More often than I care to recall, I have impulsively downloaded a fancy new iPhone application, only to have it languish on my phone. That was the inspiration for the first "list of iPhone apps I actually use" last year, after the iTunes store started selling third-party applications. Since then, the number of new applications has grown rapidly. Now there's a cottage industry of lists, blogs and podcasts devoted to reviewing applications. Here's a recent Techcrunch list of the "best" apps, which notes the store had 300 new apps rolling out every day. Here's a similar post at Gizmodo, which put the total number of apps at more than 74,000. Many of the lists that try to sort out the best applications seem to focus more on flash than substance.
In August, I finally renewed my AT&T contract and upgraded to the iPhone 3GS. It seemed like the right time to reconsider the programs I had loaded onto my phone. Did I actually use them?
Here's my revised list:
Bento This has quickly become one of my favorites. For the Mac, the $49 Bento 2 is a quick and easy database program that works with spreadsheets and other data sets, like staff lists, to-do lists, project tracking, and so on. The iPhone Bento software syncs beautifully with it, so you have all your important data on your phone. Too bad it's not free with the computer software, but I didn't mind paying $4.99. This could work as a standalone iPhone application (if you live in a Windows PC world, say) but a warning: There are a number of bad reviews on the iTunes store from people who tried building databases directly on the iPhone. I haven't tried; as a way to sync and render Bento 2 files on an iPhone, this app is great.
Google Mobile App I still use this application quite a bit to search the Web, bypassing Safari. It used to be the only way to search the contents of the phone (now the iPhone OS can do that, too). Voice search is cool, but it's still something of a party trick. The word recognition is getting better all the time, though it has trouble in loud places like the sidewalks of New York. I hope they keep tweaking it. I also enjoy Google Earth, another nifty iPhone toy.
MightyDocs If you use Google Documents, this gives you fast access to them over the phone. And if you are going to be away from easy Internet access, you can cache them all on your phone. It now has basic spreadsheet support, which was missing in the original. And it's still free.
ReaddleDocs But you may have documents you don't want to keep in the cloud. This $4.99 app offers a drag-and-drop solution from your computer over a WiFi network to the phone for a range of documents, including Word docs, spreadsheets, PDFs and more. A lot of people seem to use the similar Airsharing tool, but ReaddleDocs has been a smoother experience for me, with more features and flexibility. It comes with 512mb of online storage, syncs with MobileMe and iDisk, and a variety of other Web cloud solutions. It even has a built-in browser that lets you save Web content, making it a possible replacement for bookmark/clipping applications like Evernote, which I still have on my phone and computers but don't use much.
Echofon Pro (formerly called Twitterfon) is my main choice for a Twitter phone client. It handles retweeting seamlessly (without giving you attitude, like its competitor Tweetie). It can show tweets and replies in a conversation format, among other cool features. The free, advertising-supported version is just as good.
Facebook Newly updated, this application is nicely put together, attractive, with intuitive navigation of the Facebook site. Some reviewers say the iPhone version is better than the Web site, and perhaps that is a hint about the mobile future to come, when computers go the way of typewriters and most of us carry the Internet in our pockets.
PicPosterous One-click picture and video posting to a Posterous photo blog page (here's mine), for quick sharing with friends. It will also autopost to other social media sites like Facebook, Friendfeed and Twitter. This app is a snap. Here's an auto-slideshow I posted of the aftermath of a taxi fire near my apartment.
Textplus AT&T used to include 200 free SMS text messages a month with the iPhone data plan. Now it wants you to pony up a monthly fee or pay by the message, making those bits some of the most expensive on the Internet. I don't use enough text messages to warrant paying for a plan, so I'm a la carte. One way to keep costs down is with this free ad-supported application. It gets around the cost by setting up a Web-based group chat with you and your correspondents. Once you text their phone numbers they can reply at no cost to you, even if they don't have TextPlus themselves. With push notification, it behaves like the native SMS client.
AIM Another free alternative to SMS is instant messaging via mobile. I have a lot of work contacts on AIM, gChat and similar networks. This application loads those contacts and lets me chat by phone (again, without per-message charges).
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary At $49.99, this is the most expensive application on my list, and possibly one of the most expensive in the iTunes store. It has more than 600,000 words and definitions, a distillation of the 20-volume O.E.D. into just two volumes. It includes all words in current English from 1700 to the present, and includes a word-of-the-day feature and a randomizing feature for browsing. The best resource for learning the derivations of obscure words.
Kindle for iPhone Many people don't agree, but I think that the e-book reading experience on this application is better than the actual Kindle, especially if you like to curl up with your reading material at night without bothering with a booklight. And now I don't have much choice, since my Kindle 1 exploded, and I'm not ready to commit to a new one. At least I still have access to the books I bought with this free app. Kindle newspaper and magazine subscriptions don't work, nor can you read documents you have sent to yourself or ebooks from sources other than Amazon. The coolest feature is the Whisper Sync: It takes you to the most recent page you read, whether on the phone or the Kindle.
Stanza This is an even better e-book reader, a competitor that Amazon bought out. Alas, it doesn't connect to the Amazon store or read the Kindle format (yet). The library connects to Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks and other services that offer free public-domain texts of many classics. You can also buy books from certain indie operations. The page-turning, fonts and other features are superior to the Kindle for iPhone application. You can even put your own documents and ebooks into Stanza, a feature supported by the Kindle but not its iPhone cousin.
iWant For when you just want to quickly find a nearby restaurant, bar or gas station, without gee-whiz graphics to impress your friends. It's free.
Yelp The user-rating restaurant/bar/etc site powers many other location-based restaurant apps, so you might as well use Yelp's app, which works well and is attractive. Just be sure apply a grain of salt to the reviews by the site's notoriously cranky and vengeful users.
UpNext 3D NYC If you want to show off gee-whiz graphics while out on the town, this $2.99 mapping application is a great option, so long as the town is Manhattan (sorry, rest of New York City and the U.S.). The map is rendered in 3-D with each building's contents inventoried, and listings features will zip you around the map to newly opened restaurants, bars and so forth.
Urbanspoon Some people swear by this random restaurant finder, an early application in the store. I think it's gimmicky and annoying, but I do resort to its roulette wheel charms when I'm in a large group and we can't agree on a cuisine or a price range. It's also a good app for showing off the phone to newbies.
NYTimes The first version of my employer's fre reader was too slow for some, but the latest update is pretty snappy. The articles download faster, you can bookmark them and share them via e-mail. Since my Kindle had its meltdown, this is my main portable way to read the paper. If I know I have a long subway ride, I download the news before heading underground to the land of no Internet. There is a menu that shows all the photos from the paper, and it's pretty easy to customize the sections you want to see when you first open the application.
WSJ Why pay for online news from The Wall Street Journal when you can get it free with this nicely done mobile reader? But note the warning: "Access to subscriber-only content available without charge for a limited time only."
NPR News My wife can't bear to be separated from National Public Radio, and I am a sometimes addict myself. But when we travel, we sometimes find ourselves out of range of a good public radio station. This audio player is great for listening to any NPR shows at any time, either recorded versions or live streaming from NPR stations. The unrelated Public Radio Player is pretty good, too, and lets you listen to streaming content from a long list of local public radio stations (not just NPR).
AOL Radio, Last.FM and Pandora. Another way to turn the iPhone into a radio is with one or all of these free players. Lilsten to Internet radio, create streaming customized channels, and even buy music.
Remote This was one of the earliest and coolest free iPhone tools. Turn the phone into a full-featured iTunes remote for your computer or Apple TV. Browse your media library in the palm of your hand.
i.TV Television listings on your phone, with push notifications to remind you of upcoming programs and user reviews. The new version will eventually allow the phone to be used as a remote for Tivo HD (but not my 10-year-old TiVo Series 2, alas). It also has movie reviews and Netflix integration.
Amazon So you see a product of interest somewhere -- on a train, at a friend's house, in a brick-and-mortar store. No more scribbled notes or typing. Launch this application, and take a picture for the "You asked us to remember" function. In a few minutes, Amazon will find a similar item in its store. It worked the first time for me with a fairly poor quality picture of an obscure book's cover; no bar code required. It worked with a picture I took of a review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. And it's not just for books. It worked for a demitasse. And with a picture of a cordless phone handset wanted to replace (alas, that model is no longer manufactured, but Amazon had a product page). It recognized a plush dinosaur toy someone bought for my daughter. You may be obsessed with finding objects it can't identify. Or you may find yourself taking pictures of every object of desire. If you're doing this in a real store, you may have to confront ethical questions. That's your business. Just watch out for the Amazon one-click -- the path from looking something up to an immediate impulse buy is nearly frictionless.
1Password The day you lose your phone, you'll be happy the person who found it doesn't have access to all your sites, accounts and passwords. This secures and encrypts them, and it syncs with the passwords on your computer. (This app was free, but you do have to pay for 1Password software for your Mac itself).
Wikipanion Look it up on Wikipedia with a few touches. But please don't cite it in your term papers if you are one of my wife's students. I tried a few Wikipedia apps and settled on this one for its easy lookup functions. I'm testing the official Wikipedia application, as well as Wapedia, and will revise this post if I come to like one of them more.
Mixologist I'm mostly a wine-and-beer guy, but every now and then I find myself at a beach house with an odd assortment of liquor and mixers. This 99-cent application lets you search for the drink you can make with the ingredients at hand, using a nice interface. There are many other cocktail recipes for the amateur bartender. There's also a liquor store finder built into it. If this application sounds more appealing than it should, you might consider this one.
Brushes This simple finger-painting program is a favorite of artists and was famously used to create a New Yorker cover. Now it has layers and photo-importing, and even the most artistically challenged painter can create beautiful images.
I Dig It, Waterslide, Parapanic, Jelly Car, Tapword, Bejeweled, Toy Bot Diaries, de Blob, Stone of Destiny, Scrabble, Enigmo, Tetris, Super Monkey Ball, DizzyBeeFree, BattleAtSea, Bubblewrap, Morocco The iPhone is a great gaming platform. Games tend to a few dollars or more on iTunes, so you have to choose carefully. These are among the best, based on extensive kid-testing with my 9-year-old daughter and her friends (I helped). Several take great advantage of the touchscreen, accelerometer and other functions in clever ways.
Shazam and Midomi Fun with music. Amuse your friends. Hold Shazam up to a playing music source, and it identifies the song. Midomi is similar, but you can also say lyrics or hum to get a list of possible song titles. One day at work we were all standing around singing songs into it. Karaoke without background music, a terrifying spectacle. The link shows a Shazam-Midomi face-off on YouTube; Shazam won for reliability and usefulness. Both are free and worth having, although the novelty of these party tricks wears off eventually. Another fun music application is the Ocarina, which turns the phone into a musical instrument broadcasting on the Internet, but I don't use it that much.
Live Cams Another useless stunt app. Browse public Webcams, and view your own private cams if you know the address. Pretty much a waste of time, but interesting. The marketing suggests you can use it to watch semiclad people on beaches, but, uh, there might be easier ways to find that on the Internet. I like to look at Times Square to make sure it's still there. New parents might want to use it to set up a babycam in the nursery.
iHandy Level Sometimes you just want to know if that table is level. This is a sometimes-useful tool that will impress old timers who think the iPhone is a useless tool. Free (for now). Is there a great or useful application I've missed and should try? Tell me in the comments.