Ten Apps to Show Off the iPhone

What if you really wanted to impress somebody with how amazing an iPhone can be? Suppose it is a friend considering buying an iPhone, but not yet quite convinced. They already know about what Apple brings to the table: web browsing, email checking, the camera, even Siri. It will be up to third-party apps to determine if the scales tip in the iPhone’s favor.

If you found yourself in this situation and were limited to showing off only ten apps, which ten would you choose? These apps needn’t be the most practical or most-likely-to-be-frequently-used. Rather, I’m looking for knock-your-socks-off, I-can’t-believe-an-iPhone-can-do-this apps, the sort that will elicit a “Wow! I gotta have this” reaction. 

My guess is that if you asked 100 people this question, you’d wind up with 100 very different lists. Here’s mine.

[Note: Similar competing apps often exist; the apps listed below are the ones I prefer, however slightly.]

10 & 9.  Solar Walk and SkyView. To start off the list, let’s head to outer space.

Break out your 3-D glasses. Solar Walk offers a stunning 3-D view of our solar system, everything from the satellites orbiting the Earth to the distant planets. Zoom in or out to go from a close up of Earth to the view from outside our galaxy. Tap the display to get more information about each object. You can even watch movies of events such as solar eclipses.

With SkyView, it’s best to go outside at night and look up. The app displays a camera-view of the sky above you. Overlaying the view is an “augmented reality” heads-up layer showing you the stars (including constellations), planets and satellites that are currently in your view. Move your iPhone and the display changes accordingly. Select an object and can track how it will move through the sky over the next 24 hours.

Solar Walk looks at our solar system.

8. Square. For most iPhone users, the headphone jack is for…attaching headphones and nothing more. However, a recent crop of intriguing hardware peripherals connect through this jack rather than the Dock. The most impressive one is the Square credit card reader. To use it, download the free Square app and set up an account. Next, insert the Square dongle and you’re ready to start swiping credit cards. Payments are automatically credited to your bank account.

Although I have little personal use for this app, it’s still impressive to see it in action. When doing a demo for your friend, the real joy comes if he happens to run a small business (especially a mobile one, such as a booth at a farmers’ market). With this app-dongle combo, anyone can conveniently accept credit cards almost anywhere. Incredible! 

7. Video Camera (by i4software). The video camera software included as part of the iPhone’s Camera app is spectacular all by itself. For more complex and sophisticated movie projects, you can get Apple’s iMovie for iOS. However, at least for me, iMovie for iOS is overkill. If I truly need iMovie, I’d rather work with the Mac version, which is faster, easier and has more options.

If I did want to create a movie entirely on my iPhone, I’d choose Video Camera (an app I first noted in my recent column on Macworld | iWorld ). I recently demoed this app to a friend by assembling a polished movie containing multiple clips, transitions, music and titles — in under a minute. My friend was suitably bowled over. A decade ago, you could not do anything like this at any price. Now it’s yours for just a few bucks.

6. Paper Camera. There are dozens of photo special effects apps out there, many of them top-notch. But if I wanted to show off the iPhone as a photo manipulator, Paper Camera would be my top choice. Just snap a photo and apply one of its filters. My two favorite filters are Cartoon Boom and Sketch Up. They turn a photo into a cartoon-like image or a pencil drawing respectively. The results looks almost as good as if they were hand-drawn (actually, better than anything I could hand-draw). The reaction from almost everyone that I have shown this app: “Unbelievable!”

Paper Camera creates a pencil sketch from a photo.

5. TourWrist. Staying with the iPhone’s camera, TourWrist (another app I first noticed at Macworld | iWorld last month) creates eye-popping 360° panoramic views. Several apps have similar capabilities (such as Microsoft’s excellent almost-completely-automatic PhotoSynth). What makes TourWrist stand out is how the panoramas move using the iPhone’s gyroscopic sensors. When you hold the camera at eye level and move your body, the image moves with you — giving you the sensation of actually being at the scene rather than viewing a photo.

4. PriceGrabber. PriceGrabber (or one of its similar competitors) is invaluable when you’re out shopping and want to price compare. Just scan any item’s barcode and find out how much the item sells for at various other (mainly online) locations! Never overpay again!

3. Shazam. Whenever I use Shazam (or its also excellent music-recognition competitor, SoundHound), I feel like I just woke up inside a science-fiction movie. I last used Shazam in a retail store a week or so ago. Music was playing over the store’s sound system. I recognized the song currently playing but could not quite place the title or artist. Years ago, if I were lucky, I might be able to later hum the melody to someone who could provide the answer. Otherwise, I would be out-of-luck.

With Shazam, I had an entirely different ending. I just pointed the phone in the direction of the speakers. Despite the ambient noise and low volume of the music in the store, Shazam gave me the title and artist within a few seconds (The Show by Lenka, in case you were wondering). The app next began to display the lyrics of the song in sync with the music! Unbelievable! 

2 & 1.  Dragon Go! and Google Translate. The list’s finale offers a pair of apps that share a common attribute: they work via voice input. Even if you have an iPhone 4S with Siri, these apps are worth downloading. 

With the Dragon Go! app, just speak a question or search term. Within seconds, you’ll have your choice of results — from a Google search to Wikipedia entries to Twitter tweets to YouTube videos and more. Siri can be the better alternative if you expect a direct answer, one that does not require any of these searches. Otherwise, this app wins hands down.

If you’re in a foreign country and you don’t know the language (which for me is pretty much almost every foreign country), Google Translate will become your best friend. Speak any English-language phrase and the app will display the foreign language equivalent. Not sure how to pronounce the result? No problem; tap a button and Translate will speak it for you. It works in the other direction as well. Do you see a sign and want to know what it says? Either speak or type (if your pronunciation is not up to an audio input) the text. Translate will provide the English equivalent.

Bottom line. I could easily come up with ten more apps worthy of being on this list. For starters, I’m thinking of HBO Go (see any episode of any show HBO offers), Public Radio Player (play almost any NPR station in the country with a simple tap), Splashtop (shows your Mac’s display on your iPad), and Where To? (augmented reality views of stores and such around you).

Even after five years, the iPhone continues to impress me over and over again — perhaps now more than ever — primarily because of the new apps that keep adding ever more incredible capabilities to the device. Apple’s decision back in 2008, to change course and allow third-party apps on the iPhone, is clearly among the best and most momentous decisions Apple ever made. We reap its benefits every day.