We see a lot of iPad and iPhone apps here. Some of them we try for a bit, check out what they have to offer, and then discard. Other apps hang around a little longer; those are the ones we actually decide to review. Then there are the apps that stick, the apps we use day in and day out, year after year. Those aren’t necessarily the ones that earn the highest ratings, however. Sometimes, it takes a while for an app to grow on you.

Best free iPhone apps

So we did a little poll of our staff to find out which apps they use the most. Based on that poll, we came up with the following list of 20 terrific apps (most of them optimised for the iPad, with one that’s definitely best on the iPhone alone). You’ve no doubt heard of some before. But do you have them installed? Are you using them? If not, we’ll tell you what we’d tell our family and friends: these are the apps we use, the ones we think everyone should have.

Entertainment

IMDb

The Internet Movie Database is older than the web itself. It began as the Usenet group rec.arts.movies, where film buffs compiled a searchable list of movie credits. From there it evolved into the massive website (www.imdb.com) it is today, containing listings for more than two million films and TV shows and more than four million actors, directors and crew members. After all those mutations, the database may have found its perfect form in the IMDb app (free, bit.ly/RLy7WN).

That’s largely because it makes all that information easily accessible where you most need it – on the sofa in front of your TV. It can be used to look up movies, grab details about a film’s cast and crew, and even movie trivia. Each listing also includes an album of images, and each actor has their own page.

IMDb is more than just a convenient couch-side reference work, though. It also includes trailers for the latest films, as well as a Coming Soon section. 

The app sounds busy, but it’s also well done. Although you can find other movie and television apps with comparable focus, none of them offer the comprehensive depth and detail of IMDb.

Entertainment

Netflix

I purchased my first iPad for two reasons: to sketch on it and to watch episodes of Doctor Who. The latter was made possible by the Netflix app (free, bit.ly/T86Tbf), which lets you view any item in the company’s Watch Instantly catalogue on your iPad (or your iPhone). 

Although the app isn’t quite as fully featured as Netflix’s website (www.netflix.com), it still offers more than enough to keep you satisfied. You can search by title or genre, rate films and television programmes you’ve seen, add a movie to your Instant Queue and, of course, watch TV series and films until your eyes cross. 

The app works over Wi-Fi or 3G (if the latter connection is decent), so you can stream everything to almost anywhere; and if you want to watch anything on the big screen, you can use AirPlay Mirroring.

More than any other app I know of, Netflix fulfils the iPad’s promise as a mobile entertainment device. I can’t say that it has enabled me to ditch my TV entirely, but I have to admit that I do use my big screen a lot less.

Books

Kindle

The iPad has changed the way we read. Many of us now spend as much time reading news and books on the tablet as we do on paper. But the Kindle iPad app (free, bit.ly/TmEorf) has changed not only people’s reading habits but their buying ones, too. Now a vast library of titles are at your fingertips.

Once you’re ready to curl up and read, the Kindle app really shines. The app’s main reading view is entirely unadorned; it’s literally just words, words, words. You turn pages with a short swipe, or a tap on the edge of the screen. If you tap elsewhere on the page, the app’s other interface options appear. You can add bookmarks, navigate to a specific location or the table of contents, or adjust the display.

Those display options are important. You can choose from five different font-sizes and three different colour options. You can choose to read with black text on a white background, white text on a background, or dark text on a sepia background. A brightness slider lets you further adjust how things look. Kindle for iPad also supports landscape mode, but you won’t want to use it. The single-column of text that it employs is just too wide to read comfortably.

News

Instapaper

Although there are other ‘read this later’ services, Instapaper was the trailblazer – and it’s still our favourite, thanks to its iOS apps (£2.49, bit.ly/RRXWEr).

Part feed reader, part bookmark tool, it’s a simple idea that’s been well executed. If you see an online article you don’t have time to read, simply send it to your Instapaper account (through a browser bookmark, email, or the Send To Instapaper feature of countless Mac and iOS apps). When you launch Instapaper, the app will download these articles for offline reading. 

Articles are stripped of adverts and formatting. You can adjust the line spacing, margins, fonts and screen brightness, and for even easier reading, Instapaper can shift from black type on white during the day, to a sepia look at dawn and dusk, to white type on black at night.

Even better, if you have the app installed on more than one device, Instapaper syncs your location in articles. You can organise articles in folders and mark ones you enjoy as Favorites, too. 

Finance

Mint.com Personal Finance

It never fails: those moments when you wonder about the status of your bank account never seem to occur within easy reach of a cashpoint. Thankfully, there’s Mint.com, one of several finance trackers vying for your attention in
the App store.

Mint’s iOS version (free, bit.ly/Slnr1t) is an extension of the Mint.com website, so you’ll need a Mint account to get started. It’s a free service, with features robust enough to challenge traditional competitors like Quicken or that old Excel file you’ve been adding to since 1998.

On the iPhone, the Mint opening screen presents you with an instant overview of your registered accounts, your monthly budget, cash flow and investments. All of these are initially set up on the website; the app simply tracks them for you. Clicking on any of these overviews gives you more details on where your money is going or has gone, even breaking data down by individual expenses. Mint will also alert you when you have gone over your budget or when you have reached a pre-set amount.

The app’s user interface is friendly, simple and attractive. Always nice to look at something pretty while watching your investments slip away, right?

Mint looks good and is easy to set up and use. It’s a fine option for keeping track of your finances on a casual basis.

Music

TuneIn Radio Pro

While rival music services enable you to specify individual tracks, artists or songs, and either play these directly or create playlists based on similar tunes, TuneIn Radio Pro (69p, bit.ly/QDj95Q) streams radio stations from around the world.

One trump card that TuneIn Radio Pro holds over other online services is that you are listening to live radio that’s streamed over the internet. Obviously this has a number of advantages, and it’s great for listening to sports radio or live music shows. On the downside, you’re streaming music constantly, which means you’ll have to keep a close eye on data usage.

The bitrate that TuneIn Radio Pro provides varies according to the quality of the data connection and the radio service in question. A small blue box next to the radio station or programme lets you know what the bitrate is – typically this is between 64kbit/s and 192kbit/s.

Having said all that, we would have liked it to be easier to browse for shows and stations. It’s simple enough to search for shows you know the name of, but its search option is mostly location- rather than provider-based. We had no problems, for example, searching for programmes in the UK, but had difficulty finding listings for individual stations. A guide or links to show listings would have been welcome.

At just 69p for the ad-free Pro version and with no monthly subscription fee, it’s a great addition to your iTunes collection.

News

Reeder

We love RSS, and subscribe to a couple of hundred feeds, ranging from tech and world news to personal blogs and humour sites. The Reeder app (£1.99 for iPhone, bit.ly/RSYyJq; and £2.99 for iPad, bit.ly/VlErVo), makes navigating these a pleasure.

Perhaps Reeder’s greatest trick is that it can be controlled with a single finger. You just tap into a subfolder of feeds, an individual feed, an article, and so on. The app is also packed with options that allow you to browse feeds, digest them quickly, and then share or save them as you desire. For example, if you wanted to sort your feeds by the timestamps on the stories in them, but if you decided to group them by source, that option is just a tap away.

Similar to many newsreaders, Reeder can work with your Google Reader account. That means regardless of which app you use on your Mac (we use the free NetNewsWire, bit.ly/ReBgRg), your unread articles always remain in sync between the two platforms. And if you tap and hold on a link, you get a slew of configurable options for sending the selected story to Instapaper (see opposite), Twitter, email or a lengthy
list of other services.

For all of those reasons and more, Reeder is our single favourite way (particularly on the iPad) to navigate the unceasing flood of articles our many subscriptions bring us. The Reeder app makes keeping abreast of what’s going on both quick and enjoyable.

To-do lists

Clear

The list-keeping iPhone app Clear (£1.49, bit.ly/QVhbiD) doesn’t look or act like anything else on your phone.

The interface consists of bold horizontal stripes; you’ll find none of the usual iPhone interface elements. You drag or pinch stripes to navigate from list to list, add items, and access the settings. That could explain why we like Clear so much: it does one thing and one thing only, but it does that job very well, with as simple an interface as possible.

Clear makes recording, rearranging, ticking off and deleting items easy; we can do the last three with just a thumb. We wouldn’t use it for work to-do lists, but for simple lists, we’ve found nothing better.

Productivity

Dropbox

Clever as an iPad may be, you still can’t rely on it alone for work. For many tasks, you’ll need a Mac and an iPad.

That’s why we love the Dropbox app (free, bit.ly/WFIRLX). Not only does it let you view files you’ve uploaded to the cloud-sync service, but it also allows you to open files in other apps and share them. The service integrates well with other apps, too; for example, uploading photos or video from the Camera Roll is easy. And Dropbox has a viewer that lets you see Word and Pages files, images, and video without leaving the screen. Note that you’ll need to go to www.dropbox.com to sign up for an account to use the service. 

When we first tried Dropbox on a Mac, it became one of our favourites. With the arrival of its iOS apps, it became something we can’t live without.

Productivity

Evernote

If you’re a compulsive note-taker, an essential part of your workflow may consist of making to-do lists, taking notes, and jotting down ideas whenever they occur to you. Evernote is the perfect tool for that. You can take jumbled lists and notes, and sort them into organised notebooks with tags for different tasks and categories. You can use Evernote across a Mac and iPhone, as well as on an iPad, but Apple’s tablet is where this free app (free, bit.ly/Uwfwmp) truly shines. 

Among the many things we use Evernote for is to take notes on an iPad during meetings and while we’re researching stories. We clip online articles, images, and even entire web pages. We record and store voice memos with the app. And because it recognises dates (much as iOS’s own Notes app does), we can quickly create an event for our calendar. To keep track of any to-do lists, we simply create a list and add an empty tickbox next to each item; as we complete a task, we tap the box to mark it off.

Certainly, we’ve found many other note-taking tools, and a lot of them can sync across all of our devices. But although we’ve tried other tools – including Notebooks, Projectbook and Simplenote – Evernote’s easy-to-use platform and consistent updates make it a favourite.

Productivity

Elements

At some point in getting to know an iPad, you’ll have realised that you need a reliable way to create and edit plain text documents on the device. After trying a good number of the many text-editing options available out there, we settled on Second Gear’s Elements For Dropbox (£2.99, bit.ly/OYGfWg). Why? Because it just works. 

It provides a clean interface, syncs its content via a Dropbox account, runs natively on the iPhone and the iPad, supports and previews the Markdown plain-text syntax format, and works with the TextExpander iOS shortcut app. And it costs only £2.99.

To customise the app’s look and feel, you can choose the font, text size, text width, and background appearance. And although everything you work on is available through Dropbox, you can also email or print the text, publish the content to Facebook or Tumblr, or export items as HTML or PDF files to Dropbox, iTunes or email.

Indeed we find Elements so useful that we’ve even started using this editor for our shopping lists. 

Photo-editing

Snapseed

There are a lot of cool image-editing apps for the iPad, but none of them are as good as Snapseed (£2.99, bit.ly/XOelNU).

Its interfaces were designed from the ground up to be controlled by gestures, which makes Snapseed easier to use than any other iPad image-editing application. 

Tap one of the editing options to enter that mode, and your image will go to almost full-screen and a simple status read-out will appear at the bottom. Slide your finger up or down to rotate the image, for example, and Snapseed will automatically zoom the image in and out to crop it.

From the status bar, you can choose to apply the edit, or hit Back to discard it. Either way, you’ll return to the main screen, where your various mode options are available. It doesn’t matter where you tap and drag on the screen, the interface will pop up anywhere. 

Nik Software has also added Control Point technology, providing an easy way of creating complex selective adjustments without having to make masks or elaborate selections. This was revolutionary in the developer’s desktop software, and it’s even more so on the iPad, where you don’t have the advantage of pressure sensitive tablets.

If you have even a minor interest in image editing, and you have an iPad, then you need to buy Snapseed.

Productivity

GoodReader

Although iOS has file-viewing features, they’re limited. That’s why the GoodReader (£2.99 for iPhone, bit.ly/Ri7j0T; £2.99 for iPad, bit.ly/RZQw4X) is one of our must?haves. This app allows us to view PDFs, text files, Office and iWorks docs, HTML files, Safari web archives and photos, as well as play back audio and video files. The app lays out and crops pages in a number of ways for easier reading, and it has a Night Mode for better low?light reading. It also performs cross-document search.

But GoodReader goes beyond file viewing. When reading a PDF, for example, you can annotate, bookmark, highlight, draw, and add notes to the file; and then save these modifications and share the edited document. You can also extract the text of a PDF, and the app offers tools for copying, moving, renaming, linking and sharing files.

One of our favourite things about GoodReader is how easy it is to get files into the app. We can use iTunes’ File Sharing, email, the Finder (by connecting to an iOS device through Wi-Fi or USB), a web URL, WebDAV, cloud storage services, and more. 

GoodReader is simply the easiest way to work with files on an iPad or iPhone that we know of.

Productivity

PCalc RPN Calculator

Thank goodness Apple didn’t include a calculator app with the iPad. It would have ended up in a folder along with all the other pre-installed software we don’t use and can’t delete, replaced with the PCalc RPN Calculator (£6.99, bit.ly/X7ttXm) – in our opinion the best calculator app for iOS.

PCalc excels at complicated maths problems. The ‘RPN’ part of its name refers to one of our favourite features: support for Reverse Polish Notation. That’s an efficient method for creating mathematical expressions – no need to deal with parentheses. We also love the Conversions tool: enter a number, tap the A > B button, and the app instantly converts that figure to a different unit (fluid ounces to cups, for instance, or metres to feet). 

If you want a calculator for basic mathematical problems, PCalc might be overkill. But if you need more, PCalc definitely has it.

Reference

Google Search

On the surface, Google’s search app (free, bit.ly/PO8Ajq) may seem redundant. After all, why not just use the iOS web browser? The reason is that it offers more than Safari’s search box does.

That ‘more’ starts with voice input. Even before Siri, Google Search allowed you to talk to it, making searches easier. As we went to press, Google announced that it’s adding even more advanced vocal support, making spoken searches more intelligent than before. For example, you’ll no longer need to use cryptic Google-ese; you can ask “When is Skyfall playing?” instead of saying “showtimes Skyfall.”

The app refines its basic search skills by adding support for Google Goggles, which allows you to search the internet via pictures, and by focusing your searches vertically (images, news and so on). 

Of course, Google Search now does much more than simply search the web. It also gives you access to Google apps such as Gmail, Calendar, Earth and Docs. Indeed, it’s so useful, we sometimes forget we’re using it.

Social networking

Tweetbot for Twitter

Although we initially tried to resist Twitter’s allure years ago, we failed. A key element of our infatuation is its surfeit of third-party apps that offer easy access to the service from an iOS device. Of those, Tweetbot (£1.99 for iPhone, bit.ly/VlNINh; £1.99 for iPad, bit.ly/SlRBS5) is our favourite. Tweetbot not only includes all the necessary features, but also executes them flawlessly, offering smooth scrolling through tweets, the ability to fill in any timeline gaps, integrated push notifications for mentions or direct messages, and the ability to view the full conversations surrounding tweets. 

Tap and drag a tweet to the left, and you see any replies sent to the original tweeter. Drag to the right, and you’ll see the full conversation thread that led up to the current tweet. You can also configure a triple-tap on a tweet to handle various actions; we use it to mark a tweet as a favourite, but you can use it for replying, retweeting, translating or viewing in Favstar. Tapping and holding on a hashtag pops up options to compose a tweet with that tag, or to mute all future tweets.

Although iOS has an abundance of innovative, well-made Twitter apps, none of them can rival Tweetbot’s mix of charm, intuitive navigation and depth.

Social networking

Facebook

No service is as personal as Facebook, so it makes sense that Facebook and the iPad go so well together. You can use Facebook through your web browser on a computer, of course, but when you use the iOS app (free, bit.ly/SlU13a) on an iPad, you’ll quickly find that your tablet is devoted to your Facebook experience. If you’re anything like us, you’ll become completely immersed in your Facebook page, so you can pay close attention to the posted updates for your family, friends and favourite (liked) things. 

Although some people might prefer the alternative interfaces available in third-party Facebook apps, we like the fact that the official Facebook app is almost a mirror image of the Facebook web interface. The app is at its best in landscape mode, in which a list of friends who are online appears in a column on the right side. If you feel like chatting with a friend, just tap that person’s name, type a message and send it. Facebook’s web interface works the same way, but on the iPad, both the names and the profile pictures are nice and big, which helps remind me that I’m dealing with another person on the other end.

The one major qualm we have about the Facebook iPad app, though, is that it lacks the pop-up menu that’s available in the web interface on Wall postings. We like to use that menu to hide postings we’re not interested in or have finished following. The menu is also helpful whenever you want to change your subscription status to a particular friend. Despite that missing feature, however, Facebook is still the app we use most often.

Travel

Yelp

Even though the Yelp service itself is not without its detractors, we still find the app (free, bit.ly/Td0BeU) indispensable. 

The Yelp website (www.yelp.co.uk) is, naturally, the place to go for ratings and reviews of restaurants, bars, shops or just about any other public establishment. It’s like Consumer Reports written (for the most part) by consumers, and it’s free. Everyone’s opinions are represented – and not everyone is nice or even sensible. But the sheer volume of comments offers its own balance, and Yelp is nothing if not diverse.

Yelp’s iOS interface differs significantly from its website. With its on-the go orientation, the app lets you type the topic you’re looking for into a Filter box and either use your current location or type a different one in the Near box. The results then flow on to the screen. You can browse the results in either List view (accompanied by a map pinpointing the location of each entry) or Photos view (which gives a visual cue about what you’re searching for).

On the website, some reviews are ‘filtered’ or hidden, and you have to finish an elaborate ‘Captcha’ process to view them. Yelp has had its share of criticism about how it derives its overall rankings, but from our perspective anyone who uses the web should know not to take all comments or websites at face value. Approached with a ‘trust but verify’ mentality, the Yelp app is still a great tool to find out where to eat, drink and shop wherever you have your iOS device.

Utilities

1Password Pro

We rely on AgileBits’ 1Password app (£6.99, bit.ly/Td2yrD) to keep track of, enter and even create passwords on multiple Macs. But we don’t only need passwords on desktop computers. That’s where the company’s 1Password Pro (£10.49, bit.ly/OYU5b9) becomes so essential. 

Whether you’re logging into a banking site or your Twitter account, all the info you need is at you fingertips thanks to Dropbox syncing of your secure database across all the computers and iOS devices you use.

While the app works well if you employ its desktop software, 1Password Pro for iOS doesn’t require you to have the OS X version. 

Utilities

Screens VNC

These days, not only is remotely viewing your desktop easy, but an app like Screens (£13.99, bit.ly/POchpp) even lets you control it from a handheld device. What makes this app stand out is the sheer degree of thoughtfulness that went into its design. It has no shortage of features, including the ability to remember multiple connections, securely connect to remote systems via SSH, and even configure multitouch gestures for specific commands. 

Although Screens works fine with OS X’s screen-sharing and remote-login services, developer Edovia offers a desktop helper app for Mac or Windows, Screens Connect (bit.ly/yeVDYp), that makes the process even easier, saving you from dealing with tasks such as setting up port forwarding and remembering IP addresses. 

Best of all, Screens works well with iOS’s touch interface. You can pinch-to-zoom the remote screen, and tap where you want the cursor to go. It offers a virtual keyboard, plus function buttons for common actions such as Spotlight, Page Up and Down, and sending the current pasteboard. 

If you need to access your Mac when you’re not at home, or if you have a Mac hooked up to a TV as an entertainment centre, Screens is an indispensable addition to your iPad.