In recent years, I’ve occasionally ended the year with some blog posts on my favorite iOS and Mac apps from the previous 12 months, although I haven’t written one recently1. These aren’t necessarily apps that have come out in the past year but the notable ones I’ve been using the most. But first, a few thoughts on how I use iOS devices.
I now own an iPhone 7 Plus, upgrading from an iPhone 6s Plus this year. I’d held off on getting the bigger phone in 2015, worrying that it would be just too large for me, because I have short, thick fingers. (I will never play violin or reach a whole octave on a piano.) I shouldn’t have worried. The new phone is amazing with an immense screen that I use two-handed and it gives me benefit of a bigger battery and the better photos in the camera that the smaller phone doesn’t have.
This year I upgraded to an iPad Pro 9.7” from my old iPad 4. I had dropped the iPad 4 months before in 2015 and cracked a corner of the screen and so had put it in a thick leather case to prevent further damage. Unfortunately, it is now prone to turning off randomly while using it and it was showing its age, running modern apps much slower than the iPhone. We also have a handful of iPad 2s and an iPad mini around the house, acquired here and there from family and friends upgrading to newer iPads, but those are mainly used by Melanie and the kids.
The iPad Pro, meanwhile, is great. The screen is beautiful and while I got an Apple Pencil for it, I have to admit I hardly use it. I thought I might use it to do editing (writing or photo) or for handwriting, but that never happened. I did get the Smart Keyboard as well and I do use that much more. It’s a bit cramped for my aforementioned sausage fingers, but I can get things done on it. I use it mainly for games, watching video podcasts, taking notes in meetings, and using the brain-training app Elevate (on which, more later). Having TouchID is a game-changer as it allows me to use my web browser and other secure apps with 1Password so much easier. It’s actually easier to shop on Amazon on my iOS devices than it is on my Mac, for instance.
In 2015, I got an AppleTV 4th generation. The TV app store has been a game changer. The addition of apps like Plex has changed my TV and movie watching since I can now rip and store all my DVDs on a network-attached storage and play them through the AppleTV/Plex combo. It’s also given new life to some games that I played on my iPad and now have AppleTV versions.2
So what apps am I using today? First, I should note that I’m using many of the same apps on both the iPhone and iPad so there’s a lot of overlap. That said, I have 311 total apps on the phone and 229 on the tablet. I won’t try to list them all, but will instead hit the highlights of those I’m using the most these days.
Slack has become the trendy communications tool out there and for good reason. It replaces several different communications tools and makes keeping in touch with a group of people much simpler. I’ve used it with several different teams, to varying success, but it works best with tech savvy people, of course. It doesn’t have to be a business tool, either. I would love to use it as a family communications tool for my extended family. You can use it in the browser, but there are dedicated iOS and Mac apps for it too. I wrote in detail about its capabilities earlier this year.
I deal in words. I write thousands and thousands of words in my personal life and in my day job(s) and so a good text editor is vital. While Microsoft Word is the de facto business tool for words and has its place, I prefer a simpler text editor. I’ve tried many of them and settled on Ulysses.
Another cross-platform tool, Ulysses organizes my writing in a logical, hierarchical format in the cloud. It allows me to write using the Markdown markup language because so much of my writing ends up online and its ability to convert my basic text to HTML, Word, PDF and more is so helpful. Even better, this year they added the ability to publish directly to a WordPress-based web site from within the app, which makes it invaluable for writing on-the-go on an iPad. To give you an example, I wrote most of this blog post in iOS while sitting at a picnic table under the stars in a campground in Maine.
Cross-platform is the word of the day. Airmail is my email application of choice on the Mac and iOS. While there are many great email apps on iOS (and I keep a couple of them around for specific purposes), my daily go-to is Airmail. What makes Airmail special is its deep integration with other apps. If I’m reading an email that I want to save as reference material, then a swipe and tap sends it to Evernote. When I want to turn an email into a task to do, another swipe and tap sends it to Omnifocus with a link back to the original email. That’s just the tip of the iceberg with other built-in functions that allow you to manipulate mail in various, like snoozing it for a time, or setting up a reminder to see if your recipient answered. Plus the filtering and smart folders are very handy.
A key feature of iOS is HomeKit, Apple’s home automation framework, and the user facing part of that is the Home app. I’ve been slowly adding bits of tech around the house over the past year, including Hue light bulbs, iDevices outlets, and Amazon Echo voice control assistants. While Melanie and the kids are finally getting on board with it, I have to admit that voice control through the Echo has been our primary interface. However, the Home app is a nice all-in-one place to see and control all the devices. With I can control the lights in the office, dimming previously undimmable lights for TV watching, for instance, or turning on the front door lights when someone comes to the door and I’m in the office. I can also set scenes, like turn off particular lights and dim others when I’m watching TV.
It hasn’t been all work this year. I’ve played several games on iOS, but the one I was having the most fun with at the end of the year was SimCity Buildit. This is SimCity for the touchscreen age. I remember playing the original years ago on my Mac, obsessing over city utilities and economic districts. Game play is somewhat simplified for this version and of course there’s the requisite in-app purchases to entice you, but it still satisfies a particular urge in me to build and manage. It’s not just “tap, tap, tap” this random number generator button with no skill involved. And like everything else, there’s a social element as well as in-game quests and contests to keep it interesting. I don’t know if I will still be playing this in six months (probably not), but for now it’s quite fun.
We always seem to have something being shipped to us, whether from Amazon or some other retailer or the like. And being the impatient and paranoid sort, I like to track the packages on their way so I know I’ll be on the look for them so they don’t get pinched from our doorstep by an opportunistic thief. (I’ve had it happen to me.)
Deliveries is another Mac/iOS app combination that does one thing and does it well. Throw any tracking number from any shipper at it (as well as Amazon order numbers) and it will constantly update you with the package’s current location and expected delivery date. If you copy the tracking number from a web page or email and open the Deliveries app, it is smart enough to recognize the number as a tracking number and offer to import it for you. I’ve actually set up a Gmail rule that when I get a recognizable Amazon order receipt, it forwards the email to a special email address the developer provides and all my packages get automatically added. There are sometimes hiccups with the Amazon bit, having to constantly login again and again. I don’t know if they will fix it, but in that case I can just put in the UPS number and be done with it.
Over the years my commute has gone from across my bedroom, to across town, to a couple of towns over and now driving through Boston. And while I’m driving for those several hours per day I rely on the Waze iOS app. What’s great about Waze is that it works on a real-time basis to re-route you based on traffic. Waze is crowdsourced; every user is sending information on their current location and speed, i.e. how is traffic where they are. Waze compiles all that into a big picture of traffic in your region and then begins to re-route the vehicles behind you onto better paths. Don’t feel left out, because it’s also calculating a better route for you based on people in front of you. It’s a great feeling to see the notice come up that a better route is found and you’ll get home earlier.
The app also links to your calendar so if you put addresses in your appointments, it will warn you ahead of time when you need to leave to make it there on time, based on current and predicted traffic.
Another app for my commute is Overcast, my podcast app of choice. There are lots of great podcast apps, but I’ve used and prefer Overcast for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it has a smart speed function. I like to listen to my podcasts at a higher speed because I have more podcasts than time to listen to them. It’s okay because your brain eventually adapts to the higher speed. Overcast does it intelligently though because it doesn’t just double playback speed, but it also removes bits of silences here and there and does other tricks. Plus it fixes the pitch of the voices so they don’t sound like chipmunks.
Bank of America
My personal bank is Bank of America and they have a very good app. My favorite feature is the ability to take a photo of the front and back of a check to deposit it. No more remembering to run by the ATM to drop it off. But it also lets me transfer money among accounts, pay bills, look at statements. Even better, like many apps this past year, it’s adopted TouchID functionality so I don’t have to laboriously copy my long, secure password out of 1Password every time I need to log in; I just need a touch of my finger. So much more convenient to use.
The Amazon app on iOS is so good, I could almost use it instead of the web site through my computer to do all my shopping. The app also logins in using TouchID for convenience. You can search for items using a bar code, but you can also take a photo of a product and Amazon uses crowdsourcing to attempt to identify and find it in the store. You can’t do everything you can through the website but you can do a lot and they’re always adding more functions.
One of the most indispensable apps I own is 1Password and I’ve written about it many times. What’s new this year is 1Password for Families. For $5/month everyone in my family gets the Mac and iOS 1Password apps, including browser-accessible secure storage that lets me manage everyone’s account and allows us to set up shared and personal vaults for passwords. Now, Melanie and I can both access our bank account password, for instance, and if I need to change it, she automatically has the updated version. Easiest $5 I spend every month and the best upgrade to 1Password ever.3
The State of iOS Apps
And that’s it, my list of favorite apps for 2016. Looking over it, I don’t necessarily see much that’s new, which I think is a sign that the app market is maturing and we’re seeing old favorites settle in. On the other hand, if I were only listing new apps I could include Prisma, that makes photos look like art; Pray: The Catholic Novena app; or the new GasCubby app from Fuelly.com. The app store is still innovating and bringing more good ideas to light. I look forward to what 2017 has to bring.
- Although I did write up My Must-Have Mac Apps this year, but that list won’t exactly overlap here. Here are previous installments of iOS app favorites in 2011, 2012 ↩
- What about the Apple Watch? The Watch series 1 looks like it could be the upgrade that makes it worthwhile for me. The speed of the upgrade and utility of the new OS look intriguing. ↩
- They also a version for Teams that I’ve setup for my work as well. ↩
- ipad: Picjumbo | CC 0