The apps that should be pre-installed on every smartphone
26th Dec 2013 | 13:00
Perfect apps for a perfect phone
The optimal Android pre-install
Smartphones are amazing tools that have revolutionised our ability to communicate, work and play on the move, but out of the box they can be somewhat lacking. Essential apps that most people use will often be absent and in their place there will be bloatware that only ever gets launched by accident.
The blank slate model of phones like the Google Nexus 5 at least avoid the latter problem, but on the flip side they're less likely to have the apps you do want, with the stock options bringing less than optimal functionality.
We've been into our greenhouse and drawn up the ultimate selection of apps that either fill major holes in functionality, are used by a majority of people or are just far and away the best at their given job.
The optimal Android setup
The wealth of customisation options for Android is both a blessing and a curse. If you put the time in it's possible to get an Android phone set up more or less exactly how you want. But it takes some effort and it helps if you have a knowledge of what apps are already out there.
Music and video are both widely used on phones, but you really only need a few apps to get the most out of them both. If you're watching web videos then odds are you're watching YouTube, so the official YouTube app is a pretty essential addition to your handset - but don't worry, it's mostly on there already.
There are a number of good options for watching locally stored media on your phone, but it's rare that any of them will come pre-installed on a handset. While it's debatable which the best really is we'd give the edge to VLC for Android.
It will play pretty much any file type you can throw at it and also supports multi-track audio and subtitles. Technically it's still in beta but that hasn't stopped it rendering most other Android video players almost obsolete - although MX Player gets a tip o' the TechRadar cap.
Moving on to audio, Poweramp Music Player has an almost unreasonable number of features, making it easy to play, organise and customise your music to your exact requirements.
Finally, no phone is complete without Shazam. Its music identification magic will mean you're never again left wondering what a song's called or who it's by.
Getting the social side of a phone right should be easy. While there are dozens of social networks out there arguably only two are used by enough people to be considered essential inclusions.
You can also pop on SnapChat for the fun of it. Kids are into it. Best to look current.
Along with calls, messaging is an activity carried out by just about every smartphone owner, but the stock messaging apps aren't always up to much.
In fact Handcent SMS puts most of them to shame, with advanced features like the ability to lock or hide messages as well as the standard functionality you'd expect from an SMS app.
For text messaging Handcent SMS is great, but Skype is all but essential too as it allows you to have free video chats, plus you can have free text or voice conversations too, as it uses an internet connection to send messages.
Getting a good email experience on your phone is almost as vital as a good SMS experience and to be fair most Android handsets do a pretty decent job of it, as Google's stock email app is certainly no slouch.
But for the versatility it gives you K-9 Mail is just that little bit better. With support for IMAP push email, multi-folder syncing, flagging, filing, signatures, saving email to your micro SD card and more it's seriously powerful.
With all that texting and emailing you're going to want a good keyboard. Most manufacturers include their own keyboards with Android phones and some do a better job of them than others, but you can't go wrong with SwiftKey.
Multiple layout options ensure an optimal experience whatever size device you're using, but the real magic comes in SwiftKey's ability to learn from you. The more you use it the better it gets at predicting what words you want to use and when. Before long it will know what you want to say before you do.
With the limited space available on smartphones cloud storage can be key and with that in mind Dropbox should come pre-installed on every handset.
Sure, not everyone uses Dropbox, but it is one of the most popular cloud storage services around and is integrated with a lot of other apps. Plus, the app itself is slick and easy to use.
Adobe Reader is also pretty essential for productivity. You may not use it much but the day you want to view a PDF on your phone you'll be glad you have it.
Finally, because Android phones are basically mini computers, a file manager can become vital. There are a number of these around but ES File Explorer gets the job done and then some.
As well as being able to manage your files and folders you can also use it to compress and decompress ZIP files, kill unwanted tasks and upload or download from cloud storage.
Entertainment / news
Everyone has different go-to sites and sources for their news and entertainment, so recommending one specific website or newspaper wouldn't do much good.
But Flipboard pulls content from hundreds of sources and you can tailor it to what you're interested in for a curated and beautifully laid out news magazine. It's so good that HTC Has Tried Copying it, and Samsung has baked it right into the Galaxy Note 3.
With people increasingly using their phones for shopping and banking it's important to make sure you keep your information secure and there are two sides to that.
The first is keeping it safe from remote threats such as viruses and malicious apps and the easiest way to do that is with an antivirus such as avast! Mobile Security. That or another antivirus should come as standard on all Android phones.
The second aspect is keeping it safe from thieves or anyone else who gains physical access to your handset.
Cerberus anti theft does a fairly comprehensive job of that, by allowing you to remotely locate and track your device, wipe it, sound an alarm, lock it, record audio from the microphone, get a list of sent and received calls and more, maximising the chance of you getting your phone back and ensuring that if it comes to you can at least wipe it.
If you shop online then you probably use Amazon and eBay at least some of the time, so the apps for both of these should be included on phones as standard as they make the experience so much smoother than attempting to use their mobile sites - although that's probably anti-competitive or something.
Bah, damn you legislation!
Widgets help set Android apart from the competition, but while they're often just a handy window into your favourite apps, some take on a life of their own.
WidgetLocker Lockscreen for example transforms your lockscreen into, well, whatever you want it to be.
Want the weather displayed front and centre? You can. Want a shortcut to an app or function on your phone? You can have that too and it can all be implemented in a variety of styles to ensure it looks the part.
Other essential widgets include Elixir 2, which has custom widgets for just about every setting or action imaginable and allows you to stick the shortcuts on your homescreen or even on your notifications shade.
By having these apps installed as standard any Android phone could be better equipped to serve the needs of most users, but there are still a few holes to fill.
Tiny Flashlight for example will turn your phone into a torch at the touch of a button. Useful for anyone drawn to the dark.
Then there's thetrainline, which details train times, lets you buy tickets and provides station information, making it an essential tool for any rail traveller.
Last but not least, Android phones should come with Truecaller. It's a collaborative phone directory which in many cases will be able to tell you who's calling, even if the number isn't in your phone book - mimicking some of the functionality of Android KitKat. It also allows you to block nuisance callers.
The optimal iPhone setup
The lack of widgets, alternate keyboards and the like mean that iOS isn't quite as customisable as Android, but there are still a lot of essential apps available and while Apple has done a reasonable job of covering the basics, we reckon there are a lot of things that should be pre-installed but aren't.
If you want to watch videos that you already have stored on your phone then VLC for iOS is a superb option, with file support that far exceeds most of its competitors.
For music the stock player actually does a pretty good job and there's not much in the way of compelling competition on the App Store, but it could definitely do with Shazam being installed to help you identify unknown songs.
The same two apps rule the social roost on iOS as on Android: Facebook and Twitter. Not only are both of these used by an enormous number of people but their respective apps are a lot slicker and easier to use than their mobile websites.
There aren't really any alternate SMS apps on iOS, so love it or hate it you're stuck with stock. That said, SMS isn't the only messaging option. Skype allows you to make free video and voice calls and send free text messages over 3G, 4G or Wi-Fi, making it pretty invaluable, and Facebook Messenger's Chat Heads are starting to gain traction.
We would recommend BBM - but we're not sure the service will still be active when you're reading this (we jest, of course).
Entertainment / news
There are hundreds of different news sources on the App Store. That's great but it's also a problem if you're interested in more than a few of them, as launching a dozen different apps just to get your news and entertainment fix is far from fun.
That's where Flipboard comes in. It combines all of your favourite news sources and topics into a single feed, making it easy to digest.
Between the two of them you can find just about anything, new or old and get it at a competitive price. Most people surely already shop at these places anyway so Apple should save everyone some time and just pre-install their apps on iPhones. If it was allowed to. It's not. Other retail services are available.
Public transport can be a nightmare at times, particularly when things don't go according to plan. Trains are late or cancelled, platforms change and before you know it you're stranded in Littlehampton.
But with the help of thetrainline that can be avoided, or at least if the worst does happen you can easily work out the quickest way home.
It gives you live train information, including times and platforms and its 'next train home' feature will tell you how to get home as fast as humanly possible, so you can get back to watching game shows and taking pictures of your cat.
The optimal Windows Phone 8 setup
Windows Phone 8 lags behind the competition in terms of app selection, which means that getting an brilliant setup may not be possible if the apps or features you want aren't available. On the other hand with fewer apps to sift through doing so should be a lot quicker.
While YouTube was an easy recommendation for iOS and Android, the YouTube apps for Windows Phone aren't generally so impressive. Even Microsoft's own attempt at one is distinctly lacking.
But there is one YouTube app that does the service justice: YouTube HD. It's slick, easy to navigate and even includes advanced features like uploading and downloading videos.
Shazam is as useful here as on other platforms. It's the sort of app that anyone could find handy as we've all had times when we've wondered what a song is.
Finally for media, Nokia MixRadio really should come pre-installed on all Windows Phone 8 handsets. It already comes on Nokia ones and it's understandable that it doesn't come with competitors ones, but with the ability to listen to a personalised radio station for free with no adverts it's pretty essential.
Facebook and Twitter once again come out on top as essential apps. Whether you're using iOS, Android or Windows Phone every handset should have these two pre-installed. However, Rowi is also a decent option if you're not into the official Twitter app.
Skype is just as essential here as on iOS or Android. Free messaging, video calls and voice calls make it hard to say no to.
If you plan to view or annotate any PDF's on your phone then Adobe Reader is probably the best option out there. Even if you don't think you want it now, one day it will be a life saver.
Entertainment / news
Sadly Windows Phone doesn't have Flipboard, but it does have Nextgen Reader. It's more an RSS reader than a customisable magazine, but it's got a similarly attractive design and lets you read full stories without leaving the app.
If you have a Windows Phone handset and use RSS feeds, this should be your reader.
That said they're not quite so essential here as they don't feel as well designed as their iOS and Android counterparts, but they're still generally preferable to using the websites. That's a good enough nod for us.
Night time power cuts used to mean rifling through drawers for a torch, if you could even find the drawers, but if you have a smartphone with an LED flash then you've already got a torch in your pocket, you just need an app to activate it. Flashlight-X is one such app for Windows Phone.
With the touch of a button it will light up the LED flash and leave you wondering why you even own a torch any more.
HERE Drive+ does for sat-navs what Flashlight-X does for torches. It's a full featured sat-nav with voice guided turn-by-turn navigation. And it's free.
Being a Nokia app it comes with Nokia phones anyway, but it really would be great if it came with every Windows Phone handset. Admittedly only five worldwide aren't made by the Finns.
- You've read about the essential apps, now read about the oddest apps.