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The 10 Best Android Apps and Games of 2013

By Ryan Whitwam

It's been an incredible year of innovation in Google Play. Here are our picks for the best utilities and games released this past year.

Every week you get to check out the best new stuff on Android with the Google Play App Roundup here on Tested. Over the course of the year that works out to over 150 apps and games. That's a lot of apps, but what if you only want the absolute best of the best? That's just what you'll get here. These are the top 10 Android apps and games from 2013.

We've got everything from widgets to tower defense, so grab your Android device and get ready to ensure you have the best stuff from the last year.

DynamicNotifications

The Moto X was a notable phone for a myriad of reasons, but one of its coolest user-facing features was Active Notifications. Rather than rely on a little flashing LED that conveys very little information, the Moto X can wake up the screen and show a snippet of text with an icon. With a tap, you can see what's seeking your attention and act on it. Very shortly after the Moto X came out, an Android app called DynamicNotifications arrived in Google Play that offers very similar functionality for all devices.

I have been using this on my phones continuously since it came out, and it is only getting better with each update. Just like the Moto X, this app wakes up the screen by plugging into the notification listener or accessibility options (pre-4.3 devices) to put your notifications on the screen. If you're on Android 4.3 or higher, you can even dismiss all the notifications right from that interface. It supports DashClock extensions too.

When a notification comes in, you get a little icon in the middle of a black screen to indicate which app has spawned a notification (with immersive mode in Android 4.4!). Pressing on it gives you the first few bits of text from the notification shade. From there, you can open the notification, just unlock the phone, or dismiss and shut off the screen. These options and the direction you swipe to activate each one is configurable in the settings.

The settings can do a lot more than that too. If you get the $1.99 pro key, you can set quiet times where the screen won't wake up, control the brightness, and more. The free app allows you to pick which apps will be picked up by DynamicNotifications, which is essential to making this app work in practice. Otherwise the screen would be on constantly.

As long as the screen timeout isn't too long, I've found little to no battery drain from this app, so I have no trouble calling it one of the best of 2013.

DashClock

Google added a long-awaited feature to Android in late 2012 with the introductions of lockscreen widgets. However, the stock offerings weren't terribly useful. A few months later, DashClock was released in Google Play for free. Written by a Google engineer, DashClock replaces the stock clock widget on the lockscreen with an enhanced version complete with an ecosystem of plugins that deliver notifications and data to the widget.

The clock component can be tweaked to have a variety of appearances, but the assortment of plugins is the real magic here. Many developers have created standalone DashClock extension apps, and other apps have added support in the last year. For example, BatteryWidget Reborn shows your battery state, Falcon Pro lists your unread counts, and Timely lists your alarms. Of course, you can also track Gmail unread counts, the weather, and so much more.

In addition to working on the lockscreen, DashClock can be used as a standard home screen widget -- it's hugely useful there and can do the work of several other widgets. DashClock is a friend to the minimalist home screen crowd, as you can probably imagine.

I put DashClock on every device I use -- even review units that I'm only going to be using for a few days. It's indispensable and completely free.

Kingdom Rush Frontiers

Just when I thought a tower defense game could never again capture my interest, along comes Kingdom Rush Frontiers. This game grabs you from the very first level and doesn't let go until you've finished it. It has all the traditional tower defense features, but adds some unit management and is exquisitely well-balanced.

In each level you are presented with a map to defend by placing towers at pre-defined spots. Sound familiar? This part is. However, some of your towers have the ability to spawn troops that you can move around in a limited area. These forces will attack and slow the enemy creeps, allowing your ranged towers to deal more damage. There is also a hero character that you can move anywhere to unleash powerful special attacks.

You don't have to micromanage everything in Kingdom Rush Frontiers, but there is just enough going on that it's not a passive experience like some other tower defense titles. You also have to make snap decisions about upgrading towers, because there are a lot of upgrade options. You will earn stars from playing well, which can then be used to beef up your abilities and towers.

I don't even mind that this game has additional in-app purchases for more powerful heroes. It's just incredibly fun. It might be the best $2.99 you've ever spent on a game.

PushBullet

Google used to offer an app called ChromeToPhone, but has since moved on to offering a less powerful (but reliable) tab syncing solution for Chrome. However, early in 2013 a neat app called PushBullet hit Google Play and I've made sure to have it installed ever since. This app lets you push text and files across devices using the cloud, and it keeps adding new and interesting features.

PushBullet comes with a Chrome extension that lets you send a URL, address, string of text, or a list to any of your connected devices. It can also push files under 10MB in size. Not only do these pushes show up on your device as notifications, they have the correct intents attached. So if you send an address, for example, tapping on it opens Google Maps.

Some recent additions to this app that only make it more excellent include device-to-device push. This lets you shoot text from a phone to a tablet without touching the computer. The app also lists all the pushes on your account so you can retrieve things later. Just recently, the developers added a new notification mirroring feature that uses the Chrome browser to show your Android notifications on a desktop.

This app is free, and definitely one of the best things from 2013.

Timely

It's an alarm clock app, yes. I know that sounds like something that you don't need -- after all, there is one built into every Android device. However, Timely has a ton of useful features and it is stunningly beautiful. It also serves as an example of how to use the Android design guidelines without looking like everything else.

The app is split into three tabs that you can swipe between. The left panel is for your alarms, the middle is the clock, and the right is a stopwatch and timer. To set new alarms, just drag in from the left of the screen and move up and down to set the time. You can then add repetition, various sounds, and dismissal challenges to make sure you're awake.

One of the coolest parts of Timely is the way it syncs between devices. So if you use a tablet as your alarm clock, you can add new alarms or change existing ones from your phone. It even lets you choose which devices on your Google account will go off at the specified time. Even snooze settings will sync over if you have more than one going off in the morning (for the heavy sleeper).

The interface is wonderful and completely configurable. It's an animated multicolor tapestry on each tab with various underlying patterns and effects. Still present under all the eye candy are the Android design design guidelines like an action bar, switches, and tabs. Timely is free for a week, then you have to pay $2.99 through an in-app purchase to unlock all the features and get rid of the ads. It's worth it.

Badland

This title just arrived on Android recently, and I've been trying to find a good way to categorize it. Try as I might, I can't fit Badland into any specific group. It's a little bit of an adventure game, a little physics puzzler, and even kind of a platformer at times. Whatever it is, it's one of the best games to hit Android in 2013.

In Badland you take control of a little fluffy flying creature and guide it through a dangerous forest. Along the way you will pick up more of the creatures, called clones. To complete the level at least one clone has to make it to the end, but you will have objectives in each stage to save a certain number of them for more points.

All your clones will flap their wings when you tap or hold on the screen. This sends them wafting up and to the right as the screen advances onward. If a clone falls off the edge of the screen or runs into anything nasty, it's dead. You will lose a lot of clones, sometimes on purpose to save the others. You're not just guiding the flock through the level with single-minded focus -- you might have to maneuver some of your clones into position to toggle a switch or grab a power up knowing they won't survive.

Badland has a really solid physics engine, which is shown off with the power ups. Some of them make your creatures larger and some make them smaller. This actually changes their mass and how they behave when you tap. Likewise, some power ups might make them sticky or bouncy. The gameplay can be completely changed in an instant.

The graphics are also stellar with beautiful, colorful backgrounds that shift as you progress through the level. The foreground is a black silhouette, which other games have done. However, it really works in Badland. Even the tiny glowing eyes of your furry creatures are detailed and expressive. Badland has 40 free levels with ads, but the whole 80 level game is only $2.99.

Aviate

Although it's still in beta, Aviate is one of the coolest makeovers you can give to your phone. This home screen is based around predicting what you're going to need before you need it. Aviate does this by tracking the time and your location to group apps and settings. It's usually at least partially right, and you can tweak it as needed to make it more right. It's sort of like Google Now for your home screen.

Aviate is set up in three panels. The main screen has a space for your favorite apps and a few small widgets. To the right is an area showing various app collections organized by Aviate. It's usually right on the money with how it splits up your apps (you can edit the collections if you want). Over on the far right is the full app list.

The magic of Aviate are the Spaces. At any time you can swipe down to get into the current Space with contextual apps and data. For example, the night time space clicks on in the evening with a weather widget, alarm settings, tomorrow's calendar, and more. The morning space offers the weather, news, and a collection of apps you might use as you start the day. It's the same for work and home Spaces. There are also Spaces that trigger when you're near a restaurant or attraction. These Spaces usually contain pictures, reviews, and other data pulled from Yelp and Foursquare.

Aviate is very attractive and responsive. It doesn't have as many options as some of the other home screens out there, but it's a very elegant approach to managing your phone. This is definitely something to keep an eye on going forward.

Circa

One of the main reasons you have a tiny computer in your pocket is to have constant access to news and information. However, the small-screen interface is not ideal for reading a lot of long-form content comfortably. Especially when big news is happening, an app like Circa is perfect for getting all the information you need in one place. It can easily replace all those single-source news apps cluttering your app drawer.

Circa is a human-powered news app with a team of editors who scour the web for the best sources on big stories. The app has categories like politics, science, technology, and more.

Each story is like a timeline you can scroll through with snippets of the most relevant information as chosen by the editors. Don't want to trust them that much? There is also a full list of citations for each story that you can open in the browser to read the entire text.

You can also mark stories as important and Circa will notify you with push updates when new information is added. These followed stores are aggregated in a special section of the app.

The interface is buttery smooth and uses Android's design guidelines with Circa's own clean style to create something truly great. There is a slide out navigation menu, an action bar, and swipable tabs -- it all works as you'd expect and scales to phones and tablets very well. Circa is free and it's very useful.

Riptide GP2

What list would be complete without a racing game? This last year saw the release of Riptide GP2, the sequel to the much-loved original Riptide. This is a jet ski racing title with killer graphics and very compelling gameplay. It's was also one of the first games to take proper advantage of Google Play Games.

Race events in Riptide GP2 come in various forms -- lap races, stunts competitions, hot lap, and so on. There is also an online multiplayer component in GP2. You earn cash from placing in events that can be used buy and upgrade your vehicles. This title also lets you change the color scheme of your jet ski and rider as often as you like.

The defining characteristic of Riptide GP2 is the gesture-based trick system. When you're in the air, you can pull off gravity-defying stunts to score points and build up boost. You have to concentrate to pull off the perfect trick and set yourself up for victory.

This game uses Google Play Games for achievements, multiplayer, and (most importantly) cloud saves. I wish all developers would make use of this feature, but very few do. When you install Riptide GP2 on a device and log into Play Games, it asks if you want to download the cloud game data. You never have to worry about losing your progress again.

The visuals in Riptide GP2 are almost worth the price of admission alone. The textures are very high-resolution and the jet skis look appropriately detailed. The water physics are amazing, even on mid-range devices. On a Tegra 4 device like the Shield you get some enhancements to the graphics, but that's just gravy. This game costs $2.99, but that's money well spent.

SuperBeam

The stock Android Beam functionality introduced in v4.0 is cool, but it hasn't always been very easy to use. Not all devices have great NFC chips to pair devices (I'm looking at you, Galaxy Nexus) and the selection of content you can share is limited in most situations. That's where SuperBeam comes in. This app improves upon the stock Beam experience in every conceivable way.

First, SuperBeam can be used to transfer any file between devices -- it can even move multiple files in a single batch operation. Just select the files in an app that supports the standard Android sharing intents (or use the built-in file browser), and choose SuperBeam. Both devices need to have the app installed, but the rest is automatic. Tap the devices together, and your files fly across.

Android Beam uses Bluetooth to transfer files, which is fine, but slow. SuperBeam has two modes that it will utilize as needed. If both devices are on the same WiFi network, SuperBeam just uses that connection to push the files. If they aren't, SuperBeam creates a WiFi Direct connection between the device without a router. All Android devices have supported WiFi Direct since Android 4.1, but none of the stock apps use it. This can send files at upwards of 30Mbps, which is great for large video files and pictures. You can also access the file transfers on a desktop computer via a web browser.

Even if one of your devices doesn't have NFC, SuperBeam can be used with QR code scanning or key sharing to negotiate the connection. This is my go-to file transfer utility and I install it on everything. The basic functionality is free, but a $2.99 paid version removes the ads and includes some more control over file save locations. This is unquestionably one of my favorite apps of 2013.