Smartphone Apps Help Users Manage, Improve Their Lives
Something for Everyone
Smartphones rule the world — or, at least, their users’ lives — but they wouldn’t be of much use without apps. And those apps are legion, appealing to individuals’ desire to manage everything from finances to fitness, to continually learn new things and find new ways to have fun. Here’s a roundup of some of the most popular and well-reviewed apps available today.
Say you want to more effectively manage your finances. Or get in shape. Or brush up on your math skills. Or just relax and have a good time.
As the old iPhone commercials used to say, there’s an app for that. Many, many more than one, actually. And they’re usually free, and available on both the iOS and Android platforms.
For this year’s roundup of what’s hot in technology, BusinessWest checks in on what the tech press is saying about some of the most popular smartphone apps.
For starters, smartphones have put a world of personal finance in people’s hands. For example, Personal Capital offers simple charts and graphs of the user’s income, spending, and investment performance so they can easily monitor their finances.
“Track your investments by account, asset class, or individual security, see how your portfolio compares to major indices, and find the exact percentage of each asset class that’s in your portfolio,” Investopedia explains. “A 401(k) fee analyzer and mutual-fund fee calculator show if you’re paying too much in fees. The Investment Checkup feature analyzes your portfolio and shows how much you stand to gain with a few changes.”
Business Insider reports that Intuit’s Mint gives users a real-time look into all their finances, from bank accounts and credit cards to student loans and 401(k) accounts. “It automatically tracks your spending, categorizes it, and alerts you when/if you approach your budget limit. You can even ask for custom savings tips within the app,” the publication notes. “Everything is shown in simple, intuitive graphs and charts, making it one of the most popular personal-finance apps in the world.”
Meanwhile, Business Insider also recommends GoodBudget, an app that brings the envelope-budgeting method into the smartphone. Users create ‘envelopes’ for each of their budget categories, such as groceries, transportation, and shopping, and pre-determine how much they want to allocate in each envelope. They can then record and track how much they’re spending from each envelope. “It may not be as sophisticated as some of the other apps, but Goodbudget offers a simple way to stick to your budget and keep your spending really disciplined.”
What about financial security? Investopedia recommends Prosper Daily, a personal-finance security service that tracks spending and protects credit cards from fraud and errors. Users can quickly view balances and recurring charges across all their credit and debit cards.
“Prosper Daily creates an alert if a suspicious charge is posted to your account, allows you to report the charge and/or contact the merchant, and will help you get your money back from fraudulent, erroneous, or unfair charges,” the publication notes. “Data-breach alerts let you know when a data breach has occurred at a place where you’ve shopped.”
What if physical wellness tops one’s priority list. No fear — there are countless apps for that, too, teaching users how to shop, all the facts on what they’re eating, how to exercise, and how to stay committed to better habits.
One of the most popular nutrition apps is MyFitnessPal, which offers a wealth of tools for tracking what and how much the user eats, and how many calories they burn through activity, explains PC Magazine. “Of all the calorie counters I’ve used, MyFitnessPal is by far the easiest one to manage, and it comes with the largest database of foods and drinks. With the MyFitnessPal app, you can fastidiously watch what you eat 24/7, no matter where you are.”
The app’s database of more than 6 million foods makes it easy to track a diet, or the lack of one, added the online magazine Greatist. “Whether you’re trying to lose weight or put on muscle, the app helps determine the best things to eat and meet your goals.”
But nutrition is only part of the story when it comes to fitness — exercise is the other key discipline. But where to start? One possibility is the Nike+ Training Club, which takes the concept to the next level, offering more than 100 workouts to choose from. Users can also opt for a customized, full-body, four-week plan. “A trainer leads you through the routines, plus you get instructional video clips of the moves,” notes Fitness magazine. “Don’t like burpees? The updated app lets you swap drills you hate for ones you love.”
For those who prefer being outdoors to get in shape, Strava Running and Cycling GPS monitors running or cycling routes via GPS, notes Digital Trends. “It also gamifies your cardio workout and pairs with leaderboards, achievements, and challenges, bringing a competitive spirit to your routine.”
For a more comprehensive training assistant, Men’s Fitness recommends Jefit, which creates personalized workout routines by tracking and analyzing the user’s workout progress and diligently recording weight, reps, and time.
“Its data-heavy approach will appeal to stat nerds and workout obsessives alike. Jefit also packs the most robust library of exercises and maneuvers,” the magazine notes, including how-to videos with more than 1,300 exercises making up scores of workouts. The free version is limited, with some bare-bones workout routines and basic activity logs, while paid options are ad-free and unlock more features.
Countless popular apps focus on education and learning for all ages. For kids, the Children’s MD blog recommends Khan Academy, which collaborates with the U.S. Department of Education and myriad public and private educational institutions to provide a free, world-class education for anyone.
“It’s incredibly easy to use, there are no ads, and it’s appropriate for any school-aged child that knows how to read,” the blog reports, noting that Khan Academy started as a math-learning site but has expanded to many other subjects, from art history to economics. “My kids will spend hours looking at computer-science projects that other kids have shared and incorporating ideas into their own programs. The Khan platform combines educational videos with practice problems and project assignments.”
Meanwhile, Photomath focuses on, well, math, and does it well, Digital Trends reports. “For high-school students who just need a bit more guidance on how to isolate ‘x’ in their algebra homework, Photomath is essentially your math buddy that can instantly solve and explain every answer. Simply snap a photo of the question (you can also write or type), and the app will break down the solution into separate steps with helpful play-by-play, so that you can apply the same principles to the rest of your homework.”
For language learning, Children’s MD recommends Duolingo, which provides interactive foreign-language education in 15 languages so far. It’s appropriate for both kids and adults, and one independent study found that a person with no knowledge of Spanish would need about 34 hours with Duolingo to cover the material in the first college semester of Spanish classes.
“It’s simple, user-friendly, and never boring,” the blog notes. “Install the app on your phone and get your language lessons done while you are on the elevator or waiting in line.”
Learning means expanding one’s horizons, of course, and where better to do that than the NASA App, which aggregates a wide range of NASA content. “Space enthusiasts and curious minds will love how it packs a wealth of news stories, features, images, video, and information about the space agency’s activities into this one mobile app,” PC Magazine reports.
Let’s face it, though — smartphone users want apps that are just plain fun as well. For music enthusiasts, it’s hard to go wrong with Spotify. Wired notes that users can access a huge catalog of music for a small monthly fee, creating their own playlists or enjoying the app’s curated stations.
Seven years after its debut, Mashable adds, “Spotify has tons of competition in the online streaming space, but the app continues to be one of the best ways to listen to music and podcasts on demand and on the go.”
Sports fans might dig ESPN Score Center, which allows users to check game progress from more sports than most other apps, PC Magazine reports, including baseball, basketball, football, soccer, ice hockey, cricket, rugby, and more.
For those whose idea of fun is improving their cooking skills, plenty of apps do the job. Digital Trends recommends two. Big Oven features more than 250,000 recipes, and provides grocery lists based on them, lets users add your own, and import recipes from friends. “If you like (or want to like) to cook, start with Big Oven.”
But the publication also raves about Yummly, which offers access to thousands of unique recipes. “On top of recipe and grocery-list functionality, Yummly takes user preferences into account to provide recipe recommendations, for when you just can’t decide what to eat.”
Finally, if the kitchen doesn’t provide enough action and adventure, Mashable recommends downloading Action Movie, the brainchild of Star Wars and Star Trek director J.J. Abrams. The app allows anyone with an iPhone introduce movie-level special effects to their short videos.
“Not only is it incredibly easy to use and completely addictive, it’s a huge crowd pleaser,” the site notes. “Filming a Thanksgiving dinner where a virtual car can unexpectedly crash across the dinner table is guaranteed to inspire roaring laughter. Action Movie is free, but smartly uses in-app purchases to sell you additional effects, all as good as the originals. It’s the rare app that has few competitors and has maintained a high level of quality.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]