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5 really useful apps you may not know much about

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Five of our favorite apps, and five in-depth discussions.

There are millions of apps available for download between the Google Play and Apple App Store, many of which contain cross-platform support through various browsers (Chrome, Firefox, IE) or as a standalone application on PC or Mac.

In no special order, here are five apps that we at Gadget Genie feel might provide utility, peace of mind, or are just rocking some cool “tech”.

1. Speedtest

Before delving into this application, it is important to cover the basics of download and uploads speeds, as well as why ‘ping’ is important. Download speeds are determined by how fast you can pull data from the server to you, whereas upload speeds are how fast you can send said data to others. Most connections are designed to download much faster than they upload since most online activity, like streaming videos or music, consists of downloads. Uploading would be necessary for sending files via e-mail or other applications, as well as things like video chatting since you’re sending a video feed.

Ping, measured in milliseconds (ms), is the reaction time of your connection – i.e. how fast you get a response after you’ve sent out a request. A lower, faster ping means a more responsive connection, especially in applications where timing is everything (such as video games). The term ‘ping’ is also related to ‘latency’, the delay before a transfer of data begins following an instruction for its transfer. The longer delay you have, the higher your ping should be.

What the ‘Speedtest’ app from Ookla provides is both an intelligent and speedy way of visualizing this data for you, allowing you to effectively compare it to the download/upload speeds your Internet Service Provider or mobile network carrier are promising. It picks five nearby servers (out of a list of more than 1,000), runs a full test, and returns upload and download speeds, latency, and packet loss. You can fill out a survey after the test, answering questions about the claimed speed of your ISP, which allows Ookla to amass an impressive database of consumer connection information (which can be viewed and broken down by region on their NetIndex site).

While there are many apps available for testing internet speeds, a great portion of them are powered by Ookla’s bandwidth software. With easy, accurate connection testing in under 30 seconds, this remains one of the best desktop and mobile apps around – especially for us at Gadget Genie, who require high download/upload speeds when it comes to our specialty in data recovery and transfer.

2. Zedge

Whenever getting a new phone, one of the first things many users do is customize it in the form of changing the default ringtones and home/lock screen wallpapers. But, let’s face it, the customization options that come pre-installed on most devices are stop gaps at best. The ringtones are lackluster or not easy on the ears, and the wallpapers are always the same nature backdrop (the ever-present beach scene), futuristic-looking abstract art, and other stock art quality photos. That’s where Zedge comes in.

Depending on the make and model, you may already have Zedge on your device in the form of “bloatware”, which are apps that come pre-installed from the manufacturer. Whether it came factory installed or was downloaded from your respective App store, this free app offers an insanely large database of wallpapers, ringtones, themes, and even games for users to download! From pop culture to Top 40, nerdy pursuits and artistic images, Zedge has you covered.

Zedge has an extremely simple and user-friendly interface. It allows users to search for whatever terms they want, preview the wallpaper/ringtone, and then download and set it to the device with just a couple finger taps. Zedge also boasts a pretty nice recommendation engine that learns what users prefer and helps them find better content. Most importantly of all, Zedge allows you to download wallpapers and ringtones without the worry of ‘malware’. Due to the vast library, you should never have to stray towards a third-party site offering ringtone or wallpaper downloads, which is one of the more common ways to attract ‘malicious software’.

You can learn more about malware and its prevention at our previous article here.

3. LastPass

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that when you create a password, you use it for everything: social media, e-mail, banking – everything! Then, let’s say you’re a rewards member at a popular retail outlet that gets hacked, using your same password for their online log-in portal. Now those hackers have access to your entire digital footprint, including your bank account, because you secured everything using the same string of letters, numbers, or special characters. Even if you’re diligent enough to use a different password for each log-in, you might be using weaker passwords because you want them to be easy to remember! Unfortunately, a determined enough hacker may still crack it.

Well, there’s an easy solution: download a password manager! All you need to do is remember one master password (I suggest one that contains an uppercase letter, special character, and a few numbers) and the password manager handles the rest, generating and saving a unique password for every account you need across the Internet. In addition to encrypting these log-in credentials, it stores them locally and syncs them across your various devices, where they can automatically fill the form on any website.

While you can explore dozens of password managers claiming to be the answer to your password woes, one password manager stood out above the rest: LastPass. In addition to offering great organizational freedom, a clean interface, and a low-cost ‘Premium’ upgrade option ($1/month) from the free version, LastPass is compatible with all modern platforms and is one of the few services to offer cross-device syncing without having to upgrade to its premium version. It will also remind you to change a password because it’s weak or a website has been hacked. Since you get the bulk of features available for free, there really isn’t much reason to upgrade to ‘Premium’, however priority tech support and the ability to share passwords with up to five family members is included for just $12 a year!

LastPass is available for Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android as the more common platforms – but also for Chrome OS, Linux, Windows Phone, Firefox, and more! LastPass even offers a platform that you can install on a flash drive for use on public computers, such as at the library. Once you install the app or plug-in, you’ll have offline access to all your information whenever you need it. Auto-fill functions as it should across a variety of forms, working particularly well with poorly coded or confusing website log-in forms. The LastPass Android app can fill forms within almost any other Android app as long you enable access, but most of the time will work with only third-party apps on Apple devices.

LastPass also allows you use your phone or tablet’s fingerprint scanner to access your passwords within the app or browser extension in place of typing your master password. While a password can be guessable, fingerprints are unique—and impossible to forget. It’s also much faster to log in with a fingerprint than to type a password, especially if it’s a complex password.

4. Snapchat

This social networking app made a name for itself by letting you impose a finite lifespan on the pictures and video you share so they can be viewed for up to several seconds before being automatically deleted beyond retrieval. (Coming from someone in the data recovery industry.) While there’s certainly an argument that the fleeting lifespan aspect is not particularly useful, Snapchat’s immense popularity, especially with teenagers and young adults, suggests otherwise. There are plenty of people out there who seem to love the idea of sending out secret photos and videos, without leaving any evidence of ever having done so besides a log of ‘sent/received’. (Granted, there are ways for others to save what you send them, such as with the use of a third-party app or simply taking a screenshot – although the latter option does notify the sender a screenshot has been taken.)

Once installed, Snapchat parses your address book (if you enable permission) for any contacts that are already using the app, and there’s also an option to invite friends who aren’t. To share items, you don’t necessarily have to “friend” other users within the app. In fact, you can send a “snap” to anyone, whether it is someone you know or a stranger found through Snapchat’s search tool. That said, the privacy settings may be adjusted to receive “snaps” from only those on your friend’s list, as well as other options.

Even though most users will stick to basic features when starting out, such as editing a photo or recording a video from either the rear or front-facing camera, Snapchat now offers instant image and text messaging like what you would use through your device’s default SMS app. While the messages don’t immediately disappear after the recipient reads them, they do follow Snapchat’s “vanishing act” trend once you leave the conversation and/or close the app – unless otherwise saved to the chat history. Another major feature added through constant updates is real-time video chatting. Once you get the hang of it, it can be faster than having to open another app to make video calls. (A popular phrase that comes to mind would be “one-stop shop”.) With the addition of text and video chatting, Snapchat has effectively replaced numerous apps, such as Hangouts or Skype, in popularity and use – namely in younger markets.

But that’s not all! Snapchat has released even more features using their all-new 3D world lenses, especially to compete with the social media titan Facebook (who stole many of these same features for their own). Using ‘AR’ (Augmented Reality), the user can take selfies with added facial animations or effects. On the flipside, 3D objects can be added to photos taken with the rear-facing (main) camera – and in many cases, users can switch between the front- and rear-facing cameras to receive alternate animations to the same ‘filter’. With many other apps and games now utilizing ‘AR cameras’, Snapchat is leading the charge in a fun, creative way.

Finally, one of the newest, biggest, and most controversial features released to date is ‘Snap Maps’. Upon opening the app, the user is asked to share their location with all friends, a select few friends, or not at all using ‘Ghost Mode’. Alternatively, users can turn off location sharing – which will hide their location, but still allow them to view another’s. While this feature may seem invasive to privacy, especially considering how accurate the location sharing is, the option to disable it should ease that fear. Plus, it adds flair to the ability to share ‘stories’– letting the user view events shared by others from all parts of the world. When paired with Snapchat’s ‘GeoFilters’, a location-based screen overlay used for the further editing of photos and videos, one can turn a few seconds into quite the memory.

5. Firefox Focus

Privacy and security is something that consumers emphasize, and is a reoccurring theme that will be instilled in articles of this weblog. Whether you wish to share your location and information, or keep it a secret, the point is you should be able to decide for yourself. Firefox Focus was designed with that in mind.

Blocking ads by default, Firefox Focus allows a seamless, minimalistic web-browsing experience. It runs smoothly and is intuitive to use, with an aesthetically-pleasing user interface (UI) composed of pink and purple hues. While its default search engine is Yahoo, fortunately users can change it to Google or another search engine of choice. There aren’t many configuration options, or even things you’d think of as “core” web browser features – such as support for favoriting/bookmarking websites or opening new tabs. Firefox Focus is mostly geared towards quick or direct searches, either by search engine or URL.

The developer, Mozilla, claims that by blocking ads and ad trackers, or some parts of web pages from loading, that there is “less to download” and will therefore help reduce the amount of mobile data required – creating faster browsing in the process. Originally released for iOS, the Android version comes with a few additional features:

  • Ad tracker counter –the number of ads that are blocked per site while using the app.
  • Disable tracker blocker –you can disable the built-in tracker blocker to quickly get back to where you’ve left off should a webpage not load correctly, mostly found on sites with embedded content – videos, slideshows, news articles, etc.
  • Notification reminder – you receive a push notification as Firefox Focus runs in the background, allowing you to quickly clear your browsing data with just a tap.

While there are more fully-featured web browsers available, Firefox Focus offers a clean, easy-to-use web browsing experience that is both private and secure. It is arguable that Mozilla’s push for a new web browser, plus cross-platform usage, makes them an interesting developer to watch in the web browsing community – especially against the favorable Chrome.

In conclusion:

Whether you find these apps useful or fun, you need a good starting point at least – and with these apps you’re covering your bases in a variety of categories. With Speedtest you’re adding transparency, a word thrown around at Gadget Genie a lot, to what speeds your ISP is really providing versus what they’re offering. It also allows you to compare mobile data speeds when choosing which service to pay monthly for your cell phone. Zedge allows you to customize your device in a safe and secure manner, something also emphasized with LastPass (password protection) and Firefox Focus (web browsing). Snapchat, of course, is meant to be a simple and clutter-less social media app that is using some new, interesting software for you to communicate with your friends and family.

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