Maps, comics and Chumby: a handful of Android apps to help get you through your Friday

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I don't know about you, but I've already got a case of holiday-itus. I know we still have almost a full work week ahead of us before most companies give us some kind of Christmas break, but after the week we've had: Gawker leaking our data and causing all kinds of sites to decide we needed to reset passwords, the news that Delicious is shutting down being transitioned to a new home or something (Lifehacker has a handy post on exporting your bookmarks while you still can — that's a Gawker site so don't log in!), and y'know, Facebook was down for a while yesterday! It's enough to frazzle anyone's nerves.

I needed a break so I turned to my trusty Droid for some well-deserved goofing off. Great timing on my part because wow, is Android becoming a fun platform. Let's look at a few of the reasons why.

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First is the new update to Google Maps. Maps 5.0 is supposed to be a 'lighter' app due to new vector graphics, and it now caches maps you use frequently in case you ever need access when you can't find a signal to get online, but what I was having fun with was the new 3D building feature. Here's how to check it out. Launch Maps and hit a city that's covered. Boston, New York, Los Angeles; there's a list of them in the Maps Help section. Make sure you turn off Layers like satellite view, then zoom in on the city of your choice. At a certain point you'll start seeing vector outlines of buildings in 3D. Zoom way in, and then use a two-finger vertical swipe to change the angle from directly overhead to a more isometric point of view. Neat huh? Use one finger to pan the map and it's almost like flying through the city streets. A two finger 'twist' swipe will spin you around so you can look in another direction.

I'm not sure how useful this is but I manged to entertain myself for a good ten minutes with it. To see all the functional improvements in Maps 5.0, check out Engadget's post on the app or check the embedded video below. Or just download the free update.

So that was fun but I needed something a bit more substantial to kill some time with. And just as I was thinking that, I got word that ComiXology, the digital comics service, just released a beta version of a new Android app. I've used ComiXology on the iPad a little (I'm honestly not a huge comic fan) but I was curious as to how it would work on something as small as my Droid screen. Really well, as it turns out. They've done a great job with their "Guided View" mode. Tap the right third of the screen to advance, the left third to go back, and the center to pop up a menu. The Guided View will bring up the next important chunk of the page. You can zoom in if you need to via a double tap or a pinch, and the app gracefully adapts as you turn the phone from portrait to landscape. In fact you should do that, as certain 'chunks' view better in one aspect or the other.

In addition to viewing your ComiXology comics (and there're plenty of free books to get you started) the full ComiXology store comes along for the ride, so you can buy new comics (including The Walking Dead in case you can't wait for Season 2 of the TV series to start next year). Bottom line: if you have a hankering for (legal) comics on your Android device, ComiXology is probably the best resource available right now. As I said, the app is in beta but anyone can access it; search the Market for ComiXology. The app is free and as mentioned, there're a good number of free comics available.

Now we get into a couple of apps that I investigated but didn't try. The first is Chumby for Android. This is an app that turns your Android device into a Chumby (without the cute shell). It's supposed to run all Chumby apps and if you set your device in a cradle it'll go into Chumby mode and be your bedside Chum, just like the original device. Chumby for Android is $5 and since we have a Chumby at home (and I'll admit it's a somewhat neglected Chumby, to boot) I decided to pass on that one. I'm a big fan of Gentle Alarm as my Android alarm clock, or else I might've spent a fiver just to get one of the Chumby alarm clock apps.

Last is news of an app-to-be. Sony has announced that an official Playstation App for Android is coming soon. It'll be released in Europe initially and then, hopefully, the rest of us will get it. Don't get too excited though. This isn't an app that lets you play Playstation games. Instead it's more like a portal app that lets you access your Playstation Network data from your phone. You know, check your trophies, check the latest news...that kind of thing. AndroidGuys has more details.

Anyway after all this I was feeling a lot less stressed; I hope you are too. If you have a favorite Android time-waster you'd like to suggest, please mention it in a comment. I'm really encouraged by the Android ecosystem lately. Suddenly it feels like the OS is getting a lot more recognition from established companies. There's always been a ton of content in the Android Market, but now more and more of it is coming from people or services you may have heard of outside the Android landscape. I think this bodes well for the future of the platform. A few months ago I had more or less decided that I'd switch to an iPhone once Verizon offered them, mostly due to the strength of the App Store vs the Android Market. I no longer feel that way. I can get outside the 'walled garden' and still have the apps that I hear about in the news.

A lot of Android die-hards kind of scoffed when Rovio brought Angry Birds to the OS, but to me it felt like a kind of turning point. Now I just have to wait for these new dual-core Tegra based Android phones to hit and I can upgrade to an amazing phone running an amazing OS.

Peter Smith writes about personal technology for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @pasmith.

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