January 10th, 2012 — Wordman
Several members of my extended family have become new iPhone/iPad users and asked me for software recommendations. Since my Mac software recommendations got a fairly positive response (even though they are getting a bit long in the tooth now), I figured I’d make these public.
This list comes with some assumptions. First, it assumes you’ve at least looked at the app store and downloaded something. So I won’t make recommendations about very common, popular stuff. For example, I’m going to assume you don’t need me to tell you about Angry Birds or built-in apps. Secondly, since I don’t know anything about how iOS devices work with non-Mac computers, I’m just going to assume you have a Mac from time to time. Hopefully, this won’t matter a whole lot. Thirdly, some of these applications make use of services, such as Dropbox. For the most part, I assume that, if you don’t know what the service is, that you can follow the provided link to find out, though I do have a section providing more details about certain services towards the end. Oh, also, I think Twitter is pointless, so if you are looking for a recommendation on the coolest Twitter-related apps, I can’t help you.
An iOS app is “universal” if the same binary can be run on devices with different sized screens. In practice, this means that you buy a single app, but it runs well on both the iPhone and the iPad, adapting its appearance based on how much screen it has to use. Generally speaking, if you are trying to choose between two apps and one is universal and the other isn’t, it’s likely the universal app is better written, as making an app universal requires a bit more planning an attention to detail.
$6. If you are familiar with how 1Password works on the Mac you may be a bit underwhelmed by the iOS version, as it doesn’t integrate with the browser like it does on the desktop (though it does have a built-in browser of its own). The main use of this app on iOS devices is to act as a password protected, encrypted store for small bits of information, like passwords to machines at work or credit card numbers, in a form that can be synced back to a desktop machine. If all that seems intimidating, then give this app a miss (but try the desktop version; it will change how you work on the web and make your browsing a lot safer if you use it correctly.)
$3. Your iOS device has a built in technology called AirPlay that allows you to stream what’s happening on your device to a television via an AppleTV device. AirVideo allows you to go the other direction and stream video from your Mac to the device. Importantly, AirVideo supports a number of video formats that aren’t supported out of the box on iOS, like
Free. Allows viewing (but not editing) of LDraw files, such as the these mechs, for example. A touch interface for editing these files would be really great, but doesn’t seem to exist yet. Also desperately needs Dropbox integration.
Free. As people try to figure out the business of digital comics, a lot of different “comic store” apps have been created. It is likely, however, that this one will “win”, because it is the only app that allows you to buy comics from both Marvel and DC (as well as others). While the app is free, comics need to be purchased. On the up side any purchases made can also be read in a web browser at comiXology.
$1. Yes, you can use your iPad for reading and education and science. But you can also use it to drive virtual cars with missiles or machineguns mounted on them, in a race to the death! This is a retooling of a “classic” PC game. More fun than it probably aught to be.
$5. There are a number of dice rolling apps out there, but this seems to be the only that is more than a toy. Though it is expensive for what it does, it does it well. It supports some of the more esoteric rolling schemes out there (dice pools, Exalted’s rule of 10, FUDGE dice, etc) and supports a high degree of customization (including some limited programability).
$1. DropText lets you edit text files in your Dropbox (see Services, below). It will not set the world on fire, but is simple, clean and inexpensive. It also knows about various types of syntax highlighting, so you can touch-up code in a bunch of different languages if you like.
$10. Don’t fly without this, or its less-able-but-cheaper sibling FlightTrack. This app routinely gives me better information about a flight I’m waiting for than is available sitting at the gate. It also integrates with TripIt, which provides a really easy way to get your flight information into the app.
Free. Though more of a toy, people have created some interesting art with this procedural drawing application. Always fund to see math wielded as art.
Free. Provides a dedicated interface for the Internet Movie Database, far superior to the experience on the browser.
Free. If you use a Mac to automate your home, you are probably using a bunch of INSTEON devices and Indigo software to control them. This app links to your Indgio software, allowing you to control your home from your iOS device, via your wifi connection. (It also supports using Prism to function from anywhere on the net, if you choose.)
$15. While this application is a complete genealogy application for iOS, I use it mostly in tandem with MacFamilyTree, with which it syncs over wifi. Both the iOS and the Mac version are pricey, but they have few competitors in terms of features or polish. If you want to know what an “Apple-style UI” looks like for genealogy, this is it.
Free. While not the best app in the world, it is still on the recommend list for its ability to stream video. It’s queue management still leaves quite a bit to be desired, and is better left to their web site, or another app on this list, iQueue (see below). Still, Netflix streaming offers a pretty large (and growing) selection, and this is one of the easiest ways to stream video to your iOS device.
Free. Pandora provides customizable radio over the internet, using the Music Genome Project to gather music similar to a song or artist you specify. Free streaming radio, unfortunately including advertising.Best over wifi, Pandora works surprisingly well over a 3G connection, though eats through data quotas.
$10. I’ve had nothing but praise for this calculator since it was System 7-era Mac application, and the iOS version doesn’t disappoint, especially if you like RPN calculators (this one goes both ways). It now has a free little brother, but I find the added features of the Pro version totally worth the money. If you don’t ever deal with hexadecimal, you may not care.
$8. Panic, Inc. is known for making innovative, quality software with excellent user interface and charging just slightly too much for it. This SSH client fits this model perfectly. If you don’t need SSH on the road (or don’t even know what that means), you don’t need this app. But if you do, this is easily the best of the lot.
Free. You don’t need an AppleTV to use this app, but it helps. Without it, the app lets you control iTunes on a local network (including selection of AirPlay speakers). With the Apple TV, you get much better control over playback and, most important, a decent keyboard to use when entering passwords and such.
$3. A number of apps use the compass and gyroscope in iOS devices to turn the device into a “window” that shows you the stars in view. This seems to be the best of them. For one, it is a universal app, which not all of them are. And it seems a bit more streamlined to me. It also comes in three different versions (at three different price points), which let you pick the features you want. (I don’t need telescope control, for example, so I stick to the cheapest one). And, face it, this type of stuff makes a killer demo for an iPad to people that have never used one before.
$4. While it lacks snappy (or even modern) graphics and uses only a few simple rules, this turn-based strategy game is fiendishly good, and gets devilishly difficult, with really good AI. About the only thing that would make this game better is multi-player support.
Free. As I am not a massive sports junky, this app is the only sports related app I use, mostly to view scores and stats for tennis and the NFL, but it covers many other sports as well. I suspect that for true, die-hard fanatics, this app just scratches the surface.
$4. This “augmented reality navigator” is a bit gimmicky, but sure looks cool. It places a “heads-up display” over a live feed from the device’s camera, showing a compass, GPS data, sextant, angle calculator, and a rangefinder. Your device has an array of sensors of various kinds, and this app displays the state of them all. It’s also extremely customizable.
Free. A simple concept, brilliantly executed and instantly explained in the first 30 seconds of play. You run, jump and side to evade the ape-beasts that endlessly nip at your heels. This is also a coin-gathering game (with associated pay-to-buy-more-coins idiocy), but buying coins is not required.
Free. If you use a TiVo, just try this app. You may no longer need your remote. Searching for shows and scheduling recordings are much, much easier using this app than TiVo’s on-screen interface. Like the Remote app, one very useful feature is the ability to use the iOS device as a keyboard (to enter, say, your Netflix password).
Free. Since the free app I have been using to view my bookmarks on delicious no longer is available, I had to find a new one. You’d think there would be a number of universal apps that support delicious, but this appears to be the only one. It also supports Pinboard and seems serviceable. If you need to add bookmarks on your iOS device, the $2 full version of Yummy should do the trick. (Note that this app may not be available on the U.S. Apple store, so the links above go to the Canadian one.)
$10. This app makes good use of location services to limit searches for restaurants to certain distances from your present location. It also works off-line, containing the Zagats database within the app. It has a gimmicky augmented reality view of restaurants within sight of your camera, and can make reservations in major cities (via OpenTable). I have basically stopped buying Zagat books and use this app instead.
Free. Magazines are still trying to figure out how to best use iOS devices and you will run into a lot of attempts in the app store. This is the one I think will succeed. What I like most about it is that it collects magazines into a single interface, rather than having to manage one app per magazine (though Apple’s new Newsstand feature may clean this up). It also has titles I actually care about, such as The Economist and ImagineFX. One thing I hate: this and other magazine apps all use closed file formats. I’d be a more enthusiastic digital magazine buyer if this were not the case.
Some applications are available for both the iPhone and the iPad, but as two separate applications, one for each platform. I call these “sibling” apps, and find them irritating. When a developer chooses to release sibling apps, it usually means that they are a) too lazy to figure out how to build a proper universal app or b) greedy. In any case, some of these are good enough to recommend, though usually only for one platform or another. In this section, links will lead to the iPad version unless the iPhone version is particularly recommended. Usually the page to which they lead will contain a link to the other version.
Free. Of the metric ton of weather applications on iOS, this is the only
one that remains on my devices, mostly because of good looks, decent feature set and costing nothing.
You may care differently about the weather than I do, though, so shop around.
Free. One of the earliest financial news/ticker apps for iOS, I’ve stuck with this app mostly because it covers futures, bonds and currency markets as “first class citizens” while others tend to focus on stock markets, with maybe some add-on pages for other markets if you are lucky. (That said, if finviz ever makes an iPad app, I’d probably convert to it immediately.)
$8. Last I looked, there were a number of strong apps—based around painting with your fingers—engaged in a feature-escalation war. In the occasional “shoot-outs” comparing them, this one often comes out on top, though it depends on the focus and what versions were compared. Sadly, it doesn’t come with painting talent.
$10. I’ve been known to play a game or two of Civilization. This version started life as a console game, so is greatly simplified from the main line of Civilization games. This simplification and UI serves the iPad very well, though, making games a bit quicker (just one more turn!) and not as micromanaged.
Free. The Comics app mentioned above is great for reading comics available in their store, but not so much for other comics, such as those in
.cbr formats that you might find in the darker corners of the internet. This application (and its companion Mac app) can handle this type of file better than most.
Free. Although the iPad version has a better interface, the iPhone version is more useful, if only because you are more likely to have your phone with you when some auction randomly ends. Both version offer surprisingly effective browsing and bidding, however.
$2. This badly-named app is a great demo app for the touch interface. Even though there isn’t much to it, you can mess with it for for quite a while. Sort of soothing.
$3. This puzzle game is sort of hard to explain, but easy to demonstrate. The idea is to use a small selection of gears to connect a spinning source gear to one or more target gears. This sounds absolutely dreadful when put like that, but it is more fun that it sounds.
$5. This app is the reason to own an iPad, as far as I’m concerned, but I read a lot of PDF files (mostly role-playing games). It can handle a number of other file types as well, such as Microsoft Office documents, really high resolution images (e.g. maps), HTML archives and so on. It can pull files from many sources, including Dropbox.
Master of Alchemy
$3. In this puzzle game, you direct droplets of liquid onto targets using various kinds of parts to build Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. While similar to games that have gone down this trail before, like The Incredible Machine or Enigmo (both of which are also in the app store), this app offers a bit more polish and punch (and maybe a bit more difficulty as well).
Free. Quite a few apps in the app store exist solely to get you to sign up to their website service. This is the only one that actually worked on me. OpenTable is a useful and easy way to find open times at big-city restaurants, and this app makes it even easier.
$5. The ambient music, graphical details, unusual pacing and novel premise of this game provide a mesmerizing experience and a strange sort of serenity, especially on airplanes, using headphones.
Free. When Arthur C. Clarke said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, this app is what he meant. If a song is playing somewhere nearby (restaurant speakers, car radio, tv, etc.) you hit a button to sample several seconds of the song, and the app will tell you which song it is.
$5. Another painting application, which may or may not be better for you than Brushes. Note that several versions of this application exist, at differing feature/price points, so you might find the free version adequate.
Spider: Bryce Manor
$3. An odd little game where you move a spider through a manor house, spinning webs and eating bugs as you go. This game is entertaining while it lasts, but is a bit too short. Still, you’ve probably never seen a game like this before and it makes good use of the touch interface.
$3. This won’t be useful for everyone, but if you have your computer set up to display video on a TV, or use your monitor like a TV, this lets you control one of the more versatile video playback applications, VLC (which can play tons of video formats), from across the room on your iOS device. There is a free version of this app, but it is pretty limited. Three bucks buys you better control, on device file browsing and so on.
iPad only apps
These apps are created specifically for the iPad, usually because what they do wouldn’t easily fit on the smaller screen of the iPhone.
Circus Ponies Notebook
$30. OK, this app isn’t worth thirty bucks, even if you are a serious note-taker; however, if you ever see it on sale, you might think about it. It allows you to produce “notebooks” where each page can be different. Maybe one page is graph paper with a drawing on it, another is an outline, another is a todo list and so on. Various ways (including Dropbox) of syncing these notebooks to the (also expensive) Mac version. Can also be used to annotate and draw on PDF files.
$1. This Facebook client recommendation comes with a caveat (so you might want to try the ad-supported free version before buying): the quality of this app seems to decrease with each revision. Much of that is no doubt due to Facebook changing their APIs all the time (which tends to make features that used to work stop working or disappear entirely), but some of it is on the developer, too. In any case, for the small amount I use Facebook, this provides a better iPad experience than the web UI.
$9. Easily the best vector drawing (where you make drawings with editable shapes rather than “paint”) on the iPad, especially since it now supports import/export of .svg files. I haven’t used the Mac version of the app, but it also seems nice.
$5. A collection of “conquer the galaxy” type games using swarms of little ships. Useful for quick breaks, as each game usually takes under three minutes, so you need to make quick tactical choices. Contains a bunch of single-player variations and supports multi-player games online.
$7. A great port of the board game of the same name. It’s only flaw is that it doesn’t do a very good job of teaching you to play. It tells you how to work the various bits, but not why. Look to a site like Board Game Geek for tips and strategy. Some of the expansions are available as in-app purchases, but the game plays just fine without them.
iPhone only apps
These apps are built specifically for the iPhone and iPod Touch. They will run on the iPad, but only in a reduced sized “window” (which can be made horribly twice as large), making the experience so bad that it usually isn’t worth doing. Unlike the iPad-only apps, the reason for these applications being iPhone-only is usually boils down to one of the following:
- The developer is too lazy to make a universal app properly.
- The developer lacks access to an iPad for testing.
- The app offers a custom interface to a web site, and the developer thinks iPad users would be better off just
using the web site directly.
- The app specifically requires features of a phone.
- The app was written before the iPad existed, and hasn’t been updated since.
None of these are particularly good reasons, but that seems to be how it works. I miss some of these apps on the iPad more than others.
$1. Tracks fuel consumption and cost for multiple vehicles. Having used this app for a long time, it is possible that competitors have since surpassed it, but at the time I started using it, it was the best of the bunch.
$1. If you have a pathological need for a detailed periodic table of elements on every smartphone you have ever owned (and who doesn’t), this is the app for you. Simple, fast, good-looking and full of information. There is also a free version without as much data.
$1. A companion app to the Netflix application. This one allows you to manage your queue, search for new movies and so on. It will also launch the netflix app to stream a selection from your queue. Could use some work (it doesn’t handle steaming of TV series correctly, for example), but servicable.
$5. Life Balance is an unusual task manager which syncs via wifi to its desktop counterpart. On the surface, the app looks like a ToDo manager, which it is, but it has mechanisms that help you spread your efforts across tasks and preventing things from getting lost in the shuffle. Takes some getting used to. Their web site explains it better.
Lock ’N’ Roll 2 Pro
$1. This dice matching game improves on the already pretty good original. Fairly easy to learn (once you read the help section), easy to play, holds your attention for quite a lot longer than a lot of more expensive games.
Free. A client for the Producteev cloud-based to-do management service. By sharing a single account, my wife and I use this service for things like shopping lists, where either of us can update a list and the other immediately sees it.
Free. Using your phone’s camera, you can take pictures of bar codes and this app will look up the code and find pricing information about the product. It can also scan the funky square bar codes you see popping up everywhere now.
$2. Provides 42 different solitaire card games in one slick little package. Demon, Colorado and Eight Off are my favorites. If this was a universal app, it’d be perfect. It could also avoid dealing impossible games better, though this is easier to detect in some games than others.
$2. A simple, slick-looking weight tracking application. This was the best of the lot when I first bought it several years ago. It’s possible the state of the art has advanced since (the more expensive A+ Weight Tracker is universal, for example).
$2. This application replicates (on an endless or timed loop) sounds with high noise characteristics, like rain on a car rooftop, an oscillating fan, waves on the beach, and so on. It can also generate the various “colors” of noise (pink noise, brown noise, etc.) in addition to white noise. Originally purchased to help me relax at night, this turned out to be a key ingredient for getting my newborn son to go to sleep (the dish washer setting, in particular). Once, in a Manhattan restaurant, this app brought him from fussy and crying to asleep in about 20 seconds.
Some of the applications recommended above work with on-line services of one kind or another. You don’t need to use any of these services, but your iOS device becomes a lot more capable if you do.
Since it runs on consumer devices, iOS shows an interface a lot simpler than you’d see on a desktop or laptop. In particular, you don’t have to worry about files and directories and an such on iOS devices. The problem with that is that sometimes you really want to worry about files, at least a little bit, on your device. For example, want to read that PDF from work? How about that eBook you found on the net? Or maybe a movie from a DVD you own? If you ever need to do this, you will quickly find out that transferring files to your device, while possible, is painful. For many of the types of files you might want to put on the device, using a service called Dropbox eliminates (much of) this pain. If you have more than one computer at home, you may already be using Dropbox (and if not, look into it). Dropbox is a vaunted “cloud service” that synchronizes files between your computers. Unlike most such services, it is extremely easy to use. Once you set it up, you’ll barely notice that it is running. The videos on their site to a better job of explaining what it is and how it works, so check those out. Several of the applications below are included specifically because they can access Dropbox, so keep an eye out for them. (Note: all the links to Dropbox in this post are referral links which will provide me with additional space if you follow them to sign up for Dropbox, essentially giving me a reward for advertising for them. If this bothers you, you should enter the site using this more standard link.)
Apple, of course, also offers a “cloud service” than can sync between devices: iCloud. You have probably had to deal with it already, so I will not say a whole lot about it. It is more tightly integrated with your iOS device than Dropbox is, but also much more specifically targeted (e.g. address book and calendar syncing). I used several other methods for keeping address books and calendars synchronized before iCloud was released. They were all horrible, often losing data like birthdays or duplicating records ad nauseum. So far, iCloud syncing for this kind of data has worked pretty well for me. You can also store and sync files in iCloud. There may come a time where enough apps support this that Dropbox becomes unnecessary, but that doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon. By the way, iCloud offers a web interface, which can sometimes be useful.
Connecting your iOS device to the internet involves some choices that can be slightly confusing, because there is no one “best” answer. It depends on your device, your needs and the quality of the options in your area. The iOS supports two different method of data communication. One method—wifi—uses hardware built into every iOS device. The second method—usually referred to as 3G—makes use of cellular phone technology that may be in your device (all iPhones have it and you can get it as on option on an iPad). If you have a cellular connection, you can likely connect to the net almost anywhere, and the main question you have is probably “what carrier to I use?” Seems like the most important factor in making this choice is “how good is the coverage in your area”. Since this varies, I have no single recommendation. If you don’t have a cellular connection (and even if you do), you may also be wondering about where you can find wifi “hotspots” so you can use your device while out and about. You might have more options than you realize. For example, if you get cable, does your cable company offer free wifi to its subscribers in well-traveled spots? (Cablevision does this, for example.)
A few Macintosh applications will let you get a bit more use out of your iOS device. Some of these are also available on Windows or, if not, likely have analogous counterparts on that platform.
Free. Calibre provides a semi-iTunes-like interface for organizing, converting and reading electronic books. It contains features specifically for syncing books acquired from sources other than Apple into the iBook application. (It can also do the same with a Kindle or Nook.) It can convert between various formats; however, Calibre cannot display or convert ebook files containing digital rights management (DRM), though it can store and sync them to supported devices. While Calibre is not the most well-polished application in the world, it gets the job done, particularly if you happen to stumble upon some huge trove of
.epub files in some dark corner of the internet.
$35. For the anal-retentive in you, this tracks collections of books, DVDs, CDs and so on, letting you scan barcodes (with your computer’s camera or a bar-code scanner) and looking up item information for quick data entry. It can export an iPhone version of the data, so you can lookup stuff in your collection on the go. This has saved me from buying duplicate books or LEGO sets, for example.
Free. Handbrake is a “video transcoder”. Technically, it can convert various video formats to other video formats, but most people use to to “rip” DVD movies into video files for playing on their computer. It comes with presets for encoding to just the right format for various iOS devices. Note that ripping media for personal use (using Handbrake or even Apple’s iTunes to rip CDs) is a legal grey area. Current copyright law neither prohibits nor allows it, and no body of case law yet exists. Handbrake, however, may violate the insipid Digital Millennium Copyright Act because it circumvents the (very lame) encryption on commercial DVDs which otherwise prevents you from using the media you paid for in a manner you like. This law applies only to the manufacture and distribution of circumvention tools, however, not their use for non-infringing purposes.
Free. Your iOS device is, among other things, a storage device. This application allows you to mount that storage and browse the files contained within. This lets you copy, delete and rename files from the main storage area of the device. Note that this does not give you access to the real directory root of the device (which contains the OS and such), though, if your device has been “jailbroken”, it can do so. You still get a lot of power without jailbreaking.