11 essential Android tablet apps: The ultimate starter kit

Got an Android tablet? These 11 must-have apps are all optimided for Honeycomb tablets and stand ready to help you

Apps are the heart and soul of the Android tablet experience--but for new tablet owners, it isn't always easy to figure out where to begin. While Google's Android Market offers a small section of "featured" tablet apps, it doesn't provide a comprehensive list of programs that are optimized for the larger screen.

And, while most Android apps will run on a tablet, those that are built explicitly to take advantage of the devices' larger screens tend to provide the best experiences. I've spent countless hours finding and testing Android tablet apps to uncover the best of the best.

Here are 11 essential apps every Android tablet owner should consider.

SwiftKey Tablet X

Google's standard tablet keyboard is fine, but trust me, you can do better. Grab SwiftKey Tablet X, available for exactly $4.99 in the Android Market. It gives you a pimped-out keyboard that does all the hard work for you (well, most of it): SwiftKey uses a special "prediction engine" to analyze your typing habits and thereby predict your words before you type them.

I never cease to be amazed at how often SwiftKey's predictions are right (and how much key-tapping that saves). SwiftKey is fully customizable, too, with multiple color schemes and an optional split-screen mode for thumbs-only input. Altogether, this app is a must-have add-on for any Android tablet.

PicSay Pro

Android tablets pack plenty of multimedia potential, but what good is having photos if you can't edit them on the fly? PicSay Pro, available for $3.99 in the Android Market, gives you everything you need to make your images pop.

Its tablet-optimized interface has easy-to-use tools for resizing, rotating, cropping, and flipping photos. Aside from being useful, I found the app fun to use: A couple of taps, for example, will let you paint on your pictures or apply a dizzying array of advanced effects, ranging from contrast and color adjustments to red-eye fixes and funky filters. If you plan on handling photos in any way from your tablet, you'll definitely want this app in your arsenal.

File Manager HD

One of Android's advantages over other tablet platforms is that it allows you to browse your device like a computer: You can drag and drop files from your PC and access the tablet's full file system, moving through directories and opening, copying, or sharing files as you wish.

In order to do this, you need a good file management utility. My pick is File Manager HD, available free in the Android Market (with an optional $2.49 in-app donation to eliminate a small on-screen ad). File Manager HD makes full use of your tablet's display area with its multipaned, intuitive interface. It even boasts integrated support for file compression and decompression, as well as the ability to access remote systems via LAN or SMB connections.

Movies (by Flixster)

Who doesn't love movies? The aptly named Movies app, offered free from Flixster, gives you everything you could possibly want to get your Hollywood groove on.

When you open the app, you see a list of all the current movies showing that day. Tapping on any film brings up a panel with a detailed description, local showtimes, images, trailers, cast info, and reviews from critics and users alike. You can browse through upcoming theater releases and DVD releases, too, and search for any movie--past, present, or future.

I like the app for its ease of use and the sea of information that it puts at your fingertips. The Movies app even features Netflix integration, allowing you to manage your streaming queue and to add any title with a single tap.

News360 for Tablets

When it comes to news and tablets, no one does it better than News360. The News360 for Tablets app acts as your own personal news aggregator: While other apps allow you to browse specific sources or access RSS subscriptions, News360 tracks all the current hot news topics and gives you lists of sources to choose from, kind of like Google News. If you want, it can even study your social media and Google Reader habits and use that data to automatically find content that caters to your interests.

I found News360's interface to be clean, crisp, and carefully crafted to take full advantage of Android's tablet-centric features. Best of all, the app is free.

Accuweather for Honeycomb

Get the weather in style with Accuweather's free Accuweather for Honeycomb Android app. The app gives you a gorgeous graphical display of current conditions in your area, using your tablet's GPS to figure out where you are. You can put that info right on your tablet's home screen, too, thanks to the app's attractive multicity widget.

Within the program itself, you can see the forecast hour by hour or switch to a 15-day view to plan ahead. You can even get detailed info about how the weather looks for a specific factor like grass growing, bicycling, or asthma risk. The Accuweather app has interactive radar and satellite maps; it also offers a selection of national and regional forecast videos as well as the latest weather headlines from around the world.

Next: Apps for making lists, docs and spreadsheets, remote accessing, tweeting, and Facebooking.

Springpad

Need an awesome way to take notes, make lists, and save all sorts of info? Springpad is just the thing for you. The free app lives in the same neighborhood as note-taking services like Evernote and Catch, but its outstanding Android tablet interface puts it miles ahead in my book.

Springpad lets you input text notes, audio notes, image notes, or product notes (via scanned barcodes) into any number of "notebooks," or categories, that you create. You can even input the name of a movie or book that catches your eye, and Springpad will automatically attach a full profile of the product to your note. Springpad continuously syncs your data, so all of your stuff is always accessible on the Web or via the company's free Chrome extension.

Quickoffice Pro HD

Tablets are great for note-taking, but sometimes you need to do more. That's where Quickoffice Pro HD comes in. Quickoffice Pro HD, available for $20, is a full-featured productivity suite made specifically for Android tablets. It gives you robust word-processing, spreadsheet, and PowerPoint editing capabilities, all in a tablet-optimized interface that's a pleasure to use.

Quickoffice Pro HD can integrate with a number of different cloud storage services, too--Google Docs, DropBox, and SugarSync, among others--allowing you to save files directly to the Web in addition to your device. For my money, no other Android tablet office app even comes close to comparing.

Wyse PocketCloud Pro

These days, you don't have to be in your house to get on your home PC. Android tablets are the perfect tools to run specialized software that lets you remotely access and control your computer. I'd recommend Wyse PocketCloud Pro, available for $14.99 (or free in a limited-functionality version).

Setting up PocketCloud Pro is simple, and once you've installed the PC or Mac client, it takes just seconds to get your desktop up and running on your tablet's screen. You can swipe around the desktop with your finger and use mouse or keyboard tools to interact. PocketCloud Pro supports RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) and VNC (Virtual Network Protocol) connections; it also offers TLS (Transport Layer Security) encryption and the ability to connect to multiple computers.

Plume for Twitter

Tablets and tweets team up triumphantly with LevelUp Studio's Plume for Twitter application. Plume, available free with an optional $2.99 ad-eliminating upgrade, gives you three customizable columns of Twitter-filled goodness. Any column can be set to show your main Twitter timeline, @mentions, direct messages, favorites, lists, or searches.

Tapping on a tweet causes it to open in a side panel on the screen. Plume has its own built-in browser, too, meaning that you can view linked pages without ever having to exit the program. Add in multiple account support and a completely customizable interface, and you've pretty much got the total package.

Friendcaster Tab for Facebook

In mid-September, Facebook finally updated its official Android app to run on tablets, but the program is still anything but optimized for the big screen. Fear not, though, as Friendcaster for Facebook is here to save the day.

Friendcaster does what Facebook's own app should do on Android tablets: It gives you a multipaneled view of your news feed, with numerous filtering options and split sections to zoom in on specific content. In addition, the app has simple tools for posting new content, whether it's a text update, a photo, or a video, and whether you want to share it with everyone or just with certain friends. Friendcaster has full support for check-ins, messages, groups, events, and pages as well.

JR Raphael is a PCWorld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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Tags tablet PCappsGoogleconsumer electronicsAndroidhardware systemssmartphonestabletsSwift

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