Software: Mobile apps that pull your digital and cloud life together
Image credit: Dreamstime
When you need to pull things together, whether it’s cloud storage, photos, friends or messages, your mobile can be the ideal hub.
Collecting your clouds
If you use a smartphone or tablet, you almost certainly have some cloud storage. Indeed, your device is quite possibly backing up your settings and photos there – and while some people are concerned about the privacy implications of this, there is no doubt that it’s a useful feature to have when you upgrade your phone, or worse, if it’s lost or stolen.
But if you use one cloud storage service, the chances are you also have accounts on one or two more. Perhaps your phone came with some free Dropbox storage, or you like the way that Mega securely encrypts your online files. Having multiple options is great: they work differently; they offer different services (for instance, some keep older versions of your files, others do not); and their free accounts offer limited amounts of storage.
Many file manager apps now support multiple cloud services, and, while that’s very useful, it’s only access to file storage. The challenge is keeping track of which storage you use for which apps and file types. This is where the free Unclouded app for Android comes in.
Not only does Unclouded let you access your files as normal, it also analyses your cloud storage to see how you and your other apps are using it. For instance, it can find files, identify duplicates, track when files were last changed, show you what file types you have most of, and so on. It can work offline too – you synchronise the file lists and it stores the data locally.
So far it supports the most common cloud services for Android users, so that’s Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and Mega, plus Box, which is increasingly popular with businesses, although Dropbox is challenging it hard. You can connect two clouds for free, or more if you upgrade to Unclouded Premium (from 99p). The one limitation is it can’t yet move files between clouds – you’ll still need a cloud-capable file manager for that.
A similar, yet subtly different, tool for Apple users is YoVivo! The focus here is not just files but specifically photos and videos. And, rather than managing your existing storage, it is all about enabling you to use other services for your photos, not just iCloud. Perhaps most interesting of all, in the light of some high-profile (and inevitably many less bankable) people having their private iPhone photos stolen, it can encrypt your images too.
The mix of services supported is different too, of course: YoVivo! covers pretty much all the places where you might have photos and video stored, such as Facebook, Flickr and Instagram. The one caveat is that file movement is manual, with no ability to automatically back up photos to a specific location, say, but within that it lets you copy or move files from one location to another, encrypting them on the way if you choose. The easy access to stored files also means you will probably find some old ones you had forgotten and which you’re now keen to either share with new online friends – or delete with extreme prejudice!
Google Duo video calling
Free on Android and iOS
Google Duo is best described as a bare-bones video calling experience. Okay, you can block unwanted callers, but apart from that it is just making and receiving video calls.
Call quality will obviously depend on your data connection, but seemed remarkably good in testing. Google has also put work into making it transfer seamlessly between Wi-Fi and mobile data, and we found this worked very well.
One neat touch is that the full-screen window that pops up to show you who’s calling is actually the incoming caller’s live camera feed. In addition, once you have started a call you can switch cameras, sending them what your phone’s back (main) camera sees while you use your little preview window as a viewfinder.
Open Whisper Systems
Signal private messenger
Free on Android and iPhone
Encrypted instant messaging has been a hot topic in recent months, not least because of the revelations – unsurprising to anyone in the business, but shocking to many others – of the extent to which government agencies and other hackers are working to compromise our online privacy.
WhatsApp was the first big name in this area to go fully encrypted, but one of the limitations of that and some other messenger apps is you can only message people if they have the same app installed. On Android (but not on iPhone), Signal can get around this because, like Apple’s iMessage and a few others, it also does SMS. When you install it, it offers to take over as your default SMS app, and then, because it works on phone numbers, it knows which of your contacts also have Signal installed. Messages to them go via Signal and are encrypted, while messages to others are sent as standard text messages.
Other Signal features are the same on both Apple and Android. You can share images and videos, and it also supports encrypted voice calls – as with most messenger apps, everything bar SMS runs over the data connection, so it is in effect free. You can even set an expiry time on messages, after which they disappear, or use a browser plug-in to send messages from your desktop via your phone. In the latest version, the developers have added secure video calls – this part was still in beta testing at the time of writing, so it only works if both users have flipped the beta test switch in the app.
You can also block screenshots and add a password lock on Android, or block screen previews and notifications on the iPhone. And because everything is encrypted from end to end, no one can eavesdrop, not even Signal’s developers and operators. Conversely, they are very open about how the software works so its security can be verified – it is open-source, with some of the encryption technology also adopted by WhatsApp.
On top of all that, it is a pretty decent SMS and internet phone app, with the ability to set colours and ringtones per contact, block contacts, and more. One cautionary note is that on installation it requests access to your contacts list, which has worried some people, as it could potentially be data-mined. However, Signal says it doesn’t store your numbers, it merely uses them to tell you which contacts are already on Signal and add names to conversations.
Free on Android & iPhone
Already popular on iPhone, this clever email app that aggregates multiple mail accounts and then adds search plus a bunch of useful filters and features, is now available for Android too.
Email’s Assistant feature includes a number of filters, such as Travel and Packages. In each case, the app attempts to identify relevant messages and collect them in a folder, so you can, for example, see all your email receipts or delivery notes collected together, then click through to the relevant email, parcel tracking page or whatever (the click-through part doesn’t work yet on Android, sadly).
It also makes it easy to move messages to another folder, add then to an assistant filter, or snooze them, in which case they disappear for now but come back at a future time as specified in your settings. Email also lets you unsubscribe from mailing lists with a single tap, though not from spam in general, which is probably just as well because while a spammer might (!) honour an unsubscribe request, the main thing that your clicking their unsubscribe link achieves is to let them know your email address is live and that their spam is getting through.
The app also provides an undo option for many actions, most obviously when you send or delete a message or an unsubscribe request. You will probably want to set this to a bit longer than the default three seconds though, as that’s barely enough time to jab the pop-up button accurately enough.
Email is not perfect – for example, adding email accounts from other providers is still pretty clunky; the subscriptions feature gets confused by mailing lists and adds every new message from another member to the subscription list; and there is no obvious way to add email aliases, such as when you have several addresses all forwarding to the same mailbox.
In addition, it is IMAP-only for now and does not support the older POP email standard, though this probably won’t worry most users.