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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

iPad, iPhone, and the Apps of iOS

You’ll often hear the phrase “You must have been living in a cave for the past 5 years if you haven’t heard of (insert subject here).” Personally I think that phrase is a bit of an insult to cave dwellers around the world that choose a more modest and laid-back lifestyle. Instead, I’ll be kind and say that you must prefer a tech-free lifestyle if you haven’t heard of the iPhone or the iPad by now. Since it’s unlikely that you’d be reading this blog if you had chosen to live the aforementioned lifestyle, I’ll dispense with the explanations of what these two pieces of tech are. Rather, I’ll simply give you a brief overview of why I like these gadgets and then focus more on what makes them shine: The Apps!

The Devices

Those that know me would probably be surprised to find out that I prefer Apple devices when it comes to phones and tablets. The reason for this surprise being that for 8 years, I have exclusively used and supported Windows PCs and BlackBerry smartphones. Given my background, it might be more logical to guess that I would prefer to use BlackBerry devices and perhaps even the BlackBerry Playbook tablet. In fact, I used a BlackBerry for six years before RIM finally proved to me they couldn't keep up with Apple. It could also be safe to assume that I would choose Apple’s arch-nemesis Google and their very open and easy to customize Android devices. Instead, if you look inside my gadget bag of tricks you’ll find a 16GB iPhone 4S and the original iPad 3G, 64GB (I’m pining to upgrade the iPad but may wait until next year’s release).
As of today, I choose Apple for a few very simple reasons:

1) I love Apple’s attention to design with the iPhone and iPad. It's clear that every little crevice on the device has been planned to perfection. Sure, other manufacturers make some great hardware, but at least with Apple I know that the designers have focused all their attention on a single device. In my opinion, it was slightly on the stupid side to use a glass back plate on the iPhone 4 and 4s, but I think few would argue that it certainly looks nice.

2) I love the simplicity and intuitive nature of the devices. Within minutes of picking up an iPhone, I had learned all the critical functions. I’ve also never had a problem teaching anyone how to use either device, and suspect I could even teach a tech-free cave dweller how to use one if necessary. Android can do a million different things, but when it comes to my own personal gadgets, I choose simple, efficient, fast, and intuitive as my top priorities. I’ve evaluated a number of Android phones, yet keep coming back to Apple. When it comes to laptops and desktops, I have different priorities and still prefer the more complicated Windows-based PCs over their Mac OS counterparts.

3) It’s all about the apps baby! When Apple rolled out the App Store in 2008, they created a seemingly never-ending cash cow of an ecosystem to keep their users hooked; and hooked I am. Apps are the essential feature of any modern-day smartphone or tablet. Without apps, we wouldn't be talking about either device today, nor would Apple have a veritable army of competitors trying to get in on the feeding frenzy of app sales. In January 2012 alone, Apple managed to pull in over $5 million in sales PER DAY from their App Store. I also take comfort in the fact that Apple’s curated app store leaves me far less susceptible to downloading a malware infested app. This is in contrast to Google’s app store, Google Play (formerly Android Market), that is sometimes described as a malware cesspool.

Are either the iPhone or iPad perfect devices? Put simply…No. Android device manufacturers are releasing devices in rapid-fire succession on a daily basis that often best what Apple has out today in terms of pure hardware specs. Despite that, it’s not just about the hardware for me, it’s about the apps. The quality of the Google Play apps for Android often pale in comparison (please don’t kill me Android lovers). Here is another article discussing some of the woes Android is facing.

Apple also has a tendency to exhibit annoying take it or leave it behavior where they refuse to acquiesce to customer feature requests. Don’t expect Apple to make a change to their devices just because people think they should. They march to the beat of their own drummer, and with a market cap teasing $600 billion, it’s working for them. Apple released the first iPhone as a 2G device at a time people were demanding 3G devices, and released the iPhone 4S at a time when people are clamoring for 4G LTE devices. I once had the opportunity to speak directly with Apple while wearing my corporate IT hat. The experience left me beyond frustrated as they exuded arrogance and knew full well they didn't need our business to succeed. We had to conform to their product, not the other way around.

It is this same no compromise attitude though, that has led Apple to produce world-class devices that people didn't even know they wanted. Steve Jobs was once quoted as saying, “It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.” I think the iPad is a fine example of this. When I first saw it, I laughed and said, “Nice job Apple. A giant iPod touch.” Well, I now find myself using my iPad more often than the laptop sitting 10 feet away.

Finally, the curated app store that I love, and feel safe using, is also something I hate. Apple sometimes denies apps through what feels like an arbitrary approval process; a process that came close to making steam shoot out my ears when the Google Voice app was initially denied in 2009.

The Apps: Universal
Enough of that, let’s get to the apps that keep me coming back to Apple (in no particular order). The following apps, are either installable on both the iPad and iPhone as a single universal app (denoted by a + next to the app in the App Store), or as different but similarly featured apps for each device.

Note: This is not an exhaustive list of all the apps I use, but rather a list of the ones I find most valuable or unique

Zite: On the news front (which is what I primarily use my iPad for), Zite is an excellent app that exposes me to news sources I would have never noticed otherwise. Each article I read has a thumbs up, and a thumbs down icon (along with a “Give me more about” section on the iPad variant), that allow me to teach Zite what I like. During future uses of the app, I’ll then see more articles catered to my tastes. The articles don’t all come from a single source though. Instead they range from sources all over the web. Often I am reading articles from sources I have never heard or, or would never have sought out. The app gained enough attention that CNN purchased the company recently. CNN has promised that Zite won’t favor CNN articles unless you want it to, and my experience has shown that they have indeed kept this promise.

Download Zite. Price: Free

Waze: I really, really, love this app for GPS navigation. Unlike other GPS apps, Waze includes a unique social aspect that allows you to quickly share information about road conditions with other Waze users. Waze uses this information to generate real time traffic statistics and provide alternate routing. Waze also reports road hazards and police sightings that other users submit. Not long ago, I was using Waze while driving on a snowy day. I received a warning stating that I should exercise caution as a car was stopped on the side of the road ahead. Lo and behold, seconds later I see a car on the side of the road with a tow truck backing up to it. Thanks Waze!

Download Waze. Price: Free

Dropbox: Remember how much I love Dropbox? Well, then it shouldn't be hard to imagine that their mobile app found a home on my iPhone and iPad. This app gives me easy access to all of my files on Dropbox. I don’t have to fill up my entire mobile device with files though. Instead, I can download the files I want to have for offline access by starring them. The app also allows me to share links to my files with anyone I want over e-mail, and also allows me to upload files local to my device (like pictures).

Download Dropbox. Price: Free

Nebulous Notes: While the aforementioned Dropbox app is great, one deficiency is it does not allow me to edit text files directly. Instead, I use Nebulous Notes to save information I’d like to remember in simple text files that get backed up on Dropbox. This is a new app for me, and may not be the best note taking app out there, but so far it fits the bill.

Download Nebulous Notes. Price: $4.99 (Lite version available for free)

Instapaper: In my increasingly busy life (thank you son #1 and son #2), I often come across a large number of interesting articles, but have no time to read them. Instapaper is a service that allows me to mark any web page for later review through the use of a special bookmark that I added to all of my devices, or through apps that use the Instapaper API. I can then use the Instapaper app to review these saved articles while on the go. Instapaper also offers a nice reading view that strips all content on a site and leaves me with just the text for quick consumption of an article.

Download Instapaper. Price: $3.99

CityMaps2Go: Have you ever gone on a trip abroad only to find out that the Google Maps app chews through your International data allotment like a ravenous bear coming out of hibernation? CityMaps2Go is a useful mapping app that allows you to download maps for hundreds of cities across the globe. The maps are stored locally on your device. The app can then utilize the GPS to show you your location without using precious data. It also includes an optional, but excellent, offline database of Wikipedia articles that pertain to locations on your maps.

Download CityMaps2Go. Price: $1.99 for the app, $2.99 for optional Wiki Plus info.

Wi-Fi Finder: Remember that ravenous data bear I just mentioned? Well another way to fight it off is by connecting your device to Wi-Fi. This app provides a global database of free and paid Wi-Fi hotspots, and also has a downloadable offline copy of this database so that you don’t waste precious data trying to find ways not to waste data.

Download Wi-Fi Finder. Price: Free

Web Albums for Picasa: I’ve been a longtime fan of Picasa Web Albums from Google (now Google+ Photos) for storing and sharing my pictures. This third-party app works amazingly well for viewing my Picasa albums and even for viewing the albums friends have shared with me. I prefer the navigation and features of this app over the official Google+ app. It allows local caching of albums, ability to set or change captions, and the ability to add or delete images. I've surprised many with this app by quickly pulling up a picture I would never have had on hand otherwise. 

Download Picasa Web Albums for iPad or iPhone. Price: $6.99 (iPad), $5.99 (iPhone)

Appetites: If you are a culinary neophyte like myself, you’ll find great value in this app. While there are a cornucopia of cooking apps available for iOS (and the iPad in particular which lends itself nicely to kitchen use), I haven’t found another like this that details how to do each and every step in beautiful, very visual detail. I loved being shown very explicitly what to do when preparing a meal. Hey, I can’t be the only guy that had no clue what a Dutch Oven was when I first heard the term, right?

Download Appetites. Price: $9.99 (includes 40 recipes), recipe packs range from $0.99 to $8.99 for additional recipes.

Simple DOF Calculator: If you are a newbie photographer like me, you’ll find a lot of value in understanding depth of field. This little app went a long way to making the concept click in my mind. It allows you to input your camera type, desired F-stop, focal length, and distance from the subject. It then graphically displays the area of your image that you can expect to have in focus, as well as the hyperfocal distance.

Download Simple DOF Calculator. Price: $1.99

Amazon Mobile: I really love Amazon and do a tremendous amount of shopping there with my Amazon Prime membership. This app makes it very simple to search Amazon’s full catalog, read reviews, and buy a product with a single click. The app incorporates a barcode scanner, and even allows you to take a picture of an item that gets identified using their Amazon Remembers feature. Many a time have I scanned a product in a store, found it to be WAY cheaper on Amazon, and bought it right on the spot through the app (shhhhhh…don’t tell anyone).

Download Amazon Mobile. Price: Free

Jump Desktop: If you are savvy enough to configure remote desktop or VNC on a PC to allow remote connections, then you’ll find value in Jump Desktop. There are many additional (and cheaper) options out there, but I chose Jump because of its mouse circle feature that allows me to precisely position the mouse pointer (even on a small screen). This works by creating a small finger-sized circle on the screen that then controls the mouse pointer elsewhere on the screen. If you've ever tried to remotely control a PC from a tiny iPhone screen, you’ll quickly see the value of this. If you are looking for cheaper options that don’t require the technical knowhow of configuring a router, check out a nice option from LogMeIn that is free for basic use.

Download Jump Desktop. Price: $14.99

Find My iPhone: In the latest releases of Apple’s iOS, the “Find My iPhone” feature is easily turned on, and in fact you are prompted to do so when initially configuring the device. What isn't so obvious is that you can then download an app that allows you to find a missing/stolen iPad from your iPhone, or vice versa. I’ve thankfully never had to use this app, but I think it is an essential one to have if you own multiple Apple devices.

Download Find My iPhone. Price: Free

Xmarks: As much as possible I try to live my digital life in the cloud. What that means is that I always try to have important data stored in a place that I can access from any of my devices. Xmarks allows me to do this for my web browser bookmarks. I can sync my bookmarks between the Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers that I use for various tasks on a daily basis. Now thanks to this app, I can easily access those bookmarks on my iPhone and iPad.

Download Xmarks. Price: Free for the app, $1 a month for the service.

Skype: This one won’t be news to many, but that’s exactly why I like it. Apple offers great FaceTime video chat functionality between iOS devices, but that doesn't help me if I want to do a video chat with someone using a non-Apple device, or a PC. Skype works well for that purpose and is well known to many so it’s less likely that I am asking someone to install an app that they don’t already have. It also allows me to make very inexpensive calls on Wi-Fi that can be a lifesaver when travelling internationally. There are other options available for both video chat and calls, but I don’t have a need for this app very often and assume (perhaps wrongly) that the well-established Skype will work more reliably and with better quality than other options.

Download Skype for iPad or iPhone. Price: Free for the app, and free for Skype to Skype calls. See Skype rates for other calls.

AwardWallet: This app will likely have limited appeal, but keep it in the back of your mind in case you become a frequent flyer junkie like me. You may see articles here someday that further describe this fascination. In a nutshell this app allows me to track my growing frequent flyer mileage balances in a single place.

Download AwardWallet. Price: Free

WinZip: This is an app that is often essential for any Windows PC user, but one I had never thought of needing on my iOS device…until they came out with this app. Now, I realize just how useful it is to be able to open zipped attachments that come to me over e-mail.

Download WinZip. Price: Free

Human Japanese: This one won’t interest you unless you are trying to learn Japanese. Of all the Japanese language apps out there, I’ve found that this does the best job in explaining not only the what, but the why behind the mechanics of the Japanese language.  It is very easy to read, and also has audible examples of phrases. The author even manages to make me laugh at times.

Download Human Japanese for iPad or iPhone. Price: $9.99 for iPad, $4.99 for iPhone

Live Cams Pro: If you have any need for a wireless webcam in your home, this is an excellent app for viewing the feed of that cam. If I ever get around to writing a set of BabyTech articles on this blog, I’ll describe the Foscam FI8910W that I use to monitor my boys in their room. This simple and inexpensive app allows me to monitor that camera feed from home or away using either my iPhone or my iPad.

Download Live Cams Pro. Price: $3.99

GetHuman: I can’t say I’ve vetted too many of the options described in this app, but it seems like a handy app to have around. It allows you to lookup various companies and find the quickest way to bypass the automated customer service lines and get in touch with a real human being. It is also available as a website at

Download GetHuman. Price: Free

iLlumination US: If you have an iPhone 4 or 4s, you may have noticed the ultra-bright LED flash on the back when you take a picture. Well, that LED can also be used as a flashlight (at the expense of battery life). This will also work on devices without the LED, but on those, only the screen illuminates white to act as a light. There are a number of apps like this out there, but I chose this one since it is capable of flashing the LED to send messages using Morse code. The geek in me imagines I may one day need this if I’m trapped under rubble after an earthquake or adrift on a boat at sea. One major problem? I’d never understand the reply.

Download iLlumination US. Price: Free

Camera Awesome: You may be aware of the recent fascination that many have had with Instagram. I’ve never shared this fascination, and don’t typically apply filters to my photos unless I feel it will really improve the picture. I’ve also never liked the forced need to share images taken with Instagram on their service. Instead, when I feel like I want to modify a picture I’ve taken with my phone, I use Camera Awesome. It’s not 100% awesome as the name would imply, but I do find it to be a great app. It offers many features for helping you take a better picture in the first place, and also offers a wide selection of filters and frames for your photos. It then allows you to share a photo on your own terms to a variety of locations. If anything it’s worth a download just to read the hilarious messages it displays while it is “Awesomizing” a picture.

Download Camera Awesome. Price: Free for the app, $0.99 for individual filter packs (first pack free), or $9.99 for all filter packs.

IncrediBooth: This is a fun one that I got for free thanks to the AppsGoneFree app mentioned below. The app simulates a photo booth that you’d find in a mall and produces a photo strip of four images linked together. Not useful for any serious purpose, but it’s fun to play around with. Additional virtual photo booths are available that offer different effects.

Download IncrediBooth. Price: $0.99 for the app, $0.99 for additional photo booths.

500px: I mentioned a couple of times now that I dabble in photography. What I can do at this point in my life doesn't even begin to hold a candle to what the pro photographers are featuring on 500px. While anyone can post a picture to 500px, you won’t get featured on the website or on the main gallery of this app unless you are REALLY good. I often have my mind blown by the quality of these pictures and am simultaneously depressed that I’m not that good.

Download 500px. Price: Free

AppShopper: See some useful apps above, but don’t like the price? Do you wonder if they ever go on sale? If so, then AppShopper should have a prominent home in your app toolkit. AppShopper allows you to see historical pricing for apps and also setup an e-mail alert when an app goes on sale. Many times I’ve seen apps describe themselves as “On sale!” or “Limited time, promotional price,” only to find out from AppShopper that the app either frequently goes on sale, or in rare cases, has actually increased in price.

Download AppShopper. Price: Free

AppAdvice: Don’t like my advice and prefer advice from the “pros”? Check out the excellent AppAdvice app that offers daily stories and reviews about new apps, as well as general iOS news. If you prefer not to shell out money for the app, their content is available for free online.

Download AppAdvice. Price: $1.99

AppsGoneFree: If you like the AppAdvice app mentioned above, then you’ll enjoy AppsGoneFree by the same developers. It highlights apps on a daily basis that have changed price to free. Sometimes the apps there are dull and uninteresting to me, but other times I find some real gems. Remember, even if you don’t need an app today, download it if you think that you’ll ever find it useful. Downloaded apps are considered yours for the life of iOS and are downloadable again for free in the future even if the app changes price. Content in AppsGoneFree is also available in the AppAdvice app, but this just makes the information easier to find.

Download AppsGoneFree. Price: Free

The Apps: iPhone

The following apps are specifically designed for the iPhone, but many will function just fine on an iPad as well.

Quora: This is a really interesting one that entertains me when I’m bored and looking for something to read beyond the news. Quora is a community where people ask any question under the sun and experts (or people who claim to be) answer the questions. I’ve found some excellent information there. I’ve seen everything from “Where can I get decent Okonomiyaki in Minneapolis?” to an in-depth discussion on Target’s point of sale system.

Download Quora. Price: Free

Google Voice: Google Voice is a service that really requires its own post. For those that are unfamiliar, in a nutshell, it allows you to be assigned a phone number and then redirect calls made to that number to any number of phones, or even block unwanted callers with a few clicks. Having the app on your iPhone also allows you to make calls that mask the true number of your phone, or make low-cost international calls (from the U.S). As I mentioned earlier, I was livid when Apple initially denied this app. Thankfully it was finally approved, though it doesn't share the advanced features that Google permits their own Android phones to use.

AutoStitch Panorama, PhotoSynth, 360 Panorama: I’m lumping three apps into one for two reasons. One, I’m getting lazy and this post is getting WAY longer than I ever imagined. Two, they are all closely related and I haven’t quite decided which I like best yet. Each allows you to make panoramic pictures, but only AutoStitch produces the traditional wide-angle panoramic shots that we have been used to for years. Both PhotoSynth and Panorama 360 make really neat 360 degree images that can be explored by rotating the image around at will.

Download AutoStitch Panorama ($1.99), PhotoSynth (Free), or 360 Panorama ($0.99, Universal app).

Instant Heart Rate: This one seemed like a complete gimmick when I first heard of it, but I had the chance to download it for free (through AppsGoneFree), so I figured why not try it? It uses the iPhone 4/4S LED flash to illuminate your finger when pressed directly against the camera. In ways that boggle my mind, the software can somehow detect the pulses in your finger and provide you with your heart rate. I tested this against the tried and true, two fingers against the neck method, and it really does seem to work! They claim this will also work on an iPhone 3GS or iPad but good lighting is needed in those cases.

Download Instant Heart Rate. Price: $1.99

Well, I hope you enjoyed this list and please feel free to suggest other great apps in the comments below.