Best iPhone apps, best Android apps of 2014: Slate’s favorites.

Slate’s Favorite Smartphone Apps of 2014

Slate’s Favorite Smartphone Apps of 2014

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 19 2014 1:32 PM

Air Horns, Weather Puppies, and DIY Emojis

Slate’s favorite smartphone apps of 2014.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat

Buying a smartphone and using only the built-in apps is like buying a Nintendo just to play Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. You can do it, but you won’t be getting full value from your purchase. (And yes, you did pay a lot of money for that new phone, even if you deferred the upfront cost by buying it on contract.)

The good news is that you can upgrade your pocket computer in all sorts of ways without spending another cent, just by downloading some of the fantastic third-party software that fills the App Store and the Google Play store. The only problem: deciding which of the more than 1.2 million apps to try next.  

It would be impossible for any publication, let alone any person, to review them all. The result is that it can be hard to find good recommendations. But we’re here to help: This list, which includes some of the favorite apps of more than a dozen Slate staffers, does not pretend to be comprehensive or definitive, and is not limited to apps first released in 2014. Instead, think of it as a compendium of friendly suggestions, with an emphasis on apps that are innovative, useful, or amusing, and that you might not have thought to try otherwise. (You don’t need us to tell you that Instagram is a pretty popular photography app or that Google Maps can be helpful for getting around.)

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A few of these will set you back a buck or two upfront, and others offer in-app purchases. But most will cost you only the few seconds it takes to download them—and then, perhaps, the countless hours of your life you’ll blissfully waste on them.

Email

Acompli (free, Android and iOS)

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Acompli makes it slightly less painful for me to use Microsoft Outlook, which is an incredible feat. Anything that can temper my hatred of Outlook deserves a medal.  My emails sync to Acompli, they’re searchable, they’re easy to interact with and sort, and they exist. The desktop version of Outlook struggles to provide these basic features. Acompli is also unperturbed by enterprise authentication checks and will wait patiently while you find a randomly generated code, provide a fingerprint, or sacrifice your first-born child. It also shows me my calendar and a list of recent attachments I’ve both sent and received, which is useful when I’m late for something and trying to pull up the right PDF. —Lily Hay Newman, staff writer and Future Tense blogger

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Inbox by Gmail (free, Android and iOS, currently invite-only)

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Some people, like my colleague Lily Hay Newman, like their email clients powerful and fully featured: show all the messages, in the order you received them, and give you an array of tools to stay on top of them. Then there are slobs like me, whose inboxes are piled so high and deep that we despair of ever getting out from under them. Gmail’s Inbox is for us. Dispensing with strict chronology, it essentially converts your inbox into a to-do list, allowing you to pin an email to the top of your inbox, “snooze” it for follow-up later, or mark it “done,” which archives and hides it. It also builds on Gmail’s smart tabbing technology to “bundle” less-important messages—e.g., updates, purchases, finance—into a single line on your main inbox screen. Why would you want that? Let’s just say few acts are more satisfying than sweeping away 23 unread promotional emails with a single swipe of your thumb.  —Will Oremus, senior technology writer

Messaging

Imoji (free, iOS only)

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If you’re looking to up your emoji game—and aren’t we all?—you need this add-on app for iMessage. The concept behind Imoji is simple: You can turn virtually any image into a custom sticker to use in text messages. Just zoom, crop, and cut out any image from your own photo collection or from the Web. Selfies? Celebrities? The possibilities are endless, your recipients will be amused, and it’s just plain fun to make your own emojis (not to mention slightly addictive). It’s the app that has brought me the most unadulterated joy (and custom cat emojis) in 2014. —Jennifer Lai, associate editor

Slack (free, Android, iOS, and Mac)

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This work-chat app has suddenly become ubiquitous at workplaces across the country, including Slate. Installed on the phone, it frees you from keeping a third eye on its desktop notifications and makes concentration actually possible. Your phone, sitting on your desk, will buzz politely whenever you're being summoned. Browsing through group threads is incredibly fast and efficient. Bonus prize? You can post screenshots and photos instantly, even if you're not at your desk. —Vivian Selbo, design director

Calendar

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Timeful (free, iOS only)

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Calendar apps are great for scheduled events, but not so good for keeping track of things you need to accomplish. To-do list apps are great for, well, making to-do lists—and, if you’re like me, never checking them again. Timeful is, at its most basic level, an effort to combine the two. It pulls in events from the Calendar app and blends them with a smart to-do list that suggests times for you to take on the tasks that have more flexible deadlines. The app, developed by a Duke behavioral economist, a Stanford computer science professor, and a Stanford Ph.D. candidate, grandly aspires to be an artificially intelligent personal assistant that adapts to your behavior and helps you manage your time better. But it doesn’t need to do all that to be an attractive and useful upgrade over whatever you’re using for to-dos and reminders today. —Will Oremus

Maps

Waze (free, Android, iOS, and Windows)

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I appreciate this GPS-based traffic and navigation app for its distinctly Israeli, I-know-something-you-don’t-know vibe. Also it takes me places I’ve never been before (literally, not metaphorically). —Hanna Rosin, DoubleX founding editor

Weather

Dark Sky ($3.99, iOS only)

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What’s great about this app is that it gives pretty spot-on meteorology specs for your immediate surroundings. It tells you whether it’ll rain within the next five, 10, or 15 minutes, as well as how heavy the rain will be and at what time it’ll start. It even has an impressive Doppler radar map. So when it’s pouring outside, you’re sans umbrella, and you just want to know how much longer you should stall before the rain lets up, this app is incredibly useful. —Aisha Harris, culture blogger

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Weather Puppy (free, iOS only)

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Weather Puppy isn’t really a secret anymore, but it’s a great weather app because it shows you a picture of a puppy every day. Weather app with a picture of a puppy > weather app without a picture of a puppy. —Betsy Woodruff, staff writer

Web Browsing

Opera (free, Android, iOS, and Windows Phone)

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Opera Mini is my backup mobile browser. I use Chrome first, but then on my Android devices Opera is my next pick, and on iOS it’s third after Chrome and Safari. Isn’t having three browsers kind of excessive? You ask the tough questions, and I like that about you. Having extra browsers is useful! When Chrome went through some growing pains on iOS 8 and wouldn’t display PDFs, I had other browser options to turn to. When I want to look up something that’s secret or embarrassing it’s nice to have a different browser to do it on. And when I want to watch an Apple keynote speech on the go, I have to use Safari. But you probably don’t watch Apple keynote speeches on your phone. That’s fair. It’s still useful to have extra browsers. Opera Mini is sleek, has nice animations, and loads pages quickly. That’s all I want. —Lily Hay Newman

Language Learning

Duolingo (free, Android, iOS, and Windows Phone)

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Duolingo takes the lizard-brain gratification mechanisms that make iPhone games so addictive (points, lives, rewards reinforced with pleasing sounds and colors) and applies them to language learning. I’ve been working my way slowly through Spanish, but a half-dozen other languages are available, including Irish for some reason. —Joshua Keating, staff writer and The World blogger (see also Seth Stevenson’s Jan. 26 Slate story, “How Do You Say ‘Addictive’ in Spanish?”)

Health

Clue (free, Android and iOS)

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Clue is the best period-tracking app I’ve found. It’s very easy to enter the heaviness of your period, symptoms like cramps, mood changes, sexual activity, and more into the calendar. (It’s also educational: I’ve learned a lot about cervical fluid from Clue!) It predicts the start date of your next period quite accurately, based on past cycles. Best of all, it is beautifully and sleekly designed, unlike other period-tracking apps I’ve tried. I’ve found that I hate my period more and more as I get older, but I legitimately love Clue. —L.V. Anderson, assistant editor

Games

A Dark Room ($0.99, iOS only)

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“The room is cold,” the game begins. “The fire is dead.” A single course of action avails itself: “light fire.” Click and you’ll ignite a slow burn of a story that unfolds in terse sentences, tense lulls, and the occasional goose bump–raising revelation. It’s minimalist, text-based, and has emerged as an unlikely but thoroughly deserving best-seller. If Cormac McCarthy made an iPhone game, it would be this one. —Will Oremus (from his May 21 Slate Plus story, “The iPhone Game That Will Make You Question Your Own Humanity”)

Heads Up! (free on Android, $0.99 on iOS)

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You may know this as the “Ellen game,” often played on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Or you may recognize it from the scene in the basement pub in Inglourious Basterds, or more recently from the BBC’s Sherlock. One player holds a card (or in this case, an iPhone) up to her forehead while the other players try to help her guess what’s written on the card. It’s a tried and true parlor game, and here the technology is an aid: You can whip out your phone and play anywhere, on a whim. I tested it out at a recent gathering and the app was a hit—though one player shamefully confused Jerry O’Connell with Chris O’Donnell, and another of my philistine friends somehow failed to guess “Tracey Ullman” even after I began singing the chorus of “They Don’t Know.” —Seth Stevenson, Slate contributor (from his March 5 Slate story, “The Simple iPhone Game I Can’t Stop Playing”)

Monument Valley ($3.99, Android and iOS)

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This mind-bending, beautiful game served for me as the antithesis of Candy Crush, Dots, and the other mobile games on which I usually spend my time. Rather than stressful, Monument Valley is ruminative; rather than competitive, it is gentle; rather than simple, it is elegantly complex; rather than frustrating, it is rewarding. It is also the prettiest thing I looked at on a screen all year. —Dan Kois, culture editor

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Spaceteam (free, Android and iOS)

This party-game app is a fun, fantastical, white-knuckle bonding experience in which everyone shouts gibberish at each other. —Katy Waldman, staff writer

9innings: 2014 Pro Baseball (free, Android and iOS)

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If you’ve ever tried to find a good sports game for your phone, you know they tend to come with tradeoffs. Most focus exclusively on either button-mashing action (NBA Jam) or personnel and strategy (Football Manager). 9innings Baseball is the rare exception that appeals to both casual gamers and stat-heads. The graphics are a little hokey, perhaps. But the gameplay is challenging and realistic, despite blessedly simple controls. The real MLB rosters are regularly updated to reflect trades, minor-league call-ups, and skill changes. Play for a whole season, and your players are likely to compile stats that roughly correspond to their real-life abilities. And an in-game online marketplace allows you to shape your roster by buying and selling player cards from other people playing the game. —Will Oremus

Payments

Venmo (free, Android and iOS)

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I first heard about Venmo when ads for it were plastered all over the L train (and people started obsessing over Venmo Lucas). It's super convenient for using with friends—splitting a meal, paying someone back for buying your movie ticket, etc. I’ve also been amused by some of the discussion it’s inspired: both odes to Venmo-stalking and thirtysomethings’ hand-wringing over millennials’ money habits. —Heather Schwedel, copy editor

Cash (free*, Android and iOS)

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I know all the cool kids use Venmo, but you don’t need to become a member of Square’s Cash to use this app; you only need to sign up if you want to request money. Also, Cash doesn’t have an annoying social media aspect to it like Venmo does. You only need an email address and a bank account. And it’s free. And the money appears in the account it’s sent to instantaneously. Abolish checks, abolish bank transfers, abolish PayPal: Download Square Cash. —Seth Maxon, home page editor

*Square will actually pay you $1 to try it.

Photography

VSCO Cam (free, Android and iOS)

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I am a total stan for VSCO Cam, which, with its iPad update, is a legitimate tool for editing photography, both from a smartphone and from a DSLR, should you feel the need to import your photos to your iOS device. What’s remarkable, speaking as someone who uses his film emulations in Adobe Lightroom, is how close VSCO Cam’s filters are to the $100-plus emulations. It's really a great app, even if it is a bit bloated with additional features (like a social network that no one uses). —Jamelle Bouie, staff writer

InstaSize (free, Android and iOS)

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Ever since I started putting borders around my photos, the square crop forced upon us by the Instagram gods has seemed dated and restricting. InstaSize lets you work with photos of any dimension and creates much more natural and interesting compositions. Let those Instagrams breathe! —Ellie Skrzat, photo intern

Music

AirhornPlus (free, Android and iOS)

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I have tried many different apps for inserting the ubiquitous air-horn sound effect into my favorite songs—as the product description puts it, "WA WA WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”—and this is by far the best. Perhaps, like many DJs, you’re not sure how to make the transition between songs, and you want to blare the air horn to mask it. Perhaps, like me, you just think every song sounds better with a little air horn. Perhaps you have an appreciation for the air horn’s rich history in New York City hip-hop and Jamaican dancehalls. Regardless, AirhornPlus has you covered. —Forrest Wickman, staff writer

Reading

Pocket (free, Android and iOS)

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Pocket makes subway reading possible. No longer do your lingering Safari pages refresh midcommute, leaving you staring at a blank, hopeless screen that cannot connect to the Internet. I have not tried Pocket’s main rival, Instapaper, but the fact that I feel no need to try a different reading app should be a testament to how wonderful the Pocket experience is.  —Alison Griswold, staff writer

Sleep/Misanthropy

White Noise ($1.99*, Android and iOS)

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​I despise listening to other humans speak to each other and cannot stand walking around the city hearing wisps of dull ambient chatter. So I just pop in my earbuds, put on some white noise, and block out the unceasing prattle of our tedious world.

You can also use it at night. —Mark Joseph Stern, staff writer

*There is also a free version called White Noise Lite.