Though they plague us with unfettered access to gossip sites and Flappy Bird, there’s plenty our smartphones can do to actually improve quality of life. We’re not just talking about using the calculator to spite your high school math teacher. Baby steps in the right direction — for instance, apps that aid productivity, fitness, travel, language and more — can cancel out your brain-rotting mini-game addictions and provide the small impetus you need to get out and do. These ten are helping us at the moment, and they won’t complicate your finances, either: the majority are free.
Busy and disorganized is a dangerous combination, but this app goes to bat for those afflicted in the worst way. Any.do’s everything a to-do app should be: clean, simple, seamlessly syncing across platforms. At the moment, we’re using it primarily as a Chrome plug-in, so the things are never too far off when we slack off and look at Facebook. You can set reminders for specific dates and times or just let ‘em hover around at some distant point in the future. And when you’re done with a big job, there are few things more satisfying that ticking an item off the list.
This free app makes learning a new language
fun less of a chore, teaching the basics of Spanish, German, French or nine other languages through a series of different “games”. Once you’ve graduated, you can refresh your skills with more play time or by translating real-world text from the web; actually, that’s how the company is able to offer its services for free. As you work on honing your language skills, you’re actually taking a part in crowdsourced web translations for site like CNN and BuzzFeed. A win-win, really.
There’s no easy one liner on this app because it does a little bit of everything. It’ll alert you about events (and tell you how long it’ll take to get there in current traffic conditions), set bill reminders, tell you where your UPS and FedEX packages are, help you remember birthdays, and manage your contacts. Honestly, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s a bit like having your own personal assistant, without having to remember Secretary’s Day (though, it’ll help you remember that too, if you’re so inclined). And like any good personal assistant, it’ll hassle you when you don’t finish things in a timely manner — though, sadly, its sassiness is mostly implied.
Fitbit’s best known for its line of wrist-worn wearables, but the company’s free app works without buying its hardware. Granted, you’re not going to get the precise results you would if you shelled out the $100 for a device, but if you have an iPhone 5s, the app will still help you track important fitness information using your phone’s M7 chip. With the MobileTrack processor, you can log how many steps you’ve taken, how far you’ve walked and the number of calories you’ve burned.
Google Keep has two major selling points. The first is simplicity. The service is essentially a big wall for all of the sticky note reminders you need to jot down during the day. It’s not as fully featured as Any.do (not yet, at least), but when it comes to keeping notes, this single-mindedness is a good thing. You can dash off or dictate text, create a small to-do list or snap a photo that might come in handy later. The app’s second boon is Google itself. As simple as Keep is, its true success lies in Google’s ecosystem, which makes it super simple to sync all of the content you’ve gathered across your various devices (well, non-iOS devices for now, at least). It’s pretty much anywhere you need it to be.
It’s not hard to see why DropBox “fell in love with” and eventually picked up this bluntly named app. With a couple of quick swipes, MailBox lets you archive your inbox messages or schedule them to be address tonight, tomorrow, next week or some point in the future. That’s a huge improvement over the filing systems currently offered by the majority of email clients. In fact, we’re betting that Gmail’s designers kicked themselves the first time they saw this incredibly simple but extremely useful app in action.
Apparently there are methods of packing that don’t involve hurling all of your clothes into a single carry-on as the taxi arrives out front to take you to the airport. Or so we’re told. Packing Pro helps you through the painful process of making sure you’ve got everything you need before you head out the door — clean underwear, medicine, your cell phone charger. You can save customized lists or use the app’s intuitive assistant, which formulates basics depending on how many adults and kids you’re lugging along along. After all, none of these apps are any good with a dead battery.
It’s tough leaving the computer sometimes. But just because you’ve got a million links to read doesn’t mean you can’t go out and live your life. With Pocket, you can save those links for later. Send them to your mobile devices and enjoy the sunshine (while reading about exciting new productivity apps). The app’s great for city commuters (assuming, of course, that they’re not driving), downloading the stories directly to the app so they can read while underground on the subway.
Any old app can buzz you out of a sound sleep. What makes Sleep Cycle so special is its ability to find the exact right moment to do so. The app uses your phone’s accelerometer to monitor your sleep patterns. Stick your iPhone in bed next to you and the phone’s built-in hardware will give the app a pretty good idea about what phase of sleep you’re in at any given time. You set a 30-minute window and the app will wake you up when you’re in the lightest phase of sleep during that period, making it a bit easier to get up in the morning. You can choose from a number of alarms or pick songs from your phone, and when it’s time to get up, you just shake or tap the phone. The app will also chart out your sleep pattern on a graph so you can tell just how well you slept the night before.
Who needs another calendar app, right? Don’t answer that until you’ve taken Sunrise for a spin. Developed by FourSquare expats, the app creates a central location for all of your dissonant event invites, pulling from places like Facebook, LinkedIn, iCloud, Google and, yes, FourSquare. And it does so beautifully, with a UI that’s unmatched by the often cramped and overwhelming offerings from the competition. It’ll also pull weather information and Google Maps directions, so you know what you’re getting yourself into after you accept those invites.
Bonus: Scanner Pro
You can lose a receipt five times in five minutes, but it’s a lot harder to misplace a hard drive or the Cloud. Scanner Pro uses the iPhone’s camera (sorry, no Android) to turn any hard document into a PDF that can be uploaded easily to Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive and other storage solutions or simply printed.