This list of the best free iPhone apps highlights 50 apps that we at PCMag think have shown outstanding performance, have been well received by a variety of technology users, and are truly “free.” No gimmicks, no “membership required” or in-app purchase necessary. Free. Period.
Apple’s App Store for iPhone is a veritable bazaar of freebies, and while plenty of them are quite good, many more are duds. We at PCMag sort through hundreds if not thousands of apps a year looking for the best of the best, as well as those elusive and as-yet undiscovered gems, apps that work well or accomplish some feat you didn’t even know you needed or wanted to do.
Missing from this list are apps and features (like Siri and Passbook) that come pre-installed on the iPhone, although they are certainly not to be ignored. In particularly, Apple’s apps for iTunes, Music, and the App Store typically see a fair share of well-deserved usage, but I suppose you technically paid for them because you bought the phone, so they’re not really free, are they? In any case, you don’t need to choose to download them, so we’re not listing them here. Sadly, Apple’s Podcast app is one you do have to download and install separately, but it didn’t make this list due to its confusing interface (a serious downer for me, personally).
Games only took three slots on this list, in part because a lot of great games aren’t free—for more iPhone game recommendations, including paid apps, see “The 25 Best iPhone Games.”
To see the 50 best free iPhone apps of 2012, click through the links below to find 10 apps listed per page; or click through the slideshow via the graphic below if you prefer. If you have more recommendations for more free apps that we at PCMag need to check out, post your suggestions in the comments. We’re always on the lookout for the next great app!
Adaptu Wallet for iPhone is great for entry- to mid-level budgeting enthusiasts, packing many unique features. It’s both free and ad-free. And it’s the closest thing to a mobile wallet on an iPhone yet. Not only does the app display your latest account balances in real-time and send you bill reminders, Adaptu also tracks loyalty programs, forecasts your spending, and lets you photograph and store images of all the loose ends in your wallet, like your insurance, Social Security, and business cards. All of this sits under bank-grade security, which is more than you can say for your physical wallet.
Adobe Photoshop Express
Digital photography editing, until very recently, has been a task best suited for desktop and laptop computers, but Adobe proved that it could be done in the mobile space with Photoshop Express, a free photo-editing application for the iPhone and other iOS devices. Photoshop Express is a powerhouse of a mobile app, and can even handle noise reduction (extraneous particles that show up on photos). All in all, Adobe Photoshop Express is a solid tool for making light photo edits on your iPhone.
The free AirPort Utility manager from Apple lets you control your Wi-Fi network and AirPort base stations, including AirPort Express, AirPort Extreme, and Time Capsule, right from your iPhone. When you launch the app, you’ll see a pictorial representation of your network and devices that will tell you what’s connected to what and how. You can change the network and Wi-Fi settings, start or restore a base station, access networking information (like DNS server, router address, IP address), and more.
Among news apps, The BBC’s has one of the best interfaces—clean, with relevant headlines, good photos, and no advertisements. (Whether you agree with its angles and choice of coverage is another matter.) As far as international news organizations go, though, the BBC really does have correspondents in every corner of the globe, as well as varied and widespread topics. Another perk is that you can elect to view some news in other languages, such as Urdu, Arabic, and two kinds of Chinese.
The Brewster iPhone app may be one of the most visually appealing contact managers you’ll find, tapping into multiple social networks for images of people you know. It insists on having access to your iPhone Contacts and either Twitter or Facebook to work, though.
When Apple introduced its Cards app for iPhone (free to download; cards $2.99 each U.S., $4.99 international including shipping), it created a very good tool in a particularly niche-y space, one that’s easy to overlook but actually provides a lot of value to the average consumer. Using the Cards app to buy and mail customized greeting cards, with your own photos and text, is surprisingly cost effective, given that birthday cards and whatnot easily cost more than $3 at retail, not including postage. With the app, you can choose from a good number of well-designed templates across several occasions—congratulations, thank-you, birthday. The cards themselves are beautifully constructed.
Chrome for iPhone is just Safari with a better interface and a few more features, but it’s a must-have app for desktop Chrome users. Anyone who has fallen in love with the “Omnibox,” or combined URL address bar and search bar, won’t want to use anything else.
This all-in-one calculation app, Converter Plus, delivers numbers on nearly everything, from currency conversions to loan-interest figures. It converts metric to imperial measurements for temperature, cooking volumes, length, and more.
Draw Something Free
Draw Something Free, the latest app craze, pits both iOS and Android users in simple gesture-based drawing competitions. Pick a word from a list of three, draw it on your screen with your finger using a variety of colors and brushes, and then send it to your friend to guess what you’ve drawn. You win coins if your friend guesses correctly. It’s very simple and, like Words With Friends, the addiction lies in the robust social aspect. For more iPhone game recommendations, see “The 25 Best iPhone Games.”
If your files live all over the place—your office computer, home desktop, laptop—having a dependable syncing program is a must. Dropbox, the service and productivity tool that lets you store your files in the cloud and access them from anywhere you have a signal, fills that role nicely with a Dropbox iPhone app. It has a simple interface, easy uploading, and swift syncing across all accounts.
ESPN Score Center
ESPN’s free app lets you check the game quickly, and discreetly when necessary (that is, with your phone under the dinner table), for your favorite teams in more sports than most other apps. It can pull game data from baseball, basketball, American football, the sport the rest of the world calls football (soccer, in the U.S.), ice hockey, cricket, rugby, and more.
Without the Evernote app for iPhone, I’d be a lot less productive while I’m away from my desk. This free, straightforward note-making app outrivals most competing apps thanks to its strong search capabilities and effortless organization. But the real key to its success and popularity is that Evernote synchronizes all your files by saving them to a cloud service, meaning anything you create or alter from your iPhone will be there waiting for you when you log into any other version of Evernote. I use Evernote to write, take notes, and even snap pictures of whiteboards and PowerPoint slides in meetings, so I can remember details later.
Social networks thrive with a reliable app—you’ve got to be social on the go—and Facebook for iPhone is solid. Despite occasional crashes, Facebook loads pretty fast and has a decent interface for viewing photos. The design is intuitive to navigate, too.
Flipboard, an app initially designed for the iPad that curates content from your social networks and Web partners (think periodicals, blogs, etc.) based on your interests and turns them into stunning magazine-like digital pages, is now available on the iPhone. The app is free to download and requires a free user account. Flipboard absolutely shines on the iPad, taking advantage of swiping gestures with both visual and interactive grace. On the smaller iPhone, it’s elegant, if a little cramped.
Puzzles make for the best kinds of mobile games, in my opinion, because you can play them for 30 seconds or 30 minutes. Flow Free is one such game, with various modes that let you solve puzzles in a timed speed test, or more leisurely. You solve levels by connecting same-colored dots by tracing your finger around a grid, without cross lines and at the same time filing every square on the grid with a line. It’s addictive and great for players of all ages. For more iPhone game recommendations, see “The 25 Best iPhone Games.”
The iPhone app GAIN Fitness acts as a total workout buddy, coaching you through a fully customized exercise routine as often (or seldom) as you want. While it does have optional in-app purchases to buy special workouts, like yoga, the free app comes preloaded with enough exercises and workout moves to make sure you never get bored.
No matter what app you use to book your travel arrangements or manage your frequent flier miles, you’ll still want to pack GateGuru on your next trip to the airport. The free app is chockfull of suggestions and reviews pertaining to airports: food, retail, services, and even the amount of time needed to travel between gates and terminals. The next time you’re stuck with a long layover and no idea if you can make it to the cleaner bathrooms by Gate B7, just consult GateGuru for some advice.
Speed, better search functions, and color-coded threading make the standalone Gmail iPhone app preferable to the built-in Mail app (where you can access Gmail). Google’s Gmail app gives users another choice for managing email. It allows iPhone users to decide what they want in an email app. Do you value search capability over text displayed at readable sizes? Is it more important for your various email accounts to be managed in one app, as Mail arranges them, or would you rather have a dedicated app just for Gmail that looks more like Gmail on the Web, with color-coded threading? The Gmail app searches your entire email so much easier and faster than the pre-installed Mail app.
Gojee – Food & Drinks Recipes
Magazine-like in its display, Gojee is a source for recipes that will leave your mouth watering with stunning photos of gorgeous food and cocktails. You can explore the catalog by searching for something you crave based on suggestions, like “lunch” or “pork,” or more specifically by keying in ingredients you want to use. Every result has an ingredients list right on the screen with the image, and you can link to the original source, whether it’s a blog or magazine website.
Search giant Google has many excellent free apps (as evidenced by the fact that more than one is on this very list), but its namesake search app is the one closest to its founding business, and thus, bursting with some pretty intense features. You can search by typing keywords, or by speaking, or by snapping a photo, as there’s a toggle for Google Goggles (in the settings), which lets you take photos of books, landmarks, logos, artwork, barcodes, and more, to find out more about them. You can also save pictures you take, and the app will scan and read any text that appears on them as well. The Google Search app does a lot more than just search the Internet, making it well worth the free download.
With more than 30 languages supported and delivering impressively accurate results most of the time, the Google Translate app is one of the most remarkable programs you can load onto your iPhone. Most people probably won’t need it too often, except when traveling or studying a language, but it can be amazingly useful in unexpected circumstances.
With the free iHeartRadio app, you can choose any one of 1,500 live radio stations to stream, even if you’re not within the radio signal’s reach (because it pulls from a digital feed, rather than radio signal). The app has a feature that lets you create customized “all-music” stations based on a music group you like and music similar to theirs. Charge your iPhone before a storm, and, if the power goes out, you use the iHeartRadio app to get updates from your local radio station.
If Kindle and Nook don’t tickle your fancy, Apple has its own little online bookstore where you can download and save novels, magazines, newspapers, and other reading material—and, yes, many of the books and periodicals are free! This personal digital library works on iPad as well, so you can browse for books on the go from your phone and save them to read on the tablet later.
IMDb Movies & TV
“What was the name of that movie… the one with Ally Sheedy and Fisher Stevens?” The next time you can’t remember the name of an actor, television show, or film (Short Circuit, by the way) IMDb saves the day. One of the handiest reference websites on the planet, IMDb never fails when it comes to looking up anything that has to do with TV, film, or Hollywood. The IMDb Movies & TV app also lets you find which movies are playing at your local cinema, and even purchase tickets. With an IMDb account (free or paid for Pro), the app provides even more features, like the ability to create a watchlist of movies you want to see.
Read books, magazines, and newspapers right on your iPhone without ever buying an e-reader. From within the Kindle app, you can buy or download for free hundreds of thousands of books, and more than 100 different newspapers and magazines.
LevelUp is an iPhone and Android app that lets you make purchases using your credit card via QR codes that the app displays. Participating merchants simply scan the QR code on your screen, which initiates a credit card transaction, and you’re on your way.
By Jill Duffy, PCMag