Wednesday, January 02, 2013

JW's Favorite iPhone & iPad Apps Of 2012

Not since the original iPhone release in 2007 or the original iPad release in 2010 has the software landscape for iOS been so directly impacted by new hardware as it was in 2012.  With the new iPad gaining a Retina display in March, the iPhone 5 getting a taller screen in September, and the iPad mini showing a new iOS device form factor in November, iOS developers had an increasingly diverse suite of screen resolutions and design considerations to address.

As an app consumer (especially if you were an early adopter of those new devices), the impact of the steady march forward in hardware was jarring at times.  If your favorite iPad apps weren't Retina-optimized, they sometimes looked terrible.  If your favorite iPhone apps weren't optimized for the taller iPhone 5 display, you needed to adjust to having black bars letter-boxing your app at the top & bottom of the screen.

Despite these relatively minor nuisances, 2012 was also an absolutely fascinating time to follow the evolution of app design & development.  While I'm fortunate enough to be involved in this space as part of my day job at ChaiONE, I also continue to be legitimately passionate about this stuff and spend much of my free time trying out new apps on my own devices or running initiatives like the Houston App Aficionados.

As I've done the past four years (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011), I've taken stock of the apps I'm regularly using across my iPhone & iPad, and written a quick blurb about each of them below.  I'm hopeful you'll find some on this list that you can use to make your days better in 2013.

iPhone Apps

Most Used iPhone Apps

This third-party Twitter client from Tapbots is still how most of my social network status updates originate (with syndication to Facebook via the Twitter app now that Ifttt can no longer use Twitter triggers).  With multiple account support, it's the one client I use on my iPhone across 5 Twitter accounts.

The granddaddy of checkin apps, I use this as my personal passport, checking into each venue I enter every day.  With nearly 4 years worth of my checkin data in this app, it's fascinating to see the stats on elapsed time between visits.

If you want an efficient means of consuming website articles, this Google Reader client is still best in class.  This single app accounts for the majority of app use on my iPhone.

Particularly since the UI-overhauled 5.0 release of this app in November, I find myself creating more notes via the iPhone app, as opposed to the Mac app.  This is especially true for capturing photographs of notes/drawings on whiteboards around the office and at home.

Despite the Facebook acquisition of Instagram in April, and its Terms of Service PR firestorm in December, the app & its highly-engaged community still set the standard for mobile-first photo sharing.  While I cross-post all my Instagram shots to Flickr & Blogger, I still originate the majority of my photos in Instagram.

iPhone Apps I Began Using More Frequently In 2012

Google's iOS team was prolific in 2012, overhauling some of their existing iPhone apps, and releasing several completely new ones.  One to see a significant improvement towards the end of the year was version 2.0 of Gmail, with multiple account support & a crisp white user interface that made email on the iPhone fresh again. If you're a heavy user of labels in Gmail, this app is a must-have.

Google Voice
Despite the proliferation of the iMessage protocol to OS X in Mountain Lion, and continued feature enhancements in iOS 6, I still conduct the majority of my text-based communications through the Google Voice iPhone app.  When I'm at my computer, I'll compose & respond via the Chrome Google Voice extension, but when I'm away from my desk, this app is still my go to solution.

With the executive shakeup at Yahoo earlier this year, there seems to be a revived interest in their Flickr product.  The iPhone app benefitted from that renewed attention, with a redesign that finally looks and behaves like a mobile photo social network. Today I'm mostly using it to view photos instead of photo capture, but that may change in 2013 if Instagram clutters up their app interface.

After lightly using the service for the past several years, I finally became a paying Pro subscriber in 2012, driven in large part by the Camera Upload functionality added to their iPhone app.  Having become a new father in March, I wanted to ensure I never had to worry about losing photos or videos I shot of my twins on my iPhone, so the Dropbox app has become a critical piece of my daily data backup scheme.

The Facebook iPhone app had been limping along for years until its 5.0 release in August.  Now with a native implementation of several features that were previously built using HTML5, getting your Newsfeed & Timeline to load within the iPhone app is significantly faster & less frustrating.

Our household became Amazon Prime members in January in preparation for getting regular shipments of baby items like diapers & formula.  Now we order everything from scissors to plungers through the site thanks to its free two day shipping, and I normally reach for my iPhone to add things to our cart via the Amazon app.  It's not as robust for browsing as using a web browser on your laptop, but for quickly searching & buying items, it serves the purpose quite well.

Since during any given week we have several Amazon orders headed our way thanks to that Prime subscription, this app has become indispensable for quickly knowing what is going to arrive and when.  Getting Push Notifications when your package is out for delivery and then when it's actually delivered saves me the time & effort of logging into the UPS or FedEx sites to track shipment progress.

Favorite New iPhone Apps of 2012

Remember the 4 years worth of Foursquare checkin data I mentioned earlier?  Well Timehop helps me resurface it, every single day.  By connecting your Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter, & Instagram accounts to Timehop, the app will send you a Push Notification each morning letting you know your personal history for that day has been assembled. You'll see what updates you posted to those various social networks last year, 2 years ago, all the way back to 2004 if you were using Facebook back then.

Developed by Loren Brichter, who invented the 'pull to refresh' functionality now leveraged across countless iOS apps, this casual word game is like a more entertaining Words With Friends or Scrabble.  Whereas Words With Friends just became tedious after a few rounds, Letterpress has become a fun attention diversion that I'm still enjoying daily even after several months of play.

This app is an iOS-only social network between you and your significant other.  My wife & I use it to send messages, photos, and videos back and forth to each other throughout the day.  We could accomplish the same thing via traditional text messages, but this app feels more intimate and has some cute couples-centric features that make it enjoyable to incorporate into our daily routines.

Netbot is effectively a clone of Tweetbot, but targeted at the ad-free, paid social network instead of Twitter.  I signed up for a year subscription to after Netbot was released in October, and it's been a fun community of mostly geeks reminiscent of Twitter circa 2007.

After our twins arrived in March, I wanted to outfit their nursery with a video baby monitor.  I settled on two, with the Withings Smart Baby Monitor being particularly well-suited to our needs because of the baby-centric nature versus a standard web cam.  WithBaby is the iPhone app companion and allows my wife & I to see the girls when we're at work, turn on lullabies, monitor the temperature & humidity in the nursery, and even talk to the twins via the built-in speaker of the baby monitor.

This was the second video baby monitor I chose.  While not marketed solely as a baby monitor, Dropcam was attractive because it provided an online DVR feature that let me rewind to any motion or sound events that took place in the nursery.  Aside from iPhone & iPad apps, I can also access my video footage via a web browser when I'm at my desk.

This app was developed by the creators of the Glif iPhone tripod mount accessory.  It allows you to create stop-motion & time-lapse videos.  I've used it to create some interesting videos, such as this one of my daughters swinging in baby seats and this one of clouds billowing over Houston on Halloween.

Nike+ FuelBand
A recent addition to my fitness app arsenal, I'm looking to leverage this app + wristband combo meaningfully in 2013 as a way to stay motivated to hit my fitness & weight loss goals.  By earning Nike Fuel points each day and competing against your Facebook friends, the idea is that you'll move more.  My wife says it makes me a little more like a robot.  I think I'm OK with that.

Google Maps
Even if you don't follow mobile technology closely, you likely heard about this app due to the high-profile negative PR surrounding Apple's Maps in iOS 6.  In short, Google Maps is worthy of the hype.  The data is accurate, the UI is crisp, the turn by turn voice directions are well executed, and the app pulls in search history of location queries you've done on your computer.  It's awesome.

Google Drive
Google Docs was rebranded as Google Drive this year.  I have nearly 8 years of documents & spreadsheets within the Google Drive system, so having a way to natively access and edit my files on my iPhone has been a tremendous addition to my productivity toolkit.

iPad Apps

When Megaupload was shut down in January, it had a chilling effect on the availability of podcasts and live mix set recordings from DJs around the world.  I speculated at that time that we'd see a consolidation of mixes to the SoundCloud platform as a result, and the rest of 2012 seemed to support that hypothesis.  Soundcloud's iPad app is excellent, and if you follow the right artists on the site, it becomes a reasonable alternative to services like Spotify or Rdio for electronic music fans.

Sunday Ticket
In NFL seasons past, if we didn't get the Saints game on our Comcast cable package here in Houston, we'd just go to one of the local sports bars to watch the game. Since having two infants complicated that approach, this season we subscribed to the online-only package of Direct TV's NFL Sunday Ticket.  The Sunday Ticket iPad app allowed us to watch the Saints games at home on the couch with the girls, while we had the Texans game on the big screen.

When ESPN & Comcast reached a content agreement in May of 2012 to allow Comcast customers access to the WatchESPN app, I knew football season was going to be awesome.  I was right.  Every Saturday during the fall, we'd have a football game on our TV, and then two other games pulled up in the WatchESPN apps on our iPads. It was like our living room was a more comfortable Buffalo Wild Wings.  Perfect.

We added a TiVo Premiere XL4 & TiVo Stream box to our home theater setup in 2012, which meant the TiVo iPad app became significantly more feature packed.  The app allows us to stream shows wirelessly over our home network to the iPad while something else is being watched on TV.  Or we can download previously recorded shows to the iPad app to take with us while we're traveling.  It also allows us to schedule recordings or browse the program guide on the iPad instead of interrupting viewing on the TV.

While I still mostly use Safari on my iPhone for web browsing, I've found myself using the Chrome browser on my iPad more each month since it was released during the summer.  As someone who spends his days working in the Chrome browser on the Mac, the familiarity of Chrome on the iPad feels nice when I'm casually web browsing at night.

This is my most used iPad app.  When we're watching television in the evenings, I'll leave my iPad next to me on the couch with Tweetbot open and watch as the stream of updates roll in.  This is particularly compelling during live sporting events, or other live events like elections and news broadcasts.  This is the best second-screen experience app I've come across.

GV Mobile +
Since Google still hasn't developed an iPad-optimzed Google Voice app, I use GV Mobile + for responding to text messages when I have my iPad next to me, but my iPhone is on the charger.  It was developed by Sean Kovacs, who really drove the movement for Google Voice on the iPhone in 2009 & 2010 before Google ever released their own first-party solution.

This app is for the Pioneer VSX-1122 AV receiver we added to our home theater this summer.  It allows me to change source inputs, volume, zone outputs, and basically all other functionality that you'd normally need to use the IR remote to execute, but over Wi-Fi via the app.  That means I can change audio sources on my backyard patio while smoking a cigar without ever impacting the show or volume my family is watching in the living room.

Scanner Pro
Since the third-generation iPad added a respectable camera to the device, apps like Scanner Pro can leverage photo-capture capabilities to accomplish tasks like scanning in documents.  While you won't mistake the resulting PDF for something produced by a quality hardware scanner like a Fujitsu ScanSnap, it's very convenient to be able to scan in documents on the spot when at a client site with only your iPad, instead of waiting to get back to a dedicated scanner to digitize a few pieces of paper.

With the ability to stream the live TV broadcast of CNN through the iPad app, I've found myself setting up the iPad on my desk at work whenever there's a breaking news story.  While the merits of cable news journalism can be debated ad nauseam, it's still an integral piece of my data consumption workflow when something of national or international significance is happening at that very moment.