Got an Android phone? Here are some cool apps

In the fall, I met up with good friends in southwestern Wisconsin for a trip we try to make every year to Taliesin, the estate of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The visitor center – designed by Wright -- is on a small bluff above the Wisconsin River, and across the river is a tiny park. One of our traditions is to have a picnic at that park at sunset. A little cheese – this is Wisconsin, after all – some champagne and wine, and one of Wright’s buildings in the background as the light fades. It makes for a pretty great evening.

This time, we ran a little late, so the sun was almost gone from the sky by the time we arrived. It took a little more time to set everything up, and by the time we popped a bottle of champagne, the sky was indigo and there was a bright star overhead. Wonder what that is, we thought.

Hey! I remembered that I had Google Sky Map on my phone. Turned it on, pointed the phone at the bright star and discovered instantly that we were looking at Jupiter.

That part of Wisconsin is fairly remote, so there were lots of stars. We recognized some constellations, but not all of them. For the next little while, we used the phone in a circle to see what we were seeing.

If you have an Android phone – maybe you got one as a holiday gift? – this is one of the apps you should download. You won’t use it all the time, but when you want it, you’ll be glad you have it. It's free.

The same app came in handy a couple months later, in the Florida Keys. My wife and I had noticed that sunset and moonrise were going to be within minutes of each other, and the moon was supposed to be full, so we walked a mile or so out onto the old Seven-Mile Bridge. Our thought was to watch the sun go down and turn around and watch the moon come up.

Clouds on the horizon killed the last of the sunset, and so we turned around to watch the moonrise. But we couldn’t see anything.

More clouds were hugging that horizon, but the sky had darkened enough that the clouds and sky were indisitinguishable. Still, we could see that higher up it was clear. So I got out my phone and launched Sky Map and found where the moon was supposed to be. Sure enough, this brilliant light outlined a cloud and, for an all-too-brief time, we caught the full moon.

Sky Map. It’s one of my favorite apps.

The Android OS comes with plenty of cool built-in apps, and you can get more very easily from the recently improved Android Market.

Here are four more free apps you won’t regret having:

ColorNote: Jot reminders to yourself and set alarms for them. Easier to use than Google Calendar. Perfect replacement for the napkin at the restaurant table.

ESPN’s ScoreCenter: Lets you set favorite teams for a home page, but also allows you to see all games within a sport. Switching among sports is easy.

Scanner Radio: In a newsroom, a police scanner is part of the background noise. This app lets you listen to police scanners from around the world, including East Central Illinois. Champaign County’s METCAD comes in loud and clear. Great options for picking which scanners to listen to. Includes a list of the “10” codes emergency agencies use.

Pandora Internet radio: There are plenty of music apps. I like Pandora for how easy it is to use, and how reliable, and because I’ve never had a gap of more than a second of silence in its service with my carrier, Verizon.

How about the rest of you? What are your favorite Android apps? Share your knowledge, please.

Picture is from Google's SkyMap site.

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