Attack of the apps
This was the year that Instagram became a new app, Google became known for its iOS apps, and Pokémon Go became a phenomenon.
Here are the apps that grabbed our attention and kept us compulsively on our iPhones all year long.
If you use Gmail to get confirmations for airline flights, hotel bookings, and dinner reservations, then you’ll understand why Google Trips (free) has become my favorite travel compantion in 2016. For upcoming trips, this Google app automatically collects all my information from Gmail and organizes it in a visual way akin to my own personal travel guide.
As if that weren’t helpful enough, Google Trips is linked up to Google Maps so I can easily tap to see all the saved places in my destination. I already use Google Maps to star places that I want to check out, and I have used the download option so that I can browse a map area even while offline. This is critical in places where Wi-Fi is hard to come by, or if I don’t want to pay for international data roaming charges.
Google Trips borrows the concept of offline-browsing, so you can see your travel information, a geotagged map, and even new recommendations, all while still in airplane mode.–Oscar Raymundo
Instagram (free) is 6 years old and has 600 million users, so it’s not exactly the new app on the block. But this year, the Facebook-owned photo-sharing network added so many features that it feels like a completely different experience.
The biggest addition was Stories, the disappearing visual diary that echoes Snapchat’s most popular feature. Stories launched in August and quickly added a ton of tools to make it competitive with Snapchat. The goal: to keep Snapchatters on Instagram, and to make Instagram more compelling to people who don’t understand Snapchat.
Now you can shoot photos, videos, live videos, and Boomerangs to add to your Instagram Story, and you can tag other users in your Story captions and add customizable stickers (which are similar to Snapchat’s geofilters) that indicate the time, location, and even the weather. And where Snapchat only lets you add one filter at a time, with Instagram you can add all the stickers you want at once.
Instagram wasn’t solely focused on Stories: The network also added tools to prevent abuse and new Direct messaging features like disappearing photos, plus made it possible to to shop directly from an Instagram post and zoom in on an image. It’s no wonder the app added 100 million users in six months.–Caitlin McGarry
This year, Virgin America (free) finally launched its first mobile app. Like most other airline apps, it combines flight-booking and checking-in capabilities but with a more streamlined experience and that cheeky Virgin America flair. The app was designed to let you book a flight in just 60 seconds, and that even includes the time it takes to choose a seat.
The airline also partnered with Spotify so that after you check-in you can stream a playlist inspired by your destination. You will need to have the Spotify app installed to stream these playlists, however, which include “Mile High” (yes, that type of “high”) if you’re flying to Denver and “A Night on Broadway” if you’re flying to New York City.
In addition to helping you book a flight, check in, and rock out at 35,000 feet, the new Virgin America app sends you real-time notifications about your flight status and personalized deals based on your favorite travel destinations. You can also store other preferences, like your default credit card information, your go-to cabin class, and whether you prefer a window or aisle seat.–Oscar Raymundo
Apple tugged at my nerdy heartstrings with Swift Playgrounds. Learning BASIC on an Apple II was one of the formative experiences of my childhood, and letting kids get hands-on with Swift coding in a free and friendly iPad app that plays like a puzzle game is just the best.
I’ve enjoyed playing with it myself, too. It’s cool how the app teaches coding concepts without requiring any prior knowledge, and it’s got that just-one-more-puzzle addictiveness that keeps me coming back.–Susie Ochs
Events from Facebook
Unlike Facebook Marketplace, Fundraisers, Live Video, Pokes, and Instant Games, I actually rely on the big blue giant for events. And I’m not alone. According to Facebook, over 100 million people check Facebook to find things to do.
That’s why I was excited to check out Events from Facebook (free), a new standalone app for finding events in your area and managing your RSVPs. The latest Facebook spinoff lets me see only an event-focused Newsfeed from all my friends, so no baby pictures or cringe-worthy political updates. And I can even search for events in a different city—perfect for hanging out with locals during a trip.
The most interesting aspect of Events, however, is the built-in calendar. At first glance, it looked a lot like Sunrise, the much-loved calendar app that was acquired by Microsoft and eventually shut down. Like Sunrise, Facebook’s Events lets me bring third-party calendars to the fold, like my Google Calendar and iCloud calendar, so I can view all my upcoming events in one app and quickly spot any scheduling conflicts.–Oscar Raymundo
No game burst on to the scene in 2016 like Pokémon Go (free). The augmented reality game, where you catch Pokémon monsters that appear based on your geological location, was so popular that reports said that developer Niantic brought in about $200 million during the first month of the game’s release.
But no game has fizzled like Pokémon Go, either. Game download are on the decline, and revenue is down (though the game brought it $15 million in November, which is nothing to sneeze at). You don’t see people on the streets playing anymore. Except you’ll catch me still playing. My addiction to the game is as strong as it was back in July. True, the game can be a grind at times, but recent events by developer Niantic, like the current holiday event, have kept me interested.
I still get a kick out of finding a Pokémon while walking home from work, and the game gives me something to think about while walking my dog. And the game appeals to the collector in me; I want the collect them all, and I won’t stop until I do.–Roman Loyola
Menswear startup Combatant Gentlemen created an iOS app to help you find the perfect outfit for a wedding, a job interview, or a first date. The Combat Gent app (free) has built-in algorithms that recommend outfits based on the weather in your location, your skin color, and your previous shopping habits. For example, the app will not suggest a sweater if you’re going on a date in sunny Miami, and it will also know that you’ve already recently purchased a navy blazer and stop suggesting them.
You get started by selecting what type of outfit you’re looking to buy. Then you input your zip code and day of the event so the app can figure out what the weather is going to be like. Lastly, you select your skin tone, and the app will suggest products with a complementary RGB based on the monochrome color theory.
Combat Gent also incorporates the company’s proprietary “Fit Tech.” This algorithm can help find the right suit size without a measuring tape. It estimates your suite size by taking into account your height, weight, pant size, neck size, and whether you prefer a slim fit or a modern fit.–Oscar Raymundo
My sister recently moved from San Francisco to Beijing, and decided about a week before she left that she should probably try to start learning how to speak Mandarin (because all foreign languages can be learned in a few days, right?).
She was bummed that her language-learning app of choice, Duolingo, didn’t have Mandarin as an option—but luckily for her, Duolingo launched Tinycards (free) shortly after she arrived in China, and it included a bunch of lessons from another educational tool called Chineasy.
The Tinycards approach is perfect for a language as complicated as Mandarin—yes, it’s a flashcard-based learning game, but it relies heavily on visuals to help you remember the new word or phrase you just learned. For example, the character for “water” is drawn to look like a drop of water, and the character for “sun” is drawn to look like an open window. (You’ll just have to imagine the sun shining through in the corner, but I appreciate Tinycards’ effort.)
Plus, the cards themselves are adorable, especially when they smile back at you for getting a question right. Oh yeah, did I mention I started using the app, too? I haven’t tried any of the non-language learning decks, but they follow the same principal—cute image-based flashcards presented to you as kind of a game. The app is loaded with a ton of different subjects, and if you don’t see the topic that you’re looking to study, you can create your own deck.–Leah Yamshon
Live Photos is one of my favorite features on the newer iPhones. But unfortunately not everyone has an iOS device to be able to view them.
Lively (free) has helped me convert my Live Photos into GIFs or videos for sharing with non-iPhone users. The app surfaces only the Live Photos from my camera roll so I don't have to waste time trying to find just the moving images. And I get to trim the Live Photo before converting to remove any unwanted parts that were captured. In addition to converting Live Photos, Lively also offers editing tricks for the resulting GIF. I can speed it up, play it in slo-mo, or add an auto-reverse.
This may sound very similar to Google's Motion Stills app, but Lively has a feature that makes it my Live Photo conversion tool of choice. Lively also lets me pick out a differeent still frame from my Live Photo to save to my camera roll. This makes it possible to use Live Photos as a replacement for burst mode. Lively is free, but it costs a single in-app purchase of $2 to remove the Lively logo watermark from appearing in your exported GIFs, videos, and stills.–Oscar Raymundo
TV by Apple
I’m cautiously optimistic about TV, Apple’s new app that replaced Videos in iOS 10.2, while also debuting on the Apple TV. It’s designed to help you jump back into what you were watching, no matter which other tvOS/iOS app that show or movie is in.
However, right now the list of supported apps includes just a few of my favorites like Hulu, HBO Now, and FXX Now. But other heavy hitters like Netflix are absent, and I worry that if Apple does launch its own streaming service, that will get most-favored status over more established competitors. (You know, similar to how Siri has full command of Apple Music, but Apple didn’t add music control to the Siri SDK for third-party services to use too.)
Still, the TV app’s interface is a better way to navigate the Apple TV than the grid of app icons, it’s a big bonus to have on the iPhone and iPad too, and 2017 should see the app take major strides—hopefully in the right direction — Susie Ochs