Android for beginners: Setting up your phone
Custom Dialer apps
If you're not happy with your stock dialer, you can always grab an alternative one from the Play Store. Not all phones come with a smart dial (yes, even today) or you might just want to try a different look.
Here's a quick selection of third-party dialers that do a pretty solid job.
GO Contacts EX
The GO Dev Team is here again, delivering the GO Contacts EX - it has plenty of features and there are a lot of skins for it. It supports smart dial and speed dial along with support for backing up and restoring your contacts to/from the SD card.
Contacts EX features a Groups tab and you can send batch SMS or email messages to these groups. Batch deletion of contacts is also possible.
Be warned though, GO Contacts EX can get buggy on some handsets.
Get GO Contacts EX (Free)
exDialer is a free dialer replacement (no ads either) that's lightweight and quick. It supports both the dark and light Holo themes and offers smart dialing in a number of languages.
When you launch the app, it shows a list of recent calls grouped by contact and a color indicator for busy/missed/not answered calls. You can swipe items in this list to make a call or compose an SMS, similar to Samsung's stock dialer.
exDialer supports plug-ins, though there aren't many at this point. The app has an annoying problem - it doesn't clear missed calls once you tap them from the notification area, but there's a patch to fix that (requires root) and a plug-in (plug-ins work only with the donation version of the app).
Get exDialer (Free)
TouchPal Contacts is another dialer replacement with good support for themes. It tries to shake things up a bit by supporting Gesture dialing - instead of using smart dial (which is available too, by the way), you can use gestures to call your favorite contacts. You just draw a symbol on the keypad and TouchPal Contacts will make the call.
The app also has blacklist/whitelist support built-in if you want to control who gets to call you.
If your friends are using TouchPal Contacts, you'll be able to see if they're in the middle of a call and have the app notify you when they are free. The app also has basic Facebook and Twitter integration.
Get TouchPal Contacts (Free)
Custom SMS apps
Texting is one of the most used features of a phone today, so an SMS app that's just right is very important. If the one that comes with your phone out of the box isn't what you're looking for, you can replace it just as easily as the dialer. By the way, these apps support both SMS and MMS.
GO SMS Pro
We already saw the GO Dev Team's work in the dialer department, now lets look at their texting app. GO SMS Pro is skinnable just like its dialer counterpart and you can install plug-ins too, like the Emoji emoticons.
One feature that seems quite popular is the pop-up notifications - they display the message you just received and have a field for composing a quick reply and a To-Do button if you can't reply now but want a reminder later.
The GO SMS Pro app has more cool features. It can schedule messages to be sent automatically later, you can backup and restore SMS messages (locally on your phone or on Dropbox) and there's a widget that shows recent messages too.
We already mentioned the Emoji plug-in, but the FBChat Plug-in deserves attention too. As the name implies, you can use it to chat with your Facebook contacts straight from the GO SMS Pro app.
Get GO SMS Pro (Free)
Handcent SMS is similar to GO SMS Pro in that it comes with the pop-up quick reply feature out of the box and supports themes and plug-ins. You can even download custom font packs.
The Blacklist feature will come in handy if you receive a lot of spam over SMS. Scheduling messages lets you type a message and have it sent automatically later on (e.g. a "Happy birthday" message).
Get Handcent SMS (Free)
Yet another alternative is chomp SMS. It has the quick reply pop-up feature and blacklisting and scheduling texts. There's a widget that shows recent messages too.
Themes and plug-ins are supported too, including the Emoji plug-in.
Get chomp SMS (Free)
If you like the idea of the SMS pop-up notification with a quick reply function, but don't want to replace your current SMS app, then SMS Popup is what you're looking for.
The app will show a pop-up with the incoming SMS and if there are more than one, you can swipe between them. To send a reply, you hit the Reply button and type it in right in the pop-up. You can also use voice recognition to dictate the reply and text to speech to have SMS Popup read incoming text out loud.
There is a privacy mode that hides the message until you unlock the phone, a similar feature is available for the pop-ups of the other apps we described.
SMS Popup (Free)