Best Tech of 2015: Mobile Apps

Posted on December 3, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Android, iOS, Mobile, Windows Phones with 0 Comments

Best Tech of 2015: Mobile Apps

Mobile devices—and smart phones in particular—are only as good as the apps you use. So here’s a rundown of my favorite and most-useful/most-used mobile apps of 2015.

Mobile productivity: Microsoft Outlook

Platform(s): Android, iOS
Price: FREE

While I appreciate the elegance of some standalone email (Gmail, Inbox), calendar (Google Calendar, Microsoft Outlook Calendar), and cloud storage (OneDrive) apps, Microsoft Outlook does it all, at least on Android and iOS. It’s the first app I install when I get a new phone, and the first app I turn to when I pick up a phone in the morning. This is mobile productivity done right.

Runner-up: Microsoft Office Lens for Windows phones, Android and iOS is one of the most versatile mobile apps in my toolbox, and while I don’t need its scanning and photography skills every day, it’s awesome to have sitting at the ready when I do need it.

Runner-up: OneNote for Windows phones, Android and iOS is my preferred note-taking solution, though I do use it more on PCs than on my phones.

Runner-up: Microsoft Office Sway for iOS is one of several new-Microsoft mobile apps. It’s a more personable and forward-leaning alternative to PowerPoint, and is billed as a way to create and share interactive reports, presentations, personal stories, and more. It’s really neat.

Photo management and backup: Google Photos

Platform(s): Android, iOS
Price: FREE (though you can pay for storage)

While I do use OneDrive to backup photos across all the major mobile platforms,Google Photos—which works on Android and iOS—is vastly superior. The service provides unlimited storage for photos if you don’t mind them being downsized to “just” 16 megapixels, which covers just about all smart phone cameras these days anyway. And it of course provides nice editing, sharing, and photo management functionality.

But that’s not why I love Google Photos. Virtually every day, the Google Photos Assistant is prompting me to “rediscover this day” by showing me photos from today’s date in some year in the past when an event occurred. So late last month I was treated to daily “aww” moments of my daughter’s previous birthdays and Thanksgiving meals past. The Assistant also provides amazing and automatic photo collections—neat, Sway-like presentations of related events over one or more days—and will apply Instagram-like filters to photos it thinks are neat and present them as something new. This app—and service—are special.

Navigation: Google Maps

Platform(s): Android, iOS
Price: FREE

Sorry, HERE fans, but there is nothing like Google Maps on mobile devices. It’s fast, accurate, has incredible information and live data, and will reroute you on the fly as accidents and other issues occur ahead of you. And this year, Google finally added the one big missing piece of the puzzle: Offline maps. There’s nothing like Google Maps.

Runner-up: Windows phone fans should take a look at Waze while it’s still available on that platform. It provides navigation and real-time updates, like Google Maps, though I find the interface to be a bit cute. (Waze is now owned by Google and shares data with Google Maps.)

Social networking: Untappd

Platform(s): Android, iOS, Windows phones
Price: FREE

The official Untappd app is essentially a front-end to an incredible data of beer-related information: Beers and breweries, of course, but also nearby and popular bars and restaurants, amazing sharing/check-in capabilities, and an achievement system for you fans of Xbox Live. I use it regularly, and have used it all over the world.

Runner-up(s): Facebook and Twitter are available on all major mobile platforms as well, though I prefer Tweetium for Twitter on Windows phones.

News: MSN News

Platform(s): Android, iOS, Windows phones
Price: FREE

News aggregation apps are a dime a dozen, but I vastly prefer Microsoft’s neat curated approach, which works much like a major newspaper. That said, you can also sign-in with a Microsoft account and save favorite topics so you can dive deeper: I use this feature to keep up with tech companies and products, for example.

Runner-up: Google Play Newstand for Android and iOS is the best of the auto-aggregation news apps, presenting a nice—and, over time, evolving—view of what’s happening and is important to you. Apple is trying to do the same thing with Apple News on iOS only, but that app is half-baked and, surprise, curiously top-heavy with news about Apple and its products.

Web browser: Google Chrome/Mozilla Firefox (Tie)

Platform(s): Android, iOS
Price: FREE

For me, the goal of a mobile web browser is simple: Make the web work on a tiny screen and pull in the bookmarks and settings—and, optionally, the open tabs—I have already configured in that browser on my PC. Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, the latter of which just recently showed up on iOS, both achieve these goal nicely.

Language learning: Duolingo

Platform(s): Android, iOS, Windows phones
Price: FREE

After years of trial and error with numerous forms of language learning—including some that were very expensive (Rosetta Stone) and/or time-consuming (in-person classroom training in Boston), my wife and I have both discovered the best solution yet: The Duolingo mobile app. I spent a year learning Spanish with this app, and have since moved on to French, where I’ve now achieved about 20 percent proficiency. (I’m also on a 210+ day streak at the moment.) Duolingo is amazing, and will always be free. The only weirdness is how the app differs between Android, iOS and Windows phones, though this won’t be something most notice. Regardless, there’s nothing like it.

Music: Apple Music/Spotify (Tie)

Platform(s): Android, iOS (Spotify is on Windows phones too)
Price: FREE

Different people are looking for different things in music apps. Some prefer Internet radio only. Some want to carefully curate their own music collection, which was previously ripped from CD. But some want it all. And when it comes to apps (and services) that can do it all, only two measure up: Spotify (Android, iOS, Windows phones), which has been the years-long market leader, and Apple Music(Android, iOS), a newcomer.

They’re both very similar, and while Apple gets complaints about the UI and some bugs, I find their curated playlists to be superior even to those on Spotify. And it’s cheaper than Spotify if you have a family who all want music: With Spotify, you pay more for each user, but Apple Music offers an inexpensive family plan. (On the flipside, Apple Music is not available on Windows phones.)

Runner-up: Microsoft Groove is available on all major mobile platforms and while it doesn’t offer the curated playlists, it does have unique integration with OneDrive (for those with their own music) and offers a Groove Music Pass subscription.

Runner-up: Google Music for Android and iOS is very good too: It lets you upload your own music for free, has a subscription service, and has started adding curating playlists, so it could be a bigger contender going forward.

Runner-up: MixRadio (Free, for all major mobile platforms) is perfect if you just want curated playlists, similar to Internet radio. It even has offline capabilities.

E-Books: Amazon Kindle

Platform(s): Android, iOS, Windows phones
Price: FREE

Amazon has the best e-book ecosystem by far and of course its Kindle app is available on all major mobile platforms. As with Google Maps, or Audible (below), Kindle is a no-brainer, and one of the first things I install on any phone or tablet. I subscribe to numerous newspapers and magazines through Kindle, and read virtually all of e-books via this platform. (The Windows phone version of the app is lackluster and never updated. Hopefully that changes soon.)

Audiobooks: Audible

Platform(s): Android, iOS, Windows phones
Price: FREE

This one barely needs to be mentioned: If you listen to audiobooks, you needAudible. Yes, there are a handful of other services, but Audible is king, and new content usually arrives day and date with the print/electronic versions of new books. I listen to Audible every single day and recommend a monthly membership ($14.95 for one book each month), which can help save money. Plus, be sure to shop when they have sales, which offer huge savings.

Podcasts: Pocket Casts

Platform(s): Android, iOS, Windows phones
Price: $5.99 per platform

With a crappy, out of date Podcasts app on Windows phones (including Windows 10 Mobile) and no built-in podcast app on Android, what’s a podcast fan to do? Easy: Get Pocket Casts, which works on all major mobile platforms. It provides a library of 200,000 podcasts, syncs your subscriptions to the cloud so they’ll be available anywhere, auto-downloads new shows, provides variable speed playback, and so much more. This is the full meal deal.

The one downside to Pocket Casts is that you have to pay for it, and the $5.99 fee per app may be off-putting. Don’t be cheap: This app is great, and the best podcast app I’ve ever used, regardless of platform. I own it on Android, iOS and Windows phone.


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