When Doc Brown and Marty McFly time-traveled from 1985 to the Kimmel set in October last year, the host welcomed them to “the future” by showing off the most ubiquitous piece of 21st-century technology today, the smartphone. The good inventor was not impressed, however, and in fact seemed a bit nonplussed. He expected flying cars and liquid-nitrogen-cooled superconductors; instead he came across Jimmy’s Grindr app, and received a short tutorial on how to use emojis and take a selfie.
No disrespect to Jimmy, but I think he completely misrepresented 2015. I know he was just trolling for laughs, but I am a serious fan of the Back to the Future movies, and would have loved to have had the chance to show off my (then top-of-the-line) Samsung Note Edge to Doc Brown. Whether fans agree or not, it is undeniable that the smartphone has changed the way humans lived their lives in the last decade that it has been in existence, in more fantastic ways than writers of the 30-year old movie franchise could have ever imagined.
The statistics are staggering, if not completely surprising. Consider this – it is estimated that people spend about 4 cumulative hours a day on their mobile devices, and this does not even include time spent actually making and taking phone calls. That’s about 25% of our waking hours spent purposefully or aimlessly scrolling through Facebook and Twitter timelines, Snap-chatting, playing mobile games, checking emails, watching cat videos on YouTube, and all the other myriad wonders we can do in such a tiny, fragile device.
So no, Jimmy, I don’t shell out P30 – 35K every two years on cellphone refreshes just to scam on guys or take duck-face mug shots. I don’t even use emojis all that much. In my many years as a yuppie (I missed the “millennial” threshold by a year), my smartphone has been a productivity extension, an assistive device that allows me to navigate my way more effectively through this fast-paced, tech-crazy, Google-powered world.
Before going to my list, I want to make my stance clear on two important burning points:
- When it comes to functionality, Android trumps iOS any day. The iPhone is probably the prettiest device, might be the simplest to use, and its organic, buttery touchscreen GUI definitely remains unmatched, but Apple’s stubbornness to contain and control every single thing is limiting regular users from harnessing the power of the phone’s impressive hardware and operating system to their full extent.
I was one of the very first users of the iPhone when it first came out in 2007. Back then, some of my more “techie” friends (who were mostly Blackberry and Nokia users), mocked my choice, and called it the dumb blonde of smart phones. I couldn’t completely disagree – the first model did not even allow me to send texts to multiple users! It felt like I was carrying around an iPod that just happened to allow me to text and make calls. And so I did what any curious wannabe hacker would – I learned the intricate art of jailbreaking, a term used to break your iPhone free of most of its factory restrictions. In the olden days, there were no fancy programs that allowed OTA updates; jailbreaking required actually modifying code in a DOS-like black screen. After four laborious hours, I was successfully able to install my own ringtone and customize icons, something that earlier smartphones had been able to allow users to do for years.
Nowadays the process is so much simpler, but it is almost not worth it anymore, unless your objective for jailbreaking is to install cracked apps. It is just not worth the trouble of voiding the warranty or being excluded from OS updates, or even risking bricking your phone, because if you want a customizable phone that allows you a little bit of freedom to personalize, and install third-party apps relatively risk-free, you are really just better off getting an Android phone.
- Which brings me to my second point, the similar topic of modifying Android phones, in a process called “rooting”. Like jailbreaking, rooting an Android device opens up a plethora of developer and programming options by unlocking “superuser” access. I rooted a Samsung Note 2, my first Android device, right out of the box nearly 4 years ago. This allowed me to flash ROMs for the fullest customization options, backup and restore my hard drive’s entire content through a very cool third party app called Titanium Backup, and even hack game codes via Game Killer. It was fun while it lasted. Two years and many missed OS updates later, my device was slower than molasses and crashing at every turn, and so I had to un-root, but by that time it was already the schedule for a new model anyway. Since then, I’ve passed on rooting my new phone for two reasons – it has become harder to find a safe rooting process, and I just didn’t need any of the rooted apps anymore.
So summarizing my points above, Android kicks iOS’ fancy butt, and neither rooting nor jailbreaking are attractive options anymore. Thus, in order to maximize your smartphones’ capabilities as a productivity tool, it is necessary to know which apps, paid or otherwise, will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
What follows is a product of years trying, deleting, and eventually adapting, numerous apps from the Google Play store. I have intentionally omitted obvious over-recommended productivity tools such as Cisco Webex, Google Drive, or even Waze, in order to make the list more meaningful. I have personally found that these tools make my smartphone more than just a device for stalking ex-lovers and trolling on YouTube, and closer to something that I can brag about to Doc Brown.
- TouchDown™ by Symantec – I tried this email app almost four years ago, before it was acquired by security software giant Symantec. It’s free to try for a month, and an P850 purchase. Back then, our email server had intermittent compatibility issues with both iOS and Android phones alike, because it was still setup for BlackBerry devices. It was the only email app that allowed continuous connectivity. After the 30-day trial, making the purchase decision was an easy one. Even now, it trumps Samsung and Apple’s stock email, and even the official Microsoft Outlook app, in features and functionality. My favorites include:
- Highly customizable mail screen that allows personalized filters and gestures
- The ability to create rules, categories, and even mobile forms
- A pretty nifty Calendar Agenda widget which is fully compatible with most major launchers like Nova and ADW
- The ability to save mail settings in Dropbox, making it easier to restore favorites after a re-set or device change.
- SafeInCloud Password Manager – An amazing cross-platform password and private information management system for that full portability experience. You can store passwords, credit card information, passport numbers, etc. It has a free version if you’re ok with keeping your data in one device. To unlock the cloud-syncing option, upgrade to the pro version for only P250.00. Here are reasons why I chose this over many other more popular password and data-management apps in the Play Store:
- Unlike other similar apps which charge for monthly or yearly memberships, SafeInCloud has a one-time lifetime registration free. Just don’t forget your Google Play password and app code, and you’re good to go, forever.
- The user interface is super simple, and allows users to organize information in different categories.
- The app can mirror your phone’s security settings, including your fingerprint settings. This makes it so much easier to access your data while on the go.
- I have SafeInCloud in my laptop, and the encrypted backup data file in my Dropbox, so I am confident that nothing will get lost for as long as I remember the initial passcodes.
- OWA Webmail – Not all corporate email servers are made equal. Where I have been working for the last seven years, I’ve had to manage and maintain two separate emails. While many apps (including TouchDown) allow multiple-mail management, some office mail servers restrict off-site access to sluggish web browsers as a security measure. OWA Webmail allows me to access and organize my second email in an app that has the look and feel of a full-feature email application. The ad-free version, that also unlocks other functionalities like attaching files and managing the built-in calendar, comes with a one-time “donation” of about P100.00.
- Evernote – For all its amazing features, I am surprised that this app has not gone completely mainstream. Evernote is the ultimate productivity tool for note-takers and list-makers on the go. Users can also integrate images and video files, while syncing everything across multiple devices, and even operating software. During meetings, I can take notes in my phone, and my notes get automatically synced to my laptop. My favorite features include:
- Handwriting option, which works well Samsung Note phones and tablets. In Samsung Note series phones, handwriting gets converted to text as well.
- “Notebooks”, a genius function that provides users the option to organize files in accessible and easy-to-remember categories.
- One-touch voice-recorder
- Reminder option that can be synced with the S-Calendar, and even the TouchDown agenda widget, for ultimate task-management.
- Nova Launcher – As far as full theme customization goes, this launcher is as close as you can get to flashing your own ROMs. I’ve used many other launchers in the past, but there was always something I wanted to do that they did not support. Nova allows near-full tweaking for that exact look you are going for.The free version has enough options to satisfy a casual user, but the upgrade to the Nova Prime pack, which unlocks all its powerful features as well as some theme and icon packs, for P250, is really worth it. Here are reasons why I think it is the best launcher out there:
- The Prime pack allows users to create full backups in as many versions as your SD or cloud storage can handle.
- “Swipe” feature which makes app icons act as folders with a swiping gesture
- Compatible with many amazing theme and icon packs in the Play Store, such as my favorite by DCIkonz.
Merely a decade ago, I remember predicting that our mobile phones would, in five or so years, project holographic images of people with whom we are talking. Hopefully, I was only a few years off, but apps like Skype and Messenger do make a great substitute for now. While there are still more items in my wish list, my current smartphone is definitely still something I’d be proud to show off to any time-traveler, even those from the recent past.
What are your favorite smartphone apps? Use the comments sections below to share.