We're increasingly reliant on the smartphones in our pockets to keep in touch with friends, watch movies and TV shows, and get work done, among other tasks. But the phones themselves would be meaningless without the software that, almost like magic, imbues them with new powers even their creators never thought possible.
In that spirit, these are TIME's 50 best iPhone and Android apps of the year. These are apps that were either released, had a notable redesign, or took off in popularity this year. The list is unranked, as the different functionality of each app makes them impossible to fairly compare. What did we miss?
It's rare that a company or an app gets "verbified" the way Google did. That's exactly what's happening with money-sending app Venmo, especially among cash-allergic millennials. "Just Venmo me" is an increasingly common refrain at brunch or the bar when it's time to split the check.
Why include Apple’s default messaging service in this list? Because Messages got a major overhaul in iOS 10, the company’s new iPhone software update. Messages is now a feature-rich messaging platform, complete with third-party apps, stickers, and fun graphic effects like confetti and laser beams. All the new functionality puts it leagues ahead of regular old SMS texting.
Which messaging app should you use when you really want to make sure your chats stay secret? Try Signal, an encrypted chat app used by politicians, businesspeople and whistleblowers worldwide. Signal offers complete end-to-end encryption, meaning the company behind the app can’t see what you’re sending and receiving. And it works with your existing contact book, so long as both parties have Signal installed.
Sure, Snapchat first came out in 2011, but it certainly came into its own this year — especially with the app's "Chat 2.0" revision in March 2016. With that update, the free disappearing video messaging app laid the groundwork for all sorts of killer features, from geofilters to facial lenses. As a result, Snapchat has not only become one of the most fun apps of the year, but it's turning into a real business, too.
The super-powered creatures that triggered a worldwide craze in the 90's have finally reached the smartphone era. Immediately upon launching in July, Pokémon Go became a massive sensation among seemingly anyone who owned a smartphone. The game tasks players with physically exploring the real world to capture new Pokémon creatures, engaging in battles to claim gyms, and collecting items. It also uses your phone's camera to make it seem like critters from the game are appearing in your actual surroundings. By cleverly using the technology in our smartphones and tapping into a wildly beloved franchise, game developer Niantic created a smash hit.
In the seven years that WhatsApp has existed, it's become one of the most widely used communication tools in the world. The Facebook-owned app initially gained popularity because it works on most smartphones and provides a cheaper alternative to SMS for sending messages around the globe. After conducting a survey this April that included 187 countries, research firm SimilarWeb found that WhatsApp was the messaging app of choice in 55% of the world. Earlier this year, the company announced that it surpassed the one billion user milestone, meaning one in every seven people in the world now use WhatsApp.
Unless you drive often, you probably don't have easy access to an AM/FM radio. Which means it's hard to find public radio, a great source of news, knowledge and new music. NPR's new NPR One app can help — it's basically a customizable public radio station that learns what shows you like and what topics you're interested in, building a more personal feed over time. You can also use it to listen to NPR podcasts on demand, like Planet Money and the NPR Politics Podcast.
Need an easy weekday meal for two? What should you do with all those apples you just picked? How about a slow-cooker recipe? NYT Cooking, from The New York Times, can answer all these questions and more. It offers lots of great recipes searchable by type of meal, prep time and more, often along with beautiful photos. A big bonus: You can save recipes from around the web to this app, making it a clearing house for the meals you'd like to cook.
Even with Apple, Amazon and Google all taking aim, Spotify is still king of the music streaming apps. A big redesign this year brought a more modern interface that's still dead simple to use, and gorgeous to boot. One of our favorite features is the mood-based playlists, great when you need something for a rainy day or a morning workout.
A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build
A puzzle game about crafting people made of snow, rolled into being by a blobby black creature surrounded by tiny gardens of white. Players fashion snowballs from strips of snow by swiping to roll, then stacking them in threes, large-medium-small. Only each garden has constraints, from ornamental bird baths and birdhouses to rows of potted plants. Beautifully visualized and scored, A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build is one of the sweetest, smartest puzzlers to grace 2016.
Photo editing apps are generally a dime a dozen, all offering slight variations on the same basic features: Film-style filters, crop and resize tools, red eye reduction and so on. Prisma stands out from the pack by using complex algorithms to transform your images into vibrant and unique works of art. A recent update means it can now do the same for video, too. It takes some practice to know which filters will work the best with which photos, but once you nail it, the payoff is sweet.
Getting a newborn to sleep, or even just break out of a crying fit, is no easy feat. White Noise helps by flooding baby with soothing sounds, from "Heavy Rain Pouring" and "Ocean Waves Crashing" to "Extreme Rain Pouring" and "Stream Water Flowing." It's easy to switch between sounds and adjust the volume to find the mix that works best for baby. Only one downside: The app doesn't work in the background if you exit it to work on other things. Best to download it onto one of the old disconnected iPhones sitting in a drawer and make that baby's iPhone.
Why say it with words when you can say it with stickers? Bitmoji lets you create custom emoji-like stickers complete with an avatar that looks just like you. Stickers have been around for years, but they’re really taking off this year — so much so that Snapchat acquired the company behind Bitmoji for about $100 million in March.
One of the coolest pieces of fictional Star Trek tech is the Universal Translator, which lets the Enterprise’s crew understand alien languages. The next best thing is Google Translate, which can take typed phrases, spoken words and even real-world text (like street signs) and transform them into other languages. This year’s big update brought more useful features, like tap-to-translate on Android and offline language packs for the iPhone version, helpful when you’re traveling abroad without a data plan.
Apple Watch, Free
Apple’s Breathe app, for the Apple Watch, walks users through a short set of deep breathing exercises. That might sound silly, but spending a few minutes every day to take some deep breaths can have remarkable benefits for your mental health. Our advice: Disable the daily breathe reminders, stressful in their own right, and open the app only when you need it. Get it now
Burly Men At Sea
Brain&Brain's folklorish adventure is a whimsical romp starring three bearded adventurers that speaks in plaintive accordion tunes and whispers, airy sighs and polyphonic hoots--one that marries quirky activities with starlit encounters and aquamarine serpents plucked from Norwegian myth. It’s a little bit The Old Man and the Sea, a little bit O Brother, Where Art Thou? And a reminder that every journey is a circle, filled with both farce and delight.
Amazon's Alexa app turns your smartphone into a remote for your Echo Internet-connected speaker, handy for setup and when you're too far from your Echo for it to pick up your requests. If you're an Echo fan, this app is a can't-miss companion.
Modern smartphones can record very high-quality video, but what to do with all that footage? Try Quik, an automatic video editing app that action camera maker GoPro acquired and rebranded this year. Quik takes a bunch of your video footage, identifies the best moments automatically, and sets the whole thing to mood-appropriate music. It’s a great way to add a professional-looking touch to your recordings before putting them on Facebook, YouTube or Instagram.
Mint’s an older app, but it’s still the king of budget management software. Mint connects with your various bank accounts, pulling in your spending and income and organizing it into categories that make it easy to track and stick to a budget. It’s great in those situations when you’re contemplating a big purchase and want to see if you can really afford it or not.
Google's Gboard app pulls Google's powerful search engine into text conversations, making it possible to find answers to questions or seek restaurant suggestions without leaving a chat. Google's search bar is built right into the keyboard, which pulls up results across sites on the Web, locations in Google Maps, and more. The app launched in May, months before Apple released its dramatic overhaul of iMessage in September that added the ability to interact with outside apps within a text thread. Get it now
Keeping and looking back on a journal can be deeply rewarding, but it’s a tough habit to build. Instead try Day One, a journaling app that makes it easy to quickly record a few thoughts, along with a photo, every day. Unlike paper journals, Day One automatically backs up your notes to the cloud, helping preserve your reflections forever. Get it now
Old school roleplaying games dole out abstract rewards like "experience points" so you can make your superpowers a trifle more super. New school ones like Crashlands let you scoop those rewards up off the battlefield, drag them back to your base, then turn them into cool, usable objects. Killer aliens meets goofball storytelling and characters meets a weighty crafting system brimming with hundreds of recipes, Crashlands is everything predictable RPGs aren't.
Boomerang takes a burst of still photos, then stitches them together in a short, looping video. The end result is somewhere between a GIF and a stop-motion movie. Tons of fun to play around with, Boomerang is Instagram’s best spinoff app.
With its new travel app, Google wants to be the only resource you need when planning your next getaway. Trips scans your Gmail inbox for flight and hotel information, pulling it into a one-stop-shop. It also packs itineraries for a handful of cities, including attractions, restaurants and more. These simple travel guides can be downloaded for offline use, great when you're abroad without a data plan.
Remember how much fun Foursquare was in its glory days? Well, Untappd is basically Foursquare specifically for beer. It’s great as a sort of “beer journal:” Scanning a bottle or can’s barcode with your smartphone saves it for later, meaning you’ll always be able to remember the name of that new brew you tried last night.
If you love music videos, you probably know Vevo, which is basically the MTV of the smartphone era. Vevo dropped a big redesign this year featuring a gorgeous interface with your favorite music videos, as well as a discovery feature to help you find rising artists. The app learns your preferences over time, helping to customize your feed.
AOL’s take on gussying up your email service has been around for a few years, but the app’s 2.0 version, launched in September 2016, makes an already smart take on email even smarter. The free app's new dashboard scrapes all the important information from your emails — shopping receipts, tracking numbers, reservation information, and more — and puts it on virtual cards, for easy gleaning. The app can be used to put a more manageable face on almost any other email service, from IMAP to Gmail, and can also pile up your digital information in "stacks" of photos, files, bills, and other categories.
With a user-friendly way to stream video from a mobile phone to everyone in the world, Meerkat turned the Internet on its ear. But that app is so last year (to the point that it's no longer operational) and in its place Meerkat's developers have released Houseparty, which is mainstreaming group video chats in almost the same way. Creating what it calls a "synchronous social network," Houseparty basically lets people video chat with each other, up to eight people at a time. Open the free Android or iOS app, and you're broadcasting in your own private video chat room.
Web app, Free
With millions of users sucking down data at home, on mobile and over Wi-Fi, the Internet can be a very slow place. There are dozens of iOS and Android apps to measure your speeds, but they all seem to have an air of unreliability. Fast.com, a web app put out by Netflix, loads quicker than a Craigslist directory on whatever device, whichever operating system, and wherever you are. So from the boardroom, to the bathroom, to the backyard, you'll always know if you're down to download.
Launched at the tail end of 2015, this free Android and iOS app is a vital app for keeping pace with Twitter's endless stream of information. Syncing up with your social networks, Nuzzel keeps track of the most tweeted links by the accounts you follow and provides a roundup of all the associated tweets. Ideal for news hounds or anyone who closely follows trends on the Twitterverse, it's become a must-use over the past 12 months.
Unofficial Reddit apps existed before this year, but the official take makes the front page of the Internet even easier to use and browse than it is on a computer. Longtime Redditors may disagree (they're never short on opinions), but the app's intuitive interface is good for new users, making it easier to dive into topics and communities. The communications tab pulls messages, comments, replies and mentions into one place for quick access, and the main tab puts the web's hottest content just taps away.
The fourth and final installment in studio Inkle's grand game-book series based on Steve Jackson's Sorcery! adventures is an easy recommend for admirers of plain brilliant storytelling. No, you needn't have played the first three, though the delights are that much brighter if you have. Want to see what a choose-your-own-adventure meets immaculate illustrations and artistry meets the opposite of tin-eared writing looks like? Start here.
iPhone (with Apple Watch app), $3.99
Bad habits may be hard to break, but good habits can be even harder to make. This app helps by giving users a gentle reminder ever day — whether its on your phone or your wrist — to develop up to six healthy routines. Pre-loaded with all sorts of activities from drinking more water to walking the dog (and with Apple Health integrations), it'll help you do all the little things consistently and right. Streaks was launched in 2015, but the app was given a slick 2.0 makeover this year that was so good it garnered the app an Apple Design Award. Get it now
There are a slew of Snapchat-like free video messaging apps on the market. And while they all jockey for position, Tribe does so with a new killer feature: Magic Words. Basically, when a user says a term in his or her video (like a band name, for example) that word — through some back-end Google speech recognition magic — appears on the screen, overlaid on the video as a clickable keyword. Is this enough to put it ahead of the camera-toting pack? It's early to say for sure, but this one's worth watching.
A new messaging app from Google, Allo is one of the first products to incorporate the firm's new artificially intelligent aide, the Google Assistant. Allo has a few limitations — there aren't any third-party apps and there's no desktop companion, for instance. But Allo earns a spot on our list because of the potential of the Google Assistant. Right now, it's pretty good at handling basic questions and surfacing recommendations within chats. But when and if it gets smarter, it could be truly brilliant.
Microsoft is pitching Pix as a replacement for the iPhone's standard Camera app. Pix, which launched in July, uses artificial intelligence to recognize the subject of an image and adjust camera settings in real time. If you're snapping a photo in well-lit conditions, it'll create a GIF-like video loop when it detects motion. Unlike many other photo apps, Pix offers helpful enhancements rather than gimmicky features, all with little effort on the user's part. Get it now
Picniic is a sort of Swiss Army Knife for keeping your family organized: it's a shared to-do list, calendar, and event manager all in one. Within the app, users can assign tasks on the to-do list to specific family members and take note of the last time a certain family member was heard from. It's a bit similar to another app called Cozi, but Picniic offers a few extras, including a newsfeed-style stream of updates and an encrypted storage locker for keeping personal family information. Get it now
There are dozens of apps, games, and toys designed to help kids learn the building blocks of computer programming. But few of these apps do so by having players write lines of actual code, as Apple's Swift Playgrounds does. The iPad app challenges participants to input strings of characters written in Apple's Swift language to complete puzzles. Aspiring developers can also write their own code in a blank document and export it into Xcode, Apple's software for creating apps. "We're not hiding code, or running away from the fact that it is code," Wiley Hodges, director of tools and technologies product marketing for Apple, previously told TIME about the app. Get it now
When you see an article you want to read but don’t have time at the moment, you can save it to Pocket and savor it later. It downloads articles in a clean, readable format so you can read anything without an Internet connection. Add-ons for desktop browsers mean you can save stories from your work computer and read them on your way home.
Google Maps and Apple Maps are fine, but neither will make you the master of defeating traffic like Waze. Acquired by Google in 2013 for a reported $1.3 billion, Waze collects data about traffic jams, construction and other issues and displays them to other drivers in a given area. It's also great at finding little-known shortcuts to save you precious minutes, mileage and gas money.
Swipe left or right, that's all there is to Reigns, an ingenious, dichotomous Tinder-like, only about ruling a kingdom instead of speed-dating. There are no roads less traveled, only left or right turns, yes or no answers to questions of medieval monarch-dom, as you attempt to balance your kingdom's needs along idiosyncratic, ever-forking roads. If your idea of choose-your-own nirvana involves minimalist, binary survivalism (your goal is to stay alive), Reigns is one of the coolest stripped-down, rapid-play angles on the genre in years.
Super Stickman Golf 3
Golf and stickmen? Really? Unqualifiedly. It's the adventurist allure of putt-putt, the ballistic physics of Angry Birds and the zany level design of 2D platformers like Super Mario Bros. rolled into one. After two forays to hone their ingenious little mashup, this is the iteration of Noodlecake Studios' series to own, the one that brings it all together while adding the option to put English on the ball. Even if like me the thought of playing real golf makes you recoil, this is the stick-and-ball-swatting game for you.
Ah, the time-old question: "Any good bands in town tonight?" Get your answer with Bandsintown, which analyzes your music listening habits and alerts you when your favorite performers are in your area. There's also a calendar display that lets you check out who's playing on a given date in case you'd prefer to check out something new for a change.
Do away with the the stressful blare of your built-in phone buzzer. Insight Timer is really nothing more than a peaceful chime when time’s up, but we find ourselves using it for everything from signaling the end of a meditation session to the completion of roast chicken. Anything's better than hearing Marimba for the millionth time.
It's never easy to count calories, but MyFitnessPal's Calorie Counter can be a handy helper. Just tell it what you've eaten in a given day, and it'll let you know how many calories you've consumed. Tracking that data is an important part of losing weight, which, when it comes down to it, is about burning more calories than you've taken in.
Okay, sure, Warbits clearly cribs from classic turn-based strategy game Advance Wars (for Nintendo's ancient Game Boy Advance, no less). But I can think of no higher praise to lavish on a game that fills a void over a decade wide and generations of overlooked platforms deep. Much more than a clone, Warbits takes the idea that teams of infantry, armor and aerial vehicles are squaring off over moderately sized squarish maps, then adds an online mode that's pretty much the definition of how to do turn-based, 1v1 or 2v2 strategy on a phone. Get it now
There are incredible airfare deals available and dozens of places we'd love to visit. But finding a reasonable deal takes far more time and effort than it should. Hitlist can help. It combines travel photography with airfare deals, letting you add appealing destinations to your watch list. Then you'll get alerts when there's an incredible price on flights. Get it now
Video game streaming apps like the Amazon-owned Twitch are getting extremely popular — Twitch users watched more than 241 billion minutes of content last year. So it's not surprising to see younger companies getting in on the action. One of the newbies is Beam, which offers the unique twist of letting viewers impact the game. Audiences on Beam can suggest moves for players, give them challenges, and more. Microsoft acquired the company behind beam in August; it's now integrating it directly into the Xbox platform.
Prism has one of those un-self-aware taglines about "sacred geometry" converging with "the ethereal soul" you can just ignore, then get right to the heart of the matter: It's a stirring, smart little shape-puzzler set to groovy, hypnotic tunes. Lines and dots you manipulate with your finger adorn shapes that unfurl like polyhedral flowers as you advance, uncloaking incandescent cores. The puzzles are diverting but accessible, ensuring you'll hang around long enough to appreciate the experience's gorgeous, trippy ambience.
A well-designed gateway app to a serious daily meditation practice. Great for beginners, the app has more than 200 guided meditations of varying lengths organized around whatever you need—sleep, confidence, stress and anxiety relief—and it gives you a perfect little zen break wherever you are.