6 efficiency-enhancing Android apps

6 efficiency-enhancing Android apps

These clever tools, all free, save you time so you can get straight to work.

Your phone is now essentially your personal assistant -- and like any aide, it needs the right set of tools to do its job effectively.

The good news? As an Android user, you've got no shortage of efficiency-enhancing options. Unlike other mobile platforms, Android affords you the opportunity to customize and control the core user interface to make it better suited to your needs. And while the more advanced UI-adjusting tools tend to be targeted at the power-user crowd, you don't have to be a card-carrying geek to take advantage of what they offer.

Behold: six innovative apps that'll empower your favorite high-tech assistant and help it reach its full productivity potential.

1. Snap Swipe Drawer

Price: free

Android's home screen widgets have long been one of the platform's most useful and most underutilized features. If you aren't familiar with 'em, widgets are basically live windows into your apps that make it easier for you to see and interact with certain types of data -- by scrolling through your inbox, for example, or peeking at upcoming events on your calendar, all without ever having to open the associated app or do any digging around.

With Snap Swipe Drawer, you can liberate your widgets from the home screen and access them from anywhere in the system. The app creates a second swipe-down drawer (similar to the notifications drawer) at the top of your phone, filled with widgets instead of alerts -- and you can then glance at it while you're working on a document, browsing the web or doing anything else on your device. Just like on your home screen, you can opt to include as few or as many widgets as you want and arrange them in any order you like.

Snap Swipe Drawer Android app JR Raphael / IDG

Widgets on demand anywhere, courtesy of Snap Swipe Drawer.

By default, the custom widget drawer shows up when you swipe down from the far right side of your screen (and then the regular notifications drawer appears when you swipe down from anywhere else). You can customize the location of that "trigger zone," though, and you can also set the app to respond to upward swipes from the bottom of your screen -- something that can be especially helpful on larger devices, where you can't always reach the top of the display with a single hand.

2. Boomerang Notifications

Price: free

This year's upcoming Android O release includes a feature I've long pined for: the ability to snooze notifications and have them reappear later, similar to what you can do with emails in Google Inbox.

If past upgrade cycles are any indication, most people probably won't get Android O on their phones for quite a while (aside from Pixel and Nexus owners, for whom timely rollouts are part of the package). But don't despair: You can actually start snoozing your alerts right now with the aid of a third-party app.

Install Boomerang Notifications, and you'll see an option to snooze a notification every time you swipe one away. (The option lingers in your notification panel for 10 seconds by default, but you can extend it to any amount of time you like.) You can instruct the notification to reappear later that same day, sometime the following day, or at a specific future date and time. The third seems like the most practical option and will likely be the only one you'll want to use.

Boomerang Notifications Android app JR Raphael / IDG

Boomerang Notifications makes your notifications come back when you actually need them.

And if you only want to see the snooze prompts for certain types of notifications -- say, those related to email and messaging -- you can configure Boomerang to appear only for a limited range of specific apps.

It's nowhere near as native-feeling as Google's own Android O implementation, but until that software shows up on your phone, it'll handily fill the void.

One last note: As the initial setup process will inform you, Boomerang Notifications is offered by Cardiff University researchers who are studying how smartphone users handle app notifications. If you use the app, your responses may be collected anonymously and used as part of that research. The researchers say they do not collect your notification content or any personally identifiable data -- and, in fact, no data whatsoever is currently being collected, as the primary study is already finished -- but the fine print remains in place, and it's always good to know what terms you're accepting.

3. Clip Layer

Price: free

Somehow, in 2017, copying text on a smartphone is still a major pain. Selecting the right start and stop point seems to require a surgeon's level of precision, and some apps make it altogether impossible to highlight and copy the words you want.

Clip Layer is here to help. The "experimental" Microsoft-made app makes it dead simple to select text anywhere within Android -- no matter what app you're using or what's on your screen. All you do is press and hold your phone's Home key, and Clip Layer highlights every section of visible text. You then tap whatever section or sections you want to copy and touch the "Copy" button at the bottom of the screen (or the "Share" button if you want to send the text directly to another app).

Clip Layer JR Raphael / IDG

Clip Layer lets you quickly copy and share text, no matter what app you're using.

The only catch is that Clip Layer takes over the same universally accessible spot -- the long-press on the Home key -- generally reserved for the Google Assistant. That means your only option for accessing the Assistant will be through Google's Allo chat app, though you'll still be able to perform many of the same functions through the regular search box on your home screen or within the Google app. If that's a sacrifice you're willing to make, you'll get the gift of headache-free text copying.

And despite the app's title and source, I swear: Clippy will never make an appearance.

[ Further reading: 30 tasty tips for Android Nougat ]

4. Fingerprint Gestures

Price: free (with optional US$1.49 in-app upgrade for ad-free configuration screen)

Most business-caliber Android phones ship with fingerprint scanners these days -- but once our devices are unlocked, those fancy little high-tech readers usually sit completely unused.

Make the technology a more integral part of your experience by installing Fingerprint Gestures, a utility that lets you extend your scanner's usefulness past the security front. The app allows you to assign custom actions to your phone's fingerprint scanner -- so touching your finger to it when your phone is unlocked could open a specific app, for instance, while swiping over it could launch a search prompt, and double-tapping it could return you from any process back to your home screen.

My, oh my: Talk about a handy feature. (Sorry.)

5. Taskbar

Price: free

In most desktop computing environments, you can launch any app anytime by using the always-present taskbar (or Dock). It doesn't matter what programs are open or what you're actively doing; there's rarely a need to "return to your home screen" in order to open something new.

On the mobile front, it's typically a different story. But you can change that by installing Taskbar, which brings an always-present app-launching interface onto your Android device. The bar is just a small and translucent arrow that lives in the lower-left corner of your screen. Tap it, and you'll see a familiar all-apps button that pulls up a list of every app installed on your device.

Taskbar Android app JR Raphael / IDG

Taskbar brings a desktop-like touch to your mobile device.

You can even customize the list to omit certain apps or prioritize specific apps that you want to appear before any others. And if you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can experiment with advanced features such as the ability to add widgets into the taskbar for easy on-demand access.

6. Action Launcher

Price: free (with optional $4.99 in-app upgrade for advanced features)

No matter how much you may supplement it, your smartphone's home screen invariably serves as a starting point for your mobile productivity needs -- and a simple step up from your device's default setup can make it much more useful and efficient.

The key is to employ something called a custom launcher, which takes over the entire home screen environment and replaces it with a more versatile and/or powerful alternative. You can find launchers for practically every style and purpose on Android, but one that's long stood out to me is a clever little creation called Action Launcher.

Action Launcher has oodles of interesting features and opportunities for customization. Most relevant to efficiency, though, is the way the tool supercharges icons on your home screen and makes them more than just basic links to apps.

Action Launcher allows you to store a combination of on-demand widgets and direct-action shortcuts in every home screen icon, which packs an awful lot of functionality into a single space -- all without creating any superfluous clutter. On my home screen, for instance, I can tap the Calendar icon to open up the Google Calendar app. I can press and hold the icon, meanwhile, to gain access to direct-action shortcuts for setting new reminders or adding new events. And I can double-tap the icon to glance at an interactive widget with my upcoming agenda. The same concept applies to almost every icon on my home screen.

Action Launcher JR Raphael / IDG

With Action Launcher, your home screen can be both uncluttered and packed with useful functionality.

That means when I pull my phone out of my pocket and unlock it, I can take care of most basic productivity tasks right then and there -- no futzing around required.

Use Action Launcher in conjunction with some of the other tools in this collection, and what you need will always be at your fingertips and easy to manage -- no matter what you might be doing on your device at any given moment. And that, dear readers, is what efficiency is all about.

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