Austin American-Statesman Omar L. Gallaga column [Austin American-Statesman]
(Austin American-Statesman (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Dec. 25--If you receive 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" like iPads, iPhones and the iPod Touch -- and the Google Play store for Android -- devices like 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, starter packs of apps you should check out, especially if you're new to the world of mobile touch-screen gadgets. Not all apps are available on every platform, but we tried to pick many that can be used across the board.
Let's be dutiful and start with apps that may help you right out of the gate, especially if you're used to working on a computer. 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" (price varies, starts 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." Austin's Alamo Drafthouse has its own app as well.
If you're big on social media, you probably already are plugged in to these, but definitely grab the official "Twitter" and "Facebook" apps if you use those services. Some Twitter users swear by "Tweetbot," a paid app alternative. There's also "Google+," "Pinterest" (for visual pinning of stuff you love). "Instagram" is also a very popular photo social network app that's 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 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, BBC and the Austin American-Statesman. If you're a print subscriber to the Statesman, you get free access to all of the newspaper's digital apps including "News for iPad" and various e-editions.
Kids will inevitably want to get their hands all over your new 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/.
Other must-haves (iOS): "Google Maps" (don't rely on Apple's built-in maps!), "Remote" (for controlling Apple TV and Macs in the house), "GarageBand," "YouTube," "Paper" (iPad only).
Other must-haves (Android): "DoubleTwist" (like iTunes for Android), "Apps Organizer," "Google Voice," "Photoshop Express."
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