Supercharged Android: 12 apps to boost your smartphone

Make your Android device run longer, run smarter, and run almost anywhere with this collection of essential apps

Psst... Come close. There's something I need to tell you, and there's no easy way to say it: Your Android smartphone might not be living up to its full potential.

I know, I know -- you've loved it. You've cared for it. You've cradled it while watching "Frasier" reruns at night. But despite all the tender nurturing, there's a decent chance your smartphone has hidden pockets of power you haven't yet unlocked.

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Much of Android's aptitude, you see, comes from its flexibility. Thanks to Google's open approach to applications, there's practically no limit to the ways you can expand your phone's functionality and customize its existing features. It doesn't take much time or effort to crank up the dial on what your device can do, either; you just have to know where to begin.

So get ready to make your smartphone stronger and more versatile than ever.

You can download these apps quickly from your Android smartphone from the Android Market if you scan the QR image code shown for each -- but if you want to scan them using your Android smartphone, you have to read it on InfoWorld's mobile-friendly website; unfortunately, our regular website doesn't work on mobile devices. (Also if the images don't display properly on your desktop browser, go to the original article at InfoWorld.com.)

1. Extend your connection with PdaNet We've all been there: You're sitting at some public place -- say, an airport or a favorite lunch spot -- and you need to hop on your laptop to catch up on a few items. But alas, the scoundrels who run the joint have the nerve to charge you for Wi-Fi access. Well, put your wallet away, compadres. With your Android smartphone in tow, you'll never need to pony up an extra penny again.

Practically every Android smartphone is capable of delivering free 3G tethering that can get your PC online in seconds. Prepare your handset now, and next time you need a reliable connection, you'll be ready to roll.

Simply download PdaNet from the Android Market, snag the companion PC software, follow the installation instructions, and -- ta-da! -- you'll be able to use your phone's network connection to get online from your laptop. To be safe, just read over your carrier's conditions first to make sure you don't violate any data usage regulations.

One quick footnote: If you're on AT&T, you might not see PdaNet in the Android Market. This is due to app restrictions that AT&T alone places on its Android devices. There is a work-around, if you're willing to risk angering the AT&T overlords.

PdaNet costs $25.

2. Control your computer with PhoneMyPC Ever find yourself needing to check something on your home or work PC while you're out and about? Grab an Android app called PhoneMyPC and you'll always have that power in the palm of your hand.

PhoneMyPC lets you connect up to three systems to your smartphone for remote access. All you do is install the app, install the client software on your computer, and you can fire up a connection anytime you want.

Once connected, PhoneMyPC allows you to control your computer's mouse and keyboard, execute actions, take snapshots of the desktop, passively monitor the system, and even activate and view a connected Webcam -- all from the screen of your Android smartphone.

PhoneMyPC costs $10.

3. Boost your battery life with JuiceDefender Worried about Android battery life? You aren't alone. With the right tools on your smartphone, though, you can make the most of your charge without having to constantly futz with settings.

An app called JuiceDefender helps you automate the optimization of your smartphone's power configuration. The program lets you define detailed parameters to govern how and when your device uses common battery-zapping functions. Set it up once, and you'll never have to think about that stuff again.

JuiceDefender can disable background data processing when your screen is off, turn off your smartphone's Wi-Fi when you aren't near a known network, scale down system processes during certain hours of the day, and much more. All put together, its automated adjustments can make a noticeable difference in your phone's daily stamina.

JuiceDefender is free. An plug-in called UltimateJuice adds a handful of extra options into the program; it costs $5.

4. Take websites to go with Chrome to Phone The doggy bag isn't just for restaurants anymore. With Android and Google's Chrome to Phone application, you can send Web links and other information from your computer directly to your handheld device.

Chrome to Phone doubles as an Android app and an extension for Google's Chrome browser. Once you link up both ends of the equation, you'll be able to click a button on your PC and have whatever page you're viewing pop up instantly on your Android smartphone. You can also highlight text and have it sent wirelessly to your smartphone's clipboard.

The Chrome to Phone Android app is free; the desktop browser extension is free in Google's Chrome extension gallery.

5. Share files without wires with Dropbox Forget those cumbersome email attachments: With the right app, you can share files with anyone, sans the hassle.

Dropbox offers an Android app that'll bring Web-based file sharing right into your phone. You can upload and download files directly from private directories, public directories, or folders you selectively share with specific users. (Box.net offers a similar app and service.)

The coolest thing about the Dropbox app is that it fully integrates the file-sharing experience into Android. When viewing a photo on your phone, for example, you can select the system's Share option and find a command to send the image directly to your Dropbox folder.

The service provides PC-based access, too, as well as access on other smartphone platforms. Dropbox comes with 2GB of storage for free; you can opt to buy extra memory for a set monthly fee that varies based on the amount of space you choose. The client app is free.

6. Keep your passwords in your pocket with LastPass You have software that manages passwords on your PC -- so why not have the same convenience on your smartphone?

A company called LastPass securely stores all your sign-in passwords and syncs them between your PC and your smartphone. LastPass integrates directly with all major PC browsers -- and, thanks to a recently released addition, it integrates with the excellent Dolphin Browser app for Android as well. (The program does require you to enter a master password each time it's opened, by the way, so your information is always protected.)

The LastPass service costs $1 per month. You can sign up for a two-week trial if you want to test it out. The client app is free.

7. Step up your smartphone security with WaveSecure When it comes to Android and security, there's no shortage of hype and misconception. But despite the doomsday-like headlines about viruses, trojans, and spyware (oh my!), the more likely threat to your Android smartphone is far more mundane. Wait a minute -- what was it again? Oh, right: your own forgetfulness.

Think about it: With the amount of data and personal account access your smartphone holds, leaving it in the wrong place can quickly turn into a nightmare. With the right protection in place, though, you'll never have to worry.

WaveSecure is by far the most reliable Android security app I've encountered. The app, recently acquired by McAfee, allows you to remotely find and track your phone, download all your files, and even wipe the device completely of personal data. It has an optional uninstall protection feature, too, so you can keep theoretical thieves from stripping it off your device.

WaveSecure costs $20 a year. You can sign up for a two-week trial if you want to test it out. The client app is free.

8. Make your home screens more homey with LauncherPro I can't emphasize it enough: One of Android's greatest assets is the high level of customization it provides. And one of the best ways to take advantage of that is by installing your own custom home screen launcher.

With a custom home screen launcher in place, you can do everything from expanding the number of available panels to building on-screen dock bars for easy access to your most-used apps.

LauncherPro will open the door to countless new opportunities to make Android your own -- and in doing so, help you use your phone faster and more efficiently than ever before.

LauncherPro is free and is available in the Android Market.

9. Organize in style with Folder Organizer Android has long provided an option for home screen folders; they're a great way to keep your smartphone organized by grouping similar apps together. On my smartphone, for example, I have a folder for system utilities, another for audio programs, and so on. Here's a little secret, though: You don't have to stop with the basic folder functions your smartphone offers out of the box. With a little bit of tweaking, you can expand Android's folder system to make it far more useful.

An app called Folder Organizer lets you create custom folders with any combination of apps, Web bookmarks, and direct dial or text shortcuts. Unlike Android's default folder utility, Folder Organizer allows you to change a folder's icon and appearance, making it possible to differentiate one folder from another and have each one work the way you want.

Folder Organizer can also be used to create permanently expanded folders via special on-screen widgets. If you use Folder Organizer in conjunction with LauncherPro, these widgets can even be made scrollable -- giving you the option to have any number of menu-like collections right on your home screen.

Folder Organizer costs €1.

10. Load up your lock screen with WidgetLocker Your home screen may be your phone's focal point, but it doesn't have to be the only place where you store useful information. Android's lock screen -- you know, the thing that pops up when you first tap your power button -- can be transformed into a function-filled portal.

The tool you need is a handy little program called WidgetLocker. WidgetLocker lets you place live widgets right on your system's lock screen so that you can see them before you enter your credentials. Throw on, say, a widget for the latest stock or weather report, and you'll always be able to get that info at a glance -- no digging or multiple button-pressing required.

WidgetLocker can handle interactive widgets, too. I frequently use it to control my music players and podcasting utilities; with those widgets on my lock screen, I can stop and start play or skip to the next track without having to unlock my phone. And WidgetLocker doesn't let you actually open any app without first entering the standard system password, so your security is never jeopardized. Note that you need Android 2.1 or higher to run this app.

WidgetLocker costs $2.

11. Adapt to your environment with Setting Profiles Your behavior changes when you move from one location to another -- so why shouldn't your phone adapt, too?

Install Setting Profiles, and it can. With Setting Profiles, you tell you phone exactly how to behave based on any number of conditions. Want to have your ringer switch to vibrate-only when you're at the office, then switch itself back to ring-and-vibrate when you're at home? No problem. Want your phone to automatically text your significant other every time you arrive at the Boston airport? Easy enough. Want to have your display stay on when you're listening to music in the car? Setting Profiles can handle it all.

Setting Profiles costs $4.

12. Speak your commands with Voice Actions and Vlingo Got something to say? Android's listening. Google's mobile operating system offers a wealth of ways to control your phone by simply speaking commands. If you aren't taking advantage of them, you're missing out on a quick and safe way to get things done.

Google's Voice Actions for Android enables a slew of speakable command options that work throughout the entire operating system. While the app's long-form text transcriptions can sometimes be a bit sloppy, the commands themselves work quite reliably.

Voice Actions' commands include phrases to get directions, call contacts, look up and dial businesses, play music, open websites, and search the Internet. The program is available free for all smartphones running Android 2.2.

An interesting alternative is Vlingo, which requires only Android 2.1 to run. Vlingo offers similar functionality to Voice Actions with a few unique twists, such as the ability to update Facebook, Twitter, or Foursquare via voice command. It has useful driving-oriented features, too, including an Android-exclusive utility that provides a completely hands-free in-car experience and the SafeReader option that, when activated, automatically reads all incoming texts and emails aloud as they arrive.

Google's Voice Actions and Vlingo are free.

This article, "Supercharged Android: 12 apps to boost your smartphone," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Keep up on the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.

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This story, "Supercharged Android: 12 apps to boost your smartphone" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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