Friday, August 03, 2012

My Most Useful Apps – Updated for 2012 (Part 1)

My 2010 article analysing the twenty most useful apps on my iPod Touch was one of the best-received posts since I started this blog. I have now started to prepare a revised and upgraded apps overview from an iPhone-based perspective. I think that the amount of change in my list reflects the pace of innovation and disruption in the app space.

My original post was based on the twenty apps that had earned a place on my iPod’s home screen. Apple has since introduced folders for apps in iOS, so my home screen now contains far more than twenty apps. To retain the focus which that number enforces, I limit myself to looking at twenty apps again this year.

I am keeping these summaries concise, with just some top-level thoughts about each app. If I do decide to write any in-depth comprehensive reviews they will get their own full-length posts. That said, I have used each of these apps extensively and am happy to recommend each of them. I am planning to part-publish the twenty apps in separate blog posts. These first four are the apps that have earned the four premium places in my iPhone’s dock.



Downcast

I spend far more time listening to podcasts than to music these days. I always found Apple’s built-in podcast management features underwhelming, time-consuming and high-maintenance, so a dedicated podcast app was always going to be worth investing in. Downcast’s powerful feature set automates everything for me. It pulls in new episodes whenever they are available and disposes of those I have already listened too. I can also set different playback speeds for different podcast subscriptions (it turns out that this is far more useful than it would seem to be at first).

Downcast is very customisable and while you most likely will not use all the features, those you want will be in there somewhere. In addition to its more advanced features, some simple touch gesture controls make it very convenient to operate on my daily commute. Although Apple have now recently released their own dedicated podcast management app, I find Downcast suits my needs better and I have not switched away. (Also, the fact that I still tolerate its really rather poorly-designed icon in my dock must be another testament to its utility.)

Drafts

This simple, streamlined note-taking app is absolutely the best way I have found to capture, sort and dispatch short-form notes and ideas. Proving that the best ideas are often the simplest, it opens with a blank page for immediate typing whereas all similar note-taking apps I have used open in a list view. I treat Drafts as my jumping-off point for all of my writing; capturing quick ideas that I will work-up somewhere else later. This app sits in my dock so it is always available as my instant scratchpad. Most of what I write in Drafts quickly moves on. To that end, Drafts easily exports text to an impressive and ever-increasing array of other apps. This app immediately makes your iPhone more useful.

Sparrow

This year I have been experimenting with replacing all of Apple’s default productivity apps with third party alternatives. I want to see if I can gain benefits from leveraging some of the disruption and innovation in this space. Mail.app was the most difficult to switch away from. I was never happy with Google’s Gmail app. I could never stick with it for any length of time. I always found myself switching back to Mail because I needed certain functionality.

Sparrow is the first mail replacement that has worked for me. Its swipe-based interface allows me to label, file and process my inbox far faster than any similar app I have used. Even though currently I do not have to deal with a high volume of email, I still want to minimise my time spent dealing with it.

One proviso: as Google have just accu-hired this app’s development team it now appears that it is no longer going to be updated. So I am unsure whether I will continue to use Sparrow after iOS6 is released in September.

Launch Center Pro

In my opinion this is the one seriously nerdy app on my home page dock. Launch Center Pro is a real ninja-level app and one that I am still only getting to grips with. It is probably the most difficult app for me to do justice to in this overview series.

It is a launcher app. That is an enhanced version of SpringBoard, the app which manages the home page on your iPhone. At its most basic level it facilitates fast one- or two-touch access to all of the apps on your iPhone. However, what makes it really useful is its ability to directly access features within those apps. So actions that are buried multi-taps deep (viewing a friend’s Instagram feed for example) can be given their own one-touch button in Launch Center Pro. More complex actions support input fields, so you can streamline a broad range of very sophisticated tasks and actions. There is a lot of potential utility to be unlocked in this app and I think I have only just begun to take advantage of what is possible myself.

Using Launch Center Pro allows you to switch your primary focus onto actions and tasks rather than on the apps that facilitate those actions. That sounds simple but it is a fundamentally disruptive reorientation. If someone you know is using Launch Centre Pro ask them to show you how they use it. Seeing it in action is superior to anything I have written here.

If you constantly think that you could do more with your iPhone then you should investigate this app.

Finally, a suggestion: given the present architecture of iOS, I still have to open Launch Center Pro to use it. I would love the option to bind it to the single hardware button on my iPhone and then triple-click for direct access. Maybe someday Apple…

Watch this space

I am currently composing my thoughts on the next set of apps from the twenty I have chosen. I will post those soon.