So you just bought yourself an Android phone. Or maybe some generous relative gave you one as a gift. Lucky you, because whether you're unwrapping the Samsung Galaxy S21, Google Pixel 6 or OnePlus 9 Pro, you can't go wrong with one of the best Android phones.
But what do you with it next? Well, the good news is that even if you have a budget model, you'll still get access to all of the treats in the Google Play Store. The only trouble is that with so many apps to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to start.
That's where we come in, with this guide to the one must-have app you need in each category — whether that's photography, music streaming, productivity, travel or anything else. So read on for our starter guide, in A-Z order, and once you're done you can also check out our full list of the best Android apps overall.
Note: We've left Google apps out of this list because they'll most likely be pre-installed. Many of them are essential though — we particularly recommend Maps, Chrome, Photos, Calendar, Drive, Google Pay, Home and Lens, all of which are either the best or close to the best in their respective categories.
Bitdefender Mobile Security & Antivirus ($14.99/year)
It may not be very exciting, but ensuring your new Android phone is protected from threats is nonetheless vital. And while there are plenty of decent free security apps out there, we think it's worth a small outlay to pay for one of the best Android antivirus apps.
Bitdefender Mobile offers excellent anti-malware protection for your phone, and automatically scans apps and websites for possible threats. With extras including a VPN, anti-theft features, secure App Locker, and even a tool that keeps an eye on your email address, it’s well worth the reasonable price.
Whether you're looking to level up your social media game, creating a birthday card or designing an event invitation, Canva can help bring out your creative side.
It's packed with free templates but also comes with plenty of tools if you want to start from scratch, and though it's powerful enough to create professional looking results, it's incredibly easy to pick up. It comes with a library of photos and illustrations — although you can just as easily upload your own — and it offers easy sharing via email or social platforms.
Carrot Weather (Free)
There are loads of great weather apps available, and as you'd expect most offer much the same experience; it's not an area that lends itself to creativity.
Well, Carrot Weather would beg to differ, providing your weather reports with a healthy dose of sarcasm and wit to make your day that bit brighter even if it's pouring down outside.
But don't go thinking it's all attitude over accuracy: Carrot Weather takes its data from Dark Sky, meaning you can trust its current, hourly, and 7-day forecasts, while infographics give you the most useful information in an easy-to-digest format. A premium version is also available and unlocks extra features.
Download Carrot Weather
Your contacts list can quickly descend into a mess of duplicates, never-used and who-are-they-again? entries, with the odd useful card hidden among them. Enter Contacts+, an address book replacement that helps you get organized.
It automatically imports information from linked social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn so you have everything in one place, can pull in cover photos from Facebook and even display recent communications from each contact. We rate it as one of the best contact apps, and wouldn't be without it on a new phone.
Obviously you get all your news from Tom's Guide, but let's pretend you also want to read about topics we don't cover, and in an attractive magazine-style format that's expertly personalized to your own interests? Look no further than Flipboard.
The basic idea is simple: you select various topics — for instance politics, art, dogs, food and science — then Flipboard serves them up for you, regularly refreshing your personal magazine so that there's always something new to read. You can also follow other people's magazines, save stories and easily share them with others. And yes, TG is on it, don't worry.
Smart home tech is great, but the routines available aren't always as clever as they could be. That's where IFTTT can help.
Its name stands for If This Then That, and the app essentially allows you to create custom routines that can carry out surprisingly complex tasks without the need for any expertise beyond a little logic.
For instance, you could set it up so that it automatically turns on your smart lights, heating and music when you get home, or backs up photos when you take a new one, or messages your family when you're near the grocery. The possibilities are almost endless and it's fully compatible with almost every smart home platform on the planet.
Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Peacock, Amazon Prime Video… the trouble with TV these days is that there's just too much of it, spread around multiple streaming platforms. You can easily spend so much time browsing for shows to watch that you run out of time to actually start anything.
Fortunately, JustWatch is here to simplify things, telling you exactly where to find the TV (and movies) you want to settle down with, across 37 streaming services. You also get movie trailers and showtimes, plus one-click bookings for your local movie theater.
We're always being told to make passwords more complex and not use the same one across multiple sites and services — and with good reason. But unless you have the memory of an elephant, that can leave you having to frequently reset your logins as you repeatedly forget which password is for which site.
That's why you need a password manager, and our favorite is LastPass. It acts as a password vault that encrypts and stores your logins and automatically fills them in when you sign in, and it can also generate strong passwords from scratch. Plus it works on all platforms, so will sync nicely between your phone, tablet and computer.
Microsoft To Do (Free)
There are many to-do list apps out there, but Microsoft's To Do has been developed nicely over the years and is now one of our favorites. It's easy to use, with a sleek and distraction-free interface, but also smart enough to offer up suggestions based on upcoming deadlines or even long-term patterns.
It's also highly customizable: you can add color coding, descriptions, categories and more, or just stick to brief notes. And if you also use Microsoft's Office 365 suite you'll find it integrates well there, too.
Download Microsoft To Do
It's easy to lose track of your finances, but Mint doesn't want that to happen. In fact, its mission is to help you track, budget, and manage your money all in one place. And it does so brilliantly, making what is usually a dull and lengthy task into one that's slightly more approachable. But still dull; it can't work miracles.
As well as helping you to track your incomings and outgoings, it'll let you set reminders for bill payments and subscriptions — so you don't get caught out by the end of those free trial periods — and everything is presented in clear, attractive charts and tables that make a mundane subject much more accessible.
Moon+ Reader (Free)
We could just suggest the Amazon Kindle app here, but chances are you already know about that. Plus, great though Kindle is, Moon+ Reader offers several advantages, not least the ability to handle formats such as EPUB and MOBI.
It's another highly customizable app, too, with options for everything from line spacing to font scale to the overall theme. And of course it's proudly brand agnostic: you can use Moon+ with almost every online library out there, rather than being tied to one service.
Download Moon+ Reader
Niagara Launcher (Free)
We named Niagara Launcher the best Android app in our Tom's Guide Awards 2021, and if that isn't enough of a recommendation then we don't know what is.
How essential it is will depend on what device you're using, because if you're on a Pixel, for instance, you may prefer to stick with vanilla Android. But for everyone else — or just those who fancy a change — Niagara is a must.
It offers a clean, minimal interface that puts your apps front and center in an alphabetical list and lets you read and respond to notifications from the home screen. You can also customize it (of course) and you won't find an ad near it, even in the free version.
Download Niagara Launcher
There are more camera apps on the Play Store than there are grains of sand on all the beaches in the world (probably), but if we had to pick just one it would be Pixtica.
It offers complete control over every aspect of photography, from ISO to shutter speed to focus, while live filters, panorama, HDR, stickers and hyperlapse modes give you plenty of creative options to play around with. And while most of these features can be found in other camera apps, too, it's rare to get them all in one place — and in a gorgeous, user-friendly package that is a joy to use. A paid version adds more filters and higher resolutions, and unlocks various other options.
Pocket Casts (Free)
Google's own Podcasts app is pretty decent, and we also like the super-powerful Podcast Addict, but our favorite is the excellent Pocket Casts. It nails the balance between functionality and accessibility, offering tons of ways to listen, multiple playback options, cloud syncing and more, while dressing it all up in a gorgeous skin that makes it easy to navigate.
A premium subscription for $0.99/month or $9.99/year gives you extra features including a desktop app, but the free version is enough to keep most people very happy indeed.
Download Pocket Casts
Got a spare minute? Then dip into Reddit and see what you land on. But be warned; you could easily find yourself down a rabbit hole that leaves you surfacing several hours later with a brain full of both useful and useless information.
Reddit has been around for years, of course, but it's just as engaging as ever, with its mix of viral posts and videos, AMAs and genuinely interesting threads guaranteed to keep you entertained for however long you choose to spend on it. There are also groups for every interest under the sun (some of which are seriously niche) and it can be a fantastic place to seek advice on a subject. Just be aware that you're never far from a NSFW post.
Sky Safari (Free)
Ever looked up at the heavens and wondered what that really bright star hovering just above the horizon is? Point your phone at it and Sky Safari will not only tell you that's it's Vega, but also that it's the fifth brightest star in the sky and lies within the constellation Lyra, 25.3 light years away.
In short, it's a toolkit for the night sky, using GPS to accurately pinpoint your location and identify what you're seeing, then giving you info, images and data about it. It's an essential download if you have even the slightest interest in the cosmos.
Download Sky Safari
Solid Explorer File Manager ($1.99)
One thing people like about Android is that you can easily access the files stored within your phone — so long as you know where to find them. There are dozens of free file explorer apps that let you manage your device's external storage, but many are hampered by ads and bloatware.
Instead, we'd recommend spending a very reasonable $1.99 on the excellent Solid Explorer, a premium file manager free from ads but packed with features. You get drag-and-drop controls, a multi-tab and multi-pane interface, compressed archives and support for network and cloud storage plus more advanced features such as a root explorer.
Download Solid Explorer
If you're a fan of live music then Songkick is an absolute must. It serves up personalized concert listings based on what you listen to on Spotify, avoiding the need to wade through Ed Sheeran and Adele gigs so you can get straight to the good stuff. You can also get reminders when events go on sale, and even purchase tickets via the app. It's a one-stop shop for music lovers.
Speaking of Spotify, it's still the best music streaming app out there thanks to its vast library, slick UI and integration with smart speakers. As well as having the entire back catalogs of almost every artist who you're likely to care about, it's increasingly hot on podcasts, while its personalized playlists can make it easy to discover new favorites — or resurface old classics.
The free version is fine if you don't mind ads, but you won't be able to listen via Echo, Google or Sonos devices (among others) or save songs for offline listening. Those features alone make it well worth shelling out for the $9.99/month Premium subscription.
Though Strava is our pick as the best running app, it's every bit as essential if you prefer cycling, swimming or even just like a nice walk now and again.
Its USP is in the way it combines fitness tracking with a social feed and gamified features that let you compete with others — whether friends or strangers — over set routes. Even if you're not usually the competitive type, it's hard to resist the allure of trying to move up the table from 389th to 388th by recording a slightly better time over that lap of the local park.
Integration with multiple fitness trackers, Wear OS and Apple Watch is another bonus, and there's a premium subscription which adds exercise goals, more detailed analytics and other treats.
While IFTTT, earlier on in this list, is an excellent tool for setting up smart home routines, Tasker really excels when it comes to phone-based automation.
Want to automatically turn off data when you get home? You got it. Wish your phone would go into do not disturb mode when you turn it face down? No problem. With 350+ actions to choose from, if you can think of it, Tasker can almost certainly make it happen.
Install it on a rooted phone and you'll get even more options, making it well worth the single $2.99 payment.
While Google Maps is great in this regard, if you live in a city, Transit is a must for navigating public transport. Tell it where you want to go and it'll offer up routes using trains, buses, and even bike sharing, while also factoring in short walks to each stop and wait times. Real-time data on arrival times and service disruptions are another bonus, and with 300 cities now supported there's a decent chance you'll be able to use it on your commute.
VLC has been around for years, but it remains the most powerful and flexible video and music player, handling any file format that you can throw at it from .mp4 files to .mkv and many, many more. It's totally free, doesn't have ads, is open source and frankly we don't need to say any more: just download it.
It's a toss-up between Google Maps vs. Waze as to which is the best driving app, but while Maps has many more features, Waze is our choice purely when it comes to getting you from A to B via the fastest route.
Its accurate, time-saving turn-by-turn navigation uses traffic data and crowdsourced info from other users to plot your course, and expertly shifts you on to a quicker one if the situation changes. It's something of a one-trick pony, but who cares when it does such a good job at that one trick.
One of the best hidden gems within the Google Play Store, WhatsApp is a little-known app that… no, alright, you've already heard of this one. But sometimes the most popular apps get that way because they're so good, and that's certainly the case here.
It's now so ubiquitous that when many people say "I'll message you," it barely needs explaining that they mean via WhatsApp. And with good reason: its group chat features helped many families and friends stay in touch during lockdown, while its incredibly easy setup and syncing experience ensure even your tech-phobic dad can use it.
The only drawback for some is that it's part of the Facebook galaxy of apps, but that aside it's about as essential as apps get.