Top 20 iPhone apps of 2009

Looking through Apple’s App Store, it’s easy to get lost in the numbers. From December 2008 to November 2009, some 90,000 apps arrived in the online store, bringing the total number of mobile applications available for your iPhone or iPod touch to more than 100,000. It’s a little bit overwhelming.

We’re here to help. We’ve spent the past year looking at as many iPhone apps as possible to find the ones deserving of accolades. We’ve come up with 20–one for each slot on your iPhone’s home screen–that cover a wide array of categories.

From games to Twitter clients, from productivity tools to photo editors, these are the apps that caught our eye over the last 12 months. And they’re the ones that deserve to be ranked first in their class.

Best Messaging App: BeeJive IM

Apple may not have deigned to include native instant-messaging support for the iPhone, but that’s just more opportunity for third-party apps like BeejiveIM ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ). The $10 best-in-class IM app from Beejive brings most of the conveniences of the desktop IM experience to the iPhone–and that includes the ability to quickly switch between simultaneous conversations, support for multiple services, and integration with the iPhone’s address book. You can even use BeeJive to send and receive images and other files. As of iPhone 3.0, the app supports push notifications, meaning that you can at long last use your iPhone for other tasks while still staying in the loop.–DAN MOREN

Best Photo App: Best Camera

Part image editor, part social media tool, Best Camera ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) reminds you that taking photos should be fun. The $3 app from Ubermind includes 14 image effects–including vignetting, warming, and high-contrast black-and-white–which you can layer to create seriously gorgeous images. I’ve been impressed at how well the filters work on a wide variety of images.

Once you’re happy with the results, you can e-mail them to yourself, save them back to the Camera Roll, or upload them to Facebook, Twitter, or the Best Camera Website. That last option–which connects you to an active online community–is where Best Camera really stands out. The app lets you view and vote for photos submitted by other iPhone photographers, supplying endless inspiration.–KELLY TURNER

Best Notification App: Boxcar

When iPhone OS 3.0 added push notifications to the iPhone’s bag of tricks, Apple’s already awesome mobile device became even more so. Of course, if your favorite app didn’t support push notifications, it was harder to partake in the awesomeness–until Boxcar ( Macworld rated 5 out of 5 mice ) came along. The free app from Appremix enables push notifications for three of the most common Internet services you care about–Twitter, Facebook, and em-ail.

You tell Boxcar which account(s) to monitor, and it lets you know within minutes when you have new Twitter mentions, Facebook comments, or whatever else you want to be informed about. Boxcar doesn’t replace your favorite Twitter apps (or Facebook or Mail), but it makes them–and the iPhone itself–a heck of a lot more immediate.–LEX FRIEDMAN

Best Painting App: Brushes

Few would argue the notion that the iPhone packs a lot of power into its 4.8-ounce frame, making it a mini-computer as much as it is a phone. But to use Brushes ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) from Steve Sprang is to experience that power first-hand. Built specifically with Apple’s mobile devices in mind, the $5 Brushes puts an advanced color picker, a variety of brushes, and layers at your disposal for creating works of art right on your iPhone screen.

The app is advanced enough to create a magazine cover–as artist Jorge Colombo did for The New Yorker –yet easy enough to navigate so that any user can derive some enjoyment from letting their fingers do the painting.–PHILIP MICHAELS

Best News App: CNN Mobile

When it comes to mainstream news organizations releasing iPhone apps, CNN was late to the party, with its $2 mobile offering arriving in September. But the wait was worth it–CNN Mobile ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) is a stellar example of how the iPhone can change the way we receive–and contribute to–the news. You get the latest and most popular CNN stories and videos, formatted specifically for the iPhone.

But you also get non-CNN local news, weather, and traffic. You can follow specific articles and topic areas, receiving alerts when new or updated content is published; save stories for offline reading; and share stories via e-mail, SMS, Twitter, and Facebook. Perhaps most impressive, however, is that you can contribute your own videos and photos to CNN’s iReport section directly from your phone, making you the reporter.–DAN FRAKES

Best Book App: Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) earned a measure of notoriety in 2009 when Apple temporarily barred the e-book app from the App Store. (Among the thousands of books contained within the app, you’ll find The Kama Sutra, which the App Store’s gatekeepers deemed to be too explicit.) What Eucalyptus really deserves, though, is praise. This $10 app is, by far, the most elegant e-book reader for the iPhone and iPod touch.

Amazon wishes its Kindle app was as refined as Eucalyptus, an e-book app for serious readers from Things Made Out of Other Things. In time, perhaps, you will be able to import books from other reader formats or e-book retailers, such as Amazon or Fictionwise. For now, Eucalyptus will gorgeously display any of the tens of thousands of public-domain works from Project Gutenburg. The app is proof of how pleasurable reading a book on a small, handheld device can be.–BEN BOYCHUK

Best Social Networking App: Facebook 3

The third major update of the Facebook iPhone app offered a massive interface overhaul–and a successful one. A notifications alert appears at the bottom of the screen, you can now see and update pages, and upload photos and videos. The main menu has been updated to provide quick access to common tasks, and you can swipe to a new area where you can add favorite people and groups in order to read their updates. Now Facebook isn’t just usable on the iPhone–in some ways, it feels better than the full version of the site.–JASON SNELL

Best Casual Game: Flight Control

Flight Control ( Macworld rated 5 out of 5 mice ) from Firemint wouldn’t exist without the iPhone. The delight of dragging (and endlessly re-dragging) paths for a constant influx of landing planes is inextricably tied to the fact that you use your finger to do it.

The $1 game looks great, and each element–the paths you trace, the blinking signal of approaching planes from off-screen, the red warning of planes on a collision course–feels right at home on the iPhone. The multiplayer mode works over both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and overall, the gameplay is as elegant as it is addictive.–LEX FRIEDMAN

Best Search Tool: Google Mobile App

It’s difficult to remember a time when Google wasn’t waiting at our beck and call to track down whatever information we needed. It may soon be equally difficult to remember how we got along with our iPhones without ready access to the Google Mobile App ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ). Google’s free one-stop-shop offering for the iPhone and iPod touch lets you search effortlessly–all you have to do is talk to the machine. An easy-to-use voice search feature added late in 2008 improved upon Google’s initial mobile effort by locating what you’re looking for, usually in seconds flat. While the apps tie-ins to secondary services like Gmail or Google Docs remain flawed, Google Mobile App’s voice search capabilities speak volumes about this utility’s worth.–BEN BOYCHUK

Best Reference App: iBird Explorer Plus

Bird Plus ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) from Mitch Waite Group exemplifies all that is possible in a pocket-sized reference application. Detailed, informative, beautifully illustrated, and thoughtfully designed, the $20 iBird gives you access to a wealth of birding information. While information alone would be enough to keep iBird on par with its book-based contemporaries, iBird also gives you the tools you need–from photos and audio of bird calls, to Web resources and search tools–to identify the birds you see, compile lists of favorites, and collect notes on when and where you’ve seen them. In short, iBird is what you hope every other iPhone field guide aspires to be.–JEFFERY BATTERSBY

Best Reader: Instapaper Pro 2

Marco Arment introduced Instapaper to wide acclaim in 2008. But he topped himself in 2009 with Instapaper Pro 2 ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ). At the heart of this $5 version of Instapaper is the ability to download articles to the iPhone or iPod touch and read them anytime, anywhere, with or without a Wi-Fi connection or a cell phone signal. With its nifty tilt-scroll feature, the app is ideal for reading long articles or blog posts. Arment built on his app’s earlier strengths by giving users more tools to organize stories, while adding an RSS-like feed feature and intriguing new social network functions, such as Give Me Something To Read. You will never lack for interesting reading with Instapaper Pro installed.–BEN BOYCHUK

Best Multimedia App: At Bat 2009

No app developer has been more aggressive in embracing the iPhone than Major League Baseball. MLB At Bat ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) was introduced in 2008 with support for live baseball scores and in-game video highlights, but has rapidly added full pitch-by-pitch Gameday views, streaming audio of both home and away radio broadcasts, and finally, live streaming video of games.

(Premium MLB video subscribers get all but local games; everyone else gets a free “game of the day.”) The pace of the updates to this app has been breathtaking, so we can’t wait to see what next season brings. When do pitchers and catchers report again?–JASON SNELL

Best Education App: Pocket Universe

Pocket Universe ( Macworld rated 5 out of 5 mice ) is a marvel. The $3 app from Craic Design puts the entirety of the nighttime sky in your pocket, a feat which makes the iPhone feel truly amazing. Using GPS on the iPhone 3GS or Location Services on other iPhones and the iPod touch, Pocket Universe can figure out almost exactly where in the sky you’re looking, and identify all the celestial bodies around. The app can guide your gaze to help you find a constellation or planet you can’t pick out on your own, and lets you know which heavenly objects you should be able to spot with your naked eye each day. The app works beautifully, making astronomy a bit less mysterious–but no less remarkable.–LEX FRIEDMAN

Best E-Mail App: Postage

Plenty of apps let you edit photos on your iPhone or iPod touch. Plenty more give you a way to connect with friends and family. Postage ( Macworld rated 5 out of 5 mice ) from Rogue Sheep allows you to do both, in about as elegant a package as you’ll find on the App Store. With the $5 Postage, you create electronic postcards out of the photos stored on your mobile device, zooming and rotating your images so that they perfectly fit the app’s growing number of templates. Use one of the 10 included photo effects, style a message, and share your Postcard via e-mail, Facebook, or MMS. It’s just about the perfect way to share holiday snaps and vacation photos in an app that’s designed to feel like a natural extension of the iPhone’s capabilities.–PHILIP MICHAELS

Best Designed Game: Ramp Champ

The best ball-rolling game on the iPhone isn’t the best-selling Skee-Ball, but the exquisite Ramp Champ ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ). The gameplay in The Iconfactory’s game is what you’d expect: flick your finger to roll a ball up a ramp and knock over various objects. It sounds simple, but it’s remarkably challenging for kids and adults alike. Each level is based on a different theme (space invaders, ninjas, pirates, and so on) and features beautiful graphics and delightful sound effects. The red carnival tickets you win can only be redeemed for virtual prizes, but playing Ramp Champ is its own reward.–JASON SNELL

Best Sports Game: Real Soccer 2010

Some fantastic sports games have hit the App Store in the past year, but the $5 Real Soccer 2010 ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) from Gameloft is top of the table, thanks to a combination of terrific graphics, fun gameplay, and solid multiplayer features. The wealth of teams and accurate rosters combined with the plethora of new modes–including ones that let you play an entire season or chart a specific player’s development– offer a staggering amount of depth.

The multiplayer and social capabilities are easy to understand and diverse; getting your team on the pitch involves only a few simple finger taps. While FIFA 10’s beautiful visuals and terrific penalty kick system made it a strong contender this year, Real Soccer’s stellar multiplayer, intuitive controls, and superior AI are what ultimately pushed it over the top.–CHRIS HOLT

Best Shopping Tool: RedLaser

RedLaser ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) exploits every part of your iPhone to turn your phone into an indispensable shopping companion. The $2 app from Occipital uses the iPhone’s camera to scan the barcode of products that you might buy; it then hits the Internet to pull down a list of prices so you can see if you’re getting a good deal. Better price online? Then, with a few taps, RedLaser lets you jump to a merchant’s online site to close the deal or e-mail yourself the details if you prefer to do your online shopping from a desktop. RedLaser works best with the improved camera on the iPhone 3GS, but you can still get your money’s worth with older iPhones. In a tight economy, the $2 price of this app is money well spent.–PHILIP MICHAELS

Best Platform Game: Rolando 2

Ngmoco’s excellent Rolando and its sequel, Rolando 2, are games that take advantage of the iPhone’s features like none other. You guide the rolling Rolandos on adventures by tilting your device back and forth, and you use the iPhone screen’s natural tap and pinch conventions to alter your view. Combining action with puzzles, and featuring a fun, modern soundtrack and brightly-colored characters, both games are great.

The sequel advances the game by adding more depth, a wider variety of characters, and a reduction in the ways you can accidentally kill your Rolandos. These are games that could only exist on the iPhone.–JASON SNELL

Best Strategy Game: Strategery

There is no game I play on my iPhone more than Strategery ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice). Though the $2 Risk-like game from Affogato sports an interface based mostly on multi-colored dots, Strategery looks attractive. But the real brilliance of the game can be found on its Options screen, where you’ll see four difficulty settings, three map sizes, a pass-and-play multiplayer mode that supports up to five people, and several other settings that can dramatically affect how the game is played. As your Strategery skill develops, you can make the computerized opponents tougher and try other modes, quickly learning how your strategies need to evolve. Simple on the surface, Strategery offers depth that can–and will–claim hours of your time.–LEX FRIEDMAN

Best Twitter Client: Tweetie 2

Twitter and the iPhone have become the chocolate and peanut butter of the technology world. And nobody swirls those two great tastes that taste great together into a more attractive package than Atebits with Tweetie 2 ( Macworld rated 5 out of 5 mice ). Its predecessor was one of the most popular Twitter clients in the App Store, but the $3 Tweetie 2 is new from the ground-up, incorporating a slick, elegant interface, support for multiple Twitter accounts, the ability to quickly search your timeline, and integration with a number of popular third-party services. But despite its manifold features, the software doesn’t get in your way when all you want to do is tell the world what you’re having for lunch.–DAN MOREN


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