladiators to slice through, and other it's only a few behemoths with giant clubs.

You earn silver from winning matches, which can be used to buy better gear. There is also gold, but you get very little of that from playing the game. You can buy gold or silver for real money if you like, but you can do well enough only spending the silver you win. Once you get rid of that lame starting sword, the game feels fairly well balanced. It's not ideal, but IAPs are increasingly a part of paid games like this one.

The graphics in I, Gladiator are really interesting. It's a kind of slightly more complex cel shaded look -- almost like a comic book. The character models and the animations look really cool. The visuals are what initially drew me to this game, and I have yet to tire of its distinct style. The environments are huge and richly detailed as well.

I, Gladiator is $4.99 in Google Play. I'm not saying it's for everyone, considering some people still can't abide by in-app purchases, but it's seriously fun.

Cal

Two beta apps in one week? Sometimes that's just the way Android is with rapid app iteration. Cal is a new calendar app from the folks behind the popular to-do manager Any-do. The Cal beta is being run through the Play Store testing program, but the developers are only letting people in slowly. You should definitely get on the list for this one because Cal has a lot going for it even at this early stage.

Cal borrows a lot from the clean, minimalist interface of Any.do. When you open the app, you're presented with the day's events with a single week calendar above that for the current week. You can swipe left and right to change days, or just tap in the week calendar above. Tapping on an even loads it in a card-based interface with the location, attendees, and any other notes attached. It actually seems to work perfectly with the standard Google Calendar formatting. You can invite, confirm, and create new events normally.

Swiping down in the main interface will expand the current week view into a full month calendar. This lets you tap on any day in the current month to get the events, or swipe between months. Jumping around like this is the only place I'm really seeing any lag. Cal is otherwise very snappy.

This app automatically pulls in the data from all the calendars connected to your Google account, but you can control visibility from the app settings. If you use Any.do for keeping track of your to-dos, Cal will also add Any.do tasks to your calendar.

What's remarkable is that getting up and running with Cal is a snap. There's virtually no configuration to worry about, and adding new events is very intuitive -- just tap the plus button and add all your info just like Google Calendar, but in a more attractive interface. Cal uses a lot of white design elements, but the backgrounds are pulled from images in various categories. It's a good looking app.

I also quite like the way Cal does notifications. It has the usual notification shade icon, but it also slides a banner up across the bottom of the screen with event info. This is a little more intrusive, but I think it's still appropriate. There aren't a ton of settings right now, but I expect that will change before the app is out of beta. If you want to give it a shot now, join the Any.do Google Group and then sign up for the beta. Note: if you don't do this, the link above won't work for you.