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Best Android apps of the year (so far)

by Marty Gabel

It’s already July. Half of 2011 has sped by, and in its wake, a huge cloud of great Android apps. Bigger developers are releasing their offerings into the Android Market more quickly than ever, and the apps themselves keep getting better too. While it’s tough to pin down all of the fantastic releases of 2011 so far, here’s a handful of notable ones.

News360 (Free)

A few new Android tablets have hit the market, but none of them have lit the world on fire like Apple’s iPad yet. But, with a few more killer apps, perhaps that will change, and News360 is a step in the right direction at least. Designed specifically for tablets, News 360 aggregates the latest headlines and commentary in an aesthetically-pleasing way, making it an ideal way to keep in touch with what’s going on. With plenty of personalization options and over 1,500 sources, News360 shows the kind of innovation required if Android tablet apps are going to pop.

Lightbox Photos (Free)

While hardly the most original of ideas, Lightbox stands above other photo-sharing apps of its ilk simply because of its creativity and innovation. It also pushes the envelope a bit when it comes to what can be done with Android app design. Its creators chose to develop for the Android platform before iOS, and as Google’s operating system continues to mature and extend its reach, expect other developers to bring exciting design to the platform in the future.

Starbucks (Free)

The significance of Starbucks launching its official app on the Android platform is not so much about what the app can do, but more about the viability of Google’s OS these days. Big brands are no-longer passing Android by, as other players like BBC, Sony and McAfee have all launched important apps for Android devices recently too. With the Starbucks app, your phone becomes your loyalty card, and you never have to fumble for change in line again while waiting for your oversized half-fat caramel vanilla chai latte Americano with extra cream and a cherry on top.

Zipcar (Free)

Recently emerging out of beta, the Zipcar Android app is a great complement to the car-sharing service, and also features a few ‘wow’ features to set it apart from the herd. Zipcar is a pay-as-you-go car rental service which is cropping up in more and more cities nationally these days. So if you need a car occasionally, but don’t want the hassle of owning a vehicle outright, it’s a service that could come in handy. The coolest thing: once you’ve secured the car you’re hiring, the app works as a key fob to lock and unlock the vehicle or sound the horn if you’re lost in a maze-like parking lot.

Music (Free)

“2011: Year of the cloud,” and other such duck-billed platitudes. Google’s Music service, a digital storage locker much like Amazon’s Cloud Player, has been discussed a lot in 2011 alongside Apple’s iCloud music offering. If you were lucky enough to snag an invite to this beta service, you probably welcomed the opportunity to upload up to 20,000 music tracks to the cloud and see them sync-up with all your devices. Music plays well over 3G or Wi-Fi and your whole collection stays in sync as you add to it. There’s still a few hitches to work out, and there’s no details on pricing once the service goes live, but it’s certainly an app that’s had a great deal of impact so far.

Netflix & Hulu Plus (Free)

These two apps released in the past month demonstrate both the good and bad about the Android ecosystem. On the positive side, it’s encouraging that these popular streaming video services now have a home on Android phones, and they easily match the quality of their iOS counterparts. The negative side is that they remain victims of Android fragmentation. Each app is limited to a select number of devices, so if your smartphone isn’t on the list, you’re out of luck. Within time, this situation is likely to improve, but right now, it’s disappointing that not everyone can experience what these two nice apps can offer.

Fooducate Grocery Scanner (Free)

It’s all well and good being able to view the nutritional information on the labels of the food you buy in grocery stores, but do they really tell you everything you need to know? Enter Fooducate, a truly innovative app that’s warranted a great deal of recognition and success on both iOS and Android platforms. With a database of 200,000 items, once a barcode is scanned, you’ll discover some interesting facts about the food you’re buying like how much trans fat, salt, preservatives, and other ‘hidden’ things are contained within, and suggestions for some healthier alternatives. Though you won’t always agree with Fooducate’s suggestions (after all, perhaps you really do want that unhealthy, full-fat ice-cream), it’s still an encouraging way to improve your diet and uses Android smartphone technology very cleverly.

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