It’s telling that Apple chose an app that debuted more than 14 months ago, Instagram, as its “iPhone App of the Year” for 2011. This should not imply that there was a shortage of quality and groundbreaking apps released this year. Far from it.
From social magazines to music discovery apps to console-quality games that players can hold in the palms of their hands, there are hundreds of new titles in the iTunes App Store that will inform, organize, and entertain virtually anyone who owns an iOS device. As more choices become available to different kinds of consumers, however, it’s difficult to identify the undisputed champions of the app world.
We picked 20 of the best iOS applications that came out or received significant updates in 2011. The list is a healthy mix of free and paid titles that can run on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. (We will follow up with a separate top 20 list just for games, which are not included in this list).
There are hundreds of additional titles worthy of mention, and we selected our favorites based on the production value of an app more than its popularity on the Top Seller charts. You might take issue with some of the apps included here as well. But with about 600,000 apps available for iOS devices, everyone is entitled to their own favorites.
Here are ours.
After launching exclusively on iPads last year, this pioneering social magazine expanded to all iOS devices in December. Significant updates to the app — including LinkedIn integration and the inclusion of many more third-party publishers like Conde Nast — make Flipboard the best iOS app of 2011. The new iPhone-specific Cover Stories feature that showcases what users are most interested in is also a game-changer.
Who would have thought that one of the most enjoyable and innovative iPhone apps of the year would be developed by Microsoft. That’s the case with Photosynth, which lets users quickly and reliably capture panoramic 360-degree gyroscopic images simply by moving their cameras.
This next-generation music detection app lets users not only identify what song they are listening to, but also seamlessly share the track with friends and followers from Facebook, Twitter and foursquare. SoundTracking also lets users tap into what their friends are listening to and tagging.
This language translation app from Google excels above all others for its ability to audibly translate spoken words into other languages. Google Translate’s simple and elegant interface translates text between 63 languages and lets users star notable translations and access them for later use.
City dwellers in particular appreciate this astronomy app which uses augmented technology to display stars, planets and satellites that otherwise would be obscured. The dead simple point-and-use functionality, 3D graphics and snippets of celestial background information can make anyone a happy and well-informed stargazer.
While Apple created an ecosystem for thousands of third-party developers to innovate and market their wares to iOS devices, the company is also capable of producing its own killer apps. Having GarageBand available on the fly for less than five bucks is music to the ears of working and aspiring musicians and podcasters.
This app, which is also available on the iPad, is arguably Tiger’s greatest professional accomplishment of 2011. Users can compare side-by-side videos of their swings next to Tiger’s. For those spooked by Tiger’s potential skills regression, an option exists to customize alternate “swing lines.”
Beyond measuring heart rates and determining how many calories are burned during a workout, iMuscle — also available as a separate iPad application — provides more than 450 unique exercises and stretches. Fittingly, the app offers 3D views to help users target the muscles and areas of the body that deserve the most focus.
While there were worthy and less expensive photo editing apps released for the iPhone and iPad this year, none were better than the $4.99 Snapseed. The app’s user-friendly interface combines a nice mix of basic editing tools and cool effects that will please beginner photographers and experienced shutterbugs alike.
10. Super 8
Super 8 is an innovation in advertising as much as it is a real cool retro camera app. A promotion for the JJ Abrams/Steven Spielberg film of the same name, the app lets users create their own Super 8-style movies on their iPhones (scratch overlays and shaky cameras included). Nice to see a major studio release something more thoughtful than a cheesy commercial.
Spotify was worth the wait. Three years after launching in Europe, this music streaming service finally made its way to North America in July. The iOS application combines access to Spotify’s deep library with great playlist creation and social networking capabilities. Well worth the $10 monthly subscription for hardcore music fans tired of iTunes.
Embracing the minimalist style of Tumblr, this blogging app allows users to create virtual bulletin boards of their favorite things. Friends and followers can then re-pin their own comments on words and images that attracted them. This is not an app for the verbose.
A must-have mobile extension to the popular questions and answers site, the Quora app captures information about nearby locations using the GPS capabilities found within iOS devices. Where else can you tap into the collective wisdom of the digerati wherever you travel?
With mainstays like The Weather Channel and Accuweather already available for iOS devices, it’s difficult for other upstarts to find any sunlight. Weather+ shines through the clouds by providing looped visualizations of each type of weather forecast displayed at any time of the day.
A Shazam for television, IntoNow identifies what a user is watching on TV merely from picking up signals from its audio track. IntoNow, which was recently purchased by Yahoo!, uses proprietary fingerprinting technology called SoundPrint. The app also makes it easy to share what you’re watching with friends and followers.
Armchair baseball general managers can now access the Sabermetric wizardry of acclaimed baseball statistician Bill James with this free iOS app (that debuted for $14.99). The level of detail here is unprecedented for any piece of software that can be displayed in a device smaller than a baseball mitt.
17. Google Currents
Google’s Flipboard competitor is the best pure news aggregator available for mobile devices. While currently no match for Flipboard in terms of social integration, Google Currents is faster and offers more intuitive customization options with third-party publishers. Not surprisingly, it’s also the best way to tap into Google+ profiles from thought leaders like Robert Scoble and Guy Kawasaki.
18. HBO GO
Beyond the premium content this app serves up to HBO subscribers, HBO GO is pioneering how broadcast and cable networks make programming available to users on-the-go. The ability to tap into an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm from any place at any time is a pretty, pretty, pretty good thing to have.
Simply the best painting app available for the iPad. The clean and simple interface enables painting in real time. There is enough variety and options to appeal to painting pros as well as talentless amateurs just having some fun.
While turn-by-turn navigation technology is not revolutionary, packaging it within a 99-cent app (with an eventual $2.99 monthly subscription) is. The app also features great pedestrian-friendly walking directions.