Register for your free ZDNet membership or if you are already a member, sign in using your preferred method below.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
The Apple Podcasts app has a horrible UI, is buggy as hell and deserves to be . 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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
What did I miss? What are your favorite iOS apps?