31 Essential Smartphone Apps

A roundup of our best-loved 31 apps for the iPhone, Android phones and other smartphones.

Our Favorite Smartphone Apps

Let's face it: Whether you get your apps through the Android Market (about 100,000 apps) or the Apple App Store (about 350,000), it can be hard to figure out which ones you want to try out. And there are a lot of recommendation lists out there (Computerworld has already published a few of them). But how to find the really great stuff?

In an effort to provide some guidance, we asked the staff and writers of Computerworld to tell us about their favorites -- no matter what type of smartphone they use.

(Editor's Note: These picks were made by our sibling publication Computerworld.)

AT&T U-verse Mobile

This is a great app for those times when you are at a dinner party and a friend recommends a particular TV program for you to watch. You can program your AT&T U-verse digital video recorder from your iPhone and not have to worry about missing the suggested show. You can browse the channel guide, search for a particular show and manage your existing or future scheduled recordings. If you subscribe to the more expensive U200, U300 or U450 premium channels packages, you can even download some episodes to your phone at no additional charge. (DirecTV and Dish Network have similar apps.) -- David Strom

AT&T U-verse Mobile OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: Android (specific devices), BlackBerry (specific devices), Windows Phone 7 Price: Free


Tired of all those sharp, modern-looking digital pix your iPhone camera can take? Use Hipstamatic and you'll takes pictures that look they were taken with 35mm film in the 1960s. Plus, you can buy different "films," "lenses," and "flash attachments" for an even more customized look. Hipstamatic allows you to change the look of photos on the fly simply by shaking the iPhone, which chooses new films and lenses from those you have in your collection. (Given the number of lens/flash/film combos it's easy to get confused; check out the Field Guide wiki to help sort out your options.) -- Ken Mingis

Hipstamatic OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: None Price: $1.99


As the name implies, iheartradio is an app for streaming radio stations across your Internet connection. It offers over 300 stations across the continental U.S. -- talk stations, local music for specific cities, regional traffic and a slew of artist-hosted stations where various talents (e.g., the Eagles, Weezer, Slash) discuss their favorite music. The program even downloads cover art to match whatever's playing. It's a toss-up as to whether a favorite station of yours is in their network, but give it a shot. -- Serdar Yegulalp

Iheartradio OS reviewed: Android Other OSes it works with: : iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7 Price: Free


Music players are a dime a dozen, but MixZing gets it right: it's logically organized, easy to work with, performs well and doesn't get in the way. Version 3 adds video support and lets you play back music by folder, as well as by searching and sorting by ID3 tags (artist, album, etc.). The free version is ad-supported; the premium version ditches the ads and unlocks a whole slew of music-geek features, like an MP3 tag editor and a screen-lock widget that shows album art. Me, I don't mind the ads, and the basic version's feature mix is more than enough. -- Serdar Yegulalp

MixZing OS reviewed: Android Other OSes it works with: None Price: Free with ads; $4.99 for full version


What is there to say about streaming Netflix movies to your iPhone or iPad? It's just the coolest way to unwind and catch up on movies and TV anytime, anyplace. It makes a perfect hotel room companion when you're working on the road, and it makes any supported phone a welcome companion in an airport waiting room. It's even a great home recreation option -- no one heard from my 70-something dad for nearly a week after he installed the Netflix app on his iPad except when some documentary made him decide he wanted a pet hedgehog. -- Ryan Faas

Netflix OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: Windows Phone 7 Price: Free (requires Netflix subscription)


I find Pandora's Internet radio almost spiritual in value. I can tune in my favorite song and Pandora generates similar songs based on hundreds of characteristics about my first choice. I mostly listen to my personal radio station based on "Fix You" by Coldplay. I learn more about music that's out there than I could ever possibly achieve by sampling iTunes or listening to radio. -- Matt Hamblen

Pandora OS reviewed: BlackBerry, iOS Other OSes it works with: Android, BlackBerry, WebOS, Windows Mobile Price: Free with ads; $36/year for enhanced version


Ever had a tune stuck in your head -- or on a video soundtrack -- that you knew but couldn't identify? Nine times out of ten, I've found that playing or humming a tune to SoundHound solves the mystery. SoundHound isn't infallible (especially with my singing voice), but it does a good and fast job of identifying tunes, showing the artist responsible, linking to videos and listing discographies. SoundHound can also whisk you over to Pandora or it can settle arguments: Unlike competitor Shazam, SoundHound also shows you the lyrics to songs it recognizes, which lets you prove that the band isn't singing "there's a bathroom on the right." That alone is worth the price of admission. -- Matt Lake

SoundHound OS reviewed: Android Other OSes it works with: iOS Price: Free with ads; $4.99 for full version

TuneIn Radio

I've never really warmed up to video on a smartphone-sized screen, but audio's another story. Besides playing one's own MP3 collection or listening to a personalized music stream like Pandora, sometimes it's nice to listen to an actual radio station -- either local or out of town. TuneIn Radio (formerly Radiotime) offers streaming access to thousands of AM and FM stations in the U.S. and around the world, as well as a large variety of Internet radio channels. Plus, it gives you the ability to save presets once you've uncovered your favorites. -- Sharon Machlis

TuneIn Radio OS reviewed: WebOS Other OSes it works with: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Samsung Bada, Windows Phone 7 Price: Free ($0.99 for iOS)


If you're into music videos, you really should have Vevo on your iPhone. It allows you to search for the most popular new music videos by artist, song or even geo-location, so you can find out what people around you are most often watching. Vevo now supports Apple's AirPlay protocol -- though the implementation is still in beta form -- meaning you can start watching videos on your iPhone and, with the tap of a button, send the video to your big-screen TV if you also have Apple TV. When I tried it, the AirPlay transfer worked perfectly. -- Ken Mingis

Vevo OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: Android Price: Free


There are a lot of e-reader apps out there, Some, like Kindle, are associated with major booksellers -- others are less attached to a single brand. Aldiko is one of the best independent apps: It's got a clean, professional interface, offers day/night settings, lets you adjust type size, brightness and other factors. It offers a listing of several sources where you can easily download free and public-domain books, and lets you purchase them through and a few other independent sellers. And if you already have e-books in either the popular ePub or PDF formats, Aldiko will import them easily. I am an addicted reader and tend to panic if I'm caught in a train or waiting room without something to read -- Aldiko is the way I get my fix no matter where I am. -- Barbara Krasnoff

Aldiko OS reviewed: Android Other OSes it works with: None Price: Free with ads, $2.99 for ad-free version


Subway commuting, the post office and the airport experience: It takes only about three minutes of these to make me crave a good book or magazine to read. Yet somehow, I never remember to bring anything along. Fidgeting with just any phone app won't fix these particular purgatories: Only the Kindle app will do. It's like carrying a Kindle on your phone and it's a brilliant idea. Even for people well over 40, the Android Kindle app delivers surprisingly clear and easy-to-read text on a mobile phone. The app lets you buy books and magazines (or find free ones), which can turn the first half an hour at the DMV into a virtual bookstore browse and the remainder of the visit into sustained reading time. Instead of living through Waiting for Godot, you can read it and really enjoy yourself. -- Matt Lake

Kindle OS reviewed: Android Other OSes it works with: iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7 Price: Free


In this totally addictive puzzle game, you lay railroad tracks so that trains interact with other trains to reach their destinations. Blue trains must enter blue stations, purple trains must enter purple stations and so on. It starts out ridiculously easy but quickly becomes challenging as you learn to cross trains of different colors to create new colors, paint them different colors, merge multiple trains into one so that stations don't get overloaded and employ delaying tactics to ensure that trains meet each other at exactly the right time. The sounds and animations are engaging, and the experience is completely immersive -- don't play it on the subway or you'll miss your stop. (Yes, I learned that lesson the hard way.) There's a free (and ad-free) prequel version called Trainyard Express that's a great way to get addicted before you ramp up to Trainyard, which has a different (and larger) set of puzzles to solve. -- Valerie Potter

Trainyard OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: None Price: $0.99

Words With Friends

Are you a Scrabble fan? Then you'll love Words With Friends -- the game board and rules are almost identical. Games are usually played over a period of time rather than in real time (though that's an option too). All games are one-on-one, but you can have multiple games with different players going simultaneously. By default, the app sends you an alert when an opponent makes a play, but I find this too distracting; I've turned off notifications (in the iPhone's Settings menu) and instead just check in a few times a day. I like to play during my commute to and from work; it's always fun to fire up the app to see who's played what while I wait for my train. -- Valerie Potter

Words With Friends OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: Android Price: Free with ads, $2.99 for full version (iOS only)


Having once lived in earthquake-prone areas in the Pacific, I've had a perpetual curiosity about them. To help satisfy it, I installed Earthquake. This is a simple but very effective app that reports real-time U.S. Geological Survey data on earthquake activity worldwide. Earthquakes are listed as they happen, showing magnitude, location and time. The data is also mapped, there's a link to a USGS report on specific quakes and you can get a notification alert set at a specific magnitude (the default level is 5 or more). A recent update includes tsunami info, greater customization of push alerts (by magnitude and "quiet time") and reporting agency filtering. What's been eye-opening, for me, is the sheer frequency of earthquakes -- there is an earthquake somewhere in the world every few minutes. By globally tracking earthquakes, and seeing how frequently they occur, I get a new appreciation of the earth as a living, moving and constantly recreating force. -- Patrick Thibodeau

Earthquake OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: Android (Earthquake Lite only) Price: $1.99; free Lite" version

My Tracks

I went for a run this morning. (Okay, so it was more of a slow jog.) How far did I go? How long did it take? Most important of all, am I improving over past runs? I know the answers to all these questions and more, because I have "My Tracks" running on my Droid Incredible. This open-source app from Google runs on most Android smart phones that have GPS. The app shows your route on a map as you go; you can display map or satellite photo modes. It also tracks statistics including distance, speed and elevation. You can save your results and even share them through Google Maps. Whether you walk, run or bike, it's a great way to track your trip. -- Alfred Poor

My Tracks OS reviewed: Android Other OSes it works with: None Price: Free


No matter where I am, I use OpenTable to make restaurant reservations. I use it from home to find restaurants that have availability when I want dinner -- say, the next half-hour or so. I use it when traveling to find restaurants that are close by and have a decent rating from other users. For example, I was at New York's Museum of Modern Art recently and used the "current location" feature -- the lamb dinner I had at a small pub around the corner was delicious, and I never would have known the restaurant was there otherwise. The app provides menus, ratings and directions -- especially handy when you're in a new place. There's also a point system -- when you get enough points, you can trade them in for a gift check. I've had no bad meals and only one mediocre one at an OpenTable restaurant. -- Joyce Carpenter

OpenTable OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: Android, BlackBerry, Nokia, Palm WebOS, Windows Phone 7 Price: Free

Pulse News Mini

Alphonso Labs' Pulse has become my default news reader, mainly because it seems so natural on a touch-based device like my Verizon iPhone 4. It allows you to thumb left and right through a given source's stories and up and down through sources, which you can add or subtract from a list or via RSS link. It's a nice user experience, even on the iPhone's 3.5 in. display. The stories can be read entirely within the app (although not all RSS sources provide the full stories). At the bottom of a story view window is a tab for the given source, which pulls up over the active story to allow you to select other stories from that source. Pulse recently added "Facebook Links," which pull in shared links from your Facebook account so that you can read them directly within Pulse. I've culled my news apps from 10 to five by using Pulse to access half of them. When the others offer the full story via RSS, I'll drop the other five. -- Mike Barton

Pulse News Mini OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: Android (as Pulse News Reader) Price: Free


I have wasted hours -- perhaps days -- of my time standing on street corners waiting for San Francisco's notoriously erratic buses and streetcars. Routesy goes a long way toward minimizing those waits, providing real-time GPS-based prediction data for the Bay Area's myriad transit routes. Select the route and the location where you want to catch the train, streetcar or bus, and Routesy taps into the NextBus transit-tracking service to show you the next four arrival estimates. You can also let the app determine your current location and the nearest stop on the selected route; a live Google map shows you where the nearest stop is. Bookmark your frequently used stops for fast access. I use the free, ad-supported version, which covers the Muni and BART transit agencies, but there are also ad-free $1.99 versions specifically for AC Transit, BART, Caltrain and Muni, and a $4.99 Pro Bay Area version that includes them all. -- Valerie Potter

Routesy OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: None Price: Free to $4.99


If you're looking for a restaurant while traveling -- or even when you're home -- Yelp's mobile app offers access to a wealth of reviews, so you can find out whether that little hole-in-the-wall is actually a neighborhood gem or a dump. You can browse by name or location and then filter by price and "open now," but the true attraction is the reviews. There are a couple of similar apps out there, such as OpenTable (designed for reservations, but has lots of reviews) and TripAdvisor, but Yelp is my favorite. -- Sharon Machlis

Yelp OS reviewed: WebOS Other OSes it works with: BlackBerry, iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7 Price: Free


Dropbox lets you store files online and sync them with multiple personal computers and mobile devices -- so as you add, delete or modify files on one device, those changes will be reflected on your other Dropbox devices. A login account with 2GB of storage is free to anyone who wants to sign up. Multiple people can share a single account to create workgroup file sharing; you can control access to specific people or specific folders. Two paid options let you store 50GB ($9.99/month) or 100GB ($19.99/month). After trying several other cloud-based file-sharing tools, I settled on this one about a year ago and have never looked back. --Scot Finnie

Dropbox OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: Android, BlackBerry Price: Free (up to 2GB storage)

LogMeIn Ignition

LogMeIn Ignition does everything you'd expect a remote access/control utility to do. On Apple mobile devices, unpinch/pinch zoom-in and zoom-out makes the iPhone a very usable remote-access device for larger-screened host computers. LogMeIn really hits its stride on the iPad, though; with a fast connection, you may even forget you're connected remotely. LogMeIn Ignition is a bit pricey at $30 -- but the ability to remotely access your main computer back at the ranch from your iPhone, iPad or Android device while you're out and about is a huge benefit. I'll bet that at some point during the first month or two of use, LogMeIn will prove itself to be a real lifesaver. (That's what happened to me.) And suddenly, $30 will seem a small price to pay. -- Scot Finnie

LogMeIn Ignition OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: Android Price: $29.99


I'm security-conscious, so I took the trouble to create complex, hard-to-guess passwords for the Web sites and online services I use. However, coughing up those passwords on a mobile device is a pain. KeePassDroid, a port of the KeePass password manager (it's available for a number of desktop and mobile environments), stores all my passwords in an encrypted database and makes it easy to paste them into form fields when needed. Passwords can be grouped and sorted, and you can even use a key file to further enhance encryption. KeePassDroid doesn't have some of the features of its desktop counterpart, like importing/exporting databases, but for the most part I haven't needed them. -- Serdar Yegulalp

KeePassDroid OS reviewed: Android Other OSes it works with: PocketPC, Windows Phone 7, iOS, J2ME, BlackBerry, PalmOS Price: Free

Opera Mini

Opera Mini, a version of the Opera browser specially formulated for mobile devices, has been designed to let you browse Web pages designed for regular devices. Requests are piped through Opera's servers and reformatted to use minimal bandwidth. (Another version of the browser, Opera Mobile, does all the processing on the phone itself.) Text is automatically reflowed to fit the width of your device's screen -- a very handy touch -- and you can save Web pages locally for future reading. Version 6, which recently shipped, supports improved pan/zoom for pages and a slew of minor performance and behavioral changes from the previous edition. Opera Mini doesn't support Flash, unfortunately, but for basic Web browsing it's just about perfect. -- Serdar Yegulalp

Opera Mini 6 OS reviewed: Android Other OSes it works with: BlackBerry, iOS, Windows Mobile, S60 Price: Free


While Twitter has become an important part of online life, the Web and smartphone clients provided by the service itself tend to be... well, inadequate. My personal complaints: They don't accept feeds from other services like Facebook and they don't let you edit a re-tweet. Luckily, there are several good third-party Twitter clients out there, and while I like several of them, right now I'm using TweetDeck. This one just works right -- you can have different columns based on lists or on searches which you access with a swipe; you can access Facebook and Twitter feeds in the same list; and the interface makes it simply to create, re-tweet or reply to a message. There are also three different widgets to choose from. If you spend time on Twitter, this is a good tool to use. -- Barbara Krasnoff

TweetDeck OS reviewed: Android Other OSes it works with: iOS (coming soon) Price: Free

Dragon Dictation

Dragon Dictation allows you to dictate memos or messages which you can then send out as SMS messages, e-mails or as posts to Facebook or Twitter. Using it is simple: Click the "Tap and dictate" button and speak slowly and clearly. It's not always 100% accurate -- if you speak quickly, it's more likely to jumble words together -- though it's surprisingly close most of the time. If you need to clean up your dictated message before sending it out, you can do so by pressing a small keyboard icon and then typing any corrections. -- Ken Mingis

Dragon Dictation OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: None Price: Free


In an era of information overload, Evernote helps you keep track of your data. The service stores Web pages, images, files and your own notes. It then syncs that database across multiple desktops and the cloud and lets you search by content or tag. It will even perform optical character recognition on text within images. The mobile app is not as robust as the desktop version, but it does let you easily add to or tap into your stored Evernote info. Snap a photo of a wine label, for example, and it will store the text of that vintage you've enjoyed. Scan or photograph business cards and import them into Evernote, and you can search for any text on the cards. Unlike the desktop version, you'll need an Internet connection to access all your data. -- Sharon Machlis

Evernote OS reviewed: WebOS Other OSes it works with: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile Price: Free


The ideal mind-mapping tool is simple, unobtrusive and doesn't interrupt the stream of consciousness. MindNode's simple interface is perfect for brainstorming, diagramming and developing ideas and projects effortlessly. I first discovered MindNode as a Mac app that met all of those requirements in spades -- and the iOS version with its tactile feel actually beats out the Mac version. Even writing on a dry erase board doesn't offer the ease of transcribing and developing an idea that this app does. I've used it to outline articles, figure out IT project requirements and even plan a move -- all of which MindNode made unbelievably easier. -- Ryan Faas

MindNode OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: None Price: Free


There are a lot of Office-type suites available for every smartphone platform. Quickoffice is easily my favorite. It comes in multiple variations with varying price points. The free version has limited appeal since it only allows viewing of some Office documents (which iOS supports on its own). The Mobile ($4.99) and Connect Mobile ($9.99) versions for iPhone offer full editing of both Word and Excel files using a very clean, easy-to-use interface. The difference between the two is that the Connect Mobile version allows you to access and share files via common cloud services including Dropbox and Google Docs -- a feature well worth the extra $5 given the clunky file management in iOS. There is also an iPad-optimized version for $14.99 that adds support for viewing and creating PowerPoint documents (it also makes great use of the iPad's larger screen). The iPad version actually delivers an overall better experience than Apple's iWork apps. --Ryan Faas

Quickoffice OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: Android, BlackBerry, webOS, Symbian Price: Free up to $14.99 (depending on feature set)


Springpad could easily be the digital version of an overstuffed wallet. Random thought? Store it in Springpad. Want to record audio? Save a bookmark? Yep -- Springpad. You can even scan bar codes or take photos for storage and quick access later, either via your mobile or the Web. It's very user friendly and visually appealing. For example, I just saved a YouTube bookmark for HBO's Flight of the Conchords comedy with the label "Must watch more." In fact, I feel like I should be using this Swiss Army Knife of tools for more, but I know I will find a way -- over time -- to reach critical mass. I'm not worried, though. Unlike the saved receipts, stamps and other bulk from my actual wallet -- now lying in a pile of papers on my desk -- Springpad's pile is sortable by date and searchable. -- Mike Barton

Springpad OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: Android Price: Free


My wife sells pottery at weekend craft shows. Taking credit cards used to be a big problem because wireless scanners are expensive. Then we found Square. You download the software, and they send you (for free) a little plastic square that plugs into the headphone jack of your smartphone. You can then process charges for VISA, MasterCard, Discover and American Express cards. The processing costs less than competing services; there's no monthly minimum and no per-swipe charge. The percentage you pay from each transaction is also competitive. The program is easy to use: just enter the amount and swipe, then the customer "signs" the touchscreen. You can send a receipt to the customer by e-mail showing the date, time and location of the purchase -- you can even include a photo of the product. And your money will be in your bank account the next day. Easier and less expensive than the alternatives, Square is a revolutionary combination of an app and a service. -- Alfred Poor

Square OS reviewed: Android Other OSes it works with: iOS Price: Free app; 2.75% for swiped transactions; 3.5% plus $0.15 for keyed-in transactions

VIP Access

If you have used one of the two-factor identity credentials such as the SecurID key fobs from RSA, you know that it is easy to misplace them or leave them home when traveling. A better alternative involves using software token credentials that are stored on cell phones. Symantec's VeriSign Identity Protection services provide a simple means of two-factor authentication for a wide variety of purposes such as e-mail, Web logins and VPN network remote access. Once you register them to your account, you bring up the app on your phone and enter the timed six digit code to authenticate yourself. If you use PayPal or eBay with VIP, there are no fees to download the app or use it. However, for other services -- such as if you want to integrate it with your existing banking app or use it as an access key for your VPN -- then you have to pay Symantec a per use fee. -- David Strom

VIP Access OS reviewed: iOS Other OSes it works with: Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile Price: Free; other fees vary depending on service

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