My essential iOS apps — Part 1

First things first

This article may disappoint some people. It doesn’t want to be an in-depth guide to “The 30 best iOS apps you must have on your iPhone or iPad”. It’s not going to be another piece along the lines of “The best iOS apps introduced in 2013” or “iOS apps that everybody must have”.

Instead I wanted to focus on a selection of apps that have proven to be indispensable to me over the years, making this article more akin to a retrospective of sorts rather than a review of ‘what’s hot in the App Store now’. Perhaps you’ll find something useful among my ramblings.

Part 1 — On the iPhone

The impact of the iPhone on my digital life has been enormous. It revolutionised my personal computing for the third time, after the Macintosh Duo system and the Newton. When Steve Jobs announced it in January 2007, I knew I wanted one. At that time, although I was generally satisfied with my SonyEricsson K700i (mostly by its long-lasting battery and overall reliability), I also felt that mobile phones could do better than that. At the same time I wasn’t attracted by those high-end smartphones of the pre-iPhone era, because they looked too much ‘feature-stuffed’, so to speak. Their interfaces looked too unnecessarily complicated and cramped. They lacked intuitiveness (when trying a few of them I always had the feeling I would have needed to study the instruction manual to make the most out of them). Some of them had ridiculously small buttons to navigate their interface, or ridiculously small styluses. I was looking at the beauty and simplicity of the Newton’s UI, and wishing that something of that kind could make its way into a smartphone. When Jobs demoed the iPhone at the January Macworld San Francisco 2007 keynote, I immediately felt that all my mobile-phone-related wishes had come true.

As you may remember, we in Europe had to wait 2008 and the iPhone 3G to have a first-hand experience with an iPhone (unless of course you obtained a first-generation iPhone and jailbroke it). I spent 2007 in excruciating wait to have an iPhone, and I was one of the first adopters when the iPhone 3G was available here in Spain. Given my limited budget, my iPhone 3G lasted as my primary phone from July 2008 to April 2011, when I upgraded to an iPhone 4 — which is still my current iPhone.

My use of the iPhone subtly changed over time. When the iPhone 3G got its final iOS update (4.2.1), I used to have a lot of apps on it, and I was using the iPhone for practically everything when I was on the move. When I upgraded to an iPhone 4, I really started focusing more on iPhone photography, given the abysmal difference between the 2MP camera of the iPhone 3G and the 5MP camera of the iPhone 4. I still had a lot of apps on my iPhone 4, and it still was my computer in a pocket, but I was especially enjoying it as my ‘everywhere camera’. When I purchased an iPad 3 on June 2012, many apps I typically used on the iPhone (news apps, feed readers, photo editors, writing apps, etc.) were definitely more enjoyable and useful on the iPad. So I started using fewer apps on the iPhone, and even the need of upgrading to a better model (such as the 4S before and the 5 later) was somehow attenuated by the iPad. The iPad had become my ‘productivity device’, and the iPhone’s usage became more focused on selected tasks: light browsing, email, photography & video, music/radio, social networks, occasional ebook reader and weather checker, and little else.

This verbose preamble should explain why my selection of essential iOS apps on the iPhone is limited to a few, tried-and-trusted apps. As I said in the excerpt, these are the apps I would pick if I were to set up an iPhone as a new device with a minimal selection of apps.

Dropbox and Simplenote — My basic syncing needs are fulfilled by these two apps. I’m currently looking into more powerful and versatile apps to handle my Dropbox, but for now the official client does a decent-enough job for me. Simplenote got better at every update and I never experienced any data loss when syncing with the Simplenote app for Mac or with Notational Velocity.

Google Maps — Apple’s Maps app is still not accurate or reliable enough where I live. Google Maps is, and it has happily taken a spot on the iPhone’s home screen, while the built-in Maps app lies hidden in a folder far away.

Photo apps — As I said, I’ve used my iPhone a lot as a dependable ‘everywhere camera’, that’s why there are quite a few essentials in this category:

  1. VSCO Cam is probably the app I would put in my dock if I had one more slot (and it is in the dock of my iPhone 3GS). On my iPhone 4 running iOS 7 it’s the snappiest third-party photo app after the built-in Camera app. I like the clean interface, the filters (which feel like true photographic filters, not just gimmicks to give all iPhone photos a vintage look) and the powerful yet simple-to-use editing tools. And I really love the VSCO Grid, the place where you can show off your best shots taken with the app. My VSCO Grid is here. If you want to read a nice, detailed review of VSCO Cam, I suggest this article by Nick Heer.
  2. KitCam [No longer in the App Store] is probably the most complete photo app I’ve used. For shooting, it follows a Hipstamatic-like paradigm where you use a combination of virtual lenses, films and frames. It has three focus modes (Auto, Spot, Manual); lockable, touch focus & exposure points; video stabilisation; face detection; live exposure histogram; low light boost; four flash modes; an auto white balance toggle, and much more. Then it has a wealth of editing tools (White Balance compensation control, cropping & straightening, Auto adjust & Clarify, Exposure & White Balance, Colour Balance, Levels, etc.). Yes, its interface can become a bit crowded and some of the (many) filters it offers feel a bit unnecessary; it’s also a bit slow to launch on the iPhone 4. Yet to me it’s an essential app because of a few particular features, which I absolutely love:
    • [a] Its black & white Film Noir pack, with three virtual films that imitate three Ilford black & white films (HP5 plus, Delta and XP2 Super 400 if I’m not mistaken) and do a great job at that, so much that now I use KitCam to shoot black & white photos almost exclusively.
    • [b] It can be configured to upload photos automatically to a FTP server, which is a sharing feature I haven’t seen much in other photo apps. It can be quite handy to have a series of photos automatically backed up on your server.
    • [c] Best of all, the beauty of KitCam is that editing is not destructive. You can take a photo with a 16:9 aspect ratio, a black & white filter and a black frame, but you can change everything later and have it become a square photo with popping colours and a white frame if you like. I still haven’t found another (good) iOS photo app that gives me this level of freedom after taking a photo.
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  4. Hipstamatic was probably the third-party photo app I used most on my iPhone 3G. When Hipstamatic debuted in late 2009, I thought it was one of those photo apps whose appeal would quickly wane after the initial ‘cool’ moment of discovery. Instead, I kept using it and kept purchasing film/lenses add-ons (‘paks’). I believe Hipstamatic developers have managed to keep things interesting over time, and with all the paks I’ve bought so far I can create a lot of different film/lens combinations which, if chosen carefully, can produce fantastic results.
  5. Hueless is another great photo app. You use it to shoot exclusively in black & white, and the results are really nice. I like “VictorianDavidJ” review on the App Store, which very well sums up what I love about this app: If you want a solid black-and-white photo app that is first-and-foremost a camera, this is the one. I love the colour filters, and the way you can adjust the percent of filter applied. These are proper colour filters in a black-and-white environment, too, affecting tone but not applying tint. Contrast adjustment is slick and easy, and there are preset slots for common shooting modes. Overall a very nice, true camera app.
  6. Mattebox by Ben Syverson has been a great, serendipitous discovery. It’s one of the rare apps I have really found by chance, browsing the App Store aimlessly one day, probably looking for something else. You should really check the Mattebox revamped website to get an idea of the look & feel of this app. When I started using the first version of Mattebox, I immediately loved its clean, intuitive interface and the presence of very few selected filters which, as in VSCO Cam’s case, all gave my photos a very natural, ‘film’ look. After a long wait, now Mattebox 2 is out and it’s even better. I really love what Syverson did with the filters: now they’re live, you can easily create them and share them, and I’m truly amazed by the general quality of the filters offered by the community. Again, take a good tour of the website if you’re not convinced, but if you ask me, Mattebox is really worth the $4.99/€4.49. (Fair warning, the app’s performance on the iPhone 4 is good enough, but not stellar in my experience.)
  7. Snapseed — Although you could use Snapseed as an app to take photos and then edit them, I use it as a separate photo and image editor. Powerful tools (Selective Adjust above all, in my opinion), ease of use, fast performance (even on my humble iPhone 4), and it’s free. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

Scotty — This app transfers photos and videos between iOS devices or from an iOS device to a Mac, over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. There are probably a lot of similar apps out there. I find Scotty to be a no-nonsense, fast, reliable app and so I don’t see why I should look for alternatives.

iMDB — The iOS app of the Internet Movie Database is a must-have to check information about movies, TV series, actors. Of course it’s part of my essentials.

Episodes — It’s an app for keeping track of the TV series you’re watching or interested in. I’ve been using it since its early days when it was just a Web app. I like it for its simplicity and clean UI. Those who want a more iOS 7-looking app may want to check another recent favourite of mine, TeeVee.

Eucalyptus — I remember scoffing at the idea of reading anything longer than a news article or blog post on the screen of my iPhone 3G (when it was my primary phone). Eucalyptus made me change my mind and made me actually read more books. Eucalyptus is not the kind of ebook reader like Stanza or iBooks, you can’t feed ePubs or PDFs to it. Instead, it’s a great tool to read English-language, out of copyright books stored in the huge Project Gutenberg archive. Yes, it’s expensive. No, it hasn’t been updated to sport the look of iOS 7. And yes, it doesn’t matter at all, because you use the app to read books, and when you’re reading you only see the book’s pages, and when you flip the pages, you really feel you’re flipping the pages of a real book.

Wikipanion — My favourite app to read the Wikipedia. Its new iOS 7 UI makes it look like a built-in app. Enough said.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary — Being a translator, I have a few dictionary apps on my iOS devices. Of the monolingual dictionaries, Merriam-Webster is the one I look up more frequently, and that’s why I picked it for my ‘essentials’ collection. I also like the fact that it supports voice search (powered by Dragon): as a non-native English speaker, I often use it to improve my English pronunciation.

Radium — A recent, very pleasant discovery which has quickly become a must-have for me. Radium is (you guessed it) an Internet radio player. I already was a user of Radium for Mac, but in recent times I basically stopped listening to the radio. Since installing Radium on my iPhone, though, I picked up the habit again and listen to the beloved BBC in the mornings. Its iOS 7-ready UI is just beautiful.

Spotify — The only music streaming service I’m subscribed to, so of course its app is part of my iPhone essentials.

Pushpin for Pinboard — As you may have guessed, it’s a Pinboard client. Is it the best? It’s not my place to say. I like it a lot. It’s simple, fast, and easy to use. I’ve been beta testing it for a while since I was asked to provide the Italian localisation for it. The main developer is a great guy and I know he cares about the app. And that’s enough for me.

Vert — I often need a unit converter when translating documents and books containing measurements in imperial units that need to be converted to their metric equivalents. Vert is a very complete app with a great iOS 7 user interface that’s a pleasure to use. (On my iPhone 3G I still use Converter by Architechies, which is another nice unit converter that has been on the App Store since the beginning, and probably one of the first third-party apps I bought for my then-new iPhone.)

[Update, Feb. 5, 2014 — I have to add Unread to my list of essentials. Unread is a great RSS reader for the iPhone. Read my brief review about it.]

Social apps — I don’t have a Facebook account, and I’ve stopped using Instagram actively since it was acquired by Facebook. Therefore, the only social places you can find me are Twitter and App.net. For Twitter, I’ve been a Twitterrific user since day one. The app has always been perfect for my needs, so I’ve never looked elsewhere. For App.net, things aren’t as clear-cut, and at present I have more than one favourite. I like Netbot and Felix, because they’re both rich in features and they both make crossposting to Twitter very easy. But I’m also enjoying Riposte more and more lately, especially because it has an Interactions section where I can see at a glance if one of my posts has been favourited or reposted, and I also love how thoughtfully gestures are implemented (I don’t like apps whose UI relies on gestures too much because, if not done well, things can get confusing. Riposte has it right, in my opinion. Gestures are simple, easily discoverable, memorable, predictable.)

Finally, I needed an app to exchange messages with my wife without resorting to SMS texts (expensive). We cannot use iMessages because I’m on an iPhone and she uses an Android phone. And frankly I also wanted to avoid apps like WhatsApp or Line because I don’t like their interfaces much and I’m not sure how secure they are. In the end I (we) chose Telegram Messenger because the developer seems to really care about privacy and security: among the many features of this app, I especially like the ‘secret chat’, which uses end-to-end encryption so that the message I exchange with the other person are really private (at least one hopes so nowadays.) For more information, read the security FAQ on the app’s website.

 

I guess that’s it for Part 1. In Part 2 you’ll find an overview of my essential iOS apps on the iPad. Thanks for reading.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!