My favorite apps are those that make it easy to access Internet content and tools. As it turns out, major corporations are lining up to give you such apps—for free.
In this column, I’ll look at a number of these apps, including a multipurpose app from Yahoo, a number of apps from Amazon, and an ESPN app that makes it easy to get the latest scores. I’ll also cover apps that let you stream music, access travel guides, find information tailored to your location, and more. Much of this content is available via Safari, but a dedicated app is usually faster, more efficient, and easier to use. In addition, it often has special features that you can’t access with a browser.
Finally, I’ll mention some Web sites that have been specifically tailored to work well with Safari on the small touchscreen of the iPhone and iPod touch. I’ll provide you with an iPhone Life Web site that lists several dozen of the best of these sites.
Some Web sites are optimized for the iPhone
In addition to using these custom apps, you can also use Safari and simply access Web sites as you ordinarily would. However, I’ve found that Web sites created and formatted for the larger displays on desktop and laptop computers are cumbersome on the iPhone. Some features found on these sites are optimized for desktop computers may not work on the iPhone.
Some Web sites detect if you’re accessing it from an iPhone and will redirect you to a mobile version of the site tailored to work with the smaller screen and Safari’s capabilities. Note that some sites have mobile versions but do not automatically redirect you to them.
I’ve created a directory of Web sites that are specially formatted to work well on the smaller screen of the iPhone and iPod touch (iphonelife.com/iphonesites). It lists several dozen of the most useful Web sites available, and organizes them into the categories of News, Weather, Sports, Entertainment, and iPhone.
The Yahoo app is found in the App Store’s News category, most likely because the first two screens in the app display the latest news. However, the app offers much more for the iPhone and iPod touch user.
The app’s strength is its search capabilities to which Yahoo has recently added a voice search component. I couldn’t get the feature to work until I realized that you have to hold down the “Press + Speak” bar until you’re finished speaking. I tried a few queries and found that it did fairly well recognizing my questions.
Yahoo’s app also lets you access your e-mail (Yahoo, Google, Hotmail, or AOL), and get status updates from social networks (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and others). You can receive RSS feeds, sports scores, movie info, and weather. The app also gives you access to Yahoo’s Calendar, Address Book, and Messenger apps—and much more!
Just about anything you’d ever need is available on Amazon.com, and they’re working hard to make it easier to shop there. Their iPhone/iPod touch offerings include both the Amazon Mobile app, their iPhone version of the Web site available through Safari, and their Kindle app.
The Amazon Mobile app lets you quickly search for a product, compare prices, read reviews, and make purchases on Amazon.com via a simple interface. You can also access Amazon features such as wish lists, payment and shopping options, order history, 1-click settings, and prime membership benefits.
The app also includes an experimental feature that lets you use your iPhone’s camera to find products. For example, you can take a picture of the shoes worn by the person sitting next to you, and Amazon will try and find a pair like them. If Amazon finds something similar, it sends you an e-mail alert and posts the result along with a photo.
Even if you don’t purchase through Amazon.com, the app is useful for comparison shopping. For example, if you’re interested in an item you find in a retail store, you can use the app to compare its price with other merchants.
When you access Amazon.com from Safari on your iPhone or iPod touch, you are sent to the mobile version of the site which is formatted for the smaller screen. This iPhone friendly version lets you access the entire site.
In my brief experience with both the Amazon Mobile app and the Web-based version of the site, the app is faster. However, it doesn’t seem to let you select the category (books, eBooks, DVDs, etc.) you want to search. This function is available in the Web version of the site.
Amazon is also the creator of the Kindle app for the iPhone and iPod touch. This app allows you to purchase, download, and read eBooks available in Amazon’s Kindle eBook Store. If you’ve used the Kindle app in the past to get books, it remembers and keeps you logged in to that account. If, however, you want to look at your shopping cart or do something other than purchase eBooks, you have to log on to your regular Amazon account through the Amazon Mobil app or the Safari Web site.
The last time I wrote about the Kindle app (summer ’09, page 61), I mentioned a number of features I wanted to see added. The most recent version of the app now has many of them, including support for landscape viewing, the ability to browse and purchase books from Amazon’s Kindle Store directly from your iPhone, alternate backgrounds and text colors, and the ability to zoom in on images.
Amazon isn’t the only place to go for product information and price comparisons. Google now offers price comparisons for most products. Just open Google in Safari or use the Google app and do a search on the name of the product that you wish to purchase. Then scroll down the results list until you see the “Shopping results for…” link. (Tip: If Google does not display shopping results, make the search more specific.)
Click on that link and Google returns a list of companies that offer the product and their pricing information in a format that’s optimized for your iPhone. Some products, such as books and electronics, also include online ratings and reviews.
Slacker (slacker.com) is a free service that lets you specify the music which interests you and create a personal station that streams that type of music. Like Pandora Radio (summer ’09 issue, page 62), Slacker Radio makes it easy for you to create your station. You can begin by simply naming your favorite song or artist. These two Web sites are extremely popular, and both offer a free app that lets you access your stations or create new ones directly from the iPhone and iPod touch.
Slacker’s music catalog has over two million tracks, which is several times larger than Pandora’s, according to Slacker. Both sites now occasionally insert a short audio commercial between songs, and both offer a fee-based upgrade that eliminates this advertising. Pandora’s upgrade costs $36 per year; Slacker’s is $3.99 per month. Slacker’s fee-based service also gives you unlimited song requests, lyrics to the songs, and unlimited skips. This allows you to go immediately to the next song if you don’t like the one currently playing.
I like using both Pandora and Slacker. My favorite station is a light classical station I created on both of them. However, the selections they play are different enough that I like having both of them available.
Tripwolf lets you access free travel guides for over 50,000 cities around the world. The guides combine information from professional travel guide publishers and feedback from actual travelers. You can have up to three city guides on your device at one time, and the guides for major cities have a considerable amount of information. However, less visited destinations like Kansas City, Missouri or Des Moines, Iowa, only have a basic information page and a listing of accommodations. You can access the guides online or download them for offline access later.
The app uses the iPhone’s GPS capabilities to determine your location. Shake your iPhone and the app will recommend nearby establishments. Categories of information include: Not to Miss, Nightlife & Entertainment, Eating, Hotels & Accommodations, Shopping, Culture & Sights, Nature & Adventure, Sports & Wellness, Transport, Destinations, and Neighborhoods. The app allows you to specify how much information you want to download for offline use and takes network connection speeds into consideration. For example, the guides include quite a few photos, but viewing those increase download time. Tripwolf gives you the option of downloading the text only.
AroundMe let you find nearby locations quickly. This simple to use app directs you to the nearest banks, bars, coffee shops, restaurants, gas stations, hospitals, hotels, theaters, and more. It also gives you a three-day weather forecast.
Start AroundMe and it asks if it can use your current location as a starting point. It then gives you a list of different types of establishments. Tap on a category and it returns a list of those that are nearby. Make a selection, and AroundMe shows you a map with the route to your selection, as well as contact information. The Nearby feature shows Wikipedia information relevant to your location.
Note that AroundMe identifies your location via the GPS feature of your iPhone. An iPod touch requires an active Wi-Fi connection to find your current location and that is not always available. However, you can enter your location into the app and get better results.