Five years ago, the iPhone didn't support third-party apps. Today, it's a fully-fledged computer that fits in your pocket. There are now apps for editing photos and videos, playing recent console games, and composing electronic soundtracks. Which of those stood out from the crowd this year? Let's take a look at the best iPhone apps of 2012.
Sometimes losing something makes you realize how much you appreciated it. When Apple dropped Google from its Maps back-end in iOS 6, customers revolted. Apple's mapping data wasn't up to snuff, and iPhone owners longed for Google's established service.
After a couple months of melted bridges, misplaced towns, and Australian police warnings, Google saved the day with a standalone Google Maps app. It's iOS' best mapping app ever, with vector-based maps, Street View, voiced navigation, and transit directions.
App Store: Google Maps (free)
Possibly Mac OS X's best email app came to the iPhone this year, and it's a gem. Sparrow has an attractive interface, and a feature set designed to please volume emailers.
There is, however, one big problem with Sparrow. It lacks push notifications. Google's purchase of Sparrow also means that future support for the iOS app will likely be minimal.
Even with those huge caveats, though, Sparrow is the iPhone's first third-party email client worth having.
App Store: Sparrow (US$2.99)
This year, Apple completed the conversion of its iLife suite to iOS. But iPhoto is nothing like its desktop counterpart. This version is a gesture-based editing suite designed specifically for touch screens. Its controls take some getting used to, but it's easily one of the best apps for enhancing pics on the go.
App Store: iPhoto ($4.99)
In 2012, Google released a version of its popular Chrome browser for iOS. Its interface and syncing get top marks, but it can't boast any performance improvements over Safari. Through no fault of Google's, it's powered by the same engine (iOS WebKit) as Apple's default browser.
App Store: Chrome (free)
More than just a Dropbox clone, Google Drive offers cloud storage and simple document editing on the go. Users get 5 GB of free storage, and you can pay $25/year to increase that to 25 GB.
Google's recent update, which adds spreadsheet editing, only reinforces Drive as one of the best apps of 2012.
App Store: Google Drive (free)
iTranslate Voice lets two people who speak different languages have a conversation. Tap the English button, speak, and listen as your words are spoken in the target language. When your friend taps the other button and speaks, their words are spoken in your language. While results can be hit and miss at times, its support for over 30 languages makes it a handy tool for travelers. However, it does require a constant internet connection.
App Store: iTranslate Voice ($0.99)
Burner gives you a disposable phone number for calling and texting. It's great for Craigslist transactions, online dating, and all sorts of shady activities (or so I hear).
The only downsides are that each new number is a bit pricey, and you only get limited blocks of minutes and messages. You can also achieve the same ends for free by creating multiple Google Voice accounts.
App Store: Burner ($1.99)
Drafts is a virtual scratchpad. When you open the app, it's immediately ready for input. When you're finished typing, a couple of taps will copy the text to the clipboard or export it to a variety of popular apps.
App Store: Drafts ($1.99)
Summly is built on a simple idea: you only need quick summaries of the news. It only gives you a couple of short paragraphs for each story. If you want more than the barebones version, you can double-tap on the feed to read the full article.
The app has a terrific interface, and provides all the expected sharing options (though read later services are conspicuously absent). Summly's source variety can be improved, but it still might be the most innovative news app of 2012.
App Store: Summly (free)
Solar is a simple and beautiful weather app. The color gradient tells you the temperature and weather. Swipe up for the next few hours, swipe down for the next three days, and swipe to the left to change locations.
The only drawback is that the developers still haven't updated Solar for the 4-inch screens of the iPhone 5 and iPod touch 5G.
App Store: Solar ($1.99)
Another elegantly simple weather app is Dark Sky. The app answers three questions: "what's the temperature?", "is it raining?", and "is it going to rain?" Unless you're a weather geek, that may be all you need to know.
For those seeking more detail, a tap or a swipe will show you the radar and the next day's forecast.
App Store: Dark Sky ($3.99)
These two apps make it harder to justify spending $3.99 on the excellent Instapaper. The free Pocket and Readability apps save lists of web articles, and present them in a clean, clutter-free layout.
Clear is the most polarizing app of the year. Depending on who you ask, the gesture-based to-do list is either a breakthrough, or too clever for its own good. Love it or hate it, Clear is worth checking out.
App Store: Clear ($1.99)
Bastion is one of the most stylish and imaginative video games in years. Originally released for Xbox Live, the iOS port has stunning graphics, a memorable soundtrack, and surprisingly deep RPG elements. The star of the show, though, is the gravelly-voiced narrator who reacts to your every move.
App Store: Bastion ($4.99)
Max Payne Mobile
Max Payne was one of the top games of the last decade. Eleven years after its initial release, it's one of the top games on the iPhone. The mobile port has enhanced visuals and some of the best virtual controls in the App Store.
App Store: Max Payne Mobile ($2.99)
Angry Birds Space, Angry Birds Star Wars
Long live casual gaming. Rovio gave us two new Angry Birds entries this year: Angry Birds Space and Angry Birds Star Wars. The titles breathed new life into the worn-out formula, with zero-gravity bird-flinging and familiar Lucas characters.
Until Microsoft brings H.A.L.O. to the iPhone (fat chance), Gameloft's copycat N.O.V.A. franchise is as close as you'll get. Despite its cringe-inducing voice acting and lack of originality, N.O.V.A. 3 provides terrific visuals and hours of entertaining first-person shooting.
App Store: N.O.V.A. 3 ($6.99)
Zynga's Horn is a Zelda-inspired action puzzler. Though it can get repetitive, its striking visuals and RPG leveling make it one of the most console-like games in the App Store.
App Store: Horn ($6.99)
No "best of" list is definitive, and these titles could easily find their way onto your iPhone: Draw Something, Camera Awesome, Amazon Cloud Player, Zeebox, Skitch, Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy, Amazing Alex, Bad Piggies, and The World Ends With You: Solo Remix.
More to come?
2012 isn't over yet, so we'll keep an eye out for new additions (we're watching you, GTA: Vice City).
To see how the other half lives, check out our list of the Best Android apps of 2012.