BEST ANDROID APPS TO START OFF 2014 (PHONE/COMMUNICATION APPS)

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This article is one of a series of articles about the best Android apps available as of the beginning of 2014.  Click here for the main article that includes links to this article and links to all the other categories of “The Best Of” apps for beginning 2014.  Let’s get started with the Phone/Communication category, which lists the best phone and communication apps available at the beginning of 2014.  For last year’s list, click here:

Groove IP and Talk-A-Tone (Free VOIP)

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If you have a Google Voice Account (and if you don’t… WHY NOT???), you can install Groove IP (free version or paid version $4.99) or Talk-A-Tone to make and receive calls over your data plan with your Google voice number.  As far as your mobile carrier is concerned, no call took place, so NO MINUTES ARE USED!

Groove IP is one of the few apps I’ve actually purchased.

I don’t know how many times I’ve explained this to people… they just DO NOT get it, so hopefully you WILL (pay attention!):  The official Google Voice app DOES NOT MAKE VOIP CALLS!!!!  The official Google Voice app does everything EXCEPT make VOIP calls.  Yes, you CAN change your GV settings to forward calls placed to your GV# to your real cell phone number, but when you answer, you’re USING MINUTES because you’re actually using your mobile carrier’s phone connection.  But if you use Groove IP or Talk-A-Tone, you can send and receive calls ON DATA ONLY.  As far as your mobile carrier is concerned, nothing is happening except “stuff on the internet”.  I’m hoping you can see the difference.  Making “real” phone calls with your carrier USES YOUR MINUTES.  Using Groove IP or Talk-A-Tone, you have UNLIMITED minutes.  (note: it DOES use your data, so if you have a data cap, be mindful of that).

So, eat my shorts Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and everyone else!

Sadly, Google is turning off 3rd party APIs for VOIP in May, so these apps will ONLY work until then.  Then it’s lights out. Sad smile  ALL 3rd party VOIP apps that use Google Voice will cease to function.  This is a huge downer for me as my home phone is actually a 100% free Google Voice phone.

Both Groove IP and Talk-A-Tone have both free and paid versions.  The free versions work only on your Wi-Fi connection.  The paid versions will use your mobile data connection too.  But, if you do pay for them, remember, they stop working in May 2014.

Red Phone (Encrypted Phone Calls)

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New in my list this year:  With Red Phone installed, your cell number is registered with them.  Then, when anyone else with Red Phone calls you, Red Phone notifies them that you have it to and they can place a secure call with you.  This bypasses making a real phone call and instead makes a VOIP call and it’s encrypted.  This not only encrypts your call, but it does NOT use minutes from your cell phone provider because you’re not really making a “real” phone call.  As far as your carrier is concerned, it’s just “stuff on the internet”.

Eat my shorts, NSA!

TextSecure (Encrypted Text SMS)

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New in my list this year:  Make by the same people that gave us Red Phone, is TextSecure.  this is a texting app, but with a special feature:  Anyone you text that’s also using it will receive your text messages securely.  Both of your messages are encrypted locally, before sent out.  Just like RedPhone, when you install TextSecure, it registers your phone number with their servers so that your contacts who also use it will automatically detect that you have it and will encrypt your text messages.  You can use this app as your standard SMS app too.  If you text someone that does NOT have TextSecure, it just sends the text messages in the normal way any other SMS app does.  If your text messages ARE encrypted, it’ll show a lock icon by them so you always know whether you have a secure or unsecure connection.

Eat my shorts, again, NSA!

Chomp (SMS)

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New in my list this year:  Chomp SMS is my favorite SMS app (aside from the encryption provided by TextSecure.  You have a LOT of customizations of the look and feel of your text messages.

Of course, if you want encrypted messaging, this is not the app for you.  But if you want a great looking messaging app, this is one of the best.  You can even make it look like the bubbly iOS texting app, if you like.

One thing to note about encrypted messages:  If you are running CyanogenMod 11 (if you’re not sure, then you most certainly are NOT), it has TextSecure’s encrypted technology built directly INTO the Operating System so ALL your SMS apps can send and receive encrypted messages!  So, since I am running CM11, I continue to use Chomp SMS and I also get the benefit of encrypted messages without the need of the stand-alone TextSecure app.  Yes, I have the best of both worlds!

Yes, it’s supports EMOJI and themes as well.

Thanks CyanogenMod!

Google Hangouts

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New in my list this year:  Google Hangouts is Google’s latest offering for messaging.  They are integrating all of their various messaging apps into one.  This app does SMS, Google Chat, some of Google Voice, and Video and Audio chatting all in ONE app.  If you like the Google card like interfaces (I personally do NOT for this type of app), then you’ll love this.  It can even be your default SMS app.  This is almost an all-in-one messaging app.

Google Voice

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Staying on the list this year:  Not to be confused with the Google Voice SERVICE, this is the Google Voice Android App.  Yes, it sounds like I’m splitting hairs, but the Google Voice SERVICE is much bigger than this lonely, single, Android App.  Of course, this app gives you a user interface into the Google Voice service.  This app does SMS (only via your Google Voice #, not your real cell #) and provides you a great UI for your Google Voice voice messages.  BTW, you can make Google Voice your REAL voice-mail provider for your REAL cell phone number, instead of your cell phone providers very limited voicemail service.  If you use GV as your standard VM provider, then you get everything you had before PLUS you can get your v-mail sent to you in e-mail.  You get automatic voice to text transcriptions (which are searchable!), can access your v-mail from any web browser, from the GV app, from your e-mail.  You can play them on your phone or in a web browser.  You can SEE them as if they’re e-mail with a GMail like UI.  Once you try it, I promise you, you’ll NEVER go back to that crappy old v-mail service your cell provider has for you, wasting all that time listening to messages with just your audio and phone pad interface.

Note that if you have CyanogenMod 11 or higher (again, if you’re not sure, then you definitely do NOT), then you have Google Voice support DIRECTLY in your phone’s operating system.  You PHONE can use the free, unlimited texting service from your Google Voice number.  ANY SMS app on your CM11 phone can use your Google Voice # for sending and receiving SMS messages.  If you do NOT have CM11 (or Sprint), then Google’s free SMS via your Google Voice number has utility ONLY in the Google Voice app.

But, with your Google Voice service and this app (or any SMS app on a Sprint phone or a CM11 phone), you can cancel your expensive texting plan and use ONLY your Google Voice service.  It’s free and it’s unlimited.

Oh!  And calls to your GV# can be filtered for telemarketing spam.  So can SMS messages.  It’s an optional (and free) feature.  Of course, you want this feature turned on!

See my 2013 “Best Android Apps to Start off 2013 (Phone/Communication Apps)” for a more, in-depth description of this service.

Eat my shorts, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, Virgin, etc…

Mr. Number (Spam Blocking)

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Still on my list this year:  This is an oldie, but a goodie.  Install Mr. Number and it will instantly lookup any incoming call and compare the caller ID information to a known list of telemarketers.  It will actually WARN you with a popup notification that the caller is a suspected spammer.  At which point you can choose to answer, hang-up, or block it.  If you block it, it gets added to your block list and you’ll never receive a call from them again.  If you get a call from a telemarketer that Mr. Number didn’t recognize, you can then tell Mr. Number that this number is a telemarketer and block it.  The great thing about that is it registers that number with the Mr. Number servers as a spammer so OTHER users get notified too.

This service is a crowd sourced service.  All of you are helping each other out.  You can even leave a description of the telemarketing call.  Even iOS users have a version of this app, so they too are contributing to the crowd sourced information.

Eat my shorts, telemarketers!

YP Mobile

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Same as last year:  YP Mobile (available here in the Google Play store) provides your basic yellow pages phone book, plus the familiar stuff you find in other “local services” apps for finding restaurants, gas prices, etc…  Not much more to say about it.  This app is no more or less special than others of its type, but I’m including it as one in that type of category.  Others are Yahoo!, Yelp, and Where.

Personally, I find Google Maps a superior tool for finding local businesses and their phone numbers as it shows a map of your results, so you can see, visually, immediately, what’s close by, then just tap whichever one you want on the map to get the details and phone numbers.

Google Maps

imageNew on my list this year:  Why Google Maps in a list of PHONE apps?  Because, I’ve found this is the most convenient way to find local numbers by business name OR by category (such as “Pizza”).  The search results are pins on a map, showing me WHERE these places are, which is almost always important to me for local places.  Touching a pin shows you that company’s contact information, INCLUDING their phone number, which you can tap and call immediately.  It is UBER useful!  I actually use Google Maps more than anything else for finding phone numbers.  To be honest, I don’t even have YP Mobile installed anymore.  I do want to leave it on my list, because it is useful and I just can’t bring myself to not recommending it, even though I honestly do NOT use it myself, anymore.  Google Maps is just awesome for finding local (and even non-local) businesses.

Dropped from this year’s list

imageNot all apps from last year made this year’s list.  Among them is Call Master.  Now, this is actually a GREAT app and works even better than Mr. Number, but it has one terminal flaw:  It sometimes pops up a nag screen in front of an incoming call, making it impossible to answer the phone.  I’ve missed a couple of very important phone calls.  For that reason, I’ve removed it from this year’s list.  BUT, if you’re wanting to pay for the full version, I’m sure this nag screen problem would go away.

What was better about it than Mr. Number was that it embeds itself DEEP into the OS so it would actually PREVENT the telemarketing call from making its way into the phone’s notification system.  The phone won’t ring.  You’ll have no call log.  Not even Mr. Number will be aware of it.  With Mr. Number, when a blocked caller calls, you hear a short ring before Mr. Number shuts them down.

You Chime In

What are some of YOUR favorite apps in this category?  Let us know in the comments below.

Conclusion

This completes my list of “Best” phone-specific apps available to start off 2014.  There are, of course, other communication types of apps and this is, by no means, a comprehensive list.  These are the apps in this category that I use on a daily basis and install on a new phone or tablet as soon as I get it.

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Best Android Apps to start Off 2014

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Here are my “Best of” Android apps to start off with in 2014.

I’ll list them by category and explain the purpose of each one and why I’m choosing it.  Each category will be a separate post because, as you can see of the length of the list, it would be quite long if it were all in one post.  Each bulleted category below is a LINK to the article about the apps in that category.  The list of categories below will only have hotlinks to articles for which I’ve completed.  Note that when I did this for 2013, I did NOT get a chance to make articles for all of these.  I will attempt it again this year.

Keep checking back as I post more articles… one for each category below

•    Phone/Communication Apps
•    Finance
•    Shopping (Everything here is FREE)
•    Imaging
•    Utilities
•    Audio
•    Games
•    Calculators
•    File Management
•    Security
•    Geo Location
•    Launchers
•    Productivity
•    Social
•    News & Reference
•    Time (Clocks/Alarms/Calendars, etc…)
•    Networking
•    Weather

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Sick of the NSA Spying on you?

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imageSetting aside the tin foil hat and paranoia jokes, no one likes being tracked or their private text messages being scraped up by the U.S. government’s massive computers, nor their phone metadata being logged, nor even the possibility of someone being able to listen in or record your phone calls (the NSA denies they listen to calls, but others with even FEWER ethics CAN).

 

Here’s what you can do to protect yourself on your Android SmartPhone

  • Encrypt your text messages.  There are 2 good options:

Install the TextSecure app.  This app will automatically detect which of your contacts also has this app installed and will automatically encrypt your SMS text messages with those individuals.  TextSecure is available on iOS too!  This means you can have encrypted texting sessions with both iOS and Android users!

Root your phone and install CyanogenMod 11 (or higher).  CM 11 has built-in support for TextSecure encryption, coded directly INTO the Operating System.  This means, you don’t have to install the TextSecure app.  Automatically, ALL SMS apps on your phone suddenly support TextSecure encryption.  But, you have to turn it on.  The feature is called “WhisperPush”.  Simply find the WhisperPush app on your phone, run it, and follow the instructions.  It’s the simplest setup you’ll ever experience.

  • Encrypt your voice phone calls (yes, you can do that)

This used to be stuff of only fiction in spy movies, but it’s a reality today and YOU can do it within minutes of reading this article.  First, install the app RedPhone from the Google Play Store.  This app is made by the same people that make TextSecure.  Both you and the person you’re calling (or receiving a call from) have to be using this in order to have a secure, encrypted phone call.  When you install the app, the first time you run it, it’ll ask you to register your phone number.  Now, anyone else with the app, when they call you’re number, the app knows you have it and will offer the caller the option to make the phone call encrypted.  Note that this uses your DATA connection and NOT your phone connection.  You’re not actually making an actual phone call.  It’s more of an internet audio chat.  But you don’t need to know that other than if you have a data cap, this will use your data.  As far as you and the other caller are concerned, for all practical purposes, it’s a phone call.  But your carrier will have no record of it AND anyone trying to listen in will only see a stream of random bytes streaming.  It’s totally encrypted… just like in the spy movies! Smile

  • Encrypt your E-Mail

This is a bit more difficult.  I’ll provide another article on how to do this.  The short version is you need to install djigzo from the Google Play store to manage your keys.  Then you’ll need an e-mail client that can use those keys to encrypt and decrypt your e-mail.  K-9 Mail is supposedly one of those apps.  For the record, I’ve NEVER gotten this to work.

  • Encrypt your phone

Android can encrypt your entire phone.  Don’t confuse yourself.  This does NOT encrypt ANY internet traffic to or from your phone.  It encrypts the files on the phone itself.

Go to Seetings –> Security –> Encrypt Phone

Warning!  This can take an hour or so!  Make sure your phone is plugged in AND has at least an 80% charge.  You do NOT want this failing in the middle of  it.  It will also require you to set a lock screen PIN or password, if you don’t already have one.  Once you do this, you CANNOT flash anymore ROMs on your phone (if you’re rooted).  So, make sure you’re good to go with the ROM you have.

  • Add a PIN or password to your phone

This one is obvious.  You need to set a PIN or a Password on your lock screen, otherwise, anyone can use your phone and see your data.

  • Add extra PIN for individual apps

Install the app AppLock from the Google Play store.  Open it up and set your settings.  You’ll set a PIN and you’ll select the apps you want to have an extra layer of protection.  Hint:  DO NOT use the SAME PIN here that you’re using for your phone lock screen.

This app will pop up a PIN prompt whenever someone tries to open one of your extra protected apps.  For example, you may want to enable your backing apps and credit card apps via AppLock so that you have to know that extra PIN in order to lauch them.  This way, if you let someone borrow your phone, they can’t go snooping into your financial data.

  • Hide apps and/or files on your phone

Maybe you have some apps that you don’t want other people to know or use.  Go to the Google Play store and download an app called Hide It Pro.  When you install it, it’ll show up on your phone as “Audio Manager”.  It’s deliberately deceptive.  The purpose of this app is to hide apps and/or files on your phone.  You protect them with a password of your choosing.  If someone’s snooping around on your phone, all they’ll see for this app is a music icon with a label, “Audio Manager”.  And if they launch it, it’ll even have working audio controls.  Those controls are totally for faking out people snooping on your phone.  Long press on the app title at the top of the screen (inside the app) and you’ll be prompted for a password, which then takes you into the real app where you can select apps and files to hide.  They won’t even show up anywhere on the phone with the regular phone interface.

  • Hide your browsing and internet traffic

Your ISP can see all the sites you go to, and so can the NSA, and so can anyone else snooping on your wireless connection (or even your wired connection).  And websites know what IP address you’re using, which means they can ask the ISP that own’s that IP address who is using it, and they’ll give them your name, address, and phone number.  What you need is something that bounces your web page requests to random computers all over the world.  Yes, this is exactly what you see “hackers” doing in hi-tech spy movies and YOU can do it too… VERY EASILY.  Install the app Orbot on your phone.  Follow the directions.   It’s super simple.  If your phone is rooted, it can obfuscate ALL of your internet traffic.  If your phone is NOT rooted, it can work with a few apps on your phone (web browser and e-mail, in particular) and bounce all your traffic from those supported apps all around the world.  It’ll slow down your connection a little, but it’ll also protect you against nosy, 3 letter acronyms including ISPs.

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