Seventeen iOS apps worth a look

This is not in any way an exhaus­tive review of apps for iOS. It is instead a list of apps I have per­son­al­ly found use­ful. I may not have tried alter­nates so while I wel­come alter­nate sug­ges­tions in the com­ments, please accept my apolo­gies in advance if I’ve made a choice in igno­rance of an app supe­ri­or to the one I’m rec­om­mend­ing. As I don’t have unlim­it­ed funds, I’ve made some of my choic­es based on user or edi­to­r­i­al reviews with­out try­ing every possibility.

I’ll state up-front that I am biased toward soft­ware I’ve used and enjoyed on plat­forms I used pri­or to the iPhone or iPad. I like Deep Green Chess for chess and Pock­et­Money for my finances; both are pro­grams I first used on the New­ton fif­teen years ago. Many of the games I have are ones from Astraware, who made many of the games I played on Pal­mOS devices (includ­ing Astroids, an Aster­oids clone that the com­pa­ny named itself for but had to aban­don in the face of legal threats.) I also am biased toward apps that work well with Mac ver­sions of the same soft­ware on the desk­top. I don’t usu­al­ly care if there is a Win­dows ver­sion when it comes to choosing.


There are a zil­lion news out­lets nowa­days with their own apps so this comes down to con­tent pref­er­ences. As long as the app’s inter­face does­n’t get in the way, con­tent is still king. I some­times read the San Fran­cis­co Exam­in­er e‑edition, whose app is noth­ing more than a wrap­per for a PDF of the dai­ly paper. It’s a lousy app and it would be a pain to read on an iPhone, but they get the paper out every day and the PDF comes out most­ly OK on the iPad’s screen. I can’t real­ly rec­om­mend it as a news source, but it’s fun to see their sen­sa­tion­al­ist approach (on 9/11 the SF Chron­i­cle’s head­line read «US Under Attack». The Exam­in­er led with «BASTARDS» in four inch tall let­ters.) It’s also fun to see them sneak in right-wing per­spec­tives under the radar of a left-wing audience.


Since the redesign of the AP Mobile app it’s been a handy source of news. The first iPad ver­sion was a ter­ri­ble attempt at skeu­mor­phism, with each arti­cle being «pinned» to a vir­tu­al cork­board. Apple has in recent years gone far over­board with forc­ing appli­ca­tions to look like a real-world coun­ter­part. AP went fur­ther than Apple and it got in the way of being able to just read the news. They have since got­ten much less clever and made an app that has few sur­pris­es, but which is clear­ly and use­ful­ly orga­nized. The app can be set to pro­vide alerts for break­ing news and it is rel­a­tive­ly free of edi­to­r­i­al con­tent. In a world where news out­lets seem to exist only to push a polit­i­cal agen­da, it’s refresh­ing to just get the facts.

###Pay (one-time)###

Poli­ti­fact Mobile ($2) is anoth­er favorite. It’s always enjoy­able to see politi­cians hoist them­selves by their own petards. I’ve seen evi­dence of bias from time to time, but usu­al­ly if their rat­ings are mis­lead­ing their ratio­nale makes it obvi­ous. I’ve come to rely on Poli­ti­fact — even if they don’t do it per­fect­ly, fact-check­ing politi­cians’ state­ments is a much-need­ed ser­vice. I don’t care so much for FactCheck, but I’m glad they’re in the game too.

###Paid sub­scrip­tion/per-issue###

The Wall Street Jour­nal ($2/issue or $18/month) The Wall Street Jour­nal is the news­pa­per even Rupert Mur­doch has­n’t been able to com­plete­ly ruin (yet.) Once upon the time, the Jour­nal was the source of sto­ries no one on the left or the right dared pub­lish — for the sim­ple rea­son that the news, no mat­ter how dam­ag­ing to some­one’s sacred cows, might affect stock prices. Peo­ple rarely both­ered to look in the Jour­nal, so the truth the oth­er papers would­n’t cov­er got hid­den in plain sight. The Jour­nal has gone down­hill since those days, but they still dig up facts pret­ty well and their app is easy to nav­i­gate and down­loads entire issues at a time for read­ing in places with­out WiFi.

The Econ­o­mist ($6/issue, $40/quarter, $130/year) The Econ­o­mist is just about the only pub­li­ca­tion I trust. The Econ­o­mist’s writ­ers aren’t afraid to take posi­tions on issues, but they let the facts speak for them­selves and let the read­ers draw their own con­clu­sions. Very few new­pa­pers or mag­a­zines cred­it their read­ers with any intel­li­gence; The Econ­o­mist is one of the only pub­li­ca­tions that refus­es to insult the intel­li­gence of its read­er­ship. At the same time, their lan­guage is clear and direct. I’d much rather my pub­li­ca­tions be smart than try to sound smart.



PCalc Lite I pre­fer the paid ver­sion (below) but even the free ver­sion is a real­ly great cal­cu­a­tor app. It’s full of con­stants that can be plugged in and it will do a vari­ety of unit con­ver­sions. The pay ver­sion has even more con­stants and con­ver­sions and mul­ti­ple mem­o­ries and so on.


PCalc ($10) You guessed it. This is what I was talk­ing about in the last para­graph. If hav­ing the mass of the Earth in kilo­grams or the Fara­day con­stant is some­thing that would be handy to have built-in to your cal­cu­la­tor, this is your app. Also if you like con­vert­ing from mechan­i­cal horse­pow­er to met­ric horse­pow­er, or to kilo­watts, or need to con­vert a UTF-16 char­ac­ter to octal. If you like hav­ing your cal­cu­la­tor under­stand more about maths than you do, drop the ten bucks.

Soul­ver ($3) Soul­ver leaves skeu­mor­phic cal­cu­la­tors behind. OK, maybe some­times you just want to push but­tons on a cal­cu­la­tor, mak­ing your expen­sive smart­phone or tablet pre­tend it’s a cheap cal­cu­la­tor. But what about those prob­lems com­plex enough that you want a pad of paper to take notes next to the cal­cu­la­tor? Soul­ver is like a notepad that makes your cal­cu­la­tions for you and car­ries for­ward infor­ma­tion from pre­vi­ous lines.


Hon­est­ly, I haven’t both­ered with any free dic­tio­nar­ies. Sor­ry, I can’t help you there. I’m a dic­tio­nary snob, what can I say?


Cham­bers ($7) Nowhere near as many entries as OED, but Cham­bers’ Dic­tio­nary is well-writ­ten and rife with wit and nuance. Look­ing up words ought to be fun and intrigu­ing. One gets the sense that Cham­bers’ Dic­tio­nary is writ­ten and edit­ed by peo­ple who love words. OK, all dic­tio­nar­ies are prob­a­bly writ­ten by peo­ple who love words, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly this much.


Oxford Deluxe. For $55 you should be able to get at least the 600,000 word Short­er OED (avail­able on Mac Desk­top for $35). Instead you get the 355,000 word ODE plus the Oxford Thesaurus.The unabridged, com­plete OED is not avail­able on mobile devices.

##Office Suites##

If a full suite of office soft­ware (word proces­sor, spread­sheet, pre­sen­ta­tions) is need­ed, there are only two viable options.

###(Prob­a­bly) avoid###

For Mac users there’s iWork (Pages, Num­bers, Keynote; $10 each) The iCloud inte­gra­tion is handy and the iWork apps are as com­plete and pol­ished a set of appli­ca­tions as any­one could ask for. iWork’s apps were slow to get full iCloud inte­gra­tion, which put iWork on the «avoid» list, but at least on Moun­tain Lion (OS X 10.8) the iWork apps on the desk­top very hap­pi­ly to the iOS versions.

Nev­er­the­less, the iWork apps don’t play well with oth­er appli­ca­tions. If you use Microsoft Office, Google Docs, or Libre­Of­fice, mov­ing doc­u­ments back and forth will prob­a­bly be too much of a pain for the iWork apps to be worth it. I’d only rec­om­mend iWork on iOS for peo­ple who use iWork on OS X or who don’t feel the need to use desk­top apps if they have a full-fea­tured app on a portable device.


Doc­u­ments To Go ($17, or $10 with­out cloud sup­port or Pow­er­Point edit­ing) Docs2Go is far from as slick or pret­ty as the iWork offer­ings, but it solid­ly han­dles Word, Excel, and Pow­er­Point files with a wide vari­ety of syn­croniza­tion options. Before the iPhone OS 3 brought us copy and paste, Doc­u­ments to Go solved the copy and paste prob­lem nice­ly, of course only inside the app but see­ing as the one app edits all three kinds of doc­u­ments and reads many oth­ers, the func­tion­al­i­ty was very use­ful in the pre-clip­board days of iDevices.

Where Docs2Go shines in func­tion­al­i­ty is in the vari­ety of ways one can move doc­u­ments from desk­top to cloud to iOS device and back. It’s pos­si­ble that there are too many options to choose from. Per­haps some­day some­one will find a hap­py medi­um between «no way but our way» and «any way you want unless you’re not sure what the best way is» but for the moment as Apple errs to the for­mer DataViz errs toward the lat­ter. Nev­er­the­less, if you want to sync Microsoft Word, Excel, and Pow­er­Point docs with your desk­top on Mac or Win­dows, Doc­u­ments to Go has a solu­tion for you. Even if you don’t want to use their app, you can use Drop­box,, iDisk, your own Web­DAV serv­er, or Google Docs as your stor­age and syn­croniza­tion ser­vices and keep all ver­sions of your doc­u­ments up to date at all times.

##Word proces­sors##

Of course, you might want a stand­alone app just for writ­ing, either in con­junc­tion with your office soft­ware or pos­si­ble instead of an office suite. Here you can drown in a sea of options. While not the sole cause of the trend, hand­held devices have helped make pop­u­lar what was once a rather fringe idea: the min­i­mal­ist writ­ing envi­ron­ment. These are word proces­sors (in many cas­es the term text edi­tor might be more appro­pri­ate) where­in all dis­tract­ing tools and indi­ca­tors are hid­den away. These are light­weight pro­grams — Byword takes up 5MB, iA Writer 3.6MB, Write­Room 4.2MB, Daedalus 7MB, com­pared to Pages’s 337MB — and most include some form of cloud stor­age with desk­top ver­sions and an «Open In» fea­ture for mov­ing doc­u­ments to oth­er pro­grams for formatting.

I use Byword ($3) because it does iCloud sync to a Mac desk­top ver­sion and because it saves files as Mark­down, a plain­text for­mat that mir­rors old-school email and usenet con­ven­tions like sur­round­ing a word with aster­isks to indi­cate ital­ics or under­scores to indi­cate under­lin­ing. While it may seem prim­i­tive, it’s faster than using for­mat­ting com­mands and light­weight for file stor­age and trans­mis­sion. Byword will copy an HTML ver­sion to the clip­board or export a copy to RTF so that for­mat­ted text can be entered into oth­er appli­ca­tions or web­sites with­out need for those appli­ca­tions to sup­port Markdown.

Byword works with Drop­box, so it can be used in con­junc­tion with any Mark­down edi­tor that also sup­ports Drop­box. This won’t be quite as con­ve­nient as using iCloud to talk with oth­er ver­sions of Byword, but it would be a rea­son­ably good solu­tion for peo­ple who use Windows.

My only com­plaint about Byword is that the iOS ver­sion does not sup­port a vari­ety of fonts. There are four fonts includ­ed with Byword and the iOS sys­tem fonts are not avail­able. The four fonts aren’t bad, but the one and only mono­spaced font includ­ed is a com­pressed font — great for fit­ting more text on a line, but when I write I want a type­face that is com­fort­able to read with, not one that crams as much into a small space as pos­si­ble. Pre­fer­ring a mono­spaced font for writ­ing is prob­a­bly a quirk unique to me but I find one of the non-mono­spaced fonts to be com­fort­able enough to work with so this is a fair­ly minor complaint.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Meta­classy (Byword’s devel­op­er) indi­cates that the font choic­es will be improved in an upcom­ing release, but there is no word as to how soon that will be.

##Some­thing’s miss­ing on the iPad: a compass##

iPads have mag­ne­tome­ters, so why don’t they come with the Com­pass app like the iPhone does?


3D Com­pass HD is a fair­ly sim­ple com­pass with one twist: the com­pass points are rep­re­sent­ed with­in a sphere, effec­tive­ly mak­ing 3D Com­pass HD dou­ble as a two-axis lev­el. Most of the free com­pass apps don’t give you any­thing oth­er than North. This one will also tell you which way is up. The only thing that seems miss­ing is a way to switch between mag­net­ic and true North.


True Com­pass ($1) Before True Com­pass I used Com­pass+ for iPad, which is $2. The fea­ture I liked most about Com­pass+ was the abil­i­ty to add loca­tions to which you could be point­ed instead of just North. What frus­trat­ed me about Com­pass+ was that the only loca­tions that could be added are the loca­tions you’re already at. So it takes a lit­tle fore­thought. While you’re at a friend’s house you can define that loca­tion and from then on be able to ori­ent your­self to it. But I want­ed to be able to enter my own loca­tions by address or lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude, or something.

For half the price of Com­pass+, True Com­pass gives you a map of your loca­tion along with the rose. If you drop a pin on the map and give the loca­tion a name, it’s stored for future use. You can also search by address or coor­di­nates. It’s good-look­ing and about as use­ful a com­pass app as I’ve seen. At 99¢ it’s also the least expen­sive, at least among the apps that aren’t free.

##Some­thing else is miss­ing on the iPad: the weather##

Again it seems a lit­tle strange. The iPhone comes with a weath­er app. Why not the iPad? Do they assume that iPad users don’t care about the fore­cast? Or maybe they fig­ure we’ll be hap­py check­ing the weath­er in a Web browser.

Sad­ly, I can’t make a rec­om­men­da­tion for free weath­er apps from my own expe­ri­ence, but Weath­er Under­ground comes high­ly rec­om­mend­ed. It is ad-sup­port­ed, but $2/year gets a year of ad-free use.


I use a ver­sion of the AccuWeath­er app for the iPad that appears to have been removed from the App Store. It has an awe­some­ly well-thought-out inter­face. The cur­rent, free, ad-sup­port­ed AccuWeath­er app for iPad just does­n’t hold a can­dle. I guess they fig­ured they make more mon­ey from the free ver­sion than they do from one-time pur­chas­es. It’s real­ly too bad.

The iPhone/iPod Touch has a «Plat­inum» ver­sion of AccuWeath­er that removes all ads for $2. It does­n’t share the user inter­face with the iPad ver­sion, but it does a very nice job of uti­liz­ing the space avail­able on the small­er screen with­out exclud­ing the fea­tures I use most. I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly fond of AccuWeath­er’s hourly fore­cast on both iPad and iPhone. Why AccuWeath­er has a paid ad-free option for iPhone but not iPad is puz­zling and frus­trat­ing. I got in ear­ly enough to get the good ver­sion, but every­one else is out of luck.

Hon­or­able men­tion goes to Weath­er Live ($1.99) which is a love­ly app that does the job well enough, though the fore­casts don’t get any more gran­u­lar than three hours. Weath­er Live has one fea­ture which sets it apart from the pack: it uses a push noti­fi­ca­tion to update the icon badge with the cur­rent tem­per­a­ture so that it is unnec­es­sary to open the app just to check the temperature.


There are whole cat­e­gories that won’t be cov­ered here, name­ly games, graph­ics, and pho­tog­ra­phy apps. These cat­e­gories war­rant their own posts. If my word-count dis­play in Byword can be trust­ed, this is already a too-long post. Nev­er­the­less, there are two apps which real­ly deserve notice but which don’t fit into the above categories.

JuneCloud’s Note­file ($4.99) is essen­tial­ly a replace­ment for the built-in Notes app on iOS. Apple has dis­card­ed any claim to be the kings of soft­ware design with Notes. Skeu­mor­phism is itself a sore top­ic, but in small dos­es it can be use­ful or at least for­give­able. But the idea that the mak­ers of such a beau­ti­ful user inter­face as that on iOS would feed us an appli­ca­tion with a gaudy eye­strain-induc­ing and dif­fi­cult-to read sim­u­lacrum of a yel­low legal pad and a gar­ish hand­writ­ing font, and then make it impos­si­ble to change the set­tings?1 The cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance should be trou­bling even for those who aren’t Apple fans.

Note­file is still a note­book — in fact, func­tion­al­ly it’s not all that dif­fer­ent from Apple’s Notes. How­ev­er, the back­ground is a pleas­ant cream col­or, like that of the pages of a Mole­sk­ine note­book. There are no lines on the back­ground and the font — well, the font can’t be changed but Hel­veti­ca actu­al­ly looks nice when it’s not super­im­posed on a fake yel­low legal-pad back­ground. The user inter­face is much more friend­ly than Apple’s Notes as well. Every­thing that needs doing is eas­i­ly and quick­ly accessible.

Note­file syncs via iCloud with a desk­top Mac app, and via JuneCloud’s own cloud ser­vice to that desk­top Mac app (which can live in the sta­tus bar) a Mac Dash­board wid­get, and a web appli­ca­tion on JuneCloud’s web­site. Sad­ly there is no sync (except the Web) for Win­dows or Lin­ux users. It’s worth the $5 (plus anoth­er $5 for the Mac desk­top ver­sion — the Dash­board wid­get is free) nev­er to have to look at the design abom­i­na­tion that is Apple Notes.

mSe­cure ($9.99). Okay peo­ple, if you’re not using a pass­word man­ag­er, smarten up. It does­n’t have to be mSe­cure, but keep­ing track of secure pass­words is a chore. Even with a good mnemon­ic sys­tem it is still tempt­ing to choose pass­words which can be rel­a­tive­ly easy to crack due to the pass­words being too short or rely­ing on dic­tio­nary words or what­ev­er. Anoth­er point of pos­si­ble vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is the neces­si­ty of typ­ing pass­words in sit­u­a­tions when oth­ers might be watch­ing. Using mSe­cure means hav­ing pass­words with me at all times, not hav­ing to remem­ber them, and not even hav­ing to type them. There is one pass­word to gain access to the appli­ca­tion and the rest of the pass­words are stored encrypt­ed. The pass­words need not be shown on screen as with both hand­held and desk­top ver­sions the pass­words can be copied to the clip­board. One tap copies the pass­word, then one switch­es to the app in which the pass­word is need­ed and pastes to the required field which pre­sum­ably does not show the password.

In this way, it is pos­si­ble to store lengthy, impos­si­ble to crack pass­words like pA:b5g[24Y2C#n[M with­out the need to attempt remem­ber­ing them.

Too many acquain­tances have recent­ly had their accounts hacked to imag­ine risk­ing the use of low-secu­ri­ty pass­words in any con­text. Just from the serv­er logs I have access to, I see that auto­mat­ed attacks on com­put­ers with a pub­lic IP address­es have increased near­ly ten­fold in the last two months.

This post will be fol­lowed with posts describ­ing iOS apps of oth­er spe­cif­ic kinds.

  1. Yes, the font can now be changed — to anoth­er lousy hand­writ­ing font or to Hel­veti­ca. The improve­ment is under­whelm­ing. 

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