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iPhone apps I use (2008 edition)

Dealing with the productivity iPhone apps sure makes me look like a wet blanket. But, as much fun complaining can be, I have had fun with the iPhone software. To keep my enthusiasm in check, I’m limiting this entry to the apps I had found in 2008, and continue to use.

But a couple of things before I start. First, to find out when applications go on sale, as well as when they get updated, check out App Shopper. This site is particularly helpful because you can watch applications without having to purchase or download them. Find an app you’re curious about, then subscribe to its RSS feed. ¡Simplemente!

And second, the iTunes Link Maker is a handy site for creating links to email or embed in your website. You can make links to applications, music, shows, and so forth.

Application categories to jump to:


In the excellent movie π, the protagonist states, “Mathematics is the language of nature.” What better way to “speak” in that language than to use PCalc Lite (free | iTunes link)? But all I really need is a simple RPN calculator with a clean UI, and PCalc Lite satisfies this oddball dependency of mine.

Do I have a compulsive desire to check the weather reports? Hm, do I…? Would you believe that my favorite has remained a simple webclip to to my home screen? That perhaps the Weather Channel native app (free | iTunes link) comes in a close second? That I find AccuWeather’s native app (free | iTunes link) too cluttered? That I find WeatherBug (free | iTunes link) a bit too limited, in spite of nice location photos?

Starmap iconSadly, I rarely take time to skywatch. Somehow this didn’t stop me from getting Starmap ($11.99 | iTunes link), which was the first app I purchased for the iPhone. No regrets, though. Starmap is chock full of easily accessible astronomy information. (Well, except for the menu’s awkward spinning dial, but the developer claims that’ll be improved in the next version.) What’s that planet? *Zip* Venus. Where did that meteor come from? *Zoop* The Chi Orionids. Can I adjust for twilight and the tilt of my head? Oh, yes, and more.

iBird Backyard iconBird watching apps further exhibit how my stinginess evaporates upon the discovery of compelling field guides. I started with Birds! ($9.99 | iTunes link), the only bird watching app for a while. It was a good start, but I’ve moved onto iBird Backyard ($4.99 | iTunes link) and iBird West ($9.99 | iTunes link), developed by WhatBird. (WhatBird maintains additional regional guides, as well as iBird Plus which covers all North American species.) iBird Backyard covers 145 birds in North America which are likely to appear around feeders and birdbaths, whereas iBird West comprehensively covers 711 species west of the Rocky Mountains. Both are great, but have some issues: typos, limited searching, strange navigation for going between similar bird species, and occasional crashes due to buggy memory management.

Nevertheless, I still recommend the iBird guides. In spite of the minor drawbacks, the iBird tools rank among my most-used apps. They are easy to use, the ultimate in interactive reference applications: WhatBird apps succeed in integrating audio (birdsongs), visuals (photos and illustrations), and cross-references to reduce confusion among similar species, as well as provide links to species’ pages in Wikipedia. As much as I am hyper-eager to see more identification guides / keys for other fauna, flora, geology and foodstuffs, I could only hope that such apps would approach the high standards set by WhatBird’s example.

Transport and dining

iCaltrain iconI replaced the Caltrain tool I had used for over a decade on my Palm devices with iCaltrain ($4.99 | iTunes link). True, I could use the free mobile site, but the native app is much faster and smoother, and utilizes the iPhone’s location services to display the closest station.

I wish I knew about about the Muni Time before I paid for Routesy ($2.99 | iTunes link). You simply make a webclip to the SF Muni mobile website on your iPhone, all for free. Routsey does make use of location services, but most of the time I just need route and schedule information. In any case, both Muni Time and Routesy seem to use NextBus data.

iWant iconThe Yelp app (free | iTunes link) isn’t too shabby for searching for restaurants and shops. But there are other apps that present Yelp content better than Yelp itself. iWant (free | iTunes link) succeeds here, most notably during roadtrips! Its main screen neatly categorizes places like gas stations, banks, restaurants, clothes and grocery stores, pharmacies, and cafés.

OpenTable iconI’ve found the native OpenTable iPhone app (free | iTunes link) much easier to use than the mobile website, especially for booking reservations. Urbanspoon (free | iTunes link) can be helpful in locating restaurants based on cuisine type, cost, and of course, location — with the added amusement of shaking The Device to choose a place. Note that Urbanspoon focuses only on eateries, and seems to have a smaller directory than Yelp. I can rate restaurants without registration, but I’d need to create an account if I wanted to add or track restaurants on Urbanspoon.

Reference materials

Wikipanion iconI was torn between Wikipanion (free | iTunes link) and WikiTap (free | iTunes link) for access to Wikipedia. They both have straightforward interfaces, displaying content fit literally for the iPhone. But I’ve decided to stick with Wikipanion for now, although it’s rather slow to launch. I finally tired of WikiTap’s habit of displaying the top videos on startup. Also got tired of dismissing the space hogging videoclip bar every time an article loaded. (Thus I learned that I prefer to see text and images on Wikipedia, not movies.)

Constitution iconConstitution (free | iTunes link) neatly provides easy access to the United States Constitution. I just wish it included some sort of search mechanism, to better navigate the ocean (albeit a nicely organized ocean) of legal words and statements.

Social networking is another name for communication

Facebook iconI spend little time doing the online social networking jig. Okay, okay, except for Facebook, and occasionally LinkedIn. The Facebook app (free | iTunes link) is handy little thing, with clearly arranged features.

In addition, I read what seems to be a gazillion RSS feeds, although I’m not sure if I want to read them on my iPhone. After all, it’s much easier to do so with the larger display on the Mac. However, do let me know about your favorite feed readers for the iPhone. It could certainly come in handy someday, if I manage to prune the list of subscriptions.

Then there is reading email. I don’t think I could depend on mail on the iPhone. I receive too much spam, and client-side spam control on the iPhone n’éxiste pas. However, webmail systems which have server-side spam control, like Google and Yahoo, work fine. But because of my current hosting plan, I cannot solely depend on such services.

Considering my nearly pathological hatred of telephonic communication, I still hesitate to use instant messaging (IM) iPhone apps. A phone’s ring can infuriate me, so I wouldn’t want an IM to put me into a similarly unpleasant state. A positive use for instant messaging, though, would be as a substitute for SMS. I just haven’t made up my mind between IM+ Lite (a.k.a., IM Plus Lite, free | iTunes link) or Palringo (free | iTunes link).

IM+ Lite is simple and handy, but used to crash a lot until an update arrived in November (v1.4 or v1.5). Palringo was completely useless until late September (v1.2.2): up until that version, it kept refusing my logins. Nowadays Palringo seems a lot more polished feature-wise than IM+ Lite, even allowing picture and voice messages to be sent. I wish Palringo didn’t require registration even though it’s free — yet another login to keep track of. IM+ Lite keeps a transcript of conversations, which is great when interruptions occur, but not so great if you don’t want chat histories for privacy’s sake. So you could see how it remains a toss up between these two apps.

Media and entertainment

How comfortable is it for you, dear reader, to read books, poetry or comics on the iPhone, or any small, mobile device? After reading for about 20 to 30 minutes, I start getting a headache. Of course, this could be due to the power of my contact lens and spectacles. In spite of this, I’ve briefly played with eReader (free | iTunes link) by Fictionwise, Stanza (free | iTunes link) by Lexcycle, and Classics ($4.99 | iTunes link). As with the IM apps, this has become another case of dissatisfaction.

One thing I discovered: eBooks (not the pre-copyright or public domain ones) are expensive! I couldn’t find any I wanted to buy at Fictionwise, so eReader quickly became useless without purchases. Stanza allows for easy iPhone downloads of free eBooks. But you know what? So many free eBooks have shitty formatting — nearly invisible paragraph delineation, images and lines clipped off, completely unreadable lines — all which contribute to a painful reading experience.

A couple friends who read a lot of eBooks on Treos have asked about their transferability onto the iPhone. Lexcycle has developed desktop clients for Windows and Macintosh, which would be useful if the instructions were better organized. But hey, it’s beta software! I spent a bit of time gritting my teeth while figuring how to setup and transfer eBooks with Stanza Desktop, but I learned the application depends on network sharing for file transfers. The solution is to jiggle the Mac’s firewall settings to allow traffic on port 9562.

Classics.jpgWhich brings me to Classics. Oh, how I wish I could read other books with this interface! (The app is presently limited to 15 public domain books.) Even though you cannot change how eBooks are displayed, it’s beautiful, yet gentle on the eyes. Dark brown text on a barely beige background, a pleasantly lower contrast (but not unreadably low contrast) compared with black text on a white background (or vice versa). Thoughtful placement of chapter titles and page numbers, not mention thoughtful use (but not overuse) of animation for page turning and bookmarking — so much that it feels like viewing a paper-based book. No messed up paragraphs or line spacing. Now if only there were ways to add to or remove eBooks in Classics…

Shadows iconShadows Never Sleep (free | iTunes link). This is a lovely example of interactive literature. Here you zoom in to see more of an illustrated, non-linear poem. It’d be wonderful to find more stories, books or poems designed in such innovative ways, but the Books section in the iTunes App Store doesn’t lend itself to productive library or bookstore searching. (Yes, I find the Power Search tool rather limited, unless I’m missing some tricks there.)

Now-Playing iconWould you believe how rarely I’ve watched videos on the iPhone? I think that returns to my difficulty with reading or surfing for extended periods of time with a small display. However, watching shorts on YouTube, or movie trailers, has been a big convenience. I highly recommend Now Playing (formerly BoxOffice, free | iTunes link) for obtaining movie times, finding upcoming theatre and DVD release info, and as an excellent one-stop source for trailers.

midomi iconI’m terrible at remembering song names and musician details, and even worse at recalling what sounds actually go with which artist. Midomi (free | iTunes link) helps a lot. I know many people like Shazam, but I find its interface less straightforward than Midomi’s. In Midomi, I can simply choose a source of sound or means of identification. However with Shazam, I couldn’t get the hang of “tagging,” which doesn’t allow keyboard entry, only sound, in order to identify music.

Then there are games

Morocco iconFor the first several months of iPhone usage, I resisted. I rarely played videogames before, so why bother? I’ve never been keen on action or multiplayer games, have an aversion to feeling rushed, and am generally a lazy ass when it comes to stratagem. Unsurprisingly, I’ve got a short attention span for games that are too easy or too frustrating. For example, I usually enjoy hangman, but I ended up removing the two free versions by MobilityWare and by JamSoft. I also got pissed off at iSpot by Noovo Communications, even though I often like find-the-differences games.

Ah, but things have changed. Because I really appreciate developers who pay attention to details (e.g., iBird, iCaltrain, Classics, Now Playing), the iPhone eventually reminded me that games are no exception, whether simple or complex. I relish being immersed in a good story, and have fun with hidden-object tasks, light puzzles, and some wordplay. Even though I really yearn for smooth graphics, I award many points for imaginative styles which elicit bemused admiration. Here are some recommendations:

  • Stone of Destiny ($0.99 | iTunes link) has so far been the best adventure game I’ve played on the iPhone. Your uncle mysteriously disappeared, and to help him you must obtain items while traveling through exotic places in order to find the Stone of Destiny. It’s somewhat easy, but has a nice mixture of hidden-object and small, gesture-driven puzzles, as well as creative visuals.
  • Morocco (free | iTunes link), a free version of Othello, goes completely against my impatience with strategy games. I can play it over and over and over and…
  • Bix Lite (free | iTunes link), an iPhone version of Qix, is a simple, but fun game where you fence off portions of the screen without colliding with the special power balls. But if you can trap the balls, you can take advantage of their powers: slowing down, extra life, etc. This lets me relive those arcade days I never experienced. Once I complete the first six levels, I’ll be tempted to get the paid version.
  • Does Bubblewrap (free | iTunes link) count? Yes, of course. Remember to turn off the speaker, unless you want to draw attention to yourself.

For more iPhone game reviews, check out Jed’s article on puzzle games.

It’d be great to see something like The Fool’s Errand for the iPhone, with a modern look and feel. Saying this, I realize, again exposes the dearth of my computer game experience and knowledge. 😉


Evernote.jpgFor note-taking and list-making on the go, I still use Evernote (free | iTunes link). I even signed up for their premium service — the way to ensure a constant secure (SSL) connection. I enjoy how Evernote allows me to keep track of things in text, with photos, or by voice. If they ever adopt a transcription service, they just might become the ultimate productivity tool. If they can first fix their offline and editing issues.

vlingo iconVlingo (free | iTunes link) is a cross between a productivity tool and a navigational aid, powered by your voice. Vlingo does not offer true hands-free operation (but no iPhone app does, AFAIK) — you need to tap or hold while speaking — but it’s the closest thing and most useful way to operate the iPhone by voice. Not only can you web search and surf, you can also get directions, make phone calls, and even update your social networking sites.

In search of…

…Unit convertors

I’m having a pickle of a time trying to find a comprehensive, yet well-designed unit conversion app for the iPhone. I didn’t find a2z Pro, UniCon or Units useful or worthwhile enough. I’ve settled on The Converter ($0.99 | iTunes link) for now, but it feels somewhat cluttered, so I’m open to other recommendations.

On a related note, I’ve noticed that among the various conversion apps, there’s a broad range of currency data available. That is, the exchange rate in one would differ from another, since they get their rate data from different sources. I like the simplicity of Converter Pro (free | iTunes link). But which others are worth considering for accessing sensible (i.e., realistic) exchange rates? Such a tool would be indispensable for maintaining a budget on an international trip.

…Language resources

I want really good dictionary and thesaurus applications, especially those including usage rules and examples. (I’m sure I’m not the only native English speaker who gets confused by the myriad of prepositions.) I used to have a webclip to, but its mobile interface still left much to be desired.

I also want to find useful translation tools, including dictionaries for Spanish, French, and maybe even Japanese. I’d love to hear about apps (or mobile sites) which offer common phrases, cultural explanations, and pronunciation examples — all essential while traveling or reading non-English documents.

Already mentioned, but…

Advice on iPhone feed readers? Further input on messaging apps? Sources of interactive literature? Please do share!

And a tip on iPhone app icons

I kept forgetting how to extract iPhone app icons. The process yields a square image without the glow and rounded corners — I imagine iTunes adds those dynamically. But it’s enough so that I can use the images for review purposes.

  1. Go find the app’s .ipa file, usually within ~/Music/iTunes/Mobile Applications/. Copy [appname].ipa to another place, like your desktop.
  2. Since it’s really a Zip archive, rename the file to [appname].zip.
  3. Open [appname].zip and locate the file iTunesArtwork. It’s really a JPEG file, so append the extension as well as change its name so that its now called [appname].jpg.
  4. Resize or crop as needed. For example, I used Preview to make 48×48-pixel icons.

If there’s a better way to get a higher quality version of the icon, do let me know. Not sure if taking a screenshot from iTunes, then cropping it, would be the best way.

One comment

  1. Jeff wrote:

    What about Must Do Today? It’s a great productivity app.

    Friday, 31 May 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

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