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July 5, 2011

Free or Inexpensive iPad Apps for iPad Newbies

I know, I know… another blog post about iPads and what “must have apps” you should be using on yours. Everyone has written one of these lists, and (just like opinions and, ahem, other things) everyone’s got ‘em and everyone else’s stinks. I’m hoping my list will be a little different, because this list was inspired by an email I got from client Paul Rubin over at WholeHealth Chicago.

Hi Gregg

Thanks for the suggestion of checking out Micro Center.  I bought my iPad on Saturday.  Love it!  Now I have to figure out why?


I figured I better put together a list of apps I use on a semi-regular basis, based on actual functionality and usability. And best of all… most of the apps I recommend here are FREE.

So let’s get right down to it.

If you don’t have a Dropbox account, then just take your iPad back now for a refund. iPads do not have disc drives or USB ports, so the only way you’re going to be able to transfer files to and from your iPad is either through email or Bluetooth transfer… unless you have a Dropbox account. Think of your Dropbox account as a shared Documents folder (which it is, only based in the cloud) between your desktop computer & your iPad (and your iPhone too, while you’re at it). You want to get a file from your computer to your iPad, simply pop the file into your Dropbox folder, then navigate to that folder on your iPad and *poof* – there you go.*
Cost: FREE.

Working in conjunction with Dropbox, PlainText is just what it sounds like – a plain text editor. No bells, no whistles, but all about clean functionality. PlainText keeps all its files in your Dropbox folder, and even allows you to create and organize folders within Dropbox. It’s super lightweight, runs on iPad and iPhone, and has a very well designed and minimalist interface. Recently PlainText has started running small ads inside the app to keep the app free (you can remove them for a $5 donation), but unless you really need to do a ton of document creating & text editing, the ad-supported version is just fine. Besides, if you’re going to pay $5 for an app, just go ahead and spend $10 on Pages.
Cost: FREE

AirVideo allows you to play videos on your iPad that are hosted in your iTunes library… on your Mac or PC. Thats right – you don’t have to download them onto your iPad, you just play them straight off your computer. It’s unbelievably convenient, and I’m pretty shocked that it isn’t standard Apple fare (though that might step on the upcoming iCloud file synchronization). Just install the free server app on your computer, map the iPad app to your computer, and stream videos without having to download or sync. There’s a free version if you want to try it out, but the free version limits the amount of items you can see in your shared folders… and if your iTunes library is anything like mine, you’ll need to see the full file listing that is available with the paid app.
Cost: $2.99

I have recommended HashAPass to every one of my clients for years, even before the iPad and iPhone apps came out (back when they just had their dashboard widget). This app allows you to generate random passwords based on one master password of your choosing. Instead of having to remember a bunch of different passwords, just remember your one master password, and HashAPass will generate random passwords for any website or passcode protected service you need. Keeping your data secure with random passwords is imperative, and HashAPass makes it easy to do so.

Note: this is actually an iPhone app, so it’s minimized on the iPad. Also, the “design” of the UI leaves a lot to be desired – because there is none. This app is as bare bones as they come, but it works perfectly.
Cost: FREE for the Lite version, paid version is $ .99

PS Express
There’s lots of different photo manipulation software out there for the iPad & iPhone, and I’ve purchased my fair share. However, I keep going back to the mobile companion to a software I use every day as a designer – Photoshop. PS Express allows you to color manipulate your photos & then share through your favorite social network. And using PS Express in conjunction with a free account gives you 2gb of space to store photos & videos.
Cost: FREE

Evernote turns your iPad into that digital notebook you wanted it to be, and then some. With Evernote you can store notes, images, voice memos, pretty much anything you can capture with your iPad (or your mobile phone and/or computer, for that matter). Keeping items organized in your Evernote library, you can either share those items with others via email (even if they don’t have an Evernote account) or share your Evernote notebook with other Evernote users. There’s a paid monthly version of Evernote, however I use the free version and it works great.
Cost: FREE

Kindle for iPad
The ability to carry around digital copies of your books is a great selling point for any device, most notably the iPad and Kindle. Now don’t get me wrong, the iBooks app works great. But what if you’ve already had a Kindle for a while, or you want a book that’s not available in the iTunes Store? That’s her response on the Kindle for iPad app comes in. It syncs with your Amazon account to make all your Kindle purchases accessible on your iPad, and also allows you access to the many free books available through through the Kindle store.
Cost: FREE

Interesting side note: recently I wanted to purchase a digital copy of A Project Guide to UX Design by Russ Unger. I went to the iTunes store, and found the book for $27.99 – ouch. I already own the physical book, so I really didn’t want to pay almost thirty bucks for a duplicate book. I then looked on Amazon – and found a copy of the exact same book in Kindle version for $17.59. Out of curiosity, I emailed Russ (a friend of mine) and asked him if it mattered from whom I purchased. He told me it really didn’t matter, but as an author he makes more from a digital book sale due to less overhead.

Recently named iPad App of the Year, Flipboard takes your social media feeds and formats them into a really elegant magazine layout. You can port your Twitter, Facebook, Google Reader, Instagram and Flickr accounts into Flipboard and digitally flip through these in a great coffee-table book format personalized with your content, so now you can buy Instagram views in a more efficient way. You can also choose from hundreds of other free publications (my non-designer / tech nerd ones include The New Yorker, FFFFound and Bon Appetit) to fill out your ever-changing personal Flipboard publication.
Cost: FREE

Allows you to administer your WordPress powered website right from your iPad. You can moderate comments, create new posts and pages (or edit existing ones), and even upload images & video. I wouldn’t recommend doing any heavy-lifting of site design through this app, but for day-to-day maintenance of a blog it’s pretty slick.
Cost: FREE

What’s on TV
It would have been easy to put either the Netflix app or Xfinity on this list (I actually use both of these) but I’m trying to go with apps that are free or have no extraneous costs associated and both of those require additional service subscriptions. Instead I’ll recommend the “What’s on TV” app, which I have used for a while on my iPhone. It’s basically an interactive version of TV Guide, which allows you to see what’s on TV based on your service provider. It also allows you to view what movies are playing in theaters close to you, and even view movie trailers. If they brought in the ability to purchase tickets through Fandango that would be perfect, but no reason to – it works great as is.
Cost: FREE

Have you found any free or low cost iPad or iPhone apps you’d recommend to a novice iPad owner? Let me know about them in the comments!

* Synching between Pages and Dropbox could certainly be easier, but rumor has it that will come with the next iOS update. Let’s hope so.