Software

25 must-have iPhone apps for productive geeks

Get the inside track on iPhone apps that can improve your productivity, and a few that can provide a little geek fun.

Mobile apps have become an embarrassment of riches. In a world with over 200,000 iPhone apps and over 100,000 Android apps, the toughest part is finding the most useful stuff.

For iPhone users, I'm going to throw you an assist by sharing my top 25. These are third-party apps that can help you be more productive, streamline several of your activities, reduce the number of gadgets in your life, and take advantage of the top benefits that mobile computing has to offer. I'm also going to follow up with similar lists of the best apps for Android and iPad.

The best way to view my list of the top iPhone apps is in the screenshot gallery, which includes 2-3 screenshots of each app and a short description of why I chose to include it in the list. However, you can also view the entire list below along with a link for each app in iTunes App Store.

The screenshots

The list

1. Dropbox

Dropbox is a great cloud service that automatically syncs a folder of files between multiple computers (Windows, Mac, or Linux). This app extends Dropbox to the iPhone and includes a built-in reader within the app for PDFs, image files, and Microsoft Office files.

2. Evernote

Once you get used to typing on a virtual keyboard (and it honestly took me over a year to do it), then these devices are great for note-taking, and Evernote is a great note-taking app. It is similar to Dropbox in that it saves data locally but syncs it across all your machines and devices.

3. 2Do

There are a ton of to-do apps on iPhone but I prefer 2Do because of the great interface and the fact that it can sync with the online service Toodledo.

4. Tripit

I love Tripit. It is by far the best app I've found for keeping track of all my travel itineraries. It runs off some great backend systems. You simply forward your confirmation emails for your flights, hotels, rental cars, and more to Tripit and it automatically organizes them into trips with all your details and confirmation numbers.

5. Analytics App

For some reason Google doesn't have an official app (for either iPhone or Android) for Google Analytics. The best one I've found to get deep into all of the data is Analytics App.

6. Ego

Even better than Analytics App for a quick-glance dashboard is Ego. It shows basic data from Google Analytics as well as a bunch of other sources, including Squarespace, Twitter, and Feedburner.

7. Twitter

The official Twitter app (formerly known as Tweetie) is still the best Twitter client on iPhone (although Osfoora is catching up), and Twitter is an amazing instant-intelligence engine.

8. MobileRSS

Twitter has largely replaced RSS for me for finding and filtering the latest news. However, I still track some RSS feeds and the best tool I've found to do it with is MobileRSS Pro, because of its clean UI and integration with Google Reader.

9. ProPublica

I don't use many specific publication apps to get news. I mostly get news from Twitter and RSS, but the one major exception is ProPublica, the non-profit investigative journalism site. Excellent reporting and a very good app.

10. Amazon Kindle

I never warmed up to the Amazon Kindle e-reader, but I'm a big fan of the Kindle iPhone app. Since it was released I've read a lot more books simply because my phone is always with me and I can pull it out and read a few pages anytime I've got a couple minutes free.

11. Audible

As much as I like the Kindle ebooks, I actually consume more books as audiobooks via Audible. In the past you could download these and sync them via iTunes. But Audible now has its own app, which lets you connect to your Audible library and download over the air, and even gives you a self-contained player optimized for audiobooks.

12. Photoshop Mobile

Photoshop is, of course, the best known photo editor in the world and its mobile app doesn't do anything to hurt that reputation. But while the desktop version is known for having a zillion features, the mobile app is distinguished by its simplicity. It's the best iPhone photo editing app for simple crops, brightness adjustments, and sharpens, for example.

13. Pano

Pano makes it easy to take excellent panoramas with the iPhone. It helps you line up your shots and it automatically corrects many of the imperfections. My wife is a photographer with a big, expensive camera and she's regularly jealous of some of the shots I can get with the iPhone and Pano.

14. Xtreme Labs Speedtest

I'm always running speed tests to check my bandwidth in various places, both to see 3G fluctuations and to check the quality of Wi-Fi. The Xtreme Labs test is my favorite (it's also available on Android). It is very consistent, although sometimes its upload speeds seem a little lower than reality. That's why I'd recommend that you verify it by using other speed tests such as the FCC Speed test, Speedtest.net, and the Cisco speed test app.

15. RedLaser

This is a great app for shoppers. It turns the iPhone camera into a barcode scanner and it's pretty accurate. You simply scan a product's UPC code and let the app go to work to find it in Google Product Search and TheFind. For food it will even look up allergen information and for books it will scan to see if you can get it in a local library. You'll be amazed at how fast it works. A similar product is SnapTell, which not only scans barcordes but you can also take a picture of the cover of a book or DVD and it can look them up that way. These apps are great when you're shopping at a retail store and want to check the prices of products online before buying.

16. Navigon Mobile Navigator

I used to carry a separate Garmin GPS unit for turn-by-turn directions but I eventually got rid of it and decided to just use the iPhone instead. In researching the various apps, I eventually decided on NAVIGON, which is a company that makes a lot of the built-in navigation systems for many cars. Tip: Make sure your iPhone is plugged in to power when you run a GPS navigation program like this because otherwise it will quickly drain your battery.

17. Where To?

A great companion to a GPS system is the app "Where To?" which lets you quickly look up various types of shops and services, from Cuban restaurants to medical specialists to animal hospitals to local museums and much more.

18. Distance Meter Pro

This terrific little app can save you from buying a pedometer. It uses the iPhone's accelerometer to track the miles you've run or walked, and it also throws in data about your pace and the number of calories you've burned.

19. Pandora

Pandora is a streaming "radio station" for the Internet age. You simply search by an artist or song and it will create a running playlist based on that one piece of information. It intersperses an occasional ad between songs but the ads tend to be fairly localized and occasionally even useful. On iOS 4, Pandora can even run in the background, just like the iPhone's native music app.

20. Shazam

If you want to impress your friends with an iPhone app, the best one to do it with is Shazam. Ever hear a song being played at a store or on the radio and ask yourself, "Oh, what song is that?" That's where Shazam comes in. Just hit the button and let it listen for 15 seconds, query its database, and then return the name of artist and the song. It has about an 80% success rate.

21. GroceryGadget

This is an app plus a website and you can quickly sync between the two. The way it usually works for me is that my wife makes a grocery list, enters it into grocerygadgets.com, and then it syncs to my iPhone so that I can swing by the grocery store on my way home from work.

22. Boxee Remote

Boxee is a great little program that lets you turn any PC into a multimedia PC and brings social networking to the experience so that you can see what your friends are watching. It runs on Mac, Windows, Linux, and AppleTV. However, if you use an existing PC then you probably don't have a remote for it. This Boxee app turns your iPhone into a remote with two modes, a straight arrow mode and a gesture mode.

23. Scrabble

This classic game has gotten a rebirth in the digital age and the iPhone version is part of that. You can pass the phone around or you can play online against your Facebook friends.

24. Star Wars: Trench Run

I'm not usually an avid gamer (beyond Scrabble) but when it involves an X-wing Fighter attacking the Death Star, I'm in. Star Wars: Trench Run is a fun game that's easy to play and takes advantage of the iPhone 4's new gyroscope. A cool feature of Star Wars: Trench Run is that you can also connect it with your computer using a wireless technology called Brass Monkey and then you can have the game playing on a PC or Mac while you use the iPhone as a controller. However, be prepared to install a plug-in on your computer and you might have to open ports on your firewall to make it work.

25. AppAdvice

There are even apps to help you find more apps (that's what happens when a platform has over 200,000 apps). A great resource is AppAdvice. Its AppGuides and AppLists are great ways to discover new apps. I especially like that it ranks similar apps in order to help you find the best ones.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

33 comments
CharlieDonahue
CharlieDonahue

I recommend Notesdeck for notes instead of that yellow Notes app. With Notesdeck my notes show up on all my devices instantly (Mac, iPhone and iPad). And it syncs with Evernote and Dropbox and more. Check it out at ----> http://www.notesdeck.com

VOIP freak
VOIP freak

you've forgot about VoIP softphone! I'm using Vippie by Voipswitch- it's for free and I can make video calls to my friends (Viber don't have this yet).

MemphisGuy
MemphisGuy

In my zeal to take advantage of what I assumed was experience or research of these apps, I went to the App store to check out two that interested me: Navigon Mobile Navigator, and Distance Meter Pro. Most of the reviews on both say that they are terrible, can't do what they say, and not to buy these apps. What are the odds of that happening? It makes me think that you haven't used all of the apps that you're recommending. in my experience, most reviews in the App store are detailed and accurate.

barvic
barvic

As a phone it's a piece of expensive crap. From the PC you CAN'T do anything as compared to my beautiful Nokia software were I WAS IN CONTROL of it. It stuffed up my Outlook contacts were they either disappeared from the PC OR the iphone and or doubled up in both. PLUS my Nokia Navigator came with FREE maps and a couple of times saved my marriage, well sort of. It's just a very expensive toy. If it wasn't that someone bought it for me I would have shoved it up their "Kyber Pass" Vic Aspendale Gardens.

Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

Your must-have apps are not my must-have apps because we have different jobs and different requirements. For example, I don't use Facebook or Twitter, so any app that involves those is useless to me. I have a bubble-level app on my Droid, which would probably just get in your way. That said, there are some good ideas in your post, and good ideas from other users. Keep the ideas flowing. Some will be good, some mediocre, and some downright lame, but don't reject anything until you've looked it over.

jonrosen
jonrosen

And for me personally, it never was. How about a list for Android? There's Kindle, ip calculators, plenty of games, and quite a bit more.

NexS
NexS

Though I've never used an iPhone (on principle) I can only imagine that I'd want my music up there in the top 25. Not to mention that any good 'geek' can be more productive while listening to music, it's also how the iPhone came about. It's herritage. There shouldn't be one without the other.

Jaqui
Jaqui

entail carrying an idiot phone. ain't going there. none of the idiot phones for me. no iphone, no blackberry, no gphone, no htc *, no android based phone. they are all idiot phones. [ they might be called smart phones, but you have to be an idiot to carry one. ]

AudioDrug
AudioDrug

Check out VocaTalk Personal Podcast. A definite must have for the ultimate geek. The app can turn text into musical audio podcast with your own music. Pretty much unlimited stream of podcasts based on your content.

nitsujelad
nitsujelad

iTap RDP! How could you leave this one out of a "geek" list?

rkuhn040172
rkuhn040172

Cardstor, Documents 2 Free, eWiFi, Fileviewer, Firefox Home, iRdesktop, Net Utility, TouchMouse, RoboForm, SugarSync and Facebook

mike_patburgess
mike_patburgess

I want a good printing app from my iphone. One that does a wireless survey of devices in proximity to it and then connect to the device.

Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

Jaqui, I agree with some of what you say, but you're being too harsh. These things aren't really phones; they're hand-held computers with a phone app -- along with countless others. And they do have their uses -- even if it's only to call my wife to make sure I get the correct item at the store. I resisted getting one for several years, but I'm enjoying my HTC Droid Incredible (hate the name, but it's a pretty good machine). An example: I went to Okeechobee a while back to set up some computers for one of our field offices. We quit about 10:00 PM, and Victor gave a short cut to my hotel. I have no sense of direction, and his instructions weren't real clear, and I got lost. If I hadn't had a GPS and mapping app, I'd probably still be wandering the back streets of Okeechobee. I'm not telling you you should own one. But I do think it's a bit rude to call someone else an idiot because he or she has a different opinion on the usefulness of a particular piece of technology. BTW, if the phone signals while I'm driving, I wait until I can stop before I reply.

Zwort
Zwort

The Register calls them Jesus phones, as do many people over here. ;-) A handy supplement to modern life, if they work as required, are secure and all of the other issues aired in TechRep? Hmm. After the latest trouble I'm going to buy something else. It won't handle spreadsheets, databases or any of the other main functions. Anyone claiming otherwise is going to have to find some hard data to back their claims. Meanwhile, back on the farm, Apples are falling from trees. It must be autumn: http://blogs.bnet.com/ceo/?p=5119&tag=nl.e713

randy.ferguson
randy.ferguson

I just have to say this comment sounds completely ignorant, as you give no reasons or insight into your statement. If you call yourself an IT professional, then what do you use to keep in contact or browse the web, etc? Lets face it, these phones are the way of the future, and are not going anywhere.

MemphisGuy
MemphisGuy

In my zeal to take advantage of what I assumed was experience or research of these apps, I went to the App store to check out two that interested me: Navigon Mobile Navigator, and Distance Meter Pro. Most of the reviews on both say that they are terrible, can't do what they say, and not to buy these apps. What are the odds of that happening? It makes me think that you haven't used all of the apps that you're recommending. in my experience, most reviews in the App store are detailed and accurate.

jim.achuff
jim.achuff

I like AOL Radio because my local talk station is on the list. I also use BizXpensTrkr to track my expenses while I am on the road - it is nice because it can export to a .csv file in my Dropbox folder. iRec has come in handy on a number of occasions and the quality is pretty good. Fandango is great for finding a local movie and GasBag is a help to find the cheapest gas nearby. My wife is a pediatrician and she uses Koi Pond to keep kids entertained while she looks in their ears and listens to their heartbeat. On the gaming front, I love the Ragdoll Blasters and Angry Birds and the retrogeek in me loves RogueTouch and Pocket Tanks.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

1) Radar in Motion: Easily lets you see the weather radar for your region, with the ability to zoom in closer or zoom out for an overall view. 2) A2ZPro: A conversion utility for metric to American measurements of distance, mass, fluid and dry volumes. 3) Gas Cubby: A convenient automotive trip calculator determining average miles per gallon and average cost of operations over the lifetime of the car. Capable of handling multiple cars. 4) Check Please Lite: A quick tip calculator for exact or rounded amounts where you select the tip percentage you wish to use. 5) Shazam: As you say, a quick and remarkably accurate music analyzer that can tell you the name, artist and album of the song it hears within one minute. 6) Stanza: While I know Amazon bought Stanza, what they've done is incorporate some of Stanza's capabilities into their Kindle app. I've found Stanza really to be a better e-reader for the iPhone because it offers more choices in fonts, colors and styles to make your e-reading easier on the eyes. In my own case, I only have 4 pages of apps, and only two folders--one for weather apps (holding 3) and one for shopping (holding 7). Probably the single most-used app is Safari for when I'm out shopping and decide I want to run some price comparisons on the fly. Then again, since I bought my iPad, I don't use any of the apps on my iPhone 3G nearly as much--it gets used as a phone first with mobile apps second. The iPad does everything else better and with a larger display that makes them easier to use.

CuMorrigu
CuMorrigu

Here are some that I have and use regularly: Convertbot - for converting different types of measurements (eg...gallons to liters) Causeworld - the lazy-man's way to give to some good causes PhoneFlicks - manage your netflix queue from your iPhone EMT ICE - very handy if you find yourself in the ER or in an ambulance WinAdmin - Pretty nice RDP client. I use this one ALL the time to connect to my servers. iExplorer - lets you move files around on your network Ping - Nice little suite of network tools (ping, ping subnet, traceroute, telnet). RemotePad - not the best, but it's free. Connect to a client running the server and use your iPhone as a mouse. Scan Lite - free up system memory, nice to have if you are running the new iOS on an older model. Mark the Spot - send trouble tickets to AT&T with GPS coordinates and conditions when you have problems with their service. I know it's rare but... Remote - Control your iTunes with your iPhone Shoutcast - lets you listen to Shoutcast broadcasts NPR News - listen to NPR stations from around the country FML - It's nice to look at to know that your life isn't the most screwed up out there. Don't try submitting anything though, I have yet to get one approved Eucalyptus - $10 for the app, but after that you have access to over 200,000 books for free. Most are classic, what they are doing is accessing the Gutenberg Project books. The DC and Marvel comic book apps (you said geek) Word with Friends, if you like scrabble, you'll like this Word Fu - another word based game Decoder Ring - It's like sudoku meets crosswords, watch out it's addictive. Mad Maps - good app for finding some little day trip to take PassGenR - nice password gen program Splash ID - virtual wallet. There is a separate add-on you can buy for your puter that lets you synch the information between the two. Armory - kepp track of your WoW chars on your iPhone Authenticator - Blizzard's Account Authenticator for your iPhone. Dicenomicon - great little dice program for you old-school gamers.

dave
dave

Saved my sanity on a recent 14 hour flight to New Zealand. A huge selection of free books and the text is very easy on the eyes.

rkuhn040172
rkuhn040172

Really? Mine sure does. Now, sure the screen size is a bit limiting but there must be dozens of apps (some free) that allow you to handle spreadsheets. Nice false information...

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

but I keep in contact with a land-line telephone and browse the web with a desktop computer, the same way I did before 'smart' phones.

amm
amm

Unemployed IT professional. 'nuff said.

Zwort
Zwort

And you have just made a generalisation, haven't you? However, you certainly knew what I meant. These things will not replace anything more muscular. Main functions, unless carried out in miniature for, say, expenses on the road, are going to be an exercise in wasted time. A large screen, a powerful processor, a proper keyboard, these things are by definition beyond such a device. As soon as it has them it is a notebook computer. It will not do anything of significance, and you know that, hence the rider you added at the end.

rkuhn040172
rkuhn040172

"It won't handle spreadsheets, databases or any of the other main functions." And they most certainly do. Maybe not the type or function you desire but they do. Blanket, catch all statements are dangerous. You should have been more specific.

Zwort
Zwort

I can see no way on earth that an iPhone could be used on any moderately large spreadsheet. I frequently export SPSS files to 123 format (can be done to Excel, if only by copy and paste). They are large, unmanageable, complex, and there is no way that you can argue that a substantial spreadsheet is a realistic prospect for an iPhone, and I don't say this on grounds of screen acreage alone. The linking and embedding, the processing. Nah. Not realistic. Unless you are talking about tiny spreadsheets for expenses. Go on. Tell me about the latest iPhone SPSS widget.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Maybe those activities are illegal in BC. They aren't illegal everywhere. Equipment doesn't encourage anyone to do anything. It's an inanimate object; if people choose do use it unsafely, it's not the fault of the object or its designers. People choose to abuse alcohol; that doesn't mean the product is responsible.

rkuhn040172
rkuhn040172

When I'm at a client's site and there isn't a spare PC available, but I'd like to check my email or need to connect to a server to restart a service, an idiot phone is no value to me? My laptop takes 1-2 minutes to fully boot up and fire up Outlook or open a web browser, not to mention the inconvenience of hauling it around, yet my iPhone can do it in seconds. I use my idiot phone all the time to be more productive, keep in touch with clients and customers more frequently and overall offer better service. Sure, iPhones aren't for everyone but for you to make a gross over generalization that they are for idiots I think is a bit ridiculous.

Jaqui
Jaqui

who needs to prove they are an idiot by reading email ILLEGALLY while driving? the smartphones are designed to promote illegal activities. it's even illegal to TALK on a cell while driving, the extra connectivity of a smartphone makes the distraction of them even worse than a dead simple cell phone without internet access. therefore, smartphones are misnamed, they should be called idiot phones.

Zwort
Zwort

Argumentum ad hominem; must be a poor source of information, is employed. People who employ, e.g., the argumentum ad hominem, argumentum ad populum, argumentum ad verucandumm (sp?) fail to address facts/the truth, preferring instead to attack the person. It's not merely a failed argument, but the sign of someone who is unable to see the facts themselves.