So maybe you got a new smartphone or tablet for Christmas — or for some other holiday affiliated with presents just now. Maybe you didn't, but you're still taking this weird limbo week to download some new apps anyway. With so many to choose from — more than 600,000 in Apple's app store, some 700,000 in Google Play, and beyond — and after a year when apps proliferated the human mobile experience like never before, we thought we'd offer quick options with useful, basic apps we especially enjoyed. These are the new essentials for your iPad, Android device, and, in all cases, your iPhone.
Google Maps (free)
We didn't realize how much we loved the Google-made maps app until Apple so cruelly took it away, giving us its mess of a product. Nokia's slogging competitor, which also came out in November, only made that point clearer (or blurrier). Google's new iOS app, which hit the iPhone just a few weeks ago as a lovely little Christmas surprise, is even better than the old version. It has an updated interface, which looks more like Apple's modern design, plus those beloved transit directions and a sleek take on Google Street View. You Android owners already have this beauty, but new iPhone owners, make this the very first app you download.
You might not know your email is broken until you download this highly efficient app, which is only available for iOS for now. But, well, it sort of is. Sparrow isn't quite as wonderful as its very popular desktop mail client, but a lot of the same features overlap: multiple account integration, labels, easy photo uploads, and intuitive display of long email threads. Gmail loyalists might also want to try the new Gmail app, a free update of Google's buggy version from a year ago, or just turn to Sparrow, which, naturally, Google has acquired.
After an embarrassing $500,000 sale to Betaworks, which led to a little self-reinvention this year, Digg is back — or so they say. Perhaps that has something to do with its simple little phone app, which takes the pretty new look of the news-discovery site (big photos, clever headlines, no more) and slaps it on an addicting scrolly interface. For those who can't handle the uglier weird-news aggregators out there (ahem, Reddit), Digg provides a refreshing way to find interesting links, without having to, uh, dig around.
The app formerly known as Read It Later also did a little reinventing this year, with a rename, redesign, and price reduction to the very friendly cost of zero dollars. It works a lot like Instapaper ($3.99), saving things from around the Internet on your phone to, you know, read later. But unlike its old interface, Pocket saves content with a little flair. For you cheapos who didn't get Instapaper back when it was free (and don't care too much about pagination, which Pocket does not offer), you might consider this gratis offering.
About a year ago, Flipboard took its very popular iPad app and put it on phones. Since, the service has grown from 5 million users to 20 million. Like Digg, Flipboard aggregates news from around the Web with a clean design. But instead of quirkier stories, it has more straight news, including paid partnerships with The New York Times and other outlets. Also, as of this summer, the app started working with YouTube to bring video-related news, which is kind of cool.
If this was the year of the photo-sharing app, Yahoo's just-released Flickr for mobile is the one to start playing with now, so that you can be one of those cool tech people who used the app before it got big. As far as hip-cred, Instagram looks like it's on the way out: Ever since Facebook bought it up, the company has started doing some shady things — and even as it has started to take it all back, you can expect Instagram to follow the money. When that happens, Flickr might be the place to go. It has a lot of the same features, a community, and Creative Commons standards that have made it a home for professional photographers since before the iPhone existed.
Another option: Pick (free). This "Instagram of Japan" is way more fun, offering the photo filters and lots of fun ways to draw on top of your pictures.
Speaking of photo-app wars: SnapChat could be the future. At the very least, it's the right now. The app has gotten a lot of attention because of its possible connection to sexting. (Here's a primer on that.) Since its launch in the spring SnapChat has exploded, mostly with the younger set, but its success inspired Facebook to release its own version last week (Poke, free), although it hasn't gotten the best reviews. The hype might not last, but some people think SnapChat represents a change in the way we share photos online for our increasingly mobile lives. Which is to say: we'll let them disappear in a matter of seconds, because we can't pay attention much longer than that.
Spotify (free, sort-of)
So, Spotify made its way to American mobile devices in the summer of 2011. But only those who paid for the full membership ($9.99 per month) had any real use for it. This year, however, Spotify launched a free, Pandora-style version. It doesn't provide access to the entire music library, but you do get some great new genre-based radio stations. Some might still prefer Pandora's "music genome project" version of the "curated radio" (free), but it all depends on your taste — or how many iTunes gift cards you got in your stocking.
Jetpack Joyride (free)
There is always a game of the moment. One year it was Angry Birds ($.99). For a brief moment earlier this year it was Draw Something (free). I am personally a Words with Friends/Scrabble loyalist. But right now the big thing is Jetpack Joyride, from the makers of Fruit Ninja (free) — it involves collecting coins and completing missions to buy new gear. It will probably stay fun for about two months. But by that time you'll have another favorite game to worry about.
Camera Awesome (free, sort-of)
Unlike Instagram, which is more about social networking and cleaning up ugly photos than quality photography, this iOS only app is like a tiny little PhotoShop app in your pocket. It "awesomizes" photos with a series of features, including levelization and saturation. While the app download comes free, those settings cost either $0.99 per filter, or $9.99 for the whole suite. In a year when we found new ways to take and share photos on the go, it's kind of nice to have something that actually helps people take and share, you know, better photos. Plus, the app syncs right up with your social networks, making this a nice complementary app to Instagram.