O'Grady's Best iOS apps of 2012

A lot of great iOS apps were released this year. Here's a list of my favorite apps of 2012.
By Jason D. O'Grady, Contributor
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O'Grady's Best iOS apps of 2012

2012 was not only the year of the app, it was the year that third-party apps eclipsed their Apple counterparts. For the first time the best email, calendar, notes, camera and messaging apps for iOS don't come from Cupertino. It's easy to say that Apple has lost a step or that the pace of innovation has slowed, but I'm more inclined to think that hungry developers increasingly see Apple's stagnant iOS apps as an opportunity and are capitalizing on it. So recharge your iTunes account balance, it's time to replace most (if not all) the apps on your home screen. Click on the "Next" link above for a gallery of my favorite iOS apps of 2012.

Further Reading

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Sparrow - Email for the masses - $2.99

Sparrow ($2.99, App Store) is an email client that lives up to the hype. I've been hearing about it for a while and mostly ignored it because I was too vested in Mail to even consider switching. When Google bought Sparrow this summer and I decided to take it for a spin and I haven't looked back. Sparrow has replaced Mail as one of the four icons on my iPhone dock. It features full IMAP and POP support so it works with most popular email services, but what makes it unique is its pane navigation UI. Instead of relying on button presses to switch between mailboxes (like Mail) Sparrow uses more natural feeling swipe gestures. There's a small learning curve, but it's worth it. Sparrow's well worth the $3 and I hope that Google keeps it alive.  

App to watch

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Fantasical - Calendar killer - $3.99

I've been using Fantastical for Mac ($14.99, Mac App Store) since it came out and was thrilled when I heard about the iPhone version ($3.99, App Store). It brings civility to my unruly calendars via the gorgeous DayTicker and makes creating new calendar events a breeze with natural language event creation. What takes 10 plus touches in Apple's calendar app can be accomplished by dictating (or typing) a sentence like "meet Ryan for wings on Monday at 8pm." Fantastical has the smarts to all the data into the right fields and looks great doing it. Apple's calendar app has barely changed in years and Fantastical roared by it like it was standing still. It could be a little faster on first launch and I can't wait for the iPad version, but overall the Fantastical is what Calendar aspires to be. Apple should acquire developer Flexbits to replace its tired iOS app, I know that I already have. 

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Clear - Gesture-based Note taking app - $1.99

The iPhone is the perfect device for taking notes but there are a plethora of apps in the crowded note-taking space. Despite using a half dozen or so such apps, Clear ($1.99, App Store) is the one that's on my iPhone home screen. It's an exceedingly beautiful, gesture-based app that actually makes it a joy to look at my to-do list -- which is saying a lot. Instead of relying on old school buttons and that horrible Comic Sans font (like Apple's Notes app), Clear uses intuitive swipe gestures to create, delete and move lists and list items. Bonus points for the new OS X app ($9.99, Mac App Store) and iCloud syncing. 

Runner Up

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Downcast - The definitive podcast app - $1.99

The Apple Podcasts app has a horrible UI, is buggy as hell and deserves to be Forestalled. After the novelty of the skeuomorphic reel-to-reel tape player (remember those?) wears off, you should sober up and purchase Downcast ($1.99, App Store) -- a real podcast app. Downcast features intelligent podcast discovery (instead of a counter-intuitive "store") and controls that let you auto-download podcast subscriptions according to network (i.e., Wi-Fi), location, or time. It even streams podcasts on demand freeing up precious local storage on your device. If you own an iPhone and an iPad Downcast syncs podcast subscriptions, playlists, settings and episode information via iCloud. Apple needs to acquire the developer then ask him to redesign iTunes. 

[Downcast for OS X will enter private beta "soon after the new year" which means that I might new use iTunes again.]

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1Password 4.0 - A required password app - $7.99

Ever since the invention of the password there have been hacks (just ask Mat Honan). It's an imperfect solution for security but the venerable password isn't going away any time soon. In order to protect your identity, financial/health data (and baby pictures) you need to a) stop using the same password on multiple websites, and b) stop storing all of your "strong" passwords in an Excel spreadsheet on your computer. 1Password ($7.99, App Store) solves this problem by storing your passwords in an encrypted database that's protected by, one password. When paired with the OS X app and synchronized over iCloud or DropBox it's an unbeatable combination. 1Password for OS X ($49.99) is what really ties it all together, giving you the ability to create and submit passwords directly from your browser toolbar. This is single piece of software that I probably recommend the most.

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Chrome for iOS - Free

I'm increasingly replacing Safari with Chrome (free, App Store) on my iPhone and iPad. Chrome has a modern UI with a unified search/URL field, unlimited tabs that you can flip through like a deck of cards and synchronization of tabs, bookmarks, passwords and omnibox data across devices that actually works. Mobile Safari on the other hand, feels like a relic of days gone by. It requires an extra touch to search, limits you to eight "pages" (no tabs), and iCloud bookmark syncing that is so broken that I leave it turned off.

Chrome lacks the Nitro JavaScript engine -- which Apple restricts to Mobile Safari for "security reasons." And since there's no "default app" setting in iOS 6, touching links in Apple apps (like Mail, Messages, etc.) will open them in Safari. The alternative of course, it to switch to apps like Sparrow, Google Maps and Google+ which allow you to open links in Chrome.

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Prismatic - Best news app - Free

Prismatic (free, App Store) is my favorite news app for iOS. If you like reading news on your iPhone, you'll dig Prismatic. It learns about your interests from your Facebook, Twitter and Google+ accounts and presents you with a clean news feed with a stream of interesting stories. The layout is speedy and concise and you can easily share a story by long pressing anywhere on it. When I've only got a couple of minutes to catch up on news Prismatic is my first stop.

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Circa - Curated news you can use - Free

Unlike other news apps which rely on you to input your favorite topics or social networks (so that they grok them for topics) Circa (free, App Store) takes a completely different approach to news. It delivers human curated news in four categories: Top Stories, United States, Politics and World. There's nothing to set up, it just displays the top news of the moment in a given category as collected by human editors. What makes Circa unique is that it distills the relevant parts of the story from several sources and aggregates the information into one metastory. But it's the Follow Story feature is what sets Circa apart. When you follow a story the app sends you a push notification when a new data point is available. Good stuff.


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23snaps - Instagram for parents - Free

If you have young kids and you take a lot of pictures of them 23snaps (free, App Store) is your app. I'm leery of sharing photos of my kids on sites like FaceBook/Instagram because I'm never quite sure when they might change their privacy policy and plaster my pics on a can of Budweiser -- and over-sharing can be annoying to your childless friends. 23snaps bridges the gap of not wanting to clog your feed with endless kid vids and grandparents and out-of-state relatives who can't get enough pictures of little junior. Just set up your profile, add your kids, then select who should see what they're up to and share away. Then copious photos and videos of your offspring can easily be shared with Nannie and Pop without scaring away your hipster friends. Ah, parenthood. Isn't it grand?


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Google Maps - The best get better - Free

It's so easy that it's almost unfair. It's also such an obvious pick that I almost didn't include it, but here it is anyway. Google Maps for iOS (free, App Store) further solidifies the big G's position as the king of big data. Apple made a huge tactical mistake when it replaced Google Maps with its own inferior Maps app and it's still feeling the pain from the gaffe. Google Maps has over 7 years of map, street view, local and public transit data and is the undisputed champion in the space. Google Maps for iOS also includes voice guided turn-by-turn directions on the iPhone 4 -- a device that Apple has abandoned in a shameless act of planned obsolescence. Google Maps even turned up the notch in the UI department making most of Apple's first-party apps seem antiquated and lame in comparison. Google's Maps, Search, Chrome and Sparrow apps have now replaced the Apple equivalents on my home screen and Apple's going to need a major turnaround to reverse a very bad trend.

Runners Up

  • Waze (free, App Store) Still my favorite social driving app. Fun but not enough to replace an app like Google Maps.
  • Grokr (free, App Store) Bills itself as a discovery app that learns from your searches and delivers personalized results based on your interests and location. Cool predictive traffic, but 1.0 version kills your battery.
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Flickr - The former photo king makes a comeback - Free

I used to use Flickr religiously - before photo sharing was even a thing. Unfortunately, like many things at Yahoo!, Flickr was left to whither and die. The new Flickr for iPhone (free, App Store) is a complete rewrite that's nothing short of amazing. The new iOS app features better-than-Instagram filters, editing tools and a copious amount of sharing options. Plus it's great to just browse photos. The new Flickr is so good that I renewed my Flickr Pro account and I'm seriously reconsidering my Picasa Web Albums renewal. I can't wait for the universal version of Flickr for iOS so that I can use it on my iPad.

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Addappt - Automatic contact management - Free

This year when we mailed out our Christmas cards I had to email, text or telephone at least a dozen people to confirm that they were still at their same address as last year. If they were using Addappt for iOS (free, App Store) their new contact information would have been sent to me automatically when it changed. It's an up-to-date address book that's maintained by your friends. Addappt is a bootstrapped operation founded by former LinkedIn employee Mrinal Desai and some ex-Microsoftees. They haven't accept outside financing so Addappt's not completely polished yet, but there's also no corporate strings attached or pressure to "monetize" your contacts. After you install Addappt, you need to request an invitation, but mine arrived via email within 24 hours. From there it imports your iOS address book, and looks for other users on Addappt. Then you request a link to your contacts and (if they approve) you're done. Whenever a linked contact updates their address, phone number or email, it's automatically updated in your contacts. Addappt has a strong privacy policy and promises not to sell, rent or share your contacts, and I trust them a lot more than Facebook with my contact data.

Further Reading

  • Jason Hiner's review for ZDNET's Between The Lines
  • Walt Mossberg's video review on WSJ.com
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Honorable Mention iOS apps of 2012

I could probably pick 50 iOS apps that I loved this year (at least 10 in the photo category alone) but my editor said that I had to publish this post this year. That being said, here are some of my next favorite iOS apps of 2012.

  • Launch Center Pro ($2.99, App Store) - Creates quick shortcuts to specific features buried deep within apps. Use it to call or text your significant other, launch your favorite photo sharing app or look up a location with Google Maps. Includes preconfigured flashlight and screen dimmer shortcuts.
  • Checkmark (free, App Store) - Next-generation reminder app that allows you to create location or time-based reminders in three touches. It puts Apple's Reminders app to shame. 
  • Twist (free, App Store) - Twist automatically gives your (opt-in) followers your exact arrival time via push notification. That way, if you make an unscheduled stop, or get caught in traffic, they're automatically updated with your new arrival time. Read my August 2012 review.
  • GroceryIQ (free, App Store) - Shared grocery lists with UPC barcode scanning and voice transcription.
  • Houzz (free, App Store) - Excellent Home remodeling/redecorating app with over 900k photos from top designers.
  • Wickr (free, App Store) - Text, picture, audio and video messaging with military-grade encryption and a self-destruction mechanism. Sender control over who can read messages and for how long. [CNET review]

What did I miss? What are your favorite iOS apps?

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