11 free or cheap iPhone apps you simply must check out

With the release of the iPhone 2.0 software on Friday and the opening of the App Store — where hundreds of third-party applications are now available — Apple Inc.’s iPhone has taken a major leap toward becoming a premiere mobile platform.

Since the iPhone’s arrival last year, one of the constant complaints about it was that the hardware was a technological marvel but the software was lacking.

A little over a year after its debut, Apple released not only the most significant hardware upgrade since the iPhone’s inception, but also the most significant software release to date. Best of all, the apps work on the first-generation iPhone as well as the newer iPhone 3G, and on the iPod Touch. (You have to pay $9.95 to update the iPod Touch so it can run third-party applications, though.)

While new hardware is important for attracting new buyers — what with a lower cost of entry and the 3G chipset — it’s the software and the arrival of the App Store that allows the iPhone to transcend being just another mobile phone. Officially opened on July 11, though accessible the day before, the App Store sprung to life with more than 550 third-party applications ranging from games to sketch pads to medical applications.

To get you started, we’ve chosen 11 applications that are decidedly worth looking at, though you should check out the App Store yourself and weigh in below with your own favorites.

The first six are free; the rest will cost you a few bucks. All are worth a look:

1. AOL Instant Messenger (free)

This handy application provides a fast and easy way to talk to your peers via AOL’s instant messaging system, as well as buddies on ICQ and .Mac/MobileMe. Already one of the most downloaded applications on the App Store, this program is a simple and straight-forward way to connect to the AIM network with your iPhone.

Upon first launch, the application presents you with three login options: AIM, MobileMe, and .Mac. Once the service is chosen, username and password is entered, you’re presented with your Buddy List groups, which, upon selection, displays your buddies, their availability and their status messages. From the main Buddy List, there are arrows beside your Buddy names that can be tapped, bringing you to a Buddy Info screen. From this screen, you can change their display name, the group they’re associated with, and even add your buddy to a Favorites list for even easier access.

This application uses the swipe gesture to switch between active chats, and the entire app is straight-forward, taking full advantage of the available screen real estate without clutter.

This app is easily on my own personal must-have list, especially in light of AT&T’s SMS price-gouging on its new monthly plans. (Just because AT&T isn’t the only carrier to overprice on SMS doesn’t make it any less wrong.)

There are a few caveats, though. AIM doesn’t tie in with your Address Book and it does not run in the background. Once it’s quit, you’re logged off.

Apple is already working on that last issue and is devising a notification API that will allow messages and alerts to be pushed from their servers to a person’s iPhone. That will eventually allow IMs to show up as alerts, just like SMS messages.

Another feature this API will bring is the ability to display badges on Home Screen icons — just like Mail does. Once released, this API will provide immediate IM notifications without cutting into battery life or wasting processor cycles, both of which are inherent to background applications. It also showcases Apple’s commitment to making the iPhone a better mobile platform.

2. Remote (free)

This slick little app from Apple allows you to remotely control an iTunes library with the iPhone or iPod Touch — as long as there’s a WiFi connection. It goes beyond simple remote control and allows you to browse playlists, scroll through lists of artists and albums and even see album art for currently playing music or videos.

Upon first launch, you’re greeted with a screen prompting you to search for an iTunes library. Remote app found my iTunes library instantly. Once I selected my library, my iPhone became available on the iTunes sidebar on the Mac. Clicking on the iPhone icon brought up a simple prompt asking me for a four-digit set of numbers displayed on the iPhone. Once I typed in the numbers, the phone paired with my iTunes library on my computer, and I had instant access to remotely control my media.

The app itself is simple and easy to use, borrowing liberally from the design of the music playing software that comes with every iPhone and touch. It’s that interface familiarity and seamless integration that makes this remote control software brilliant, though there are a few caveats: you can only remotely control your iTunes library when you’re in range of WiFi, and Remote is limited to one basic function: the remote control of your iTunes library.

There’s no streaming of music or movies, so you cannot listen or watch your media on the device. There also doesn’t seem to be lyric support in music, and there’s no cover flow support either. Both would be nice, although they’re not necessary.

This is highly recommended to anyone that uses their Mac or PC for listening to music.

3. Loopt (free)

This is one of the best implementations of social networking on the go. This application uses Location Services to keep you and your friends up to date on each other’s activities, including pin-pointing their locations on a map.

To quote the CEO of Loopt, Sam Altman, “We show you where people are, what they’re doing, and what cool places are around you.” Loopt also supports Facebook and Twitter integration, allowing content and location to be kept up to date between the three services.

After a brief account creation and log in, you’re presented with Loopt’s main screen: a map of your location, a couple of icons at the top of the screen for finding places and friends, a small status section, and four buttons at the bottom for interface navigation.

The default view, the Map, begins by finding your location and uses Microsoft’s Virtual Earth for its mapping software.

Tapping the upper left button reveals a search (featuring restaurant reviews from Yelp), though Loopt takes the initiative once the search field is opened and starts finding local restaurants automatically. Clicking on any of the search results once they populate the map brings up an info screen that can display reviews, comments from friends about the place, plus the usual phone number and address.

Besides Map, there is an on-screen navigation button called What’s Up. This button brings up a screen that allows you to update your status, location and picture.

Once sent out, your Loopt buddies are kept in the loop. You can also see what your friends have been up to, which brings me to the best part of Loopt: the ability to track your friends from the Map screen.

Every time Loopt is launched, your Location is auto-updated, as is the location of your friends. Not only can you see where they are in respect to your location, Loopt taps into the iPhone’s services by allowing you to call or text them, and get directions to them.

For those friends that haven’t logged in to Loopt recently, the software allows you to Ping them. Ping is a prompt for their location, which is instantly sent via SMS message, and when returned, gives you their location- after receiving their permission, of course. While it sounds a bit Big Brother-ish — and it can be — the most paranoid amongst us can rest assured that the auto-location services can be turned off.

4. AOL Radio (free)

This is for the people who scoffed at the lack of built-in radio for FM and AM frequencies.

AOL radio offers music from slightly more than 30 cities, with radio streamed to your phone regardless of connection — Edge, WiFi or 3G.

AOL Radio uses Location Services to track down local radio stations, which are displayed by Cities in the Locals tab, with all of the available stations displayed by genre under the Stations tab.

Two other interface tabs called Favorites and Recents do exactly what their names imply: they display favorite stations and recently played stations.

When a station is selected, track information and artist are displayed next to the station’s logo or album art. With certain songs, a magnifying glass — similar to the Spotlight icon in Mac OS X — displays underneath the track information; tapping this icon allows you to Find on iTunes, Find on AOL Music and Remember This Song for future reference. Adding stations to favorites is simple: Just tap the star icon in the upper right portion of the station’s menu bar.

A cautionary note: This application reminded me exactly why I use the iPod/iPhone to listen to my songs: every station I tried just happened to be running commercials at the time. That’s not a reflection of the application, which worked exactly as it should have.

It’s a commentary on radio stations in general. One neat thing I noticed with this app: you can close out of the app by hitting the Home button, silencing the radio. But if you press the sleep/wake button on top of the iPhone, the radio plays, even though the screen is off.

5. Shazam (free – for a limited time)

This little app will help you identify a song, even when you can’t recall its name. Shazam allows you to record music from any source using the built in microphone. After analyzing the tune, it kicks back results in seconds.

The interface couldn’t be any easier to use (I detect a recurring theme with iPhone apps). You record a snippet of audio — the default allows for 12 seconds of recording — and the results of the lookup are displayed with astounding accuracy.

I’ve sampled a dozen songs so far. Not only does Shazam give you the song name, artist, album and label, but there are even links to the iTunes store so you can purchase the song or album. You Tube videos are also linked, if any are available.

From there, you can build up a collection of songs you’ve recorded — called Tags – attach photos to them, share them with friends or delete them.

6. Bonus freebie: Midomi

This application is similar to Shazam in that it allows you to take bits of audio and use that to find a song. Where this differs from Shazam is that you can actually search for a song by singing, humming or whistling the familiar bits, or by using the Shazam-like ability to record audio for look up.

You can also search for a song or artist just by stating their name or typing it out. Midomi is a simple app with a basic function; the fact that these two music finders are free means you can try them both and decide which one you like best.

7. Tips ($1.99)

This application has a very simple purpose: to help parties figure out tips for restaurant bills. It’s a single-screen application that’s exactly what you want during what is perhaps the most stressful part of eating out: figuring out the bill.

Upon launching the app, you’re faced with a blank subtotal section, and the question “How much was your bill?” A service slider adjusts the tip percentage from 5% to 30%, and another slider adjusts party size from 1 to 12. A Tip and Total section breaks down the results, and hopefully, ends all discussions about who owes what.

Simple. Effective. And you’re bound to save the $1.99 purchase price by making sure everyone at your table pays their fare share.

8. Enigmo ($9.99)

Since the first time I saw this game’s opening level flyby at the Worldwide Developers Conference keynote last month, it’s been on my gotta-have list. The main point of this game is to guide liquid droplets from point a to point b, with increasing levels of difficulty.

With each level, you’re given the task to guide liquid from its start point to its destination point, using a variety of tools and objects to help you do so.

This simple premise is extremely well-implemented, providing brain-teasing fun and 50 levels to challenge you. The game itself utilizes positional audio, takes advantage of the iPhone’s multi-touch capabilities and 3D graphics — and ties it all together with an amazing physics engine.

This game’s fun factor is right up there with the best puzzle-based games. Highly recommended.

9. Comic Touch ($4.99)

From the makers of Comic Life comes Comic Touch, porting some of the best features of Comic Life to surprising effect for a mobile device. Just like Comic Life, you can easily add dialogue balloons to pictures, as well as captions and even some Core Image effects.

Unlike Comic Life, you do this on a 3.5-inch screen. The application is so well designed that manipulating photos and text with this app feels completely natural. Kudos to the designers for creating an interface that uses the iPhone’s capabilities without adding clutter.

When you first launch Comic Life, you’re prompted for an image source. After selecting your photo from the Photo Library or Camera, you can then add dialogue balloons, captions and familiar Core Image effects like budge and squeeze. Once done, you can share the results with friends via e-mail, or save the image directly to your Photo Library.

Fans of Comic Life will be fans of Comic Touch, and this application may bring in new fans of Comic Life. If you like to manipulate photos of your friends and want to do so on the go, this is certainly the perfect solution.

10. Texas Hold ’em ($4.99)

This nifty take on Hold ‘Em style Poker takes advantage of the iPhone’s video capabilities, displaying impressive graphics, including footage of your computer opponents.

Not only that, this game also allows you to play with your friends within a local wifi network. (I’m assuming it uses Apple’s Bonjour services for auto-discovery, which means you can’t play across the Internet).

Upon first launch you’re presented with two game modes (single player and multiplayer), settings, statistics and help. There are options for play locations such as an Apple-themed Garage, an Aquarium, and even a seat at a poker table in Dubai.

The computer opponents are digitized humans and they’re very well implemented into the game. Their reactions during the game play is amusing, but you can skip over their animations by touching the screen. The game itself uses great work of the touch screen, allowing you to check by double-tapping, fold by dragging your cards to the table, and go all in by doing the same with your chips.

By turning the phone from portrait to landscape mode, the view is switched from first person to table-top view of the action. And when you tap on the Home button, the game is automatically saved until the next time you want to play it.

One hint: Read over the Help section, which offers up a series of pictures detailing what you can do with the interface and gestures. It may sound obvious, but as impressive as the graphics are for this game, there aren’t really any visual cues to let you know what does what.

For Poker fans, this game is highly recommended. Go ahead, see if I’m bluffing.

11. Super Monkey Ball ($9.99)

This is easily the most addictive iPhone application yet. I’ve watched this one with great interest since it was announced during Apple’s iPhone 2.0 event in March, and it hasn’t disappointed me now that it has finally been released.

The game itself is simple: guide a monkey in a ball through 3-D levels while picking up bananas along the way without falling over a ledge. This simple premise hides the true challenge of the game: navigating said monkey using just the iPhone’s accelerometer. You move the phone around to move the monkey.

The game’s layout is easy to navigate, and the action is fun. Sporting over 100 levels, this game uses the accelerometers to great effect. The graphics and motion are surprisingly crisp and well done. There are several game modes included, from the Main Game option, to Instant Play and Practice. Start in Practice mode, as this game relies on a specific landscape angle to start, and there’s no way to calibrate.

Getting used to this specific position is key to enjoying the game, and you should know that the iPhone’s accelerometer is very sensitive; wild, Wii-like movements aren’t necessary.

Super Monkey Ball is what great, fun gaming is all about: simple enough to pick up and play; challenging enough to keep you coming back.

A few App Store caveats

As wonderful as these apps may sound, there are still a few niggling questions about what can’t — or won’t — be allowed at the App Store. For instance, even though the ability to record video was available via third-party applications on a Jailbroken previous-gen iPhone, no such utilities exist in the current App Store. Given that the iPhone’s camera is capable of recording video, the lack of such an application is glaring.

There’s also a suspicious lack of navigation utilities featuring spoken directions, and a surprising lack of MMS applications. I can’t imagine Apple didn’t see a need for this, and like video recording, MMS capabilities were available on an application repository for Jailbroken iPhones.

It’s too soon to tell whether such applications will eventually make their way to the App Store, but their absence shouldn’t detract from the fact that the App Store opens the iPhone up to so many new, innovative and entertaining third-party possibilities. Maybe Apple froze them out because it’s working on similar apps itself.

Easy to navigate through iTunes and on the iPhone/iPod touch, the App Store is skillfully designed to the point of being nearly effortless to use. Apple has even made it easy for people who may have accidently deleted application. Just re-download the app! The App Store will check your purchase history, see that you’ve already bought the item and allow you to transfer the file again at no cost. It’s all automatic and all behind the scenes.

My only problem with the App store is also it’s greatest strength: It’s incredibly simple to browse through and purchase apps without thinking twice. As my iPhone’s abilities expand, my bank account decreases. It’s a testament to the development efforts by the third-party developers and a warning to you: Keep an eye on your spending.

My last piece of advice?

You’re going to want a mobile charger. With everything that can be done with the iPhone and iPod Touch now, you might find yourself reaching for it often. Trust me: you’re going to want that extra juice.

Michael DeAgonia is a Neal Award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macintoshes and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges, the biopharmaceutical industry, the graphics industry and Apple. Currently, he is working as a Macintosh administrator at a large media company.

Comment: edit@itworldcanada.com

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