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Google Play App Roundup: Javelin Browser, AirFighter Pro, and Inkling

By Ryan Whitwam

Browsing, flying, and learning.

A new week means a new batch of Android apps and games for your consideration. This is the Google Play App Roundup, which brings you the best new and newly updated content in the Play Store every week. Just hit the links to head right to the Play Store and download for yourself.

This week we have a new browser that might become your default, a game for the best pilots, and an app that makes books more interactive.

Javelin Browser

Chrome for Android is better than it once was, but it still doesn't perform perfectly on some devices. There are many alternatives in the Play Store based on AOSP, but Javelin Browser isn't just another clone. This app offers some interesting functionality and a very modern UI. What's more, you can check it out for free.

Javelin is based on the open source fan favorite Lightning Browser, an Android browser optimized for tablets that has a very minimal footprint and clean UI. Javelin beefs up the feature set of Lightning a bit, but it also maintains the responsive performance. The most noticeable change for anyone who is accustomed to Chrome on Android will be the exposed tab bar up top. You can tap on the plus button to add more, and move between tabs with a tap. There is also a two-finger swipe gesture to move one tab left or right. The interface takes advantage of the transparent nav and status bars in KitKat as well.

As for loading speed, it seems about as fast as Chrome Beta, possibly a little faster when you have a few tabs open. Javelin isn't doing as many things in the background -- there's no cloud syncing or Google account control, so naturally it can get things done slightly quicker. There is also a reading mode that strips out all the ads and superfluous bits sort of like Readability or Pocket. As for the quality of regular page rendering, I have no complaints. Javelin is running a standard version of mobile WebKit, so there should be no issues with things looking wonky.

The free version of Javelin includes basic browsing capabilities, but your homepage is locked to the default Javelin page. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- it's just a pretty picture and a search bar. Javelin pro also allows unlimited tabs, but the free version has a generous limit of 10 tabs. Pro will also include (eventually) Android Wear integration.

So this is all pretty conventional browser stuff, but Javelin has another cool extra -- a built-in VPN. You have to pay a monthly fee of $1.99, but there are free VPNs out there if you don't care about quality. The VPN service in Javelin can get around web blocks and hide your traffic, bu it's also very fast. which makes a VPN actually worth using. I saw no degradation in speeds when connected to the VPN, and latency was only a bit higher (about 90ms vs. 60ms).

Javelin does a good job as a free browser, but the extra stuff is there via an in-app purchase if you want it. Oh, it also has built-in ad blocking, if that's a thing you're cool with. Javelin Browser is definitely worth a look as an alternative to Chrome.

AirFighters Pro

Realism isn't always high on the list of priorities for air combat games, but AirFighter Pro really takes it seriously. This is one of the more realistic jet fighter sims on Android, but it won't appeal to the casual gamer. In this game you hop into a variety of fighters, take off, complete missions, and land safely. A wrong move can spell the end of your flight.

There are two sets of controls on the screen -- one for flight, and one for weapons. You switch between them with a swipe across the bottom of the screen. The basic buttons for flight include landing gear and throttle/engine control. The advanced setup adds flaps and airbrake. Over on the weapon panel you have the weapon selector, ammo info, flares, and (of course) the fire button. You have to actually know the capabilities of your weapons -- i.e. don't try to shoot air to ground missiles at another plane.

Something I always look for in air combat games is the level of control you have. There are more arcade-style games that rely mostly on left/right movement and feel more on-rails, then there are games with full 3D maneuvering. AirFighters is more like the latter, but it doesn't have full roll/yaw/pitch control. You tile the device side to side, and the plane banks a little, but you can accelerate the turn by also pulling up (tipping the device). It's probably a fine middle ground when you consider how much else you have to manage on the touchscreen.

Takeoff and landing are extremely fun in AirFighters Pro. You get to do this on both ground runways and aircraft carriers. Landing on an aircraft carrier is not easy (like, really not easy), but it's rewarding once you get the hang of it. The plane actually has a tail hook like real planes, so you have to get on the deck just right to stop in time. There are also a few vertical takeoff/landing planes, but that comes with its own set of challenges as you control your speed just right to flip from regular to vertical flight.

There are a dozen or so missions in AirFighters Pro, but you can build additional scenarios of your own with the same basic parts and set it anyplace in the world. The game includes a ton of real airports and enemy vehicles to take out.

The game is a lot of fun, but you have to accept that the graphics aren't top notch. It's not a huge game, and many of the ground textures are not great. This isn't really the main focus of the game, though. It's more about a very good simulator experience than being super-pretty. That said, the planes are reasonably detailed and seem free of aliasing.

For $4.99, I think AirFighters Pro is a good deal for people who are into a more authentic gaming experience. It's pretty challenging, but incredibly fun once you get the hang of it.

Inkling eBooks

Your primary source for eBooks is probably the Kindle app, right? To a lesser extent Nook, and various indie booksellers get some attention as well. However, the functionality you get from the books from these sources are pretty much the same. Say what you will about iBooks, but it offers a more robust multimedia experience. The new Inkling eBook app offers a similar take on eBooks, except its cross platform.

This is mainly a platform for non-fiction textbooks, how-to, and other educational content. Inkling offers everything from technology to cooking and includes books from most of the major eBook publishers. Like other stores, it also offers a sample of all the books so you can see what it's like.

The books in Inkling are vertical scrolling and broken up into sections. Each section has a little over-scroll section at the end to signify you're at the end, thus providing a quick way to keep your bearings while scrolling quickly. There are also small breaks in the scroll bar on the right to indicate chapters/sections. The coolest thing about the books is the implementation of slideshows, high-resolution images, and videos right in the text. Just tap on the element, and it does its thing without sending you to a webpage or taking you out of the book.

The pricing for Inkling books varies quite a bit. There are more general interest books about art and travel, but also very specific niche content like Modernist Cuisine and a variety of medical textbooks. You might pay $9.99 for some books, while $80 to a few hundred is common for specialized content.

The experience of using the app is very solid. The books load quickly, scrolling is fluid, and the multimedia content opens instantly. The interface is mostly compliant with the Android design guidelines, and it works on both phones and tablets. One thing I'm not enthused about is that Inkling boots you into the browser to buy books, rather than running an in-app browser or using in-app purchases. Sure, the company probably doesn't want to give Google a 30% cut, but some way to build web purchasing into the app (like the Kindle app) would be nice.

Inkling isn't going to be necessary for everyone, but if you're looking to learn something new, this app and platform are worth checking out. It's much more engaging than a simple Kindle book.