LOS ANGELES – It’s been two years since a new smash hit app has taken over the nation – remember Pokemon Go? But meanwhile, some of our favorite apps have gotten better, stronger and more essential to our lives.
Perhaps you have a new phone, or it’s been awhile since you updated your app roster. I’ve put a list together looking at the landscape of free and essential apps that everyone would want on their phones, from e-mail assistants, to best mapping, ride-hailing and photo sharing.
Here’s the Talking Tech guide to the 12 app categories you want to have represented on your phone, and our multiple choices for downloading.
Many smartphone owners use the pre-loaded iOS mail app or Gmail on Android phones. Why not mix it up with an app that aims to improve the experience? Spark wants you to “love your e-mail again,” with separate categories for personal, newsletters and notifications, while Unibox separates mail into updates from your contacts. It’s a different way of looking at the e-mail experience and one we found a little tough to get used to. But my favorite was Outlook: Look to Microsoft to offer a nice e-mail alternative that puts multiple accounts and your calendar in one nice app that’s easier to navigate and less bloated than the desktop version. Talking Tech pick: Outlook
Android phones have Google Maps already installed, as does Apple with Apple Maps. Google is great, although it’s usefulness has been dumbed down in 2018 with more what to do around a neighborhood and less about how to get somewhere. Apple Maps had a rocky debut in 2012 and has slightly improved, but both pale compare to Google-owned Waze, the bare-bones app that simply tells you the best and fastest route to get somewhere. This year, Waze added the ability to pick up carpool rides to work, a nice bonus. Talking Tech pick: Waze.
Many people turn to Uber or Lyft as their cab alternatives these days, with lower prices and faster pickup times. Local cab companies have their own local apps as well that try to compete (Flywheel for instance, in San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle.) Nationally, Uber’s more frequent use of surge pricing, jacking up the rate people have to pay during peak times, can be burdensome. Lyft does it too, but in my experience, less often. Talking Tech pick: Lyft.
If you’re willing to spring $25-$40 monthly for a cable alternative service like YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV or DirecTV Now, one of the great benefits are the apps that let you watch TV from anywhere. Start a show on the TV, move to a tablet and then a phone, and never lose your place. Set the DVR from the app to make sure a show is taped. The network selection is less than with cable, but the price is a lot better, and so are the freedoms. I’m a huge fan of YouTube TV for the ease of watching TV outside the home and adding new shows to the library. Talking Tech pick: YouTubeTV.
Pandora is the oldest of the music services, offering online radio for free, with the caveat that you’ll only hear a handful of selected songs by your choice during a three-hour period. Pandora has been rivaled in recent years by Spotify, which also has a free, ad-supported service, and is the more popular choice for ad-free and premium listening. This year, YouTube joined the music wars with an ad-supported and premium update that promised better music selections based on the Google Assistant knowing your music tastes and history. Sadly, that appears to just be hype. Spotify knows me better and makes better suggestions. Talking Tech pick: Spotify.
If you take a lot of photos on your smartphone – yes, we’re talking to you – and you’re not using Google Photos, now’s the time to switch gears. Google Photos is a free app that offers automatic backup of all your smartphone photos, at slightly lower resolution, on both Android and iOS, and lets you share them easily with friends and family. Other options include the iOS iCloud service, which offers 5 gigabytes of storage for free, the revived Flickr service and 1,000 photos of sharing for free, or a social site like Instagram. (More on that below.) Talking Tech pick: Google Photos.
You are the product when you sign up for a social network site like Facebook, where every like, share and comment is monitored and used to target you with ads. That said, most people you know are on Facebook, so despite the hacks, security breaches and other ills that fell on Facebook in 2018, you’ll still probably want to join the 2.2 billion users there. But there are alternatives: many have turned to photo sharing site Instagram, but that’s owned by Facebook. I like the Japanese Line app, which is more colorful and way less intrusive, but how many people do you know there? Talking Tech pick: Facebook.
Apple iPhones have the Siri personal assistant built in, and while she has gotten way smarter over the past years and more reliable, she still pales next to Google Assistant, which is available as its own free-standing app for iOS and Android. Google usually replies with the answers we want, and rarely has to say, “Here’s what I found on the Web,” to send you hunting down the link. Amazon’s Alexa is also available for voice-activated information, but we find Siri to be generally more useful than Alexa. In his annual 800 question survey of the smart assistant, Gene Munster of Loup Ventures had the same results, with Google in top place, at 88 percent correct answers, to 75 percent for Siri and close behind, 73 percent for Alexa. Talking Tech pick: Google.
I’m terrible at creating hard-to-crack passwords and I have a dickens of a time remembering all the passwords that I use to open up Facebook, Gmail and all the other apps we’re talking about here. That’s why I swear by password managers. They help me track them all and create harder to hack passwords. Three of the most popular are 1password, LastPass and Dashlane, which all work similarly. You create one master password to get into your database of multiple passwords, and use the services to create hard to crack passwords that look something like this: 5%4xcg#*. LastPass is the most affordable at $24 yearly, compared to $36 yearly for 1password and $60 for Dashlane. Dashlane, however, has a free option for a limited amount of 50 passwords on one device. Talking Tech pick: Dashlane
Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates can bring lunch to you while you’re at work. All work on the same concept – they partner with local restaurants to make limited menu selections available via the app, and then bring them to you, for a fee. Look out for the fees, which can be all over the map. Postmates can be anywhere from $1.99 to $9.99 for delivery, depending upon the partner restaurant, while Uber charges both a delivery fee, and an extra fee if you’re in an area that doesn’t get high traffic. DoorDash tried to deal with the uncertainty of pricing by launching a flat fee $9.99 monthly subscription charge for unlimited deliveries at no charge. I like that option, plus the more varied and wider menu selections and the visual display of DoorDash. Talking Tech pick: DoorDash.
The Venmo app has become a way of life for young people to split pizzas and rent. If you haven’t signed up yet, you’ll want to. You register, link your bank account to the app and then can pay people electronically. The same set-up works for Venmo’s parent company PayPal and its app. Rivals from Square (Square Cash) and Circle (Circle Pay) only work with debit cards, so if you don’t have one, you’ll be out of luck. I know Venmo is the preferred choice for many, but the app is buggy. I prefer the PayPal app, which also lets you pay peer to peers (a.k.a. friends) without having to pay a fee. Talking Tech pick: PayPal.
You can use the pre-loaded barebones Apple or Google calendar on your smartphone, or take advantage of tapping into your Microsoft Outlook calendar by downloading the Outlook e-mail app. All of them will tell you about your next appointment, and send out reminders. All are free. I’m a fan of Fantasical2 (60% off for holidays) for its prettier week view, better visuals and easier reminder notices. And it’s on sale “through the holidays,” the company says, without giving a specific end date, for $2. Talking Tech pick: Fantasical2.
Readers: did we miss any of your favorites? Disagree with our choices? Let the debate begin on Twitter, where I’m @jeffersongraham.