AUSTIN, Texas If you received a smartphone or tablet for Christmas (or you’re setting up one as a gift for a loved one), you should know that out of the box, they come incomplete.
Sure, you can do a lot with what’s built into a new iPhone, iPad, Kindle Fire, Android tablet or digital music player. They typically already have a good built-in Web browser, a calculator, calendar and email programs, 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.
Apple’s App Store for so-called iOS devices such as iPads, iPhones and the iPod Touch, and the Google Play store for Android devices such as 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 of these 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 you’re new to the world of 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 you’re trying to view on the Web doesn’t display properly. The free Google Chrome browser is available on most platforms, and if you’re on a restrictive data plan, the lightweight browser Opera compresses Web pages down to make them load more quickly and efficiently. Both are free.
If you do any kind of online banking or would like to, check to see if the financial institution you use has a dedicated app. You may be able to check your accounts, deposit checks using your device’s camera and transfer funds. Speaking of your money, the app Mint (free) is great for tracking finances and seeing trends on how you spend.
Managing files can be a hassle on mobile devices. Dropbox (free) allows you to keep digital documents of any kind stored online, accessible to you from any computer or device.
Getting things done with a mobile device may lead you to experiment with to-do list apps. The App Store and Google Play are stuffed with them. I’ve had luck with a free app called Wunderlist (free), but some Apple users prefer Things, which is relatively pricey at $10 for each type of device. “Remember the Milk” is another good and free to-do app that’s very popular.
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. It’s free. A premium version costs $5 a month if you need lots of extra storage for your notes.
A few friends also swear by Calvetica ($2.99 for iOS), an alternative to Apple’s calendar app.
Now that you’re organized, have some fun. Angry Birds (prices start at 99 cents) is cute and addictive and available in several different 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 overall 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 store app is a no-brainer for online shopping, but you’ll also want to grab Groupon if you partake of their daily deals. You can use the app’s barcodes at shops instead of printing coupons out. The Yelp app can give you an idea of what people think of restaurants and shops. And whatever retail stores you frequent, be they Target, Nordstrom or even drugstores like Walgreens, each has its own app that includes coupons and special offers. All are free to download.
If you’re already a subscriber to Netflix, Hulu Plus or HBO, definitely 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 similar to artists you love. Audible is for downloading audiobooks and new customers can get their first one free. You can also try iHeartRadio for terrestrial and online radio stations. For movie information, listings and tickets, try Fandango or Flixster.
News and books
If you’re a heavy reader, make sure you’ve got a good way to download ebooks. Amazon’s iBooks (for iOS only) and Amazon’s Kindle app (for all platforms) are the leaders, but there’s also the Kobo and Nook apps and bookstores.
Flipboard is a great way to see Google Reader feeds and stories from a variety of news sources in a gorgeous, visual way.
Most major news organizations have their own apps including NPR (which also gives you access to audio feeds of shows and member station live streams), the New York Times and BBC.
Kids will inevitably want to get their hands all over your new electronics. The best apps I’ve seen for young kids 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 the indispensable PBS Kids Video for iOS. See the full list of their offerings at pbskids.org/mobile/.