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July 2, 2011

These are a few of my favorite (and mostly free) apps

More and more, a smartphone is becoming an important part of life. They've made the jump from geek toy to providing essential functions for "normal" people.

The proliferation of apps, which is short for application programs, which is geek-speak for programs that actually do something for you, has so increased the number of potential uses for a smartphone that almost anyone should be able to find their phone a helpful accessory.

So, along with the standard out-of-the-box functions _ telephone, text messaging, email, music player, still camera and video _ you have a myriad of other things you can use your phone for by adding an app.

Now, there are literally tens of thousands of apps out there for smartphones. I mean it, if you want to peruse the whole Android (my flavor of smartphone) app market, you might want to take a couple of days off from work to do it.

So I thought I might save some of you a little time and mention a few of my favorite apps.

Before that though, I need to mention that you should keep in mind that most apps make use of the Internet, and using data over the Internet can be an issue. Cell companies charge for using data, and the cellphone data situation is changing.

I would say that the days of unlimited data plans are numbered. Cell companies are starting to tighten up the rules on data. If you use a lot of data you are going to pay more. If you don't already, you will at some point have a limit on the amount of data you can use each month. If you go over the limit, your wallet will feel it.

But there is a way to help with the data issue, at least in some circumstances. Almost all smartphones can access data in two ways. First, of course, is by cell signal. The second is by using WiFi, which is the wireless technology that most people have in their homes and offices. You know, the wireless you use with your laptop computer.

So, to limit the use of data over the cell network, you can have your phone connect over a WiFi connection, if it's available.

This can be important to cheapskates like me who have small data plans. For instance, my plan allows me 150 megabytes a month. But with judicious use of WiFi, I have never gone over my limit, so far.

Mind you, I don't use my phone to watch movies, or stream radio all day long. But I do use it for email and several other Internet related things.

So, the first app I am going to mention is called NetCounter.

It's free. Here's what it does.

It runs in the background and keeps a running count of the amount of data that I use on my phone, and it counts the data from the cell network and WiFi separately. So I can open the program and see how much data I've used on the cell network and how much on WiFi.

I figure that I can average 5 megs of data a day and keep under my data limit. NetCounter also keeps a running total per day, week and month, so you can set the date of the month it recycles its count to be the same as the day of the month your cell bill is billed out on, and have a pretty good idea of how you're doing. A great little app.

The next one I recommend is called WiFi Analyzer, also free. You start the program, and it scans for WiFi access points in the immediate area. It shows you the name and strength of the signal. This can be helpful if, like me, you try to connect to WiFi when possible.

You'll find WiFi that you can use in many places, such as friends' and relatives' homes, offices where you go frequently, and some public places. You may have to get an encryption key from whoever is in charge of the access point, but heck, it doesn't hurt to ask, and it might save you some money.

Now for the first app that really does something for you. It's called Radar Now. Yet another free one.

It's probably the app I use most, after email. It simply shows you the weather radar map for wherever you happen to be. Want to know if it's going to rain? Don't need a TV or radio, just open up the app and see the animated map. I see it being a favorite of anyone who works or plays outside.

Related, but kind of complementary, is The Weather Channel app. Yep, it's free, too.

When you first run it, you put in the location, or locations, you're interested in. You can keep track of several different places.

When you start it, it shows you the conditions for the location. Press a different icon and it will give you the hourly forecast for the next several hours, another icon and you get the "today-tonight-tomorrow" forecast, and yet another one will bring up the 10-day forecast.

It will also give you severe weather alerts and has other functions, too.

Once you get used to this app, you're hooked on it.

I have two other apps that I use a lot, and they're both book readers. You'd be surprised at how often you find yourself with a couple minutes to kill. When I do, I whip out my phone and read a few pages.

One is the Kindle app, which does just what you think it would: read books you have on a Kindle account. You might not realize it, but you don't need to actually buy a Kindle to read Kindle books. Actually, there is also a Kindle program for computers, too.

Keeping with my "cheapskate" reputation, you should know that there are a lot of Kindle books that are available for free, and a lot more that are about a buck.

I have another book reader, called Aldiko, which I really like. In this one I read mostly old, out-of-copyright books that are available free on the Internet. Some you can download directly within the program, and some I download separately and transfer into the program.

Both the reader programs are, of course, free.

The last app I am going to mention, as I'm running out of space here, is one that will be of interest mainly to people who use corporate email, and have a company Exchange server. The app is called Touchdown.

An Exchange server is Microsoft's fancy do-it-all program that includes email, contacts, calendar and so forth. It's pretty popular with businesses.

It is really handy to have your phone correctly synchronize all that stuff with your server.

Now, I should mention that Android phones will sync with Exchange natively, and you don't really need a special program to do it.

However, I've found that Android phones are not all created equal in this regard. Some have better interfaces with Exchange than others do. Touchdown is the "great equalizer." It works very well, and does all the Exchange stuff correctly.

So, no matter which version of Android phone you have, if you use Touchdown, things work like they should.

Touchdown is free to try out. It costs $20 to buy and use for ever and ever. But if you use your phone for business, that's a pretty good price for what it does.

That's all for this time. Maybe I'll do some more apps sometime down the road. 'Til next time, be 'appy.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by email at His columns can be found at

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