The stock Messaging app works fine, but it’s a little barebones. If you want to try a more feature rich app, we would suggest either Go SMS or Handcent. Both of these apps offer features you won’t find in the stock app, and tie into the phone’s SMS storage, so there’s no worry about missing messages.
To use one of these, just turn off notifications in the stock app, and enable them in the replacement. You also get more control over notification settings in both Go SMS and Handcent. For instance, in GO SMS you can define your own vibration pattern down to the millisecond. If your phone has a notification light, you can also control the color with both apps.
Visually, Handcent and GO are familiar looking. You have your messages threaded by conversation, and each conversation is displayed as a back and forth chat. There is full skinning support in both of these apps. While Handcent has more themes, we think that Go SMS looks a little better.
You can also view and reply to new messages without opening the apps. Go and Handcent have the option to have a popup box display incoming SMS. From there you can reply to messages if you like or jump into the main app.
If you want security, these apps also offer password protection of the apps themselves, and in the case of Handcent, individual threads. Perhaps best of all, both of these apps are free.
Web Browser: Dolphin HD or Firefox
We have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the stock browser. It has that minimalistic Google aesthetic, which makes for a speedy and clean UI. But it takes so many functions and either removes them, or hides them in menus. If you’re looking for a change, Dolphin Browser HD or Firefox could be right for you.
Dolphin HD offers less of a departure from stock, but it still adds some important features like real tabs, add-ons, and themes. It uses the stock browser engine behind the scenes, so that means it will still be able to run Flash content on the web. In our testing, we have consistently found Dolphin HD to be a match for the stock browser in terms of speed. Dolphin Browser HD is free in the Market.
If you want to really change it up, our fiends at Mozilla have something you might like. Firefox for Android has gone from being a janky experiment in coding, to a usable, feature rich application. As we noted when the browser exited beta, it can keep up with the stock app, and can even best it in loading some pages. We are also happy with the page rendering, which was previously quite bad.
Firefox has a unique set of toolbars that slide out from the edges of the screen. This is where extensions and open tabs are managed. Firefox for Android handles all the necessary tasks of a browser with elegance. Our only real concern is some very occasional UI lag and the large memory footprint. If you need Flash, Firefox will be a let down; no support from Adobe yet. Firefox is, of course, free.
Google Talk: Imo Beta
The included Google Talk app is great for chatting with friends on Gtalk, but Imo Beta lets you do more. We like this app because of its attractive interface, and solid management of multiple chats. The stock app can sometimes be a little clumsy if you’re engaged in more than one conversation.
Imo Beta allows you to use your existing IM accounts on Google Talk, Skype, Facebook Chat, MSN, ICQ/AIM, Yahoo, and more. You don’t need to create an account with Imo if you don’t want to, but you will get some added abilities if you do. One such perk is backing up your chats to the Imo website. Imo also supports multimedia IMs with audio, image, or video files.
The UI is friendly and easy to navigate. The first tab manages all your accounts, the second has your buddy list, and the last has all your active chats in a list. The buddy list properly indicates user status on multiple networks; something some apps fail to do.
We love the handy search bar on the buddy list page, and there are a plethora of settings to mess with. In our testing, there’s been no issue with battery life either. Imo Beta is free in the Market.
Google Navigation is excellent in a lot of situations. The only thing it still can’t quite handle is prolonged use the absence of a data connection. Since it only caches a single trip and your local area, it might not be much help on a roadtrip where you lose cell data. Luckily, Navigon has a full-featured navigation app for Android.
Navigon will require a 1.5GB download of mapping data to your SD card, but it will not need a data connection. That’s not the only advantage it has. You get some cool navigation essentials like lane assist and speed limit notifications. Google’s Navigation product does not offer this.
Navigon has both 2D and 3D map views and the directions if offers are right on time. Sometimes Google Navigation can be just a little late with directions. The only real drawback for Navigon is the price, which is currently hovering around $40 for the US version. If you need offline navigation, Navogon works well.
As for Google Maps, that’s a tougher question. The Maps app is really one of the best mapping experiences to be had on a mobile device. MapQuest does offer a solid experience, though. The maps it provides are detailed and it has an easily accessible search bar. You can pull up the menu slider at the bottom to do a quick search for various types of businesses.
The app does understand multitouch, but it does not use the vectored graphics that the Maps app does. As such, zooming is slower as the app refreshes. MapQuest does include traffic conditions via a menu option, but we found its data less expansive than Google Maps.
When you use MapQuest to locate a place, you can tap the navigation button next to it to jump right into turn-by-turn navigation mode. This is an alternative to Navigon (discussed above), but it still needs a network connection for maps. We have found that MapQuest actually does quite a good job at navigation. Considering the app shows your location as a car, we imagine this is a major point for the developers. Overall, MapQuest is a lot better than we expected it to be. MapQuest is free in the Market.
The Android Gallery was updated in Android 2.1, but for whatever reason it still seems a little too slow. We like the floating 3D albums and cool effects, but sometimes raw speed is a bigger draw. Enter QuickPic, which as the name suggests is all about being snappy.
Anything your standard Gallery app can do, QuickPic can do faster. It usually loads up images instantly upon opening (and we have over 1000 items in our various albums). The first time you use QuickPic it may actually seem not so quick, but that’s because it is caching thumbnails of your content. That’s part of why it’s so speedy in daily use.
You can swipe through images, pinch-zoom, set as background, and even crop images. You can set the Android system to call up QucikPic in place of the stock Gallery as well. We also like that you can sort images in a number of ways. This is an option absent from the stock app. QuickPic is free, and we really like it.
Camera: Camera360 or Camera Zoom FX
Oh, Android camera app, it’s not that we don’t like you, you’re really special to us. We just like this other app more and want to take pictures with it. We cool? Camera360 and Camera Zoom FX are both excellent apps and could easily replace your camera app. Even on modified version of Android with better camera pps you might find them of use.
Camera360 offers you a slew of options when you first start it. You can add in dozens of different types of effects and filters that are applied with post-processing. This makes the process of taking images very fast because the app can apply effects in the background while you frame up the next shot. Camera360 is fairly good at faking complicated effects like HDR and tilt-shifting.
The regular camera mode is great as well. It has the option to add overlays to better frame your image (who doesn’t love the golden rectangle?). There is even anti-shake compensation, though it comes as the cost of a bit of resolution. When you take a pic, you can have Camera360 show you a preview for your approval. If you don’t like it, the photo can be deleted on the spot.
Camera Zoom FX is a bit of a different beast. The UI isn’t quite as nice, but it starts up scary fast. All the better for getting that shot. The interface has a large slider at the bottom to zoom in up to 6x, but this is digital so you lose resolution. This app too has a fair number of filters and effects you can use, but we feel they are not quite as good as those in Camera360.
To take pictures with Camera Zoom FX, you just press on the screen anyplace there isn’t a button. Yep, this app is all about speed. No hunting for a button for you. The app will preview the pic so you can decide on filters there if you want. You can also discard the image. We love how fast this app can acquire images, it’s kind of uncanny.
Both of these apps are excellent replacements for the stock app. Camera360 has a trial version and a $3.99 paid edition. Camera Zoom FX is a little more expensive at about $4.85.
Alarm/Clock: Gentle Alarm
The Android alarm and clock combo app is light on the options. And you’ll have to forgive us if we don’t much care for being rousted from slumber abruptly. Gentle Alarm has a huge number of options and can ably take the place of the stock app.
Gentle Alarm’s big selling point is that it lets you easily configure any sound you like to ramp up over a few minutes. That way you slowly wake up instead of being shocked back to consciousness. It also has some interesting options like pre-alarms and safe alarms. A pre-alarm will play very, very softly at a predetermined time before your alarm. If you are in a light sleep, this will catch you and you wake up feeling totally awake. The safe alarm is a failsafe in case you missed the gentle wake up call.
Gentle alarm has a night display that mimics the stock clock app. You can control the brightness by sliding a finger up and down the left side of the screen. If you have an AMOLED screen prone to burn in, you can have the clock display slowly move around to avoid that.
Gentle Alarm has the ability to pop up captchas when it goes off too. There’s no better way to make sure you’re awake. This app bests the stock app in more ways than we can go into, really. The full version goes for about $2.84. The trial works on every day but Wednesday.
In case you didn’t notice, we went over the state of Android’s music app recently. If you missed it, here’s the skinny. The stock app has gotten better, but if you want to best overall player (excluding cloud player stuff), that’s PowerAMP. It’s got a dazzling UI and the feature set is excellent.
The main player interface is based around large sharp playback controls. The album art is up top, and you can swipe across it to skip tracks. At the bottom of the main playback UI is the link to the fabulous equalizer. Here you can tweak to your heart’s content, or just pick a preset. All the main functions of a music player are accomplished admirably by PowerAMP.
Digging through your files is a little more trouble than it should be. You’ll want to set Library mode as the default view, otherwise it goes by folder structure. When you do find a track or album, you can use the arrow on the right hand side to pull up a menu to play, add to queue, or add to a playlist.
The widgets you get with PowerAMP are great. There are a few different sizes from 1×4 all the way up to 4×4. There are different backgrounds and album art display options for them as well. The widgets also make an appearance on the lock screen, which is incredibly handy to have. We like that this interface pops up almost immediately when the phone is woken up. PowerAMP has a free trial, and the full version will cost you about $5.
Gmail, Email: K-9 Mail
If your only email account on the phone is Gmail, you’re probably perfectly happy with it. Android offers a great Gmail experience. But if you use other email accounts or just want something different, K-9 Mail is a top notch email app with support for IMAP push email, folder sync, and offline caching.
K-9 has a unified inbox for viewing the messages from all your accounts. The inbox view in K-9 Mail uses smaller fonts so you can see more messages on a screen. The UI is a lot cleaner than the Gmail or Email apps. There are no checkboxes next to each message. Instead you have a slim green bar next to each message. You swipe across to select it, and a green check will pop out to indicate you’ve selected the message. You can manage your mail in the expected ways, but the options pop up at the bottom when you’ve selected a message. This is faster than the stock app’s way of burying functions in the menu.
K-9 Mail does understand Gmail labels, but the threaded conversation view is not replicate here. If that’s what you’re after, stick to the stock app. Some users don’t care for the conversation view though, and Google even lets you turn it off in the web interface. Push notifications work just like the stock Gmail and Email apps.
K-9 Mail is an open source community project that is constantly being improved. As such, it is free in the Android Market.