This year alone, over 330,000 mobile applications were added to Apple’s App Store. With hundreds of thousands of applications available, it’s difficult to tell what’s worth downloading, what’s worth paying for, and what’s just crap. Many different people have put together guides that outline the best applications of the week or the month but the reality is that truly great applications don’t come along too often and most of the apps you download (and maybe even pay for) will never be used. To get down to the essential apps, I took my experience downloading and testing different apps so you don’t have to. The following list contains the applications that you will use the most often or will be the most useful when you use them. The great thing is that most of these applications are free. Combine that with some holiday sales going on right now, and you can supercharge your iPhone for less than $10.
First, a disclaimer: While we would never write about services we don’t completely recommend or use ourselves, it is important to let our readers know that The Airspace may receive a small commission if you click-through and buy any of the links on our site.
The following list is in no way intended to be fully comprehensive, but depending on how you use your phone, the applications listed below will likely represent 60 to 80 percent of your iPhone usage.
The first thing you’ll want to do is replace all those Apple apps that don’t cut it any more. Apple updates their apps when they update their mobile operating system iOS. These updates comes in small increments with only major changes happening once a year. Third party developers spend their entire days working on creating new apps and ushering out quality updates to them. If a non-Apple replacement is free, great. But if it costs a couple bucks, it’ll be worth the price when it makes your phone that much better.
After replacing the Apple apps, there are a select number of apps that will just make your life easier or help connect you to the people and services you really care about.
Maps: Google Maps
For all of you who have iOS 6 and are lamenting the broken nature of Apple Maps, Google has finally released an app that brings you back to their warm and open arms. Google Maps for iOS is the answer to the woeful Apple Maps, but it’s not just a repeat of the version previously available on iOS. New Google Maps has been updated to include vector maps that make it incredibly fast and turn-by-turn directions so you can put your GPS away.
Weather: Check the Weather
Weather may seem like a simple problem that Apple should be able to handle, but amazingly it’s not. Apple’s weather app seldom knows where I am and takes an incredibly long time to fetch a small amount of data. Weather updates should be instant because you normally check them when you’re heading out the door. Check The Weather gives you an incredible wealth of information about the weather and it does it really fast. The homepage of the app displays the current temperature, “feels like” temp., a simple graph of the temp throughout the day, sunrise/sunset times and highs and lows for the next three days. Swipe right and a panel with hour by hour details comes up. Swipe left and the weather for the week appears. Swipe up and an animated radar map appears.
The Apple Calendar app is moderately functional but it’s difficult to enter appointments and view your upcoming schedule. Enter Fantastical for iPhone. The app uses natural language to make appointments so if you type in “Yoga class at 5 on Thursday with Ingrid,” Fantastical will create an event at 5 pm on Thursday called “Yoga Class” and make a note that you’re taking it with Ingrid. The app also has what Fantastical calls a DayTicker that shows all upcoming events in a list as well as a side-scrolling list of the days with small markers of your events on them. You can sync your Google calendar to it to keep your appointments updated everywhere.
It’s hard to have a problem with Apple’s Contacts program because it mostly exists to tie into other apps like Mail, Messages, and the Phone. But if you’re looking for a replacement with more utility, CoBook integrates Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn with your address book and then allows your to organize contacts with hashtag groupings and prioritize people in those lists. You can also view people’s connected profiles on social media services from inside the app. It’s free, so while the differences between it and Apple’s Contacts app aren’t revolutionary, there is no risk in trying it out.
Internet Browser: Safari/Chrome
When Google’s Chrome browser was released for iOS, a great number of people were excited for the reason that it was not Safari. Some people think it’s more feature-rich, other people just like that it’s different. Either way it’s a sleek alternative to Safari that is objectively almost entirely better in all ways except for one: you can’t set Chrome as the default browser unless you jailbreak your phone. This means that whenever you open a link from somewhere, it’s going to open in Safari. Right now, this is the case for any third-party browser. So even if you put Chrome on your homepage and hide Safari away in some folder, chances are you’ll have both browsers open with different pages up in each. This can get confusing and frustrating, so despite my affection for Chrome, I am currently sticking to Safari. Chrome is a free download though, so it’s worth experimenting with, and (if you can put up with the switching) using as your main browser.
Reminders & To-Do: Clear
Getting things Done apps and reminder tools don’t fit into my workflow so I can’t recommend these selections with full confidence they will change your world. That being said, Apple’s Reminders app isn’t so much bad as it is useless. But this partially is the fault of to-do lists in general. Lists that include tasks but not when and where specifications are often daunting and difficult to work through. Clear attempts building the perfect list making app and if bare-bones lists work for you, Clear is definitely the right app. It’s interface is completely swipe based. No buttons—just your tasks.
Notes and note-taking are a lot more integral to keeping my life together than simple list apps. To keep everything together, I use a program called SimpleNote, which functions as both an app on my iPhone and iPad as well as a online service that syncs all my notes together. Any note in the app has a tag, which tracks and organizes the text, and a body where you put your text. I use notes to manage my daily activities, keep track of important links, pull quotations and research for articles, etc., etc., etc. Anything I do that involves writing goes into SimpleNote. And because everything syncs in the cloud, I can access and updated my notes on my Mac using a program called Notational Velocity. On top of that, the archive of notes is completely searchable so retrieving old notes is effortless. This combo of Notational V and SimpleNote holds together my productive digital life.
Simple Note: FREE but you can upgrade to a premium version for $19.99 per year. Try it out with the free version for a while before you commit.
Notational Velocity for Mac: FREE
Mail: Sparrow/Gmail/Apple Mail/Mailbox
Mail is in a tricky spot right now. The iOS 6 version of the Apple Mail app is satisfactory but there aren’t many full-feature replacements for it yet. The latest hope was an app called Sparrow. Originally made for Mac and only recently turned into an iPhone app. Sparrow was such a rousing success that Google bought the small company for a pretty penny. Unfortunately that means that Sparrow won’t be receiving any more major updates. For that reason, it seems lousy to ask anyone to plop $2.99 on an app that won’t get better with time. There is an upside for people who exclusively use Gmail. Since Google bought Sparrow, it got their exceptional development team. The most recent version of the Gmail app for iPhone is smart, fast, and attractive. Unfortunately, it can only be used with Gmail accounts. There is one more alternative on the horizon called MailBox (http://www.mailboxapp.com/) but unfortunately it won’t be out until the beginning of 2013. For the time being, if you use just Gmail, go for their app. Otherwise stick with the current Apple Mail app unless you have cash to spare on Sparrow.
File Management: Dropbox
On to apps that aren’t replacement for Apple equivalents. If you a person who uses the Internet, has a computer, and a smartphone and you don’t have Dropbox, stop everything you’re doing and create an account right now (http://db.tt/w3TR4Tm) Just click this link, you’ll be in and out in 20 seconds. Okay, now that you have Dropbox prepare for life to become infinitely easier. Dropbox acts like a folder that sits on your Mac or PC, and anything that gets put into that folder is uploaded to Dropbox’s secure servers so it can be accessed from anywhere. This makes it the easiest way to share large files online and get data to and from your iPhone. Dropbox will even sync all the photos you take back to your computer so you don’t have to worry about it. All of the non-application documents on my computer go into my Dropbox account so they are always accessible and backed-up.
If you are a Facebook user, you need to get the official Facebook app. It used to be a piece of trash but the blue-giant re-wrote the app to run natively. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best way to keep tabs on your friends and maintain that branch of your digital life.
What’s even more important than Facebook itself, at least the way I use it, is the separate Facebook Messenger app. A telephone is a communication device, and Facebook Messenger keeps me in touch with people and groups without the need to look at all the other Facebook clutter. Messenger is like the ultimate combination of text messaging and instant messaging and the most useful tool Facebook offers that doesn’t involve stalking other people’s wonderful looking lives.
Leaving Facebook, we head over to the all powerful and brief Twitter. There used to be an amazing Twitter app called Tweetie (it was the first app to have pull to refresh). It was so great that Twitter decided to buy it and use its framework to build their own apps. These apps are for the most part awful. TweetBot picks up where Tweetie left off. Tweetbot is a jump you have to make without looking back. It’s easy to sweat the differences between TweetBot and the free Twitter client (TweetBot takes less work to do nearly every function of twitter, it’s much faster, better looking, easier to use, great for managing multiple accounts, and Twitter can’t put ads on it), but trust me when I say if there is one app worth paying for, it’s TweetBot.
Photo Sharing: Instagram
Last of the four essential social media apps is Instagram. There’s a bit of a hoopla about their new Terms of Service, but the app is still a rockstar even though they are now owned by Facebook. If you like to take and share photos with your friends, this is the way to do it. Instagram offers a suite of photo filters and minor image edits to help retouch your images. Anyone can look like a pretty decent photographer much to your friends amazement. Photos uploaded to Instagram can be shared to Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter automatically.
Photo Editing: Snapseed
Instagram is pretty good for quick edits to your images but for more detailed adjustments, you’ll need something with more power. There is a variety of decent apps to get this job done, but Snapseed is free so I won’t waste your time with the others. It’s quick and easy to use. If you need to do more comprehensive edits, you should probably fire up Photoshop on your laptop.
Selfies and Sexting: SnapChat
Some people like taking selfies of their faces or junk, either way, that’s not something you want sitting around on your camera roll. SnapChat is the perfect solution. You can send images to your friends that self-destruct after an amount of time of your choosing (3 seconds is popular). You can also include a snippet of text or draw on your image if you like. No regrets, right?
Group Chat: GroupMe
GroupMe allows for group messaging across multiple platforms. This means your buddies and Android phones and Blackberries (why?) can contribute to group conversations. I tend to use Facebook messenger for the same purpose, but it works and a lot of people stand by it. It’s free so if you download it and your friends never use it, you can delete it—no risk.
Apple used to include a YouTube app in the operating system but those days are long gone and it’s for the best—that app was terrible. They’ve updated it to be like their Android app—streamlined interface, swipe for menus, everything is search optimized. They also now include content that was previously restricted. All in all, a huge upgrade. Download the standalone YouTube app and forget about it. Life is easy.
FREE on App Store. Get it and forget it.
Breaking News: Circa
If you’re really into keeping up with current events and want a simple way to read about them, Circa is a new app that breaks apart headline news into smaller digestible pieces. I spend too much time reading about current events and Circa does an amazing job of cutting that time down by giving me the basic facts behind breaking news. Stories are aggregated and written by Circa’s staff.
I’m only putting one game on this list because so many games are made, they come in phases, and usually lose their luster after a couple weeks. If you want all the games you can dream of, go to the top selling section of the game category on the App Store, every week there will be new contenders. Some games deserve to be talked about though. Angry Birds had its day. So did Words with Friends. And I hope Letterpress is the next iPhone game to fit into that upper echelon. It’s a word-based territory game, that is you use a jumbled board of tiled letters to make words. Each letter you use, you claim that tile. Person with the most tiles when all letters have been used wins. I did a full write up on it when it came out and after a couple months of playing, it’s my go-to game.
FREE on App Store but you can upgrade to play multiple games at once for $0.99
Grokr (FREE): Right now, everybody is raving about a new app called Grokr, an app that’s supposed to search for what you want, before you know you want it. This is accomplished by essentially smashing Yelp, Fandango, the Weather Channel, ESPN and Google Maps into one application. I am not a fan of the design, but it’s a good way to look up restaurants around you and find movie times.
Instapaper ($3.99): If you do most of your reading on your mobile device, Instapaper really is a must. You can send articles to Instapaper and the app strips them down to just the text and basic images and formats it for easy reading that you can do even if you’re not connected to the Internet. Whenever I find an article I want to read on the web, I send it to Instapaper so I have a copy of it saved and ready for my to read when I have the time.
Rdio or Spotify (included in monthly subscription): If you pay to use either Rdio or Spotify to stream music to your computer from their massive catalogs, you can access their entire libraries on your iPhone through their apps. Rdio makes a much cleaner app, but has a slightly more limited catalog. Spotify has grown massively since partnering with Facebook. Right now, I have subscriptions to both and haven’t determined a clear winner between the two. For this reason, I can’t recommend you get one or the other with full confidence. But if you’re already paying for it, you definitely need to get the app.
SoundHound (Free or SoundHound∞ for $6.99): Music is all around us and being able to identify what’s being played is like a mystical gift from above. Shazam and SoundHound are the main players in a category of mobile app that can “listen” to a song being played and identify it for you. In my tests between the two, SoundHound always comes out on top. SoundHound also has the ability to identify songs you hum or sing to it, which can almost miraculously determine the name of a song when all you have is a small riff of it stuck in your head. There isn’t too much of a difference between the free and paid versions. I dropped the money for SH∞ to support the team who made it and get rid of those pesky ads, but for most the free version should be fine.
Flipboard (FREE): Using Flipboard is like going through the pages of a glossy magazine. This magazine just happens to contain anything and everything on the Internet. Flipboard takes the feeds from news sites and turns them into easily readable pages that you literally flip through. This app is much better suited for the iPad but is a good thing to use when you’re bored in line and don’t want to look at the faces of other human beings.
Figure ($0.99): Not quite a game, not quite a musical tool, Figure is a application to get you putting beats and riffs together in no time with no skill. I wrote extensively about it when it was released and made the hyperbolic claim that Figure would make you the “greatest electronic musician ever.” The truth really isn’t that far off. The interface allows you to use intuitive controls to create beats, bass lines, and lead lines that loop. You can even export your songs and share your music-box masterpiece with friends.