One of the biggest advantages of Android’s open source roots is that users have complete control over pretty much every aspect of the operating system. If you don’t like any aspect of the stock Android experience, there’s a good chance that someone somewhere has already done something about it. If you own an Android phone that is not a Nexus (One or S), you have probably already experienced this. HTC’s Sense UI and Samsung’s TouchWiz are examples of phone manufacturers’ attempts to providing device-specific Android experiences.
This is often misunderstood by the less tech-savvy, who assume that what you see is what you get. But with a few downloads, you can completely overhaul the way your phone looks and acts.
You don’t use the default widgets and application icons on the home screen? Delete them and add new ones. Stock dialer too inadequate? Get a new, functional one. Hate the default wallpapers and ringtones? …you get the idea.
From the launcher and basic phone functions to all the stock applications that come with the phone, everything can be replaced with applications from the Android Market, often with better features and functionality.
This is an attempt to collate some of the best alternatives available for each of the stock Android functions and applications, along with a few other options. These may not be the best for everyone’s requirement, but they all add up to a varied and often richer experience on the phone.
Dialer: Dialer One (free)
A lot has changed with the onset of smartphones and the gradually decreasing usage of dialing as a phone’s primary feature. The stock Android dialer does its job pretty well, but does have its shortcomings, which is where Dialer One comes in. It is a smarter dialer and comes with multilingual T9 support for identifying contacts based on any part of their contact details. Other features include speed dial support, visual customization, and the ability to back up and restore settings and call.
Phonebook: Go Contacts (free)
Contacts management on the phone has come a long way since the days of saving all contacts to the SIM card with nothing but a character-limited name and a number. Android provides a super-useful sync with your Gmail Contacts for an always available and up-to-date list of phone numbers. That doesn’t make its stock contacts management application the best though. Go Contacts one-ups the stock application by adding the ability to group contacts, quickly find them with any piece of information (not just names), merge duplicates, and more. It also includes its own dialing application that is snappier and better looking than the stock app.
Messaging: Go SMS Pro (free)
Call it a teen phenomenon, but texting has very quickly gone from a utility to a primary mode of communication in many instances. Although the stock Android messaging application feels quite adequate at first, spend a few minutes with Go SMS Pro and you’ll know exactly what you’ve been missing. Apart from an exceptional visual overhaul and some beautiful themes, the application also provides a much better conversation view, folders, and a home screen widget that is leaps and bounds ahead of the stock messaging widget.
Handcent SMS (free)
Launcher: LauncherPro (free)
The Android home screen is where your world on your phone is, and with the zillion applications installed on the phone, a good launcher becomes a necessity. The stock Android launcher has come a long way since the days of Donut (version 1.6), but still leaves a lot to be desired. LauncherPro is an open source and one of the most popular launcher replacements for Android. For more on the application, check out our in-depth review.
ADW Launcher (free)
Go Launcher Ex (free)
Launcher 7 (free)
Widgets: Beautiful Widgets (€1.99)
Talking of widgets: for a lot of Android users, these are the reason for staying outside Apple’s iOS universe. The ability to have critical phone functions and information at your fingertips can be empowering, to say the least. Beautiful Widgets augments the existing collection of stock widgets with some outstanding combination of function and eye-candy. If you have ever felt limited by the number of clocks available for your home screen, this is the answer. Of course there’s much more, including weather, battery indicators, date and toggle widgets, and more.
Minimal RSS (free)
Make your clock widget (free)
SiMi Folder Widget (free)
Lock screen: WidgetLocker Lockscreen ($1.99)
The Android lock screen serves a simple purpose: avoid accidentally setting off functions by inadvertently using touch gestures. It can also function as a crude security system if you add the pass code or pattern lock. WidgetLocker Lockscreen takes the functionality a bit further by letting you customize the look and behavior of the slider, as well as providing quick access to missed calls, incoming messages, emails, and current music tracks right from the lock screen.
GOTO Lockscreen (free)
LockBot Pro (free)
Keyboard: Swype (free while in beta)
With the line between computers and phones blurring by the day, more and more people are using their phones for writing – be it messages, emails, or documents. Unfortunately, typing on touch screens can be a really hard skill to master. Swype tries to tackle the problem by doing away with pressing each letter and letting you simply slide your finger over the letters you want. It then smartly identifies what word you may have wanted to type and lets you choose between options if there is more than one possible combination. For more info, check out our roundup of Android keyboards.
Clock: Alarm Clock Plus (free)
Its been a while since I stopped wearing a wrist-watch, what with having a phone with the ability to show time — and even in a new way every day, if I want. Apart from the basic function, the most used feature of the Android clock is the alarm, which Alarm Clock Plus takes a couple steps further. A couple of features that stand out for me are the different types of alarms: playlist, music, app launch, even math problems, and the ability to simply shake the phone to snooze or dismiss the alarm.
Relax and Sleep (free)
Calendar: Jorte (free)
An advantage of being in the Google ecosystem is the ability to keep your phone synchronized with everything in your Google account — your calendar being one such item. A calendar actually makes much more sense on the phone, due to having instant access for entering events and much more accessible alerts. Jorte is a personal organizer that takes the calendar ahead by integrating note-taking and task management with your calendar in one sleek interface. With multiple calendar views, heavy customizability, and integration with Google Voice and Google Maps, this one’s a complete personal information toolkit.
See our recent roundup for even more calendar apps.
Touch Calendar (UK1.45)
Executive Assistant + ($6.99)
Pocket Informant ($5.99)
Music Player: PowerAMP (free 15-day trial, then $4.99)
Enough has been said on the web about the inadequacy of the stock Android music application, spurring a whole host of alternatives that keep getting better by the day. PowerAmp is one of the first few real challengers in the ring and probably the most loved of the lot. And not without reason either. You get a whole bunch of extras like support for a whole host of file types, a 10 band graphic equalizer, themes, crazy customization and more. Check out our in-depth review for more. You may also want to check out our roundup of alternative Android music players.
Real Player (free)
Camera: Camera360 (free ad-supported version, $3.99 for Ultimate version)
I’ve been a big, big fan of Camera360 and have spoken about it at length in a review. What sets Camera360 apart from the stock Android application is the crazy long list of features that just keeps growing with each update — the six different shooting modes, the beautiful photo effects, the plethora of options to control your shot, or the sleek, simple UI that binds it all together. This one is hard to not recommend if your phone has a camera (and what phone today doesn’t?).
Retro Camera (free, $2.99 for Plus version)
Gallery: QuickPic (free)
So you’ve used your camera to the limit and stacked up a whole bunch of images. Or maybe you’ve synced your account on the phone with your Picasa Web album, and now want to be able to show them off to friends. The stock gallery application is one of the better applications that come with an Android phone by default, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get more. QuickPic is a Gallery alternative that focuses on speed and function. It has none of the 3D wall of images and fancy transitions, but what it lacks in eye-candy, it makes up for in usability. If you have ever found yourself waiting for the Gallery to load and list your gazillion images, this one’s for you.
Gallery Pro (¥180)
Gallery + + CM (free)
Web Browser: Dolphin HD (free)
Lastly, lets look at the web browsing experience on and Android device. The stock Android browser is adequate at best, with virtually no relation with Google’s own spectacular desktop browser, Chrome. Dolphin HD fills that gap elegantly, though, with true tabbed browsing, gestures, smart RSS detection and support for themes. More importantly, at least in my book, is the excellent support for add-ons. With a growing list of addons, including my favorites like LastPass, XMarks and more, this one’s my favorite Android browser at the moment. Keep an eye on Android.AppStorm for our upcoming full review.
Skyfire Web Browser (free)
This is by no means a comprehensive list of every alternative to each stock Android function. With the pace at which applications are released and updated, there are bound to be challengers to each of the ones listed here, each with the potential of being better than the rest. With such a multitude of choice, it is left to you to decide what works best — after all, it’s your phone.