My favorite Android apps of the past year
In 2014 Android expanded its reach considerably. Phones like the Moto G and Android One pushed the OS into more hands in developing countries. Android Wear officially put Google on our wrists for the first time. And larger devices like the the Nexus 6 and Galaxy Note 4 gave buyers a broad new canvas for their apps. The fact that Android is now almost everywhere means the selection of Android apps is greater than ever, and sometimes it can be a little tough to tell what's really worth buying and downloading.
So as we do every year, we're rounding off 2014 with a look at our favorite stuff from the past year. This time it's my turn to share my Android app picks — head past the break for five of the top apps I've been using in 2014.
If there's one mobile game that's worth the time of absolutely everyone with thumbs, it's Monument Valley. Ustwo's isometric, dimension-bending puzzler launched on Android earlier this year, and recently it's been expanded with even more content through the new Forgotten Shores expansion pack. Inspired by the works of artist M.C. Escher, Monument Valley has players guiding the character Ida through a surreal, beautifully crafted isometric world where perspective and reality interact in unusual ways. Monument Valley isn't a long game, nor is it massively difficult, but that means it doesn't overstay its welcome and rarely has the potential to frustrate.
Even if you're not a massive puzzle game fan, Monument Valley and Forgotten Shores are well worth their small asking price, promising a few hours of mind-bending interactive entertainment unlike anything else available.
- Download: Monument Valley
SwiftKey isn't a new arrival — well, unless you're using the recently launched iOS version — but it's an app I've installed in practically every phone I've used this year, and it's still the Android keyboard I use and recommend. Whatever secret sauce SwiftKey's using, I find its predictions are generally more accurate — whether swiping or tap-typing — than most rivals and bullt-in Android keyboards. SwiftKey's cloud integration lets you personalize your predictions based on your social network posts, as well as text messages and email. And since all this stuff is stored in the cloud, it's easy to keep it in sync between devices.
In recent months SwiftKey has added support for even more languages, while improving performance and introducing new Material Design-style keyboard skins. If you've ever become frustrated with your device's stock keyboard app, SwiftKey is a free alternative that's definitely worth a look.
- Download: SwiftKey Keyboard
Wear Mini Launcher
The past year saw the launch of Android Wear, and while Google's wearable OS remains in its infancy, third-party developers have been plugging some of the functionality gaps. For me, one big irritation is the number of taps required to launch apps and change settings, especially if you're not inclined to talk into your watch. Wear Mini Launcher addresses this in an elegant way, adding a slide-out menu bar to your smartwatch.
Swipe right once (from the leftmost edge on round watches, or the top-left corner on square ones) and you'll get a simple app list, swiping right again gives you a cluster of settings controls, including the all-important brightness slider. On watches that don't have built-in brightness sensors, this is way more convenient than finding it in the settings menu, and you also get easy access to other settings, and your phone and watch's battery readout.
Android Wear may well evolve to make voice-free navigation easier in time. Until then, Wear Mini Launcher will be on every Android watch I use.
- Download: Wear Mini Launcher
In a year of significant Google app updates, one of the most noteworthy is Google Calendar, which got a significant upgrade back when Android 5.0 Lollipop landed. In addition to a visual refresh, complete with new artwork for each month, the new Google Calendar integrates even more closely with Google's other services. Maps and photos of event locations are shown right there in the app, and Calendar's new Gmail integration even allows it to automatically detect events — such as flights and hotel stays — based on emails.
Google Calendar also got a bit smarter at detecting new events as you're typing them, adding in appropriate background art and guest details. New features like this push Google's homemade Calendar offering above many of the manufacturer-built offerings loaded onto Android phones, and if you're looking for a smarter calendar app, Google Calendar is well worth a look.
- Download: Google Calendar
If you live in the UK, this one's a no-brainer, especially considering the app itself is free. BBC iPlayer lets you stream live TV and radio from the BBC's various channels, and catch up on content you'd normally find through iPlayer on the web. In 2014 iPlayer for Android has been updated with a new design, the ability to download shows directly to your device, and higher quality streaming over 3G and 4G connections. And Chromecast support makes it easy to get all this stuff onto a larger screen, too.
- Download: BBC iPlayer
Stay tuned for more favorite app picks of 2014 from the other AC editors in the days ahead. In the meantime, be sure to check out Jerry's picks to find out what he's been using over the past 12 months. And be sure to share your own picks down in the comments!