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Google Play App Roundup: Pixlr Express, Waking Mars, and Echofon

By Ryan Whitwam

Pics, Mars, and tweets

It's time again for the Google Play App Roundup. This is the weekly feature that gives you the skinny on everything that's going down in the world of Android apps. Just click on the app name to head right to the Google Play Store and download it for yourself.

This week we've got a great free image editor, a game about another world, and a new Twitter client.

Pixlr Express

That phone in your pocket is probably the most used camera you have, but it might not take the best snapshots. You don’t have to just take whatever you get, though. Photo editing apps are not in short supply on Android, but a new offering from Autodesk is impressive and free. Pixlr Express has a ton of tools, both fun and fundamental.

The app starts up by asking if you want to take a picture, or choose one. I suspect most of the time you’ll be editing a pic you’ve already taken. You can grab images from any app on your phone that plugs into Android’s photo menus.

The editing interface is very intuitive and clean. Your image is front and center, and editing categories are split up into four categories down at the bottom. On the far left is Adjustments, where you’ll find all the basic tools to make your images look a little nicer. When you tap the button, all the tools slide out and cover the bottom half of the screen.

You’ve got everything from cropping and rotating, to brightness and focal blur. The entire process is touch based, and none of the changes are saved until you give the okay. Some of this, like the focal blur tool that fakes depth of field, could be described as cheating. Still, you can make a mediocre image look pretty nice (and being a Galaxy Nexus owner, I know something about mediocre pictures).

The other three tool boxes are a little less useful, but still appealing to the Instagram set. There are Effects (film effects) with a few dozen choices. Overlay has all the “cool” lighting effects that make your pictures look like they were taken on a 20 year-old polaroid. The Border button adds, you guessed it, borders. If you’ve ever used Autodesk’s Pixlr-o-Matic, this is basically a more expansive version of that.

I think the photo adjustment features are the real selling point. It all works well and the app is very fast at processing changes. The hipster editing is just a nice bonus. Pixlr Express is free in Google Play, so pick it up.

Waking Mars

In the indistinct future, humanity is finally getting boots on Mars. At first things are going fine, but then a probe goes missing while exploring subterranean caverns. In Waking Mars you go down to check it out and discover an amazing living ecosystem. The celebration doesn’t last long before your basecamp is swallowed up by the tunnels, and you have to explore the caverns to survive.

The gameplay in Waking Mars is unique -- I can’t think of a mobile game that’s doing anything like it. The organisms have been dubbed Zoa by your smart-mouthed AI sidekick, and you need to research their characteristics to make your way. The game cleverly guides through your first few interactions with the Zoa, but from there, you're on your own.

The game is split up into caverns; sometimes very large ones. To progress, you have to generate more biomass by getting Zoa to grow and reproduce. This leaches nutrients from the soil and causes tough wall-like Zoa to collapse and expose the way forward. You will use Zoa seed pods to handle most of the dirty work. Just select the pod you want, and drag a line to throw it into fertile soil.

Some kinds of Zoa are large, but will only grow in certain conditions. Others are more universal but give you less biomass. You’ll just come across some pods, and other have to be harvested from the Zoa themselves. As you explore, your research log will catalog the various Zoa and keep track of how they eat, reproduce, and so on. You have to take advantage of that data to get anywhere in Waking Mars.

Here’s an example of what you might need to do: Prax Zoa are hearty Zoa with lots of biomass, but they attack if you get too close. Their seeds are harder to come by, but you can cause them to spit a few out if you feed them. Being carnivorous, you need to feed them a Phyta. The Phyta is a Zoa that walks around like an animal of sorts. Just scare a Phyta near the Prax, and it goes to town and drops a few Prax seeds. Plant those pods, and you get more biomass. Cool, right?

The controls here are fairly easy to use. Press on each side of the screen to walk in that direction. If you press up above your character, your jetpack will flare to life and fly wherever you drag your finger. The movement controls work fine, but the entire screen is basically your control area. It can get a little tedious to be tapping all over the place, especially on a tablet.

The visuals and audio in Waking Mars are phenomenal. The game draws you in and feels epic without being too hard to play. The Zoa are detailed and move in very alien ways. I love that you can often see pillars of rock and other assorted objects in the foreground, closer to the camera’s POV. The only knock I have is that the environments aren’t terribly varied. The audio is wonderful too. The music is atmospheric, even ethereal.

Waking Mars is pricey at $4.99, but it’s really worth looking at if you like a game with depth.

Echofon

Users of iOS have been using Echofon for a long time. The Play Store has been overflowing with Twitter clients for a while now, but there’s always room for a big name like Echofon. After a short beta test outside the Play Store, Echofon is available for all.

The big selling point for Echofon is that it’s incredibly clean, and looks like part of Android. The action bar, tabs, and swiping gestures are all implemented as Google intended. Rarely does a big name app go so far to follow the Holo design guidelines. You can also choose between dark and light themes, as well.

Echofon does all the usual Twitter client things; background updates, multiple accounts, in-line image previews, widgets, and more. The widgets are actually some of the best out there. They too have a Holo vibe, and you can easily see your various timelines by tapping the buttons at the bottom. Notifications come by way of push notifications in Echofon, and they work great. Most clients only notify you when the background update happens -- not Echofon. These are instant.

So there’s a lot of good here, but how about the bad? Well, the app occasionally bugs out, but it’s technically still in beta. The widget has gone blank for me a few times, and there’s a spot of lag opening pictures occasionally. There is also an ongoing bug for some users that causes the client to, somehow, eat up all your hourly API calls. Strange, but hopefully a bug that is easy to address.

The full version of Echofon is $4.99, but there is a free one if you want to take it for a spin. The free app has a persistent ad at the top of the display. It’s pretty annoying. I’m not positive that now is the time to spend $5 on this app, but it’s a close call. Keep an eye on Echofon. It could fast become one of the best clients on Android.

That's it for this week's roundup. If you find anything in the Play Store that deserves a spot on this list. let me know.