Google Play App Roundup: Google Now launcher, Superior Tactics, and Solid Explorer Chromecast Plugin

By Ryan Whitwam

Launchers, strategy, and casting.

The Play Store just keeps accumulating new apps and games. So many that you have little hope of finding all the good stuff just casually poking around. That's why we have the Google Play App Roundup. This is where you can come to find out about all the cool new stuff on Android. Just click the links to head right to the Play Store.

This week we get the next generation of launchers, a game with lasers, and more Chromecasting.

Google Now Launcher

We've known Google was planning big things with its updated Google Now-infused launcher, but there's finally some movement. The official Google Now Launcher has shown up in the Play Store, but it won't work on all devices just yet. I suspect it's just a matter of time, though. This isn't app isn't technically the launcher itself, but it unlocks the potential already in the Google Search app.

The Google Now Launcher (GNL) comes stock on the Nexus 5, but this update adds all other Nexus phones and tablets running Android 4.4 as well as all current Google Play Experience devices. That's the OFFICIAL list, but it also sounds like any device running a custom ROM based on KitKat should also be able to get the new launcher from Google Play. There are ways to install this on almost all Android devices, but finally having GNL in Google Play is a huge deal.

The new launcher will offer to import your layout from the old launcher, so migration shouldn't be too bad. GNL only uses the number of screens necessary for what you keep there. To add more just drag an icon or widget to the right and drop it on the screen that appears. The far left panel is always the main panel, then there is Google Now one swipe to the left.

Having Google Now on the home interface might not seem like a big change, but it ends up getting a lot more use, at least for me. The swipe up gesture on devices with on-screen buttons still works as expected too. The "Okay Google" trigger phrase for voice search works on the home screen in addition to the search app. The Google panel can't be moved, but all the others can be reordered in the long-press menu. That's also where widgets have ended up.

For phones and smaller tablets, GNL works very well. You won't have as many options as with Nova or the other third-party apps, but it integrates Google search in a way unofficial apps can't. On 10-inch slates, it's kind of a toss up. The grid size seems a bit odd -- not quite taking advantage of the space. However, it feels a little more modern.

If you have a compatible device, this is at least worth checking out. The Google Now Launcher is Google's home interface going forward.

Superior Tactics

I do like a good real time strategy game, but it's hard to get the necessary depth and precise control on a touchscreen device. Superior Tactics seems to do the job well enough, though. This title strips the experience down a bit, but it's still strongly focused on your ability to command units in the heat of battle.

Superior Tactics is a 2D RTS where you have to build a fleet of heavily armed airships to defeat wave after wave of enemy craft across 200 levels. You start with a few small ships with minimal weapons, but over time you'll unlock new hulls and weapons to take on massive fleets of the enemy. What's great here is that you get to choose everything about the composition of your fleet -- from the ship types to armaments.

There are a few ways to control your ships in Superior Tactics. The most straightforward is to just tap on the ship you want, then tap on the location you want it to move or enemy you want it to attack. You may also tap on a friendly ship to put it into follow mode. One ship at a time is arduous and inefficient, though. There is also a multi-select tool at the bottom of the screen, which is a bit better.

Your best course of action is to plan ahead -- know what each of your ships is capable of and put them into groups before the mission. The buttons along the right side give you fast access to as many as four groups within your fleet. Different weapons have vastly different ranges and abilities, so you'll need to organize your ships well to keep them from being picked off. For example, if you have a lot of powerful long-range missile boats but only a few lesser craft with lasers, the smaller ones are doomed. They'll be way out in front of the rest of your fleet to attack with virtually no cover.

The default mode has your ships move on their own based on the aggressiveness setting you have selected, but you can also override any actions manually. In the settings is a toggle to go full manual, which is a little more fun, I think. This game is still very new, so there are some balance issues to work out, and the ground-based weapons are usually not worth the resources. I look forward to some tweaks there.

The graphics aren't staggeringly gorgeous, or anything, but they have a sort of geometric charm. The ship designs are neat and easy to distinguish in the heat of battle. The lighting effects for the lasers are cool as well. I also quite like how the swarms of missiles whip around and combat their own momentum. One cool bonus -- it supports immersive mode on Android 4.4.

Superior Tactics is free with in-app purchases. Don't stress about that -- this game is extremely fair. You get plenty of credits from playing, and you can play skirmishes for extra cash. The research points used to upgrade your equipment can even be bought for credits. You could easily play it for free, but making one purchase of any size gets rid of the ads on the pause screen.

Solid Explorer Chromecast Plugin

Now that the Chromecast API is final, developers have been turned loose on the SDK to build apps. One of the more interesting recent additions to the Chromecast is a plugin for Solid Explorer. This is considered one of the best file managers on Android and this extension is free to anyone with a license to Solid Explorer.

For the uninitiated, Solid Explorer provides a ton of features to help you manage both local and cloud storage. The app is snappy and has a neat dual-pane interface. The layout is a bit unusual -- not exactly consistent with the Android design guidelines. It is rather efficient when you get used to it, though.

Solid Explorer has built-in support for Dropbox, Drive, SugarSync, and more. There is also the option to add your own FTP or SFTP server. These are important points with regard to the new Chromecast add-on. Files you have on the device locally can be played, but also anything in your cloud containers.

All you have to do is find a video file and tap on it. One of the options for opening it will be the new Chromecast extension. This is the only way to access the Chromecast functionality. It won't show up in the app drawer as a separate app. Once Solid Explorer loads the player UI, it lets you select the Chromecast you want to play to.

This works as a fine alternative to something like Allcast, which has always been buggy for me. Solid Explorer isn't completely without issues, though. I see a little buffering at the beginning of 720p and 1080p MP4 files, but it gets better from there. Also keep in mind (like Allcast) you can only play files your device is equipped to decode.

The full version of Solid Explorer costs $1.99, but there's a trial period. The Chromecast plugin is free.