The wrapping paper has just been torn off that shiny new iPad Air or strikingly svelte iPad mini with Retina display that someone was kind enough to give you for the holidays. And believe me, between the stunning display and the way it feels in your hand, it's going to take a long time for the shine to wear off that new iPad. And yet... it's feeling a little empty, isn't it? Like something's missing.
See also: iPad Air review
Friend, you need to download some apps.
Apple makes things easy on that front by keeping a well-stocked App Store. And nearly half of the million or so apps available for download are built specifically for that iPad you're holding in your hands. Still, there is such a thing as having too many choices. After all, you don't want your very first App Store download to turn out to be a clunker. And just to complicate things further, everyone uses their iPad for different reasons, and what's a great app for one person might leave another staring at the Retina screen in uncomprehending horror. I can tell you that Infinity Blade III is a really great game that really makes the most of your new iPad's processing power, but if you don't particularly care for hack-and-slash games, that's not much of a recommendation, is it?
So I've surveyed my colleagues for the apps that they would install on a brand new iPad Air or iPad mini. And from that pool of contenders, I've picked the ones that are best for certain kinds of tasks. Whether you see your iPad as a productivity tool, a gaming device, or something you plan to share with the rest of your family, we've found the right app for you.
If you want to write
Let's just dispense with that notion that the iPad is good for consuming content, and little else--this is a very powerful productivity tool, especially if you have the right apps. For power users who work with text, the choice is Editorial, which boasts a number of customization features that allow you to bend the interface and the extended keyboard to your will. The app also makes it simple for even non-programmers to assemble customized workflows to automate functions like converting text. And while its workflow support may be Editorial's standout feature, the app offers writers plenty of other niceties like Markdown and HTML previews, powerful search features, and an integrated Web browser for those times you need to do research but don't want to jump to another app. There's a lot of power packed into Editorial, ready to help you get to work.
If you want to take notes
With its notebook-sized shape, the iPad seems the perfect size for sitting down and scribbling some notes, and indeed, a number of note-taking apps have sprung up over the years. Still, there's a good reason why Notability perpetually lands among the top-selling iPad productivity apps. It lets you type or write out notes long-hand, giving you options for changing the color and style of your note-taking. A nifty recording feature lets you capture the audio of a meeting or lecture; when you play back that audio, tapping on a section of your notes takes you to that specific section of the recording. Notability offers great search tools for tracking down your notes, and you'll never lose an important file thanks to the app's ability to sync with cloud-based services including Dropbox and Google Drive. Some of us may still cling to pen and paper for our note-taking needs, but Notability is powerful enough to give those old-school tools a run for their money.
$3; Ginger Labs
If you want to read comics
Since its launch, the iPad has been an appealing device for people who enjoy comic books. The recent hardware changes have only improved matters. Artwork really pops on the iPad Air's screen and now that the tablet is lighter and easier to hold, it really lends itself to extended reading sessions. As for the iPad mini with Retina display, the comic experience is vastly improved over the original mini, with crisper text and sharper art. So what comic reader should you choose? Try Comics from Comixology, which offers a smooth interface and an easy-to-navigate storefront for purchasing issues. (Perhaps too easy, if your monthly credit card statement will be any indication.)
If you've got small kids
If you're a parent, I've got some sobering news for you: That iPad Air or iPad mini is not going to remain your sole property for very long. Your kids are going to want to use it too, and, unless you're made of sterner stuff than I am, you're going to acquiesce. You might as well make sure there's a few apps on your tablet that your kids can enjoy. As a parent of a preschooler, I can't say enough nice things about the apps that Toca Boca produces. They're more like digital playsets than apps, encouraging your children to use their imagination. Almost all of the Toca Boca offerings would be fine additions to your iPad, but I'll single out Toca Hair Salon 2, in which you've got an array of scissors, curling irons, and other beauty parlor tools to help you give assorted cartoon characters unique coiffures. If you're having a bad hair day of your own, Toca Hair Salon Me lets you snap a photo with the iPad's camera, before you start styling and profiling.
Toca Hair Salon 2: $3; Toca BocaToca Hair Salon Me: $3 Toca Boca
If you've got kids in grade school
Kids who've reached the upper grades of elementary school might have outgrown what Toca Boca has to offer, but they'll enjoy the colorful look of Barefoot World Atlas. This digital version of the book of the same name takes full advantage of your iPad's touch interface, with a spinnable, interactive globe. Tap on any country or one of the animated points of interest to learn a little bit more about it. And this app has up-to-the-minute information, including the current temperature of a country as well as how far away it is from your current location. I first took Barefoot World Atlas out for a spin more than a year ago, and I'm impressed by how the app continues to grow, with the latest addition being downloadable packs that deliver enhanced data and puzzles for a modest in-app purchase fee. Not many apps can put the whole world in your hands; Barefoot World Atlas does so with a distinctive and pleasing look.
$5; Touch Press
If you want to see the stars
If you sometimes gaze up at the night sky and wonder what's blinking back at you--star, planet, or satellite?--you should equip yourself with Star Walk HD, a beautifully designed astronomy app. Star Walk takes advantage of both your iPad's accelerometer and its location awareness to help you identify the heavenly bodies immediately above you. Just tilt your iPad to the heavens, and Star Walk displays planets, stars, and constellations based on their relative orientation to you. This app has been around the App Store for a while, but it receives regular updates, so it should be a constant companion if you're idea of star-gazing runs more toward Ursa Major and Corona Borealis than any of the Kardashians.
$3; Vito Technology
If you're an animal lover
There's a reason WWF Together gets showered with awards--a 2013 Apple Design Award here, runner-up honors for the App Store's Editors' Choice picks there. It's a beautifully designed interactive app that contains a wealth of information assembled by the World Wildlife Fund. You'll find detailed stories of 16 endangered species, each one with an interactive element to engage the reader. (Drag around a dot to illustrate how cowbirds follow bison around, for example, or compare the sound of a blue whale's call to other noises.) A spinning globe lets you find endangered species around the world and learn a little bit more about them. WWF Together is a remarkably detailed app and a great way to showcase your new tablet's interactivity.
Free; World Wildlife Fund
If you want to cook a meal
I can't say definitively that How To Cook Everything--a digitized version of Mark Bittman's reference book for home cooks--does, in fact, tell you how to cook every conceivable foodstuff. But it certainly tells you a lot. More to the point, it instructs you on techniques and basics with illustrations that really pop on your iPad's screen. It's easy to jump around the app, from recipes to techniques to kitchen basics. I'm a big fan of tabs within the ingredients themselves that let you look at variations on a recipe, related content such as how to use relevant kitchen tools, and a notes window where you can jot down your own notations on a particular meal. Other nice features, like the ability to print out recipes so you won't have to touch your new iPad with your food-stained hands, make this a must-have for home cooks with dreams of four-star meals.
If you want to play a game
Sometimes you just want to have some fun, and your iPad can certainly cooperate with any one of a number of games. For a fun diversion that still manages to stimulate the ol' brain, try The Room Two, a sequel to last year's very well-regarded puzzle game. The same spooky ambience returns in this latest version, as do the puzzles that use pinching, zooming, and other touch gestures to great effect. There's hours worth of mysteries to unravel here, and a lot of atmospheric graphics and sound effects to capture your imagination.
$5; Fireproof Games
If you want to drive really fast
A built-in accelerometer has made the iPad a great platform for racing games--just tilt your tablet to steer and you can make like Mario Andretti. The Real Racing franchise has generally been in the winner's circle for much of its time on the iOS platform, and Real Racing 3 continues the tradition of a delivering racing thrills to your iPad. The game's payment model--it's free to download, but you have to make a series of micropayments to speed up your progress--is not without its critics, and that's a shame because the actual gameplay in Real Racing 3 is terrific. My advice: Download the free version and give it a spin. If you find the request for micropayments too intrusive or momentum killing, you can still grab the predecessor, Real Racing 2 HD for $7.
Free; Electronic Arts