Android Market Roundup: Settle New Lands and Snap Some Photos Too

By Ryan Whitwam

The weekly Android Market Roundup makes your phone cool.

We have heard, but cannot confirm, that your phone may actually self-destruct if you don’t have good apps on it. Yeah, we were skeptical at first too, but better to be safe than sorry, right? So this week the Android Market Roundup is out to save your phone in more ways than one. Just scan the QR code with Google Goggles or Barcode Scanner to pull up the app on your phone. Alternatively, click the app name to go to the web Market.

This week we’re cutting some rope, automating a phone, snapping some pics, and more. Don’t go anywhere before you’ve read up on these apps.

Cut the Rope ($0.99)

After a very brief exclusivity period on GetJar, Cut the Rope is now in the Android Market for your consideration. The version on Getjar is free with ads, but the Market version will cost you $0.99 and has no ads. This is a game made from equal parts puzzle and physics simulation, and it is every bit as addictive on Android as it was on iOS.

The concept is simple. You have a small green monster, called the Om Nom, in a box. Being a responsible monster owner, you want to keep the Om Nom well-fed. Predictably, monsters eat only candy. Your goal is to get the candy into Om Nom’s mouth by cutting the ropes it is dangling from. Along the way, you collect up to three stars with the candy. Sound easy? Only at first.

To cut a rope, just swipe your finger across the screen, intersecting the rope. Depending on momentum and some other interesting factors, the candy will fall in a way determined by the game’s realistic physics engine. At times, your candy might be encased in a bubble that makes it float, or maybe gravity is off, you may even have your candy shot across the screen by taught ropes.

Cut the Rope endeavors to keep the simple act of getting that candy to Om Nom fresh and interesting. There are so many little twists and features that you’re going to constantly be changing the way you play all through the game. There are some levels you have to take your time in, waiting for just the right moment to strike, and there are some that require immediate and aggressive action to pick up all three stars. As you progress, Cut the Rope is essentially teaching you how to play the game as it introduces new elements.

The graphics in Cut the Rope are very good. Parts of it have a sort of hand-drawn aesthetic that comes off really well. The physics engine, as mentioned above, is very realistic. You have to watch the candy swinging to make a lot of maneuvers possible, and that would be a lost cause if the game’s physics weren’t perfect.

There is a lot of polish happening here. Om Nom dances around and emotes to let you know how he feels about what’s happening on the screen at that moment. The sound fits nicely with the game, and the effects track feels very real to the gameplay. Everything is incredibly smooth, and that’s no small feat. We have had literally zero glitches on the Nexus S. It’s not like this is a particularly light game. It‘s just that well ported. For a dollar, you should definitely have this game.

Impel (Lite: free, Full: $0.99 via in-app purchase)

Task automation on Android is definitely one of our favorite tweaks to perform, but the existing apps can leave a little to be desired. Locale is expensive at $10 and a bit limited. Tasker is cheaper, with more options, but it is fairly complicated and difficult to use. Impel for Android is someplace between the two. It is powerful, inexpensive, and easy to use.

The main screen in Impel lists your various tasks. To add a new one, press Menu. The app will guide you through the process of creating a new task step by step. First, pick the event or events that will trigger your task. You can choose from things like headset activity, Wi-Fi network connections, time, location, power status, and more. If you want more than one event to be required to trigger your task, hit the ‘Add another event’ button after picking your first prerequisite.

The next screen asks you what you want your phone to do. Impel offers options like launching an app, changing volumes, toggling hardware features, sending SMS, loading a web page, and still more stuff. You can set multiple actions if you like just like you did above. After this you can set the conditions for the task to be triggered. This lets you specify a time range or battery level for which the task is valid.

Finally, you can pick a name and color for the task to show on the main screen. When you look at the entry for your task, it shows the name, and explains in plain English what the task does, and when. For instance, one of our's says, “Launch Doggcatcher and Set Volume for Music to 50% when headset is plugged in.” How cool is that?

Next to each task is an on-off toggle so you can manually disable a task, but if you design it well, that shouldn’t be necessary. Each task can be tested from the long-press menu. We have found that Impel works very well at triggering its tasks. Battery use when you are using GPS coordinates as a trigger event is higher than we are used to with Locale. It seems to be pinging the GPS too often.

Impel takes what is often a complicated process, and makes it streamlined and easy to follow. The free version of the app lets you have just two active tasks, and ads will show at the bottom of the screen. For $0.99, all that goes away and you are unencumbered. We think Impel is a great automation app for a reasonable price. Check this one out.

HDR Camera+ ($2.99)

HDR photography on Android has, thus far, been lacking. Most of the apps that purport to provide this functionality are just applying filters that simulate the effect. HDR Camera+ is actually taking bracketed shots to make a real high dynamic range image. Our testing with the app has gone surprisingly well.

The app itself is super easy to use. Just open it, and tap the screen to shoot. Your camera will focus, then take three shots, one after another. The speed will vary depending on the phone. It is not writing each of these individual shots to the device (unless you select that option in the settings, which you probably shouldn’t). The app assembles the three bracketed shots into a single HDR image with colors saturated across a wider brightness range. HDR pictures often have a sort of hyper-real look.

HDR above, Standard below

Getting the final image can take 20-30 seconds at times, but that’s just telling you it’s actually doing some real work, not just applying a filter. You get a quick preview of the final image, then it will be scaled down to the resolution you’ve selected. You can also tweak settings for colors, contrast, and exposure. These will all alter the way HDR Camera+ assembles the final shot.

When taking pictures, you do not need to hold the phone perfectly still, which actually makes the app usable. A little wavering will be compensated for in the software rendering. Moving objects, however, won’t work for HDR shots.

You aren’t going to see results like you’d get from manual bracketing on a DLSR, but the HDR images produced in HDR Camera+ are the best we’ve seen on Android. This app will run you $2.99 in the Market.

Catan (About $4, in-app campaign additional $4)

It’s taken some time, but Settlers of Catan has arrived on Android. The electronic version of the popular board game has graced other platforms, and done quite well. How does it stack up on Android? Rather well in our opinion. But be ready to drop some coin on it. Catan sells for a little over $4, and if you want the campaign mode (which you don’t need) that will be another $4.

The board game experience is well-represented here. At the start of each game, the numbered hexagonal game tiles are laid out randomly. Each tile is of one of the 5 resource types. Each player builds a town at the intersection of several tiles. There are a lot of rules about where these can be built and where they can’t, but you’ll catch on fairly fast. Your build menu, along with other in-game options can be pulled up by tapping the black button off to the right.

At the start of each turn, the player (or CPU) rolls virtual dice. The number that comes up triggers the tile with that number. If you have a settlement bordering that tile, you get one of that resource type. This is how you build more roads and towns. If you don’t have the necessary resources, you can trade with other players, or trade a larger number of a different resource to the bank.

There is a huge amount of strategy involved in playing a good game of Catan. You can’t just build where ever you fancy. Rather, evaluate the resources, where your opponents are building, and your own vulnerabilities. You can also use resources to buy cards that give you special abilities to be played when needed. Speaking of resources, watch out for the thief. When a player rolls a 7, they get to move the thief to a new tile. As long as he is there, no resources can be collected. If you’ve hung your strategy on tightly clustered towns, this will ruin your day.

You win in Catan by getting the correct number of victory points. Victory points are awarded for various things like having the longest road, or the most towns. We could go on all day about Catan strategy, but we’re not really that great at it, and the Internet is full of Settlers nerds that will tell you more than you ever wanted to know.

The visuals in Catan are simple, but get the idea across. Most of the time you will be looking at a bird’s-eye view of the game board. The tile art is very nice and authentic. You can choose between the original graphics, US version, or new German version. Fans of the game will appreciate that. There are some character animations, but they’re not really the stars of the show.

You can zoom in and out with multi-touch gestures, and just drag the screen to pan. This feels very fluid to us. The sound in Catan are better than we would have expected from a board game. It all has a rather jaunty quality to it and the sound effects add to the experience of playing.

We dislike the lack on online multiplayer in Catan. It’s got “hot seat” play, which basically means hand your phone to someone else. No thanks. It might be pricey, but Catan will be a good time if you like board games in general, or Settlers of Catan in particular.

ObscuraCam (Free)

Here we have an app that exemplifies the highest ideals of privacy and security. it also happens to use some damn cool technology to do it. ObscuraCam allows you to detect, and remove faces from any picture you take with the app, or already have in your phone. This app will also strip out any EXIF data in the image so you can be totally private.

When you open the app, you have two options: Take Picture, and Choose Media. Whichever way you choose to go, you’ll end up with an image for ObscuraCam to analyze. It does a quick sweep to find the faces and places pixelated boxes on them. If it missed one, you can just long press to get another box. We suggest zooming (with multi-touch) in to resize this.

If you want to remove a redaction, just tap on it and select Delete Tag. This menu is also where you can edit tag sizes and positions, switch to a different type of distortion, and even choose to pixelate everything but the tagged area. When you are done, just use the Save command in the menu to store the image on the SD card.

We found the face detection algorithm to be about 80% accurate overall. For images where everyone is looking right at the camera, it was close to perfect. Adding new tags can be trying at times, but this is just the first beta release. ObscuraCam is free in the Market.

That’s it for this week, but we had fun, didn’t we? And now your phone won’t explode, so double win. Let us know how these apps worked out for you. Drop us a line if you’ve got any leads on great apps, too.