The Oxford Dictionary describes an app as “a selfcontained program or piece of software designed to fulfil a particular purpose; an application, especially as downloaded by a user to a mobile device: apparently there are these new apps that will actually read your e-mails to you”. As we know, voice to e-mail apps certainly are available. Africa Telecoms went out to find the best apps available for BlackBerry and Android. We wanted to include Apple, Nokia and Windows Phone 7 apps but unfortunately we did not receive devices in time for this article. Five apps have been chosen for each device. They are not ranked in any particular order but simply as the Top Five Apps for each device that we have found.
Blackberry - The Device - Torch 9800 using Blackberry OS6
The new-look Facebook social media app on BlackBerry is certainly a huge improvement on the first version with far superior looks and functionality and more Facebook-like navigation. Gone is the horizontal menu across the top – now there are two navigation grids. One gives an overall view of all areas of your Facebook profile from newsfeeds, places, photos and the rest. The other gives you a full notifications overview covering notifications (all including incoming chat messages), messages and friend requests. Overall the look and feel has been hugely improved, although it is still true to Facebook, which is great. On the downside as far as I can see the photo loader is still slower than on other devices with similar specs. However, this looks as if it could be an app optimisation issue rather than a BlackBerry hardware spec issue.
This is a protection/security app for BlackBerries. Once you have done your backup and configuration of BlackBerry Protect, you can remotely block your device if necessary; and if you forget where you have left your phone, Protect will tell you on Google Maps where it is. Unfortunately Google Maps is not yet detailed enough to tell you that your device is under the cushion on your couch but the info is still fairly useful. Should your phone get stolen, with Protect you now have options. You can either institute or change a password until the device is found. Lock the device. Or remote wipe the device. One handy feature here before you wipe the data is that you can do a remote backup, as it is unlikely you will lose or have the device stolen straight after you have backed it up. And that way when you do a restore on a new device all will be as it was the last time you had the device in your hand. The only downside I can see is that if BES has ever been installed on the device Protect cannot be loaded as the backup rights will still sit with your IT Admin. Overall this is a great app with some nifty features.
FNB Banking App
This is unfortunately a South African only application and is also available on Android and Apple OSs. This world first has set FNB apart from all banks worldwide as a true innovator. Using the app is amazingly simple and the design is great. Luckily, as an FNB account holder myself, on the day of launch I downloaded the app and now it is really quite indispensible. It has full transactional capabilities, transferring funds between your own accounts and making third party payments – all now possible with this app. It has a Branch Locator connected to Google Maps should you need to get to a branch while travelling around South Africa. They have also bundled FNB Connect with the app, which is useful as over WiFi you now have free access to FNB call centres. While travelling abroad this could prove to be invaluable – rather than paying roaming fees and suffering with potentially bad call quality, you will have a direct VOIP connection to your bank. There is also a live Forex tracker, which in the current times of financial instability and volatility could be handy while travelling. For version 1.0 this is a very slick app.
This is a great app for those who have a vested interest in the financial markets through owning their own portfolio of stocks or are simply just interested. It contains information from most markets including South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Zambia and Tanzania, to name a few. Looking up stock quotes, exchange rates and financial news has never been easier. The app gives you the number of times the last quote was downloaded and so you are always able to track how old the individual quotes are. Another useful feature is that each quote on opening gives you a 52-week graph showing historic levels at a glance, giving you an easy indication as to how the stock is trending over time. Another useful feature of this app is the podcast section that allows you to listen to a variety of Bloomberg podcasts. This could be useful while travelling if you feel like a short market update. For the non-financial professional it may prove a nice to have; on the other hand if finance is your business this is definitely a hot pick for your BlackBerry.
WeatherBug Mobile Weather
This is the most comprehensive weather app found in the app store and seemingly accurate too. But to be honest we have all at some time said how useless our local weather forecaster is. Time will tell when using this app whether or not this will be the same. One certainty is that as this is developed by an American app developer the information is still coming from the same source that your local weather person is getting it from. As far as information goes, it will give you everything you need to know from a weather forecast summary to sunrise and sunset figures. This would clearly include all the regulars: wind direction and strength, temperatures, humidity and even pressures. However, on the day this article was written in Cape Town, it was a wet winter’s day with loads of rain, but WeatherBug had 0 mm as the rain figure for the day. An epic fail as it had been raining all day. Oh well, back to saying how useless weather predictions can be.
Blackberry - The Device - Playbook using QNX OS version 1.07
BlackBerry Bridge is a certain necessity for any BlackBerry Playbook owner. This is the application that tethers/syncs your Playbook device with your BlackBerry device. This is done by loading BlackBerry Bridge onto your BlackBerry mobile device and then allowing a Bluetooth connection between the device and the Playbook. The reason for the ever so important application is that the Playbook does not have its own native e-mail client, although this has been mooted as a serious downside to the Playbook. In this case Africa Telecoms would disagree with this assertion, due to the fact that no syncing is necessary between Playbook and your BlackBerry mobile device as the mail is replicated on the Playbook from the Mobile. The other benefit of this is that your BBM service is also replicated. BBM has become the most ubiquitous app for BlackBerries worldwide and with younger generations a key driver of BlackBerry Sales. Then finally, as the Playbook has no SIM slot for an additional SIM card, BlackBerry Bridge allows the user to access the internet via this Bluetooth connection using the data available on the BlackBerry device. The other benefit of this is that the BlackBerry data bundle on your device is used. Overall this app is vital to gain maximum usage out of your Playbook.
Kobo Reader is a great e-reader with an amazing store available to purchase books. It has a very similar format and style to Kindle and the Google Books app on Android. Reading is easy, navigation is simple and intuitive. With a fairly large number of free e-books available on the platform, it is a great starting point for people wanting to use an e-reader for the first time. Paid books range from as low as US$0.99 to the average bestseller going for US$9.99. Although there is not much to differentiate Kobo from other e-book stores, it is nonetheless a serious competitor in a sector that Kindle has dominated from the start.
Need for Speed: Undercover
It would be remiss to review apps for Playbook and not include the Playbook’s signature game with great graphics that are just as good as PC renditions of the game. The gameplay is incredible and steering with the Playbook makes for loads of fun. After receiving the Playbook it took me about a week to complete all levels of this game. There are various “levels” to play through and a host of Cars Available to drive, from a Nissan 240SX to a Ford Mustang 67 (great for the drifting levels) to the Pagani Zonda F. When you have unlocked enough of the game and have the necessary cash in the “career” mode of the game, the Pagani Zonda F makes previous stages that seemed really complicated and difficult to win an absolute breeze as it is so fast. This game has been a hit with a wide variety of users from my daughter Tori through to clients who have tried it; this is certainly far and away the top game app available for Playbook on App World currently. And best of all, it is a standard feature on all devices.
It might seem strange to have Kobo and Press Reader as top apps. There is a reason for this. Press Reader is a great app for keeping up to date with news. This app offers newspapers from around the world for US$0.99 per edition. And it has worldwide coverage: to name a few of the countries, there are Albania with nine newspapers, Australia with 184 issues, Haiti with one, Oman with seven. The number of African newspapers available is also impressive, including Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. What is astounding is the variety of papers and the number on offer for specific markets, with 326 US newspapers being available. Readability is great with pinch to zoom functionality being available. Press Reader also gives you seven free credits when you download the app, which is sufficient for you to choose seven newspapers before you need to pay for additional editions.
This is a very useful cloud-based application for the Playbook. As the name suggests, it is very similar to – if not a complete knock off of – Drop Box. The functionality is great, as you can login from a PC to upload or download files into your Box; and likewise with the Playbook, login, upload or download. Files can be organised in various folders. Free individual users have access to 5gb and a single file upload size of 25mb. This is upgradeable for an individual to 25gb of storage with a single file upload size of 1gb for US$9.99/month; or a business with 500gb of storage and a single file upload size of 2gb for US$15USD/month. Business users can also brand their Box with a company logo. I’m not sure the logo would sell the service but as a free cloud-based application Box it will certainly be useful. However there are some problems with the Playbook app. Files cannot be deleted from the Playbook. Although connectivity is required to download files from the cloud onto the Playbook, once downloaded the files are saved to the device. These downloads are also dated to ensure that you are viewing the most up to date version if multiple persons are working on a file at any given time.
Android Mobile - The Device - Motorola MB525 using Android 2.1 (Froyo) with Motoblur
In the search for new and interesting apps on Android Market, Hot Apps is certainly a must use. This little app search app gives you a great view of apps that are currently trending on Marketplace. You can browse by “Hot Today”, “All Time” or “Best of 2010” tabs. It is an incredibly easy to use and intuitive app. The most interesting way to find apps is the “shake to discover apps”. This is simply a random selection of apps that comes onto the device’s screen. It might not be terribly useful but it is a fun way to discover apps that you might not necessarily have ever downloaded. The only downside is that the search criterion for apps is currently not customizable, which would be a useful addition. The only other fail that became evident while using this app is its inability to ignore apps that you are currently using.
Many people have their doubts about the new social media entrant Google+. But … has Google ever done anything that has not been hugely successful? Well, some might look at the Nexus and question the success of the device. However, with 20 million users having registered for the service in the first three weeks of operation, it makes a compelling case. Then with Google’s search page receiving around one billion users daily, there could be a huge conversion of users when Google+ launches in earnest. The Google+ app on Android is easy to use and requires a small amount of understanding as the terminology is different from the likes of Facebook and Twitter. By far the most impressive feature of Google+ is the handling of photos, shared by you or your circles. The default folders are for “photos from your Circles”, “photos of you” (tagged), “your albums”, and “from your phone”. The “from your phone” folder even allows photos to be automatically uploaded from your device. These photos do however remain private until such time as you “publish” them to your Google+ profile. Photo sharing has never been easier and required less effort.
This is a great mind mapping tool for giving some organisation to your thoughts. If you tend to sit in meetings and or conferences and doodle this might be a useful tool for you. The Oxford Dictionary defines a mind map as “a diagrammatic method of representing ideas, with related concepts arranged around a core concept”. This is exactly what you can do with Thinking Space: instead of doodling, make pictures of the content in the meeting or the conference session you are in. it is very similar to doodling but far more useful that the reams of little doodle notes many people find in their possession. For tertiary education this app would prove invaluable for taking notes in lectures; although using it on a mobile phone could take some getting used to, compared with using it on a larger form tablet where it is perfect. The app itself is incredibly easy to use and even if you have never done mind maps, the user interface is very simple and in no time you will be mind mapping your way through your daily routine.
Talk to Me
This is an ingenious combination of Voice Recognition, Google Translate, and Text-to- Speech technologies. Best of all, this is a free to download app on Android. This is a definite must have for international travellers. It allows you speak a phrase into your Android device and it will recognise what you are saying and type it in your home language on the screen (this is to enable any correction of the voice recognition) and then repeat the phrase in a language of your choice. With what seems like a never-ending list of languages that it can translate, the only catch is that not all come with speak-back translations. These additional languages are available to purchase. But from an African perspective, for it to include Afrikaans and Swahili I was well impressed. I tested the speak-back translations from English to German and Spanish (this will be useful at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next year) and even with my limited knowledge of these languages, they certainly sounded like German and Spanish!
This is another app that will probably turn out to be more fun than functional. But once you download it you may easily find yourself measuring the distances around your home or office. Or checking the height of arbitrary objects. Don’t worry, you are not alone. This is really just about some fairly basic trigonometry being implemented on a mobile device. These days the processing power of most mobile devices is more than sufficient to run extremely complex programs – so it is not surprising that we are seeing apps like this service that can calculate heights and distances using trig. Although not very useful, it is one of those apps you are likely to use as you say to a friend: “How tall do you think … is?” and you answer: “Well, let me check how close you are.” And I certainly can’t see builders and architects checking site measurements using an application like this with fairly enormous variances.
(Although it would be interesting to see how the buildings turned out if they did ...)
Android Tablet - The Device - Motorola XOOM Tablet using Android 3.1 (Honeycomb)
Angry Birds has been the most successful app to date, with over 250 million downloads up to June 2011, an average of 3.33 million hours a day spent playing Angry Birds across all platforms and over 40 million monthly users of the app. The Apple IOS version of Angry Birds is a paid-for application whereas the Android version used for this review is the free version. Rovio, the developers of Angry Birds, found another way to monetise this app by providing in-app advertising and this is still generating Rovio in excess of US$1 million a month in revenues. Playing Angry Birds on a large format tablet like the Xoom is a far cry from playing the game on the smaller form mobile phone devices. With the graphics Angry Birds is really coming into its own and making game play far more engaging. And Rovio is not done with Angry Birds either: in a recent interview with Venture Beat, the chief marketing officer of Rovio, Peter Vesterbacka, stated: “We are betting everything on Angry Birds. We want to be the first entertainment brand with a billion fans. That will take us two or three years to do. Next year, we want to be the leading entertainment brand in China.”
Chrome to Phone
This is a great app if you are a Chrome browser user on your desktop or laptop. It quite literally takes links from your PC chrome browser and pushes the link onto your tablet. It is very easy to install: simply add the Chrome to Phone extension onto your PC browser and an icon becomes available. Once Chrome to Phone is installed on your tablet, it is simple to push any content from your browser to your tab. Great if you are busy reading an article and need to leave for a meeting or your daily commute; just push it onto your mobile device for your reading/researching pleasure on the move. The only improvement I can suggest would be a reverse functionality of pushing links from your tablet to your PC. This would certainly make the app more useful overall as there are times when you want to carry on reading or working using a link on your device.
This is another nice to have app, although its usefulness on a device the size of the Motorola Xoom might come into question. Holding the Xoom up to take pictures inconspicuously is not likely to happen. However, if you have taken photos and need to crop them, make minor adjustments to contrasts, etc, this is certainly the app for you. Or generally if you like tinkering and playing with photos before sharing in a myriad different ways. Adobe has done a great job of fitting some fairly highend photo editing technologies into this app and it is still a free download app on Marketplace. It allows for changes in brightness, contrast, changing the colour scale of the image, and creating borders for images. Overall this is a great app for the happy snappers who are never quite happy with their snap work.
Kindle for Android
Amazon has positioned Kindle as the leader in the e-book space with a variety of offerings including the Kindle Wireless Reader. Amazon launched the Android app for Kindle in June 2010. The Kindle store currently has over 900,000 books available, with prices ranging from free to US$9.99 for latest releases. This seems to be the average across all the various platforms where e-books can be purchased. The version of Kindle designed specifically with tablets in mind for the Android’s upgraded Honeycomb OS has seen improvements in layout and optimisation for the standard size of tablets between 7 and 10 inch devices. A great functionality of the Android app is that Whispersync automatically syncs your last page read, bookmarks, notes and highlights across all your Kindle devices. This includes the PC application, the Kindle device and any apps you have running. Granted this is based on the fact that you log into each application using the same login details. Reading using this application is great, with crystal clear text display and amazingly clear graphics when viewing magazines. Overall a very well put together app that runs smoothly and very efficiently.
Plume for Twitter is a powerful Twitter application for Android. The latest version being used for this review has been optimised for Honeycomb. Tweetdeck had set the standard for desktop Twitter applications. However the Android app version has not been optimised for Tablets – or Honeycomb for that matter. Plume sets itself apart from other apps in that it is fully customizable and can handle more than one Twitter account with ease. Multiple account management has never been easier, with each account given different colours, which makes tracking of these accounts within one client easier than ever. The free version of this app comes with one advertisement and with the premium paid app the ad is removed for just under US$3. However, the ad is not terribly obtrusive and so you may not want to fork out the additional cash for the premium version. The one area where Plume falls down against its largest competitors TweetDeck and HootSuite is that it currently does not support other social media offerings like Facebook or LinkedIn.