You can do a lot with whats built into a new iPhone, iPad, Kindle Fire, Android tablet or digital music player. They come with a built-in Web browser, calculator, calendar and email program, as well as ways to keep track of your contacts and send text messages. But the really great stuff is still waiting to be downloaded.
Apples App Store for so-called iOS devices like iPads, iPhones and the iPod Touch and the Google Play store for Android Samsung Galaxy phones and Nexus tablets contain literally hundreds of thousands of apps (short for applications) that extend the capabilities of that new plaything.
Choosing the right ones can make a gadget more useful and fun. And best of all, many apps are free or very cheap; less than $5 is typical for even the most elaborate ones.
Here are some suggestions for must-have downloads, especially if youre new to mobile touch-screen gadgets. Not all apps are available on every platform.
The Web browser on your device may be fine, but it never hurts to have a second one in case something youre trying to view on the Internet doesnt display properly. Google Chrome is available on most platforms. If youre on a restrictive data plan, Opera compresses webpages so theyll load more quickly and efficiently. Both are free.
Check to see if your financial institution has an app. You can use them to check account balances, deposit checks using your devices camera and transfer funds. Speaking of your money, Mint (free) is great for tracking your finances and spending trends.
Managing files can be a hassle on mobile devices. Dropbox (free) lets you securely store digital documents, including photos, online. Theyre accessible to you from any computer or device.
To-do list apps are helpful. Ive had luck with a free app called Wunderlist (free), but some Apple users prefer Things, which is relatively pricey at $10 for each device you download it to. Remember the Milk is another popular and free to-do app.
Evernote is a must-own. It allows you to create notes that you can access from anywhere. Everything is searchable, even text contained within photos. Its free. A premium version costs $5 a month if you need extra storage for your notes.
If you want a different calendar than what came on your Apple device, some people swear by Calvetica ($2.99 for iOS).
Angry Birds (price varies, starting at 99 cents) is cute and addictive and available in several variations, including the recent Angry Birds Star Wars.
Words With Friends (free) is like online Scrabble, while Plants vs. Zombies (starts at 99 cents) is family-friendly and hilarious. Two of my favorite mobile games are Jetpack Joyride, a brainless thrill ride, and Fairway Solitaire, a brilliant mix of golf and cards. Many mobile games are discounted or priced free through the holidays, so grab them quickly.
The Amazon.com app is a no-brainer for online shopping. Youll also want to grab Groupon if you partake of their daily deals. You can use the apps barcodes at shops instead of printing coupons. The Yelp app provides users reviews of restaurants and retailers.
And whatever stores you frequent Target, Nordstrom or even drugstores such as Walgreens each has its own app that includes coupons and special offers. All are free to download.
If youre already a subscriber to Netflix, Hulu Plus or HBO, download their respective apps. HBO Go gives subscribers to the premium TV channel streaming video access to pretty much every episode of every show it has aired.
If you have cable or satellite service, your provider probably has an app that allows you to set DVR recordings and stream some video via a smartphone or tablet.
For music lovers, Pandora is a great way to get exposed to music. Audible is for downloading audiobooks, and new customers get their first audiobook free. For movie information, and theater listings and tickets, try Fandango or Flixster, both free.
If youre big on social media, you probably already are plugged in to these, but grab the official Twitter and Facebook apps if you use those services. Some Twitter users swear by Tweetbot, a paid app alternative. Theres also Google Plus and Pinterest (for visual pinning of stuff you love). Instagram also is a popular photo social network app thats free to download.
If your socializing online is more along the lines of video chatting with friends and family, download Skype.
NEWS AND BOOKS
If youre a heavy reader, make sure youve got a good way to download ebooks. Amazons iBooks (for iOS only) and Amazons Kindle app (for all platforms) are the leaders, but theres also the Kobo and Nook apps and bookstores.
Flipboard provides news sources in a gorgeous, visual way. It allows you to see Google Reader feeds and stories.
Most major news organizations have apps, including NPR which also provides access to audio feeds of shows and member-station live streams The New York Times, CNN, the BBC. (The Statesman has a smartphone app and will launch a tablet app in January. For the phone app, log on to www.idahostatesman.com/mobile and scroll down to the Phone Apps.)
Your children will want to get their hands on your new electronics. The best apps Ive seen for them include the excellent storybook, The Monster at the End of This Book and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (iOS only, $4.99 each).
PBS Kids has a lot of apps for various platforms, including PBS Kids Video for iOS. See the full list of their offerings at pbskids.org/mobile/.
Other dont-miss apps include (iOS): Google Maps (dont rely on Apples built-in maps), Remote (for controlling Apple TV and Macs in the house), GarageBand, YouTube and Paper (iPad only).
Other good ones include (Android): DoubleTwist (like iTunes for Android), Apps Organizer, Google Voice and Photoshop Express.