Essential free productivity apps for Android tablets

Get more work out of your Android device by using a free predictive onscreen keyboard, security app, file manager, Office clone, and tablet-news aggregator.

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Nobody's referring to tablets as glorified Etch A Sketches anymore. The devices have proven themselves many times over as first-rate productivity enhancers.

If you use your Android tablet for work, you owe it to yourself -- and your boss -- to give these five free apps a try.

Note that some of the programs are also available for Android phones as well as for the iPad, iPhone, and other devices. Several also have paid versions with more features. I tested only the free versions on a second-gen Nexus 7 running Android 4.3 Jelly Bean.

Lookout scans for viruses, locates lost or stolen devices
Earlier this month, Google introduced Android Device Manager, which includes a feature for locating a lost device . As CNET's Nick Statt reports, the app addresses pressure from law enforcement agencies to help stem the growing number of smartphone and tablet thefts.

Many Android users have relied on apps such as the free Lookout Mobile Security to track down their missing devices. The free version of Lookout also scans your tablet for viruses and backs up your contacts.

For $30 a year or $3 a month, the Lookout Premium version adds Safe Browsing, Privacy Advisor, Remote Lock & Wipe, and Enhanced Backup, which backs up your photos and call history (for phones). The Premium version also lets you restore your backup to a new device if you choose rather than to only your existing device.

Lookout Mobile Security Missing Device screen
The free Lookout Mobile Security app for Android devices helps you locate a lost tablet or phone, among other options. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

It took about 5 minutes for Lookout to complete its initial virus scan of the Nexus 7. There was no option to update the app's virus definitions prior to the scan, but the program claims to scan the tablet in real time. It took the app only a few seconds to back up the tablet's 167 contacts; I didn't test Lookout's restore feature.

Setting up the app's Missing Device feature requires creating an account on Lookout.com, after which you can sign in to the account to locate a lost device on a map. The tablet's location is also mapped on the Missing Device screen of the Android app. The program's Scream feature lets you sound an alarm on the tablet to make it easier to locate; the feature works even if you've muted the device.

You can also set Lookout to send a Signal Flare that saves the device's location just before its battery goes dead, and to have the tablet take a picture of anyone who enters three incorrect PINs, passwords, or patterns on the lock screen. You'll receive an e-mail that includes the picture and the device's location.

An onscreen keyboard that anticipates your text
Last July, CNET's Nicole Cozma explained how to upgrade to the Android Jelly Bean keyboard , which offered improved word prediction. Several CNET editors are fans of the SwiftKey keyboard app for Android, which is now up to version 4.

It took me all of about 30 seconds to fall for A.I.type's FloatNSplit keyboard. Unfortunately, the program predicts better in some apps than in others.

Using the splittable keyboard with the Evernote notetaker app saved quite a bit of key-tapping (Evernote is one of the seven Android apps for notes and tasks reviewed by Scott Webster in " Seven great Android apps for notes and tasks "). But FloatNSplit's word-prediction function fell flat when I tested it with the Kingsoft word processing app, which I'll discuss below.

There's a lot to like about the FloatNSplit keyboard: with the tap of a button, it switches between the standard position at the bottom of the screen to three different dockable split views; you can create your own shortcuts for entering boilerplate text; and the program supports dozens of languages, although I tested only the English version.

A.I.text FloatNSplit onscreen keyboard for Android
The FloatNSplit onscreen keyboard does a good job of predicting text entry. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

FloatNSplit includes several preformatted autotext shortcuts, such as the standard "too much information" (tmi) and almost-standard "laughing my head off" (lmho). When you hold and press several of its keys, more character, punctuation, and formatting options appear, so it isn't necessary to switch to other key layouts.

The program also converts speech to text with fairly good accuracy. Other features include the ability to add a background image or color, apply a theme, select from about a dozen different fonts, adjust the opacity of the floating keyboard, and set the color of various text and keyboard elements.

Note that when you activate the FloatNSplit keyboard, you're warned that the app may store whatever text you type, including passwords, credit card numbers, and other sensitive information. I couldn't find an option to clear the keyboard history, but you can encrypt your connection to your cloud storage service.

Free Office-compatible word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation apps
When it comes to compatibility, it's difficult to beat the Office formats. The ability to create and edit files in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint formats is a requirement for most computer users, regardless of the kind of computer they're using.

There are plenty of options for Android users working with Office files. The free Kingsoft Office app supports the DOC, DOCX, XLS, XLSX, PPT, PPTX, TXT, and PDF formats. Its basic file manager lets you access all your documents stored locally and on the cloud storage services Google Drive, Dropbox, and Box.

I had no problem accessing my Google Drive account when I tested Kingsoft, although the program doesn't support the native Google Drive file formats. You can also connect Kingsoft with WebDAV and FTP servers.

The Kingsoft interface puts options in a single, simple Office-like ribbon that scrolls sideways. A toolbar in the top-right corner of the window has options for saving the file and providing fast access to the ribbon's edit and view options.

Kingsoft word processor for Android
Kingsoft's word processor for Android puts its text formatting and other options on a simple ribbon. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

My biggest disappointment with the Kingsoft word processor was that it worked poorly with the FloatNSplit keyboard. I ended up reverting to the standard Google keyboard while using the Kingsoft apps, which made me appreciate the FloatNSplit's text predictions all the more.

Get a tree view of your files
If you've got a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, or other file-creating app on an Android tablet, you're going to need a file manager. Ol File Manager makes it easy to navigate through the tablet's file system. At the top of the file manager are the current file path and buttons for quickly returning to the root folders.

Ol File Manager for Android
Get a good look at all the files on your Android tablet via the Ol File Manager, which shows thumbnails of image files. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Controls above the folder path open bookmarks and settings, let you search for files, and let you create a new folder. When you open a folder containing images, thumbnails appear to the left of the file name. Select an image to preview it.

Ol File Manager's settings allow you to sort by name or in ascending order, exclude folders from its media scans, show or hide warnings, display hidden files (on by default), and switch from the default dark theme to a light theme. You can also clear your file history.

Keep up on all things Android
As any CNET visitor knows, things change quickly in the tech world. Keeping up with the latest developments in such hot markets as tablets and smartphones takes effort. The Drippler app is your one-stop resource for the latest news about your Android device as well as competing products.

Drippler detects your device type automatically and delivers news and information about it from sources all over the Web. At the top of the Drippler window are four tabs: Latest is a straight-ahead news feed, Popular shows the stories getting the most buzz, Featured lists suggested apps, and Get in Sync invites you to create a free Drippler account or connect with your Facebook account.

Drippler news-aggregating app for Android
Keeping up with the latest Android news gets easier with the Drippler news aggregator. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

A slider control in Drippler's settings lets you adjust the frequency of updates. You can also disable the app's sound and choose to receive updates about Android games. Another option lets you manually select a device other than the one the app detected automatically; this setting is intended only for troubleshooting.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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