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Top 30 must-have free iPhone apps

Apple
by Jill Duffy, 01 Sep 2012

I owned my iPhone for over a year before I bought my first app. That doesn't mean I didn't download them. I did, a whole host of them, but I didn't pay for a single one.

Don't get me wrong. Not everything in life is free. But when you can find good software for free, you should take it.

Apple's App Store for the iPhone is a veritable bazaar of freebies. Plenty of these offerings are pretty good, but a whole lot of them are duds. Of course, there’s no way of knowing which is which until after you’ve downloaded them.

Either that, or you could just keep reading, because I’ve gone to the trouble of picking out 30 of the best free iPhone apps around for your delectation. These gems are all apps which are first class efforts, have been well received by users, and are truly "free." That means no gimmicks, no "membership required." They’re free, full-stop, end of story.

Missing from this list are apps and features (like Siri) that come pre-installed on the iPhone, although they are certainly not to be overlooked. The Maps, Reminders, and Clocks apps in particular should not be ignored, but we won’t cover them here, seeing as these are pre-loaded affairs, and you don’t need to download them.

So, without further ado, dive into this collection of 30 top notch gratis iPhone apps, presented in alphabetical order (in other words, in no particular ranking in terms of the greatest apps – these are all sterling efforts). Oh, and if you have further recommendations for more high quality free apps, please post your suggestions in the comments section below. ITProPortal is always on the lookout for the next great app.

Airport Utility

The free AirPort Utility manager from Apple lets you control your Wi-Fi network and AirPort base stations, including AirPort Express, AirPort Extreme, and Time Capsule, right from your iPhone. When you launch the app, you'll see a pictorial representation of your network and devices that will tell you what's connected to what, and how. You can change the network and Wi-Fi settings, start or restore a base station, access networking information (like DNS server, router address, IP address), and more.


Amazon Mobile

Amazon sells practically anything you might need, from toilet paper to dog food. The mobile shopping app ensures you can buy those goods at any time. The app contains a barcode scanner and photo tool, so if you're in a store deliberating the cost of an item, you can snap a picture or scan the barcode and see if Amazon has it for less.


BBC News

Among news apps, The BBC's has one of the best interfaces – it’s clean, with relevant headlines, good photos, and no advertisements. The good old Beeb has correspondents in every corner of the globe, and covers varied topics. Another perk is that you can elect to view some news in other languages, such as Urdu, Arabic, and two kinds of Chinese.


Converter Plus

An all-in-one calculation app, Converter Plus delivers the goods on nearly every conversion imaginable, including currency, weight, temperature, measurements and so forth.


Dropbox

If your files live all over the place – your office computer, home desktop, laptop – having a dependable syncing program is a must. Dropbox, the service and productivity tool that lets you store your files in the cloud and access them from anywhere you have a signal, fills that role nicely with an iPhone app. It has a simple interface and provides easy uploading, not to mention swift syncing across all accounts.


Epicurious

Epicurious is a recipe app, and I'll openly admit that it's not my favourite – I'm a fan of AllRecipes.com Dinner Spinner Pro, but that costs £1.99. Among the free options out there, Epicurious is king, pulling recipes from a huge catalogue, including the archives of Bon Appétit and the now closed Gourmet magazine. You can search by ingredient or by the type of dish you want to make, such as appetisers and "weeknight dinners."


Evernote

Without the Evernote app for iPhone, I'd be a lot less productive while I'm away from my desk. This free, straightforward note-making app outdoes most competing apps thanks to its strong search capabilities and effortless organisation. But the real key to its success and popularity is that Evernote synchronises all your files by saving them to a cloud service, meaning anything you create or alter from your iPhone will be there waiting for you when you log into any other version of Evernote. I use Evernote to write, take notes, and even snap pictures of whiteboards and PowerPoint slides in meetings, so I can remember details later.

Facebook

Social networks thrive with a reliable app – you've got to be social on the go – and Facebook for iPhone is solid. Despite occasional crashes, Facebook loads pretty fast and has a decent interface for viewing photos. The design is intuitive to navigate, too.


Find My iPhone

New as of iOS 5, the Find My iPhone app from Apple helps you locate a lost or stolen iPhone. It also works on other Apple devices, such as iMacs and iPads. You can use your Apple login to find the geo-location of any of your devices, as long as they are connected to Wi-Fi or 3G. You can also remotely make your phone blare a loud noise, even if it's turned to silent mode, if you think you've lost it within earshot. And you can remotely send a message to your phone's screen if you think someone trustworthy has it in their possession, and you want them to be able to contact you.


Flipboard

Flipboard, an app initially designed for the iPad that curates content from your social networks and web partners (think periodicals, blogs, etc.) based on your interests, and turns them into stunning magazine-like digital pages, is now available on the iPhone. The app is free to download and requires a free user account. Flipboard absolutely shines on the iPad, taking advantage of swiping gestures with both visual and interactive grace. On the smaller iPhone, it's still elegant, if a little cramped.


Gmail

Speed, better search functions, and colour-coded threading make the standalone Gmail iPhone app preferable to the built-in Mail app (where you can access Gmail). The Gmail app for iOS 4 and later, made by Google, gives users another choice for managing email. It allows iPhone users to decide what they value in an email app. Do you value search capability over text displayed at readable sizes? Is it more important for your various email accounts to be managed in one app, as Mail arranges them, or would you rather have a dedicated app just for Gmail that looks more like Gmail on the web, with colour-coded threading? The Gmail app searches your entire email in slicker and faster fashion than the pre-installed Mail app.


Google Search

Search giant Google has many excellent free apps (indeed, several are on this very list), but its namesake search app is the one closest to its founding business, and thus bursting with some pretty smart features. You can search by typing keywords, or by speaking, or by snapping a photo, as there's a toggle for Google Goggles (in the settings), which lets you take photos of books, landmarks, logos, artwork and so forth, to find out more about them. You can also save pictures you take, and the app will scan and read any text that appears on them as well. The Google Search app does a lot more than just search the Internet, making it well worth the free download.


Google Translate

With more than 30 languages supported and delivering impressively accurate results most of the time, the Google Translate app is one of the most remarkable programs you can load onto your iPhone. Most people probably won’t need it too often, except when travelling or studying a language, but it can be amazingly useful in unexpected circumstances.


Hootsuite

HootSuite is a social-media aggregation app, meaning it lets you manage up to five profiles on Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare, all from one central interface. If you use the app in conjunction with HootSuite's desktop version, you may want to upgrade to the premium version of the tool (£6.30 per month), which gives you an unlimited number of profiles to manage, as well as more data about the effects of your social networking outreach.


iBooks

If the likes of the Kindle don’t tickle your fancy, Apple has its own little online bookstore where you can download and save novels, magazines, newspapers, and other reading material – and yes, many of the books and periodicals are free! This personal digital library works on the iPad and iPad 2 as well, so you can browse for books on the go from your phone and save them to read on the tablet later.


IMDb Movies & TV

"What was the name of that movie… the one with Ally Sheedy and Fisher Stevens?" The next time you can't remember the name of an actor, television show, or film (Short Circuit, by the way), IMDb saves the day. One of the handiest reference websites on the planet, IMDb never fails when it comes to looking up anything that pertains to TV, film, or Hollywood. The IMDb Movies & TV app also lets you find which movies are playing at your local cinema, and even purchase tickets. With an IMDb account (free or paid-for Pro), the app provides even more features, like the ability to create a watchlist of movies you want to see.


Kindle

Read books, magazines, and newspapers right on your iPhone without ever buying an e-reader. From within the Kindle app, you can buy or download hundreds of thousands of free books.


Mozy

Online backup service Mozy lets you access all your backed-up files securely right from your iPhone, essentially letting you carry your computer around with you, tucked away in your pocket. Mozy, which is a freemium service, lets you read documents, browse photographs, play your music, and share files anywhere you have an Internet or 3G connection. A MozyHome or MozyPro backup account is required.


MyFitnessPal Calorie Counter

The free fitness app MyFitnessPal is one of the best all-in-one calorie counter and exercise trackers for the iPhone. A simple design and interface ensure the app is quick and easy to use, although its biggest selling point is the app’s exhaustive food and nutrition database, which trounces every competitor's that we've seen.

Onavo

Onavo compresses data automatically to help you reduce data usage on your phone. In other words, it will save you money if you typically exceed your mobile plan's data allowance. Additionally, anyone travelling abroad with an iPhone should definitely have Onavo installed. Spend some time learning the settings well, but be forewarned that there's no compression for streaming video.


Opera Mini

When the Safari browser that came pre-installed on your iPhone simply won't load, Opera Mini wins. The first true alternative browser for Apple's iPhone isn't a better effort than Mobile Safari – at least most of the time – but when your network operator totally collapses on you, Opera Mini pulls web pages out where Apple's own browser stalls. Opera Mini is different, because as a proxy browser, it doesn't actually load web pages at all. Rather, it sends a request to Opera's servers, which loads the page, compresses it by 80 to 90 per cent, and then whizzes over a compressed image of the page to your phone.


Remember the Milk

One of the big plusses of the to-do list maker Remember the Milk is that it works with Apple's Siri – on the iPhone 4S only, that is. For earlier generation phones, it's still a great little app for keeping your tasks organised. Remember The Milk also syncs with a bunch of major web apps, such as Outlook, iCal, Gmail and Google Calendar.


RunKeeper

Runners, fitness enthusiasts, and anyone trying to shed a few pounds might know that the iPhone is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to helping you track your exercise. With the RunKeeper app, one of the most popular apps among outdoor runners in particular, you can tap into the phone's GPS technology to map where you've run, jogged, or walked. (You can also manually enter information from indoor runs). RunKeeper figures out more statistics for you, like your pace, total distance covered and so on. All your data is synced to RunKeeper.com, where you can view a history of all your activities. The app also boasts a coaching feature if you want some audio encouragement while you're working out.


Shazam

If you hear a song and don't know what it is – or for the life of you, can't remember who sang it – then it’s Shazam to the rescue! Launch Shazam and hold it as close as you can to the speakers, then let her rip. Within a few seconds, the app will tell you the title, artist, and sometimes even find the album art, too. Shazam is a whiz with most radio-play songs, new and old, originals and covers, but it can get stumped by more obscure stuff and the likes of B-sides.


Skype

Skype is one of the best free communication tools for the iPhone, and as of version 3.0, the app lets you make video calls. Skype for iPhone lets you call or chat with other Skype users at no charge, or buy credit to call any other phone number, landline or mobile. There have been some grumblings about glitches with the latest version (4.1), mind you, but hopefully these will be ironed out in short order.


SugarSync

One of my favourite file-syncing services, SugarSync added an iPhone app to its offerings in 2011. SugarSync gives you access to your files from a multitude of devices, no matter if you store them on your laptop at home, desktop computer at the office, tablet, and so on. You can use SugarSync to stream music, back-up photos, collaborate on projects, and more.


Trainyard Express

In this captivating iPhone game from indie developer Matt Rix, players lay down tracks to guide trains from their starting points to the stations, sometimes merging with other trains along the way. Trains, starting points, and stations are colour-coded. Red trains must end up in red goal stations. A blue train can merge with a red train to become a purple one before it reaches a purple station. As the difficulty increases, the number of trains is also upped, as well as the number of objectives in each level. Trainyard Express is an highly addictive and fun puzzle game for players of all ages.


TripIt

TripIt tops the list of travel apps. It automatically syncs your emailed itineraries to a TripIt organiser, putting all your travel plans right on your iPhone no matter which booking agent you use. It's hands down the most recommended app for frequent jet-setters… but watch out for the ads.


Twitter

For a long time, Twitter Inc., the company that owns the 140-character social network, didn't make its own app. Dozens of third parties did, however, but not all the resulting apps were worth using. So when the social network released its own official Twitter app – and it worked well and loaded quickly – users folded the new tool into their iPhones happily. If you tweet, it's a no-brainer to have this app. If you don't tweet and have been on the fence about joining the masses, the iPhone app makes it easy and convenient to get on board.


WebMD

WebMD is much more than a diagnosis app, although you can certainly use it to input symptoms you are experiencing and discover some clues as to what's ailing you. It also contains listings for healthcare professionals and pharmacies in your area, as well as first-aid guides – simple instructions for dealing with an emergency that everyone should have accessible to them at any time. This free reference app is one that you’ll hope you don't ever need, but the moment you do, you'll be glad you downloaded it.

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