My favorite iPhone apps continue to be those that let me conveniently access Internet content or take advantage of Internet-related services. Fortunately, most of the major players on the Internet are releasing iPhone apps, including Amazon’s Kindle, Skype, the Pandora music service, Facebook, and Google Earth. Best of all, they’re free. This column will give you a quick look at some of the best of these apps.
1.5 million free eBooks from Google
Speaking of books, the 1.5 million public domain books available on Google Book Search are now also available for the iPhone. Simply point your Safari at books.google.com/m and tap More. That’s a lot of books, but being in the public domain means that they were published decades ago. The reference works and nonfiction are not up to date, which may render them useless. But if you like the timeless works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, or the works of the great philosophers of the past, you can now have them in the palm of your hand for free.
One of the big surprises of the past couple years has been the popularity of Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader. Serious readers love it, but at around $350 it’s a bit pricey. So I was thrilled when in early March Amazon released a free iPhone app that lets you read any of the 240,000 titles you purchase from the Kindle eBook store.
Quickly, Kindle for iPhone received hundreds of reviews, with most of them giving it four or five stars. One of the best features is Whispersync, which “remembers” where you left off reading and takes you back to that spot, even if you open the Kindle eBook on another device. You can also enlarge the text and add bookmarks, and unlike the Kindle itself, which is limited to displaying grayscale, the iPhone app will display color. If the eBook you purchase was created with color text, graphs, or images, these will appear in color on your iPhone.
There are some important features we would like to see added to the app. Unlike the Kindle, which allows you to shop for books directly from the device, iPhone users cannot shop from within the app—they must use their Web browser. Also missing from the app is the ability to search. In addition, you can only use the app to read books; although newspapers and magazines are available for the Kindle, they cannot be read with the iPhone app. Finally, one sore point for many readers is that the app does not have a landscape viewing mode. Hopefully, many of these shortcomings will be addressed in the next version of the app.
The process of getting books on your iPhone is nearly as seamless as getting content from the iTunes store. You simply go to the Kindle store on Amazon via your Web browser, purchase a book or click the button requesting a free sample, and then the book or sample automatically downloads to your iPhone via your phone’s data connection. (You may need to tap the refresh button in the Kindle app to have the title appear.) Amazon recommends that you order your books or sample chapters via your Mac or PC, but it is possible to order them via Safari on your iPhone.
Current bestsellers are typically priced at $10, which is a good discount over the hardcover version.
Skype is the most popular application available for making free computer-to-computer phone calls. It also offers very low-cost calling plans that let you make calls from your computer to landlines and mobile phones. It also has great instant messaging and file-transfer features.
Skype was released for the iPhone and iPod touch in late March. Unfortunately, Apple limits Skype and other Voice over IP apps to Wi-Fi connections—you can’t use it with a cellular data connection. Still, if you’re close to a Wi-Fi hotspot, you can use Skype’s iPhone app instead of your voice minutes. And if you have an iPod touch, you’re now able to make calls.
Skype takes advantage of the iPhone’s ability to use filters to sort contacts. You can chat and take a photo from within Skype to use as an avatar image. During Skype calls, you can mute the call, put it on hold, or put it on the speakerphone.
As I’m writing this, Apple is hosting a countdown to the 1 billionth download from the App Store. In honor of the occasion, they have posted a list of the all-time top 20 paid apps and free apps. At the top of the free apps list is Facebook, which was released early on in July of 2008 and currently has thousands of enthusiastic reviews. You can use it to chat, view photos, monitor your friends’ status updates, and upload photos to your Facebook account.
Google Earth is the second title on the list of all-time top 20 free apps. Like the desktop version, this app uses satellite and aerial imagery to let you explore the Earth. It also offers information about particular locations, including panoramic pictures and Wikipedia articles, giving you an idea of what those locations look like and offering more info about them.
Earlier this year the app also added a “Places” layer that is similar to the one on the desktop version of the program, but specifically tailored to the iPhone’s screen. When you go to a location, Places are marked by an icon. Tapping on the icon brings up a details page that includes articles, photos, and videos, all of which you can view without leaving the application.
You can also use the Location feature to simulate the experience of zooming over the surface of the earth to your current location. Also included is Google’s Local Search, which lets you search for cities, places, and businesses.
One neat feature unique to the iPhone and iPod touch is that you can use the iPhone/Touch accelerometer to move around. And to zoom out and in, you use the same sort of pinching and finger-spreading gestures that you use in Safari.
This iPhone app makes it easy to access the hugely popular Pandora Internet radio site. Once installed, open the app and create a Pandora account. (If you’ve already created an account on your desktop computer, you can log into it via your iPhone.) Then, simply tell Pandora your favorite song, recording artist, or composer. Pandora scans its database for similar music, based on a wide variety of attributes identified by the Music Genome Project (pandora.com/corporate/mgp). It uses this information to create a personalized “station” based on your favorite song. This station streams similar music to you. Pandora Radio was released in July of last year and is in third place in the all-time top 20 list of free apps.
As each song plays, you have the option of clicking a thumbs up or thumbs down icon. Clicking thumbs down immediately ends that selection and skips to the next. (You’re limited to six “skips” per hour.) Clicking thumbs up lets Pandora know that you like this type of song and allows Pandora to further refine your selection profile to better suit your tastes.
Pandora works best over Wi-Fi, but you can adjust the quality so that it works well on a 3G or EDGE cellular data connection. (I find it works remarkably well over EDGE.)
This one is also on the top 20 list of free apps. The Weather Channel is rich with features, including location-based conditions and forecasts, in-motion radar maps, traffic cams (for selected areas), weather alerts, video forecasts, and the ability to customize the features and store your favorite locations.
Released earlier this year, AccuWeather also has a solid range of features. It automatically determines your location and offers an array of weather forecasts and other information. Features include animated radar and satellite info, 5-day local forecasts, hour-by-hour forecasts, weather videos, health weather indices (air quality, a flu index, etc.), graphs that show the probability of severe weather over the next eight hours, and weather alarms.
This one is a dictionary app with spelling and definitions for more than 275,000 words and a thesaurus with 80,000 synonyms. No Internet connection is required for the dictionary and thesaurus content, all of which is installed on your iPhone or iPod touch. However, all that content occupies a big chunk of memory. After I installed it on my iPhone, my free memory was reduced by about 240 MB. The app includes audio pronunciations, similarly spelled words, and Word of the Day. Note that you do need to be connected to the Internet to use these last three features.
As this article shows, some of the best apps available have a strong Internet component to them. It’s great to see the strong support major Internet Web sites and services are providing to iPhone and iPod touch users.