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.
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 Miller4 out of 5 rating; $2, EightyEight Games
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 Miller4.5 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 Michaels4 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 Caldwell4 out of 5 rating; $2; David Smith
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 Yamshon3.5 out of 5 rating; $2; Realmac Software
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 Frakes4 out of 5 rating; $2 (iPhone), $3 (iPad); Agile Tortoise
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 Moren4 out of 5 rating; $3; Hassey Enterprises
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 Dove4 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 Michaels4 out of 5 rating; free; Hipmunk
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 Moren4.5 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 Dove4 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 Miller4 out of 5 rating; $1; Armor Games
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 Friedman4.5 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 Yamshon4 out of 5 rating; free; National Geographic Society
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 Friedman4.5 out of 5 rating; $5; Tapbots
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 Caldwell3.5 out of 5 rating; free (with in-app purchases); FiftyThree
Plenty of iOS apps for reading PDFs are out there, but if you need to edit a PDF, PDFpen is the way to go. Pull a PDF into the app—from email, Dropbox, Evernote, iCloud, Google Docs, WebDAV, FTP, or iTunes sync—and edit and annotate it. Options include basic highlights, underlines, and strikethroughs, as well as a slew of lines, shapes, text boxes and bubbles, and proofing marks. For all these items, you can choose the color, size, fills, opacity, and more; and PDFpen offers a place to save frequently used items for quicker access. You can also add your own images and scanned signatures, rearrange and delete pages, and even edit a document’s original contents. If you need to create a PDF, the app also lets you make new documents from scratch. Perhaps best of all, for those of us who’ve long been fans of PDFpen for Mac, is that iCloud and Dropbox syncing ensure all your documents—and edits—stay in sync between your iPad, iPhone, and Mac. If you need to work with PDF documents on the go, PDFpen is indispensable.—Dan Frakes4 out of 5 rating; $5 (iPhone), $15 (iPad); SmileOnMyMac
Pear Note, a note-taking app for iOS devices, lets you take rich-text notes. Even better, it records the audio of the presentation you’re documenting and synchronizes your notes with the audio. As you play back the audio, the app highlights the text that you were typing at each point in the recording; conversely, you can tap anywhere in your notes to jump to that spot in the audio. A Mac version (go.macworld.com/pearnotemac) is also available, so you can sync notes and audio between Macs and iOS devices via Dropbox.—Dan Frakes4 out of 5 rating; $5; Useful Fruit Software
Some games you use to waste time, and other games you actually sit down with your tablet specifically to play them. The Room falls into the latter category. The game sets its eerie mood beautifully, with detailed, painstakingly drawn, pseudo-3D graphics and an elaborate soundtrack. The gameplay itself is even better: The Room contains an intriguing safe, and your job is to break it open. To do so, you’ll need to solve increasingly complex puzzles, with little guidance. The game offers up occasional hints, but you’ll still have plenty of problem solving to do on your own. For instance, you’ll notice that a seemingly ordinary panel masks a tappable portion that grants access to a hidden section, and that tapping these buttons in the right order will open a secret drawer. The Room includes at least 3 hours of entertaining gameplay, and you’ll wish you could keep going when you finally finish.—Lex Friedman4 out of 5 rating; $2; Fireproof Studios
Ski Safari doesn’t break new ground when it comes to the world of unending side-scrolling games. But Defiant Development gets the elements right in its Nordic-themed adventure, in which you have to keep a skier named Sven one step ahead of an onrushing avalanche. As with many iOS apps, a series of in-game challenges keep the gameplay interesting while also helping you to level up. But Ski Safari lets you tackle those challenges one at a time; if one is too hard, you can knock off other achievements instead of getting stuck on the impossible. Ski Safari lets you make in-app purchases, but it also makes it easy enough to collect in-game currency via regular gameplay. And Defiant Development has rolled out a steady stream of updates in the past year—new costumes, power-ups, and race courses that keep you coming back to aide Sven.—Philip Michaels4.5 out of 5 rating; $1; Defiant Development
In last year’s App Gems Awards, we sang the praises of apps from Toca Boca. So what earned the innovative maker of iOS kid games a return visit to the winner’s circle? Its philosophy that the best apps for children are ones that spark their imagination. Toca Train takes the simple toy train of childhood and re-creates it beautifully on the iPhone and iPad: As the train putters around the track, picking up cargo and passengers, your kids can create their own stories about the train and its payload. Toca Train provides a visually pleasing form of transport for kids’ imagination; where that ultimately takes them is up to them.—Philip Michaels4.5 out of 5 rating; $2; Toca Boca
App Gems Hall of Fame
A few iOS apps have excelled for so long, have become so essential for so many of us, they’ve become classics. Here are this year’s Hall of Fame inductees.
Evernote has developed an avid following. Evernote devotees use it for everything from keeping to-do lists to preserving photos of favorite bottles of wine. This year, the iOS version got a needed face-lift. It’s still the do-it-all info-storage utility, able to store text, images, PDFs, and audio recordings, and it can still tag all that input for easier searching. But it now does all that with a friendlier design: Page-wide tabs organize notes by place, tag, and notebook, and search is more accessible.
The app is also faster. Most anything you want to do is just a tap or two away. It’s easier to create new notes and to find old ones. And the lists of notes are easier to parse, thanks to a cleaner layout. Evernote has become one of the most distinctive and durable iOS apps—earning it a spot in our Hall of Fame.
3.5 out of 5 rating; free; Evernote
Apple might have forgone a file system on its iOS devices, but sometimes you still need one. Good.iWare’s GoodReader fills that role and more, offering the ability to organize files into folders, easily share them, and secure them with high-security encryption. It’s also great for reading files—you can annotate PDFs, add bookmarks, and convert PDFs into plain text. You can load text files, audio, video, images, and anything else iOS natively supports. You can also transfer files via iTunes File Sharing, the app’s built-in Wi-Fi file-sharing, or services such as Dropbox, Google Drive, and more. GoodReader isn’t just good—it’s great.
4.5 out of 5 rating; $5; Good.iWare
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