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From word games to new social networks and streaming services, it was a very good year for beefing up your Android device without having to drop a single dime. Here are some recommendations.
SpeakToit Assistant (voice assistant) ... One of a number of comparable Android answers to Apple's Siri voice assistant on the iPhone 4S, SpeakToit is the best of the batch. While it might not be able to challenge Siri head-to-head just yet, the voice recognition and knowledge engine are a very good start for a beta version.
Hanging With Friends (game) ... This is a new spin on the old-school game Hangman from the makers of Words with Friends, another hit word game on this list. A social-based approach to mobile gaming, Hanging with Friends introduces some features you might not recognize from the analog original, such as strategy, goofy avatars in danger, and trash talking.
Bonus Pick: Amazon Appstore ... Not exactly an app, this alternative to the Android Market offers a select paid app for free every day, and is bound to become a source of more exclusive and interesting new offerings in the near future as Amazon's new Kindle Fire tablet takes off.
I'm Getting Arrested (niche app) ... One of the most original niche apps of 2011. Inspired by an event at the Occupy Wall Street protest, the app works like a digital panic button and broadcasts a preset message to friends, family, and anyone else you choose in the event the authorities don't appreciate your demonstrating activities.
Drag Racing (game) ... Drag Racing is Pole Position for a new generation. One of the most-downloaded free apps in the Android Market, this realistic racing game lets you try out more than 50 cars and rise to glory against other competitors in its Pro League.
Facebook Messenger (communication) ... Lots of messaging apps are available, but the power and user base of Facebook makes a difference here. You can message other users, send regular texts, access Facebook chat, create group conversations, and even easily add location and photos.
Defender (game) ... The concept is simple enough—use arrows, magic spells, and more to fight back the waves of monsters attacking your castle. Easy game play, an old-school 8-bit aesthetic, plenty of action, and just a splash of Dungeons and Dragons flavor makes for a hit in this game that's already racked up millions of downloads.
Google Docs (productivity) ... It's hard to believe an official Google Docs app didn't make it to Android until earlier this year. The app provides all the simple ways of accessing, editing, and sharing documents on the go that you'd expect. Other cool features include the ability to photograph any text with your phone and convert it into an editable doc, thanks to its integrated optical character recognition.
Google Translate Conversation Mode (productivity) ... In January, Google Translate saw a big update with the addition of conversation mode. That means that Translate allows for a bilingual conversation, with each party speaking in their own language into the device's microphone and listening for a translation via the speaker. A fall update expanded the alpha version of the mode to include more than a dozen languages.
Grocery iQ (shopping) ... GroceryiQ takes all the best features from numerous shopping-list apps and jams them into one well-executed app that's available in versions for both phones and Honeycomb tablets. Build lists with voice commands, scan barcodes, get coupons, integrate with points and other incentive programs, and more.
FEMA (disaster preparedness) ... Now we have an app for when disaster strikes. This emergency preparedness app from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is worth having just for the database of shelter locations alone, but it also provides preparedness checklists, applications for disaster assistance, and volunteering information.
Webroot SecureAnywhere Mobile (security) ... While Lookout remains the most popular name in mobile antivirus apps, Webroot is the fastest-rising wireless security star. Both its free and paid apps came out of beta this year and have received positive reviews (SecureAnywhere is a mobile version of its paid multiplatform security product). One of Webroot's strengths is its scanning speed, which comes from its cloud-based approach.
Words With Friends Free/Scrabble Free (games) ... It was a good year for Android word freaks. Words with Friends beat the legendary board game Scrabble to the punch with its app in the spring, but Scrabble followed with its own Android launch over the summer. WWF remains more popular, but both provide plenty of hours of entertainment for word nerds.
Contract Killer: Zombies (game) ... Zombies are everywhere lately, including in this very popular shooter that's a follow-up to the original Contract Killer game for Android.
Angry Birds Rio (game) ... The only thing more unstoppable than a worldwide franchise on a roll, apparently, is when that franchise hooks up with the Hollywood promotional machine. This follow-up to the massively popular game transports the irate avian heroes to Rio de Janeiro and brings characters from the animated film, Rio, into the fray.
MyWeather (information) ... MyWeather claims to be six times more accurate than the Weather Channel's app, thanks to its ability to pinpoint more-exact locations using GPS rather than a zip code. I tested it out for about a week, and it seems to live up to its promise, at least in terms of forecasts and reporting of current conditions that matched my home outdoor thermometer.
Spotify (music) ... New to the United States (it started out as a Europe-only service), Spotify provides music streaming with a fully legitimate, on-demand catalog of 15 million songs, and without the sketchiness of other music services. For $US10 a month, you can download more than 3000 tracks to your device for offline access.
The Best Free Android Apps of 2011 ... The popularity of Android phones exploded in 2011, with new device activations topping over half a million a day worldwide. So it's not surprising that a mountain of Android apps is out there, including plenty of quality downloads that don't cost a thing.
I weeded through all kinds of new titles for 2011 that are available for free. The categories ranged from productivity to social and sharing apps, photo editing and management, and, of course, games. From that field, I came up with this list of keepers. Let's start with music.
GoLauncher EX (personalsation) ... GoLauncher EX, an extended version of the incredibly popular home-screen replacement app, was released in early 2011 and has since been installed tens of millions of times. Its personalized themes, widgets, and tons of other options give you total control over your mobile experience.
Netflix (media) ... A Netflix app compatible with the majority of Android devices took a while to arrive, but by midautumn the app was finally working on all phones and tablets with Android 2.2 and later. Stream movies and TV shows directly to your small Android screen if you are a subscriber with the right plan.
Yahoo Flickr (photo sharing) ... Although the release of Yahoo's official Flickr app took a while, it's now here, and it turns out to be a strong competitor to Instagram, the iOS app sensation. Flickr has all the photo-sharing and photo-organizing abilities that you'd expect, and it comes with cool camera functions, such as customizable filters.
Hipmunk (travel) ... This flight-search app creates nice visual search results on a par with others like Kayak, but its algorithm is smarter and filters for something called the "agony" factor. Agony components include things like travel time and number of stops.
Smartr Contacts (productivity) ... Smartr brings all your contacts and social networks together into one easily searchable and attractive place. Currently in beta for Android, the app draws information from LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter about everyone you e-mail, text, and call, literally putting names with faces (and more).
Skitch (photo management) ... Skitch is all about adding data and more to images. Fifteen years ago, the power to add digital drawings to photos and other images was reserved for TV weather people and sportscasters. Now Skitch, from the makers of Evernote, makes it easy to scribble or draw on photos as well as edit and share them. You can add names to photos and resize them, then post them quickly to Twitter or Facebook, or even draw a map. Not surprisingly, anything you do in Skitch syncs up to Evernote quite nicely.
Lightbox (photo editing) ... Lightbox is a robust photo editing and management app that attempts to fill in for the lack of an Instagram app on the Android platform. Lightbox is a successful substitute, with many features to enhance photos and share them via seamless connections to Facebook and Twitter.
ARN Innovation Awards