October 27, 2008 The all-conquering iPhone is a pretty impressive gadget out of the box - but it's the fantastic App Store that really keeps the honeymoon going, giving users access to literally thousands of downloadable third-party applications. From the sublime to the ridiculous, they're only a few taps away - and a large number of them are free. Useful? Sometimes. Perfect? Rarely. Addictive? Hell yes, show me an iPhone user that hasn't thumbed through the app store late at night and I'll show you somebody who should have bought a Nokia. Here's a few of our favorite freebies - and a couple of things we want to know why we can't have!
1. AroundMe Where's the nearest bank? This is a fantastic app that takes your GPS location and shows you what's nearby, from banks, bars and coffee shops, to petrol stations, hotels, parking garages and hospitals - ranked by proximity. Once you decide on a business, you're presented with full contact details, a map and route details if you want them. We're not sure where AroundMe takes its data from, but it does an excellent job, only limited by the database. A must-have app.
2. Thumbtacts One of the many criticisms of the iPhone is that its computer-like interface can make it a bit clunky to use as a phone. Finding and calling a contact, for example, can be a frustrating exercise if you've only got one hand free. But hey, who buys a phone to make calls these days anyway right? Thumbtacts offers a creative solution by breaking the contact list down into a series of simple thumb-clickable options that quickly and accurately find the number you're after. Hard to explain but easy to use, Thumbtacts is almost always a quicker way to find and call contacts than the standard contacts list. Nice one!
3. Midomi This one's great for its show-off value... sing, hum or play a tune into the Midomi screen and it'll identify the song, play a preview and take you through to the iTunes store to buy it if you want. Accuracy is a bit variable, and don't expect to find anything too obscure in the database, but in general it works better than you'd expect. The "wow" factor wears off a bit once you realize how the system works, but the price is right and it's niftier than Shazam, its main competitor.
4. Facebook A cut-down version of facebook on your phone - can be frustrating when you can't see your events or save photos, but provides a much nicer interface for the small screen than the main full-featured Facebook page in Safari. A solid bus-stop timekiller but how much nicer would it be if you could see your events and send them straight to the iCal calendar? We live in hope.
5. Labyrinth LE A gaming platform with no buttons poses quite a challenge for game developers - a lot of iPhone games require a finger on the screen at all times, and suffer for it. Labyrinth, however, uses the platform to great advantage, even if gameplay is very simple. Tilt the phone to roll the ball into the goal slot, avoiding the holes along the way. Where it makes up points is in the fantastic audio, which makes your expensive phone feel like a real fifty-cent wooden box. Amazing what technology can do!
6. Free Translator Like many iPhone apps, this is simply an interface to an online service you could just as easily access via Safari. But Free Translator proves its worth in simplicity and speed. Choose a source language, choose a target language, and type in your word or phrase. The app uses Google's translation tools, so it's just as accurate and with all the usual foibles. Annoyingly, the keyboard autocorrect tries to correct all your foreign words into English, but this would happen if you were using Google Translate online anyway. Still a very handy application, particularly when traveling.
7. Cube Runner Another game that uses the iPhone's accelerometers to great effect, Cube runner simply asks you to tilt the phone to steer yourself through a maze of cubes. On the harder settings it's vaguely reminiscent of the feeling of splitting through freeway traffic on a motorcycle - so this sneaks onto the list by virtue of the fact that many of us here at Gizmag are bike heads.
8. GPS Tracker Does exactly what it says on the tin; it takes regular GPS readings and uploads them to a Web server so you can look back at a plotted map of your trip. It also functions as a laggy but passable GPS speedometer. Works very well but chews battery too fast to be much chop for longer trips without a power cable - and spends a lot of time communicating with the server too, which could mean trouble if you're on a stingy data plan. You can change the accuracy and frequency of GPS readings, but would be handy to be able to touch the screen to set a new waypoint so you could simply upload a marker every time you turned a corner or something. Still a very nifty app.
With all the great applications available, there's still some very notable omissions that would basically bring the iPhone up to speed with other mobile phones that have been available for years. Things like...
1) Bluetooth file transfers Sure, there's applications like FliQ that let you send certain files between iPhones that are on the same Wifi network, but why not Bluetooth?
2) Sending vCard contact details via SMS There's numerous (paid) apps that let you send vCard-style information in an email, but what good is that when a friend texts you to ask for somebody else's number? It wouldn't be such an issue if you were able to cut and paste text, but...
3) Cut and Paste 'Nuff said. Surely Apple knows by now that people want this.
4) iPhone modem capability Just about every smartphone can be used as a wireless modem. Why not the iPhone? It seems contractual issues have forced Apple to remove all modem software from the App Store, which is very annoying for owners and no doubt one of the biggest reasons why people are jailbreaking their handsets to use non-approved applications like iPhoneModem.
All these third-party iPhone apps are available at the App Store - just search for them by name.
Got any others we should be checking out? 'Course you do! Let us know in the comments below.