Your phone isn't so much fun without apps, but you don't want to spend your precious time dealing with apps that just don't work. The Google Play App Roundup is here to find the best of the best, and tell you all about it. Apps and games; new and newly updated. You'll find it all here. Just click on the app name to head right to the Play Store to check out the app for yourself.
This week, your home screen gets more widget-y, spacecraft need shooting, and reading gets more pleasant.
For a long time, the clear winner in Android clock/weather widgets was Beautiful Widgets. Other apps copied that formula, but none were able to bring anything truly new to the table. That was only the case until the new 3.0 update to HD Widgets rolled out. Now, this app is a true competitor and more than welcome on my phone and tablet home screens.
What you get with this app, in case you weren’t aware, is a series of clock, weather, and hardware toggle widgets. You can certainly assemble this functionality with various other apps, but HD Widgets puts things together in a very nice package.
To use HD Widgets, just head into your widget listings and pick the widget that suits you best. There are clocks, weather widgets, forecasts, and various combinations thereof. There are actually quite a lot of widgets, but you can disable some of the ones you don’t need in the HD Widgets settings.
When you’ve chosen your widget, you’ll go to a configuration screen where you can tweak the look and feel. For simple widgets, like the small weather widgets, you just pick some backgrounds, fonts, and things of that sort. The larger multi-faceted widgets have a ton of options. Not only can you choose the background and font, but the content can be tweaked.
Taking the large tablet-friendly header widget as an example, you can pick from forecasts or settings toggles on the right side of the clock. If you go for toggles, there are several different configurations. All the colors for these buttons can also be chosen.
As with any app that allows extensive control of the UI, you can easily make a horribly unattractive layout. Picking smart colors and fonts will help you avoid that, though. The elements are there to make a very ICS-like widget complete with the Roboto font and ICS-blue styling.
The weather and forecast areas will pull up HD Widgets’ built-in weather display when tapped. It shows you the current detailed conditions and a forecast. It will also link out to your online weather service of choice. In the settings, you can also pick the default apps that are pulled up when you tap on various parts of the widgets. If you don’t want the stock calendar app to appear when you tap the date, for example, change it. The way HD Widgets handles updating your active widgets is very smart. Just open the app from the list, and all your widgets are listed across the top, letting you dive back into the editing interface. Settings and themes can be controlled on a per-widget basis.
I really like how easily these widgets can be configured, and they look great. My only complaint is that there aren’t quite enough skins for some parts of the widgets -- there are only a few backgrounds I cared for. Themes and add-ons are supported in HD Widgets 3.0, but there isn’t much since it just came out.
This app is usually $1.99, but in celebration of the 3.0 release, it’s on sale for $0.99. That’s a real steal.
Look, Xelorians is a top-down scrolling shooter, and I know that you’ve seen a million of them. But Xelorians is actually worth your time. It looks great, is designed smartly, and the difficulty level is just right.
The first thing I look for in a top-down shooter is whether or not I can actually play it. Seriously, the developers of some of these games are sadistic. The term “bullet hell” is not to be taken lightly. For those that really love that kind of thing, there are plenty of options. Xelorians is plenty difficult, if that’s what you want, but it can appeal to casual gamers too.
The controls are straightforward. Just tap and drag. Your craft will hover just in front of your finger, so as to not end up hidden. You are constantly firing, so all you have to concern yourself with is maneuvering and hitting those baddies. There is a good assortment of enemy ships to take out. Some will go down with ease, and other will take some real punishment. If you take your finger off the screen, the game pauses. I appreciate that touch.
I particularly like that when some of the tougher enemies show up, your view will zoom out to allow you more strategic maneuverability. These craft will toss out many more projectiles, and it takes more hits to kill them. Similarly, there are some really great boss fights in Xelorians.
As you go along, killing everything that comes close, you will come across various powerups. There are going to be quite a large number of gold rings. These are essentially hit points that you can accumulate up to 100. When you take a hit, you lose some points. It’s a system that I haven’t seen used often in this type of game, and I like it. Other power ups include weapon upgrades, and temporary super-weapons.
As I said, the balance of difficulty and fun-factor in this game are spot on. I felt able to dive and weave around enemy fire without feeling totally controlled by it. What I mean is that you have strategic options in this game -- there is not a single safe path to follow to avoid dying. There are 4 difficulty levels, so you’ve got your pick of frustration level. I do worry that the stages are a little long, and that can mean a lot of wasted time if you get taken out by the boss at the end of the stage.
Xelorians is detailed where it needs to be, and simpler where that is more prudent. There are a ton of great lighting effects around weapons and explosions. The backgrounds are also solid. Some of the smaller ships are a bit simple, but there is a distinct retro vibe that flows through everything.
Xelorians is $1.99, which I think is fair. A free version is available if you want to play a few stages before committing.
For many news junkies, the lack of an official Instapaper app on Android was a real problem. Not long ago the first solid third-party Instapaper app, Papermill, arrived on Android. While I like Papermill, and it does the things it really has to do, it requires you to maintain a premium subscription to Instapaper. Now Instapaper itself has finally come to Android, and it one-ups Papermill.
Instapaper is a service that allows you to save articles you come across for later consumption. Any devices connected to your Instapaper account will cache articles offline in a stripped-down format. You’ll only have the text and images when you go to view your saved content. The main screen in Instapaper is just a list of articles with the title and a snippet of the article itself. On tablets, it will be a grid of these intros.
The interface is very clean, and there is an action bar across the top that lets you edit or refresh your list. I like the way the app lets you select multiple articles in the editing interface. It’s really fast to like, archive, or delete things.
The reading interface is similarly clean, but there is a persistent menu bar at the bottom (top on tablets). It has buttons for saving, sharing, or deleting the article. There is also a button to change the text settings. I’m not crazy about this bar always being there, but it’s not a dealbreaker for me. Hopefully a future update makes that hideable.
Going back to those text settings, this is one of the reasons Instapaper is awesome. You’ve got very extensive control over how you want your articles to look. There is a brightness slider, dark mode toggle, and options for several different fonts. You can also control the size, spacing, and margins for text.
Instapaper just came out, so I’m willing to cut the developers some slack, but I’m really missing paginated reading here. All the articles are in a vertical column like the website. I hope the next update will let you split articles into pages, but it’s certainly usable as is, and not everyone wants pages anyway.
Instapaper is $2.99 in the Play Store, which seems to have spurred Papermill to drop the price to $0.99. They’re both good apps, but the new official client does not need a premium subscription to Instapaper.
That's it for the Roundup this week. Feel free to let me know if you find an app that is worthy of inclusion in this series.