Android users have over 2 million apps to wade through when they visit the Google Play Store. And lots of third-party websites, including Download.com, also offer app downloads. How can you find the right app in a reasonable amount of time, make sure it's compatible with your device, and figure out whether the app and the store are legit? Here's how to safely and efficiently find, download, and install Android apps.
Where to get Android apps
The safest place to get Android apps is from the official stores, Google Play and Amazon's Apps & Games section for Android. Google scans incoming apps for malware, and as a result, for users who download only from Google Play, just 0.15 percent of devices had a potentially harmful app in 2015 (versus 0.5 percent for users who downloaded from other sources as well). Google also reviews software flagged as inappropriate by Play users. So your best bet for app accountability is Google Play or Amazon, both of which are accessible through their apps or the Web.
To find apps from your Android phone or tablet, check your home screen for the Google Play app, which comes installed on your device. Your home screen is also likely to have a Google search bar -- tap the microphone icon at the end of it to begin dictating a search. If you've enabled Google Now, you can long-press the circle button to summon it, and that search field has a microphone shortcut as well.
If you're on Mac or Windows, direct your Web browser to the Google Play Store's Apps section. You may need to be logged in to a Google account to see it, and you definitely need to be logged in to send an app to one of the devices associated with your account. If you have both personal and business Google accounts, make sure that you're signed in to the correct one before trying to install an app on your Android device.
Third-party Android app stores
There are lots of unofficial sites for Android apps, and we don't recommend downloading from them. While some may be safe, you just can't tell -- when you see reports about Android malware, it was often spread through illegitimate app stores. Be especially cautious about any sites offering free versions of apps that usually cost money.
However, Download.com hosts APKs for some Android apps, which we check for malware using VirusTotal. When you look at Android apps on our site, most of them have a button that sends you to Google Play for the download:
But some Android apps can be downloaded directly from us; in that case, the green button says Download Now.
To install apps that don't come from the Google Play Store, you first need to enable the installation of apps from "unknown" sources. The method depends on which version of the OS you have. In the regular version of Android 6.0 (Marshmallow), drag down twice from the top to open the quick settings panel. (In older versions of Android, dragging once should display this panel. And some versions of Android have customized interfaces that require some digging to find your settings menus.) Tap the gear icon in the upper right, scroll down to and tap Security, then scroll down to Unknown Sources and tap the slider on the right to toggle it on or off.
As with iOS apps, you should use a search engine to confirm the name of the official Android app and its maker. Opportunists will try to trick you by naming their copycat app or themselves something very similar to the real app or developer.
If Google or Bing have established the correct spelling of the original app, they'll often automatically redirect your search to fix the perceived error. These search engines will put the app developer's website high in your search results, and the website should have a high-profile link to the Google Play Store (unless the app is iOS-only).
Many apps want access to your phone's other functions or information -- the camera, your contacts list, GPS, and so on. Developers may explain on the Google Play product page what each app permission request is for, but they're not required to. Consider carefully whether the app really needs that permission in order to do its job.
When you tap the Install button in the Google Play Store, you'll get a list of the permissions that the app will request. Tap each permission type for a short description. In Android 6.0 and 7.0, you can disable specific permissions, though doing so may break app functionality (for example, if you want to take photos in Instagram, the app needs access to your camera).
In Android 6.0, drag twice from the top of the screen to open the quick settings panel. Tap the gear icon in the upper right, Apps, the gear in the upper right, App Permissions, and the permission type that you want to check. They're listed alphabetically.
On one of our test devices, the camera permission has 14 entries. If we tap the camera permission, we get an alphabetical list of all the apps that want permission to use the device's camera. Each entry has a slider next to it -- simply tap the slider to grant or deny permission. You may get a warning that disabling the permission will make the app behave strangely or not at all, so think about which permissions are necessary. You don't want to disable the wrong thing and miss an important phone call or text message as a result.
It's a blessing and a curse that Android is available on such a wide variety of devices. Many of them are using old versions of Android that current apps aren't compatible with, or the device's internal components are too out-of-date to be supported.
If you're shopping the Google Play Store on a Mac or Windows PC while logged in to your Google account, the product pages will have a drop-down list where you can specify which Android device you want the app sent to.
If one of your Android devices is missing from this list, it's absent either because of incompatibility or because it's not associated with this Google account. (If you are setting up an Android device for the first time, you will need to log it in to a Google account before it will show up as an available device in the Play Store.)
Checking your app installation
To check an app on your device, swipe down twice from the top of the screen, tap the gear icon, then scroll down and tap Apps, and you will find them all listed in alphabetical order. If you are looking for an app that comes pre-installed on the device, tap the three dots in the upper right and tap Show System. Tap any app in this list to get its vital statistics -- things like how much space it takes up, whether it's designated as a default, how much of your battery it's used since the last charge. Tapping each of these sections will take you to another menu where you can further customize the app's behavior.
If it's not a system app, you can tap the Uninstall button here to remove the app. You can also open your app drawer, long-tap the app you wish to uninstall, tap App Info, then tap Uninstall. If it's a system app, you will have a Disable button instead of an Uninstall button. As you might guess, disabling a system app may cause your device to behave strangely or stop working altogether.