5 Apps I Couldn’t Live Without

I used to be a Windows Phone fan-boy. “It’s so fresh, so easy to use, so stylish” I would cry to my Apple-wielding friends. “So little apps to choose from” I used to cry to myself. This all changed in a drunken attempt at gymnastics in which my phone screen’s relationship with the pavement reached the next level. So, cut off from the world with an unusable Windows brick, I caved into my irrational anti-mainstream self and got an iPhone.

After several months of trailing through the App Store for apps that best serve my post-graduate, cynical and OCD-style needs, I slowly began to find the apps that stood up to the ridiculously high standards. Five apps in particular have become so connected to my daily routine that I fear if they were suddenly to become unavailable I would have a mental breakdown and end up in a hateful relationship with my phone. I’ll probably end up talking to my family or going outside. Frightening.

Most apps have a lot of competition in the app-store but the apps I have selected are simply the best of the bunch. Whether they’re favoured for simplicity, ingenuity, time-saving or helping me realise my life dream of not getting out of bed unless I utterly have to, these apps cry to be taken for a test drive.

Just as a reference, at the time of writing I am using an iPhone 5 running on iOS 8.4 with Google Chrome browser running on Windows 8.1. I also use triple-ply toilet paper.

GOOGLE PHOTOS 

One of the views available in the app.
Google Photos main page.

Google Photos was only released a few months ago in May 2015, but it was the instant answer to what I’ve been looking for for years: an app that organises photos in chronological order with a customisable view and online back-up.

The premise is simple. Google Photos replaces Apple’s Photos as your photo library and syncs the photos you take with your library in the cloud. All photos can be accessed anywhere at any time and videos can be uploaded too. Simple enough, right?

One of the key attributes to the app – which embarrasses every other photo-library app and leads to these apps feeling self-conscious unworthy and ashamed – is the search function. Google Photos is able to figure out where your photos were taken, when they were taken, who’s in them, what’s in them, and it uses this information to give you results for whatever you search.

The search page
The search page.

For example, If I’m desperate enough to corner someone at a bus-stop and tell them all about how cute my cats are, I simply open the app, search ‘cats’ and show the delighted bus-goer all the pretty pictures of my perfect pussies. I don’t use this function that much (lucky for all you bus-goers), as I use the scroll function to find my photos instead. Whilst you scroll up and down, a little tag will show you the date. Want to look at your pictures from that gig in 2010? Bam – slide down to October 2010 and, Bob’s your Uncle, you’re there.

But Google Photos isn’t just for storing and viewing your photos – with its built-in editing function, you can make your pictures look so pretty and awe-inspiring that will make you look upon your actual life with disgust. Most photo-editing apps give you some cropping functions, filters and spot blur options, but Google Photos’ concern is making your pictures look the best they can -without looking like a 14 year old’s Instagram feed.

Editing a photo
Editing a photo.

The great thing about the editing functions in Google Photos is that the results aren’t obviously edited. It doesn’t pixally-rape your pictures into submission just to blur out details or “make stuff look pretty”, it genuinely improves the feel and look of the image without compromising the quality of the original photograph. Editors be warned; any edits you make to a photo will be saved to the original, so you won’t end up with a bunch of annoying duplicates.

Google Photos stores all of your photos in the cloud, and serves as a valuable photo manager on your phone. It will automatically upload any photos you take, synchronise any deletions on your devices and it has a helpful ‘Assistant’ function that will help you in using the app to the best of its abilities according to your needs. The Assistant function will suggest photo edits, make collages for you to consider adding to your collection and help you make sure your library is in tip-top shape.

Google Photos is available for iPhone and Android, but can also be accessed via the online service.

PUSHBULLET

In a dizzying world where online and digital activity is not as dependent on a single device as it was in the past, Pushbullet strolls right in, sits on your lap and whispers “send me to all of your devices, darling.”

Sending from an iPhone.
Sending from an iPhone.

Pushbullet allows you to seamlessly exchange files and data across your devices You can send text files, links, pictures, videos, PDFs, map locations, social networks and audio instantly. Think of it as a ‘Reading List’ app like Instapaper, only it allows the exchange of much more media types and every device has equal functionality.

For example, in the picture on the right, I tried to access an article on my phone that was bogged down with adverts, rending the whole page unreadable as some bikini-clad Viking Warrior was trying to get me to download some generic tower-defence game. I decided to return to my PC and access it on there. So on my phone, I shared the page to the Pushbullet app and then sent it to all the devices I was running the Pushbullet service on – my Google Chrome browser and Window PC, but there’s a bunch of different options available to use. A notification then appears on my PC, giving me the link to the article. I then clicked the link, read the article, and giggled like manly man at the power of technology.

The Pushbullet feed.
The Pushbullet feed.

All media and data exchanged in Pushbullet is available in the feed – the landing page for the app and PC program – and you can scroll back through your history to check on something that you forgot to read. Or want to read again. Or just for the hell of it. You’re an independent person. You can do what you want (within reason). The notifications on devices appear almost instantly and the app is incredible practical. Oh, did I mention you can also access your Pushbullet feed anywhere by going to the Pushbullet website and logging in?

For those Apple fan-boys using a Mac, Pushbullet offers a few extra features, such as universal copy and paste (which allows you to copy text from your Mac and paste it into your iPhone, and visa versa) and phone-to-PC notifications (which sends your phone’s notifications to your PC). These options are soon to be made available for Windows users. Another feature – this is available for all users using the app – is the easy exchange of data and files with contacts who also use Pushbullet. But, if you have no friends, you can still send files to yourself.

Windows context menu.
Windows context menu.

This is one of those apps which I downloaded just to try out, but it’s ingenuity stuck with me and now I end up using almost every day. Whether I’m saving an article to read later, using a picture I have on my PC as my phone wallpaper or generally sending files wirelessly between devices like some futuristic arsehole, Pushbullet is a great app that is a lot more useful than you’ll first think.

Pushbullet is available for iPhone and Android, and can be used with Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Safari as well as Windows and Mac. There’s also apps in the works for Ubuntu, Windows Phone and Blackberry.

SIMPLENOTE

Ah, the mucky world of note-taking apps. What should be a landscape of easy access and multi-device synchronisation has become a confusing world of excessive features, multiple notebooks and inaccessibility. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a loyal user to both Evernote and OneNote over the past 6 years, but I’ve given up on both of these services because they have both become weighed down with too many options. All I want to do is make a note, is that too much to ask?!

The main menu.
The main menu.

Simplenote strips back all the “I’ll probably never use these” features and delivers a straight-up, naked note-taking app. There’s no notebooks to sift through to find that note you need, there’s no diagram tools, it’s just simple, old-fashioned note-taking. It’s like eating on a bare table rather than a table filled with every condiment, seasoning and hand-soap known to man.

The first line of each note acts as the title and appears in bold, and the rest of the note consists solely of text. The app opens incredibly quick and it’s as simple as a smile to write a new note. There is a few options that Simplenote offers – viewing the note’s history,  word count and the ability to collaborate on the note with other Simplenote users – but the app places  practicality far above customisation.

Note options
Note options

You can access your notes directly from the Simplenote website, and there’s some great browser extensions out there (my favourite is Syncpad for Chrome) so your notes are always there when you need to access them.

I use Simplenote every day, it’s great for taking a note from a newspaper and then using it on my PC, or writing a shopping list on my PC then using my phone when I’m in the supermarket, and it’s simplicity makes it fantastic to use. There’s no “look how quirky I am” or “look how business I am” which is a gimmick in most alternatives, but you can still choose how to organise or view notes without it effecting the functionality of the app itself.

If you’re looking for a no-frills note-taking app (that doesn’t nag you to pay every month) that offers simplicity and practicality over design and too-many options, then look no further.

Simplenote is available for iPhone, Android, Kindle, and has some handy extensions available for Windows and Mac.

UNIFIED REMOTE

If there’s one thing the great technological leap forward has given us over the past two decades, it’s an appetite for laziness. It will probably be our downfall. But there’s no freedom greater than being able to fully control your computer on whilst in bed, and Unified Remote enables you to do this, you lazy waste of space.

Some of the remotes.
Some of the remotes.

I used to use a great PC remote app on my Windows Phone, but when I moved over to iPhone I was distraught that I couldn’t find an alternative that provided the same functionality. I sampled at least 20 PC remote apps, and I was about to throw in the towel until I found Unified Remote, and to my surprise it far exceeds what I was offered on the Windows platform.

The way it works is simple. You download the app, install the server on your PC/laptop and connect them. Individual ‘remotes’ control specific programs (such as iTunes, Chrome, Plex, Picasa) as well as several other remotes that control general function (such as volume, mouse, keyboard etc – these are also available in shortcuts at the bottom of each remote). There’s over 70 individual remotes altogether, so you’re likely to find the remote you’re looking for.

Remote for iTunes.
Remote for iTunes.

The greatest thing about Unified Remote is how much control it gives you over programs. It’s incredibly responsive, easy to use and has a shortcut menu that you can add your frequently used remotes in for easy access. The controls in each remote are extensive, as you can see in the picture on the right: not only can you change the playback, volume and song position, you can also select songs to play in the ‘Playlists’ and ‘Tracks’ tabs in iTunes. Unfortunately, there’s not a remote that delivers food and drink to you. You’ll have to go to another app for that. Sorry, buddy, but there are remotes for websites like YouTube and Netflix.

I use wireless headphones around the house, and it’s great to be able to change a song or skip ahead in a podcast without going to my PC when I’m making a cup of tea or something.

Live screen preview.
Live screen preview.

The live Screen Preview is incredibly useful, as you can continue watching your film whilst you take a trip to the toilet. You can also switch off your PC directly from your phone, so when you’ve had too much Netflix (is there such a thing?) and decide to go to sleep, you can just tap your phone a couple of times, roll over, close your eyes and sleep like the lazy, technology-addicted cretin you are.

Unified Remote is incredibly useful and is great for controlling music at house parties, enjoying a film without having to constantly get up, or continue listening to podcasts and music when you’re dilly-dallying about the house. It’s also a life-saver when your mouse or keyboard isn’t working.

Unified Remote is available for iPhone, Android and Windows Phone.

WIKIWAND

Don’t get me wrong; Wikipedia is a fantastic service and is a testament to the digital communities efforts to share and discover information. But let’s face it, it’s not very pretty. Wikiwand aims to change that.

So pretty!
So pretty!

The two basic principles behind Wikiwand are navigation and aesthetics. As well as providing a pretty header image for most articles, key information is presented visually in a carousel so it can be consumed as quick as possible. It also provides a navigation bar that can be accessed at any time and can be used to navigate to any section or subsection of the article. This is great as you can get straight to what you’re looking for.

Wikiwand also provides a bunch of options to allow you to control the aesthetics of Wikipedia. Rich/minimal modes, serif or sans font, dark or light theme, larger or smaller text, larger or smaller margins and text justification. The changes in font are particularly exciting (I’m cool, I promise) because the given fonts are much easier on the eye than the nasty stock Wikipedia font.

Navigation menu
Navigation menu

These options allow you to tweak the display of Wikipedia articles so that you can make the website a good fit for your reading style. There are no features of Wikipedia that are left behind – this is a visual overhaul to the site and does not affect the content at all.

Another great feature is how the app deals with links to other articles. Have you ever been reading a Wikipedia article and come across something which you’re clueless about, and have to go into that things article to find out more? Rather than opening a new page, Wikiwand simply gives you a little pop-up with the summary of the article so you don’t have to leave the article you’re reading.

On a PC
On a PC

Wikiwand is amazing simply because it transforms the user experience of Wikipedia. But it’s not limited to the mobile platform, it is also available as a browser extension so you can splash all of that Wikiwand beauty over your PC too. It automatically applies the Wikiwand aesthetic to all Wikipeda pages, but don’t worry – there’s a little switch at the bottom that’ll return the page to the standard [boring, dull, unpleasant] Wikipedia format. The PC extension also provides a quick-navigation menu, but rather than a tab that can be pulled in from the right as is it on a phone, it’s fixed to the left of the screen so you can move around article like the sly, urban fox you are.

Wikiwand is a fantastic addition to Wikipedia, probable the most useful resource on the internet. It completely transforms how you navigate and how the articles look as well as giving you control over these visual options.

Wikiwand is available on iPhone and on PC as a Chrome extension.

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