It’s no secret to anyone that Android tablets’ major competition is the iPad, which keeps outselling them worldwide. Despite the better specifications, innovative form factors, and recently improved Jelly Bean experience, the one area that seems to hold back Android tablets is the lack of optimised apps – that’s a field where Apple’s ecosystem excels. By comparison, the Play Store still lacks a dedicated tablet section to make it easier for users to find apps tailored for bigger touch screens.
However, due to the openness of Android, a few specific categories of apps exist for it that can’t make it onto the iPad in its regular state. Some would require a jailbreak to work, others wouldn’t even be technically possible. I have picked ten of these to showcase a small, albeit important, advantage of Android tablets.
Looking for more tablet-optimized Android apps? Check this list of our most interesting tablet app roundups.
Over the past couple of months, we have seen numerous floating apps make it onto Android. There’s OverSkreen (a floating browser), AirTerm (a floating terminal) and AirCalc (a floating calculator). These apps are reminiscent of a computer’s UI, allowing you to put small, resizable and moving windows on top of your home screen or other apps.
LilyPad is another such app, and it works as a floating IM client for Google Talk, Facebook Messenger and MSN/Live. LilyPad’s windows can be minimized or hidden, and you can even have several conversations open at the same time. This makes it easier to continue your normal workflow without being interrupted by IM notifications and having to jump back and forth to talk to your friends.
Stick It! is another floating application similar to LilyPad. However, instead of putting an IM window on top of your tablet, Stick It! makes your videos float, an idea that Samsung recently implemented in its Galaxy SIII flagship.
Whether it’s your own files, YouTube, or even streaming, Stick It! allows you to continue watching the videos while you work on your tablet. It features an integrated file browser, several themes, and supports a multitude of video formats and codecs — .3gp .avi .divx .f4v .flv .mkv .mp4 .mpeg .mov .vob .wmv .webm .xvid and more.
The advantage of such an app is that you no longer have to interrupt your videos while you check on new notifications or search for some information related to what you’re watching. You can even think of it as a background entertainment — one can never watch enough funny cat videos! — while working on other things.
One of Android’s advantages over the iPad is the amount of customisation you can apply to the home screen. Instead of a grid of app icons, Android supports widgets, shortcuts and live wallpapers, and on top of that you can replace the default launcher with one that suits you better.
Such a replacement is Apex Launcher, my current favorite on both tablets and phones. Apex can create up to nine homescreens, hide the search or status bar, use a scrollable dock that can be hidden, customise the icons and labels, add support for folders, change the app drawer style, and top it all off with transition effects, gestures, resizable widgets and a theme engine. That’s only for the free version! The pro version adds more gestures and transitions, multiple drawer tabs, unread notification counts and more.
Basically the Android homescreen becomes a blank canvas with Apex, one you can tweak to no end until it fits your every need.
Wizz Widget is one of the multiple widgets available exclusively for Android tablets. It stems from the idea that you shouldn’t need a separate application to access your important data or monitor your social networks, so it combines them all into one resource.
There are configurable widgets for Facebook, Twitter, Agenda, Google Reader, Calendar, Messages and Contacts. Some are scrollable, some follow a stack UI where you can swipe to unveil the next card. There are even separate themes to fit any look you decide to go with on your homescreen. By mixing these widgets on your homescreen, you can have a quick overview of everything that’s happening without having to open a single application.
There are few words to describe how much I love AntTek Explorer on Android tablets. I tried over ten different alternatives before settling on AntTek, mainly for the clean and configurable UI despite a three-column layout. It also helps that AntTek is fully featured, with the basic file browsing options, drag-and-drop, a multiple selection mode, built-in viewers, plugins and themes to improve the experience, cloud storage support, and really anything you could want in a file manager.
If you’re an organisation freak like me, and you like to have control over your files and folders, there’s no beating the mix of Android’s openness to file access with AntTek as a file explorer.
Since Android’s default keyboard only supports a few languages, a single layout and a limited prediction engine, alternative keyboards have been aiming to replace and improve it. Thumb Keyboard is one example and it brings a lot to the tablet typing experience.
There are different layouts suited for portrait and landscape as well as different screen sizes, some of which are split to make thumb typing easier on larger touchscreens. Multitouch is also supported, as well as voice recognition, Bigram word prediction, a personal dictionary and swipe typing. Thumb Keyboard can also be fully customised with themes and fonts, user-adjustable key height and spacing, a configurable toolbar, shortcuts and text templates.
Given the amount of customisation and multitasking you can carry on your Android tablet, there might be a time when you notice battery life draining a bit faster, memory running lower, or the CPU overworking itself. For such occasions, Tablet CPU Usage Monitor is a geek’s best friend.
Thanks to this application, you can keep an eye on which apps are currently running with their detailed CPU and memory usage. The monitor also works on multiple core devices and shows you CPU frequency and usage on a per core basis. Add the fact that everything can be plugged into the Notifications area and you have a full monitor accessible from within any app for those situations when you fret that a Live Wallpaper or a new app is eating away at your resources.
Unlike the iPad, the Notifications area on Android has been open since the start and available for developers to plug in to. 1Tap Quick Bar tries to make the most out of that always-on drop down area by using it as a shortcut heaven. You can add toggles for connectivity, brightness, GPS, as well as use it to launch apps, access certain shortcuts within them, open web pages, dial, message and email specific contacts. Everything is also fully customisable.
All in all, apps like 1Tap Quick Bar make life a whole lot easier: instead of digging through settings or menus, you just pull the Notifications area and you’re a tap away from anything you need to do. It’s a bit baffling that you’d need to be jailbroken and running SBSettings on the iPad to have similar functionality.
Downloading and seeding torrents had long been bound to desktop computers, until developers started making apps for mobile platforms. tTorrent is one great example, and it should be an indispensable tool for many Android and open source fans to download new community ROMs and Linux releases for example.
The app supports torrent search, multiple downloads and queues, file selection, throttling speeds and connections, RSS feeds, magnet links and browser integration. Basically, any feature you expect a desktop torrent client to have is there.
While I don’t personally understand what Usenet is, I can’t deny that there are many users out there who swear by it for its security, anonymity and different way of sharing files.
EZ Usenet taps into one of the most popular Usenet newsgroups, EasyNews, and lets you search, browse by type, use advanced filtering, and of course download, stream and preview content from it.
There are many more Android tablet apps that offer functionality unrivalled by Apple’s iPad. For example Clipper monitors the clipboard, keeping track of everything you copy and paste; mVideoPlayer scans your SD card for movies, pulls up their data and applies subtitles to them with a few clicks; and there’s even a fully independent application market, the Amazon Appstore, that you can use to get your apps instead of the Play Store.
However, when it comes down to it, you probably won’t find many app categories on Android tablets that can’t be made available on the iPad. For content creation and consumption, note taking, productivity, cooking, gaming, and several other categories, the iPad is still many strides ahead.
We do look forward to a time when developers will take tablet-optimised Android apps more seriously and provide an ecosystem as competitive as that of the iPad. In the meantime, let’s not forget that for a certain usage niche, where a level of tweak-ability and openness is required, Android tablets keep a small advantage.