Considering that nearly half a million brand new apps were published to the Google Play Store in 2015, you can definitely call it a banner year for Android development. In fact, it's getting to the point where we're a bit spoiled as end users, since we've grown to expect something new and exciting practically every week.
Here at Gadget Hacks, we spend countless hours scouring the web to find the most interesting apps as they make their debuts, so the recent influx of new software has certainly kept us busy. And while many great apps from big companies debuted or received major updates throughout the year—like Facebook's Messenger, Google's Photos, and Snapchat to name a few—we wanted to concentrate on showcasing the lesser-known apps or ones that you may have missed.
Between encryption, bypassing restrictions, and new ways to find what you're looking for, we're now happy to share our favorite Android apps of the year, which should help you start 2016 off with a bang.
From a technology standpoint, the buzzword of 2015 was definitely "encryption." With government agencies circling our personal data like vultures, encryption offers a strong method for keeping prying eyes at bay.
If you have sensitive files stored on your device, or if you'd just like to keep hackers and politicians from being able to browse your phone's storage, an app called Andrognito has you covered. It offers a simple interface for encrypting any file or folder on your device, which means your data will be virtually impossible to access without your secure PIN.
Believe it or not, Samsung made a great piece of software in 2015—which may or may not be a sign of the apocalypse. Smart Switch has been around for a few years, but after a massive overhaul to coincide with the release of the Galaxy S6, it's now one of the most useful apps for Samsung owners.
If you're just switching to Android after using an iPhone in the past, Smart Switch can automatically bring all of your iOS contacts, photos, and data over to your new Galaxy device, making the transition quick and painless. And of course, if you're coming from another Android device, Smart Switch has you covered there as well.
But Smart Switch doesn't stop there—its desktop companion app can even update your rooted device to the latest OS version without having to go through the arduous process of sideloading firmware with Odin.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow started hitting devices in 2015, and so far, it's proving to be the most polished version of Android yet. But out of all the cool additions, a new Google Now feature called Now on Tap has the potential to be the most useful.
Now on Tap scans your screen to look for relevant keywords in any app you're viewing, then provides informative Google search results with pop-up cards. This means that, no matter what app you're using, you can find information about any person, place, or thing at the press of a button. It even goes a step further by allowing you to say "Okay Google," then ask a question about anything on your screen—and speaking of screens, Now on Tap also makes it incredibly easy to capture and share screenshots.
Android's status bar is such a central part of the operating system that it's visible at the top of every screen. But as useful as it already is, the precious screen real estate that it occupies could still be put to better use.
An app called StatusBar Pro will finally allow non-rooted users to get the most out of their status bar by adding gestures that launch custom actions from any screen. This means that you can tap, long-press, or swipe the topmost portion of your screen to do pretty much anything—from launching apps to performing searches and more.
When you have the same ringtone or notification sound set for months on end, it gets played out rather quickly. Every time you get a new email, text message, or phone call, that same tone plays—and little by little, it starts to become annoying.
If you'd like to avoid this dreaded "stale ringtone effect," an app called RandTune should be all you need. Once you've downloaded a set of ringtones or notification sounds, you simply select the folder where you have the sounds stored, then RandTune will ensure that you never hear the same ringtone twice in a row.
If your device is running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, there's a hidden menu that allows you to tweak several aspects of the system UI. But this hidden menu is still relatively new, so it doesn't offer as many customization options as we'd like.
That's where the app Custom Quick Settings comes into play. Once you've set everything up, you'll be able to add your own Quick Settings tiles that open apps, launch links, trigger activities, and more—but the best part is you don't even need to be rooted to use the app.
These days, there's almost no such thing as a private conversation. Practically every method of communication that we use can be eavesdropped on by overzealous government agencies around the world, and many of them don't even need a warrant or subpoena to invade our privacy in this manner.
The best way to ensure that your digital communications are secure is to encrypt the information before it leaves your device and makes its way across the internet. An app called Signal handles this for both calls and text messages, so as long as all parties have the app installed, no one can listen in on your conversations.
Certain apps have no business accessing the internet—for instance, why would a flashlight app or a simple game need to use your data connection? But the trouble is, Android now grants internet access to all apps by default, and some apps abuse this privilege, which can cost you overage fees and lead to unnecessary battery drain.
If you'd like to keep data-sucking apps in check, NetGuard offers a no-root firewall of sorts. After a bit of initial setup, you'll be able to pick and choose which apps get to access your Wi-Fi and mobile data connections, while blocking problematic apps out entirely.
If your computer or laptop didn't come with a microphone, making video calls or recording audio will present an obvious problem. But don't rush out to buy an expensive external microphone just yet, because your smartphone has all of the necessary hardware already.
An app called WO Mic will actually allow you to use the microphone in your Android device as a wireless audio source for your computer—and it works on Windows as well as Mac. You'll have to install the software on your phone and your computer, but beyond that, it's a relatively simple process.
Apple's implementation of widgets leaves a lot to be desired when compared to Android, but you have to admit, it would be nice to get at-a-glance information by simply swiping down from your status bar like you can with the iPhone.
But hey, this is Android we're talking about, so of course you can do that. An app called Snap Swipe Drawer will allow you to add any home screen widget directly to your notification tray in a few simple taps—and with Android's wide array of available widgets, it's an even better experience than Apple's restrictive implementation.
When QuickPic was sold to a company known for data mining, what was once universally regarded as Android's best gallery app was no longer an option. Several apps have since popped up to fill this void, but so far, Aperture is our favorite.
Aperture is lightweight and fast, plus it supports GIF playback and has a nice Material Design interface. But Aperture isn't your only option in this segment, and we've recently done a full comparison of the best Android gallery apps, which you can check out below.
How many times have you opened a video or started playing a song, only to realize after the fact that you had your media volume turned all the way up? It's a mild annoyance at best, and can potentially be quite the embarrassing situation.
Considering that Android's volume buttons control notification volume by default and only allow you to turn down media volume after a track has started playing, this is a common occurrence. But an app called Rocker Locker will finally put an end to this issue by making your volume rocker control media volume by default, which means you can preemptively turn down the volume before you start playing a song or video.
Snapchat made its name by making all of its messages self-destruct after a preset period of time. This extra layer of security was a draw for users who didn't want their photos or videos shared all over the internet, but it's also something that curious users have always wanted to bypass.
Several root apps and Xposed modules have enabled users to secretly save incoming Snaps over the years, but an app called Casper has finally brought this functionality to non-rooted users. You'll need to have "Unknown sources" enabled to sideload the app, but beyond that, setup is fairly simple. It should be noted, though, that Snapchat has been cracking down on third-party clients lately, so there's a chance that using Casper could cause your account to be suspended.
What are the best apps that you've discovered in 2015? Let us know in the comment section below, or drop us a line on Android Hacks' Facebook or Twitter, or Gadget Hacks' Facebook, Google+, or Twitter.
Want to master Microsoft Excel and take your work-from-home job prospects to the next level? Jump-start your career with our Premium A-to-Z Microsoft Excel Training Bundle from the new Gadget Hacks Shop and get lifetime access to more than 40 hours of Basic to Advanced instruction on functions, formula, tools, and more.