In 2015, I really got into the hang of budgeting. One of my categories was ‘free money,’ a small allowance I gave myself each month to spend on the ‘ooh shiny’ things that would catch my eye. A lot of people use this sort of category to buy tea, go golfing, watch movies, buy clothes, get their nails done, and cut their hair. I’m a productivity junkie, and productivity junkies spend their fun-stuff budget on apps.
I do a lot of computer programming, and there’s a lot that goes into making an app. Free apps are great, but occasionally when the developers ask for a few dollars in return for an exceptionally well produced application. I have learned that in free apps, you’re always paying for something, whether it is extra time, ads, or missing features.
Not all free apps are worth their while, but what follows are apps that definitely are, ranked by how useful I believe they are to the average iOS user. Without further ado, the top ’15 of 2015.
YNAB (pronounced why-nab) stands for You Need a Budget. YNAB is an example of a company that markets a vision, but also happens to sell an app.
YNAB’s value comes from its four rules of budgeting:
- Give every dollar a job – when I started out with YNAB this spring, I went through all of my bank accounts and assigned a ‘task’ to every penny I owned across all my bank, credit card, and miscellaneous accounts. By budgeting money where it needs to be, I never have to worry whether I’ll accidentally spend too much money on groceries that needs to be allocated to bills. The bill dollars have it covered, freeing up my money and my mind to worry about other things.
- Embrace your true expenses – Once a year, Christmas comes. Birthdays happen round the calendar, and I have to buy books at the beginning of every semester for school. Rather than paying 1-time huge expenses, I count them up as small monthly installments ahead of time. I never grimaced this Christmas in buying gifts for my family, because I had saved up a nice size budget by stashing away small amounts every month. Christmas was a very happy time to splurge on carefully saved money.
- Roll with the punches – Unexpected expenses arise. Gas prices spike and I don’t have enough money to cover it. YNAB says it is okay to move money around when these surprises happen. It’s a liberating practice.
- Age your money – the paychecks I earn never get spent within that same month. Each month’s expenditures are covered by the paychecks of the previous month. No more paycheck-to-paycheck, no more timing bills. Get ahead once, and stay there.
YNAB is free for students as long as they are studying, after that there is a $60 lifetime license that goes on sale with the bi-annual steam sale for as low as $15. I’ve also heard rumors that you can watch some of YNAB’s training videos and get a free license there, but I haven’t tried it yet–I’m going to be a student for a long time.
YNAB’s budgeting practices make sure you have money for what you need when you need it. It promotes mindfulness and moderation and kills overspending and compulsive buying. Even if I had to pay the full $60 for it, I would still buy it without any qualms because it pays for itself in a year or so.
Once upon a time, I used an app called Mailbox. It was a cute little app that synced with your GMail and would let you do GTD-style inbox processing. One of it’s best features was the ability to defer an email until a time in the future. The message would disappear and come back after a time you set. Alas, Mailbox got acquired by Dropbox and no longer will be supported in 2016.
But, there is another app that does a lot of the same things, minus the defer button. Dispatch allows you to quickly swipe and triage your emails to other apps (task managers, read laters). You can take any email message and from inside the message view swipe the screen to the side to start your response. It creates a salutation automatically and puts your cursor underneath it with a custom signature at the bottom. For short emails (remember, GTD), this saves approximately 50% of the time it takes to process email in other apps.
Dispatch also uses user-defined snippets from within the app and from Textexpander to speed up the drafting of common responses.
And for the feature missing from Mailbox’s, I just forward the emails that need to be deferred to followupthen.com.
Dispatch saves me time every single time I check email on my phone, and this collective time saved covers the cost of the app.
I never could muster up the courage to pay for the license on OSX after I discovered KeyboardMaestro, but I did find that most of my favorite apps on iOS (Dispatch, Omnifocus, Editorial, Drafts, LCP) support automatic TextExpander filling. For example, my email address is 28 characters long. Filling in forms takes forever if I type it out manually. But using TextExpander’s keyboard, I can simply type “emx” and TextExpander deletes three characters and then types the 28 characters in my email address. I do this also with my home mailing address (37 characters expanded by “adx”) and other frequently typed phrases.
This was mega helpful when I was planning my wedding. I wanted to send personalized messages asking people if they would be able to help with different parts of our wedding, but I knew that it would require a lot of copy-pasting, which is a pain on iOS. So, I made a short abbreviation such as ‘wedkar’ for wedding karaoke requests. When I would type in wedkar, it would expand out to a boilerplate paragraph and leave my cursor at the beginning to personalize a greeting (Hey Kimberly,)
It is also super useful in disambiguating. You can script TextExpander to add in the specific date when you type in a string like nextTuesday, and then it would fill in something like “next Tuesday, the 4th) for example.
I purchased TextExpander on sale, and for the price I got it for, I would definitely say it is worth it. If you do not have long emails, blurbs, and boilerplate paragraphs that you frequently have to type by hand, it might not be a worthwhile purchase for youj.
4. Cam Scanner
When I was taking Quantum Mechanics, I emailed all of my homework to my professor to have him grade. However, most of my homework was written out on paper. CamScanner takes pictures and then concatenates them into PDF files which can then be shared via email, dropbox, evernote, and a couple other more obscure services. CamScanner handles image sharpening, compression, parallax corrections, and so on so you can have quality PDFs on the go without the need for a portable scanner.
CamScanner also turns out to be free for students. I recommend it to classmates who want to keep copies of their work just in case their professor misplaces it (this has been a lifesaver for me once before).
CamScanner is cheaper than buying a scanner, and compared to the time and effort it takes to create PDFs through other means, CamScanner pays for itself in the time it saves.
There are a ton of different uses for Twitter. I didn’t appreciate any of them until I started doing PR for apps I was developing and organizations I was volunteering for. Since then I use Tweetbot to keep in touch with friends (without the bloat of Facebook), and for keeping up with specific news sources (without the bloat of ads and random stories I don’t care for). The biggest emotional reason is to make myself feel better when I’m inconvenienced. Recently I was stranded at O’Hare due to freezing rain canceling hundreds of flights. I was able to search tweets from hundreds of users complaining about their predicament, and I felt a little better after seeing how rough they had it.
I like Tweetbot over Twitter’s app because it removes all the ads. There are a bunch of other features, such as blocking and muting users and keywords, better list management, drafts, night-mode, and ease of switching between five accounts I manage.
Justifying the cost of this app will depend on your preferences. However, for me I simply enjoy twitter a lot more using Tweetbot than I do out of using the stock app.
6. Duet Display
I bought this app about 60 minutes after I discovered it. Usually I wait a few days or even months, but this one just made too much sense to wait on.
When I do grading or software development, I like to have two screens, one for work and one for reference. A lot of the time, I’ll drag content from one screen to the other. Until now, I have kept a second monitor at my workspace on campus and another at my workspace at home, but these monitors are big and bulky, and difficult to transfer. They also consume a lot of desk space.
Duet is programmed by an ex-Apple developer, and so it works beautifully between iOS devices. You simply plug in your iPhone or iPad to your computer (which I do all the time to charge them), and Duet recognizes them as a second display. You can adjust resolution and frame rate to achieve Retina display quality images.
This was a no-brainer buy for me, because I was immediately able to sell my two bulky monitors to cover the cost of the app. This is also the one app that made tablets make sense to me. Up until now they were too big to be a phone, and too small to be a laptop.
I am terrified of password reuse. Many of my friends use three or four passwords for all of their online accounts. Most web services and banks hash your password so that even they can’t figure out your password (that’s why they always ask you to reset lost passwords). But, suppose one of these free services decided to use your password to try to log into your primary email or your bank account? Reusing your bank account password could mean thousands in lost money. Reusing your social media means your reputation could be marred by hurtful private messages and comments that you wouldn’t be aware of until weeks later, and reusing your primary email password means that someone else could reset ALL your passwords.
The solution is to use different, secure passwords for all of your accounts. Then you keep all of these passwords protected in a single vault that is encrypted behind one password, hence 1Password.
1Password does more than just encrypting your passwords. It also autofills forms, and can even go to the website for you. Having 1Password navigate to the website is important because of something called typosquatting, where somebody creates a website that is linguistically similar to another site (ctibank or ctiibank vs citibank) that looks like the other site, but instead steals your password. Having 1Password type it for you protects you from this.
Considering the potential cost of lost passwords, both in time and money, 1Password is worth the in-app purchase.
I like to think as #8, #9, and #10 as the triumvirate of productivity on the iPhone. Each is rather pointless in and of themselves, but they derive their incredible value in their ability to integrate with other apps.
When I first tell people about drafts, they ask me what makes it better than iOS’ stock notes app. For many users, notes might be fine, but I find that Drafts is the best fit for my workflow because it is so blazingly fast.
Drafts excels in that as soon as you open it, you’re presented a blank screen with a blinking cursor. Good ideas are ephemeral, and the sooner you record them the better. In most note-taking apps, there is a menu asking what you want to call your document, where you want to put it, filetype, and so forth. Drafts shoots first, and asks questions later. Get your ideas down, process them later GTD style.
Drafts also excels in its options to share. I have actions linked to export my drafts in apps like Omnifocus, Evernote, nvALT, Dispatch, Beeminder, Calendar, Reminders, my printer, a push notification on other devices, or even to remind me again in another week through a python script in Editorial/Pythonista.
Drafts is the perfect fit for capturing information. I tell people that I have an awful memory, and use it as an excuse to write down everything that people tell me, from shopping lists to homework assignments. Drafts automatically captures the time created/updated as well as the location so I have extra context to jog my memory of what was going on (“Ahh! I was at Stephen’s house for lunch on Friday when I wrote that down.”)
Ideas and information are the currency of the 21st century, and the ability to capture, recall, and share them more effectively has paid for the value of this app.
9. Launch Center Pro
Similarly to Drafts, Launch Center Pro is really weak as a stand-alone app. It’s true strength emerges from the powerful automations with other apps. You can define actions (mostly defined through x-callback-url schema) for your most commonly used procedures. For example, I use a time clock at work to log my hours. I created an action in LCP that starts aTimeLogger for a given category, and punched in online. Another corresponding action in LCP will stop aTimeLogger and punch out, then open up an email draft with the To: and Subject: field already filled in to send a report of what I completed to my boss.
LCP launches, including the launch screen) in just under one second (compare to some other bloated apps that are still showing the launch screen after five seconds). Within the second second I can already trigger one of my other actions. In the third second, I can stick my phone back in my pocket and finish what I’m doing, resting assured that my “Just finished work, on my way home and can’t wait to see you” text message has been sent.
The longer I wait to start certain apps, the more prone I am to procrastinate or be distracted. By using LCP to automate actions, I spend less time fiddling and more time doing. This ends in more productivity which has justified the cost of the app.
Workflow is the third in the productivity triumvirate. It links together a bunch of actions, and lets you create a workflow by dragging and dropping panels. For example, every day I start my morning with a freezing cold shower. In order to motivate me, I have a workflow that does the following:
- Queue up Eye of the Tiger from my iTunes library
- Play Eye of the Tiger (except on Saturday mornings where I play a light-hearted mandolin concerto of equivalent length)
- When Eye of the Tiger is finished, play a notification that lets me know I can turn off the ice storm coming out of my showerhead.
- Log an entry in Evernote that records the date, time, and what I listened to.
I launch this workflow from Launch Center Pro right before I enter the shower, and know that even as I am shivering afterwards, I have logged my victory and can later review my cold shower streak (I’ve logged 42 cold showers this way, but did a lot more before I set this up).
I’ve done a similar thing logging my energy levels every hour throughout the month of November this year. I have another workflow that helps me take photos of receipts and store them in YNAB and Evernote, log activity in Beeminder via IFTTT, and even do reverse lookups over web APIs.
Workflow has helped me to automate processes that would otherwise not get done because of the friction required to go between apps and log them. I’ve done activities and created logs that are worth more than the cost of Workflow.
I use aTimeLogger for keeping track of how much time I spend on given activities. A get paid by the hour for work, and I have to log research hours. A lot of time, I’m not immediately by a journal or time clock, but great ideas are flooding into my stream of consciousness. I quickly start aTimeLogger from LCP or the home screen and commence dumping of ideas into Drafts, Evernote, or Editorial.
aTimeLogger is an inexpensive app, and the hours that I have remembered to log because of it have more than paid off the cost of the app.
12. Scripture Typer
For anybody who wants to memorize text, this is the app to get. I tried an app called Anki for a long time for memorization, but the sticker price for iPhone was just too much to swallow (it is free on other platforms). I might use Anki for memorizing equations or images, or even foreign language vocabulary (but Duolingo is better for that). But as far as memorizing paragraphs and Bible verses go, Scripture Typer wins hands down.
Scripture Typer has an automatic import feature for Bible verses in an array of versions. But, if you want to memorize text for a speech, you can paste that paragraph in as well. You can review on the computer or in the app, and you have the option to only type the first letter of each word for faster review. A brilliant feature of Scripture Typer is that it doesn’t penalize you for typing an adjacent letter, which is a huge plus for those with big clumsy fingers.
I’ve used Scripture Typer to memorize about 8 chapters of the Bible. Between the decision to spend $5 on a 12″ at Subway or on memorizing the equivalent of a book of the Bible, I think this app’s cost is justified.
OmniFocus is not for everyone. Those who resonate strongly with GTD love OmniFocus, but those who cannot stand the overhead that goes into the GTD workflow probably would opt for something like Todoist.
OmniFocus is the premier platform for personal task managment per GTD system. It supports everything from calendar integration to capture and review. It syncs seamlessly between a beautiful iPhone app and desktop application. It supports custom filters and perspectives, geofenced contexts. Defer dates were the feature that were the selling points for me–I was tired of seeing tasks that I couldn’t yet take action on other apps like Wunderlist, and Any.do.
OmniFocus has a huge sticker price, which is what dissuades a lot of potential users. Before OmniFocus, I tried a year of Todoist premium, but I quickly realized that if I paid monthly or yearly for more than a couple years, I would end up paying what OmniFocus would cost anyway. Because my digital task managers is such a huge part of my work flow, I decided that this huge purchase would be worth it.
OmniFocus probably isn’t worth it for the average user, but if you maintain dozens of projects with hundreds of tasks, you might want a GTD system that can do that sort of heavy lifting. OmniFocus is a trusted and celebrated industry solution that fits the bill.
I use Editorial for scripting. It was created by the same guy that made Pythonista and brought Python scripting to iOS. Editorial is a markdown version of Drafts but with a lot more power for scripting.
I use editorial for journaling. I have a document template that fills in with tomorrow’s date, and creates a template that I can fill in the different events and projects that I’m working on, what challenges I am facing, and other things that are relative to my life that I wish to journal about. I can then export to Evernote and email to share my journal entry.
I also use Editorial for batch-sharing notes from grading. When I am grading electronic submissions on my computer, I will save the notes and rubric scores in markdown documents into Dropbox. I can then batch process them from my iPhone (or grade on the go) by looking up student’s emails, creating a total of their score and sticking that in the subject with the name of the assignment, and send their feedback to them.
Editorial is my go to for drafting long paragraphs when I’m away from my computer. I’ve set up some actions to share to my blog, and to export to HTML for others to preview when I write speeches and sermons.
If Python is not your thing, but you still do a lot of writing, I might recommend Byword. Editorial won for me because of its ability to script in Python and to automate a lot of the regular journal entries that I write on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis for my own review.
This is the one app that I have not yet tried, but will early in 2016. One of the things that I love about Apple products is their handoff capability of passing states between your devices. Sometimes however, there is information that I want to pass that isn’t easy to do through handoff. How many times have you wanted to copy something on your computer, and paste it on your phone?
Pushover is a service that sends notifications to your iOS, Android, or Desktop device. You can configure scripts to send your clipboard as a notification to another device (or copy it to your device’s clipboard if you have Drafts, LCP, or Workflow). You can also use it with IFTTT to get a notification of a certain event. I turn off notifications, but I want to know as son as possible somebody sends an email with the word “URGENT” in it.
Pushover can also be useful if you are trying to free up space on your phone. There are a lot of apps that we install just to get news and alerts about something, but these apps take up several tens of MB at times, cramming out space for videos and images. Pushover can substitute for all those apps.
I’m not entirely convinced that pushover will be worth it’s while, but it will definitely be handy. Who knows, perhaps by setting up a script to check for the aurora forecast and checking for clear skies, I can get notified in time to see the next aurora! That by itself might be worth $5.