17 Oct 2012 - Münster (by James)

How to be more productive on your Android

No matter what device you're using, there's always one word that crops up: productivity. During the past couple of years we've seen a massive explosion in the range of productivity apps available for smartphones, tablets and computers alike. We live in a world where time is money and any efforts to try and save time are always going to be well appreciated, whether its in the office or within the four walls of your humble abode.

So, over the next couple of weeks I'm going to be looking at ways of keeping you productive on your Android or iOS device or Windows or Mac computer. As every device is different (and the range of apps and tools vary from one to another), we're going to cover them in separate articles, however some tools and tips can be applied across all platforms.

Let's firstly take a look at Android and the range of tools it offers as a platform.

Customization is your friend

One factor that puts Android smartphones over their arch rival, the iPhone is the sheer range of customization possibilities available for it. Apple are great fans of locking down their devices and the only possible way to tinker with them is if you jailbreak them (which simultaneously voids its warranty, although you can restore them to the factory software). This comes from the Steve Jobs philosophy – the first Macintosh back in 1984 was originally designed without any expansion slots – as he hated the idea of people meddling with his perfect design.

Android almost actively encourages customization (the operating system is open-source, after all) and there are plenty of custom ROMs out there which offer features far beyond the "stock" software (or the software you get with your phone as default). I personally was a fan of CyanogenMod when I had a Droid, though its really up to you.

My top tip for customization is: get a new keyboard. By this, I don't mean head down to your local gadget supermarket and grab a physical one but get a software one instead. I personally hated the default keyboard on Android as it was clunky to use and its text prediction aspect was like shooting into pitch black. My personal favourite is SwiftKey, which analyses your typing patterns and the way you write to give you smarter and more accurate text prediction.

It also anticipates the next word you are going to write given what you have previously written (the app can analyse your e-mail, Twitter and Facebook accounts to gain a more accurate idea of your writing style) and has so far saved users 89 billion keystrokes (the counter is available on their website if you want to check it!). There's a free version available but if you really want to sink your teeth into this great app (and support the developers at the same time), then go grab the paid version, which costs a mere £2.99 (around €3.70). It's a steal, and it's really worth it.

Utilize those useful tools

There are a few hidden gems in the Google Play store which can really help you become more productive – it's really just a matter of knowing what they are. There are three which I would highly recommend.

The first is Friday and this is an app that I really do miss on my iPhone. It's really your own personal journal and it collates virtually every single shred of information about you – where you've been, the people who you've been talking and messaging, your music collection, your pictures and your Facebook and Twitter activity (don't worry, it all stays on your phone) and displays all of this in a bitesize, easy-to-read format. So if you want to know how much time you've spent on the phone in the last few days, or who you've been talking to the most (hint hint, call your parents more!) then Friday will tell you the answer. Best of all, it's completely free, and you can grab it straight from the Google Play store by clicking here.

The second (and third) tools are Robin and Iris. They go together as they are virtual assistants for Android, much like Siri and (in some cases) they perform better than Apple's offering. Robin advertises itself as (according to comments made by CNET), "Siri has breadth, but Robin has depth!". They've also got one of the best promo videos in the business (especially if you're a James Bond fan, which I personally am!) – check it out here on YouTube.

It's really a voice assistant for local information but it can handle almost any kind of request, including directions, local amenities and reminders. Robin can also learn from what you say (despite the fact the app is still in beta status) and adapts the answer to your needs. So if you live in, say, San Francisco and you ask her, "What's the weather going to be like for today?" then Robin will display the current conditions for San Francisco. Voice control really does seem to be the way forward for most smartphones (this is probably why Apple is choosing to focus on it more – the last iOS update brought plenty of improvements to Siri) and Robin is a great offering for Android smartphones (it's free as well – grab it from the Google Play store here).

And, to complement Robin, there's Iris. It started out life as a "screw you, Siri!" app but has manifested itself into something that's so much more than that. Not only can you ask it to set up calendar appointments and remind you to wake up in the morning but it can also play a song for you and even find videos for you on YouTube – far more than Siri's offering (hint hint, Apple). You'll have to have a couple of packages installed on your Droid before installing it (namely Voice Search and TTS library) however these can both be grabbed from Google Play. Like Robin, Iris is also free (and can be had by clicking here).

Don't use the default browser!

I've been the proud owner of two separate Android smartphones (the HTC Desire HD and Samsung Galaxy S II) and I can say hand-on-heart that the default browser offering sucks more than a powerful vacuum cleaner. It's slow, looks cheap and crappy and doesn't offer anything more than a glorified screen for viewing websites.

It took a while, but Google finally released Chrome for their own platform (Lord knows why it took so long) and offers so much more than Android's default offering. Pages load in an instant and Chrome's built-in hardware-accelerated page rendering makes browsing through long pages an absolute breeze. You can also search and navigate from one box (why haven't Apple introduced this in the iOS Safari yet?) and there's no limit to the number of tabs you can have open.

Plus, if you sign in with your Google account on both your desktop PC and your Droid, then you can keep all your bookmarks, open tabs, passwords and more in sync. No more e-mailing links to yourself if you want to view a webpage on the move – send it straight over to your device with a single click. Now that's productivity for you. However, if you don't have an Ice Cream Sandwich (or later) device then unfortunately you can't run Chrome at all (if you have, then grab it from Google Play by clicking here).

There are also a couple of other alternative browsers for Android, such as Dolphin, Firefox and Opera, however they unfortunately don't offer the same range of features as Chrome does!

Never underestimate the power of task managers

What would I do in a world without task managers? Honestly, I couldn't even picture it. I used to write everything down in a diary but now that's become too cumbersome and I use task managers to keep track of every single task I need to accomplish. There are quite a few out there for Android (they are often known as GTD applications, or "get things done", to distinguish them with proper task managers, which display a list of applications your Droid is currently running) but I find one of the simplest to use (and most powerful) is Any.DO, which is completely free.

It sports an interface that's easily one of the best-looking of any Android device (even the iPhone version uses the same interface) and the great thing about it is that it's so marvellously simple to use. Add a task to the list, give it a due date then mark it off by simply swiping across your screen when it's all finished. It syncs across all your devices and you can also add tasks just by speaking – no typing is needed. Both the NY Times and TechCrunch branded it "one of the best Android apps of 2011" and it's really easy to see why. If you're only going to choose one way of keeping productive from this little roundup, then please make it this one – it really does pay off! The one thing that would make AnyDO even better is integration with fruux.

Sync services FTW!

Sync services really do need no explanation, and there's a whole host of them available for Android devices. You really can work far more productively by keeping everything in sync across all your devices, whether it's your contacts or events, files or documents – there is a service out there for you.

For files, the obvious three contenders are Dropbox, Google Drive and Box.net, which are all based on cloud storage. Upload a file on your computer and you'll be able to access it on your Android and vice-versa. All three of them provide you with a handsome amount of storage when you sign up (Dropbox currently gives you 2 GB of free storage, whilst Box.net and Google Drive give you 5 GB upon signing up) and many third-party programs also integrate with these services seamlessly.

There's plenty of others as well, such as Mozy (mobile backup), SugarSync (file synchronization and sharing) and SkyDrive (file and document sharing) to name but a few and all offer pretty much the same set of features. My personal favourite (along with many others) is Dropbox as it offers the easiest way of transferring files between your computer and Droid and also given the huge range of third-party support. You also get free storage space when you encourage other people to sign up, another bonus!

That's a wrap, folks!

I really hope that this guide has helped you sift through the mountain of productivity apps out there on the Google Play store and realise that there are plenty of ways to keep productive on your Droid. Remember, of course, that fruux can also keep your contacts and calendars in sync across all your Android devices, as long as you've got the additional utilities CardDAV-Sync and CalDAV-Sync installed (both are free). This is because Android doesn't provide native support for CalDAV and CardDAV (yet), the two standards upon which fruux is based.

In the next article, we're going to be looking at how to be more productive on a Windows PC. Until then, if you have any comments, thoughts or questions about this article then please e-mail me directly: james [at] fruux [dot] com or tweet us @fruux.

About James

Nothing pleases James more than the smell of the countryside and the atmosphere of his university city of Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter.

fruux is a free service that looks after your contacts, calendars and tasks so you don't have to. It makes sure that they are always in sync, no matter which device or operating system you're using. If you've not tried it yet, then why not check us out and let us know what you think! And if you're already using fruux, then we'd love to hear your thoughts and comments. You can also suggest a feature for any upcoming releases or tweet us: @fruux.