11 Points

11 Excellent But Lesser-Known Apps
written by Sam Greenspan

I've wanted to do a list like this for a while. The only problem is... I'm totally mainstream when it comes to my apps. I use the iPhone's built-in browser and mail app. I take notes in Evernote, sync with Dropbox and read RSS feeds with Flipboard. I've beaten every level of Angry Birds -- said not to brag but rather to further solidify my genericness. If apps were a bookstore, I'm "Just Crichton and King" at the airport.

But finally -- finally! -- I'm actively using 11 apps that range from slightly more fringe to way more fringe.

To cut this off before it starts -- I've only linked to the iOS versions here, not the Android versions. (Or BlackBerry versions, for the going-down-with-the-ship types.) I can only speak to the iPhone and iPad versions of these apps, so that's what I stuck with. But I would presume most of these are available and similar on Android, so no one should feel excluded. We're all downloadin' tonight, baby!

Here are 11 excellent but lesser-known apps, in no particular order...

  1. Astrid (free)

    I don't know how much of a fringe app Astrid is (Fringe/Astrid pun totally intentional) -- but I only heard of it a month ago and I like to pride myself on being hip. (Hip to the lamest things possible like technology, but still hip.)

    I've tried dozens of to-do apps, yet my dentist appointment remains unmade. Astrid is the best one I've found because it hits the three most important qualities of a to-do app: (1) syncs on phone, iPad, and web version/Chrome extension (2) clean, easy to use, organize, add tasks (3) has a visually alluring icon I want to click, which, ipso facto, increases the likelihood of my teeth not falling out.

  2. Are You Quick Enough? (99 cents)

    I'm a big fan of games that make me want to destroy things out of frustration -- it's why I loved Mike Tyson's Punch-Out so much as a kid -- and any game that harshly judges you because your timing is off by a fraction of a second certainly falls under that umbrella.

    It's the closest any of us will get to running a 4.61 instead of a 4.58 at the NFL combine and losing out on millions of dollars in draft position because of it.

  3. Swackett (free/$1.99)

    One of my innumerable strange quirks is a weird mental block against temperatures. I think when I was a kid I was convinced the country wouldn't stick with Fahrenheit and would eventually switch over to the more logical Celsius scale -- so I never really bothered to pay attention to the nuances of what different temperatures mean.

    Therefore I like Swackett which tells you the weather AND the appropriate clothing for it. It also looks good doing it -- like a TV weatherman, only Swackett looks good through hip retro graphics and not through excessive tanning and capped teeth.

  4. Gem Keeper ($2.99)

    I love tower defense and this is the best one I've played. (I like it more than even the more popular Plants vs. Zombies.)

    Last December, I downloaded an updated version with new Christmas levels and noticed in the description they'd added a Christmas-themed bad guy named Lord Rudolph. I was playing this on the couch, my girlfriend asked me what I was doing, and since I was only half paying attention, I haphazardly responded, "I'm arranging my cannons to stop Lord Rudolph." She has never let me live that down.

  5. Next Issue (free, but needs monthly subscription)

    Next Issue is a really cool idea that has received virtually no buzz since it launched. It's basically Netflix for magazines -- you pay a monthly subscription rate and get access to digital versions of several dozen major magazines. It's way better than Apple's Newsstand app -- which no one ever used and has been relegated to that almost empty "last screen" of apps on everyone's phone.

    But no one's talking about it. On my check last night, it was buried as the 137th most popular news app. On the down side, that could mean publishers don't add new magazines or the app dies off. On the plus side, if desperation sets in, you just KNOW they'll look to Juggs as their savior.

  6. Yahtzee Adventure (99 cents)

    If you only have vague memories of playing Yahtzee, I strongly recommend downloading the phone version (or the legitimately elegant iPad version).

    Of all the board games-turned-video games, Yahtzee perhaps benefits most from the medium switch. Gone are the days of penciling in totals on a piece of paper and chasing dice off the table on every turn. And math. You no longer have to do math.

  7. EmptyInbox (free)

    I use EmptyInbox for a few minutes every day to make a significant dent in my embarrassing mound of email. This is a really aggressive way to clean out a Gmail inbox and reduce stress in your life.

    It shows you a couple lines of an email and you either archive or delete it. (You can also skip past it, but that really defeats the purpose. It's like skipping a question on the SAT or staying on soft 17 against a seven.)

  8. FatBooth (99 cents)

    FatBooth is my favorite photo altering program because it does such a good job making everyone look completely Biggest Loser-worthy. It's rare that you can see photographic flaws in their plumped-up "after" photos.

    Plus, if you believe the government, soon enough FatBooth will be RealityBooth, even though that sounds like a reality TV blog that folds after three unmemorable weeks.

  9. Flight (free)

    A friend of mine was a fan of the web version of this game and convinced me to download the iPhone app when it finally came out a few weeks ago. She described it as "throwing a paper airplane." Sounds WAY too simplistic, but it reminds me of Angry Birds -- sometimes the most addicting phone games are the ones that don't require any instructions other than "flick this thing to the right."

    Since I downloaded it I haven't played any other game -- and I've souped up my paper airplane to the extent that it's a rocket-powered paper jet plane. Flight is the most robust free game I've found. (Although the publisher website says it's free for a "limited time" so it's probably worth snatching up now.)

  10. Writing Kit ($4.99)

    There are a lot of "minimalist" writing apps for the iPad. They say it's to help you focus on your writing and they SWEAR it's not just a way of saving time and money on development by leaving out basic fundamental features.

    Fortunately, Writing Kit doesn't do that. It's not cluttered, but it has a lot of powerful features. The best of them is a built-in mini browser so I can quickly look up things without having to leave the app to go to the iPad web browser. Because as anyone with an iPad knows, you spend a LOT of time trying to get it to do basic fundamental things like opening a web browser without making you completely leave the app you're using.

  11. Battle of Words (free/99 cents)

    Battle of Words is the best app facsimile of the board game Taboo. (If you're not familiar, you have to get teammates to guess a specific word without saying that word or five related words.) The app is especially good once you've burned through all of the Taboo cards so many times the game becomes redundant.

    The only catch here: The developer is Polish, so one out of every 50 things that comes up is something you've never heard of. Occasionally about screen doors on submarines or the required teamwork necessary for light bulb changing.

This post was originally published on Friday, August 17, 2012 at 11:00:00 AM under the category Web & Tech.

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