Everyone loves free stuff. And there’s plenty of it on Android, with an insane number of free apps available in the Google Play store. But most of them are rubbish: a frustrating mix of non-official rip-offs, shonkily designed bedroom projects and, in the worst cases, plain old arrgghh-this-doesn’t-even-work-at-all duds.
Fortunately, gems lurk among the dross, and we’ve rounded up dozens of crackers. Read on, download and enjoy the best Android apps for photography, sketching and drawing, travel and weather, health and diet, making music and editing video, working and studying, and relaxing, reading and watching TV.
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Most digital instruments mimic those in the real world – not ideal if you fancy making some music but are intimidated by a traditional piano set-up. musicLabe rethinks tinkling the ivories by having you prod large coloured shapes instead, with each key being part of a scale that ensures you never play a duff note.
The experience is meditative and relaxing – more Eno than Anthrax. But it’s a great way for newcomers to get into the joy of music, while features like a looper provide scope for old-hands to experiment and jam. For both audiences, IAP exists to add new views that dig deeper into the notes and scales. But even for free, musicLabe is a chart topper.
We’ve long had a bit of a soft spot for Snapseed. Its intuitive interface was always one of the most tactile on Android; moreover, the huge range of filters and effects made it perfect for all manner of photographic manipulation and fine-tuning. But with 2015’s major revamp, Snapseed became further entrenched in must-have territory.
The star of the upgrade: Stacks, which converts each filter you apply into an editable layer. This means each effect can later be tweaked, rather than being burned into your image when applied, thereby providing even more scope for experimentation. Handily, stacks can also be saved for later re-use.
Adobe Photoshop Camera
Photoshop is so serious it never smiles, which makes it surprising this live filter camera app of similar name is so breezy and silly. Some of the filters are admittedly dull, designed for people who like taking photos of their lunch. Others are for people who fancy dotting virtual lollipops about the landscape. You know which type you are.
Filter management is a breeze. The app works on existing images. It’s fun and powerful. The catch is Adobe’s scattershot device support. Still, if Photoshop Camera works on your Android, it’ll make you snap happy.
There are so many camera apps, social networks pretending to be camera apps, and camera apps pretending to be social networks, that it takes a lot to stand out. Retrica manages to do so due to its straightforward interface, slew of live filters and effects (so you can see what you’re going to get at all times) and excellent multishot collage-creation mode.
Use the last of those when you’re zooming along in a car (er, as a passenger, obviously) and you get some really amazing photo strips. And if you miss a Retrica moment by using your normal camera app, you can always apply one of Retrica’s filters later.
Stop Motion Studio
Fancy yourself as the next big thing in animation? Sadly lacking the money to buy any equipment or even an app? No matter: with Stop Motion Studio, you only need your Android device’s camera and some bits and bobs to shuffle about your desk.
This app’s a cut-down version of the paid app, and so is light on features. Nonetheless, it still enables you to shoot individual frames, arrange and edit them, and then spit out the results to a movie or animated GIF.
8Bit Photo Lab
If you only feel happy when digital imagery has edges chunky enough to take off a kneecap, you’ll feel right at home with 8Bit Photo Lab. Import a pic, roll the dice, and the app draws on computing’s history to create something that might once have graced an ancient PC or Game Boy.
But this is no mere filter app. Every setting can be tweaked, and alternate output styles (from circles to glitches) await discovery. Some bits lurk behind IAP, but then if you want high-res output or virtual C64/Speccy pics, the ‘pro’ IAP costs about the same as the price of a rubbish budget game from 1985 – and 8Bit Photo Lab’s far more fun.
Adobe Photoshop Fix
Until the (unlikely) day Adobe sees fit to release its desktop products in full on Android, we’ll have to make do with the company carving off bits and squirting them into apps. Photoshop Fix is, though, a suitably impressive bit, if you’re in the habit of retouching and restoring photographs.
The basics – cropping and adjustments – aren’t anything you can’t get elsewhere. But Photoshop Fix’s Heal and Liquify tools are something else, respectively knocking out imperfections and enabling drastic effects. Load a portrait and Liquify becomes face-aware, too, so you can subtly adjust features – or give your boss a massive conk if you’re in a funny mood.
Art and design
Unleash your inner Roobarb, smashing out wobbly animations in minutes. Start with a photo or a blank canvas, and get drawing. Add a new frame, and you can see the previous one faintly, enabling you to line up the next for fluid scribbles once everything’s set in motion.
For a freebie, there’s a lot going on here. Stickers you can run along paths are perhaps a bit throwaway, but the layers system is superb, and provides scope for complex work.
What you end up with probably won’t terrify Disney, but your creations will at least be full of character; and besides, using this app’s way less hassle than doodling flip animations on an old notepad.
Adobe Illustrator Draw
On the desktop, Adobe powerhouse Illustrator is most known for enabling creative types to fashion anything from logos to elaborate illustrative fare. Illustrator Draw brings much of the tech to Android, but is mostly concerned with creating freehand artwork.
This is an impressive desktop-oriented app, in terms of feature set. There’s a layers system for separating elements or tracing over an imported photo, a 64x zoom, multiple configurable pen tips, perspective grids, and shape stencils to temporarily plonk on the canvas when you fancy some accuracy. Export options are limited unless you subscribe to Creative Cloud, but that’s the only drawback.
Adobe Photoshop Sketch
Much like stablemate Adobe Illustrator Draw, Adobe Photoshop Sketch utilises the smarts of an Adobe desktop app to provide you with a seriously impressive Android-based fingerprinting environment. This one’s all about natural media – scribbling with digital takes on thick acrylic paint, pastels, inks, and watercolours.
The app excels in terms of features, with a layers system, configurable brushes, and you being able to stash favourite tools and colours in the toolbar. Again, export’s a bit limited if you’re not a Creative Cloud subscriber, but you can at least output work to Gallery for sharing online.
Sure, you can just hurl loads of photos at someone after a special event, or force them to browse an album on Facebook. Alternatively, make a bit of an effort with PicCollage. Not too much of an effort, mind, given that the app provides a slew of options for hacking together a selection of pics in freeform, arty, and grid layouts. There’s plenty of flexibility, then, along with a bunch of effects and editing tools. Just be mindful that to be rid of watermarks, you’ll need to grab a monthly subscription.
It turns out that colouring in is good for relieving stress – although that’s not the case when you spill paint all over the furniture or accidentally grind pastels into the rug. Fortunately, Pigment provides a safe digital alternative – and one far beyond its contemporaries.
This isn’t just a rubbish tap-to-fill pretender (although you can use that input mechanism if you’re feeling lazy). Instead, you get a range of tools to use – markers; brushes; fancy gradients – and can even choose whether the app helps you ‘stay between the lines’. There’s IAP for unlocking new illustrations, but plenty are available for nowt.
Travel and weather
Chances are, you’ve already got this beauty installed on your Android device. If not, what are you waiting for? Google’s mapping app is the best around, with excellent routing by car, public transport, or bike/foot. But it’s more than just a massive map. You get Street View for nosing around selected spots (including national monuments – and a TARDIS, if you can find it) by way of panoramas, fast access to information about local amenities and entertainment, and an offline mode. That last one enables you to save a chunk of a map to your device, using it as a turn-by-turn driving aid even when you’ve no internet connection.
Google Maps might be the best mapping app around, but if you find yourself immersed in a massive city, you might want something a bit more focussed. Citymapper is all about zipping about by the best modes of transport possible, and dozens of cities are supported.
It figures out where you are and plugs into all available transit information, enabling you to rapidly plan journeys via train, bus, bike, or ferry. Journey overviews enable you to compare how many calories or bucks you’ll burn, along with discovering which are ‘rain safe’, and those that’ll require you to hang around for ages before getting going.
Google Earth used to feel like Google Maps wrapped around a massive ball. But it’s now ideal for anyone who fancies doing tourism, but who’s too lazy to get out of a chair.
You can scoot about the planet by way of search, a randomised ‘feeling lucky’ option, or Voyager tours. The tours enable you to gawp at bits of NASA, modern wonders of the world, or where the dinosaurs bought it.
Some of the 3D landscapes still look like a dodgy PC videogame, but it’s nonetheless rather nice to see low-poly visuals transform before your eyes into something recognisable and almost photographic. The Alps, in particular, look superb.
We’ve seen a few clever translation apps in our time, but Google Translate now crushes them all. It offers (sometimes clunky) word-for-word translations of over 100 languages with input via text, handwritten words or symbols, spoken words or even text recognition via the camera. It can then give you the translation in the form of text or speak it for you.
The core app can do all this with a data connection, but if you’re abroad and fearing nasty roaming data charges, Google Translate may still come to your aid: over 50 of the languages work entirely offline for basic translation.
Built-in weather apps tend to be functional. Appy Weather instead shoots for ‘useful’ and ‘has an interface you can see from across the street’. The Timeline view shows what’s happening now and what’ll happen later, all presented in natural language.
Hourly or daily forecasts also exist, the latter providing all manner of wiggly lines for switchable outlooks on temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, and other metrics. Go Plus (a fiver a year) and you unlock ad-free widgets, notifications and a radar; but for free, Appy Weather does the business.
Health and diet
If you’re putting yourself through a fitness grind alone, this virtual back-patter will help spur you on. It tracks all your runs, walks and rides, then does the maths to tell you (and the entire world via social media) how many calories you’ve burnt, how far you’ve gone and generally how heroic you’ve been over the past week or so. The in-app purchase model keeps it all nice and tidy too, so even in the basic free format it’s a very neat app to use.
If you’ve piled on the flab, it can nonetheless be a drag working up the enthusiasm to slog along local streets in trainers that have seen better days. But you can spice up running/jogging/hobbling (depending on your competence) with Zombies, Run!
It’s more or less a post-apocalyptic Walking Dead-style scenario smashed into Runkeeper, sending you out on vital missions that rather suspiciously always involve running. Periodically, zombies will show up, and unless you up your pace, they’ll tear your face off – a handy motivator. Want more structure? Take a look at the built-in training plans.
You might already be familiar with Buzzfeed’s Tasty website, which marries lip-smacking recipes and super-fast videos. Tasty brings all that to your Android device, but in a stripped-back no-fuss interface that’s a joy to use.
Scroll through the recipes, and tap the look of whatever you fancy. You’ll then be able to watch it being made in a matter of seconds. Below that there’s the usual ingredients list and step-by-step guide. A version of the latter adds relevant video snippets, too, so you can make sure you’re on the road to foodie delight rather than culinary disaster.
EZ Unguided Meditation Timer
Even the most basic meditation apps tend to come with horrifying subscription charges. EZ Unguided Meditation Timer is different, being a no-nonsense and minimal app that has a price tag so minimal it doesn’t exist.
The app itself is ideal for non-guided meditation. You can set a timer and optional background noises and kick off a session that can be paused at any time. And even if you end a session early, the app doubles down on the positive by congratulating you for your efforts. Nice.
Add in ongoing stats and a community you can join and you’ve a top-notch meditation app for no outlay whatsoever.
Many exercise apps are mired in complexity and assumptions, because of course everyone has a route to run, or a ton of equipment to use. 321FIT bucks the trend.
It rethinks a fitness app as a music player, with workouts designed like playlists. If you’re not keen on the included ones, build your own, defining exercises, sets and reps. For some reason, it then adds parping retro sound effects, and a little avatar that’s apparently escaped from 1990s Teletext.
Fire off a workout, and your blocky on-screen counterpart huffs and puffs while the app details how far you’ve got – and what time the pain will be over. A no-brainer, then, given that it’s free.
Music, audio and video
We’re all for making music properly, but sometimes you just want to make a noise with a minimum of effort. With Remixlive, you select a genre and then tap away at pads to trigger loops. Everything’s always in tune, and you can record your electronic masterpiece as you go.
Want more control? Try the mini mixing desk, with its knobs and sliders, or the FX section with a pad for slathering your tune in delay or a filter. Got some cash burning a hole in your pocket? Then splash out on additional sample packs, effects, and features.
Music Maker JAM
Sitting somewhere between music-creator and loop remixer, Music Maker JAM is a great way to get started if you fancy making a noise. Choose a style (there are over a dozen freebies, and hundreds more available via IAP), assign loops to tracks, and even record yourself yelling over the top, like a repressed diva trapped in a bin.
But that’s not all – Music Maker JAM enables you to live mix, create song sections to switch between, and also adjust the key of the loop across any of its beats. You’re still ultimately fiddling with other people’s loops, but it feels like you’re making your own songs.
These days, people are just as likely to pick up a tiny plastic guitar as a real one. Yousician takes advantage of the gamification of music, essentially spinning Guitar Hero 90 degrees and having a proper guitar be your controller. You therefore work your way through timing-based exercises that have you strum chords and pick notes at precisely the right moments.
The free version limits how long you can play each day, but it’s a smart, fun way to pick up the basics and also to stop your inner Johnny Cash from getting rusty. And should you prefer tinkling ivories, there’s an app for that too.
FxGuru: Movie FX Director
This slightly gimmicky special effects app is nonetheless very clever, verging on useful. It comes with a batch of free effects (the kind of things you’d see in a disaster movie) with additional packs as in-app purchases.
You point your phone or tablet at a scene (say, your office, the street or your garden), and then the app records a short video clip with a destructive missile attack or perhaps a hovering UFO superimposed over the live action. Motion tracking allows you to pan as you film, too.
Work and studying
If anyone tries to claim we live in a paperless age, you’re legally required to laugh in their face (Not sure about that – Legal Ed.), but you’ll only do so after being a bit sad that we don’t actually live without paper.
Fortunately, Adobe Scan makes it easy to rapidly deal with paper documents. Using your device’s camera, you can capture papers, notes and receipts, auto-enhancing the results to make everything clear and sharp.
Want to get at a document’s words? Adobe Scan – for no outlay whatsoever – sorts that too, with on-the-fly OCR that lets you copy and paste directly from your scans.
When you first start tapping away in Obsidian, it comes across like a minimal but sleek markdown editor. A draggable toolbar, which can be customised to add to or rearrange its buttons, helps you quickly structure and write documents. If that was it, Obsidian would be fab enough. But dig even slightly deeper and you realise the app does far more.
Obsidian’s creators call the app a “second brain”. Our take is it’s like your own personal on-device wiki crossed with automated mind-mapping, making it easy to take notes and see the connections between them. With a wealth of plug-ins and the potential to sync your output across multiple devices, Obsidian’s a must.
As a to-do planner, TickTick gets off on the wrong foot, with a name that sounds like an invitation to anxiety. Tick. Tick. TICK. ARE YOU NOT FINISHED YET? Fortunately, it’s packed with features to help you blaze through tasks.
Naturally, everything’s based around lists, but TickTick’s afford you flexibility through sub-tasks, descriptive text, videos and – since many people communicate solely by using them – emoji. Subscribe and you can define durations for tasks, along with more fully integrating your calendars.
But even for nowt, TickTick goes beyond the norm: in the settings, you can activate a Pomodoro timer and habit tracker, thereby making you efficient in all kinds of ways beyond ticking off checklist items.
The problem with most calculator apps is they’re rubbish, and that’s because most calculators are rubbish for anything beyond basic sums. CalcNote’s cunning plan is to be part spreadsheet.
That might sound terrifyingly dull, but CalcNote proves hugely useful. You can work with custom keyboards, tapping out multi-line sums with context – as in, actual words alongside the numbers. Some of CalcNote’s ‘grammar’ is a bit awkward, but commit its quirks to memory and you’ll never use a traditional calculator app again.
The idea behind Forest is to use your smartphone less. You set a timer, and if you leave your phone alone, a little cartoon tree grows on the screen. Get tempted by Facebook or play Candy Crush, and you end up with a dead stick.
Your daily forests can be compared, and each successfully grown tree nets you some coins. These can be spent on new tree types to grow. Alternatively, if you’re socially inclined and have amassed thousands of coins (which takes weeks of dedication), use them to donate to tree-growing projects around the world.
Time was people used the same password for every website they signed up to. Terrifyingly, too many people still do. Don’t be that kind of person. Instead, install Bitwarden, use it to update your logins with unique, terrifyingly complex passwords, and have the app remember them rather than you.
The app caters for other details too, including cards and secure notes. And unlike rivals, the free version will let you sync your details between multiple devices and platforms. Just don’t forget your master password, or you’ll be in trouble.
Google Translate may be great, but the long-term aim should be to learn to speak all those languages yourself. Duolingo does an amazing job of making this fun, with a format that’s a bit like a pub quiz machine. It currently supports English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Irish, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Ukrainian, Esperanto, Polish and Turkish, and if you ‘play’ it regularly you’ll definitely pick up at least some competence in your chosen language. With more intensive use, you can give yourself a week’s crash course before a trip abroad.
Entertainment and distractions
With the demise of Google Reader, the world needed an alternative RSS reader – and Feedly fits the bill nicely.
It does pretty much everything you’d want an RSS reader to do, presenting the latest stories from your favourite media outlets and blogs in an attractive, easily browsable list. You’ll find every site you might ever be interested in – yes, Stuff.tv is in there – plus it integrates neatly with the likes of Pocket and Evernote and sharing stories to social media is but a matter of a click.
Many websites aren’t geared towards reading – instead, they urge you to gulp down information and see what else is on offer. And even sites with a top-notch reading experience can’t magic their way to your eyes when you have a spotty data connection. Fortunately, Pocket exists for such occasions.
Sign up for an account and you can subsequently send web pages to it from a browser. Load the app and it’ll quickly download the content, which you can then peruse offline, stripped of extraneous junk, leaving only text and imagery. As you scroll, the app shifts to full-screen, giving you a pleasing, minimal, focussed reading experience – for whatever web content you’ve sent to it.
If you’ve ever sat through half a cinematic abomination, only to realise with a start you’re a massive idiot because you’ve seen it before, install Letterboxd. With this app, you can search for movies you’d like to see, add them to a watch list, and then rate them when you’re done.
There’s a social component, too – beyond ratings, you can write reviews, and turn into a ferocious critic warning people off of making the same mistakes you did – such as deciding to watch another Bay-directed Transformers flick.
The entire thing looks great, from movie detail screens to your ‘collection’, which is displayed as a scrolling page of movie posters. In short, this is a must-have app for movie buffs.
Sago Mini Friends
If your Android tablet frequently finds itself in the hands of a tiny person, ensure Sago Mini Friends is installed. This sweet-natured outing features a cartoon critter visiting chums’ houses, and getting involved in all manner of kid-friendly activities.
These are supposed to promote empathy – during an eating mini-game, for example, feeding one animal causes the other to look utterly forlorn; although they both emit a massive burp at the end of the meal, which presumably makes everything all right. Just ensure your own little critter doesn’t get any bright ideas from the ‘hammering nails into a birdhouse’ mini-game.
With any medium, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, which is where discovery comes in. With movies and TV shows, you get trailers to pique your interest. Music stores provide snippets of songs. Moonbeam does the latter, but for podcasts.
The interface resembles TikTok, displaying a podcast card while a snippet of curated audio plays. Not interested? Swipe to the next card. Intrigued? Tap and you can listen on, start from the beginning, or subscribe to the podcast.
The player itself doesn’t have the feature set of Pocket Casts (see box), but is good enough for the odd episode. As a discovery tool for finding new shows to enjoy, though, Moonbeam’s one giant step for podcastkind.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if there was one video format to rule them all, like MP3 is to music? Well, dream on… Until that day you’ll be thankful for VLC, which aims to play every video format you’ll ever encounter. If you like to source your movies from varied locations, you’ll find this one of the most useful apps on your phone or tablet. It’s ad-free and doesn’t try to harvest all your personal data either, which makes a nice change.
Unleash your inner Brian Cox with this astronomy app, which has you point your Android device at the sky to instantly identify the celestial bodies you’re peering at.
The interface gets out of your way when you want to blissfully stargaze without distractions, but a few taps gets you fast access to a raft of features: an AR overlay; paths for tracking objects over time; a night mode; search.
It’s a pity there’s no manual navigation – you can’t lazily scroll the viewport, and must orient your phone – and head – towards what you want to see. Other than that, this one’s superb for taking a virtual trip to the stars.