39 new apps and sites that will change your life
8th Jul 2012 | 09:00
The sites, apps and tools to change the way you work, rest and play
Best for work
You don't need us to tell you how great the internet is, or how a couple of apps or services can completely revolutionise your life both on and offline. But how can you be sure you're kitted out with the right ones?
It's difficult to search for something you don't even know exists, and the sheer number of new toys to play with is growing at an exponential rate. Are you wasting time that could be better spent kicking back, watching movies, or even - if you're desperate - being out in the sun? Almost certainly!
Over the following pages, you'll find our carefully selected recommendations to help upgrade your entertainment, work and social life with the best the internet has to offer - a few new programs, because sometimes you can't beat a client for heavy lifting, a few apps to load onto your smartphone, and websites that will give you great new features you never knew you could live without for the low, low cost of ignoring a couple of adverts. From the top of the cloud down, they're what you need.
What should you look for in a new service? The feature you can't do without is the ability to export your data should the service either shut down or be swallowed up. The days of a company like Google or Yahoo swooping in to guarantee its future are long gone. Services purchased by the giants are now routinely closed down, with the point of their acquisition being the talent behind them, and this can happen very quickly.
If you can't extract your data, be it photos, music, backed up files or anything else, you're best off avoiding the service until it adds that feature. Never assume it'll be added later. It may be, but you shouldn't take that gamble.
This is why we recommend Dropbox as our file backup tool of choice. It works great right now, and may it continue to do so, but should it close overnight, you have a copy of everything on your hard drive. Next, the service should offer some value beyond social connection, and in most cases, the option to be as antisocial as you like.
Anything that offers Facebook integration means that you can be up and running in a single click, but you never know what it will broadcast to your friends. If you don't want them to know what you're watching, listening to or clicking, be very careful before you grant access - especially if it's a new service that has yet to prove itself.
Finally, of course, never give any information to a site you're not sure you can trust. Scammers are everywhere, and some of them make websites. It's worth putting any site's name into Google just to check for skeletons in the closet. In most cases you won't find anything, and that's great. If there's more to it than met the eye though, you'll be glad you took the time to check.
Tools for work are the most compelling and the most risky. On one hand, stumbling across something that makes life easier is to be savoured. On the other, none of us want to start relying on something that gets taken away - and the price of failure can be serious.
This is one of the main drawbacks of tools like Google Docs. Yes, they're great - as long as you have internet access. If it goes down, you're potentially in trouble. Better safe than sorry.
Cloud computing should still be a core part of your working environment though, even if you're not ready to give up your local applications. In fact, in most cases, you probably shouldn't do that at all. Web apps still pale in comparison to a good local client for most functions, from email to image editing to basic word processing. They can offer handy features like multi-user editing, but by technology or design, they usually feel written to be 'good enough' rather than 'great'.
More to the point, they lack power. No serious spreadsheet user is going to use Google Docs when they could be using Excel for instance, and it'll likely be years before that changes - if it ever does. No, at the moment, the best work use for the cloud is accessing your files and computers from a distance, with web apps acting as stand-ins. Google Docs doesn't care if it's your primary word-processor, or simply what you fire up on your old netbook. It'll still edit and export all of your most important files - and if they're available via the web, you'll always be able to feed them into it.
Best of all, doing it this way also gives you access to older versions of every document you work on. That's not something you get on many home/office PCs, and is impossible if you work on multiple systems.
That's not all though. The cloud offers immediate access to all your devices as well as data, keeping you up to date with everything. On iPhone, Apple's iCloud is frankly lousy for most document syncing, but you can't beat it for contacts and calendars.
Most other phones will also offer the ability to connect to either dedicated address book software or Google Contacts, ensuring you stay up to date.
But what of the offline world? If you don't use Microsoft Office, you can find tools that can replicate its functions – OpenOffice.org being the best of the free alternatives. For actually writing your documents though, you can often do better.
For example, there's been a slew of 'distraction-free' environments over the last couple of years, and at first glance, they may appear stupid. They blank out your screen, give you a cursor, and that's about it. No formatting, no fancy layout - just text. Try them however - Q10 is a good starting point - and you'll soon see the appeal.
If you have a long document to write, not having new mail icons popping up or the siren's call of an internet browser can be just what you need to focus on the task at hand. For best results, open rainymood.com for some free atmospheric noise to can break the silence without breaking your flow.
Finally, don't forget what your tablet and smartphone can contribute to your day. The benefi ts of their apps and web browsers go without saying, but don't think you have to spend a fortune to get the data you need to take advantage of them.
Visit giffgaff.com and you can get 500MB of 3G data for £5 a month on tablets, or unlimited data on phones for £10. Both these deals are available as PAYG rather than contracts, and run on the O2 network. Note though that if you have an iPad or iPhone, you'll need to order a special micro-SIM instead of the standard model, or cut it down to size yourself.
Websites for work
1. Remote PC access
Don't be put off by the price (£419 for a lifetime business licence) - it's free for non-commercial use. TeamViewer givers you complete access to your home PC (as long as it's switched on, obviously) from anywhere. You'll never be without that essential file or application again. Just don't tell the boss you're using it, especially if you're planning to pull the old "Oh, but I definitely emailed it in!" dodge next Monday morning.
2. Distraction busters
Freedom switches off your internet access for a set number of minutes, while AntiSocial lets you stay online, but blocks time-wasting sites like Facebook. You can restore access if you must, but it involves rebooting your PC. It's just annoying enough that you won't do it on a whim, while still giving you a get-out clause if you absolutely need one.
3. Cloud storage
Not just the best cloud storage option out there, Dropbox is also the most convenient. It's the de facto standard for mobile apps, you get 2GB of space for free, and if you send out a few referral links, you can easily boost that to 7/8GB. Add support for file versioning and easy web access, and it's the one cloud tool you definitely need.
4. Writing tool
Do you ever write long documents? Reports, essays, novels, anything? You need Scrivener – the best writing tool in the world. Endlessly configurable, as happy to help you plan as to help you write, and capable of reformatting your document to a perfect exported copy whenever you like. You'll never go back to Microsoft Word again.
Many articles on the web deserve to be read, but you don't always have the time to go through them right then and there. Instapaper lives as a bookmark in your browser, stripping out all the adverts and graphical cruft in favour of storing a simple, well-formatted text version that's perfect for reading on your smartphone or tablet. When you finally have a moment to spare, it's all there and waiting for you.
Visual voicemail refined. With HulloMail, you can get a handy iPhone-style answering machine on an Android handset - or if you don't pay for an O2 contract, with the bonus of having any messages emailed to you so that you can pick them up anywhere. It's not compatible with all services unfortunately, especially phones on pay-as-you-go payment plans, although does work fine with a Giffgaff SIM.
Apps for work
7. Soundnote - £2.99
This little app is the ultimate dictaphone. Hit 'Record' and you get everything that happens around you, with the option to scribble on the screen. Tap the scribbles and you go straight to that point in the recording - perfect for transcribing interviews.
8. TapToDo - Free
A to-do list that syncs with your Google Tasks list, keeping you up to date with the rest of the day's assignments whether you're at your PC or out on the road. It provides an extra level of security by adding its own password, too.
9. Reeder - £1.99
Hands down the best RSS reader for iOS. Reeder is the perfect way to track any number of websites and news feeders via Google Reader. Google Apps users beware though - you'll need to switch two-step authentication on.
10. Evernote - Free
Your personal notebook. Clip websites, copy images, and record notes wherever you are. The free version does a lot, the premium edition (£4 a month or £35 a year) gives you extra space, collaborative note-making tools and offiine access to your collection.
Best for your social Life
Many social networks have come and gone over the years, but at the moment only two really stand out: Facebook and Twitter. Facebook in particular isn't simply where people post what they had for dinner, but where parties are arranged, activities are monitored, photos are uploaded, discussions are had and reasons not to add your boss to your Friends list are made painfully, painfully clear.
There are good reasons not to join, including privacy and the fact that the service changes its look every five minutes or so, but it's still where everybody is at the moment, and where you need to be if you want to join in.
Beyond Facebook, smaller networks still have their place. They need to have a specific purpose that's going to help you out in a practical way, like www.myfitnesspal.com for weight loss and dieting, or at least a critical mass of existing users, like www.pinterest.com, so you can find like-minded people to chat with.
What if you don't like Facebook at all? There's nothing wrong with making an account and not entering any personal details if you only want to watch (though you'll need to tell your friends what name you did so under, and find a less creepy way to explain it than that).
It's worth being on in some form though. It may go the way of Friendster and MySpace in time, but that time isn't now. If nothing else, more and more sites and services are using it for sign-in and authorisation.
One advantage of Facebook that isn't obvious from the outside is that many of these other networks can connect to it in the form of apps and API calls. This lets it act as a social hub for both its own and other services, and saves you the effort of persuading your existing friends list to join you elsewhere.
Foursquare, for instance, is the most popular location tool, having turned 'checking in' into a game. If friends are intrigued and join the service directly, you all get the advantages - along with the special bonus that they can't blame you for wasting their time by hyping them up.
Sharing isn't necessarily a good thing though, and more and more software defaults to broadcasting everything you do without asking you. Spotify and Netflix both make your entertainment choices public by default, for example, and this isn't for your benefit - it's because every post they make acts as a personalised advert to your friends.
Even so, some tool integration works very well. Photos for instance can be edited and uploaded from almost any consumer editor, and that's always worth doing.
Signal to noise
The downside of one site holding all this stuff is that its interface doesn't scale very well, and if you add hundreds of friends, you'll soon be drowned in a torrent of irrelevance.
The first step to cleaning this up is to try to keep your contacts list to a reasonable size. It doesn't have to be as brutal as only adding people you know in real life, but you absolutely shouldn't add every stranger who asks. By default they get to see your posts, your holiday photos, your location... all kinds of sensitive data.
At the bare minimum, visit the Privacy Settings option and make sure your updates and info are limited to Friends, not Friends of Friends. Then, every few months, prune anyone you never speak to or whose posts don't interest you. It's not rude, whatever they might think. It's just common sense.
Step two? That's the biggie - moving away from the default web interfaces and tools and using a few third-party tweaks and clients that give you much more control over your online life. Flick your eyes to the right for our recommendations.
Websites for your social life
11. Twitter client
Your complete social networking command centre, bringing Twitter and Facebook into one not-so-simple view. By making columns for news, responses, direct messages and more, you can see everything that flows into your life in real-time. Just don't expect it to relieve the information overload. Quite the reverse. Bring some aspirin.
12. Social media aggregator
If you don't want to use Facebook to bring your various social networking accounts together in one place, try this alternative. It connects to over 200 of them, including emails, and makes it easy to keep track of what's going on, cross-post to multiple services, and filter your stream based on what you want to see. It also looks daringly similar to Facebook. Nobody tell Zuckerberg's lawyers about that…
13. Twitter search
Twitter's built-in search engine is one of the most pathetic attempts at drilling through mountains of data you'll ever see. Thankfully, Snapbird exists. This tool will take you straight to the tweet you want, especially if it's related to your own timeline, as well as searching far further back into the archives than the official version ever bothers to. One day, hopefully it won't be needed. For now though, use it and be glad.
14. Facebook Browser Plugin
What's good for Facebook isn't necessarily good for you. SocialFixer is a browser plugin (available for all major platforms except Internet Explorer) that comprehensively overhauls the experience. It'll hide posts you've read. It'll highlight what's new. It'll even give you information Facebook likes to keep quiet about, like who's un-friended you - if not why. It may occasionally break, but updates won't be far away.
15. Facebook Photo Archiver
Uploading photos to Facebook is easy. Getting them back can be trickier. Pick&Zip saves you the hassle of manually saving them by downloading and archiving the lot. Remember though, if they were resized by Facebook, you'll get the smaller versions. Keep the originals somewhere else - a dedicated photo site like Flickr, for example.
16. Social Media Tracking
If your social networking is more professional than personal, SocialMention is a great tool for tracking mentions of yourself, your company, news stories, or anything else that's breaking. You'll also find the kind of stats that marketing types kill for, including sentiment, hashtags, and the most popular users using the term.
Apps for your social life
17. Tweetbot - £1.99
The best Twitter client for iOS, especially if you're checking your feed on an iPad. Twitter's own app is good enough for casual tweeters, but this is more efficient for heavy use. On Android devices though, it's a decent option.
18. Foursquare - Free
Check in at locations around the world, either to tell your friends where you are, or to compete with others for virtual mayorship of them. The Foursquare app connects to Facebook, and works better than its equivalent Places tool.
19. Camera+ - 69p
Upgrade the largely useless iPhone camera app with this one and you'll get essential features like burst shooting, image stabilisation and proper in-app editing with a wide range of filters - all for less than the price of a cup of coffee.
20. Beejive IM - Free/£6.99
Available for iOS, BlackBerry and Android, Beejive is the best of the admittedly small IM map market. Connect to MSN, GTalk, AIM and more and stay connected wherever you go. It costs £6.99 for all platforms, with a basic free version available for Android.
Best for entertainment
Let's start with some of the main content sources. Unfortunately, about 80 per cent of commercial video remains region-locked. Companies like Hulu don't have the rights to stream their libraries outside of the US (and sometimes Canada), and even services like Netflix that offer international access typically only have licenses for a tiny selection of content.
Luckily for them, it's impossible to pretend that your PC is elsewhere through some kind of VPN. So definitely don't try that.
Small screen films
Of the UK providers, Lovefilm has by far the best recent movie content, with Netflix edging it with its TV programmes. Both work superbly on devices like the iPad and PlayStation 3, though Netflix easily takes the prize if you plan to watch content on your PC directly. Both cost around £5 to access, though Lovefilm throws online streaming in for free with its DVD/Blu-ray rental service.
Other sites have smaller selections, but often good ones. iPlayer and 4OD offer catch-up services, with 4OD also boasting a healthy back-catalogue of ad-supported programmes. Other free sources include Blinkbox and YouTube - not in the main video collection, but accessible at the top of the front page behind links to 'TV Shows' and 'Movies'.
In most cases, the free TV will be fine, if not exactly cutting edge, while free movies are a hunt for gems among piles of slurry with names like Android Apocalypse and Nude on the Moon.
Getting videos from one format to another remains problematic. At the moment, that leaves an actual disc the best way to play movies on PC and TV legally, distantly followed by an Apple TV and iPad using AirPlay. Should you hypothetically have lots of unencumbered video files though, you can't beat a NAS for storing them and beaming them around the house.
The best ones, like Synology's can transcode on the fly, making their original format irrelevant. Assuming you're going to rely on fresh content though, the obvious problem is working out what to watch.
You'll also increasingly find collections like Popular on Facebook on services like Netflix, which might at least point you to high-profile arrivals and cult favourites you might otherwise have missed out on.
If all else fails though, you'll rarely go wrong by just browsing. You never know when you'll find your new favourite movie or show. Just make sure the site or service your using isn't going to auto-broadcast everything to Facebook or similar, in case you feel the urge to sit down with something trashy.
21. Film Rental
The best way to fill your life with entertainment on the cheap. LoveFilm's digital service isn't very good on PC, but its console and iPad versions are a different story - a solid selection of movies, mixed with a few TV shows. Its DVD/Blu-Ray collection is immense, with incredibly fast turnaround. You might not get your fix in the exact order you requested it, but you can get almost anything that's on the shelves.
22. Region Unblocking
Absolutely not just a way to tap into American video services. Should you need to pretend that you're in the US for legitimate reasons, it's a handy way to do it - not least because it uses DNS trickery rather than a VPN to avoid data going via a third party. Free to try, with a modest monthly subscription. Just remember only to use it for good.
23. TV Guide
The best UK-focused guide, with an excellent timeline view and instant access to catch-up services when browsing older programs. These links don't go straight to the player, simply doing a search on the target site, but that still only leaves you a click or two away. If it's on in the UK, you'll find it listed here, along with a list of new series starting each week.
24. Media Server
PS3 Media Server
DLNA compliant media server that's ideal for sending movies and other media around your house. It works with other devices too, and is capable of transcoding almost any file you throw at it into whatever your destination device requires. Incredibly easy to set up - just pair it with a good network connection and you're ready to go.
25. Video Conversion
Your one-stop, open-source tool for converting video and ripping your non-commercial DVDs. The number of options might look intimidating to begin with, but you can safely ignore them in favour of picking a preset and sitting back to let Handbrake do its thing. There's a full user manual available online if you need it though, along with a wiki full of extra hints and tips for dealing with more complicated ripping.
25. Live TV Streaming
Not what it sounds like, unfortunately. TVCatchup is all about live streaming, with over 40 channels available. All major free-to-air channels are covered, including Freeview favourites like Dave, with the option to watch directly on your TV or tablet device. You do have to register to watch, but it's a completely free service. Just give the stream 30 seconds to get going - it plays an advert before starting properly.
Apps for entertainment
26. OPlayerHD - £1.99/£2.99
Replace your iPhone or iPad's highly restricted video player app with one that can handle just about any format you throw at it. Not great at handling at high definition content on the original iPad, but works a treat on more recent ones.
27. Flipboard - Free
Your favourite RSS feeds, now in the form of the world's most stylish digital magazine. Create sections, flip through pages and generally avoid having to sift through every last story in your RSS feeds to find something interesting.
28. Zeebox - Free
A social take on watching television. Zeebox lets you chat with friends while you watch programmes together, and have instant access to relevant websites and tags from the comfort of your sofa. For iOS, Android and the web.
29. IMDB - Free
The ultimate solution to any movie question. IMDB is available on everything, giving you instant access to a wealth of trivia, reviews, recommendations and the answer to that classic question: "Wait, where do I know that guy from?"
Best for your home life
Information is power, and while the PC can do many things to help around the home, nothing beats the advantage it gives you against the world. Whether you're booking a holiday, ordering lunch or trying to find the best deal on electricity, a few minutes with Google and a selection of trusted sites can be the difference between finding a great deal and vast amounts of heartache.
Let's take the holiday example, as that's the one most likely to lead to familicide. The obvious first stop is a package holiday site, where flights and hotels are all bound into one, apparently good value parcel. You can click the button, just like you would take the word of a travel agent back in the day, but that's a gamble.
Visit www.tripadvisor.com for instance, and while you have to take what you read with a pinch of salt, you can get a good flavour of exactly what people thought of the hotel, see some actual photos of it (visit www.oyster.com/hotels/photo-fakeouts to see how much many official ones bend reality to breaking point), and keep an eye out for dodgy deals.
In one case during my own holidaying, a hotel recommended by a travel site that will remain nameless had a solid write-up, but about half the reports also made it clear that it routinely overbooked its rooms and sent the overflow to a one-star place round the corner. Needless to say, my travelling companion and I looked elsewhere for a place to rest our weary heads.
The tools just keep on coming. Google Street View lets you see the area, and exactly how far it is to places like the nearest station. Sites like Skyscanner and TravelSupermarket.com do flight price comparisons. The likes of Lonely Planet or simple Google searches show you what there is to do. And if you find an offer that sounds too good to be true, a quick search is usually enough to explain the scam in great, great detail.
If this isn't how you plan your holidays, you're doing it wrong. The same goes for more or less every household chore. You should never, for example, change your service providers on the doorstep (or even hand over any details). A site like www.moneysupermarket.com will tell you exactly what deals everyone offers, and calculate exactly how much you could save if you switch - no hard sell involved.
Now, let's go a little bit deeper. When you want to buy products online, it's easy to go to a big site like Amazon and click the button. It may well have the best deal, but run the product through a tool like kelkoo.com and you'll often find it cheaper. Price needs to be balanced with the site offering it of course - always check them out before ordering anything.
Electronics in particular often come from Hong Kong, and while the product itself may be fine, you risk paying massive import duty on it that can annihilate any savings. Even if the site seems to be UK based, a quick paranoia check will often reveal its address to just be a mailbox.
For less important items, how about waiting for some good deals? CamelCamelCamel.com is a good starting point for these, constantly tracking prices on Amazon for sales or discounts - including ones from its third party sellers. It's also worth following www.moneysavingexpert.com to see them as they appear, along with expert opinion on what's worth checking out.
The rule about double-checking with Google remains for any advice you see. Rebooting your digital home life isn't just about saving money, but it's a good start and one that will start rewarding you immediately.
Cast your eyes below for some of our recommendations, along with a few extra tools that you might find useful around the house. They can't cook and clean for you, but that doesn't mean they can't pull their weight in other ways.
Websites for home life
30. Travel reviews
The holidaymaker's best friend, with reviews and information on anywhere you're likely to stay, local attractions, restaurants and more. Don't take every review as gospel truth - some are plants, others are just crazy. You can get a solid idea about most places though, and find alternatives if you decide you don't feel like taking the risk.
31. Financial advice
Martin Lewis's terrifyingly comprehensive guide to everything from gas and electricity to insurance, mortgages and shopping. It's a constant stream of updates that let you know who has the best deal and which company is trying to slip a price-hike past its customers' noses. As it warns though, make sure to double-check everything on there - don't take any advice it offers purely at face value.
32. Price alerts
A simple way of tracking the latest deals on Amazon. Enter the names of products that interest you, or simply bring up a list of products currently on sale. You can also create your own watches by finding an item you might purchase in the future and the price you want to pay, and the site will mail or tweet you if and when it happens. You can also view price history over time to see if sales are likely in the near future.
33. Virtual whiteboard
Moving away from saving money, here's a modern replacement for the classic family corkboard/fridge door. Stixy gives you a virtual whiteboard where you can add notes, photos, documents and to-do lists that anyone in the family can turn into their homescreen or access at will. It won't make sure they what they're told, but it will make it much harder for them to pretend they never saw the instruction.
Most recipe sites give you things you might want to make and a shopping list. Supercook reverses it. You tell it what you've got, and it tries to find recipes you can make with your existing ingredients. A reasonably stocked kitchen will help, but even a handful of supplies should be enough to sort out dinner without relying on a takeaway.
35. Health Advice
Obvious warning: WebMD isn't a replacement for a doctor, and hypochondriacs should avoid it like the plague they don't have. For general pointers as to what might be wrong with a member of the family though, it's a better than Googling symptoms - plus a solid information source for everything from allergies to sleep disorders.
Apps for home life
36. EpicWin - £1.99
If you can't get your family to help out with the chores around the house, try turning them into a game with this handy app. Think of it as a to-do list with a scoring system. Its developers claim it makes being organised fun.
37. MyFitnessPal - Free
One of the best online weight-loss/fitness sites, and the perfect way to keep track of your family's collective progress. This portable app is a mix of food diary, nutrition database and instantly accessible pick-me-up.
38. RedLaser - Free
Turn your phone into a mobile barcode scanner, with the ability to list other - potentially better - prices for the targeted item. Should you feel enticed by a QR code while you're out, RedLaser will happily deal with those too.
39. WolframAlpha - £1.99
A computational search engine might not sound like the ideal thing to have around the house, but with easy conversions of everything from metric to imperial to currency, WolframAlpha's iOS app soon earns its place.