The 2012 App Gems Awards

Apple rightly takes a lot of pride in the size of its App Store—more than 750,000 apps are available for the iPhone and iPad, according to the company’s last count. But the risk of having such a massive emporium for mobile software is that the sheer volume of not-so-hot apps pushes the truly great offerings out of the spotlight. Not to worry, though: Plenty of iOS apps still combine great design and must-have features to help you get even more out of your iPhone and iPad. We’ve discovered nearly two dozen apps in the past year that remind us how the App Store and the iOS universe are about quality, not just quantity.

10000000

Mash together two very different iOS gaming genres—the cascading-tile puzzle (à la Bejeweled) and the venerable dungeon crawl—and toss in the old-school, eight-bit-graphics look of a 1980s arcade game, and you have 10000000. The name refers to the number of points you’re aiming to accumulate, which you do by guiding your blocky little character through a dungeon that scrolls across the screen: You move left to right as the dungeon creeps by. If you get stuck battling one of the many monsters or trying to unlock one of the treasure-filled chests, you slowly edge backward; end up at the left edge of the screen, and that run is over. You can redeem points accumulated in the dungeon for the usual weapons, armor, and magical items. It isn’t the originality of the concept that made this one of our favorite games of the year; it’s the whole-hearted embrace of old-fashioned simplicity in design and execution.—Dan Miller
4 out of 5 rating; $2, EightyEight Games

Any.DO

Any.do is an iPhone-only to-do app that stands out in a very crowded field of to-do apps thanks to its clean look and simplicity: To rearrange tasks, just tap, hold, and then drag. Tapping a task causes a palette of options—priority, note, alarm, contact, and folder—to slide down. The app integrates voice input and syncs task lists with other iOS or Android devices. And you can manage your lists in any browser. Any.do is one taskmaster I’d recommend to almost anyone.—Dan Miller
4.5 out of 5 rating; $1; Any.do

Barefoot World Atlas

You’ll need 1.5GB of space on your iOS device to fit Barefoot World Atlas, but if you have grade school–aged kids who are curious about the world, it’s worth it. The digital version of Nick Crane’s book takes great advantage of iOS’s touch interface, offering a spinnable, tappable globe packed with information about other countries and landmarks. An update added iPhone compatibility, putting the colorful world of this reference app in more people’s hands.—Philip Michaels
4 out of 5 rating; $5; Touch Press

Check the Weather

Weather apps have long been either ugly but functional or beautiful but noncomprehensive. Apple’s built-in iOS app falls in the latter camp. Check the Weather may be the first app that succeeds in both categories. It’s a beautifully layered app, with a clean look and easy-to-read data. But looks aside, the heart of any weather app is its data—and Check the Weather scores there, too. In the United States, the app uses data from Weather Underground; it integrates that with the brilliant Dark Sky service for short-term rain and snow forecasts and the Doppler Radar overlay; and it gets weather alerts from the National Weather Service. For all countries, Check the Weather offers current conditions, hourly forecasts, up to 16-day outlooks, and data for sunrises, sunsets, and moon phases. There’s no better weather app.—Serenity Caldwell
4 out of 5 rating; $2; David Smith

Clear

Clear is the rare task manager that focuses on one simple thing: lists. That may not sound exciting, but Clear’s eye-popping design and effective use of iOS’s gestures make the app a delight to use. There’s no location-aware reminders; there aren’t even due dates or notifications. (You can, however, sync Clear to its recently released desktop companion app, and Clear syncs between devices via iCloud.) But it does its one trick—adding as many different lists as you’d like—really well. When you’re in a list, you can add a new item by dragging down the top one, tapping underneath the last one, or doing a reverse-pinch between two others. You swipe right to delete an item, and left to mark it as done. What really makes Clear stand out is its use of color: Items are in deeper shades at the top and get lighter as the list continues, to indicate priority. This simple scheme gets the job done, with style.—Leah Yamshon
3.5 out of 5 rating; $2; Realmac Software

Drafts

If you have an iOS device, you probably compose email messages inside an email client, tweets in a Twitter client, and so on, based on the text’s destination. But what do you do if you want to jot down some words before you know where they’re going? My favorite way to deal with such bits is Drafts. Just open Drafts and start typing (or dictating) your text. When you’re done, you can save your draft for later use or opt for one of over 50 actions to handle it: Post it to Twitter or Facebook, use it for a Web search, create a calendar event, send it as an email or SMS—the choices are many. You can even print your text directly (using AirPrint) and create your own email actions (for example, for sending yourself text). It’s as close to a do-it-all text tool as you can find for iOS.—Dan Frakes
4 out of 5 rating; $2 (iPhone), $3 (iPad); Agile Tortoise

Dynamite Jack

Puzzles and action are a common combination in games, but few mesh the two genres to as good effect as Dynamite Jack. The game manages to straddle the line between frenetic action and deliberate, decisive cognitive challenges. As the titular hero, a space marine imprisoned in an underground mine, you have only your wits, a flashlight, and an endless supply of bombs to help you escape captivity. A top-down puzzler reminiscent of 1990s computer games (such as Ambrosia’s classic Harry the Handsome Executive), Dynamite Jack requires you to navigate more than 30 levels, each with their own challenges, ranging from gun-toting guards to mutants who fear only light. Confrontation nearly always leads to your demise, so it behooves you to outsmart your enemies rather than simply taking them head-on. Dynamite Jack’s best feature may be its expandability: Once you’ve finished the included levels, you can download more challenges created by other players or even use the included level editor to build your own. Though the game’s control scheme can take some getting used to, the biggest problem I had with Dynamite Jack was putting it down.—Dan Moren
4 out of 5 rating; $3; Hassey Enterprises

Echograph

Echograph seeks to occupy a unique junction between photography and cinema. This photo app for iOS devices lets you create animated GIFs and MPEG-4 videos that leave parts of a still image static while animating specific areas of the frame for emphasis or whimsy. The idea is not unique, but Echograph’s execution of the concept is. Echograph is the only app that lets you animate parts of the tableau and export the results in high resolution. Rather than emphasizing its social networking features, Echograph focuses on helping users create high-quality cinemagraphs (still shots with some moving elements). There’s no telling whether this type of video hybrid is a lasting art form or an Internet fad, but Echograph offers a wonderful way to create imagery.—Jackie Dove
4 out of 5 rating; $1; Clear-Media

Hipmunk Flight & Hotel Search

Hipmunk is one of the many free travel research apps available for your iOS device, but 2012 was the year Hipmunk really began to distinguish itself from the crowd. Updates have added the ability to book hotel rooms, and to integrate data from your calendar with travel searches. By toggling on a Show My Calendars switch, you can see if calendar events conflict with flight times you’re booking on Hipmunk. Search for a hotel, and the app tells you if it’s near an event scheduled on your calendar. These features have made Hipmunk an indispensable element in a road warrior’s arsenal.—Philip Michaels
4 out of 5 rating; free; Hipmunk

HopStop

When Apple switched from Google Maps in iOS 6, it not only cost some Apple execs their jobs, but also deprived us of public transportation maps. Fortunately, HopStop stepped in to fill that void, offering directions on getting places by subway, bus, train, and foot for more than 100 cities in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Besides directions, the app offers transit-system maps for several cities, service advisories (in New York), and biking directions (in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco); it can even estimate taxi fares. As a replacement for iOS 5’s Maps app, HopStop offers many of the same features, including transit schedules and the ability to calculate trip times at particular hours of the day. It also lets you find subway stations and bus stops near any location, and allows you to bookmark certain frequently used routes. Advanced search features even let you specify which types of transit to use or not use.—Dan Moren
4.5 out of 5 rating; free; HopStop.com

iPhoto for iOS

With the release of iPhoto for iOS, Apple supplied the missing link of Mac apps for its mobile devices. iPhoto for iOS, a Multi-Touch viewing, editing, and sharing utility for the iPad and iPhone, may not match the Mac program feature-for-feature, but its overall functions are so similar that users will instantly recognize its conventions and capabilities. Deep and complete, it has a huge number of creative functions, and is easy to learn and use. You’ll find tools and controls for nondestructive cropping and straightening, fixing exposure and color, and applying special effects. An Auto-Enhance button—just like the one in the desktop version—is a one-stop-fix. Maintenance tasks such as flag, favorite, and hide photo are also available, and you can summon contextual coaching tips with a single tap. Apart from its impressive degree of photographic detail and sophistication, iPhoto for iOS is drop-dead gorgeous. With a swift, animated interface, it’s not just another pretty face.—Jackie Dove
4 out of 5 rating; $5; Apple

Kingdom Rush HD

Kingdom Rush raises the bar for tower defense iOS games, with its mix of challenging gameplay and a charmingly goofy soundtrack. Waves of bad guys try to get from point A to point B, while you try to stop them. I wasted more time with Kingdom Rush than any other game last year.—Dan Miller
4 out of 5 rating; $1; Armor Games

Letterpress

The App Store offers oodles of asynchronous one-on-one word games, but this year Letterpress, with its innovative gameplay, outshone them all. There’s an element of Words With Friends—in the sense that you want to find the best words you can make with the available tiles. But Letterpress adds a Risk-like strategy. To win, you need to carefully take control of the board: Tiles turn blue when you use them, but your opponent can turn them pink by using them on his or her turn; only tactical tile usage can lock certain tiles to your color. When all tiles are claimed, the player with the most tiles wins. Letterpress is the rare word game where a mastery of vocabulary doesn’t guarantee success, because you must master the strategy, too. Letterpress is one of the best games of the year.—Lex Friedman
4.5 out of 5 rating; free; Atebits

National Parks by National Geographic

National Parks combines a great travel guide with incredible photos that show off the beauty of the U.S. national parks. It provides the basic info you need to know about visiting a park: fees, the best time to visit, hiking conditions, and more. This app is available for the iPhone and the iPad, but it really excels when viewed on an iPad with a Retina display. All that’s missing is more parks: At this writing, the app includes details for just 20.—Leah Yamshon
4 out of 5 rating; free; National Geographic Society

Netbot

App.net is an upstart Twitter rival, and Netbot is an App.net client. The app is a joy to use, and is exceedingly customizable. Tap and hold on a username, link, or hashtag to reveal contextual options (mute, follow, post about, and so on). You can configure triple-taps on posts to star, reply to, or repost them. With push notifications built in, Netbot is the single most powerful App.net client available—and the single best way to use the microblogging service.—Lex Friedman
4.5 out of 5 rating; $5; Tapbots

Paper

Paper, FiftyThree’s iPad journaling app, lets you create sketches, notes, diagrams, storyboards, and much more. Its strength is the simplicity of its tools, which make you feel like you’re truly sketching a pencil line or mixing together a blue-green watercolor sky. It also supports pressure sensitivity through its integration with Pogo Connect.—Serenity Caldwell
3.5 out of 5 rating; free (with in-app purchases); FiftyThree

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