Review: Beluga looks to be Android and iOS’ BBM

Even though Android and iOS have emerged as the preeminent smartphone operating systems, there will always be a one mainstay that refuses to kick the bucket: RIM and their Blackberry OS. There’s a big reason why people are still tethered to these phones, even though most new devices by other companies blow them out of the water. It’s one little application: BBM.

Blackberry Messenger is important to the brand’s survival: it is free phone-to-phone communication tied into a PIN number, rather than a username. More importantly, it’s on every Blackberry. This means that there is nothing to bug your friends to install, or more importantly use.

Which is why when cross-platform BBM-alikes get released, like Kik Messenger or the above Beluga, it’s almost a lost cause. They (of course) aren’t compatible with BBM, nor are they offered on Blackberries at all: RIM, like Apple, is very finicky with apps that “replicate features.”

However, the app does what it advertises extremely well: Beluga’s interface is sleek on both platforms, and allows users to group their contacts into “pods” which then can be communicated with instantly. You can provide image and location-tagged messages, and members of the pods are updated on-the-fly. It’s simple, and works; I had no hiccups testing it.

Beluga also takes some time to try to tackle the user base problem, as well. When you sign up, you are required to tie your account to your phone number. While I was initially apprehensive about this, I realized its greater purpose: automatic contact sharing.

What Beluga does is query your phone book for any numbers that are on the system. When it detects a match, it automatically notifies you that person X is also using Beluga, and vice versa. When I asked a couple of my friends (pictured above) to use the service along with me, there wasn’t any questions of what their Beluga username was; as soon as they signed up for the service and their number was entered into the database, my app let me know. I cannot stress how great that is.

However, the reason I won’t keep Beluga on my phone is the same reason I won’t join Facebook-alternative Diaspora: none of my friends use it, and trying to convince them is not worth the effort.

If I had to convince all the Android and iOS users I know to install an app, coach them on how to use it, then hope they all check it once and awhile, I would have to wonder why I wouldn’t just call/SMS them in the first place. I mean, their contacts are already in my phone!

I have the same apprehensions with BBM: I don’t understand the appeal of “instant.” My friends tell me it’s big amongst professionals, where time is money; others tell me it’s comforting to know that while texts can be ignored/lost/unread, BBM lets you know that your message has been sent/received.

All I know is that its success is largely because of the fact that everyone uses it, and if a phone would otherwise be cast off if the feature was omitted, then there has to be something to it.

If you have enough people in your network of contacts using Beluga, I’d say go for it; it really is an amazing app. However, if you’re like me and only have one or two people that would actually use it, you might find that Beluga’s downfall is one that has nothing to do with the way it’s coded.

You can download Beluga for Android here.

Matt Demers is Droid Life’s app guy and feels it’s a bit hypocritical telling people that instant doesn’t matter when he’s such a Twitter addict. You can give him tips to things you want reviewed by following or e-mailing him.

Review: Sleep-As-An-Droid visualizes your sleep

Sleep and I rarely get along well. I’m a long-standing insomniac with morning classes, and this usually results in me being pretty dead on my feet. My alarm clock is situated across the room to prevent me from hitting “Snooze” so easily, but this too seems to be of little consequence.

Android’s decided to help me out, though, with an app called “Sleep as an Droid.” Grammatically-incorrect title aside, it’s a very robust alarm clock and sleep tracker: there’s a number of features that set it apart from the stock clock, and make it worth looking at if you’re interested in the way you sleep.   (more…)

Review: Shift does platforming with a touchscreen right

If you’re familiar with my game reviews, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of anything that tries to make precision movements with on-screen buttons work. They tend to be ill-advised affairs, and a frustrating time for all. Something about buttons that aren’t quite 100% responsive and tricky movements just makes my skin crawl; it’s like trying to play Tetris on the highest level when your flip button has a random 1-3 delay. You never know when your actions are going to be performed the way you want, and that makes for a bad gaming experience.

Shift adds something else into an otherwise bad formula: it’s a port of an iOS game, which in turn is a port of a flash game. I’m not going to hate it on principle alone (there’s been some pretty great iOS ports to Android), but it makes me wary. Something as intricate as a platformer needs attention to detail, not a “rush it out to as many platforms as possible” attitude.   (more…)

Review: Runik brings tile matching madness to Android

I’m a big fan of puzzle games on my phone for two reasons: usually they’re quite easy to pick up, and they tend to be easy on my aging Droid’s poor processor. Accessibility is key for Android games, and puzzlers seem to be one of the few genres that can benefit from touchscreen controls.

Runik’s a great example; this new game comes to us from team SoFresh and has the distinction of being a purely Android game. I give this props because there seems to be way too many “port of an iOS” titles these days.

Runik’s simple: it throws a “match 3 or more” formula at you, which is extremely easy to pick up. Players start with a full board of runes and match until no combinations remain. The only thing shifting the tiles is the force of gravity, so it pays to think steps ahead before you break especially big chains.

Once combinations are exhausted, the leftovers turn to stone; any tiles cleared next to these stone pieces, however, become active again. If played unwisely, this can lead to a very limited playing space. Play continues until there are literally no more moves, but I haven’t reached this yet. As you clear runes of a color, meters at the bottom for each color fill. When topped up, they provide a score bonus for that color, and when activated, clear all the tiles of that type. This leads to a very strategic usage: you don’t want to waste that score bonus with few tiles on the field.

Controls are simple: click to match. Not much to say there. However, it can be a little annoying to have to wait for the gravity effect of falling blocks to finish before making your next match. The graphics are great and sound is a generic “calming puzzle music” soundtrack, but they both do their jobs extremely well; I could play a puzzler of giant pixels and a MIDI loop in the background if the gameplay is addicting and functional.

There are achievements and profiling supported through ScoreLoop, but I don’t really bother with these things. It’s enough to have to register with OpenFeint for some titles in order to stop prompts; I’m not going to sign up if it’s non-intrusive, like Runik. I’m going to give props for not shoving it down our throats, though.

Runik is free and ad-supported, so I definitely recommend it. So far, this is SoFresh’s first offering to the Android field, and I hope it won’t be their last.

Download Runik here.

Matt Demers is Droid Life’s App guy, and would love a good port to Tetris Attack, or Pokemon Puzzle League. Those games were legit.

You can find him on Twitter, or contact him through his Droid Life e-mail.

Review: RedWall makes social wallpapering a breeze

If you’re like me, you prefer that your Android looks as stylish as it works. Besides skinning your home replacement app or customizing your boot animation, there’s something even more rudimentary that can shift the whole motif of your phone: your wallpaper.

Unfortunately, all wallpapers aren’t created equal: a user usually has to properly re-size an image to their phone’s specific resolution, transfer it to an SD card then crop it from within the phone. This, however, excludes the monumentous task of finding wallpapers that aren’t crap in the first place.

I’ve found an app called RedWall that eliminates some of these frustrations.

Reddit is a portmanteau of the words “Reddit” and “wallpaper.” In simplest terms, it scrapes a certain Reddit sub-board (/r/redwall) for images and allows you to set them as your phone background; images are downloaded, cropped and set in one swift motion.

The backgrounds I’ve tried both look great and are sized appropriately; I haven’t had to worry about jagged pixels or misshapen images. This is a giant plus in my book, since there’s less work to do to get something great.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about this app is that the wallpapers shown are influenced by the Reddit voting mechanics. Top “day”, “week” and “month” sortings show what’s been voted on the most in those time periods; if you have a Reddit account, you can go to the board and contribute yourself.

So I’d recommend getting RedWall (it’s free, with ads) and try out a few of their offerings. There’s an extremely good chance you’ll find something you like. Reddit is good like that.

Download RedWall here

[Note: in the screenshot above, the “grey stairs” icons are replaced by image previews once they’ve loaded. I snapped my screenshot a little too quick. Also, the wallpaper I’m using is called “Coloured Pipes”]

Matt Demers is Droid Life’s app guy, and would like to pay his respects to Brian Jacques, the author of the lovely Redwall books. Rest in peace, Brian.

You can find Matt on Twitter, or e-mail him.

Review: Aura for Android

With a full course load and a bunch of online writing to do, EVE Online is one of the few MMORPGs that I have time for. Skill training progresses in real time (even when the player is logged off,) which allows for advancement with a (relatively) small time investment. This allows players to step back and take a break from the game while still feeling like they’re moving forward in EVE’s sci-fi universe.

An interesting mechanic that’s the developers have implemented is a robust API system which allows players to use a number of utilities. As the player earns money and trains skills, the API updates and allows these utilities to stay up to the second.

Aura is an app that takes advantage of that. After inputting a character’s User ID and Limited API key (provided by CCP, the game’s developer,) Aura will sync up with the player’s skill queue and assets. At the moment, the app will only display skills and money; there are plans for timers to be added for the progress of things like manufactured goods being processed.

This is useful for an on-the-go player like myself, and allows me to keep tabs on when my skills are going to be completed. It also represents a growing group of apps that are developed for extremely niche audiences that are well-polished, functional and inventive. I give the developer my props on this one. The only problem I had is that you can’t access specific skill pages (like the middle screenshot above) or add them to a skill plan queue when your SD card is mounted to a computer. Even though my app is installed on my phone’s memory (not my SD card) it seems like that database data is stored on the card. Any way, I’m not going to nitpick about that.

Another large part of the app is both the item database and fitting simulator. These are recently-added updates, and aid in perhaps the most important part of EVE Online: planning. Similar to the skill queue, the fitting simulator allows you to choose individual ships, fit them with different weapon/armor packages and compare overall statistics. Supplementing this is a robust item database, which allows for searching and comparison as well. While you can’t access market data for any of these items (due to the region-specific nature of searches), this is an extremely good way to kill some time.

Props to developer Aideron Robotics; I’m looking to see where Aura goes, and its future impact on the world of EVE.


Matt Demers is Droid Life’s app guy. You can find his posts every day on this site. You can get ahold of him via Twitter or his Droid Life e-mail; he doesn’t bite.

Review: GO SMS looks to take away Handcent’s candy

Like many other Android users, I’ve taken the leap and changed from our default SMS application to the popular alternative, Handcent SMS. With it came a wealth of customization options; all in all, it offered a similar, but deeper experience to the default messaging app.

However, while doing research for my upcoming review of GO Launcher, I found the developers (aptly titled “The GO Development Team”) have an SMS app of their own. Eager to keep my apps matching, I installed it, hoping that it would impress me as their launcher had.   (more…)

InstaFetch brings Instapaper to Android

Like most of us, I use my phone in a newsreading capacity quite often. Whether I’m looking through Google Reader or even browsing Droid-Life, I use my phone to keep up to date or to just kill some time when I have nothing else to do.

Instapaper makes that easier by stripping the formatting from sites that I want to save for later. The end result is a clean page that retains text-based formatting (like italics, bold and hyperlinks) while eliminating other annoying elements that may be obtrusive, like ads or sidebars. A third party has recently come out with an Android app, and I thought it might be a good idea to put it through its paces.     (more…)