Just got an Android tablet? Congratulations: You now have a device that can do pretty much everything your computer can, and more. But you need to grab some apps to get the most out of your new tablet, as the real fun starts when you download and install software from the Google Play store. Here are our picks for the essential apps that every new tablet user should try, the apps that can make your tablet faster, cooler, more flexible, and more useful than it was when you first fired it up.
SwiftKey 3 Tablet Keyboard
The on-screen keyboard that comes with Android is okay for typing short notes, but typing anything longer gets old pretty quickly. A better keyboard such as SwiftKey ($4) can make you a faster, more accurate typist by allowing you to customize the keyboard to your typing style. These customization features include how the software autocorrects typos, and how it produces predictions that guess the word before you finish it. When you type a couple of letters, SwiftKey offers a number of guesses at the word, any of which you can select with a touch. If you frequently use unusual terms, you can easily add them to a custom dictionary, allowing the software to recognize the words after a few letters.
SwiftKey also provides two keyboard layouts: the conventional full keyboard and a split layout that puts all of the letter keys under the thumbs; it's ideal for typing when you want to keep both hands on the tablet.
Although SwiftKey is more comfortable to use and more flexible than Google’s standard on-screen keyboard, it is still not as good as a physical keyboard, especially for longer typing sessions. Another option to help with that is Swype, which comes preinstalled on many tablets and is available as a free download. Swype doesn't have quite the same selection of features (and the current freely available beta version crashed occasionally in our tests), but it does offer the same layouts, a one-handed key-swipe mode, and speech-recognition typing.
Want to turn your tablet into an instant-messaging powerhouse? Download Trillian (free). Rather than struggle with different apps for each IM account, you can handle them all at once. It supports all the major services, including AIM, Google Chat, Twitter, and Yahoo Messenger.
To use it, you set up a Trillian account, which stores your credentials in the cloud. The Trillian Android client allows you to log in to the online service, after which you can send or receive messages on any of your accounts, set individual statuses, and send and receive files. It also stores your chat logs online so that you can seamlessly move a conversation from device to device without losing track (you can disable this feature if necessary). It supports background notifications, too, so you can still be available while you're playing Angry Birds Star Wars.
I found no major issues, except that the system sometimes left me logged on to the IM services even after I lost connectivity, giving the false impression that I was available. That's a result of the proxy between the user and the IM service—the proxy does not always notice the disconnection. The free version includes advertisements; you can remove them by buying the pro version, which costs $12 a year.
Most Android tablets (those with Android 4.0) come with a built-in Web browser imaginatively called Browser. Google introduced its Chrome browser for tablets with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, but you can add this browser to a non-Jelly Bean tablet at no charge. Compared with Google’s previous stock offering, Chrome is much faster, better looking, and easier to use. It offers most of the options of its desktop cousin, except support for Chrome extensions or apps. Strong HTML5 support does allow for a lot of fancy browser-based tricks, though, and browsing itself is much smoother and faster than in Firefox. Chrome for Android also supports syncing of bookmarks, open tabs, and passwords through a Google account, which makes it easy to move a browsing session from one device to another.
If you use Firefox on your PC, though, you might want to consider loading up the Android version of Mozilla's browser. Although it is not as fast as Chrome on Android, it does offer bookmark and history syncing, so Firefox fans can easily share bookmarks across devices.
Strong passwords are a necessity of modern life, but they can be impossible to remember. 1Password Reader allows you to get around this problem by securely copying your passwords onto your tablet from the PC or Mac version of the program. In addition to passwords, the app can store details such as identities (name, address, phone number, and the like), secure notes, and credit card details. You can copy these encrypted details manually or sync them through a Dropbox account (Dropbox itself does not need to be installed), and then copy them to the clipboard or use them to directly access a site via the AutoLogin feature within 1Password Reader.
A few drawbacks: The app lacks an automatic or scheduled sync with Dropbox, and the AutoLogin feature works only with the very basic browser built into the app. To use a password with another, better browser such as Chrome, you have to copy it to the clipboard, which is far more awkward than on the desktop version (which can automatically fill out and submit usernames and passwords). Here's hoping that developer AgileBits will look at integrating the app with other Android browsers in future versions. In the meantime, however, 1Password Reader offers a simple, straightforward way to keep your passwords more secure yet still readily available.
Your new tablet is cool, but it can't do everything. Sometimes you need to be able to reach out over the Internet and control another computer to retrieve a file. TeamViewer for Remote Control is a great option for remotely controlling other computers from an Android tablet, because it works with pretty much every type of computer (including Windows, Mac, and Linux machines) and it can even work the other way, allowing you to control many Android tablets from your PC. The combination of the TeamViewer application on the computer and the free Android client allows you to connect remotely to the computer with a six-digit ID and password; you don't need to set up an account. Doing so offers some benefits, though: When you log in to your TeamViewer account, you can see all of the computers attached to the account.
Once logged in, you can transfer files between the two, or remotely control the computer as if you were sitting in front of it. The client also allows you to change the screen resolution of the remote computer—a huge help if you use a big monitor on the remote computer and have a smaller tablet.
Another alternative is LogMeIn, which has a similar set of features but allows file transfers only if you subscribe to the paid service.
QuickOffice Pro HD
Microsoft has not yet produced a version of Office for local use on an Android tablet, but QuickOffice Pro HD ($8) gets close. With this suite, you can open and edit Office files, including Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. The app can also retrieve documents from cloud storage accounts, so you can grab, edit, and save a document stored on, say, Dropbox from within the program. (You can view PDF files and add notes to them, but you can't edit them.)
It isn't a perfect solution, though: QuickOffice choked on some of my more complex Excel spreadsheets, and some Word documents wound up incorrectly rendered. In addition, the editing features are much more basic than those of the full version of Microsoft Office, so don't expect QuickOffice to replace Word on your laptop. QuickOffice does include a wide range of features, however, such as a spelling checker and the ability to create tables and import images. Combine this app with TeamViewer, and you have a solution for the darn-I-left-my-laptop-at-work-and-I-have-to-show-the-sales-figures-to-the-boss-at-dinner problem.
Next page: Other essential Android tablet apps